Port Authority extends free light-rail service between Pittsburgh’s Downtown, North Shore
Apr 29, 2022
TribLIVE's Daily and Weekly email newsletters deliver the news you want and information you need, right to your inbox. Port Authority of Allegheny County board members on Friday approved a funding agreement to extend free fares for light-rail rides between Pittsburgh’s North Shore and Downtown. The free fares have been in place for several years, but used to be subsidized by non-transit groups. From 2015 through 2020, free T rides were funded through the Stadium Authority. Before that, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Rivers Casino subsidized the free rides. The deal approved Friday would extend free rides for two more years, but this time with the Port Authority footing the $265,000 bill unless parking lots and garages on the North Shore reach certain capacity limits. Only then would the Stadium Authority take over payments. The payment is being called misplaced and wasteful by some public transit advocates, while the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance is defending the funding extension as important in helping to revitalize Downtown coming out of the pandemic. Port Authority said ridership increases are hinting that more workers are returning to the central business district, and they want to maintain support for those efforts. Laura Wiens of Pittsburghers for Public Transit said the Port Authority should instead be allocating funding to address driver shortages or alleviate fare costs for low-income riders. She said funding free T rides mostly helps car commuters and not the transit users that should be prioritized. She also said there is little reason to continue the policy to benefit CCAC students that take the T, since the Port Authority’s new free-transfer policy now covers their costs. “If the Port Authority was prioritizing the current users of the systems, and the people that can’t afford to ride now but would if it were cheaper, they would have made a different decision,” said Wiens. Under the former agreement from 2015 to 2020, parking revenue from lots on the North Shore essentially subsidized free T rides to Downtown through the Sports Authority payment. But with the new agreement, Wiens said the equation reverses itself, and now public transit is subsidizing free rides for people parking in North Shore lots. Wiens isn’t confident Port Authority will avoid the free T rides payment because North Shore lots must reach 85% capacity for three consecutive months the first year and 80% for three months the second year. The pandemic has sharply decreased North Shore parking rates, and Wiens said lot capacity hovered around 30% in February. She said the pandemic is showing it is time to shift priorities and focus more on improving service issues the Port Authority has been struggling with due to driver shortages . “The free light-rail rides are being paid for with federal relief funds that are really flexible,” said Wiens. “This money could be used to provide any number of things, like increasing recruitment and retention of drivers and staff.”
Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie said the authority is hopeful that parking rates will increase enough so that payments for the free T rides are eventually taken over by the Sports Authority. He said average daily users at North Shore parking lots and garages have increased from 27% in December to more than 35% in March. Ritchie also said Port Authority’s support to continue the free T rides goes beyond assisting car commuters. He said the authority wants to contribute any way it can to help the region recover from the pandemic, and part of that is helping Downtown Pittsburgh, the region’s largest job center, rebound. “The Downtown area has lost numerous businesses and efforts to counter this are underway. Employers are bringing workers back to offices and our ridership is on the upswing,” Ritchie said. “We want to support these efforts and those who have been impacted.”
While Downtown office capacity is still well below pre-pandemic levels, Ritchie said more and more office workers have been returning Downtown. He acknowledged that transit ridership is down compared to pre-pandemic levels, but Port Authority has seen a recent uptick, which he believes is driven by workers returning to offices and higher gasoline prices. Average weekday ridership increased 10% in March compared to February. Mark Thomas, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance , acknowledges that Downtown still has a way to go before returning to pre-pandemic levels , but said the free T rides are an important part of the neighborhood’s continued revitalization. “Public transit can’t be a barrier, and parking can’t be a barrier,” Thomas said. He said that public transit doesn’t always have to be seen in contrast with driving, and that some commuters need a car for some travel, but will also support using public transit. Thomas said this policy makes it easier for everyone. “We need to serve people in every way and we need to have everyone have access to Downtown,” Thomas said. Ryan Deto is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Ryan by email at email@example.com or via Twitter . Support Local Journalism and help us continue covering the stories that matter to you and your community.