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Central Pennsylvania may be going it alone when it comes to public and workforce transit improvements, as yet another discussion in Cumberland County indicated that state and federal funds are likely to be sparse.

During a transit options forum organized by the county commissioners on Tuesday, officials repeatedly voiced concerns that a lack of support from higher up would further damage the area’s transit equity, as reliable transportation becomes more of a concern for working-class residents.

The discussion comes in the midst of what is likely the largest shakeup in the history of Capital Area Transit, the bus agency jointly owned by Cumberland and Dauphin counties and Harrisburg city, which is currently undergoing a complete overhaul of its service routes.

“I’m going to guess the buses are running mostly along the same routes that the streetcars were at the turn of the century. There hasn’t been a true system analysis done, maybe ever,” said Rich Farr, the chief executive for both CAT and Rabbit Transit.

CAT services

Late last year, Rabbit Transit signed a deal to take on CAT’s management services. Farr’s team is looking to have the new routes — and a 24 percent reduction in CAT’s operating budget — finalized by the end of the year.

“We felt it was important, given the service changes that are happening with CAT, to host this discussion,” said Commissioner Vince DiFilippo.

“There needs to be a renewed focus on building a better transit system,” said Commissioner Jim Hertzler. ”We believe [Farr] is moving in the right direction with reform and modernization, but to be quite honest he’s got a big hole to dig out of.”

“The funding issue is real,” said Jen Granger, Deputy Secretary of PennDOT.

With a flat federal gas tax and no infrastructure package from Congress on the horizon, the funding responsibility for better public transit falls largely on the states.

But Pennsylvania’s funding is in limbo, Granger noted, with a lawsuit challenging the state’s 2007 law that funnels a certain amount of revenue from the Pennsylvania Turnpike over to PennDOT to help fund transit improvements elsewhere.

This $450 million annual haul from the turnpike assists public transit projects, including CAT. But even without the lawsuit, the turnpike’s funding obligation is set to drop down to only $50 million in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, per an agreement in Act 89 of 2013 regarding the turnpike’s debt load.

Vehicle tax

Public transit funding would be shifted to vehicle sales tax revenue from the general fund, something which is much more fragile given budget demands in Harrisburg.

“How many people believe that in 2022, the elected officials are going to let $450 million come out of the general fund?” Granger asked rhetorically.

The state recently helped to put together mobility studies for the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metro regions, Granger noted, which pitched a number of localized funding sources.

These included vehicle property taxes, additional cigarette and alcohol taxes, road user fees, and others, many of which would require enabling legislation from the state to give counties and municipalities the power to impose such charges.

It’s entirely feasible, Granger said, for a similar study to be done for the Midstate; transit ideas for the Harrisburg-Carlisle metro area will likely “get a lot farther” if they come to the table with a funding method identified, she said.

On the other hand, several attendees on Tuesday said that, given extremely low unemployment, businesses are coming around to the idea of paying for employee transit.

“More staffing agencies and companies are running their own buses,” said Rev. Scott Minnich with the Salvation Army in Harrisburg, which helps connect underserved people — many of them homeless — with jobs.

Major warehouse operators, such as Amazon and Chewy, seemed to adapt quickly to the idea of subsidizing a CAT route that brought workers to them, Minnich said. Both companies now have service deals with CAT.

“Having a third party come to the table is probably the biggest way we’re going to move that needle forward to fund transportation needs,” Farr said.

Other options

Private operators are also entering the market, contracting with businesses to operate shuttle services or carpools.

“Normally in the past it’s been up to the employee [to provide transit], but we can’t do that anymore,” said Doug Paskowski with Commute with Enterprise, which operates what Paskowski called “formalized van sharing” using Enterprise rental vehicles.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, such shared vehicles may become autonomous. But that won’t remove the role of the public transit agency.

If the rise of Uber, Lyft and other such services is any indication, the availability of such transit fixes to working-class people lags behind without some kind of public organizing.

Rabbit Transit’s “stop-hopper” program, which allows customers to request pickups and drop-offs by a shared shuttle for just $2 per ride, started off needing a $191 subsidy per rider per month — but that number is now down to $36, Farr said. The program is still in it's pilot stage with just over 1,000 users.

“I really believe, as we move forward we’re going to look at how everyone — folks with disabilities, low income people, have access to life,” Farr said.

“I think it’s imperative that we make this an equity issue,” said Jeff Bergsten, a traffic consultant with Michael Baker International, of autonomous ride-sharing.

The technology continues to develop, particularly with high-end brands like Tesla, but the point is moot for public transit agencies like CAT if the technology isn’t available for workforce commuting.

“It’s our job to figure out how to make it accessible to everyone,” Bergsten said.

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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