Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT) has been through a lot of change over the last couple of years. For instance, they haven’t always been known as PRT.
Formerly named Port Authority of Allegheny County, PRT underwent a rebrand in June 2022.
The new brand reflects a more modern transit agency that aims to improve and simplify public transportation in the region, according to PRT. The name PRT (pronounced "part") indicates where the agency operates and provides service.
Before the rebrand, the agency felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. From ridership to labor, PRT still experiences the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
PRT CEO Katharine Kelleman discussed the reasons for rebranding, bouncing back from the COVID pandemic, and more with METRO.
PRT’s New Look
PRT’s rebranding process began in 2018 and included gathering input from a wide range of employees, riders, and external stakeholders.
Although the effort was put on hold at the start of the pandemic, it was revisited in late 2021 to ensure the input they provided was still true.
Kelleman says the rebrand made sense for three reasons:
- PRT never had and currently doesn't control any ports.
- Most people outside Western Pennsylvania don’t know where Allegheny County is located.
- Pittsburgh Regional Transit is clear, concise, and to the point. It tells you what the agency does and where it does it.
While the Board Chair Jeffrey W. Letwin called the rebrand a “monumental day in the history of the organization” at the time, the response to hasn’t been welcomed by all with open arms.
“One thing about Pittsburghers is that, for good or for bad, we tend to dislike change,” Kelleman says. “We give directions to places using points of interest that are no longer standing; it was known as the Civic Arena a decade after it was officially called the Mellon Arena; and the Steelers will probably play at Heinz Field forever.”
As mentioned before, the rebranding was a process, and the agency is still adjusting to the change.
“It took a while to figure out and it’s going to take a while to ingrain ourselves into the hearts and minds of the community we serve,” Kelleman says. “So, our rebrand has certainly been something to get used to, but I think that will happen once our buses, our railcars, our bus stop signs, and everything else is more cohesive and tells the same story.”
The COVID-19 Impact
Like all agencies, PRT has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. PRT’s ridership has yet to rebound since the beginning of the pandemic, and the agency continues to experience a labor shortage.
Overall ridership remains down 45%. Bus ridership is about 40% below pre-pandemic levels, and rail ridership is nearly 70% below pre-pandemic levels.
“Our labor shortage preceded the pandemic but was certainly exacerbated by it,” says Kelleman. “We are attempting to draw in new applicants through a variety of measures.”
In the last year, PRT has raised the training wage (to $19 an hour), the starting wage (to $22.82 an hour), and has offered bonuses for applicants who come in with their CDL ($1,000 to $1,500 depending on whether they have a passenger endorsement), among others.
PRT’s staffing shortages have had an impact on the service the agency can provide.
“If we don’t have enough maintenance staff to ensure our vehicles can get out of the garage, we miss trips. If we don’t have enough operators to drive vehicles, we miss trips,” Kelleman adds.
To be able to successfully meet scheduled trips, PRT has reduced service in small increments over the last 2.5 years.
Many of the incremental service reductions that the agency has implemented over the last three years remain in place.
PRT has reduced service on its flyer routes that primarily serve nine to five commuters, but many of which have redundant local service. At the same time, the agency has also increased weekend service on routes. Despite its system having catered to the nine-to-five commuter for decades, that may change.
“We need to focus on making sure our system is reliable for our current riders,” Kelleman says. “Then, we need to analyze where the demand for public transit is. It may be later at night, earlier in the morning, or greater weekend coverage. The fact is that we still have thousands of people who rely on us to get where they need to go. Reducing service further is not the answer.”
PRT’s Initiatives and Goals
PRT still faces challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that isn’t stopping the agency in its goal to transition to a zero-emission bus fleet by 2045 to improve the health and safety of the area it serves.
“Public transit is inherently good for the environment, but we’re also pretty dirty,” says Kelleman. “We save a whole lot of carbon emissions by taking millions of cars off the road, but we put out a lot, too. As long as the vehicles can perform the same and are reliable, there’s little reason not to switch. Western Pennsylvania historically has poor air quality, and we want to make sure we’re doing our part to help.”
In December 2022, New Flyer of America Inc. received a five-year contract from PRT for 15 zero-emission, battery-electric Xcelsior CHARGE NG 60-foot heavy-duty transit buses, and 54 clean-diesel Xcelsior 60-foot buses for a total of 138 EUs, with options to purchase up to 88 additional 60-foot battery-electric or clean-diesel buses.
The agency also continues to look toward the future, as the PRT Board voted unanimously to extend Kelleman’s contract through 2025.
Kelleman said she hopes to implement PRT’s strategic plan to impart to all of its employees the mission, vision, and values it has as an agency; improve public communication; streamline its fare system; bring more voices to the table; and create new opportunities for its employees.
PRT has more goals during Kelleman’s run as CEO.
“If we’re talking about projects, a few that come to mind in the short term are a new bus network redesign, implementation of our bus rapid transit system, and improving our on-time performance and reliability,” Kelleman says. “In the longer term, I’d like to create better connections to our system from outside Allegheny County, improve travel to Pittsburgh International Airport, and explore new modes of transit that would help us overcome our hilly topography.”