Transit future: The rising use of light rail shows the way ahead

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More Americans used public transportation in 2013 than at any time in the last 57 years, but Pittsburghers were not part of that growth. While overall transit use in the nation increased by 1.1 percent, to 10.7 billion trips, the comparable trend in Allegheny County was a decrease of 1.95 percent.

Chalk up the difference to fallout from Port Authority budget and service cuts. The system underwent four rounds of reductions in a decade, with the last a 15 percent scale-back in 2011. While fares rose, some riders lost their routes or stops and others became impatient with crowding on what service remained. Now the system is trying to win customers back.

A report released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association showed that the local rebuilding still has a long way to go. Losses continued last year, when the Port Authority suffered a 3.4 percent drop in bus ridership compared to nationwide stabilization in bus patronage. The significance of the local loss was amplified because, with 177,300 bus trips on an average weekday, that is the bulk of the system’s service.

The bright spot in the report for Pittsburgh involved light rail service. Light rail, which accounted for 13 percent of the Port Authority’s patronage in 2013, saw a 7.5 percent increase, to 28,300 rides per day. Those figures include the “T” service between Downtown and the South Hills, and the newer North Shore Connector, which opened for business in March 2012.

Through their light-rail usage Pittsburgh’s transit customers are saying something momentous. They are voting with their fare cards for the reliability, comfort and quiet of commuter rail, and the Port Authority cannot afford to ignore that message as it looks decades down the road. It must move quickly to install the proposed bus rapid transit system between Downtown and Oakland, a modern, cost-effective and relatively quick way to vastly improve service between the region’s two largest employment centers.

At the same time, the authority must be forward-looking on other innovative approaches. It should study converting the Martin Luther King East Busway to light rail, a subject that was discussed 15 years ago. It should consider where to extend the North Shore Connector in the future — along I-279 or toward the airport. And it must figure out, in general, how to exit the era of the conventional, unattractive diesel bus.

The Port Authority has diligently weathered the severe financial struggles of recent years and, with predictable state funding finally in hand, it is working to restore the vitality and appeal of its system. At the same time, visionary leadership must prepare for the future and seek to capture the imagination with new ideas.

While rebuilding today’s ridership, the system must devise ways to meet the needs of a new generation of commuters, many of whom are drawn to city living and to transit-friendly communities. Their futures and Pittsburgh’s depend on an effective transit system that people will be eager to use.

First Published March 13, 2014 12:00 AM

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