PA: Fitzgerald Vows Transit Changes

May 22--Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said on Monday he'll help drive the evolution of the financially troubled Port Authority transit agency, insisting it will change one way or another.

"Changes are going to take place within the existing structure or within a new structure. ... However that comes about, it needs to come about," Fitzgerald said during a meeting with Tribune-Review editors and reporters.

Although Port Authority operates independently, Fitzgerald appoints its board members and signs off on $27.7 million in annual county funding that leverages more than $150 million from the state. That gives him considerable clout to influence change at an agency that operates on about $370 million a year. It faces a $64 million deficit next fiscal year.

As the Port Authority prepares to impose the largest service cuts in its 48-year history on Sept. 2, eliminating service to wide swaths of the county, Fitzgerald said he would like it to maintain "at least skeletal service" to all corners of the county, even if the service is infrequent and along only major arteries.

"That would be a core principle for me," Fitzgerald said.

Four months into his job, Fitzgerald is overseeing contract talks between Port Authority management and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, which represents 2,300 drivers, mechanics and other workers and 3,300 retirees. Their contract expires June 30.

Fitzgerald initiated negotiations in January, about three months earlier than usual, stressing the need to reach a concession-laden deal and to reduce management costs further.

"My whole administration is really involved almost on a daily basis. At least three to four days a week, we're meeting with Port Authority and the union," Fitzgerald said.

He said Gov. Tom Corbett and state legislators told him they "need to see savings from Port Authority, both in the union contract and on the management side, before they are willing to put more money from the state toward helping transit."

Scorching insults and fiery rebukes often punctuated the relationship between the union local and former County Executive Dan Onorato, a Democrat like Fitzgerald.

Union President Pat McMahon called Onorato a "union buster" and a hypocrite, and Onorato referred to union concession offers as nothing more than "a Band-aid."

McMahon's criticism of Onorato hasn't stopped. Moments before the authority authorized a record 35 percent service cut on April 27, McMahon said Onorato and the board "turned their backs" on what he said were more than $19 million in union concessions last year.

McMahon hasn't targeted Fitzgerald and instead has implored the Republican governor to ante up state money.

"It's calmer because (Fitzgerald is) telling the transit union that he's on their side," said Jim Roddey, former county executive and chairman of the county's GOP committee. "As soon as the deadline comes and they start the cutting, the rhetoric will ramp back up."

The union donated $7,500 to Fitzgerald's 2011 campaign and didn't donate to his Republican opponent, Mt. Lebanon businessman D. Raja, records show.

Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh political communication professor, said Fitzgerald wisely is trying "quiet diplomacy" with the union.

"His approach is quieter and much more behind-the-scenes to try to work something out," Shuster said. "He has avoided drawing a line in the sand, which is what has always happened before."

Labor concessions won't solve all of Port Authority's problems.

Operationally, Fitzgerald said the agency should cross-train drivers to operate buses and light-rail T cars to prevent driver shortages and delays, and needs to address a fare-collector shortage that occasionally leaves T booths unmanned.

He said the agency should seek sources of revenue, including increased advertising sales and corporate contributions, that could help extend the T's free-fare zone to Station Square.

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said the agency plans to recall 53 laid-off drivers and two furloughed toll collectors and to increase cross-training. The agency recently OK'd plans to accept a wider range of ads, including those pitching alcohol.

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