Keep the ‘Public’ in Public Transit: Privatization is a Bad Deal

by Andrew Wagner
photo by Dawn Jackman-Biery

With the Port Authority of Allegheny County in financial trouble, we’re hearing the call for “privatization” from some powerful political and business interests. These privatizers include some of the same politicians whose failure to adequately fund transit helped create the crisis, and they include business people who see big bucks to be made running private transportation. A good deal for them maybe, but for transit riders and workers, privatization is a very bad deal.

Let’s not forget why the Port Authority was created in the first place. It rose in the 1960s from the ashes of over thirty different private transit companies that failed. Focused on competing with each other and making profits for their owners, these private companies failed to invest in upgrading their fleets of buses and trolleys, which were frequently in disrepair and fell into obsolescence. These companies didn’t grant transfers to routes run by other companies, making travel complicated and costly for their riders.
When the Port Authority was created as a public transit agency, it acquired all of the routes and infrastructure of the old companies, and was able to rationalize the system by eliminating route redundancies, streamlining the transfer process, and standardizing the fare scales. It also almost immediately purchased hundreds of new buses and trolley cars to replace the decades-old fleets of the old companies. Since that time, the Port Authority has overseen the successful construction and operation of the busways and the subway system, and has continued to operate Pittsburgh’s famous inclines, while providing affordable public transit for hundreds of thousands of people daily.
But with the onset of the economic crisis, politicians in Allegheny County, Harrisburg, and Washington are coming up short on funding, and the Port Authority is in crisis. Predictably enough, here come the privatizers, like vultures circling a wounded animal. Lenzner Coach Lines, which specializes in long-distance bus tours, wants to snatch up two of the bus routes slated for total elimination in the March round of cuts – the 13J Franklin Park Express and the 13K Marshall Express.
The privatizers always argue that the free market is best because competition drives price down – except in this case it does just the opposite. Lenzner wants to charge $10 round trip from the Warrendale and $11.50 a day from Franklin Park to fill the void left by Port Authority route eliminations. Riders would have to commit to buying a monthly pass, and Lenzner will not offer discounts to elderly or disabled passengers. The Port Authority charges $3.25 per ride for these route, and a Port Authority monthly pass is valid throughout its entire system, not just on two routes in the North Hills. So much for the myth that competition drives prices down – here we see the developing embryo of a for-profit transit monopoly. The vultures are picking at the calf before it’s even dead!
The experiences of Denver, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles show that privatization doesn’t work. These cities’ privatized transit systems have suffered problems such as transit companies suddenly going bankrupt due to mismanagement; transit companies that jacked up their fares in the second round of contracting, after low-balling offers to get their foot in the door; and widespread safety and customer service problems stemming from high rates of turnover among their underpaid, non-union employees. (The unionized and veteran workforce of the Port Authority actually has one of the very best safety records of any transit system in the country).
The record of transit privatization, past and present, is that it’s a bad deal for the public. Why is it even proposed? Some privatization advocates have an ideologically-driven hostility to unions, union members, and the idea of the government providing public services. Some also stand to make a buck from the deal. (In the case of politicians who push for privatizing public services, it’s sometimes useful to see who their friends are and who donates to their campaigns.) Say no to those who play politics with your daily commute: keep ‘public’ in public transit!
Andrew Wagner is a student, worker and bus rider.