Harrisburg’s public transit network has a bleak road ahead of it.
Capital Area Transit (CAT) will end the year with a $700,000 deficit, but new Executive Director Richard Farr can’t explain why.
“It’s like an archeological dig trying to figure out how we got this far in the red with no foreseeable way out,” Farr told Harrisburg City Council on Tuesday night at its legislative session.
Farr said that CAT’s “worst case scenario” would be to reduce service to narrow the deficit. Administrator salaries have been cut to the furthest possible extent, he said, which leaves the company eyeing its other major expenditures – insurance and maintenance – as possible areas to shave costs.
CAT has the highest maintenance costs in the state, Farr said, outpacing major public transit authorities like Philadelphia’s SEPTA system. It also has the third-highest labor costs.
And yet, CAT buses leave customers stranded every day due to driver shortages, Farr said.
CAT executives hope to join an insurance network to help mitigate some of its maintenance costs. But the source of the high labor expenditures remains hazy, especially since the agency has slashed administrator salaries in recent years by leaving high-level positions vacant.
Like most public transit authorities, CAT derives little revenue from fares and other consumer sources. State and federal dollars constitute the bulk of its funding, which make its annual revenues relatively stable and predictable.
“This isn’t a revenue problem, it’s an expenditure problem,” Farr said. “Some of these costs are legacy… but we have a big hurdle we need to work through.”
Farr hopes to avoid service reductions and said he has already averted driver layoffs once since taking the helm of CAT earlier this year.
Even if service reductions are avoided this year, they may be inevitable, said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
“Eventually, they’ll have to cut service because they’ll have to use next year’s funding to pay this year’s line of credit,” Papenfuse explained.
Farr said he knows that the transit authority needs all hands on deck to avoid worsening its deficit or its service quality by the end of the year. Starting next week, CAT executives will draft a plan to save the transit authority, he said. That plan will eventually be made public.
“We have to earn the trust back of the community,” Farr said. “It will have to be transparent. It will be painful for us. We will hear things we don’t want to hear, but we have to do it.”
Farr also noted some initiatives CAT has undertaken in the past year, such as implementing mandatory annual trainings for all drivers and partnering with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission on a bus stop optimization study.
The agency also has a $1.3 million grant to update its fare collection technology, so fully electronic fare systems could be on the streets by the end of this year. CAT hopes to roll out a regional transportation fare card as part of that project. That card would give riders access to public transportation systems in neighboring counties, including Lebanon, Lancaster and York.