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Fitzgerald Says New Port Authority CEO 'Wants To Connect People' To Jobs And Opportunities

Margaret Sun
90.5 WESA
A Port Authority bus drives though downtown Pittsburgh.

Katharine Eagan Kelleman began her new job Tuesday as the CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County. She takes over at a time when the transit agency has a lot on its plate, everything from a proposal to build a Bus Rapid Transit link between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland and beyond, to devising a cashless fare enforcement system that doesn’t profile certain riders.

Kelleman replaced David Donahoe who served seven months as interim CEO after Ellen McLean’s contract was not renewed. She comes from Tampa’s Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which is much smaller than PAT, operating on a budget one-quarter the size of the Port Authority’s and with about one-fifth the number of riders. 

90.5 WESA’s Kevin Gavin spoke with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald about what he hopes Kelleman can accomplish.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KEVIN GAVIN: What did you and the Port Authority board see in her that she would be right for this position?

RICH FITZGERALD: Katharine just rose above everybody. I think everybody unanimously on the search committee and on the board was so impressed with her enthusiasm, her knowledge, her willingness to be very collaborative and very innovative. This is some of the things she did, she has done in Tampa and done in Hillsborough County -- one of the first in the country to do the last mile with Ride Share using innovation and technology. And I think the Port Authority has really come a long way in the last few years. But I think there's potential to go even further and really improve connections for people that sometimes have difficulty getting to jobs to school, etc.

GAVIN: The former permanent CEO, Ellen McClain, was an internal hire. This time you looked outside the agency. Why so?

FITZGERALD: Well, I think, first of all, Katharine is a transportation person. She has a national reputation. She serves on a lot of the national organizations within transit and transportation. And I think you want somebody who's really versed in planning and transportation and the model we used was the airport; we wanted to get somebody like what [Airport Authority Executive Director] Christina Cassotis has done at the airport to really take the organization to the next level. There's a lot of new technology out there that's around transportation, obviously in Pittsburgh around autonomous vehicles that are being tested and developed and done right here. We can be part of that Traffic 21 that CMU has been dealing with with smart signaling and communication between vehicles. I think there's another a new way we can move forward with our smartphones and how to pay and how to get from point A to Point B. And I think I think we're going to be able to see transit which is such a major component of our economic development strategy work with Katharine working with everybody in the community.

GAVIN: Do you have any concerns about the difference in the size of the transit agency the one that she's coming from compared to the Port Authority?

FITZGERALD: No. And if we go back just a little while, [Allegheny County Health Department Director] Karen Hacker had never run a health department before. She's doing a tremendous job; we're so lucky to have someone like that. Christina Cassotis had never run an airport before; she had been a consultant, worked in the industry, but had never run a major airport before. I mean, I don't think anybody would argue that the three years she has been here we have seen nothing but success at the Pittsburgh International Airport. So I think everything Katharine has done working in the Baltimore system, working in the Tampa system, working in the industry for her entire career, sets her up in a very good way to come to a city that's heading in a very positive way almost ready to take to the next level and I think Katharine's is a perfect example. She's ready to go to the next level in her career as is as is Allegheny County, so I think it's a perfect fit.

GAVIN: Earlier this year, you said one of your priorities for 2018 was transportation opportunities and improvements. What have you shared with Ms. Kelleman regarding what you would like to see in 2018 and well beyond?

FITZGERALD: I think in talking to Katharine and the direction that we would like to see the Port Authority, it's about working with the community. It's a part of an economic development and community development strategy. It's about improving the quality of life. It's not the only thing out there to do that but it's a piece,  it's a component of transit-oriented development. And I think she wants to connect people from different parts of the community, of different parts of the county, to the jobs and the opportunities that are out there. I think that'll be where she wants to go and I think I would like to see that as well.

GAVIN: There were some changes last year. The switch to a one-zone fare system and steps toward a cashless fare system on the light rail plus a proposed enforcement of payment on the light rail which became a bit controversial. Critics say that armed PAT police would be enforcing it. Where do you stand on it? Will she re-evaluate what is already been put out there?

FITZGERALD:  I want to let Katharine come in and evaluate how we do fare collections, how we do a lot of the different enforcement implementations are going to have to be done; let her talk to folks in the community, let her get a sense of what policies make sense and then she will be working with the Port Authority board and implementing policies that make sense.

GAVIN: Could it be could it be almost a start from scratch, give her that chance to study it and come up with her own ideas?

FITZGERALD:  We brought someone like Katharine in who can really bring best practices from what she's used in in her former job and what she's seen around the country and other places. How they pay their fares and how they collect their fares and they enforce things. You know, that's something she's going to really want to take a look at and we'll go from there.

GAVIN: But you hear what people are saying, the potential fears that they're expressing that certain people will be targeted.

FITZGERALD:  Absolutely not. We are not going to be selectively targeting people based on their ethnicity or based on physical appearance those type of things. I mean, that's not what the Port Authority’s about. I know Katharine in talking to her, and if you know her heart, she is a very welcoming, accepting individual who wants to treat everybody the same. I hope nobody gets the sense that the Port Authority is going to be trying to target certain people, because that's not in the interest of PAT. The interest is to make transportation better. The interest is to make more people connected to the opportunities that are out there and are starting to occur in Allegheny County.