Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dedicated Funding Streams 101

You may (like me) have spent the last week gorging on Christmas treats and entertaining travelers stranded in Pittsburgh because of the crippling East Coast snowstorm. However, Pittsburgh City Council has been spending their holidays coming up with last-minute solutions to avoid a potentially disastrous state take-over of the city's pensions at the end of the year.

The latest political buzzword is "Dedicated Funding Stream." The idea is as old as dirt, though. Many of us set aside money every paycheck to contribute to our 401Ks. That's a simple dedicated funding stream. Instead of getting your whole paycheck, plopping it into one big checking account, then deciding how to divvy things up, you set aside a fixed percentage every month to your future retirement that you can't change without lots of annoying paperwork.

Allegheny County's Drink Tax
Back in 2007, County Executive Dan Onorato and his council passed the extraordinarily controversial Drink tax, dedicating 10% of every tipple consumed in the county to pay for the County's share of Port Authority expenses. Now, when it's time to pay Port Authority, the Council doesn't have to slice a piece of the budget pie - that money is already set aside.

City Council's Proposal?
Pittsburgh City Council wants to dedicate future parking rate increase profits to funding the Pittsburgh pensions. I, for one, am a fan of this method. Much like we don't sell our house and put the profits in our 401K and hope for the best, just to get all our savings wiped out in a bad market downturn, we regularly contribute to our future, exercising "Dollar Cost Averaging." If you need an extra reminder why plopping a giant wad of cash onto the problem doesn't fix the problem, you need to only look back to the year 1998 in Pittsburgh. That's when then-Mayor Murphy sold over $250 Million in bonds to shore up the pension fund. All that money has since disappeared in stock market dive after stock market dive while the city continued to contribute the minimum amount possible each year.

What's Next? Will Harrisburg also jump on the dedicated funding stream bandwagon? One can only hope. As it stands now, the Pennsylvania state legislature can barely pass budgets on time while it attempts to divvy up its giant general fund. Most of the time, Port Authority gets the shaft. Let's take the control out of the hands of selfish state legislators and add some transparency to the budgeting process instead of last-minute shady deals to pass the budget. Heck, maybe the Federal government could even learn some lessons here? If I can manage my own budget, surely our governments with their teams of Ph.D. degree-holders and economists should be able to as well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Downtown Parking Thanksgiving

Mr Benter of the Benter Foundation got fed up with searching for parking downtown, so he directed his foundation to spend $175,000 to develop ParkPGH. Currently, the application-website tells users the availability of parking at 8 downtown garages in the Cultural District.

In January, ParkPGH will add a ninth location, the parking authority garage at Ninth Street and Penn Avenue. At that point, the system will encompass 5,300 spaces -- 25 percent of Downtown garage capacity.

If I'm doing the math correctly, that means there are 21,200 parking spaces available in downtown parking garages.

The system potentially benefits 2 million annual Cultural District visitors and about 150,000 daily Downtown commuters.

So we have 21,2000 parking spaces available downtown for 150,000 daily commuters. That means the vast majority of downtown workers park elsewhere and walk or take public transportation downtown.

On Tuesday night, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission narrowly voted to bail out Port Authority with an extra $45 Million they had lying around - on the condition that Port Authority still implements some cuts in March. When Port Authority enacts its slightly less catastrophic 15% compromise service cuts in March, at least all those stranded downtown workers will be able to watch the parking garages fill in real-time on their iPhone.

And to make it a parking trifecta this week, Pittsburgh City Council is fast-tracking a plan to lease our parking garages and bail out the city's own pension fund. The good news? The garages will only be leased for 40 years (instead of 50) and the city will be eligible for profit-sharing from the garages. The bad news? They're still leasing the parking meters and giving up control over parking throughout the city and not ultimately solving the city's long-term pension woes.

So in summary, thanks to Mr Benter for actually getting something done. Thanks to the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission for stepping in where the state repeatedly refuses to tread - even if the money comes with strings attached. And thanks that I'm not a Pittsburgh City Councilor stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Happy Hanukkah from Governor Rendell!

Governor Rendell has put me in the holiday spirit! He just announced funding for averting catastrophic Port Authority service cuts in March.

Once again, a one-time emergency fix has bailed out the long-suffering public transportation agency. Once again, the ball is back in the State's court to come up with a dedicated funding stream for transit. Perhaps Governor Corbett can rename the Johnstown Flood Tax, which has been making a mockery of that catastrophe for decades in the name of slush funding, to the Public Transportation tax, making a strong stand in this state that if you buy liquor you're funding the drunk buses. Perhaps, they can also start issuing busperks for each case of beer you buy?

Honestly, not only did Rendell save my bus line (and dozens of others) with his dogged attempts to not give up on public transportation even in his final days of office, he also saved this blog. There's only so much defeat this blogger can overcome. So you have one more year of decent bus service, and one more year of me blogging.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bye-Bye Buses, Hello Bikes

Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) is planning record cuts in bus service largely due to a reduction in state funding this year and going forward. With a new conservative Governor-elect, Port Authority funding is likely to only continue its decline at the state level and our illustrious local officials seem perfectly content to face the demise of public transportation while claiming it's not their problem.

