PRT-ATU contract is a missed opportunity

Summary: Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) and the Amalgamated Transit Union have agreed to a generous four-year labor contract, twice the length of the previous contract and likely to cover the time period when remaining federal COVID aid is expended. Apparently, the contract does not provide for employment cuts despite passenger counts remaining far below pre-pandemic levels.

Based on a PRT news release, the contract includes pay raises totaling 12.75 percent and bonuses for employees based on the hours they worked from March 2020 through June 2021, up to a maximum $4,000.  The starting wage for a new operator will be around $25 an hour and the top rate over $38 an hour, “keeping PRT employees among the highest paid transit workers in the nation.”

According to PRT, as of Dec. 8 there were 1,044 active bus and light-rail operators (excluding student operators) making an average wage of $30.78 per hour.      

PRT’s CEO has said the ridership level of March 2020 is not coming back.  As of October 2022, average bus and light-rail ridership are 34 percent and 52 percent, respectively, below where they stood in pre-pandemic October 2019.

Institute research has shown how operator pay drives the high operating costs at PRT. 

Policy Brief Vol. 19, No. 43 measured operator compensation on a per revenue mile basis.  Utilizing 2017 data from the National Transit Database (NTD), with $60.1 million in bus operator wages and salaries, $70.6 million in fringe benefits and 21 million bus vehicle revenue miles driven, PRT bus operator wages and salaries per revenue mile were $2.86 and fringe benefits per revenue mile were $3.35. 

Those were at the top among a 10-city sample that included transit agencies in Cleveland, San Antonio, St. Louis, Charlotte and Milwaukee.  Wages and salaries per revenue mile in the sample averaged $2.42 and fringe benefits per revenue mile averaged $1.96. 

Examining NTD’s data for the years 2018 through 2021, PRT bus operator wages and salaries grew, fringe benefits grew until 2021 and vehicle revenue miles decreased.  As a result, wages and salaries and fringe benefits per revenue mile rose each year. 

In 2021, bus operator wages and salaries per revenue mile were $3.57 and fringe benefits per revenue mile were $3.82.  In percentage terms on a per revenue mile basis, wages and salaries were 25 percent higher and fringe benefits 14 percent higher than in 2017. NTD data on operating expense per passenger mile shows PRT’s expense rose 207 percent from 2017 to 2021.  Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 39 estimated costs per passenger based on August ridership.

PRT and seven of the nine agencies included in the 2019 Brief reported bus operator wages and salaries and fringe benefits for 2021.  Again, by no surprise, PRT topped the list.  On wages and salaries per revenue mile, the sample average was $2.90, putting PRT $0.67 (23 percent) above the average.  Cleveland, Columbus and Kansas City were the only other agencies with wages and salaries per revenue mile above $3.00. 

PRT Bus Operator Compensation per Vehicle Revenue Mile, 2017 to 2021

On fringe benefits per revenue mile, the sample average was $2.27 and PRT was $1.55 above the average.  Four agencies—Cleveland, Columbus, Kansas City and St. Louis—topped $2 per revenue mile in fringe benefits. Agencies exceeded PRT’s growth rate in wages and salaries and fringe benefits from 2017 to 2021 but none ended up with per vehicle mile values greater than PRT. 

As noted in Policy Brief Vol. 22, No. 19, NTD’s “Transit Profiles: 2019 Top 50 Reporters” (ranked by the number of unlinked trips on all transit modes offered by an agency), PRT was fifth highest of the 19 agencies that operated light-rail when measuring operating expense per vehicle revenue hour. 

According to the same NTD report, 43 agencies operated buses.  PRT ranked sixth highest at $199.09 operating expense per vehicle revenue hour.  Three agencies in the New York City metropolitan area and two in the San Francisco and Oakland metropolitan area were the only agencies to report a higher expense level than PRT. The five higher cost agencies all operate in areas with a much higher cost of living than Pittsburgh.   

PRT’s annual service reports note the extremely high costs, how they compare to peer agencies and cite legacy costs and the strength of the labor union among the reasons. This is certain to be repeated as new reports are published. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will be carrying out a subsequent performance review as required by Act 44 of 2007. That review examines operating expenses on per-hour and per-passenger basis and compares them to peer agencies.

The new labor contract contains language, in a renewal of language dating to 1997, that limits the use of small transit vehicles (24 or fewer seats) on fixed route service to 3 percent of the large buses in use.  For an authority that should be significantly reducing service in response to the huge drop in passengers (some bus routes remain 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels), the limitation on the use of smaller vehicles is a provision that should never have been agreed to.

State law creating the authority allows strikes when there is a bargaining impasse and fact-finding recommendations and mutual binding interest arbitration are not agreed to.  Pennsylvania is virtually unique in allowing public transit workers to strike. It creates enormous bargaining power that, over time, has allowed the union to receive wages and benefits that are far above peer agencies around the country.

Policymakers at the state and county level should use the time between now and the contract’s expiration to make the changes needed to lower the high costs of the agency for the benefit of state and county taxpayers that subsidize the system.  The opportunities for change are there and the evidence is overwhelming.

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.

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.