Transit agencies looking toward consolidation

July 18, 2013
A Washington City Transit bus makes its rounds as it travels on North Main Street in Washington Thursday. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Separate agencies handling public transportation in Washington County may be a thing of the past if plans for consolidation become a reality, but those in charge of bus routes say riders won’t suffer.

The Washington County commissioners on Thursday adopted a resolution – which PennDOT is requiring – as well as a cooperation agreement outlining the implementation plan.

Sheila Gombita, executive director of the Washington County Transportation Authority which operates both the Washington Rides and medical transportation programs and fixed-route bus lines, said the resolution means “more than just a study. It’s to try to develop and implement a consolidation plan. A study was completed six months or so ago, and it seemed to make sense because consolidation looked like it was going to create efficiencies and cost savings.”

Gombita’s counterparts are Nancy Basile, Washington city transit coordinator, and Marc Roncone, executive director of Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority of Charleroi, both of whom attended the commissioners’ meeting.

Mid Mon Valley maintains, as its name implies, bus routes on both sides of the Monongahela River and commuter service to Pittsburgh. Washington City Transit’s lime-green buses travel around the city while also making commuter runs to Pittsburgh. But unless a person schedules portal-to-portal service through the Washington County Transportation Authority’s Washington Rides program, he or she can’t travel from Washington to the Mon Valley.

Although the state is encouraging the consolidation of transit agencies, the Legislature failed to pass a transportation bill before the state’s fiscal year ended June 30, so taxpayer money for transit services is anything but definite.

“It’s hard to assume anything at this point with the state Legislature, but we’re looking at trying to provide the most efficient, stable public transportation that we possibly can,” Roncone said. “With three separate agencies fighting for the same small pot of money, we’re kind of canceling each other out. Coming together, we have more irons in the fire.”

Basile said the merged agencies, which the entities hope to have completed by the spring 2014, will be more cost-effective for the county.

When employers talk “consolidation,” many workers assume it’s a code word for job losses, but Gombita said jobs would be lost only through attrition under the state’s consolidation incentive. Details of what the transit agency might be called, where its maintenance and administrative offices might be, or what the new entity might be called are yet to be decided.

Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said he and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald met last month about consolidating mass transit on a regional scale to include five counties: Allegheny, Washington, Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland.

“The crux of our conversation was that people in Allegheny County are coming south to Washington County,” Maggi said. “It used to be all mass transportation was taking everybody into the city to shop and to work. That’s changed over the past 20 years. Now there are a lot of people in the city coming south to Washington County to work and to play. We’ve got a lot going on here. Mass transit has not kept up with that.”

Maggi pointed to Southpointe in Cecil Township as a destination for 10,000 workers, plus the casino and outlets in North Strabane and South Strabane townships, respectively, as destinations for gamblers and shoppers.

John DeBord of South Strabane Township told the county commissioners Thursday that he objects to The Meadows Racetrack & Casino being is a stop on the Washington County Transportation Authority’s Freedom Line bus route because it promotes gambling among senior citizens.

The commissioners often allow the public comment segment of their meeting to take place without responding. But asked about it after the meeting, Maggi, a retired state trooper, said, “We live in America where people have the freedom of choice. It’s legal. Addictive and compulsive gambling, those are issues out there, but it’s not up to us to police people’s morality.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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