Advocates call for emergency, low-income fare program for Allegheny Co.’s public transit riders

(Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

WILKINSBURG, Pa. — Public transit advocates called on the Port Authority of Allegheny County to implement an emergency low-income fare program at a Tuesday rally in suburban Pittsburgh. 

The event marked the release of a report by the advocacy group, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, which argues that such a break in fares would boost bus ridership by 9 percent, or 1.2 million more trips a year.

Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a PPT board member and executive director of the advocacy organization Take Action Mon Valley, tied the increased attention of the Black Lives Matter movement to the call for a low-income fare program.

“If Black lives actually mattered to the Port Authority, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Walker-Montgomery, who is also a former McKeesport city council member and unsuccessful candidate for mayor there.

Like public transit systems across the country, the Port Authority experienced a drastic drop in ridership since the March lockdown, and budged little after restrictions eased. The Port Authority is still seeing a 65 to 70 percent drop in ridership compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the agency.

The PPT report used a national survey from the Transit app and survey data collected by the Port Authority to argue that most of those who have not found an alternative to public transit in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area are more likely to be Black, low-income, and essential service workers.

The transit authority waived fares for the early months of the pandemic. When the Port Authority restored full fare rates in June, ridership rates dropped the most in predominantly Black areas of the region, according to PPT’s data analysis. 

“If we do nothing to address the cost of transportation, then we are blind to how important the service is,” said Sarah Saltz, a graduate student and co-author of the PPT report. “Other agencies and public utilities across the region and country are cognizant that we are in an economic and public health crisis, and they are responding with action.”

The advocates called for a temporary emergency system whereby riders can show transit operators an Electronic Benefits Transfer card to demonstrate eligibility for income-based benefits. That policy could be replaced by a more permanent solution, they said.

In response to emailed questions regarding the fare forgiveness plan from PPT, Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said that while transit officials are open to a program that benefits low-income residents, “We need to find a way to be able to pay for it,” he said.

The Port Authority gets the bulk of its operational funding from state subsidies, and has relied on fares for about a quarter of its revenue. The authority lost 80 percent of its April fare revenue compared to the same time last year. That was a $6 million hit alone to the transit authority, according to budget figures from the Port Authority.

Before the coronavirus, the authority was pursuing a program to benefit low-income riders, Brandolph said. “There are a lot of questions about the future of public transit funding, especially here in Pennsylvania, and keeping our system intact is our number one concern,” Brandolph said. “We cannot do that with less revenue.”

Last week, the Port Authority announced that in November it will redistribute service operations from barely-used commuter routes to more in-demand ones, a move PPT leaders applauded.

“This is an opportunity at a time when opportunities are few to immediately recoup up to 9 percent of COVID ridership,” Saltz said of the PPT proposal. “There’s never been a greater need for fare relief.”

Correspondent Tom Lisi covers western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @TommyLisi.