Change may be coming for Westmoreland transit authority
Westmoreland County commissioners will vote Monday on a proposal to allow the county transit authority to serve as its own bus operator.
Authority board members endorsed the move last week to amend the agency’s charter, a change that officials said could dramatically transform the operation and offer an alternative to the current model, which requires hiring a private company to provide drivers, supervisors and maintenance workers for buses and paratransit vehicles.
Issues over driver shortages, route cancellations and maintenance deficiencies have plagued the transit system over the last year, resulting in fines for the current operator, Ohio-based National Express Transit.
“The change in the articles of incorporation will give the authority as many options as possible, just in case performance doesn’t continue to improve or our future rate negotiations do not go well. After just having gone through the proposal process a year ago, we want to be able to explore all of the service delivery options,” said authority Executive Director Alan Blahovec.
In May 2018, National Express was awarded a five-year $39.5 million contract to operate the authority’s local and commuter bus service and the Go Westmoreland paratransit system through mid 2023.
Just a few months later, the authority started assessing fines to National Express for what it says was a series of service failures related to unfilled driver positions, vacant supervisor slots and continued breakdowns of authority’s vehicle fleet, which resulted in service delays and canceled trips. The company paid more than $104,000 in fines in 2018. Through April — the first four months of 2019 — more $110,200 in fines were assessed.
Bill Steinmetz, the Greensburg-based general manager for National Express, did not return a call seeking comment.
Blahovec said the service issues have continued and more fines are expected.
The authority’s contract with National Express has four years remaining and there are no plans at the moment to terminate the agreement. The deal allows for the yearly re-negotiations of rates and those talks have not started, Blahovec said.
The authority was incorporated in the late 1970s. Solicitor John O’Connell said the commissioners originally didn’t want the authority to function as its own service provider and instead created a model in which it served administrative functions while private operators were paid to run the buses.
The authority earlier this year approved a new $12.4 million budget for the fiscal year starting in July.
Blahovec said the proposed charter amendment won’t necessarily mean the authority will do away with the public-private partnership model now in place.
“It’s just all about having the option right now,” Blahovec said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .