Thursday, February 7, 2013

Divide, Conquer, Drive On

By Helen Gerhardt

Divide, Conquer, Drive On
At the corner of Shady Ave and Forbes, in Squirrel Hill, an older man rolls fast toward the bus stop, but still a full block away, his wheelchair pitching up and down a stretch of sidewalk that has been humped and cracked by a corridor of tall, old sycamore trees. The light is green, the driver pauses, looks down at his watch – he is already ten minutes behind schedule. Getting the wheelchair onto the bus will take about seven extra minutes, at the very best. What if someone is late to work and loses their job because he does not make the light? And it is already very likely that yet another passenger will chew him out for being late.

But the real-life flesh and blood and anxious face rolling towards the driver are harder to resist than the call to "efficiency" - or the other probable needs that his choice to wait will frustrate. The light turns red, the driver lowers the platform which will lift the wheelchair onto the bus, the man rolls on with an enormous smile, and thanks the driver as he lifts the seats which will make space for him up front.

As the man's wheelchair is finally parked and strapped in, I do not wonder out loud why the man chose not to call a specialized ACCESS paratransit vehicle to come right to his doorstep to pick him up – I've been told by several other men and women who would like to use the system. But I hear the desperate, whispered question to a friend from a woman behind me who is late to pick up her child from a day care. She doesn't say anything directly critical, but I feel like explaining loudly. “If that man in the wheelchair lives within two miles of a Port Authority bus stop, he must pay double the regular ACCESS fare. And that ACCESS vehicle might well be one of those owned by Veolia, a private, international company based in France that we pay for with our Pennsylvania taxes.”

I keep my mouth shut. It would take so much time to explain what a "private-public partnership" means and I can see that the woman is too tired to want to listen to what might seem like a lecture. The tension on the bus diffuses, people settle back into their seats, we are soon crossing the bridge for the Waterfront Mall and dark is falling outside – some people drowse against their bunched up coats. But for about ten minutes our little community on wheels had been sharply divided by competing concerns and responsibilities and needs, pressures created for all of us by lack of support for a public system that serves as a life line for so many of us.

As other people board, I ask them about what losing this bus would mean to their lives. They use the 64 route to get to work, schools, grocery stores, churches, pharmacies, libraries, day cares, hardware stores, elderly parents in need of daily care - the list goes on and on. Many of the work commuters do not own cars. Many faces are grim at the thought of what will happen if the state of Pennsylvania does not fulfill its obligation to maintain the public transit infrastructure which is as basic and necessary to the health of their families as the road the bus rolls on. 
Governor Tom Corbett has now lived down to my own very low expectations on that score – the transportation plan he released yesterday would only direct $40 million to public mass transit this year for the entire state. Even after the most stringent of efficiencies now practiced by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and enormous concessions by the Amalgamated Transit Union, that would mean the loss of yet more vital service.
Elimination of more routes in Allegheny County would strike into the most vulnerable neighborhoods of the city, and amputate many of the commuter routes to the ring suburbs, deeply damaging workers, transit dependent businesses and the basic health of our regional economy. The impact would not just be local though - the urban economies of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia provide the bulk of the tax base which funds the entire state budget, including repairs to rural roads and bridges across the state. 
Many mass transit supporters are deeply concerned that Governor Tom Corbett will exploit the critical needs so well represented on this bus to divide the public against each other as he pushes for transportation privatization. Such a plan would enrich of many of his biggest campaign donors. Some fear that our state will enter into generations-long contracts with private companies, not only from our own state, but from across the globe, contracts with "absentee landlords" that will damage our lives, economies, communities, and even our democratic structures, all without any input from the people that would be most affected. 
Over the next few days, I'll post more solid examples, data and analyses from across the country that demonstrate the often perilous outcomes of private-public partnerships for vital public infrastructure, regional economies and democratic institutions, contracts that are often crafted and signed beside closed doors. Reports coming out of Harrisburg seem to indicate that Corbett has indeed begun to confirm our worst fears and concerns. Our governor may well do his best to institute a system which exemplifies what many might consider the worst of both capitalist and socialist economic models.  

Faced with the man jouncing down the cracked sidewalk to the bus stop, the profit margin as bottom line would have dictated one obvious choice for the man at the wheel - drive on. 

Helen Gerhardt is Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit: 


  1. The 64 always uses the old buses, but it doesn't take anything like seven minutes to load a wheelchair on the new buses. At least not usually.

  2. Ah, well, yes, the 64 might be a bit slower than the new buses, but in the interests of due diligence research for hard data, I really should have timed the process before I ventured a hard number like "seven minutes." :)

    Thanks, MH.

  3. We've got to get that guy in the wheelchair Downtown. He might have the answer to the pension problem. "All hands on deck" means we've got to take advantage of every opportunity / individual.