Port Authority transit cutbacks are biggest in history

Onorato: 'Not an easy day'; fewer routes, higher fares, layoffs

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This time, Port Authority and Allegheny County officials say they aren't running to Harrisburg to beg for more money.

VWV Campbell, Post-Gazette
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, left, listens as Allegheny County County Chief Executive Dan Onorato discusses the proposed cutbacks yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.
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Regular Port Authority riders lament transit service cuts

Graphic: Port Authority proposed fare and service changes

Poll: What alternatives do you support for cost-cutting at the Port Authority?

More details on the Port Authority Web site

Instead, authority Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland and county Chief Executive Dan Onorato vow they will take the difficult steps that should have been taken years ago to prevent the transit agency from almost self-destructing.

"This is not an easy day for us. This is not an easy day for anybody, but it's a necessary one," Mr. Onorato said yesterday in announcing fare increases and the most extensive bus and trolley route cuts in the county-sponsored authority's 43-year history.

Authority staff has recommended eliminating 124 of 213 weekday bus routes starting June 24, thereby reducing the daily hours of service by 25 percent, to address an estimated $75 million to $80 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Similar cuts are in store for weekends and holidays, although no service changes are planned for the authority's nationally recognized ACCESS paratransit system serving people with special needs.

Beginning next Jan. 1, fares are to be increased from the current $1.75 base fare to $2 if a "flat fare" system is adopted and zones are eliminated, or to a $2.50 base fare if the system based on zones is retained.

Fares would be raised by 5 cents or 10 cents a year thereafter under either option, based on the rate of inflation.

An estimated 400 employees are to be laid off, including management, and the Harmar Division bus garage is to be closed.

Mr. Onorato said the nation's 28th-largest county can no longer afford the nation's 15th-largest public transit system.

Even after the cuts, he said, the county will have more overall transit service than Dallas, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis and many other urban areas.

"If this were done right, it would have been a gradual restructuring over 20 years," Mr. Onorato said. "But we're out of time and out of money."

Mr. Bland said everyone realizes the hardships that such massive changes would mean, referring to "life-altering" events and predicting riders with no other means of transportation will break down in tears during eight upcoming public hearings.

"This is not a plea for help from Harrisburg or the [county] or other funders," he said. "We have to reflect what the community can afford and live within our means."

He said that although the number of routes recommended for elimination appears high, many of them have relatively few daily trips..

"Not all routes are created equal," Mr. Bland said, pointing out the busiest, like buses on the EBA East Busway All-Stops, make 90 trips a day compared with three trips on "express" and "flyer" routes, almost all of which are slated to end.

Even with the elimination of more than half of the weekday routes, the authority will be left with 75 percent of its current service hours, by which operating costs are measured.

He admitted suburban coverage "will be a challenge" but said virtually no part of the county will be left totally isolated. Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland are impacted the least.

"This is [being done] to save the Port Authority, to remain a strong urban center," Mr. Onorato said. "It's long overdue."

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he believed city neighborhoods would be spared the brunt of the cuts, but said he hadn't received any such assurances.

"The city of Pittsburgh has the highest ridership, and the cuts will be based on ridership," he said. "I'm confident that this plan will not turn its back on any city neighborhoods.

Mr. Onorato and Mr. Bland said some announced changes could be retracted or tweaked if riders present strong arguments at the public sessions that get under way Jan. 22.

"The hearings are not being set up so we can run to Harrisburg for a bailout," Mr. Onorato said. "We ask that they be used in a constructive way. We're trying to fix legacy costs [like pensions], so we don't have a crisis every 12 months."

Twice since 2003, and periodically before then, the Port Authority has announced fare hikes and service cuts only to postpone or reduce them after state lawmakers rushed to raise subsidies. The state is paying about 63 percent of this year's $347.5 million budget.

Stopgap measures crafted by Gov. Ed Rendell to shift traditional highway funds to stave off the last two proposed rounds of fare hikes and service cuts ran out Dec. 31, leaving the authority with a projected $20 million deficit for the current fiscal year. The authority will ask the state to approve transferring capital funds that had been set aside for new buses to satisfy that deficit and end the year with a balanced budget.

Mr. Onorato said private meetings were held Tuesday with the disabled community, minorities and officials of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, as part of an effort to "reach out to the public" and explain why drastic changes are being recommended.

Patrick McMahon, president-business agent for Local 85, which represents about 2,400 hourly workers including operators, mechanics and first-level supervisors, said he didn't receive any specific information until yesterday.

"It appears they want to disregard whether or not anything happens in Harrisburg," where Mr. Rendell has made transportation funding his top priority, Mr. McMahon said. "It's disappointing that they moved forward without any input from us. Cost efficiency is not just about cutting service."

Save Our Transit, a small but persistent advocacy group, protested outside of the county courthouse as Mr. Bland and Mr. Onorato announced their plan.

"We just made our 12th trip to Harrisburg [Tuesday] to lobby our legislators for increased funding and then we came home to be surprised by this," SOT founder Stephen Donahue said.

On the other hand, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development was prepared, handing out a formal statement in support of downsizing.

"If we are to have a workable transit system in five years, Port Authority leadership must take bold steps now," said Dr. Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, who is chairman of the conference's transportation and infrastructure committee.

"Without decisive action to address [its] size and effectiveness, we risk an even bleaker future."

The two different fare increases that have been proposed will give riders an option and be decided by public input.

The proposal for a $2 flat fare would eliminate all zones, including the Downtowner zone, where people ride the light-rail system for free between the Gateway Center, Wood Street, Steel Plaza and First Avenue stations. Cash customers would pay upon entering any vehicle and, upon request, be given a fare receipt good for unlimited transfers for two hours.

The other recommendation, to keep the existing zoned fares, would raise the base cash fare to $2.50 from $1.75 in Zone 1, the central zone that accounts for about 80 percent of all rides.

As part of the flat-fare option, monthly Zone 1 passes that now cost $60 would jump to $75. In addition, off-board fare collection would be eliminated on the T, and a proof-of-payment system, also called the "honor system," would be enacted. If checked by police during random boardings, riders will be asked to show they paid their fare or be booted off and fined.

The series of bus and trolley changes include eliminating:

124 of 213 weekday bus routes.

55 of 100 Saturday bus routes.

26 of 75 Sunday and holiday bus routes.

Light-rail service would be trimmed by cutting hours of operation and increasing the time between trolleys.

Besides reducing the number of daily transit vehicle hours, the changes would reduce the number of one-way vehicle trips by 24 percent and overall ridership by 11 percent, the authority has estimated.

In addition to the public hearings, the Port Authority has set up a telephone line that customers can use to comment on the proposal. It is 412-566-5335.

Also, it has posted the proposed service changes and other information on its Web site at www.portauthority.org.


Staff writer Rich Lord contributed. Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.


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