As relieved bus riders now know, the Port Authority's precarious budget was temporarily rescued last week with the infusion of $25.3 million in money taken from state highway funds. Statewide, transit got $412 million from the move. It was the second such reprieve in three years.
Locally, the fix depended on a thumbs-up from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the 10-county agency whose job is to prioritize uses for federal highway funds. Gov. Ed Rendell had asked the SPC for the cash transfusion after the state General Assembly had failed to legislate a dedicated, permanent funding source for transit. The extra money rescued bus and T riders from yet more fare hikes and service cuts, which would have kicked in March 6. The SPC vote was 47-2.
The SPC also departed from its habit of unanimous votes in October 2003, when, at Rendell's request, the SPC first "borrowed" $10 million from an upcoming highway improvement to aid the Port Authority. Then, however, the single objection came from an unlikely source: Bob O'Connor.
Yes, that Bob O'Connor, then director of Rendell's southwest regional office, the Bob O'Connor who, when he was a city councilor, had represented Squirrel Hill, one of the most transit-traversed neighborhoods in the city. The Bob O'Connor who, as a mayoral candidate, grabbed headlines two weeks ago with a transit idea of returning streetcar service to Downtown, the Hill and Oakland. (See News Briefs: "A Desire Named Streetcar," March 9.)
O'Connor was not available for comment by press time, but arguably his vote was not against transit, so much as it was for the continued health of a certain Oakland bridge, a mere ramp, really, which was "one of the worst pieces of road that he had ever seen," as the minutes of the Oct. 27, 2003, SPC meeting quoted him.
Back in 2003, when SPC was deciding to help out the Port Authority, it bundled the transit vote with another, to delay the repainting and reconstruction of the Boulevard of the Allies Bridge over Forbes Avenue in Oakland, as well as on the 31st Street Bridge, to allow money to go first to improvements on Downtown's Fort Duquesne Bridge, as requested by PennDOT and the City of Pittsburgh.
O'Connor, says his campaign spokesman Dick Skrinjar, "was opposed to any further delay on Boulevard of the Allies." The vote was "never an issue of him being against transit." But in a room filled with rural reps who already doubt Pittsburgh's worthiness for anything, why should Rendell's rep and a city resident be the lone vote against emergency transit funds?