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Pennsylvania

Pa. transit: All talk, little action so far

| Sunday, April 1, 2007

The wheels are spinning, but the bus isn't moving.

It's stuck in a public hearing.

Politicians have hosted a succession of public hearings and meetings to talk about the state's transportation crisis -- including seven state hearings on mass transit in March -- but are not close to a cure.

"This is what I'm hearing on all fronts right now -- all talk, no action," said Russ Diamond, founder of PACleanSweep, a nonprofit reform group based in Annville, Pa.

"On one hand, I truly feel for the citizens of this commonwealth who depend on mass transit and reliable roads for their livelihood. On the other, I'm happy to sit back and watch the aristocracy try to fight its way out of the proverbial wet paper sack. They sow what they reap."

The state's highway, bridge and mass transit systems need $1.7 billion to maintain adequate levels of service, according to a special commission convened by Gov. Ed Rendell.

Last month's transit hearings and another scheduled for April followed nine hearings held by Port Authority of Allegheny County where hundreds of people unloaded their thoughts about pending service cuts. Another six are planned in Philadelphia.

The city and county councils also have hosted public meetings to discuss the same issues.

And Rendell's Transportation Funding and Reform Commission last year gathered testimony and data for a report detailing the problems and potential solutions.

Still, the hearings continue. With a quarter of the year gone, there has not been a face-to-face negotiating session between Republicans and Democrats in an attempt to resolve anything, officials said.

Some state lawmakers said the problems will be fixed in the next state budget, due to take effect July 1.

Rendell proposes raising money by leasing the turnpike and taxing oil companies, although he has not yet divulged details of his plans to lawmakers.

"I would say there's a strong belief in Harrisburg that with the completion of the budget there must be attention paid to these two problems," said Craig Shuey, executive director of the Senate Transportation Committee. "I don't think we want to see transit shut down."

Some said this could be transit's most crucial point.

"Because of the way things work in Harrisburg, you don't generally get more than one bite at the apple at these huge fundraising efforts," said state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, who chairs the House Transportation Committee. "If we don't do something now the problem's going to continue to fester."

Some of the hearings have focused on Rendell's budget proposal, including one in Green Tree conducted by the House Appropriations Committee.

"Those are typical budget hearings," said spokeswoman Johnna Pro. "That happens every year once the governor proposes his budget."

Rendell crossed the state last week urging action.

"With his recent bus tour, he has asked those interested in this issue to make clear to the Legislature that action is needed, if not on his proposal, on some option around which consensus can be built. Doing nothing is not an option," said PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick.

Holding hearings is "crucial" to the process of government, he said.

For now, legislators say they're waiting to see Rendell's plan.

"Frankly, I think this will be a banner year for government ineptitude in Harrisburg," said PACleanSweep's Diamond. "Why• Because the state's been running on fumes for a number of years, and now every issue that truly needs to be addressed is an absolute emergency."

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