Riders, employers hold hope of transit deal

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Transit riders and employers in the Pittsburgh region said Tuesday that they're clinging to hope that Port Authority of Allegheny County will come up with a last-minute deal to avert historic service cuts planned for Sept. 2.

Few said they have contingency plans if the cuts would occur.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has helped feed the optimism, saying those working to erase a $64 million hole in the agency's $333.1 million budget are moving closer to a resolution. He won't predict when that might occur.

“I wish I had something more definitive to tell (riders), but I don't,” said Fitzgerald, who is directing negotiations for what he said likely would be a four-year contract between Port Authority and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, the agency's largest labor union.

Fitzgerald has said officials could avoid some or all service reductions if the union and management agree to a combined $25 million in concessions and if the state provides a bailout of up to $35 million.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said the state will help only if Port Authority reduces its expenses.

“Obviously, Sept. 2 is a drop-dead date, so we're moving with urgency,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the date when 35-percent service cuts would take effect — eliminating 46 routes and scaling all others back. Up to 500 Port Authority workers could lose their jobs.

“But if an agreement comes in after that, we could rescind the cuts,” he said.

Lucinda Beattie, vice president of transportation for Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, cringed at the latter option.

“You can't just turn a transit system on a dime. Jobs would be lost, riders would be confused, lives would be turned upside-down,” she said.

Beattie said developing contingency plans to deal with dramatic service cuts — the largest in the agency's 48-year history — is nearly impossible.

“It's not like you can say to people: ‘Go car-pool and drive Downtown, and everything is going to be OK.' It isn't,” said Beattie, noting that many parking garages are filled.

“I didn't think it would ever come to this,” said Mike Loschiavo, 66, of Ambridge, a regular rider on the 14 Ohio Valley route that would be eliminated. He said he would have to use Beaver County Transit Authority shuttles that run Downtown — albeit less frequently — if Port Authority wouldn't close its deficit in time.

A Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission study released in June estimates that Port Authority's daily ridership will plummet by 40,000, or 19 percent, should the cuts occur. The scenario likely would put an extra 23,400 vehicles daily on area roads — half of them Downtown, where parking availability is estimated at just 3,800 spaces a day, the study said.

Kevin O'Connell, spokesman for the Eat ‘N Park chain, which has 22 restaurants in Port Authority's service area, said 230 of its employees in the area depend on public transportation — about 10 percent of its work force. He said almost half of restaurant' sales are on weekends — when transit cuts would be most severe.

Asked about contingencies, O'Connell said: “We're not in the transit business. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do. We're hoping an agreement is reached.”

Point Park University spokeswoman Terra McBride said 50 percent of faculty and staff depend on public transportation, as do many students. Point Park is spending $240 million on Downtown development.

“We feel like information is our best weapon. We want people to begin planning (alternatives) with these cuts looming,” McBride said, noting that Point Park is working to expand online learning options — something that could help if transit cuts would be harder for students to get Downtown.

Duquesne University spokeswoman Karen Ferrick-Roman said cuts could increase demand for its shuttle service between Uptown and the South Side. It now serves 500 people.

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said: “Our managers have actively been talking with employees throughout all departments of UPMC,” adding that the hospital network's intranet system for employees offers resources for other transportation options.

Likewise, PNC spokesman Fred Solomon said the financial-services company isn't preparing to make changes. It offers flexible hours for employees, many of whom can work from home if necessary.

“The people most impacted are administrative staff, but everyone is finding their own way around this,” Solomon said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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