Even before the Port Authority cut the 55 Jefferson bus route due to budget constraints, it was hard to get around the Mon Valley using public transportation.
But when the 55 got cut — along with 28 other routes in 2011 — things got even harder for riders like Robert "Waldo" Whitzell, who found himself walking 10 miles from his Liberty Borough home to a chrome-plating job in Wilkins Township.
After a DUI arrest, Whitzell says, "Public transportation and walking are my only way to get around. ... I thank the Lord for Mountain Dew and coffee."
Whitzell and others had a lifeline in a free shuttle operated by a nonprofit, Heritage Community Initiatives, which helped residents get to work or job training. But when that shuttle, Heritage WorkLink, faced funding cuts, the area was in danger of being cut off from public transit completely. In response, the Port Authority is reinstating the route, now known as the 55 Glassport.
"This route was cut in 2011, which was a tremendous hardship on the area," says authority spokesman Jim Ritchie. "It cut people off from employment, cut them off from shopping. ... WorkLink thankfully stepped up its service to all of those communities."
WorkLink has been running since 2001, offering free Monday-Saturday service for some 3,000 qualifying applicants. It serves East Pittsburgh, Turtle Creek, North Versailles, McKeesport, Port Vue, Glassport, Clairton and the Jefferson Regional Medical Center and CCAC South Campus.
"The Mon Valley has always had transportation issues," says Sarah Morgan, director of transportation for Heritage Community Initiatives. "The community has no other transportation options — it's either access to public transportation or they stay home."
Ritchie says that the authority "scraped together" funding for the 55, which is expected to cost $460,000 a year. Restoring the service did not require a fare increase or other service reductions.
The move was made, he says, "because of a specific need in one area of the county that has lower-income communities and the potential to lose access to all public-transportation service. We felt it was prudent to find money within our own budget to pay for this."
But county officials say the transit agency likely won't be able to reverse other service cuts made in 2011, when service was reduced 15 percent.
"It's going to be tough to bring others back," says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. While "[y]ou realign everything and try to provide as much service as you can," he adds, "you kind of have to rob Peter to pay Paul."
WorkLink previously relied on federal funding, which ran out June 30, says Morgan. Continued financial support was expected to be included in the state's transportation-funding package, Morgan says. But state lawmakers failed to pass a transportation bill before summer recess (the legislature is expected to take the matter up in this fall). Morgan says the agency has temporary funding committed until Aug. 31. After that, "it's still uncertain," she says.
One thing that is certain is that the 55 Glassport will start running Sept. 1, when the authority will change approximately 15 routes as part of its regular schedule adjustments. The route runs from Century Square in West Mifflin to the North Versailles Walmart, passing through parts of Jefferson, Wilson, Port Vue, North Versailles, Clairton, West Mifflin, Glassport and McKeesport. The route will pass CCAC South Campus, Jefferson Regional Medical Center, U.S. Steel Clairton Works and UPMC McKeesport.
The authority attributed the route's return to "cooperative efforts" of local officials including Fitzgerald, state senators Jay Costa and Jim Brewster, state representatives Marc Gergely, Bill Kortz, Paul Costa and Harry Readshaw, and Allegheny County Councilor Bob Macey.
The area needs that kind of help, says Morgan. WorkLink only provides services for riders to get jobs, training and other work-related support services.
"WorkLink has filled some of the work-related gaps," says Morgan, "but it's those day-to-day gaps people haven't been able to fill."