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Port Authority stabilizes but isn't ready to restore routes

| Sunday, June 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Increased state funding has Port Authority of Allegheny County on solid financial footing for the first time in years, but the agency isn't ready to restore service to communities that lost it during cutbacks three years ago, officials said.

“Many communities have been reeling from the effects of losing their buses, and while we may not be able to fix that problem all at once, taking steps to do so should be Port Authority's and our county's top priority for transit,” said Molly Nichols of the advocacy group Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

Nichols and several Baldwin Borough residents urged the agency at a meeting on Friday to restore service to the borough's northern section. The former 50 Spencer route was among those cut when Port Authority slashed service by 15 percent in 2011.

MaryAnna Rowsick, 66, said commuting six miles from her home to Downtown takes an average of 90 minutes via transit, including a 1.5-mile walk to the nearest stop for the 51 Carrick.

“It can take even longer when the 51 buses are overcrowded or full, especially during rush hour or school hours,” said Rowsick, who works two part-time jobs in the city.

A state law passed last year to boost funding for transportation across Pennsylvania is expected to provide an added $557 million for Port Authority during the next five years, including $91 million for operating expenses and capital improvements in the fiscal year starting Tuesday.

“That has put us in a good position to maintain the service that we have now,” Port Authority Chairman Robert Hurley said.

The authority plans to hire 31 employees and increase the number of buses running on some of the busiest routes. Officials hope that will reduce overcrowding and improve on-time rates. It's looking to add rapid bus service between Downtown and Oakland.

“The next step would be to look at where routes might be able to be restored, but we're not at that point yet,” Hurley said.

That's a significant turnaround for an agency whose recent history has been fraught with cuts, criticism and controversy.

In 2001, it had about 3,100 employees and 235 routes. Today, it has about 2,400 employees and 100 routes. In the same span, the base fare doubled from $1.25 to $2.50.

The most recent cuts were in 2007, when the agency reduced service by 15 percent, and in 2011, when it reduced service by another 15 percent and laid off 180 people.

In March 2012, the authority completed a project that cost more than $500 million to extend light rail service to the North Shore that originally was a $240 million idea; delays plagued the project.

Leaders forced out CEO Steve Bland in 2013 and eliminated another top administrator this year.

In an unprecedented step, the agency went to the Regional Asset District to ask for $3 million in 2012 to help make ends meet and avoid more cuts.

“We were always under constant financial pressure when I was there, so to hear that they are looking to add employees, improve existing service and possibly restore some routes down the road is certainly good news,” said William Millar, who served as Port Authority CEO from 1983 to 1996 and headed the Washington-based American Public Transportation Association.

“It's unusual that we're talking about the same Port Authority,” Millar 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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