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Steamed transit riders blame state for crisis

Some even suggest letting authority go belly up

Thursday, May 22, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Keep Port Authority bus and trolley fares and service at their present levels and run the system until it goes belly up. And then let Gov. Ed Rendell and the General Assembly worry about the funding crisis at the nation's 15th-largest public transit system.

Evelyn Stypula of Morningside helps Thomas Kearney of White Oak make a statement during yesterday's mass transit hearings at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Both were among the group in 1978 that pushed for the ACCESS transportation system. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Two longtime transit advocates made that recommendation yesterday at emotionally charged, full-day hearings over the authority's proposals to raise the base fare for the third year in a row -- to $2 -- and eliminate up to 20 percent of bus and trolley service.

"Gov. Rendell, you have offered us your sympathy," civic activist Jonathan Robison of Oakland said during testimony that drew hundreds of people Downtown to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to listen, talk, present petitions and protest. "But we who ride the buses or trolley or ACCESS know this much: You can't buy diesel fuel with sympathy."

He urged the Port Authority board to adopt a "doomsday budget" rather than make service cuts that would cost jobs, impose personal hardships and inflict "a mortal wound" for the system that provides about 250,000 rides on an average weekday.

The authority is confronting a $19 million budget shortfall in its 2003-2004 operating budget.

Marilyn Skolnick of Monroeville, a former Port Authority board member and head of the Allegheny County Transit Council of volunteer advisers, who testified on behalf of the Sierra Club, said the authority's financial dilemma is not of its own making and urged the authority to maintain its present schedule until the money runs out, presumably in June 2004.

"The state is crisis-oriented," Skolnick said, "and as long as it believes you can continue to operate with whatever funding they choose to appropriate, the situation will only get worse."

Port Authority Chief Executive Director Paul Skoutelas listens during yesterday's hearings at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Finger-pointing at Rendell and state lawmakers didn't abate as more than 160 people strode to the microphone over an eight-hour period.

Although Rendell cut transit operating subsidies by 6 percent this year, the authority's financial problems began during the administrations, of Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker. In addition, a special mass transit fund has failed to generate the levels of income expected, further hurting state transit systems already hit by growing labor, health insurance, fuel, pension and other costs.

Although they were targets of often heated criticism, nobody from Rendell's office or the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation attended. State Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, attended a Save Our Transit rally earlier at the State Office Building. State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, and state Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Beechview, were the only lawmakers known to have shown up at the authority hearing.

The nine-member board is to receive staff recommendations and decide next month about whether or not to raise fares and, even with fare increases, what service to cut. The "menu" of options includes eliminating service after 9 p.m. weekdays and all day Sunday.

"I feel like I'm preaching to the choir," said Paul Dick of Oakland, a longtime participant in promoting paratransit. "I wish Rendell and leaders in the state House and Senate were here listening to this."

They would have gotten an earful.

Marchers protesting state public transportation budget cuts walk through downtown Pittsburgh yesterday on their way to the Port Authority of Allegheny County public hearing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. (Keith Srakocic, Associated Press)

The Service Employees International Union delivered petitions bearing more than 7,000 signatures of members, many of whom work evening, overnight and weekend shifts and depend on the Port Authority for their transportation.

The criticism may have reached a crescendo when Dawn Miller of Castle Shannon called the governor "a piece of garbage" for failing to support people who elected him.

Marianne Geyer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, speaking as the voice for hundreds of Downtown businesses, pointed out that 85,000 workers use public transit to reach their jobs in a city that never shuts down.

Alik Widge, saying he spoke for 14,000 graduate students living and working in the Oakland area, said the college community would rather see "rolling bus-outs," or temporary discontinuances, than curtailments in late night and weekend service. Otherwise, he said, research, teaching and late-night classes would be jeopardized.

Phil Ahwesh, a Mellon Financial Corp. vice president, said the 130-year-old firm invested $140 million in a Downtown processing facility several years ago because so much transit was available to its 6,500 employees; however, 800 who work late night and weekend shifts may be forced to quit without buses and trolleys.

Lynn Manion, director of the Airport Corridor Transportation Association, which worked for years with the Port Authority to start airport express and western suburban minibus service, said 90 percent of the janitorial staff at the Mall at Robinson might lose their jobs if those routes are ended.

James Callahan, president of Duff's Business Institute, Downtown, where every student is a commuter, said ending service after 9 p.m. would leave many students stranded.

Sara Hunkele depends on the ACCESS paratransit vehicles to transport her and her wheelchair to dialysis treatments.

"To me, this is life-threatening," she said.

John Remark, who retired in 1997 as financial secretary of Local 85, Amalgamated Transit Union, representing 2,800 authority operators, mechanics and other personnel, said governors and state lawmakers "always hid behind the real issue."

When 32 private bus companies were put under a single roof in 1964 and made to operate as a public agency, the structure for long-term funding was not adequately addressed, he said.

"Herein lies the problem that has nagged us and caused the hardships we've faced in ensuing years," Remark said, expressing his support for dedicated funding for transit across the state.

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

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