By Amy McConnell Schaarsmith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With Americans taking a record number of trips by public transit last year, some Pittsburgh ridership is following the national trend, but only on the local systems in which the city has invested: the sleek, fast and reliable light rail, or "T," system rather than the overcrowded, slow and unpredictable bus system, according to transit experts.
Use of Allegheny County's Port Authority light rail system increased by 7.5 percent last year, the second-greatest increase among cities of comparable size, according to a study released recently by the American Public Transportation Association. At the same time, the study found that Pittsburgh's bus ridership dropped by 3.4 percent, even as similar cities such as Cincinnati and Cleveland posted gains.
Budget cuts in recent years that forced the Port Authority to cut entire bus lines, scale back remaining coverage and schedule buses less frequently prompted many riders to make alternate plans, according to Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie. Still, there is hope.
"The lean years at the Port Authority have unfortunately left their mark, but with the funding bill that just passed in Harrisburg, we've certainly turned the corner," Mr. Ritchie said. "We're looking at a lot of system improvements that we hope will draw people back to the bus system."
The transit bill signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in November will pass approximately $47 million to the Port Authority beginning after the 2014 fiscal year opens July 1, according to the Port Authority. The authority will receive $91 million in state funds in fiscal year 2015 and $99 million in fiscal year 2016.
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That money will first erase the authority's persistent structural debt, and then additional buses will start running in September -- after drivers pick routes, according to their union contracts -- to begin to ease crowding, Mr. Ritchie said. Riders will see additional improvements approximately every three months, when drivers can pick routes again.
"We will initially address overcrowding and frequency [of bus trips] and then make tweaks to existing routes that have created hardship for riders," he said.
In spite of bus system struggles in Allegheny County, the country as a whole is experiencing a renaissance of public transportation use, according to the transportation association.
Last year, Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transportation, the highest annual public transit ridership number and the eighth year in a row that more than 10 billion trips were taken on public transit systems nationwide, the association found. Public transit ridership has increased by more than 37 percent since 1995, outstripping both population growth at slightly more than 20 percent and miles traveled by private vehicle at nearly 23 percent, it found.
"There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move our communities," said American Public Transportation Association president and CEO Michael Melaniphy. "People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services, and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth."
Where local leaders have improved the system, as when they extended "T" service to the North Shore, residents have taken advantage of it, Mr. Ritchie said. Commuters often park remotely and take light rail into the city for Downtown jobs, while the increase in weekend use has been "quite dramatic," with local residents riding the rails to regatta events, fireworks displays, the marathon, Pirates and Steelers games and other events.
Michelle Graminski, 25, often had used the "T" to travel Downtown with her family to see plays, she said at the Gateway "T" station on Monday. So when she recently got a job as a copywriter Downtown, she consulted her mom -- who rides the train every work day to her job at Highmark -- about the best way to get to town. Take the train, mom counseled.
Monday was her first day on the job, but her initial impression was that the morning commute from the South Hills is a breeze, Ms. Graminski said. And since her home is at the very end of the Library line, she even got a seat.
"I can actually get work done and not drive," Ms. Graminski said. "I can read a book."
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