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April 30, 1998

Staff, faculty will ride free, too, if plan is approved by trustees, PAT

Under a proposal that 92 percent of 3,395 voting students endorsed in a recent campus ballot, Pitt students would pay up to $30 more per semester in fees in exchange for free, unlimited access to Port Authority Transit (PAT) buses and trains.

If Pitt trustees and PAT's board of directors approve the plan, faculty and staff likewise will be able to flash their Pitt ID cards and ride for free on any of PAT's 226 routes.

The cost to Pitt employees? $0.

The University administration decided to subsidize extending the PAT-wide pass to faculty and staff for several pragmatic reasons, according to G. Robert Harkins, director of Pitt's Department of Parking, Transportation and Services:

* It's unlikely, especially in rush hour traffic, that PAT drivers would take the time to differentiate between student and employee ID cards.

* According to a University survey, faculty and staff make up 10 percent of the ridership in the Pitt-subsidized U-Zone system. The system, begun in May 1995, provides free PAT bus rides for Pitt students and employees within Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. In expanding the system to take in all of Allegheny County, Pitt's administration would simply continue to subsidize employee ridership.

* Pitt will lose 930-1,300 parking spaces over the next three-to-five years through construction of the Convocation Center adjacent to Pitt Stadium and the Multi-Purpose Academic Center (MPAC) at Forbes Avenue and Bouquet Street, among other projects. "If we can pull another couple of hundred cars out of Oakland through this [extending free PAT ridership throughout the county to faculty and staff], then it will be easier to adjust," Harkins told the University Senate plant utilization and planning (PUP) committee at its April 23 meeting.

* Nearly all Pitt students, commuters and dorm residents alike, stand to benefit from free PAT access — if not educationally, then in their social and work lives. But many employees will continue driving or walking to Pitt, eschewing public transportation even if it's free.

"When we originally looked into this a few years ago, we wanted to charge faculty and staff as well as students. But we couldn't find a practical way of doing it, especially now that we've gone to a one-card [ID] system. We didn't want to charge those faculty and staff who don't use it," Harkins told PUP.

PUP chairperson Mike Spring warned that the new system might be too successful in discouraging faculty and staff from leasing Pitt parking spaces. Faced with paying $65 a month for an indoor space or riding PAT for free, many employees would opt for PAT, Spring said. Or, several employees might jointly pay for a single parking spot.

Harkins welcomed both possibilities. Despite over-subscribing (selling more monthly leases than it has spaces, on the assumption that not all lessees will show up on a given day), Parking and Transportation has a waiting list of 300 faculty and staff seeking spaces and another 300 who want to switch lots, Harkins said.

Harkins also noted that his department offers $5 per month discounts for employees who car pool.

Under the expanded PAT system, employees and students could create their own park-and-ride systems, Harkins suggested. "For example, you could park at Ross Park Mall and catch a [route] 500 bus, which comes directly to the Pitt campus about every 20 minutes," he said.

Pitt's administration is considering two options for charging students: raising the security and transportation fee by $30 (to $67) per semester for full-time students and $15 (to $31) for part-timers, or charging all students a flat $55 per semester security and transportation fee. "The current thinking [among Pitt officials] favors the flat fee," Harkins said, because part-time students would benefit just as much as full-timers from the extended system.

Because it involves increasing student fees, the proposal requires approval from Pitt's Board of Trustees. The board is expected to consider the plan at its June 25 meeting.

PAT's board also would need to approve the proposal. Port Authority officials say that expanding the system will generate more farebox revenue as well as government transit subsidies.

During the plan's first year, Pitt and PAT will study ridership trends and fine-tune the system, according to Harkins. One issue that needs to be resolved is how PAT will check validity of ID cards.

"We don't reissue cards every year, and there are a lot of old cards floating around," Harkins pointed out.

Issuing separate employee cards for the PAT system — or reverting to old-fashioned stickers on cards — would defeat the purpose of Pitt's single ID system, Harkins said.

Until PAT installs farebox equipment to electronically scan ID cards and make sure they're valid, former University students and employees will be able to show old cards and ride PAT for free, Harkins acknowledged.

He emphasized the system's academic potential. "The thing that excites me about this whole concept is that it basically opens up the entire city and region. Instructors will be able to take their students Downtown or wherever, for free, as part of a class.

"This gives everybody the opportunity to use Pittsburgh as a regional laboratory for learning, as opposed to just using our own campus," he said.

Free ridership also will make life easier, or at least cheaper, for students with off-campus jobs and internships, Harkins said.

"You go to Penn State and you say, 'Gee whiz, look at all this green space.' Well, we don't have that. We have a city. And the more we do to capitalize on that, the better." Of 3,395 voting students, 92 percent favored raising student fees in return for free, unlimited PAT access. Harkins said his office didn't poll faculty and staff because they wouldn't pay for the new service.

Nonetheless, University Senate President Gordon MacLeod reported this month that he and three other members of the Senate's executive committee endorsed the proposal.

Staff Association Council (SAC) President Brian Hart told Senate Council April 13 that SAC neither endorsed nor disapproved of the plan because it mainly affected students, and "students should speak first" on the issue.

— Bruce Steele and Peter Hart

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