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Riding It Out With Fred Mergner

Memorizing every bus route has come easy to Port Authority prodigy Fred Mergner. What won't be easy, if looming cuts to the system go through, is for Mergner to forget.

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Bob Grove, the Port Authority's spokesperson and the general public's answer man for all things PAT, needed help. The person who was working to certify the city's new convention center as a "green" (or environmentally friendly) building had called him with what seemed at first like a silly question: Were there any transit connections within a quarter-mile the convention center? The center could get extra points toward its Green Building designation if there were. "Yeah, lots," Grove had replied. But then came the follow-up: Could he list them, please? This was a job for Fred Mergner.

Grove headed over to Mergner's cubicle in the Port Authority's operations department. After pulling up a map of Downtown on his computer and drawing a quarter-mile radius around the convention center -- but without looking at any bus schedules -- "Fred pulls out a piece of paper [and writes], '1A, 1B. &' Within a half-minute, I got a list of 113 bus stops within a quarter-mile. Literally, I watched him," Grove testifies.

"Another day, I went over to his desk," he continues, "'How do you know what number a new route is supposed to have?' Somebody says, 'Oh, you didn't ask Fred about numbering! You better sit down!' So I did." Mergner explained that the numbers start on the north bank of the Allegheny River and move counterclockwise around the city, ending with the 91s on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Bus route numbers that end in 1, 6 or 7 serve main roads to Downtown; routes ending in 7 used to cost more, because they traveled on faster roads, like Bigelow Boulevard. Routes ending in 3 or 8 are the express versions of the 1, 6 and 7 routes; for example, 63s are express versions of 61s. Routes ending in 4 and 9 don't go Downtown, and routes ending in 0 or 5 radiate from mini-hubs, like McKeesport. "He drew it all out. I still have that piece of paper.

"Typically, [when you ask him a question] it's not, 'Let me look it up' -- he just knows off the top of his head," Grove says. "People will call up, 'Why does the 51C not stop here?' And he'll say, 'We weren't getting the ridership, but years ago &' He'll give you a whole history of the route. He's like an encyclopedia. He's not some guy in a tie who's never ridden the routes."

***

In the mid-1970s, Fred Mergner -- then a skinny teenager from Penn Hills -- was likely gazing out the window of a city bus when he discovered his passion. From this passion grew a dream that he would pursue for over a decade.

Fred Mergner's dream was to work for the Port Authority.

"I discovered that when I was 15 or 16. It's not that I love buses," he explains, "it's the system. There's a system that exists that I can alter and improve."

Mergner doesn't remember the exact moment when this desire crystallized, or when he could finally put a name to it. Nor does he remember exactly where he was. He could've been on the 77B-Penn Hills, the bus route that served as his lifeline to Pittsburgh.

If not the 77B, he may have been on some other line. "The Port Authority had this great thing," he remembers, "where you could ride all weekend for a dollar. I'd go out and ride around and discover the city." From Downtown, he would hop on whatever bus struck his fancy and see where it went.

The charms of the city were luring him away from the bland acres of split-levels, and it wasn't long before the busy, complicated city started to feel more like home, anyway: "I discovered I liked an urban area better than a suburban arena," he says. "I became an urbanite."

It didn't take him long to master the entire system, down to memorizing the Downtown traffic signals. Even more than the buses, Mergner fell for trolleys, whose demise was fated by the time he became a steady passenger in the 1970s. So he might have come to his decision while holed up in one of the sleek, 1930s-style streetcars that at one time rattled through almost all of Pittsburgh and its suburbs.

Even in the best of times, it's not easy to care for public transit. A lot of people don't understand what he sees in it -- not even the people who fund it.

In recent years, the budget crunches imposed on the Port Authority by the Pennsylvania legislature have slowly chipped away at a once-comprehensive Pittsburgh transit system. This year's financial shortfalls, due to a loss of state funding, could be the worst ever, possibly causing unprecedented damage to the system. Some of the proposals to force the books into order include eliminating service after 9 p.m., eliminating Sunday service, cutting Saturday service to Sunday levels, scaling back or even killing some routes and, on top of all that, raising fares.

Mergner knows the city's mass transit by heart, but lately it seems like there's less and less of it to know. For him, it's easy to remember so much; the hard part might be all that he'll have to forget.

