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Port Authority of Allegheny County transit drivers on road to riches

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Trib Total Media
A passenger exits the Allegheny Valley Flyer PAT bus at the corner of East 4th Avenue and Ross Street, in Tarentum, on Tuesday, July 31, 2012.

Six of the eight highest-paid Port Authority of Allegheny County employees in the last fiscal year were drivers, some of them racking up about $80,000 in overtime and earning more than $130,000.

Drivers and first-level supervisors represent 23 of the transit agency's 27 employees who collected six figures in fiscal 2014, records show; overtime has climbed in the past two years.

Payroll records show that after CEO Ellen McLean, who made $187,291, and COO Bill Miller, who made $136,008, all of the next six highest-paid people were bus drivers. McLean is slated to be paid $215,000 this fiscal year.

David J. Edelmann was the highest-paid driver, making $135,711, followed by Karen R. Wright, $133,545, and Ruthann M. Donnelly, $133,165. The top-earning drivers made $54,579 in base pay, and the rest came from overtime. As public employees, their salaries are public record. The drivers either did not return calls or could not be reached.

“They put in the time, and they served the public. They should be applauded,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 President Steve Palonis. “They're willing to sacrifice their home life to do what they're doing. It's not like they're sitting there, doing nothing. They're behind the wheel the entire time.”

Palonis said it would not be uncommon for some of the top earners to work seven days a week, including several double shifts.

“They do whatever they can do,” he said. “They're living there.”

Port Authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said part of the reason for the overtime costs was reduced staffing. The agency was down 50 drivers but did not fill the slots because of uncertainty surrounding funding prior to the passage of the state's transportation law, Act 89, in November.

“We strategically chose not to fill those positions. We didn't want to go through the process to hire and train people if we have to lay them off later,” Ritchie said. “So the budget last year included more overtime for operators as a result of that. A lot of operators stepped up and filled that work.”

County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said council deserves an explanation for the costs.

“They had cuts in service and cuts in routes and they still have all this overtime?” Heidelbaugh said.

The transit agency projected it will receive more than $557 million through fiscal year 2019 from revenue generated by increased gasoline taxes and vehicle-related fees from Act 89.

Ritchie said the agency is hiring drivers, who cost about $98,000 annually, including pay and benefits, which will help reduce overtime. The agency employed 2,465 people in the latest fiscal year. Of those, 211 made more than $80,000.

The historically financially troubled Port Authority has made several rounds of route cuts and layoffs. In 2001, Port Authority had 235 routes; today it has 102. The most recent cuts came in 2007 when officials reduced service 15 percent and in 2011 when they cut service by 15 percent and laid off 180 workers.

The agency spent about $2.39 million on overtime in the fiscal year that ended in June. That's up from $2.38 million in the prior year, records show.

Port Authority board member Rob Kania, an Upper St. Clair Republican who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett, called the overtime “an unfortunate result of not knowing if Act 89 would pass.”

Safety issues have been raised stemming from long driving shifts.

Eric Montarti, a senior analyst with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, said it's not uncommon for workers in municipal government agencies to have the ability to work as much as they want.

“If you're someone behind the wheel of a bus, I guess they would get fatigued at some point,” Montarti said.

State law prohibits most commercial drivers from driving more than 10 hours or working more than 15 hours in any capacity during a shift, but PennDOT granted a waiver to transit agencies in 2013 that allows them to ignore that law.

Transit drivers can work up to 18 hours per day or up to 30 hours in two consecutive days.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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