Transit fares to hold for 2 years

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Public transit riders will see no fare increases for two years and service improvements that Port Authority hopes will cleanse its public image after years of asking customers to pay more for less.

Added state funding generated by Act 89, the transportation legislation approved by the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett last fall, means "it's a much happier time," authority CEO Ellen McLean said on Thursday.

The authority unveiled a preliminary budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that retains the current fares and calls for a modest increase in service.

The authority said its base fare of $2.50, last increased in July 2012, is tied for highest in the nation with Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif. The next possible increase won't come until July 2016 at the earliest.

The $389.6 million proposed budget, which will be voted on by the authority board next month, would increase spending by 6.2 percent and transit service hours by 2.7 percent -- most of which will be more frequent trips on bus routes that are overcrowded.

At a committee meeting, Ms. McLean stressed that Act 89 was intended to allow the transit agency to improve the service it currently offers, not add lots of new routes. It also will help the authority catch up on deferred maintenance and make technological improvements that give riders the ability to track buses and rail cars using mobile devices and computers.

"For the first time, we actually have the wherewithal to improve what we have," Ms. McLean said.

Chronic financial problems caused fare increases in 2008, 2011 and 2012 and service cuts of 15 percent in 2007 and again in 2011. "It's nothing that we were proud of but it was necessary for us to survive," said Peter Schenk, authority chief financial officer.

Ridership fell from 68 million in fiscal 2007 to a projected 61 million for the current fiscal year, and those who kept riding have endured less-frequent trips and overcrowded buses.

Next month, the authority will begin offering extra rail service on all weekends, not just for major events like Pirates games. Adding extra service for special events requires the authority to recruit operators to work overtime; making the extra trips part of the regular schedule will ensure full staffing, Ms. McLean said.

The authority also plans to hire eight more fare collectors to work in the kiosks at major rail stations. Failure to fully staff the booths after major events has led to delays as riders line up to pay their fares on board, and in some cases operators let riders depart without paying.

Spokesman Jim Ritchie said trips will be added to several overcrowded bus routes in September.

The authority also expects to make real-time bus tracking available via a website and for mobile devices this year. It is currently pilot-testing the system on two East Busway routes.

It expects to receive about $212 million in state operating funding for the coming year, up by about $14.6 million from the current year. Federal, state and local capital funding, which is used to buy buses and repair buildings and infrastructure, will rise by about $60 million, to $172 million.

The authority has trimmed its workforce from 3,127 employees to 2,485 since fiscal 2007 and in 2012 reached agreement on a contract with its largest union that included $60 million in concessions over its four-year term.

Although it made changes to rein in pension and benefit costs over the long term, the authority expects in the coming year to spend nearly as much on benefits, $137.9 million, as on wages and salaries, $141.9 million.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published May 15, 2014 1:10 PM

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