Come on and Take Free Ride

It seems the County Executive is a great fan of the Edgar Winter Group’s long ago hit song that invited folks to take a free ride. The difference is that the Executive is the "boss" at the Port Authority and has a taxpayer built light rail system that he can invite people to ride for free.

The Executive and some downtown groups want to see a fare free ride between the North Shore and Station Square. The draw is the free access to the North Shore with the stadiums, parking and entertainment as the attractions for T riders.

There is so much wrong with this idea. First of all, when the Federal and state governments put up hundreds of millions to support construction of rail systems and then pour in more hundreds of millions to subsidize ridership, they do not intend that rides be free. Free rides can and almost certainly will lead to artificially induced overuse of the system that will entail requiring adding trains to handle the free riders. More trains, more driver time, more costs for vehicle and track maintenance, security, more management time for scheduling etc. In this regard, the amount of money the Executive has requested from businesses to cover the cost of the free rides is a pittance compared to the cost of providing the North Shore service.

As was observed soon after the opening of the North Shore Connector, free rides after large events result in long lines and very long wait times. The problem for the Port Authority is that it can carry only a few thousand (perhaps as few as five thousand) people per hour safely. If 20,000 people show up at the North Shore stations after an event expecting a ride, they are going to create a massive logjam. The system is not designed to handle that kind of crush.

Far better to stop the free ride regime now. If someone rides the North Shore Connector they should pay at least a nominal fare. The subsidy per rider from construction costs is already at least $20. Given there is little chance the Connector will ever pay for its construction costs, the Port Authority ought at a minimum try to recover the operating costs of the system.

If the Connector cannot cover its operating costs through fares, then the massive expenditures to build it were even more of a boondoggle than opponents argued it would be before it was built.

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.

Connector a Success if No One Uses It? A Preposterous Argument

In a comment dripping with ex post rationalization, the Port Authority’s Executive Director says the Connector will be a success even if no one uses it. The Director claims, in effect, that the prodigious engineering feat of building the Connector justifies the costs. And concludes the amazing rationalization by saying we have built the project and it is up to the region to use it.

This is how spending nearly $520 million and creating untold burdens on businesses and travelers through the City is to be justified?

How can a half billion dollar, multi year project get built with no firm expectation or forecast of how may users it will have when completed and into the future? This is ridiculousness in the extreme. There were forecasts of ridership when the project was submitted to the Federal Government for funding. Why are those no longer valid? In a word, because they were not credible then and certainly not now in light of the elimination of the Steel Plaza station to the Convention Center leg of the project.

To have spent so much money, time and effort on the Connector and now all they can say in justification is "we hope it works" beggars description.

Easy Come, Easy Go

Last week we learned that the Rivers Casino and the Steelers had agreed to ante up $200,000 to cover free rides for North Shore Connector passengers. That brought the total of such payment agreements to $360,000 when combined with the Alco Parking and Stadium Authority contract reached earlier.

Well as the saying has it; easy come, easy go. On Friday last week Judge McVerry ordered the Port Authority to pay the ACLU and a group advocating felons’ right to vote $340,000 for PAT’s refusal to allow the group’s ads to be displayed on PAT buses. We have yet to learn how much legal expense PAT has paid out fighting the case or how much more will be required if they opt to appeal the Judge’s decision.

One could argue that PAT is better off by virtue of reaching the agreements for the $360,000 in free ride payments since it was almost certain to lose the lawsuit. But, it still begs the question: Why does PAT expect so few passengers who would be willing to pay that they would settle for $360,000? That certainly does not gibe with the optimism about the ridership included in the application for Federal funding. However, it is unlikely any of the most vocal proponents will be stepping forward with an explanation of why they were so wrong.

Oh Joy, Free T Rides on the North Shore Connector

With agreement reached between the Port Authority (PAT) and the Steelers and Rivers Casino to provide free light rail service from the North Shore to Downtown in exchange for the payment of $200,000 this year, $205,000 next year and $210,000 the year after that, all rides between North Shore stops and center city will be free.

 

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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.

Connector 80 Percent Complete: Chills Run Up the Spine

Oh joy. The Connector will be open for business in 15 months. Maybe. That assumes no major bumps along the planned path to completion.

The chief engineer on the project told reporters during a tour of the facility "I think the people will embrace this" and continuing, "Our hope is that 20, 30 years down the road people will say ‘I don’t know what the controversy was about.’" Does that display a lot of confidence? "Our hope"? Why did he not say, "We are sure that in 20, 30 year people will ask ‘what was the controversy about.’"

Compounding the Port Authority’s inept management of the project and their preposterous pushing to go head with Connector despite the absurd and skyrocketing cost to benefit ratio, we now learn there has been no decision made on how often trains will run or whether riders will pay a fare and if there is a fare how much it will be. That means they do not have a clue as to how many people will use the Connector. How does that mesh with their optimistic forecast of ridership during the efforts to get Federal funding? One must stand in awe of such hubris and arrogance.

Can this despicable misuse of taxpayer dollars get any more ridiculous?