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Regional transit? Careful what you wish for

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By Jim Roddey & Jake Haulk
Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Combining the public transit operations of 10 Southwestern Pennsylvania counties into an integrated regional transit system could pose a policy dilemma.

On the one hand, the idea has merit. Consolidation might produce economies of scale. Bear in mind, however, that the Port Authority of Allegheny County accounts for more than 90 percent of the combined bus passengers and operating expenses of all the public transit agencies in the region.

On the other hand, there are serious red flags:

• Would there be a uniform wage-and-benefit structure? The danger is that the wages and benefits of the Port Authority are much higher than those of the transit workers in the surrounding counties. Thus, consolidation could cause a sharp increase in employment and operating costs in areas now served by smaller systems.

• Will collective bargaining also be consolidated and, if so, will the largest union — Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 — emerge as the unit? That would saddle the regional agency with onerous work rules and raise spending levels beyond the taxpayers' ability to support them.

• There could be a loss of local control by the counties surrounding Pittsburgh.

• What is the motivation for the merger? Is it to gain the positive operational advantages or is it to spread Allegheny County's transit problems beyond its borders?

For this discussion to move forward, the commonwealth should adopt conditions for financial support:

• The governor and the Legislature must have representation on the board of the regional system (and the Port Authority).

• For all new employees, benefit agreements must be changed from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans.

• Upon retirement, employee health benefits must not extend beyond five years or beyond when the retiree becomes eligible for Medicare, whichever occurs sooner.

• Public transit workers may not strike — just as firefighters and police are not allowed to strike.

• Retirees may not vote on union leadership.

• The new regional transit agency must obtain competitive bids for a designated percentage of all of its bus operations using the following guidelines — 15 percent of operations to begin, then 50 percent of operations beginning in the seventh year. (Not included — service already outsourced by regional transit agencies.) The requirement would fall heaviest on the Port Authority; labor unions shall have the right to bid.

If consolidation does not occur, adopting the conditions outlined here would go a long way toward curing the ills of the Port Authority, where most of the region's transit problems are found. These same ills are almost certainly the principal reason consolidation is being considered.

Jim Roddey, a former Port Authority board chairman, was Allegheny County's first elected chief executive. Jake Haulk is president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

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