Saturday, June 23, 2007

PAT continues in the fiscal death spiral

Pittsburgh PA - Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) on Friday approved more service cuts, layoffs as well as a yet to be determined fare hike. This will only further push PAT into the abyss from which it can't escape.

The years of living large under the former executive director, Paul Skoutelas, have caught up to PAT. Wasteful spending practices were honed to perfection under the Skoutelas reign at PAT which left little wiggle room for unexpected emergencies or cost increases which would immediately tilt the delicate balance.

The result of the wasteful practices was a 15% service cut with associated layoffs that went into effect last Sunday. Now an additional 10% of service has been approved for slashing as well as what will be a hefty fare increase.

Of course not all blame is to be laid on Skoutelas' doorstep. The State and local politicians are also to blame for not being willing to fund transit properly. It is hard to fund a wasteful organization properly however but the service shouldn't be destroyed for the people that depend on it just to cover political rear ends.

We as a nation just went through a national "Dump the Pump" promotion of public transit. What is happening in Pittsburgh is the very model of the opposite of what the promotion is all about. PAT is now at the point where it may never recover the lost ridership and what ridership remains will be finding other methods to go where they need to go.

Critics of PAT often cite duplicate service as a wasteful measure. It is true PAT operates what seem to be more duplicate routes than other systems but there is a reason. Pittsburgh has one of the most difficult service areas of any transit system in North America. The hills and valleys with roads that wander along the lay of the land make duplicate service hard to avoid. Roads in this area are designed to funnel into the Point in Downtown through a series of ever narrowing corridors. As buses head out of town, the routes break off a main trunk and head into the various communities tucked away in the geography.

Even with PAT's long overdue plan to overhaul the entire service under the "Connect '09" initiative, they will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, not to have duplicate service in the majority of the natural geographical corridors.

PAT does need to control its spending. There is no question about this fact. PAT also needs a reliable source of funding it can depend on as well. Reliable funding is something that Pennsylvania has never allowed any public transit system in the state and it is long overdue.

The current fiscal crisis PAT faces effects every transit system in Pennsylvania but primarily the two largest operations, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The State Legislature is stuck in session until something is done regarding funding the transit systems.

It's much more than just wasteful spending practices that triggered this crisis. Fuel, health care, wages and other operating expenses continue to go up while more and more unfunded government mandates continue to be placed on transit systems. All of this has helped push transit nationwide on to the event horizon of a massive fiscal black hole.

Nowhere is the effect as devastating as it is in Pittsburgh. This region has many areas that appear to be very close to a major transit line, as the crow flies, but can actually be a several miles away by road and sidewalk (if the road even has a sidewalk). This issue makes it much more costly to provide service in Pittsburgh. Something needs to be done to prevent public transit from failing completely here. It will hurt the entire region if PAT is allowed to continue to implode.

I have been critical of the most of the various plans brought up to help fund transit in Pennsylvania. The plans championed by various politicians do little toward actually solving the funding problem and everything to allow the politicians to pick the pockets of the taxpayer. None of the "cures" brought up to date address the problem of the need for a dedicated and dependable source of income for public transit.

The various proposals brought up by the politicians will still require the same method of distributing the funding. This means it has to be added to the state budget and then left open to being slashed for political pet projects and other agencies and groups in the state that are screaming loudly for money.

While I know taxes will have to go up to save transit in Pennsylvania, I will not nor cannot support any tax increase until the politicians allow a truly dedicated source of funding that is distributed equitably and not subject to the political whims of the politicians and activists. The public transit systems also need to continue to clean up their act and eliminate wasteful spending practices if such a funding scheme does happen.

Public transit is important to many people as well as the economy of the region it serves. It can't be allowed to crash and burn however we taxpayers also can't allow new taxes to be placed on the books for transit just to maintain the status quo. Changes are needed before we can accept more taxes for transit. Let's face a fact, PAT isn't the model of fiscal efficiency but it is improving. Those improvements need to continue and the state needs to allow for a truly dedicated funding source that is can be depended on.

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