FILE - PA Port Authority, Pittsburgh, bus

A Port Authority of Allegheny County bus moves May 15, 2020, down East Carson Street on Pittsburgh's Southside.

(The Center Square) – Pittsburgh’s public transit system is still hurting, and high costs could force hard decisions, like service cuts, in the future.

So argues a new policy brief from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, which analyzed ridership and cost trends of the newly renamed Pittsburgh Regional Transit.

“The May 2022 average weekday bus ridership was down 46% from the May 2019 level,” Allegheny Institute Research Director Eric Montarti wrote.

While low, it was an improvement from May 2021, when ridership was down 62% from May 2019.

Pittsburgh has lost almost 86,000 weekday bus riders compared to prepandemic numbers.

The number of light-rail users has seen even bigger drops. There, ridership has fallen by 76% in May 2022 compared to May 2019.

Despite lower ridership numbers, the operating budget for fiscal year 2022-23 increased by 5.1% to $519 million, and with no worker layoffs. Montarti noted $96 million from federal funds related to COVID-19 were used to balance the budget.

“Regardless of the funding situation, costs need to be addressed,” Montarti wrote.

While passenger fares rarely cover the full cost of providing any form of public transit, losing customers can shift more of the economic burden onto taxpayers. As The Center Square previously reported, the costs for Pittsburgh’s light-rail system are 25% higher than the national average. For light-rail and bus alike, costs have increased.

Per passenger costs were $5.90 for bus and $9.93 for light-rail in FY 2018-19, Montarti noted. However, in FY 2020-21, “cost per passenger on buses was $16.96 and for light-rail it was $48.74, increases of 129% and 291%, respectively.”

Due to the major pandemic drops in ridership, costs per passenger dramatically rose. Costs will be lower for FY 2022-23 due to ridership rising, but it is unlikely to be back to 2018-19 levels.

Service cuts could be in the future, or a higher burden on taxpayers.

“​​The renamed PRT must focus intently on the factors it can control to address costs for taxpayers that heavily fund the system,” Montarti wrote. “In light of the outrageous per rider costs on buses and light-rail, if ridership does not increase dramatically by year-end, PRT needs to look at bus routes with extremely low levels of ridership and either cut trips or begin shifting service to much smaller vehicles that consume much less fuel and have, overall, drastically lower operation costs. On light-rail the options are limited to fewer trips and running single trains.”

Staff Reporter

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.