House Republicans attempt to gut our public transit system

By Helen Gerhardt: Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit
(This post does not reflect the official position of the organization.)


Rep. Dick Hess (R), majority chairman of the PA  House Transportation Committee, has introduced amendments to the transportation funding legislation which, if passed, would gut most of the funding sources for public transit originally proposed in Senate Bill 1. Required local matches for state funding would be significantly increased, most probably requiring various tax hikes on working people here on the home front, with no mention of local corporate and “charity” giants such as UPMC as possible contributors to the infrastructure they profit so handsomely from. Instead, the amendments would mandate that 10% of public transit routes in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be put up on the block for private companies to bid on for their own profit. 

Without the very basic life-support funding that SB1 seemed to provide for our own region’s public transit, Port Authority will, as Republican Senator Randy Vulakovich emphatically stated to PPT representatives just over a week ago, “enter a death spiral.” If these new amendments pass, we would almost surely see cuts in service starting in September of 2014. Many communities and working families in the greater Pittsburgh metro region have already been terribly damaged by the 30% cuts over the last ten years.

And privatization has been tried around the country again and again, with mostly seriously negative results for the riders, drivers and regional economies that depend on a healthy, well integrated mass transit system. Dr. Lynn Scholl highlights a few of the common consequences of turning over public transit systems to for-profit companies in Privatization of Public Transit: A Review of the Research on Contracting of Bus Services in the United States:

…under-insurance; substandard vehicle maintenance; higher levels of pollution, congestion, and accident rates; as well as inadequate coordination and integration of routes and fares….private transit operators may leave the less profitable routes underserved. The lower wages and benefits paid by private bus companies has often resulted in higher labor turnover, less qualified drivers, and lower productivity, leading in turn to declines in the safety and quality of service.

The Republican amendments have not yet been posted at the General Assembly website but the current word is that House Republicans will try to pass them by Tuesday. The bill would then go back to the Senate.

So there’s time yet to raise a ruckus over this great transit wreck. Recent ruckuses by riders in Brazil caused their government to reverse bus fare hikes. Such examples may provide some inspiration for some public transit supporters whose hopes have been crashed by the failures of more traditional forms of democratic communication with their elected officials. 
I’ll be commenting far more extensively on current developments when I have direct access to the text of the new draft of SB 1. Previous drafts can be found here.


18 thoughts on “House Republicans attempt to gut our public transit system

  1. Anonymous

    I think a lot of this is a knee jerk reaction to the perceived heavy handed actions of the County Executive in his handling of the current port authority board and other supposed independent boards.

    1) Affordable public transportation is vital to this region and both the politicians (on both sides of the aisle) and the unions have to recognize this.

    2) Not a big fan of politicians who lead with knee jerk reactions. This displays (in my view) an inability to take a long term view on issues and an inability to come together and work out differences.

    3) Also, not a big fan of the legislative branch trying to run the executive branch through legislation.

    These politicians just don't seem to get that the limitations that they are imposing on one county executive or one political party will always be in place even when a politician from their own party may eventually take over.

    These representatives need to start representing the people instead of their political party.

  2. Bram Reichbaum

    I'm not sure it's a “knee-jerk reaction” to anything so much as it is seizing on a “convenient excuse”.

    Smothering public transportation in the state's economic generators makes about as much sense as refusing to fund Medicaid expansion; it's based on a quasi-religious conviction, on having taken one's own talking points to heart.

    Republicans should realize that afflicting voters is not the way to retain their confidence.

  3. BrianTH

    Gutting the new revenues designated for transit while leaving in place the new revenues designated for roads/bridges is really just a naked attempt to increase the degree to which the larger, more urban counties are already subsidizing the smaller, more rural counties through state transportation funding. Obviously that result should be considered unacceptable.

    That said, I would (provisionally, having not seen the actual measure) support the reported amendment authorizing counties to use a variety means to raise their own revenues for transit. Indeed, as noted it is ultimately a bad deal financially for counties like Allegheny County to have the state so heavily involved in transportation funding, so FAIR movement to a more locally-funded system would be to Allegheny County's benefit. Again, though, it is not at all fair to move toward such a result by cutting state support for transit while increasing state support for roads/bridges.

  4. Bram Reichbaum

    Authorizing as in allowing or incentivizing anything, I agree. Authorizing as in mandating extreme or controversial measures, I would object to. SB 700 already gives the state a huge voice in overseeing the Port Authority, there's little excuse to double-dip by having the state ram clumsy specifics down our throats.

  5. BrianTH

    Something derailed the train yesterday (we'll see what happens next). I wonder if this is basically the same sort of problem the U.S. House of Representatives is encountering moving bills. In this case, the problem might be that while the Tea-Party-type Republicans are happy with the anti-transit amendments, uncapping the oil company tax is still a stumbling block for them, even on the delayed schedule. Meanwhile, though, the anti-transit amendments lose the Democrats and maybe some of the more moderate Republicans.

    If that is right, the only way to move a bill might be to simply override the Tea-Party-types and allow the more moderate Republicans and Democrats to pass something like the Senate bill. But I don't know whether there is a process like that available.

