PGH City Paper – “The Flat Line”

DECEMBER 23, 2010
The Flat Line


The Port Authority of Allegheny County may have received a bailout to stave off huge service reductions, but the transit agency still faces a bumpy road ahead.

Faced with a $47.1 million budget shortfall, the Port Authority was bracing for a fare increase in January, followed by a 35 percent service reduction and layoffs for up to 540 employees in March. But on Dec. 2, just a week after the authority’s board approved cuts that would have left 50 neighborhoods without any transit service, outgoing governor Ed Rendell announced that he’d “cobbled together” some $45 million from a discretionary fund to tide the agency over. In a 27-22 vote, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission narrowly approved transferring that money on Dec. 13.

But how much help, really, has the agency received? While Rendell’s money reduces cuts and layoffs, the fare increase will still take effect. The agency has also been asked to stretch the money over 18 months, rather than merely through the current budget year, which ends in June.

“Any plan that gets us to June 30, 2012 … would include service reductions, it would include layoffs, it would include significant downsizing of the system,” said Port Authority CEO Steve Bland after the Dec. 13 vote. A 15 percent cut by March was likely, he said, with further cuts possible later on. “But clearly it wouldn’t be the level of disaster of 35 percent.”

But Port Authority officials, state lawmakers and transit activists say the $45 million is little more than a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. Such fixes, they warn, merely delay the inevitable, unless more permanent funding solutions are found.

“It’s not a remedy!” shouted the Rev. Dave Thornton, vice president of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, at a transit rally on Dec. 17 in Mellon Square. “It is merely life support.”

Even though funding was found to hold off the Port Authority’s massive cuts, protesters say the move is only temporary.
Heather Mull

But remedies have been elusive. Organizations like PIIN, Allegheny County Transit Council and the Port Authority itself have advocated for a solid base of state transportation funding.

Bland blames the authority’s deficit on the collapse of Act 44, the state’s formula for transportation funding. Much of the plan relied on a proposal to convert I-80 into a toll road; when the federal government rejected that plan, it cut Act 44’s funding in half and reduced additional revenues PAT hoped to receive. (Even under Act 44, funds to the Port Authority decreased more than 2 percent, Bland says.)

“The deficit issue is not an expense issue or passenger-fare issue,” Bland told the SPC. “It’s a state issue.”

It’s not clear how much attention the state will give it, however. The November elections ushered Tom Corbett into the governor’s mansion, and Republicans will also control both the state House and Senate.

Lawmakers in both parties are waiting to see where Corbett stands on the issue.

There have been “no smoke signals from the Corbett camp,” says state Rep. Rick Geist (R-Altoona), who will chair the House Transportation Committee next year.

“The administration is going to dictate this, but we don’t know how that’s going to go,” agrees state Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline).

A Corbett spokesman did not return a call seeking comment. In a series of campaign proposals, “50 Ways to Rebuild PA,” Corbett cites plans to build a transportation trust fund “to support much needed repairs to our infrastructure.” But while it discusses the need to repair old bridges and build new roads, the document is silent on mass transit.

Transit has not generally been a GOP issue. State Sen. Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat, says he can’t get Republican colleagues “to have a serious conversation about transportation funding.” He says Republicans plan “to do a complete review of all the funding streams” before proposing new ones. “That’s a code word for delay in my mind.”

Transit advocates do have allies. Geist, for one, describes himself as a “big mass-transit fan.”

“Transportation is not a Republican or Democratic issue,” he says. “And if it does turn into that, you can’t do anything.”

Geist has, in fact, proposed a transportation funding package of his own, which he hopes will be taken up next year. It includes tolling some of I-95, which links Philadelphia to other East Coast hubs, as well as raising a franchise tax on oil companies, and increasing the amount local governments must raise to match state funding. Citing a report by the State Transportation Advisory Committee, Geist points out that an additional $3.5 billion a year is needed to meet current transportation infrastructure work.

And still, Geist warns that finding long-term solutions won’t be easy — in part because of resentment at the short-term fixes.

When Rendell found the $45 million, he says, lawmakers weren’t even consulted. “What do you think that does for you when something comes up for funding? You think [lawmakers] who had those votes taken away are going to be inclined to help Pittsburgh out? … It’s not how you do it.”

Protesters say the loss of one bus will mean an increase in traffic on area roadways.
Heather Mull

In fact, Rendell leaves a legacy in which transit discussions have involved a “dynamic of rural versus urban,” says state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, and a member of the State Transportation Advisory Committee which advises the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “It sets a really bad tone for transit discussions.”

