Monday, February 4, 2013

Let's Talk Transit!

Good afternoon, Cometheads!!!

I kidnapped Bram Reichbaum and forced Blogger privileges out of him so I could talk to his readers about NOTHING BUT TRANSIT!!!!!

So coming to you live from the fifth floor of the City-County Building…

For those of you who don’t know me, by day, my name is Shawn Carter, legislative staffer for Pittsburgh City Councilman Rev. Ricky V. Burgess, who represents Council District 9.  I will note at this time that for those who may wonder why I am doing this during business hours, that the District my boss represents likely has the highest proportion of residents who do not own automobiles and therefore transit is how they live and manage their daily lives.

Chris Briem posted some photos sometime back over at Nullspace, they’re worth re-posting:

Each of our predecessor generations has had to grapple with this issue.  It seems that in many respects our great-great grandparents had a better grasp on connectivity. 

Let us cast aside, for a while, our various (and in some cases, varying) political vantage points on local government and the politics that drive them and have a genuine conversation about transit.
And for the sake of disclosure, yes, everything I have read of transit in Southwestern Pennsylvania does in fact reveal that transit’s biggest enemy was neither government nor politics but sprawl itself.
As such, the history of modern transportation facilities (read: expressways) and transportation improvements (read: wider roads) at the exact time where more and more Americans were purchasing automobiles and government policy incentivized new residential construction farther away from the central city are factors that have and continue to loom large over the footprint of transit in this region.

I’ll throw this out there as well (for you privatization advocates):  The Pittsburgh Railways Company, the largest of the private-market predecessor to the Port Authority of Allegheny County couldn't maintain profitability in the wake of interstate highways and roads with upgraded service capacities, which is why the state Legislature passed a law allowing the County to take over the provision of transit service in Allegheny County.  

Although running massive deficits is less than ideal, even for the government, at least the government isn't required to turn a quarterly or annual profit in terms of dividends to investors and shareholders.  Moving people who do not have automobiles and/or who do not live within walking distance of where they need to go and doing so reliably is the dividend that is to be paid here.

So, in a sense, against this historical backdrop, it is only logical that given the aforementioned factors in a greatly post-industrialized region where research laboratories and upscale housing now occupy the real-estate where once-mighty mills and factories towered (and bellowed) has exerted downward pressure on transit.

Much of the talk I hear these days centers around two points: 
  1. Convincing the Governor and the General Assembly to give the Port Authority (and transit operators the state over) a dedicated funding source; and, 
  2. Privatizing the Port Authority’s operations.
As most transit advocates know (and most rational business interests), even cherry-picking the suburban routes is no guarantee of a profit (or a break-even).

Equally as unfortunate, a “dedicated transit” allocation is equally tricky.  As most of us know, transit is a regional necessity.  Yet, whenever we talk about transit, the reality is we are only functionally referring to Allegheny County.  

As the decades have progressed, many of our job centers have migrated farther and farther away from our urban core and more on the fringes of Allegheny County and the surrounding counties.

With the advent of more and larger suburban and exurban communities and the amenities, job centers and the highways and wider roads that make living farther away possible, many, many people are simply locked out of the "regional" economy.

The Port Authority may be Allegheny County’s problem, but the solution(s) must be regional if we are to succeed.  Allegheny County (including the City of Pittsburgh) may hold 50% of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s population, but it only holds 15% of the votes needed to shift transportation and transit priorities.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is comprised of 10 counties:

Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Fayette, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland County.  These ten counties comprise the federally-designated Economic Development District, Local Development District and Metropolitan Planning Organization.  All three functions are housed in an organization that is formally known as the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC).

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, from its website, says:

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, or SPC, is the region's forum for collaboration, planning, and public decision-making. As the official Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the ten-county region including the City of Pittsburgh and the counties of  Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene,Indiana, Lawrence, Washington, and Westmoreland, SPC is responsible for planning and prioritizing the use of all state and federal transportation funds allocated to the region. The Commission has the authority and responsibility to make decisions affecting the 10-county region. Click a menu selection on the right to view a complete or partial Commission Member listing. 

As the Local Development District (LDD) and Economic Development District for southwestern Pennsylvania (as designated by the U.S. 
Appalachian Regional Commission
 and the U.S. Department of Commerce), SPC establishes regional economic development priorities and provides a wide range of public services to the region.

Based on that short summary, whether transit is regional or not, the decisions on how all those federal dollars are planned and spent are explicitly regional.  Any short-term or long-term solution will require changes in regional transportation, transit, economic development and land-use policy that we here in Allegheny County cannot unilaterally control.

What else do we know about the SPC?  It is governed by a 66-member Commission.  Each County (and the City of Pittsburgh) is entitled to 5 appointees.  In Allegheny County, the County Executive is responsible for appointing the County’s 5 representatives.  

In the City of Pittsburgh, the Mayor appoints 4 and the President of City Council appoints the fifth.  In the other 9 counties, the County Commissioners appoint the 5 representatives.  

The remaining 11 Commissioners are appointed ex-officio by the Port Authority, the state and the federal government, many of whom are non-voting members.

