For the first time in years, the conversation about Port Authority's future is no longer about service reductions or fare hikes — it's about what kind of public-transportation system the region should have and how to get there in the next few decades.
And this week, the authority is tapping experts from around the country — as well as members of the general public — to begin formulating that vision.
"We've had so much service to communities reduced over the years due to the funding issue we've experienced," says Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie. "This is the moment to decide, ‘Where do we want to go as a region?'"
Port Authority kicked off two different efforts at answering that question this week. One involves inviting nine experts from around the country, with backgrounds ranging from transit to architecture, to tour the system and meet with dozens of community groups to formulate a set of recommendations, which will be publicly released May 16. The other involves launching a web platform to ask the public what kind of transit system it wants.
The advisory panel of experts is expected to look at transit-oriented development potential in the region, the possibility of public-private partnerships, and more specific projects like Bus Rapid Transit and light rail. That process is organized through the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which is charging $125,000 for the process (funded partially by the Heinz Endowments, Allegheny Conference and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership).
During the week, though, the ULI advisory panel will not meet with members of the general public, which has raised some eyebrows among rider advocates. They will address rider concerns only by meeting with organizations like Pittsburghers for Public Transit and the Allegheny Transit Council.
For David Leininger, chair of the ULI advisory panel as well as vice president and chief financial officer for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, public input "really deserves its own process that I would expect once the [ULI] report is provided. What's being provided is a set of views from people who don't have a bias."
Separate from the ULI advisory panel and its recommendations, the Port Authority launched a "MindMixer" website to explicitly solicit input from the general public. It will be monitored by Port Authority senior management (including CEO Ellen McLean) as well as some Port Authority board members and politicians, according to Ritchie.
"I really am looking to see if there are any good suggestions there that people have," Port Authority board member John Tague says of the website. He adds that he is planning to check the site regularly and chime in to ask questions or offer responses.
The site, which cost the authority $10,000 for a year-long subscription, essentially works like a discussion board, where anyone can answer questions posed by Port Authority or anyone else on the site. The first batch of questions range from "What is your vision of a modern public transit system for Allegheny County?" to "What discourages people from riding the Port Authority system?"
For transit advocates like Breen Masciotra, ULI and MindMixer are positive signs the Port Authority is being proactive in setting a long-term agenda. What remains to be seen is how effectively that feedback will be incorporated.
"A lot of the projects [like the North Shore Connector] have been one-off ... and the project isn't generated with a lot of community input," says Masciotra, regional outreach manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. "And that hasn't always worked out in the court of public opinion."
Molly Nichols chalks up Port Authority's historic lack of collective decision-making to its funding situation. Before the legislature passed Act 89 late last year, providing more state funding for transit by upping fees and a wholesale gasoline tax, "the money just wasn't there," says Nichols. "It didn't matter how many people came in and said, ‘You can't cut my bus.'"
Nichols, community organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit, is generally supportive of Port Authority's approach to ULI and MindMixer, but stresses that even if the current conversation revolves around long-term planning, there are still short-term issues — the result of cutting service to the bone — that need to be addressed.
"People in Penn Hills can't take the bus to get food from the food pantry," she says. "These are immediate needs."