Act 44 made matters worse, Reed adds: I-80 serves rural areas much more than, say, I-95 … so the perception was tolling it would tax rural areas to support urban transit.

Similar concerns were apparent at the Dec. 13 SPC meeting. Westmoreland commissioner Tom Balya, for example, argued over speakerphone that “it’s constantly [Allegheny] asking something of other counties.” And Armstrong County Commissioner Patricia Kirkpatrick noted that the $45 million could have been spent on structurally deficient roads and bridges all around the state.

Previously, the SPC has “flexed” money to the Port Authority — transferring money slated for road and bridge projects and using it for transit instead. But it has never been comfortable with the practice. While the SPC approved flexing $144.6 million to the agency in 2005, it also issued a resolution stating that “highway and bridge program funding cannot bear the continuing burden of filling the increasing fiscal gap for transit”

According to the SPC, it has now flexed PAT $199.6 million in road project money since 2003 to cover operating deficits. SPC chairman Charles Camp voted against the transfer this time around. The $45 million, he argued, was “supposed to go into economic development and now it’s again going to subsidize mass transit on a temporary basis.”

Or maybe not. Rendell’s plan is not a done deal and transportation funding rules are complex.

While the SPC gave up $45 million, Rendell plans to reimburse it with unspent money from an economic-development fund.

Unlike previous times the SPC has “flexed” money, “We’ll keep SPC whole,” says PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick. “It’s not as the cases in the past where [flexing] meant that some highway or bridge project wasn’t done.”

The SPC also must submit an amendment to the regional Transportation Improvement Plan to formalize the transfer, which must be approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

In turn, the Port Authority has filled out a grant application for the money. Technically, the grant money can only be used for capital expenditures like equipment, but spokeswoman Judi McNeil says the new cash will free up maintenance dollars that can be used for operating costs instead.

But the Federal Transit Administration has to approve the grant application, and Congress has to approve a federal transportation appropriations bill for 2011 before the flex can occur. “It’s everyone’s expectation that will happen shortly,” Kirkpatrick says — but as of press time, the measure was still pending in the Senate.

In the meantime, Port Authority brass is in “wait-and-see” mode. “We’re working the scenarios” for cuts, says McNeil.

And riders continue to battle to preserve their service. At a Dec. 17 rally organized by transit supporters, activists called for more permanent funding. A Port Authority bus covered in signs that read “$45 million Band-Aid” traveled from Oakland to Downtown, followed by a procession of 20-some cars, each representing some of the 48 routes that were slated to be cut. (The bus was driven by a volunteer driver, and the authority paid the “minimal” cost of its fuel: Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said PAT supported the effort “to point out the fundamental problem causing us to commit such mass service cuts.”)

Rally participants say they were relieved that the March cuts won’t be as serious as planned. Still, they acknowledged the larger problem remains.

“Nothing has been fixed, the crisis is still here,” says Chris Sandvig, regional policy manager at the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, which helped organized the rally. “Cuts are still coming, and whether you drive or take transit, we all should be concerned.”

— E-mail Lauren Daley about this story.

SPC Approves $45 Million for Transit ’til June, 15% Cut Possible in March

Port Authority gets $45 million bailout
Funds will allow authority to avoid massive service cuts
Monday, December 13, 2010
By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Members of a 10-county regional planning agency tonight approved Gov. Ed Rendell’s plan to provide $45 million in emergency funding to postpone record-breaking Port Authority service cuts.

Members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission voted 27-22 to redirect unspent federal funds to the transit agency to head off a 35 percent reduction in service scheduled for March 13.

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland thanked the commission and revealed that the agency may attempt to stretch the $45 million over a longer period of time by making small service cuts in March and possibly later.

Mr. Rendell’s plan was to completely fill the authority’s 2010-11 projected budget deficit, postponing cuts until at least July 2011.

Mr. Bland said he heard sentiment from commission members in favor of a plan to spread the emergency funding over an extra year to give the state Legislature a full 18 months to address a transportation funding crisis affecting the Port Authority, other transit agencies, and PennDOT.

That plan would require a smaller reduction in service in March, possibly 15 percent, Mr. Bland said.

“Clearly it wouldn’t be the level of disaster that 35 percent is but it would be harmful,” he said.