When Mergner was a kid, his two-years-younger sister Sherry Mergner Hrynewych recalls, he had already begun to show an interest. "Ricky always had a love for transportation," she says, calling her brother by his family's nickname for him, "and for anything related to transit. As soon as he could pick up a pencil I swear he was drawing maps. I remember him loving maps, bridges ... and loving Pittsburgh."

Mergner's devotion to transit really began to blossom when he returned to Penn Hills at age 15 to live with his mother and sister, after spending three years with his father, an Army officer then stationed in the Panama Canal Zone.

Upon his return, his sister says, Mergner found that he didn't really have much in common with other Penn Hills kids. "He'd had some really good connections in Panama with the kids" on the Army base, she says. "I think because he was gone during the most significant part of his adolescence, when he came back he didn't really connect. Rick's not a suburban kid, suburbia's not where he should've been raised. Going to Panama was probably the best thing that happened to him, even though it was hard for me to have him gone." (Today, they're separated again; Hrynewych, a clinical social worker, lives in North Carolina with her young family.)

Mergner recalls that his mom encouraged him to get a job at Three Rivers Stadium and the Civic Arena. He wasn't much of a sports fan -- more important for Mergner than free admission to the Steelers and Pirates was the excuse to take all those bus rides -- his loyal 77B, of course, and the many, many others that would follow.

He still remembers the 77B's weekend schedules from the '70s: "Only every two hours, 4:40 and 6:40." In fact, he was so transfixed by the bus system that he created, by hand, a copy of a bus schedule using a typewriter, adding a hand-colored PAT logo.

Mergner's journeys provided new material for another project: The Map. Fred Mergner's map is one of the strange yet awesome secret wonders of Pittsburgh. From the time he was 12 or 13 until he was about 20, Mergner meticulously and prolifically drew an imagined city, much of it based on Pittsburgh. Little streets, big streets, residential, shopping, railroads and factories, most of it on an old-city grid, interspersed with parks and larger roads. Not surprisingly, Mergner's map features extensive bus and streetcar lines. "Believe it or not, I even mimicked suburbia," he notes, pointing out some sprawled-out malls and cul-de-sacs.

One small part made its first public appearance this spring at Lawrenceville's Art All Night -- and even that small section took up a four-by-six foot piece of plywood. Mergner originally drew it on two huge accordion-folded stacks of late-1970s green-and-white-striped dot-matrix computer paper. The Map is 30 inches wide -- two tiers of 15 inch-wide computer paper. And it's 100 feet long. That's two-thirds of a football field -- 200 feet -- if you placed each layer end-to-end.

The Map is no utopia: "I was just imitating what I saw," he says. After drawing this elaborate creation, he imitated something else -- the destruction of cities by new urban freeways, which Mergner now decries. At this point, Mergner literally erased blocks and blocks of carefully drafted streets and neighborhoods, drawing mega-highways in their place.

On some of Mergner's teen-age transit excursions, his kid sister Sherry volunteered as sidekick. "He would tell me where the roads had been changed and where the trolley tracks used to lie," she says. "He knew about all the passes, all the transfers. ... As a young person, it freed me up, my mother was a bit fearful of me driving, but I could go up and catch the bus."

But were the kids falling in love with Pittsburgh? For Mergner, it wasn't exactly that; he didn't go crazy for the most bewitching neighborhood as seen through a bus window. Instead, "I actually liked riding the Mount Lebanon streetcar line the best. It wasn't really to learn about the neighborhoods so much as to learn about the routes," he says.

And they went everywhere, Sherry remembers. "We'd go Downtown and we'd be on Liberty Avenue a lot; my mom was nervous about Liberty Avenue," which was a red-light district at the time.

"We'd take pictures of roads, bridges, trolleys," she continues, "and he'd even draw pictures of trolleys. I know there's pictures of me standing in the middle of a road. I'm in the picture, but I know he really wanted pictures of the road!"

"I always like to put a person in," Mergner agrees. But there was one exception: "Streetcars look good on their own."

***

The city buses may have taken young Ricky and Sherry to interesting places, but Pittsburgh's doomed streetcars fascinated Mergner for their own sake.

"I would go out on buses and look for remnants of the old streetcar lines. There were vast stretches of lines that were still there. Even in potholes, you would see a stretch of rail!" Before long, he had figured out and memorized Pittsburgh's streetcar system circa 1950.

