Port Authority chief feeling stranded amid fiscal crisis

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Few business, civic and elected leaders showed up this week for the first five public hearings on proposed drastic cuts in bus-trolley service, leaving Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland wondering whether they understand the impact.

"Of 350 to 400 people I've heard, 95 percent of them are riders," he said at yesterday's monthly board meeting. "Their reaction has been frustration, anger, worry and so on. There's not anyone here who doesn't share their concerns, but we have not heard from a whole lot of people other than riders."

Mr. Bland said the overall meager response from those in positions of private and public power who could help the agency resolve its funding problems has been disappointing, especially on the part of state lawmakers.

"It's time for [leaders] to step up," he said. "I don't know that they appreciate the impact [of public transit] on the community, business and the economy."

Mr. Bland's call for help came as a bit of a surprise. When he and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato announced the cuts, they said they were necessary regardless of any additional financial help from Harrisburg.

The few elected officials who have turned out for hearings generally argued against cutting service in their districts.

Freshman state Rep. William Kortz, D-Dravosburg, rode buses, talked with riders and took photos before testifying at a public hearing in McKeesport on Thursday. Neither he nor Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, offered to propose funding or reform initiatives at the state level.

Patrick McMahon, president-business agent of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 2,600 operators, mechanics and other hourly workers, said more state help is one of the few things on which he and Mr. Bland agree.

"That's where the real solution is, in Harrisburg," Mr. McMahon said. "The deficit has been snowballing for 10 years and it's not going to go away."

But state politicians have been quiet, despite reports released last year by a special Transportation Funding and Reform Commission that identified $700 million in annual transit needs and recommended ways to fund them, including a 0.9 percent increase in the state realty transfer tax.

"We need the help of state government, but we're not hearing any news out of Harrisburg," Mr. Bland said. "Do we want to watch public transit deteriorate further or do we want to address the issue?"

If steps are not taken soon, he said, the Port Authority would be back again next year asking for even deeper cuts. The proposed cuts under consideration now involve elimination of 124 of 213 weekday bus routes beginning June 24 to fill an $80 million deficit in the 2007-08 budget.

"We'll be back with no more service left to cut," Mr. Bland said. "They just don't get it."

Mr. Onorato has stood behind the proposed changes, saying the authority must be "right-sized" by eliminating low-ridership routes and bringing expenses in line with revenues. He has said county taxpayers can't keep providing a $25 million yearly subsidy, the single biggest item in the county's budget.

The Port Authority avoided proposed back-to-back fare hikes and service cuts in 2003 and 2004 when Gov. Ed Rendell shifted $113.4 million in federal highway money for authority use. The funding ran out Dec. 31.

Mr. Rendell has made no mention of another emergency bailout.

Mr. Bland characterized community understanding and support as one leg of a three-legged stool and a predictable, long-term source of state funding as the second leg.

"Legacy costs" are the third leg, he said, referring to early retirement policies that have led to mushrooming pension and health care costs at the authority. The authority has more retirees than active workers.

On Jan. 19. Mercer Human Resource Consulting reported that retiree health, Medicare Part B, dental and vision insurances and $5,000 of life insurance will cost $26.7 million this year.

Combined with active employees, the authority's health care cost this year will approach $65 million. Five years ago, it was $38.8 million. Five years from now, it is projected to be $121 million.

"Like the city and older municipalities, we can't keep swallowing these costs," Mr. Bland said. "We'll end up with one bus driver supporting 5,000 retirees."

The authority has three more hearings scheduled on fare increases and service cuts: 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Comfort Inn, 2801 Freeport Road, Harmar; 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the West View Fire Hall, 398 Perry Highway; and 5 to 9 p.m. Feb. 7 at Castle Shannon Volunteer Fire Department, Route 88 and Sleepy Hollow Road.


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


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