Transit rollback avoided

$45 million rescue is short-term fix, governor says


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Gov. Ed Rendell acknowledged on Thursday that his plan to redirect $45 million in federal funds to stave off record-breaking Port Authority service cuts was only a short-term fix.

Mr. Rendell was in Pittsburgh to meet with members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county regional planning agency that will vote Dec. 13 on the governor's plan.

While the new money could enable the authority to cancel a 35 percent service reduction scheduled for March 13, its financial problems will quickly resurface if the Legislature doesn't address the statewide transportation funding shortfall that made the authority its first victim, he said.

"This only takes the Port Authority through to July 1," Mr. Rendell said. "Then we're back to square one."

Mr. Rendell's rescue bid came as a surprise to the authority, whose CEO, Steve Bland, only learned about it Thursday morning. He said it gave the authority "some breathing room."

The Port Authority board last month approved a cost-saving plan that would eliminate 47 routes, leave an estimated 15,000 riders with no service and lay off more than 400 employees.

Port Authority officials said they would study the governor's proposal to determine how it would affect the planned service cuts and a scheduled Jan. 1 fare increase, but would take no action until after the commission votes.

"The governor's proposal would be a relief to concerned employers, businesses and riders in this region who benefit from public transportation. This would be a temporary fix for Port Authority and would not resolve the state's transportation funding crisis," said a statement released by the agency Thursday afternoon.

SPC members had varied reactions to the plan, with some calling it wasteful and others saying they were pleased that the governor did not ask them to reallocate the region's highway money to transit, as he has in the past.

"I do think this is good news for the region," said Pam Snyder, a Greene County commissioner.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Beaver County Commissioner Charlie Camp, who chairs the SPC. "You're just postponing the inevitable."

Mr. Rendell and other local officials urged the incoming governor, Tom Corbett, and the Legislature to address the failure of Act 44, a law passed in 2007 that was supposed to provide adequate and reliable funding for transportation.

The governor noted that the Legislature did not act on several funding proposals he offered, or on his bid to solve the problem at a special legislative session.

Act 44 relied heavily on tolls from Interstate 80. When the federal government rejected the state's application to impose the tolls this year, the funding available for highways, bridges and mass transit was cut by $472 million.

"Nowhere was that impact felt more than here in Allegheny County," Mr. Rendell said. But the effect of the cuts will ripple through the state, curtailing its bridge repair program next year, he said.

Mr. Rendell said he and transportation Secretary Allen Biehler scrambled to find money to patch a $47 million projected deficit in the Port Authority's 2010-11 budget.

"We could not stand by and let these significant service cuts be enacted," he said, citing the impact on workers who rely on transit to get to their jobs and businesses whose employees and customers depend on it.

Mr. Rendell and Mr. Biehler said they tapped federal transportation money that had been set aside for economic development projects that either did not go forward or did not use their full allotment.

That included $20 million awarded for road improvements for a mall in Cranberry whose developers canceled the project; $10 million from a highway improvement project in Lehigh County; $10 million from various projects around the state that were built but had leftover funds; and $5 million from a U.S. Route 15 project in the central part of the state that is on hold, Mr. Biehler said.

Mr. Rendell on four previous occasions has won the commission's approval to redirect highway money to head off financial crises at the Port Authority. The SPC in July signaled its opposition to another so-called "flex" of highway money to transit.

"We're not asking for dollars to be taken from highways to be paid into mass transit," the governor said of his latest proposal.

Still, it met with skepticism among some SPC members.

"This just constantly throwing money to try to fix something, and we don't get it fixed, that's a problem," said A. Dale Pinkerton, a Butler County commissioner. "I feel sorry for the people who use the transportation if it gets eliminated. I don't know how you help those people if that happens."

Lawrence County Commissioner Steve Craig said he supported the allocation, noting that driving to Downtown Pittsburgh and finding a parking space were already "nerve-wracking" without additional transit cuts.

"I'm not wild about it," he said of the expenditure. "Long-term, it's certainly not the solution. This is a lame-duck governor doing his best to fill a small hole in a very large problem."

Tom Balya, a Westmoreland County commissioner, said he believes his colleagues would look more favorably on the governor's plan because it didn't draw from regional highway money.

"From my perspective, some of the structural problems at Port Authority aren't going away," he said, citing the authority's pension and retiree health care costs.

"There's not a mass transit system in the country that's profitable," Mr. Balya said. "At some point, Pennsylvanians have to make a decision whether they want to fund mass transit adequately or not."

Patrick McMahon, president of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Port Authority workers, issued a statement saying Mr. Rendell "has once again proven his credentials as a champion for public transportation."

"His leadership and creative thinking, along with the anticipated commendable wisdom of the members of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, have scored a major victory for working families and economic recovery," Mr. McMahon said.


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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