"Mike Levine used to be a KDKA announcer and he had a talk show," Hrynewych recalls. "Mike was talking about the buses, and Ricky wanted me to call in about the trolleys. I kept saying [to Levine], 'Trolleys don't cause pollution!' And Mike says, 'Where would we be without the smell of our buses!' [Ricky] didn't want to see the trolleys go, he was really sad. But he supported the new times."

Mergner still keeps a photo album from those days. The self-stick adhesive has turned golden-brown with age, and under the plastic, young Fred had affixed dozens of three-inch square Instamatic prints of Pittsburgh streetcars. "At first I tried to get every serial number, but then I settled for one of every route," he says. The pictures themselves are straightforward but well composed -- he knew not to stand too far away or stick his subject in dead center. It looks as if the photographer's gaze is affectionate, or admiring -- then again, maybe the pictures have just grown golden and blurry with age. As for the streetcars, they gaze back with wide-open windshield eyes.

Just as Mergner was committing to memory -- and paper, and film -- the city's changing mass transit, his social world was shifting, too. "I hated school. My social life was the stadium and the arena; my job was a release valve. I met kids from the city. They dressed differently, they had a big blackjack game going on! They were more worldly, I guess."

Being a smart kid, he was able to do fine in school with minimal effort, then escape back to the city and the world he'd created there. By spring of his senior year, he got an apartment on South Atlantic in what's now called Friendship; at the time, he notes, it was a "trash heap" of landlord neglect, not the restoration-mad enclave it is today. He could still catch his 77B on nearby Baum Boulevard out to school in Penn Hills, then head back to the city in the afternoon.

"I'd discovered the place I liked best," Mergner says, "and I'm always afraid they're going to turn the city into the place I didn't choose."

As soon as he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1981, he applied to the transit agency's management trainee program. From his piles of transit memorabilia, Mergner pulls out this first rejection letter. Although the letter said "We are always interested in hearing from individuals interested in public transit," it went on to say that the money for that program had been eliminated.

As Mergner recalls, Port Authority officials told him he could reapply in six months. He did. Because openings were scarce, he continued to apply for six years. In the meantime, he worked at Giant Eagle and as a bartender in a Downtown club.

Mergner insists that he was never really discouraged. "I was getting along OK, doing odd jobs, but I never lost sight of that goal."

"He continually pursued it," Sherry recalls. "I don't ever remember any other career path. We always sort of believed he would get in someday, somehow. He'd taken drafting, and some of us might encourage him to do some drafting, but it wasn't his passion. He could've probably made a career out of that, architecture or something like that -- but he just always wanted to work for the Port Authority."

Finally, Mergner decided that it would be easier to get on as a bus driver. Even that application process took two years. But, at last, in 1987, he was hired.

Finally, Mergner was inside the system he'd always studied. He was a captain of the buses, guiding the vehicles that had served as a cocoon for him as a teenager -- transporting and even transforming him from a suburban kid to an independent man of the streets. First he drove the routes based in the Port Authority's Ross garage, then the East Liberty garage.

"When you're new, you always work late, 3 p.m.-12 a.m. I spent a lot of Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights on the 11D Perrysville," he relates. "In my last six months, I worked a split shift, morning and afternoon rush hours," going home to grab a couple hours' sleep between them.

In those days, Mergner was living in East Liberty on Hays Street. Noel Ioli was his neighbor, and they became friends. "When I met him, he'd first started for PAT as a driver," she recalls. "He was so anxious about it, he wanted to do good. I didn't know it was a lifelong dream of his. He didn't really want to be a driver [forever], but he knew that was the way to start."

After driving for three years, Mergner moved over to the Port Authority's customer service department -- the people that dispense bus advice and directions over the phone. This job had two advantages over driving, as Mergner saw it. First, it would help him get the whole system down pat (so to speak). More importantly, "I decided, 'Well, I need to get down to Manchester where company offices are' ... to be closer to the people who were closer to the job I wanted."

"He even took a pay cut to do that," notes Sherry. "But Ricky was always really good at saving money."

Soon enough Mergner got his big chance: an opening in the Port Authority's planning department, where he mainly worked to help the agency meet the new requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. He pulls out one of his accomplishments there: A charming picture book he helped produce -- after getting the higher-ups to OK money for an artist -- to present the otherwise dry, legalistic regulations to the drivers and other front-line staff.

