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July 23, 1998

Pitt staff, faculty, students to ride PAT for free, beginning Aug. 1

Beginning Aug. 1, fac- ulty, staff and students can ride Port Authority Transit (PAT) buses and light-rail vehicles throughout Allegheny County 24 hours a day merely by flashing their Pitt I.D. card. The PAT board of directors approved a five-year contract with the University at a July 21 meeting. Pitt's Board of Trustees approved the agreement last month. Under terms of the contract, the University will pay PAT more than $8.3 million over five years. "This agreement is clearly a win-win situation for both Port Authority and the University of Pittsburgh," said Paul P. Skoutelas, PAT's executive director. "While Pitt students, faculty and employees realize the benefits of vastly expanded transit service for minimal cost, Port Authority is certain to experience significant ridership increases." Just how many extra riders there will be is unknown. Both Pitt and PAT have escape clauses and provisions to renegotiate the annual fees based on ridership counts.

According to Judi McNeil, Port Authority media relations spokesperson, PAT will start monitoring ridership Aug. 1. The parties agreed to one "test" year, so that after a better measurement of rider patterns is gauged, each can decide how to adjust, McNeil said. For Pitt, the adjustment might come in decreased or increased annual payments. PAT could add routes or more buses to existing routes. "It's an ongoing process. We just don't know yet, and it's really impossible to guess," McNeil said. The new agreement is an outgrowth of the U-Zone system, begun in spring 1995, which allowed Pitt I.D. holders free access to buses within Oakland, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. According to G. Robert Harkins, director of Pitt's Department of Parking, Transportation and Services, Pitt's participation in the U-Zone system increased ridership by about 1.4 million riders per year within the zone. Harkins projects more than an additional million riders per year county-wide. But he stressed that was only an estimate. "PAT will begin surveying ridership, and we'll know better [what the totals are]," he said. "We also plan to contact our students, especially part-time students, to measure their use." Full- and part-time students will pay a $55 per term security, safety and transportation fee, which was authorized by Pitt's trustees June 25, to help defray the cost of the service. Part-time students are being charged a disproportionate increase over the previous fee — an additional $39 versus an increase of $18 for full-time students — on the assumption that part-timers can use the service as much as full-time students. The fee will also fund continued improvements in Oakland campus lighting.

The University's administration will subsidize employee ridership.

McNeil said, "We started small with the U-Zone agreement a few years ago, and it's really grown. We're really pleased with the partnership with the University. "One benefit to PAT is that the contract agreement gives us a predictable revenue stream, which we don't have normally, because of weather and other factors," McNeil said. PAT can also expect increased revenue from federal transit subsidies that are tied to increased ridership, she said. "To me, what is so exciting about this agreement is that now our campus has expanded to the whole county," Harkins said. "A faculty member can take a class Downtown, to the science center, to the Warhol museum, wherever. And kids can take transportation to the malls, the airport, all over." This is an educational as well as a social benefit, he said. According to Harkins, the agreement should help alleviate Pitt's chronic parking problems, too. "We're going to lose about a thousand of our 4,700 parking spaces over the next few years, with the building of the convocation center and other projects. But more people taking PAT buses to work or school should help off-set the loss," Harkins said. He estimated that the agreement would mean about 200 fewer cars daily in Oakland, a figure that could rise as the service gains in popularity.

Also proposed but not finalized, Harkins said, is an internal arrangement that would allow staff members, already eligible for the PAT service, to waive some or all of the transportation fee should they enroll in classes as part-time students.

The University's Payroll/Tax Department reported that beginning with the July paycheck they will no longer deduct payment for PAT bus passes from employees' checks. According to Harkins, this agreement might become a model for other cities and urban universities. "We're also trying to build a culture here, where the city is our educational and cultural laboratory," he said. "If you're going to Pitt, Pittsburgh is a big piece of that. We're inextricably linked."

–Peter Hart

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