These days, we almost take it for granted that the private sector alone functions efficiently. Whenever it's something really important -- like financing our political campaigns or our pension funds -- we turn to our trustworthy, dependable friends in Wall Street. Government, meanwhile, is practically synonymous with waste and fraud.
And with the Port Authority facing massive deficits, the likelihood of the second fare increase in as many years, and cutbacks in service, it's understandable if you get nostalgic for the days when private firms operated our mass transit. Why not go back to the good old days when the city was served by privately owned transit lines with such proud names as the "Bigi Bus Lines" or the "Noble J. Dick Line"? Before the Port Authority bought them all out in 1964, there were 30 bus lines serving the city and its environs. There were also two companies operating the city's dwindling number of inclines and, most importantly, there was the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which operated the city's trolleys.
What was the legacy of this private enterprise? Massive deficits, repeated fare increases and cutbacks in service.
By 1960, Pittsburgh Railways had already gone bankrupt twice, once as a result of litigation arising from a 1917 Christmas Eve trolley accident that killed 21 people. Many transit lines were facing the same fate: According to a 1961 Post-Gazette story, in the 13 years prior to1960, bus ridership dropped 20 percent, while trolleys had lost three-quarters of their riders. In the same period of time, vehicle ownership in Allegheny County had more than doubled. Privately owned mass transit just couldn't compete with the automobile, especially when it was divided among so many owners, each maintaining its own fares, schedules and maintenance.
Not surprisingly, the creature comforts of mass transit suffered as a result of dropping profits. As a 1961 Post-Gazette account had it, riders had to contend with "[e]ver-increasing fares and ever-decreasing service, the inadequacy, infrequency and unreliability of service and schedules & the discomfort of being jammed into overcrowded buses during rush hours."
Aren't you glad that public ownership has solved all these problems?
But whatever the Port Authority's continuing flaws, bus riders today don't have to worry about many of the problems that plagued riders of a half-century ago. For example, you couldn't buy a transfer to cheaply switch routes when the routes were owned by different companies. And having 30 separate bus lines -- each with its own administration, maintenance facilities and so on -- created inefficiencies that those in the public sector can only dream about. Those very inefficiencies, however, meant that many struggling lines were likely to go out of business, threatening communities with a lack of service entirely.
That uneven service led many civic leaders to agitate for a public takeover of the transit system (among its biggest proponents: those noted Bolsheviks at the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce). Repeated efforts to put mass transit under public control failed because of legal barriers, but in 1964 the Port Authority was able to issue a bond financing the acquisition of 33 local carriers.
As any bus rider knows, something about mass transit inspires the imagination. In the early 1960s, the air was heady with utopian dreams of mass transit (or it could just be that people were getting dizzy from the diesel fumes.) In 1961, for example, a 156-page document recommending building a "tramway" joining the top of Mount Washington with Downtown's Gateway Center with gondola cars. There was also talk that year of a "horizontal elevator" rail system for which, as a Pittsburgh Press account put it, "There would be no schedule." At each platform, "Commuters simply would 'push a button' as one does for an elevator, and the computer would send the 'train,'" ensuring that "there would be a seat for everyone." Most ludicrous of all was a plan to dig a subway tunnel underneath the Allegheny River to serve the newly built Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side.
Today, happily, we're no longer foolish enough to spend millions of dollars on a subway just to ensure sports fans don't have to walk a couple hundred yards to Three Rivers Stadium. We plan to spend millions of dollars on a subway just to ensure they don't have to walk to PNC Park or Heinz Field instead. The subway will now serve twice as many stadiums as we had before; now that's efficiency, government-style.