Just This Once

An op-ed piece today compares the Port Authority to a down-on-their-luck person who comes begging for money and, against the better judgment of the person of whom assistance is requested, gives in. The "askee" this time is the Regional Asset District, which last week included in its budget a $3 million allocation for PAT as part of a big funding package. "it should be a one time thing" the op-ed notes.

That’s going to be difficult: the County Executive, who appoints all of the PAT board members and four of the seven RAD board members, noted back in August that he will "ask the asset district board…to make a $3 million annual commitment, not just a one-time grant." We also documented previous shifts or "flexes" of money to the down-on-their-luck authority as recently as two years ago when the Southwest Planning Commission played the role of the benevolent one, being asked by the Governor to approve money for PAT. That board, in 2005, said that the last time it flexed money would be the last time it flexed money. They did flex the money, basically saying that they weren’t serious when they said they would not shift money again. The RAD board will be in the same position next fall: previous experience suggests it won’t be the one to make the PAT allocation a one time thing.

A Regional Transit Authority: Will Consolidation Be Better?

Alluding to the dire financial forecast that threatens the Port Authority (PAT) in FY2013 a candidate for Allegheny County Chief Executive recently offered the idea that it would perhaps be better to have a regional transit agency, much like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Agency (SEPTA) that serves the opposite corner of the Commonwealth, handle transit operations here.

 

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Will PAT Board Snub SPC?

The board of the Port Authority (PAT) will meet to decide how to spend the $45 million bailout recently approved by the Southwest Planning Commission (SPC). Will it succumb to demands by the union to spend it all over the next six months and thereby avoid significant service and job cuts? Or will it spread the money over the next 18 months as the SPC required as a condition to approving the fund transfer to PAT?

Normally, it would be reasonable to expect the board would honor the conditions imposed by the SPC. However, given the past behavior of the board and its unwillingness to deal forcefully with the union there is some question about what the board will do.

If the board accedes to union demands, it will be a slap in the face of the SPC members from outside Allegheny County who voted for the transfer of funds to PAT. But no one should feel any sympathy for those members. They made a huge mistake in voting for the transfer in the first place and accomplished two things, both unfortunate.

First, they granted a postponement of the day of reckoning for the Authority and the union to confront its runaway legacy cost problem and its very high labor cost and inefficiency issues. Second, the SPC’s action has further cemented the union’s conviction that state government will always provide bailout funding to reward the union’s intransigence.

The fact there is a discussion of an option to snub the SPC is a sure indication of the need for the state to take dramatic steps to correct PAT’s problems and to rein in the union’s power.

Looking a SPC Gift Horse in the Mouth

The Amalgamated Transit Union’s bottomless pit of ingratitude is on display once again. A union that was granted a reprieve from massive layoffs in March through an ill-advised approval by the SPC to become a conduit for Federal money intended for other purposes is now complaining that PAT should spend all the $45 million immediately to avoid any layoffs rather than spread it out over a year so as to minimize necessary cuts later. Predictably, the union spokesman says spend it all now and thereby force the Legislature to come up with a plan to provide more money for the Port Authority next year and the years following.

This is the same union that has garnered for itself (through threat of strikes) some of the best pay and benefit packages in the nation and yet refuses to make any concessions to help the Authority become more cost effective and operationally efficient.

And it now has the audacity to expect the state government to bend to its demands and come up with more money for the Authority. Why would anyone be surprised at this audacious behavior? The union’s intransigence has always been rewarded with more funding from one source or another. They hold the public and transit users hostage because they can and Harrisburg or Washington has always capitulated. Why would they believe the present situation is any different?

But, this time it might very well be different. The state has no money to give the Port Authority to solve its endless financial mess and, given the recent election results, there is a strong likelihood that some many members of the Legislature will be looking for solutions to the Port Authority’s high cost, inefficient service that do not require ever increasing expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

By its latest complaint about how the gift of $45 million will be spent the union leadership has made it perfectly clear that it is incapable of gratitude and is hopelessly selfish and greedy with no concern for anyone but themselves. That will definitely not play well in a financially strapped Harrisburg. Perhaps it’s just as well. Even previously sympathetic legislators must be taken aback and concerned over this blatant display of union narcissism.

Transit Backer Rally Draws Crowd of 50 People

According to a Tribune Review report this morning (December 17), a rally organized to encourage state legislators to provide more money to the Port Authority drew about 50 to the Mellon Square event. 50 people? What? Couldn’t organizers rouse enough off duty PAT workers, other labor demonstrators and social activists to boost the crowd number?

One can understand the lack of PAT worker participation. They won the latest skirmish over funding with the SPC capitulating to the Governor’s scheme to shift money to PAT-unless the federal government disallows the shifting of money intended for capital projects in the state to PAT’s operating budget or Congress neglects to include the money in upcoming appropriations. The workers are now confident they will not be laid off in drastic numbers and will not be asked to make concessions. So why bother with rallying when it involves going into town on a cold, wintry day?

