Notes on the state of things

Notes on the state of things

Ridership for Port Authority buses and trolleys tanked in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, work-from-home orders played a large role in the steep decline, as did job losses.

How deep was the tank? An up to 80 percent loss of riders in the early days of the pandemic last March. And though ridership has slowly increased, it remains far below pre-pandemic levels, at about 66 percent of the prior year.

Obviously, with fewer riders came fewer dollars in the fare box – millions of dollars less. But that didn’t keep about 2,300 unionized drivers, maintenance workers and office staff from winning raises in their just-announced new contract.

It’s a two-year deal (retroactive to July) that raises wages by 5.5 percentage points over its term. The shorter-than-usual contract was agreed to because of the continuing and unpredictable pandemic environment.

And what might Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union have given up? Pretty much, nothing. Yes, the P-G reports some work rules changes did save the Port Authority about $1 million a year. And a new health insurance carrier slashed the cost of retiree coverage.

But, still, don’t try this in a private business similarly rocked by such losses. After all, a lot of private concerns won’t have the federal government (i.e. taxpayers) backstopping it – in this case, to the tune of nearly $142 million to make the Port Authority whole.

And lest we forget, as the Post-Gazette reported, the new contract replaces a prior four-year deal that included a cumulative wage hike of 11.25 percentage points.

All for an agency that, as the Allegheny Institute pointed out (in Policy Brief Vol. 18, No. 18), had out-of-whack costs (per revenue hour) for its bus operations when compared to similarly sized agencies nationwide and second only to bus operations in New York City.

And that was long before the pandemic struck.

Port Authority has been “inexcusably costly” for years, the white paper determined. The strike-threat cudgel has played no small role in keeping costs high.

Union wage-jacking in normal times of sub-par performance is bad enough. But such wage hikes, no matter how rationalized as “modest,” are very bad public policy in these pandemic times.

In an unusual spate of common sense, the Post-Gazette reports that Pennsylvania has delayed signing onto a dubious climate-control scheme designed to jack up the cost of driving to pay for government’s green-powered fantasies.

The goal of the Transportation and Climate Initiative is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles by at least 26 percent by 2032.

But Pennsylvania has balked, at least temporarily, on news that that the program could raise the cost of gasoline by as much as 9 cents a gallon – in one of the nation’s already most-heavily taxed gasoline states.

Higher gasoline taxes, on top of every-year increases in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, are not exactly elixirs to fuel post-pandemic economic recovery.

This is not to say that Pennsylvania environmental officials never will sign on to the deal. After all, there are plenty of “greenies” that argue how damaging the economy to “save” the environment is worth it and that “green energy” will create new economic opportunities to fix it all up.

Controlled by the government with seriously flawed designs to socially re-engineer society with every bit the “planned economy.”

It’s just this kind of “progressive” hubris that will destroy any semblance of free market economies.

Let’s circle back now to the Allegheny County Airport Authority and its plans to spend $1.1 billion (and sure to grow) to “modernize” Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT).

The authority, stymied in its attempts to reach a new and long-term lease deal with airlines to operate out of the updated Findlay Township facility, says it has reached a two-year deal that includes another $50 million for continuing design work on the project.

As the P-G notes, “The deal, retroactive to this year, replaces a 30-year agreement that was reached in 1988, four years before the (then-new) midfield terminal opened.”

Do note, however, there’s still no long-term deal with the airlines that, once built, the “modernized” airport would be used.

Additionally, the authority notes that British Airways (BA) is among the signatories to the shorter-term lease deal. It sees this as an encouraging sign that BA will resume its now thrice-delayed and heavily subsidized flights between PIT and London’s Heathrow Airport.

Never mind, that is, that a British trade journal flatly has reported that the flight and others have permanently been scuttled as being “marginal.”

Still, Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis tells the P-G the authority is working with British Airways on a new start date that gives it “the most chance of year-round success.”

“The fact that (BA) signed the airport operating agreement is a good sign,” she said.

Or, gee, perhaps a little landing-gear grease to make sure that, should British Airways reverse course and pick up the flights anew, the public keeps subsidizing them?

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