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What's Fare is Fair

The way out of the Port Authority crisis? Higher T fares

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If you want to know how hard times are, consider this: Pittsburgh, whose leaders spent the 1990s trying to make a "24-hour city" with new stadiums and Downtown shopping, is on the brink of losing its bus service after sunset.

Thanks to dwindling state support and other fiscal challenges, the Port Authority is facing a $19 million deficit next year. So far, transit officials have proposed such measures as cutting evening and weekend bus service, raising fares, reducing the amount of time that transfers are valid - just about every self-defeating proposal possible, except maybe terminating the Monongahela Incline's downhill service.

Here's my solution for the Port Authority: Cover the deficit by raising the fare we charge for riding the city's light-rail transit system. Hiking T fares may be harsh, but it's about the fairest thing we can do.

The math is simple. Last year, according to Port Authority figures, the T carried 7.5 million riders to and from the city's South Hills. That means that we could plug the projected budget deficit for 2003-04 simply by hiking the cost of a T ride by about $2.50. That's all you'd need to do; no further hikes or cuts would be necessary.

Admittedly, a $2.50 increase is a lot of money - even for the affluent folks who climb aboard with a copy of the Wall Street Journal tucked under their arms. And of course, many T riders aren't especially affluent, and would find it hard to come up with the extra $25 a week, or $1,300 a year, that an increase would cost them.

Still, as a group T riders would be better equipped to handle such a hike than, say, the folks riding the 91A. And compared to the cost of parking in a Downtown garage - not to mention the gas and maintenance on your car - commuting by T would still be a pretty good deal. Besides, since T riders account for only about 10 percent of the Port Authority's total passenger load of 70 million riders a year, the hike would probably earn the support of 90 percent of the Port Authority's ridership ... a much higher percentage than any of the other solutions are likely to get. There's already a precedent for charging T riders extra: Unlike bus-bound commuters, riders who pay cash instead of flashing a bus pass during rush hour pay a surcharge of 50 cents.

But riding the T should cost more than riding the bus at all hours, and for all people, if only because riding the T is nicer than riding the bus.

Consider the commute home from Downtown Pittsburgh: While the bus rider cowers in wind and rain on a street corner, the T rider waits patiently in an underground station. The T rider can contemplate the station's terrazzo floors while listening to classical music piped into the waiting platforms; the bus rider is lucky if he's not standing in someone else's spittle. The only music he hears is the occasional deluded mutterings of a panhandler. (T riders are largely immune to such distractions, thanks to the regular police presence inside the stations.) The ride home will be crowded for both riders, but the T is largely unaffected by traffic tie-ups, and so a T rider will likely be home quicker than his hapless counterpart on the bus.

Yet the two commutes cost almost exactly the same. Which is odd, if you think about it: Practically no other transportation system works that way. Sedans cost more than subcompacts, and first-class seats on an airplane cost more than coach.

Unlike an airline or a car dealership, of course, public transit is supposed to be egalitarian. But that's becoming less and less true every day. Most of the deficit-cutting measures being considered will hurt low-income riders and evening-shift workers - indeed just about everyone except those rush-hour commuters on the T, who are already the luckiest transit riders of all. While third-shift workers try to figure out how to get to work, 9-to-5 T riders will be as sheltered from the budgetary climate as they are from the rain that falls on the bus stop.

The reason for that is simple: The T is always full at rush hour, whereas late-night buses serve only a handful of people. But the unfairness of the situation is just as easy to understand. If you've been on, say, the 51A at 10:30 p.m., you know that while the bus doesn't get a lot of riders, the riders it does get need that bus. If they had other options, most of them wouldn't be riding the 51A at 10:30 p.m. in the first place. In other words, the people who can least afford to give up their bus service are the most likely to lose it.

Ideally, of course, no one would have to lose their service or pay more to keep it. Ideally, Gov. Ed Rendell and the state legislature would find a way to increase state funding for mass transit, which is just one of many programs to be victimized by draconian cuts in this year's state budget.

Part of the Port Authority's problem is that many of the people it serves are working-class and lower-income people who have no political clout. Lots of bus-riders can't afford to buy a decent used car, let alone a state senator. The Republicans who run the state Legislature will find it easy to ignore the complaints of working-class transit riders in places like Pittsburgh or the Mon Valley; such residents typically vote Democrat anyway. But if the Port Authority raises the fares for affluent folks in the South Hills, it will suddenly find itself with a built-in lobbying group of affluent professionals - whose support Republicans do need.

The affluent are clearly much more successful than the poor at getting what they want from government, as President Bush's recent spate of tax cuts attests. And just imagine the protests they could stage. Instead of having a few indigent workers or people with disabilities plead for mercy in Harrisburg, where mercy is in short supply, we could put some octane into our demands. We could have the residents of the South Hills pull into Harrisburg all at once, in SUV after hulking SUV, jamming up the intersections and hogging every parking space in town - just as they'd be doing every day in Pittsburgh if transit cuts were not restored.

It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase "legislative gridlock," but it might keep the Port Authority, and Pittsburgh itself, moving forward.

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