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Captive Riders

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If Port Authority drivers stop working Dec. 1, a lot of people will be inconvenienced.

It will mean more people driving and carpooling to work. It will mean companies working on contingency plans to deal with employees who can't get to work.

But for Jonathan Robison, and people like him, the bus is a critical lifeline. They use it to get to the doctor's, to the hospital, and to take advantage of vital public-health and other human services.

Robison, an Oakland attorney, has multiple sclerosis. He depends on a power chair to get around, and the condition affects his vision, making it impossible for him to drive. He relies on public transportation to get pretty much everywhere.

"Most of my medical appointments are in Oakland, so I can get there using my power chair," says Robison, who is also a spokesman for the rider-advocacy group Save Our Transit. "But I also go to the Jewish Community Center [in Squirrel Hill] for my M.S. support group, and let me tell you, that's a long shlep in a power chair.

"I am what is referred to as a captive rider. Public transportation is the only way I get around."

The agencies that provide the crucial services agree that the situation won't be a good one.

"A transit strike would be devastating, both to the people who are consumers of human services and to the staff who provide those services," says Robert Nelkin, president and chief professional officer of United Way of Allegheny County. "A large number of people who have some sort of human need where they seek services often seek it via public transportation.

"If the system shuts down, the people will be stranded."

According to PAT's October ridership numbers, the transit system gave 247,000 rides a day. Ken Zapinski, of the Allegheny Conference, says that given that most of those are round trips, an average of about 125,000 individuals ride the bus every day. "That's about 10 percent of the population of Allegheny County," he adds. "That's a lot of people that could be affected by this."

The Port Authority and representatives of the Local 85 Amalgamated Transit Union have met with a fact-finder and, for awhile, had been negotiating a new contract for employees. However, the two sides failed to reach an agreement and so the Port Authority is unilaterally imposing a new contract on drivers beginning Dec. 1.

The new deal allows 3 percent pay raises over the next three years. But it also requires higher employee contributions to health-care and pension costs. The authority says that it is allowed to impose a contract following a fact-finder's report, which it did.

The dispute is so heated that the two sides can't even agree on what to call it. The union says the imposed contract is illegal and constitutes a lockout. However, the Port Authority says that if the drivers stop working, it's a strike.

But Robison, of Save Our Transit, says for the thousands of people who rely on public transportation as their only way to reach medical appointments, work and errands, terminology is irrelevant.

"They can call it whatever they want," says Robison. "It's going to be a disaster for every person who relies on public transportation."

There is one other way that a disabled person like Robison or a senior citizen will be able to get around -- the county's ACCESS transportation service. The program is available to seniors age 65 or over, and to those who can demonstrate disabilities that preclude them from using a regular bus stop. Riders call ACCESS in advance, and get door-to-door service. The program is administered by the Port Authority, too, but the service is contracted out and thus wouldn't be affected if a work stoppage occurs.

Usually, riders like Robison -- those who are handicapped but can use the regular transit system -- are permitted to use ACCESS if they pay a double fare. If the labor dispute shuts down bus service, that extra fee will be waived. But McNeil worries that in that case, the ACCESS system will not be able to handle the increased demand.

McNeil says that in October, ACCESS accommodated 6,000 riders every weekday with its fleet of 444 vehicles. But in the event of a work stoppage, "the system will likely become overwhelmed," she says, and wait times for rides will most surely increase.

"There's going to be a crush on the ACCESS system" in the event of a work stoppage, agrees the United Way's Nelkin. "That means it's going to be every organization for themselves. There are thousands of nonprofits in Allegheny County that have to figure out, 'How do we get our consumers and staff here without public transportation?'

"We'll obviously be doing carpooling and things like that, but it also could mean the curtailment of some services. People are really going to struggle."

David Tobiczyk, vice president of marketing and development for Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, says all programs offered by the nonprofit will be affected by a PAT work stoppage. Specifically, the agency's computer-recycling program mostly employs individuals on welfare and "a lot of them only have public transportation" to get to work, Tobiczyk says.

In addition, the agency also provides job training and programs for disabled individuals who rely on buses to get to not only their programs, but also their jobs. Add in literacy and GED programs, and Tobiczyk says Goodwill is trying to figure out how to get between 50 and 100 people to work and to their programs if the buses stop running.

"A number of the people we deal with would qualify for ACCESS service, but the demands on ACCESS will be great if there's a stoppage," he says. "So we've had to try and figure out how we can get these people in here."

Tobiczyk says Goodwill officials asked employees and clients to write down where they live and what bus they ride. Those locations were then mapped out, and the hope is that with a combination of agency vans, ACCESS and carpooling, some sort of contingency system could work.

"We have it all mapped out, but the bottom line is we're not the Port Authority, we're not a bus system," Tobiczyk says. "This won't be a simple process, and if there is a work stoppage there will also be extra traffic on the road; it could take hours.

"The best thing that can happen is that all involved in this situation are able to work out a resolution."

Guillermo Cole, information officer for the Allegheny County Health Department, says public transportation is not only key to administering some of its services, but also dictates where the services are provided. The county's immunization and STD clinics, for example, are purposefully located along transit routes. So are the offices where the county administers welfare payments to families with children.

"A lot of the people who use these services are low-income people who heavily rely on public transportation," Cole says. If the Port Authority halts service, he says, it's "really going to be a hardship for these people and everyone who relies on the bus to take advantage of vital human services. ... [I]t's worrisome to think that people who depend on these services are going to be on their own."

Nelkin says both sides need to work toward a compromise solution to a situation that couldn't have come at a worse time. "This is happening in the backdrop of unprecedented economic turmoil," Nelkin says. "People can't afford one more thing to make it more difficult to serve their families."

And social-service agencies, he says, can't afford to be distracted from their core missions.

"Our major efforts need to be focused on how bad the economy has become and what we can do to make sure that people aren't homeless and hungry and unable to take care of their loved ones," he says. "This is the worst possible time for a strike."

Port Authority buses could stop running Dec. 1. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Port Authority buses could stop running Dec. 1.

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