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October 14, 2004

Senate Group Backs Port Authority’s Efforts to Obtain Better State Funding

Allegheny County’s looming public transit crisis has caught the attention of the University Senate community relations committee. The group is backing a letter-writing blitz to the Pennsylvania legislature.

John Wilds, a chancellor’s liaison to the committee, reported Oct. 11 that Port Authority of Allegheny County officials have urged the University and other members of the Oakland Task Force to organize a letter-writing campaign urging state legislators to provide a permanent stream of revenue for the cash-strapped transit company.

The Port Authority is required by law to balance its budget, and is facing a $30 million operational shortfall this fiscal year due to rising health care, pension and diesel fuel costs inadequately covered by state funding.

The Port Authority, which carries more than 40 million riders annually, has threatened to raise base fares and make drastic cuts in service, including eliminating Sunday and all after-9 p.m. buses, Wilds said.

While Port Authority bylaws mandate that public hearings must be held before cuts can be implemented, the threat is not empty, Wilds said. “They mean it. And it would be catastrophic for this region, especially for the hospital and service workers who rely on buses to get to their place of work.”

Although the University has a contract in place that allows Pitt I.D. holders to ride Port Authority vehicles for free, the elimination of night-time and weekend service would affect Pitt employees as well as students who rely on public transit for cultural and recreational activities, Wilds pointed out.

The cuts also could increase dramatically the vehicular traffic in Oakland, community relations committee members pointed out.

Two identical bills, Senate Bill 1162 and House Bill 2697, propose to eliminate the current $75 million statewide cap on revenue dedicated to transit and permanently would direct 3.21 percent of the Pennsylvania sales tax to statewide transit needs. “The Port Authority’s cut of that would be about $62 million,” enough to cover their current shortfall and make improvements, Wilds said.

“Nothing will happen on this in the legislature until after the election,” Wilds predicted. “So we would want to do a ‘full-court press’ on the legislators after the election, from the second week in November to about the second week of December, before they break for the holidays.”

Committee members agreed to prepare a resolution for the November meeting of Faculty Assembly and Senate Council, urging Pitt to support the legislation as an institution. The committee also plans to gather data on how other states fund public transit to bolster support for the legislation. Community Relations further agreed to expedite the letter-writing campaign by distributing pre-printed postcards advocating passage of the legislation.

In other community relations committee developments:

* The committee is hosting the Senate fall plenary session at the William Pitt Union on Nov. 3. The session, titled the “Scholarship of Community Service,” will include a symposium for practitioners and scholars, a forum on community experiential learning opportunities, roundtable workshops and poster sessions, as well as keynote speaker Lorilee R. Sandmann, associate professor in the University of Georgia education school and co-director of the national clearinghouse and review board for the scholarship of engagement.

* The committee will co-sponsor a discussion tomorrow (Oct. 15) on pedestrian safety, traffic management and related urban planning strategies, titled “Enhancing Public Transportation and Pedestrianisation,” featuring Carmen Hass-Klau, professor at the University of Wuppertal, Germany, and principal of environmental and transport planning, Brighton, UK. The event is set for 2-3:30 p.m. in 2017 CL.

* The committee heard a report from new OBID (Oakland Business Improvement District) executive director Georgia Petropoulos. Community relations plans to partner with OBID to develop a survey or convene focus groups of Pitt and UPMC employees on what businesses and services are needed in the Oakland area and how best to improve Oakland’s reputation as a desirable destination.

* Community and Governmental Relations liaison Steve Zupcic, who heads Pitt’s Volunteer Pool, reported that the Sept. 14 United Way Day of Caring attracted nearly 400 Pitt volunteers, up from last year.

* Wilds told the University Times that Schenley Plaza construction was expected to commence soon as part of an approved plan to replace the parking lot and surrounding area with a public park. The parking lot will continue to remain open during the first months of the conversion process, Wilds said.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 4

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