New lipstick, same pig for Port Authority

New lipstick, same pig for Port Authority

The Port Authority of Allegheny County — still gasping for air for ridership in the post-pandemic era and long unable to contain its high operating costs – has a new name:

“Pittsburgh Regional Transit.” And it’s apparently hoping that the public will refer to it by the acronym “PRT.”

It’s said to be part of a delayed “rebranding” effort, the design phase paid for with $544,000 in public money. Exactly how much it will cost to repaint or re-decal or “wrap” its fleet of transit vehicles – from buses to light-rail vehicles – remains unclear.

But that process, along with rebranding bus and light-rail stops, is expected to take three to four years.

And, don’t forget, there will be a slick advertising campaign to go with this new nomenclature. That, too, will involve no small expenditure; a $772,000 figure has been bandied about as the rebranding’s total cost.

Time and inflation will tell.

But considering the Port Authority’s long-standing structural cost problems, this “rebranding” is little more than the proverbial smearing of a new shade of lipstick on a pig. In this case, that’s blue (or is it teal?) and yellow, the agency’s new color “palette.”

“Changing the name is an attempt to paper over its horrible failure in providing cost-efficient service,” says Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. “It won’t work.”

Wrote the agency in a news release prior to its official announcement:

“Port Authority of Allegheny County is changing its name and brand to better reflect the services, values and goals as a public transportation agency, a major local employer, and an integral part of the Pittsburgh region.”

As if operational and personnel costs higher than peer mass-transit services in comparably sized metropolitan areas are something to which the new “PRT” should aspire?

Heck, in some metrics, the agency’s costs rival those of the nation’s largest.

As if a steadfast refusal to right-size staffing as ridership has tanked can be covered over with a new moniker and color scheme?

Heck, just last month, in announcing a generous new four-year contract extension (with guaranteed 5 percent annual raises and up to 20 percent annual bonuses) for its CEO, the Port Authority veritably bragged about the no-layoff situation.

As if a wish-list for future operations, including expanding light-rail – the least-efficient way to move people in the mass-transit model – somehow can, magically, become cost- and operationally efficient with a gussied-up pig?

“Rather than changing the name, [the Port Authority] ought to wear shirts and hats that say ‘SORRY,’” Haulk noted.

Oh, and Port Authority/PRT CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman conceded on Thursday that the system’s traditional ridership – work commuters — might never recover to pre-pandemic levels. But she does hope ridership can return to those levels by attracting a new and different ridership.

All this said, “rebranding” is a tricky business. And it’s difficult to imagine the public embracing the Port Authority’s name change. Just look at this agency’s past “rebranding” efforts.

Remember when, in 1998, and the agency was known as “PATransit,” for “Port Authority Transit,” it rebranded itself as “Ride Gold” for its 35th anniversary?

Yeah, we barely remembered that one ourselves. That rebranding campaign (though the agency still legally was the “Port Authority”) supposedly was designed to play off the Golden Triangle moniker used to describe the Downtown retail/business district, if not the gold in the black and gold colors of the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers.

That rebranding even brought us “Gold Plan Dan,” a character outfitted as a Gold Rush-era prospector. How clever. Ahem.

Eight years later, as the agency was failing, “Ride Gold” was abandoned. In late September 2006, it became simply the “Port Authority.”

Never mind that a goodly number of people long have, and still will, refer to the agency as “PAT” – no matter what its real name is.

“More than a new name, it’s a new direction and we want you to go with us,” Kelleman said.

But, again, there’s far more to a “new direction” than a new name and paint scheme. And whatever it wants to call itself or will be called – the Port Authority, PATransit, PAT, Ride Gold, Pittsburgh Regional Transit or PRT – it has a lot to prove and a very long and poor track record of doing so.

And that more than suggests nothing will change.

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