By Joe Mandak
Associated Press Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) The state will give $18.8 million from several sources to fund public transportation, which should delay plans to raise fares and cut service in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas, Gov. Ed Rendell said.
Rendell also called on legislative leaders to meet with him on Jan. 11 to find a long-term, fixed source of transit funds. Rendell wants the Legislature to reconvene a week early, on Jan. 17, so that legislation would pass by the end of January.
The extra money is enough to fund the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) and 29 other transit agencies across the state through February without them having to resort to the fare increases, service cuts and layoffs they’ve already proposed, Rendell said Tuesday, Dec. 21.
But a long-term transit fix needs to come from the Legislature by the end of January, because it would likely take a month for any new fees to become available, Rendell said. Also, if the Legislature doesn’t approve some long-term money, transit agencies would need time to plan for revised cuts and rate increases, Rendell said.
Long-term, Rendell wants to raise certain vehicle-related fees. In November 2004, the Republican-controlled House and Senate refused to act on a plan backed by Rendell to raise $110 million for transit by increasing taxes and fees on new tires and requests for driving records, among other things.
But Rendell believes the drastic measures announced since then have gotten the Legislature’s attention.
“The actions taken by the boards of the PAAC and SEPTA have sent a loud and clear message,” Rendell said. “That message was somewhat unclear when we met in November  ... We have a tendency to put off doing difficult things. But if we put off finding this dedicated funding for mass transit, we do it at our own peril.”
Rendell’s stopgap plan calls for SEPTA to get $13 million, the Port Authority to get $4.7 million and the state’s other 29 transit agencies to get $1.1 million – most of that coming from $13.3 million in “flexed” federal highway funds. Transit agencies in and around Johnstown, Altoona and Williamsport are among those most in need of the help, he said.
SEPTA is $62 million in the red and the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s deficit is about $30 million.
This past December, SEPTA voted to raise cash fares from $2 to $3 in the Philadelphia area and the Port Authority approved a two-phase base fare increase – from to $2 on Feb. 1 and to $2.50 on July 1 – coupled with 27 percent cuts in service hours and routes.
Paul P. Skoutelas, chief executive of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, said he’ll recommend to his board that rate increases announced for Feb. 1 be postponed to March 1 to give Rendell and lawmakers to come up with fix. Skoutelas couldn’t promise anything beyond that time.
In Philadelphia, fares are set to rise Jan. 23, then again on March 1. The agency’s board met Dec. 30 to consider postponing its planned service cuts and fare increases until late February, SEPTA officials said in a statement.
The flexed funds would come from regional development agencies, such as the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which have control over federal highway and bridge funding. Rendell’s plan would require $9.8 million in flexed funds from the Delaware Valley authority and $3.5 million from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.
The rest of the money – $5.5 million – will come from various state and federal sources.
Rendell flatly rejected previous calls by the Legislature to use $80 million in flexed funds to keep the transit agencies solvent through the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The state can’t afford to transfer that much bridge and road money, Rendell said, and it would likely be difficult to get federal transportation and regional development agencies to approve using that much money for transit anyway.
“Our highway and bridge funds should be used to repair highways and bridges, not to plug holes in the budgets of our mass transit agencies,” Rendell said.
Rendell said he favors a proposal to raise fees such as that PennDOT charges to supply a copy of a driver’s record.
A fixed source of funding needs to be identified because various transit funding sources have dried up in recent years, Rendell said.
Since 1996, the state has increased its subsidy below the rate of inflation. The federal government has cut transit subsidies altogether after decreasing them for years, and a utility tax earmarked for transit has yielded 50 percent less than anticipated.