Last updated: February 19. 2013 12:51PM - 414 Views

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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 in price from about $20,000 to $45,000 over the same period, Strelish recently told a 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 sharing and merging bus services with other agencies across the region.

Within 10 years, I think the proper thing to do would be the consolidation of counties, Strelish said.

The region's two largest local transportation systems, LCTA and the County of Lackawanna Transit System, already 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. Strelish isn't the only one who sees strength -- and improved financial opportunities -- in unity.

If we could put them together, we'd have the third largest transit agency in the commonwealth, 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 Oct. 10 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 mind 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 last week. Already one of its key recommendations has come to pass: LCTA took over the county-run shared ride program, which provides door-to-door service for elderly and disabled people who cannot use traditional bus routes. 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, 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, Fiume added. Like Strelish, however, he believes a measured approach is best.

I think it's a step-by-step process. We get this taken care of first with the shared ride, see how that's going, Fiume said. Several years down the road we'll take a look again at cross-county amalgamation.

While both systems receive 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.

It would take a lot of discussion and a lot of level heads, he said of combining the two systems.

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