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Fare Thee Well

Port Authority welcomes $10 million in highway funding to help plug budget hole

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Thanks to some quick deal-making between county Chief Executive Jim Roddey and other agency heads, Port Authority riders will very likely be able to avoid threatened fare hikes or evening and weekend service cuts for the rest of the year. Last week, Roddey announced a plan to temporarily shift $10 million from a PennDOT highway project to the Port Authority. Because the federal highway money is designated as "capital" funding, the transit agency can't directly apply the infusion to its operating deficit; instead, spokesman Bob Grove says, they'll use the $10 million for bus maintenance and some mechanics' pay, thus freeing up operating-budget money that would have gone to those expenses.

In order for the transfer to take effect, the switch has to be formally approved by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the local agency that has authority over federal transportation dollars. The transit technical committee approved the move last week, and, spokeswoman Debbie Farris says, approval by the full board will probably take place without controversy at the SPC's regular meeting in October, following a 30-day public comment period. The money was originally part of an $80 million reconstruction project of I-79 near Kirwan Heights that hasn't been started yet.

The $10 million is the biggest hole-plugger yet for the Port Authority, which has been facing a $19 million operating deficit for the fiscal year that began July 1. Last summer, the transit agency announced $5 million in internal cost-savings (reducing the deficit to $14 million); the new $10 million transfer leaves just a $4 million gap.

Incidentally, $4 million is exactly the Port Authority's share of the transit line-item that was hacked from the state general fund budget by Gov. Ed Rendell and the legislature last spring. That loss then made $1.3 million in Allegheny County matching funds disappear. The Port Authority's financial woes have been aggravated by the fact that non-general fund state revenue sources either have dried up or never bore fruit in the first place -- for instance, a public-utilities real estate tax that's starved following deregulation. Finally, the agency's costs -- most significantly in health care and pensions -- are up.

"We'd like service levels to be where they were a year ago," before the first round of service cuts and fare hikes," says the Port Authority's Grove. "But as I've said, we've got to find a more long-term solution so we're not faced with this kind of deficit every year."

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