In other words, 29 men and women, elected officials, all, decide who sits at that large table and how tens of billions of federal dollars will be spent.  But just as important, the SPC’s decisions require almost 34 votes to become policy.  The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County COMBINED are only worth 10.

Ever wonder how the North Shore Connector came about?  That’s a Chris Briem special, but the long story short is the North Shore Connector which, in 1993, was envisioned as a bridge over the Allegheny River, not a tunnel underneath it.
The same study that recommended the Connector also recommended a Downtown-to-Oakland Spine Line with two branches:  One underneath Forbes Ave from Oakland to Wilkinsburg, the other would use the CSX line underneath CMU and go through Hazelwood to Homestead.  The SPC approved and planned and Congress funded the North Shore Connector.

Ever wondered how major transportation decisions get made around here?  Look no further than the SPC.
For a full listing of the current commission, go here: 

And while the federal government does provide dollars for capital improvements (when Congress has been so inclined), it is the General Assembly and the Governor of the Commonwealth that provides the region’s transit operators (when it is so inclined) their operating assistance.

Both of those point to political processes seemingly outside of the control of local forces.

There are 46 state House districts that encompass Southwestern Pennsylvania.  26 of those are held by Democrats (for now.)  There are 12 state Senate districts that encompass Southwestern Pennsylvania.  7 of those are held by Democrats (for now).  

Both houses of the General Assembly are controlled by Republicans.  Currently, the Governor is Republican.  But even when Ed Rendell, a Democrat, was Governor, the Republicans still controlled the state Senate, and even when, during the last 4 years of Rendell’s term, the state House was controlled by Democrats, the state Senate was still a problem.

Among our Congressional delegation, 13 of 18 seats in the U.S. House are held by Republicans, and of our two U.S. Senate seats, one is held by a Republican.  Thanks to redistricting, there is no easy pathway, if you see this as a Republican vs. Democrat problem, of changing the existing reality.

And I realize that this was a long-winded screed to arrive at a very direct point, so I’ll make the point:
  1. Transit is not a regional asset, but the only solution is regional;
  2. There is NO political solution to the transit crisis we have been facing that favors the Democratic Party (and no funding solution that favors the Republican Party);
  3. Any practical solution to this crisis must contain a short-term (operating) and a long-term (system) redesign;
  4. Any redesign with any hope of garnering regional buy-in will have to serve the economic interests and the day-to-day needs of the residents and business in the nine counties that surround Allegheny County.
I do realize that this was long, but I felt it was important to get this out and establish a framework for further discussions.


  1. right. how many hours of the taxpayer's time did you spend on this encyclopedia?

  2. Isn't policy research and advocacy the purpose of legislators and their staffs? A more pressing question is, why is the framework neccessary to share in this space, and what benefit could further duscussions on this blog have? Is there a process to ensure they are meaningful to either the political or policy conversation, and not simply the musings of curious and verbose individuals ( of which I am one) .

  3. pghgradstudent1 --

    Process is the province of forum(s) already underway surrounding transit.

    As for benefits? Anything that helps those of us here in Allegheny see how large a problem is and that asking electeds outside the County to support funding for Port Authority without a benefit other than its eternal goodness is going to be problematic...

  4. Shawn, wonderful beginning! Thank you very much for providing a crucially useful backdrop to the current transit crisis our communities continue to suffer.

    As many of you reading here might know, tomorrow, on February 5th, after an initial tease announcement that he would reveal details of his transportation funding plan on January 24th, Governor Corbett is finally going to make good.

    Or, at least he's going to throw something at the wall and see what sticks.

    Some volleys have already been fired, such as lifting the cap on the gas tax and a vague hallelujah (or dire threat) of privatization, but most details have been left in the dark. As Corbett said, he's not about to “scoop” himself.

    So, this is my own tease – Corbett, on guard! Tomorrow this public transit advocate will venture to aim a bus or two at the dead center of whatever bull's eye targets you slam onto our public wall.

  5. Great post, Shawn. I want to highlight the point that aiming lobbying and ire at Corbett may be not simply futile but misguided, as he responds to the same political pressures that are out there. We ultimately need a solid block of transit-happy power brokers in Southwestern PA ... and the only way to do that is show them a vision of a SWPA-wide mass transit plan (I use the word "mass" every time I can, to be accurate and illustrative) that focuses on traditionally non-"public transit" backyards and their centers of learning, innovation and industry.

    Think about it this way (some of you people) -- you ever notice how transit always becomes a Democratic party campaigning issue? "Let's take a bus to Harrisburg and demand Governor Corbett blah blah blah we do this every week?" Maybe the region needs to organize itself, and not around ideology but around the "dividends" of moving people efficiently.

  6. So to throw out a wrinkle:

    An awful lot of revenues which are dedicated for state transportation spending are collected in Allegheny County through various taxes, fees, and tolls. The state then spends that money on roads, bridges, state police, and so on. However, Allegheny County does not get back its fair share of that funding through those expenditures (in fact, the state DOT actually noted this, which I found sort of amazing).

    The state funding for PAT then cuts back on this net deficit, but I am pretty sure Allegheny County is still, on net, subsidizing state transportation/police spending in the poorer, more rural counties, notwithstanding the state's transit program.

