The Port Authority board voted unanimously this morning to amend its $183.5 million capital budget to move $1.56 million toward a study of Bus Rapid Transit — a project that would create special bus service between Downtown and Oakland.
The $4 million study is a necessary step to qualify for federal funding because the Federal Transit Administration requires an environmental analysis of the project as well as engineering plans, including "vetting" alternative routes (converting a lane of Forbes Avenue or additional lane on Fifth Avenue to be bus-only, for instance). The transit agency hopes to apply for federal funds by August 2016, board chairman Robert Hurley says.
"This will bring us to nearly three quarters of the funding for this project," says Hurley, referring to the BRT study. The county is kicking in $1 million — and there is $440,000 remaining on an existing $1.5 million BRT contract with Parsons Brinckerhoff — a study that "was stalled as a new administration came in." Hurley said he anticipates going back to the county for the remaining $1 million.
The project will require coordination between the Port Authority, city and county governments — and while mayor Bill Peduto has signaled his support for BRT in the past, he has not been as vocal an advocate as county executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has estimated the total cost of BRT in the neighborhood of $200 million.
"There will be a point in time where what we're going will have to be done in conjunction with the city," Hurley says, adding that meetings with the Peduto administration have been productive and "they're full-fledged behind this."
The resolution approved this morning moves $1.56 million that was previously approved for "North Braddock Avenue Bridge Painting and Repairs" — though Hurley says the move will leave $3.34 million for the bridge project and won't affect other capital projects: "We're not robbing Peter to pay Paul."
Port Authority announced today a special board meeting to consider "potential amendments" to its fiscal year 2015 budget. The meeting is expected to include a discussion on funding streams for a $4 million study of Bus Rapid Transit.
The meeting will be held Tuesday, July 15,at 9:30 a.m. in the Port Authority board room — on the fifth floor of 345 Sixth Ave, Downtown.
The Port Authority board announced today it will hold a public meeting to discuss possible funding streams for a $4 million study of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) — a project that would create separately branded rapid bus service between Downtown and Oakland.
The study is a necessary step to qualify for federal funding, according to board chairman Robert Hurley, because the Federal Transit Administration requires an environmental analysis of the project as well as engineering plans, including "vetting" alternative routes (converting a lane of Forbes Avenue or additional lane on Fifth Avenue to be bus-only, for instance).
A date for the meeting has not yet been set, but will be held in the next couple weeks, Hurley says.
"I believe this board is in favor of [BRT]," Hurley says, "It's really a development project that has support" from the business and medical community.
The county is kicking in $1 million for the study — other funding streams will be discussed at the meeting (including amendments to the authority's $388 million operating budget which includes no fare hikes or service cuts, and was approved unanimously today along with a $183 million capital budget).
The board previously contracted with Parsons Brinkerhoff for $1.5 million to conduct an analysis of alternatives and environmental study of the BRT project, but changes in the authority's leadership and board stalled the process, Hurley said. (The FTA also changed its rules and now allows transit agencies to conduct one large study that includes an engineering analysis instead of several small studies, according to Chris Sandvig, regional policy director at the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group).
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a BRT supporter, has previously said the project could cost around $200 million, though Hurley notes the study "will help us figure out what the real future cost is."
Some transit advocates have question the wisdom of an investment that large in a transit corridor that is already well-served, arguing the agency should be putting its resources into restoring routes that have lost service.
That argument got some support from North Baldwin residents who showed up at the board meeting this morning to ask Port Authority to restore route 50-Spencer, which was cut in 2011.
Hurley said he's received "a number of letters" on restoring service to Baldwin. He said he couldn't promise service restoration, but "The board is going to take a look at where we need to restore service."
Yesterday, Twitter noticed a new set of ads on Port Authority buses.
And the jokes started rolling in.
Followed by speculation.
Which turned out to be....correct.
Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie confirms the ad is for "Sullivan Air Conditioning" and "another ad currently running says it's time to update your air conditioning." He didn't immediately confirm how many buses the ads are on.
Neither Sullivan nor their ad agency immediately responded to a request for comment.
But if their website is any indication, husbands around Pittsburgh have plenty to fear.
UPDATE: Colleen Geletko, marketing coordinator for Sullivan Super Service, said the ads are in "[celebration] of our 50th year of service [and] we thought we’d do something fun to grab people’s attention."
The ads that simply say "your wife is hot" were meant to run for two weeks without any context, Geletko says, but there was a "mix-up" which caused them to appear along with this ad at the same time:
The ads went up Wednesday and are currently running on 80 buses, according to Geletko.
It's not the first time Sullivan used this advertising strategy: Similar ads were placed on billboards in 2011, Geletko says, but they didn't generate the level of buzz they were looking for.
Asked whether there was concern that the ads would appear to be sexist, Geletko said "We’re talking about the wife’s body temperature."
"The millennials are coming in force."
That was top among Pittsburgh's major economic trends noted by Bill Lawrence, one of nine panelists who spent the last week touring the region and meeting with interest groups to help Port Authority come up with a long-term vision.
