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Transit agency's budget ills hover as PennDOT clarifies funding commitment to Port Authority

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Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Some state and local leaders insisted Port Authority of Allegheny County was putting its financial problems in the rear-view mirror, but the transit agency could be back in another $60 million-plus budget hole within five years, agency financial projections show.

A similar shortfall last year almost forced Port Authority to cut service by 35 percent and lay off more than 500 workers.

“We'd be looking at doom and gloom all over again,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis of the years of financial turmoil at the agency.

That's a far different tune from recent months, when top officials such as PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald painted a rosier financial picture for Port Authority.

They said Gov. Tom Corbett's transportation funding proposal would give the agency money on top of $30 million the governor promised annually in August to help prevent the service cuts and layoffs.

That does not appear to be the case anymore.

“PennDOT has since clarified to us that it's a $30 million total (annual) commitment through the (four-year) life of the collective bargaining agreement” reached last summer with the agency's 2,300 drivers and mechanics, said Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie.

“We have an agreement to receive $30 million from the state until such time that funding (from a new statewide transportation funding plan) provides us with more money,” Ritchie said.

PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt confirmed there would not be more than $30 million, but could not explain the misunderstanding.

A Corbett spokeswoman did not return a call.

“This is news to me,” Fitzgerald said on Friday, adding that he plans to reach out to the local legislative delegation and officials in Corbett's administration and at PennDOT.

“We fully expect they are going to live up to their commitment of $30 million, plus,” Fitzgerald said.

Port Authority gets about $155 million a year from PennDOT, not counting the $30 million. Its operating budget is $372.1 million.

Corbett's plan to boost transportation funding would increase Port Authority's appropriation $8.1 million in the first year and $20.3 million in the second, agency projections show. The state would supplement that to reach the $30 million commitment.

By the third year, Corbett's funding plan would provide an extra $30.5 million. Port Authority would not get any money beyond that, Ritchie said.

“We would be in trouble at that point,” Palonis said.

Port Authority could face a $25.6 million deficit within three years and could be forced to cut service and jobs by 10 percent, financial projections show.

Job reductions that large could compound the deficit by erasing $15 million in concessions from drivers and mechanics, officials said. The concessions are voided if Port Authority lays off at least 5 percent of the workers in its largest labor union, or at least 115 people.

Port Authority projects its deficit could reach $61 million within five years. That would put the agency on roughly the same poor financial footing as it was last year when it narrowly avoided the deepest service cuts in its history, about 35 percent.

“I'm disappointed with what the governor put out budget-wise,” Palonis said. “It doesn't come up with a long-term solution.”

Ritchie described Corbett's plan as a “good start,” adding, “Port Authority believes there is more to be done to get the right legislation.”

Corbett's proposal, which the Legislature would have to address, would boost transportation funding by $510 million in the first year and up to $1.8 billion by the fifth.

Legislators in both parties have said Corbett is not ambitious enough and that his plan pales in comparison with the proposal from a commission he appointed that could generate up to $2.7 billion a year in added transportation funding.

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

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