Another topic I have been thinking about recently is Public Transit. You may remember back at the end of last year and the early part of this year, the buzz was all about PAT’s proposal to drop 25% of its routes, unless it got more money. This was accompanied by a threat to raise fares at the beginning of next year (2008), ditto ditto more money. I sent a letter to the Port Authority through their public comment mechanism, and I emailed my State Senator (Ferlo) and State Rep (Lisa Bennington). By the way, both replied, and reflecting the fact that both have districts that extend far into the boonies/hinterlands, both complained about overpaid managers and drivers and years of mis-management. In fact, both wanted to see PAT “Right-size” itself, which I suppose means stopping service to the very poor, who are not in their districts and don’t vote much anyway. So much for reformers and populists.
So, of course, PAT did cut itself back 15%, although surprisingly it did not cut the 28X as threatened (I missed the explanation for how that changed, although I am sure there is one, released to the media very quietly). And a fare hike for January suddenly appeared last month, with no public comment period this time (I guess PAT learned its lesson there). This happened even though PAT is due to get new, additional funding from both the State and the County. I had sort of thought the point was that PAT would only increase fares and cut routes if it didn’t get enough funding. I guess the all Allegheny County-appointed board of directors of PAT might have heard the strident complaints from state legislators from far away places like Scranton or York (or places with towns too small to remember). Which is, of course, the point. PAT’s board of directors needs to prove to state legislature that they are just as or more responsive to the concerns of a citizen and (more important) a representative or senator from clear across the state. The Port Authority board, which lives in Allegheny County, is not affected by the fact they live in Allegheny County. The important thing is how people in Wyoming, or Potter, or Lycoming Montour County feel. Because otherwise the state legislature will take its magic club (wands are too prissy) and decide to appoint half of PAT’s board. Probably not with Allegheny County residents.
This also explains why Dan Onorato has declared the drivers’ and mechanics’ union bad guys. Which is the other piece of this. In a complicated, cascading house of cards, the extra money the state legislature found for PAT is based on a tolling arrangement on I-80, plus some raised toll rates on 76. That was passed by the state legislature, but is by no means a done deal since the Feds think they have a say in what happens on Federal highways. A couple of (republican) US representatives from that part of the state have started whining to the US Department of Transportation, and the Federal Highway is looking at it. By the way, the plan is apparently to only have a few toll booths, at places where out of state trucks tend to exit the highway (such as the Ohio and New York borders on I-80). I guess if a Pennsylvania resident should get a toll ticket from a toll booth, they will not have to pay a toll as long as they exit I-80 at a non toll exit. I guess the idea is out of state truckers would never do that.
Even though the money for PAT may not materialize, the state legislature went ahead put conditions on it. The county had to raise an additional amount of its own for PAT. After all, county citizens are the ones who benefit from public transportation, why shouldn’t they contribute (I think that is actually a quite valid point, one of the few in this sorry saga). Onorato is playing his property tax games, keeping it static so it benefits his aging voter base, so an increase in the property tax rate is out. In fact, Onorato has already planned to lay off a couple of hundred county workers to demonstrate his fiscal responsibility (only in Pennsylvania would a democrat do something like that). What to do, what to do … Fortunately our friends in the state legislature had the solution. Philadelphia has had a drink tax for a few years, so why not Pittsburgh? Of course, it will have to pass the county council, but if they want to be seen raising taxes on their own citizens, so much the better (at least I assume the state legislature doesn’t actually like the state's two largest cities). But the story doesn’t end there. Whether Onorato or someone on PAT’s board or management thought of it, the drivers are still the highest paid in the US (adjusted for regional conditions), the managers and secretaries having been forced into give backs last year or before. So Onorato gets the bright idea that he will hold up the state funding and the drink tax money (plus a $2 a day rental car fee from our one visitor a year) until the drivers union agrees to a wage freeze (which is to last only until Hell also freezes) and to contribute to their own health care. I think retiree benefits are on the chopping block too. This is a clever move, it satisfies people in Lycoming Montour county, if the state doesn’t have to give us the transit money they will gladly use it for bonuses for themselves, it makes the drivers union the bad guys and no one of consequence gets hurt (only nursing home aides, low paid retail staff, waitresses, bus boys and dishwashers, you know, the sort of people who would buy a car if they had any consideration for the rest of us). In retrospect, maybe it was a good idea for PAT to make the moves it has, with the route cuts and the fare hike. At some point, the state may tell us we are now getting (phantom) money from (still hung up in hearings) toll roads and the county may tell us we are getting (phantom) revenues from (uncollectible) taxes on (scofflaw) bars. Around about the time this gets sorted out (the casino will be halfway built at that point), PAT will announce it is out of money again, having bought everyone in the county a Segway.
Yeah, I know, lame ending.