For Port Authority riders, it's time for a transfer. Port Authority Executive Director Paul Skoutelas is leaving the agency in a couple of months, off to a presumably more remunerative consultant job with the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Despite Skoutelas' accomplishments -- which include several capital projects and a ridership that's growing in spite of suburban sprawl and service cutbacks -- the transit agency is not in an ideal financial position. It's running on proverbial fumes, thanks only to funding that Gov. Ed Rendell shifted to several transit agencies this spring. For the most part, the funding shortfall is the fault of Harrisburg, not Skoutelas. State funding for transit has not only failed to keep up with rising costs in fuel and employee health insurance, it has actually decreased over the last decade.
As described by Marilyn Skolnick, a former Port Authority board member and current member of the Allegheny County Transit Council (PAT's official riders' group): "It's going to be hard to get a good, I mean good person. And without adequate funding, why would anyone want to come here?"
It's a tall order: vast responsibility, reams of paperwork and budgets, constant public abuse. And while I wouldn't mind the money Skoutelas makes, qualified applicants could probably make more working for The Man, Inc. Is there someone out there who will take it all on for the love of transit?
Rider advocates hope so. Here's what they would ask if the PAT board let them come to the interviews:
How do you see your role as the Port Authority director?
"They need to be a leader," says Skolnick, who chairs the budget and Harmar Garage committees of the Transit Council. "I wouldn't want to [hear], 'I'd be at the mercy of the board, I'd be hesitant to offer suggestions.' It will be his or her role to educate the board. And wouldn't it be something if it were a woman! In addition to being a unique leader and mentor, they also need to be realistic. They can't be too space-age ... or too static."
Can you take the heat?
Says John Smith of Banksville, another Transit Council member, "People who are good at running a system usually hate the politics. They can go work somewhere else out of the public eye." The Port Authority's new leader has got to be as comfortable with the public as a politician and have brains to boot.
"You've got to be willing to take a lot of unjustified abuse," says Stephen Donahue, leader of the grassroots Save Our Transit riders' group, which formed during the budget crisis of 2001.
Yet pressure from the public is probably easier than pressure from politicians, warns Skolnick. Historically, even the Port Authority board appointees have gotten in on the act. "You've got to be strong-willed and strong-stomached," Skolnick says. "When it comes time for contracts" -- for everything from construction to consultants -- "you'd hope it'd be [awarded] because of merit and not because they're a friend of somebody."
Most importantly: Will you ride with us?
"The first thing I'd want to know is," says Steve Donahue "are they seriously committed to building a transit system that will move us away from a car-based city and county? Do you see public transit as a necessary part of everyday life? It's that essential, as essential as city hall. I do think Skoutelas thought that."
Being a good manager isn't enough, Donahue believes: You have to embrace the underdog, practically counterculture, mission of public transit. You have to believe that it is wrong to clog up the town with single-occupancy vehicles. You have to believe that transit is more than just another choice. You've got to have the guts to say it's the better choice -- and then back your claim with good service.
"Would we see the director at bus stops?" Donahue says. "Would they be willing to spend time with riders, not just be some figurehead in that corporate tower?"