Significant drops in senior citizen bus riders in other areas have prompted Luzerne County Transportation Authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish to question if the state has singled out his system for scrutiny and punishment.
“I just don’t think the problem is isolated to Luzerne County. It seems as if there are numerous other transit systems that have the same issues,” Strelish said.
His prime example: the neighboring County of Lackawanna Transit System, known as COLTS, had a 530,006 drop in senior riders from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the state’s annual performance reports.
That mirrors the 579,233 senior rider loss in Luzerne during the same time period, the reports show.
The two counties have similar demographics and both reported overall passenger counts of 1.69 million, including senior riders, in 2010-11, Strelish said.
Luzerne County’s senior rider count went from 789,091 to 209,858, while Lackawanna’s decreased from 741,636 to 211,630, the reports show.
In Western Pennsylvania, the New Castle Area Transportation Authority lost 327,236 senior riders in the two fiscal years, decreasing from 432,736 to 105,500, according to the state reports.
Some other examples of senior passenger declines in transportation systems during the period: Borough of Mount Carmel, 39,559; Schuylkill Transportation System, 11,679; Cambria County,15,288 and Altoona, 10,791.
State transportation department spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick would not say if past misreporting is suspected outside Luzerne County.
“We continue to review transit data from across the state,” Kirkpatrick said.
State officials recently announced $3.16 million in funding will be withheld from Luzerne County’s authority because it received more than it should have over six years due to senior ridership misreporting.
Strelish has vehemently denied instructing drivers to log nonexistent senior “ghost riders” to boost funding, saying he issued memos to workers stressing the importance of accurate numbers and installed security cameras on buses that ultimately provided the state with evidence of misreporting.
The state should examine all authorities and publicly issue reports on its findings, he said.
“I think it’s important that PennDOT looks at others instead of doing this piecemeal,” Strelish said.
COLTS: No padding
COLTS Executive Director Robert Fiume said senior ridership has been declining in his system for several years, and he has never heard any implication of number padding there.
His system reported more than a million senior riders annually from 2006-07 through 2008-09 before dropping to 741,636 the following year.
Fiume said the loss of each regular senior rider could make a “big difference” on passenger counts because the elderly often ride buses every day and make multiple trips to various destinations. COLTS representatives have visited senior centers in an attempt to boost ridership.
The state appears to be monitoring ridership counts in all systems but has not pointed out any concerns in Lackawanna County, Fiume said.
Luzerne County also experienced a sharp decline in senior ridership in the summer of 2012 when a county councilman went public with the ghost rider allegation, but Fiume said there were no sudden drops in his system.
“I don’t have any evidence that anything inappropriate occurred here,” Fiume said.
The Hazleton Public Transit, which services Luzerne County’s southern half, reported a loss of 3,153 senior riders during the fiscal years. This authority is smaller, with 223,150 total riders in 2011-12, including 77,986 seniors.
The Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority based in Allentown had more than three times the number of total passengers reported by Luzerne and Lackawanna counties in 2010-11, or 5.7 million.
However, Lehigh/Northampton had fewer senior riders than both counties during that fiscal year, or 703,624. The system reported a 59,475 increase in senior riders the following fiscal year.
The state’s 2012-13 performance report is scheduled for release next month.