He said the Port Authority board would be considering its options over the next several weeks.

Read more:

Rendell says he has found money to avert transit cuts!

Rendell says he has found money to avert transit cuts
Thursday, December 02, 2010
By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Gov. Ed Rendell today announced a $45 million allocation that would allow the Port Authority to avert record-breaking service cuts planned for March.

After meeting privately with members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county regional planning agency whose board must vote on the allocation, Mr. Rendell said the planned transit cuts would have devastated the region’s economy.

He said the $45 million is federal economic development funding that was allocated to projects that haven’t moved forward.

Mr. Rendell on previous occasions has redirected federal highway money to bail out the transit agency. The SPC in July signaled its opposition to another so-called “flex” of highway money to transit.
This time, “We’re not asking for dollars to be taken from highways to be paid into mass transit,” the governor said.

The Port Authority had planned to cut service by 35 percent and eliminate 47 routes on March 13 to address a projected $47 million deficit in its 2010-11 budget.

Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said today if the SPC approves the reallocation at its Dec.13 meeting, it would buy a one-year reprieve from service cuts.

He was not certain if the infusion would cancel plans for a scheduled Jan. 1 fare increase.

Mr. Rendell also described the reallocation as a temporary fix to give his successor, Tom Corbett, and legislators time to address the larger issue of the transportation funding shortfall.

Act 44, the state’s transportation funding law, fell apart this year when the federal government rejected the state’s plans to impose tolls on Interstate 80. That reduced available funding for highways, bridges and transit statewide by $472 million.

Mr. Rendell said it would have been unfair to expect Mr. Corbett, who takes office in January, to address the Port Authority deficit in his first weeks as governor.

More details in tomorrow’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

First published on December 2, 2010 at 9:56 am

Read more:

Next Pittsburghers for Public Transit Meeting: How should we move forward?

RSVP on Facebook…or just come!

4 December ยท 4:00pm – 6:00pm

Location 5200 Posvar Hall on Pitt’s Campus

Created by:

More info In the wake of our two successful demonstrations (one of which made the front page of the Post-Gazette!), we need to continue to build PPT and the movement against the transit cuts. The cuts have been approved by the Port Authority, and baring a near-miraclulous turn of events in Harrisburg, are set to become reality in mid-March (with the fare hikes hitting at the very beginning of 2011!)

In this environment, we must focus on building and sustaining a determined struggle against the cuts. Please join PPT for our next meeting. Right now, the proposed agenda looks like this:

-Analysis of last weeks’ demonstrations
-The upcomming PIIN demonstration
-Registering as a non-profit?
-Working in a broader coalition
-Near-term actions PPT could take (letters to the editor campaign)
-Long-term outlook

We hope to see you all there!

Port Authority board approves fare hike, big service cut

Wednesday, November 24, 2010
By Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette
People protesting public transit cuts gather outside the Port Authority headquarters on Sixth Avenue, Downtown,
The Port Authority board of directors today approved a Jan. 1 fare increase and the biggest service reduction in the transit agency’s history — 35 percent — scheduled for March 13.
“Today’s a very dark day for Port Authority and all those who benefit from public transit in our region,” CEO Steve Bland said.
The actions were needed to close a $47 million 2010-11 budget deficit caused in large measure by the failure of Act 44, the state’s transportation funding law.
Much of the funding for roads, bridges and public transit hinged on imposition of tolls on Interstate 80. The Federal Highway Administration rejected the proposal this year.
The state Legislature has not acted to fill a $472 million funding gap caused by the federal government’s decision.
Anger was palpable among authority board members, who voted unanimously for the fare increase and service cuts.
“We have been backed into a corner by inaction, apathy and a complete disregard for the greater good,” board member Joan Ellenbogen said.
“The powers that be have turned their backs on the people who depend on transit to live their very lives.”
In January, the Zone 1 fare will rise to $2.25 and the Zone 2 to $3.25. Transfers will go up 25 cents to $1.
Mr. Bland said the service cuts, which will fully eliminate more than 45 routes and service to 50 neighborhoods, could be reversed if the legislature provides additional funding before March.
The prospects for that, he said, “are very grim.”
Before the meeting, about 50 protesters rallied outside authority headquarters on Sixth Avenue, Downtown.
“Our elected officials have failed transit in the commonwealth, said Patrick McMahon, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus and trolley operators and mechanics.

First published on November 24, 2010 at 10:42 am

Read more: