Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cui Bono?

B-list post by Vannevar Bush while Bram is on special assignment.

When I was a little kid I'd go to baseball games and the hawkers would be selling scorecards and I always thought those pieces of cardboard probably held valuable information, that for the giving of a dime you might become well-informed and knowledgeable and later as I grew up (to some degree) I have so many times wondered, where is that guy selling the scorecards now?

There are no scorecards, of course, and if you find yourself wishing for one it tells you more about your own situation than the game; you're a non-player, an observer. But if I may, some observations from way up high in the cheap seats.

Pattern Recognition and the ACE: Some functions of local government are organized into Authorities and governed by Boards. You might ask, Why is that? Sometimes it's when several counties want to cede a portion of their sovereignty to a new regional entity - for instance, the Port Authority of NY/NJ. Sometimes it's because the function involves planning, budgets, timeframes and decisions that need to be insulated from the four-year election cycle - for example, public transit or the airports.

In the last fortnight this pattern is discernable: the Allegheny County Executive (ACE) moves somebody into a position with the Authority's domain to accomplish his goals; they don't have any subject-matter-expertise, but they have the message. Might be somebody with turnpike experience, might be somebody with sales experience, but they're drinking the right flavor KoolAid. Shortly after that, the CEO is moved by the Board.

So I would think, if you're an Authority CEO and a new guy shows up, doesn't know the business but seems tight with the Executive, it's time to make three envelopes.

Last Man Standing, aka the Dog Not Barking: There are three people who seem to want to be the Mayor of Pittsburgh.

Within the last week, Team Peduto filed legal papers that could ruin the financial structure of Mr. Lamb's campaign, and what with him being a finance guy and all that would be pretty significant. The thorough preparation of the filing and their submission right after the offense was irrevocable suggests that somebody saw Team-Lamb failing to understand the complex new law and waited for them to put the noose around their own neck. By the way, who wrote that new law? Ah yes, the third Wannabe.

That complex new law may not be enforceable, what with shifting a City conflict to County courts; questions of jurisdiction n'at might preclude the timely response ostensibly sought. There is a clear change in the framework, and that might be sufficient.

Also within the last week, a steady series of discoveries about the Pittsburgh Police. At first it seemed like a story about the Chief, then it disclosed a grand jury conspiracy investigation, then it grew into other issues, and just now it's about no-show jobs. The person in charge of the Police, Mr. Ravenstahl, initially made bold statements of support and is now backing off; unsure of what to do and hoping to buy time he has called for outside counsel to consider the issue of outside employment.

The Hail-Mary-outside-counsel move was good short-term, and a minefield long-term; it takes time to form a panel, and an investigation into police outside employment evades the inquiry into the better question - was this person ever at work? How many no-shows are there? What's going on? The timing of these revelations seems terrible for the Incumbent and serendipitious for a Reformist Challenger.

The long-term minefield for Hizzoner and the FOP is the question of the police working lucrative mercenary assignments for bars and businesses, a corrupt arrangement in which taverns buy their own police, bars enforce commercial policy with the full force of criminal law, the bouncer becomes a policeman with arrest powers and Tasers whenever he wants to and gets to write the official report, and the city's insurance covers lawsuits and injuries. It's the third rail of Mayoral-FOP-governance politics.

Is it possible that this uncovering of long-standing, festering corruption is more about Luke's administration and re-election than the Police? Is there a electoral dimension leveraging a racial constituency against the FOP block?

And so, in this week of genteel boardroom, press conference, and court room throat-cutting - in other words, politics - who is quiet, subdued, and serene in the abattoir? Who profits?

At least, that's the question that comes to an uninformed observer, who doesn't have a scorecard.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Chief Nate Harper: Resignation Time

Carston Koell, Getty Europe

We briefly interrupt Comet Transit Week to bring you this breaking news:

Last year, Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan E. Harper became part of a private security consulting firm with a civilian police clerk and three of his officers, including a sergeant he later promoted to commander. (Silver, Navratil & Lord)

Despite the arrangement's legality and its lack of any specific inhibitory policy at the Dept. of Public Safety, this behavior by a Chief plainly can encourage distracted decision-making and negative effects on workforce environments. So far, so unfortunate. But against a backdrop of guilty pleas by Bureau underlings and "former friends" associated with Mr. Harper's life partner, it finishes an unwholesome portrait. Ms. Pittinger's description is valid: messy and unethical.


Right on schedule, we see one result of "unacceptable" yet nonetheless tolerated examples at the top depressing the standards in and maybe even the performance of public safety. How can the Chief be expected stand up for the need for City officers to focus on their excruciatingly difficult day jobs, when he himself engages in mixing agendas?

Divide, Conquer, Drive On

By Helen Gerhardt

Divide, Conquer, Drive On
At the corner of Shady Ave and Forbes, in Squirrel Hill, an older man rolls fast toward the bus stop, but still a full block away, his wheelchair pitching up and down a stretch of sidewalk that has been humped and cracked by a corridor of tall, old sycamore trees. The light is green, the driver pauses, looks down at his watch – he is already ten minutes behind schedule. Getting the wheelchair onto the bus will take about seven extra minutes, at the very best. What if someone is late to work and loses their job because he does not make the light? And it is already very likely that yet another passenger will chew him out for being late.

But the real-life flesh and blood and anxious face rolling towards the driver are harder to resist than the call to "efficiency" - or the other probable needs that his choice to wait will frustrate. The light turns red, the driver lowers the platform which will lift the wheelchair onto the bus, the man rolls on with an enormous smile, and thanks the driver as he lifts the seats which will make space for him up front.

As the man's wheelchair is finally parked and strapped in, I do not wonder out loud why the man chose not to call a specialized ACCESS paratransit vehicle to come right to his doorstep to pick him up – I've been told by several other men and women who would like to use the system. But I hear the desperate, whispered question to a friend from a woman behind me who is late to pick up her child from a day care. She doesn't say anything directly critical, but I feel like explaining loudly. “If that man in the wheelchair lives within two miles of a Port Authority bus stop, he must pay double the regular ACCESS fare. And that ACCESS vehicle might well be one of those owned by Veolia, a private, international company based in France that we pay for with our Pennsylvania taxes.”

I keep my mouth shut. It would take so much time to explain what a "private-public partnership" means and I can see that the woman is too tired to want to listen to what might seem like a lecture. The tension on the bus diffuses, people settle back into their seats, we are soon crossing the bridge for the Waterfront Mall and dark is falling outside – some people drowse against their bunched up coats. But for about ten minutes our little community on wheels had been sharply divided by competing concerns and responsibilities and needs, pressures created for all of us by lack of support for a public system that serves as a life line for so many of us.

As other people board, I ask them about what losing this bus would mean to their lives. They use the 64 route to get to work, schools, grocery stores, churches, pharmacies, libraries, day cares, hardware stores, elderly parents in need of daily care - the list goes on and on. Many of the work commuters do not own cars. Many faces are grim at the thought of what will happen if the state of Pennsylvania does not fulfill its obligation to maintain the public transit infrastructure which is as basic and necessary to the health of their families as the road the bus rolls on. 
Governor Tom Corbett has now lived down to my own very low expectations on that score – the transportation plan he released yesterday would only direct $40 million to public mass transit this year for the entire state. Even after the most stringent of efficiencies now practiced by the Port Authority of Allegheny County and enormous concessions by the Amalgamated Transit Union, that would mean the loss of yet more vital service.
Elimination of more routes in Allegheny County would strike into the most vulnerable neighborhoods of the city, and amputate many of the commuter routes to the ring suburbs, deeply damaging workers, transit dependent businesses and the basic health of our regional economy. The impact would not just be local though - the urban economies of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia provide the bulk of the tax base which funds the entire state budget, including repairs to rural roads and bridges across the state. 
Many mass transit supporters are deeply concerned that Governor Tom Corbett will exploit the critical needs so well represented on this bus to divide the public against each other as he pushes for transportation privatization. Such a plan would enrich of many of his biggest campaign donors. Some fear that our state will enter into generations-long contracts with private companies, not only from our own state, but from across the globe, contracts with "absentee landlords" that will damage our lives, economies, communities, and even our democratic structures, all without any input from the people that would be most affected. 
Over the next few days, I'll post more solid examples, data and analyses from across the country that demonstrate the often perilous outcomes of private-public partnerships for vital public infrastructure, regional economies and democratic institutions, contracts that are often crafted and signed beside closed doors. Reports coming out of Harrisburg seem to indicate that Corbett has indeed begun to confirm our worst fears and concerns. Our governor may well do his best to institute a system which exemplifies what many might consider the worst of both capitalist and socialist economic models.  

