Fitzgerald fires shot across the bow at Port Authority management

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County executive Rich Fitzgerald had harsh words for the Port Authority today after a weekend of service disruption on its light-rail line.

"The wait time and lack of service provided by the Port Authority this past weekend to residents and visitors alike is absolutely inexcusable," Fitzgerald said in a statement issued this afternoon. "This agency must be responsive to its customers, and the recent problems indicate to me that it is not the focus of the management."

Light-rail service was delayed this past weekend due to a shortage of operators on the Red and Blue lines on Saturday, causing wait times that reached up to an hour, said authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.

"Bottom line is there were just not enough to people to fill the runs," he says. "We have 68 rail operators; there's over 1,000 bus operators. So you don't have an endless supply [of backup trolley operators.]."

Excused absences, regular call-offs, vacation, military leave and other factors, combined with system cuts and staffing reductions over the last few years, formed "a right mix of factors that caused an issue like this."

In addition to the shortage, the T system did not have the capacity for the influx of riders due to the Pittsburgh Marathon on Sunday, he says.

"The biggest issue is we weren't able to staff any extra service between North Shore and Downtown and we recognize that's a problem. There were a lot of people coming into town who walked away disappointed," Ritchie says. "On our end, there's no excuse."

Rail service runs less frequently on weekends -- and, Ritchie says, "there's some financial issues we have to maneuver through to put out [extra service]. There's a price tag on extra service that's not in the schedule ... We want to do it, we're happy to do it."

Ritchie says the authority is working with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 and will release more specific plans this week to deal with events such as concerts or Steelers game that bring an influx of passengers.

"It could have been handled better on our end. We still think there would have been a way to get that service out," Ritchie says. "That's where we're addressing for this weekend."

That may be just as well, because the weekend's chaos couldn't have come at a worse time. The authority is set to make massive service cuts in September, while hoping the state will provide assistance to avert them. And judging from Fitzgerald's statement, patience is wearing thin.

"There is absolutely no valid explanation for why there was no planning or preparation for this past weekend's influx of people into the city," the statement continued. "It's not as if the Pirates' schedule, the Stage AE concert or the Pittsburgh Marathon were a surprise to anyone.

"This will be fixed -- either within the existing structure, or with changes from the top to the bottom."

Asked to respond to the potential threat to director Steve Bland's job security, Ritchie declined to comment.

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