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'Safety Is A Top Priority': How Port Authority Grapples With Coronavirus

Ryan Loew
90.5 WESA

In the space of just a few weeks the response to the coronavirus has forced people throughout western Pennsylvania and the world to overhaul their daily lives. The pandemic presents a dual challenge for transit agencies; they must continue to connect people to work, grocery stores and health care but with dramatically decreased revenue as ridership plunges.

Port Authority saw an 84 percent dip in its ridership, said Katharine Kelleman, the agency’s CEO, but the financials are less pressing than public health.

“I would rather someone stay home and be safe than have them be counted as a passenger,” she said, referencing a new message that scrolls on Port Authority’s buses, “Stay Home, Save Lives.

Kelleman said agency officials are on a lot of conference calls with other transit agencies, swapping ideas and best practices about what to do and how to navigate the uncertainty of the future. She referenced comments from Jarrett Walker, a public transit network and design consultant.

Credit Port Authority of Allegheny County

“You know, it’s not ridership right now. It’s preventing the collapse of civilization,” she paraphrased, and added, “Safety is a top priority.”

Port Authority urges riders to stay home if they can; “don't expose yourself and don't expose our Port Authority staff,” said Kelleman.

However, the agency knows many people don’t have that option. In order to safely accommodate riders and protect operators, passenger caps were introduced Monday: until further notice, 35-foot buses carry 10 riders, 40-foot buses carry 15 riders, and 25 people are permitted on 60-foot buses and light rail vehicles. Kelleman said people taking public transit right now rely on that bus or train, and they don’t want to pass anyone up.

“We have fewer buses on the road,” she said. “So when necessary. We can have a stand-by bus. … Someone can call it and say, ‘I'm full, I need a backup.’”  Kelleman said the agency’s operations and scheduling departments are closely tracking real-time data and can change schedules to respond to changes in need.

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Port Authority will see some financial relief from the stimulus bill Congress passed in March. The legislation included $25 billion for transit agencies nationwide, of which Port Authority expects to see $141 million. The money will be used to plug an estimated $30 million hole in the agency’s operating budget, as well as cover increased costs in disinfectants, masks, and overtime for the employees who each night clean all the Port Authority buses and trains. In addition, Kelleman said the money will pay for sick time related to coronavirus, instead of having to charge employees’ sick time.
The stimulus money may also have to make up for revenue streams Port Authority traditionally relies on at the state level, said Kelleman.

“Who knows how long this is going to last,” she said. “I anticipate as we go in through the end of this fiscal year … Harrisburg just won’t have the money there.”

Coronavirus has revealed just how crucial public transit is, said Kelleman. She noted that even as ridership plummeted, some passengers still have to walk two miles each way to catch a bus.

“In 2007 and in 2011, 2012, we had big service reductions tied to changes in state funding,” she said. “We have so much, not even unmet demand. It’s demand that we abandoned [due to those previous service reductions].”