But all is not lost. There's no time like the present to start biking in Pittsburgh. Next Fall, thanks to a final grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, all Port Authority buses will be equipped with bike racks. Currently, about 80% of the buses have bike racks. While your local bus stop (and entire line) may be cut, at least you can reliably bike between home and a further away bus stop. Perhaps it's Allegheny County's long-term plan to reduce its obesity rate which is sitting significantly higher than the national average? Personally, I'd prefer a tax on sugary drinks. A Carnegie Mellon University study last spring showed that a 1% county tax on the drinks would cut usage by 8% and generate $54 Million annually. If we can put the alcoholic drink tax toward Port Authority, why not share the burden with our sugar-guzzling friends? After all, obesity causes more deaths than just drinking alcohol.

But it's not too late for the state to at least restore some of its previous funding and stop shirking its responsibility. Go to keeppghmoving.com and make your voice heard.

Friday, November 12, 2010

CMU Capitalizing on India's Youth

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is expanding its educational programs in Chennai, India. The university's forays with Chennai date back to 2007 when they partnered with a small private college to offer a graduate degree in Engineering. Back then, it was estimated that 160,000 Indians were studying abroad spending $4 Billion annually. Fast forward to 2010 and that estimate has jumped to $7.5 Billion per year spent on foreign institutions abroad. Not a bad 3 year return. Not only are Indians spending their money abroad, but they are also donating it abroad. Just last month, Harvard received a $50 Million donation from the Indian business group, Tata - their largest foreign donation in history.

India's Minister of Education's goal is to increase the rate of higher education enrollment from its current 12.4% to 30% in 2020.
With 400,000,000 people in India under the age of 18, that will create a huge need for more institutions. Currently, foreign universities are not allowed to operate independently in India, but legislation which has been in the process to change that for years seems to be gaining ground. That's what universities like CMU, Ohio State University, and Virginia Tech are betting on.

For Pittsburgh, a city that has reformed itself on the basis of "Eds & Meds," a new opportunity to rapidly expand and monetize the education market can only mean good things for the local economy. I'm happy to see CMU at the forefront on this opportunity. Will CMU become the UPMC of education? Will the University of Pittsburgh or our other local universities join the bandwagon? It's hard to think of a better potential investment.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Polls Are Open

It's a happy coincidence that I'm back in the country for election day. It's jet lag though not excitement that has me blogging this early in the morning.

Your Western Pennsylvania Election Run Down:

Governor

It's a toss-up for which is the most important election this year. Since I'm a proponent of all things local, I'm going to say the race for governor is the most important. Harrisburg once again recently showed that they are completely inept by failing to pass a Marcellus Shale drilling tax. Here in Pittsburgh, our pension crisis is coming to a head because of Harrisburg's inaction. Let's put someone in the governor's chair who actually has a chance of addressing those issues.

Tom Corbett:
"Tom Corbett may not be in a hurry to enact a severance tax on natural gas drillers, but if elected Pennsylvania’s next governor, the current attorney general will begin immediately to reform state government."
Do you really trust that he's going to change his tune after he's elected and in power? Judge the man on what he's actually done - not on his promises. Judge him on what he has done, such as joining the health care suit to overturn much needed health care reform in this country.

Dan Onorato:

I'll admit it that I flip-flop on Dan Onorato. He has certainly made choices locally that I disapprove of, but that will be the case with any candidate that you have detailed knowledge of. There is no perfect candidate, but there is a "best" candidate in this election. That is Dan Onorato. He has accomplished a lot (controversially) in his time as County Executive of Allegheny County. He's making the county more energy efficient, investing in our green space, and recently announced a major breakthrough of the Allegheny trail. As governor, he will be in the position to fix the property tax miasma throughout the state and maintain his hard line on limited tax increases.

Senator

Toomey:
From his site: "Throughout his time in Congress, Pat voted for legislation to protect innocent life, strengthen marriage, and protect the traditional values upon which this country was founded."
Would those be the same values that made black men slaves and denied women the right to vote? No thank you.

Toomey's cure for the economy: "cutting taxes and decreasing regulation." Really? Really? Haven't we had enough of short-term fixes that screw us in the end?

Sestak:
His grassroots campaign upset surprised us all in the Spring when he emerged victorious over Arlen Spector. He needs your help to do it again. For information on why you should vote for Sestak, see the Post-Gazette's endorsement of Sestak.

Get out and vote!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tea Time


Çay, originally uploaded by cjette.

Be back next week.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

National Do-Not-Flyer List

Throughout the country, we are giving folks more rights in preventing blatant abuses of privacy. Since 2004, you have been able to sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry - preventing telemarketers from bothering you. We have laws for Junk mail - where unless you are a paying customer of a company, you have the right to remove yourself from their mailing list. The Can-Spam Act of 2003 attempts to prevent spam from flooding our email inboxes (though it has some implementation issues.)

However, spammers and their ilk will continue attempting to flood us with unwanted garbage in every avenue possible. The latest attempt in Pittsburgh? Two anti-abortion activists have sued the city in an attempt to overthrow the anti-flyer law enacted to reduce litter. Where are they getting the money for this lawsuit? Pat Robertson.
"Kathleen A. Ramsey of Ross and Albert A. Brunn of Pittsburgh want to distribute leaflets they think will influence the results of the election. They are represented by the American Center for Law & Justice, an organization founded by evangelical preacher Pat Robertson."
Prepare for pictures of dead fetuses (preview if you have the stomach) to flood your car windshields in the coming months. It's not enough that abortion protesters feel the need to harass women seeking affordable health care at Planned Parenthood. (See some horror stories from last year's 40 days for Life.) For the next month, they will also have the legal right to leave garbage on your car. I recommend that you find the anti-abortion van and plaster it with pro-Sestak flyers.

