Bus economics and the (proposed) demise of the 28X Airport Flyer
Some background. The 28X is actually a new route by PAT standards. For decades there was no such route and it was only in 1996 that PAT created the route in the first place. Before then and likely in the future, the only way to the airport other than ones own car was a taxi or a fairly costly shuttle that ran from fewer local stops.
One of the most vocal groups to oppose the demise of the 28X are college students who say the route is a great benefit to them. Realize that a lot of students and university staff ride free under the agreements several schools have with PAT. So PAT is not getting much incremental revenue from all those buses filled with students. This gets to the issue of what incentives PAT is operating under. If a big piece of service provided to the university comes in the form of this airport service, then does Pitt get to renegotiate a lower payment to PAT if that route goes away? That would reset those incentives pretty quick. Yet PAT may be of the opinion that this service is not really part of the deal with the schools. In the original deal PAT actually forced Pitt into the deal in the first place because some of the local shuttles Pitt used to operate violated PAT's legal monopoly on public transit. Alas, I digress into a different issue that could waste paragraphs. Maybe later.
but back to the 28X... if you look at PAT's detailed scorecard of what routes should be cut you see a lot of obvious things. What metric caused the demise of the 28X? It came in last in the measurement of riders-per-mile. That really set it apart from a lot of other routes and went a long way toward putting it on the chopping block by my reading of PAT's own analysis.
This gets to a very core point of where the question of efficiency fits into the whole public transit debate. From an internal cost-benefit perspective, it makes perfect sense to measure the number of riders-per-mile of service and to use that as a metric for evaluating routes. If this were a for profit company you would have to do just that. Yet it is a little perverse that the 28X is being cut because it provides more service per rider than almost any other route. It is almost too successful as a route, or too necessary depending on how you look at it. It borders on a tautology that any long transit route would score badly by that measure. By this logic, if I were to create an ever more redundant route that only ran between Oakland and Downtown, I am sure that route would attract a fair number of riders over a relatively short distance. It would look great by the metric of riders-per-mile and be saved... all while the 28X got axed.
So let's just take PAT's numbers where they calculate a cost per rider metric for each route. The 28X comes with a score of "7" which they say equates to a range of $10.50 to $12.00 per rider. I am a little dubious that that is the marginal cost and not the average cost, but be that as it may let's take those numbers for granted. Given that the service is slated to be replaced by a private sector service at a cost of $19 per trip you still have to wonder about the entire process. The fact that a service PAT itself provides for at most $12.00 per rider is going to be replaced by a (less frequent and less extensive) private sector service that costs at least 60% more is the clearest example of how applying narrow cost-benefit analysis to a public service leads to inefficient outcomes.
And none of that begins to address workforce issues. If the airport and airport corridor is really one of the economic growth engines of the county, without bus service is it possible for low income workers to ever participate in that growth? Even if deeply discounted, they sure are not going to be taking $19 commutes to work each day. Yet, none of that is captured in PAT's internal accounting. If I were to guess, the only reason you do not see more angst among airport employers over the potential loss of employees is due to the particular circumstances of late at the airport. Right now we are at the tail end of a lot of airport employment downsizing, which has affected all jobs out there. Thus there is a very short term dynamic going on where most employers out there are not in a hiring phase. The result is that the need for the 28X in the short term is mitigated. If that were to change??
and no... I am not so naive as to believe PAT really wants to cut the 28X. It is a high visibility route across the region, much more so than a lot of more local routes. You have to believe there are routes thrown to the wind just so they can appear to be 'saved' in the end. Anyone want to bet the 28X is the first route that is retracted from the list. It will give the appearance that the entire public comment process had some superficial impact despite being predestined. In the end if the 28X is the only route to be saved it will be a very subjective, if not hypocritical, decision. The logic to save the 28X applies to most of the routes being eliminated and if the 28X should be saved there are a bunch of others that should arguably be saved before that.