Key takeaways from our interview with Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman

Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Kelleman doesn’t try to hide the fact that she’s a working mom. Before sitting down with PublicSource to talk about the challenges and future of Allegheny County’s public transit system, she was anxiously awaiting word on how her son has been doing in kindergarten. When she received a text showing he had received all stars on his latest report card, she was ecstatic and called to tell her 5-year-old how proud she is of him.

But two young sons are only part of Kelleman’s daily to-do list now that she’s four months into her post as the transit agency’s CEO. As the head of the county’s largest transit provider, boasting a $400 million annual budget and 220,000 bus, trolley and incline trips each day, Kelleman is in charge of implementing a proposed Bus Rapid Transit system to connect Oakland to Downtown, expanding service to underserved neighborhoods and ensuring that the most people possible have access to good public transit.

In an hour-long interview with PublicSource, Kelleman stressed that public transit was a civil and human right and said it was vital that the community has a voice on how the system is run. She also addressed issues of service, safety and how she plans to bring more voices into Port Authority’s planning processes.

You can watch the full interview above; below are selected excerpts. All paragraphs in quotations come from Kelleman directly.

On the future of Port Authority’s funding

More than half of the Port Authority’s funding comes from the state, via the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which pays an annual fee to the Department of Transportation [PennDOT]. PennDOT then uses that money to pay for public transit in the state, but this arrangement is set to expire in 2022.

“Act 89 will expire in four years. So if you know your funding is going to change in four years what do you do? That's a good question. Well, one thing we've just gone under contract for is an economic impact study so we can quantify what does Port Authority do for Southwestern Pennsylvania. So when it's time to talk to the state it's not us asking them for money, it's us saying here's what your investment is buying in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Now my second week, I was in Harrisburg for two days. I walked around a lot, I bought new shoes, so it's time to do more walking. But look for Port Authority to be not just, you know, in D.C. or in Harrisburg more but look to see next budget year for more information coming out from us where we're helping explain what it is that we do and why that's good for our region.”

On public transit being a civil right

“We're not just saying it's a civil right, it’s a human right, it is something that I strongly believe in and the reason that I'm very happy to put my productive life into transportation. I have seen firsthand the difference that it makes if you could give somebody a good schedule, a good transfer so they can get to a different job. If you could have seven-day-a-week service to a different neighborhood, a working parent could put their kid into a really good public school, right, they could get into that best public school and then still commute to their job somewhere else and not have to choose between their child's education or investing for retirement right now.

Take that up a notch: The Americans With Disabilities Act has been really transformative in a lot of different parts of the U.S. and transportation is key. So the ADA passed 27 years ago, we now have people taking our paratransit who were not alive before this bill was passed and because they know they can get to where they want to go. They can go to any school, they can take any job, they can go to a movie theater and the little things that add value to your life.

If you look at American history, not just the Birmingham bus boycott but the Freedom Riders —I mean, transportation has been a very strong factor in the Civil Rights Movement because it's hard to have a segregated city when you can get to that other opportunity. And if you don't have transportation, you're never going to get those opportunities.”

On changing the plans for the Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] system

“From a planning perspective, I had read what was going on in the press. I saw who was coming to our board meetings. And when you see so many people really upset about the service option, you know that you need to revisit it again.

We took a chance on saying, ‘Let's start over.’ Let’s erase the lines off the map and pretend that we're starting with what happens today in the best way to run it through the BRT corridor. And why would you need it? What is the problem you're solving for, right? If someone's in Rankin, why would they care that you had a bus in Oakland? They care because that bus getting them into Downtown or to Oakland is hung up by really sticky traffic and then the buses bunch and then your bus that’s supposed to be there every half hour, you get two and then you don't get another bus for an hour.

So we're going to have a round of meetings and then we're probably going to come up, probably quarterly, and say, ‘Here's where we are,’ and just make sure that folks who felt like they had to work so hard to be heard...continue to see that their voices are heard in this process.”

On why riders should trust Kelleman to include their voices in Port Authority’s services

“When I started in Baltimore, it was right after a service proposal that would have cut a lot of service and folks were really unhappy. And my first community meeting I went to, there were 20 people talking about a bus route. Two people wanted us to change it and 18 didn't. Well when you have two for and 18 against that pretty much makes it up for you. So we said we weren't going to change that route. Somebody from those 18 people came to every other meeting to make sure we didn't change our mind. They came to the public hearing to make sure we weren't going to change our mind. And they followed us around for several months and, at the end of that, they said, ‘Well you did what you said you were going to.’ But it was a process of how does an authority prove that they can be trusted. So you know you have to have knowledge that there's trust to be earned back. And how do you walk the walk.

We will be out here not just in the Mon Valley but everywhere touched by BRT; I think we have eight to 10 meetings that are set up. We are, next year, adding more folks in our social media group; we are adding community relations folks so you can see more Port Authority staff out there; and we'll be adding route analysts and folks who look at how our service comes together. So we have the ability to really get out in our neighborhoods and communities and say what's going on for you.”

On the prospect of Amazon choosing Pittsburgh for its ‘HQ2’

“So I have not seen [the bid], but let's say 50,000 jobs. A major employer coming in who's saying I'm going to bring you 50,000 jobs in a 20-year window. Clearly, there's not 50,000 tomorrow, so there's a ramp-up period. And even if it broke down about 1,700 jobs a year let's say — that's 50,000 jobs over 20 years. We have enough capacity that if we're doing our job right and we're being responsive and paying attention to service demand that we can grow with that service. It would, of course, factor into our conversations with our partners in Harrisburg and D.C. that we've got this additional demand coming up and we need to make sure that we can plan ahead.”

On making fares more equitable

“I think from an equity perspective we have to be very mindful that there is a penalty, like you hear a lot about the penalty of poverty, the penalty of being poor.

One thing we're very interested in on technology is the thing called ‘fare capping.’ which would mean right now a day pass is $7, a weekly pass $25. But if you don't have that $25, I'm taking $7 a day from you and, at some point, you're saying well, I can't go anywhere because I don't have that $7. And if you buy $7 five days a week, you paid me $35. The weekly pass was $25. It is possible to have a fair mechanism where you pay $7 a day for three days and then on the fourth day, instead of paying another seven, you just round up to $25 and it gets converted to a weekly pass. And can we bring those kind of equitable solutions? And that's something else that we have our eyes on now because it's newer technology that you can do and that's the appropriate way for us to look at and making it equitable and fair to pay your fare.”

On expanding service into the suburbs

“It should be equitable for the suburbs and if Port Authority isn't going to be there with a big bus, how can we help places get those transfers and those connections that they need? So the goal again would be some point in the next year to start this conversation of, where do we go in the future? Let's show our communities what the planning process looks like from BRT. So when we come out, folks know, ‘OK, I'm going to get heard,’ and then we can start building what our future needs to look like and that can be a foundation for a 2022 conversation saying, ‘Hey, you know, here's what we're funded to, and here's what our communities are telling us they want, so how do we get from A to B?’”

On incorporating electric buses into Port Authority’s fleet

“The BRT is slated to be electric buses. And as we go through future vehicle procurements, electric is getting to the point that it is a much more cost-neutral option compared to diesel so let's walk to that. Diesel buses are anywhere from $500,000 to $600,000. Historically, electric buses were about $1.2 million. So for every two diesel buses that you buy, you could buy one electric.

So they’re still kind of expensive. We know they're out there but can we get to that future where we're either leasing the buses for the same costs or we’re leasing the battery… So our plan is again to start with BRT and then transition over to electric as it makes sense for us to do that.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0069 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker.

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