I want to put my car on the Do-Not-Flyer List. Maybe in another few years?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Step Trek 10


Pittsburgh Steps, originally uploaded by cjette.


This Sunday, head on down to the South Side Slopes for some stair walking good times. With multiple routes around the South Side Slopes, you'll get some exercise, sneak peaks into some gorgeous churches, and fantastic views of the city. This is the 10th Anniversary of Step Trek and promises to be the best one yet. For more information, see the official Step Trek website!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Full of Gas in Harrisburg

If there's one thing I've learned in my time in Pennsylvania, it's that you can rely on our State Legislators in Harrisburg to drag their feet. This is the same Legislature which in 2009 didn't pass its annual budget until almost 3 months after it was due.

Marcellus Shale (the huge rock formation containing huge amounts of hard-to-extract natural gas covering most of Western Pennsylvania) has been in the news for years. Companies have been ramping up operations to build wells and extract the lucrative gas since 2008. Now in the middle of a budget crisis in 2010 where our roads and public transportation options are facing severe cuts, the Legislators are finally proposing a tax on this process which is harmful to the environment and has already put billions of dollars in the pockets of investors.

Today, the State House is finally voting on a bill to tax the shale deposits. The only questions are: how much and how? Do you tax on the quantity of the gas as it is extracted from the ground or on the market value once the gas is sold or a combination of the two (as Governor Rendell supports). The current bill will only tax the gas as it is extracted, but it is set to be one of the highest rates in the nation. Of course, this is in front of the House. Once (and if) the bill reaches the Republican-controlled Senate, they will inevitably compromise and lower the rate and/or change the methodology.

Finally, once they can agree on the tax, they need to agree where the money should go - a combination of State general fund and an environmental fund to counteract the damages imposed by drilling.

Needless to say the drilling companies have predicted doom and gloom if the bill is passed in Pennsylvania. And Legislators are hesitant to pass a law so close to an important mid-term election. Will they pass the law before they leave for campaigning break in mid-October? I'll wager my bus fare because if they don't pass the law, I won't be taking the bus anymore anyways.

As a note, all other 24 Marcellus Shale states have already passed a tax. Pennsylvania is dead last.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

$452 Million is TOO Much Money

After weeks of waiting, the final tally has come in. The city needed a minimum of a $300 Million bid for the parking assets in order to pay off the existing parking authority debt and boost the pension fund up to 50% funding.

The city got an offer of $452 Million.

For weeks, city residents were told that these over-arching changes were required. There was no way to separate the parking garages from the parking meters. Every adjustment the administration made to the proposal would highly risk our ability to be competitive. We needed to "keep the deal attactive to potential bidders."

And then what happens??? We end up with way too much money.

So what do I say? Put the project back out to bid for just the parking garages. Give the 7 pre-picked firms the option of re-submitting bids for just the garages. After all, the Metered Parking System Agreement is already separate from the Parking Facilities Agreement. I'm willing to bet that we can get $300 Million for the facilities alone.

Leasing our parking meters for 50 years is simply ridiculous. Letting someone else control where and how much our parking meters cost will be deadly to local businesses and future development. There is free-market competition for the parking garages and the ability for 3rd parties to build more. When it comes to parking meters, there is no such thing.

What about Port Authority's quest for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which would greatly improve our transportation options in certain corridors but could require elimination of some parking meters? If the parking meters are leased, that becomes an added expense to the project. The city should control its roads. Lease some profitable parking garages downtown, but don't sell out our roads.

Or do you really trust City Council and the Mayor's office with a $150 Million bonus?

Or we can wait until Friday when City Council's study of the parking situation comes to light.

Whatever the case, we know now that either the Mayor had no idea what the parking garages are worth (and still doesn't) or his office was perfectly willing to bully the city into giving away way too much power. Seriously, it's going to cost $2 per hour to park in the struggling neighborhood of Brookline but we're supposed to be happy that the Mayor saved our free Sundays?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

3 Important Announcements for this Week in Pittsburgh

1) Today (Tuesday), the parking lease proposals are due. 7 Firms were given the opportunity to submit their bids by 4PM today. Run on over to nullspace to make your proposal guesses now!

2) Thursday, we learn once and for all whether the Civic Arena will be imploded. Who am I kidding? They'll decide to implode it, and then we'll be in for another round of appeals from the "Re-Use the Igloo" folks. Perhaps their best argument so far has been this image:



3) Podcamp Pittsburgh is this weekend. To sweeten the pot, buildasign.com has given me 50 bumper stickers to dole out to my Pittsburgh-crazed groupies. Since I don't have groupies, anyone I see at Podcamp will be eligible for a PghIsACity-themed bumper sticker (while supplies last.)


Made my signs

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Steelers Are Coming

A new CMU Miller Gallery exhibit, "Whatever it takes", hopes to gain new insight on the Steelers phenomenon highlighting outlandish fans near and far. The exhibit opens this weekend. If you've always been looking for a good excuse to check out this gallery, now is the time. Also, if you have a Steelers tattoo or a special game-day ritual, they want you to become part of the exhibit.

Like most fans, I wear my jersey on game day, and I strive to watch every game, from walking through a snow storm to watch the game at a Steelers bar in Massachusetts to catching snippits of a game in a bar in Argentina with "buffalo wings" that resembled chicken cacciatore. This Sunday, I'll be heading down to the South Side stopping in wherever there's a good crowd, but I can still get a seat. And this Friday, I'm hoping to check out the Immaculate Reception, the CMU gallery's cleverly titled opening reception.

