Crucial issues facing candidates for Allegheny County chief executive

Summary: This year, several Allegheny County elective offices are on the November ballot, including the office of chief executive.  Having served the maximum three consecutive four-year terms permitted under the Home Rule Charter, the current chief executive will leave office in January 2024.  As of this writing, eight candidates have announced their intention to run for chief executive.



As head of the executive branch, the powers and duties granted to the chief executive by the Allegheny County Charter include enforcing county ordinances and resolutions, representing (or designating a representative to do so) the county at meetings with the heads of other governments, appointing a county manager and solicitor (subject to County Council approval) and submitting a comprehensive fiscal plan to County Council.


The last time there was an open seat for the office of chief executive, the Allegheny Institute released a report (#11-01) that offered free market-based, commonsense solutions to issues facing county government.


Those included strengthening the charter, crafting a new reassessment policy, addressing problems at the Port Authority and Pittsburgh International Airport and being aggressive on privatization and outsourcing.


Twelve years later, while aspects of those issues may have changed, over all there is still plenty of work to do on each.


For example, there is a new terminal under construction at Pittsburgh International Airport.  But the number of passengers and flights remain below pre-pandemic levels.  The Airport Authority board, with all members appointed by the chief executive and confirmed by County Council, has—in the Institute’s view, unwisely—authorized the use of subsidies to airlines flying to and from the airport.


Bus and light-rail ridership are likewise below pre-pandemic levels.  However, the costs at the now renamed Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) are still near the highest of transit agencies in the country. Low-performing routes have not been eliminated, smaller vehicles have not been utilized and there have been no layoffs while federal, state and county subsidies have not been reduced, thereby driving per passenger costs to extremely high levels.


The one substantial change was in the makeup of the board of directors.  A 2013 state law enlarged the board from nine to 11 members.  But it reduced the number appointed by the chief executive from nine to six (two are confirmed by County Council) and added five appointments by state officials.  Unfortunately, PRT workers are still legally able to strike and a four-year labor contract was recently approved.


There has not been a recent countywide property reassessment and the need for an update to the 2012 base year could not be clearer.  Appeals by property owners and taxing bodies, particularly school districts, are a regular and frequent occurrence.  There was a lawsuit over taxing body appeals, which was dismissed.  A lawsuit over the county’s common level ratio used in appeals is pending.


There are the very important issues of retaining and attracting population and jobs to the county, which candidates are almost certain to talk about at length.


Between the 2010 and 2020 Census, Allegheny County grew in population for the first time since the 1950s.  The 2020 Census count was 1,250,578, up 2.2 percent from the 2010 Census.


Of the 49 counties across the U.S. that reported a population of 1 million or more in the 2020 Census (including Allegheny County) 14 had population growth that exceeded 15 percent from 2010 to 2020.  Included in this group were five counties in Texas, two each in North Carolina and Florida, and one each in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Utah.  With the exception of one county in Washington, all are located in Right-to-Work states.


The most recent estimate by the Census Bureau puts Allegheny County’s July 1, 2021 population at 1,238,090, a decrease of 12,488 (1 percent) from the 2020 Census count.  Components of population change of a specific geographic area include natural increase (births minus deaths) along with net migration (net domestic migration plus net international migration). The Census Bureau shows that in the time frame these values were both negative at 4,711 and 7,820, respectively.


A recent study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research found that, among the nation’s largest counties, nearly 20 percent of the county’s population is 65 years of age or older, second only to Palm Beach County, Fla.


The December 2022 Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry news release on household employment (including county residents who are working, regardless of where the job is located, or residents looking for work) shows a labor force of 630,500 with 609,300 people employed and 21,200 people unemployed.  The resulting unemployment rate was 3.4 percent.


Compared to the pre-pandemic month of December 2019, the labor force is down almost 20,000 (3 percent) with fewer people employed and unemployed.  The unemployment rate has decreased from 3.9 percent.  But the declines in these components make it clear why that is the case.


Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s data for County Business Patterns by Legal Form of Organization and Employment Size Class, in 2018 there were 33,732 establishments in Allegheny County with 705,835 employees. In 2020, the number of establishments fell by 297 (0.9 percent) and employees by 4,053 (0.6 percent).


What changes would candidates make to reverse the trends in population and jobs? To be sure a substantially more free market-oriented approach would be a break from the past and would improve the county’s long-term prospects.


In the next few years, the remainder of American Rescue Plan dollars will be spent, appointments to key authorities will be made, the lawsuit over the common level ratio may be decided and the Bus Rapid Transit and airport terminal projects will be complete.  If county government spending and employee headcount grow or the county takes on new functions beyond its core responsibilities, the prospect of a tax hike could be real notwithstanding the fact that the county’s millage rate of 4.73 has not changed since 2013.


