Friday, June 14, 2013

Pittsburgh's Vulakovich Moment

Vulakovich advert

by Bram Reichbaum

*-UPDATE: Forgot to mention: this is all scheduled to be taken care of on Monday. Unsurprisingly, there are indications the state House's thinking on passing transportation funding is being dragged into this discussion.

Mass transit is about to undergo a shake-up, and the local public servant with the most to say about it is brand new to most City and inner-ring dwellers.

Sen. Randy Vulakovich (vu-LOCK'-uh-vich') arrives at our political shores via a unique path. A former police officer from Shaler Township, in 2006 he won the GOP nomination and general election to replace State Rep. Jeff Habay, who was convicted for corruption. And in 2012, he was selected by the Republican party to be its candidate in the special election to fill Sen. Jane Orie's seat, also convicted of corruption.

People may keep turning to him in the aftermath of these debacles because he takes a pretty hands-off view towards accepting perks.

Finally, due to legislative redistricting, Sen. Vulakovich's district is grabbing a lot of what will soon not be Sen. Jim Ferlo's seat. That sort of makes him Pittsburgh's Republican in the State Senate.

Most Republicans have lost most of their patience with the Port Authority of Allegheny County, particularly in regard to its efforts to budget effectively. Lately, it may have occurred to them that their era of total control -- GOP Governor, GOP House, GOP Senate -- simply cannot last forever.

Despite the fireworks playing out on personal levels, that's why Senate President Pro-Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson County) is now moving a bill that not only would strip County Executive Rich Fitzgerald of almost all his control over the region's mass transit agency -- but when you do the math, would also go a very long way towards ensuring it stays in Republican hands.

Make no mistake: Randy Vukovich is a Republican. It's true, he may have been among the first to begin discussing an impact fee for gas drilling, and he seems have a better understanding of unions than most owing to his experience in the FOP. But his conservative bona fides are crystal clear.
The two questions are: does he have a recognition, or at least soft spot, for the economic importance and potentials of transit? And/or does he look forward to engaging in dramatic ideological trench warfare near his backyard?

By all accounts, local progressives seem fine with distributing more board seats on the Port Authority board to more stakeholders. There's even a sense of relief that Republicans have decided to engage directly. Taking responsibility is great, familiarity breeds understanding.

But that's why Shawn was talking about compromise. If this is seen as a "hostile takeover" -- one party (the one Allegheny County voters can't seem to elect in large numbers) cleverly taking over majority control of the Port Authority in a backdoor way -- that sort of thing actually verges on usurping our own representation. Add to it the indignity of the new folks in charge not being from here, or not having ridership experience, and I told Pittsburghers for Public Transit straight-up: that would be time to break out the tri-corner hats and the Don't Tread on Me's flags. That's verging on unusually Unamerican.

Of course, not everybody is going to be happy with any result, and things do have to change. Something real, not a token. Something that encourages further compromises at the Port Authority down the road, constructive ones, stretching the possibilities in addressing costs. But let's not let this thing spin into a lab experiment in proxy warfare and subjugation.

Pittsburgh is exhibiting some real positive energy, and it would be nice to capitalize on that economic potential by helping everything from Connoquenessing to Zelienople be part of that engine. Let's focus on getting to the point where that's a conversation that can happen.

Besides which, the rank and file Dems of Pittsburgh aren't the most loony-tunes partners when it comes to transit governance. Remember that one-week story when the County Executive tried to make the wrong guy Director of the Port Authority? It failed to happen. Remember when he tried demanding resignation letters from the board to compel strict obedience? Those were torn up. We're more practical than we're given credit for.

We don't know anything about the new Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Pittsburgh yet, but we'd like to be able to say, "He's good on some issues," or "He's good on transit," or even, "You can work with him." After all the only way things happen if you can make connections on these other sides. Otherwise it's just... well, it's Harrisburg.