If you've managed to miss it, check out "Yinz Luv da Stillers" below whose work will be featured at the Miller Gallery.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How Many More Hospital Visits?

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Or why did Justin McFadden cross West Carson Street around 2AM 6 days ago?

To get to the other side.

What happened to Justin McFadden? An off-duty, impaired (read: drunk) Kennedy police officer hit him. Remember kids, buzzed driving is drunk driving.

Justin McFadden is now in the hospital with 6 broken ribs, a neck fracture, and a spleen injury. He had blood clots in his brain and collapsed lungs. This was no mere brush with a vehicle. This was a serious collision.

What does the un-biased Tribune-Review have to say about this? They quote a random passerby:

"That's the worst place on that road to cross because the jersey barrier blocks everything, and you wouldn't see anyone until the last second"

And you know what a sober, alert driver does, when they see someone in the road at the last second? They swerve out of the way and crash into a jersey barrier rather than slamming into the pedestrian. By quoting this garbage in the paper, the Trib is almost justifying this near-murder by a drunk-driver saying that the young man shouldn't have been in the street. Yeah, there'd be no drunk-driving accidents if folks just stuck to crosswalks.

And the police officer that hit him and may or may not have left the scene and not reported the crime? He's sitting off-duty receiving pay yet to face any charges. We can only hope that next time he's out drinking, he calls BeMyDD.

Justin's father says:
"I just feel like if I was the one who hit someone, I'd be in jail right now"
And I can't help but agree.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Councilman Kraus versus the South Side

Love him or hate him, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bruce Kraus cares about his South Side constituents. Since he was elected, he has made it his crusade to stem the tide of violence, disrespect, and litter in the South Side. Earlier this summer, he organized the "Sociable City Forum" bringing local leaders and bar owners together. Last year, his intern created the following document: "INVITING, SAFE, AND COHESIVE: A PROPOSAL FOR THE MANAGEMENT OF THE SOUTH SIDE USING RESPONSIBLE HOSPITALITY PRACTICES" This proposal outlines the many ways the South Side could be better handled. But unfortunately funding is an ever-present issue in the city, and none of these recommendations have been implemented.

This past weekend, we had a stark reminder of why it's so important to make changes on the South Side. After getting into a fight with a bouncer, a bar patron opened fire wounding the bouncer and two bystanders. This is unacceptable. Stories like this are why I try to leave the South Side craziness before all hell breaks loose at closing time. Every Friday and Saturday night I've been on the South Side, I've experienced drunken belligerence and fights - though thankfully no gunshots yet. This behavior is unacceptable. Are we going to wait until 4 people get killed?

But our Mayor keeps pushing this off on Councilman Kraus as a minor district problem. Moreover, it seems the Mayor's office is turning a blind eye to Kraus's efforts.

Ms. Doven [Mayoral Spokeswoman] said Mr. Kraus "hasn't brought us anything by way of recommendations, solutions, a white paper" and questioned his willingness to work with the mayor's office. She said previous enforcement blitzes on the South Side yielded only temporary improvements.

Mr Mayor, perhaps if you read your mail, you would have opened your personal invitation to the South Side Sociable City Forum. Or perhaps you could go to Councilman Kraus's web-page on the city website where he outlines the above goals. Or maybe once a week, you could read the newspaper which regularly highlights Kraus's attempts at legislation and change in the South Side. Since being elected, Kraus has managed to get laws passed to increase fines for open alcohol containers and created a fine for public urination.

Perhaps money collected from these fines could be funneled directly back into the South Side police presence? Whatever the case, you can disagree with his tactics, but you can not disagree that Councilman Kraus is willing to work on this vital issue.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Designated Drivers to the Rescue

Anecdotal evidence walking in the South Side on a Friday night says that people in Pittsburgh have a major drunk-driving problem. But what do you do when you're drunk and you're out with your car? A new company aims to take away one pathetic excuse for the drunk drivers. You (or your concerned friend) call 1-877-U-BMYDD. For a reasonable fee, they will drive you and your car home. You can also reserve their driving services ahead of time on their website. But if you are the type of person to get smashed with your car, you're probably not planning ahead, are you?

Now, we just have to convince Pittsburgh drivers that they shouldn't be driving drunk. This week, there is a state-wide push to crack down on drunk drivers.
"Pennsylvania Department of Transportation officials said drunken driving increases as the summer comes to an end. According to records, last year there were more than 450 alcohol related crashes in Pennsylvania on the weekends surrounding Labor Day."
How about they "crack down" every weekend on the South Side? Of course, it's hard to have effective checkpoints when even the cops drive under the influence. But it's promising that BeMyDD is expanding to Pittsburgh after successfully launching in 3 Ohio cities. According to Men's Health, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus are all doing better than us at addressing drinking with ranks of 73, 72, and 83 respectively, but Pittsburgh's ranking of 59th means there are a lot of cities with a lot more work to do. This is one list that I'm glad we're not topping.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dear American Women

90 years ago today, your foremothers and forefathers were celebrating the passing of the 19th Amendment and your right to vote. The passing was the result of a multi-year effort fraught with ups and downs. Of the 36 required states, Pennsylvania was the 7th state to ratify the amendment. Many states voted against women's suffrage in 1920 including Mississippi who did not jump on board until 1984.

Don't waste your rights and the efforts of your foremothers. And don't forget that with enough effort, you can change the status quo.

