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Development & Transportation

Regional Transit System Remains Far-Off Goal

Paul Sableman

During his successful campaign for the Allegheny County Executive’s office in 2011, Rich Fitzgerald proposed the creation of a multi-county public transit system, touting potential cost-savings and improved service.

Five years later, the idea of merging local counties’ transit authorities is still years away from fruition, despite support across county lines.

In an interview Monday, Fitzgerald maintained that combining the Port Authority of Allegheny County with transit agencies in surrounding counties would save money, both at the administrative level and by reducing redundant routes in and out of Pittsburgh.

“You’ve got buses running right next to each other that don’t pick up passengers from other counties,” Fitzgerald said.

He said recent economic growth in the areas surrounding Pittsburgh reinforces the need for regional public transit.

“For example, you see good things happening now in Beaver County with the cracker plant," Fitzgerald said. "You see growth up in Cranberry with Westinghouse and some of the things that are going on there. You see Southpointe in Washington County, and things in Westmoreland County.”

Credit Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission
Most counties surrounding Pittsburgh have at least one transit authority providing busing and paratransit services.

Fitzgerald compared the proposed regional transit authority to a local version of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA), the five-county system in the Philadelphia area. SEPTA has been operating for more than 50 years, and has a budget that’s more than three times larger than the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s.

But the idea of replicating the multi-county system in Pennsylvania’s second-largest metropolitan area hasn’t gained much traction since Fitzgerald brought it up five years ago. The state government funded a private study of the idea that was slated for completion more than two years ago, but no such report exists on PennDOT’s online list of transit consolidation studies, which was updated in December.

Fitzgerald said the first step toward getting started would be to create a multi-county plan to pitch to the state legislature and the governor, who’d likely make the final decision as the main funders of local public transit. Fitzgerald said county governments typically only fund about 15 percent of transit operations.

“So 85 percent comes from the state and federal government, and on the capital side – buying buses, building busways and light rail, those type of things – the locals only put in 3 percent,” he said.

Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan said consolidating transit authorities is a smart idea. 

“We’re on board to try to see what it will take to get this done,” she said.

Irey Vaughan said one of her only conditions is that outlying counties shouldn’t have to absorb the legacy costs of Allegheny County’s transit authority, whose massive pension liabilities contributed to a $60 million budget shortfall in 2012.

“I’m sure each county would want to make certain that moving forward, they would not be sharing in those type of costs with that of Allegheny County,” Irey Vaughan said.

Other areas of Pennsylvania are at various stages of pursuing regionalized transit authorities: Berks and Lancaster Counties joined forces on public transit and formed a bi-county authority in late 2014. More recently, Dauphin and Lebanon Counties authorized a similar move this spring, with the ultimate goal of teaming up with other south-central Pennsylvania counties to create one large, regional transit system.

Irey Vaughan said if southwestern Pennsylvania counties can unite to present a solid plan to the state, she believes the regional transit authority could become a reality within a few years. She said it took time for the city of Washington, Pa. to finally merge its busing services with that of Washington County, but the cost-savings were worth it.

“In Washington County, it took us about two years to get the two entities merged together," Irey Vaughan said. "We still have one more entity that we would like to bring in to the countywide system. So, this is not an easy process, not a quick process, but we do believe that it’s worthwhile.”

She said she’s not concerned about a loss of local control over bus routes, saying she would expect service in Washington County to increase under a single, regional transit authority.