Transit service cutbacks canceled

Port Authority says $55 million due from state puts it on firmer footing, negating need for 2nd round of cuts

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With the promise of an extra $55 million from the state putting the Port Authority on firmer financial footing, the agency's board yesterday voted to cancel a second round of service cuts and adopt an amended operating budget for 2007-08.

But Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland and the board remain well aware that the additional funding -- although approved by the state Legislature and the governor -- still has hurdles to surmount, meaning the specter of service cuts could loom once again.

Two Republican congressmen from northwestern Pennsylvania are trying to block efforts to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road, a key provision of the state budget for mass transit. And Allegheny County has not yet solidified a way to boost its contribution to Port Authority.

The county must bump up its own funding, which currently averages about $25 million a year, for the agency to leverage the extra state funds.

Mr. Bland shrugged off the notion that Port Authority should wait until funding is more secure before undoing the 10 percent service cut that had been scheduled for September.

"Pennsylvania transit funding hasn't been firm for 40 years. That's an ongoing challenge," Mr. Bland said after yesterday's regular board meeting.

Mr. Bland said he was confident of the state funding, which is part of a massive transportation financing plan that would provide $950 million a year over the next decade. As for extra county funding, he said, "We believe those things will be worked out."

Board member Joan Ellenbogen said she and her peers decided to vote to cancel the service cuts based on the current financial picture, not anticipation of what might happen.

"We need to be able to move forward with our planning at the Port Authority, and it has to be based on what we know today," she said. "Something had to be done. We had to make decisions. If we had to wait until everybody else decided our fate, we'd never get anything done."

The state has granted County Chief Executive Dan Onorato the authority to introduce a tax on alcoholic drinks of up to 10 percent and up to a $2-a-day tax on car rentals. Mr. Onorato would like to shift the burden of subsidizing Port Authority away from property taxes.

However, interest groups and members of County Council, which would have to approve any new taxes, have spoken out against that strategy.

Mr. Onorato has said he would withhold new revenue for the Port Authority unless the agency pared management and labor costs.

In addition to preventing the elimination of 34 routes, the board's new operating budget of $336 million -- a slight increase over the $325 million budget approved last month -- averts 174 layoffs. However, it still includes a planned fare hike in January.

"If the state funding goes away or if there are additional crises that occur in our funding, we will have to make some changes and go forward from there. But as we know it today, this budget makes more sense than the one we passed in June," Ms. Ellenbogen said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation yesterday signed off on a letter authorizing the Port Authority to float notes meant to keep it liquid throughout the fiscal year while it awaits funding from county and state sources.

PennDOT has not received anything in writing from Allegheny County promising it will make good on the $27.7 million expected this fiscal year by Port Authority.

"This was all part of the grant agreement process, and we continue to work on it," PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

Megan Dardanell, a spokeswoman for Mr. Onorato, said the process of allocating money to Port Authority this year will function the same as it always does. Next year's budget will be introduced to County Council in October and will contain a provision for the agency.

At the board meeting, Mr. Bland announced that the agency has been making progress restructuring its discounted ridership programs with the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Currently, both schools pay a flat monthly fee so students, faculty and staff can ride free anywhere in the system. The agreements were set to expire at the end of the month.

Port Authority extended both agreements by two months and hiked the monthly fee by 15 percent. Pitt will now pay $324,000 a month instead of $282,000. And CMU will pay $73,000, up from $64,000.

Mr. Bland declined to speculate on how much a final monthly payment might be. But he said the biggest point of contention is getting an accurate count on how many people from each school use Port Authority transit.

Also yesterday, Mr. Bland bid an official farewell to Henry Nutbrown, manager of engineering and construction. Mr. Nutbrown, 62, will retire Aug. 30 instead of being laid off as part of the agency's restructuring.

Mr. Bland and Mr. Nutbrown confirmed that the decision was mutual following several unsuccessful months of trying to find an alternative post for Mr. Nutbrown.

The personnel move, which accompanies the folding of the engineering and construction unit into other divisions, is indicative that Port Authority will not mount any major building campaigns -- at least in the near future -- following completion of the extension of the Light Rail Transit system to the North Shore.

"It's a changing priority period for the authority. We don't have a massive capital expansion plan," Mr. Bland said.


Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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