They chanted in front of a colorful mural of Martin Luther King and other civil rights icons who used public transit advocacy as a way of advancing civil rights. Their posters included a depictions of Rosa Parks, who famously advocated for desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, Ala.
Pittsburgh-area transit advocates, led by transit advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), are hoping to achieve more equity in the region, and believe their fare-change proposals will help get there. In the short term, the group is calling for free transfers, more places to purchase ConnectCards, and fare-capping so that no transit user pays more than the cost of daily, weekly, or monthly bus pass.
“Bus lines are life lines,” said Briann Moye, a member of PPT. “It’s time for Port Authority to really deliver transit justice to our communities.”
Currently, transit users with ConnectCards must pay a $1 transfer fee, and cash users have to pay the full $2.75 cash fare when transferring buses.
Moye said that better fare policies are necessary to help the increasing amount of transit users coming from municipalities just outside of Pittsburgh city boundaries. She said rising housing costs in certain Pittsburgh neighborhoods are causing people to search for more affordable housing in places like Rankin and other suburbs with worse transit access. Moye said this is why free transfers and more access to ConnectCards is important, since non-city areas more often require transfers to reach final destinations.
Helen Gerhardt of advocacy group Just Harvest spoke at the rally and said that Pittsburgh’s transit fares were too high. She said that 60% of Port Authority’s riders make $35,000 a year or less, and that fare capping and free transfers would go a long way in lowering their transit costs.
“We assert that yes, transportation is a human right,” said Gerhardt. “Transit should be affordable and accessible.”
The Pittsburgh region, on average, has one of the lowest housing costs of any large metro area in the country, but some low-cost areas in the region have relatively high transit-related costs.
For example, McKeesport has seen a large influx of low-income residents over the years, and according to Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, McKeesport residents spend 21% of their incomes on transit, and only 16% on housing.
Veronica Lozada from immigrant-service group Casa San Jose supported the fare-change proposals, noting that many immigrant and refugee communities don’t have good access to ConnectCards. Brandi Fisher of the Alliance of Police Accountability spoke in support of the group’s proposal to make fare enforcement a civil penalty (like parking violations) rather than a criminal offense. Fisher also called on the Port Authority Police to increase their hiring of women and people of color, as well as give transit a greater role in ensuring economic and racial equity.
“We are fighting to raise the minimum wage, but we have to ensure fairness in our transit system too,” said Fisher.
The group of transit advocates are proposing the complete elimination of fares for Port Authority riders by 2030. Recently, Kansas City, Mo. eliminated fares in the public transit system, and Worcester, Mass. is considering doing the same. In Kansas City, officials have said it will cost about $12 million a year to offer free rides.
According to a 2018 study from Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City collected about $10.8 million in fare revenue. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, collected more than $101 million in fare revenue, indicating a free-fare policy for Port Authority would be much more expensive than in Kansas City.
Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam (D-Ross) spoke at the rally in support of the the group’s fare proposals. She was joined by other Allegheny County Councillors Olivia Bennett (D-North Side) and Anita Prizio (D-O’Hara).
Hallam advocated for the fare proposal, and added that county council could have a bigger role in funding public transit. Currently, the county government provides a 15% match of state transit funds through county taxes on alcohol sales and car rentals. Last month, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner(D-Point Breeze) called on Allegheny County Rich Fitzgerald (D-Squirrel Hill) to allocate unspent hotel tax funds on transit and parks.
Hallam says the general fund money could go to help pay for the proposed fare changes she and others advocated for, and noted that Fitzgerald often verbally boosts the importance of public transit.
"There are funds available. It is important for county government to make [Fitzgerald] vote,” said Hallam, referencing the possibility of a county council bill to increase public transit spending.