Sincerely,

pghisacity

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who Respects Freedom of Religion?

It's the dog days of summer in Pittsburgh, and elections are starting to heat up in Pennsylvania. Voting day in this mid-term election is Tuesday November 2. Joe Sestak is fighting it out with Pat Toomey to take Arlen Specter's space. Joe made waves earlier this year when he pulled off a Democratic Primary upset against Specter. In the meantime, he's gained some major support from the party with New York City Mayor Bloomberg endorsing Sestak this week in light of his pro-Constitution stance in light of the effort to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

"Joe believes there is a Constitutional right to religious freedom and separation of church and state that applies equally to all Americans," Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said. "But he is not looking to say what is best for New York - as long as that right is respected - he is focused on Pennsylvania."

Meanwhile, Toomey has spoken out against the building of a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

"It is provocative in the extreme to build a mosque in the shadow of ground zero," said Toomey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. "Islamic leaders should be encouraged to move the mosque elsewhere."

A recent poll shows Toomey has pulling ahead in the Senate race with a 9-point advantage. Public Policy Polling finds that in spite of an advantage in registered Democrats, Democrats are less likely to vote in this election. I, for one, will be trying to prove them wrong on November 2. I hope that the Republican party pulls more stunts like trying to limit freedom of religion in the run-up to these mid-term elections because I think they will find that us Democrats do get riled up about more than "change." As soon as we start limiting freedom of religion, we stop being a free democracy and start on the path to a religious state. No thank you.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wine Kiosks

In the past, I have lambasted the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's newest project: wine kiosks. However, now that the wine kiosks are rapidly expanding and making their way to 14 Western Pennsylvania Giant Eagles by September, I'm starting to embrace the idea.

How they work? You're allowed to buy wine from a sophisticated vending machine.
A customer must first scan his driver's license by inserting it into a slot on the kiosk, then peer into a camera so that an LCB employee working at an office in Harrisburg can determine that the customer is the same person pictured on the license.
So what's the next step? Why not have independent stores with the same "safeguards"? Why not have Giant Eagle employ sommeliers next to their wine kiosk who can answer questions and determine which wines fill up the kiosk? Why not let Dreadnought Wines in the Strip District have their own kiosk filled with their own chosen wines?

Who's complaining? The Independent State Store Union. Members of this union know their jobs are at risk. It's unfortunate for the folks who work at the state stores. They have a pretty swell gig with a guaranteed pension in a market that has been ever-increasing for as far back as anyone can remember. But change is inevitable and cushy state pensions are on the chopping block. Ultimately, more options for buying wine will mean more jobs. So I say: Bring on the wine kiosks and may more change keep coming.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ridgemont Rejects New Residents

I'm going to preface this post by saying I know nothing about this City Vista development other than today's news snippet in the Post-Gazette.
"The project initially involved nearly 500 residential units and 26 acres -- 10 of those in the City of Pittsburgh. After complaints from the city's Ridgemont residents, the plans were revamped to include only Green Tree at this time. Developers may revisit plans to expand City Vista into Pittsburgh"
But let me get this straight. A developer wanted to build a cross-city-border development in 10 acres of the city and one neighborhood turned it down. How about we raise taxes on Ridgemont residents since they clearly don't want an influx of property taxes and new resident wage taxes into the city coffers. Maybe they're not being taxed enough?

Let's look at the census assessment of Ridgemont:

Its population as of the 2000 census was 530 people. Down from 590 in 1990 and 884 in 1940. Of its 223 housing units, only 2 units were vacant which is an impressive statistic. Of those units a mere 26 (or 11%) are renters. Sounds to me like Ridgemont is fine with the status quo. They don't want any renters invading their peaceful neighborhood.

I understand that not every development is worthwhile, but when your neighborhood is losing population and your city is struggling, it is the time to welcome new housing stock. Let's hope when the developer comes back and wants to expand again, Ridgemont has the common sense to work with the developer.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pittsburgh Council Wants You

Last week, Pittsburgh City Council wandered around to Downtown, South Side, and Oakland for public hearings. Monday night, they will visit the North Side to share their side of the pension woes and the mayor's attempt at a stop-gap fix at the expense of the citizens.

As it currently stands, Mayor Ravenstahl is ready to give away the bank to the highest bidder. That means tripling most parking meter rates over the next 4 years, meter enforcement till 10PM everyday including Sundays. That means no more free ride in city downtown parking garages.


I attended last week's South Side hearing to voice my opinion and listen to others. The resounding responses? 50 years (the intended lease agreement length) is a very long time. One of the plan stipulations is that the City of Pittsburgh will pay the lessee if a parking space is out of commission for 22 days in a year. One speaker aptly asked "What if we had locked into a plan 50 years ago?" We'd be paying some company a fee for not using those covered-up trolley lines if you ask me.

Residents also fervently proclaimed that leasing the parking garages is bad business. The city is selling low right now because the city is at a disadvantage. And what is the lessee going to do? Make a steep profit off of higher rates that we've been too afraid to implement ourselves for fear of driving away business. Why not raise the rates, put the profit towards the pensions, and cut out the middle man? Pittsburgh City Council is leaning towards a plan that will issue a bond to increase the contents of the pension fund and retain control over the parking situation. They would continue to raise rates, but since the city would still ultimately be in control, they could respond to suffering businesses and residents if the rates became too unwieldy. That sounds like good business to me.

