New funds for transit will cover its deficit [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA), 2014-02-12
Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Ellen McLean said on Wednesday that money from the new state transportation law will cover the agency's deficit for years, allowing it to improve existing service and focus on long-term capital projects.
Using data from PennDOT, the transit agency projects it will receive more than $557 million through fiscal year 2019 from revenue generated by increased gas taxes and vehicle-related fees.
McLean was non-committal on adding bus routes but said it would be considered. It would not happen until September when union drivers get to pick routes.
"Our first priority is enhancing existing service -- addressing reliability and overcrowding, things we know are issues," McLean said.
Some tweaks that could happen in the next few months include adding buses to existing routes to reduce overcrowding and wait times for riders during peak hours. She said the agency has been analyzing data from people counters and GPS trackers on buses.
Port Authority plans to pay the nonprofit Urban Land Institute $125,000 to assemble a panel of transit experts that will offer long- term solutions for Port Authority's future. McLean worked for the institute before working at Port Authority.
"I don't think it's a conflict and our board is very much in favor of this," McLean said.
Funding from the transportation bill will total some $47 million for the Port Authority for fiscal year 2014, increasing to $91 million for fiscal year 2015 and $99 million for fiscal year 2016. The law passed by the Legislature in November is expected to generate $2.3 billion for crumbling roads and bridges across the state as well as mass transit.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis said he'd like to see all of the routes that were cut over the past decade restored along with the reopening of the Harmar garage.
"At least I'd like to get that 15 percent service cut back we had in 2011," Palonis said. "A lot of neighborhoods were hurt with those cuts. The demand is there."
Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, said the state funding should stabilize Port Authority's finances. He questioned whether the agency would continue to get $3 million in annual funding from the county's Regional Asset District, which distributes half of an additional 1 percent county sales tax to eligible groups.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald defended the RAD payout to the Port Authority and said it will continue. The RAD money is needed as a local match to leverage state funding, he said.
"What I wanted was a 10-year funding plan in place for the Port Authority," Fitzgerald said. "We now have a stable system. The worst thing would be to underfund it locally and put the system in financial jeopardy."
Fitzgerald said the next steps for the agency are to add service and focus on building an express bus system between Downtown and Oakland. Fitzgerald has said large scale park-and-rides are likely.
The financially troubled agency has made several rounds of route cuts and layoffs during the past several years. In 2001, Port Authority had 235 routes; today it has 102. The most recent cutbacks came in 2007 when service was reduced 15 percent and in 2011 when service was reduced 15 percent and 180 people were laid off. Port Authority logged 64 million rides in 2013 via bus, the T light rail, the incline and its Access service for seniors and the disabled.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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