Port Authority, which instated new policies to mitigate the effects of coronavirus, is rolling back some of those changes as Allegheny County moves into the “green” phase on June 5. The Authority has already reinstated front-door boarding on buses as of June 1 and plans to begin collecting regular fares again on June 8.
“We’re here to sound an alarm. There is so much at stake,” said Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of PPT, during her testimony. “Expanding and defending public transit is one of the only viable mechanisms to achieve racial and economic equity, and to mitigate the worst effects of climate change in Allegheny County.”
Wiens said that the most urgent solution right now would be a low-income fare policy, through which riders could show their Access/SNAP benefits card to board the bus.
“We know across the country that people taking transit right now are disproportionately low income, and disproportionately Black and brown,” Wiens said in an interview. “Reinstating full fares for people that can’t pay would be catastrophic.”
Due to coronavirus closures, Port Authority saw a 50% drop in ridership in the first few weeks of the pandemic. This led the agency to cut service by 25% in response to falling funding, though federal funding was eventually given to the authority due to the pandemic, and now service is basically fully restored. Port Authority receives about 25% of its revenue from fare collection.
Funding and overcrowding made up another bulk of the testimony. Speakers from PPT and other advocacy groups such as Allegheny County Transit Council called attention to a bill proposed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by state Rep. Lori Mizgorski (R-Shaler), who also sits on the Port Authority board. Her bill would discharge the Turnpike Commission of much of its annual payments to mass transit agencies in Pennsylvania, and instead replace it with motor vehicle sales and use tax. Advocates at the meeting said that it will not be a substantial replacement and will likely lower mass transit funding altogether.
Joshua Malloy, Community Organizer for PPT, focused on accessibility at the meeting. Normally, Port Authority meetings are held once a month Downtown at 9:30 a.m. on Fridays, a difficult time block for many working-class riders.
“In a time where scenarios change on a day-to-day basis, Port Authority needs to change the way they interact with the community,” said Malloy. “The problem is that the bar for participation is way too high.”
As meetings have moved online, speakers still need to register a week in advance, through online forms that don’t provide a confirmation email. Malloy suggested removing the deadline for registration to speak at meetings and live-streaming meetings once they are held in person again so that people don’t have to come Downtown.
Adam Brandolph, spokesperson for Port Authority, said that Port Authority does not plan to make any changes until the authority’s comprehensive fare study, which began last year, concludes. He anticipates a report by the end of this year but is not certain when the study will finish.
“We’ve modified our service and are looking at data,” said Brandolph with regards to concerns about capacity and routes. “We don’t want to knee-jerk, and we want to take service where it’s needed.”
PPT will hold a virtual town hall meeting entitled “More Transit, Not Less” on June 10. Participants can register on the PPT website.