Pittsburg Buses are Much More Effective Than Light Rail

This Story is about the inefficiency of Pittsburg’s Light Rail, called T, costing almost a billion dollars in 1984 which would be more than 2 billion dollars today. T clearly: COSTS Too Much and Does Too Little.

Limited number of riders makes T inefficient

By Jim Ritchie
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Port Authority of Allegheny County spends twice as much to run a T car than a bus, yet fares from the light-rail system netted just 2 percent of the authority’s total budget in 2006, federal data shows.

The financially struggling transit agency might cut back the frequency of T trips but stands by the light-rail network it spent nearly a billion dollars to build.

The cost of operating a light-rail system largely is fixed, and making cuts doesn’t always equate to savings, said Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, who was hired in 2006.

“By scaling back rail service — unless you eliminated it entirely, which significantly minimizes the capital investment — the cost of operating light-rail per passenger only grows higher,” he said.

Officials hope an upcoming overhaul of bus and T service, planned for 2009, will make the T more efficient and continue to market the rail line for development projects.

The 25-mile T system opened in 1984 at a price of $937 million and the goal of bringing rail service into Downtown. The light-rail line awkwardly serves only communities in the southern and western suburbs and does not extend north or east, where most of the authority’s riders live.

Today, the T serves 26,200 riders a day — about 12 percent of the agency’s overall ridership.

Bus revenue topped $56 million in 2006, while the T generated $6.5 million — enough to pay just 2 percent of the agency’s total expenses, according to federal transit data.

The T benefits South Hills riders by offering a more direct route to and from Downtown. The benefits are expensive, which isn’t good for an agency ending its fiscal year with a $21 million shortfall and battling its drivers’ union to cut labor costs.

The authority’s cost of driving a T car one mile was $20.63 in 2006, the federal data shows. The expense of driving a bus one mile was $9.49.

“It really raises the question of whether that’s a good expenditure of limited resources,” said Bob Poole, transportation director at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based policy group. “The bang for the buck just isn’t there.”

Operating the T becomes financially beneficial as more passengers ride each car, Bland said. A full T car is more efficient than a full bus, he said.

But that isn’t typical. The T is much less efficient when it only carries a dozen people in each car. When that happens, buses are more efficient, Bland said.

“When you put 100 people on a rail car versus 50 to 60 on a bus, it’s more efficient,” he said.

Arguing the pros and cons of light-rail service is not isolated to Allegheny County. Other cities struggle with the same light-rail burden. Some have decided to avoid the high cost of light-rail and create express bus systems.

Ottawa developed an extensive bus system more than a decade ago that hinged on express routes. They are similar to Port Authority’s busways, essentially creating faster bus lines through urban areas.

Yet, most cities pay for light-rail as they try to increase ridership by tapping middle-income regions, Poole said.

“What really is the best role for a transit agency?” Poole said. “Should it be spending a lot of resources attracting a lot of middle-class riders, or should it focus primarily on doing a better job of serving its natural market, which is a lower-income market with riders who don’t own or drive cars?”

The T serves many middle- to upper-income areas, such as Bethel Park, Dormont and Mt. Lebanon.

Now, the T is being extended to the North Shore by tunneling under the Allegheny River. The project will cost more than the $435 million budget approved locally and by federal transit officials. The expansion is touted as necessary to extend the line north or to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Yet, most public officials favor extending the T east to Oakland.

Transit officials plan to make the system more efficient in 2009, following a top-to-bottom analysis by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.

When the Nelson\Nygaard study is complete later this year and the authority embraces a renewed route network, the light-rail line likely will become a key element. Port Authority officials have talked about using bus routes as feeders for the T and its busways.

The changes will benefit Port Authority because its bus network needs to be improved, said Paul Jewel, a partner with the firm and the lead transit planner for the project.

“What it equates to is a more efficient use of resources,” he said. “You’re going to be a more efficient service. It allows you to take the same amount of resources today and serve the same number, or more, of riders. And with what’s left over, it’s either savings or you do something else with it. It’s a way to use your pot more effectively.”

A similar process Jewel worked on for San Antonio created a 10 percent increase in ridership the next year, he said.
Light-rail costs are high in most U.S. cities, but are especially high in Allegheny County.

The Washington rail system costs $10.11 per mile — half of the Port Authority’s expense. The amount is even less in New York City, where the MTA rail system costs $7.98 per mile to operate.

In more comparable cities, such as Minneapolis, which relies mostly on buses, the cost of running light-rail is not as high as Port Authority’s. Minneapolis’ Metro Transit rail costs $10.49 a mile — still half the authority’s cost.

Nationally, the average is $14.70.

The T line has been used in recent years as a development tool, which authority officials hope generates riders and revenue.

Chatham Development, for example, plans to build a townhouse complex along the T in Mt. Lebanon.

“I love the T,” said Mike Eveges, president of Chatham Development, based in Mt. Lebanon. “This complex will be about a 100-yard walk to the T station.”

“This is a win, win, win for everyone involved,” he told the transit board last week. “We’ll get you a few extra riders and add to the bottom line of Port Authority.”

Jim Ritchie can be reached at jritchie@tribweb.com or 412-320-7933.

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