DICKSON CITY ‚?? The wheels on the bus cost a lot more than they used to.
A decade ago, tires might set a bus company back $200 each. Today, that figure is closer to $400, said Stanley Strelish, executive director of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority. The engines that make those wheels go around? They have increased from about $20,000 to $45,000 over the same period, Strelish told a recent regional summit of local and state transportation officials in Dickson City.
Even with dramatic savings through new technologies, such as hybrid diesel-electric buses, Strelish believes the way forward as costs rise lies in merging bus services across the region.
‚??Within 10 years, I think the proper thing to do would be the consolidation of counties,‚?Ě Strelish said.
The region‚??s two largest local systems, LCTA and the County of Lackawanna Transit System, carry nearly 3 million riders each year between them, with 1.2 million in Luzerne County and 1.5 million in Lackawanna County, according to Strelish and COLTS Executive Director Robert Fiume.
‚??If we could put them together, we‚??d have the third largest transit agency in the commonwealth,‚?Ě said Steve Pitoniak, transportation planning manager for Lackawanna County, adding that such an agency could rival the regional transit authorities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for state funding.
Increasing competition for a decreasing pool of aid from Harrisburg was a key focus of the summit, at which state lawmakers and leaders from the region‚??s transit, rail, highway and airport agencies called for creation of a dedicated source of state transportation funding.
According to an August 2011 report by the governor‚??s 40-member Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, the state‚??s transportation needs were facing a $3.5 billion funding gap as of 2010. Left unchecked, that gap would more than double to $7.2 billion by 2020.
Such considerations were in the minds of state officials who commissioned a study several years ago examining the feasibility of combining the fixed-route and shared-ride transit services in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties, Strelish said. LCTA has already taken over the county-run shared-ride program, which provides door-to-door service for elderly and disabled people. Similarly, COLTS plans to take over Lackawanna County‚??s shared-ride program at the beginning of 2013, Fiume said.
The move in Luzerne County has eliminated nine jobs through attrition, and while the shared-ride program was entirely state-funded, Strelish said consolidation already has saved state taxpayers about a quarter-million dollars.
The shared-ride changes could be the first steps toward creation of a larger regional bus system, Strelish said, but only over time -- and without wholesale loss of jobs.
‚??We really don‚??t want to eliminate any positions, except through attrition,‚?Ě Strelish said, although he and Fiume suggested streamlining top administrative posts could be beneficial.
‚??If you have one large agency, you don‚??t need several people in the same position,‚?Ě Fiume said Tuesday. Like Strelish, however, he believes a measured approach is best.
While both systems get state and federal funds, each also receives matching local dollars, and Strelish predicts that‚??s where economies of scale could conflict with local political priorities.
The future of Hazleton Public Transit is a case in point. Consultants looking at consolidation have included the city-owned system in their vision, as has Strelish. Hazleton‚??s leaders aren‚??t sold on the idea.
‚??I don‚??t really see where there‚??s any savings there‚?Ě for HPT, said Director Steve Hahn.
HPT carries about 220,000 riders per year, Hahn said. The city owns its buses, but operation and maintenance are handled by contractors, which Hazleton has found more cost effective than paying a roster of drivers and mechanics, he said. HPT has only 1.5 paid positions, whose salary and benefits cost about $90,000 each year.
Unlike Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, which form a dense urban area with adjacent systems that carry workday commuters, HPT is a ‚??borderline rural‚?Ě system, Hahn said. It has just one link to greater Wilkes-Barre, a route that serves the Wyoming Valley Mall and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs three days a week.
Hahn said Hazleton is keeping the door open to future coordination through discussions with state and county officials.
‚??It certainly would make more sense, I would think, to combine those systems first,‚?Ě he said of LCTA and COLTS.