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September 2, 2010

Threatened cuts could have major effect on Pitt riders

While the Port Authority of Allegheny County is facing a more than $47 million shortfall in its $330 million operating budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, the consequences likely will be minimal for most Pitt riders — at least for this fall.

However, if threatened “draconian cuts” are made in January, that could change. In addition to the relatively minor route changes in Oakland that begin next week (see related story in this issue), the Port Authority is considering a 35 percent overall reduction in service beginning in January, according to the transit authority. As many as 55 neighborhoods could lose service completely, and many routes would see a reduction in frequency. (Information on the proposed service cuts is available at:

The cuts are needed, officials maintain, to offset dwindling state and county support and rising health care and fuel costs. In addition, the federal government rejected the state’s request to make I-80 a toll road; the revenue from that was expected to help fund transit companies statewide.

A required public response period to the proposed cuts ended Aug. 31. The Port Authority board is expected to announce the specific cuts later in the fall.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell has proposed steps to fund public transit in the commonwealth, including an 8 percent tax on the gross profits for oil companies and increasing a variety of license, registration and vehicle fees, but those proposals have been stalled in the state legislature. (See the News Releases link at:

According to Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie, absent action by the legislature, the Port Authority, which by law must balance its budget, will be forced to implement the service cuts in January.

Also under consideration for January are fare increases, but those would not affect Pitt ID holders.

Under a program launched in 1997, the University agreed to pay an annual fee in exchange for fare-free rides for Pitt ID holders throughout Allegheny County. This Aug. 1 marked the beginning of the fourth year of a five-year contract signed in 2007. For the year Aug. 1, 2010-July 31, 2011, Pitt has agreed to pay a total of $5.91 million in monthly installments. Pitt also agreed to pay $6.8 million for 2011-12, a 15 percent increase over this year’s annual fee.

According to Port Authority figures, Pitt ridership accounts for about 6 million rides annually.

If the January service cuts are implemented, Pitt ridership likely will drop, Ritchie acknowledged.

EBO busEither Pitt or the Port Authority, with 60 days’ notice, can re-open negotiations on the fee.

Eli Shorak, associate vice chancellor for Business, said, “The University’s agreement with the Port Authority does include language acknowledging that the compensation paid by the University is in consideration for a certain level and type of service. The University does plan to consult with the Port Authority regarding service modifications and the impact these may have on our riders. These discussions may also include recommended compensation adjustments if it is determined that service modifications have a significant impact on the University’s overall ridership levels.”

Despite the transit company’s financial woes, the Port Authority is not intending to ask for a renegotiation of fees from the University, Ritchie said. “That has not even been discussed, for two reasons,” he said, namely, that Pitt is already committed to a higher fee for 2011-12, and the contract also includes a “reopener clause” that calls for a renegotiation of the fees to be triggered by the installation on all Port Authority vehicles of fare boxes that use “smart card” technology. That program will change the way Pitt riders are counted, with fare boxes that scan Pitt ID cards replacing the system of drivers manually tracking the number of Pitt riders. The new system is expected to eliminate human error and catch invalid IDs, thus yielding a more accurate count of Pitt rides, Ritchie noted.

Once the smart card technology is installed systemwide, the fee process will change. Instead of Pitt paying a monthly fee, the University will be charged per ride as it is “scored” by the smart card system. A per-ride fee then will have to be negotiated, Ritchie said. “Pitt could be paying by the week, or by the month or some other length of time, but that will need to be worked out,” he said.

Last October, Pitt began issuing all identification cards with a chip that can be read by smart card readers. (See Oct. 1 University Times.)

The new fare box technology has had some bugs in it and is behind the hoped-for installation schedule, Ritchie acknowledged. The earliest the fare boxes will be installed on all vehicles will be sometime in 2012, he said.

In the interim, Ritchie said, there are tentative plans to conduct pilot programs testing the fare boxes’ efficiency and accuracy, first with Port Authority employees and then with Pitt and other local colleges. There is as yet no set timeframe for these pilot programs, Ritchie said.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 1

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