Cuts in suburban bus routes changed lives

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A couple years ago, when Gloria Jefferson of McKeesport wanted to go somewhere, she walked to a bus stop near her house.

Then, in 2011, her commute became much less convenient. During a round of cuts to fix a budget deficit, the Port Authority canceled her route, which ran through the middle of McKeesport. Now, Ms. Jefferson, who is 80, has to walk a mile downhill to another stop.

The walk is tough for her, especially when she's carrying grocery bags. Sometimes, she pays for a ride there or avoids going places. She wonders whether she'll still be able to make the walk when she gets older.

"Right now, I feel good. How long it's going to last, I don't know," she said. "I keep on praying that one day they'll turn it around and bring the bus back up the hill."

Ms. Jefferson is among thousands of commuters whose lives were changed when the Port Authority nixed 29 routes and scaled back dozens of others in March 2011. The authority cut the routes to make up for a $47 million budget deficit caused by rising cost of benefits for its employees and a $27 million shortfall in state funding.

Last year, the state government passed Act 89, a transportation bill that restores funding to the Port Authority. But the authority isn't considering expanding its routes right now, communications director Jim Ritchie said.

Instead, the authority plans to repair its infrastructure and improve the experience of riders. After years of declining ridership due to cutbacks, it hopes to draw riders back. Also, Act 89 requires that much of the new funding to be used for maintenance, Mr. Ritchie said.

"The goal of the state was not to give money to expand, but to stabilize," he said. "Of course, we will be looking at the bigger picture down the road."

In the three years since the cuts, commuters have dealt with the lost routes by paying for rides, walking long distances, or by simply going fewer places. The transit cuts made it harder for many to get to work, apply for jobs, run errands, visit the doctor and attend classes at community colleges, commuters and community advocates say.

The poor economy and rising cost of gas have made the problem worse, said John Lydon, CEO of Auberle, a McKeesport nonprofit that provides shelter and other services for families in the area. Fewer people can afford to buy a car and pay for gas and insurance, he said.

"These people are sort of caught between a rock and a hard place, where the cost of a vehicle is increasing and the availability of public transportation is decreasing," he said.

In addition to limiting commuters' movement, the cuts have led to big wastes of time. Since 2011, Wayne Gray of Glassport has spent a larger portion of his days waiting for and sitting on buses. Often, he spends five or six hours a day traveling to construction sites where he finishes hardwood. He sometimes waits 45 minutes for buses, causing him to be late for work.

"It's boring, frustrating," said Mr. Gray, who passes the time by checking Facebook on his phone, listening to music, staring out the window and chatting with other passengers. "Hard-working people, we can't get back and forth to work if there aren't any buses."

The effect of the cuts on him goes beyond work, though. His girlfriend is pregnant, and the lack of buses makes it hard for them to make it to her appointments with her doctor.

Inconvenient and expensive

The cancellation of bus routes has also put strains on the finances of many commuters. Mr. Gray, like others, sometimes pays friends to give him rides to places he used to reach by bus. For him, the rides cost $10 or $20. Ms. Jefferson pays friends $5 to drive her to the bus stop on Lysle Boulevard when it's cold or she's too tired to make the walk.

The bus schedule is usually convenient for Monica Henderson, with the 11 Fineview route stopping outside her house in Perry South. On weekends, though, the bus doesn't come early enough to take her to her job as a referral coordinator at UPMC Presbyterian because its hours were shortened in the 2011 cuts. She usually pays someone $7 for a ride to the nearest operating bus stop, the 16B Brighton.

Those extra payments strain the passengers' budgets. To make up for the cost, Ms. Jefferson has delayed buying medicine and groceries, and Ms. Henderson works overtime.

"You're paying $90 for a monthly bus pass, but when you're working weekends that's another $14," Ms. Henderson said. "That's a bit too much."

Mr. Lydon said he's met people through his work who have lost their jobs because of a lack of public transit. Sometimes, the long bus rides make it impossible for them to have several jobs, which they need to pay the bills, he said.

The lack of bus routes also limits shopping options for low-income people in McKeesport, he said. It limits them to the few stores within walking distance, preventing them from looking around for good deals.

"The people who need to have savings the most are the most unable to do that," Mr. Lydon said. "It's like the company stores of years past."

Apart from the 2011 cuts, the Port Authority has fought off budget deficits several times in the past decade by cutting service, raising fares and laying off employees. But Act 89 will give the authority enough money to ward off deficits for the next several years, Mr. Ritchie said.

Now that its budget is secure, the authority will concentrate on repairing its infrastructure, he said. Busways need to be paved, and bridges need to be fixed. It also plans to buy new buses to replace aging ones that will go out of service.

The Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that advises cities on land use, development and other urban issues, will hold a weeklong panel discussion in May in Pittsburgh at which local organizations will discuss how they want the Port Authority to change. Taking the discussion into account, the institute will evaluate the authority's finances and recommend changes.

While restoring routes is not on the horizon, Mr. Ritchie said, a priority for the authority is improving the experience of commuters to increase ridership, which has been in decline since the cuts. For example, the authority might ease overcrowding on buses by adjusting the frequency of routes, making buses stop more often during peak rush hour times.

"If we start to improve the service that's on the street today, and people start to realize, 'I won't always be sandwiched on the bus,' then we'll start to grab those people back," Mr. Ritchie said.

Of the 29 routes cut in 2011, one has been restored: the 55 Glassport, which runs through North Versailles, McKeesport, Glassport, Clairton and Jefferson Hills. The authority decided to bring it back after Heritage Community Services, a nonprofit based in Braddock, cut back its Worklink bus line in response to a reduction in federal funding. The authority revived the route to avoid a devastating impact on the area, Mr. Ritchie said.

That was good news to Patricia Richardson of Clairton. When the bus was gone, she had trouble getting around, especially with her arthritis and back problems, which sometimes make it hard for her to walk. She had to pay for jitneys, which took a toll on her finances.

"You have to rob Peter to pay Paul," she said. "Buy less groceries, you know."

Now that the bus is back, she's relieved. "It's a big difference," she said.

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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