Monday, May 30, 2005

No more free rides

Jake Haulk and Eric Montarti of the conservative Allegheny Institute write in today's Trib in praise of the Port Authority's long overdue proposal to outsource 20 percent of its bus service and vehicle maintenance to private contractors:

This is a radical idea in Pittsburgh. But it is not one without experience in other parts of the country. The Denver Regional Transportation District has contracted out a portion of its non-rail mass transit service since 1988. Recent amendments to the state law that created the outsourcing arrangement raised the level of bus service provided by qualified private carriers to 50 percent.

Under Denver's arrangement, the district owns the buses, solicits bids and determines routes while leaving driving and maintenance to contractors. The savings are substantial. Operating costs per vehicle hour were lower, as were hourly wages for contracted drivers and mechanics. In addition, the wage progression for district personnel was much more rapid than for contractors. Based on recent numbers, the district is saving at least $30 million per year due to the contracting program, and that number will rise over time.

A similar plan could bring down costs in Allegheny County's system. Bus passenger trips per hour are lower than comparable systems while per-passenger expenses are higher. Put alongside systems in 20 other cities -- including New York, Atlanta, and Detroit -- average hourly wages for drivers, operation costs and driver wages per passenger trip are well out of line.

Closer to home, our research on mass transit service in Western Pennsylvania shows that authority driver wages are far higher than those of the Beaver County Transit Authority, the Mid-Mon Valley Transit Authority and the Westmoreland County Transit Authority. The Mid-Mon Valley and Westmoreland County authorities do not directly operate their buses; they contract out service to private operators.

The union that represents Port Authority workers, of course, is dead set against the proposal. Perhaps they should consider the alternative--escalating costs that lead to fare hikes and service cuts, which in turn drive down ridership, further eroding revenues. And Ed Rendell won't be governor forever. Pennsylvania may one day have a chief executive less sympathetic to mass transit and less willing to circumvent the Legislature to fund it. Business as usual is over.


Blogger Ol' Froth said...

How much of the fare hikes and service cuts are due to the reduction in federal funding? The increase in mass transit costs exceeds my tax "refund"

1:10 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

That is a good question; however, it's my understanding that most of the federal funding that the Port Authority has received or been promised has gone to large capital projects, such as the planned North Shore light-rail connector and the recently completed new Castle Shannon, both largely unnecessary. In other words, it does not fund operating expenses. Again, I could be wrong.

But that doesn't change the fact that the onus should be on the Port Authority to streamline how it operates, and maximize efficiency. The political climate in Washington may not change anytime soon, and it definitenly isn't going to change in Harrisburg in the near future.

8:39 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 2002, the feds gave the Port Authority $33.5 million from Congress, mostly for five capital projects.

This figure includes about $4 million in job training disbursements to hire, train and retain low-income workers, part of another federal funding mechanism, plus $4 million in capital acquisition funds reserved for bus replacement.

It doesn't include the $34 million in additional annual funds REQUESTED from Congress for the North Shore light rail connector (or, "boondoggle," if you will) and several other capital projects.

Last time I checked, the Leave-No-Contractor-Behind-Act favored by the fiscally conservative Rick Santorum for the aforementioned boondoggle connector would cost federal taxpayers from $200 million to $312 million.

But why haggle over a mere $100 million? Especially when its completion could shave a minute or two off the congested parking times during eight Sundays every autumn.

By the way, it's the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission which technically earmarks federal funds sluiced through the commonwealth for local road projects. They're the ones who shaved off $24 million or so to prop up the Port Authority, if I recall.

So, if you drive the roads in Armstrong, Beaver, Washington, et al, just remember that your local bridge repair was delayed so that suburban commuters in Allegheny County could continue to pay high salaries to bus drivers.

These monies are called "flexed funds" and bubble up from a stew of state and federal sources, often with matching outlays paid out after county or municipal antes.

Much of it, of course, comes from funds reserved for highway projects which have their beginning in gasoline taxes.

Over the past seven years, the reeling Port Authority has claimed nearly $100 million of the regional pool of cash, and still it's in bad shape.

