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Taking a Flyer

Transit cuts take the wrong route

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Let's look on the bright side of the Port Authority's proposal to slash its service, shall we? Among the 124 routes it plans to cut is the 28X, which connects Oakland and Downtown to the Pittsburgh International Airport.

The bright side? The Port Authority has finally found a way to hold onto Pittsburgh's college students! Want to fly home after graduation, kids? Start saving beer money for cab fare!

Even so, how can the 28X -- one of the Port Authority's most useful routes -- be facing termination?

The problem isn't the number of riders per trip, says Port Authority spokesman Bob Grove. But in trying to close an $80 million deficit, the agency evaluated routes on the number of riders per hour: "The 28X is a very time-consuming route, and thus very expensive to operate."

In other words, the 28X is on the chopping block because ... the airport was built too far from the city.

Let's see. County officials built the airport in the early 1990s, touting it as a linchpin in the region's transportation network. They're now building a "North Shore Connector" beneath the Allegheny River, which they hope will someday provide a rail link to the airport. But for now, we can't even run a bus out there.

Get the feeling we're missing the big picture?

Public outcry may save the 28X: Hearings about the cuts will be held in the weeks ahead. But County Executive Dan Onorato says drastic cuts are inevitable.

It's not like the alternatives are politically palatable. When Gov. Ed Rendell convened a task force on transit last year, one of its recommendations was that "local governments should have a higher financial stake [in] transit decisions." Translation: Local taxes should be raised to pay for bus service. Can you see Dan Onorato, champion of the suburban propertied class, supporting that? In an election year? It's easier just to cut service.

As for the transit agency's motivation, many riders believe it's playing "chicken" with the state. Previously, the authority threatened fare hikes and service cuts to put pressure on Harrisburg for added funding. But this time, that explanation is probably too cynical ... and not cynical enough.

This time, transit officials insist the cuts are coming whether the state provides new funding or not. Maybe that's just as well, since any state funding will come at a heavy price.

Transit officials are "definitely putting out the right smoke signals," state Rep. Rick Geist of Altoona, the ranking Republican on the House transportation committee, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The cuts, he added, were "a great first step."

A "first step"? The Port Authority is wiping out more than half its routes, and cutting 400 jobs. Do we have to scrap the system entirely for Geist to fund it?

Grove says that won't happen. After the cuts are made, he says, "We're going to kick off a longer-term development plan" this spring. "That's getting lost in the sauce right now, but we're going to start asking people, 'If we were going to start a transit system from scratch, how would you draw the map?'" Someday, he says, "We see ourselves carrying more people."

So far, however, the Port Authority's new executive director, Steve Bland, hasn't shown he can expand the system at all. This summer, the Post-Gazette touted the new 13U North Hills-Oakland Express as a symbol of Bland's belief that the system was "too Downtown-oriented."

"The new route might symbolize the Port Authority's future," the P-G burbled.

And it did. Today, the 13U is slated for elimination. Most Downtown routes, meanwhile, are untouched.

It's hard to see how cutting riders now will boost service in the future. In fact, these cuts will help turn the Port Authority into what critics have always accused it of being: a system that serves Downtown workers, city dwellers, and no one else.

For local transit activist Stephen Donahue, the threat is obvious. "We could end up with a system like the one we had when I lived in Baton Rouge: The buses just served the places poor people went." That would, of course, make the system even easier to cut in the future. At any rate, before we get added service, the agency will demand serious concessions from its unions. That won't happen until contract talks in 2008 ... if it happens at all.

Geist calls the Port Authority cuts a "smoke signal." Right now, they look more like a funeral pyre.

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