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Former Turnpike chief may be new Port Authority boss

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 11:49 p.m.
Steven Dietz-contributing photographer
Then-Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission CEO Joseph G. Brimmeier (right) announces the planned opening of the new Allegheny River Bridge during a ribbon cutting on Friday, Oct. 23, 2009. Brimmeier, 64, of Ross is the top candidate to lead the Port Authority of Allegheny County, sources said Monday, Jan. 29, 2013. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review file photo

Former Pennsylvania Turnpike CEO Joseph Brimmeier is the top candidate to become Port Authority of Allegheny County's next transit chief, at least on an interim basis, sources said Monday.

Brimmeier, 64, of Ross is the choice of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to replace Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, several sources said.

Reached by phone, Brimmeier, a board member, said he was “in a meeting” and hung up.

Neither Fitzgerald nor Bland responded to requests for comment.

The apparent decision to oust Bland, who has headed the transit agency for six years, triggered controversy. The authority board on Friday could decide whether to dismiss him. The divided board postponed the decision last week.

Brimmeier would have to step down from the board if nominated for CEO.

“Steve Bland came in to do an impossible job, and he did it,” said former state representative and House Transportation Chairman Rick Geist, R-Altoona.

He said Bland helped cut costs and inefficiencies at the agency.

Though Geist would not comment on Brimmeier's possible appointment, he said: “Port Authority needs an expert who has vast experience running an authority like that. That's not amateur hour.”

Fitzgerald publicly criticized the agency in the spring over driver shortages that led to widespread delays, vowing changes would be made if operations didn't improve. He later directed the agency to eliminate T stops to speed up service and to find ways to improve fare collection.

Former County Executive Jim Roddey, a former Port Authority board chairman, described Fitzgerald's decision to ax Bland as “questionable.” He said Bland is a “respected transit professional” who streamlined service, cut overhead costs and introduced innovative technology such as an electronic fare collection system.

“Finding another transit executive of his caliber will not be easy,” said Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee.

Sources said Fitzgerald, a Democrat, lined up enough votes to fire Bland if he would not resign, but the board agreed to a one-week delay to set terms of Bland's departure and choose an interim replacement.

Port Authority board members would not talk about the situation.

Brimmeier has had a lengthy career in politics.

After a falling out with the late County Commissioner Tom Foerster, Brimmeier ran unsuccessfully for prothonotary in the early 1990s before working as a deputy auditor general and Monroeville manager.

Brimmeier served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, who lost a Senate bid in 2000. He later became involved with the campaign of former Gov. Ed Rendell, who appointed him to the turnpike's top post in 2003.

State and federal grand juries have investigated the turnpike since that time. Brimmeier's tenure ended in 2011.

Turnpike officials said they asked for the FBI's help investigating agency matters, including possible improprieties with a $181 million highway widening project between Valley Forge and Norristown.

A two-year state grand jury probe, which is ongoing, is investigating agency spending and hiring practices.

Brimmeier supported Fitzgerald's 2011 campaign for county executive, donating a combined $750 that year, including $500 on May 2 and $250 on Nov. 1, according to campaign finance reports.

Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report. 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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