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Advocates call on Pittsburgh officials to prioritize transit, invest in sidewalks and bus shelters

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Pittsburghers for Public Transit Executive Director Laura Chu Wiens called on city councilors to advocate for better service from Pittsburgh Regional Transit, as well as to use their power to invest in things like sidewalks and bus shelters.

Pittsburgh Regional Transit struggled to stay on schedule in 2022.

Advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit, or PPT, released a new study on Wednesday that mapped troubled bus and train routes to each of the city’s nine council districts, and called on councilors to act.

Standing outside chambers on the fifth floor of the City-County Building, PPT director Laura Chu Wiens told councilors, “transit is vital to your district, we rely on transit but … in this past year, transit was not reliable.”

PPT’s report, which analyzed publicly available data from Pittsburgh Regional Transit, found that several major routes, such as the 61B, 71C, and 56, had less than a 50-50 chance of showing up on time for at least a quarter of 2022. It also found many routes that ran behind half of the time for at least one month of the year.

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Those delays or no-shows have meant missed doctor’s appointments, lost jobs, and personal and financial stress, Chu Wiens said. She talked about people getting up at 4 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. to ensure they’re on time for work; trying to get to the daycare before it starts charging for extra time; and having to decide whether to walk home in the dark, or spend a big chunk of the day’s wages on an expensive Uber ride. Alisa Grishman, who uses a wheelchair, called it a threat to her independence.

“Public transit is the only thing that makes living my life possible, as it does thousands of disabled people throughout the city,” she said.

Chu Wiens described these scenarios as “impossible choices that have been facing transit riders over the course of the last year,” adding transit operators have to grapple with angry riders while feeling the pressure, themselves, to meet unmakeable schedules.

The schedules aren’t realistic in part because there aren’t enough operators, said Ross Nicotero, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents a majority of Port Authority employees.

“They’re trying to do more with less and jam more stuff on the operators that are here, rather than … getting ample bodies in here and fixing the service,” he said. “There’s no accountability.”

But PRT has itself identified on-time performance as an area of concern. In April of last year, agency CEO Kelleman apologized to riders, saying “our schedule to you is a promise, and every trip on that schedule should be filled.”

“We are acutely aware that service reliability has been an issue,” said Adam Brandolph, agency spokesperson. “The steps that we have taken have already shown results.”

Those steps include bringing in a new training class of 31 operators at the end of January.

Brandolph said PRT routes now run on schedule 70% of the time. That’s up from 60% last September.

He added the agency continuously works to improve its reliability.

Three times each year – previously four – PRT adjusts its schedules. Brandolph said it’s a complicated process: management seeks input from union members, and schedulers analyze tons of data to suggest changes and then assess them.

That takes time.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Brandolph said.

“On one hand if we do it [adjust schedules] more often, then we can be a little bit more nimble. But on the other hand we can’t adjust based on data.”

Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak, Councilors Deb Gross, Erika Strassburg, Barb Warwick, and Bobby Wilson stood with riders and PPT members at Wednesday’s event, as did a representative of Councilor Bruce Kraus’s office.

Warwick said she is eager to work with PRT to improve riders’ experience. However, she stressed that the city must do more to improve transit, such as fix sidewalks, add bus lanes; she said council could require the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure to make transit a priority of every major city project.

Gross agreed, and said the city doesn’t need PRT permission to invest in transit.

“We can work on our own sidewalks, we can work on our own crosswalks, we can work on our own bus shelters,” she said. “We own the right-of-way and we don’t do a good enough job.”

PRT is a county agency, but county officials were not present on Wednesday. Chu Wiens said that’s because her group’s focus was on city officials.