So why am I telling you this? In order to pull off this coup, 5 city council members need to stand up to pressure from Mayor Ravenstahl and our Harrisburg Legislators. City council is only willing to do this if we insist on this plan. So let your city councilors know that you support them standing up to Harrisburg and Mayor Ravenstahl. Let them know that it's bad business to hand away our assets and lose control of our streets. Will this still mean increased parking rates? Yes. But it also means that the increases will be with the success of the city in mind - instead of a big conglomerate that just wants to profit off of our residents in a time of need.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pittsburgh is Farming

Pittsburgh is a city, but almost as soon as you leave the city limits, the area becomes farmland. This is one of the unsung wonders of our city, supplying our farmer's markets with plentiful and reasonable fruits and vegetables all summer long. This weekend as part of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) annual farm tour, over 20 farm opened their doors to visitors. I managed to visit 5 of those farms.

At Shenot Farm on a quintessential hay ride, I learned they are collaborating with Penn State to practice mating disruption throughout their farm. This is a method of reducing insects without pesticides. They hang little pheromone tags on peach trees and apple trees to confuse the insects while saving money and our fragile environment at the same time. Soergel's mega-orchard is also using this method.

At Pound's Turkey Farm, I was surprised to learn that not only do they raise turkeys and cows, but they also grow most of the feed that these animals consume. I learned first-hand that turkeys are curious creatures that follow people around and like to play with toys, and I even got to hold a baby turkey in my hand. Maybe it will be my Thanksgiving dinner?

Over at Jamison Farms, I was transported to Ireland. Sheep roam the hillsides, and John Jamison will talk your ear off about his lamb and why Americans tend to reject this delicious meat. He's convinced many chefs of the greatness of his lamb including the ones at Legume and Sonoma Grille locally. You can also buy direct from the source and try your hand at cooking this delectable lamb at home.

All of these farms are less than an hour from downtown. Of course, you don't need to leave Pittsburgh's urban environment to see agriculture in action in Pittsburgh. Burgh Bees is a pioneer in urban community apiaries with a test site in progress in Homewood. Recently, Dan Onorato announced "Allegheny Grows," a plan to turn county land into urban farms and community gardens. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates have caught the farming bug. Their Pepsi Refresh Project is to create yet another urban community garden - in Homewood.

You can talk about a lot of great things in Pittsburgh, but this summer, the thing I'm most thankful for is our connection to the earth. Pittsburgh's next #1 ranking should be city with the most opportunity for sustainable urban living.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Steve Bland Not So Reluctant

On June 14, I blogged that Steve Bland CEO of Port Authority, was "reluctant to raise the $2 base fare for Zone 1 because that would hurt its lowest-income customers and affect routes that are the most cost-effective." Instead, he threatened to raise suburban bus fares upwards of $7 one-way.

Who protested? The lowest-income customers who are busy putting food on their table? Or the downtown workers from the suburbs who can afford an increase the most? The results are pretty clear. Both zone 1 and zone 2 fares are going to raise by a whopping $0.25. In case you're not keeping track at home, that's a 12.5% increase in fare for the lowest-income customers who were already paying their way. The customers out in the suburbs will only see a 9% increase.

Not that the suburbanites are getting off easy in this highly probable round of cuts.

Among the 50-plus communities that would be left with no service are East McKeesport, Franklin Park, Glassport, Hampton, Indiana Township, Liberty, Marshall, North Versailles, Pennsbury Village, Port Vue, South Park and Wall, and the city neighborhoods of Banksville and Spring Garden. Service to the Edgewood Towne Centre and Robinson Town Centre shopping complexes would be abolished, the agency said.

But honestly, why does the Port Authority continue to subsidize suburban living when city dwellers are over-paying their fare share (and then some)? This is yet another case of poor judgment for the Port Authority. If the Port Authority unveiled a plan to charge the actual cost for each bus route (since they now have that data), people would be unhappy but they would understand the logic. Instead, we have unfair, illogical bus fare increases and radical service cuts insuring that everyone is unhappy.

Obviously, Port Authority wants us all to be angry and yell at our state legislators to restore funding for public transportation (which you should). But if Steve Bland is just playing a massive chess game with the state legislature, I'm afraid he's going to lose, and the lowest-income customers will be the biggest losers. So go contact your state legislators, and while you're at it, give Port Authority a piece of your mind.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sandcastle and the Great Allegheny Passage

When Kennywood and its sister park, Sandcastle were purchased by a European amusement park conglomerate, there was outrage and fear. What would become of Pittsburgh's beloved park? Happily, two years later, not much has changed on the park operations to the outsider.

For the bike community, the sale of the amusement parks may have been the best thing that could have happened. For years, the old local park owners had refused to allow the Great Allegheny Passage, the bike trail that starts in Pittsburgh and ultimately connects to Washington, DC by way of Sandcastle, through their property.

Today, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and James Judy, vice president of operations for Palace Entertainment, who manages the park, have both been quoted that they're shortly announcing an agreement to allow the trail through Sandcastle. This isn't the first time close talks between the park and the county have been announced. Back in 2008 when Pittsburgh was celebrating its 250th anniversary and clamoring for the completion of the trail as a birthday present, there were similar talks which fell flat after the celebration. Now, however, with new international management the trail issue has become more than a provincial argument. Even Newsweek took up the case of the trail, and helped apply the pressure to this decades old effort.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh bike community and Dan Onorato for not giving up on this project. With this latest almost-announcement, I fully expect to see the trail completed by the new goal: 11/11/2011. See you in Washington, DC!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Libraries versus the Cigars - or Money Talks

The Pennsylvania State Legislature pulled a marathon session last week to pass the state budget on time. They deserved to go out and celebrate this weekend. Maybe they smoked some cigars - the typical celebratory tobacco product? It would be especially fitting as once again, the State Legislature opted against taxing cigars.

