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On board?Counties, transits ready to explore bus consolidation plan that could save $24M, expand services

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A Harrisburg-bound Lebanon Transit express bus picks up early-morning passengers at the Park and Ride location near the Route 934 and Interstate 81 interchange in East Hanover Township, Lebanon County. A recent PennDOT study suggests Central Pennsylvania transit authorities could save money if they consolidate into a single entity. Photo/Amy Spangler
A Harrisburg-bound Lebanon Transit express bus picks up early-morning passengers at the Park and Ride location near the Route 934 and Interstate 81 interchange in East Hanover Township, Lebanon County. A recent PennDOT study suggests Central Pennsylvania transit authorities could save money if they consolidate into a single entity. Photo/Amy Spangler

Some of Central Pennsylvania's county and transit officials are embracing a recent PennDOT study that suggests the transit authorities could save $24 million over seven years if they consolidate into a single entity.

The savings would come through reduced administrative costs by combining the transits, including Capital Area Transit, rabbittransit, Red Rose Transit and Lebanon Transit, and officials said it could mean expanded services that would help workers reach jobs at area businesses.

"That's one thing that could come out of this. … Whatever we save in administration would be put back into services," said David Kilmer, executive director of Red Rose Transit in Lancaster.

Rabbittransit Executive Director Rich Farr agreed, saying demand for bus services in York County hasn't declined and there are unmet needs in the community that could be addressed if the authorities can save money elsewhere.

"If there are opportunities to deploy savings in a highly productive fashion, I think that's something to work for," he said.

This is not the first time a study suggested Pennsylvania's transit authorities in Adams, Berks, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York counties could benefit from greater coordination. Those were the findings of a study that Commuter Services of Pennsylvania and the authorities conducted in 2010 and 2011, although it stopped short of promoting consolidation.

PennDOT's most recent study, finished in September, found that for the cost of $1.1 million in the first two transition years, the region's five transit authorities and two county departments could save about $25.1 million over the next five years. The transition costs would be for severance, benefits and consulting, according to the study.

Savings would be achieved by reducing the authorities' administration and management to 122 positions from 173, according to the study. Most notable would be the reduction of eight executive level directors to just one, cutting finance managers to 11 positions from 20, and cutting administrative support managers to two from 16.

The savings and prospect of providing better services are huge factors that make consolidation appealing, Cumberland County Commissioner Jim Hertzler said.

"I think it's an idea worth continuing to explore," he said.

The key is to find ways of improving mass transit throughout the region, whether that's long-distance routes such as Carlisle to Lancaster or short-distance routes such as several CAT offers to transport workers directly to large employers, he said.

"Those are the kinds of transportation routes we want to maintain, where we're providing transportation for people to get to those jobs," Hertzler said.

Although consolidation sounds good, there are concerns to be addressed, Lancaster County Commissioner Scott Martin said.

Current levels of bus service shouldn't be cut, he said. In addition, any plan would have to prevent service tilting to one area or another, such as the largest counties, he said. Details would have to be worked out to prevent any one county from shouldering the economic burden to support a consolidated transit system, he said.

"The system can be very expensive, and we have more transportation costs in general," Martin said.

Consolidation as laid out by PennDOT's study offers opportunities to be more effective and reduce the burden on taxpayers, he said. At this point, he said, discussions are far from locking in expanded services.

"This is a big deal," Martin said. "(Consolidation) hasn't been done in a while, and we think it'll benefit our citizens."

The next step is to study further how a consolidated transit authority would operate, how costs would be divided and what efficiencies would improve services, officials said.

"Let's get into the details," Red Rose Transit's Kilmer said. "Let's get into the weeds and see how this thing works."

The importance of due diligence can't be understated, CAT General Manager Bill Jones said. The big question, he said, is once you drill down into those details, will consolidation produce the savings that are estimated?

"Let's let the facts guide this," he said, "and I don't think we have enough facts yet."

One concern is how to balance regional transportation, such as intercounty travel, with local fixed routes that offer transportation to jobs, commerce and community centers for those who are economically or physically unable to drive, Jones said.

"We can't lose people in the numbers," he said.

Streamlined operations will be important with tight federal, state and local government budgets where there isn't enough money to expand services where necessary, Kilmer said.

"Basically, we all think it's a good idea, particularly as funding continues shrinking, and we all need resources to support our operations," he said.

Gov. Tom Corbett's recent pledge to address comprehensive state transportation funding reform early next year gives some hope to transit authorities that better solutions for mass transit are forthcoming, Kilmer said. The state is facing ongoing need for about $3 billion to support transportation infrastructure and services.

State funding will be important to any discussions about improving public transportation in Central Pennsylvania, he said.

Everyone agrees much more discussion is needed. And they're willing to go that route.

"I think we owe it to the people we serve to explore all options," Jones said.

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan

Jim T. Ryan covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jimr@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JimTRyanCPBJ.

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