PA: PRT observers, officials say additional state funds should be used to maintain system

Feb. 12, 2024
If the proposed funding remains untouched, PRT officials and public transit advocates said it should be used to keep intact the system — one that serves over 100,000 riders every day.

Feb. 9—When Gov. Josh Shapiro unveiled his proposed budget for Pennsylvania earlier this week, Pittsburgh Regional Transit officials got some welcome news — the agency could receive roughly $40 million in additional funding this year.

That money may not show up. Lawmakers in Harrisburg will spend the coming weeks dissecting Mr. Shapiro's budget and ultimately determining if the governor's investments in public transportation — including for PRT — are approved.

If the proposed funding remains untouched, PRT officials and public transit advocates said it should be used to keep intact the system — one that serves over 100,000 riders every day.

Like other transit agencies across the country, PRT has navigated the challenges of major losses of ridership due to the coronavirus pandemic, and changing or cutting service as the organization tries to train and hire more bus operators. PRT officials announced in recent months that service would be cut by about 1.5% beginning Feb. 18, due to a shortage of bus drivers. They are also starting to look at a redesign of bus routes to reflect the changing demographics of the Pittsburgh region and where service is most needed.

The shortage of bus operators has been blamed on multiple factors — retirements and not large enough operator training classes to fill vacancies are a few. The agency lost dozens of bus operators in early 2022 due to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate — 75 employees were fired and 15 retired. Of those, 48 were bus operators.

Not long after, in June 2022, PRT officials cut service by about 4%. Pittsburgh Regional Transit CEO Katharine Kelleman said in April 2022 that missed trips had been at around 2%-3% since the pandemic's start because of missing drivers. Missed trips jumped to 18% at the start of vaccine enforcement on March 15, 2022.

The agency sets a goal of not exceeding 1.5% missed trips per day, but in recent months, that figure has sometimes been around 3%, according to officials.

PRT ended its vaccine mandate for employees on Aug. 31, 2023, after multiple legal battles between the union and some of its bus operators and the transit agency.

Ross Nicotero, president for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, the union for local transit workers, was critical of the vaccine mandate. He announced in a letter to union members in August of last year that all employees terminated because of the mandate would have a chance to return to work for PRT. Ms. Kelleman also said at last month's PRT board meeting that this year, officials aim to train 300 people as bus operators or in other areas of operation within the agency.

The agency's operating budget has increased from about $461.9 million to $535.4 million in the past five years. The state share decreased from $274.7 million to $258.2 million between fiscal years 2020 and 2021, around the start of the pandemic. It has steadily increased to $294.6 million in the current budget.

Mr. Shapiro's proposed investment of nearly $40 million more for PRT would signify a bigger bump than in the previous five years — the largest increase was a $20 million increase from fiscal years 2022 to 2023. In his budget address Tuesday, the governor also highlighted a proposed increase of investment of $161 million for SEPTA, bringing the state share of funds for the Philadelphia transit agency to around $1 billion. And he wants to increase funding for LANTA in Lehigh and Northampton counties by $6 million.

"Nearly 1 million Pennsylvanians rely on public transit every single day. Major employers count on trains, buses, and trolleys to get their employees to and from the office ... Public transit provides freedom and opportunity. It makes us competitive and helps us sell our commonwealth to others," the governor said in his budget address.

Adam Brandolph, a spokesman for Pittsburgh Regional Transit, said that if the $40 million in additional funds survives the budget process in Harrisburg, it would be used for operating expenses. That could be anything from paying for bus operators, fuel for buses, maintenance on buses and trains and other day-to-day expenses. PRT officials are happy about the proposal, but don't want to speculate on how it might be spent until the state budget process is finalized, he said.

If the money does remain untouched, Alisa Grishman — an advocate for those with disabilities and founder of Access Mob Pittsburgh, an organization that focuses on improving services for those residents — said at least part of it needs to be used to train and hire more bus drivers.

Ms. Grishman said that would help increase frequency, especially on some of the routes with fewer buses running. If more buses run on a reliable schedule, that would increase ridership, she said.

Ms. Grishman, who uses a wheelchair, said there also needs to be more focus on paratransit, in order to help those with disabilities get where they need to go. "Right now, there's a huge, huge gap in paratransit, and available drivers and available vehicles," she said.

One of the PRT board members, John Tague, who also uses a motorized wheelchair, said PRT is currently looking at a redesign of all of its bus routes, which could impact how the funds would be used. PRT staff, led by Ms. Kelleman, will help advise the PRT board on how money would be spent, he said.

Hiring more drivers is important, but it's also vital to hire enough mechanics to keep buses running, Mr. Tague said. Reliability and safety across buses and the light rail trains is vital, he said.

"I just want to make sure we maintain our existing system," Mr. Tague said.

No matter what happens in the coming months, the prospect of the roughly $40 million increase in the state subsidy to Pittsburgh Regional Transit is good, said Sen. Jim Brewster, D- Allegheny and a member of the PRT board.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, ridership and revenue have been down, Mr. Brewster said. Routes have had to be adjusted and service areas evaluated as the agency tries to make the best use of resources at hand, he said.

Beyond that, he said, the demands of keeping the Monongahela Incline operational are unique — some parts, he said, are hard to find. PRT also is looking at the potential use of electric buses.

"You have got to deal with day-to-day issues" in running a transit agency, Mr. Brewster said. "But you have got to have a vision about what we are going to look like five to 10 years from now. In my opinion, some of this money would be used on strategy."

Staff writer Ford Turner contributed to this article.

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