Pittsburgh Regional Transit administrators and board members received sharp criticism Thursday for a series of service cuts and lagging on-time performance that advocates say are creating a “transportation crisis” in the region.
Representatives of Pittsburghers for Public Transit and others told the board during its monthly meeting that staff isn’t giving the board the full impact of service cuts and the board isn’t listening to riders with legitimate complaints.
CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman said the agency is doing the best it can during a severe manpower shortage after the pandemic, but she expects steps the agency has taken will improve hiring early next year and the agency should be back to meeting existing service with no additional cuts by next fall.
Dan Yablonsky of the PPT advocacy group said the series of service cuts “creates a perception of scarcity” of service that pushes potential riders to find alternatives.
Compounding that problem is that it has been several years since the agency met its goal of 73% on-time performance, he said, which means many buses aren’t arriving within five minutes before or after their scheduled time.
Those problems have created when Yablonsky called a “service crisis.”
Rider Gina Anderson, who said she has a background as a transportation planner in several cities around the world, said staff only releases certain ridership and performance statistics to the public and the board. That means riders and board members get an incomplete picture of the agency’s problems.
Previously, the advocacy group said the transit agency is on a downward spiral of managing cuts rather than aggressively trying to find solutions.
Following its policy, the board didn’t respond to public comments. After the meeting, Kelleman defended the steps the agency has taken and disagreed that there is a transportation crisis.
“I would not say it’s a crisis,” she said. “I’d say if we are delivering 99% of our service [which occurred last week], I’m happy with that. It’s not perfect for everybody. There’s clearly a mistrust out there.”
Kelleman stressed that the service cuts are directly related to staff shortages, not financial problems. Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the agency’s staff of operators has gone down by 14% and service has been cut 13%.
She contends the agency has taken extraordinary steps to deal with the manpower shortage, which has long been a problem at transit agencies across the country. For example, the agency has eliminated the written test for potential operators because it was not a good indicator of whether an applicant could be a good employee; provides paid training, including helping an applicant get a commercial driver’s license; and negotiated changes in the Amalgamated Transit Union contract to get sick days for workers in their first year.
Those changes plus aggressive recruiting are starting to make a difference, Kelleman said. Fourteen new drivers who completed training Nov. 9 are now providing service, and new classes of 40 members each are scheduled for training in January and March.
Typically, 20% to 25% of applicants quit before the training ends, she said.
The agency also has taken steps to promote new training instructors as soon as drivers say they are leaving rather than waiting until they are gone so there is no lag in training.
Those steps should stabilize the agency’s service by next fall, Kelleman said.
As far as how the agency uses performance data, Kelleman said statistics on missed trips are available the next day but ridership numbers and on-time performance take longer to produce. Information is available to the board and the public as soon as possible, she said.
The agency last week announced it expects service cuts of about 1.5% in February because of staff shortages. Those changes, which must be made only three times a year when drivers pick their routes under the union contract, started out at about 2.5%, but staff found creative ways to reduce those cuts, Kelleman said.
One of Kelleman’s top priorities is to meet the agency’s published schedule as much as it can, even if it means reducing service to the level it can provide. She believes that’s better than promising service that the agency can’t deliver.
“We can live in a world where we’re doing everything we can, but there are still problems,” spokesman Adam Brandolph said. “That’s not a great sentiment, but it’s true.”