Some Pittsburgh Public Schools students were turned away for rides by Port Authority bus drivers last month, after a mix-up involving their student ID cards which also function as transit passes.
Many PPS high school students receive access to public transit rather than yellow school buses, including those from Obama Academy located in East Liberty. As a magnet school, it draws students from all over town.
According to an article published on Jan. 24 in the school newspaper The Obama Eagle, “Shortly before noon [on Wednesday January 23rd], Junior Musa Sakala attempted to board the P1 at the East Busway stop in East Liberty. After failing multiple times to get his bus pass to work with the bus’ scanner, he tried to explain to the increasingly impatient bus driver that he had no idea why the pass was not working. Uninterested in any explanations, the driver demanded he get off the bus.” The article was written by student Daevan Mangalmurti. It goes on to claim that Musa’s parents picked him up downtown.
According to the Port Authority, the cards and the scanners did not malfunction. PPS confirms that the error can be traced back to the new ID cards that were printed to include new student photos.
There are two types of cards which students can be issued. One contains an activated chip that allows it to be scanned on transit and covers their fare, essentially acting as a ConnectCard. These IDs are red. Spokesperson for the Port Authority Adam Brandolph said all Obama students “were issued the other card that did not contain the chip, and therefore did not tap on the buses.” Those IDs are yellow.
It is unclear whether the fault lies with PPS, the high school, or a third party company, which is involved in processing the cards.
“Due to a mistake with a data file by the card provider...students who utilize Port Authority for transportation, inadvertently they received the wrong color coded ID,” said spokesperson for PPS Ebony Pugh. “The students’ names were on a file that was for non-Port Authority issued IDs.”
Pugh said the problem was isolated to Obama Academy.
Despite their cards not scanning, some students were permitted by operators to ride.
Brandolph said the Port Authority’s policy for PPS and university passes is “if the card is not on hand or if it is rejected at the fare box, then operators are instructed to advise the students that they have to pay cash, or exit the bus.”
“We expect payment for service, but at the same time, operators are told from the first day of training not to dispute fares. They are in charge of the safety and wellbeing of everyone on their bus,” said Brandolph. “The fare part, while important, that’s not what we want them to focus on.”
Brandolph said despite the Port Authority’s written policy, most operators permitted students to ride free, and so they did not know it to be a permissive issue until PPS contacted them that Thursday afternoon.
According to the Obama Eagle article, operators turned some students away.
“The same scenes repeated themselves across the city- but seemingly only to Obama juniors and seniors. Many have reported extreme difficulty in convincing bus drivers that they are not trying to hitch free rides, and in some extreme cases like those mentioned above, they have had to rely on other means of transportation to make their ways home while avoiding the freezing temperatures outside,” read the article.
According to Port Authority customer service, one complaint was lodged that Wednesday at 6:09 p.m. A woman claimed that her two children’s PPS passes did not work when they attempted to ride their bus.
“Obviously this was an unfortunate situation, and we will certainly look into any individual complaints where students or their parents believe that the students were treated unfairly, even if he operator was following the policy,” said Pugh. “It’s also the way in which the operator communicated that to the student.”
The Port Authority confirmed that some students were turned away. Brandolph said those incidents occurred before they were aware of the issue. He said once they were notified of the problem by PPS, they issued a memo to all operators.
“We issue things called Fare Memos,” said Brandolph. “Those go to the garages so the operators learn about any changes that are made usually when they start their shift. If it’s mid shift we have the ability to call out on the radio to let operators know of special circumstances, whether it’s a detour or to allow all students at Obama academy to ride for free when they show their card.”
According to the Obama Eagle article, some students had the cops called on them when they attempted to board their bus.
Brandolph said that would have been impossible. He said that the Port Authority police chief inspected the logs from that week, and that there were no calls to dispatch or incidents of fare disputes involving PPS students.
The Port Authority and school district have had a transportation agreement for years. 2018 was the first year in which bus passes were integrated into student IDs.
Ebony Pugh said the majority of high school students use the Port Authority. “We have over time cut down on yellow bus transportation,” she said. “There’s been a driver shortage that’s been affecting Pennsylvania [and] the country.”
Since the school district receives a higher financial reimbursement from the state for utilizing public transit over yellow buses, it is also more cost-effective.
According to the PPS transportation department, two complaints have been received by the district.
An extension for free student rides continued this week, in order to give students time to pick up their proper IDs, following last week’s inclement weather school closures.