A group of Pittsburgh Regional Transit riders spoke out Friday against the latest round of service cuts by the agency, which said the shortage of operators has left it no choice but to make changes.

The riders complained to the agency’s board of directors that the cuts are making needed trips for work, food and medical appointments more difficult. Some said overworked drivers are being less friendly and accommodating to riders as a result.

To try to make service more reliable, the agency is eliminating some less-used trips. Then, the agency will have more drivers available on the extra board to fill in for drivers who aren’t available on a given day.

The agency will reduce service by 1.78% — about 488 hours a week — beginning Nov. 20. That follows a 4% reduction in June as the agency struggles like many others across the country to keep enough operators.

Overall, service had been reduced just more than 7% since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said the latest reduction put service at the “lowest level in our lifetime.”

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” she said. “Pittsburgh Regional Transit needs to show us a plan to make this viable again.”

Ricardo Villarreal tells the Pittsburgh Regional Transit board the difficulties he faces using the transit system since it doesn’t have instructions in Spanish at bus stops during a PRT meeting Friday, Oct. 28. (Ed Blazina)

Sherai Richardson, who moved from Texas to Pittsburgh in May and lives in an East End homeless shelter, said the unreliability of the bus schedule is a real problem for her. She uses public transportation to meet all her needs, and frequently the scheduled bus never arrives

“It’s getting cold now. I don’t know what to expect when I go to my appointments,” she said. “It’s kind of scary, actually, that I could be stranded somewhere.

Jordi Gonzalez, a Carnegie Mellon University student, said the service reductions and missed trips have been a particular problem when he attends night classes.

“It’s dangerous, and it’s frustrating, and for so many people who rely on it, it’s unacceptable,” he said.

Even before riders spoke, CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman acknowledged the driver shortage during her report to the board. She repeated her long-maintained stance that reliability is a key factor in building ridership for the system, so the service cuts are needed to meet that goal.

Ms. Kelleman stressed that the shortage of drivers has been a problem across the country, and many agencies have had more substantial cuts than PRT.

“This is an issue faced by almost every transit agency across the country,“ she said. “We thought it would be solved by now, but it isn’t.”

Drivers have performed “heroic work,” she said, but many are working nine to 10 hours a day and can’t be scheduled for additional work. The agency has reached “the tipping point” for the service it can provide with the staff available, she said.

Kelly King, who volunteers at a North Hills food bank, tells the Pittsburgh Regional Transit board how service cuts affect clients during a PRT meeting Friday, Oct. 28. (Ed Blazina)

The agency has 1,046 drivers, 46 short of what’s needed for current service. That number drops to 1,041 after the November changes.

Many have pointed to the agency’s decision to require employees to have a COVID-19 vaccination as the primary reason for the shortage. Ms. Kelleman said that had been only one factor in a decadeslong industry shortage of operators.

Ms. Kelleman said the agency has an internal committee looking at hiring practices and retention to see what it can do to get more drivers and keep them after the first year. It also is working on changes with the Amalgamated Transit Union as it negotiates a new contract.

Ross Nicotero, president and business agent for the union, declined to comment on working conditions because the union is “close” to a tentative agreement.

In another issue, riders called for PRT to add service updates in Spanish, especially for riders in the South Hills. Some riders said they have lost wages or missed medical appointments because there wasn’t information available that they could understand at bus stops.

“I can’t imagine how difficult it is for them to navigate the system,” said Karen Perkins, who volunteers to help Spanish-speaking riders get ConnectCards to use the transit system. “We have to do better to serve them.”

Ms. Kelleman said the agency is working on bus-stop improvements for riders who speak Spanish and Chinese.

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.

Ed Blazina

Ed covers transportation at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at eblazina@unionprogress.com.