Ride smart: The Port Authority attempts a brave new overhaul

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When a consultant started an examination of the Allegheny County Port Authority two years ago, he said the system's most popular route seemed to be "To Garage."

An ambitious overhaul announced Aug. 27 aims to change both the perception and the reality by reducing empty runs to and from bus depots, overlapping service, excessive delays and underused lines. Consultant Nelson/Nygaard says the authority can cut its bus routes from 186 to 122 while maintaining service for 90 percent of its daily riders on their current routes and providing alternatives for all but 400 customers.

A look at other cities helps to illustrate why more routes aren't necessarily better. Allegheny County's 186 routes have been carrying 69.7 million passengers a year. In Chicago, 161 routes handle 10 times that number. In Boston, 177 routes drive 387 million people. By eliminating a few routes and retooling a lot more, the Port Authority says it can increase weekday bus trips by 8 percent, which means most customers will have access to more service, not less.

Among the most welcome changes will be Rapid Buses, which will zip from Oakland and other eastern neighborhoods to Downtown and back with few stops. They will look different from regular buses so riders can easily pick them out on the street. Rapid Bus service also will be available between the airport and town.

The plan also aims to eliminate an estimated 20 percent of the bus and transit car stops, but those changes won't be immediate. CEO Steve Bland said the authority wants to do detailed studies of usage on the new routes, with the goal of establishing ideal distances between stops, allowing for variations posed by hills, valleys or other obstacles.

Part of the plan also calls for some customers to pay more: A proposed fare increase would apply to riders outside the inner-most zone and on monthly, weekly and annual passes.

Given all these changes, the opinion of most passengers as to whether the result is good or bad will be highly personal. Where is my stop? How often will my bus come? How long will it take to reach my destination?

Answers to many questions are available at tdp.portauthority.org. Patrons should make their views known, either on the authority's Web site; by mail sent to Heinz 57 Center, 345 Sixth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222-2527; or by calling 412-566-5437 to register to speak at a Sept. 15 public hearing.

The Port Authority's revamping, which aims to redistribute rather than cut service, is driven by powerful incentives -- customer demand and a change in state law that promises more money if the system carries more passengers per mile. It's early in the ride, but, so far, it's moving in the right direction.


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