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Consolidation of transit systems in southwestern Pa. gains momentum

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:48 p.m.
Jill Wanzie, 51, of Finleyville gets off the Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority 'Commuter A' bus in Bethel Park on Friday, February 22, 2013. The MMVTA, based in Washington County, has several stops along Route 88 in Allegheny County. Gov. Tom Corbett's transportation funding plan includes a measure that would require transit agencies to participate in consolidation studies with neighboring agencies to receive state funding. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority 'Commuter A' bus waits for the Port Authority T to cross the tracks in Bethel Park on Friday, February 22, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Western Pennsylvania would be better served by one transit agency than 10, says Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Thirty percent of Downtown workers live outside of Allegheny County, while many Allegheny County residents work and shop in Cranberry, Butler County, or Washington County's North and South Strabane, he testified last week before state lawmakers meeting at Station Square.

“It's frustrating when you watch buses come across the (Allegheny) county line and they don't pick up another person as they drive into Downtown using the same route as a Port Authority bus,” he said.

Transit consolidation could save taxpayers millions, said Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Squirrel Hill.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican, thinks the same thing.

Corbett's 2013 budget proposal would provide an extra $1.8 billion a year for transportation statewide, but require transit agencies to complete consolidation studies with neighboring agencies if they want a share of the money. Consolidation could involve combining entire agencies or just sharing purchasing or services.

PennDOT would decide which agencies should partner for studies and would pay for the work. It would slash funding to agencies that don't implement cost-saving recommendations in what PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch describes as a “carrot-and-stick approach.”

Some consolidation efforts are under way. Lackawanna and Luzerne counties in northeastern Pennsylvania expect to save $1.8 million a year by consolidating administration of their medical assistance and shared-ride services. Combining operations of five transit agencies and two county transportation departments in south-central Pennsylvania could net $24 million in savings in seven years, a study completed last fall predicted.

A Corbett-appointed advisory commission predicted consolidations could cut transit costs statewide up to $25 million a year. PennDOT shells out $1.2 billion in transit funding annually. Corbett's plan would increase that by $40 million in the first year and $250 million by the fifth.

“We need a ‘SWEPTA' to reflect how people go to work and live,” Fitzgerald testified last week during the legislative hearing, using an acronym to refer to a hypothetical Southwestern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.

SWEPTA is not a new idea. Then-Allegheny County Controller Dan Onorato promoted consolidation during his first campaign for county executive in 2003, but didn't advance the idea during his two terms in office.

Larry Morris, executive director of the Greensburg-based Westmoreland County Transit Authority, said his agency's express buses to Pittsburgh are usually full by the time they reach Allegheny County on weekday mornings. Stopping to pick up riders in Allegheny County as Fitzgerald suggests would lengthen commute times, defeating the purpose of the express route, Morris said.

“My job is to run the transit system here,” Morris said, declining to predict whether creating a single regional agency would result in savings.

Other local transit leaders were lukewarm, at best, on the SWEPTA idea. They pointed to the complexities of combining agencies with vastly different operations. For example, three of the 10 public transit agencies that operate in the 10-county area employ their own drivers and mechanics, while seven pay private contractors.

“Our budget would only run Port Authority for about a day. Our savings would be minimal at best,” said John H. Paul, executive director of the Butler Transit Authority, which has an annual budget of $1.5 million compared with Port Authority's $372.1 million.

“Somewhere down the line we might get to a SWEPTA, but that's not something that's going to happen overnight. You would be dealing with some very significant, complex issues,” said Marc Roncone, executive director of the Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority, based in Charleroi.

Roncone said his agency already works with other agencies to cut costs. It and four other agencies are piggybacking on Port Authority's ConnectCard project, installing electronic fare-collection boxes that will allow riders to move seamlessly between buses from different agencies; management of the program will be consolidated, reducing costs.

Roncone said his agency plans to study a possible combination with Washington's City Transit and the Washington County Transit Authority.

“I think you would see some savings, and I think it could enable us to not only sustain our service, but to grow it,” Roncone 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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