Transit agency recalls laid-off workers as revenue increases

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, May 25, 2012, 9:17 p.m.

Port Authority of Allegheny County has generated about $3 million more in revenue than expected while spending $13 million less than planned in the first 10 months of the fiscal year, the agency reported on Friday.

Port Authority also recently recalled the last of the drivers and mechanics it laid off a year ago.

Although that seems to paint a rosy picture for an agency facing a $64 million deficit and the largest service cuts in its 48-year history, Port Authority CEO Steve Bland said the numbers are somewhat misleading.

"We are performing better, no question," Bland said after a Port Authority board meeting. "But part of the reason the (financial) numbers are so improved is that I've kept manpower as tight as I possibly could. It came back to bite us."

Officials recently began recalling laid-off drivers, mechanics and fare collectors to keep pace with a wave of retirements this year that left the agency critically understaffed.

Among other problems, a shortage of T light-rail drivers led to widespread delays and overcrowded trains three weekends ago when Pittsburgh hosted several major events, including the Pittsburgh Marathon, a Pirates baseball series and a concert at Stage AE on the North Shore. Retirements left the agency with little cushion when several drivers called off.

Bland said yesterday that all drivers and mechanics laid off in March 2011 have been recalled. That includes 75 drivers. The number of recalled mechanics was not available yesterday, but Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency remains short-staffed by about 20.

Retirements tend to spike in years when labor contracts are scheduled to expire, with workers who are eligible to retire often doing so because they fear their benefits will be eroded in the next contract. The authority's existing four-year contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 workers -- covering about 5,600 people -- will expire on June 30, the end of the fiscal year, and officials have said sweeping concessions are needed to stabilize the beleaguered agency.

About 135 Port Authority employees have retired since the start of the calendar year, more than five times as many as the 25 who typically do so in an average fiscal year, Ritchie said.

Ritchie could not say what the agency will do if retirements continue at a high rate through June 30. Any new hires added in late June would take up to two months to train. They would not be able to start driving until late August at the earliest -- just before the agency's next round of planned layoffs on Sept. 2. The new hires would be at the bottom of the seniority list, meaning they would be among the first to be laid off.

From July 1 through April, Port Authority generated $84.9 million in revenue through fares, advertising and other income, about $3 million more than anticipated. Overall ridership was up 2.2 percent in the first 10 months of the fiscal year, compared with the same period a year ago, including a 10 percent year-to-year increase in April, thanks to heavy use of the new North Shore Connector. State and local subsidies totaled $203.1 million, about $5 million less than anticipated.

The agency spent $205.9 million through April, about $13 million less than expected. Significant reductions include savings on employee benefits, utilities and supplies. The agency's $2.8 million deficit is about $13.9 million less than expected, but Bland expects that to change with the additional staff being recalled.

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