Riders, advocates push back against proposed transit cuts

By Jon Schmitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The largest service reduction in Port Authority history would displace senior citizens, the disabled, working people and businesses, and reverse the region's recent economic growth, speakers at a public hearing said today.

None of the first 20 speakers at the hearing mentioned the fare increase. All focused on the impact of service cuts, and several urged fellow riders to call Gov. Tom Corbett, who did not attend, to urge him to find adequate funding to maintain transit service.

Kevin Harley, Mr. Corbett's spokesman, issued this statement Wednesday afternoon:

"The taxpayers of Pennsylvania cannot continue to spend millions of dollars correcting the mistakes of an authority over which they have little control. We agree that a solution must be found. But before Pennsylvania's taxpayers are asked to fork over any more money, we need to see what sort of cost savings are accomplished in this summer's Port Authority contract talks."

Marnie Schilken of Gateway Health Plan said many of the agency's 60,000 members depend on transit for access to health care.

"Many of our members live in areas that will be hard-hit by the proposed transit changes," she said.

Also, 55 percent of the company's 500 employees use transit to get to work at the U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown. Some will have to resign if their service is eliminated, she said.

"Now is the time to invest in public transit in Pittsburgh," she said. "It is vital to our region's prosperity and economy and it is vital to the lives of our citizens."

Natol Scruggs of Braddock said he will probably lose his job at Greenstar Recycling in Neville if the agency goes ahead with its plan to cancel the 21 Coraopolis route.

Kelly Smith of Bloomfield said she moved to Pittsburgh in 1994 in part because of a good public transit system. She has a vision condition that prevents her from driving.

"Public transportation allows me to have a full life," she said. "Public transportation is one of the reasons I moved here. If it's cut, it may be one of the reasons I leave."

She urged riders to contact Mr. Corbett.

"The options you are leaving for people with disabilities is grim," said Victoria Livingstone, chief executive officer of Transitional Services, a nonprofit housing agency that supports the disabled.

"Call Governor Corbett," said Jonathan Robison of Oakland, former president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, a citizens advisory group. "Tell him to support adequate state funding for public transportation. No more service cuts."

Mr. Robison was one of several speakers who urged the governor to adopt the funding recommendations of his Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which in August recommended ways to raise new revenue for highways, bridges and public transit.

He said the governor and Legislature "must act before our buses shut down and our bridges fall down."

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald opened the all-day hearing saying the loss of transit service could reverse economic gains seen recently after decades of stagnation.

He noted that Pittsburgh weathered the recent recession better than most cities and actually saw Downtown occupancy rise.

"We really threaten to undo that if we lose 35 percent of our transit service," he said this morning. "The Port Authority is a different transit agency than it was many years ago. Our transit agency has become one of the most efficient in the country. We realize that this is a mutlifaceted and multi-pronged problem, much of which needs to be solved locally."

As the hearings continued, several hundred people gathered outside the convention center to protest the cuts at a rally organized by the We Are One coalition. Some held signs reading "My Bus Line, My Lifeline" and others protesting Mr. Corbett's absence.

State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Morningside, spoke to the protesters, accusing the governor of turning his back on the citizens of his home county and reminding them that the impact of transit cuts would be even sharper with the expected continued rise in gasoline prices.

This afternoon, several hundred Occupy Pittsburgh demonstrators briefly hijacked the proceedings, bringing in a Corbett impersonator dubbed "Governor Corporate" and leading the crowd in chants for more transit service and an end to tax loopholes for wealthy corporations.