After years of financial struggles and cuts, the Port Authority appears ready to turn the corner.
“We spent the last decade cutting service, now we have the luxury to invest back into service,” says PAT spokesperson Jim Ritchie.
These investments are already paying off with new service extensions for Baldwin and Groveton. And now the authority wants to make sure future changes are made equitably and openly. At a Sept. 17 meeting, PAT presented its new plan to include an “equity score” in the decision-making process for new service additions. The decision to include equity as a factor was made to ensure that service additions would not bypass communities that need public-transit service more than others, says PAT senior analyst Amy Silbermann.
At the meeting, Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean said the process details “what components of equity will go into requests for new service and service extensions.” This will be accomplished by analyzing data compiled by the PAT staff, which in turn, will inform the board on its decisions regarding new service.
Each neighborhood’s equity score is determined through the number of residents that fall under five classifications: seniors, low-income residents, minorities, persons with disabilities and persons who do not have access to a vehicle. Silbermann says that some of the neighborhoods with the highest equity scores are Perry South, the Hill District, Larimer and McKeesport.
“Equity helps us to weigh our decisions against the other, more pragmatic qualifiers of cost and effectiveness,” says Silbermann.
Once a neighborhood’s equity score is determined, it is factored equally together with the service change’s efficiency (cost and ridership) and its effectiveness (logistics of where the route is placed and its design) for an overall score.
For example, the popular idea of adding light-rail service to the North Hills would score high on effectiveness because of light rail’s potential to move a large number of people over long distances, in a short amount of time. However, with northern county townships, such as Pine and Marshall, having very low equity scores, that proposal might seem less appealing to the Authority board.
PAT Board chairman Robert Hurley said at the meeting that a service extension to the Mon Valley might be a plan to look at, considering the region’s high equity score. And while these scores are important considerations, Ritchie says that they are not the be-all-end-all for OK’ing new service changes.
“They are intended to give staff and board members a lot of information to decide how to apply budget dollars through the fiscal year,” says Ritchie. “We are not necessarily bound by the score.”
But a deciding factor will also be whether a proposal can fit into the budget.
“If you don't have the capital, then [a proposal] will have to wait to be considered down the line,” says Ritchie.
In addition to the new equity formula, new service proposals will also be affected by public input, which now can be added through a form on the Port Authority's website.
On Sept. 15, PAT started an online (and mail-in) survey, requesting ideas on how to change their system “for the better.” According to Silbermann, the first two days of the survey brought in 14 responses and the authority will be collecting forms through the end of November.
Ritchie says the surveys help to “formalize” the request process and increase accountability. Citizens will be able to see how many requests were considered and how many fell under the same topic when the board releases its annual service report next May.
Ritchie also encourages that submitted requests fit into the scope of what can be accomplished this fiscal year (i.e. no big picture projects like light-rail service to the airport), since service changes must fit into this year’s budget.
“This process is more focused on the year coming up,” says Ritchie. “We do have a limited budget, and we want to focus on what we can accomplish with in this budget.”
And this transparency shift has not gone unnoticed, or unappreciated. Molly Nichols, of Pittsburghers for Public Transportation, a transit advocacy group, commended the staff at the meeting for making the process transparent.
“We have been asking for more transparent processes for years, so it was great to see,” says Nichols. “It was definitely a step in the right the direction.”