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Reductions in Westmoreland shared-ride program defended

Rich Cholodofsky
| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 10:21 p.m.

As complaints continue to roll in about planned service cuts to the Westmoreland County Transit Authority shared-ride program, officials insist the changes are necessary to keep the financially struggling program solvent.

During an authority board meeting last week, Executive Director Alan Blahovec said the program cuts are expected to impact just 5 percent of the more than 250,000 riders who are expected to use the program this year. And few, if any riders, will be left without rides, Blahovec said.

Earlier this year, authority officials revamped the program by hiring one service provider to operate the transportation system that caters to senior citizens and low-income residents.

Included with that consolidation was a fare hike and program cuts, all deemed necessary to trim an operating deficit that was $1.3 million two years ago and $800,000 during the last fiscal year.

“This year, we raised fares and eliminated service to make the budget,” Blahovec said.

The cuts, to be implemented Aug. 1, include a two-hour reduction of daily service for the shared-ride program; the latest trip will be 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m. on weekdays. The authority reduced the number of days the shared-ride vehicles will travel into Pittsburgh from five days a week to three. Hours of operation for Saturday service will be trimmed.

The cuts do not impact the authority's popular commuter bus service to Pittsburgh.

“We're trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible. Any changes we made were in an effort to continue the program. It was made to keep it alive,” authority board Chairman Frank Tosto said.

The shared-ride program, which provides subsidized rides to as many as 800 seniors, disabled passengers and low-income residents each day, is expected to cost $5.2 million this year and is funded through state grants and fares.

Annual operating deficits in each of the last two years have been covered by the authority's surplus, Blahovec said.

Authority board members and county officials have received a bevy of complaints during the past month regarding the program cuts and performance in general of the shared-ride program.

Riders have been unhappy with how rides are scheduled as well as the operation of the service.

“I am angry because I have to wait so long,” said Melinda Chedrick of Jeannette. Chedrick was one of two seniors who attended last week's authority board meeting to complain about the service.

“I am fed up with the way older people are being treated,” Chedrick said.

Authority board members, during a lengthy discussion, suggested that the shared-ride program is a victim of having allowed riders too many liberties in the past.

Riders are currently allowed to alter pickup times through the day, request certain vehicles and even refuse rides. Those accommodations have caused inefficiencies, Blahovec said.

“We're not doing as bad a job as they're letting on. We've had a lot of late trips, and we're addressing them and we'll get after them right away,” Blahovec said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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