Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Transit-rescue plan relies on support from a surprising source

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 3:42 PM

When state and county officials announced plans to stave off transit cuts this morning, one of the surprises was a source Allegheny County Rich Fitzgerald was tapping for $3 million in additional revenue each year: the Regional Asset District's 1 percent sales tax.

The Regional Asset District was created in the mid-1990s as a way to provide property-tax relief to local governments, and also provide funding for libraries, arts groups, and other cultural amenities. In 2011, it allocated more than $80 million to cultural organizations. And while RAD money does pay off the construction of the city's sports facilities and convention center, funding the transit system would be a departure: Transit is, after all, part of the region's infrastructure, rather than its culture.

RAD funds are administered by a seven-person board of directors, four of whom are appointed by the county executive. At least in theory, they are an independent body, though it doesn't always seem that way. Fitzgerald, at any rate, seemed optimistic the RAD board would approve the request.

At a press conference this morning, Fitzgerald noted that other communities use sales-tax to support transit (in fact, the county's drink tax, a form of sales tax on alcohol, already helps subsidize the Port Authority). "I can't think of a bigger regional asset ... than transit," Fitzgerald said.

Some are less sure. Transit "doesn't fit into the normal guidelines for what qualifies for RAD funding," says Jake Haulk, of the conservative Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. The Institute has been critical of Port Authority costs, and of uses of RAD funds for sports especially. "I don't think the RAD was designed for transportation."

David Donahoe, RAD's executive director, did not return a call this afternoon, and the state legislation creating the RAD does not mention transit at all. It does, however, empower the RAD board to support "regional civic facilities, ... regional cultural facilities and other organizations and properties vital to the quality of life of the region."

In any case, news of Fitzgerald's tactic was a surprise to Mitch Swain, the head of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, which represents arts groups. "This is the first I've heard of that," Swain said. Fitzgerald, he added, had been supportive of the arts, and "I would hope that this wouldn't impact arts funding."

Fitzgerald said this morning he'd had "preliminary discussions" with RAD board members, and based on those, he was confident the proposal "would be viewed positively." He added that transit funding could be paid without harming appropriations to existing groups -- thanks to increased sales tax receipts stemming from "the growth we've seen in Allegheny County."

Indeed, recent financial reports show that sales-tax revenues have been at or above last year's pace: In July alone, revenues were more than $7 million above the 2011 total -- enough to pay for two years of Port Authority subsidies.

Still, Haulk says, "If there's money there, there will be people who want it. That's Haulk's first law -- if you're handing money out, other people will get in line to receive it."



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