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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Transit cuts usher in "a very, very dark day in Port Authority history"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 1:19 PM

After five months of waiting in vain for state lawmakers to come through with a funding plan, the Port Authority board of directors approved today the biggest service reduction in the transit agency's history.

The plan includes a fare increase, 35 percent service reduction, and approximately 500 layoffs. The moves are intended to fill a $47.1 million shortfall to balance its budget.

"Today is a very, very dark day in Port Authority history," Authority executive director Steve Bland told the board before the vote.

The agency expects the cuts to cost 15,000 daily riders. More than 50 neighborhoods will lose service entirely, and about 45 bus and light-rail service routes will be discontinued. "They will disappear," Bland says. "And it's a long walk from a lot of those places to the nearest bus routes."

A fare increase of 25 cents in Zones 1 and 50 cents in Zone 2 will go into effect Jan. 1. The service reductions and layoffs are expected in March.

The plan was first presented in July. A vote was scheduled for September, but the board postponed it in hopes that a funding solution could come through from the state after the mid-term elections. But at this point, transit agency leaders say, little other action can be taken.

"I don't believe it's the right choice. I do, however, believe at this moment, it's the only choice," Bland said.

The prospect for an immediate solution "is very grim," he sad. "I'd be lying if I led anyone to believe that there is a short-term solution."

Board members placed blame for the cuts on state lawmakers. AndbBoard member Joan Ellenbogen argued that more than just local bus routes are at stake.

"While we may be feeling it most right now, more agencies and PennDOT will feel the squeeze," she predicted. "When those … in the middle of the state cry about crumbling roads and bridges, maybe [lawmakers] will listen."

Jack Brooks, chair of the board, agreed, telling CP after the meeting "Our elected officials need to stop pointing the finger at us and look in the mirror. It's not too late to act, but soon it will be."

Though similarly drastic cuts have been threatened in the past, Brooks says, the board "has always got around it because the governor came up with the money. There has to be a source of funding." And this time, "We don't have anything."

Port Authority primarily blames its financial woes on the federal government's rejection of a plan toll Interstate 80. Revenue from the I-80 tolling plan was already included in Act 44 of 2007, the state law establishing funding for transit projects. Tolling I-80, state officials estimated, would have brought $1 billion in transportation funding for roads, bridges and mass transit to Pennsylvania.

The Port Authority's share of the money would have been enough to reduce its budget to about $25 million. Without the hoped-for revenue, though the agency's shortfall is nearly twice that amount.

"Act 44 … has collapsed. It failed," Bland said. "But if anything positive comes out of today, maybe it'll let us redirect our energy to Harrisburg where it belongs."

But in the meantime, Bland says his financially-beleaguered agency is already facing a $20-$30 million shortfall next< year, and could further reduce service in July to balance its budget.

Activists like Jonathan Robison, president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, pleaded for lawmakers to come up with enough money to see the agency through until a more lasting solution can be found. "Bridge funding is a bandage, yes. But a bandage is nice when you're bleeding to death."

Before the meeting, about 50 transit activists staged a rally imploring the state to devise a funding solution. Brittany McBryde, of Point Breeze, held a black poster with a tombstone on it that read "R.I.P: Here lies Pgh Transit."

She, like many of the activists, has already taken Bland's advice by directing her outrage at Harrisburg. After all, she said, "Port Authority stands to lose just like we do."

Patrick McMahon, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, contended that "the answer lies in elected officials. They have failed us."

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