Advocates Miss the Bus

Proponents of funding public transit rallied at the City-County building this week calling for dedicated funding from the state for the Port Authority, one speaker noting that there is still a "transit crisis" that they hope will be ended when the Governor unveils his transportation plan for roads, bridges, and transit (that is now supposed to come at the budget address next month rather than today). The speaker used the opportunity to state opposition to "privatizing" transit since that "spells disaster … With privatized transit, fares go up while quality, safety and wages go down". Why even mention it? Because the speaker had heard the Governor make mention of it at a speech at the University of Pittsburgh.

Does the speaker realize that several small transit companies in western Pennsylvania, even some that drive buses into Allegheny County on a daily basis, contract with outside companies to run their bus service? Based on our 2011 survey, some even paid higher wages than those that kept their operations "in house". Of course, none could touch the wage of an average PAT driver ($25.48 to $15.23). Or that the Port Authority contracts with a company to provide ACCESS service? The previous Governor’s transportation commission in 2006 gave that portion of PAT’s operations very high marks. Know what else that Governor’s commission did? It directed PAT and other transit agencies around the state to evaluate competitive contracting opportunities, adjust service to meet market demand, reduce labor and management costs, and tie bus fares to inflation. Sounds quite business-like.

The speaker’s worst nightmare might be riding a bus in Denver, Colorado. A 1988 state law directed Denver’s Regional Transportation District to contract out a portion of service, which now stands at 50% of "rubber tire" service. As of 2011 the RTD had 1,093 contracted fixed route drivers working alongside 1,826 represented employees; 537 buses were RTD owned and operated, 457 RTD owned and leased to private carriers. A customer can’t pick and choose whether an RTD driver or a contractor is going to pick them up on a bus trip. And who knows if the quality of the buses under the direction of lessees is compared to the in-house driven ones. Has that uncertainty scared off bus riders? According to statistics from the National Transit Database since 1996 (the farthest back the data goes) unlinked bus trips are up 16%; PAT’s are down that rate over the same time frame.