Port Authority approves 15 percent service cut

By John Manganaro

The Port Authority approved a plan this morning to reduce current service levels by 15 percent… Students waiting for a ride, especially if it’s a 71 route, will wait a bit longer to catch their buses come March. And some routes, like the G2 that runs down Fifth Avenue to the Mall at Robinson, just won’t come at all.

The Port Authority approved a plan yesterday to reduce current service levels by 15 percent starting March 27. The plan accounts for the $45 million one-time budget infusion directed last November into the ailing transportation system by Gov. Ed Rendell.

For the past several years, state budgets — hurt by the state of the economy — have had little to spare for local transit authorities. Cuts will mean fewer buses for students trying to get around the city, lay-offs for transit workers and more neighborhoods rendered hard-to-reach by public transit.

The authority’s budget troubles are far from over though, as the money redirected by Rendell will only be enough to preserve the new service levels through July 2012. Unless the state provides a new source of funding, the authority will need to make cuts between 35 and 50 percent.

“We want it to be absolutely clear that this is only a temporary solution and a painful one at that,” Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said during the mid-morning meeting in snowy downtown Pittsburgh.

“We’re going to work very aggressively with the state legislature to find a sustainable transit solution,” he said. “We’ve only bought some time.”

The March service cut will eliminate 29 routes entirely, including the 84B Oakland Loop and G2 service through campus. The 04 McKnight-Oakland Flyer will also be eliminated.

A number of routes through Oakland will operate with reduced service, including the 71A, 71C and 71D.

Altogether, 29 routes will be cut.This equates to 13,000 fewer rides per day, or about 5 percent of total riders. Port Authority board members predicted that about half of the regular riders will experience little or no change as a result of the cuts, though 180 jobs will be lost and the Harmar bus garage will close.

Port Authority board member Guy Mattola said that “maintaining the integrity of the transit system” was the board’s first priority in deciding to stretch the $45 million infusion out over 18 months instead of spending it more quickly to preserve current levels through the end of July of this year — another option considered for Rendell’s emergency funds.

“We believe that this is the least-worst option,” Mattola said. “This way over half of our riders will see little to no change. We’ve bought ourselves a year and a half to find better solutions.”

Several of the speakers invited to participate in the meeting challenged Mattola’s assessment, claiming that reducing service now could convince the state legislature that the Port Authority does not in fact need more money to continue operation.

This criticism drove fellow board member Richard Taylor to propose an amendment to the plan that would make it explicit that the board views the cut as temporary, and that the group does not believe Pittsburgh can remain economically viable with a transportation system operating at reduced levels. The board passed the amendment along with the cuts yesterday.

Both the board and the speakers blamed legislators in Harrisburg for failing to provide Pittsburgh with adequate transportation funding.

“We are where we are because of poor decision-making and lack of leadership,” said Chris Sandvig, a regional policy manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group. “We’ve heard speculation of $5 gas by 2020, and we’re forcing more people onto the roadways. Now is the time for Pennsylvania to invest in public transit.”

It is unclear what steps incoming Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled state legislature might take this year to address the Port Authority’s financial problems, but with Corbett’s oft-repeated campaign pledges to enact no new taxes, many at the meeting were skeptical that the state will be able to solve Pittsburgh’s transit problems.

During the meeting, Bland predicted that if no new money is found by July 2012, the Port Authority could face crippling budget deficits that could result in huge service cuts — up to 50 percent.

The Port Authority will enact the 35 percent cuts, originally slated for March, at the end of next June. The 35 percent cuts would eliminate more than 40 routes and isolate 12 percent of riders. Eighty percent of riders would see reduced service, and the total number of riders would drop by 20 percent per day, or about 35,000.

Also included in the 35 percent cuts is a provision that would close the Harmar and Collier bus garages, leaving 430 people without jobs.