Colin McNickle: Port Authority bus-service costs don’t compare well
Port Authority of Allegheny County bus service remains very costly when accurately measured against true peer mass-transit agencies, says the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy’s president.
“The authority has dreadful cost numbers compared to areas of comparable size and cost of living,” says Jake Haulk. That’s counter to a 2016 performance review by PennDOT, based on 2014 National Transit Database information. It employed a suspect 14-member peer group that included two California transit systems — Alameda County and Santa Clara — with service-area costs of living 34 percent and 36 percent higher, respectively, than the Port Authority’s.
Even among that less-comparable peer group, Port Authority bus-service costs per revenue hour were nearly 36.8 percent higher, $186 vs. $136. Among a better-aligned peer group, Port Authority costs were even higher — by 51.2 percent, $186 vs. $123. While PennDOT judged the Port Authority “at risk” by this measure, “the better conclusion would have been ‘out of compliance,” says Haulk, a Ph.D. economist.
Using 2016 statistics and comparably sized transit agencies with comparable service-area costs of living, the Port Authority is even worse. Its bus-service costs were 23 percent higher per passenger trip, 75 percent higher per revenue mile and 78 percent higher per revenue hour compared to expenses at five peer transit agencies — Charlotte, Columbus, Milwaukee, San Antonio and St. Louis — and 80 percent higher for total expenses per revenue hour.
“If the Port Authority had the same expenses per revenue hour as the peer group, its operating expenses for buses would have been $169.1 million, or $132.4 million below the $301.4 million actually incurred,” Haulk says.
Why the high operating-expense differential? Labor costs, primarily. Port Authority wage and salary levels per passenger trip were 14.5 percent higher than the peer group’s in 2016; per-trip benefit costs were 49 percent higher. Port Authority employee expenses per revenue hour were even worse— salary costs nearly 65 percent higher, benefit costs 116 percent higher.
Sadly, state Act 89 of 2013, which gave Pennsylvania’s mass-transit agencies their much-sought “dedicated funding stream,” was followed by significant increases in Port Authority bus service and employee count, but not a commensurate increase in passengers, as of 2016.
“One can only speculate when the state’s dedicated support of transit systems — at the expense of (Pennsylvania) Turnpike users — will no longer be adequate to satisfy the voracious appetite for money the Port Authority has exhibited over the years,” Haulk says.
A wild card in that equation is a trucking association’s March 15 lawsuit claiming several years of regular and improper hikes in turnpike tolls (which are scheduled to rise in the future) to divert money to PennDOT and mass transit.
Haulk’s bottom line: The Port Authority board must nip in the bud the agency’s return to its spendthrift ways.
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (email@example.com).