Linn Frank leaned over the counter at the Port Authority's Downtown service center, money in hand, to buy his weekly Zone 2 bus pass.
"Are fares really going to go up?" he asked.
The clerk deferred to a black pamphlet with white lettering in a nearby box on the counter. It spelled out the latest revisions to the Port Authority's proposal for a fare increase: a quarter more in Zone 1, and 50 cents in Zone 2. That would cost Frank $5 more a week for the pass he uses to travel from where he lives Downtown to his job, on Neville Island.
Frank says he could handle the increase, but it still gives him pause. He doesn't drive, and rides the 21 Coraopolis bus five days a week to get to work. "Five dollars is five dollars," he says. "I'm on a budget, and that's another kick."
The transit agency hopes that the proposal for a fare increase, combined with a 35 percent service reduction and 500 layoffs, will help offset a $47.1 million budget shortfall due to a lack of state funding.
When CEO Steve Bland presented the plan to the board in July, it included an increased fare of $4 on the T light-rail service and 13 express bus routes -- "premium" suburban routes that are usually served by park-and-ride lots and offer a direct line to Downtown.
The premium fares have been temporarily taken off the table based on public comments. But Bland cautions that they are "absolutely not dead" in the future.
For now, those fares have been replaced with a plan to raise fares in Zone 2 by 50 cents, to $3.25, rather than by a quarter, as in the initial plan.
If the new plan is approved next month, the transit agency will raise the fares in January. Additionally, in March, it will eliminate about 50 routes, and significantly reduce service on the remaining routes. Almost all of the premium express routes like the P71, P67, P7 and G3 face reduction -- although Port Authority officials have not yet released to what extent.
Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie cites those potential system changes, as well as uncertainty in Harrisburg (where state lawmakers are adjourned and some face mid-term elections), for the recent change to the fare proposal. The board also pushed back its vote to Nov. 24 for the same reasons.
"We don't want to jump the gun and damage the system in a way that might not be reversed," he says. He added that it'd be difficult to add a new fare system "when we don't know what the system will look like."
The fare increase would bring in about $3.5 million, about $1.5 million less than the initial proposal. PAT officials largely blame the need for new fare revenue on operating costs.
A typical route, for example, has an average cost per passenger of about $2.50 for non-express rides in either zone. But Ritchie points out that the average cost for Zone 2 express routes is more than $5 per passenger. Meanwhile, urban routes, like the 71A Negley and 71D Hamilton, cost $1.50 and $1.67 per passenger, respectively, according to Ritchie.
CEO Bland acknowledges that Zone 2 riders will take a heavier hit. But if funding to make up for the budget gap doesn't come through, there will be few options, he notes.
"Is it fair? No. I've been standing up here for six months with this board saying it's not fair," says Bland. "But what part of 'there's a statewide transportation crisis' do people not understand?"
But Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District) takes exception to the revised fare schedule. At an Oct. 21 meeting of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, Wheatley refused to commit to advocating for more state funds for the agency unless the higher fares for express routes and the T are instituted. Even the 50-cent increase on Zone 2, he says, "doesn't really pay for the full cost of those rides."
"[Premiums] should be reinstated," he later told City Paper. "Every rider should pay for their fair share. It shouldn't be on the backs of Zone 1 or Zone 2 riders."
State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), who represents many Zone 2 communities, says he hasn't heard much pushback from constituents about new rates. And he notes that "without any other additional funding in sight at the moment, this is what they have to do."
"Fare hikes are one thing [PAT] needs to do to survive," Fontana says. "People understand that. They just want it to be reasonable."