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A State Funding Drought Has Port Authority Planning For A Lean Year In 2020

90.5 WESA

Port Authority of Allegheny County will only invest in two transit projects in 2020, according to a preliminary draft of the capital budget presented to board members Wednesday.

Half of the $58 million capital budget comes from the federal government and will go to purchase 60 new buses; more than a third of the budget will pay down debt. That leaves just $6.8 million to sprinkle over a system that provides over 60 million rides a year.

“Seven million dollars in that so-called discretionary capital spending is not a lot for an agency our size,” said spokesperson Adam Brandolph. “We are hopeful that we’ll be able to receive the annual money from PennDOT this year.”

The “annual money” refers to Harrisburg’s jerry-rigged approach to create a consistent funding stream for public transit. Each year since 2007, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has sent $450 million to PennDOT. In 2013, the legislature required PennDOT to send that money to transportation systems statewide to fund their capital budgets. But the turnpike couldn’t make its payment last year because of a lawsuit challenging the practice.

Because of the state funding freeze, Port Authority put 38 capital projects totaling $64 million on hold in 2019, said Brandolph. While a U.S. District Judge dismissed the case against the turnpike in April, exactly how or when that capital funding becomes available remains unclear. Without state money, Port Authority may need to dip into its savings to make investments in the coming years, said Brandolph.

And budget pressures for the agency and others across the state are only expected to intensify; in 2022, state funding will drop from $450 million to $50 million.

What money the agency does have for fiscal year 2020 will purchase a safety feature for light rail vehicles called automatic trip stop. The remaining $5 million will be spent to finalize the design of the proposed bus rapid transit system, which would cost up to $200 million to construct. The project would establish frequent service between downtown and Oakland with dedicated bus lanes, before branching out to the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, Highland Park, and Greenfield.

A first round of federal appropriations for transit projects did not include Pittsburgh’s BRT, but Brandolph said the agency may still receive funding.

“Judging from last year, I believe there was another round of funding for Small Starts Projects in October,” he said, referring to the grant program to which Port Authority applied. “If this calendar year goes the same as last calendar year … we would hope to be funded at that time.”

Port Authority expects to spend $463 million in its operating budget. Despite grim predictions made in 2014, the authority will have a balanced operating budget this year. However, the agency had to shift $21 million from a rainy day account to do so.

Port Authority’s finance department will continue to review the budget and present a final document to the agency’s board of directors in June.