Real-time info: The Port Authority needs to speed up the rollout

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It’s been almost a year since the Port Authority announced that new technology was on the way to put real-time service information in customers’ hands. Too bad riders still have no idea when they’ll have it at their fingertips.

The agency wants to be able to tell patrons where their buses and rail vehicles are and explain any delays using email, texts, voice announcements, display screens and its website.

It was welcome news last June when the authority said it expected patrons to be able to track all buses, except for a few older models, by the end of 2014. So far, that information is available for two pilot routes on the East Busway via computer, and the capability is expected to extend to other routes soon. But there is no timetable for a rollout of other key features of the plan — instant notifications via smartphone applications and displays at transit stops. A Port Authority spokesman told the Post-Gazette’s Jon Schmitz that it will take place “over the next few years, probably in pieces.”

The pace of updates for the agency’s Light Rail Transit system is particularly disappointing.

Patrons who have used light rail or bus rapid transit in New York, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland know that the Port Authority’s planned innovation is old news. Digital display boards in those cities routinely state to the minute when various vehicles will arrive at stations, and voice announcements and electronic signs regularly advise of delays and disruptions in service.

The Port Authority already monitors the movement of all rail cars at its South Hills Village operations center, but it does a poor job of sharing details with riders. The agency says it is stymied by a system that takes several minutes to record announcements and that can broadcast them only systemwide. We think riders would rather get too much information, such as on a line they aren’t riding, than wonder cluelessly during long delays if or when a train will come.

The authority has made such announcements on some occasions, and it should be doing so when wait times will exceed several minutes. Customer service representatives must be redeployed to make timely announcements while the authority figures out how to post arrival times on displays that already hang in its T stations.

Riders need to know when a bus or light rail train will reach their stop, but their real aim is predictable service. Since accidents and emergencies undoubtedly will occur, the authority must be able to explain disruptions quickly so customers can adjust their own schedules. It shouldn’t take years.

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