  6. Bram Reichbaum

    I'm not sure what to think of the idea yet, but if we need to fund what we need to fund, and one of the several revenue sources in SB1 is too odious to pass, do you think we should just borrow the money? Interest rates are still at the bottom of the well, and we should run the government like we handle our household budgets over the kitchen table. If your family grows out of its car or house, you don't suffer in misery for years, you finance a bigger car or finance a bigger house when you identify the right opportunity.

  7. BrianTH

    As you are implying, we could definitely justify issuing bonds for state-funded long-term capital investments (so most of roads/bridges and some of transit), given current interest rates and basic financial logic. However, I think new bond issues are usually as odious to the Tea-Party-types as revenue increases.

  8. Helen Gerhardt

    Brian, thanks for addressing the urban subsidy of rural infrastructure.

    Yes, I do agree that more flexibility for local governments to raise funds for transit makes sense, but not as the means to the end of making possible the extraction of the above noted inequitable subsidy.

    And not when working taxpayers who use transit pay a large proportion of that subsidy while large corporations that benefit from all road/bridge/transit infrastructure investments pay such a meagre share. So, the nature of the tax employed would be crucial. If it was targeted to enforce greater contributions from such corporate beneficiaries, I would advocate for such a local tax. But my fear is that local power structures would construct more regressive tax burdens on working families already struggling to bear multiple impacts of neoliberal austerities.

  9. Helen Gerhardt

    Except cost. Most of the workers I meet on the buses would not be able to afford daily jitneys to work. And then there would all that extra traffic. And what if the drivers have substandard vehicles or safety features? My first direct experience of a jitney was a wild ride with no functioning seat belts in the back seats.

  10. BrianTH

    I completely agree about watching out for the nature of the local taxes. That said, the state's transportation taxes are already pretty regressive, so in theory a replacement of local for state transportation taxes could be net progressive even if in isolation the local taxes in question were not.

  11. Helen Gerhardt

    Not sure I'm following you,Brian. I think we are agreeing that Philly and Pgh worker and small/ medium size biz taxes make up greatest tax haul to pay for most of entire state budget at this point, with rural areas reaping big bonus subsidy for infrastructure? And that Biggest Biz is getting the biggie tax breaks, and so extracting a Big Boss lion's share from both rural and urban infrastructure, including transit?

    So, if more of the tax burden for urban mass transit was regressively transferred to urban workers and non-Big-Fat-Cat businesses, how would that end up being more progressive?

  12. BrianTH

    So the state mainly funds transportation with fuel taxes, vehicle/license fees, and tolls. All of these are pretty regressive taxes, meaning they tend to take a larger share of the income of lower-income people.

    We need more transportation revenues. One possible path forward is basically for the state to increase the rates at which it collects these taxes/fees. That is more or less Senate Bill 1 (although it also involves some new violation fines–still regressive–and swapping something for tolls, with that something TBD but the default is sales taxes, which is also still regressive, but see comments below). So Senate Bill 1 raises more transportation revenues, but in a pretty regressive way.

    Another possible path forward would be for localities to start raising more revenues for transportation, perhaps allowing the state to increase its transportation revenues to a lower degree (and in real, meaning inflation-adjusted terms, the state's transportation tax rates are actually going down). The possible House amendment reportedly would authorize localities raising those revenues through sales taxes, earned income taxes, or realty transfer taxes.

    None of those possible local taxes are progressive forms of taxation per se. However, my point is that some combination of those taxes might be less regressive than the increased state transportation taxes they could be replacing. Realty transfer taxes, for example, are pretty regressive as you get into higher income levels, but not so bad at lower income levels. Because they have to be flat-rate per the PA Constitution, earned income taxes in PA are also not progressive as they should be (and are in the federal system), but again they are not so bad at lower income levels. Finally, sales taxes are normally very regressive, but because PA has some useful exceptions for certain basics (e.g., food and clothing) they are again not so bad at lower income levels.

    Again, I'm not saying that combination of local taxes is anywhere close to being ideal for funding transportation. However, if the choice is between using some combination of those local taxes or increasing the rates on the state taxes, it isn't at all clear to me that the second choice would be less regressive.

  13. Helen Gerhardt

    Okay, thanks for the more detailed explanation, Brian. Transit advocates have been pretty much agreed that we've been supporting a LOTE in our work this legislative session, with that somewhat more Keynesian option now seemingly floating away on a far more austerian and union-busting tide.

  14. BrianTH

    A compromise got out of Committee:

    It is closer to the Senate bill in terms of revenues, particularly with respect to restoring transit revenues, although it is still a little more biased toward roads/bridges than the Senate bill. It looks like some of the other controversial amendments were dropped but the increased local match and new local revenue options are still in. Amendments are going to be allowed on the floor and then I guess it has to go to a conference committee with the Senate.

    Personally, this doesn't seem to be working out too badly. The differences with the Senate bill are slowly being hammered down, and perhaps if the local revenue options remain in, I'd even think it was a bit better than the Senate bill for Allegheny County.

  15. BrianTH

    Looks like the first part of the scenario I sketched out basically came to pass (even though the House committee was able to move something forward after modifications, the full House could not because it was opposed by both Tea Party-types and Democrats).


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