Katharine Eagan Kelleman, incoming CEO of Port Authority of Allegheny County, is introduced to news media. Photo by Sandra Tolliver.

As incoming CEO of Port Authority of Allegheny County, Katharine Eagan Kelleman makes a prediction: “Pittsburgh gets talked about for everything else — transit is next.”

Kelleman will relocate in January from Tampa, Florida, where she heads the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority or HART.  As its CEO and former chief operating officer, she has expanded public-private partnerships, pursued nontraditional travel options, launched a regional fare program, and started the country’s first transit agency-operated rideshare program. And HART is working on an autonomous vehicle pilot service expected to begin in early 2018.

Yet Kelleman, 44, saw the Port Authority job posting in May and thought to herself, “What an amazing opportunity.” She was too busy to pursue it until a recruiter called, and then she jumped at the chance to come here.

“Who wouldn’t want to be in the Pittsburgh region right now?” she says. “When you talk about what’s going on nationally and doing things differently — blowing it up, being disruptive, but on such a foundation, a bedrock of amazing community involvement, civic support and strong leadership — it’s a public servant’s dream come true to come to such a fantastic environment.”

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says Kelleman fulfills his vision to hire “a dynamic, enthusiastic and collaborative expert on transit” as the region continues to grow its tech industries, awaits the completion of Shell’s cracker plant and pursues an Amazon headquarters.

Among Kelleman’s challenges will be to connect people to economic opportunities in the Pittsburgh International Airport corridor, he says, and build partnerships among area transit providers so that residents of outlying counties can more easily commute to the city.

“We know the importance of transit,” Fitzgerald says. “It might be as important today as it’s ever been in our history, and to have a dynamic leader who can take us to the next level is something that I’m really excited about.”

Kelleman, selected after a nationwide search that began in April, will be paid a base salary of $230,000. The Port Authority board approved a five-year contract. Its search committee used Krauthamer & Associates of Maryland, which recruited Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis, and the Hillman Foundation gave $100,000 to help pay for the search.

With 20 years of experience in transit, including positions in Dallas and Baltimore, Kelleman said she chose her occupation because “it makes a difference in our communities.” She often communicates with the public through her Twitter feed and promises to be an accessible leader.

“All of the life-changing opportunities that we have aren’t relevant without transit,” she says.

Over the past year, HART turned a $5 million deficit into a $3 million surplus and overhauled its service for the first time in 14 years, Kelleman says. She’s intrigued by Pittsburgh’s proposed bus rapid transit link between Downtown and Oakland, as well as technologies that could be integrated into Port Authority’s network of full buses and trains.

Fitzgerald says he expects Kelleman to bring energy and a fresh approach to transit in the region.

“We’re hoping that model we’ve seen at the airport will replicate itself,” Fitzgerald says of Cassotis, whose leadership has been praised. “It was really about getting someone who wanted to come in and be excited about the opportunities in Pittsburgh.”

Fitzgerald’s chief of staff Jennifer Liptak, the Port Authority board vice chair, led the search committee. Liptak says Kelleman’s credentials “highlight her well-balanced experience along with a deep understanding of the importance of transit systems in connecting people to every aspect of their lives.”

Kelleman says she looks forward to meeting Cassotis, with whom she’ll likely work closely. “I understand we’re going to be close friends,” she quips.

As a woman in charge, she never really noticed challenges of working in a typically male-dominated industry, she says.

“I think like most of us, you put your shoulder to the boulder, you get it done, and you look back. But I also believe that if we don’t look like our community, shop in our community, hire our community, and do business in our community, we’re not doing our jobs. So, I’ve probably had challenges, but I’m going to tell you that being a mom of two small kids is more challenging than anything I’ve ever done.”

Kelleman and her husband have family in Harrisburg and Hummelstown, Dauphin County. “I don’t know when I’ll ever get another opportunity, being very selfish, to have such an amazing professional opportunity with a great personal opportunity,” she says.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.