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Port Authority CEO apologizes for missed trips and service loss

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Between 4 and 5 percent of Port Authority’s bus and train trips are out of service on any given day. That isn’t as bad as some other transit systems, some of which have consistently seen between 10 and 12 percent missed trips since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Allegheny County riders deserve better, CEO Katharine Kelleman said at a board meeting Friday morning.

“You don’t care if another city’s doing worse” when a bus or train passes you up, she said. “Our schedule to you is a promise, and every trip on that schedule should be filled.”

Port Authority typically makes schedule changes four times each year, but the quarterly schedule got thrown out of whack during the pandemic. In November of 2020, the agency “trued up” schedules to reflect new ridership patterns as well as workforce shortages, Kelleman said. A similar round of changes went into effect on Sunday, and further adjustments will be announced in June.

“If we know we can’t run a trip we need to make sure that we can move that service around so every trip can be filled,” Kelleman said.

However, speaking during the meeting’s public comment period, Andrew Hussein said Port Authority’s description of those service changes masks what’s really happening.

“Adjustments, redistribution of service … no matter how you spell it out, it still equates to service reductions,” he said. “Cuts.”

Service cuts are the “inevitable outcome” of decisions that Port Authority has made — in particular, the implementation of a vaccine mandate, said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

“The result is that there is no plan, no vision for maintaining an adequate level of service, let alone expansion,” she said. “Which is what our region really needs.”

Chu Wiens noted that the transit agency’s union suggested requiring weekly negative COVID-19 tests and continued masking as an alternative to the vaccine.

In her remarks, Kelleman acknowledged that Port Authority’s vaccine requirement did affect service, but said next year’s budget includes the same number of bus and train operators, the same hours of service, and more maintenance jobs.

“Our intent is to hire in as many folks as we can, fill the schedules we have, and continue the growth that Allegheny County deserves,” she said.

But that seems unrealistic to Ross Nicotero, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents a majority of Port Authority employees.

“You’re losing more [people] than you’re bringing in,” he said.

Nicotero estimates that between 45 and 50 unvaccinated people have lost their jobs, either through termination or being “forced” to retire before they wanted to. That number is likely to grow: Disciplinary hearings for those who have not complied with Port Authority’s vaccine mandate are still being held.

The training program for new operators takes 10 weeks, and hiring or training experienced mechanics can take a lot longer, Nicotero said. A shortage of mechanics will continue to affect operations in a less visible way, he added.

While “the manpower here has been a problem for probably over five years, it’s just being … magnified due to the fact of the mandate,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that it falls on the people of Allegheny County.”