Port Authority needs more funding from state

Port Authority needs more funding from state (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor) Port Authority needs more funding from state (credit: Josh Smith/Forum Editor)
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It’s that time of year again. The snow is falling, stores are filled with early Valentine’s Day chocolate, and the Port Authority is once more running out of money.

Facing a projected $64 million deficit, the transit authority spelled out the details last week of a 35 percent service cut that would take effect in September if sufficient funding can’t be found. The proposed changes make last year’s 15 percent cut look like a mere bump in the road: reduced service on all routes, with 48 of them eliminated outright and all but 13 of them shut down after 10 p.m. Fares are scheduled to increase in July, and continued service of the 28X depends on the renewal of a federal grant, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Despite the severity of the announcement — Port Authority CEO Steve Bland called it “the beginning of the end of public transit as a significant carrier in the region” — Carnegie Mellon students and long-time Pittsburghers alike could be forgiven for feeling a bit skeptical. Doesn’t this dire prediction happen every year, and doesn’t some official always dig up a bit of loose change to keep the buses running? Usually, but that attitude misses the point. The bottom line is that public transportation in Pennsylvania is consistently underfunded; emergency bailouts are a symptom, not a solution. If the Port Authority has to go out busking instead of busing every time the annual budget is due, it’s because the authority continues to lack adequate support from the county and state governments. State aid, which makes up the majority of the Port Authority’s income, dropped 19 percent last fiscal year.

Of course, a lack of state-level funding for transportation projects of all types is another well-known problem. Last April, Governor Tom Corbett created the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission and asked it to develop a plan to reverse perennial under-investment in Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges, and public transit systems. The commission delivered its final report in July, recommending a series of revenue increases that have gathered support from trucking companies, highway construction groups, motorists’ associations, community leaders, and state legislators from both parties.
Corbett, meanwhile, has spent the last six months diligently ignoring the situation, only indicating that he will take the commission’s input into account in his yearly budget message, due out Feb. 7.

Without Corbett’s support, any transit-related legislation stands little chance of success. If the state can’t provide a more stable funding solution, the Port Authority’s directors will be passing around the tip jar and begging for the odd million or two for the foreseeable future.

As city residents and bus riders, we should be horrified at the thought.

Fortunately, as engaged citizens, we also learned last week that our voices actually can make a difference. The same day that the Port Authority unveiled its shriveling future service, millions of young Americans were changing the federal government’s mind about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

After a day of shuttered websites, concerted petition-signing, and phone calls to elected representatives, The New York Times reported Thursday that at least seven members of Congress — including some of SOPA’s original co-sponsors — had withdrawn their support from a bill they had previously regarded as uncontroversial.

Corbett needs a similar wake-up call now. The thousands of us in Pittsburgh who depend on public transit for school, work, shopping, and amusement need to make it clear that we cannot tolerate continued uncertainty in transportation funding. The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission’s recommendations already enjoy broad support outside the state capitol; they should be translated into law as quickly as possible.

They would generate $2.7 billion a year in new revenue while costing the average motorist $2.57 a week, about the price of a single trip downtown on the 61C. With the commission’s proposals in place, the Port Authority would benefit to the tune of $32 million to $48 million annually. That money won’t instantly solve all of the agency’s problems, but it would be a good start and — more importantly — a dependable source of revenue for years to come.

Corbett’s office can be reached at (717) 787-2500 or online at