The dawn of a new Port Authority?

The dawn of a new Port Authority?

The board of directors of the Port Authority of Allegheny County voted last week to hire Katharine Eagan Kelleman as its new CEO at an annual salary of $230,000. She was given a five-year contract.


Kelleman, 44, will come to Pittsburgh in January, leaving her job as CEO of the Hillsborough Area Transit Authority, better known as HART, in Tampa, Fla.


The Port Authority job is “a public servant’s dream come true,” she noted, referring to the agency as “one of America’s bedrock transit systems.”


Ahem. It might be instructive for Kelleman to bone up on her Port Authority history. A good place to start would be with the Allegheny Institute’s Policy Brief Vol. 17, No. 32, from Aug. 10 of this year.


As a companion op-ed of the same day noted, “Particularly vexing is that the authority’s ‘underlying cost problems have yet to be addressed in a substantial way,’” said Jake Haulk, the institute’s president, and Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst.


Additionally, Kelleman might want to review the dubious record of the North Shore Connector – from its truncation, to its cost overruns, to its free rides, to its lack of ridership numbers.


That said, Kelleman leaves her Tampa post in the middle of a push to employ light rail in a major mass-transit expansion there. A recent feasibility survey suggests residents favor light rail over something akin to bus rapid transit, commuter rail or an elevated rail system.


Attempts over the last seven years to fund such projects have been a bust. Taxpayers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have rejected referenda seeking to increase the sales tax (by one cent) to pay for the expansion, in 2010 and 2014, respectively. And county commissioners in Hillsborough County declined to seek a new, half-cent increase referendum just last year.


As the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported this past September, “HART CEO Katharine Egan (Kelleman) said she thinks people are becoming more willing to shift focus to projects that could be a catalyst for others … in order to drum up support for more local projects.”


It was a reference to a tug of war among various competing interests to win the “preferred” route of any transit expansion.


Kelleman’s position, however, could be construed another way – the old public policy shibboleth of “Build it and they will come.”


But as far as mass-transit projects go – particularly light rail – that’s seldom if ever true. Cost overruns for such projects are legendary. So, too, are ridiculously rosy ridership projections.


As a scholar at the Reason Foundation reminded five years ago – referring specifically to streetcar/trolley “circulators” but easily applicable to light rail — rail aficionados long have been “betting on modal magnetism, the notion that the inherent attractiveness of rail will get people to use it even if there is not an existing demand for service.”


“This idea is wrong, and it has not worked,” the Reason white paper noted. “Transit projects should be built not to create demand but to serve the demonstrated needs of the public.”


Such as the proposed rapid bus transit line between downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland that Kelleman will inherit. But not, Kelleman should understand, for some new light-rail extension predicated on the faulty premise that it will spur new, ancillary economic development.


All that said, the Port Authority’s new CEO will take over a transit system more than five times larger than the Tampa system (when measured by daily ridership of 200,000 vs. 38,000).


And she leaves HART after, as one Tampa newspaper put it, leading “the agency in innovative solutions to make the most of a shoestring … budget – one of the lowest per capita in the country.”


“Those initiatives include partnerships with electric-car maker Tesla, taxi companies and MegaBus, along with laying the foundation for one of the first autonomous bus routes in the country.”


The newspaper says HART ridership increased 20 percent-plus under Kelleman from 2010 to 2015 but most recently has reflected a nationwide trend of steady declines since then and, no doubt, service reductions to reflect funding realities.


We are told that a new day is dawning for the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Users and taxpayers alike eagerly await that sunrise.


Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (