Westmoreland County Transit will bring bus and paratransit services in-house next year
Westmoreland County Transit Authority board members on Wednesday approved the takeover of all agency operations in a move that officials said will improve bus and paratransit services at a reduced cost.
Board members during a specially scheduled meeting unanimously voted to operate the authority’s fixed-route bus service and operation of the Go Westmoreland shared-ride programs for low income and disabled riders.
It’s a decision that alters the agency’s business model that has been in place since it was created in the 1970s.
“There’s an enormous amount of work that has to take place in the next two months to maintain the service, but we’re going to look for continuous improvement as we go through it,” said authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec. “We’ll know for certain what is going on with our service and if not, I’ll be able to answer that.”
The takeover will require the authority to hire about 150 new employees, including drivers, maintenance workers, supervisors and management personnel by Jan. 1.
That’s when the agency will assume control over its commuter and local bus services and shared-ride programs.
Fiscal director Ashley Cooper said the authority expects it will cost $12.2 million to operate both services over the next year. Cooper said the move to self-operation is expected result in three-year savings of about $2.3 million.
Rejected proposals from two private companies submitted earlier this month came in at higher levels than what is currently being paid.
“They are both very good companies, and it’s clear they could do the job,” Blahovec said. “But the price is considerably higher than what we are paying now and what we could pay doing it ourself.”
Ohio-based National Express Transit last year was awarded a five-year, $39.5 million contract to operate both services for the authority, but that deal is set for an early termination after renegotiations failed to result in new terms. The company served as the authority’s bus operator since 2010.
National Express officials contended the company lost money on the existing deal. Meanwhile, the authority fined National Express more than $262,000 since June 2018 for service failures that included driver shortages and route cancellations.
Blahovec said drivers, maintenance staff and other employees who currently work for National Express will be able apply for jobs with the authority.
David Merrill, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1735, which represents the authority’s bus drivers and maintenance workers, said he expects no issues with the transfer of service to the authority.
“We’re always willing to move their operation forward and work with the transit authority. It’s a move that may benefit the authority,” Merrill said.
The union’s labor deal with National Express is set to expire at the end of December. Both Merrill and authority officials said negotiations on a new collective bargaining contract will begin soon.
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.
“We expect service to continue as it now operates,” Blahovec said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .