A report published Tuesday makes the case for a low-income fare program for public transit in Allegheny County. Pittsburghers for Public Transit, a grassroots organization of transit riders, advocates and operators, called on the Port Authority of Allegheny County to allow the lowest-income riders to use public transit for free.
The advocacy group pointed to a fare collection freeze in the spring as evidence that the program could be possible. The Port Authority didn’t collect fares from any riders from March 25 through June 8 when rear-door boarding was instituted to cut down on potential COVID-19 transmission at the farebox.
The report claims full-fares have decreased ridership on routes that service Black neighborhoods, including 77 Penn Hills, 61A Swissvale and P1 East Busway; which saw a bump when rides were free. The 59 Mon Valley also saw a drop, according to the report.
Other similarly-sized transit agencies like DC’s Metrobus, Southeast Michigan’s SMART, Detroit’s DDOT and the Greater Richmond Transit Company have continued to allow riders to take transit without paying fares, according to the report.
Fawn Walker-Montgomery, co-founder and executive director of Take Action Mon Valley, said at a rally in Wilkinsburg Tuesday that residents in Clairton and the Mon Valley have to pay multiple fares to get around.
“Sometimes we have to get two to three buses just to go to a doctor’s appointment,” she said. “They’re keeping us from the basic necessities of life.”
Teaira Collins, a community advocate from the Hill District who co-authored the report, said people who struggle to afford bus fare are trapped in a cycle.
“You’re stuck in the house," she said. "How are we going to go grocery shopping if we can’t afford to get on the bus? Can’t get the job to pay for bus fare if you can’t get on the bus."
Sarah Saltz, a New York University graduate student studying urban planning and a volunteer with Pittsburghers for Public Transit, expressed concern that the advocacy group, rather than the Port Authority itself, took the initiative to collect data about ridership and demographics.
The report argues a low-income fare program could help the authority address its ridership crisis. Port Authority ridership remains 70 percent below 2019 through the first week of August, according to The Post-Gazette.
“Thirty percent of riders who remain are at risk of leaving as well," Saltz said. "As much as riders depend on Port Authority, Port Authority depends on riders just as much."
The authority continues to limit the number of passengers on buses to meet social distancing guidelines and has struggled to employ enough drivers to service its routes. When the limited capacity is reached, drivers are directed to pass up passengers waiting at bus stops.
That frustrates Collins, who said that she had to buy a car after having a bus pass her by at a stop too many times. The report also calls on The Port Authority to realign bus routes to better service low-income and Black neighborhoods.
A Port Authority spokesman said in a statement that the authority is open to a low-income fare program, but concerned about cost.
“While we are open to a program that benefits low-income residents – something we were pursuing before the coronavirus – we need to find a way to be able to pay for it.”
The statement goes on to say, “There are a lot of questions about the future of public transit funding, especially here in Pennsylvania, and keeping our system intact is our number one concern. We cannot do that with less revenue.”