The Port Authority mess

The Port Authority mess

There are dichotomies, ironies and misconceptions as thick as they are rich in the latest drama that has overtaken the Port Authority of Allegheny County. And yes, we mean this pejoratively.

The mass-transit agency that continues to suck for air when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic’s lingering effects on ridership is offering free rides through Sunday.

But it’s not an attempt to build back ridership, per se; it’s because it no longer can guarantee service. The free rides are billed as a “thank you” for inconveniencing the public – the woefully few members of the public still using mass transit in Allegheny County, that is.

Service cannot now be guaranteed because about 180 bus and trolley drivers and about 300 other workers are refusing to get vaccinated, have been told not to report to work until they do and face a long and drawn out disciplinary/compliance process that would make the French coiners of the word “bureaucracy” blush.

“(H)eld off work with pay until their disciplinary hearing,” is how Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph described it to me in a Wednesday email. That’s part of the unionized work force’s collective bargaining agreement, he reminded.

Staffing issues have been compounded by other employees apparently calling in sick in support of the vaccination scofflaws. A court dismissed the complaint of the union representing Port Authority workers, which demanded the matter be “negotiated.”

As the Post-Gazette reports it, union employees who have not been fully vaccinated must have a disciplinary hearing before they can be placed on probation and return to work for 30 days.

And if they don’t become fully vaccinated during probation? Authority employees would face another disciplinary hearing and possible termination.

But wait:

“Employees who get their first vaccinations soon still would have to wait for their disciplinary hearing to be placed on probation that would allow them to work for 30 days while they await their second dose,” the P-G says, referring to the Pfizer vaccine. The J&J vaccine is a single dose.

Got that?

Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that, at least at the last official counting, Port Authority ridership remained 60 percent below February 2020 levels, levels that once tanked to as bad as 80 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

And for this, in part, Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman was paid a $23,000 bonus?

Ahem.

Make no mistake, as a matter of public health, we believe these public servants should be vaccinated.

But this dispute, and this disruption of service, is what you get when you allow bureaucrats and labor unions to run roughshod over a public service in a way those blushing French coiners might never have imagined.

The bottom line is that mixing the uncompromising rigidity of cartelism with an intractable bureaucracy — created, in part, by that cartelism — can only result in the kind of dysfunction that the Port Authority and its unionized employees now showcase.

Given this mess – and that would include the Port Authority’s inability to rein in its excessively high-cost structure and some of its planned nonsensical service expansions (extending light-rail service west and north; really?) — it’s past time to consider a far more cost-effective public-private partnership or outright privatization.

But Brandolph balked at our notion that with ridership so chronically down it presents an opportunity to reduce costs by reducing staffing.

“Like all civilized cities in the world, public transportation … plays an important role in the ability for people to get around Pittsburgh and our region. It is a public good,” he wrote. “Port Authority’s mission of connecting people to life is accomplished through more frequent service, not less.”

A “public good”? That’s buncombe, says Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute.

“The Port Authority is a government-operated monopoly, not a public good,” the Ph.D. economist admonishes, noting, too, that transportation services can and have been provided by the private sector.

“Providing more service, not less? At what cost?” Haulk asks. “If buses are nearly empty, reduce the number of routes or runs or get smaller buses.

“Taxpayers were paying heavily for the Port Authority’s outrageous cost per passenger mile before COVID. And it is much higher than that now,” he says.

Haulk also reminds that Pennsylvania Turnpike users and Allegheny County taxpayers heavily subsidize riders and federal borrowing bankrolls the Port Authority’s “egregious excess.”

“No wonder Pittsburgh is such a weak economic performer,” Haulk laments. “The attitude at the Port Authority is pervasive throughout local government and apparently with the voters.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).