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Riders Unrewarded

Popularity can't protect the Port Authority's biggest routes from cuts

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To ride the length of the 61C is to experience a National Geographic tour of Pittsburgh. After leaving Downtown for the slow stew of Oakland, it races pedestrians down Squirrel Hill's Murray Avenue, past the eponymous coffee shop, chugging finally across the Monongahela at Homestead and following the river to McKeesport. The 61C is ridden loyally by both the city's most privileged and its most downtrodden. The Mellon-dwelling banker from Squirrel Hill may never visit McKeesport, where his building's janitor lives, but there they are on the same bus.

 

 

What's more, this claustrophobia-inducing, gut-jostling bus is likely as near-perfect a "market success" as you could hope for. With 10,075 people riding on an average weekday, it's the Port Authority's top performer. By grinding away seemingly three yards at a time, the 61C is "The Bus" of the Port Authority's offense: not flashy, but very effective.

 

Yet the Port Authority's funding crisis will take its toll on the 61C and other busy routes (see box) as if they were under-used.

 

Lately, we've been hearing a lot of talk about making sure that the Port Authority is operating efficiently. Rural Harrisburg Republicans and conservative think-tank The Allegheny Institute have suggested the system would do better if portions were privatized. Never mind that the failure of private transit systems in 1964 helped create the Port Authority in the first place.

 

It's true that anyone who looks at these busy routes would flag them as candidates for success on the open market. These routes probably even have growth potential, since their ridership went up when the agency was able in 2001 to add extra late-night trips (now gone again). Most of the neighborhoods these routes serve have the mass necessary to make mass transit work, a quality that also makes parking scarce and cars a hassle. A little more convenience from transit would likely drum up more riders.

 

Instead, if threatened cuts occur in March and July, all of these busy routes will lose weekday trips. Most will also see their Saturday timetables replaced with thinner Sunday schedules. Waits will go from five minutes to 10 or even 15 minutes during peak hours, worse in the evening.

 

"The important thing is that people can still make the trip," Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove says wearily. Taking a little bit from everyone, Grove explains, was the alternative to losing all bus service on weekends or evenings.

 

But every delay and lost trip means riders have to plan more. A trip that would get you somewhere right on time now arrives 10 minutes late or 20 minutes early. Miss a bus and you're screwed -- or at least stressed.

 

We're told to count ourselves lucky. Losing that one early morning or evening trip on the 71A will inconvenience a few dozen people every day. Yet I suppose it's better than wholly cutting off people dependent on a more remote route.

 

Still, we on the busy proletariat buses like to cook up conspiracy theories: Aren't our jacked-up fares subsidizing all those suburban "flyers" that have the reading lights and seat headrests?

 

By press time, the Port Authority wasn't able to calculate its profit or loss per route. The agency doesn't see its routes as product lines: It doesn't plan to make a killing on fountain pop while settling for a slimmer profit margin on giant fish sandwiches.

 

"The reality is, we're here to run a system, not make money," Grove says. Farebox income accounts for only one-third of the agency's revenue. Even if it could add service to, say, the 51C-Carrick, it'd be just that: better government service, not a business plan. On the other hand, axing far-flung bus lines while preserving popular routes doesn't take a system-wide view: A nurse who commutes daily to Presby on the 71A still might need to visit her aunt in Aliquippa.

 

There might be excess in the Port Authority system. Look at administrators' pensions, some say: They're getting the equivalent of gold Rolexes for their years of service. But free-market zealots and Harrisburg legislators need to get on the bus themselves. Then they'll see that, at this point, too many more cuts will leave the system bleeding.


 

Port Authority's Top 10
Average weekday ridership in September 2004:

61C Homestead-McKeesport: 10,075

71A Negley: 9,744

51C Carrick: 9,063

500 Highland Park-Bellevue: 7,754

86B Frankstown: 6,632

54C North Side-Oakland-South Side: 6,468

81B Lincoln: 5,661

EBA East Busway All Stops: 5,637 (11,809 when other EB routes are added)

 71C Ellsworth-Wilkinsburg: 5,596

71D Hamilton: 5,380

 

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