"It's going to be a huge mess."
That's how University of Pittsburgh student Andrew Wagner sums up the proposed Port Authority service reduction and fare increase. His sentiments about the measures, due for a vote Sept. 24, probably reflect those of many bus riders. But Wagner, like other activists, is still figuring out how to respond to the threat.
Due to a $47.1 million funding shortfall, the Port Authority is weighing a proposed 35 percent service reduction, leaving 90 neighborhoods with reduced or no service, plus a fare increase and a potential 500 layoffs. Wagner primarily blames federal and state legislators for the debacle. But he also believes the public needs to be more vocal about demanding adequate transit funding. "It's not only about saving what we have but focusing on expanding it," he says. "We need more public transportation."
So the Pitt senior, who lives in Friendship and relies on the bus to get to class and a job in Shadyside, is organizing a protest at the Sept. 24 meeting. The protest -- hosted by the Marxist organization Workers International League as well as the Pitt Students for a Democratic Society -- will offer up a broad-based critique of the situation. Wagner says that since lawmakers of both parties have failed to shore up transit funding, the crisis should be a catalyst for forming a new labor party. That would compel the government, in Wagner's eyes, to spend less on things like military operations abroad and more on problems at home.
"I don't understand how anyone can argue that either major party operates with the interests of the working class at heart," Wagner says. "The best that state and local Democrats can come up with is to shrug their shoulders and levy unpopular and regressive taxes that overwhelmingly impact only working people" like the county's controversial drink tax or higher tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Other groups are taking a less confrontational approach. Save Our Transit, once the most vocal organization in the city on transit issues, is currently "hibernating" due to lack of leadership, according to former member Jonathan Robison.
Even Port Authority has noticed a drop in grassroots activism. "There are a number of organizations, both rider and civic organizations, who have expressed opinions," observes spokesman Jim Ritchie. But there are "not as many in the activist sense" -- especially compared to the impassioned response to proposed cuts in 2007.
It's not for lack of trying. The Allegheny County Transit Council, an independent advisory group of riders, is trying to work with state lawmakers. Among its efforts is an Oct. 8 meeting with state Sen. John Pippy (R-Moon Township), a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. The ACTC will ask Pippy to support transportation-funding bills at the state level. Robison, who chairs the ACTC, says meeting with Pippy will help to reach out to Republicans: With the mid-term elections and the governor's office at stake, he says, GOP leadership "hasn't wanted to bring up transportation funding at all."
The ACTC is also partnering with the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, a coalition of religious organizations, to advocate for transportation funding. On Oct. 21, PIIN will hold a public action meeting on the three issues it plans to focus on this year: education, transportation and immigration. At the meeting, the organization plans to ask lawmakers to commit to various actions to support and enhance those issues.
That may come too late to help riders whose routes are at stake in this week's vote, however. Shirley Atkins, chair of PIIN's public-transportation task force and an ACTC member, says transit is a force "that influences social justice." Atkins questions whether there is parity in how some of the route cuts were selected, noting that many of the 55 communities that could lose all transit service, including Natrona and East McKeesport, are primarily low-income or minority. (The Port Authority says it's preserving key corridors, and that cuts were made on the basis of operating cost.)
Atkins says PIIN has supported transit in the past. The group previously pushed for a dedicated funding source -- like the drink tax or a state plan to convert Interstate 80 into a toll road. But the federal government rejected the I-80 proposal earlier this year, and Atkins says the drink-tax money failed to deliver what it promised. PIIN and many other activists found themselves back at the drawing board just as the new threats to transit emerged. Says Atkins, "We thought it had been achieved."
The Workers International League and its Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor, and the Pitt Students for a Democratic Society protest of proposed Port Authority service reductions and fare increases: 9 a.m. Fri., Sept. 24, outside the authority's offices, 345 Sixth Ave., Downtown.