And it turns out many of the panel's recommendations for the transit agency involve attracting that demographic group born after 1980 who apparently really hate cars and really like public transit. It's what the panel called "a shift from utility service delivery to hospitality delivery."
The panel recommended a number of technological improvements: a mobile platform that would handle everything from schedules to fare payment — something they said could be rolled out within the year; interactive bus shelters complete with touch screens; real-time information about when the next transit vehicle will arrive (The real-time system is already a work-in-progress).
Other recommendations included expanding late-night transit options and coordinating to make sure that future development throughout the region is transit-oriented and making service to the airport more attractive.
The panel seemed to agree with Port Authority that Act 89, the state legislation that gives Port Authority roughly half a billion more dollars through 2019, doesn't offer enough funding for new projects or restoration of old service. (Largely because the agency had been projecting large and increasing deficits).
All of which raises the question: who's going to pay for a technologically advanced transit system? The panel suggested a number of options, ranging from a regional sales tax increase, to a $2 fee at every Port Authority parking lot and every paid commuter parking lot.
There were plenty of other suggestions presented this morning — Port Authority says the panel's slides will be posted on their website soon, and the full written report will be available in 2-3 months.
"This is an excellent start to think about," said Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean immediately after the presentation. "It's comprehensive and a little overwhelming."
For at least the next five weeks, Port Authority is asking members of the general public to help come up with a vision for the county's transit future.
Through a "MindMixer" website that launched today, spokesman Jim Ritchie says the hope is to start a county-wide conversation. Topics range from "What is your vision of a modern public transit system for Allegheny County?" to specific questions about whether the county should move forward with Bus Rapid Transit, create new light rail lines or further develop the busways.
Part of the impetus for launching the site is the funding package that cleared Harrisburg last year (known as Act 89), which finally gives Port Authority a chance to consider issues other than how much service to cut.
But the website's launch also coincides with the first day a group of experts from around the country will spend a week touring the county's transit infrastructure and making a series of recommendations about what the Port Authority should look like in the long-term. Those experts were culled through the Urban Land Institute — a non-profit for which Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean used to work. The week will culminate with a presentation of their recommendations on Friday.
Several arrests are pending in the Port Authority's first known case of ConnectCard fraud, the agency announced this morning.
"We know that there have been four ConnectCards that have been fraudulently reproduced," said Kevin Atkins, a Port Authority Police detective.
The ConnectCard system, rolled out late in 2012, lets riders load cash or passes on cards roughly the size of a credit card, which can be swiped at any farebox. The agency has been trying to persuade more riders to use the cards, and hasn't ruled out price changes for cash users to speed the transition.
The fraudulent cards were loaded with monthly passes and sold, Atkins said, adding they were deactivated after Port Authority noticed an unusual spike in usage on the cards.
The agency released few details, but stressed that there was no data breach, and the ConnectCard system is less vulnerable than the paper-pass system it replaced.
"We're talking with the vendor at this time to better understand the risk," Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie said.
Atkins said he could not comment on the number of people the agency plans to arrest, when those arrests would be made, how long the fraud was going on or how sophisticated it was.
Atkins said "several people" have been questioned, and the charges will likely include access device fraud.
The investigation is ongoing and those with information about the case may call Port Authority Police at 412-255-1385.
Over the past few weeks, Port Authority has been not-so-subtly reminding the public not to mess with its drivers.
They've installed orange stickers on virtually every vehicle which read: "Assault of a public transit vehicle operator is a felony. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law." And while assaulting a driver will likely result in felony charges, the sign — legally speaking — isn't quite accurate.
"If that’s a statement made in a legal brief, we’d say that’s inaccurate," says John Burkoff, a Pitt law professor. But "It’s certainly not far off from the truth."
Technically, according to state law, it is a felony to assault a public transit employee if a person causes "or intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes serious bodily injury." But if someone causes (non-serious) bodily injury, the DA could bring misdemeanor rather than felony charges for the assault. (A first degree felony carries a maximum of 20 years in prison; a first degree misdemeanor carries a maximum of five years).
The grading of the offense, according to a plain reading of the statute, doesn't change just because the assault happens to be of a public transit worker. Still, because the legislature went out of its way to mention public transit workers in the definition of aggravated assault, it is more likely the DA's office will bring the more serious charge, Burkoff says.
And it's clear the DA's office will err on the side of felony charges.
"If a bus driver is assaulted and there is injury, it’s a good bet that they are going to be charged with the felony one," writes Mike Manko, spokesman for the Allegheny County DA's office.
Over the past two years, the number of assaults of Port Authority drivers has been relatively stable (there were 12 assaults in 2013, three more than the previous year).
Ritchie says the Port Authority didn't install the orange stickers because "of any single incident" or trend, though he says drivers are frequently spit and cursed at — sometimes over nothing more than a fare dispute. "It's to get people to re-think the course of action if they're prone to that sort of behavior."
UPDATE: After this post was published, Jim Ritchie offered further comment via email.
