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State Legislators Investigate The Merits Of Emergency Procurement Contracts

Matt Rourke

On today’s program: State Rep. Jason Ortitay explains why emergency procurement contracts, used extensively during the pandemic, should be considered more carefully; Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman highlights short and long-range projects defined in the organization’s 25-year draft plan that lays out the future for the public transportation agency; and Pittsburghers for Public Transit executive director Laura Chu Wiens weighs in on what advocates and transit users think of the plan.

State House probes emergency procurement process
(0:00 - 6:00)

The Pennsylvania State House Subcommittee on Government Operations recently held hearings to investigate the state’s use of the emergency procurement process, which allows government agencies to forego the public bidding process for contracts.

According to Spotlight PA, the state requested $340 million through the process in 2020, which is up from an annual average of $81 million.

Rep. Jason Ortitay, chairman of the subcommittee, says he noticed a twofold increase in the use of the emergency procurement code throughout the pandemic.

"We want to see what's going on here," he says. "Why can't we use the regular procurement code itself with our government agencies? Is there something wrong? Something holding it back? Why are they defaulting to the emergency procurement code?"

Ortitay says the emergency procurement process should be more transparent with stricter limits.

"There is a subjective nature to this and its perspective of what dictates an emergency situation, and I think there's a better way to codify it," he says. "On top of that, we need to look at adding additional oversight to this process."

Ortithay says the state using the emergency procurement process to hire a new contact tracing company isn’t necessary.

"I think it's a waste to go through the emergency procurement process itself. If they want to do contact tracing, I think it's something we should be doing through our existing employees, through the Department of Health or through our National Guard," he says. "It's not something we should be implementing into a $34 million contract on the back of the taxpayers here."

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman lays out the NEXTransit plan
(7:13 - 15:10)

The Port Authority of Allegheny County released a public draft of its 25-year plan, called NEXTransit. It outlines needs and possible improvements to routes, infrastructure, and accessibility for the region’s public transportation.

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman says the organization hasn’t had a long-range plan like this in decades.

“This is it for living memory, this is the time that we get to say, where are we going to go as a community into the future,” says Kelleman.

The Port Authority is holding more listening sessions and accepting comments now that the draft is published.

Kelleman says some projects previewed in the draft include the East Busway extension, and connecting the Strip to the Hill District via “vertical connection.” However, more immediate projects include a new bus garage and creating a Downtown transit center to relieve bus congestion in that area.

“Regardless of if travel is changing, one thing we heard loud and clear from people was they wanted to see more frequent service,” says Kelleman.

Transit advocacy organization points out issues in transit plan
(15:14 - 22:30)

Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), which advocates for expanded public transportation, has also been waiting on the Port Authority’s 25-year plan. Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of the organization, says while they’re excited about NEXTransit, they have a few concerns.

Chu Wiens praises the plan for acknowledging affordability as a priority, but says it could go further. She suggests those from low-income households should be able to show their Electronic Benefits Transfer card to bus drivers to ride for free.

“It wouldn't require any particular work by Port Authority to be able to make that happen,” she says.

Chu Wiens also says she would like to see this transit plan incorporate community feedback on key issues such as affordable fares, direct routes to certain areas, and accessibility. These are apparent to residents of Pittsburgh, she says, but may not be to those developing this transit plan.

“I am concerned that the pandemic and the limited amount that they're able to get out into the community has affected the spread of feedback that they've been receiving,” says Chu Wiens. “We still have some concerns about the draft plan that we're hoping to see addressed.”

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.

Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Eoin is a production assistant for The Confluence and a senior at NC State University studying political science. He got his start in broadcasting at WKNC, NC State's college radio station. When he's not working, he enjoys hiking, surfing, and listening to music.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
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