Budget deficit threatens bus service

Madelyn Glymour Feb 13, 2012

This year, proposed Port Authority service cuts could affect many Carnegie Mellon students and others affiliated with the university. On Jan. 18, the Port Authority Planning and Development Committee introduced a fare increase and service reduction proposal, which would cut current service hours by 35 percent, effective Sept. 2. A fare increase, effective July 1, would accompany the service changes. The service changes have been proposed as a response to the Port Authority’s $64 million budget deficit.

The Port Authority has been cutting service for several years. According to Port Authority data, in 2010, bus services were cut by 15 percent and over 250 Port Authority employees were laid off due to budget shortfalls. In March 2011, the Port Authority scaled back services by another 15 percent, eliminating 29 routes and reducing service on another 37 routes. Bus fare has also been increased several times since 2001.

The steady decrease in available bus service has changed the way that Carnegie Mellon students travel. According to Lieutenant Joseph Meyers of the University Police, Carnegie Mellon shuttles and escort buses gave 40,000 more rides in 2011 than they did in 2009. Meyers, who oversees transportation for the University Police, said that he believes the increased ridership was due to the recently expanded reach of the shuttle routes, along with Port Authority cuts.

Meyers said that if additional routes were necessary for the Carnegie Mellon shuttles, they would be added, but only after more research and information was obtained about the Port Authority cuts. “My top priorities are safety and consistency, so all students can do what they need to do,” Meyers said.

The planned service reduction is not, however, a foregone conclusion. Announced route eliminations have been scaled back in the past. For instance, the 15 percent service reduction in 2007 was planned and announced as a 35 percent reduction. However, former Pennsylvania Governer Ed Rendell granted the Port Authority a one-time emergency fund of $45 million dollars. This money allowed the Port Authority to retain more routes. But the $45 million dollars has run out now, and the Port Authority once again faces major service cuts.

According to Heather Pharo, a Port Authority spokesperson, the Port Authority considers several factors when deciding how and where to reduce service. Among them, Pharo said, are ridership levels, the presence of other transportation options in the area, and operating costs.
But Pharo said that all areas would be affected by the proposed cuts. “There’s really no fat to trim in the route system,” Pharo said. “There are no easy decisions to make. While we are proposing the elimination of probably about half of our routes, there isn’t a single route that wouldn’t see a reduction.”

According to Pharo, one of the effects of the service reduction would be a severe drop in nighttime service. Only 12 routes would continue to run after 10 p.m. Among them would be the 61B and the 86.

In addition, Pharo said, the Port Authority would have to lay off several hundred employees.

Pharo said that the Port Authority has entered what is known in the mass transit industry as “the death spiral,” in which service must be reduced and fares must be raised in order to save money, which in turn reduces profits as ridership drops. She said that this is not a problem that the Port Authority can fix on its own. “We need something that’s a dedicated solution at the state level, and something that deals with inflation,” Pharo said.

Such a solution may take some time to come about. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s 2012–13 budget, which he released on Tuesday, does not address mass transportation. Carnegie Mellon’s Student Senate has created a petition against the Port Authority service cuts at www.stoppatcuts.com, which simultaneously sends emails to Corbett, the Pennsylvania State House transportation committee, and the signer’s district’s representative, urging them to support Pennsylvania House Bill 2112.

House Bill 2112 would fund mass transit using money from tolls gathered on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. A similar funding scheme was proposed in 2007 with Act 44, which would have turned Interstate 80 into a toll road, some of the proceeds from which would have gone to fund mass transit in Pennsylvania. Rendell, during his term, signed the bill into law.

However, the federal government rejected the application to toll Interstate 80, and in 2010, Act 44 mass transit funding was cut in half. According to Pharo, this funding cut led to the March 2011 service reduction.

While the state searches for a funding solution, Carnegie Mellon students worry about how they will get from one place to another.
“I rely heavily on the Port Authority system to get to and from work,” said Carrie Weintraub, a first-year information systems major. “If bus service were to be reduced, then I would not be able to have the job that I have now.”

Sophomore chemistry major Haylie Kim said that she feels that Pittsburgh’s bus service is already too sporadic.

“I feel as though the bus schedule is sometimes very unreliable,” Kim said. “There have been many instances in which I needed to get on the bus to go to an important meeting or an interview, and ended up having to wait for the bus that was said to come in five minutes for half an hour.” A substantial service reduction would make buses even rarer.

Weintraub also worried that a reduction in bus service would trap students on campus.

“The buses also allow students to get out and about in order to explore the city and get out of the ‘CMU Bubble,’ ” Weintraub said. “Without the buses, the extent to which students would get off campus would be Craig Street, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, and Oakland. That would be a real shame, since there are some real gems downtown and on the South Side.”

Pharo said that it is the Port Authority’s sincere hope that it will not have to reduce service. “Unfortunately, for a lot of the people who take these routes, there will be no options left,” Pharo said. “It’s been very difficult for us to come up with this. We want to have these routes in our system. They’re all vital.”