Looking at Light Rail Numbers

An article over the weekend about the possible extension of light rail in the future noted that the number of annual trips on the light rail system stood at 7.7 million in 2012, which is an increase of 15% over 2011 totals (6.7 million according to APTA data). At 7.7 million, 2012 ridership would be the highest light rail total back to 1996 (as far as APTA data goes back) besting the previous high during that time frame (7.5 million in 1997).

Of course, we don’t know how much the extension of "free" rides between the North Shore Connector stations and Downtown have boosted totals or the newness of the Connector itself had an effect. APTA does not provide a breakout of the light rail mode’s expenses, revenue, or employees as does the PAT budget: we noted last year the baseline data. There is not yet a modal comparison available for the 12-13 fiscal year nor the 13-14 fiscal year for the Authority. We did calculate the "expense per rider" by dividing total expenses of the light rail system by ridership at $7.08 in 2011. With the boost in ridership in 2012 to 7.7 million if the cost per rider was to stay roughly the same the Authority’s light rail expenses could have risen to no more than $54.8 million.

The APTA data does however separate by quarter; the biggest boost over 2011 ridership came in the second quarter (April, May, and June) when there were 2.0 million unlinked trips. The previous year there were 1.67 million in that quarter.

PAT Light Rail: Pre-Connector Operating Data

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of light rail to the North Shore, the debate over whether it was wise to spend and shift Federal, state, and local money to the project now moves to what impacts it will have on the light rail system as a whole. 

 

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A Snapshot of PAT Data as the Connector Begins Service

With the opening of the North Shore Connector and the extension of the trolley line to the North Shore, and until there is the extension of the project to the airport or the North Hills as boosters of the project have used as justification, it is important to take a snapshot of light rail operations as they are in order to establish baseline for comparison to future operating data.

This year’s Port Authority budget (2011-12) put in some growth in rail ridership (less than 1%) and expenses (5.2%) due to the opening of the Connector. But actual and audited numbers for PAT’s light rail system (in the 2010-11 fiscal year) without the Connector’s impact shows the following:

  • Total Rail Ridership: 6,918,000
  • Total Passenger Revenue: $9,811,000
  • Total Other Revenue: $295,000
  • Total Expense: $49,038,000
  • Total Rail Employees: 468
  • Total Length of system: 48.9 miles
  • Total Rail Vehicles: 83

The critical measure we can glean from this data is "total expense per rider" which stands at $7.08. Of course, this does not take into account the capital expense for the existing rail system which would boost the expense per rider significantly higher. But as the Connector leg gets up and operating and ridership numbers come in it will be easy to see from PAT’s numbers what happens to the total expense per rider. Based on FY11 numbers, a light rail trip was about $1.50 more than a PAT bus trip.

More than 80% of the total expense for light rail is accounted for by salaries and benefits, leaving $9 million or so to be spread between materials, utilities, provisions for injuries and damages, purchased services, and other. Passenger revenue ($9.8 million) covers about 20% of total expense. Recall that until 2015 corporate sponsorships are underwriting free trips between Downtown and the North Shore stations (and vice versa) so "other" revenue on the light rail system may rise slightly relative to passenger revenue.

APTA Misses the Bus

On November 18th the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released a study claiming that Pittsburgh area commuters who drive to work could save $9,201 per year by purchasing a monthly pass and taking the bus or light rail to work.  According to APTA, this savings number is based on a comparison of an average monthly transit fare to the average cost of driving.

 

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Free Trolley Rides? More Expensive Than You Might Think

As the North Shore Connector moves closer to completion and light rail cars are set to make their maiden voyage under the Allegheny River in March of 2012, Downtown boosters are angling to make the area around the Golden Triangle-from Station Square to the North Shore-a free travel zone with trolleys running with much greater frequency. A consultant who studied the idea produced a figure of $1.5 million in additional costs should the recommendation be implemented.

It is unclear how that number was derived since the frequency of operation and fare amount have yet to be determined officially by Port Authority officials. For close to a year there have been inklings that the Port Authority would be receptive to the plan if private/foundation support could be found in the form of station or zone naming rights and sponsorships.

According to the National Transit Database, PAT’s light rail operating expenses in 2009 were $51 million while fare revenues on light rail were $7.8 million, and the number of unlinked trips was 7.3 million. Thus, the subsidy required to cover operating expense per unlinked trip on PAT’s light rail system was $6.01. And this does not include the very large capital expense of the light rail system!

Leaving logistics of trolley operations and station arrival intervals aside for the moment, we have to question whether it is good policy for a transit agency in severe financial straits to be providing free service. Clearly, running the trolleys with much greater frequency in the Downtown area will substantially increase operating costs, and not collecting fare revenue means the agency is leaving money on the table. It is doubtful that sponsorship or naming rights will recover the combined costs that could run into several millions of dollars each year.