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January 25, 2007

Transit riders speak out at Port Authority hearing

“I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that this is a matter of life and death for hundreds of people,” said Dave Bindewald of the United Cerebral Palsy attendant care program at this week’s Alumni Hall hearing on proposed mass transit cuts.

Bindewald, a health care supervisor, said he represented more than 800 people with physical disabilities who rely on commuting attendants for basic daily needs. He pleaded with Port Authority of Allegheny County officials to reconsider their proposed service cuts.

For four hours, anger, outrage and frustration permeated Alumni Hall at the second of nine public hearings on service cuts and fare increases recommended by the Port Authority and endorsed by County Chief Executive Dan Onorato.

More than 200 people attended the hearing. About 75 of them — including a handful of Pitt employees and students — used their allotted three minutes to explain how the cuts would affect them personally.

Many speakers, from blue-collar workers to the disabled, pleaded to save a particular bus route that they said was essential to their lives and livelihoods and for which they had no alternative.

Other speakers put the blame for the current budget crisis on Port Authority management and on “short-sighted politicians” at the city, county, state and even federal level. Onorato was singled out for criticism by a number of speakers.

Still others spoke to misplaced priorities in the region, including public funding for construction of sports venues and the $435 million in capital funding earmarked for the North Shore Connector project that will extend the Port Authority’s light rail transit system 1.2 miles in a tunnel under the Allegheny River.

“We don’t need a bridge underwater to get from the North Side to Downtown,” said a North Hills resident.

Only one speaker — Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development — spoke in favor of the transit company’s proposals. “These cutbacks are the emergency surgery necessary to keep the patient alive,” Zapinski said.

Several Port Authority officials joined CEO Steve Bland at the hearing, but declined to take questions from the audience.

City and county politicians were conspicuous by their absence, as was pointed out by several speakers.

Earlier this month, Port Authority of Allegheny County, the 15th largest transit company in the United States with an operating budget of $347.5 million, proposed the most severe fare and service changes in its 43-year history, as well as furloughing 400 employees to counteract a projected $75 million-$80 million deficit in fiscal year 2008, which begins July 1. By law, the transit company must balance its books.

Port Authority officials said the deficit stems from stagnant revenues, a new labor contract, skyrocketing health care, pension and energy costs and the depletion by the end of December of last July’s $32 million stopgap state funding.

Bland was joined by Onorato in announcing the cutbacks Jan. 4, arguing that the Port Authority needed to “right size” before going to the state legislature for more funding.

The transit company provides daily bus and light rail service to some 240,000 riders.

“It is my belief, and the belief of our board of directors, that should we choose to do nothing — or even to make a series of nominal changes, as many have suggested — our transit system will be forced to shut down completely at some point in the coming fiscal year,” Bland said in his opening remarks Monday. “That would mean no transit service for anyone, and that’s the cost we must avoid at all costs.”

But most audience members at the hearing weren’t buying it.

“Draconian,” “cruel,” “counter-intuitive,” “outrageous” and “disgraceful” were among the adjectives used to describe the proposals. “You have not given us a good enough explanation,” one speaker said.

The service cutbacks, most of which would take effect at the end of June, would eliminate 124 of the 213 weekday bus routes, reduce the number of weekend trips by 25 percent and scale back the number of vehicles in the fleet by 150, or about 10 percent. Basic fares would be increased by as much as 75 cents beginning Jan. 1, 2008, and would rise incrementally each subsequent July 1 under the proposals.

The ACCESS service, which provides transportation for seniors and people with disabilities, would remain unchanged, although fare hikes of $1 per ride have been proposed, officials said.

The Port Authority’s nine-member board is expected to vote on the proposals March 23.

Among the themes that recurred in the speakers’ criticisms at the Jan. 22 hearing were:

• Proposed fare increases and cuts in bus service will be devastating to the city’s economy, isolate neighborhoods, drive more of the younger population to re-locate and threaten the health and safety of stranded riders.

• The route cuts will increase pollution since more people will be forced to drive.

• Instead of eliminating routes, the frequency of bus trips should be reduced.

• Smaller shuttles with shorter routes could connect people in areas that lose service to those main routes set to survive the proposed purges.

• Politicians who let these cuts happen under their watch will face heavy voter reaction.

“When politicians really want to do something, like taking our taxes to pay for stadiums for the Pirates and the Steelers even though we voted that down, they always find the money,” one speaker said. “Either they’re not trying hard enough or they just don’t care.”

More than 25 speakers opposed the elimination of the 28X Airport Flyer route, which runs Oakland-Downtown-Robinson Town Centre-Pittsburgh International Airport for a $2.25 fare.

Bob Grove, Port Authority spokesperson, told the University Times that cutting out the 28X, like all of the proposed route eliminations, “is not etched in stone. This is why we have these hearings, to help us make recommendations to the board,” he said. “Some routes may stay, some may go and some may change frequency of service or the length of operation.”

Grove added that the Port Authority’s long-standing goal remains to secure a dedicated funding stream for the transit company. “We get $3 from the state for every $1 the county gives us; that’s the established formula,” he said. “This year, the county gave us about $25 million and the state about $75 million. Even if the state legislature right now said they’d give us another $100 million, which is unlikely, we would need to get $33 million from the county, and the county just doesn’t have the money.”

