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December 9, 2004

Port Authority Service Cuts Looming

It’s time for Pitt employees and students – along with everyone else in the region who relies on public transportation – to plan for consequences from looming severe cutbacks in bus service.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is expected to raise fares, eliminate night-time and weekend service and cut out a third of its 210 regular routes, possibly as early as January. The transit company’s board of directors will meet Dec. 16 to finalize the timing of the cuts and other details, according to a Port Authority spokesperson.

The company also is expected to curtail its Access service, close its Harmar bus garage and lay off about 500 employees, said media relations representative Bob Grove.

Base fares will be hiked from $1.75 to $2.50 by Feb. 1 and possibly sooner, Grove said. The transit authority will eliminate weekday service after 9 p.m., all weekend and holiday service and 70 weekday bus and trolley routes no later than March 6. Morning service starting times vary by route, but typically buses will start running between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., Grove said.

The cutbacks are being implemented over time, Grove said, because of the need to print new schedules, distribute employee lay-off notifications, rearrange work schedules and comply with union contract rules.

The Port Authority had hoped that the state legislature would bail it out from under a $30 million projected shortfall this fiscal year, which began July 1. The company projects a budget deficit due to the skyrocketing costs of health care, fuel and pension contributions. Diesel fuel costs alone are expected to increase the Port Authority’s FY ’05 operating budget by more than $5 million, company officials said. The transit company is projecting an additional $45 million shortfall during next fiscal year. It is required by state law to balance its budget, thus forcing the cuts, officials maintained.

“While there were several specific proposals advanced to increase funding for public transportation, none was acted upon by the legislature,” said Port Authority CEO Paul P. Skoutelas. “We are very disappointed that the General Assembly did not establish dedicated funding for public transportation, which is vital to our riders and the economic health and well-being of our region. This inaction will seriously threaten the ability for many of our riders to remain employed and live quality and productive lives.”

The legislature adjourned for the holiday season at the end of November and does not reconvene until January.

In a program that began in 1997, Pitt has contracted with the Port Authority to pay an annual fee in exchange for Pittsburgh campus I.D. holders’ free bus rides throughout Allegheny County. Pitt has averaged about 450,000 rides a month over the past couple years, according to Port Authority statistics.

Pitt’s payment to the Port Authority is subsidized in part by the $75 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 (PT&S).

Joseph Phillips, director of PT&S, told the University Times, “If significant service cuts become a reality we will examine all alternatives surrounding this issue and employ the best plan that we can for the good of students, faculty and staff. At this time the issue is too speculative to respond in detail.”

The Port Authority does not keep statistics on Pitt’s weekend or after-9 p.m. ridership, but Grove said that calendar year 2003 stats indicate that some 10 percent of all rides are taken after 9 p.m.; about 170,000 rides are taken on Saturday and Sunday combined, compared to 230,000 on an average weekday. The total number of rides on Port Authority vehicles is 68 million a year, Grove said.

Pitt signed a three-year contract extension in June, agreeing to pay $3.066 million for the year Aug. 1, 2004-July 31, 2005; $3.219 million for Aug. 1, 2005-July 31, 2006, and $3.38 million for Aug. 1, 2006-July 31, 2007.

The contract allows either side to call for renegotiating the fees provided they request that in writing at least 90 days before a contract year ends, Grove said.

“Our position is that nothing will happen to the contract through next July 31,” Grove said. “If fares are raised though, and barring an 11th-hour miracle they will be, we will bring that up in future negotiations.”

Pitt spokesperson John Fedele told the University Times that the University is declining comment on the transit crisis at this time. “Any speculation on this subject would be premature,” Fedele said.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 8

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