Wheels on bus to keep going round

A crowd boards the 61C bus after a 25-minute wait. The 61C is one of many routes that would have had reduced service in September. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) A crowd boards the 61C bus after a 25-minute wait. The 61C is one of many routes that would have had reduced service in September. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

The Port Authority announced last Tuesday that the service reduction planned for Sept. 2 would be postponed until at least August 2013.

The postponement is the result of a deal reached by the Port Authority, Allegheny County, Governor Tom Corbett’s office, and the Local 85 Amalgamated Transit Union. Under the deal, Port Authority employees in the Local 85 union will undergo a two-year pay freeze and increase the percentage of the paychecks paid into their pension plans; the state will provide $35 million to Port Authority during the coming year; and Allegheny County will provide $4.5 million over the coming year.

The turning point in negotiations, which have been ongoing for several months, was the ratification of a new contract between the Port Authority and the Local 85, to which the majority of the Port Authority’s employees belong.

“Once the contract was ratified, we knew that we would be seeing some pretty substantial savings from that contract,” Port Authority spokesperson Heather Pharo said. “As we have been in discussions with the state and the county as well, the board opted to postpone the cuts for at least one year ... in order to give the state and the county more time to figure out a sustainable plan for funding transportation.”

Local 85 President Stephen Palonis said that although the union is not entirely happy with the new contract, something had to be done in order to save local transportation.

“It’s a concessionary contract, that’s for sure,” Palonis said. “Our membership says we have to do our part for transportation in Allegheny County. They have faith in us.”

Palonis said that there are some caveats in the new contract. “If the governor doesn’t come through with a dedicated source of funding that can grow, we revert back to our previous contract. Our membership ratified it by a 10-to-one margin, and the reason they ratified it by that margin was because of that language.”

Palonis pointed to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as another pivotal player in the agreement.

“He really kept our nose to the grindstone throughout this process,” Palonis said. “Rich is an advocate for transportation. I’ve dealt with a lot of politicians through this process, but Rich really wants to see transportation grow.”

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Fitzgerald is advocating paying the county’s portion of the agreement using two sources: the county’s drink tax and the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD). The RAD draws its revenue from a 1 percent addition to Pennsylvania’s 6 percent sales tax.

Carnegie Mellon Student Body President Will Weiner, a senior economics and statistics and decision science double major who lobbied for local transportation in his previous role as chair of the Undergraduate Student Senate, is happy about the deal.

“The benefits are pretty obvious, especially for our graduate student population,” Weiner said. “I’m really glad the deal was worked out, because they utilize a lot of the routes that were going to be cut.”

Since one of Corbett’s major demands was union concessions, Weiner said the new union contract gives transportation lobbyists more bargaining power in the future. “I think it gives our side some more ammunition to say, ‘Look, they’ve made some concessions,’ ” Weiner said. “So it gives us a better position to secure a better future not just for Pittsburgh, but for the state.”

Weiner said that student government’s future lobbying efforts, whatever they are, will probably be made through the Pittsburgh Student Government Council.

“It could manifest itself a lot of ways. I want to use our resources and connections with local government before figuring out what the next step is,” he said.