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State restores Port Authority cuts

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The big transit scare of 2003 -- which threatened to end bus and trolley service after 9 p.m. and on Sundays, among other service cuts -- is finally over. The state budget that passed last week -- six months overdue -- restores the 6 percent state funding cut to Pennsylvania's mass transit agencies, including Allegheny County's Port Authority.

 

But with Port Authority facing a $27 million operating deficit next year, local transit boosters know that this good news isn't a rescue, merely a stay of execution.

 

"Unless something happens in Harrisburg regarding this long-term funding issue -- and I'm not optimistic -- I think we'll be back where we were," says Stephen Donahue of the Save Our Transit riders' group. "We're fighting now and we'll be ready to really fight like hell this spring." The next fiscal year begins just six months from now, in July 2004.

 

For the moment, the restoration gives Port Authority $4 million back -- which activates $1.3 million in matching county funds. It's the last bit of money needed to patch this fiscal year's $19 million operating deficit. Earlier this year, the agency made $5 million in internal cuts and, in October, benefited from $10 million transferred from highway funding.

 

Without this final piece of the budget puzzle, scores of routes would have lost trips; even ACCESS, the paratransit service for the elderly and disabled, was facing cuts. Port Authority was also considering its third fare increase in three years.

 

Fearing these threats will return in 2004, Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove says, "We're kind of steeling ourselves to face this. Our work just continues pretty much unchanged. We were looking for restoration, now we're working for a long-term solution." Continued operating deficits, says Grove, are due to increases in fuel costs, pension obligations, employee health insurance costs and cost-of-living wage increases negotiated under labor agreements.

 

Though state lawmakers say that transit ought to tighten its belt in rough economic times, Grove points out that transit had to make do in good times, too. Statewide transit funding was kept steady, at $254 million annually, during the late 1990s, when the economy -- and with it, state tax revenue -- was strong. Though general fund allocations crept up to $270 million in 2000 and 2001 (then stagnated again), other miscellaneous state taxes that fund transit had lower-than-expected revenues, leading overall funding to lag behind inflation, Grove says.

 

Despite transit rallies and petitions last summer -- sponsored by a coalition of groups including Save Our Transit and the Service Employees International Union -- Donahue believes that the issue simply isn't "high enough on their radar" for Harrisburg politicians. Donahue and others lobbied Harrisburg on Dec. 8, visiting 18 offices in three-and-a-half hours. "No one really wanted to show their cards," he says. "Republicans remained noncommittal and Democrats said, 'We're your friends, go talk to the Republicans.'"

 

To get a long-term funding solution, he notes, advocates will need real traction with legislators. No plan has widespread support yet, Donahue says, but some ideas include allowing transit a larger share of the state sales tax, increasing the tax on new tires, and -- Donahue's favorite, though the most politically challenging -- giving transit a share of the gasoline tax.

 

Raising public transit's profile, he says, will mean taking it to the streets -- or the seats, as the case may be. "We're concerned that people will start playing one group against another, like riders versus drivers." Aside from the usual protest tactics like letter writing, the group is fishing for "some kind of campaign to be more visible on the buses, like carrying trash bags to pick up large litter, like when a bottle's rolling around" and -- addressing the bane of many passengers' commutes, "when a seat cushion is on the floor, actually picking it up and putting it on again."

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