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Newsmaker: Joe Brimmeier / New turnpike chief fueled by years of government service

Monday, September 22, 2003

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An old infrastructure. A looming increase in tolls. High-profile accidents. Patronage jobs. Complaints about E-ZPass. Delays at interchanges. High food prices at service plazas.

Joe Brimmeier was named executive director of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Feb. 4. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette)

Why would anyone who is politically tight with Gov. Ed Rendell want to face those problems and challenges as the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's new executive director when he could have gotten a more cushy job, almost any job, from the boss?

"I shoveled asphalt when I was a college kid in the county's summer program and I'm paving roads as executive director of the turnpike today," Joseph G. Brimmeier, 55, of Ross, mused during a recent interview. "I look at it this way: I'm back where I started."

Consistent with a history of vesting control of the Pennsylvania Turnpike under the political party of the governor, and at Rendell's behest, campaign confidant/consultant Brimmeier was named as the agency's executive director on Feb. 4 at the same meeting that Philadelphia businessman and turnpike commissioner Mitch Rubin was picked as chairman of the five-member toll road board.

 
 

Name: Joseph G. Brimmeier

Date of birth: April 1, 1948

Place of birth: Pittsburgh's North Side

In the news: Named in February to post of executive director of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which may be forced to raise tolls in the near future to rehabilitate the nation's oldest toll road.

Quote: "A report given to me just several weeks ago about the condition of our bridges was alarming. More than 300 of our bridges are 50 years old or older. In six years, the number of bridges [that old] will almost double. They aren't unsafe, but we have to start fixing and replacing them and it ain't cheap."

Education: North Catholic High School, 1966; bachelor's degree in health and physical education, Youngstown State University, 1970; master's degree in counseling-administration of higher education, Youngstown State, 1971.

Family: Wife Jeanne; daughter Khristyn, of Washington, D.C., communications director for U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas; son Joe, of West View, assistant manager of the State Office Building, Downtown.

   
 

Of course, Rubin and Brimmeier are Democrats -- with clout.

While his $149,905 annual salary is about $149,000 more than he earned sweating behind a paving truck in Allegheny County in 1968 and 1969, Brimmeier's hours, powers and responsibilities have grown commensurately. The duties associated with overseeing a 530-mile toll road system that carries 175 million vehicles a year include not only his office hours but power lunches, special meetings, dinners and political events that last until 9 p.m. and beyond in the state capital.

"I asked for the challenge," Brimmeier said. "The governor recognized my managerial and political skills to do this job. He told me to run a clean ship and refocus some of the turnpike's priorities," including speeding up reconstruction of the original Irwin-Carlisle stretch that still has many bridges and overpasses hanging in there -- literally -- since its 1940 opening.

In one sense, Brimmeier is an outsider -- that is, he is the first executive director who has not passed through the turnpike ranks, albeit most of his predecessors had political ties of various extents.

For example, John T. Durbin, whom Brimmeier succeeds, was a $58,000-a-year systems review supervisor. After raising campaign money that helped ex-Gov. Tom Ridge win office, and because of his Republican contacts, Durbin was promoted in 1995 and served eight years as turnpike commission boss.

"Gov. Rendell and I developed a political relationship and the rest is history, as they say," Brimmeier said. "As a newcomer, I bring the perspective of a longtime turnpike traveler. I become frustrated when E-ZPass doesn't work. If I see paper along the road, I want it picked up."

Although he didn't know the difference between a Democrat and a Republican at the time, Brimmeier can trace the political roots that have taken him to the head of the turnpike to Nativity Grade School on the North Side, where the late Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster coached him in football.

He later worked nearly 20 years in county government before falling out with Foerster in 1991 when, against the boss's wishes, he ran unsuccessfully for county prothonotary.

He served as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, D-Murrysville, for eight years, until Klink lost to Republican Rick Santorum for one of the state's U.S. Senate seats.

"He organized my early campaign and then ran the office," Klink said. "If I had won [against Santorum], he'd still be my chief of staff. He works hard at everything he does."

It also seems he has done just about everything else. His positions, basically all of which came as a result of political appointments or votes, have included Allegheny County Industrial Development Authority vice chairman; director of placement and other positions at Community College of Allegheny County; director of the Allegheny County Parks Department; deputy auditor general overseeing Western Pennsylvania; manager of the Allegheny County Department of Development; and municipal manager of Monroeville.

His political affiliation notwithstanding, Brimmeier said he always takes his job responsibilities seriously. In all, he's had more than 30 years of public service at local, state and federal levels.

"He has the qualifications and experience, no doubt," said Jim Dodaro, of White Oak, a fellow North Catholic High School graduate who gives Brimmeier a strong shoulder to lean on. Dodaro is in his 20th year as a member of the turnpike commission, the longest tenure in the group's history. Dodaro was a county solicitor under Foerster.

"We've been colleagues and friends since 1979," Dodaro said. "We're both kind of proteges of Tom Foerster but from different perspectives.

"Joe and I interact quite a bit. We've had many, many discussions relative to policy issues, reorganization, Mon-Fayette Expressway, things relative to the turnpike."

On three occasions already, Brimmeier has stood in toll booths to experience firsthand the interaction between fare collectors and turnpike users. This winter, he plans to go out with maintenance employees who plow and salt the road.

"Those aren't easy jobs," Brimmeier said, noting how the public criticizes rank-and-file workers to the point of anguish. "I want to restore their passion. I want them to help us make a better, safer, more efficient Pennsylvania Turnpike."

While as executive director he is to do the bidding of Rendell and legislative leaders, a role he does not deny, Brimmeier said the turnpike neither has as many new patronage jobs as in the past nor does it fire many people, because most employees benefit from union protection.

"We don't have thousands of jobs to give away," he said. "Most people hired start as toll collectors, but E-ZPass has reduced the number of new hires. If someone wants a job in maintenance, they need a commercial driver's license."


Joe Grata can be reached at jgrata@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1985.

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