Pittsburgh Regional Transit expects to cut bus service by another 1.5% in February as the agency struggles to meet its service schedule due to a shortage of drivers.
And this time the changes will be widespread, which means many riders will see at least minor reductions in their service.
Service also is expected to change for midday light rail riders who will have to transfer at Washington Junction if they want to reach the far end of the system in Library.
Phillip St. Pierre, director of transit scheduling, outlined the possible changes Thursday for the agency’s planning and stakeholders committee. He stressed that the recommendations could change before they are finalized at the end of the month, but he wanted to brief the committee now because it doesn’t meet in December.
CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said the agency wants to promote the changes as soon as possible after riders complained last month they weren’t aware of service changes that occurred in Oakland. After the new cuts were announced, Pittsburghers for Public Transit criticized the agency for the changes, saying it has shown a “defeatist attitude” of accepting driver shortages rather than aggressively attacking the problem to avoid service cuts.
“There are a lot of pieces being moved,” St. Pierre said in an interview. “We’re trying to spread it out so that no one particular area is affected. As Katharine has said, we’re trying not to go in with a chainsaw but with a scalpel.”
Overall, the goal is to make minor reductions so the agency can put more drivers on the relief board, where unassigned drivers can be used to fill in for vacations or illnesses so that trips don’t have to be canceled. The agency has made similar cuts several times in the past two years to increase the pool of fill-ins.
Right now, the proposal is to slightly reduce service on 21 bus routes: 51L, 53L, 56, 64, 67, 69, 74, 81, 83, 86, 87, 88, 89, 93, P12, P67, P76, P78, Y45, Y47 and Y49.
St. Pierre said the agency is planning the changes now because it is anticipating a number of retirements and drivers leaving through normal attrition at the end of the year and the job market remains tight for hiring new drivers.
“We’re trying to get ahead of all of that,” he said. “Is the schedule going to be perfect for everyone? No.”
In addition to bus changes, the agency will make changes in February on the light rail system in the South Hills.
The Red, Blue and Silver lines will operate the same during peak morning and afternoon rush hours, but midday service on the Blue line will be eliminated. Riders who want to continue past Washington Junction in Bethel Park will have to transfer to a single-car Silver line train that will run a short route between the junction and the end of the line in Library.
St. Pierre said the change will allow the agency to run more two-car trains during special events such as Pittsburgh Steelers games and stadium concerts. He expects “very few” riders to be inconvenienced because not many travel to the far end of the system at midday.
Kelleman vowed that the agency will do more to make sure riders are aware of all the changes.
“Numerically, it’s going to look tiny, but if it is your trip that is eliminated, you don’t care,” she said. “We will definitely be more proactive getting information out to folks.”
St. Pierre said the agency is hopeful that hiring will improve and changes that begin Feb. 18 will be the only service cuts for 2024.
But Laura Wiens, executive director of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, said the agency seems “totally resigned” to making cuts. PRT says it has increased recruiting and offered incentives to attract new drivers, but progress has been slow because of the tight job market and job requirements such as working split shifts, holidays and weekends.
“I would say a 1.5% cut doesn’t seem like big news because they have been doing that routinely,” Wiens said. “What they are doing clearly isn’t working.”
Wiens added that she is concerned that continuing cuts will force riders to find other transportation and make it difficult to ever restore and expand the system.
Not all of the February changes will be negative.
As a result of changes last month where East End routes 61D and 71A, C and D now end their routes in Oakland rather than going to Downtown Pittsburgh, the agency has seen an increase in outbound trips on the 71B from Downtown to Uptown. The agency will add early-morning trips to the outbound schedule in February to reduce crowding.
Although it’s too early for definite ridership numbers, St. Pierre reported that the Oakland changes seem to be working well. He noted that the number of weekday trips where some riders have to stand has dropped from 10% in June to 4% in October and on-time performance for the remaining buses that travel from Oakland to Downtown — 61A, B, and C and 71B — has improved about 5%.