"I can say reliable and dedicated funding source in my sleep," Save Our Transit organizer Stephen Donahue told the Port Authority Board on Nov. 3 at a special hearing on its proposed service cuts and fare increases to address a $30 million deficit projected for 2005. Because Pennsylvania's General Assembly failed to provide just that at its lame-duck session that ended Nov. 21, bus riders may see a great decrease in bus routes and hours and an increase in base fares. Two proposals for dedicated funds failed even to reach the floor of the House and Senate.
To Donahue and other transit stakeholders, the failure of these bills is especially bitter, given that the proposals had bipartisan support and supposedly decent odds of passing. Introduced in June, they would have raised the $75 million limit on sales tax revenue earmarked to the transit operating fund and provide $288 million for transit in their first year. The Port Authority's share would have been $64 million.
Kate Philips, Gov. Ed Rendell's press secretary, said that while Rendell supports a new dedicated fund for transit, these bills diverted too much revenue from the general fund. It didn't help that the Republican House Caucus believed the state's largest transit system, Philadelphia's SEPTA, was poorly managed, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Samuel Smith (R-Indiana).
Rendell also promoted a separate bill that would have raised $110 million, more than enough to cover the deficits of the state's 70 transit systems, by increasing fees on auto-emission stickers, new tire purchases and rental cars.
"It never really caught on with Republicans," said Stephen Bruder, chief of staff for Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Bloomfield).
Before quitting for the year, the Senate approved a resolution urging Rendell to shift $54 million of federal "flex" funds that are customarily earmarked for highway projects but can be spent on transit as well. If Rendell agrees to the shift, the Port Authority would get $15 million -- half of what it needs.
No group has lobbied more tenaciously for a new dedicated fund for mass transit than Save Our Transit. Since the group's founding in March 2002, it has sponsored five lobbying trips to Harrisburg. Donahue said the group may now consider civil disobedience to focus attention on transit's woes. The group will sponsor a rally Nov. 24 on the portico of the City-Council Building at noon to give transit supporters a forum.
"It's hard for me to express politely my deep anger" about the lack of permanent transit funding, Donahue told the Port Authority Board on Nov. 3. "I'm on my third governor, and it is still not fixed."