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Road sick: Only the state can head off Port Authority cuts

Written by Susan Mannella on .

It's a shocking number and it represents a distressing situation. The prospect of $5 fares for Port Authority customers who today pay $2.75 for a ride between Downtown and the outer suburbs says it all about the grim prospect facing Allegheny County's transit system.

Other numbers complete the picture: a 30 percent service cut and 500 layoffs, all to close a $50 million deficit in the system's 2010-11 budget. Despite route realignments, employee givebacks and creative funding strategies like an alcoholic drink tax (which became law) and tolls on Interstate 80 (which did not), it is the crisis that never seems to go away.

There's the pity. Because mass transit serves more than riders -- it serves the masses.

Not only does the Port Authority carry 220,000 travelers every weekday, but it also keeps untold vehicles off the region's roads and highways, a boon to motorists and passengers who never set foot on a bus or train. It serves businesses, many of whose employees get to work via transit. It delivers people to countless other destinations -- stores, doctors, schools, places of worship, restaurants, concert halls, libraries and stadiums, many of whose patrons would have a hard time getting around without public transit.

So a stiff fare increase, service cuts and layoffs would do more than ripple throughout the county -- they'd become a flash flood causing pain and suffering all around. But the Port Authority board, which plans to adopt a budget on June 25 with tough measures taking effect later, has no real choice.

In 2007 Allegheny County officials created the drink and car rental taxes to support public transit. A year later Port Authority workers did their part by agreeing to $93 million in savings on pension and health care costs in a four-year labor contract. But the group that has let the transit system down is the Legislature and the governor, whose failed transportation funding plan leaves the Port Authority $25 million short.

That is a sad state of affairs for an agency that is pivotal to the region's daily economy. Unless state officials can find more aid, the brunt of closing the transit deficit will be borne by Port Authority customers and employees, with the rest of the chips falling where they may.

 

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