Monday, June 11, 2012

My comments on the P-G article on the June 8 transit protest

I posted a long comment on this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article:

The comments had less to do with the protest, and more with Port Authority's long-standing funding issues. With only minor corrections, here is my post.


This is long: ~730 words, excluding this line. So, you can TL;DR it, or actually learn something. Your call.

I have read the article and all 14 comments so far. I see two patterns: One, a set of people who repeat the oft-repeated mantras of PAT mismanagement and union greediness. I can hardly blame them. There is a grain of truth therein, but they are only two factors in a hugely complex equation. The second pattern comes from people who have gotten very closely involved in the situation over the years (I've been in it over 20), and know how complex this equation is. What one commenter said is true: PAT did some serious house-cleaning, and a complete rearrangement of the routing system to make it more cost-effective, an exact response to the demands in the 2005 funding fight, and implemented in Act 44 of 2007. Look at the numbers: Ridership rose 6% despite a 15% service cut. Thus, if all you have to say is to complain about unions and mismanagement, you lose much credibility for any other point you try to make.

While it's true the city has half the population it had 50 years ago (2010=305K, 1960=604K), the county has changed considerably less in comparison (2010=1.2M, 1960=1.6M its peak). The real interesting comparison is to 1930, when all public transit was provided by private, tax-paying companies. County population was much the same, but far more lived in the city itself (city=670K, county 1.37M). The population in these outer areas was in dense communities with their own, smaller, privately run transit systems, which became part of PAT when it was formed. The problem came after suburban sprawl began after WW2, and continues to this day. If PAT made any truly bad decisions, it was to try to serve these sprawly outer areas. People became too spread out to make transit cost-effective, but had enough clout to demand the areas be served, so they got the service, and simply expected the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

If you live in a house built since 1950 or so, on a street that was built since 1950 or so, YOU are the problem. Since you moved 15 to 30 miles out, instead of staying in the city where your (great-)grandparents lived, you are expecting the taxpayer to fund the cost of both transit *and* all those wide, suburban thoroughfares for your cars to travel on. The state cannot afford to fix roads and bridges OR fund transit. Something has to give, and really both are (raising taxes to fix roads is a different argument, though intimately related), but transit is getting the headlines.

What's getting cut now? These outer areas, mainly, though inner ones like Troy Hill and Mount Washington are getting caught in the same net. The bigger problem is that it costs lots more per person to serve the outer areas, much more than can be recovered through fares. While that's where a lot of the people are, the jobs are Downtown. Those jobs provide the income for the people paying the bulk of the STATE's income tax revenue. So it truly is in the state's interest to help underwrite the cost of public transit. But will Governor Corbett and the GOP-led House and Senate do that? I'm guessing no; they're slaves to Grover Norquist, Roger Ailes, and Rush Limbaugh. It won't happen. We're screwed.

Move the jobs from Downtown to the suburbs? That will be an option for some employers, but it causes more problems than it solves. Sure, you can commute from Port Vue to Cranberry, Kennedy to Monroeville, Aspinwall to Southpointe, when your employer moves operations there, but who would want to? And all the resulting traffic from everyone else doing the same thing? No, losing transit service is only the headline grabber of the moment. The real problem will be when decisions are made *because* the buses are cut. People will move. Employers will leave metro Pittsburgh altogether. And surely, any national company looking to set up shop will simply cross Pittsburgh off the list of places to even think about.

Would you like a proposed solution? How about this? It would surely help if the "non-profits" chipped in. UPMC has 54,000 employees. If it just out-and-out paid $1K apiece for an annual bus pass for each of them, that's $54M of PAT's $64M deficit. Play with the numbers, get buy-in from other companies to do something similar, and you've solved the deficit problem without touching taxes. I'm waiting to hear a concrete suggestion from anyone else.

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