Port Authority's failures frustrate fans, runners

System unable to handle extra trains for crowds

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For many transit riders, Saturday's fireworks show at PNC Park was followed by a dud.

Port Authority says it can no longer afford to provide extra Light Rail Transit service after crowded stadium events. But last weekend, a staffing shortage prevented it from meeting even its stripped-down regular schedule.

Thousands of fans poured out of the Pirates game and a Marilyn Manson concert next door at Stage AE to find packed station platforms and trains nowhere in sight. Service is scheduled about every 15 minutes at that hour on Saturdays, but some riders said they waited 45 minutes or more.

"There's no excuse for it," authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said of the dropped trips, which occurred Friday night and all day on Saturday. "We're trying to correct it."

But he also said the past practice of running extra trains after major events is no longer possible. With the authority facing a $64 million budget deficit and record-breaking service cuts scheduled for September, "it's not within our financial means," he said.

Jan Grice of Shadyside and her husband, Don Marinelli, parked at First Avenue Garage with the intention of taking the free T ride to and from the North Side for the baseball game. They waited 20 to 25 minutes before a one-car train arrived and it was packed, she said.

After the game, after waiting 20 minutes at North Side Station, they gave up and walked back to First Avenue. "More and more people were flowing into the station. We realized when this train gets here, it's going to be a madhouse," she said.

"The thing that just kills you is you had all these people in from out of town [for the Pittsburgh Marathon the following day]. We look like a second-class city that can't quite get it together," Ms. Grice said. Her husband, in a comment on the Post-Gazette's website, called it "a major black eye for Port Authority."

Mr. Ritchie said the agency's rail division is going through a series of staffing changes. That, coupled with higher-than-normal absenteeism because of illnesses, injuries and other authorized leaves, left the authority without enough operators to meet the schedule. "It became impossible to overcome that quickly," he said.

Throughout Saturday, 10 vehicles that should have been in service were not, including five Red Line units that were out of service after 4 p.m., Mr. Ritchie said.

Even meeting the full schedule, which has shrunk in recent years because of service cuts brought on by chronic underfunding, the agency is hard-pressed to keep up with demand after Saturday night baseball games, which typically draw more than 30,000 fans.

The current schedule has only three outbound trips serving North Side Station between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Saturdays. About 400 people can squeeze into a two-car train, meaning the system can move only about 1,200 people in the hour after which most games end.

If a game runs late or is delayed, the situation gets worse -- only two trips are scheduled from 11 p.m. to midnight.

The September service cuts would eliminate all weekend service on the Blue Line, leaving just two trips from North Side Station between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. and one between 11 and midnight.

"It makes the whole expenditure for the T extension seem ridiculous if it doesn't function," Ms. Grice said.

"Our resources are very limited," Mr. Ritchie said. "What we're seeing right now essentially is the gap between the level of service we offer and can afford and the demand."

As the June 30 expiration of its current union contract approaches, the authority is anticipating a wave of retirements by workers who are worried they will lose benefits under the new contract. That could create additional scheduling problems.

The agency also drew complaints over the weekend from marathon participants and spectators because it didn't add bus or rail service for the event, which attracted 19,000 runners and thousands of onlookers.

Alexis Rzewski of Point Breeze said he boarded a P1 East Busway-All Stops bus in East Liberty at about 6:20 a.m. By Negley Station it was full, leaving an estimated 40 people, many of them runners, to wait for the next bus 30 minutes later.

He said a collective groan went up when the bus approached the crowded station. "We all knew they were not all going to fit in."

Bus crowding has been a problem on many routes since service was reduced by 15 percent in March 2011. Another 35 percent of service on Sept. 2 will eliminate 48 of the remaining 102 routes. Authority officials say the cuts can be avoided only if the state moves to provide a more reliable and growing funding stream.

Transportation

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. First Published May 9, 2012 12:00 AM


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