Tough choices ahead for public transit

Transportation panel hears ideas after controversial report

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Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland thinks expanding his agency into a regional system would help solve financial and operational issues facing transit.

Washington County Commissioner Bracken Burns says raising an extra $900 million a year in user taxes to bring roads and bridges up to average condition over the next 17 years is too little.

And former Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey claims 50 of 55 incoming members of the state House of Representatives ran on platforms promising not to vote for any tax increase.

The widely divergent opinions were expressed during a panel discussion at the Omni William Penn Hotel yesterday on an already controversial report of the special Transportation Funding and Reform Commission calling for new and increased taxes to raise an extra $1.7 billion annually for highways, bridges and public transit.

The report has drawn attention not for extensive reforms and savings that it recommends but for the taxes it proposes -- a 12.5-cents-a-gallon hike in the gas tax, $15 motor vehicle registration-driver license fee increase, a first-of-its-kind 0.9 percent realty transfer tax for a new Transit Trust Fund, and a "local option" for a sales, income or realty transfer tax increase for public transit.

The first public forum since the report was released Monday was co-sponsored by Leadership Pittsburgh, Sustainable Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. About 250 people showed up, from bus riders with no other means of transportation to company executives.

Mr. Bland, whose agency faces a $31.5 million operating deficit starting Jan. 1, said the report "verifies the desperate need" for higher, dedicated funding to sustain public transit regardless of the savings that reforms and efficiencies bring.

If the authority expanded into a regional system and incorporated six small transit agencies that operate in neighboring counties, it would be able to provide more cost-effective service, he said.

Mr. Burns, who chairs the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission that sets transportation funding priorities for the 10-county region, said state leaders should be recommending even more money "to bring bridges to excellent instead of average condition" and to replace outdated traffic signals at a faster pace than planned.

"Let's get it done and begin to reap the benefits," he said, calling attention to how gas prices have fluctuated higher than the proposed 12.5-cents-a-gallon tax hike. "I've seen them go up 15 cents by the time I go lunch. We have an enormous problem, and we shouldn't make excuses for not addressing the problem."

Panelist Barbara Simpson, who co-chairs the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network Public Transit Task Force, said the report left her with more questions than answers. She was not optimistic.

"We're still dealing with the problems that began 10 years ago," she said. "My inclination is we'll be dealing with the same problems 10 years from now."

Mr. Roddey, a member of the special commission appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell, said 98 percent of people who attended public hearings during the study process supported the highest funding levels to correct growing road, bridge and transit needs.

"The solution has become part of the problem," he said, referring to a backlash of public opinion and lawmakers already expressing opposition to tax measures. "We've let ourselves sink to the bottom of the barrel and it won't be easy to climb out."

In a related matter, Mr. Roddey announced he would say "something that's not going to be very popular," asking the Port Authority board to reconsider the $435 million North Shore Connector that's just getting under way.

"Now is not the time to be doing that," he said of the 1.2-mile light-rail extension, warning neither the county nor state will pay for any cost overruns and that undertaking the project "could doom any chance we have for additional funding" for bus-trolley operations.

During Mr. Roddey's four-year term as county executive, from 2000 through 2003, he endorsed the North Shore Connector and lobbied for $24 million in federal funds used to pay for the final design.


Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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