Port Authority changes in works

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bill would shift control of transit agency's board from county executive June 11, 2013 12:14 am

By Kate Giammarise / Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau  

HARRISBURG -- A proposed bill in the state Senate would strip the Allegheny  County executive of the power to shape the Port Authority board.

The bill, which was voted out of a Senate committee Monday, would give more  power to state legislators to appoint the agency's board members.

The proposal, put forth by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, a Republican  from rural Jefferson County, would grant appointing authority for the board  to a broader group of officials including the governor, legislative leaders, the  Allegheny County executive, county council and the mayor of Pittsburgh.

Currently, all nine members of the board are appointed by the Allegheny County  executive and approved by county council.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald blasted the bill Monday as politically motivated  and Mr. Scarnati as unwilling to meet with him to discuss the matter.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he is not opposed to some board members being state  appointees, but said as it stands now, he believes the bill would undo overhauls  that have strengthened the Port Authority in the past 18 months such as $60  million in union concessions, work rule changes, a more proactive board  in respect to economic development and more private contributions for  sponsorships.

"You need to have somebody in charge. You cannot run this agency by  committee," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

The Port Authority has struggled with route cuts, fare increases and retiree costs  in recent years.

Mr. Scarnati's legislation would change the agency's board from nine to 11  members: one appointee from the governor, one from the Senate president pro  tem, one from the Senate minority leader, one from the speaker of the House,  one from the House minority leader, one appointee from the mayor of Pittsburgh,  one from the Allegheny County executive and four jointly appointed by two atlarge county council members.

The bill also directs PennDOT "to study and analyze potential modernization  proposals ... including regionalization, consolidation, and privatization of  services," according to a memo circulated about the bill. A report would then  make recommendations to elected officials and the board "in regards to initiatives  which could be undertaken to achieve cost-saving and efficiency goals.

Mr. Scarnati believes that since about half of the Port Authority's funds comes  from the state, legislators should have more say than they do now.

"With all this state money going into it, I think the state has significant skin in the  game and ought to have a seat at the table," he said.

State assistance accounts for 54 percent of the Port Authority's total operating  budget, agency spokesman Jim Ritchie said. He said the agency has no position  on the bill.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority -- which serves Bucks,  Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties -- has a board that  includes appointees from the governor and House and Senate leaders.

Mr. Scarnati said he has spoken with Mr. Fitzgerald about the matter, as well as  having met with Allegheny County Democratic senators such as Jay Costa, Jim  Brewster and Jim Ferlo.   

Mr. Fitzgerald "wants to keep some unbridled control over the entire authority,"  Mr. Scarnati said.

Mr. Scarnati's bill passed the Senate appropriations committee Monday by a 16- 10 vote; it could get a vote before the full Senate as early as Wednesday.

Mr. Costa, of Forest Hills, the Senate's Minority leader who unsuccessfully  offered amendments to the bill Monday, said he would favor appointments by  the governor and legislative leaders -- but with four appointments continuing to  be from the Allegheny County executive, as well as other appointments from  Democrats and Republicans on county council.

Both Mr. Ferlo and Mr. Costa, speaking in a committee meeting Monday, called  Mr. Scarnati's bill "overreaching."