Even though Allegheny County's bus and light-rail riders have been grappling with a 15 percent service reduction for less than a year, they're about to get hit again.
As this issue hits the streets, the Port Authority of Allegheny County is planning to roll out a proposal for a 35 percent cut in transit service — the largest in the agency's history. The reason: a $64 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year.
"Every route in the system will be affected," says authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.
If the plan goes through, between 40 and 50 of the system's 102 current routes will be eliminated outright. The Collier operating division — and possibly the Ross division — will be closed, and 500-600 positions will be eliminated.
Ritchie says the authority estimates losing 45,000 daily trips — 20 percent of its ridership — and curtailing night and weekend service. A fare increase is also possible: 25 cents in Zone 1 and 50 cents in Zone 2. Paratransit service provided by ACCESS to riders with disabilities will face fare increases and service reductions.
"It's a big step to the death of public transit in Allegheny County, as well as the death of a livable city," says long-time transit activist Jonathan Robison. "You can't have a city without public transit."
Transit users have grown accustomed to such doomsday scenarios; threatened cutbacks almost seem to be a part of the budget process. So far, the most draconian cuts have been averted, largely because former Gov. Ed Rendell found money to shore up the system from one year to the next. This year, however, "We don't anticipate any more money falling out of the sky," Ritchie says. Though Gov. Tom Corbett has taken little action on the matter, Ritchie says that finding stable state funding is "the only way out" of the agency's problems.
State funding accounts for 64 percent of PAT's operating budget, and the authority is receiving less state money today than it was in 2006. The situation worsened in 2009, when the federal government rejected Rendell's plan to establish tolls on Interstate 80, and use some of the revenue for transit.
Meanwhile, the transit agency has faced significantly rising costs in fuel, health insurance for employees and pension contributions — the last of which the authority says have risen by 965 percent since 2005.
By press time, it wasn't clear which routes would be cut. But a Port Authority committee was expected to announce the plan on Jan. 18. That would begin a mandatory public hearing process, followed by a board vote currently scheduled for April 27. A fare increase would take effect in July, followed by service reductions in September.
Activists and the Port Authority, meanwhile, are trying to garner support for a package of bills from state Reps. Mike Hanna (D-Clinton/Centre) and Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill). The bills offer several funding suggestions, many similar to those in a report made by Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Committee in August.
Frankel's bill would, among other things, grant mass-transit systems the entire $450 million annual payment that the PA Turnpike Commission makes to the state. Frankel also seeks to increase transit's share of state sales-tax revenue, from 4.4 percent to 6.4 percent of the annual take.
"The Frankel legislation is very good for us," Ritchie adds. "If we were king for a day, that would be the ideal." But for any of that to happen, he says, "A lot of politics have to play out."
But Corbett has said little publicly about transportation funding, making riders anxious.
"I am scared," says Robison. "Corbett has said transportation is not one of his priorities. I guess he doesn't know anyone who rides the bus."