Faced with the man jouncing down the cracked sidewalk to the bus stop, the profit margin as bottom line would have dictated one obvious choice for the man at the wheel - drive on. 

Helen Gerhardt is Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit: 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Highest and Best Use of Public Assets"

Dr. Vannevar Bush added the Great Allegheny Passage to Transit Week at the Pittsburgh Comet.

So before Helen Gerhardt breaks down another critical aspect of transit/transportation, I'll add this.

Speaking of the Great Allegheny Passage...

Figure 1.  Montour Trail from Montour Junction in Coraopolis, PA (Mile 0) to Library, PA.
Great Allegheny Passage
I hope to bike it all the way from Point State Park to D.C. with my son before he goes off to college.

But there are about 5.5 miles of it I wish Pittsburgh and Allegheny County could have back.

Those 5.5 miles don't interrupt the continuous connection from Point State Park to Washington, D.C.

Figure 2.  Montour Trail from Montour Junction in Coraopolis, PA. to the Airport Parkway
(Mile 0 of the Montour Trail)
Great Allegheny Passage
Click to Enlarge
Then there are about 15 miles of rail line(s) I wish Allegheny County would have either fought at all for, or fought harder for over the past 40 years:

Figure 3. CSX rail line from Montour Junction in Coraopolis, PA to Station Square in Pittsburgh, PA.
Click to enlarge
And this stretch of interstate highway in Moon and Findlay Townships:

Figure 4.  Airport Parkway from Montour Run to the Landside Terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport
Click to Enlarge
So we have 4 miles of interstate highway built for rail transit, 5.5 miles of rails-turned-trail and 15.3 miles of freight rail.

Put it all together and you get this:

Click to Enlarge
"T" Service from Station Square to Pittsburgh International Airport.  And we would still have a very cool, very  uninterrupted rail-trail from Point State Park to Washington, D.C. (nine weeks from now, of course...)

For anyone in Pittsburgh who wonders why this transit facility does not exist, over the days and weeks to come, I'll unpack that very long story.

It's all yours, Helen...

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

April 15 : Our Next Transit Ribbon Cutting

B-list post by Vannevar Bush while Bram is on special assignment.

It may be true that all of western civilization is but a footnote to Plato, but it is certainly true that all of the BurghoBlogoSphere is but a hyperlink to Chris Briem, who points out that Pittsburgh is about to lose one of our two Amtrak runs at a most unfortunate time. Back to that shortly.

Sic Semper Transit...

This seems to be Transit Week in Cometville. Some might talk of Busways and Light Rail and Connectors and Mon Valley Expressways, while others might talk of the folly of drilling for flammables at the mainstay of our nascent Aerotropolis - because if that blows up, all we've got left is a tropolis.

As for me, I would prefer to talk about the Positive, the Short-Term, and the Happy, because I am an immediate gratification kind of guy, so I would like to discuss our impending happy news: our next transit ribbon cutting on April 15, only 9 (nine) weeks away.

