For those of us who travel everywhere by personal vehicle, it is easy to miss the public transportation system humming along each day in Washington County. The truth is that without mass transit serving our elderly and many others who lack the ability to drive, thousands of our residents would have no means of getting to work, shopping or keeping medical appointments.
Recently I stopped by to chat with Sheila Gombita, executive director of the Washington County Transportation Authority, at the new offices on Chestnut Street. What the authority has been able to accomplish is astonishing for our semi-rural area.
Local citizens in need of public transportation are on track to take over 100,000 trips in fiscal year 2019, an increase of 20% from 2018. The authority serves the city of Washington, Houston, Canonsburg, McDonald, Monongahela, Finleyville, McMurray and points in between. Each weekday, there are 10 inbound trips to Pittsburgh and 10 outbound trips to Washington. Incredibly, the fare is only $5 each way. On Saturday, there are three outbound and inbound trips to and from the South Hills transit station.
Funding is always the major issue in developing a meaningful public transportation system. For decades, the Pennsylvania Lottery has provided the means for anyone age 65 or older to ride fixed route public transportation at no cost and to utilize shared ride services at a reduced rate. Disabled citizens can ride at half the regular fare.
This is critical because studies have shown that senior citizens make up 44% of all transit riders in rural Pennsylvania, and over 17% of the rural population is disabled. Moreover, 53% of all rural disabled citizens work each day, with public transportation the only means of access to their places of employment.
Other funding is a combination of local, state and federal dollars. A Pennsylvania plan enacted in Act 44 of 2007 was a major restructuring of funding for transit. It dedicated 4.4% of the sales and use tax and Turnpike payments ($450 million in 2019) to a new Public Transportation Trust fund. Recently, two groups have brought a lawsuit claiming that the Turnpike payments are illegal, causing a potential funding crunch. Currently Washington contributes $98,000, and the county, $130,000, toward public transportation.
Why should those of us with two cars in the driveway care about a vibrant public transportation system? Transit reduces congestion and pollution, improves the quality of life in the community, brings employees and customers to local businesses and adds to the local tax base. Most importantly, making public transportation a priority is an example of what good government should provide for its older and less fortunate citizens.
Notwithstanding the funding challenges that are a constant concern for the transportation authority, there is room to improve the service and make it even more accessible. First, the weekday service could be expanded past 7 p.m. to accommodate late shoppers and employees with nontraditional work schedules. Second, Sunday service could be implemented to permit attendance at religious services and to provide more opportunity for shopping and weekend employees. Third, more on-demand service, along the lines of the “Uber model,” could be unveiled as an added convenience.
To ensure uninterrupted service and to expand the schedule, local government needs to ante up a larger share of the financial burden. Public transportation is good for the county. At a time when the county tax base is growing, with low unemployment and a vibrant Marcellus shale industry, an increased commitment to public transportation makes good economic sense.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.