The pandemic cost public transit dearly. Will Pittsburgh-area riders return in 2021?

by Matt Petras

Sewickley resident Libby Powers relies on Port Authority transit because of a disability that prevents her from driving. Typically, she takes public transit to her research job at the University of Pittsburgh five days a week, but, in March, she and her coworkers switched to telework due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she uses transit to get around and certainly noticed the reduction in service the Port Authority implemented toward the beginning of the pandemic.

“Being a person with a disability, public transit has become a way of life for me,” said 33-year-old Powers. “It helps me to get from point A to B; it takes me to places I want to go explore, like in the city; and it helps me be as social and as involved in my own community as I want to be.” 

About three months ago, her employer started having staff come to work once a week and telework the rest of the week. She’s starting to use transit more, and she’s seeing more frequent service and more people again. 

“It’s slowly started to pick up again, with the return of students… I would see them or I would also see, often, doctors and nurses coming and going from the hospitals riding the bus,” Powers said. She doesn’t worry about catching the virus on the bus — most riders she’s seen wear masks, though she has seen some people get on and sit down without one.

The Port Authority’s ridership has grown since the early days of the pandemic when buses and the light rail emptied out, but with less to do around town and more telework, it’s dwarfed by normal numbers. And as the pandemic continues to strain the economy, advocates note that low-income riders still depend on transit but find it harder to afford. 

Port Authority of Allegheny County spokesman Adam Brandolph reports that overall ridership is down about 70% from pre-pandemic numbers. Specifically, light rail ridership is down 80% while bus ridership is down 66%. The Port Authority projects a $66.6 million drop in revenue for this fiscal year, according to Brandolph — about 85% of this loss comes from a decrease in fare collection. 

While the Port Authority still limits capacity at 10 to 25 riders at a time depending on the size of the vehicle, service has ramped up significantly since the start of the pandemic, when Port Authority cut service across the board by about 25%. On Nov. 22, new schedules took effect that increased service on bus routes in high demand in areas like the Mon Valley. The Port Authority has also added weekend service to many of the routes, something crucial for workers with non-traditional work schedules. 

Libby Powers of Sewickley relies on transit from the Port Authority of Allegheny County to get to her workplace in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

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The pandemic cost public transit dearly. Will Pittsburgh-area riders return in 2021?

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