Meanwhile, back at the Port Authority …

Meanwhile, back at the Port Authority …

It is written that the first step to solving any problem is to shed the denial that there is a problem. By that axiom, perhaps the Port Authority of Allegheny County at long last is ready to tackle a variety of chronic problems.

“Perhaps,” of course, is the operative word.

A new report by the mass-transit agency, billed in media accounts as “the third year of the agency’s annual service report,” is frank about many of its deficiencies – failings documented regularly and recently by the Allegheny Institute.

Take, for instance, according to the agency’s self-analysis, the fact that the Port Authority’s cost per passenger for 2016 (the most recent year available) of $5.82 is the highest of nine peer agencies.

While new authority CEO Katharine Kelleman concedes per-passenger costs are high, she rationalizes that it’s balanced by the fact that fares cover about 24 percent of that cost. Given, she adds, that the industry average is 20 to 30 percent, well, all is A-OK, at least for now.

As Kelleman tells the Post-Gazette:

“I’m not panicking (about the high cost) when I see a 20-30 percent recovery rate that’s about the middle of the pack. And that doesn’t mean riders are only paying for 24 percent of the cost of their ride. They are paying for the rest of it through the state and federal taxes they pay.”

Feel better?

Kelleman says she’s also quite concerned about the system’s light rail cost per passenger, the highest among its peer group. “We definitely are an outlier on the cost of rail service,” she told the newspaper.

To that end, Kelleman plans to consult experts from other northeast transit agencies. Perhaps the Port Authority’s high costs are due to older facilities or Pittsburgh’s hills, she muses.

What, no other rail transit agencies have hills? Hasn’t the Port Authority been up (and down) this hill thing before?

But nowhere in the P-G story does Kelleman directly address the elephant in the room – an outrageous wage cost structure.

As the Allegheny Institute noted in May (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 18), a white paper addressing the agency’s “inexcusably costly” bus service. Driver  wages of more than $25 an hour were, in 2016, 32 percent above the 10-system average of $18.98. Total operator wages expended per revenue hour to deliver bus service were 30 percent higher than the average.

Among non-drivers, the Port Authority’s wages were 61 percent higher than the 10 comparison agencies. Fringe benefits, calculated on an expense per revenue hour basis, for all authority bus service employees were 100 percent higher than the average of the 10 peer agencies’ costs.

As think tank president Jake Haulk put it last month:

“Consider that if the Port Authority of Allegheny County had the same cost structure as the 10 similar size agencies, it would have cost $114.8 million less than the $301 million the Port Authority actually spent for the 2016 level of service.”

Kelleman insists that “We have the bones of a great system here.”

But unless overall exorbitant labor costs, fueled by years of contract negotiators attempting to buy labor peace, can be corralled, those bones will be rendered to nothing more than dust.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).