PA: After LCTA Charges, Not Merging Was Good Idea

June 06--Indictments handed down Wednesday reinforced Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi's decision not to merge with a Wilkes-Barre area bus system in which two executives are charged with falsifying the number of passengers to gain more state money.

Stanley Strelish, the director of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority, who is charged with theft by deception and other offenses, pushed to absorb Hazleton Public Transit two years ago.

"I think it was good for us that it didn't happen," Yannuzzi said Thursday.

Although a state report then said merging the county and Hazleton systems could save $1 million, Hazleton officials considered that estimate too optimistic.

Hazleton's system employs just three people but contracts with two private companies, which drive and service city-owned buses. In contrast, the Luzerne County authority employs drivers and mechanics and owns a garage.

When Hazleton officials pointed out how heavily privatized their city's bus service is, county council dropped merger plans.

While the merger talks were active, however, the state began giving Hazleton's operating grant to the county authority, which forwarded the money to Hazleton.

That is still happening, although Hazleton Public Transit Director Ralph Sharp asked if the money could go directly to Hazleton during his annual review session with officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

He thinks the indictments against the Luzerne authority officials increase the chances that PennDOT will agree.

PennDOT also examined Hazleton Transit records but found no indications that the number of senior citizen riders has been inflated.

"There are no concerns about Hazleton Public Transit," Sharp said.

Fewer senior citizens rode buses in the winter, but Sharp attributes that to harsh weather. Ridership has picked up in the spring.

On the Luzerne County authority buses, the indictment says, drivers were intimidated into overcounting senior citizen passengers so the authority could get extra pay from the state.

Drivers press a button each time a senior citizen boards, but testified that they were encouraged to press the button extra times.

Strelish and Operations Manager Robb Henderson were charged in the indictment.

In Hazleton, Sharp said drivers also press a button to record senior citizen riders, but the drivers also keep a count on paper.

"We have a double check," he said.

Last week, officials from Luzerne and Lackawanna counties commenced a study into forming a regional transportation authority to oversee buses, the airport and proposed passenger train service between New York and Scranton.

Hazleton officials haven't been looped into the discussions, but Yannuzzi said the new plan makes more sense to him than a merger with the Luzerne County authority.

"They're talking about a commission or whatever to oversee what services we do have and what we are lacking. I could see that," he said.

Robert Fiume, director of the County of Lackawanna Transit System, said Hazleton, where he previously ran the transit service, has an option to join the study.

"They could be part, but they would have to express interest," he said.

kjackson@standardspeaker.com

Copyright 2014 - Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.

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