Pittsburgh Regional Transit says it’s pleased it has substantially reduced the number of missed bus trips that leave riders stranded and is making progress on increasing its staff of bus operators, with 27 set to graduate next week and 24 more a few weeks later.

But critics say the improvement in on-time service has occurred because the agency has reduced its service schedule and the number of new drivers may not offset the number of drivers who are leaving or retiring.

CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman told the transit agency’s board at its monthly meeting Friday that reliability has been improving since the beginning of the year and drivers missed less than 1% of scheduled trips last month. Last spring, that number reached about 14% after the agency fired 48 operators who refused to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

The local agency is doing better than many others across the country at dealing with a national manpower shortage that has existed for years and only got worse during the pandemic, Kelleman said. The agency reduced service by 4% in June and has made other schedule adjustments to improve reliability since.

Reducing and realigning service is the right step for now, Kelleman said, noting that ridership patterns haven’t returned to normal after the pandemic and the agency is serving about 25% fewer riders.

Still, the agency has maintained the budgeted number of drivers at 1,200, with 1,064 needed to meet scheduled service on a weekly basis as a result of illnesses, vacations and other absences, she said. With the new hires, the agency will have the number of operators it needs, she said, but that number is constantly changing as a result of retirements and departures.

“If this is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the Titanic would still be afloat,” she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Kelleman conceded that the improved reliability is related to reducing the schedule. She considers meeting scheduled service one of the agency’s top priorities.

“This is a huge improvement this year,” she said. “We’re not alone [in service challenges]. That doesn’t matter if your bus doesn’t come.”

At the end of the meeting, retiree Betty Alexander of Pittsburgh’s Stanton Heights neighborhood told the board how difficult missed trips are for her. Recent schedule changes have resulted in her having to wait 20 minutes or more to transfer, something that usually occurred within five minutes. 

One time recently she waited 2½ hours for her connection.

“That’s hard on someone like me,” she said.

The board Friday approved service changes reducing the length of some trips in Oakland as a result of the Bus Rapid Transit system between Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland. As a result, the agency will gain about 50 hours a week of service this fall that Kelleman said will be redistributed across the system either to provide more service on busy routes or expand service slightly in targeted areas.

Ross Nicotero, president and business agent for Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, strongly disagreed with Kelleman’s assessment that the system has improved. 

“My position hasn’t changed,” he said after the meeting. “They don’t have the resources or the manpower they need. The schedule is an abomination.”

Kelleman said friction with the union is a normal part of business and is occurring now as the agency tries to adjust lunch schedules and breaks to keep drivers on the road as much as possible.

Laura Wiens, president of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said PRT should be looking at the situation as two  separate but related problems, service and a worker shortage. Cutting service, she said, will never allow the agency to expand staff to grow in the future.

“Cutting service hours across the system isn’t the answer,” she said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think they can ever train enough new drivers with the staff they have now.”

Ed Blazina

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.