Save the Port Authority: We must invest in public transit or watch our economy wither

GREGORY B. JORDAN of the Allegheny Conference issues a dire warning

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The state's transportation funding crisis is being felt in a very real and concrete way in the Pittsburgh region now that the Port Authority of Allegheny County has announced which routes will be eliminated by September and what communities will lose service if the crisis is not resolved.

Tens of thousands of residents are trying to figure out how they will get to their jobs, their classes or their medical appointments.

Public transit in Pittsburgh is not the only thing that will suffer if no solution is found. Trouble will hit every part of the state. But the impact will be felt first in Pittsburgh, which is particularly reliant on public transit as a critical component of its transportation network. Our city is one of the top 10 cities in the country for workers who use transit to get to their jobs.

Half of the workers Downtown rely on transit to get to work, as do 25 percent of the people who work in Oakland, the center of research and innovation for the entire region.

And the impact will reach beyond those 60,000 Downtown and Oakland commuters to all commuters when additional cars choke the streets and parking spaces are nowhere to be found.

If the Fort Pitt Bridge were on the verge of collapse and faced closure, everyone across the region would recognize the need for action. Even those people who rarely drive on the bridge would understand immediately the impact its closure would have on the region and the daily commute. Public transit deserves no less consideration.

Last year, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development convened a summit of emerging leaders, more than 200 people in their 20s and 30s identified by their companies as the region's leaders of the future. By a large margin, they identified public transit as the No. 1 issue facing the region.

As the new chairman of the Allegheny Conference's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I am committed to working with partners across the region and state to help resolve the state funding crisis with the near-term goal of preventing the Port Authority from slashing service in September.

While Pittsburgh public transit is most at risk in the short term, failure to solve the overall funding crisis will have a severe impact on the state's economy as its entire transportation network -- highways, roads, bridges, ports, railroads and airports -- falters.

Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission last year outlined a realistic and achievable framework for attacking the transportation problem. The multiyear program of user fees and cost savings would eventually reach $2.7 billion per year to fund investment in the transportation network -- and the state's economic health.

Taxpayers will want to be sure that they get value for their dollar. The conference felt the same way in 2005 when the previous management team at the Port Authority approached us for help in securing more state money. Instead, we wanted to make sure that the agency was doing the best it could with the money it had.

What we found was an agency whose costs for providing each bus ride were rising nearly four times as fast as inflation and twice as fast as the average big-city transit agency, an agency that was attracting fewer and fewer riders for each hour of bus and rail service it put on the streets. That was unacceptable. And Steve Bland agreed.

Since Mr. Bland's arrival as CEO in 2006, and with the support of a revamped governing board and the backing of the Allegheny County executive, the Port Authority has cut its administrative staff. Nonunion workers who remain will no longer have their health care paid for when they retire. Their traditional pension has been replaced by a 401(k)-like defined contribution plan. And the authority took its first steps at addressing its union labor issues with a ground-breaking agreement. As a result, the Port Authority budget is growing at half the rate of inflation once you remove pension and retiree health care legacy costs over which management has no control.

The Port Authority has not just cut costs. Since cutting inefficient routes and redesigning its 50-year-old bus-and-rail network to respond better to community needs, the Port Authority is carrying 50 percent more passengers for each hour of service than when Mr. Bland took office.

Allegheny Conference research indicates that no big-city transit system has done more to transform itself over the past five years than the Port Authority.

Without a comprehensive transportation-funding solution, the Port Authority will slash service this year. And next year. And the year after that, entering a death spiral that will leave little more than an empty shell. We believe that investing in Pittsburgh public transit and the Port Authority is an investment in the region's prosperity.

The Pennsylvania state economy is too fragile to allow its chronic transportation funding problem to fester any longer. Without action, roads across the entire state will decay. Bridges will close. And the economy will suffer.

The framework developed by the governor's commission is the answer. Business executives and civic leaders, elected officials and others should encourage Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly to act, and act now. The clock is ticking.

Gregory B. Jordan is global managing partner of Reed Smith LLP. First Published January 22, 2012 5:00 AM


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