Campus seeks solutions to Pittsburgh transit troubles

Ryan Wolfe, the director of Campus Services, presents information about Carnegie Mellon’s bus usage. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Ryan Wolfe, the director of Campus Services, presents information about Carnegie Mellon’s bus usage. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor Credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor Credit: Greg Hanneman/Contributing Editor Credit: Greg Hanneman/Contributing Editor

Around 60 members of the university community met last Tuesday afternoon to discuss Carnegie Mellon’s options amid a state funding crisis that has the Port Authority of Allegheny County proposing a cut of 35 percent of its bus and light rail service.

Ryan Wolfe, Carnegie Mellon’s director of Campus Services, led an hour-long town hall meeting in the University Center’s Danforth Lounge to inform attendees about the proposed cuts and to answer questions about how the university could compensate for a reduction in bus service.
Wolfe presented an analysis of Carnegie Mellon’s use of the Port Authority system and how it would be impacted by planned route cuts. In the six months from July to December 2011, students, faculty, and staff have taken around 900,000 rides on 100 different routes. Nearly 90 percent of the ridership is concentrated in the 20 routes most frequently used by members of the university.

Among the top routes, the Port Authority has scheduled the 64, 69, and 58 for elimination in September. Another, the 28X, would stop at Robinson Town Center and no longer serve the airport. The buses most frequently used by Carnegie Mellon riders, the 61 and 71 series, would continue to exist with service reductions. Of these, only the 61B, 71A, and 71D would continue to operate after 10 p.m.

At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion of Carnegie Mellon’s response to the proposed transit cuts fell into three areas: direct talks with the Port Authority, possible lobbying of the state government in Harrisburg, and enhancing the university’s shuttle and Escort routes. Many of the audience questions concerned shuttle expansions, but Wolfe cautioned that a university-run service would be much smaller and more focused toward campus than the public buses.

“We’re not even in a position to replicate the top 20 routes ... with our own shuttle and Escort system,” he said. Still, he said it would be possible for Carnegie Mellon to replace a few key routes, perhaps jointly with the University of Pittsburgh. Service to Greenfield and the airport would be the top two priorities, though airport service would likely operate at reduced hours compared to the current 28X.

“I guarantee you that, if there’s no 28X, we will find a way to get people to the airport,” Vice President for Campus Affairs Michael Murphy said at the meeting.

An audience member suggested that the current Pittsburgh Technology Center (PTC) shuttle could stop in Greenfield on its way to Second Avenue. Lieutenant Joseph Meyers, who directs the shuttle and Escort program for University Police, said that he had already been thinking about reworking the PTC route.

“My original thought was to run it through Oakland (at least on the return run) to provide another option for any Oakland folks to get to campus,” he wrote in an email after Tuesday’s forum. “I really hadn’t considered the Greenfield possibility because no one has ever expressed a desire for Greenfield service.... It’s certainly something I would explore if requested.”

Other attendees asked if it would be possible to combine shuttle operations with neighboring universities or adding connecting routes to the East Busway. Meyers said that Carnegie Mellon and Pitt students can already ride each other’s shuttles with proper ID, and Carnegie Mellon’s current A, B, and AB shuttles already make stops at the East Busway’s Negley Station.

The financing of bus rides — whether by campus shuttles or by the Port Authority — was also a recurring theme during the forum. Carnegie Mellon is set to open talks with the Port Authority this week over the university’s next five-year contract with the transit agency, which will begin later this year.

Under the current agreement, the university pays the Port Authority a preset amount each year, no matter the actual number of rides taken. Murphy said that the sum works out to around $1.08 per ride, up from 58 cents five years ago.

Outside of Carnegie Mellon, Murphy said, the Port Authority takes in approximately $1.30 per ride but spends more than $4.

Some in the audience questioned whether Carnegie Mellon should offer to pay more, either for pragmatic or ethical reasons. In a follow-up interview, Wolfe said that extra payments from the university would have little effect on the authority’s service level or bottom line. “They have a $64 million problem,” he said of the Port Authority. “Even if we were able to give them a million more dollars, that’s not helping. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not enough to help.” Carnegie Mellon paid approximately $1.5 million for bus passes this year, Wolfe said.

Carnegie Mellon’s next contract with the Port Authority will include the use of “smart cards” that users will tap against fare boxes rather than showing them manually to the driver. Pitt has already tested and converted to a similar system. According to Wolfe, the university will begin a test over the summer and fully convert to the new cards over the course of next school year.

Smart cards will tie transit pass validity automatically to records in the Carnegie Mellon Card Office instead of requiring an expiration date to be printed on university IDs. The cards will also facilitate more precise ridership tracking and change Carnegie Mellon’s contract with the Port Authority to a per-ride payment rather than a lump sum.

But with contract negotiations in the future, the Port Authority’s cuts still not finalized, and a transit funding bill pending in the state legislature in Harrisburg, Carnegie Mellon’s ultimate response to any public transit cutback is also yet to be decided.

On Tuesday, Wolfe encouraged audience members to participate in the Port Authority’s public hearing process, either by filling out the authority’s online comment form or by attending a day-long hearing scheduled for Feb. 29 at the David Lawrence Convention Center downtown.

He said the university will likely release an official statement through the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a nonprofit group of area business and university leaders whose goals include improving the region’s transportation infrastructure.

Student Senate Chair Will Weiner, a junior statistics and social and decision sciences double major, said that student government is planning a trip to Harrisburg to lobby in favor of House Bill 2112, a proposal to fund public transportation in the state with $200 million from Pennsylvania Turnpike revenue.

Senate has also launched, where visitors can sign a petition in support of the bill.

Ultimately, concrete action depends on the Port Authority’s final service plan — due to be voted on by the agency April 27 — and the state legislature’s budget hearings later this month and in March.

“There are so many variables and unknowns right now for us to begin to even formulate a strategy,” Meyers said in an email. “My main concern right now is getting some definitive answers about [the Port Authority’s] fate in enough time that we can react thoughtfully and decisively.”

Wolfe agreed, saying that the university is, to some extent, playing a waiting game. “We’re going to watch what we see out of Harrisburg, kind of what the tone of the whole situation is, and as we get closer to April I think we’re going to start seeing what is the likelihood of these cuts actually coming true,” he said. “We’re going to probably experience a certain amount of cuts. Whether or not it’ll be the full 35 percent, it’s probably too early to tell.”