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Executive privilege: Fitzgerald taking hands-on approach to solving PAT issues

"Rich has been an asset so far."

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When Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald took office in January, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85's contract with the Port Authority wasn't set to expire for six more months. Still, Fitzgerald asked that the parties come to the table early.

When throngs of revelers on the North Side overwhelmed the North Shore Connector in May, Fitzgerald lambasted the agency publicly and vowed to fix the issue.

When T riders complained about losing their stops in Castle Shannon this month, Fitzgerald swung into action. 

Fitzgerald has been vocal about the issues facing the financially beleaguered transit agency as it approaches a pending 35 percent service cut in September as a result of a $64 million budget deficit. Those involved in Allegheny County transit all describe Fitzgerald's strategy for dealing with the agency in the same way: hands-on. And Fitzgerald, by his own account, says that's just part of his management style with all county departments. But the Port Authority, at least in theory, is an independent county authority.

Because the authority receives a county match to state operating assistance, and the county appoints board members, "by virtue of those appointments, the county executive has some say," says Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. But, he adds, "The whole idea of creating an authority is because regular government can't manage the day-to-day mechanics of one."

But Fitzgerald says it's necessary to take a hands-on approach to the system because public tax dollars are at stake.

"It's a public entity and good public policy needs to be used for how to operate it," Fitzgerald says. "No disrespect to their board members — we have good board members — but they're not necessarily accountable to the public. They can't be voted out of office."

Regardless of style, observers say Fitzgerald's participation in transit is critical to solve the region's financial crisis. "There's a lot at stake," says state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill). "The governor has clearly put the onus on the county and the Port Authority to get its house in order before he wants to step in and participate in either a short-term or long-term funding solution."

The authority deferred questions about Fitzgerald's management style to his office, but authority spokesman Jim Ritchie says the county executive has played a "significant role" in ongoing funding and labor issues. 

"Clearly he's changed some things," Ritchie says. Fitzgerald's input, he says, has led to additional light-rail service for special events and more frequent announcements to customers about changes in service. In May, after the North Shore Connector was overwhelmed due to multiple North Side events and staffing shortages on the Red and Blue lines causing significant delays, Fitzgerald called on the agency to improve the light-rail system, and he singled out management.

In a statement, Fitzgerald wrote "This agency must be responsive to its customers, and the recent problems indicate to me that it is not the focus of the management." The statement went on to say he'd fix the issue "either within the existing structure, or with changes from the top to the bottom."

 The following weekend, the agency ran additional trains, and union president Steve Palonis says he agreed to adjust some work rules to allow for better staffing.

And even after the agency proposed closing 13 light-rail stops earlier this month to speed up the commuter service, Fitzgerald — along with state Sen. Wayne Fontana, county councilors and state Rep. Matt Smith — requested the authority keep two of the stops and adjust another, pending further evaluation. The authority says the decision to keep the stops was a result of community concerns, and pedestrian and rider safety. 

For his part, Fitzgerald says, his office relies on Port Authority CEO Steve Bland and his staff. Bland, he says, has remained involved and "has made some real progress" with the agency, but Fitzgerald acknowledges "there are a lot of challenges" facing management with the contract and looming budget cuts. Fitzgerald expects there will be reductions in management as well as other staffing as the agency deals with its financial situation. "I think you're going to see kind of what we'll call a shared sacrifice for savings."

Fitzgerald has also been involved in contract talks with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85. While Fitzgerald and union leaders acknowledge that previous County Executive Dan Onorato was involved in similar discussions, Palonis at the union says Fitzgerald became involved much earlier. 

Palonis says Fitzgerald's involvement has been a benefit so far. "I can call him on his cell phone anytime I want. He's a hands-on type of executive. He wants to know what's going on and he listens to everything you have to say," Palonis says. "Rich has been an asset so far." 

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