County Exec Vows to Fix the Port Authority

County Exec Vows to Fix the Port Authority

Allegheny County’s new Chief Executive told the Tribune Review that changes are coming for the Port Authority, either within the existing structure or in a new structure-no indication what that new structure might be.

In that interview, the Exec indicated the agency needs to do more cross training, i.e., bus drivers and light rail operators, drivers and toll takers. He says more advertising revenue is needed and that more corporate dollars to extend the free fare zone to Station Square would be a good thing.

Cross training is not a bad idea, but requires union agreement. And there are many fewer light rail operators and bus drivers so it is not likely to do much for cutting costs. It will almost certainly create more overtime pay. More free rides on the light rail system will worsen after event peak demand and cause long wait times for service.

In short, what we now have at the Port Authority is analogous to a car with an engine that is sputtering from bad ignition problems, has exhaust valve leakage, is burning oil and wasting fuel and needs a massive overhaul or replacement. The Exec’s proposals are the equivalent of rotating the tires, washing and waxing the vehicle and maybe adding some water to the cooling system.

If the Port Authority were a private entity, it would have filed bankruptcy long before now. It faces insurmountable legacy and compensation costs that cannot be avoided because of labor contracts entered into over decades. There is no meaningful solution for the Port Authority that does not address the legacy and compensation cost problem, including reforms that slash the current deficits and set up a system to avoid a repeat of what has happened.

Unless the state approves a change in law to allow the Port Authority to declare bankruptcy, the only options left are: (1) massive, permanent voluntary concessions by retirees on health and pension benefits along with reductions in future retiree benefits and wage costs by current employees, (2) huge and expanding annual increases in state taxpayer funding to avert disastrous service cuts, or (3) disastrous service cuts. Substantial voluntary concessions on retiree benefits and employee compensation rest with the unions. They are not likely to happen. Whether the state will abandon its so far firm opposition to more dollars for the Authority is anyone’s guess.

In addition to allowing bankruptcy the Legislature needs to set in motion a set of changes that will prevent the return of a situation such as the Port Authority now faces. That would include, eliminating the right of transit workers to strike, requiring the Authority to begin privatizing bus service, and allowing competition from regional transit agencies and private companies.

Until these things are done, the Port Authority will never be able to operate as an efficient, cost effective transit system Allegheny County residents should expect to have.

The Exec needs to be working with the Governor and Legislature to effect some meaningful changes that will actually benefit transit users and stop the hemorrhaging of money at the Port Authority as well as the threats of work stoppages and huge service reductions.

History does not offer much hope that any of the necessary steps will be carried out. The Legislature has clearly demonstrated time and time again that it is more afraid of union antipathy than it is the complaints of taxpayers or the economic and public welfare impacts of work stoppages and massive service reductions. Sadly, inconvenienced transit users, lost in their self-interest and ignorance, side with the unions and demand more tax dollars to cover whatever costs the unions create. And so the sorry, never ending tale continues.