Port Authority Transit is Riding Me

Somebody at Port Authority Transit must have a screw loose.

Port Authority transit cutbacks are biggest in history

The series of bus and trolley changes include eliminating:

  • 124 of 213 weekday bus routes.
  • 55 of 100 Saturday bus routes.
  • 26 of 75 Sunday and holiday bus routes.

Light-rail service would be trimmed by cutting hours of operation and increasing the time between trolleys. Besides reducing the number of daily transit vehicle hours, the changes would reduce the number of one-way vehicle trips by 24 percent and overall ridership by 11 percent, the authority has estimated.

PAT and county officials are claiming that the proposed cuts aren’t meant to scare Harrisburg into bailing them out again. Let’s suppose for the moment that they aren’t (yeah, right). That doesn’t mean PA’s government can wash its hands of this mess. Philadelphia faces similar problems, and what hurts the two major metropolitan regions in PA, hurts the whole state.

Apparently Gov. Rendell has more important issues to deal with. He’s busy bending over backwards to accommodate the Penguins’ demands in an effort to keep them in Pittsburgh. The last time the PAT and SEPTA cried about how broke they are, Rendell miraculously “found” some surplus money in the state budget (and I’m still wondering where the hell it came from) and then patted himself on the back for “solving” the problem. His new solution seems to to just ignore the problem. Judging by how easily he was reelected, Pennsylvanians aren’t too bothered by his style of leadership.

As for the state’s legislators, they thought giving themselves a raise was more important than solving fiscal crises such as those faced by transit systems. Many paid the price for that arrogance on election day. I wonder if their replacements, or the remaining incumbents, will continue to navel gaze.

Then again, given that PAT and SEPTA are bloated and in desperate need of responsible and efficient management, could ignoring their cries of “Wolf!” be the right idea after all? No. Punishing them for their mismanagement by ignoring their budget crises and underfunding them isn’t the answer. “Poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine,” says the old proverb, and if PAT and SEPTA bureaucrats were the only ones affected by such “tough love”, I’d be all for it. Unfortunately, the citizens of Allegheny and Philadelphia will suffer if PAT and SEPTA have to make major service cuts.

Here’s the money quote of the article:

[Allegheny County Mr. Onorato said the nation’s 28th-largest county can no longer afford the nation’s 15th-largest public transit system.

Ah, good old lies and statistics. Does he mean population or by geography, budget or number of routes?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Those numbers are just meant to confound and placate you. They don’t tell you that places to park are too few and too expensive for a lot of people, that traffic is already a nightmare and fewer buses will force more people to drive, or that Allegheny County has a lot of elderly folks who are dependent on buses for transportation. What the county really can’t afford is to let the public transportation system rot from within.

Is PAT in desperate need of an overhaul? Absolutely. Should residents of Allegheny County be punished for PAT’s bloat and ineptitude? No. This isn’t what folks have in mind when they expect PAT to ride them*.

The complete list of proposed changes can be found here. The PDF includes a number to call and complain and a list of public hearing dates. I encourage folks to give PAT a piece of their minds. Even better, suggest alternatives to this nonsense, like introducing an Octopus card or paying bus drivers less.

*In Pittsburgh slang, saying “PAT is riding me” means “PAT is transporting me” or “PAT is giving me a ride [to some destination(s)]”. Idiomatic uses of “to ride” include “to ridicule or harass persistently” and “to control, dominate, or tyrannize over”. Given PAT’s reason for being and what it’s reportedly going to do to me (and anyone else in Allegheny County dependent on public transportation), I thought the play on words fit.

Update: According to Ken Zapinski, senior VP of transportation and infrastructure at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, this nonsense isn’t a scare tactic. We’ll see.

Update: Save Our Transit is organizing a rally to protest the proposed service cuts and fare increases.

Addendum: There are a couple interesting posts on this topic at the Burgh Report.

Rethinking Public Transportation

Perhaps the Port Authority is not a business. Perhaps having a network of busses and trains that run from point to point throughout the city is a basic element of civic infrastructure, existing not as commerce, but to facilitate commerce.


Currently, the bus network is run as a public corporation. That means that it is a government controlled entity trying to operate as a business, but without a genuine profit motive. In other words, it is a non-viable bastard child of the private and public sector. Instead, what I am saying we should be doing is treating the transportation network not as a public corporation, a strange public-private business hybrid struggling to break even, but as a public service contracted out to the lowest bidder.

