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Measure that gives state greater influence over Port Authority on fast track to g overnor

| Tuesday, June 11, 2013, 11:34 p.m.
Port Authority of Allegheny County's board meets on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. A bill that would shake up the board and ensure both political parties get to make appointments for the first time appears to be on a fast track to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.
Port Authority of Allegheny County's board meets on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. A bill that would shake up the board and ensure both political parties get to make appointments for the first time appears to be on a fast track to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.

A bill that would shake up Port Authority of Allegheny County's board of directors and ensure both parties get to make appointments for the first time appears on a fast track to Gov. Tom Corbett's desk, officials said on Tuesday.

What will happen when it lands there is unknown.

Corbett's office declined to comment on the bill by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. It is scheduled for a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate as early as Wednesday and would then go to the GOP-majority House, where “there is a lot of support,” said House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin.

“We're going to keep pushing back,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who would go from appointing all nine Port Authority board members to just one of 11 under the bill's provisions. Board members are unpaid.

Fitzgerald doesn't oppose state leaders appointing some members to the board, but he said Allegheny County's top elected official should get more than one appointment. Pennsylvania provides $206.6 million, or about 55.5 percent, of Port Authority's $372.1 million operating budget, while Allegheny County supplies $31.5 million, or about 8.5 percent. The city of Pittsburgh doesn't contribute.

“Are Pittsburghers going to call Joe Scarnati when their buses are late or the T (light rail) doesn't pick people up? Of course not. They know who to call. They call me, and we take care of it,” Fitzgerald said.

“The people need to have someone in charge who they can hold accountable and vote out. It can't be a senator from the middle of the state,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald called Scarnati's bill “cheap politics” and questioned why he wasn't trying to restructure other state-funded boards, noting that Port Authority's $5.49-per-rider cost was third-lowest among the region's 10 transit agencies. He said Corbett agreed last summer to provide the cash-strapped agency an extra $30 million a year in state support in exchange for labor cost cuts of $25 million annually.

Scarnati said he took issue with Fitzgerald requiring appointees to sign undated resignation letters he could use should they go against his or county council's policy wishes — a practice he scrapped under growing criticism.

Scarnati expressed concern over Fitzgerald's appointment of former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier to the Port Authority board and his failed attempt to install him as interim CEO after Fitzgerald orchestrated former CEO Steve Bland's ouster. Brimmeier was indicted in March on corruption charges.

“The Port Authority, under current management, has shown in the end they can't control legacy costs,” Miskin said, referring to high pension and retirement health care costs. “While some of their decisions have been better than they were previously, they clearly are still not doing the best they can.”

Miskin said legislative appointees could help strengthen the agency's ties with Harrisburg.

“Any time you have a monopoly, it's not good,” he said.

Under Scarnati's bill, the governor, the county executive, Pittsburgh's mayor and legislative leaders from each of the four caucuses would get one appointment apiece, while county council's two at-large members jointly would appoint four members based on recommendations from four community groups. The new board would be seated in 60 days after the bill is signed.

Based on current officer-holders, that would give Republicans a say in as many as seven of the 11 board appointments. Because each of the four caucuses would be represented, it would ensure both major political parties always would have a say in appointments.

“One vote for the county executive is probably not appropriate,” said former County Executive and Port Authority board member Jim Roddey, the last Republican to appoint anyone to the transit agency's board.

Roddey, who left office in 2004, said he supports a 6-to-5 split on the board, with the county executive and state leaders making the appointments.

“Joe Scarnati is on the right track, because he wants the state to have a majority, or at least a strong voice, on the board because it is the primary funder,” Roddey said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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