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Transit budgets squeezed

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Transit budgets
squeezed
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Frugal governments and a slow economy are squeezing the budgets of public local bus systems in Central Pennsylvania.
Funding shortfalls are affecting Red Rose Transit Authority in Lancaster County and Capital Area Transit, which serves Cumberland and Dauphin counties. The same troubles are hitting Rabbittransit in York County.
Authority directors have addressed budget deficits by delaying capital spending and holding back plans for expanded service. Rabbittransit, for example, is delaying a planned commuter line between York and Harrisburg, said Steve Bland, that authority’s executive director.
Officials are hopeful that budget problems will evaporate as the economy improves. CAT’s annual operating budget is about $11 million. Red Rose spends about $8.4 million a year, while Rabbittransit spends $6.7 million
Lower state subsidies are one source of potential deficits. For CAT, the sting also may come from tighter locks on local spending.
To cover rising costs this year, CAT asked Cumberland County, Dauphin County and the city of Harrisburg to boost annual subsidies. Only Cumberland County could match the requested increase.
The need comes from a federally mandated program for people with disabilities. Known as Special Efforts Transportation, the program provides subsidized rides to those who live near bus lines but, for whatever reason, cannot use the lines. Buses on the route, for example, may not be accessible yet to wheelchair users.
The program is drawing a growing number of riders, who pay twice the regular fare, said Jim Hoffer, CAT’s executive director. The program is overrunning its federal subsidy this year, so local governments must step in to help pay for it.
Harrisburg, however, could not afford the fatter subsidies, said Randy King, spokesman for Mayor Stephen Reed. “It was a very, very tight budget this year.”
Harrisburg is providing CAT with $143,168, the same as in 2001, plus $37,000 for light rail projects, King said. The authority had requested $256,161. The mayor has no plans to raise the subsidy, King said. The city already pays more than its fair share, he said.
Dauphin County also declined to match CAT’s request. The authority asked for about $409,000. But the county could only spare $300,050, a slight increase over 2001, said Robert Burns, the county’s chief clerk.
In Cumberland County, the CAT request survived in an otherwise tight year, said John Ward, Cumberland’s chief clerk. Cumberland hiked its subsidy to $245,868, up from $173,371 in 2001.
“We were very, very tough on spending requests that increased the budget,” Ward said. “CAT was one of the few that got theirs.” County officials decided the extra spending was worth it to boost the use of public transportation and reduce traffic congestion, Ward said.
Hoffer said he hadn’t received official notice of the local subsidies and declined to speculate on what the authority would do if its requests went unfulfilled.
The state government has been warning of deficits for more than three months. Former Gov. Tom Ridge, in one of his last acts before joining the Bush administration, froze millions of dollars in state spending. The freeze included operating subsidies for public transportation. CAT could lose up to $65,000, about 4 percent of its state subsidy.
“If the state releases the money, then it’s not an issue. If they don’t release the money, then it could become an issue,” Hoffer said. “I would expect that they release it. We build budgets based upon that money.”
Deficits also may stem from a shortfall in revenue from the state’s Public Transportation Assistance Fund. The assistance fund gathers money through a fee on the sale of new tires, a portion of the state sales tax, a motor vehicle lease tax, a motor vehicle rental fee and utility realty taxes. Created in 1991, the fund dispenses money for capital spending, asset maintenance and other needs of the state’s transit authorities.
Hoffer wasn’t worried about deficits in the assistance fund because they only affect capital spending. “It’s a little bit easier to work in making adjustments in the capital budget,” he said. “You can simply in some cases delay procurement.”
Red Rose already is deferring purchases.
The authority was hoping to replace three aging 14-seat buses this year, said James J. Lutz, the authority’s executive director. But with a total state shortfall expected to reach $150,000, the authority is putting off the buy. “As long as the revenue loss is a one-time loss, we’re OK,” Lutz said. He was confident that state subsidies would rebound along with the economy. If not, he said, Red Rose Transit would have to look at cutting service.
The last fare increase was in November 2000, so it is too early to look there for additional revenue, Lutz added.
Bland of Rabbittransit said his system faces a deficit of $120,000. In addition to indefinitely delaying plans for a Harrisburg-York commuter line, which was to have started this year, Rabbittransit is putting off increasing the frequency of buses serving the city of York.

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