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The Port Authority, Like Almost Everything Else, Has Been Changed By The Pandemic

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

When state and county shutdowns took hold in March of 2020, Port Authority’s monthly passenger revenue dropped by more than 80%. And while current data shows more people are taking buses and light-rail trains, the numbers are still way down. Officials are confident the agency will recover, but the last 15 months have forever changed their outlook.

In an update to authority board members on Thursday, CEO Katharine Kelleman said ridership will bounce back: The agency expects to see a “surge” in the fall as people return to work and school. But Kelleman warned that things will not revert to the pre-pandemic norm.

“The world that we knew … doesn’t exist for us,” she said. “What comes back will be different.”

During the pandemic, the agency made significant changes based on where and when people were still riding. While some of those modifications will remain in place, chief development officer David Huffaker says the authority will add back commuter service. Officials are keeping a close eye on travel patterns into Downtown, but Huffaker said it’s clear not everyone will return to the office five days a week.

“It gives us an opportunity to allocate resources to those areas where they’re most needed, and to provide those essential connections,” he said. With just one exception, all of the Port Authority’s routes serve either a medical facility or a grocery store.

Kelleman said across the country, transit agencies expect it will take four to five years for ridership to come back. “We’re not looking at that,” she said, “but we have to get through this period to stability.”

Three rounds of emergency funding from the federal government prevented Port Authority from going under in 2020 and 2021, Kelleman said, adding that if used carefully, federal aid will carry the agency through 2024 even if ridership remains at current levels.

“This is not magic money that rains down from Washington, D.C.,” she said, “we bill against it with unmet expenses” due to fluctuating revenues.

Of an available $502 million in aid money, Port Authority has spent $109 million so far.

The uncertainty surrounding Port Authority’s financial future is further compounded by realities in Harrisburg, where legislators are looking for a long-term solution to replace Act 89. Signed in 2013, the legislation was a stop-gap measure to fund public transportation for 10 years. That funding will expire next summer.

Despite those challenges, Port Authority will continue to pursue long-range planning efforts that seek to make the system more efficient and equitable, as well as to increase ridership. In another round of public meetings next week, officials will ask people to weigh in on a preliminary list of priority projects.

Officials briefed board members on the proposed 2022 operating and capital budgets of $494 million and $227 million, respectively. Those will next go to a full meeting of the board.