Pitt and the Port Authority have signed a new five year contract, with one really important shift. Because our IDs are ‘smart cards’ (RFID tags), detailed ridership tracking is possible, so the new contract shifts from a lump sum payment to $1.25 a ride. Last year, at one of the Sustainability Subcommittee meetings, the administration was still hesitant to move towards this model because of concerns about accuracy – clearly those have been ironed out (and certainly, the system works well, with the odd nuance that cash-payers hold up the line a lot more now).
The new contract limits Pitt’s payment to $5.9M this year, with an expectation of a significant increase next year (woo! say I). To do some quick math and put this in perspective:
$5.9M will cover 4.7M rides at $1.25, and Pitt has ~29k students and 10.5k faculty and staff (Source). Assuming people come back and take one bus each way (not a totally valid assumption, but reasonable for this), that amounts to 60 trips per person per year, or just over one a week. For most undergrads, that makes some sense (and the $180/year transportation fee is set at about this level). For faculty and staff, I don’t know how large ridership is – my perception is increasingly that professors live outside the city and drive in, including many of the environmentally aware ones. Much of this is a lack of good transit access to the richer suburbs.
For graduate students, that student fee seems quite low. Many of us live in Sq. Hill or Shadyside (or further out), and commute by bus – 5 trips a week or more. And to put everything together, if we assume the whole graduate student population commutes (some of them don’t, but some undergrads do), and 30% of the faculty/staff population does, that’s roughly 9.1M rides annually, with annual costs around $11.4M. And that’s at half price. Clearly, if we were previously paying lump sums around $5.9M, we were paying only a quarter of the (publicly subsidized) rate.
What does this all come out to? Well, I see it as helping to prove my point that Pitt students, and graduate students in particular, should be paying much more for our transportation fees. I’d happily accept a raise in fees to $300/year, particularly if it came with a guarantee that the 28x would stick around. In any case, the increase for next year means that we will be doing quite a bit more to maintain our (failing but potentially excellent) public transportation system. With public shortfalls of $64M last year, Pitt’s increase could account for just under 10% – not the entirety, but an important long-term funding increase. That being said, the ongoing failure of our state government to deal with this topic remains the make-or-break issue. And much of that comes down to artificially low taxes/fees as well – just on gasoline rather than ridership.
We can discuss appropriate salaries and health care contributions for union employees, but in aggregate the only way US public transit works is with state (rather than federal) assistance – and our state government isn’t getting it done. We can also look at numbers on ridership and energy usage per passenger mile (the T is one of the worst light rail systems in the country on that metric), but shutting down these systems now would be incredibly short-sighted in the face of peaking oil supplies – the smarter approach is to build up access and communities around existing transit so that more people use existing systems and make them worthwhile. And in any case, one of the things I notice most when visiting other towns is their public transit – as a visitor, I don’t know all the roads, and often don’t have a car, so public transit makes a huge difference in my opinion of the city. Pgh’s increasing film and convention businesses and stream of awards mean more visitors, and a larger need for public transit for a good opinion – including to and from the airport.