Scarnati's mission: Does he want to fix transit or make mischief?

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Boil down to its fundamentals the public spat between a leading state Senate Republican and Allegheny County's Democratic executive, and the result is a surprising level of agreement -- if both men mean it when they say their goal is improving the region's transit service and making it more cost-effective.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been saying so for a long time. Even though he has sway over the authority because he appoints all of its full-voting members, Mr. Fitzgerald would like to create a new organization from the ground up.

He wants to combine the Port Authority with transit agencies in surrounding counties to create this region's version of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority that operates in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Philadelphia's mayor appoints two of the board's seven members, and Mr. Fitzgerald says he would be fine with a similar model.

Dollars are the reason. Mr. Fitzgerald says although the average cost per ride at SEPTA is $2.64, the Port Authority's average is $5.49. He said costs vary widely in five surrounding systems, from a low of $4.79 per ride at the Beaver County Transit Authority to a high of $20.85 at Washington City Transit.

But is creation of a system that can provide inexpensive, efficient transit service what state Senate Pro Tem Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County has in mind? It's not clear.

Earlier this month, Mr. Scarnati issued a sharp rebuke of Mr. Fitzgerald over the latter's decision to oust Port Authority CEO Steve Bland and rescind last-minute raises Mr. Bland had given to non-union employees of the transit agency. In doing so, the senator said he would introduce legislation that would give the appointment power over the Port Authority to an array of state and local officials.

He also said he wants a commission to analyze the potential of consolidation, regionalization and privatization of services so that elected officials could restructure the Port Authority.

But it's troubling that his starting point in announcing his intentions was characterizing the Port Authority as a long-time burden to state taxpayers, a flawed premise that misses the significant role that transit plays in the economic development of a region like Pittsburgh.

Mr. Scarnati is in an influential position in a Republican-run state government to push for real change and improvement. If his aim goes beyond undercutting Mr. Fitzgerald's control of the Port Authority and complaining about spending tax dollars on vital public transportation, then his interest in fixing and consolidating transit service is welcome.

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