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Transit system may be near end of line

June 10, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA.

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation wants to buy more time for the Chambersburg Transit Authority, but the Chambersburg Borough Council may not be willing to pay the bill, state and borough officials said this week.

The financially troubled authority is scheduled to cease operations June 30, but state and federal transportation officials met with representatives of the borough and authority last month to ask for an extension of service through Oct. 1, Borough Manager Eric Oyer said. PennDOT has asked the council to vote on funding operations at its Monday meeting.

Oyer said the department wants the municipalities to pay their local match for the 2003-04 budget year, which ends June 30, plus the first three months of the 2004-05 budget. He said Tuesday he did not have that figure available, but expects to by Monday.

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In addition to Chambersburg, authority buses serve Hamilton, Greene and Washington townships and Waynesboro, Pa. In 2002-03, Oyer said, Chambersburg's local share was about $40,000, but that was when the system was in full operation.

The extra time would allow state and federal transportation officials to audit the authority's operations over the past two years and determine if its debts can be reduced, Oyer said Tuesday. He said estimates of the debt range up to about $1 million.

"Perhaps there may be some way of further refining the level of debt the transit authority is facing," PennDOT spokesman Kirk Wilson said Tuesday.

"The department wants to find out if there is a way the debt can be paid off and the transit authority can keep operating," he said.

When the extent of the authority's debt became apparent in spring 2003, operations were cut from seven routes to one running three days a week in Chambersburg. Last fall, the board voted to restore service two days a week in the Waynesboro area.

"I'm ambivalent," said Councilman Ken Gill. "If it's not going to fly, why throw more money at it?"

Gill said a "demand and response" system, in which people make appointments for transportation, might work better than the fixed route schedule now run by the authority.

"I don't know how having audits is going to save money," Councilman John Redding said.

"Unless there's new evidence put on the table that there's a significant reduction in debt ... I feel I have little choice but to vote against further funding for CTA," Council President William F. McLaughlin said.

"I think we'll know Monday night if we're going to shut down or we're going to keep going," said Sam Kuhn, one of the authority board members. "I think we should, but they look at the dollars."

"We're looking at a situation where the municipalities involved are being asked to provide more than $1 million over 10 years to provide minimal service," McLaughlin said.

Ridership has averaged about 1,000 people a month since the service was scaled back, Kuhn said.

A recovery plan for the authority commissioned by the Transportation Department envisioned a five-year recovery plan, but Oyer said the time period is flexible.

Including repayment of the state, federal and local debts, Oyer said the cost of each ride is likely to exceed $35.

The burden for local taxpayers would be $12 or more per ride, he said.

According to an independent audit conducted last year, much of the debt comes from federal subsidies earmarked for capital purchases in the late 1990s being used instead to pay for day-to-day operations.

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