Could Pittsburgh public transit handle Amazon HQ2?

Why the Port Authority’s new CEO says she’s optimistic and looking west.

New Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman is pictured.

New Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman is pictured.


Updated: 10:15 a.m. 

Newly named Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman has yet to see a copy of Pittsburgh’s Amazon HQ2 proposal. But she’s keenly aware of the implications it could hold for the sprawling transit system she now heads — one with a $420 million budget, about 2,600 employees and nearly 200,000 daily riders.

The HQ2 project — one entailing the landing of the e-commerce giant’s second North American headquarters — promises 50,000 jobs to the winning city and billions in investment. Pittsburgh is one of 20 HQ2 finalists, though it’s unclear when the overall winner will be announced.

Seattle, home to Amazon’s HQ1, has felt no shortage of impacts from Amazon’s ever-expanding presence there — and this includes on public transit. The city has emphasized improving its bus network, “systematically rethinking its bus routes one quadrant of the city at a time,” according to CityLab. “Meanwhile,” the site adds, “[the city is] pouring billions into a light-rail expansion.”

And while this and a host of other infrastructure upgrades have cost Seattle taxpayers big time, experts say Seattle is one of only a handful of U.S. cities where transit ridership is actually increasing. (Crowding on buses is also on the rise there.)

In Pittsburgh, Kelleman, who started with Port Authority in January, says ridership is holding steady — no small feat given low gas prices and the advent of ride-sharing apps that continue to cut into ridership rates in cities nationwide.

New Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman is pictured in her corner office Downtown before a Port Authority bus map.

New Port Authority of Allegheny County CEO Katharine Eagan Kelleman is pictured in her corner office Downtown before a Port Authority bus map.


But if Amazon were to choose Pittsburgh, well, those ridership rates would almost certainly jump, begging the question: Can Port Authority keep up?

“As far as whether or not we could keep up, I think Seattle is an excellent model for transit in the U.S., because they continue to invest,” Kelleman told The Incline this week during a sit down in her office overlooking Sixth Avenue.

“It’s one of the few places in the country that has really grown its market share aggressively in the past decade, and they have decided this is a common good worth funding. They’ve received a lot of state and federal funding but they also put in local funding.”

Funding: It’s a recurring theme in speaking with Kelleman, who spent her first full week as CEO in Harrisburg, not Pittsburgh. This as more than 50 percent of the Authority’s annual operating budget is derived from the state legislature.

“I think definitely anywhere in the country that wants to lure an HQ2 — you can look at Seattle as a model of a place that wasn’t really in transit heaven but has turned it into a system that’s really cool and really dynamic.”

But as Seattle proves, that takes money — lots of it. Seattle also confirms that Amazon’s influence will be felt on the roads and on public transportation — flocks of summer interns alone have had an impact on bus service there — in whatever city is chosen as the company’s newest homebase.

It may not be all bad news, though.

Scott Kubly, the former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, told The Incline’s sister site Denverite that Amazon has played a key role in helping that city address congestion concerns. In Seattle, about 15 percent of Amazon employees live in the same zip code as their campus and about 20 percent walk to work, the company reports.

It’s unclear, however, if that same dynamic would be possible in Pittsburgh.

The continued refusal of Pittsburgh and county officials to reveal the details of their Amazon HQ2 bid — a move that has rankled transparency advocates, but which the city says is both strategic, legally required and the status quo among HQ2 competitors — means we can’t predict.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

And Kelleman hasn’t seen the bid — not that she’d discuss it if she had.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that Amazon HQ2 will force the winning city to take a hard look at its infrastructure, particularly as it relates to public transit.

And that’s where Kelleman sees an opportunity.

“I’m new to the area and haven’t been involved in the first round of the HQ2 conversation, but one thing we’re hearing nationally from all the cities that went after HQ2 is that in getting your data together for this, it was a good opportunity to have a real assessment of what you’re doing right and what you’re not doing right and where you feel competitive and where you don’t.”

This type of thing speaks to Kelleman, who stresses the importance of data — and reviewing data — almost as much as that of funding. And there are entire “oceans” of it at Port Authority, she explains, many of them still largely unexplored. During our conversation, examples of this data-driven approach included the following: 

On armed fare enforcement officers on trains: “I would like to have some data to my board by this month so we can take a position on where we’re going to go with a plan for the future.”

On fare evasion: “I asked our finance department to do an overview of how many folks are riding and how many folks are tapping [their ConnectCards] so we could get a good sense of what fare evasion actually looks like here.”

On developing a three-year tactical plan for the system: “Because I have a planning background, I always want to see what our information is and what we know.”

On bus routes: “We have routes that are ripe to have their schedules updated or modified — but we haven’t gotten around to it. […] It’s time to reevaluate the routes and to try to rationalize where we have so many buses.” (This is happening with or without Amazon HQ2.)

On deciding where Port Authority can grow and where it cannot: “Where’s the data with that?”

And there’s more data being collected all the time.

Additionally, Port Authority is partnering with CMU on the development of connected vehicle technology, which Kelleman describes as “a holistic network able to hold a red light for a bus, for example, or turn a light green a little sooner or hold a yellow light to make sure you’re clearing the intersection.” Kelleman said roughly 50 Port Authority buses are equipped with the technology currently, adding, “We’re looking to expand that.”

But Kelleman isn’t just wonkish.

She very genuinely enjoys talking transit and refers to it alternately as a community asset and a lifeline for those who rely on it. She dismisses the idea of turnstiles on the Light Rail, for example, saying they would amount to a fencing off of something that is publicly owned.

She says she’s encouraged by what she sees as a reverence for and commitment to public transit in Pittsburgh. She says 25 percent of Downtown workers come in on public transit here, “which is a huge chunk of the market.”

She, herself, rides the train four times a week from South Hills Village, her local station, making sure to introduce herself to all the Port Authority employees she meets along the way.

Kelleman, who is married with two children, ages 4 and 5, currently has a $230,000, five-year contract with Port Authority. Kelleman replaced former Port Authority CEO Ellen McLean who was forced out by the Board of Directors in February 2017. The board then launched a national search for a leader with “more public transit experience.” By November, they had settled on Kelleman.

Of course, Kelleman knows the downside of public transit, too. She came to Pittsburgh — and with it her 33rd home since college — after various stints with transit systems in the southeast, southwest and mid-Atlantic.

Her most recent, The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority in and around Tampa, was called “one of the worst public transit systems in America” by the Tampa Bay Times, which says the system has been mired in long-delayed fixes despite the best intentions of some. She earned $183,248 in Tampa, according to the Post-Gazette.

But if Pittsburgh is named Amazon’s newest outpost, which is anyone’s guess at this point, this assignment will be unlike any she’s had before.

Still, if the funding and willingness are there, Kelleman says anything is possible.

And if all else fails, there’s at least some semblance of an Amazon road map — for better and worse — just 27 hours to the west.

“We can learn from Seattle,” Kelleman said.

As for whether Port Authority and Pittsburgh can apply those lessons in the event of an Amazon HQ2 landing here, Kelleman says, “I’m optimistic.”