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Proposed $6 million funding boost could spare LANTA service cuts

LANTA is facing a funding gap as American Rescue Plan funding runs dry. But Executive Director Owen O'Neil says a proposed $6 million funding boost from the state could plug the hole and more.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A proposed funding boost for Pennsylvania's public transportation could stave off cuts at the Lehigh Valley's transit authority as it runs through the last of its COVID relief funding.

As part of his 2024-25 budget address Tuesday, Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed dedicating more of the state's sales tax revenue to fund transit authorities across Pennsylvania. The shift in funding would allocate $283 million more for the authorities. Most of that funding would go to SEPTA in Philadelphia, but LANTA would see an additional $6 million, according to the Shapiro administration.

The extra money would plug an anticipated gap in LANTA's budget next year, said Owen O'Neil, its executive director. While LANTA has expanded its service since 2020, including its first express routes, it would need to reduce services if new funding doesn't emerge, he said.

"We've been adding services to kind of respond to regional growth. At the same time, costs have been going up," O'Neil said Wednesday.

Since 2022, LANTA has used between $5 and $6 million a year of American Rescue Plan funding to plug revenue gaps caused by the pandemic, O'Neil said. But that money is about to dry up, he said.

The money was lifeline as ridership numbers plummeted in 2020. It fell to about 33% of typical figures when people went into lockdown, and the totals are still only about 95% of pre-pandemic figures, O'Neil said. And LANTA only returned bus fares to pre-pandemic prices last month; it had previously cut the cost of 31-day passes by 84% in a bid to limit riders from interacting with drivers and potentially spreading the virus.

O'Neil said it's not yet clear what services would see cuts to balance the budget if extra funding doesn't emerge. LANTA operates on a $65 million budget; $48.7 million is dedicated to its bus services, $13.5 million goes to van transit while $2.8 million goes to serving Carbon County.

"We'd look at the poorly performing routes and try to target those kinds of routes first. But there would end up being some impact to all the routes and all riders to get to the level we would need to get to," O'Neil said.

It remains to be seen how much lawmakers will support Shapiro's $48.3 billion budget plan. The most high-profile aspects focus on education, including a proposal to spend an extra $1.1 billion on basic education and reorganizing Pennsylvania's state-owned universities and community colleges under a single-governing body.

Shapiro pitched the extra support for public transit as part of a larger investment in economic development. The highlight of that strategy calls for taking out a $500 million bond to finance economic development projects across the state. Pennsylvania has not had a dedicated economic development strategy in nearly 20 years, Shapiro said, and surrounding states are spending far more to attract and retain businesses.

While Democrats applauded the overall budget plan as a good place to begin negotiations, Republicans have chided it as fiscally irresponsible. The budget would be balanced through a $3 billion infusion from the state's $14 billion surplus.