Port Authority names interim CEO McLean to permanent post
By Bobby Kerlik
Published: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, 9:51 a.m.
When Ellen McLean assumed interim leadership of Port Authority of Allegheny County last February, she wasn't sure she wanted to lead the financially strapped transit agency permanently.
The board voted 10-0 on Friday to hire McLean, 60, of Shadyside, giving her a three-year contract and a nearly $50,000 raise and praising her ability to get things done.
“After a year of doing it I think it's an exciting time. It's a historic moment,” McLean said. “We have funding; that's something we haven't had. It gives us the opportunity to pull a lot of people together to have a conversation about, ‘What does modern transit look like for Allegheny County?' ”
She said her first task is to analyze how much Port Authority will get in state aid as part of the recently passed state transportation bill. She said the agency wants to add service or restore some of what was cut during the past few years.
“Those are probably our two priorities: to look at our revenue sources and to begin to plan the strategy on how we use those,” McLean said.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who led the charge to fire former CEO Steve Bland, said he supported the hire and said McLean is a perfect fit. He cited her work in developing plans for a Bus Rapid Transit system connecting Downtown and Oakland, a Downtown bus circulator and GPS on buses. He said McLean works well with Harrisburg officials, including the governor's office, and gets things done quickly.
“She works very well with the legislators who have a lot of input because they provide a lot of the funding, and they really like working with her. That was important to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I've really been impressed with her work ethic, her skill set, with the whole package.”
Fitzgerald cited McLean's ability to be flexible, including successfully handling T service on Sept. 22 when the Pirates and Steelers played sold-out home games.
McLean was hired on a three-year contract and will make $215,000 annually, an increase over Bland's $185,000 salary. The board can opt to renew her contract for two more years. She was making $167,500 as interim CEO and $138,000 when she was CFO.
After Bland's ouster, Fitzgerald supported former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier for the job, but board members decided to hire McLean as interim CEO and do a national search. Brimmeier was a Port Authority board member before he resigned in March hours before Attorney General Kathleen Kane charged him with helping orchestrate a pay-to-play scheme in which campaign contributions and gifts helped secure lucrative turnpike contracts for vendors. He awaits trial.
Much has changed since McLean took the reins a year ago. She initially indicated she wasn't interested in the top job and served on a search committee that recommended hiring someone else during the summer At least seven others were interviewed. Those negotiations with outside candidates broke down amid uncertainty over the previous board's future and an unstable financial outlook. The Legislature in July changed the makeup of the board, increasing it from nine to 11 and stripped Fitzgerald's power as the sole appointing official. He now makes six of the appointments with five coming from state leaders.
McLean is the first woman to lead the agency, but unlike the candidates who were interviewed, she has a financial background rather than a pure transit pedigree.
She worked for six years as the city's chief financial officer under Mayor Tom Murphy. She then was a managing director at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, where Murphy works as a senior fellow in urban development. She was hired at Port Authority in 2010 as chief financial officer and managed financial planning, budgeting, purchasing and information technology.
She has a master's degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University and master's and bachelor's degrees in English literature from Duquesne University.
Board Chairman Robert Hurley said McLean's financial background was important because of the pending influx of state money. Her increased salary is necessary to keep the agency competitive in the profession and is still below the national average for similar-sized transit agencies.
“Ellen is going to do a heck of a job, and it's fair pay,” Hurley said. “We have to be competitive. ”
The vote was unanimous to appoint McLean. The board's 11th member, D. Raja, was absent.
The financially troubled agency had several rounds of route cuts and layoffs during the past several years. In 2001, Port Authority had 235 routes, which have been slashed to 102 routes. The most recent cutbacks were in 2007 with a 15 percent service cut and in 2011 with another 15 percent cut and 180 layoffs. Port Authority gave 64 million rides in 2013 via bus, the T, incline and Access.
Local 85 union President Steve Palonis said he supported the hire and said it will provide stability.
“I think it relieves a lot of pressure on managers over there. (The atmosphere) is a lot different than the way it was,” Palonis said. “I think she does a great job in Harrisburg. She keeps me in the loop, invites me to go.”
Port Authority's board of directors fired Bland on Feb. 1 after almost a year of tension between him and Fitzgerald over what Fitzgerald said were failures to improve the system.
Bland did not return a call for comment. He was hired at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey at a salary of $168,012 this month as assistant director/general superintendent of the rail system that connects the two states, a spokesman there said.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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