Harrisburg rally protests PAT cutbacks

by Isabel Gardocki
Junior Staffwriter

Starting in March, there may be no Port Authority buses on weekends, and weekday transportation may end after 9 pm. These changes, along with a base fare increase from $1.75 to $2.50 and the elimination of several bus routes, will be finalized by the end of November if state Senate Bill 1162 and its companion House Bill 2697 are not passed by the legislatures.
?Everyone?s affected,? said Tim Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center (TMC) in Pittsburgh. ?It?s the students, the elderly, the blind, and those without automobiles whose only means of getting to work and out of the home is by taking the bus.? The TMC acts as a resource and organizing center for over 30 different projects, including the grassroots group Save Our Transit, whose mission is to lobby for adequate funding for public transportation.
According to Vining, Save Our Transit was pivotal in bringing together ?a couple hundred people from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and throughout the state? to rally in favor of the bills at Harrisburg on Wednesday, including six students from Carnegie Mellon University. Student Body Vice President Julie Beckenstein met with House Representative Dan B. Frankel and the legislative director for Senator Jay Costa Jr.
?It won?t be just businesses and the handicapped? who will feel the aftershock of the Port Authority?s proposed actions, said Beckenstein. Graduate student Gretchen Underwood would be one of those left searching for a ride; she currently takes the bus ?two to three times a day? to commute to and from campus. Similarly, sophomore ECE major Michael Zizza takes the bus on weekends to get to his car, which he parks in Squirrel Hill.
According to Port Authority statistics, about 108,000 people use its public transportation system every Saturday. Last year?s ridership came to nearly 68 million people. The Port Authority carries approximately 50 percent of workers and shoppers in downtown Pittsburgh and covers an area of 730 square miles, including all of Allegheny County and limited portions of Armstrong, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties.
But according to its website, the Port Authority now shoulders ?a $30 million deficit and significant budget challenges due to the skyrocketing cost of health care, fuel and pension contributions.? The Senate and House bills are seen as the only way out of what is becoming an increasingly uncomfortable situation. Within the last seven years, the Port Authority has dispensed of 141 positions and implemented hiring, wage and salary freezes for all employees in order to enact more than $145 million in cost-saving initiatives. Barney Oursler, a member of the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, explained that 400 jobs will be lost if the Port Authority is again forced to make cutbacks.
He also said that ?bus drivers are the front-line people who are already under attack and pressured about quality of service and maintenance issues.? Laying off bus drivers and eliminating transit in certain areas would cause further overcrowding on buses, more pollution, and augmented traffic congestion. ?Once you lose services, it?s very hard to get them back,? said Oursler.
The solution outlined in the bills is to allocate a larger percentage of the state sales tax for bus, trolley and train services, setting aside an additional $282 million a year statewide, with $64 million specifically for the Port Authority. This would secure a ?dedicated, reliable funding source? for immediate and long-term public transportation projects, Oursler adds, ?avoiding the yearly crisis? in funding those projects.
The debate in Harrisburg, however, also extends towards ?big capital ventures such as a possible tunnel under the Allegheny river towards North Side,? said Oursler. ?This is a massive investment and construction project that the government won?t commit to unless it sees a future in Pittsburgh transportation services.? To lose the possible revenue and opportunity that would be created would be another disadvantage to Pittsburgh citizens.
For Tim Vining, the issue is more directly seen as a ?fight for public services? that must be noticed ?because we will lose this bus system if the issue is not kept alive.? Without an outcry from the public, Vining suspects that politicians will move the money elsewhere.
Some, like the elderly who rely on non-emergency medical transportation, will see their quality of life diminish if the Senate and House bills are abandoned. Others, such as first-year MCS student Danielle Gerlach and first-year H&SS student Kelsey Foss, wonder how they will be able to reach the entertainment, restaurants, and museums that Pittsburgh has to offer college students.
?Students bolster the argument,? said Beckenstein, for keeping an effective busing system working in Pittsburgh. To help the Carnegie Mellon community express its opinion on the issue, the student government will host a letter-writing campaign at Skibo Coffeehouse on Tuesday.