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Bus Funding on Thin Ice

Should arenas get priority over transit funds?

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As state legislators maintain their glassy-eyed focus on gambling, less lucrative concerns -- the restoration of funds for public transit, libraries and social services -- are being ignored. But don't say Harrisburg is single-minded -- besides gambling, they also took an interest in sports last week. On July 19, the state House of Representatives passed legislation that would use $15 million annually from slot machines (the slots are hoped to generate $1 billion a year) to help pay for a new arena for the Penguins, as well as to finish the new Pittsburgh convention center. Over the course of a 10-year bond issue, $150 billion would be given to the arena and convention center projects. (However, state Senate support for the plan seems shaky so far.)

To punish legislators for their inattention, local Save Our Transit activists produced a noxious pun: "Do politicians give a puck about bus riders?" Armed with this slogan, about a dozen braved early-morning rains on July 23 to picket outside the Mellon Arena. Though they were ignored by the many commuters trudging Downtown from their expensive Lower Hill parking spaces, they at least got cheerful honks from the chock-full 81A, B and C buses, which mostly serve the Hill District. (The 81B continues through East Liberty and Lincoln.)

The tireless Jonathan Robison of Oakland pointed out that half of the Penguins' promised $150 million -- $70 million -- would restore this year's cuts to all of Pennsylvania's transit agencies including Pittsburgh's Port Authority, Philadelphia's SEPTA and all the smaller systems. Worse, a mere one-tenth of the $150 million sports subsidy -- $15 million -- would fill the Port Authority's gap, leaving them $1 million in change and precluding any of the threatened service cuts or fare increases for this year.

In response to state budget cuts, the Port Authority has floated a number of unattractive proposals: eliminating bus service after 9 p.m., eliminating Sunday service, reducing Saturday service and making general cuts to some routes, as well as yet another fare increase.

Though some local legislators did vote to cut the Port Authority's budget in the first place, all of the Allegheny County delegation has now pledged to support a restoration of transit funding, says SOT member Stephen Donahue. Now the fight is for the attention of caucus and committee leaders, and, surprisingly, the governor himself.

Transit advocates have been sorely disappointed at Gov. Ed Rendell's seeming indifference to the transit crisis -- as was state Sen. Jim Ferlo. "The governor has the benefit of the bully pulpit," Ferlo said at the SOT rally. "I think he's waiting for grassroots pressure to move the legislature, and I think his strategy is wrong. He needs to be more strident and out-front. If anyone knows the importance of public transit it should be the former mayor of Philadelphia. We're a 24-hour city and people need to get to three shifts."

Glancing up at the thin (though enthusiastic) crowd and at the unresponsive, worker-drone car commuters stumbling by, Ferlo added, "You might get 20 people out for an action, but that doesn't show the thousands that are affected."

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