Pittsburgh’s Vulakovich Moment

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by Bram Reichbaum

*-UPDATE: Forgot to mention: this is all scheduled to be taken care of on Monday. Unsurprisingly, there are indications the state House’s thinking on passing transportation funding is being dragged into this discussion.

Mass transit is about to undergo a shake-up, and the local public servant with the most to say about it is brand new to most City and inner-ring dwellers.

Sen. Randy Vulakovich (vu-LOCK’-uh-vich’) arrives at our political shores via a unique path. A former police officer from Shaler Township, in 2006 he won the GOP nomination and general election to replace State Rep. Jeff Habay, who was convicted for corruption. And in 2012, he was selected by the Republican party to be its candidate in the special election to fill Sen. Jane Orie’s seat, also convicted of corruption.

People may keep turning to him in the aftermath of these debacles because he takes a pretty hands-off view towards accepting perks.

Finally, due to legislative redistricting, Sen. Vulakovich’s district is grabbing a lot of what will soon not be Sen. Jim Ferlo’s seat. That sort of makes him Pittsburgh’s Republican in the State Senate.

Most Republicans have lost most of their patience with the Port Authority of Allegheny County, particularly in regard to its efforts to budget effectively. Lately, it may have occurred to them that their era of total control — GOP Governor, GOP House, GOP Senate — simply cannot last forever.

Despite the fireworks playing out on personal levels, that’s why Senate President Pro-Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson County) is now moving a bill that not only would strip County Executive Rich Fitzgerald of almost all his control over the region’s mass transit agency — but when you do the math, would also go a very long way towards ensuring it stays in Republican hands.

Make no mistake: Randy Vukovich is a Republican. It’s true, he may have been among the first to begin discussing an impact fee for gas drilling, and he seems have a better understanding of unions than most owing to his experience in the FOP. But his conservative bona fides are crystal clear.

The two questions are: does he have a recognition, or at least soft spot, for the economic importance and potentials of transit? And/or does he look forward to engaging in dramatic ideological trench warfare near his backyard?

By all accounts, local progressives seem fine with distributing more board seats on the Port Authority board to more stakeholders. There’s even a sense of relief that Republicans have decided to engage directly. Taking responsibility is great, familiarity breeds understanding.

But that’s why Shawn was talking about compromise. If this is seen as a “hostile takeover” — one party (the one Allegheny County voters can’t seem to elect in large numbers) cleverly taking over majority control of the Port Authority in a backdoor way — that sort of thing actually verges on usurping our own representation. Add to it the indignity of the new folks in charge not being from here, or not having ridership experience, and I told Pittsburghers for Public Transit straight-up: that would be time to break out the tri-corner hats and the Don’t Tread on Me’s flags. That’s verging on unusually Unamerican.

Of course, not everybody is going to be happy with any result, and things do have to change. Something real, not a token. Something that encourages further compromises at the Port Authority down the road, constructive ones, stretching the possibilities in addressing costs. But let’s not let this thing spin into a lab experiment in proxy warfare and subjugation.

Pittsburgh is exhibiting some real positive energy, and it would be nice to capitalize on that economic potential by helping everything from Connoquenessing to Zelienople be part of that engine. Let’s focus on getting to the point where that’s a conversation that can happen.

Besides which, the rank and file Dems of Pittsburgh aren’t the most loony-tunes partners when it comes to transit governance. Remember that one-week story when the County Executive tried to make the wrong guy Director of the Port Authority? It failed to happen. Remember when he tried demanding resignation letters from the board to compel strict obedience? Those were torn up. We’re more practical than we’re given credit for.

We don’t know anything about the new Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Pittsburgh yet, but we’d like to be able to say, “He’s good on some issues,” or “He’s good on transit,” or even, “You can work with him.” After all the only way things happen if you can make connections on these other sides. Otherwise it’s just… well, it’s Harrisburg.

MORE: Keystone Politics

7 thoughts on “Pittsburgh’s Vulakovich Moment

  1. Anonymous

    A little revisionist history Bram. You tried to defend the resignation letters and the Brimmier appointment. So, if Fitz and Peduto and their followers had their way none of those good things you described would have happened. I am personally glad the State is going to exercise more control of PAT. I would like to see the Mayor and ACE maintain power to appoint the majority of the board members, or maybe give the deciding appointment to the local legislative caucus, but the ACE needs to give up control. The discussion should be focused on what is good for PAT riders, nothing else. Discussion of any other point leads us down the same old tired political path that Pgh voters allegedly rejected. We shall see.

  2. Bram Reichbaum

    I opposed JB's appointment shortly after the news settled in, and although I defended the resignation letters in theory I urged tossing them anyway due to appearances. Besides which, even if you hadn't failed reading comprehension, you cannot extrapolate what I say as wholly representative of “their followers.” It was mostly their allies that convinced me to pivot on both. Agreed otherwise… but “what is good for PAT riders” surely includes both retaining some direct political control, and, uh, {cough} funding the transit system.

  3. Anonymous

    This is my first comment here, so I hope I'm not too blunt, but I have yet to meet a suburban Republican (especially to the north) who regards public transportation as much more that a form of “welfare” for “undesirables” instead of the vital infrastructure that is should be. Their view is that successful people drive cars, government should support the successful, and roads for cars is where state funding should go.

    Pittsburgh is the only city I've been to where even light rail and streetcar lines – normally popular with the “urban professionals” lead to neighborhood decline instead of prosperity. Just look at Beechview and Allentown, and further out, the parts of Castle Shannon and Library along the “T” lines. Even at South Hill Village, the station is tucked in the back of the mall's parking lot (as are bus stops – if the mall owner lets a bus route on their property at all) as if it is an embarrassment.

    And, as a long time participant in organized protest in Pittsburgh, his background as a cop does not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    Paul D.
    Brentwood, formerly Bloomfield

  4. Bram Reichbaum

    Well that's not encouraging… but we don't know if this guy is that kind of ignorant and dangerous yet. Shaler is like a nice split between the 'burgh and McCandless.

  5. Anonymous

    Since Paul D is a Brentwood guy and I an Overbrook girl, let's add a wrinkle by talking of the space between us. It is often true that the more affluent of our neighbors believe cars are all that are needed, yet daily I see foot traffic increasing on Route 51 as people walk behind barriers where no sidewalks exist or ride on BMX bikes along Route 88 getting from one place to another. These are not kids out having fun, they are adults on their way home from the only jobs they have. The fact is there are people who not only can't afford a car, they can't afford the cost of public transportation.

  6. Shawn Carter

    Well, Anon 6:55PM,

    The reality is that public transportation isn't going to get less expensive. Most advocates are trying to a.) work to keep it from getting more expensive; and, b.) work to keep levels of service at a minimum from downgrading while making the case to expand service.

    Political and fiscal realities are what they are. We wish transit was free, especially considering that the farebox only accounts for 19% of all of the Authority's revenues.

    But I do understand your concern.


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