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Transit's New Era

Date: 4/14/2014

State plan improves outlook for urban counties and commuters

by Jeffery Fraser // 03/25/2014

The Port Authority of Allegheny County’s chronic fiscal crisis was lifted with the stroke of the governor’s pen in November to the relief of downtown businesses, seniors, regional developers, people with disabilities and -- although they might not realize it -- suburban commuters who prefer their cars over a Port Authority bus or light rail transit.

An estimated $2.3 billion a year in additional state money for roads, bridges and public transit was secured with the long-awaited transportation-funding bill signed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. The Port Authority’s share had not been precisely determined by the end of the year. But it is estimated to be enough to end the annual operating deficits that led to deep service cuts in recent years, and allow the Port Authority to tackle maintenance and capital projects, service improvements, and modernization strategies neglected during the rolling fiscal crisis.

For two years, a disparate group of Allegheny County stakeholders ranging from corporate executives to advocates of the poor and disabled had campaigned to restore public transit. They painted a convincing picture of the vital role it plays in urban counties like Allegheny, where Port Authority buses and trains carry nearly 65 million passengers a year.

Fueling The Economic Engine

One high-profile example of why public transit is important to Pittsburgh and Allegheny County is its impact on the local economy as a means of moving workers to and from their jobs and as an asset for convincing companies to expand or to relocate there.

And it’s an issue of statewide importance. Only Philadelphia tops Pittsburgh as a center for jobs and a generator of tax revenue in Pennsylvania. “We have the second and third largest economic centers in the state [Downtown and Oakland], both of which don’t survive without transit,” says Chris Sandvig, regional policy director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

An estimated 54 percent of the Downtown Pittsburgh workforce relies on public transit to get to work. An estimated 120,000 people commute to Downtown daily, most from outside of the city.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that, while the population in the city has migrated out over the last 50 years, the jobs have not. Pittsburgh has one of the highest jobs-to-population numbers in the country,” says Ken Zapinski, Allegheny Conference on Community Development senior vice president for energy and infrastructure.

“We can do this downtown because we have transit bringing people in. There isn’t enough space for vehicles to drive them downtown and park during the day. There isn’t enough space to keep the jobs downtown if you don’t have a robust transit system.”

Vince Sands, chairman of BNY Mellon of Pennsylvania, underscored the point, telling the state House Appropriations Committee last summer that a viable transit system in Pittsburgh is a key factor in the bank deciding whether to keep more than 7,000 jobs in the city, expand the number or move jobs elsewhere. “Fifty percent of our people depend solely on public transportation. I want to make it clear: This is really important to us. We have to get our people to work.”

Public transit also has emerged as a critical issue in attracting young adults, who bring with them their talents and future families -- a demographic trend in southwestern Pennsylvania that’s been on the rise in recent years.

When in 2011, for example, the Allegheny Conference polled some 200 young adults identified by their employers as emerging leaders about their priorities, viable public transportation was far and away the top issue mentioned. And when Pittsburgh Today hosted a series of focus groups with young adults a year later, public transit was the top concern mentioned in every session.

Beyond Business

Just as job density is high in urban centers such as Allegheny County, so too is the density of low-income families, people with disabilities, students and seniors -- all of whom are among the most frequent users of public transit.

Last year, for example, the United Way of Allegheny County polled people who called its “211” regional helpline to get a better idea of their healthcare needs. More than one-third identified transportation as a barrier to getting to care. Another United Way survey of regional human service agencies ranging from Catholic Charities to the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh suggests 60 percent of their clients depend on public transit to get to services. “For many people, public transit is a lifeline,” United Way of Allegheny County President Robert Nelkin told the state Senate Committee on Transportation in August.

More than 6,000 seniors and people with disabilities use ACCESS para-transit vans each weekday, according to Port Authority 2012 averages. For them, stable funding for the Port Authority is good news. ACCESS routes are based on Port Authority bus routes, which exposes seniors and people with disabilities to service reductions when those bus routes are trimmed.

The impact of Port Authority bus and rail services is also felt beyond the borders of Allegheny County. Park-andride lots offer one measure. License plate numbers on the 5,500 cars parked in those lots each weekday show that, on average, 26 percent belong to people in other counties, with the most living in Washington and Westmoreland. Some 58 percent of cars parked in the 248-space Alpine park-and-ride in Monroeville near Murrysville, for example, are registered to Westmoreland County residents.

Public transit even makes life easier for motorists who never take a bus or a train to commute to jobs located in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission showed why with a chilling analysis of the impact a proposed 35 percent cut in Port Authority service would have had if the state and county hadn’t come up with an 11th-hour plan to avoid it.

The transit cuts would have added 23,400 more car trips to Pittsburgh-area roads and highways each day. That would have meant an estimated 16-minute increase in peak period travel time in Pittsburgh. But the biggest headache would have been downtown, where 90 percent of the 38,000 parking spaces are already taken. That would leave 3,800 spaces for some 20,000 additional vehicles.

Improved Outlook

Such a scenario is no longer in the forecast for the Port Authority. The state transportation bill, which is to be financed with a hike in the oil company franchise tax, is expected to provide the Port Authority with enough new money to avoid the annual operating deficits that had dogged it in recent years. And without such deficits, the threat of service cuts is greatly diminished.

Port Authority fares also are expected to stabilize, which officials say should help restore ridership damaged by service cuts. Those cuts began in 2007 after proposed tolls on Interstate 80 to finance transportation across the state failed. Since then, the Port Authority has reduced the number of bus routes from 219 to 102 and raised fares several times. Its $2.50 base fare is the highest in the state and among the highest in the nation.

The austere years also forced the Port Authority to get its fiscal house in order. Its workforce was trimmed. Pensions and other legacy costs were brought under control. Inefficient routes were pared from the schedule. Data and performance measures assumed a more prominent role in decision- making. At the same time, however, maintenance of rail bridges, garages and other infrastructure was deferred and steps to modernize the system slowed.

Adequate and more predictable funding now allows the Port Authority to address its maintenance backlog and consider improvements, including adding service to overcrowded routes, offering modern bus stations with realtime data on when buses will arrive, and creating transit hubs where riders of buses from other counties can transfer to Port Authority buses to complete their commute into the city.

“It’s a new Port Authority,” says Ellen McLean, Port Authority CEO. “We’re leaner, more efficient and we’ve addressed our legacy costs. It’s now about finding smart ways to effectively offer transit.”

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