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Getting Around: Port Authority addresses deficit with drastic proposals

Sunday, April 06, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Say it isn't so, Joe, that the Port Authority is serious about eliminating all weekend service and weekday service after 9 p.m. Say it isn't so that fares could be raised for the third straight year to a $2 base fare with corresponding increases in passes.

Say it isn't so that a $500 million light-rail system and subway through the heart of a major American city could be shut down almost twice as many hours as it's open.

That low-income people with no other means of transportation, proud people who work to stay off welfare, may be unable to get to jobs and training classes.

That people of special needs, many of whom find hope in religion, may not have vans and cabs to take them to church on Sunday using the Access system that's a model for the nation.

That visitors may not be able to enjoy a ride on the Mon Incline to the top of Mount Washington to soak up fabulous vistas of Pittsburgh and our Three Rivers.

Say it isn't so, Joe.

I wish I could.

The Port Authority said it's facing a $19 million shortfall in its operating budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year which begins July 1.

Authority officials should have said UP TO a $19 million shortfall to be more credible. Nonetheless, the authority is in genuine trouble, and Gov. Ed Rendell, the mass transit advocate that he was as Philadelphia mayor, is not coming up with more cash to close the gap.

His hometown is in the same fix. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which is about three times bigger than the Port Authority, announced Tuesday it faces a $55 million budget problem.

SEPTA proposes to discontinue and consolidate routes, reduce midday service and run Sunday levels of service on Saturday to save $25 million. It plans to cut labor, material and services to save $15 million and increase fares such as transfers, tokens, passes and parking fees to raise $15 million.

SEPTA's $2 base fare, already in place for two years, is to remain the same. Just as at the Port Authority, fares have reached the level of diminishing returns: the fare no longer seems such a better bargain than driving, or it simply is too expensive.

People have been calling, writing and e-mailing with questions and suggestions and relating the hardships that gutting Port Authority service will impose.

PG staff writer Jan Ackerman documents their feelings in a news article elsewhere in today's editions. I strongly recommend that you read it, even if you've never ridden on a bus and trolley, even if you're a car addict who wrongly regards public transit as repulsive and a waste of public money.

If you've read news articles I've written as part of my transportation beat, you've already read how the authority got into financial binds that not even two fare increase in two years, 7 percent service cuts, layoffs, a hiring freeze, a new labor agreement and other measures have been able to solve.

I'll spare you the details again.

You'll have to trust me. It doesn't look good.

To an extent, the Port Authority is engaging in saber rattling or posturing to gain public support and pressure Rendell and the General Assembly into increasing state funding.

While it has painted a "worst case scenario," its motives are neither insincere nor sinister.

The authority strives to operate a modern, affordable and efficient transit system to meet the needs of the city and county. If it could put you on a bus or trolley for 50 cents, don't you think it would?

But Harrisburg is saying "fat chance" to prospects of more transit funding for the 2003-04 budget year, given the state's overall financial situation. Taxes the governor wants to raise and measures he proposes such as legalizing slot machines at racetracks are to be used to increase basic education subsidies and lower property taxes.

Even if the state were to restore 2003-04 transit operating subsidies to this year's level, with no increase, the authority would still come up short by maybe $10 million after more belt-tightening.

Authority staff is preparing a "menu" of options that will be advertised several weeks from now, giving everybody a better of idea of what to expect.

I don't know the extent or details of the proposed cuts in service, but they will be drastic.

I do know this: For February, the most recent month for which statistics are available, albeit a bad month because of the snow and cold, the authority averaged 106,047 rides on Saturday and 58,785 rides on Sunday.

The authority estimated an average of 9,000 to 10,000 rides after 9 p.m. on weekdays.

What value do you place on the economic and human impacts? Most off-peak riders do not own cars. They're young, old and in the middle. They rely on public transportation.

The authority and board will try to help them as much as possible. I predict they'll end up reducing Saturday service to Sunday levels and end Sunday service around 6 p.m. Some long-distance routes with marginal ridership may be axed to preserve others.

Look for about 150 bus-trolley operators and a few maintenance personnel to be laid off until attrition enables the authority to hire them back based on seniority.

As for fares, if it means raising them for the third time in three years to maintain a bare-bones level of service on weekends and continue high levels on weekdays, so be it.

Better to be able to ride for $2 in Zone 1, which accounts for 80 percent of all trips, than not to be able to ride at all.

Are you disappointed? Are you angry? Is this the message that Pittsburgh wants to send to Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and San Diego, where dedicated taxes are not only used to operate public transit but also to buy buses and build rail systems?

Public hearings where people like you are invited to testify or drop off written comments are to be held next month.

Don't be shy. Don't be apathetic. Don't wait until it's too late.

I'll see you there.

Plate du jour. Ron Gruendl of Mellon Financial Corp. recently spotted the Pennsylvania personalized license plate KROOOZN on a Mustang convertible in Whitehall. That's KOOL MAN.

Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

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