Port Authority looks at small changes to handle more passengers
With major expansion out of the question due to land and money limitations, Port Authority is looking at what small changes it can make to provide more efficient service for an increasing ridership base.
The authority, which showed an increase of 1.7 million bus riders last year, is looking at steps such as shifting less-full buses to busier routes during non-rush hours, changing routes slightly to avoid traffic congestion and talking with the drivers’ union about changing
where its members take their 30-minute lunch break. Some of those changes could start as soon as next month, while others may take a year or two to implement.
Ridership figures for 2018 show increases on about 75 percent of the agency’s 97 bus routes. Among the biggest increases were the 38 Green Tree route (698 passengers a day) and the 71B Highland Park (427 a day), but the authority knows there are more than a handful of routes where rush-hour buses are so full that they pass up some potential riders.
“We’ve known for some time there’s this sort of pent-up demand for our services,” authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said. “We have more potential riders out there, for sure.
“Clearly, we also need the ability to service those riders. That’s where we’re lacking right now.”
Here’s the problem: The authority has no more room in its four garages to increase its bus fleet above the current amount of about 720. It has long acknowledged the need for a fifth garage, but that would require 25 to 30 acres of land in the right place and cost upward of $140 million at a time when some capital projects are delayed because state funds are being held up by a federal lawsuit challenging the use of Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls for transit expenses.
“We’ve known for a long time a fifth garage is key to expanding service,” Mr. Brandolph said. “That certainly is dependent on our finances.”
That lack of space — and the need for additional manpower to operate more vehicles — leaves the agency in the position of trying to squeeze as much as it can from the resources available. As a result, the authority is looking at small steps where it might pick up a few minutes here and there.
Next month, for example, it will change the route for the 54 bus that serves North Side, the Strip District, Oakland and the South Side by eliminating a turn on congested South Craig Street in Oakland, shaving as much as 10 minutes off each trip. That might allow another trip on that busy route during the day.
The agency also is looking at ideas such as eliminating a trip on a less-busy, midday route and shifting it to a busier area. It also is meeting with the Amalgamated Transit Union about lunch for drivers.
Those changes won’t come easily.
Right now, drivers return to the garage for their 30minute lunch break, but that often means a bus will be out of service for 10 minutes or more each way to and from the garage. The authority is pitching the idea of drivers taking their lunch break on the road so it can eliminate that wasted time traveling to the garage.
Steve Palonis, the union’s president and business agent, said the union is in talks about lunch breaks, but that its contract has several requirements that could be difficult to provide. For example, drivers must have lunch in commercial food areas or non-commercial places where they can eat a bagged lunch as long as they have washing facilities.
But drivers aren’t allowed to eat in their buses or leave the vehicles idling on the street during their break. And if the temperature is below 15 degrees, buses have to be running for 15 minutes before they begin service.
“We’ll talk to them, but I don’t know where we’re going to go with that,” Mr. Palonis said.
Laura Wiens, head of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said the group understands and supports the authority’s interest in expanding bus service. But she said the group would look closely at any shifting of service to make sure the authority doesn’t eliminate a low-ridership trip in a poor area.
“I think it’s great to have a ridership increase, but it’s important to make sure they aren’t eliminating service in an area that desperately needs it,” she said.
Ms. Wiens said Pittsburgh officials could help drive an increase in transit ridership by reducing the maximum number of parking spaces required at new developments, forcing patrons or residents to use public transit. Large employers also could push the use of transit by including fare reimbursements as an employee benefit, which is done in other cities, she said.
One area where the authority could increase service rather easily is weekend service, where ridership also increased last year. Mr. Brandolph said the authority runs fewer routes and runs them less often on the weekend, but that providing more service only would involve additional drivers, not more vehicles.
“We’re looking at the next year or two, but we’re also looking at the next five and 10 and 20 years, too,” he said.
Last fall, the agency hired chief development officer David Huffaker to oversee planning. The authority had been without someone in charge of longrange planning for several years after a cut in state subsidies for public transit.
Port Authority said it is looking at ways it can handle more riders despite limitations on the number of buses in its fleet.