Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talks first-term successes and second-term goals | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talks first-term successes and second-term goals

“I feel like in the next term we will be able to take it to the next level.”

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The sky is now cascading snow and the streets are covered in blankets of white. Fitzgerald is contemplating whether to drive to the airport for a scheduled press conference for Frontier Air. “Well, the [Frontier rep] flew all the way out here, we can make it to the airport for ’em.” On the Parkway West, traffic is jammed due to the weather. 

“Take 65,” Fitzgerald calmly instructs his driver. Just like earlier on the Penn Avenue walk, Fitzgerald would rather not wait. Closer to the airport, Fitzgerald points out county-owned land and details the opportunities it presents. 

Last spring, a General Electric research facility was OK’d to build in nearby Findlay Township. Fitzgerald says he would like to lease county-owned land near the airport to more businesses like G.E., bringing increased revenue and jobs to the county.   

But some critics wonder whether the job growth is reaching those who need it most. Transit advocate Chris Sandvig, of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, told CP in September that areas near the airport were developed “without transit in mind.” Workers without access to cars would have trouble accessing jobs in the airport region because bus service is infrequent and sparsely routed.

“For us to be a successful region, we need to be able to accommodate a diversity of development and jobs,” says Sandvig. “And the locations of those good-wage jobs need to be where people have affordable access to them.”

Fitzgerald acknowledges the need for more equitable growth. “Pittsburgh’s growth is really heading in the right direction ... but we also want to make sure that some of the folks that haven’t been included before are included in the future.” However, Fitzgerald says he has no immediate plans to try to increase public transit along the airport corridor, even though he has verbally supported a bus-rapid-transit line between Downtown and Oakland, a corridor that already has buses arriving every five minutes.

One Fitzgerald-backed project where equitable growth might occur in the near future is in McKees Rocks. In December, a $60 million CSX intermodal rail station broke ground in the McKees Rocks Bottoms. Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference, a consortium of business leaders who drive regional economic development, says projects like these are “the best of all worlds,” because there is investment, jobs and “you start to affect a neighborhood that needs it.” 

Community College of Allegheny County president Quintin Bullock also notes Fitzgerald’s support of equitable job growth. Bullock says the county executive frequently references CCAC in speeches and details how the county-run college collaborates with businesses and industry to “help produce a well-trained workforce.” This has led to successful job placement for students in programs like nursing and especially welding, which has a job-placement rate of 100 percent, according to Bullock.

Bullock says this potential workforce comes from a variety of backgrounds. “Our student body is very diverse, with all levels of students, from persons who may be eligible for financial aid to persons who are self-paying.”

Fitzgerald says that in his first term, building coalitions of government officials, business leaders and educators has contributed to his success. But one group has yet to join Team Fitz: environmental activists.

John Detwiler, of the environmental group Protect Our Parks, has regularly attended county-council meetings and organized protests since early 2014, when Fitzgerald announced intentions to allow fracking underneath Deer Lakes Park.

“I think the executive has tied his future, and the future of the county, to these old extractive industries,” says Detwiler. “He has chosen re-industrializing the county over sustainability.”

Fitzgerald says money from fracking on airport land has led to lower gate fees at the airport, which means adding more routes, and that money from Deer Lakes drilling has gone toward enhancing the park and cleaning up its lakes. 

“We anticipate between $500 to $800 million over the next 20 years,” says Fitzgerald of airport fracking revenue. “That is money that the taxpayers won’t have to put into the airport … [and] the fact that we are able to fix up the parks without raising people’s taxes in my mind is a win-win.”

Detwiler objects to Fitzgerald’s claims on two fronts. Philosophically, he’s worried that relying on third-party money to pay for public services holds county residents hostage to third-party interests. He also says there is irony in saying fracking money will go toward fixing and cleaning up Deer Lakes Park, considering fracking’s association with water pollution.

To influence the county’s future fracking plans, Protect Our Parks amassed more than 1,800 signatures and sponsored legislation in December 2014 that called for a two-year fracking ban on county-owned land (except Deer Lakes Park) so that studies could be done on the economic and environmental costs and benefits. It was the first piece of citizen-sponsored legislation in county history, but it failed by a 13-1 vote.

“We differ with [Fitzgerald] on his goals and we differ from him on his methods,” says Detwiler. “He has been anti-transparent, he has been bare-knuckled against opposition.”

As CP reported in November 2013, both activists, citizens and several members on county council took issue with how he handled the Deer Lakes situation. Residents who came to a public hearing on the matter and weekly to county council meetings were adamantly opposed to drilling in the parks. Other county councilors took issue that the negotiations for the drilling contract did not receive proper public vetting.

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