By Neil Cosgrove
Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), a project of the Thomas Merton Center, has recently won some major victories in the struggle for equitable, accessible public transit in our region. PPT convinced the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) to seriously rethink aspects of their Oakland to-Downtown Bus Rapid Transit project, and to abandon a plan to use police for fare enforcement on the rail lines.
Moreover, the group appears to have established constructive dialogue with PAT CEO Katherine Kellerman and other agency leaders, while receiving a $47,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments to perform route-mapping for low cost service improvements in currently underserved locations.
That mapping work underscores PPT’s basic mission, as does the organization’s current focus on achieving “greater fare equity” for low-income riders. “We are very much grounded in equity,” says PPT’s Community Organizer Josh Malloy. As housing costs in Pittsburgh push more and more low-income citizens into the ring suburbs, those citizens find themselves penalized monetarily by Port Authority fare policies.
With greater distances to travel, passengers are more likely to switch routes before reaching their destinations, and to pay a transfer fee to do so. PPT wants those fees eliminated. Locations where PAT’s CONNECT Cards can be purchased are also more sparse in those ring suburbs, thus making it more difficult to obtain the cards, and such benefits as weekly or monthly passes that lower transit costs for those most in need of them.
Consequently, PPT is pushing the Authority to expand CONNECT Card purchase locations throughout the county, and to add a feature called “farecapping” to those cards. With that feature, if a rider pays $25 within a week for single rides, that rider’s CONNECT Card would automatically convert to a weekly pass. If, within a month, a rider pays $97.50 for single rides, the card would convert to a monthly pass. Regarding accessibility to CONNECT Cards, it’s important to note that single fares with a card costs $2.50, while a rider paying cash is charged $2.75 per fare.
Because of the preponderance of low-income riders in the Mon Valley, PPT is also advocating for either the extension of the East Busway to Monroeville and McKeesport, or connection to the Busway from those communities via bus-only lanes and signal priority.
The fare equity and busway campaigns comprise two of the “four key transit planks” in PPT’s “Riders’ Vision for Public Transit.” The other two involve air quality, climate change, and linking transit to affordable housing. And while Josh Malloy observes that the first two planks can be shouldered primarily by PPT, the latter two demand extensive coalition building both regionally and state-wide.
An example of such coalition building is the work PPT did this past year with residents of North Point Breeze, organizing a push to place affordable housing units in the proposed Lexington Technical Park adjacent to the East Busway. “We found a lot of folks who wanted North Point Breeze to return to what it was when they moved in,” Malloy says.
Hoping to get 100 affordable units in the development, residents eventually settled for 50, which was still a considerable improvement over what has happened in Bakery Square, where nothing but high-end housing has gone up right next to that section of the busway.
PPT has also met with “several other environmental groups,” says Malloy, in an effort to convince the Allegheny County Health Department to use money collected in fines from regional polluters for “regular free fare days” during this coming summer. PPT would then use those days to educate people about climate change and public transit’s role in lessening its effects. PPT’s approach of interconnecting public transit with myriad social justice issues has drawn the attention of cross-state organizations like 350 Philadelphia and 5th Square, according to Malloy. 5th Square identifies itself as “an urbanist political action committee” that supports candidates “committed to policy change in the areas of transportation, land use, and public space ….” 350 Philadelphia has joined a coalition fighting to stop construction by SEPTA (Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) of a power plant in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. The plant, which will use fracked gas, is seen as a prime example of environmental racism, situated in a neighborhood mostly populated by people of color.
State-wide cooperation by public transit advocacy groups appears to be an absolute necessity going forward, given the need to secure and increase funding for such transit. PPT Director Laura Wiens wants to see more participation by large employers in the form of making fare reimbursements an employee benefit.
Meanwhile, current state funding formulas are under threat from a federal lawsuit filed by independent truckers and the National Motorists Association. The suit claims it is unconstitutional for the Pennsylvania Turnpike to be giving the state department of transportation $450 million a year to help fund public transit. “We are very concerned about the lawsuit,” commented Organizer Malloy, “and going back to 2007,” when the Port Authority was forced to make sharp cuts in routes due to a drop in state funding.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
(TMC newspaper VOL. 49 No. 2 March 2019. All rights reserved.)