Port Authority riders face turbulent year
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Spared the disruption of an operators' strike, Port Authority transit riders nonetheless face an interesting and possibly turbulent year.
The agency, which provides 220,000 rides on a typical weekday, soon will unveil the next stage of an 18-month program that will completely overhaul routes and service.
Later in the year, the authority hopes to start implementing a new automated fare collection system using "smart card" technology.
This fall, if the North Shore subway extension project stays on track, the busy Gateway Center station will close for nearly two years to accommodate construction of a new station.
And to cap things off, the authority expects to raise fares by an unspecified amount Jan. 1.
Spokeswoman Judi McNeil said the next stage in the authority's Transit Development Plan will unfold soon, as a consultant presents three options for revamping the authority's 187 bus routes.
The current hub-and-spoke system, with most routes beginning or ending Downtown, traces back nearly a half-century. Some areas have lost population and ridership and may be over-served, while other areas that have experienced growth have inadequate service.
The new route system that emerges "is going to be vastly, vastly different ... it's not your father's Port Authority anymore," Ms. McNeil said.
The new system likely will focus service along several "backbones" -- the busways and Light Rail Transit routes -- with smaller "feeder" routes taking passengers to those corridors, she said.
The authority plans to hold public meetings to gather input on the three overhaul options in March, board member Guy Mattola said at a meeting yesterday. An April workshop will help condense the options into a final plan followed by more public hearings.
Mr. Mattola said he expected a board vote on the overhaul in May. Implementation could start next year.
In the meantime, the authority has posted five-page evaluations of every bus route on a Transit Development Plan Web site, tdp.portauthority.org (click available documents, then evaluation of existing bus service).
Later this year, the authority hopes to begin replacing its current fare boxes with an automated system that uses "smart cards" with embedded electronic chips.
The $33 million project was stalled while the authority waited out a freeze in Allegheny County funding ordered by County Executive Dan Onorato during the recent labor negotiations.
In a smart card system, regular riders carry a permanent plastic card that is waved near a reader installed at the entry to buses or stations. The fare is automatically deducted from the card. Some systems also use smart cards for parking fees.
Smart card systems are in use or in development in the New York/New Jersey area, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Oakland, Calif., according to the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance.
The authority expects the technology to increase revenue by making fare collection more accurate and cutting down on fare evasion and the expense of counting cash and change.
The smart card contract with Scheidt & Bachmann USA Inc. has been structured to allow smaller regional transit systems in surrounding counties to opt in.
Closing of the Gateway Center subway station, now set for October or November, is one of several economy measures employed by the authority in the face of skyrocketing costs on the now $552.8 million North Shore Connector project.
The 1.2-mile project will add stations near PNC Park and Heinz Field and a new Gateway Center station.
Instead of phasing work to maintain service at the existing Gateway station, the contractor will be allowed to close it to save time, labor and -- the authority hopes -- several million dollars.
The authority needs to secure $117.8 million in additional funding to complete the project and is hoping to get the money in the federal economic stimulus package pending in Congress.
The authority board learned this week that despite savings achieved in the new labor contract, the agency faces a projected $16.7 million deficit for the 2009-10 budget year that begins July 1.
The budget picture is clouded by the fiscal woes of the state, which provides more than half of the agency's operating funding. With Gov. Ed Rendell forecasting a $2.3 billion state deficit by summer, a sharp cut in transit aid is possible that would push the Port Authority deeper into the red.
Executive Director Steve Bland said yesterday he's "concerned but not panic-stricken" about the budget. A fare increase "in line with inflation" is likely Jan. 1 in any event, he said.
First Published January 24, 2009 12:00 am