    I'm not sure where each county in the SPC comes out in this balance, but I definitely think this is always part of the equation for the SPC--yes, transit spending in Allegheny County needs regional buy-in, but the motivation for other counties doesn't have to be limited to those other counties getting theirs in terms of transit sending (indeed, that approach would be doomed to failure). Instead, the basic deal has long been that they get theirs in the form of spending on the sorts of transportation they most want (which is mostly roads and bridges, plus the state police).

    And in fact a somewhat similar story can be told with federal funding--for good or ill, road and transit funding have become entangled, with the deal being that federal spending on transit in urban areas will be (more than) counter-balanced by federal spending on roads/bridges in rural areas.

    The upshot is: we don't need to distort our transit design to try to provide service places it doesn't make sense to prioritize, which wouldn't work anyway. Instead, we need to remember that transit is just part of an overall mix of transportation spending, and the places where transit doesn't make sense can (and very much do) get their payoff for supporting the overall deal through non-transit spending.

  7. BrianTH --

    You've jumped ahead a couple of chapters, and today is another guest blogger's day...

    But Schock's frank admission to some rural GOP legislators about who really subsidizes who was "shocking" to me as well...

    Stay tuned for Thursday's episode...

  8. Sounds good!

    By the way, being an optimist, I think it is reasonable to hope that in the future, we will regain the ability to make rational and widely-accepted compromises on transportation revenues and spending for rural, suburban, and urban areas. However, I am not sure that will be possible until the anti-city/Southern-Strategy types are thoroughly marginalized, including within the Republican Party.

  9. @Bram

    The Rumble in the Rotunda bus fleet is going to roll up to Harrisburg on Feb 11th from all directions.

    I believe support for public mass transit has crossed party lines big time.

    Here's one of the speakers for the rally in Harrisburg: Republican House Representative, John Taylor:

    Our most active local partner is PCRG, whose members cross political lines all over the place.

    And one of our biggest state rally partners is the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition, which spans the range of Big Biz to rail-n-trail advocates, to Transit Authorities to wonky policy analyst and urban planning outfits to the AFL-CIO:

    So, Bram, I'm with you on not playing into partisan politics on such a vital issue, but rallies are ONE effective way to build connections across the state and to visually show the power of coalitions for common interests. And a great way for transit supporters to get to know each other.

  10. I feel like I'm back in a David Miller GSPIA class! That being said, I'm sending an email post haste to Fitz, urging him to name SHAWN CARTER next PAT poobah.

  11. @Helen - Duly noted. That does describe more bipartisanship than most anti-Corbett rallies.

    @BrianTH - I wouldn't call it "warping" the transit system to cater to outlying counties, so much as recognizing their own universities and centers of innovation. It would be nice to jump on a rail line and take a tour of the Monaca Cracker, apply for a job there, protest outside it. But maybe more to the point, it would be great for the Cracker Brigade to so easily make it into town for Pirates games, then next time, hmm maybe check out Donzi's Landing. And the Monaca kids -- SURE, you can move to Pittsburgh, it's practically right next door!

    @Shawn 8:09, et al - Two posts per day is not excessive! From the group that is...

  12. Lots of things would be "nice" when you don't have to worry about capital or operating costs.

    Local rail that extends outside of a dense urban core can work in some situations, but its justifiable applications are limited, and even then you are typically talking about low-volume services with pretty high fares piled on top of pretty high public operating subsidies piled on top of pretty high public capital costs (although you can shift down the public capital costs while shifting up the public operating subsidies through PPPs and such--not the typical way they are sold, I might note).

    The fact is most people living or working outside of the dense urban core already have cars, the use of which is going to be hard to beat on a marginal cost basis. And the people who can't afford cars typically can't really afford regular train fares either. Of course some people are facing congestion problems, parking costs, or so on that can get them to shift over to rail for some trips even if they do have a car available, but that is why these services even sometimes work, and that isn't enough to make them viable outside of certain specific situations.

    The notable candidates in the Pittsburgh region for such rail services are mostly along the rivers to historic but distressed communities which have potential to become redeveloped as walkable bedroom communities and walkable satellite cities. In fact part of the argument for the public subsidies is going to have to be the importance of prioritizing redeveloping those existing and potentially walkable communities over subsidizing more autocentric greenfield/sprawl development (an argument I agree with, but it has to be made). And even then, you are mostly talking about stuff in Allegheny County--the marginal benefit to marginal cost ratio rapidly decreases the farther out you try to take these hypothetical river lines.

    So re-establishing that entire interurban rail map with lines extending all over the place into the outlying counties really is just a fantasy for the next several decades at least. There is no way to get there from here without massive public expenditures on both capital and operations, all for what would start as pretty low ridership volumes. Many years in the future, such a system might induce enough new demand through new development patterns that it would finally become worth it, but that isn't exactly a selling point for the people living in those counties today, who naturally want their existing or at least near-future transportation needs prioritized.

    In short, that map might look like a great thing to take to the SPC, until you start attaching costs and projected ridership to it. Then I believe it will immediately prove to be a non-starter for the outlying counties.