Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rep. Joe Preston Tells Post-Gazette: "Other Transit Systems Have Found a Way to Operate Without Saturday Service"

Joe who? For decades we looked to state Rep. Joe Preston to become more accountable. But as the years have drifted by, he drifted further and further away. A good example: On October 13, 2006, Mr. Preston suggested the following to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board "Other transit systems have found a way to operate without Saturday service" as a response to $32.5 million deficit facing the Port Authority. In short, it appears that Mr. Preston prefers Port Authority raising the base fare, cutting service and/or laying off employees, although he says he supports dedicated funding. That is, to evoke public anger (pitting riders against workers) he has adopted spin that suggests Port Authority "must learn to make do with less and balance their operating budgets with service cuts and/or fare hikes."

Port Authority announced $36 million as the projected deficit for 2006-07. Because the federal government does little to subsidize urban public transit operations, the deficit burden falls on the state and local government. Governor Rendell has proposed raising the authority's subsidy 2 percent for next year, generating about $2 million. But such doesn't change the fact that the legislature must provide dedicated, predictable long-term funding. Hopes for such funding sit partly with a nine-member transportation reform and funding commission that the governor formed through executive order. The commission is looking at highways, bridges, aviation and rail freight programs as well as transit. However, its final report isn't due until November 15 (after the Nov. 7, General Election).

The familiar spin that Mr. Preston offered to the editorial board is commentary attempting to force the state's transit systems and their union employees to accept competitive bidding in their labor agreements. To impress reluctant legislators like Rep. Preston the Port Authority has reduced management personnel and administrative expenses and has made an effort to reduce the annual deficit in all the areas which are within their control. That is, Port Authority's operating costs have grown by 1.9 percent per year, well below the rate of inflation. In fact, the cost of bus service per passenger mile is 26 percent less than the average of comparable systems and the general administrative costs per unit of service were 40 percent less. Thus, Port Authority costs per vehicle hour and vehicle mile of service are considerably less than other transit agencies of similar size.

However, funding for public transit operations in Pennsylvania does not keep up with inflation. Had the state's General Fund operating subsidy grown by the rate of inflation over the past 14 years, more than $500 million would have been available to Pennsylvania transit systems, including $125 million to Port Authority (far more than would have been needed to offset current operating deficits). In short, there are two main funding streams for public transit operations in Pennsylvania. One is called the General Fund for Mass Transit Operating Assistance Budget Line Item. In 1995 this fund provided around $247 million for public transit operating assistance statewide. In 2004, the same fund provided around $270 million ( a 1 percent annual increases in funding over a 10-year period). The other funding system is called the Public Transit Assistance Fund. It is supplied by such sources as a $1 fee per tire on new tire sales, a $2 per day fee on car rentals, a 3 percent tax on motor vehicles leases, and 1.22 percent of the state sales and uses tax capped at $75 million. This funding stream has grown by only 1.3 percent over the past several years. Groups such as Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (33 congregational and organizational members) have called for dedicated funding because public transit is an essential public service, much like our education system and the construction and maintenance of our highway system. Like public transportation, those services are subsidized, and for a good reason. They benefit society as a whole. Public transportation is no different.

For almost 43 years the Port Authority has been providing comprehensive public transportation services safely and effectively to the poor and low-income of District 24 (one of the Nation's most difficult transit environments). Every year, we worry about whether we can depend on our bus being there when we need it to "connect us to life." Eliminating Saturday service as Rep. Preston suggested to the Post-Gazette editorial board is "just out of the question." Reliable convenient schedules, clean comfortable equipment, and economical fares for the 68 million rides provided annually (240,000 on the average weekday) will only come to pass with dedicated and predictable funding streams. If public transit budgets are to be balanced by reducing (non-peak) Saturday services, then potential new riders will stay in their cars and increase traffic congestion, and the costs of maintenance of our road and highway system.

Todd Elliott Koger, candidate for State Representative (District 24), requests that you take action during Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network's Public Action, 7:00-9:00 p.m., Thursday, October 26, 2006, at Petra International Ministries, 235 Eastgate Drive (Old East Hills Shopping Center). More than 1500 or more concerned residents from this region will be present.