Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed increase of $1.41 billion in transit subsidies over five years would mean more than $200 million a year extra for the state’s largest transit agencies, Pittsburgh Regional Transit and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority around Philadelphia.
Those agencies carry millions of passengers a year and get 87% of the state’s transit subsidy funds.
The state’s other 29 transit agencies share the remaining 13%. But the 1.75% increase in state funds the governor said he would propose in his budget Tuesday would be every bit as important to those agencies, transit executives in southwestern Pennsylvania said.
“Additional transit funding would be a lifeline for citizens of the communities in the Mid Mon Valley,” Ashley Seman, executive director of the Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority, said in an email statement.
“If increased funds are not made available, MMVTA is projecting a deficit by [fiscal year] 2027. If costs to operate continue to climb without financial relief, MMVTA will need to consider alternatives such as decreasing transit service.”
The agency, which operates on a budget of about $6 million annually, is projected to get an additional $921,644 a year if Shapiro’s proposal is approved. It is based in Charleroi and operates bus service for 21 communities in Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties.
When the COVID-19 virus devastated ridership for transit agencies across the country, the federal government approved a series of emergency appropriations to help keep the agencies operating. As that money is running out faster than ridership is returning — and costs have jumped due to inflation — agencies are scrambling to figure out how they will provide service in the future.
Seman said her agency is scheduled to finish spending the additional federal funding by the end of the year. As a result of inflation that hit as the pandemic was winding down, the agency’s costs for fixed routes has gone up about 22%, and other operating costs have risen about 8%.
Without another funding source, it won’t be able to cover current costs by 2027, Seman said. Cutting service would put an additional strain on residents in the area, she said.
“For some, MMVTA is the only source of transportation to get to grocery stores, medical facilities and other businesses,” she said. “Increased funding would assist in ensuring the continuation of current levels of this vital service for Mon Valley residents.”
Numbers released by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation show other agencies in this area would receive the following annual increases: Beaver County Transit Authority, $964,641; Butler Transit Authority, $417,428; Indiana County Transit Authority, $488,806; Washington County Transit Authority, $460,333; Westmoreland County Transit Authority, $955,084. State subsidies haven’t gone up in more than 10 years.
Sheila Gombita, executive director in Washington County for the agency that operates as Freedom Transit, said additional funding would be just as important for her agency. Ridership on fixed routes remains 20% below pre-pandemic levels, and shared rides are about 25% behind.
“We have not completely run out of [emergency federal funding], but we are close,” she said. “What the governor’s proposing certainly would be a big help.”
Gombita said her agency could consider adding some additional fixed route service if the funding is approved.
Under the proposal, Pittsburgh Regional would get $39.1 million in additional money each year. SEPTA would get $161.5 million.
The proposal faces an uncertain future because Republicans in the state Senate say they are reluctant to give additional money to SEPTA because of a series of violent incidents on transit in that area. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is under fire for what GOP leaders consider a soft approach to criminal prosecutions, and they are tying funding for transit and other programs in the Philadelphia area to that issue.
SEPTA has pledged to increase security officers and improve cleanliness on its system in exchange for the funds. It said last fall it would soon run out of emergency federal funds and could go into a “death spiral” this year without more help.