Friday, April 29, 2011

State Commission to Address Transportation Funding Crisis

In the aftermath of a 15 percent service reduction on March 27, Port Authority’s funding and Legacy Cost issues once again have become a focal point – and for good reason.

These are the primary issues that must be resolved to protect public transportation service across Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

There is a very real and growing desire to understand and address these issues. There also is a very real desire to help the Authority build on the improvements it's made in recent years, and to achieve key goals - the greatest being sustainability.

Despite the recent service reduction, the goals that would benefit riders and this community remain constant. And there are three of them:

First, State transportation funding remains at a reduced level and must be addressed. Port Authority’s annual allocation from the State this year was reduced from about $184 million to $150 million.

This has been among the items discussed during County Council President Jim Burn's special committee on transit.

And, on April 21, Gov. Tom Corbett formed the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which will seek long-term transportation funding solutions. Gov. Corbett established an Aug. 1 deadline.

The formation of this State commission is a clear sign that this issue is just as crucial in all regions of Pennsylvania.

The commission, which met for the first time on April 25, certainly will play a significant role in determining how Pennsylvania pays for transportation programs, including transit.

Second, and equally important, here at Port Authority, we also must address our Legacy Costs -- namely retiree healthcare and pensions. This problem has been brewing for decades.

Today, Port Authority pays about $31 million toward retiree healthcare. At the much-larger SEPTA – the transit system serving the Philadelphia area – the same expense totals about $8 million.

We must continue working toward correcting this problem. If not, our financial position will continue to deteriorate, service will continue to be cut and the benefits of public transportation to this community will fade.

Our last Collective Bargaining Agreement with ATU Local 85 was a good start as it tackled long-term benefit expenses.

And, we’re encouraged now by Local 85’s interest in discussing these issues. Although talks with the union, initiated by County Executive Dan Onorato, were not successful in staving off the March 27 reductions, they have led to a positive exchange of information.

Third, the Authority must remain committed to improving itself.

We must continue to take the steps necessary to make our services attractive, to encourage ridership, to create efficiencies, to support community growth and revitalization, and to make transit simpler to use.

This is why ConnectCard will be so important when it becomes available to riders in early 2012. This is why finding better ways to get information to riders matters.

We will continue our frank discussion with people as to where we are and what still must be fixed.

For now, although the Authority’s status is not ideal, it is stable. Our financial position will maintain the current level of service through June 30, 2012. In that time, we look forward to working with elected leaders, Local 85, community organizations and State officials to forge lasting solutions that protect public transportation.

Learn more about the Pennsylvania Transportation Funding Advisory Commission here.