Street Heat over Mass Transit in the Harrisburg Statehouse

Transit supporters rally for more state funding

By Mark Shade

Beaver county Blue via

HARRISBURG, Feb 12 — Gov. Tom Corbett is talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in new transportation spending in his proposed 2013-14 budget, but transit proponents don’t like what they’re hearing and many of them took the bus to tell him about it Monday.

Molly Nichols, a volunteer with Pittsburghers for Public Transit, told about 200 transit operators and customers from her city, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and elsewhere that people have a right to public transit.

“Bus lines and transit lines are our lifelines,” Nichols said in between the chants she led. “We use them to get to school, to work, to the doctor’s office, to churches, to shops … and current transit service is not efficient or affordable for our residents.”

She said public transportation operators are facing a severe funding crisis that needs more attention from the governor and lawmakers.

Budget cuts, she said, have forced changes in mass transit service that have forced people to drive or worse.

“I hear from people who’ve had to quit their jobs or move or choose not to go to school because they could no longer get a bus or transit from their neighborhood,” Nichols said.

Carolyn Kemp, a 28-year-old resident of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, said the cutbacks are causing day-to-day problems for riders like her.

“Every day that I try to catch the bus, three or four go by that are too full to pick me up. This is ridiculous,” Kemp said.

Finding new transportation funding is one of the major proposals Corbett made last week when he unveiled his financial blueprint for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.

He’s facing criticism because the chief funding source for that new revenue, $1.8 billion over five years, would be the gradual elimination of a cap of a tax on wholesale oil distributors. Opponents are saying that increase, which could be as high as 28 cents per gallon by the end of its phase out, would be passed on to motorists when they fill up at the pump.

By the fifth year of that plan, Corbett told lawmakers last week that an extra $250 million would go to transit while the balance would help to improve roads, bridges, airports, railways, turnpike expansion projects, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

“Transportation is the bloodstream of our economy. If it fails, our economy fails,” Corbett said then.

That language was something the president of the Transportation Workers Union in Philadelphia seized upon in arguing for more transit dollars.

“Without supplying enough blood to the stream, that stream will become dry, thereby killing Pennsylvania’s economy,” said John Johnson.

Democratic lawmakers such as Sen. Jay Costa said his caucus will not consider any proposal that looks to privatize transit.

“We’re not going there,” the Pittsburgh Democrat said as rally-goers booed the possibility. “This administration has started by trying to privatize wine and spirit shops. They want to privatize the lottery fund. We’re not going there, and we sure as hell are not going to let them privatize mass transit.”

The only recent talk about the potential privatization of public transit happened last summer when Corbett signed House Bill 10 into law. The measure, now known as Act 61, allows private companies and other regional transit systems to compete against the Port Authority of Allegheny County to offer transit services in the Pittsburgh area.

Rep. John Taylor, a Republican Philadelphia lawmaker who represents voters in the mass transit-dependent 177th District, said he supports additional funding but said privatization is news to him.

“I haven’t heard about privatization in my caucus. There won’t be any ties to anything. We’re going to fund it correctly. We’re going to fund it for the right reasons. Keep up the fight,” Taylor said.

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