The well-intentioned organizers should have learned something from the small attendance at the rally. To wit: most people do not want their taxes raised to create a dedicated source of revenue for PAT. That ship sailed years ago when the County adopted a local one percent sales tax to fund regional assets. PAT was not on the list of eligible assets.

Besides, most informed citizens know by now that any increase in revenue to PAT will only strengthen the resolve of the unions not to make compensation or work rule concessions at the next round of contract bargaining. Per rider costs will not come down and eventually more routes will be trimmed or eliminated despite more money from a dedicated revenue stream. It’s Parkinson’s Law for money in union dominated entities. Spending will rise to meet and exceed all available revenue.

In other words, informed citizens have seen how this game is played and are tired of it. PAT’s irresponsible financial behavior over the years has convinced many in the legislature and a large portion of the population that the transit agency is a money pit and requires dramatic remedial action from the Legislature to repair its out of control costs-not more tax dollars.

How pathetic. The only thing the parade led by a PAT bus accomplished was to snarl Downtown traffic. Inquiring minds are probably wondering if things are so tight at PAT how is it able to assign a bus and driver to lead a parade of protesters? How much did that cost? Did the driver work without pay? Doubtful. Did the protesters pay for the fuel? And just think of the carbon footprint of this motorcade. Mon Dieu!

SPC Caves Again: Lesson Appears Unlearnable

By a vote of 27 to 22, the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) has again chosen to toss its integrity out the window and approve moving more money to the dysfunctional money pit known as the Port Authority (PAT). And in doing so it has confirmed for the transit unions that money will always be found to bailout the preposterous operating costs, inefficiencies and enormous legacy costs of PAT thereby removing the necessity of the unions being asked to make concessions.

If the past is any guide, the unions have no intention of ever making concessions. Still, the prospect of losing another 500 jobs before March and even more after June might have convinced them to begin talking about givebacks. Now, that will not happen and probably never will as this was the best chance of extracting concessions PAT has ever had-too bad management never even brought the idea up in hopes of winning some public support. The SPC’s latest cave-in will be viewed by the unions as proof positive that bailouts will always be there. Future prospects of concessions have become nil.

It will be interesting see the report on who voted for and who voted against the SPC approving the money pass through. If most of the members who represent surrounding counties were "no" votes, and most of the "yes" votes were from Allegheny County or state appointees, the SPC’s action could be very bad for regional cooperation. How ironic. Allegheny County civic and government leaders constantly and loudly tout regional cooperation as the key to economic success. But when the rubber meets the road, they become County partisans-and worse union partisans. After all the money the SPC has provided for PAT over strenuous objections of board members from other counties, this latest vote can only be interpreted as in your face power politics. Why should they be surprised?

The only hope for bringing sanity to the disaster masquerading as a public transit system is for the state government to take a series of steps we have outlined in our latest report-now available online.

Crucial Decision Time for the SPC

On December 13th the board of the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission (SPC)-which consists of elected and appointed officials responsible for steering planning and transportation priorities for the ten county region-must decide whether it will once again approve robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

 

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PAT’s Day of Reckoning Denied Again

Pennsylvania’s Governor is in Pittsburgh today announcing that, surprise, surprise, he has found $45 million in unspent economic development funds that could be used to avert the planned service cuts at the Port Authority and grant the next legislature and the incoming Governor time to come up with a permanent fix.

Stop us if you have heard that one before.

It happened in 2005 when the Governor found close to $700 million to give to PAT, SEPTA, and other transit agencies in order to give his task force time to come up with a transportation fix. We wrote in a 2005 Policy Brief that the temporary fix "would make it very tempting to forget the real problem" plaguing PAT and its sister agencies. What followed was Act 44 and the ill-fated I-80 tolling plan.

The Southwest PA Commission had acquiesced to previous requests to flex highway money to PAT and, after doing it several times, said enough was enough. The Governor’s action-if carried out-gives SPC an out since what is being flexed is economic development money, not highway money.

That raises this question: why would the Governor, who is such a strong proponent of all the positives public sector economic development can deliver, leave some $45 million unspent? How many jobs could have been created with that expenditure in these tough economic times?

As we have written time and again, so long as the state continues to ride to the rescue with temporary fixes there is no impetus to address the right to strike, the monopoly status of PAT, or how to begin outsourcing of service. Will the next Governor and General Assembly let today’s action serve as a free pass?

Has SPC Derailed Flex Plan?

In Policy Brief Volume 10, Number 39 we discussed the Governor’s mention of the possibility of “flexing” highway money to help the Port Authority (PAT) with its impending deficit thereby repeating actions from earlier years when he was able to  convince the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) to approve a funds shift.  In that Policy Brief we asked “will the SPC acquiesce” to the Governor’s request?

 

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