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Other Pa. systems hurting, hope for help from Rendell

| Saturday, Nov. 16, 2002

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is far from alone in its struggle for money to keep the buses rolling and the trolleys clanging.

Throughout Pennsylvania, transit planners say they are facing budget crises. They blame much of the problem on shortfalls in state funding that leave them scrambling for cash year after year.

They're looking to Gov.-elect Ed Rendell to get them the money they need.

"Obviously, we go into any new administration with a lot of confidence. But Rendell has dealt with urban issues as mayor of Philadelphia — and transit is an urban issue — and he has dealt with them effectively," said Armand Greco, who heads the Pennsylvania Public Transportation Association, based in Harrisburg.

The funding crisis dominated discussion at a meeting this week of association board members in Johnstown, Greco said. He estimated an additional $350 million a year in state money is needed for the commonwealth's transit systems.

Greco's association represents more than 30 transit systems statewide. The problem, officials with those agencies agree, is that the state does not come through with all the money it promises, and what the agencies do wind up with is never enough. Paul Skoutelas, chief executive of the Port Authority, said Rendell's first-hand knowledge of the funding troubles faced by Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority could convince him to change that.

"Nobody can deny that the state will have some challenges of its own, but we're confident that Gov.-elect Rendell will embrace transit," Skoutelas said.

Just where the money might come from is unclear.

"Whether there's a magic cure (for the current funding sources) or whether there are other sources, that's really the discussion. The legislators and the governor's office will have to discuss what's possible, but clearly we can define the need," Greco said.

State Rep. Don Walko, a North Side Democrat, said he hopes to see a stable funding source set aside for transit agencies. He said much of the money can be found by trimming spending in other areas, but other possibilities include gambling revenues and even a portion of the gas tax, which would require amending the state Constitution.

"We have a duty to adequately fund mass transit for a number of reasons: to help people get to jobs, for the environment and to ease the traffic congestion and parking problems," Walko said.

Rendell was vacationing outside the country this week and could not be reached for comment, but he said during the gubernatorial campaign that the state must do more for public transit.

Transit systems complain that under the funding system established in 1991 state officials continually deliver a rosy funding forecast that shows an increase in the tax money available in the coming year. But those predictions are almost always off the mark, transit experts say.

The amount of money transit agencies get from the state depends on the amount spent on hotel stays, new tire sales, rented vehicles and other items. Those expenses are taxed, with a percentage winding up as Public Transportation Assistance Funds.

Some transportation officials, however, say agencies can't complain about inaccurate state funding predictions and also claim the shortfalls come as a surprise each year.

"I guess if I were a transit manager, I would know by now to be a little bit hesitant," about state funding projections, said Joe Daversa, who heads the state Department of Transportation's public transit bureau.

In the past five years, Pennsylvania Department of Revenue predictions have been off by about $64 million, meaning $16 million less for the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are hit particularly hard by those shortfalls.

The two basically split PTAF funding, with the larger SEPTA getting about 70 percent and the Port Authority picking up about 25 percent. The rest of the state's systems share the remaining 5 percent.

"We are in agreement with Pittsburgh" on the funding issue, said SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker. "Rendell was responsive to our needs in Philadelphia and we're hoping that that responsiveness will continue as governor."

SEPTA raised fares last year for the first time in six years, from $1.60 to $2. The Port Authority raised rates from $1.35 to $1.75 in two fare increase that took effect in April 2001 and on Sept. 1.

Greco said the funding problems are trickling down to the smaller transit systems, like Allentown's, which he heads.

"A fare increase will be required in order to balance our budget this year," he said. The current fare is $1.35, but "it'll have to go to at least $1.60."

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