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Why is the Port Authority failing?

Question submitted by: Moshe Zvi Marvit, Oakland

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You'll get a different answer from just about everybody you ask, but here's mine. If by "failing," you mean our mass transit system can't pay for its operations, the answer is simple: The Port Authority is failing because that's what it was designed to do.

 

To begin with, let's take a zone-three trip back in time to the early 1960s. In those days, nearly three dozen private companies provided trolley and bus service. All of them were failing too. Trolley operator Pittsburgh Railways, for example, was as familiar with bankruptcy as US Air is today.

 

According to a 1961 Post-Gazette series about the perils of mass transit, during the 1950s bus ridership had dropped by nearly one-fifth. For the remaining riders, the P-G noted, going by bus or rail meant "[e]ver-increasing fares and ever-decreasing service." Going by bus meant "the discomfort of being jammed into overcrowded buses during rush hours," and dealing with "inadequacy, infrequency and unreliability" at every other time.

 

To solve these problems, the Port Authority bought out Pittsburgh transit companies -- buses, trolleys, even some inclines -- in 1964. But you can hear the same complaints today.

 

The thing is, mass transit faces the same problems no matter who runs the system. As the Port Authority's official history notes, because of "[t]he suburban housing and shopping center boom" of the postwar years, bus service had to extend "to areas which had been sparsely populated and rural in character." In its first year of operation, Port Authority buses traveled a combined 30 million miles; a decade later, they were traveling 40 million miles each year, as they still do today. And those buses have been traveling farther to carry fewer riders: The region has been losing population for decades, especially in and around the city.

 

Today, the Port Authority is facing a $30 million deficit. And ironically, some critics assume it can solve the problem by turning to private business -- even though the failure of private business is exactly what created the Port Authority. For example, the Allegheny Institute of Public Policy recommends that transit officials should "look at allowing private firms to carry passengers," especially with smaller vehicles and cheaper drivers on little-used routes. The Port Authority suffers from inflated labor costs, the Institute contends, which drives the cost for each passenger trip to $2.59, a rate the Institute says is the sixth highest of 22 systems it studied.

 

I've often suggested that the Allegheny Institute itself ought to be riding the short bus, but they've got some valid points here. On many late nights, I've shared full-sized buses with only two other passengers. And if US Air has to cut labor costs to continue providing transportation, the Port Authority will probably have to as well.

 

But if you ask me -- and you did -- there's only so much efficiency you can bring to transit, because transit is inherently efficient. It has to carry people who can't use cars through a landscape designed for the automobile. It sometimes has to carry them at strange hours, so they can do things like work in suburban malls on weekends and evenings. The cost of transit can't be borne by those riders alone: The Port Authority has explored fare increases that would be the highest in the country -- and even that wouldn't raise enough money.

 

 That's why the Port Authority is seeking what transit systems in other states have: a "dedicated, predictable and growing source of revenue," as Port Authority director Paul Skoutelas put it in December. Other transit systems have cheaper fares not necessarily because they are run better, but because they get regular tax subsidies from the state. Mass transit only seems to work if people who don't have to use it help pay for those who do. 

 

Hence the problem in Pennsylvania, which has famously been described as Pittsburgh on one side, Philadelphia on the other ... and Alabama in between. Many rural legislators in Harrisburg have been shy about directing tax dollars to the state's two big urban transit systems, unless they can get money for their districts too. At last report, Gov. Ed Rendell and state Republicans are not even close to a deal. 

 

The real failure, in other words, may not be that of the Port Authority. It may be a failure of imagination and political will.

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