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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Get’: Port Authority Plans On A Bright Future

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
The transit agency for Pittsburgh and Allegheny County got a lot of requests for their vehicles to meet the demands of daily life, whether groceries, a stroller, or in the case of this Jan. 2020 photo, a giant, stuffed bear.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is on a quest to build a transit system that is equitable, sustainable and improves people’s lives. A new round of public meetings on its long-range plan, NEXTransit, comes at a time of uncertainty and fiscal constraint.

When Port Authority launched the NEXTransit initiative in early 2020, officials asked people to design their perfect transportation system: a way to hop from Bridgeville to Bon Air? A downtown transit hub complete with grocery store? More inclines?

David Huffaker, Port Authority’s chief development officer, told a room full of people at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that everything was on the table.

“We need your feedback, we need your creativity, we need your dreams,” he said. “Give us something to reach for.”

That was before the coronavirus pandemic, which caused ridership to plummet more than 50 percent and took revenue with it; before people began to predict an exodus from cities and an existential threat to transit.

But CEO Katherine Kelleman said the pandemic underscored the crucial role transit plays in the region, and will in its recovery. Kelleman paraphrased transportation expert Janette Sadik-Khan

“It's not freedom to live with a car, it's freedom to live without a car, it’s freedom to not have to spend up to ten thousand dollars a year,” she said. “That ten grand a year has to be the purchase price of access to society ... it's crazy.”

Last year Port Authority collected and sifted through more than 20,000 points of public input, and Kelleman said over the course of 2020 they saw a shift in the feedback, a move from lofty visions to really concrete improvements. At the new round of community meetings that kicked off last week, planning director Amy Silbermann gave some examples.

“First, a sidewalk program. We heard from a lot of folks that the simple, easiest thing they need is a safe way to get to and from their transit stop,” she said.

People also want Port Authority vehicles to meet the demands of daily life, with space for groceries, strollers with sleeping babies and luggage for airport trips.

When it comes to where service should go, Justin Miller, a consultant with Michael Baker International, said the project team studied public feedback as well as population data, employment trends and where people get on and off buses and trains.

“We tried to turn all these different data sources into big blobs of what we called transit connection areas,” he said, calling out cross-hatched areas on the map. “So, where are these major corridors people are trying to connect within? As well as around the city from neighborhood to neighborhood.”

To do that, Port Authority proposed a range of solutions, from new high-capacity transit lines to circulators, a route style that could loop between or among designated communities. Officials said historically, the agency’s central focus was to connect people through downtown. If they change that it opens up a whole new realm of possibility.

Laura Chu Wiens runs the nonprofit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She said she appreciates that Port Authority has called out important connections to make between regions without prescribing a specific mode to do so; flexible solutions allow the Port Authority’s budget to do more.

Relatedly, Chu Wiens is eager to hear how Port Authority may overhaul its fare system.

“The fare consultant process has been going on for two years,” she said. “We’re hopeful that the delay is to have a considered and really equitable plan that they’re going to be rolling out.”

In a presentation at the monthly board meeting on Friday, Kelleman said staff will make a preliminary presentation in March. However, as the pandemic nears the one-year mark, Chu Wiens urged the authority not to wait for a full restructure in order to provide emergency fare relief to people who rely on transit to reach their jobs and essential resources such as grocery stores.

The cost of changes proposed in Port Authority’s NEXTransit vision would be in addition to the nearly $1 billion Port Authority reckons it needs just to maintain existing service in a state of good repair.

Like all major transit systems in Pennsylvania, state funding is crucial for the Port Authority’s capital budget. And PennDOT is hurting.

At an appropriations hearing in February, transportation secretary Yassmin Gramian all but said forget about expanding service; transit systems remain in crisis.

“We are very concerned about the future, and when the transit system is going to go back into what it used to in terms of providing services that they used to before Covid-19,” she said.

When the pandemic decimated travel last spring it struck at PennDOT’s primary source of funding, the gas tax, as well as other revenue sources. However, it’s not just PennDOT’s solvency that transit agencies need to worry about, but rather a cascade of financial woes.

Thanks to laws passed in 2007 and 2013, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission ultimately covers the cost of public transit in the commonwealth. Each year the commission sends $450 million to PennDOT, most of which the agency then uses to pad the capital budgets of systems across the state.

The commission struggled to come up with the money in 2020. They slashed their own capital budget by almost a quarter, and in June laid off roughly 500 toll collectors. The turnpike had been pursuing automated tolling for several years and was working to phase out the remaining collectors; officials said huge losses and the complications of pandemic safety precautions hastened the decision.

As of 2021, the turnpike has provided $7.3 billion in funding to support transit, the bulk of which was paid for with debt, financed by year-over-year toll increases. In a January press release, turnpike CEO Mark Compton urged the statehouse to “end … this particular financial chapter” and find permanent transit funding before the July 1, 2022 deadline, when the turnpike’s annual obligation drops to $50 million.

It’s not yet clear how state government will fill a $400 million hole, but Kelleman said there’s an excellent case to be made that state investment in Allegheny County transit pays off.

“We are still nine percent of the state's population and over 12 percent of the general fund contribution,” she said. “Substantive transit is part of the engine that makes our state move.”

At the federal level, Kelleman said she’s guardedly optimistic that congress may finally pass another five-year transportation funding bill. The FAST Act, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, was approved in 2015 and was set to expire on September 30, 2020. Congress voted to extend funding through 2021.

Fundamentally, Kelleman said, “don’t ask, don’t get.” Allegheny County must build a vision of what it wants — Kelleman says it deserves — and then they’ll figure out how to pay for it.