Transportation
4:30 pm
Fri June 15, 2012

PAT CEO Suggests Solutions

Slightly more than half of downtown Pittsburgh's workday commuters use public transportation to get to their employer's location. Some of Pittsburgh's largest employers downtown report as much as 70% of their workers using public transit.

The Port Authority (PAT) of Allegheny County is a hot topic in the region, largely due to a planned 35% service cut to trim a $67 million deficit and legislation privatizing transit.

But in an address to the African American Chamber of Commerce (AACC) Friday, PAT CEO Steve Bland said businesses will not flock to be a part of a private transportation system in Pittsburgh. He explained that more than 30 private bus and trolley companies have already failed at the task, until the Port Authority came along.

"The reason the Port Authority was formed was [the private companies] could no longer make a profit, they were losing money, they were going bankrupt, going out of business," Bland said. "Frankly, the Port Authority was formed back then and public investment and public transportation began specifically because the private sector couldn't make profit doing it."

The private sector is not an enemy for PAT though. In fact, Bland said partnering with the stadiums and casino on the North Shore have allowed the trip to be free, generated revenue and actually saved money in collecting fares.

"It costs us quite a bit of money to collect fares," Bland said. "It's probably saving about $700,000 in the expense of if we had to collect fares on that system."

Bland presented lot of statistics, ranging from ridership PAT sees, trends over the years, and of course, funding. He admits there is a cost problem with PAT's budget, and lists three suggestions for how the Authority can revive.

First, he said a new funding strategy for the state, not just Allegheny County, needs to be developed. Next, he said Allegheny County needs to be treated on a more equal playing field in comparison to other counties regarding the Persons with Disabilities Shared Ride Program. He estimated PAT is missing out of $3-$4 million because Allegheny County was not included in the legislation.

Finally, Bland said PAT needs to get legacy costs under control.

"Pension contributions and retiree health care, those are the two line items out of about 400 in our budget when I say 'legacy costs,'" Bland said. "Those two line items over the 9-10 years have increased about 8 times the rate of inflation. During the same period the other 398 line items in our budget has increased about half the rate of inflation."

Bland noted, however, it's not that Pennsylvania doesn't significantly support public transportation. He added that the commonwealth ranks 3rd in the amount of state funding given to mass transit behind New York and California.

"It's a state that has invested intensely in public transportation, and they've done it for about 40 years," Bland said. "The only problem is, while our operating income has increased by about $20 million since 2006, our state assistance declined by about $18 million."

He urged the members of the AACC to lobby state lawmakers for increased funding.

As for the future, Bland said PAT is currently working on a few projects including a "Smart Card," a reloadable form of payment for fares instead of cash or paper tickets.