Pa. transit advocates, unions call on Casey, Toomey to beef up public transit funding in next coronavirus relief package

(Photo via The Pittsburgh Current)

By Tom Lisi

PITTSBURGH — As the heat builds on Congress to pass the newest round of federal stimulus before the CARES Act expires next week, some 60 Pennsylvania public transit advocacy groups and unions on Tuesday called on the state’s United States senators to secure funding for struggling agencies across the country that provide bus and rail service.

“We need to have safe and effective public transit to move us through the pandemic and beyond, especially here in Pennsylvania,” they wrote in a letter to U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa. The advocates want the two lawmakers to push for getting $32 billion in transit funding into the COVID-19 stimulus bill now under consideration in Washington.

Transit agencies large and small are facing steep revenue shortfalls, including the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which services Pittsburgh and the surrounding region.

A major culprit is steep ridership drops. The Port Authority Board’s Planning and Stakeholders Relations Committee Chair John Tague reported at its June board meeting that busses were still seeing a 70 percent decline from normal ridership levels, and a 80 percent drop on the authority’s “T” rail lines.

According to Laura Chu Wiens, executive director at Pittsburghers for Public Transit, the shortfall for transit agencies across the Commonwealth could tally up to $1.3 billion by next fall.

“There is no pathway to economic recovery for cities without a functioning transit system,” Wiens said. “And if we’re looking at service cuts, fare increases or even shut downs, it could have catastrophic impacts both on essential workers who are currently taking transit,” and everyone else, who depends on their services.

Even as transit agencies cross their fingers for a boost in ridership soon, it’s unclear if and by how much that will happen in the next year.

 In May alone, the Port Authority took in $7.5 million less than it budgeted, agency officials reported in June. The deficit comes mainly from the huge drop in riders and increased spending from new cleaning and sanitation procedures. The agency’s new $485 million budget, effective July 1, calls for adding 68 new cleaning workers.

In a statement provided by his office, Casey reiterated support for the transit funding measure in the next round of federal stimulus. He signed a July 8 letter with 23 other Democratic senators in support of the $32 billion for transit agencies, citing that many of them would run out of existing stimulus money by the end of 2020.

“As communities across Pennsylvania grapple with the economic downturn created by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must keep public transit agencies running in rural and urban areas alike,” Casey said in a statement. “Our public transit systems are a backbone of our communities and I will continue to work to ensure they receive the resources they need during this public health and economic crisis.”

Toomey’s office did not stake a position when asked about the transit’s request for more transit aid.

“As public transit systems largely fall under the purview of state and local governments, they also have an obligation to aid in this effort,” said Steve Kelly, a spokesman for Toomey, in an email. Kelly added that public transit funding will be part of the discussion in the new stimulus.

CARES Act funding for Pennsylvania public transit agencies from the CARES Act totaled $1.1 billion, including $141 million for the Port Authority, and $643 million for SEPTA in the Philadelphia metro.

“We’re grateful for any and all federal funding measures that help support public transit in Allegheny County,” Port Authority Spokesman Adam Brandolph said in an email. “The CARES Act, for example, is helping to offset losses in fare and advertising revenue while ensuring our passengers continue to have access to grocery stores, pharmacies and other life-sustaining needs. However, as the pandemic continues, the need for additional assistance grows.”

The coalition of transit groups and unions also plans to hold a virtual town hall with Casey on July 28, just four days before the CARES Act is set to expire.

Even with Casey’s public support of the measure, “We want to ensure that [Casey] is a leader in advocating for the level of funding we know is necessary,” Wiens said.

Tom Lisi is a free-lance journalist based in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @TommyLisi.