This year’s operating budget tops $1 billion and there are 6,125 budgeted full-time employees in the government (1,444 are employees of County Council, the Court of Common Pleas and the row offices of district attorney, sheriff, treasurer and controller).


Over the coming months, the Allegheny Institute will publish occasional Policy Briefs on the key issues discussed in this Policy Brief and offer recommendations for candidates and the eventual winner for chief executive as the next administration prepares to take office.

Bus ridership still far below pre-COVID levels


Summary: Mass transit use in the Pittsburgh area and across the United States in 2022 remained far below 2019 levels. This Policy Brief examines Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT, formerly the Port Authority of Allegheny County) bus passenger count, operation measures and light-rail usage.  The Brief also reviews bus passenger numbers in 14 other transit systems across the country.


Not all systems have light-rail, and some have heavy rail, so only bus passengers are reviewed for those systems. The 14 comparison systems include: Philadelphia; Baltimore; Atlanta; Orlando; Tampa; Miami; Nashville; Cleveland; Milwaukee; Minneapolis-St Paul; Dallas; San Antonio; Austin; and Portland, (Ore.).  Except for Philadelphia, no other very large systems such as New York City or Chicago were reviewed.  All data were taken from the National Transit Database including data through December 2022.

Bus passengers

For the 15 systems overall, the 2022 annual bus passenger count was 36 percent below the 2019 annual count.

Individually, the systems’ percentage declines in yearly bus passenger totals from 2019 to 2022 are as follows: Pittsburgh (42.6); Philadelphia (36.2); Baltimore (33.9); Atlanta (45.8); Orlando (29.5); Tampa (16.0); Miami (15.0); Nashville (23.1); Cleveland (48.7); Milwaukee (36.1); Minneapolis-St Paul (49.2); Dallas (42.0); San Antonio (42.6); Austin (32.3) and Portland (43.5).

Geographically there is little correlation between locations of the systems and the degree of 2022 passenger count recovery from 2019 levels, except for the Florida bus systems. The three Florida systems in 2022 averaged 20.2 percent below the 2019 reading.  The next best was Nashville at 23.1 percent. All other systems were still trailing 2019 by over 30 percent.  Indeed, seven systems were over 40 percent behind 2019 with the worst performances at Minneapolis-St Paul at 49.2 percent, Cleveland at 48.7 percent and Atlanta at 45.8 percent.

Jobs growth and passenger count recovery

Pittsburgh was joined by Dallas, San Antonio and Portland at nearly 43 percent lower passenger counts than in 2019. The slow recovery in the two large Texas cities is perhaps a little surprising given the relatively strong economy in that state.  It suggests that factors besides the recovery of employment are at work.

Consider that Dallas experienced a massive 10.4 percent increase in private-sector jobs from December 2019 to December 2022.  But passengers were still down 42 percent.  Similarly, Austin employment had an even larger 13.7 percent gain in employment over the same period.  But passengers were down 32.3 percent.

However, Tampa, with passengers down 16 percent, and Miami, with passengers down 15 percent from 2019 to 2022, bus passenger recovery in those regions seems to reflect to some extent faster job recovery—Tampa with an 8 percent gain over the three-year period and Miami at 4 percent.  Similarly, Nashville has seen a strong jobs recovery and has surpassed the pre-pandemic totals by 7.5 percent and has recovered all but 23 percent of pre-COVID passengers, much better than most of the transit systems surveyed.

At the same time and surprisingly, Minneapolis-St Paul had the weakest recovery of bus passengers, a loss of 49.2 percent.  That’s even though the metro area has almost fully recovered the pandemic job losses with the December 2022 employment count down only 0.7 percent from December 2019. Meanwhile, in the Pittsburgh Metro Area, December 2022 jobs were still 3.2 percent below December 2019 and the bus passenger count was down 42.6 percent.

In short, the recovery and growth of employment does not necessarily coincide with bus passenger recovery in these cities.  In some cities it does and in others is does not. But having said that, it is clearly better to have strong job growth than bus ridership gains.

Longer term passenger counts 

It is also interesting to note that many of the transit agencies in this group of 15 had substantially higher passenger counts in 21st century years prior to the 2019 performance.  As examples: Atlanta ridership peaked in 2008 at 72.1 million, well above the 2019 reading of 51.9 million; Baltimore reached 85 million riders in 2010, compared to 64.4 million in 2019; Philadelphia had 187.6 million in 2004, well above the 152.1 million in 2019; Pittsburgh bus riders totaled 63.2 million in 2002 compared to 55 million in 2019.