Cigars are addictive and cause cancer.
Cigars are an expensive, luxury product costing up to and over $1,000 each. Yet, we don't tax cigars. Cigar bars are exempt from the smoking ban. Why do we as a state continually choose to reward cigar smokers while having a hefty cigarette tax?
"Altria and Cigars International, also hired Harrisburg lobbyists to help them bring their message directly to policy-makers."
How much do you want to bet those lobbyists handed out cigars to lawmakers for the holiday weekend? Maybe if the Carnegie libraries wanted to avoid the 8.4% cut in library funding that also passed in this budget they should have created some hybrid cigar bar libraries.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The State Liquor Store Hoax

Once again, the subject of privatizing the state liquor stores has been raised, and once again we hear the alarmist cry.

Rebecca Shaver, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she supports the current state system and is particularly concerned about an increase in the number of liquor stores."If there is a larger number of licenses being issued, which leads to more availability, which leads to more consumption, we prefer that the system that we have in place remains in place," she said.


But is it true that more liquor stores leads to more drinking and drunk driving? Yet 17.6% of our population admits to binge drinking (7th in the nation). In sheer numbers, Pennsylvania ranked 4th in the nation for number of alcohol related fatalities (which is partly reflected by our #6 population rank). When it comes to underage drinking, we fall in the list to #22 with 30% of our minors drinking. Though 20% of them binge drink (which puts us at #18). There's only one other state in the nation (New Hampshire) which has a state run liquor store. Shouldn't we be tied for last with them in all these statistics if state run liquor stores can prevent drinking and drunk driving?

The farce of the matter is that our politicians hide behind our well-meaning alarmists in order to keep the profits from the state liquor stores headed into the general fund. We do not maintain state liquor stores for safety or to prevent underage drinking. We maintain these stores because they bring in record profits every year. The state has no business in running liquor stores. It's a bloated business that sends out glossy advertisements in the newspaper every week, and severely limits entrepreneurship in the state. The 621 state-run liquor stores could be small businesses that pay taxes and contribute to our society. Instead, we have a monopoly which does not adapt to the individual needs of each region. Instead of attempting to limit alcohol consumption and educate consumers about the dangers of alcohol, the PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) is planning self-serve kiosks and wants to re-brand itself with a new name, such as "Table Leaf."
Customers spend an average of three minutes in a liquor store, PLCB Chairman Patrick J. Stapleton told a state House-Senate committee recently. He called that “unacceptable.”

Officials said the renovations and new focus could generate more money for the state. The PLCB provided the state with more than $518 million for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Rebecca Shaver, do you really want the PLCB chairman plotting on how to get customers to spend more time in the liquor store?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Do Bicyclists Deserve to be Attacked?

Many folks have noticed a rash of recent attacks on bike riders. From the South Side to the East End, these attacks are troubling. Yesterday, Mike Pintek, radio announcer for KDKA, interviewed Bill Nesper of the League of American Bicyclists who recently awarded Pittsburgh a bronze medal bike-friendly status.
Mike said: "There are some bicyclists who are just these arrogant little dorks that think that they can do anything they want because they're on a bicycle and we're being green and environmentally friendly."
Mike Pintek wonders if the recent rash of attack on cyclists is because of their "arrogance." He cites the fact that a robbery didn't occur during any of the attacks implies that the bikers somehow caused the attacks. Last November, someone threw an empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum through the rear windshield of my parked car in the middle of the night. They didn't bother stealing the CDs, radio, or other valuable items in the car. Perhaps my car was being "arrogant" and the vigilantes wanted to teach it a lesson? Or maybe more likely, they were drunk kids who didn't think there would be any ramifications for their actions, and my car was an easy target.

We need to view these attacks with some perspective. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that there is an underlying anti-bike sentiment or that this is new. Back in 2007, the City Paper published an article about a string of attacks on bicyclists back then. Now, we have more extensive reporting and blogging about them. Also, these same gangs of roving juveniles tend to target pedestrians and smash car windows as well.

Let's take this opportunity to nip this recent rash of bicyclist attacks in the bud by showing a strong police and public response that this will not be tolerated. Let's certainly not excuse the attacks because some bicyclists may be "arrogant." To me, this logic is akin to suggesting that women who wear short skirts are asking for rape. Or that men walking down the street deserve to be beat up if they flick their wrists. There is no excuse for this violence. Mike Pintek and others clearly feel threatened by the increase in bicyclists on our streets. They need to learn to live with it, and we need to show them that their behavior is unacceptable.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Raising Bus Fares and other Taxes

Steve Bland, Port Authority's CEO, is facing some tough choices. An unexpected cut in state funding (due to the state's moronic dependence on inappropriately tolling Interstate 80) is forcing Port Authority to face $25 Million in less funding. The authority is pondering cutting routes, cutting service (including eliminating nights & weekends), and increasing fares.

Mr. Bland said the authority is reluctant to raise the $2 base fare for Zone 1 because that would hurt its lowest-income customers and affect routes that are the most cost-effective.

On some urban routes, the authority's cost per passenger is less than the $2 fare, he said. Meanwhile, on routes that serve outlying suburbs, the per-passenger cost is $7 or more and the fare just $2.75.


