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February 17, 2011

Port Authority cuts remain a concern

busDiscussion of looming Port Authority of Allegheny County service cuts has dominated recent meetings on campus. A public on-campus meeting will be held with Port Authority representatives, prior to the 15 percent system-wide cut in bus service set to go into effect March 27. (See Jan. 20 University Times.) No date for the meeting has been set.

In addition, Pitt’s Governmental Relations office has helped to establish a designated contact at the transit company for Pitt concerns, and the Staff Association Council plans to partner with the Port Authority on a courtesy campaign to alleviate problems with overcrowding as a result of service cuts.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg touched on public transportation in his Jan. 19 University Update, calling it an “area of major concern. When the federal government refused to approve the state’s controversial plan to toll Interstate 80, that left a huge gap, estimated by some to be nearly $500 million, in proposed funding for public transportation statewide.”

Temporary, one-time relief from an influx of $45 million in state emergency funding to the Port Authority, announced in December by outgoing Gov. Edward G. Rendell, does not negate the impact a series of service cuts begun last June has had on Pitt employees and students, a situation that will be exacerbated by the March cuts, the chancellor said.

While the funding shortfall is not a new issue, during this recent crisis of significant service cuts with more to come, Pitt’s administration is more involved than ever, he said. “Among other things, we have been active participants in regional advocacy initiatives and have participated in discussions between major employers and the leadership of the Port Authority,” Nordenberg said.

Senate Council

In addition to a discussion at the Jan. 25 Faculty Assembly (see Feb. 3 University Times), virtually every report at the Feb. 2 Senate Council meeting expressed concern about the effects of the cuts on employees and students and on Pitt’s ability to deliver high-quality education.

Senate President Michael Pinsky said, “We also are concerned as faculty about the transportation issue, which will affect students not just getting to Pitt,” but traveling to externships in areas with little or no bus service. “How will they get to those places? We would prefer our students not have to drive,” Pinsky said.

“This is not a minor issue here. The University says the city is our campus and as such transportation is an absolute premium in order to maintain the ability to go to school. We also have an awful lot of tax-paying and voting employees who therefore should theoretically have a greater influence,” he said.

“It might be a good idea to coordinate some of [our lobbying] activities. Maybe there is something more broad-based we can all participate in.”

Student groups

Molly Stieber, president of the Student Government Board, reported to Senate Council that SGB had established an ad hoc transportation and safety committee. “We’ll be able to use that as well as other resources around campus to get students involved and aware and deal collectively with the issue, by really informing students that they can have an opportunity to express their concerns before the actual cuts are made,” Stieber said.

She noted that SGB has partnered with the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) in an online petition that sends an email directly to the petitioner’s legislator, based on the signer’s zip code.

GPSA president Nila Devanath reported that the petition had garnered more than 330 signatures to date. “It’s not only for students, so if any of you think this in an important issue, you can log onto the petition,” Devanath said.

The web address is

Devanath reported that this semester GPSA has been asked to chair the recently formed Pittsburgh Student Government Council (PSGC), a group of student leaders, including SGB members, from Pittsburgh-based institutions of higher learning.

“Our goals this semester are focused on the Port Authority and transportation issues,” Devanath said.

PSGC will hold a Port Authority-oriented lobby day in Harrisburg on March 22, she said.

GPSA also is coordinating a letter-writing campaign addressed to members of the Allegheny County Council as well as the state transportation committee.

Devanath also reported on last month’s meeting with state Sen. Jay Costa, the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic leader.

“We talked about Port Authority issues, really stressing that,” Devanath said, noting that Costa impressed her as a sympathetic listener.

At that meeting, Devanath said, Costa stressed the need for raising revenue for mass transit.

In the past, legislators have increased taxes on gasoline and on oil company profits to counterbalance Port Authority’s shortfalls. Former Gov. Rendell and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission also transferred, or flexed, highway funds to offset Port Authority deficits in past years.

Devanath said that, according to Costa, another possibility is renegotiating mass transit workers’ pensions.

“In the Q&A session, Sen. Costa really thought there would be difficulty” raising revenue in the current economic climate, particularly when the University is lobbying on two separate fronts, she said.

“On one hand we’re going to have Pitt Day in Harrisburg [April 5] where we’re really lobbying for Pitt to have funding, while on the other hand there is the Port Authority transportation issue for Pittsburgh,” Devanath said.

At the Senate Council meeting, Nordenberg responded to the student reports: “Increasing funding for particularly deserving targets doesn’t necessarily mean that funding overall needs to be increased. There can be reallocations. While there are limits on the total resources available, they don’t always have to be distributed exactly the same way.

“As you get into these lobbying efforts, our own Governmental Relations people can help you on issues like that, and Port Authority people probably would be very glad to point you in the direction of cases [for reallocations] that might be made to help them,” Nordenberg recommended.

Staff Association Council

Gwen Watkins, president of the Staff Association Council, told Senate Council, “SAC and staff are also concerned with the Port Authority cuts. We’ve gotten a lot of requests from staff who use Port Authority transportation and we’re working with administrators here from Parking to try to iron out some of the problems.”

Watkins said some staff members already have had their bus routes eliminated. “That’s a great concern,” Watkins said. “The bus service cuts also will affect the already crowded parking situation in Oakland,” she noted.

SAC continued its discussion on transportation at its Feb. 9 meeting.

Watkins said a meeting with Port Authority officials, sponsored by the Oakland Transportation Management Association, to be held on the Pittsburgh campus, still is in the planning stages, but that it would take place before the March 27 cuts go into effect. She urged Pitt staff to attend that Q&A session.

“You need to come out and voice your opinion at the public forum,” Watkins told SAC members Feb. 9. “If you don’t say anything it’s like you’re agreeing with them. You also need to write to your representatives and tell them how you feel about these bus changes.”

When polled, a slight majority of the 39 members in attendance said they were regular bus or T riders, while the rest typically drove or carpooled into work.

Libby Hilf, vice president for marketing and communications, noted that the service cuts will intensify the problem of over-crowding. “That’s particularly an issue for staff with physical problems, who can’t stand up for long periods of time,” Hilf said.

SAC broached the issue with the Port Authority, she said. While there are signs on the buses telling riders to keep the front seats available for disabled and elderly passengers, those signs are not prominent and rarely are enforced, she said. “Much more can be done. We see this as an opportunity to develop a courtesy campaign,” so Pitt and other riders can learn to be more considerate of fellow passengers, Hilf said.

Spokesperson Jim Ritchie told the University Times last week that the Port Authority endorses the idea of a campaign to persuade passengers to be more courteous to fellow riders. “We’re looking into ways of doing that right now, such as increasing messaging we have on our buses and the T,” Ritchie said, adding that drivers also could be asked to encourage rider courtesy.

Hilf offered to field individual concerns staff might have in adjusting to the service cuts. She can be reached at 8-7608 or

Parking, Transportation and Services (PT&S)

Kevin Sheehy, PT&S director, told the University Times last week that he and other Pitt officials have been meeting periodically and communicating via email with Port Authority high-ranking officials, including CEO Steve Bland, to express specific concerns of the Pitt community.

“We also stress the importance of the relationship they have with the University,” given the volume of ridership Pitt provides, he said. According to Port Authority figures, Pitt employees and students account for more than 450,000 rides per month during the academic year.

“We’ve heard from a number of people here about certain routes being eliminated, and we’ve asked the Port Authority to at least take a look at saving some of the service on those handful of routes instead of complete cancellations,” Sheehy told the University Times Feb. 11.

“We realize that the Port Authority is a business and that not every single person will be happy with what they’re doing,” Sheehy said.

The transit company also is limited by its legal obligation to have a balanced operational budget, he said.

One suggestion — that Pitt expand its shuttle routes to a wider area surrounding the campus — would be difficult to implement, Sheehy said. “That goes back to when the PUC (Public Utility Commission) approved the Port Authority’s right to have approval over mass transportation throughout the county,” he pointed out.

“Every time we want to change a bus stop or shuttle route, we need to get their approval, and our experience in the past tells us they won’t grant approval to provide service on the routes they already serve,” Sheehy said.

He noted that Pitt shuttle bus routes are designed to cross, rather than overlap, Port Authority routes.

Governmental Relations

Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for Governmental Relations, who is one of Pitt’s Harrisburg lobbyists, was designated by the chancellor to help coordinate campus efforts regarding mass transit issues.

Supowitz told the University Times this week that he has established a Port Authority contact point person, Dan DeBone, senior government affairs administrator, who is designated to field questions and offer guidance to student and other Pitt groups wanting input. He said he has alerted campus leaders to contact DeBone.

DeBone can be reached at 412/566-5108;

Supowitz said that in his role as a Harrisburg lobbyist for Pitt he has to be aware that the issue of Pitt’s state funding is separate from the budget shortfall affecting the Port Authority and mass transit across the state.

“I don’t think it is a barrier, but you take it into account. We have Pitt Day in Harrisburg on April 5, where we lobby for our appropriation, and then student groups go to Harrisburg at different times to lobby for transit help,” Supowitz explained. “They really are woven into one another, because I believe a good transit system is vital to the city and, as the chancellor has said many times, Pitt needs a strong city and the city needs a strong Pitt. They go hand in hand. One issue doesn’t preclude the other.”

In addition, Supowitz bolsters his argument that a strong transit system is crucial by pointing out the volume of mass transit ridership that Pitt provides, which reduces traffic and pollution, particularly in Oakland. Pitt also has provided a stable and substantial source of revenue dating back to the mid-1990s when the pre-paid rider program was established, he noted.

Depending on a legislator’s committee role in the state government, Supowitz might target his efforts on one issue or the other. “But with the leadership, they hear about all the issues from us. Frankly, the Port Authority might not be the first thing I’d bring up, but then it would be the second. And I would tell them that Pitt supports the students’ efforts to lobby for mass transit funding,” Supowitz said.

—Peter Hart

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