Transit Entanglements: Compromise Needed on Port Authority bill

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By Shawn Carter

Earlier this year, I posted several massive entries on transit.  Most of them dealt with visions of regionalism and questions on how we get there.

But recent actions on the transit front in Harrisburg force those of us who use mass transit or who advocate on behalf of transit users to look more carefully at the issue and perhaps be more careful in how we advocate for our common concerns.

It is, and likely will always be, easy to blame transit woes on legislators in Harrisburg, union workers here and almost certainly Congress.
But when we look at how transit gets funded, most of the bacon comes from Harrisburg.  It was reported in the Post-Gazette that the Commonwealth contributes 54% of all of the Port Authority’s revenues.  
But what does that mean?  In an almost $370 million dollar budget, the Commonwealth contributes a little more than about $180 million dollars, per year, on average, to support the Port Authority.  Last year, that number was actually $225 million dollars.
None of that, however, means that transit is in any way adequately funded.  I’ve said this in earlier posts, and I will repeat it, the government is the ONLY entity that is NOT REQUIRED to make a profit, merely guard against unnecessary losses.
The Pennsylvania Senate, to its’ credit, just passed a transportation funding bill which will increase the state’s share of transit funding to the Port Authority, for which 45 of those members deserve our thanks.  This package will add much-needed tens of millions of dollars annually to the Port Authority in state aid.
I will contend here that it is simply not enough for us to ever get to a more regional transit vision.
I will continue to contend that for transit to actually work now and for the future, Congress, Harrisburg, Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and EVERY municipality serviced by a Port Authority transit line need to come up with another $250 million, annually, in addition to whatever they are getting right now and whatever they may get from the Transportation funding bill moving to the state House.

And so do UPMC, Highmark, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University, Carlow and Duquesne Universities and Robert Morris University.  These entities are perhaps the largest beneficiaries of transit in the entire region, bar none.

Back in February, I made the following points:

  1. Transit is not a regional asset, but the only solution is regional;

  2. There is NO political solution to the transit crisis we have been facing that favors the Democratic Party (and no funding solution that favors the Republican Party);

  3. Any practical solution to this crisis must contain a short-term (operating) and a long-term (system) redesign;

  4. Any redesign with any hope of garnering regional buy-in will have to serve the economic interests and the day-to-day needs of the residents and business in the nine counties that surround Allegheny County.

And that brings us to more recent events:
My personal opinion on the matter is probably more in line with that of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as a function of regional policy:

Transit must become a regional asset, and as it does, the Port Authority’s Board of Directors would need to be broadened to include stakeholders from the other Counties in our MPO Region.

Dream Tree

But let us discuss the now-infamous Senate Bill 700.

Among other things, the legislation amends the Port Authority for Counties of the Second Class Law to increase the size of the Board and change the composition of the Board from one appointed solely by the Allegheny County Executive to one where the County Executive and the Mayor of Pittsburgh would each get one appointment, the Governor would get one appointment, each of the leaders of the legislative caucuses(4) would get one, and the two at-large County Council members (one a Democrat and one a Republican) would have to jointly choose the remaining 4 members from lists provided them by outside entities.

As an avid Steelers fan who watched, aghast last season at our running game, I’m almost forced to agree with the County Executive yet again.  Running back-by-Committee wasn’t the most productive convention, and I’m not entirely sure that, all other appointments being equal, that forcing the Democrat and the Republican at-large County Councilmembers to agree on 4 appointments from lists provided from outside organizations with distinct interests is fair for either one of them, let alone transit users.

Transit advocates are still searching for rider representation.  Well, transit advocates are still reassembling their heads after they collectively exploded upon reading about SB700 in the newspaper.

I was initially surprised to find Senator Jim Ferlo’s name among the co-sponsors of this legislation.  But it is important to understand that the Senator from Highland Park is a master legislator, so if he deigned to place his name on that legislation, it was because he is painfully aware of a few very important details:

  1. At the end of this process, the Port Authority’s Board of Directors will be changed in some way;
  2. The President Pro Tempore, author and prime sponsor of the bill, has the votes (as he proved in Committee) to move and likely pass the bill through the Senate;
  3. The privatization components of the legislation make it more likely to pass in the House;
  4. Governor Corbett, in order to gain passage of initiatives deemed by political analysts and editorialists all over the Commonwealth as critical to his re-election, is likely to sign any such bill should it arrive on his desk;
  5. That although even Governor Corbett’s Transportation Secretary, Barry Schoch, put it on the line earlier this year telling rural legislators that urban Pennsylvania subsidizes transportation spending in rural Pennsylvania and not the reverse, as the beneficiaries of that skewed formula, rural legislators are unlikely to vote for equity in transportation funding as it represents a loss of dollars for road and bridge projects that are beneficial to their Districts;
  6. That suburban and rural legislators tend to ignore crucial information that mass transit is critical to healthy urban tax bases in Allegheny County and Philadelphia, which fund rural transportation infrastructure
  7. Co-sponsoring the bill provides the Democrats the best opportunity to forge a compromise; and, 
  8. Senator Ferlo is the member of the Senate best-positioned to fight this battle. 

And it is clear that a compromise is needed here.


My earlier posts this year spoke of regionalism, a shared vision, how we got where we are and how to begin to get where we need to be.

Music and Teacups

The truth about transit in SWPA is this:

The Port Authority (and many of the other 9 government-run transit operators in our MPO Region) are trapped in between two worlds; One dead, the other, powerless to be born.

State aid, although substantial and growing, is little more than life support.

Privatization will be the equivalent of taking the patient off of life support.

If we assume that Harrisburg, in the short-term, has reached the outer limits of its willingness to contribute more dollars to transit in SWPA, then we need to engage different discussions, on the local level, to increase funds as well.

And there is evidence that with the hopeful passage of the Transportation Funding bill that passed the Senate 45-5, that Harrisburg may be at its current outer limit.

If that is the case, then it is probably time to engage the local populace in a painful round of “How important is transit to us?”  “What are we willing to pay for?”  “How should we pay for it?” “Who should be paying?”

Waiting for Congress is like “Waiting for Godot”.

Harrisburg, regardless of our feelings as to whether it was enough, has acted.

At least in the short term, the rest may likely be upon us.  We need to figure out what that means, and fast.

But I wish Senators Ferlo and Costa the best of luck in forging compromise on SB700.

And thanks to Bram and Helen for their assistance with this post.

14 thoughts on “Transit Entanglements: Compromise Needed on Port Authority bill

  1. Bram Reichbaum

    Good post.

    I find myself agreeing with the “larger” point about the need for regional mass transit to become a regional mass collaboration; it puts me in the mind of this recent Atlantic Cities post. Not that we need to run out and hire this guy, but just start thinking this way.

    I do take some exception with details… the note about “being careful how we advocate” is complex, because when you have others (and largely from elsewhere) advocating assertively and acting confidently in favor of “getting legacy costs under control” (what can this mean besides voiding contracts?) and privatization (something tricky and dangerous to do even if we do successfully divine acceptable places to do it and execute it perfectly), well, how are we not supposed to grandstand in response for our position? We can try to be constructive and pick our times wisely, but nobody can worry about people can't be offended by policy argument in the public sphere.

    And I think there's a bit of the old “The perfect is the enemy of the good, so let's go ahead and destroy the good” playbook going on here. We haven't vetted many of the specific headaches in SB700 quite yet (Revenge of the Nordenberg Report) and I'm not as entirely convinced of its aura of inevitability as some. Especially in this anxious-making budget period, there's reason for legislators to get this right. Realistically this is a “only get one shot” thing and under it, any new executive director that becomes not widely popular will generate real brush fires.

  2. BrianTH

    It is probably worth keeping in mind that PAT has both operating and capital budgets, with very little ability to transfer assistance between them. And while the feds are a relatively small component in the operating budget, they are a very big component in the capital budget. So even applying the notion of a greater local commitment to transit funding to the capital side, you can't really entirely write off the need to lobby Congress to do more.

    Of course the CURRENT Congress may be a lost cause (although who knows–a lot of necessary budget action remains to be determined and the already poor case for austerity is collapsing as the deficit is coming down faster than expected). But Pennsylvania, and in particular SWPA, can play a meaningful role in determining the nature of future Congresses.

  3. Bram Reichbaum

    I hope what Shawn may be getting at is, what if Congresses and PA Legislatures have been and are essentially lost causes until something changes, like until other large aggregators of capital and interest (who as Shawn lists them, happen to be from nonprofit sectors) buy-in to the endeavor and actually start building out a vision and a system, the capital stuff. (In an ideal world, they'd be the ones with some board seats.)

  4. Bram Reichbaum

    Shawn, when you write:

    6. That suburban and rural legislators tend to ignore crucial information that mass transit is critical to healthy urban tax bases in Allegheny County and Philadelphia, which fund rural transportation infrastructure

    That's all I'm getting at. When we talk about “Harrisburg paying” for transit, to an extent we're talking about money raised by major economic generators. Such as cities. The exurbs and the gas lands and the bedroom communities are all profitable, to be sure, but my understanding is that Pa makes a *lot* of money from its healthy cities.

  5. Dude

    The proposed change in the makeup of the Authority's board is basically a Republican power grab (similar to what they pulled with the Philadelphia Parking Authority a few years back); it has nothing to do with Scarnati or any other legisislator's views on legacy costs – it was brought about as a GOP reaction to Fitz's heavy handed shake down fundraising tactics aimed at Port Authority vendors and contractors. It's the Republicans way of saying “We are not only going to prevent you from using this as a way to raise money for yourself and your allies, but we are going to dip our beaks in that trough ourselves.”

  6. Anonymous

    Helen, Unfortunately there won't be links to this information until there is an investigation to report on. That investigation is sure to come given the Fitz tactics. He didn't get his man Joe B. in control but he did knock off the PAT Chairman who once said “no” to him.

  7. Anonymous

    Yep, instead the “new Pittsburgh” coalition will just destroy our county parks with drilling. Man, this “new” thing is really awesome.

  8. BrianTH

    Congress is a lost cause only because Tea Party-types control the House. It has nothing specific to do with Allegheny County's governance of or vision for public transit.

    That said, it makes sense to have proposals ready to go for whenever the feds start doing stuff again.

  9. Bram Reichbaum

    Add this smear to the two gaffes over JB and desk letters, and its a tight enough A-frame to provide political cover for a power grab in favor of whatever's clever down at ALEC / AEI. Question is, are they willing to negotiate overdue and necessary reforms and incl fair state representation, or the truly naked power grab.


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