A better way for PRT to help lower-income riders

A better way for PRT to help lower-income riders

A local newspaper editorial argues for the creation of “a sustainable fare system for low-income riders” on Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT).

Its commentary comes in relation to a PRT one-year pilot program to determine the efficacy of a reduced or no-fare system now being tested on 14,000 Allegheny County riders.

As the Post-Gazette notes, “Some people are riding free; others get a 50 percent discount in fares.”

It further notes how “transportation is an essential cost for many, and recent inflation is taking an enormous toll” with “the $2.75 cost for a bus or light rail ride” being “unaffordable for people struggling to make ends meet.”

Nearly 23 years ago, the Allegheny Institute proposed a commonsense solution. More on that later. But first, please indulge us as we recount more of the P-G editorial position:

“A 2021 study noted that 40 percent of transit users are low-income. That means they probably must rely on public transit to get them to work, medical appointments, stores and other destinations. For them, reduced fares, which transit advocates have long pushed for, would mean more money in their pockets for essentials.”

The P-G notes that the mass-transit agency “charges some of the nation’s highest fares, but the agency has been reluctant, most likely due to lost revenue, to launch a reduced-fare program. Fare revenue provides only a fraction of the agency’s budget.”

It also notes PRT’s “significant” drop in ridership since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in a drop in fare revenues of more than $19 million from 2019 to 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

Furthermore, the P-G argues that “reduced fares could return some of that lost revenue by increasing ridership.”

“The pilot program will help answer that question and determine the impact of discounted and free fares on ridership and revenue. It should determine whether a 50 percent discount is sufficient to get more people riding, how many free fares the agency can afford to provide and how many people getting discounted or free fares use their connect cards,” the P-G says.

Then it makes this claim: “Free and reduced fares would also boost the local economy.”

How, exactly? It does not say. But if such fares help people to find and/or retain jobs, that’s how.

Even more significantly, however, is that the editorial does not mention PRT’s bloat. Nor does it say how a transit agency with its recidivist excessive costs would pay for the additional costs of these free or reduced fares.

The “answer,” of course, in the eyes of the do-gooders, is more public subsidies.

And that’s the transit elephant in the room.

As Eric Montarti, research director of the Allegheny Institute, noted in an October analysis (that also ran down the list of taxpayer subsidies), PRT must right-size its many weak-performing routes or face government funding cuts.

“It is past time for these governing bodies to be much better stewards of the tax dollars sent to PRT and to go further and demand remedial steps to reduce PRT operational costs that were far out of line with other transit agencies before the pandemic,” Montarti stresses (in Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 39).

“(I)f ridership does not increase dramatically by year’s end, PRT needs to look at bus routes with extremely low levels of ridership and either cut trips or begin shifting service to much smaller vehicles that consume much less fuel and have, overall, drastically lower operation costs,” Montarti noted, citing a prior assessment.

But attempting to further subsidize an increase in ridership – without lowering its high costs – is akin to paying off one credit card with another. Of course, when it is government issuing the proverbial no-limit credit card, money too often appears to be no object.

Indeed, provisions must and should be made for those of lesser means to give them continuing and better access to mass transit.

Montarti points to an Allegheny Institute Policy Brief from February 2005 (by then-think tank president and current president-emeritus Jake Haulk) that proposed a voucher system (Microsoft Word – 41FF8E40-0FC1-00C8C3.doc (alleghenyinstitute.org)). Those more able to afford full fares would pay them but fare aid would have been given (in the form of vouchers) to those of lower incomes.

Haulk stresses that the money for those vouches “should be taken from the state or county allocations to PRT, not from an additional allocation.”

But still, taxpayers should not further enable a continuing wrong-sized PRT; that’s the furthest thing from “sustainable.” PRT first must get its financial house in order.

As sobering as Montarti’s October conclusion was, this assessment remains the same: Should PRT fail the right-sizing charge, public funding should be adjusted – that is, cut –to force the agency’s hand.

And, therein – forcing PRT to become more efficient — it very well could find the money to help those riders of lesser means.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).