ATA was created as Public Transportation Authority for rural north central Pennsylvania in 1976
ATA's history now spans three decades. It's creation was the inspired work of county and regional planners and elected officials who wanted to assure that rural communities might benefit from funds for public transportation made available to transit authorities in Pennsylvania and further to assure that they were properly planned and managed to reach many un-served rural areas.
The Area Transportation Authority of North Central Pennsylvania (ATA) emerged from an effort spearheaded by the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission (NCPRPDC). The year was 1972 and then Governor Milton Shapp asked the Commonwealth’s local development districts (LDD’s) to respond to a number of questions concerning the social and economic characteristics of their respective regions.
The NCPRPDC was one of two local development districts to respond to the Governor’s request, the other being the Southwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission (SWPRPDC). In doing so, the NCPRPDC formed a task force commonly referred to as the Regional Rural Transportation Advisory Committee (RRTAC), to investigate transportation mobility issues as they pertained to the residents of north central Pennsylvania. The RRTAC was comprised of county commissioners, local elected officials, private transportation providers, social service agency directors, and representatives from the region’s various private businesses, which ranged from the region’s largest industries to its smallest retail concerns.
Following nearly two years of meetings, the RRTAC concluded that, indeed, a mobility problem existed in north central Pennsylvania. The problem, although most acute with transit dependents, cut through the broad spectrum of all residents in north central Pennsylvania. In fact, contrary to beliefs held at that time, many transit dependents actually had some form of transportation available to them through one or, in many instances, several social service agencies operating throughout the region. Also, many residents cited the lack of reliable transportation as a key reason prohibiting them from accessing gainful employment.
In responding to the governor’s request, the NCPRPDC suggested that through their association with the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a demonstration project could be established which would serve as a test to gauge the feasibility of establishing a public transit program sometime in the future. Given the enthusiasm that was shared by the RRTAC members, the Board of the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Development Commission decided to apply for an ARC grant and utilize the funds to establish a two-year demonstration project, which was called North Central Transportation.
Based upon the success that was evidenced during the demonstration project, and the governor’s continued interest, ARC intensified its effort at the federal level to lengthen the demonstration phase by involving the US Department of Transportation. With USDOT as an ally, ARC and other officials in Washington fashioned the Section 147 demonstration program. The ATA received two Section 147 grants. Both grants were administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), which oversaw the Section 147 grant process for Pennsylvania.
During this time, the North Central Regional Planning and Development Commission made application to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for a planning grant that would develop the operation of a rural transportation program within north central Pennsylvania. The planning requirements ultimately would serve as the basis for a state operating assistance grant application package. ATA was subsequently awarded a grant and the work of planning and operating a public transportation system for north central Pennsylvania intensified. All the while, RRTAC remained integrally involved by contributing to the planning process.
One particular aspect of the plan dealt with the organizational model of the proposed system. Following through investigation, the RRTAC recommended that a regional transportation authority be formed. This recommendation was made because an authority would have the optimum operational and financial flexibility to accomplish what the RRTAC envisioned. When the final report was given to the NCPRPDC Board of Directors, all counties unanimously agreed to form a regional, rural transportation authority. The Commissioners of Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, McKean and Potter officially incorporated the Area Transportation Authority of North Central Pennsylvania on May 19, 1976.
The ATA became the first regional, rural transportation authority within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and to the best of everyone’s knowledge, the nation. Today, over 1,000 rural transportation authorities exist nationally. ATA’s mission statement demanded that it provide a reasonable level of transportation to the residents of north central Pennsylvania at a price they could afford to pay. A second mission of the ATA was to utilize and develop advances in transportation technology, whenever possible, such as those derived from the use of computers. These mission statements are as vital today as they were 25 years ago.
From its inception, ATA has taken the lead in actively structuring a working partnership between the local, state and federal governments. ATA lobbied for, and received, the first Pennsylvania State Rural Operating Assistance Grant. Likewise, ATA lobbied for, and received, the first Federal Rural Transit Operating Assistance Grant. In doing so, the authority has thus far been able to minimize the financial involvement of its local funding base, namely the six incorporating counties.
This is in fulfillment of an informal commitment the original board of directors made to the respective local governments at the time of incorporation. Simply stated, the commitment was to work earnestly to minimize the money needed from the incorporators to operate the authority. The annual bills to the county are less today in real dollar terms than they were when the authority was first formed. This is due, for the most part, to federal operating assistance that became available, as well as continued scrutiny and control exercised by the board and staff of the authority’s operating expenditures.
Although no one can predict what the state and federal government will do with funding for rural public transportation in the future, local officials can be certain that the authority will continue to strive to keep local funding to a minimum. Adequate funding has always been a challenge for ATA and rural transit in general. Although somewhat improved in recent years, the gap between rural and urban transit is still astonishingly large. For every dollar rural transit receives per capita, urban transit received approximately $25.
During those early years, it was a priority of the board of directors and boards of county commissioners to coordinate social service agency transportation. In fact, the six boards of county commissions adopted a resolution that mandated the coordination of transportation from all social services agencies with the ATA. This was extremely important for a number of reasons. First, as the local government responsible for many of the social services, the commissioners were eager to consolidate transportation services that were offered by these agencies with an organization that would operate the services on a more businesslike basis.
At the same time, the authority would shield the counties from any current or potential liability resulting from any claims made by anyone arising from the transportation of any of the agencies’ clients. Another equally important concern was the commissioners’ desire to make transportation services available to a greater number of county residents. There are many stories documenting the fact that many households were served by several different vans from several different social service agencies transporting several different household members to various destinations.
Various restrictions prohibited the coordination of trips between agencies, let alone providing transportation for public purposes. ATA has worked diligently to eliminate these concerns. For over 40 years, ATA has continued to progress. From its infancy, until now, the authority’s board and staff have positioned the authority on the cutting edge of rural transportation and mobility. While the authority has been heralded for the many firsts that it has developed or experienced as a rural regional transportation authority, the board of directors and the staff will never forget what the bottom line of the ATA is all about, and that is people.
The ATA is an active “citizen” in the communities its serves, working in support of community projects and providing transportation resources when and where they will extend the mobility and the economic well-being of people living in north central Pennsylvania.
Elevation Drawing of the new ATA Transit Center in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Opened in June 2013.