County Drink Tax for Mon Valley Shuttle?
(October 29, 2013)–As the General Assembly debates funding for transportation for roads and bridges as well as mass transit, many have an interest in seeing it resolved. One interested group is the Heritage Community Initiatives (HCI), a non-profit that operates WorkLink, a van shuttle service in the Mon Valley. The service had been operating with Federal subsidies for more than a decade before the Federal support ended and is now hoping state money will replace those funds.
HCI began operating its van shuttle service, WorkLink, in 2001 serving Mon Valley communities. Per mass transit rules, it is not allowed to operate along routes run by the Port Authority (PAT). WorkLink picks up riders and primarily takes them to PAT bus routes, which then takes the passenger to their work or school destination. It also takes riders to Jefferson Regional hospital and the CCAC South Campus. To use the service a rider must be approved via an application and must use WorkLink for "…work, job training, education, job searching/interviews, childcare, and volunteering." Other activities are not allowed.
There are three daily (Monday through Saturday) routes: Clairton (five stops), East Pittsburgh/Turtle Creek (five stops), and McKeesport/Port Vue (eleven stops). According to their 2012 annual report there were 2,500 registered riders for a total of more than 100,000 annual rides. However, newspaper reports indicated those numbers in 2013 increased to 3,000 registered riders with 13,000 rides per month (projected to 156,000 per year). HCI notes that ridership had increased greatly since PAT eliminated routes in March 2011, although since PAT reinstated a Mon Valley route in September, those numbers may decline.
Riders do not pay a fee either to register or to ride. As mentioned above the program was funded through the Federal Department of Transportation’s Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) program (passed through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation). However, in 2012 that program was eliminated when the MAP-21 transportation authorization bill was signed into law. Thus as of the end of June 2013 the Federal money ran out. HCI then received emergency money from the state to operate through the end of August. And now they are counting on that money continuing once a transportation funding bill is passed.
While the program’s objective may be is admirable, is it an efficient operation? Given the expenditures per rider ($9 per rider in 2012), it is clearly not very cost effective. Still, if the political and civic leadership in Allegheny County wishes to continue the service, then they should look closer to home to find a finding solution. It is simply inappropriate to go to state taxpayers for funding for yet another service limited to Allegheny County users. The state is already hard pressed to find money for roads and bridges as well as mass transit systems across the state.
In 2007, Act 44 provided Allegheny County the authority to levy a tax on poured alcoholic beverages with the proceeds to be used to support "a mass transit system" in the County. The County pushed for the tax in order to raise funds to meet its matching share required to get state funding. As it turns out the drink tax has generated substantial revenues with another 5 percent or more gain ($1.5 million at least) coming in 2013 to reach $34.6 million—according to a Treasurer statement.
With this windfall, the County should be willing to divert upwards of a million to the WorkLink service to allow it to continue operations in 2014 and beyond. There might be a question as to the County’s statutory authority to use the funds for WorkLink instead of the Port Authority. To head off any such objection, the Legislature can easily amend the drink tax provision in Act 44 to permit the County to use up to a million dollars per year to support WorkLink or other comparable van services designed to assist people to get to work. The million dollars could be used only if the drink tax, along with the additional Act 44 levy on car rentals, raises a million more than the amount required for the state matching funds.
This use of the drink tax revenue would be very appropriate in the sense that folks in the Mon Valley are paying the tax and to have some of the revenue return to the community to help neighbors get to work or training would be quite fitting.
Moreover, there is no real credible argument for having state taxpayers pony up money to help support a very cost ineffective van shuttle service in Allegheny County, especially when the County has the funds to provide the support if statutorily permitted to do so.
Frank Gamrat, Ph.D., Sr. Research Associate
Jake Haulk, Ph.D., President
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