Free bus rides could be victim of federal budget cuts
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Desaree Law doesn't know whether she'd be able to continue her GED classes in McKeesport if federal budget cuts eliminate the free bus service she uses to get to classes.
“It would really hurt to see anything happen to WorkLink,” said Law, 30, of Clairton, referring to the Mon Valley bus service developed by Braddock-based Heritage Community Initiatives to fill gaps caused by Port Authority cuts.
Law said her free, 20-minute commute to GED classes would jump to almost $5 and 1½ hours each way if she couldn't use WorkLink, designed to provide Mon Valley residents with better access to work, school, job training, childcare and remaining Port Authority routes.
WorkLink is one of three programs in Allegheny County that receive federal money from the Job Access and Reverse Commute — or JARC — program, which was eliminated this summer when Congress passed a two-year transportation funding package. Money for the program will dry up next year.
Other recipients include Port Authority's 28X Airport Flyer route, which runs between Oakland and Downtown, and an Airport Corridor Transportation Association program that shuttles people between Port Authority mainline routes — mostly the 28X — and jobs in the Robinson area.
“Our project is certainly in danger, but we are working as hard as we can to identify how it can continue,” said Sarah Morgan, transportation manager for Heritage Community.
WorkLink receives $900,000 a year to operate, with half of the money coming from the federal JARC and the rest from the state. The Mon Valley program provided about 6,000 rides a month in 2010, but demand skyrocketed after Port Authority cut it routes the following year. WorkLink now provides 13,000 rides a day.
Programs that received JARC funding will vie for money from an existing federal program that funds urban transit in general. The Federal Transit Administration said $4.9 billion will be budgeted this fiscal year for the program, which it says “remains largely unchanged with a few exceptions” — among them, added funding requests from past JARC recipients.
The Airport Corridor Transportation Association's service also is growing. After providing 18,000 rides in its first year in 2009, it gave nearly 80,000 last year, Executive Director Lynn Manion said.
“This is a huge economic development issue,” Manion said, noting the service gets riders to and from more than 125 area businesses.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions at this point. We don't know where we fit” into the new transit funding program, she said, noting the association receives about $615,000 a year in funding, with half coming from JARC.
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland couldn't predict what impact JARC's elimination would have on the 28X, noting increased state funding could save it. Gov. Tom Corbett said he plans to propose and lobby next year for a state package that could include increased transit funding.
If that doesn't materialize, Bland said, the route will be evaluated like all others in determining which ones make the most financial sense to keep. The 28X was on the chopping block this year, until another round of JARC funding — with $1 million for the airport route — materialized.
“I wish a private company would swoop in and take over this service. This (uncertainty) goes on every year,” said Gregg Feitt, 47, of Sheraden, an airport parking worker who uses the 28X.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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