Pittsburgh LRT Costs 25% Above National Average | Pennsylvania

(The Center Square) – While Allegheny County’s bus service performs well cost-wise compared to its peers, its light rail service is one of the most expensive in the nation, even though its ridership is among the lowest.

A new report from the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy comparing 19 light rail systems in the United States found that Pittsburgh’s costs were 5th highest – and 25% higher than the average light rail system.

Using operating expenses per hour of vehicle revenue as the relevant metric because “it’s the fundamental cost of providing the service,” Pittsburgh light rail was about $423. Only the streetcars in Newark, San Jose, Los Angeles and Seattle were more expensive.

The average OE/HRV was $339. Cities like San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston and Charlotte were all cheaper than Pittsburgh. Denver and San Diego had the lowest costs at $169 and $177, respectively.

“If (the Allegheny County Port Authority) were able to operate at the group average on a per vehicle hour basis, it would save $14 million a year out of its $71.1 million in light rail operating expenses,” wrote Eric Montarti and Jake Haulk, director of research and president emeritus of the Allegheny Institute, respectively.

Some cities are more expensive than others, but cost of living differences have not resulted in the difference in light rail costs. While the four agencies with higher costs than Pittsburgh had a higher cost of living, 10 agencies had a higher cost of living but lower light rail spending.

The problem, from VIP’s perspective, is the difficulty of Pittsburgh’s aging light rail system and its geography.

“An apples-to-apples comparison of two or more transit agencies that operate in different climates, have different geographies and topographies, serve different communities, and operate under entirely different conditions is embarrassing at best,” said the Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph.

Other light rail systems, such as those in Charlotte and Salt Lake City, are much newer – less than 20 years old – which lowers maintenance costs.

‘Maintaining a light rail system that was originally partly built over 100 years ago tends to be more expensive to operate than the more modern rail systems that many of our peer agencies operate today’ today,” Brandolph said.

Pittsburgh’s bus system has relatively high ridership and operates much more efficiently on a cost and ridership basis. Light rail can be trickier, due to internal and external issues.

The high cost and low ridership can be attributed to some issues beyond VIP’s control, such as low neighborhood density. The Library Line, for example, averaged just 3,000 weekday users before the pandemic, but has an “imminent need” of $450 million in infrastructure repairs. In NEXTransit, agency’s long-term transportation plan, the agency noted serious problems with the line.

“It is important that the Port Authority identify substantial ways to increase ridership on the line (with the commitment of local municipalities for implementation) or explore less costly ways to maintain service to these communities” , notes the report.

Labor costs are also high. VIP maintenance report 2021 noted that Pittsburgh’s light rail had the second highest cost per passenger served compared to eight other light rail systems. The agency cited the high cost of maintenance, closely spaced stations that force trains to run more slowly, and “comparatively high wages and benefits for operators and maintenance employees.”

Although light rail ridership fell nearly 80% between February 2019 and February 2022, no layoffs or furloughs occurred. Despite the difficulty of comparing light rail systems, the Allegheny Institute advocated for change.

“This is a great opportunity for VIP to enact long overdue reforms to reduce or at least slow rising operating costs,” Montarti and Haulk wrote.