6:14 PM

Blogger said...

Joe who? For decades we looked to state Rep. Joe Preston to become more accountable. But as the years have drifted by, he drifted further and further away. A good example: On October 13, 2006, Mr. Preston suggested the following to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board "Other transit systems have found a way to operate without Saturday service" as a response to $32.5 million deficit facing the Port Authority. In short, it appears that Mr. Preston prefers Port Authority raising the base fare, cutting service and/or laying off employees, although he says he supports dedicated funding. That is, to evoke public anger (pitting riders against workers) he has adopted spin that suggests Port Authority "must learn to make do with less and balance their operating budgets with service cuts and/or fare hikes."

Port Authority announced $36 million as the projected deficit for 2006-07. Because the federal government does little to subsidize urban public transit operations, the deficit burden falls on the state and local government. Governor Rendell has proposed raising the authority's subsidy 2 percent for next year, generating about $2 million. But such doesn't change the fact that the legislature must provide dedicated, predictable long-term funding. Hopes for such funding sit partly with a nine-member transportation reform and funding commission that the governor formed through executive order. The commission is looking at highways, bridges, aviation and rail freight programs as well as transit. However, its final report isn't due until November 15 (after the Nov. 7, General Election).

The familiar spin that Mr. Preston offered to the editorial board is commentary attempting to force the state's transit systems and their union employees to accept competitive bidding in their labor agreements. To impress reluctant legislators like Rep. Preston the Port Authority has reduced management personnel and administrative expenses and has made an effort to reduce the annual deficit in all the areas which are within their control. That is, Port Authority's operating costs have grown by 1.9 percent per year, well below the rate of inflation. In fact, the cost of bus service per passenger mile is 26 percent less than the average of comparable systems and the general administrative costs per unit of service were 40 percent less. Thus, Port Authority costs per vehicle hour and vehicle mile of service are considerably less than other transit agencies of similar size.

However, funding for public transit operations in Pennsylvania does not keep up with inflation. Had the state's General Fund operating subsidy grown by the rate of inflation over the past 14 years, more than $500 million would have been available to Pennsylvania transit systems, including $125 million to Port Authority (far more than would have been needed to offset current operating deficits). In short, there are two main funding streams for public transit operations in Pennsylvania. One is called the General Fund for Mass Transit Operating Assistance Budget Line Item. In 1995 this fund provided around $247 million for public transit operating assistance statewide. In 2004, the same fund provided around $270 million ( a 1 percent annual increases in funding over a 10-year period). The other funding system is called the Public Transit Assistance Fund. It is supplied by such sources as a $1 fee per tire on new tire sales, a $2 per day fee on car rentals, a 3 percent tax on motor vehicles leases, and 1.22 percent of the state sales and uses tax capped at $75 million. This funding stream has grown by only 1.3 percent over the past several years. Groups such as Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network (33 congregational and organizational members) have called for dedicated funding because public transit is an essential public service, much like our education system and the construction and maintenance of our highway system. Like public transportation, those services are subsidized, and for a good reason. They benefit society as a whole. Public transportation is no different.
For almost 43 years the Port Authority has been providing comprehensive public transportation services safely and effectively to the poor and low-income of District 24 (one of the Nation's most difficult transit environments). Every year, we worry about whether we can depend on our bus being there when we need it to "connect us to life." Eliminating Saturday service as Rep. Preston suggested to the Post-Gazette editorial board is "just out of the question." Reliable convenient schedules, clean comfortable equipment, and economical fares for the 68 million rides provided annually (240,000 on the average weekday) will only come to pass with dedicated and predictable funding streams. If public transit budgets are to be balanced by reducing (non-peak) Saturday services, then potential new riders will stay in their cars and increase traffic congestion, and the costs of maintenance of our road and highway system.

Todd Elliott Koger, candidate for State Representative (District 24), requests that you take action during Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network's Public Action, 7:00-9:00 p.m., Thursday, October 26, 2006, at Petra International Ministries, 235 Eastgate Drive (Old East Hills Shopping Center). More than 1500 or more concerned residents from this region will be present.

7:05 PM


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