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Making Concessions: New transit worker contract will stave off PAT cuts for now

"Now the burden rests with the Port Authority, the county and, most importantly, the state."

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Transit riders may have heaved a sigh of relief on Aug. 19 when the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 approved a tentative contract with concessions that would help stave off a massive Port Authority service cut.

Whether they'll be able to keep from holding their breath again next year, however, is still to be determined.

The Port Authority board was expected to approve on Aug. 21 the tentative contract that would implement wage freezes until 2014, increase employee contributions into the pension fund, and provide a maximum of three years of retiree health care for employees hired after July 1, 2012, among other concessions. 

The contract also allows the parties to revert back to the previous contract "in the event funding is insufficient" to the point that the authority closes another garage and lays off more than 5 percent of the existing bargaining employees. 

In addition to accepting the contract, the board was also expected to void the 35 percent service reduction and layoff of more than 500 employees scheduled for Sept. 2 due to a $64 million budget deficit. (Visit www.pghcitypaper.com for details on the board meeting.)

 "Make no mistake about it. The men and women of Local 85 have stepped up and done their part to save public transit in Allegheny County," Stephen Palonis, Local 85 president, said in a statement after the union vote. "Now the burden rests with the Port Authority, the county and, most importantly, the state." 

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the Port Authority declined comment.

State, county and ATU officials had remained tight-lipped during the last several months of negotiations to hammer out a deal that would likely include concessions from the ATU, an increased county match and a contribution from the state for Port Authority operations. This year, the state contributed $156 million for operations, with a $27.7 million match from Allegheny County.

 It's not clear, as of yet, what the state and county will do to make up the difference in this year's PAT budget or for the future of the state's transportation funding. Much of the state's original funding formula collapsed years ago when the federal government rejected plans to toll Interstate 80, slashing additional funds for infrastructure and transit the state hoped to receive.

ACCESS, the county's paratransit service, was also slated to be reduced to the minimum service allowed by federal law. But last month, the agency announced it had received approximately $6.2 million from federal programs and the state to keep the service afloat.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers say they are hopeful that the labor agreement is the first step in addressing the larger statewide transportation funding crisis. 

"I think the prospects of getting a short-term solution [for the Port Authority] are pretty good," says state Rep. Dan Frankel, (D-Squirrel Hill.). "This deal has a different character to it — it sounds like the prelude to a complete transportation funding solution." 

But when that deal might come is another question. Frankel, who plans to reintroduce a bill that will provide a funding mechanism for mass transit, doesn't believe it will be addressed until the January session of the General Assembly. And while he notes there is support from legislators, the business community and the agency itself, a long-term solution "is not certainly something you can take to the bank right now."

State Rep. Rick Geist (R-Altoona), chair of the House transportation committee, believes there is bipartisan support among lawmakers to pass a funding package, and that "this settlement will be the catalyst." Geist believes the matter will come up in November, at the next meeting of the state's transportation committee. 

Geist says for now, "it all rests with the governor's office." But he's hopeful that the state will come through.

"We're not seeing any smoke signals from [Corbett]," he says. "It's not finished yet."

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