At last, in 1994, Mergner got the job he'd always wanted, working in operations. In his current post, Mergner is finally able to craft routes, figure out the timing of buses and trolleys, supervise the production of schedules, promote public transit to the community and any of a dozen other sundry things. "I figured it out when I was in high school, then when I was 35 I finally got the job. I would say it took 20 years to get the job," he says. "Which is kind of the moral of the story. Things don't just drop in your lap. People complain, 'You can't do anything here [in Pittsburgh].' They want everything now. You have to persevere a little bit."

Peering down on him from his cubicle partition are framed pictures of Mergner as a driver -- he looks very Breakfast Club, with a little late-'80s flop to his bangs -- and another with his customer-service headset. Both are backed by his homemade collages of bus schedules; other scrapbook-worthy memorabilia peer down on him in his cubicle.

Like a bus that winds through the neighborhoods before cruising Downtown, Mergner thinks he's better off for his somewhat circuitous route, especially his stint behind the bus wheel. "I'm very pleased I did that. Even now, every now and then, I wish I could go out for a spin and pick up some people.

"But of course," he adds, perhaps wistfully, "I can't."

After almost 10 years in his current job, Mergner's affection for transit hasn't waned much. He doesn't hop random buses for joy rides anymore. But even now, he says, "I do like it when I have a place to go where I can take a bus that I don't normally ride.

"Someone I know in Greenfield was having a party, and I was like 'Yeah! I can take the 64A!' [from South Negley in Friendship to Greenfield]. It was fun, because there were some women who were all dressed up and they were going to dinner at the Waterfront -- where we had recently extended the route -- and they were talking about what they were going to be eating, and really enjoying taking the bus to go out."

As a "supervisor of service planning and rider information" (his current title) Mergner and his co-workers in charge of figuring out how many buses are needed to meet demand at any particular time of the day; what times they need to run to remain steadily staggered and not pile up; whether timepoints at bus stops are accurate; how the buses ought to loop through Downtown and other congested areas; and just about anything else that has to do with keeping service running smoothly.

If his knowledge of the transit system was meticulous before, he now can literally influence the system's every move -- and every stop. And in the last few years, there'd been a lot to be happy about at the Port Authority. Ridership had increased steadily throughout the late 1990s. Innovations like the 28X Airport express bus, the construction of the West Busway and the planned (and now completed) extension of the East Busway made Pittsburgh transit seem a least a little more cosmopolitan.

But while the 28X has been hugely successful, and the Port Authority can hardly save money now by undoing major construction projects like the busways, other recent improvements have been squashed or jeopardized by two years of state funding cuts, with another, worse round threatened this year.

Pat Clark, a member of the amorphously youthful, artsy and urbanist group Ground Zero, first met Mergner in 2000 when the Zeroes were pitching their idea for the Ultra Violet Loop -- a bus connecting nighttime entertainment destinations like South Side, Oakland and the Strip -- to the Port Authority, along with a slew of other suggestions. They met with Mergner and "a whole bunch of bureaucrats -- but they had snacks for us, and they were thrilled to talk about transit. & I don't think that happened very often," Clark recalls.

"[Fred] became curious about who we were and he talked to me offline about some of his opinions about Downtown that he couldn't espouse as a Port Authority employee." At the time, Clark and others had just begun to meet on Thursdays at the Chart Room bar Downtown, a sociable protest of the now-abandoned Marketplace at Fifth and Forbes urban-redevelopment proposal, which might have replaced the Chart Room with, ironically, a yuppie-oriented chain bar.

***

One of the ideas that the Zeroes discussed with the Port Authority was combining information for all the routes that served close-in neighborhoods like Oakland, the Strip and the South Side into consolidated, easy-to-read schedules, eventually called Way To Go guides. "He put together those brochures," Clark recalls, "and he came down to the Chart Room, and he was totally geeked about it. He was so thrilled that every time another one came out, he'd come down to the Chart Room again." (Mergner carries another similar schedule in his back pocket. This one combines all the bus routes that go near his home in Bloomfield -- he's even noted which 54C trips go through Polish Hill, in case he wants to swing by Gooski's.)