MORE: Keystone Politics

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Transit Entanglements: Compromise Needed on Port Authority bill

TV Tropes

By Shawn Carter

Earlier this year, I posted several massive entries on transit.  Most of them dealt with visions of regionalism and questions on how we get there.

But recent actions on the transit front in Harrisburg force those of us who use mass transit or who advocate on behalf of transit users to look more carefully at the issue and perhaps be more careful in how we advocate for our common concerns.

It is, and likely will always be, easy to blame transit woes on legislators in Harrisburg, union workers here and almost certainly Congress.

But when we look at how transit gets funded, most of the bacon comes from Harrisburg.  It was reported in the Post-Gazette that the Commonwealth contributes 54% of all of the Port Authority's revenues.  

But what does that mean?  In an almost $370 million dollar budget, the Commonwealth contributes a little more than about $180 million dollars, per year, on average, to support the Port Authority.  Last year, that number was actually $225 million dollars.

None of that, however, means that transit is in any way adequately funded.  I've said this in earlier posts, and I will repeat it, the government is the ONLY entity that is NOT REQUIRED to make a profit, merely guard against unnecessary losses.

The Pennsylvania Senate, to its' credit, just passed a transportation funding bill which will increase the state's share of transit funding to the Port Authority, for which 45 of those members deserve our thanks.  This package will add much-needed tens of millions of dollars annually to the Port Authority in state aid.

I will contend here that it is simply not enough for us to ever get to a more regional transit vision.

I will continue to contend that for transit to actually work now and for the future, Congress, Harrisburg, Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh and EVERY municipality serviced by a Port Authority transit line need to come up with another $250 million, annually, in addition to whatever they are getting right now and whatever they may get from the Transportation funding bill moving to the state House.

And so do UPMC, Highmark, the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie-Mellon University, Carlow and Duquesne Universities and Robert Morris University.  These entities are perhaps the largest beneficiaries of transit in the entire region, bar none.

Back in February, I made the following points:

  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.

And that brings us to more recent events:

My personal opinion on the matter is probably more in line with that of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald as a function of regional policy:

Transit must become a regional asset, and as it does, the Port Authority's Board of Directors would need to be broadened to include stakeholders from the other Counties in our MPO Region.

Dream Tree
But let us discuss the now-infamous Senate Bill 700.

Among other things, the legislation amends the Port Authority for Counties of the Second Class Law to increase the size of the Board and change the composition of the Board from one appointed solely by the Allegheny County Executive to one where the County Executive and the Mayor of Pittsburgh would each get one appointment, the Governor would get one appointment, each of the leaders of the legislative caucuses(4) would get one, and the two at-large County Council members (one a Democrat and one a Republican) would have to jointly choose the remaining 4 members from lists provided them by outside entities.

As an avid Steelers fan who watched, aghast last season at our running game, I'm almost forced to agree with the County Executive yet again.  Running back-by-Committee wasn't the most productive convention, and I'm not entirely sure that, all other appointments being equal, that forcing the Democrat and the Republican at-large County Councilmembers to agree on 4 appointments from lists provided from outside organizations with distinct interests is fair for either one of them, let alone transit users.

Transit advocates are still searching for rider representation.  Well, transit advocates are still reassembling their heads after they collectively exploded upon reading about SB700 in the newspaper.

I was initially surprised to find Senator Jim Ferlo's name among the co-sponsors of this legislation.  But it is important to understand that the Senator from Highland Park is a master legislator, so if he deigned to place his name on that legislation, it was because he is painfully aware of a few very important details:

  1. At the end of this process, the Port Authority's Board of Directors will be changed in some way;
  2. The President Pro Tempore, author and prime sponsor of the bill, has the votes (as he proved in Committee) to move and likely pass the bill through the Senate;
  3. The privatization components of the legislation make it more likely to pass in the House;
  4. Governor Corbett, in order to gain passage of initiatives deemed by political analysts and editorialists all over the Commonwealth as critical to his re-election, is likely to sign any such bill should it arrive on his desk;
  5. That although even Governor Corbett's Transportation Secretary, Barry Schoch, put it on the line earlier this year telling rural legislators that urban Pennsylvania subsidizes transportation spending in rural Pennsylvania and not the reverse, as the beneficiaries of that skewed formula, rural legislators are unlikely to vote for equity in transportation funding as it represents a loss of dollars for road and bridge projects that are beneficial to their Districts;
  6. That suburban and rural legislators tend to ignore crucial information that mass transit is critical to healthy urban tax bases in Allegheny County and Philadelphia, which fund rural transportation infrastructure
  7. Co-sponsoring the bill provides the Democrats the best opportunity to forge a compromise; and, 
  8. Senator Ferlo is the member of the Senate best-positioned to fight this battle. 

And it is clear that a compromise is needed here.


My earlier posts this year spoke of regionalism, a shared vision, how we got where we are and how to begin to get where we need to be.

Music and Teacups
The truth about transit in SWPA is this:

The Port Authority (and many of the other 9 government-run transit operators in our MPO Region) are trapped in between two worlds; One dead, the other, powerless to be born.

State aid, although substantial and growing, is little more than life support.

Privatization will be the equivalent of taking the patient off of life support.

If we assume that Harrisburg, in the short-term, has reached the outer limits of its willingness to contribute more dollars to transit in SWPA, then we need to engage different discussions, on the local level, to increase funds as well.

And there is evidence that with the hopeful passage of the Transportation Funding bill that passed the Senate 45-5, that Harrisburg may be at its current outer limit.

If that is the case, then it is probably time to engage the local populace in a painful round of "How important is transit to us?"  "What are we willing to pay for?"  "How should we pay for it?" "Who should be paying?"

Waiting for Congress is like "Waiting for Godot".

Harrisburg, regardless of our feelings as to whether it was enough, has acted.

At least in the short term, the rest may likely be upon us.  We need to figure out what that means, and fast.

But I wish Senators Ferlo and Costa the best of luck in forging compromise on SB700.

And thanks to Bram and Helen for their assistance with this post.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

CometWeather Alert: DERECHO, a potentially Wildly Severe weather event

KMSP Minneapolis - St. Paul

NEWS on the potentiality of a coming severe "Derecho" storm system weather pattern has hit the Trib and KDKA.

A REASONABLE SKEPTIC and measured critic of the doomsday alarms is at WaPo.

INFOGRAPHIC: Google conveys as of 5:30 PM Tuesday that we should expect this:

THE ANTHEM for this Weather Anticipation Event is on YouTube.

COMET HISTORY: The last time we did CometWeather, a flurry of August storms predictably enough caused problems for Girty's Run creek in Millvale. A state grant to build swales to address such flooding issues recently came through.

LATEST: Severe Weather Team 11 is reporting that on Wednesday we face a "moderate" risk for severe weather, "high" risk for winds, and "moderate" risks for both flooding and hail in descending order. It was a pretty awesome bar graph. [6:25 pm Tue]

VERY LATEST: Accuweather suggests the "ingredients are coming together" for severe weather, which may hit Pittsburgh in the wee hours of the morning, according to this map color-coded on a scale from bright red to dark, bright red [2:00 pm]

MORE LATEST: The city's Dept. of Public Safety issues an alert for storms starting at 8:00PM, citing the NWS warning of "high probability" of severe weather. [3:37 pm]

SAFETY TIPS: Retweeted c/o US Sen. Bob Casey, at the W. PA Red Cross.

MOST LATEST: We saw some rain, and some thunder. Sounds like we all got to mobilize some resources. Drill baby drill.

Monday, June 10, 2013


The basking period has concluded, yet obviously we're having trouble adjusting. What time does the next boat for Valinor leave? Wait, I don't get a ticket? Well then, after Hater Hour on 90.5 FM WESA is wrapped up this afternoon, I'll sit down at the Beehive and write a catch-up post. Know this and tremblingly refresh.