For the last decade, it seemed every two years the Port Authority of Allegheny County would announce it had to shut down unless it received more funds from the state. And at public hearings riders and their employers would chastise the authority.

But at the public hearing held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Feb. 29, the public and the authority were on the same page—chastising the state legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett for failing to fund public transportation in the face of a 35 percent reduction in service and another fare increase.

INDEPENDENT MINDED—From left: Three Rivers Center For Independent Living Advocate Lester Bennet and clients Zetta Murphy and Cloerinda Ford, applaud a speaker’s call for Harrisburg to save PAT service. (Photo by J.L. Martello.)

Lester Barnett, of East Liberty, uses PAT buses to get to the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living in Wilkinsburg where he trains wheelchair-bound people like himself and those with other disabilities to lead more self-reliant lives.

The Port Authority’s proposed cuts to deal with a looming $64 million deficit would eliminate the buses he and his clients rely on, leaving them housebound or worse.

“I should be in Harrisburg fighting to restore cuts to human services, but I have to be here because these people are fighting a stereotype,” he said. “They want to be independent. They want to be part of the community. Public transportation is vital to that.”

Zetta Murphy, one of the center’s clients, who is also blind, told PAT board members and Executive Director Steve Bland she is able to live a fairly active life. That would cease with the scheduled massive cuts in service to buses, trolleys and access service.

“Without it, I’d be stuck in my apartment,” she said. “I couldn’t go shopping, out dining, or even to church.”

The cuts related to the authority’s budget shortfall were first proposed when the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected a request from the state to make I-80 a toll road and use the funds to pay for public transportation in 2010.

For one final time before leaving office, then Gov. Ed Rendell used monies slated for road and bridge construction to bail out PAT and the state’s other transit authorities for two years.

That grace period runs out at the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The following day, the authority will institute its third fare increase in five years, raising the base fare 25 cents to $2.50. The two-zone fare would increase 50 cents to $3.25.

PAT’s shortfall has been driven largely by the legacy costs of retiree pensions and medical costs. Though it has curtailed the deals that led to the problem, the authority spends almost as much on retirees as active personnel.

Bland, as he has since taking over in 2006, said the authority can only cut so much before it enters a “death spiral” of ever increasing fares, service cuts and decreasing ridership.

Coupled with the 15 percent cut in service in 2011, the proposed 35 percent cut would eliminate 46 of the current 102 routes and reduce ride frequency on the others. Suburbs north and west of the city—McKees Rocks, Robinson Township, Coraopolis, Avalon, Sewickley, and Cranberry—would lose all service. Cuts to routes east of the city, serving McKeesport, Clairton, and Penn Hills, would result, Bland said, in 1,000 extra cars on the Parkway East every day.

“It would be the end of (public) transit as a major conveyance in Pittsburgh,” he said. “People will drive. They will move. And employers are going to look outside the city, maybe the region.”

PAT and the state’s other transit authorities are pinning their budget hopes on Harrisburg to enact recommendations from Gov. Corbett’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission that would raise $2.7 billion annually through new taxes and fees for transit, roads and bridges.

Emily Monroe, a Sto-Rox student who would lose the PAT she relies on to get to work after school, called on Gov. Corbett to enact the recommendations now.

“In your inaugural address, you said, ‘We will lead you to the future,’’ she said. “What future, 17 and unemployed?”

The authority will continue to take public comments through March 9 at and by mail at Port Authority Fare & Service Proposals, Heinz 57 Center, 345 Sixth Ave., Floor 3, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-2527.

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