Transit agencies serving Cleveland; Minneapolis-St Paul; Portland and Dallas also had far more bus passengers 10 or more years before 2019.  The reasons for the declines in so many of the transit agencies are likely to be complicated and perhaps different from metro to metro.  But, in any case, it presents serious questions about the factors that are driving demand for bus travel in urban areas and points to a possible longer-term drop in bus usage.

PRT COVID relief

The 15-metro sample illustrates some stark differences in the recovery of bus passengers.  Despite the large shortfalls in recovery for many systems, there is apparently no urgency to cut costs or trim service because of the COVID relief funds that will continue to be available to use.

For example, PRT reports in its 2023 Operating Budget document that it has received a total of $502 million in federal stimulus to support operating expenses, including employee costs. Of that total PRT has $338 million remaining to fill gaps in operations funding for a couple more years.  This has enabled the system to operate with no layoffs, although there have been some slight reductions in staff through retirement and resignations. Other systems presumably have received substantial COVID related federal stimulus funds in order to prevent large service and employee reductions.

PRT operations employment and costs

PRT has made small reductions in service through 2022 and staff reductions have been very minimal with no layoffs. However, in bus service, the passenger count (unlinked passenger trips) is down by 42.6 percent from 2019 to 2022 after a drop of 56 percent from 2019 to 2021.  At the same time, vehicle revenue miles (VRM) were down just 13.1 percent while the employees involved in providing bus and light-rail service fell from 2,187 in 2020 to 2,145 in 2022 and are budgeted to rise to 2,418 in FY 2023 (figures from the FY 2023 budget). The all-in cost of providing bus service was $348,434,000 in FY 2022 with 31,556,000 passengers (calendar year) producing a per rider expense of $11.04, an increase of 86 percent from the FY 2019 per passenger expense of $5.92.

Meanwhile, the situation with light-rail service is far worse than the disastrous bus passenger decline.  Light-rail passengers plunged 68 percent from 2019 to 2022 with the count dropping from 7,423,997 to 2,323,520. Meanwhile, light-rail VRM fell from 2.16 million in 2019 to 1.36 million in 2022—a decline of 36.5 percent. This decline was three times the 13.1 percent decline in bus VRM during the period.  Per rider cost on the light-rail system based on FY 2019 expense and calendar year 2019 riders ($70,910,000 expense and 7,423,997 passengers) was $9.55.  But by 2022, the cost per rider had climbed to $31.46, owing to the 68 percent drop in riders and a 3 percent rise in light-rail operations expenditures.

In short, PRT’s long history of being an extremely high cost per passenger transit agency has been greatly exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and the very slow recovery of passenger demand leading to a massive increase in per rider cost. Only large infusions of supplemental funds from the federal government and the state have allowed the transit system to avoid layoffs and massive service cuts.

All this has happened despite the failure of ridership to return to anywhere close to pre-COVID levels. The waste of funds is deplorable but as with the other COVID relief it is seriously overdone.  Unused or unbudgeted COVID funds should be withdrawn and returned to the government.  All this does is enable inefficiency and waste throughout the country at the expense of taxpayers.


Based on the review of 15 transit systems, bus ridership nationally remains well below the pre-pandemic level. The continued use of COVID relief stimulus funds to support unneeded capacity in systems operating at more than a 30 percent loss in ridership is an enormous waste of tax dollars.

The federal government should ask for a part or all the unused or unbudgeted funds to be returned based on the extent of failure to recover to pre-pandemic levels of ridership.  This situation is setting a very bad precedent.

PRT should right-size weak performing routes; governing bodies should insist on it  

Summary: Bus and light-rail ridership on Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) vehicles remains far below pre-pandemic levels.  This Brief examines route data for August 2022 compared to the pre-pandemic month of August 2019 and recommends corrective actions.

Policy Brief Vol. 22, No.33, utilized PRT’s performance metrics and system data tool which shows average monthly ridership for buses and light-rail on weekdays and weekends.

Ridership and costs

Compared with pre-pandemic August 2019, average August 2022 bus ridership was 37 percent lower and average light-rail ridership 52 percent lower. Low ridership exacerbates PRT’s already high operating costs.  Using the same methodology described in the Brief noted earlier to determine cost per passenger, bus trips in August cost $9.87 per rider and light-rail trips were $25.92.  PRT’s current fiscal year (FY) budget is higher than last year’s budget and there were no employee layoffs.  And the bus rider cost is an average over all routes.  Owing to the large variation in usage levels across the routes, there is a similar variation in costs per rider among the routes.  

