Port Author­ity looks at small changes to han­dle more pas­sen­gers

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Local News - By Ed Blaz­ina

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.

Bill Wade/Post-Gazette

Port Author­ity said it is look­ing at ways it can han­dle more riders de­spite lim­i­ta­tions on the num­ber of buses in its fleet.

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