June 21, 2011 at 8:37 AM ET
AT A BUS STOP, IN PITTSBURGH -- Like nearly every other city in America, after three hard recessionary years, the fiscal gyrations of robbing Peter to pay Paul have pretty much been exhausted in Pittsburgh.
Hard decisions about government services are now unavoidable, and the city's Port Authority transportation agency made one the hardest in March -- cutting 29 bus routes and reducing service on 37 more. Far more severe cutbacks that would have slashed bus service by one-third were stalled by a one-time time cash windfall, but the clock is ticking on those Draconian budget measures designed to plug a $50 million budget gap. Steeper bus cuts are set for 2012, unless millions in new revenue magically appears.
For Jon Robison, the numbers are much more tangible.
"Some days, one, two, even three buses pass me by because they are too full," Robison said. "So even if you still have bus service, the buses are overcrowded."
Robison, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, relies on public transit to get around. Bus access is one of the reasons the 67-year-old moved with his wife to the east Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland five years ago. He's even president of the transit service's public advisory board. But that doesn't mean he’s exempt from being left waiting in his wheelchair on the sidewalk when a bus flies by that doesn’t have room for him.
"I keep saying if the Legislature won't fund buses, at least it could legalize hitchhiking," he said.
In a sense, Robison is lucky – none of his bus routes have been eliminated. Some Pittsburghers in farther out neighborhoods have lost service entirely. Late-night service was hit particularly hard, and it took swing-shift workers with it.
One downtown office building security guard I interviewed said he works from 4 p.m. to midnight, and the service cuts eliminated the 12:20 bus -- the last bus.
“I don’t know why they didn’t cut a bus in the middle of the day that no one would notice,” he said. “Losing that last bus really hurt.” He said he knows some employees who’ve had to quit. For him, taking a taxi home at night adds $200 to his monthly transit costs, a significant bite out of his salary. He couldn't afford to lose the job, however, which is why he requested anonymity.
Driving isn't such a great option either. Pittsburghers just trying to get to work feel like they're being hit on all sides by city and county governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for new fees. Prices at city-operated parking garages have doubled in recent years. Sidewalk meter rates jumped 100 percent, too-- a quarter now only gets you seven minutes. Meanwhile, stickers hastily placed on parking signs all over town antagonize drivers further, announcing meter enforcement now runs until 10 p.m., four hours earlier than the old 6 p.m. cutoff. And parking ticket enforcement agents are everywhere.
"I know that it hurt many of the people I work with currently ... because now we have no option but to pay to park in a parking garage," said Bernard Rafferty, who works at a bank. "And I am sure that there has been a hit to evening business downtown with enforcement until 10."
Frustration over this big squeeze reaches a boiling point for some residents, however, when discussion turns to construction of the new passenger rail transit tunnel. The $500 million project will connect the city's North Shore to downtown, and help move fans to sports stadiums and casinos north of the Allegheny River. The federal government is picking up most of the tab; still, commuters are frustrated that millions are being spent on what critics have labeled a "tunnel to nowhere," while a fraction of that spending could have spared the city's bus system.
Throwing sand in the face of frustrated bus riders was Sen. John McCain's ranking of the Pittsburgh transit tunnel as No. 3 on a list of projects partially funded by the 2009 fiscal stimulus bill passed by congress that are wasting taxpayer money.
But Brian O'Neill, revered Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and author of The Paris of Appalachia, takes a much longer view of the project.
"This is a common criticism, but we're talking about two different pots of money. The federal government paid 95 percent of the construction costs of this project, and if it didn’t go here it would have gone someplace else,” he said. “And if you ever wanted light rail to extend further north you've got to get it across river somehow. ... But this came at bad time because it's a huge amount of money, and a smaller amount would have saved the buses."
Pennsylvania had another idea to save the buses -- it was going to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road, but the U.S. Department of Transportation rejected that idea in April 2010. That leaves the system running with a yawning budget gap, little hope in sight and few ideas for a new dedicated funding source.
How did things fall so far, so fast, in Pittsburgh? The refrain should sound familiar to most cities. The Port Authority which runs the system now spends just as much -- $32 million a year -- on health care for retired employees as for current employees. Healthcare and pension costs have risen at an annual rate of 22 percent in the past 10 years. The agency describes these costs as a "death spiral."
"Nothing ever gets done until there's a crisis," O'Neill said. "So here's the crisis."
These unsustainable increases aren't the systems' only problem; but failure to get a handle on them will undoubtedly lead to more service cuts -- and more crowded buses leaving Robison on the sidewalk in his wheelchair, late for his next appointment in town.
“It’s a drag but it’s a natural consequence of a shortage of funding,” he said. “There just isn’t enough money to go around.”