Among Pitt people who spoke at the hearing was history professor Van Beck Hall, who bellowed out criticisms that were supported by loud applause from the audience.

“I’ve lived in Squirrel Hill since 1964. We got rid of our automobile in 1965, so I’ve done a considerable amount of PAT bus riding over the years,” Hall said.

He went on to make three points. “First, public transportation is vital. I think anybody who doesn’t realize that is a moron,” Hall said. “There was a comment here [by Bland] of re-inventing this region. If you’re going to try to re-invent this region without a good public transportation system, you’re not going to [succeed].

“I also heard the guy from the Allegheny Conference say [the solution is], ‘Take off an arm, take off a leg.’ Why isn’t the Allegheny Conference out front trying to get additional funding for PAT and public transportation,” instead of advocating cuts? he said.

Secondly, Hall said that the responsibility for the crisis lay not only with the Port Authority, but also with the politicians. “That means it’s our responsibility,” he said. “We’ve heard all sorts of people talking about the Penguins, talking about gambling casinos. But where are they talking about public transportation, which is critical — a hell of a lot more critical than the Penguins or a gambling casino. Where are they?”

Hall said he’s voted in every city election since 1964. “I am not going to vote for any politician who does not get up front and start supporting funding for public transportation. I hope everybody in this room will do the same thing,” he said.

“Thirdly, the 28X is not just for students, it’s for people who work at the airport and at Robinson Town Centre. It’s filled [with passengers]. I’m appalled that this service would be cut. It shows either a lack of competence or a lack of integrity on the [Authority’s] administration and the board.”

Myron Taube, professor emeritus of English, also spoke at the public hearing.

“I hope these speakers give you a sense of the human suffering that will be inflicted due to these changes,” Taube said.

“But I would like to step back and look at what should have gone into the thinking before you made this decision. At a time when we’re told that the nation itself should eliminate in any way it can the dependence on imported oil, you are taking steps that say to the people of Pittsburgh, ‘Go drive your car. Don’t take public transportation, which is efficient, drive your car, which is inefficient.’ I ask myself, did they think of the logic of this? Obviously not.”

Not only will the cuts ensure more traffic, they will exacerbate an already severe problem of inadequate parking, Taube argued. “I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 40 years and I love Pittsburgh. But the great places in Pittsburgh — the center city, the cultural center, the Golden Triangle — are impossible places to park. Think of all the nice department stores that didn’t make it Downtown. They didn’t make it because of parking. You’re telling people, ‘Don’t think you’re going to go there by bus.’”

In support of the 28X, he said that no city in the world worth its salt is without public transportation to its airport.

Sabina Deitrick, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and an expert in regional planning, told the University Times that the Port Authority’s plan is focused too narrowly on its own budget woes.

She said the transit company’s proposals increase “social costs,” including the effects on low-income and transit-dependent workers, a concern that also raises equity issues of public policy; effects on the unemployed; the cost of increased traffic congestion, including more accidents, and effects on firms that base their location decisions on employees’ access to public transit.

“By putting more cars on the road, [their plan] increases congestion, and thus costs to individual consumers, and it increases pollution, which might cost the region economically,” said Deitrick, who was unable to attend the Jan. 22 hearing. “All these social costs have to be measured and weighed against the proposed [Port Authority] savings for the county to make a reasonable and sensible policy decision that is in the long-term interests of residents and taxpayers.

“But beyond that, the public sector has a responsibility to make policy decisions using full social accounting methods and not partial analysis focused on agency spending,” Deitrick said. “Individuals, companies and the governments will have increases in other areas. Full cost accounting is necessary to make appropriate and smart policy decisions.”

Asked for Pitt’s response to the Port Authority’s proposals, Public Affairs spokesperson John Fedele told the University Times, “At this point it is too early to speculate what the impact will be since the proposed cuts are just that: proposed.

“Certainly, a healthy public transportation system is important not only for Pitt faculty, staff and students, but for the region, and we are confident that the Port Authority and public officials will do all they can to maintain the system.”


What will bus service cuts mean for the University’s ride-for-free program?

In the short term, nothing, according to a Port Authority of Allegheny County official.

Port Authority spokesperson Bob Grove said, “The contract with Pitt is expiring [July 31], and we know we will have to negotiate a new one anyway,” Grove said. “We definitely want to continue the program, which has been a win-win for us and Pitt, and we haven’t heard anything different from the University.”

Port Authority data indicate that Pitt customers account for about 450,000 rides per month. Pitt is paying $3.38 million for the year that ends July 31 in exchange for free rides for Pittsburgh campus ID holders.

Grove acknowledged that service cuts likely would mean fewer Pitt riders and thus could affect negotiations to extend the contract.

Pitt spokesperson John Fedele said, “As for the impact on the University’s contract with the Port Authority, we will not comment on future negotiations in the media.”

Pitt’s payment to the Port Authority is subsidized in part by the $90 per term security, safety and transportation fee that Pittsburgh campus students pay. The balance comes from the auxiliary operations budget of the Office of Parking, Transportation and Services. Last June, Pitt’s trustees increased the fee by $15 to $90 per term for full- and part-time students.

—Peter Hart

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