Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Short-, medium-, and long-term predictions of transit's fate in Pittsburgh

I normally don't blog about breaking news, but as it's been almost four months since I penned my funding rant, and so much has changed or is changing, it's time to take a reading. While there are developments on both the short and medium terms, the long-term outlook for transit in the metro Pittsburgh area does not look promising.

Short term, the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission approved funding on December 13 to take Port Authority to the end of this fiscal year with some semblance of solvency, with a hope to tide them over through FY12. Medium term, the Republicans took both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature as well as the governor's office in November's election, thus allowing them to make whatever changes they plan to. More on this later.

I am happy that SPC voted yes, if only barely. I predicted a 51/49% vote in favor; the actual tally was 55/45%. Those numbers aside, the math of the short-term fix doesn't add up. Somehow this $45M Gov. Rendell found can be stretched not only to June 30, 2011, but also to June 30, 2012, but I have grave doubts. Adding a certain 15% service cut in March to the certain fare hike in January, however, does not warm the cockles of my heart. Whoever figured this out apparently took a gamble that Harrisburg would do the right thing to figure out a humane solution to funding transit, humane as in allowing able-bodied workers to get to and from work. Please pardon my cynicism, but history has repeatedly proven my cynicism right.

Republican legislators and their influencers, namely the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, financier Richard Mellon Scaife, and media outlets KQV Radio, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WPXI-TV, have been relentless in their continuing criticism of Port Authority. In the 20 years that I have been following PAT's funding problems, the pattern is clear. If you repeat the same lies often enough, people will take it as gospel truth, especially when there is enough real-life bad news to make the BS plausible.

This combination of policy wonks, media, financial might, good ol' boy networks, and elected politicians, knows how to steer public thought, and how to implement statute law. They have been waiting for decades for the planets to align so that they can implement their agenda. That syzygy arrived with the November 2010 elections, brought about with just that assembled might. Never mind that in-their-back-pocket local boy, conservative Republican senator Rick Santorum, was instrumental in getting the North Shore Connector approved and funded, this crew sold Pittsburgh on the ideas that the whole project was ill conceived by Gov-elect Corbett's opponent, and as a matter of public utility, pointless. Never mind that every construction project in the region, public and private, encountered huge increases in costs of cement and fuel in the mid-2000s, this crew sold everyone that the budget extensions were bad PAT management. Most Pittsburghers believe this to be true, because this crew bought and paid for that public opinion, and spoon-fed it to each and every one of them.

It continues. I have now heard from four different sources that yet another example of Port Authority's continuing financial stupidity is over a mere $200K for bike racks. This is just plain wrong on so many levels. First, it was a grant, not part of its operating budget. Second, this was long sought by Pittsburgh's burgeoning cycling community, not some hare-brained idea someone dreamed up in the middle of the night. Third, it was needed, since the roughly 75% implementation rate of buses with racks makes using them unreliable. In other words, enough buses have them to make using them desirable, but enough do not to strand would-be riders expecting buses to be so outfitted. This same thing occurred with wheelchair-equipped buses in the late 1990s, almost a decade after the Americans with Disabilities Act required public transit buses to be able to handle wheelchairs, when Port Authority still had many pre-1990 buses in its fleet. Back to bike racks, though. Fourth, that the issue was raised at all is a perfect example of how public opinion is formed. A trivial cost, a non-issue, a good and desirable development, is being portrayed as yet another example of Port Authority mismanagement. Joe Citizen thinks that, someone who addressed the SPC commissioners yesterday said that, even some bus drivers think that -- to name three specific places I got that particular example. Any non-cyclist who thinks about it at all thinks of it negatively. That universality of opinion is no accident.

Medium term, Governor Corbett will unveil a FY12 budget proposal in February, and in it will be contained a number for the Mass Transit Line Item, just like every other budget proposal in recent decades. That number is split up among Philly's SEPTA, Pittsburgh's PAT, and about 30 other smaller transit properties in Pennsylvania. Somehow, Corbett has to plug an expected FOUR BILLION DOLLAR budget shortfall. Placing a big fat zero for the MTLI would be a no-brainer, in essence saying, "Looking to state coffers to fund your local transit system? Figure it out yourselves. Not my problem." Compounding that, the GOP is in lock step in agreeing not to raise or impose any new taxes or fees.

Long term, with that as background, is there any hope? I say there is not. What is supposed to happen next is that legislators will be given time to come up with a proper fix for the transit problem. The way I see it, State Representative and Speaker of the House Sam Smith in Punxsutawney, and my own State Rep. and Majority Leader Mike Turzai, have repeatedly gone on record as opposing Port Authority's management, method of operation, cost to operate, and especially its unions. They cannot wait to dismantle this whole operation and replace it with private operators. If they have to rewrite state law to get this done, fine. Bust the unions? They can hardly wait. They have the votes to do anything they please, and reason means nothing to them. It would not surprise me that this proposed legislation has been sitting on ice for years, and there is nothing, NOTHING, that will prevent them from implementing exactly that.

One big piece of this that you will hear a lot about is "public-private partnerships". In short, private operators will be given the franchise (a partnership) by the state (the public) to run transit services, and make whatever profit they can. Customer service be damned, all that matters is making a buck. Say what you want about PAT, they have never tried to make money, only take a predictable funding amount and make it stretch as far as possible. If you think PAT is bad, you deserve the slap in the face that its replacement will give you. Why might you think any big faceless corporation has your best interests in mind?

So there you have it. We might have buses to get us through June, but I would not bet a dime that the June pick is anything other than completing and exceeding the 35% cut we almost had to face in January.


  1. You are the antidote to spoon-fed public opinion. Because of people like you and @anabellebee, we will persevere. The free transit movement is growing every day. More activists, more bloggers, more candidates, more mind-share, etc. Be bold, be aggressive -- we are right!

  2. You need to write a piece for the Post-Gazette. This post is right on the money.