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Group urges Port Authority of Allegheny County to fund more transit routes

| Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
Andrew Hussein of Penn Hills holds his signs high during a recent Pittsburghers for Public Transit rally outside the Wood Street T Station, The group lobbies the Port Authority of Allegheny County for expanded service.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Andrew Hussein of Penn Hills holds his signs high during a recent Pittsburghers for Public Transit rally outside the Wood Street T Station, The group lobbies the Port Authority of Allegheny County for expanded service.
Charlotte Foster, 66, of Penn Hills speaks during a recent Pittsburghers for Public Transit rally outside the Wood Street T Station, before the group went to the Port Authority of Allegheny County offices to lobby for expanded service in Garfield.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Charlotte Foster, 66, of Penn Hills speaks during a recent Pittsburghers for Public Transit rally outside the Wood Street T Station, before the group went to the Port Authority of Allegheny County offices to lobby for expanded service in Garfield.

On the first cold morning of November, about 40 transit users gathered outside the Wood Street Station on Sixth Avenue, Downtown.

They would march down the street to the Port Authority of Allegheny County offices to tell officials why and where they need more service in the $398 million transit system that has about 215,000 daily riders.

They toted signs and banners and a portable speaker strapped to a pull-cart with bungee cords. Between speakers, their de facto leader, Molly Nichols of Pittsburghers for Public Transit, grabbed the microphone.

“What do we want?” she said, opening up a chant. “That's right, buses! When do we want them?”

“Now!” the crowd shouted back.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit has been increasingly active lobbying Port Authority for more routes to places it says need them and is using the agency's new rules to dial up the pressure. Last year, the group succeeded in its grassroots efforts to extend routes through Baldwin and Groveton Village in Coraopolis.

This year, it has lobbied for service extensions in Garfield, Penn Hills and the Perry Highway corridor.

The rules changed when Port Authority's board in June approved service guidelines that formalize the agency's decision-making for extending service. The process includes soliciting public requests — this is where the group comes in — that will be scored and weighted under a formula.

Based on financial resources and the analysis of route requests, the agency could extend routes next year.

Adding service, instead of cutting it, is a relatively new phenomenon for the financially fragile agency, in part because of newfound reliability in state funding. Last year, four routes were extended at an annual cost of $1.4 million.

In 2001, Port Authority had 235 routes. Today, it has about 100. The most recent cuts were in 2007, when the agency reduced service by 15 percent, and in 2011, when it reduced service by 15 percent and laid off 180 people.

“The transit desert issue was highlighted last year,” Nichols said. “Now, I think it's more in the public consciousness, and recognition that something needs to be done.”

Nichols and her team have organized meetings in Garfield, Penn Hills and the North Hills, hosting hundreds of residents. The campaigns generated more than 700 service requests.

“Last year, there were so many unknowns,” Nichols said. “This year, the benefit is a more transparent process that we pushed for and the Port Authority, to their credit, developed.”

Any extensions the agency can establish are because there's money for them, said Jim Ritchie, spokesman for Port Authority. Lawmakers increased annual support for Port Authority, helping ease the agency's financial crunch.

At Port Authority's October meeting, about two dozen residents spoke to the board. In November, more than 40 people crowded into the fifth-floor meeting room at Heinz 57 Center on Sixth Avenue, where the doorman recognizes Nichols.

Testimony spanned the region's mobility problems — from buses that don't come often enough, far-reaching stops and lack of access to schools, libraries and public housing developments.

Volunteer advocates Stacey Chandler and Debra Short of Garfield secured more than 200 service requests for weekend service on the 89 Penn, which was eliminated in 2011. The route circulates through the hilly neighborhood every 45 minutes but only on weekdays.

“When folks are isolated, they don't have the funding to get a cab or a jitney or family resources to help them get somewhere,” Short said to the board. “It would be a shame, especially for our elderly people, to just be secluded in one space when they're vibrant and this will help them.”

Port Authority board member John Tague has about two decades of experience with the agency, including time on the state-sanctioned advocacy group Allegheny County Transit Council focusing on access for people with disabilities.

Although the board must consider its new formula as a guideline for service requests, the stories from riders aren't lost on him — or other members, Tague said.

“The board has a sensitivity to these things,” Tague said. “We don't have all the answers, and so I think the connection with the advocacy community — that's what this is — is important. From my standpoint, I think it's great.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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