Port Authority riders bemoan planned cuts

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United Cerebral Palsy aides serve about 1,000 disabled people in their homes, bathing and dressing them, tending to household chores and helping to keep them out of nursing homes.

Sixty-one of the 137 aides "do not drive, do not have automobiles and can only get to the people they serve via buses," said Lucy Spruill, the agency's director of public policy and community relations.

About 80 percent of the work force at the Doubletree Hotel and Suites, Downtown, uses public transit, traveling at all hours to work varied shifts, said general manager Tim Zugger.

Evelyn Nickel of Swissvale rides buses to work, shopping, doctor appointments and social engagements. She and her husband, John, are legally blind.

One after another, residents on Thursday warned of personal hardships and damage to the region that would occur if the Port Authority goes ahead with a plan to eliminate 35 percent of public transit service in January.

"In a struggling economy it would be suicidal for the city not to find a way to fund public transit," said Sydelle Pearle of Squirrel Hill, a rider who spoke at an all-day public hearing on the cuts at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. More than 200 people signed up to speak, and hundreds of others have submitted written comments.

"I want you to come with me and walk a mile in my shoes, because with the bus cuts, that will happen," Ms. Nickel told authority board members and staff.

The hearing was required by law before the authority implements service cuts and a fare increase to help close a projected $47 million budget gap. The authority has urged the state Legislature to provide additional funding to head off the service cuts.

Several speakers warned about the impact on senior citizens, disabled people and lower-income workers who either can't drive or can't afford cars.

Because the deepest cuts will come in evening and weekend service, "the lower-income shift workers will be directly affected," said Scott Thomas, a security guard from Springdale Borough. "A majority of these workers will be forced out of work."

"This is our only means of transportation. Don't take our independence away from us," said Lorraine Prokopec, 75, of the city's Allentown neighborhood. She said because of prior transit cuts, she recently had to ride six different buses over 71/2 hours to return two items to stores.

"I've already had to turn down jobs because of an inability to get there," said Katrina Kilgore of Mount Washington, who said she has epilepsy and has "never driven a day in my life."

"We're all going to suffer," she said.

Others focused on the economic losses that would follow gutting of the transit system.

"The health and vitality of Downtown Pittsburgh is extraordinary in the economy we're in today," said E. Gerry Dudley, executive vice president of CB Richard Ellis Inc., a real estate company, adding that could be jeopardized by severe transit cuts.

Companies decide where to locate based on access to a labor pool, and a loss of service would limit that, making Downtown less attractive to employers, he said.

Mariann Geyer, vice president of external affairs for Point Park University, said transit is essential to students, faculty and the continuing Academic Village transformation of the Wood Street corridor, Downtown.

More than half of the faculty and staff relies on transit and 90 percent of the university's 1,000 students who live on campus depend on it, she said.

"According to a study conducted by the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Point Park University infuses more than $73 million into the southwestern Pennsylvania economy annually," Ms. Geyer said. "If you can't easily get to Downtown, then you can't spend money there."

The impact would be felt even by those who never ride buses, with bigger traffic jams and an ever shorter supply of Downtown parking, several speakers said.

"How much longer do you want to sit in front of the Squirrel Hill Tunnels?" asked Chris Sandvig of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

"This would be a disaster for riders, for businesses, for neighborhoods, for Pittsburgh, for our region, for motorists, for air quality and for energy conservation," said Jonathan Robison of Oakland, president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, which advises the authority.

"I want to say three things: Call your legislator. Call your legislator. Call your legislator," Mr. Robison said.

Alberta Budkey of Leetsdale said buses serve her "love affair with the theater" and have gotten her to work on time without fail for 21 years.

"I'm 75 years old and I'm going to keep on busin'," she said. "Make those phone calls."

The authority's board is expected to vote on the cuts at its Sept. 24 meeting.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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