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Out of one-time fixes, Centro faces big cuts to public transit service

Chris Kreussling
via Flickr

Central New York’s public transit system is facing a sizeable budget gap and it's proposing a major reduction in service if more funding isn’t provided.

This is not the first year Centro has spent more money running buses in its four central New York county service area than it’s taken in to do so, but according to the public transit authority’s executive director, Frank Kobliski, they’ve run out of one-time funding streams to fill the hole.

"We’ve been very vocal about sliding into an abyss and I guess this is a bad side of a good effort," he said during an interview. "We’ve been able to save the ship every year. Well now people need to understand and a lot of people don’t believe it, that we’ve run out of those opportunities, but this is not something that we’ve been silent on." 

Kobliski says they first saw this situation coming several years ago. State and federal funding to public transit authorities has been all but flat. The other revenue stream for Centro is a portion of the mortgage recording tax, but that’s actually decreasing.

"The housing collapse, or depression, whatever you want to call it, has not been kind to any of the recipients of that tax," he said.

A dark window

So Centro is staring at a $5 million hole as it puts together its next budget. It’s put forward a plan to eliminate Sunday and holiday bus service and stop running buses late at night.

It’s gotten people’s attention. Riders and community advocates say it will impact people who work odd shifts and the disabled and working poor.

Late night and Sunday ridership is significantly lower than the numbers that ride the bus weekdays, according to Centro.

Kobliski is directing people’s concerns to lawmakers, as he’s been doing, saying only they have the power to increase funding in the state and federal budget. If a new funding structure isn’t found, he warns they could be in the same position again next year, even with these cuts.

"You’re looking in a very dark window," he responded, "and if something isn’t done now for the forthcoming fiscal year, next year is going to be even worse. And there’s no two ways about it."

There are two things Kobliski says are out of the question for how Centro could try to close the gap on its own. First, Centro has never borrowed money to shrink previous shortfalls. Kobliski shot down the idea of starting now.

"What are we going to do the following year when the deficit is bigger and you can’t even pay off the loan you’ve already taken out?" he asked. "That is a death plunge."

As for increasing bus fare, ridership has seen modest growth, according to Centro, but fares are too small a portion of Centro’s revenue.

"I honestly believe that our community could not tolerate any kind of a fare increase that would have any kind of net positive effect on the big picture," Kobliski said.

Not fair

During a recent frigid morning commute time at Centro’s main transfer hub in downtown Syracuse, most people are huddled inside the heated waiting area, but a few people are braving the cold, including Yuanita. She’s 54 years old, but didn’t want give her last name. She’s out of work due to a disability, so the bus is her only way of getting around.

"When I go to church, I ride the bus, take the bus to church. And with them cutting out on Sundays, I don’t know how I’m going to get to church now on Sundays," she said. God will find a way, she adds.

As Yuanita talks, a curious Rhonda Clingerman approaches. When told about the possible cuts, she has an unfit-for-publication response. Here’s the one that’s okay: "That’s messed up, I’m sorry, that’s messed up." 

Clingerman is a frequent bus rider, often to run errands for her disabled mother. She proudly displays a monthly unlimited ride card, which Centro is also considering eliminating.

"I don’t want them to get rid of the unlimited bus ride passes because my worker gets me this and I ride the bus all the time," said, before a bus pulls up. "I have to get this James Street bus so I really have to go."

Centro has renegotiated labor contracts with its drivers in recent years. Health insurance costs more and new hires no longer earn a pension. The staff is also leaner than it used to be, mostly through attrition. Union representative John Riley says they can’t give any more.

"We’ve given up a lot," he said. "And we’re at the point now, the union is, we don’t have anything left really to give. Although we sympathize with the budget shortfall that they have, we’re surely not in agreement with how they want to go about resolving it."

If the service cuts go into effect, Kobliski says that certainly means an even small staff.

Centro will hold a series of public hearings in the coming weeks. Centro officials say they’ll likely have to vote on a budget by late March. If money to close the deficit isn’t found, the service cuts would start in May.

Here's the public forum schedule:

Rome: Monday, March 9 Rome City Hall, Common Council Chambers, 2nd Floor; 198 North Washington Street 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Oswego: Tuesday, March 10 Oswego County Legislative Office Building, Legislative Chambers; 46 East Bridge Street, 4th Floor 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Syracuse: Wednesday, March 11 Oncenter; 800 South State Street Informational Session: 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Public Hearing: 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Auburn: Monday, March 16 Memorial City Hall, 1st Floor Council Chambers; 24 South Street 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Utica: Wednesday, March 18 Radisson Hotel-Utica Centre, Adirondack Room; 200 Genesee Street 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Fulton: Thursday, March 19 Fulton Municipal Building; 141 South First Street 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.