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The Bus Starts Here

Local legislators propose funding fixes for the Port Authority, but relief may depend on Harrisburg's sausage factory

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Is there any hope of preventing the proposed cuts to the Port Authority's bus, trolley and paratransit services?

The cuts threatened are drastic: To force the books into order, the Port Authority has proposed eliminating all service after 9 p.m., eliminating Sunday service, reducing Saturday service to Sunday levels, making general cuts on several routes and washing it all down with a bitter fare hike. Some of the changes would take effect Aug. 1, unless the Port Authority gets back some of the money lost in this spring's hastily passed, bare-bones state budget.

The Port Authority's fate in Harrisburg is key, since the agency relies on the state for half their operating funds.

Two local state Reps. -- Don Walko (D-North Side) and Joseph Markosek (D-Monroeville) -- have introduced legislation that could be part of the fix. But, with less than two weeks before the beginning of the next fiscal year on July 1, any solution to Port Authority's funding dilemma will likely come not from the legislative floor but in last-minute deal-cutting between Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and the Republicans' majority leadership. In other words, the Port Authority's most realistic hope may be found in Harrisburg's nitty-gritty budget negotiations.

Last week, Walko, who's known for his willingness to speak up for progressive -- albeit politically iffy -- issues, proposed two bills that would restore the $16 million that was lost for transit statewide in this year's budget. "If we're supposed to vote on [Rendell's plan for] economic development," Walko says, "it's counterproductive to cut mass transit; people need to be able to get to jobs. And if we want young people to move into our neighborhoods, saying you can ride the bus to work, to social events, is a big selling point." 

The bill proposed by Markosek -- who is a former Port Authority Board member -- would also restore the $16 million statewide by allowing the state to funnel more current sales tax to transit. 

The Port Authority's share of the $16 million would be about $4 million under both bills, which could then be matched with $1.3 million in Allegheny County funds. But the Port Authority needs more than $5.3 million. Even after another round of internal belt-tightening, the agency predicts a $14 million operating deficit for the next year. That's partly because transit has lost another state revenue source in recent years, money from a utility tax that evaporated with deregulation. 

As a member of the Republican majority, Upper St. Clair's Rep. John Maher suspects these Dem-sponsored bills may not pass, but he insists that "I'm very confident that we will be able to restore funding" to the Port Authority during budget negotiations. As chair of the mass transit subcommittee of the transportation committee, Maher says he's one Republican who will stick up for the bus and T. 

Maher claims that Rendell is the transit roadblock, not Republicans. Rendell informed Maher he would veto the restoration of any transit funds, Maher claims -- a move Maher believes would target SEPTA, Philadelphia's mass-transit system. Maher says he would like to keep the Port Authority out of any Philadelphia drama by separating SEPTA's funding from that for other transit in the state. 

Rendell spokesman Tom Hickey says he has "no recollection" of Rendell saying he would line-item veto statewide transit funding because of a beef with SEPTA, although he added, "Listen, SEPTA's running a $55 million deficit; there's no doubt the governor has problems with SEPTA." However, a recent windfall of $900 million in federal money -- aid-to-states negotiated as part of President George W. Bush's tax cut deal -- may provide part of the answer. Although half of the federal money will go to medical-assistance programs, Hickey says the governor hopes to restore some of the "toughest cuts," including transit, but not necessarily "dollar for dollar." 

"If there's any good news out of this," Markosek says, "I see a big difference this year in lobbying efforts [for transit] & but the real crux will be in who's willing to put up these votes. Transit doesn't have the political sex appeal of other issues -- it's always going to be an orphan when it comes to funding."

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