$40 million in Pa. transit funding delivered
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, left, introduces transit union Local 85 president Steve Palonis at a news conference Tuesday announcing a funding solution to avoid Port Authority service cuts.
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While many of the details haven't been worked out, state and local officials said Tuesday that they have forged a long-term solution for chronic funding problems at the Port Authority.
For transit riders and advocates, it was one of the better days in a long time as these events unfolded:
• The authority board of directors approved a new contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 that will save an estimated $60 million over four years through employee givebacks, including a two-year wage freeze.
• It approved a 6 percent increase in pension contributions by management and other nonunion employees, part of $10 million in annual savings derived from the administrative ranks.
• The board then postponed a 35 percent transit service cut and 560 employee layoffs that had been scheduled to take effect Sept. 2. It was pushed back at least to Aug. 31, 2013.
• At a news conference later, an appointee of Gov. Tom Corbett, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, said the state will provide $35 million in additional funding over the coming year and is committed to maintaining adequate funding now that the transit agency has reined in its costs.
• Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he would move to provide an additional $4.5 million -- $1.5 million in surplus revenue from the county's tax on poured alcoholic drinks and $3 million he will seek from the Allegheny Regional Asset District.
"I'm confident that this is a long-term solution," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "There's still a lot of puzzle pieces ... the heavy lifting and the real work has been done."
"We still have hoops to jump through but the hoop we jumped through to get here is by far the toughest," Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said. "I'm much more optimistic now than I have been."
Transit riders had faced the biggest service cut in the authority's 48-year history, with elimination of 46 of the remaining 102 routes and service after 10 p.m. discontinued on all but 13 routes.
The authority was "on the edge of a cliff in terms of historic and devastating service reductions and layoffs," board vice chairman Guy Mattola told his colleagues before the unanimous votes. "Fortunately, I'm here to tell you that Sunday's union ratification vote and the actions you are scheduled to take here today are our first steps away from that cliff."
The authority has reduced service four times in the past decade, most recently by 15 percent in March 2011. Since then, riders whose routes weren't abolished have coped with overcrowded buses and rail cars, sometimes too full to pick them up. The authority has raised fares three times in five years, most recently in July.
What Mr. Fitzgerald described as a "historic day in Allegheny County" came about after a series of private meetings of state, local, transit and union officials through the summer produced a framework for closing the authority's projected $64 million deficit for the 2012-13 fiscal year without service cuts and layoffs.
Key to that framework was reaching a contract agreement with Local 85, which represents about 2,200 drivers, mechanics and first-level supervisors. Mr. Corbett had said publicly that he would not provide additional state funding without significant cost-cutting at the authority.
Parties to the talks said Local 85's new president and business agent, Stephen M. Palonis, brought a cooperative spirit to the negotiations, in contrast to the confrontational, fiery approach taken by his predecessor, Patrick McMahon.
At a news conference announcing the various funding elements, Mr. Palonis said the union agreed to the concessionary contract "for our brothers and sisters whose jobs were in jeopardy and to protect the future of public transit for the riders we serve.
"Our members realize public transit is a partnership in Allegheny County. We willingly and knowledgeably take responsibility for doing our part. And we are grateful to the county, the taxpayers and our riders for doing their part," he said, adding that now the state must step up with a dedicated funding source for public transit.
"Please know that Local 85 is drawing the line here," Mr. Palonis said.
Mr. Schoch said about one-third of the state's added contribution will come from transit capital reserve funds. Other sources haven't been identified but might include tapping savings from lower-than-expected bids on construction projects or "flexing" federal highway funds to transit, as former Gov. Ed Rendell did several times.
The $35 million is for one year but "we didn't want a one-year solution. There is an ongoing state commitment going forward" now that the authority has cut its costs, he said. "We think it's a good deal for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania."
Mr. Fitzgerald said the 7 percent drink tax, which was enacted to finance the county's $27.5 million share of the authority's annual operating subsidy, produced enough revenue that he could provide another $1.5 million, with approval by county council.
He said he will ask the asset district board, made up of his and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's appointees, to make a $3 million annual commitment, not just a one-time grant. The district draws its revenue from a 1 percent county add-on to the 6 percent state sales tax.
"Most communities across the country use sales tax as a means to fund transit," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "I can't think of a bigger regional asset that we have than transit."
Growth in the asset district's revenue will allow the board to meet the funding request without cutting into grants to other recipients, he said.
Addressing the Port Authority board, Annette Kroll of Bridgeville, a regular rider who depends on transit, urged other riders to "say a little thank you" to drivers for accepting the givebacks to save jobs and preserve service.
"I think they should be applauded for doing the right thing for everyone," she said.
"Our efforts have saved public transit in Allegheny County. Pittsburgh will remain a liveable city," said transit rider and advocate Jonathan Robison of Oakland.
While the mood at the meeting was mostly celebratory, two nonunion authority employees spoke in protest of unilateral wage freezes and benefit reductions that have been imposed on management over the past several years, including the 6 percent increase in pension contributions that the board approved Tuesday.
Mike Heidkamp, manager of way, auto fleet and heavy maintenance, said nonunion workers have had three pay freezes in five years while unionized workers got 15 percent increases in wages. They were stripped of their retirement health benefits while union workers continue to have them.
"We mean no disrespect," he told the board. "We feel our concerns needed to be voiced."
Port Authority police Chief Steve McCauley said nonunion workers and police were told to give up post-retirement health care to set the example for union negotiations, then "left on the outside" when the Local 85 contracts preserved it.
Restoring the benefit for nonrepresented employees and police "is the only ethical and moral thing to do," he told the board.
Mr. Bland, who had his $185,000 salary frozen for two years in the contract he signed last year, said managerial employees have faced five years of cutbacks.
"Our management now is one of the leanest in the entire nation," he said.
"It is not just our union employees who are making these sacrifices," Mr. Mattola said. "It is all of our employees."
First Published August 22, 2012 12:00 am