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Backing the Bus

Political posturing may keep bus riders from finding seats

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"The bullshit's so thick you can barely get through it," says long-time transit activist Stephen Donahue, a leader of the grass-roots group Save Our Transit, which has been fighting to prevent service cuts and fare increases on Port Authority buses and light-rail vehicles. He can't even get together a protest, Donahue jokes: "The political posturing is next to impossible to figure out. We're trying to do events, but [the political situation] changes by the hour."

 

Even a grant of money for the transit system by Gov. Ed Rendell finds the idealistic Donahue in a skeptical mood. "I don't know why Rendell wasted his time coming to Pittsburgh," he vents, recalling Rendell's recent visit to the Wood Street T Station to bestow $18 million on transit statewide, part of it taken from highway funds. The Port Authority's share ($4.7 million) is less than a week's operating expenses. Donahue says Rendell "reached into his little bag of goodies, but he should've been able to provide more."

 

And yet even this tiny down payment convinced the Port Authority to push back an imminent 25-cent fare hike and 12-percent service cut from February to March. And thus, even as he enjoyed a press conference and photo op, Rendell made a calculation that would seem to keep the wolf at bay -- but still at the door.

 

Donahue and Save Our Transit have been fighting for two years to keep Pittsburgh's transit system intact. They've helped to prevent drastic service reductions but have still seen route cuts and a fare increase. In July, if no more state funding is found, hundreds of routes may see cuts and fares may rise to $2.50, making it the nation's second-most-expensive base fare, just behind the $3 fare threatened in Philadelphia.

 

Port Authority's revenue problems originate at the state -- not local -- level. Harrisburg lawmakers have allowed riders to teeter on the brink, tossing them just enough emergency money each year for the past two years to keep the system in steady decline.

 

Rendell now pledges "there's no greater priority for us" than transit. Legislators, too, have gone beyond implying that as an urban service, "public" transit must be inherently wasteful, even immoral. Best of all, state officials have picked up Save Our Transit's mantra: Transit needs a "dedicated, reliable" funding source -- state money earned and earmarked each year for bus systems.

 

There's also an unlikely concordance between left-leaning Donahue and some Republicans: In the holiday spirit, state Sen. John Maher of Upper St. Clair said Rendell's stopgap measure was "seven sizes too small."

 

Maher, not surprisingly, calls the transit crisis "one of the governor's own concoction." Since when has transit been a priority for the governor? he asks. Gambling legislation has dominated debate during the past two budgets.

 

What's more, Maher insists, Rendell does have the discretionary funds to deliver enough money for transit to run without changes until the end of the fiscal year in June, an assertion the governor disputes.

 

In the meantime, Maher says, Republicans promise that this time they'll honestly consider long-term transit funding for the next budget year. Maher's South Hills constituents do love the T, but he acknowledges the governor would have to win the "hearts and minds" of rural Republicans, who have little interest in transit.

 

It's neither hearts nor minds but self-interest that usually wins over Harrisburg, and yet, for the moment, even the politically savvy Rendell is asking Republicans, with implausible innocence, to "do the right thing." At least he's hedging his bets with plenty of political pressure by demanding that the legislature return early for a week-long special session dedicated to transit.

 

But what can be done in a week, Maher demands to know, even if the legislature were in complete agreement. "Why is he proceeding in a way that predicts annoyance?" he gripes.

 

"I think we're beginning to find out that a crisis scenario doesn't motivate policy leaders," says Save Our Transit's Donahue. "I'm scared to death that these Republicans are just gonna stomp their feet and leave."

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