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(mp3) pittsburgh: "save our transit invades re-election party
by vincent / blast furnace radio Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007 at 2:55 PM

audio location:

Angry riders assail planned mass transit cuts
First of nine hearings on slashing bus routes, raising fares

Tuesday, January 23, 2007
By Joe Grata, Dan Majors and Brittany McCandless, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Jonathan Robison, of Oakland, was among scores of outraged transit riders who testified yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

More Port Authority hearings

The Port Authority holds public hearings every time fare increases and service cuts are proposed -- five times since 2000 -- but yesterday's sessions were the first for new Chief Executive Officer Steve Bland.

He got an earful.

More than 140 people on foot and in wheelchairs testified at four-hour sessions at the Hilton Pittsburgh, Downtown, and later at the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall in Oakland. They expressed anguish, outrage and frustration over the planned elimination of 124 of 213 bus routes, combined with a fare hike, to address an $80 million budget deficit for the 2007-08 fiscal year that begins July 1.

Mr. Bland, who came from an Albany, N.Y.-based transit system in June to run the nation's 15th-largest system, found the hearings "depressing and, at times, sobering."

Listen in

Comments at the Port Authority's public hearing today:
Gale Satchel recommends a transit tax on wages.
Samuel J. Hurst lashes out at politicians.
Jennah Ferrara explains why public transportation is important to her.
DeShauna Ponton said officials should recognize the need for public transportation.

Comments from Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Stephen Bland:
The challenges facing the Port Authority.
People's stories were "sobering."
A reworked plan will be "just as objectionable."

More grief and enlightenment are in store. Seven additional hearings are planned through Feb. 7, a series resuming today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Achieva, 711 Bingham St., South Side, and 4 to 8 p.m. at the Radisson Hotel, Monroeville.

"I heard heartfelt stories about [riders] and their neighbors, and it's hard to sit through that," Mr. Bland said. "But if we do nothing, then it all comes crumbling down."

With the support of Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, the authority is proposing the deepest cuts in its 43-year history to "right-size" the agency -- that is, cut expenses, which have been growing three times as fast as inflation, to match stagnant revenues. They have said that to do nothing would be irresponsible and put the authority at risk of shutting down.

Mr. Onorato did not attend either session, but Mr. Bland, board members and staff quickly learned one size does not fit all.

One by one, riders, a few elected officials and business representatives paraded in front of fairly crowded hearing rooms, most of them pleading to save bus routes.

Some were hardship cases, with no other available means of getting around. Others criticized Port Authority management and spending and public officials giving priority to new arenas instead of people with low-income or modest-paying jobs, seniors, students and riders with special needs.

"There's plenty there for everybody to get mad at," Mr. Bland said.

CREDIT, Post-Gazette
Port Authority CEO Steve Bland listens to testimony yesterday about the planned cuts.
Click photo for larger image.

Clarence Luff and other workers will be unable to commute to jobs at a Giant Eagle supermarket along Interstate 279 in Ohio Township if 16B Brighton service to Camp Horne Road is cut as planned.

"Why can't you run buses every 30 to 40 minutes instead of every 10 to 15 minutes?" he asked. "It's amazing why officials waited until the last minute to try to fix the problem and hold us hostage."

Mr. Bland opened the hearings with a prepared statement. He and other officials at the head table sat and listened but did not react or ask follow-up questions.

Final staff recommendations on bus cuts and modifications are to be made to the nine-member board in March and are to be implemented June 24. An increase to either a $2 flat fare or a $2.50 fare, based on the current zone system, would take effect Jan. 1.

More than a dozen of the speakers at the evening session in Oakland identified themselves as being disabled and dependent on public transportation. Others, including representatives of workers and student groups at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, decried the plan to eliminate the popular 28X Flyer that provides express bus service from Oakland to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Stephen Donahue, of Bloomfield, passes out signs before the start of yesterday's "Save Our Transit" rally at Mellon Square, Downtown.
Click photo for larger image.

Pam Yakelis, who relies on a bus for transportation to her job, said she was offended by statements by Mr. Onorato and some board members indicating that the sessions were intended to tap the community for suggestions and solutions.

"I would never presume to ask you to come to my workplace and solve my problems," she said. Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president for transportation and infrastructure with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said the Port Authority was in need of "major reform," comparing the system to "a deathly ill patient."

"These cutbacks are the emergency surgery necessary to keep the patient alive and to stabilize his condition," he said.

Answered bus rider Michele Feingold: "Yes, we need cuts ... [but] with all due respect, people swinging axes don't belong in an operating room."

During the morning session, Mary Fitzwater of Trafford, a lifelong bus rider, said she can understand cutting a route or two but not all of them, leaving her stranded.

"I don't take the bus to avoid parking fees," she said. "I don't have anything to park. Public transit should be treated like a public utility."

When her 6A bus didn't show up, Jean Fechka of Troy Hill said, she hoofed it down to East Ohio Street to catch a bus to her job at UPMC South Side hospital.

"I got beat up and someone stole my purse," Ms. Fechka said.Matt White said he established a startup engineering company in Pittsburgh instead of Boston or San Francisco because of the public transit that employees use to get to the office.

"I'm embarrassed and appalled by the cuts," Mr. White said. "This was poorly thought through and will be a long-term disaster. This is the opposite of what we should be doing to create a forward-thinking region."

Mike Edwards, executive director of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, representing interests from restaurants to office buildings, said while "tough changes" may be necessary, they should be only the first step in restructuring the agency.

Otherwise, he said, the changes will negatively affect Downtown at a time when city officials are trying to create a "24/7 city" including expanded housing. He said losing transit will also hurt the hospitality industry and add to traffic congestion.

Gordon Seman, manager of the Sheraton hotel at Station Square, said that 24 percent of its 170 hourly workers use public transit, including 15 immigrant Eastern European workers living in the same neighborhood.

Jonathan Robison of Oakland said Mr. Onorato's call for service cuts even if the state increases its subsidy undermines efforts to win support from Harrisburg.

"Why should the Legislature act if Onorato already decrees it won't make any difference?" he said. "That's cruel and stupid."

Marlene Ohnmeiss of the North Hills said losing her bus will mean a 31/2-mile walk to an alternate route.

"I just had a liver transplant, but I motivate myself to get out," she said. "I want to function in public."

Before yesterday's first hearing, activists and allies opposed to any transit cuts marched from Mellon Square, where they rallied, to the Hilton. The protest was organized by Save Our Transit, which for years has called on state lawmakers to create a source of dedicated funding for the Port Authority.

(Joe Grata can be reached at or 412-263-1985. )

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