On a day when getting around was difficult even for the able-bodied, people with disabilities descended in a small army to join other Port Authority riders and supporters at a public hearing Wednesday to protest plans for record-breaking transit service cuts.
Hundreds of people in wheelchairs rolled out of the torrential rain and into the hearing at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, some just to show support and others to testify against the 35 percent reduction planned for Sept. 2. The reduction, to close a projected $64 million budget deficit, would eliminate 46 of 102 bus routes and cause deep cuts to ACCESS service for the disabled.
"It is just unimaginable that we are going to set people with disabilities back 35 years to the point where they are trapped in their homes," said Lucy Spruill, director of public policy and community relations for United Cerebral Palsy.
Using a sound board to speak, Christine Ryder of Wilmerding said disabled people would be "devastated" by the reductions. "ACCESS service allows us to be out in the community and be contributing members of society," she said.
Other speakers said the service reductions would cause people to lose jobs, reduce mobility for the elderly, add to traffic and parking congestion, and drive businesses out of the region. Many urged Gov. Tom Corbett, an Allegheny County native, to take a lead role in securing a more reliable, growing funding source for the agency.
Kevin Harley, Mr. Corbett's spokesman, issued a statement Wednesday in which he agreed a funding solution must be found, but he said he wants to see more changes in the local agency first.
"The taxpayers of Pennsylvania cannot continue to spend millions of dollars correcting the mistakes of an authority over which they have little control," he said. "We agree that a solution must be found. But before Pennsylvania's taxpayers are asked to fork over any more money, we need to see what sort of cost savings are accomplished in this summer's Port Authority contract talks."
That could be too late, some residents said. The contract expires June 30 but the authority and Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union have a history of contentious bargaining that goes months beyond expiration dates.
"To think for a second that these proposed cuts would not cripple Pittsburgh's rising status as a national and international destination is both ignorant and foolish," said rider Christy Wright of Dormont.
"These cuts are not just detrimental to those of us who don't have an automobile to get around but also to those that do. The number of cars on the already-crumbling roads will rise significantly. Traffic will be a nightmare. Parking will be even more challenging. Pollution will rise. This is a problem that touches the lives of every single person in this community, whether they realize it or not," she said.
At midday, the hearing briefly devolved into a protest by several groups, including members of Occupy Pittsburgh, who booed and mocked a speaker who was impersonating Mr. Corbett, using a paper mask with a cartoon likeness of the governor. Two protesters led several hundred people in chants calling for more transit service and an end to tax loopholes for corporations.
But people with disabilities presented the most compelling testimony.
Joyce Redmerski of Highland Park, chief financial officer for Community Living and Support Services, said "many of my staff will be personally affected by these cuts in service. They will lose their jobs because they will not be able to get to work."
Some urged the governor to get behind the recommendations made in August by his own Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, which called for modest fee increases and removing an artificial cap on the wholesale tax on gasoline to raise as much as $2.7 billion in new revenue for highways, bridges and public transit.
Citing an estimate that the increases would cost a typical driver $11.33 per month, Chris Sandvig, regional policy manager for the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, said, "So, what is $11.33 per month? To many of us, it's lunch or dinner out. It's two triple venti two-pump no-whip cinnamon dolce lattes. It's a movie and popcorn. Isn't that a small price to pay?"
The authority's plan to raise fares on July 1, by 25 cents in Zone 1 (to $2.50) and 50 cents in Zone 2 (to $3.75) drew very little commentary from the hundreds of people who spoke at the all-day hearing. Instead, speaker after speaker told of personal hardships to themselves and others if service is rolled back.
Charles Lotz, project coordinator for the United Way of Allegheny County, told the story of Jeff Hladio, who has vision problems and cerebral palsy, works in the office supply store of the Pennsylvania National Guard facility in Coraopolis and recently won employee of the month. He said Mr. Hladio and an estimated 1,200 others won't be able to get to work if ACCESS service is cut.
"These are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who simply need a way to get around," he said. The combination of ACCESS and bus route cuts, he said, "is a recipe for disaster."
Marte Novak, plant manager for ACHIEVA, which serves children and adults with disabilities, said the cuts could leave 26 of the 107 people she serves stranded in their homes. "They are at risk of losing everything that has helped them succeed in their daily lives," she said.
"The options you are leaving for people with disabilities is grim," said Victoria Livingstone, CEO of Transitional Services, a nonprofit housing agency that supports the disabled.
"Call Gov. Corbett. Tell him to support adequate state funding for public transportation. No more service cuts," said Jonathan Robison of Oakland, former president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, a citizens advisory group. He was one of several speakers who urged the governor to adopt the funding recommendations of his commission. He said the governor and Legislature "must act before our buses shut down and our bridges fall down."
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Ken Zapinski, a senior vice president at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, stressed financial improvements the Port Authority has made in recent years, such as trimming inefficient service and cutting pension and health benefits for nonunion employees. They and others noted the potential damage proposed service cuts could do to the region's stable economy.
As the day wore on, the tone of testimony bounced back and forth from anger to worry. A few witnesses wept. Several Port Authority board members and senior staffers, including CEO Steve Bland, listened to the hours of testimony.
"Have you really exhausted all available resources to solve the problem?" Maria Farris, community manager at The Commons at North Aiken, a senior living facility in Garfield, asked them. The 89 Garfield Commons bus she and other residents use on a regular basis is scheduled to be eliminated. "Please go back to the drawing board," she said. "Burn some midnight oil."
Kaitlynn Riely contributed. Jon Schmitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1868. Visit The Roundabout, the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com/transportation. Twitter: @pgtraffic.
First published on March 1, 2012 at 12:00 am