At the time, Mergner was also spreading the word among the Chart Room crowd about the new 24-hour bus service on major routes like the 71A Negley and 51C Carrick. In practice, this added just a few more trips to each of these, so that there'd be a bus at 2 a.m., another at 3, 4 and 5 o'clock, until regular morning service began again. "You hear all the time the notion of a 24-hour city," he says. "For that you need 24-hour transportation." Sadly, round-the-clock service vanished practically overnight. "After 19 years, we finally got it back for 15 months," he laments.

As Noel Ioli recalls, "He fought so hard to get [buses] all night. But there are people who work odd hours, and people [that], when the bars close, you'd rather have them on the bus than in a car. When the funding was cut, that hurt him personally. It just broke his heart.

"It had seemed like Pittsburgh was starting to be a grown-up city," she adds. "It does affect how people see Pittsburgh. [Port Authority] had a little extra funding, but who knew [the state] would rip it out from under them."

"That's the biggest tragedy," Clark says. "The people who should be in charge of public transit in this state are so micro-focused on cars and concrete; they have highways planned for 30 years and they don't even have transit funding for 30 days.

"Fred's an innovator, and when we had ideas, they [at Port Authority] were ready to do them. But instead of being able to innovate, they have to spend their time destroying the system.

"It's not unusual to hear we have great transit here, that we have high per-capita ridership. But it's getting less so every year. We're going from exemplary to being dysfunctional."

Even without the latest rounds of cuts, some damage has already been done. "What I did when I was a kid, going down to work at the stadium, because of the funding cuts, now 9:40 p.m. is the last trip [on the 77B]," Mergner points out. "When I was a kid, the last trip was 12:25. Now, the last bus would be gone before the game's over. The 11:10 was the one I usually took. So some kid out there couldn't do it. It wouldn't possible unless you drive, and then you'd have to spend everything on a car. ...

"And then there'd be no money to spend on [colored] pencils for my map," he jokes.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Mergner was tidying up his office; soon he'd be headed home on one of the Friendship 77s, which happen to stop right outside his building. Two weeks earlier, the Port Authority board of directors had announced that it would hold off on the dreaded service cuts and fare hikes, a clear leap of faith that the state legislature might re-appropriate some of the transit agency's funding -- but one that could put the Port Authority in a worse position if the money doesn't come through. Currently, legislators from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- including representatives Don Walko (D-North Side) and Joe Markosek (D-Monroeville) -- have proposed at least five different bills that would help, if not cure, the funding crunch. None have yet been debated on the floor. Although Gov. Ed Rendell has hinted that he might use some new federal funds to assist transit, he's made no promises.

Mergner looks up from his computer. "I was just looking at ways we could tweak a couple routes and save some money," he says. Twenty-four hour service is gone -- and with threatened cuts after 9 p.m., the buses could be going to bed earlier than most 10-year-olds. The UV Loop might also dry up, even though most of its funding comes from private -- not Port Authority -- sources, turning a new, full-color schedule that Mergner developed into yet more transit memorabilia.

The vision for perhaps Mergner's most innovative idea -- which has never come up for serious public consideration -- hangs near his desk: A radical, yet simplified plan for night bus service. The plan would consolidate routes' Downtown loops (not a problem at night, when traffic is light), so that all the buses headed in the same general direction would use the same stops, allowing passengers to wait for several bus options at once. The buses would also layover in Downtown, giving passengers a longer window of opportunity to catch the buses and to wait safe and warm inside during cold weather.

Would he want to run the Port Authority? "Oh, no," he says, a little embarrassed. "I want to work on this stuff. That's lobbying, working on budgets. I'm more interested in which way the bus goes."

He also insists that he's not discouraged by the threatened cuts: "I'm actually optimistic. I think the decision-makers realize it's something important."

And if he ever really did leave? "I'd try to get a job at MUNI [light rail] in San Francisco. They have a great system," he says. On vacation, he was so impressed with their transit that he all but memorized it, right down to the pickup times.

But he'd rather not go. "Staying in Pittsburgh was a decision I made in high school. I only looked into going to Pitt or Duquesne, and I only wanted to go to Pitt. I think about leaving, but it's a cool city. I just like it." Even his affection for Pittsburgh is expressed in terms of geography: "I'd never want to live in a flat city, and even though San Francisco has hills, it's a grid."

"He's totally committed to believing in the transit system," his friend Noel says, "to believing in the city we can be. He gets down, but he realizes you just have to ride it out."

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