by Lauren Daley
Tina Janoss's voice broke as she explained the implications of cutting bus service in her Homestead neighborhood. Her son has special needs; her husband also suffers from multiple health issues. She says her family of four can't afford a car, and she already walks to work.
If Port Authority officials carry out proposed service cuts, she worried, "They will be leaving us with no options."
Janoss is one of dozens today expected to testify on the implications of a proposed 35 percent service reduction to Port Authority bus and light rail service. Paratransit through ACCESS would also be reduced under the plan, and up to 600 could be laid off. Port Authority has proposed the reductions as a result of a $64 million budget deficit as a result of a lack of adequate state funding.
The hearing goes until 8 p.m. at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown. More than 345 riders are expected to testify.
"When I took this job a few months ago, this was the one crisis that was looming," said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who gave opening remarks this morning. "If we don't come up with a plan that keeps transit viable and keeps transit running in a broad-based manner in this county, it threatens to undo the economic growth we've experienced in the last few years."
Fitzgerald and the Port Authority have repeatedly pointed to funding recommendations by Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission that they believe will support adequate transit funding across the state. State funding accounts for 64 percent of the transit agency's operating budget, and has either decreased or remained flat in the last five years.
"Enough is enough. It's time to fix public transit," said Guy Mattola, a board member. "Please know that the people sitting before you don't want to cut service. We are painfully aware of personal hardships this this will result in."
Some riders and community members advocated that people lobby Harrisburg. "If the Fort Pitt Bridge was on the verge of collapse and forced to close, everyone across the region would recognize the need for action, even people who never drove on the bridge," said Ken Zapinski, with the Allegheny Conference. "Public transit deserves no less consideration.'
Zapinksi praised the authority's CEO, Steve Bland, who arrived in 2006, and the concessions and streamlining that have happened since. "No big city transit agency has reformed itself more than the Port Authority," he said.
Stories poured in throughout the morning about transit and paratransit, and their linkages to work, medical appointments, education, childcare and independence. Riders with disabilities said they feared going back 30 years ago, before there was an ACCESS system in the county. ACCESS currently offers service border to border within the county; under the proposal, service would be reduced to 3/4-mile of a fixed route. Fares could also increase.
Riders with disabilities "will be trapped in their homes," said Lucy Spruill, director of public policy at UCP/CLASS in Oakland. "People can't just move to where there are buses."
Others were still reeling from the 15% cut implemented last year. Mary Johnson, of Garfield, losing weekend service last year "was being cut off at the ankles. But loosing it all together, she says, "is like being cut off at the knees."