While we appreciate that aggravated assault requires serious bodily injury and that charges can often be downgraded/negotiated to a lesser degree even where serious bodily injury occurs, the statute provides on its face that aggravated assault of an employee of an agency engaged in public transportation, while in the performance of duty, is a felony of the first degree.
And, when it comes to the safety and well-being of our employees, we are going to make the strongest statement we believe that we can make (and push for felony charges in all cases) versus considering the “technical” possibility that charges can be reduced to a lesser degree and/or that serious bodily injury will not ultimately occur.
Any time an individual assaults a public transit operator operating a 40 foot or larger bus full of passengers, the risk of serious bodily harm is inherent. So, we believe it is an accurate and appropriate warning to the public of possible charges they could face if they resort to violence against one of our operators.
For the first time in recent memory, the Port Authority isn't asking itself how to explain that funding shortfalls require another round of service reductions or fare increases.
Today, the agency released funding projections that show it will likely not reduce service or increase fares, but instead will be looking for ways to enhance service in the short-term, while figuring out how to modernize the system in the long-term.
"We're not going to be in cut mode again," says Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean. The state funding package "confirms we can continue the existing service."
The authority released funding projections that show the state transit bill, passed late last year, will significantly increase the amount of funding the agency receives each year from state and local governments. But the projections also show that without the funding bill, the authority would have been forced into insolvency or even more service cuts.
Here's what the numbers provided by Port Authority show (if you stick around long enough, you'll find out what all this means for the average transit rider!):
Next year, the authority is projected to receive nearly $92 million more funding than it did before the transit bill kicked in, which represents an almost 50 percent increase in support from the state. (Over the past five years, the Port Authority has received between $156 million and $184 million each year from the state.) In fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the authority is projected to receive nearly $100 million more than it would otherwise have received — and in fiscal year 2018 the additional amount is projected to jump to $109 million.
The table also shows a significant increase in "operating deficit": It jumps from $34 million in FY 2014 to about $95 million in FY 2019. That number reflects what the Port Authority's deficit would have been if it were flat-funded, and is largely related to increased health care costs and other retiree obligations, McLean says. In other words, according to Port Authority's estimates, the cost of maintaining the current level of service was slated to increase -- and the new money is mostly going to be spent on plugging what otherwise would have been a pretty sizable hole.
As operating costs (including stuff like health care) grow, more of the funding increases will go to operating expenses instead of long-term capital projects -- represented in the blue and green bars, respectively. (Port Authority must get a waiver to use capital funds for operating costs or vice versa).
Still, over the next five years, the authority will see nearly $158 million more in capital money alone. So what might that mean for the average transit rider?
According to McLean, the first steps will be to improve on-time performance, reliability of service and overcrowding. That effort could involve running more buses or larger buses and will be based on a more data-driven effort to understand where the problems are. Some of this will be phased in over the next few months.
Larger service changes -- like adding or changing routes -- won't happen until late September at the earliest ... though "We're not committing to any route increases," McLean says.
Most of the agency's long-term plans don't exist yet, since the authority has been wrestling with austerity budgets for most of the last decade (though bus rapid transit may be in the offing). McLean plans to start making those plans this summer.
The Port Authority plans to bring in national experts (yet to be named) for a week in May to help come up with an overall transit strategy through the Urban Land Institute Advisory Services Program. The idea is that by asking smart transit people around the country to come in for a week and tour the system. They'll also meet with a number of different stakeholder groups, and come up with an independent report that will help guide the authority forward, McLean says.
They'll be asked everything from "What is the strategic blueprint for a modern transit system in Allegheny County that best serves the region's growth patterns?" to questions about integrating BRT service and potential financing mechanisms.
Essentially, this is a chance for Port Authority to think seriously about what the system should look like years down the road.
And McLean, who was just named CEO Jan. 24, says she isn't about to screw up a chance to modernize the system. "We're not rushing to spend this money," she says. "This is our shot."
As if their battle with UPMC weren't hard enough, Highmark officially announced today a war against another major Pittsburgh institution: unbearably cold bus stops.
But installing "overhead heat lamps" at four bus stops — three Downtown, one on the North Side — isn't just an effort to heat the outdoors; it's an attempt to earn a little name recognition.
"We knew the cold months are coming," says Highmark spokesman Doug Braunsdorf. "It was certainly a way to get our name out."
The lamps are activated by a button at the stops, which on a recent frigid evening at Fifth and Ross, seemed to elicit a Pavlovian response (the company has not ruled out some sort of cooling apparatus in the summer months).
“These warming stations may be novel and something for people to talk about, but more importantly they show our commitment to the health and well-being of people in Pittsburgh," says Highmark executive Steve Nelson, according to a press release. "It may be a small gesture, but it shows that we care."
One can only hope UPMC responds with curbside espresso bars.
The heaters can be found at the following stops:
*Boulevard of the Allies and Stanwix Street
*Liberty Avenue and Ninth Street
*Fifth Avenue and Ross Street
*Reedsdale Street and Boyce Street
I left Pittsburgh in 2008 but kept reading DK. I'm in.
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