Plan in works to avoid Port Authority cutbacks

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Local officials and Gov. Tom Corbett's administration have agreed on a framework for closing the Port Authority's budget deficit and reversing record-breaking cuts in public transit service scheduled to take effect Sept. 2.

The key to making that plan work is major concessions from Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose members continue to work under a contract that expired Saturday. The union's new president said he is optimistic an agreement can be reached to avoid service cuts.

Under the plan, the governor would put up $30 million to $35 million, or about half of the funding needed to keep service at existing levels. The other half would come from a combination of union contract concessions, management savings and an increased contribution from Allegheny County.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Tuesday. "I don't want to say we're there yet, because we're not. But I get a sense of cooperation on all sides."

The authority is seeking unprecedented upfront and long-term union givebacks, including $15 million in immediate annual savings and a long-term solution to skyrocketing pension and retiree health care costs.

Mr. Corbett's share of the funding solution is contingent on the union making those concessions.

Stephen M. Palonis, newly elected Local 85 president and business agent, said Tuesday that he was optimistic that an agreement can be reached on a new contract within the framework. "Whether it's done in time for Sept. 2, I don't know," he said.

"I think the membership understands where we are right now. They know the ramifications," he said.

But members will demand more than a one-time solution -- they want Mr. Corbett to follow through on his own advisory commission's recommendations for generating reliable funding for public transit, he said.

"A patch is not acceptable," Mr. Palonis said.

Mr. Fitzgerald echoed that, saying he wants a solution that guarantees long-term financial stability for the authority, which has lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis, was bailed out several times by former Gov. Ed Rendell and has cut service by 15 percent twice in recent years.

"We've got to make this last for at least 10 years," he said. "This has to be a consistent, reliable revenue stream from the state."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Corbett said the governor has not agreed to a specific contribution.

"The administration including [Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch] have been meeting with Port Authority leadership. Our position has not really changed. We need to see a strong commitment on the local level to reducing expenditures and instituting a long-term cost containment strategy. Once evidence of those actions [is] apparent the administration will discuss options," spokeswoman Kelli Roberts said.

Mr. Fitzgerald, in remarks at a community meeting last month, listed several options for raising additional local funding for the transit agency. The county currently provides about $27 million in matching funds per year, generated by taxes on poured alcoholic drinks and car rentals.

He said some of the options under consideration were selling naming rights, charging a fee at park-n-ride lots -- where parking is now free -- and selling advertising. He said chances were "remote" and that he would seek to raise the drink tax to its original rate of 10 percent. It was rolled back to 7 percent, the current rate, in 2009.

The Port Authority board has voted to cut service by 35 percent, saying that was necessary to balance the agency's 2012-13 budget that began Sunday. That would eliminate 46 of the remaining 102 routes, end service after 10 p.m. on all but 13 routes, cause layoffs of 560 employees, eliminate 17 park-n-ride lots and drastically reduce ACCESS service to the elderly and disabled.

Mr. Fitzgerald outlined the rescue plan last month at a meeting of the Congress of Neighboring Communities in Oakland.

"We are working with the governor's office to try to find a solution, and that solution obviously is funding from the state. He has indicated -- his administration has indicated they are willing to do that but they would like to see some of the savings," he said.

"The members of ATU know where they need to be, and I think they're cooperative. They're moving in that direction. We're hoping the state comes up with about $35 million. That's the number we're shooting for," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "That means [$30 million] from local ATU, management and then there may even be a significant local contribution."

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said he could not comment on the negotiations. He issued this statement: "We're grateful to the state, county executive and Local 85 leadership for their desire to help develop lasting solutions that will benefit this region for many years."

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Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.


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