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Port Authority, the senator & the county executive

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By Jake Haulk
Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In a dramatic announcement on March 8, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati revealed his intention to introduce legislation that will restructure the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Bear in mind that the creation of the Port Authority decades ago was the product of state legislation and it therefore can be restructured by legislation.

Sen. Scarnati's announcement condemned the Port Authority for having been a significant strain on state and local taxpayers for “far too long and it is time the Legislature address the issue.” He singled out the “fiasco surrounding the dismissal of the CEO” as making it clear the county executive is not moving in the right direction.

The senator proposes to change the way the authority's governing board is appointed. Instead of all nine members being appointed by the county executive, the governor, legislative leaders, Allegheny County Council and the mayor of Pittsburgh would have appointments. The county executive would have only one appointee to the restructured board. Scarnati stressed that with the increasing funding coming from the state, it is important for state officials to have a voice on the board.

Further, the senator stated that “moving forward, all options need to be on the table when discussing options to streamline operations and cut costs.” To that end, he proposes creation of a commission to examine remedies including regionalization, consolidation and privatization of services.

The senator's proposed legislation would bring a new approach and possibly major improvements in Port Authority management and operations. However, major and probably uncorrectable problems will remain if the senator's reform legislation stops with the proposals contained in the March 8 announcement.

The Port Authority's tremendous legacy costs will continue. And the principal underlying cause of the authority's financial woes is not addressed by the proposal — namely, the right of transit workers to strike. Unless that right is eliminated, every step forward can be reversed in contract negotiations under the threat of a strike.

To be sure, a substantial outsourcing program that reduces the share of transit service under the control of the large transit union will go a long way toward curbing the impact of strike threats but will not eliminate it.

There will be pushback by the executive and his friends in the Legislature. This will be the time for the business community that has so often sided with the authority to push the Legislature and governor for more state money to support the reforms being recommended by Scarnati.

If these reforms and the others that are needed are not enacted, the day will surely come when legislators from other parts of Pennsylvania will simply refuse to approve the money requested by the Port Authority and its friends. Indeed, we might be there already.

Important changes aimed at restructuring the Port Authority in a manner that will improve efficiencies and lower costs will not come quickly or easily but they should be pursued vigorously. Movement toward regionalization cannot proceed in a meaningful way until legacy costs, compensation costs and work rules are lowered dramatically. Nor can outsourcing occur as long as the union retains the ability to block such efforts.

While optimism must be tempered with realism, it is nonetheless a hopeful sign that the president pro tem of the Senate has taken such a keen interest in correcting some of the ills that plague the Port Authority.

Jake Haulk is president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

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