Mass transit’s continuing perversion

Mass transit’s continuing perversion

All one needs to know about the crisis that mass transit is in, in Pittsburgh and nationwide, is to read the opening paragraphs from a weekend story in The Wall Street Journal.

But it’s not what you think:

“Public transit agencies across California are asking the state for a bailout, saying they face a looming fiscal crisis due to lagging ridership that could otherwise force them to cut service, lay off employees or shut down some lines and stations.

“Since the start of the pandemic, some $69 billion in federal emergency funding has kept buses, trains and subways across the country [Pittsburgh included] running,” The Journal continues. “But most of California’s transit agencies say they expect that funding to run out within two years.

“Meanwhile, ridership numbers remain well below pre-pandemic levels as many high-income workers continue to work from home at least some of the time.”

Do not allow the played-straight perversion of a narrative to deceive you. Note how the mindset of government is the exact opposite of how the marketplace is supposed to work.

If the business of moving people were conducted like a business bent on staying in business, appropriate measures would have been taken to right-size, reduce overhead and serve the remaining customers. Once demand increases, cut services and products could be restored.

Yet again, the public is presented with a textbook case of how poorly government agencies run things. And how, when the chips are down – as in when the marketplace changes — they expect taxpayers to up their ante in supporting the poorly run, unsustainable government agencies.

Transit agencies whine if they don’t get further government bailouts – that is, now, above and beyond the pandemic-era bailouts – that they are on no less than on a suicide mission.

But the real suicide mission of mass transit is operating under the same old failed way, then constantly feigning surprise that it no longer works.

Indeed, transit agencies around the country – Pittsburgh and Philadelphia included — say they are studying how to adjust to what many analysts see as a permanent condition: fewer riders as pandemic-induced work habits stick and transit demand stays slack.

But the public paying so much for these messes nationwide should have little faith that the bureaucracy running such things – and labor unions that are nothing better than hostage-holding cartels with their ability to strike  – can adapt, or even are serious about adapting, for that matter.

In Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Institute has long railed against the unsustainable costs associated with the bloat of the former Port Authority of Allegheny County, now known as Pittsburgh Regional Transit.

And it was just a year ago this month that this scrivener, citing the agency’s dysfunction, reiterated that it is “past time to consider a far more cost-effective public-private partnership or outright privatization” of mass transit.

It also was a year ago that agency spokesman Adam Brandolph balked at our notion that with ridership so chronically down it presents an opportunity to reduce costs by reducing staffing.

“Like all civilized cities in the world, public transportation … plays an important role in the ability for people to get around Pittsburgh and our region. It is a public good,” he wrote. “Port Authority’s mission of connecting people to life is accomplished through more frequent service, not less.”

A “public good”? That’s buncombe, Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, said at the time.

“The Port Authority is a government-operated monopoly, not a public good,” the Ph.D. economist admonished, noting, too, that transportation services can be and have been provided by the private sector.

“Providing more service, not less? At what cost?” Haulk asked a year ago. “If buses are nearly empty, reduce the number of routes or runs or get smaller buses.

“Taxpayers were paying heavily for the Port Authority’s outrageous cost per passenger mile before COVID. And it is much higher than that now,” he said.

Little has changed in that past year. And, in some ways, it’s worse.

Massively bold steps must be taken to fix mass transit in the United States. Obviously, government has proven yet again that it is no solution but the primary problem.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (