This much is certain: Port Authority of Allegheny County will cut 15% of its service June 17, and if several other things do not happen, an additional 10% will be cut in September.
Translation: The sky fell. I told you so, too. Boy, did I. Here's the story behind the story.
Part One: Fifteen years of falling sky.
I am damn tired of saying to fellow riders "The sky is falling" concerning transit cuts. I've been saying it for far too long to too many fellow riders, and pleading with elected leaders to fund transit properly, and to transit officials to do something differently. How long? 15 years. Fifteen years!
Chronology: In September 1992, I testified at public hearings Port Authority held prior to the November 1992 and March 1993 service cuts. This led directly to my joining the Allegheny County Transit Council, the area's citizens' board. In May 1993, I was hand picked by Port Authority top brass to assist in resolving another funding crisis. By the end of 1994 I was ACTC president, at which time I learned a lot of the political side of the annual funding crisis. In early 1995, my home phone number, among others, was printed on tens of thousands of fliers distributed to bus riders to get them fired up about that year's funding crisis.
In 1997 through 2001, ACTC members lobbied Harrisburg annually to resolve funding shortages caused by underperformance of the PURTA tax, passed in 1991 to assist public transit. In 2001, ACTC's patience was tested again when a fare increase was necessary to close a budget gap. In 2002, when it took another fare hike and a hiring freeze to do the same, Save Our Transit was formed, and I was part of it from the first meeting.
I've since been on six of S.O.T.'s 12 trips to Harrisburg, driving the van myself a couple of those times. I've carried picket signs in downpours, windstorms, and near-zero temperatures. I've lobbied Governors Casey, Singel (acting), Ridge, Schweiker and Rendell; Senators Wofford, Specter, and Santorum; and many, many state senators and representatives, and congressmen and women, or their aides, from both my own district and others -- even a few candidates. I've spoken to community groups. I've built websites. I've worked phone chains. I've pounded pavement and ridden thousands of buses, talking to people.
Other people have done more or done it louder than me at various points, but I don't know anyone who's been at it every one of 15 consecutive years. I am damn tired of sounding like Chicken Little and Johnny One-Note, and of being viewed as "Everyone's out of step but Johnny". Well, dammit, Johnny is right, and has been all along.
Part Two: What really needs to be done
There are only three ways out of this dilemma.
Spend more, that is to say, TAX our way out. This isn't going to happen any more in 2007 than it did any of the last 15 years. We can't change the minds of 300 legislators in Harrisburg, especially not if Port Authority itself is giving itself up for dead. We've been clamoring for a dedicated funding source, which would certainly help, but as the events following the 1991 "fix" showed, things change and the source can dry up, so even that is not a sure-fire answer.
CUT our way out? Politicians love to say they created jobs. Well, what good is a job if you can't get to it? Cutting our way out is the way Port Authority is going to go, but it is not the right thing to do.
In addition, a large anti-transit crowd out there is also fond of saying Port Authority is mismanaged and the whole crew should be scrapped. I know better, and know that even if you did that, the new crew would face the same funding issues and alternatives. Also, just so you know, privatizing, partitioning and out-sourcing (i.e., "private-public partnerships") are the same thing as cuts.
No, the only viable, sustainable way out of this mess is to GROW our way out. We need 50,000 more warm bodies to start paying fare regularly who are not now doing that.
To get those people on, we need better rider information technology. It has to be easier to figure out how to use the bus system. There need to be ways to place riding instructions in people's laps, in wholesale quantities, and involuntarily, maybe even unwelcome if need be. Anyone looking for a precedent need only envision a detour sign on a highway. Are they welcome? Never. Are they necessary? Always. Do they work? They'd better. Well, the same needs to happen with transit information. It is simply not being done now, and needs to be. Waiting for people to ask for it is only going to continue the status quo of watching the system shrink.
Helping it shrink is going to make it even harder to sell the idea of transit as a viable option.
I've raised hell enough. It's now time to raise the sky.