Officials Blame Longtime Errors for Transit's Peril

By Ritchie, Jim | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Officials Blame Longtime Errors for Transit's Peril


Ritchie, Jim, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


In a 10-year period, Port Authority of Allegheny County lost nearly 5 million riders -- yet operated 78 more buses a day.

The agency's expenses climbed during the same period by 64 percent -- or nearly $130 million, according to Federal Transit Administration data from 1996-2006, the most recent available.

The numbers capsulize the problems driving the mass transit agency toward turmoil, as it reaches a virtual stalemate with its drivers' union on how to cut labor costs in a contract that would start July 1.

Recent efforts to generate more fare revenue and cut costs by slashing routes and trimming management benefits were not enough.

"If we keep doing for the next 10 years what we did for the last 10 years, we're going to hit the wall," said authority CEO Steve Bland, who was hired in May 2006 to help fix the agency's problems. "It would appear through the mid-1990s that service was just sort of added. It was sort of the concept of, 'If we run it, they will come.'

"That wasn't the case. We have to be more strategic."

About 9 percent of the county's 1.2 million residents, or 110,000 people, use public transit. Without the system, low-income residents lacking vehicles would be stranded and commuter routes to Downtown businesses would become congested by cars, transit advocates say.

Leaders fear those problems as the possibility of a union strike looms. The last strike, in 1992, ended after 28 days when former Mayor Sophie Masloff intervened because city traffic congestion kept some emergency employees from getting to work.

The agency's problems are the result of decades of mismanagement, poor decisions and lost population, officials say. Now, the agency is running out of time to correct itself, they say.

"My belief is if we don't deal with it now, we really are risking the future of a viable transportation system," Bland said. "It can't be put off."

The spotlight is centered on Port Authority's largest union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, whose Local 85 office in the Strip District represents 2,400 drivers, mechanics and office staff, along with another 2,600 retirees who continue to receive pension payments and health care benefits.

The union and authority have not agreed on terms for the contract. The authority wants the union to give up lucrative health care benefits. The union is open to paying more, but is not agreeable to cutting so much at once.

"The union is more than willing to negotiate in good faith and come up with a reasonable contract that may help address some of the financial issues, including health care," said Local 85 President Pat McMahon. "But their proposals are to take it all away and that's just not going to happen."

County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who appoints the Port Authority board of directors, has demanded cuts in labor costs. Until a deal is reached, Onorato says he will withhold an annual $27 million subsidy. That subsidy unlocks another $183 million in state funding, which is critical for the agency.

Port Authority management points to Philadelphia as an in-state example of how to curtail rising health care costs for retirees. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority limits health care for retirees to 50 months. The Port Authority offers lifetime health care.

Port Authority wants the union to agree to a benefit similar to that in Philadelphia.

Although a much larger agency, SEPTA's labor costs did not increase as much as Port Authority's in the decade. Its 33 percent increase in labor costs is less than Port Authority's 58 percent.

SEPTA had an increase in ridership of 5.2 million in the decade.

"What Pittsburgh's facing in its budget situation and labor situation is much different from what we're going through in Philadelphia," SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said. …

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Officials Blame Longtime Errors for Transit's Peril
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