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Port Authority wants to forge ahead despite uncertainty around ridership, funding

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Though Port Authority's ridership keeps creeping up, it only has returned to slightly more than 50% of pre-pandemic levels.

Despite ongoing challenges, the Port Authority of Allegheny County is looking ahead to major projects and investments in 2023.

“Our vision of the future is becoming clearer and we’re taking the steps to get there,” CEO Katharine Kelleman told the agency’s board Friday morning.

The agency is preparing to vote next month on its operating and capital budgets for 2023.

Last year, Port Authority adopted a more than $4 billion long-range plan calledNEXTransit. Now, they’ve begun the process of breaking that 25-year plan into more immediate strategic plans to guide investments, and that has informed next year’s budgets, Kelleman said.

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The preliminary operating budget for 2023 is expected to be roughly $519.6 million. It includes an emphasis on hiring campaigns, rebranding to help people navigate the system more easily, and preliminary planning efforts for some of the projects in the NEXTransit plan.

Port Authority’s controller, Peter Schenk, expects passenger revenues to increase by at least 15%, but he said expenses will go up as well. Medical premiums for employees and wage increases are anticipated, and the rising price of diesel could add an additional $23 million to Port Authority’s costs this year.

The preliminary capital budget currently stands at $215,246,501. Schenk said it consists almost entirely of paying off debt, the purchase of 107 new articulated buses, and the first phase of the Oakland-to-Downtown bus rapid transit project, which is expected to break ground late in 2022 or early next year.

“All of our long-range plans, our budget, are built on growing service in Allegheny County,” Kelleman said during Friday’s meeting, as she discussed ongoing efforts to redistribute service across Port Authority’s network, and current hiring challenges. “I’m confident we will get back into this right direction.”

Kelleman again acknowledged that Port Authority, like all transit agencies, faces a labor shortage, and that requiring all of Port Authority’s employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 exacerbated that challenge. However, she said the policy ensures that fewer employees are less likely to miss work from falling ill. She said the goal of the upcoming service adjustments, effective June 26, are to ensure that buses and trains show up when they’re supposed to. The adjustments resulted in a 4% reduction in service.

Ross Nicotero, who leads Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, spoke during the board’s public comment period. He offered sharp criticism of agency management — including Kelleman, whose contract on Friday was renewed through 2025 at $269,500 per year — for firing 80 employees who chose not to be vaccinated at a time when the agency already had roughly 100 open positions.

He reminded the board that contract negotiations will begin soon and warned, “If this recent treatment of our members continues … I’m afraid we are in for a long haul and a very unpleasant process.”

Nicotero said the agency can solve its problems if leaders partner with Local 85.