Look to Denver, But Not Just for Convenience Sake

A letter to the editor in today’s PG waxed poetically about the positive attributes of the public transit system that she saw on a recent visit to the cities of Golden and Denver, Colorado. "I noticed the bus came every three minutes. It’s free and gets passengers from one end of the street to the other…[her son] can take a bus that runs about every 15 minutes to Denver, a trip of about 25 miles for $2. Denver still has a thriving shopping area, and for a Saturday there were a lot of people downtown."

After theorizing what fare hikes and service cuts would do she opined that "perhaps the Port Authority can contact Denver to see how it is managing, since it seems to be doing a much better job."

The writer might be shocked to know that officials from Denver’s Regional Transportation District did indeed visit Pittsburgh a few years ago to talk about what really makes their system successful-that it has parted ways with the traditional model of public transit as a monopoly that characterizes most systems in the U.S. Under state law 50% of the RTD’s transit service is contracted out to private carriers. We even wrote about the arrangement in a 2005 Policy Brief and showed that the contracting out was done without layoffs but by attrition.

Such a notion was met-and has been met since the RTD officials came here-with a dismissive attitude from the transit union who view contracting as giving "their work" away, from skeptics who recall the years prior to the formation of PAT in the early 1960s, and from management and staff that did not want to pursue the idea. But evidence from our 2005 analysis showed that operating costs from the contractors was much lower than the "in house" operations and helped control long term costs at the District.

Even better, when RTD drivers went on strike in 2006 the system did not completely shut down as contracted drivers kept some of the service going. The then-Governor of Colorado even admonished those on strike. Here a strike shuts down the system completely and public officials jump through hoops to find money to avoid making the hard choices.

So yes, PAT should contact Denver for solutions as the writer suggests, but don’t expect an adoption of best practices.