What the Port Authority Faces: Budget Crises

by Alicia Wlliamson

photo by Dawn Jackman-Biery

Port Authority Transit’s budget comes from a variety of sources at the city, county, state, and federal levels and its levels of funding is inconsistent. PAT has direct control over some financial cost variables like fares, employment and route efficiency, but are operating expenses that they cannot control, such as fuel prices and the rising costs of healthcare. So every time there is a serious budget deficit, PAT responds by increasing fares, cutting service, and laying off workers. All of these measures undermine the mission of public transit.

Serious budget deficits happen not because of fiscal carelessness, overpaid workers, or fares that are too low, but because PAT’s government funders have failed to provide a dedicated reliable source of fund for our transit system. Allegheny County adopted the drink and car rental taxes in 2008 to fund transit, but instead of improving PAT’s funding, the county just used these new taxes as an excuse to cut its previous revenue stream to PAT. The Pennsylvania state legislature has failed for 20 years to find a dedicated source of revenue for transportation. The funding comes from a mix sources, none of which have increased over the years and many of which have gone down. In the past decade, PAT’s subsidies have increased by less than .5 percent (far below with the average rate of inflation) and are actually expected to decrease in this economic climate, since much of the money comes from from sales taxes.

The state’s effort to fund transportation by putting tolls on Interstate 80 when the federal government ruled that this violated federal law. The I-80 tolling plan was expected to provide more than one-third of PAT’s operating budget. The financial support PAT received from the federal government is determined in part by ridership, so every time PAT cuts service, they also cut their federal funding. The only way to stop the Transit Death Spiral in Allegheny County is to pressure our the county, state and federal governments to make transit a serious priority, and designate an adequate and secure source of funding that we can rely on.

Alicia Williamson is a graduate student at Pitt and a bus rider.