Comments 5

  1. Mark Rauterkus wrote:

    Thanks for the pointers.

    YES. Suggest alternatives to PAT’s plan. PAT needs to do its homework and think again — and use real data this time.

    But, PAT doesn’t have data as we’ve got this old-fashioned way of doing business. Squeeky wheels get oil — and everyone else gets a ripped slip of paper for a bus transfer.

    We need electronic bus passes that are debit cards and monitor TRIP SEGMENTS, as well as zillions of other factors. The benefits would be HUGE. And, this needs to happen BEFORE an overhaul occurs.

    Their SCORECARD is a joke. I hate it. I told them so last month as they started to shove this down our throats. But, that’s what a hatchet man aims for — the blood supply to the head.

    Think again PAT. We should not settle for anything other than a cross-the-board 20-percent pay and benefits cut for everyone — until AFTER we’ve deployed this E-Z Pass (like) bus pass and make decisions based on reality with open-data.

    Posted 05 Jan 2007 at 12:18 pm
  2. Lightwave wrote:

    Too bad about that pesky contract law. Makes it a bit hard to get those 20% cuts from the union while they have a contract.

    Besides, why cut any wages when they can cry “the sky is falling” and get the state to keep giving them cash every time they run out?

    Posted 05 Jan 2007 at 4:17 pm
  3. Mark Rauterkus wrote:

    Union could decide to re-open the contract.

    But, there isn’t much — if any — trust now. They would NOT want to make the cuts unless there is a real upside.

    That is another reason to interject the electronic bus pass system. Then the union and public will be able to see the data too. Decisions are not a ‘trust us’ basis — but — real ridership, real capacity, real costs, real segment performances, etc.

    Posted 05 Jan 2007 at 8:17 pm
  4. Jim wrote:

    This looks really awful, but railing against undefined mismanagement only lets everyone not face up to the problems.

    Labor costs in Pittsburgh are higher than a lot of cities, but driving these hills is not an easy job. It would be nice if labor voluntered to give up its wages, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that too many people would be willing to do that in their own respective sectors.

    Farebox revenue contributes about 25% of operating costs, much less than Philly but about average for the US.

    Electronic passes may be great ideas, but hardly silver bullets.

    The question is whether there is any enthusiasm to pay more in either fares or in taxes.

    Posted 07 Jan 2007 at 9:53 pm
  5. Mark Rauterkus wrote:

    Great ideas need to be implemented.

    Don’t freeze and do nothing — or way worse, do the wrong thing — because a great idea is NOT a silver bullet.

    But more to the point that I want to make, the route to a better transit system includes an A-B-C pathway. Things get done, first, second, third, etc.

    The electronic bus pass deployment should come NEXT. It provides real data. Then with real data, the cuts can be made in a smarter manner. And, trust comes back into the system — even with the unions. And live for passengers gets much better too.

    The mismanagement at the root of the problem is hit against with electronic bus passes. That’s a big problem — so attack it.

    Now we’ll have mismanagement doing more mismanagement by cutting the wrong things.

    Finally, with electronic bus passes, you can talk about raising fares in appropriate ways. Perhaps the express ride from Crannberry is worth $7.00. That is easily managed on a fare card / debit system. The supply and demand can be watched and prices can be adjusted as needed — system wide.

    Posted 08 Jan 2007 at 7:28 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From An Information Science Solution to Pittsburgh Public Transit Woes @ Ales Rarus on 20 Feb 2007 at 12:30 pm

    […] Bob Firth, Informing Design "The Long Squiggly Line That's Killing Our Transit System and an Information Science Solution" February 21, 2007, 3:30 pm Room 501, 135 N. Bellefield Ave School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh The recent proposed cuts to funding of the Pittsburgh Authority Transit system have led Bob Firth and his company, Informing Design, to consider a radical redesign of bus routes based on efficient transportation systems that are being used in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Cleveland and even Curitiba, Brazil. In this talk, Bob Firth will present his ideas for developing a cost-effective and efficient bus system, based on years of experience in studying transportation flows in Pittsburgh and applying basic information science principles to solving problems of navigation and wayfinding. […]

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