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Arts groups may suffer, but saving transit is worth the cost

If you're like me, you use transit regularly. And you partake of alcohol, and the city's cultural scene, almost as often. You may even occasionally indulge in all three habits at the same time. 

So if you're like me, it's hard to pick a side in the debate over whether to shore up the Port Authority by using the county's 1 percent sales tax, the Regional Asset District (RAD) tax.

Until now, half of RAD's revenue has gone directly to the county and local governments, so they can reduce other taxes. The rest supports cultural amenities: libraries, parks, museums and arts groups. But in August, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced plans to ask the seven-member RAD board to shell out $3 million a year to support the long-suffering transit system. 

That commitment, along with contract concessions from Authority employees and more than $30 million in state funding, will avert cuts that would otherwise eviscerate bus service. But for arts groups that rely on RAD money, it's a mixed blessing. 

Fitzgerald insists that arts groups won't feel the pinch: With an economy recovering, the transit allocation can be paid for with increased sales-tax revenue. There's nothing wrong with Fitzgerald's math: By the end of August, RAD revenues were up $3 million ahead of last year — enough to cover transit with four months to go. But in a statement, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council fretted that after years of "very serious operating shortfalls," arts groups "have been waiting patiently for the return of increased sales-tax receipts." And funding transit, the council argued, would be "a dangerous precedent." Once you're using RAD tax money to cover bus service, what's to prevent future politicians from tapping the fund for other infrastructure, like roads or sewer lines?

Anyway, the county already has a tax designed to cover transit: the drink tax. When then-County Executive Dan Onorato established the tax in 2008 to provide a steady source of transit funding, in fact, the rate was initially set at 10 percent. But that rate created too much revenue: County officials didn't want the Port Authority to get a "windfall" — presumably for fear that the money would be squandered on luxuries like leather upholstery for the 51-Carrick route. So the rate was lowered to 7 percent. 

You could get an extra $3 million in revenue just by raising the drink tax back to 8 percent. But that wouldn't just hike your bar tab; it would mean that Fitzgerald couldn't boast of keeping taxes low. It might even incur the wrath of bar and restaurant owners, who dogged Onorato for the rest of his days for levying the tax in the first place.  

Which helps explain why the county is raiding a tax that wasn't created to benefit transit ... instead of restoring a tax that was. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald wants the RAD board to make a 10-year commitment — more than twice the length of the Port Authority contract, or the state's promised funding.  The county says it wants to create a long-term funding structure. But the RAD board is being asked to make a longer-term commitment to bus service than anyone else ... even though "funding transit" isn't in the board's job description.

Still, it's not as if arts groups are suffering alone here: Drinkers, transit riders and workers — everyone has paid a price. And spending RAD money on infrastructure isn't that unprecedented: RAD already spends more than $14 million a year paying off bonds issued to build Pittsburgh's professional sports stadiums.  The theory is that sports counts as "culture," too. But if funding the men's room urinal troughs at Heinz Field counts as a cultural investment, why not the light-rail system that besotted Steelers fans ride so they won't have to drive?  

In any case, if Fitzgerald's deal goes through, it means that for a couple years, at least, we won't have to live with the fear of massive bus cuts. We won't be playing a game of chicken with buses and those who rely on them. We won't add thousands of automobiles to the rush-hour commute, at a time when the effects of global climate change are increasingly obvious. 

If you're like me, you can live with that. 

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