News regarding the annual New York state budget certainly looks upbeat for Centro, the public bus system that serves four Central New York counties. State legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo hammered out a tentative deal announced March 30, including a $30 million grant earmarked for Centro’s operating expenses. Lawmakers will vote on the budget later this week, but it‘s not yet a done deal.
In the meantime, Centro has held a series of public hearings across the region to discuss the serious fiscal crisis they potentially still face. If funding is not secured, Centro will be running at a deficit of approximately $4.5 million, which will lead to draconian cuts in service to stay in the bus biz.
The proposed trims in Syracuse that have received the most publicity include: all bus service on Sundays and holidays; late-night service (the final routes on weeknights would be the 9 p.m. departures from the Syracuse hub, 6 p.m. on Saturdays); ending midday service for routes 82 (Baldwinsville) and 462 (Manlius); and 30-day unlimited ride passes being restructured into passes with a fixed number of prepaid rides.
The bulk of Centro’s funding comes from subsidies from both the federal and state governments. However, their operating costs have risen, and the subsidization it receives has not increased at the same pace, resulting in a deficit.
The basic Centro fare in Syracuse has been $2 since 2011, but in order to beat the deficit, the company would have to charge riders $5. “While many people can afford a fare increase, many people cannot,” said Centro executive director Frank Kobliski. “It would not only be unaffordable for very many people, it would drive business away and would end up being counterproductive.”
The transit system held a series of public hearings regarding the proposed cuts in Rome, Oswego, Syracuse, Auburn, Utica and Fulton. A handful of Rome’s citizens turned out at the March 9 hearing, including Carol Marziale, a retiree who has depended entirely on Centro’s bus service to go shopping, to her doctor’s appointments and the bank. “I came here not just for myself, but on behalf of all the other seniors and disabled people who need Centro buses to get around,” she said at Rome City Hall.
Marziale was also keen to offer suggestions for other possible cuts that could save money: “A lot of times, it will just be me and the driver on a bus. They could use smaller buses during the less-busy times of the day. That would waste less gas.”
Marziale also worried about her discounted senior rate of 50 cents, half of the standard $1 adult fare in Rome. However, Centro is absolutely not considering eliminating the discounts for seniors and disabled passengers. “For every person who would say that that’s OK, there’d be far more people who would say, ‘Don’t you dare raise the price.’ There’s no majority opinion on any of these subjects,” Kobliski said.
More than 100 people attended the March 11 hearing at the Pirro Convention Center, as citizen comments ranged from simple statements of fact to passionate pleas to anger-filled allegations. Agnes McCray, a disabled woman from Syracuse, said, “(Centro) affects the whole community, from persons with disabilities, or as I call it, ‘extravagant differences,’ and low-income persons as well. We cannot afford to have our city shut down, and it affects the economy of what we do here in Syracuse.” McCray said.
Julius L. Lawrence, a minister at the Metro Harvest Assembly of God Church, noted that he and many members of his church use Centro transportation. “I open up the church on Sunday morning,” he said, “and if there’s no buses on Sunday, that’s a problem.” Lawrence is also critical of Centro’s communications with the public regarding the cuts: “Centro’s been using emails and stuff, but a lot of people don’t have email, especially people who ride the bus.”
Kobliski believes Centro has adequately done its part to inform the public, however. “We have put on our website, we have put on various social media, we have done handouts at all the public hearings, and all the information has been the same, and it’s been concise and detailed,” he said. “Yet through hearsay or scuttlebutt or whatever, it comes out the other end of the conversation string a lot more different than when it went in.”
Despite bouts of March madness from area bus riders, Centro’s money woes seem to be on the mend for now, as long as state lawmakers agree. “I’ve been here 38 years, and I’ve never seen such a positive response from the Senate and the Assembly in terms of their philosophical reaction to the problem.” Kobliski said before the proposed budget was announced. “The last big push will be to reconcile with the governor’s office.”