Does PRT have an ulterior motive?

Does PRT have an ulterior motive?

It was on June 1 that we noted the once-again rustling whispers of “regionalism” in Greater Pittsburgh. Less than two weeks later, the Port Authority of Allegheny County changed its name and mission to Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT).

And, thus, a new era of attempted “metropolitanism” has been born. Hold on to your wallets.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to this apparent first step to “regionalizing” the delivery of public transit in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area: No Allegheny County transit officials appear to have consulted with public transit officials in neighboring counties.

At least that’s what the Post-Gazette reported on Sunday. Can you say “hubris,” class.

As PRT CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman tells it, she foresees some type of cooperative system in which, say, transit systems in Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties are “allowed” to concentrate on local service while the newly christened PRT takes over the longer-haul routes into and out of Pittsburgh/Allegheny County.

How big of the PRT, right?

There’s also talk of a unified fare-collection system, reported to be a discussion point within a Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission study.

“Maybe it makes more sense for us to provide those longer trips since riders will be taking our system to their final destination,” Kelleman told the P-G. “How do we work together with the other agencies so we can each do what we do best?”

Never mind that PRT’s “best” features wholly out-of-whack cost structures in several key metrics.

What makes Kelleman think that it can do better on a larger scale? And how would trading up from a smaller mess to a larger mess represent sound public policy?

This long has been the illogic of the metropolitanists. Would it be any more than a power grab, if not a money grab for additional public subsidies?

But here’s an even bigger kicker, another in a long line of nub-of-the-rub moments, as we like to say, from the P-G report:

“Transit agencies in other counties said they either haven’t had formal talks about a single-fare collection system or changing service providers or were hearing about the proposals for the first time.”

Nice.

And then there’s this:

Mary Jo Morandini, general manager of the Beaver County Transit Authority (BCTA), told the P-G that while it would have an interest in a single-fare collection system, “If there’s a study, we would have to have a level of involvement in it.”

And she also noted that BCTA is “more than capable of operating those trips.”

Then there’s John Paul, executive director of Butler Transit Authority (BTA). While he told the PG that BTA riders already have used PRT’s ConnectCard system for the last decade – and single-fare collection system would not be much of a change – he said his agency has not been approached about making BTA trips PRT trips.

And, as the P-G also noted, “Paul questioned whether that would be a good idea since his agency has lower operating costs.

“’It won’t be very cost-effective, and I think that’s most important to the taxpayers,’” he said. “If it’s better for the riders, we’ll do it.”

And in Westmoreland County? Alan Blahovec, Westmoreland County Transit’s (WCT) executive director, told the P-G there have been no discussions about fare collection or longer-haul routes into Pittsburgh being subsumed by PRT.

So, what’s going on here? Perhaps the sentiment expressed by one reader in the P-G’s story comment section hits the nail on the head:

“The actual numbers seem to be hidden from public view. But it’s a good bet [Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s] union benefits would double the labor cost compared to outlying counties’ transit agencies. Can’t see how that benefits anyone but union members and the politicians they vote for.”

Bingo.

Whether Pittsburgh Regional Transit’s new “regional” focus is altruistic(doubtful) or just another in a long line of money grabs to bail out a cost-ineffective system (more likely) remains to be seen.

But we now are even more suspicious of the Port Authority’s rebranding as Pittsburgh Regional Transit. It very well could be a ploy – not to serve riders better but to serve itself.

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