Westmoreland County mulls operating its own bus routes
The Westmoreland County Transit Authority is expected to decide by month’s end if it will take over its own fixed-route bus and paratransit services.
The transit agency this week received proposals from two companies to run both services starting in January, but officials said the high cost of those offers makes it more likely that local and commuter bus routes and Go Westmoreland paratransit operations will be shifted to in-house control.
“It’s a very serious option,” authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec said.
National Express Transit of Cincinnati, the company that has run the authority’s bus service since 2010 and also currently operates the paratransit shared-ride system, did not submit new proposals.
The authority last year signed a five-year contract with National Express that was to pay the company $39.5 million to operate both services through spring 2023. Both the company and authority last month agreed to terminate the deal after renegotiation for new payments could did not result in a revised contract. The existing contract is set to expire Dec. 31.
Blahovec said National Express contended it was losing about $2 million annually and sought higher payments from the authority.
National Express representatives could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Ohio-based First Transit Inc., which operates bus and paratransit services throughout the country, submitted proposals for both services. MTM Transit, a St. Louis-based company that, according to its website, specializes in health care related transportation programs, submitted a proposal to operate the authority’s paratransit service.
“At first glance, these proposals appear higher than what we are paying today, so we have to look at every option. We can’t afford an increase,” Blahovec said.
One option is for the authority to operate both services itself.
Such a move would require the authority to hire about 140 drivers, maintenance staff and supervisors over the next two months. Officials said most of National Express’ existing local workforce would likely be offered jobs with the authority should a move to take over both services be approved.
“We have to give it serious consideration,” said authority board Chairman Frank Tosto. “Look at what we’ve been offered. We’re very familiar with these services and we have a good handle on what it takes to manage the services. It would give us more control and flexibility and the opportunity to be more responsive to issues.”
Until this summer, the authority was barred from serving as its own operator. In May, county commissioners and the authority’s board ratified changes to the agency charter, first created in the 1970s, to allow it to serve as its own service provider.
That move came amid ongoing service issues, driver shortages and maintenance failures authority officials said resulted in canceled or delayed bus and paratransit services. National Express, since June 2018, has been fined about $262,000 because of service failures, authority officials said.
The authority has a fleet of 41 buses for its 25 weekday and Saturday routes, including daily commuter runs to Pittsburgh and local service throughout the county. Ridership on those routes has decreased by about 14% over the past three years and last year carried about 415,000 passengers.
The shared-ride paratransit service operates door-to-door subsidized rides with the authority’s fleet of 50 vehicles for low-income and disabled residents as part of the county’s social service programs. An additional 14 small buses for the Go Westmoreland service were purchased and expected to be on the roads later this year for the system that, last year, provided about 195,000 rides.
Blahovec said authority staff will review the proposals submitted by both companies and make a recommendation to the board in about two weeks whether both the fixed-route and paratransit systems should be privately operated or run through the agency.
“This will be done quickly,” Blahovec said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .