Port Authority CEO Expects Some Relief From Federal Government

On today's program: Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman explains why the agency should receive support from President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package; and Pittsburgh is one of four cities to get a “Reforestation Hub” assessment that will help improve city resources and carbon capture.

Balancing access and COVID-19 safety, Port Authority hopes to receive more federal relief
(0:00 — 9:32) 

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion dollar relief package includes direct payments to most Americans, expanded unemployment benefits, assistance to small businesses, grants to state and local governments and $20 billion for hard-hit transit agencies.

Katharine Kelleman, CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, expects her agency will get some share of that money. 

“I would be surprised if one of the 25 busiest transit agencies, and pre-pandemic, the fifteenth biggest bus agency in the country, were not considered an investment meriting national attention,” says Kelleman.

The challenge comes in trying to maintain regular service while also keeping buses from being too full, to reduce the possibility of spreading COVID-19.

The Port Authority received $141 million from the CARES Act, but Kelleman says that money is not a nest egg: It’s meant to support ongoing service in light of reduced fare revenue due to fewer riders. The Port Authority also receives money from state turnpike tolls and alcohol taxes, and both decreased during the pandemic. 

“It points to a larger conversation on transit funding,” says Kelleman. The agency receives money from the turnpike through the state Department of Transportation, but this arrangement will end next year, according to Act 89, the law that authorizes this. In 2022, the state will have to come up with $400 million to cover the shortfall

“The conversations we’re having now about funding for transit were going to happen, we’re just having them earlier.”

Kelleman says the Port Authority is rolling out upgrades and improvements, despite the financial challenges the pandemic brought on. For example, construction for the agency’s bus rapid transit line will begin this year and continue into 2022. The BRT will serve Downtown and Oakland with three branches to access Highland Park, Squirrel Hill, Greenfield, Wilkinsburg, and the city’s eastern suburbs.

Kelleman believes ridership will bounce back after the pandemic.

“It will look different,” says Kelleman. “But Pittsburgh has, at this point, a 160-year tradition of using transit.”

After a ‘Reforestation Hub’ assessment, Pittsburgh may be able to use downed trees as revenue
(9:36 — 18:00)

Pittsburgh is looking to its urban forests as not only foliage but also a revenue generator.

The city has been selected as one of four nationwide to receive a “Reforestation Hub” assessment from Cambium Carbon and the Arbor Day Foundation. The assessment will help develop a pilot project to improve resource efficiency, increase revenue and carbon capture.

“The City of Pittsburgh’s tree canopy coverage is currently estimated at 41%, after a loss of 3% of total land cover between 2010 and 2015,” according to a City of Pittsburgh release announcing this program. 

“We’re gonna get a feasibility study or a blueprint on how to access some of these new revenue streams,” says Rebecca Kierman, the principal resilience planner for the city.

Pittsburgh is considering two areas of possible revenue: wood reuse from downed trees and carbon offsets.

“It would help us to figure out how to create a circular economy or a circular system for our woodwaste, so that we can then take that funding and put it back into replacing those trees or reforestation efforts.”

Kierman says this revenue could fund management of the city’s Greenways system: a set of 13 publicly owned properties totaling 1,200 acres. 

The city is also trying to recoup it’s shrinking tree canopy.

“We are really, actively working hard to come to a no net loss sort of policy around tree canopy,” says Lisa Ceoffe, the city’s forester. This policy includes tracking downed trees to ultimately replace them. 

“We’re looking towards doing more responsible planning overall,” says Ceoffe. “In general, the trees will provide for a more pleasant experience, they’ll allow us to contribute to the better air quality around the city, and make it a better place that people will want to come to live.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.