Allegheny County's paratransit service ACCESS has been spared from significant service reductions, at least for now.
ACCESS had faced a significant service reduction -- the first in its history -- as part of the Port Authority's pending 35 percent reduction in September due to a $64 million budget deficit. The cuts would have reduced the service to the minimal service allowed by federal law -- only offering rides to riders eligible under the American Disabilities Act that start and end within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed bus route.
But at a monthly board meeting this morning, Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said the agency has received funding from the Federal Job Access Reverse Commute and Federal New Freedom Program, as well as matching dollars from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The result: an estimated $6.2 million to keep ACCESS afloat. The authority says it will request to stretch that money out for the next two years.
"This is huge," Bland said following the board's monthly meeting. "We had 2,000 individuals who frankly were thinking 'What am I going to do?'"
The fare increase that went into effect for ACCESS on July 1 will remain in place. But the service will function at its current level, operating door-to-door service between any two points within Allegheny County, and up to 1.5 miles into neighboring counties for those who qualify.
ACCESS ought to be safe at least until September 2013. After that, Bland said, the future is uncertain. The authority plans to use half of the money this year and the remainder the following -- as long as it receives permission from the funding authorities. But if the authority does have to go through with cutting its regular fixed-route bus and light-rail service this fall, that would likely push additional riders to the ACCESS system, which could create other funding challenges.
"There are no guarantees [the funds] will cover a second year," says authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.
Bland praised PennDOT, federal and state officials, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the county's legislative delegation in Harrisburg. But he noted the agency isn't out of the woods yet; it still faces a massive reduction of bus and light-rail service, as well as massive layoffs, this September.
In his report to the board, Bland said contract negotiations are continuing between the authority, state officials, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 and Fitzgerald's office. Bland said the group agreed to stay mum on talks, but did say "everyone at the table ... is working very hard to avoid the 35% service cut."
Time is of the essence. Today was the authority's last board meeting before September, though Bland said the board could reconvene at any time if a funding salutation was presented.
"The cuts can still be avoided," he said. "But we're running very short on precious time."