Increased transit fares, drink tax, car rental levy all go into effect

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Fare hikes, a controversial drink tax and an additional levy on rental cars all kick in today to provide more money for a cash-strapped public transit system in Allegheny County.

The cash fare for Port Authority bus, trolley and incline rides went up a quarter, to $2 for a one-way, Zone 1 trip, starting at 12:01 a.m. Other fare hikes proposed a year ago and approved in November went into effect as well.

About 2,000 bars, clubs and restaurants with liquor licenses were to begin collecting a bitterly contested 10 percent tax on alcoholic beverages at 6 a.m. for the first time, including six-packs of take-out beer.

And a car rental tax, already $2 a day since 1991 for the state's Public Transit Assistance Fund, was doubled in Allegheny County only, with the extra $2 earmarked for the county treasury.

The latter two measures are expected to generate $30 million a year, money to subsidize the Port Authority in lieu of county property taxes that have been used since 1964, when the transit system began operating as a quasi-government entity.

A Common Pleas Court judge last week refused to stop the drink tax after an opposition group called Friends Against Counterproductive Taxation, representing the hospitality industry, sought a temporary injunction. The restaurateurs and bar owners plan to continue their legal fight in coming weeks.

Since today is a holiday and transit service is light and ridership is low, the authority's first fare increase in five years won't hit home until tomorrow, a typical weekday when the authority provides about 230,000 rides.

While the increase in the base fare is 14 percent, the increase in the Zone 1 annual pass is 25 percent, jumping from $660 to $825 for 12 months of unlimited rides.

The 50-cent cost of a transfer and its three-hour validity remain unchanged.

Steve Bland, chief executive officer of the Port Authority, has characterized the fare increase as "the worst-kept secret in town."

But he said it was necessary considering steep increases in fuel and other operating costs and to comply with recommendations made by a special Pennsylvania Transportation Funding and Reform Commission to raise the local share of transit funding and cut costs.

During nine public hearings on money issues last January and February, riders consistently told authority officials they preferred a modest fare hike over further service cuts. Nonetheless, the authority has still eliminated 29 weekday bus routes, cut overall service by 15 percent, reduced the management staff, laid off personnel and frozen nonunion salaries and benefits.

Two categories of riders will not be impacted by today's fare increases: paratransit and senior citizen riders.

And since Aug. 1, peak hour restrictions were lifted for persons age 65 and older, enabling them to ride buses and trolleys for free at all times on weekdays, weekends and holidays. The Port Authority is reimbursed for those rides from state lottery funds.

The last increase in the authority's base fare came on Sept. 1, 2002. Since then, the cost of nearly 10 million gallons of diesel fuel that it burns annually has grown by 171 percent, even though public transit fuel is tax exempt.

Despite higher fares, transit remains a bargain. The American Public Transit Association says that after housing, transportation has become the second highest cost facing American families, outpacing food and healthcare.

According to the Port Authority, a commuter filling a 20-gallon gas tank once a week at $3.09 a gallon and paying $10 a day to park would spend $487 a month, or $412 more than the cost of a monthly Zone 1 pass, which encompasses an area extending over an 8-mile radius from Downtown and accounts for 80 percent of all ridership.


Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com .


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