On April 15, barring the unforeseen, Linda Boxx and a host of worthies will cut a ribbon and open the last remaining trail segment connecting Pittsburgh with Washington DC, establishing a 350 mile uninterrupted bike route. The new route begins in Homestead, runs through Sandcastle and Keystone Metals, and joins the Baldwin Borough Trail.

Lest you think this is a trifling event, a plaything not worthy of mention in the same page as trains and planes and the Holy Automobile, let me tell you: this is a big thing. This trail runs from Point State Park down to McKeesport, thence to DC. At McKeesport you can turn west on the Montour Trail and ride through the South Hills and around to the PIT Airport and Neville Island. From the Point you can ride to Brighton Heights, Millvale, or the Cork Factory. You can connect to Grant Street or Oakland. We're talking major infrastructure.

Those trail connections then connect to the ever-increasing on-street bicycle routes that the City and Bike-Pgh have been adding - they've added 17 miles in 2012 alone. Here's an animation of the growth of the on-street bike lanes, and when I look at that I think maybe the only new infrastructure in Pittsburgh besides the T-Tunnel is the bike lanes.

There's going to be tourists coming in on that trail, people who for the last few years have been stopping in Boston PA or Homestead because that's where the trail ended. Now they can ride into Pittsburgh, take their picture at Point State Park or the Hot Metal Bridge, spend their money at a hotel and a restaurant and a bar.

When you look at the demographics of who's taking these multi-day bike trips, it skews affluent. There are certainly minimalist touring cyclists that get by on very little, but in general these are folks who can afford to take a week off and have discretionary income. This is a road that brings money in to town; how many roads can say that?

Which takes us, full circle, back to the news of Pittsburgh possibly losing one of the two Amtrak runs. When you ride from DC to Pittsburgh, or Pittsburgh to DC, most people don't want to ride their bikes back the other way — their tushies have had enough. People like to take the train back to the other end. It's a great deal; you put your bike in a box, they charge you an extra $20 or so, and they give you your boxed bike on the other end.

Kind of a shame that they're threatening to cut off the Amtrak service on the west half of Pennsylvania over a question of state subsidies, while there's 14 trips a day between Philly and Harrisburg, just as the bike trail is finally opened.

At any rate, comes April 15, maybe May 1, expect to see more itinerant bicyclists riding from the SouthSide to the Point and remember: every one of those people on a bicycle is a visitor spending money, a parking spot you didn't have to build, and a car that's not congesting traffic.

Bikes are transit, too.

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.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Please Be Advised, Democratic Party Committee members, City of Pittsburgh Wards 1-32:

Kid President has some stern advice for you. Among other things: wherever you go, be the party.

SPECIAL NOTE TO NON-INSIDERS: The Democratic Committee is the actual structure of the Democratic party. Across the country it is a place to practice politics, community, and networking. All local Committee members are either elected by registered Democratic voters by precinct on quadrennial spring Election Days, or else simply appointed by Ward Chairs, as the case may be. The structure rewards hierarchy with each Ward electing Ward Chairs and other officers, and each major city, each county and each state constituting various committees. Its two missions are to disseminate and encourage the messages and the values of the Democratic party, and to endorse by votes amongst themselves candidates running in the popular Democratic Party primary election. Endorsed candidates enjoy Party resources and expertise. In the very old days, especially when there was more foreign in-migration to cities, the Party endorsement meant everything in terms of becoming the party nominee -- it was the only way. "Welcome to America!" In return, loyalty by triumphant office holders to the "machine" was strengthened. Only in relatively recent years has the party endorsement come to be occasionally non-determinative, an occasion which coincides with the polarization of the parties and the ascendancy of a "progressive" neoliberal left. Many Democratic Committees across the country have ceased endorsing candidates entirely, until duly endorsed and nominated by the people on spring Election Days.

SECOND SPECIAL NOTE: Notes doubt you will have read up on Jack Buncher and the Buncher Foundation, as well as the many, many escaped convicts the County judicial and penal systems produce from drug warriors to drug-addicted rageaholics and other fanatics.