Port Authority benefits of Corbett transportation plan touted

Port Authority of Allegheny County gets about a 22 percent share of the statewide funding for transit.
Port Authority of Allegheny County gets about a 22 percent share of the statewide funding for transit.
Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Gov. Tom Corbett's plan to boost state transportation funding could put Port Authority of Allegheny County on the most solid financial footing it has had in years and possibly restore lost service and jobs, officials said Wednesday.

“It could move Port Authority away from its own fiscal cliff,” County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

Corbett's plan, if approved, would provide Port Authority with an extra $9 million in the first year, growing to more than $56 million by the fifth year, based on current funding formulas for transit in Pennsylvania.

That's on top of an annual $30 million boost Corbett and PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch first promised the financially troubled Port Authority last year. The state leaders agreed last summer to provide the boost to help Port Authority close a $64 million deficit and prevent deep service cuts in exchange for worker concessions and some additional local contributions .

“There will be no cut in that $30 million commitment,” Schoch said during a news conference on Wednesday at PennDOT's district headquarters in Collier.

Not counting the $30 million, Port Authority's $372.1 million budget receives $155.6 million in state operating assistance. That's about 22.5 percent of the money Pennsylvania doles out for transit operations, the second-largest share behind Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority. Port Authority is the only agency in Pennsylvania that receives state help beyond its operating subsidy.

When reached by phone, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis said he didn't know the $30 million allocation would be permanent and independent of any money that could come from a new transportation funding plan.

“That would be good news for Port Authority and the people of Allegheny County,” Palonis said.

Corbett's transportation plan, revealed Tuesday, would generate an extra $5.3 billion for transportation funding over five years. Most money would derive from gradual elimination of the cap on a tax gasoline wholesalers pay.

Statewide, Pennsylvania would provide an extra $40 million for transit operations in the first year and an extra $250 million by the fifth, with the current distribution percentages applying, Schoch said.

“We wouldn't be swimming in money, not in any means,” Fitzgerald said. “But there wouldn't be any additional cuts, and we'd be looking at the possibility of restoring service that has been lost in recent rounds of cuts.”

The latest in a series of cuts reduced service 15 percent in 2011.

Schoch, joined at Wednesday's news conference by PennDOT District 11 Executive Dan Cessna and Allegheny Conference on Community Development CEO Dennis Yablonsky, touted Corbett's transportation plan.

Cessna said “hundreds” of local highway and bridge projects depend on the added funding, noting Corbett's plan could enable his PennDOT district to tackle at least 40 more projects a year during the next decade.

Corbett's plan would provide PennDOT an added $300 million for road and bridge projects in the first year and $1.2 billion more annually by the fifth year.

Among them, PennDOT could move forward with plans to rebuild an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 376 near Pittsburgh International Airport, an estimated $87 million project. Cessna said the highway is 22 years old and needs to be rebuilt, not simply repaved.

“We can keep it open and maintained for the next five years. If we're not (rebuilding the highway) there in five years, we've got serious issues,” Cessna said.

Without increased transportation funding, Schoch said, “That project doesn't happen.”

Cessna said other major local projects that depend on increased funding include a projected $34 million project to renovate the Birmingham Bridge and an $18 million project to improve a five-mile stretch of I-376 in Lawrence County. Schoch said PennDOT plans to create a website by March that will list all projects that would be done with extra money in Corbett's plan.

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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