Public transportation riders in Allegheny County have been spared, at least for the time being. Deep service cuts were slated to take effect in early September, but have now been delayed for at least one year. That’s thanks to an infusion of state dollars and savings from union concessions.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County was facing the largest service cut in its history because of a $64 million deficit. Local and state officials, along with transit advocates had called on Governor Tom Corbett to save the system. Corbett wouldn’t give any more funding to PAT until some of the agency’s legacy costs were addressed. Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 agreed to a new contract over the weekend. PAT’s Board of Directors approved the deal yesterday.
“The collective bargaining agreement will save the Authority at least $60 million in cash during its four years. With the changes in the non-represented plan and other budget reductions this board adopted in June, unrelated to the union, another $10 million in savings has been identified,” said board Vice-Chairman Guy Mattola.
The changes for both union and non-union PAT workers include a pay freeze and greater pension contributions. Mattola applauded transit workers for making sacrifices, but added that alone, will not solve PAT’s funding issues.
“The authority’s spending has not been the primary issue associated with our deficits over the past few years. Declining state funding over the past six years and flat county funding during that same period have had a devastating impact on our purchasing power,” he said.
That’s been part of the ongoing debate. The governor’s administration has said the opposite – that the Port Authority’s legacy costs are to blame for financial issues. As for now, it seems, all sides have come to a compromise. Thanks to union concessions, the state has promised $35 million to help fill the deficit. State Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch says one-third of that funding has been set aside, and addition revenue sources are being examined.
“We’ve seen many bids in our construction projects coming in lower than anticipated, by the end of the year we’ll know what bid savings occur on both transit capital projects and highway projects, that’s a potential source. Transit revenue, a good portion of it, comes from the general fund, if the general fund revenues uptick, if the economy continues to improve, that could provide additional funds,” he said.
The county is providing an additional $4.5 million without raising taxes. $1.5 million will come from drink and car rental sales tax revenues. An application for the remainder of the money will be submitted to the Allegheny Regional Asset District, or RAD – which Fitzgerald is seen as more of a long-term solution.
“The growth in RAD is allowing us to make sure that nobody is going to get cut next year out of existing RAD monies. We’ve been talking to them, looking at the number, so we’re going to be fine with that,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Officials and public transit advocates applauded the delay of the cuts – but many worry about what will happen in the future.
“I think it’s a good first step, but we’ve been down this road before and we were down this road a few years ago and what are we looking at next year? Are we going to be back to the same thing?” asked John Tague, a member of the Committee for Accessible Transportation…
County Executive Fitzgerald says no, “this is not just a one-year solution we’ve come up with, it’s a four-year plan in the contract, but it’s a ten-year plan we’re looking to put forward.”
Though Chris Sandvig, with the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group says it’s not really up to the Port Authority, its board, or the county.
“It’s really in the hands of the legislature to deal with our statewide transportation funding problem. We have a $3 billion plus problem across the state and that’s transit, roads, bridges, everything, and it needs to be addressed because our economy and the people who rely on that economy for their livelihood are hanging in the balance,” he said.
Still, for now many are simply breathing a sigh of relief that PAT service won’t be cut by 35% come September second.
“I would hope that the public, the people who ride the bus would maybe make a small gesture and maybe say a little ‘thank you’ to the driver n’at because anyone who deals with the public or customer service know with you being on the front lines, you’re the ones who get all the complaints about the bad stuff and the negative stuff,” said rider and public transit advocate Annette Kroll.
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said the agency will now focus attention on a statewide, permanent solution to the funding issues. He said PAT is running out of fixes, and adds the greatest threat to transit service now is a lack of predictable and reliable funding, mostly at the state level. Local 85 President Stephen Palonis said the union has sacrificed a lot and is now drawing the line “our workers cannot sacrifice enough to fund this system.”