Bill allows Port Authority to hold fares, avoid deficits

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Millions in new revenue from the state transportation funding bill will erase years of huge projected deficits at Port Authority, protecting riders from fare increases and service cuts that have beset them for more than a decade.

What the funding bill will not do is allow a wholesale expansion of routes or even restoration of much of the service that was cut in March 2011 to balance the agency's budget, authority officials said Wednesday.

Like a lottery winner being careful not to squander his winnings on expensive cars or beach homes, the authority will take a measured and strategic approach to using the new money to improve service, CEO Ellen McLean said.

"We believe improving service and enhancing the service we have is the first order of business," she said.

Act 89, approved by the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett last year, will provide more than enough new money to wipe out projected budget deficits that ranged from $34 million for the current fiscal year to $68 million in the fiscal year that begins in July 2016. Those deficits almost certainly would have caused ruinous service cuts and fare increases.

The authority projects that beyond that, the legislation will provide annual amounts ranging from $13 million to $41 million that can be used to improve service and catch up on nuts-and-bolts maintenance and infrastructure needs that were deferred during the lean years.

Ms. McLean said there would be no general fare increase for at least two years. The base fare has gone from $1.75 to $2.50 since 2008, making it one of the highest in the nation. The authority will look at new fare options, such as unlimited one-day or three-day passes geared toward visitors.

It also will consider imposing higher fares on cash-paying customers, to push them to use the automated ConnectCard payment method, much the way the Pennsylvania Turnpike has promoted E-ZPass by charging cash users higher tolls, she said.

Service improvements, described by Ms. McLean as "tweaks," will start on March 16, with changes intended to ease overcrowding and improve travel times. Another round in June will include adding service to accommodate event crowds.

As much of its federal and state funding is determined by formulas that measure ridership, miles traveled and service hours, the authority is determined to increase the numbers of riders it carries, after years of flat or declining patronage that followed service cuts and fare increases, she said.

Passage of the state legislation has caused a small avalanche of requests and/or demands from various quarters for creation of specific new routes or restoration of ones that were cut in the past, authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said. A new route can cost up to $3 million a year, and acceding to all those requests could put the transit system back on thin ice financially, he said.

A panel of experts assembled by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute will visit Pittsburgh in May to study the system, conduct interviews and develop a blueprint for how to capitalize on the new funding and the agency's first fiscal stability in more than a decade.

Authority officials believe transit enhancements can spur development and help to reshape the region.

"This is our one chance," Ms. McLean said. "This isn't going to come around again. We have two years to listen to people, figure out what works best and formulate a plan to get things done.

"I'm not in a hurry," she said. "I don't think our board's in a hurry. We want to figure out what works."

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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