So what Mr Bland is saying is that lowest-income customers are actually helping to subsidize the outer zone customers? Sure, raise those outer zone fares. But keep in mind that if you make a round-trip bus fare on par with parking downtown, more people will drive and park downtown. Of course, if the state can get its act together and find some funding, most of these threats can be eliminated. From Marcellus Shale to chewing tobacco, there are lots of untapped revenue sources in this state. Unfortunately, legislators are afraid they'll lose their jobs if they raise the gas tax or find other tax sources. It's up to you to tell your legislator he or she will lose their job if they allow these massive public transportation cuts to happen.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Immigration Laws in Pennsylvania

One thing always strike me about anti-immigration rhetoric and laws. Laws tend to target the immigrant and not the folks employing illegal immigrants. Case in point, the recent controversial Arizona law which makes it possible for the police to essentially harass anyone who's not lily white. This method of targeting the immigrant ends up dividing families and encourages a police state. Immigrants don't come to America because they like the weather. They come to escape hardship and get jobs. If the jobs don't exist, they won't flood our gates. In Connecticut they have scheduled immigrant pick-up stops where you can get a laborer for the day. They also have plans to build full-fledged shelters at the stops. The residents of Connecticut don't care because they get cheap labor without thinking of the long-term health care, schooling, and judicial costs. This is repeated in Home Depots across the country. If someone gets in trouble, it won't be the day employer, it will be the laborer, who will get kicked out of the country and replaced by yet another cheap immigrant laborer. It's a vicious cycle and ultimately the people who get the most hurt are the immigrants.

However, Pennsylvania's latest laws actually aim to target those employers who get cheap immigrant labor, then undercut responsible employers in state bids.

House Bills 1502 and 1503 require employers to verify the social security numbers of their employees if they are going to bid on state projects. These house bills (which you can read in their entirety and discuss at the new site Mygov365.com if you're so inclined) target the employers instead of the employees. Of course, they're still not perfect. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is quick to point out that the methods for determining whether someone has a valid social security number are flawed. However, these house bills also have overwhelming bi-partisan support. I'll be watching these closely as they goes through the State Senate.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Grand Jury has Grand Goals

Until yesterday, the sole job of 35 Salaried PennDOT employees was to handle legislative requests - to the tune of 246,000 requests per year. On the Democratic side of the state house, there are at least 10 "PennDOT Specialists" who submit those requests.

The House Republican spokesman, Steve Miskin is livid about the changes. The Tribune-Review quoted the following:
"You're saying the legislator, the vocal representative for that community, can't help their constituents out? That is their job. That is what they're supposed to do."
Steve, your job is to enable constituents to get what they need. It's not to bloat our government beyond repair. What's next? Does the state legislature have special PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) specialists that will place special orders for you when you can't figure out how to do it yourself? Honestly, if you can't figure out how to register your car or get a driver's license, you probably shouldn't be driving.

The grand jury investigated the entire state house and identified these easy pickings as the first steps in attempting to reform Harrisburg. The grand jury is also recommending reducing the size of the legislature, implementing term limits, eliminating per diem supplements, and increasing the term length from 2 years to 4 years. Those changes are pretty radical and will require a constitutional convention in Pennsylvania. These changes will only happen when pigs fly unless we put pressure on the state government. This is an election year for governor, so us voters have some sway this year. Both Onorato and Corbett claim that they want state-wide reform. Let's push our candidates to implement real reform this year and start to chip away at the country club that is our state Legislature.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Why Should We Care about the Igloo?

When Rob Pfaffman, a Pittsburgh architect, shows up to champion the reuse of Mellon Arena, he has two problems. First, he has to convince folks that the building is worth saving. Second, he has to convince folks to care.

Up until now, he has largely focused his public awareness meetings in the Hill District, where he has found, mostly, that folks don't care. Now, he is expanding his radius to the whole of Pittsburgh, hoping that we will fall in love with the idea that the Igloo is to Pittsburgh as the Eye is to Seattle.

They have a very comprehensive website where you can read for yourself and decide if you think the building is worth saving.

I think that Pittsblog captures the general public sentiment:
"The Igloo should go. It is not the Pantheon; it is not Penn Station. It is an eyesore. The space occupied by that building represents an opportunity to re-create and re-invent a big slice of Pittsburgh's urban fabric. (Of course, given Pittsburgh's history with redevelopment over the last 50 years, the city might well blow its big chance.) But that's just me."
But there are some, like me, who have drunk the Kool-Aid. Personally, I find the building to be an icon. Looking out from my deck, I can see the US Steel UPMC building, the Cathedral of Learning, the Igloo, and many other buildings. But it's those first 3 that really stand out, and that I always point out to friends. I will miss it if it's gone. From above, the new arena is another bland block in the landscape.

But mostly, Mr Pfaffman is selling the building and not a vision. One of the foremost plans I've heard for reuse is turning the decrepit arena into a boutique hotel. He says this is not about "nostalgia," but I have to say that the only ones wanting to stay in an over-priced arena boutique hotel are those overcome by nostalgia. For the residents of the Hill District, this would not be an amenity, just yet another reason for rich folks to stop through. Another reuse idea I hear floated about is as a non-professional sporting arena. Folks have championed ideas from a hockey rink to a velodrome. Once again, this is meant to appeal to general area dwellers and is not marketed at the Hill District. These plans will not generate any more or less jobs for Hill District residents than the Penguins plan.

Throwing a bone to Hill District residents, