#VoteTransit County Executive Candidate Q&A: Sara Innamorato

image description: graphic with a photo of Sara Innamorato superimposed over a PRT bus and a yellow/red background.

The Allegheny County Executive is the most powerful person in Southwestern Pennsylvania when it comes to public transit – so it is vital for transit riders to elect a #TransitChampion into the position. The County Executive controls the majority of appointments to the Pittsburgh Regional Transit Board of Directors which control the transit agency’s $500+ million Operating Budget and $200+ million Capital Budget. Additionally, the County Executive controls board appointments and hundreds of millions of budget dollars at numerous County entities that directly impact the public transit system and its riders, such as the County Housing Authority, the County Department of Human Services, and the County Economic Development agency. Good people, robust budgets and progressive policy at all of these entities can transform transit in Allegheny County.

To ensure that transit riders are educated on where these candidates stand on public transit issues and what their vision is for our system, Pittsburghers for Public Transit issued a candidate questionnaire to all of the candidates running for our county’s top posiiton. Check out the answers that this candidate gave to our questionnaire below.

There’s big potential for having a #TransitChampion as the next County Executive, so transit riders are making some big demands. You can read the demands that riders are making for our next County Executive and sign-on to support below:

Sara Innamorato’s Answers to the #VoteTransit County Executive Candidate Questionnaire

1. What is your vision for restoring and expanding transit service frequency, span and coverage in the County? 

Sara Innamorato: Public transportation is a human right and a critical lifeline for many people in Allegheny County. At a time when we face multiple crises — disproportionately impacting low-income and Black residents, as well as people with disabilities — we should be expanding service. Secondarily, investment in public transit is a driver for local economies and can revive regional industries. Coming from the General Assembly, I understand the limitations of funding streams, but we should be thinking creatively about how to expand and improve transit, not cutting it. I have been a partner to Pittsburghers for Public Transit at the state level, and I will continue that partnership as County Executive. There are a few key steps I will take immediately and others that we will work together on in the medium and long term. 1) I will appoint at least one rider and one operator to the PRT board so that the experiences of those most impacted by service changes guide board actions; 2) I will put a moratorium on service reductions and cuts and open a community process to determine where service needs to be restored or added; 3) I will immediately begin a series of conversations with state and federal DOT officials and others to ensure PRT is accessing all available funding opportunities and is submitting competitive applications for funding; 4) I will seek sustainable new funding streams such as a local revenue stream funded via fees on ridesharing by advocating for enabling legislation at the state; 5) I will work with Mayor Gainey to help implement the 100 Days of Transit Platform recommendations that the County and PRT can assist with such as incentivizing municipalities to put in place pro-transit zoning reforms, using Allegheny County Economic Development to fund on-street transit improvements such as priority lanes and signaling, and others. These steps would go a long way towards improving and expanding service in my first year in office. 

2. If you were the County Executive, would you commit to ensuring that the Department of Human Services discount fare program pilot becomes a permanent zero fare program for all SNAP/EBT households in Allegheny County? How would you ensure that DHS has sufficient resources to sustainably run the full program?

Sara Innamorato: Absolutely. I am a huge supporter of this program and will immediately work with DHS and PRT to make it permanent and even expand eligibility. We need to restore ridership on PRT to obtain more federal funding. This program is one of the keys to doing that and would eventually pay for itself. I am committed to making the program both permanent and sustainable. One example is that by putting up just $4 million more in matching funds from county government every year, we could unlock an additional $30 million in funding for DHS from the state. This would more than cover the cost of an expanded, permanent program. We must great creative with the funding we pursue to sustain this vital program. 

3. As County Executive, how will you ensure that developers in Allegheny County are building more affordable housing near great public transit? 

Sara Innamorato: Incentivizing transit-oriented development is critical to rebuild ridership for PRT, meet our climate goals, create vibrant communities, and open up greater access for people who choose not to own a car or cannot afford one. I have worked with stakeholders to explore the ways in which the state can support transit-oriented development that includes mixed-income housing and amenities.  I will double down on that strategy when I’m in office. I will also work with staff at PRT to re-prioritize TOD through their planning and real estate divisions. PRT could be doing much more to advance the issue, such as ground leases for development that require TOD and housing affordability. I will instruct Allegheny County Economic Development and other county entities that interact with developers to build TOD requirements into their funding guidelines and to host information sessions with all developers about how to do TOD well. 

4. How will you ensure that transit riders have a meaningful voice and decision-making power at the highest level of Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT)? 

Sara Innamorato: The first step is more riders and operators on the PRT board, which I will move on immediately. PRT also needs a much more robust public engagement strategy that provides more opportunity for constant feedback from riders and operators and actions to implement that feedback. Right now the organization feels very closed off to input from those most impacted by their decisions, which isn’t good for PRT and certainly isn’t good for riders and operators. I will work with PPT and others to set up regular meetings between PRT ridership and PPT membership as a starting point, and we can build better engagement systems together. 

5. What ideas do you have for increasing the amount of regional funding going to PRT?

Sara Innamorato: We need local funding streams, and I have a few ideas for how to make that happen. One is fees assessed on ridesharing rides that would go into a new fund to support public transit. We need state-enabling legislation to do this, and I have the relationships to get that done. We also need to look at our current local funding streams, such as the poured drink tax and RAD to  ensure that those are being used to their fullest potential to support PRT’s most critical needs. I will also coordinate with Mayor Gainey on how to make sure the region’s largest corporations and massive non-profits are paying their fair share, either through taxes or PILOT agreements.

6. As County Executive, how will you ensure that corporations and large employers in Allegheny County provide more funding for our transit system? 

Sara Innamorato: One early opportunity is to fully implement a bulk pass discount program to get large employers to pre-pay for transit passes for their employees. This would provide new, sustainable, reliable revenue streams for PRT as well as help to rebuild ridership. I will also explore the feasibility of a Commuter Benefits Ordinance such as the one passed and deployed in Seattle. Additionally, as noted above, I will seek PILOT payments or additional taxes from large employers and non-profits to invest in PRT and support system expansion. Large employers need a strong, reliable public transit system, and they should be contributing more to it. 

7. As County Executive, how will you ensure that both language access and disability access are central considerations in all the programs and agencies that they are overseeing?

Sara Innamorato: I helped form the Welcoming PA caucus in the General Assembly and have worked directly on these issues as a State Representative. Through our work, we had Democratic Caucus leadership dedicate resources for translation services for our district office and materials. We MUST have full language access for all public materials and systems, and we have the tools to do it; it just takes political will. Spanish-speaking and Mandarin-speaking immigrants are some of the fastest-growing populations in our region, and we must support them and other immigrants more fully. I will create a new position at PRT focused on language accessibility so that there is staff dedicated to working on getting this done. The same goes for disability access. We must prioritize universal design as the starting point for all new projects and invest in retrofitting existing stations, bus stops, shelters, and other infrastructure to comply with the principles of universal design.