The PRT data tool shows ridership by route.  In August 2022, PRT operated 95 bus routes and three light-rail routes.  Routes operated on one of three schedules: seven days a week, weekdays only or on weekdays and one weekend day. PRT’s annual service reports classify operations as “rapid,” (fixed guideway for at least 75 percent of the route); “commuter,” (connect major job centers); “local,” (no fixed guideway and average weekday ridership of 1,000 or more), or “coverage,” (same as “local” but average weekday ridership of less than 1,000).

Of the 95 bus routes, 64 operated seven days a week (62 of those were “local” or “coverage”); 29 operated on weekdays only (25 of those were “commuter” or “rapid”); two operated on weekdays and one weekend day (one was “local” and one was “commuter”).  The three light-rail routes operated seven days a week and were classified as “rapid.”

In terms of the percentage difference in average daily ridership in August 2019 compared to August 2022 (Saturday and/or Sunday service was added on 11 bus routes in this time frame, but comparisons were made only on common days of operation), the routes ranged from 11.4 to 86.9 percent below the three-year-earlier level.  Four routes having the smallest three-year shortfalls—less than 20 percent below August 2019—ranged from 11.4 to 14.3 percent lower.  All four were “local” or “coverage” routes.  There were two routes for which August 2022 ridership exceeded August 2019; both occurred on a weekend day of operation.  

Three years ago, nine routes had average daily ridership of 10,000 or more.  In August 2022 there were only four such routes.  The bus route with the highest average ridership this August was the 51 route, which had average ridership of 11,493. There were 34 routes with ridership 50 percent or more below ridership three years ago.  Meanwhile the light-rail Red Line had average ridership of 10,601, a drop of almost half from August 2019.

The table below shows the 10 routes with the largest percentage declines in ridership from 2019 levels.   All 10 routes terminate in downtown Pittsburgh.  All were bus mode, all operated weekdays only and all but one was “rapid” or “commuter.”  This is likely due, in large measure, to the continuing shift to remote work occurring in office settings in the City of Pittsburgh and other commercial centers in the county.  Bear in mind, too, that 24 additional routes not shown had ridership declines of 50 percent or more.  On bus routes, the average $9.87 cost per bus trip could double for routes with ridership 80 percent or more below the August 2019 level and depending on the length of the average passenger trip.

PRT August Route Performance, 2019 to 2022

Remedial and cost-cutting recommendations

As was argued in the previous PRT Brief, if ridership does not increase dramatically by year’s end, PRT needs to look at bus routes with extremely low levels of ridership and either cut trips or begin shifting service to much smaller vehicles that consume much less fuel and have, overall, drastically lower operation costs. Note that currently, of the 725 buses PRT operates, 30 are 35 feet in length, which is the smallest size bus PRT operates. On light-rail the options to lower operating costs are limited to fewer trips and running single-unit trains.

Although PRT adjusts service on a quarterly basis, with the next adjustment scheduled to go into effect in November, the very low-performing routes should be candidates for changes along the lines suggested above. 

PRT is utilizing federal COVID aid to fill shortfalls and how long that money will last depends on how ridership recovers.  The entities that provide recurring taxpayer subsidies to PRT—Pennsylvania, Allegheny County and the Regional Asset District (RAD)—should re-evaluate support if significant service changes don’t happen.  To date, there has been no indication of a change in their funding levels.

The state’s FY2022-23 budget shifted sales and use-tax money to replace Turnpike dollars (as was directed by Act 89 of 2013) in the public transportation trust fund that subsidize PRT and other transit agencies in Pennsylvania. PRT has received $68.3 million in state operating assistance through September, the first three months of the current fiscal year.  Legislators need to look at ridership at all systems across the state and consider cutting funding if ridership remains dramatically below pre-pandemic levels.

Allegheny County’s alcoholic beverage and vehicle-rental taxes and a RAD grant match the state dollars that come to PRT.  Both the county’s and RAD’s budgets have to be approved by the end of the year. The county is budgeting $49.5 million and RAD’s preliminary budget includes $3 million.  That latter amount has been requested and approved each year since 2013 even though RAD board members urged state and local leaders to find other sources of money when the initial grant was made. RAD now has even stronger grounds for refusing to contribute.

It is past time for these governing bodies to be much better stewards of the tax dollars sent to PRT and to go further and demand remedial steps to reduce PRT operational costs that were far out of line with other transit agencies before the pandemic.