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Expert panel recommends technology, cultural changes at Port Authority

"The customer must be the focus of the entire strategic plan. The riders here feel a little bit left out."

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Interactive bus shelters. Expanded late-night service. A mobile app that can allow users to buy rides with a credit card.

Those were among the improvements suggested to Port Authority by experts who studied the transit system for a week.

The panel of nine experts, culled by the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute, laid out a vision for Port Authority that included pushing for transit-oriented development projects and getting real-time information about buses and trains into riders' hands. The panel also suggested ideas for finding new revenues — including a $2-per-day fee at park-and-ride lots and a new 1 percent multi-county sales tax.

"The customer must be the focus of the entire strategic plan," said David Leininger at the May 16 presentation of the panel's findings. "The riders here feel a little bit left out."

Leininger, who chaired the ULI advisory panel and who serves as vice president and chief financial officer for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, joined other panelists by stressing the Port Authority should aggressively pursue younger riders. Key to transit's future, they argued, are the 20-to-34-year-olds who make up about 30 percent of the city's population — and who have a reputation for eschewing driving in favor of walking or biking. Younger riders, they argue, increasingly see robust public transit as a necessity.

"It's pretty clear that this audience is growing in number," agrees Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie. "They have a growing voice as transit riders. We want to focus on the kinds of things they're talking about and asking about."

The panel's recommendations are not binding. But rider advocate Molly Nichols thinks it's important to appropriately balance appealing to "choice" riders — those who can afford other transit options — with serving "captive" riders, who have little option but to take public transit.

"That was definitely more the focus: the choice riders, getting the new millennials who are coming here," says Nichols, community organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. "That's a worthwhile thing for sure, [but] it's really interesting how little time they spent talking about the huge needs around the county that are not being met at all."

To Chris Sandvig, regional policy director for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, the importance of the ULI panel wasn't so much that it uncovered ideas that had never been floated before. Instead, he says, its real impact may lie in changing the culture from one in which local politicians decide, in a top-down fashion, what transit projects have merit.

"It's not like these aren't things people have been asking for decades," Sandvig says, noting the importance of an independent group of experts affirming some of the conventional wisdom, especially around transit-oriented development. "Getting the Port Authority to do this stuff won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight."

On a few fronts, though, Port Authority is already making improvements encapsulated in some of the ULI panel's recommendations. The agency will likely increase service on existing routes by about 2.7 percent system-wide, for example, in a bid to ease overcrowding. Port Authority has also been pilot-testing its delivery of real-time arrival information since late last summer; that project will be rolled out several routes at a time this summer, giving riders up-to-the-minute updates on how far away their ride is.

As for the larger improvements and system changes, Ritchie says, "We're not going to know what direction we head in with this until we come together as a staff and board, and figure out what we want to tackle. We're clearly going to do something, but we need time to figure out what our next move is."

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