Pennsylvania’s mass transit systems are about to see a big influx of cash.
Riders and transit agency planners say the federal infrastructure money offers a chance to change operations for the better. At the same time, both are trying to figure out how it should be used and what “better” looks like.
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One of them is 30-year-old Nathan Lund of Harrisburg. For the last six months, he’s been riding a specially-designed Capital Area Transit bus route that shuttles workers to and from Amazon warehouses in Carlisle. He ditched his car when it got too expensive to fill up with gas and to fix up.
“It’s been fine. It just requires a lot of planning to make it work. It’s not easy,” Lund said before a recent ride.
Each evening from Wednesday to Saturday, Lund sprints across a busy street near where he lives to a bus stop, armed with a multi-ride pass and plenty to do on the roughly half-hour ride to the warehouse. Most days, Lund explained, the bus reliably shows up on time and gets him to the front door of the warehouse in time for him to clock in.
Going anywhere else on a CAT bus, like to the grocery store to run errands, is a different story. Even though CAT has routes specifically for grocery shoppers, like its East Shore Grocery Shopper, Lund explained riding those buses still requires forethought.
“[That] usually requires at least thinking about it the prior day just to figure out when the actual schedule is going to be, if there are going to be any route adjustments. Things like that,” Lund said.
Even the bus to work has its downsides: service only runs twice a day, at the start of day and night shifts – with almost 12 hours in between. And there’s no weekend service, which means Lund has to find another ride to work for his Saturday shift — like Uber.
“I get out at 5 a.m.,” he said. “Usually people don’t decide to start working because they have all the flexibility. So if they’re not driving that early, that means I have to wait until they decide that they want to start doing it.”
Lund said weekend service and buses that drive their routes more often are at the top of his wishlist. He argues both would make the bus a more reliable way to get around.
Pittsburgh’s transit woes
A similar situation is playing out for transit riders across the state in Pittsburgh, explains Pittsburghers for Public Transit Executive Director Laura Chu Wiens.
“People are sitting at the bus stop, first of all, for what can be hours at a time, because bus after bus won’t show up,” Chu Wiens said. “When they do come, they’re packed to the gills.”
Like many cities, Pittsburgh is facing a bus driver shortage, which Chu Wiens points to as a cause for the recent problems. Some drivers have left their jobs over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, while others have been placed on leave for not following the Port Authority’s vaccination requirement.
Chu Wiens said the situation has led Pittsburgh city planners to mull service cuts, which she said would affect even more workers.
“How much of the labor shortage is really exacerbated or really catalyzed by the fact that there’s not available, accessible, affordable transportation to where people need to go?”
A Port Authority spokesperson told WPXI last week that the agency is not planning to follow through with any cuts, adding it’s working to re-assign routes to close service gaps.
Freda Tepfer of Erie argues bus lines in her community could also improve.
She said she used the bus for years when hampered with a mobility issue, then turned to using a car when her condition improved. Buses that she used didn’t run often enough or on Sundays. She says that continues to make life difficult for people like Erie’s large immigrant and New American community, some of whom can’t apply for driver’s licenses.
“For people who work cleaning or whatever they do at the hotels [on Erie’s south and west sides], there isn’t service at hours that they could logically ride the bus. Some of the routes don’t run late enough at night.”
Erie’s Metropolitan Transit Authority bus schedules vary widely. Buses along some routes, such as Route 3, run every half hour well after 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays through one of Erie’s busy commercial corridors. But others like Route 16, which takes passengers to grocery and shopping areas on the city’s east side, only run every four hours between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m., and even less frequently on Saturdays.
“It makes life a lot easier when I know there is going to be a bus coming soon,” Tepfer said.
An influx of federal infrastructure money for transit
That’s where this new pot of federal transportation money comes in.
Under last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Pennsylvania is on track to get nearly $690 million in new money from Congress just for public transit. Federal transit funding will now clock in at around $2.8 billion when combined with money the state is already getting. According to the law, the cash will be spread out over five years and divided among all the state’s systems according to their needs.
Richard Farr heads the Susquehanna Regional Transit Authority, which serves the cities of Harrisburg and York with rabbittransit and CAT Transit services. He said his agency has been told to expect $3 million next year alone:
“When [the money] first came out, I was pretty excited about the dollar amounts and what we potentially could do, and then shortly after that we saw all these other costs starting to grow,” Farr said. “So before we even have the money, we’re running out of it.”
Farr said inflation, high gas prices, and rising health insurance costs for workers are among the reasons why that money may not stretch as far. But he adds transit leaders can still do a lot with the money, including service improvements that a lot of riders want.
Harrisburg’s potential uses of funds
The thing is, what Farr considers improvement is a little different than what some of his customers may have in mind.
“Historically we’ve given a little bit to everybody, and is that the right model?” Farr said. “Or should we go back and really look at…these major corridors and really give it a lot of frequency so people have the ability to move more often?”
According to Farr, here’s how that “major corridors” plan could work: more buses would run along the transit system’s busiest routes so riders wouldn’t have to crowd in.
That would mean some routes with low ridership would be scrapped. But, Farr says on-demand pickup services could be expanded to take them where they need to go instead. CAT Transit already offers shared ride services for those that don’t live near an existing bus stop.
To sweeten that kind of arrangement, Farr said his agency could also work with Harrisburg leaders to keep traffic lights green more often along busy bus routes.
“I think folks when they make decisions to ride the bus, it’s a cost-time benefit: you can save money, but it adds time. How can we give them time?”
Calls for transit worker investments
Laura Chu Wiens disagrees with Farr’s approach — noting given the federal cash boost, service cuts might not be the way to go. The infrastructure law requires bigger agencies in cities like Pittsburgh to use funding to do system planning and to upgrade vehicles.
Chu Wiens says while the approach is helpful, the money would be better spent on transit worker raises and training.
“You can have the shiniest, best new buses and nobody to drive them, right? Like, no money to be able to run or buy gasoline or whatever to make the service go, and so that serves nobody.”
Freda Tepfer is similarly frustrated, arguing planners should be investing in workers.
“The reason why it’s easy to put money into infrastructure and planning is that you don’t have to pay [transit] employees,” she said. “Once you give people something, it’s tough to take it away.”
Transit riders like Nathan Lund call Farr’s approach “streamlining,” and Lund argues it overlooks why some lines are busier than others in the first place:
“The shortness of a lot of the lines or the infrequent service means that riders aren’t using it,” he said. “If something’s not easy to use, they don’t use it, and then they [planners] use that disuse to justify not having those routes anymore.”
Farr said the transit authority he heads is working to develop a Commercial Driver’s License training program to get more drivers on the roads. He said the agency is currently short 11 drivers.
“I try to keep my eye on what’s happening in the world, and I think one of the things that employees are seeking is greater flexibility, and that’s a challenge we’ll always face. But we do have a very large span of time for when people can work,” Farr added.
Near the end of his ride to work earlier this month, Lund said he hopes public transit will get a little easier over time – for riders like him and the transit workers that keep it going.
“They [transit workers] try to make it work, because they know that this isn’t a lot of people’s first option. It’s their only option.”
Congress will be sending Pennsylvania around $4.6 billion in new transportation funding over the next five years. Lund said he hopes some of that money goes toward setting up more weekend service – so he can quit waiting for those early morning Ubers