Bland updates PAT status

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Fresh from his May contract extension as Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO, Steve Bland gave an update on PAT’s condition, goals and needs during the African American Chamber of Commerce June PowerBreakfast meeting.

With so many businesses–small and Black-owned businesses in particular–in Pittsburgh and the county relying on public transit to get their employees to and from work, Chamber President and CEO Doris Carson Williams asked Bland to inform chamber members on the authority’s status.

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MOVING FORWARD—Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Steve Bland updates African American Chamber of Commerce members on PAT’s viability and future of its ability to provide mass transit to their employees.

Though cautiously optimistic about the authority’s future, Bland reiterated that without a consistent, dedicated state funding stream for mass transit, the authority would fail. It’s just a matter of how quickly it happens.

“We have four scenarios; a stable system, a slow decline, a rapid decline and a death spiral,” he said. “We are like the Social Security and Medicare crisis in miniature, but it doesn’t seem so miniature to me.”

The stable system, he said, would require $350 million in statewide funding, a 15 percent county match, and “unprecedented real change” to PAT’s union contracts.

“The unions have increased their portion of healthcare payments, but we’re going to need more from them in about a year when the current contract expires,” he said.

From a managerial and efficiency standpoint, Bland said the authority has done about all it can. Though ridership is down about 8 percent since the March service cuts went into effect, the system is still carrying 92 percent of the ridership it had in 2006 when he arrived.

“In the last five years, we have doubled the payments from the local universities, which means an additional $16 million in operating income,” he said. “And our major service redesign has resulted in a 63 percent increase in ridership per route and 30 percent increase per vehicle. Even the Allegheny Conference and the Tribune-Review, not historically our biggest supporters, have praised our efforts.”

Those efforts will continue he said with implementation of the “smart card” fare system, which he said universities would incorporate in their student IDs, the opening of the North Shore Connector next spring, and the possible deployment of a “rapid bus” express system between Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland.

With respect to the North Shore Connector, Bland said it could allow for buses such as the 18 Manchester, the 14 Ohio Valley, and the Bellevue buses to deposit passengers at the North Side station rather than having to loop through Downtown.

He also said the authority has purchased more articulated buses and is expanding its park-and-ride lots. But even its new efficiencies would be meaningless if they cannot reduce the long-term legacy costs of retiree pensions and health insurance.

According to a chart showing an 8-year trend in costs while system operating costs have risen at an a 2.8 percent rate, maintenance at 3.1 percent and safety/risk management at 9 percent, the authority’s legacy costs have risen at a rate of 69.5 percent.

“We are constitutionally prohibited from changing what current retirees have,” he said. “We have eliminated the free-healthcare-for-life and fixed pensions for all non-represented personnel a few years back, and this year, for the first time, we actually saw a reduction in those costs. We need to do the same with the rest of our personnel.”

On the bright side, Bland added, Governor Tom Corbett has empanelled a transit commission to address the state funding issue, and Dennis Yablonski, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Economic Development is on the commission.

“Dennis has assured me that this is his number one priority,” said Bland.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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