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Transit Is ‘A Human Right’ And ‘Civil Right’: Port Authority CEO Reflects On Her First Few Months

Port Authority of Allegheny County
Port Authority CEO Katherine Kelleman.

Katharine Kelleman started work as Port Authority’s chief executive the first week of January, but she began immersing herself in the system well before. 

Take, for example, Kelleman's December house-hunting trip. She booked a hotel for herself and her husband near a bus layover location in Mount Lebanon; she knew operators and passengers would likely have a few more minutes to talk.

That’s her planning and operations background at work, Kelleman said about her first few months on the job.

“It makes it easier to learn the nuts and the bolts of the system,” she said. “Our core job is getting folks where they need to go, and that relies on solid planning and scheduling.”

The Port Authority of Allegheny County employs more than 2,600 people who are responsible for a fleet of more than 700 buses and 80 light rail vehicles. Each day, more than 200,000 riders rely on the system to get where they need to go. In making the Pittsburgh region a place that is good for all, Kelleman said the Port Authority has a responsibility to connect people.

“Transit is a human right and it’s a civil right,” she said. “Everything in our city and everything in our region is dependent on you being able to access it.”

Kelleman stressed that even people who don’t travel via transit still use transit.

“Because someone who took care of you at the airport, who took care of you in the emergency room, who helped you get a coffee. That person was on transit.”

Kelleman inherited a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan, a proposal to enforce cashless fare payment on the T and complications around ConnectCard machines, all of which have caused concern among riders who worry about how changes may affect low-income or fixed-income riders. Kelleman said she’s engaged in reviewing those plans, as well as surveying customers to ensure they feel well-served by the Port Authority.

“If our job is to serve our patrons and our community we need to start off with a good understanding, a benchmark, of what our patrons really think is important,” she said. “If a program feels great to us but it doesn't really provide that value back to the folks using us every day, we need to think twice about why we’re doing that.”

Port Authority has committed to holding a new round of meetings to discuss the impact of the proposed BRT system. The first meeting will be held Thursday, April 12 at 6 p.m. in Rankin. Meetings will be scheduled in each of the communities whose bus service could be affected by BRT, said a Port Authority spokesperson. Officials will present new options to address ongoing concerns about possible service cuts.

Concurrently, Kelleman is looking at how the way in which Port Authority develops property could be used to implement other changes as Pittsburgh and Allegheny County grow.

“Obviously, it's great if there's development that helps the tax base,” she said. “We also are looking at where does affordable housing go, what kind of retail use is most appropriate?”

She said that she’d like to see transit-oriented development further the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Do we have a chance to make [transit stations] easier for someone to access? Better access for a person with a disability is better access for everyone,” she said. “What's good for a wheelchair is good for a stroller. What's good for someone who might have a visual impairment from wayfinding is good for a tourist from out of town.”

Kelleman said she is committed to fulfilling Port Authority’s mission to connect people with where they want to go.

“As a public servant I have a chance to help build the kind of community that’s going to make my kids proud,” she said, adding that her children—aged 4 and 5—will graduate from high school here. “We’re here for the long haul.”

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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