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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Port Authority gets bailout from divided commission

Posted By on Tue, Dec 14, 2010 at 9:07 AM

The Port Authority got its bailout last night: The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission approved diverting $45 million in discretionary funds and staving off the biggest service reduction in the transit agency's history.

The commission approved the move on a 27 to 22 vote.

Gov. Ed Rendell announced two weeks ago that the $45 million was available. The money was taken from a discretionary fund that the governor can use for transportation infrastructure projects; according to the governor, it was taken from projects that were stalled or had been cancelled.

In a presentation to the 10-county regional planning board, PennDOT deputy secretary for planning Jim Ritzman said that "no projects across Pennsylvania are impacted because of this ... No money is taken from projects of the SPC."

Some commissioners took exception to the move, noting that the SPC has "flexed" money to the financially-beleaguered agency twice before. But supporters, like Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, noted this move wasn't the same as flexing, which involves diverting road and bridge funds to mass transit.

But commissioners, like Patricia Kirkpatrick from Armstrong County who voted against the proposal, felt differently. She cited a 2008 SPC report that noted 1,700 miles in poor roads, and 1,400 bridges considered structurally deficient. "There are many people in my county who never have the opportunity to have an alternative system" of transportation, Kirkpatrick said. "They rely on roads and bridges."

She questioned why the governor's proposal didn't divvy up the $45 million among the 10 counties that are represented by the SPC. "Why come back with 45 million or nothing? What kind of statement is that?"

Port Authority CEO and SPC member Steve Bland and other county leaders have repeatedly noted the agency's $47.1 million shortfall is on account of the collapse of Act 44, the state's funding formula for transportation funding. When the federal government rejected a proposal to toll I-80, it cut Act 44's funding in half. And even under Act 44, Bland says Port Authority actually saw a 2.1 percent decrease in state funds.

"The deficit issue is not an expense issue or a passenger fare issue, it's a state issue," Bland told the SPC.

He and Onorato have noted improvements the agency has made. Onorato cited a $96 million concessionary agreement with the transit workers union. Onorato said he has asked the authority to come up with an 18-month plan to help the transit agency stretch the money out to give the governor-elect and legislature time to address the state funding crisis.

In a synopsis of the plan, Bland said that if the authority received the money, January fare increases would still go into effect and "some level of service reduction [would take place] in March." Those cuts, he estimated would be "[c]learly not 35 percent -- probably 15 percent and in all likelihood probably another 10 percent later this year or early in 2012." He said layoffs would also still be necessary, but in proportion to the service reduction. Under the 35 percent reduction, up to 540 workers could have lost their jobs.

After the SPC vote, Bland said he was thankful for the bridge funding and that the 35 percent reduction was off the table. He stressed 15 percent was a "rough" number and "I can't even conjecture what that would look like." He added it was "premature" to discuss a second round of cuts.

But the authority will stretch the money through June 30, 2012, he pledged.

Bland said fare increases -- 25 cents in zone 1 and 50 cents in zone -- will still go into effect Jan. 1, and the authority's board will have enough time to alter the service cuts at its January meeting. Bland says the agency will weigh its options in the next few weeks. "We're working through things," he said.

"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. But clearly it wouldn't be the level of disaster of 35 percent -- it wouldn't be as harmful."

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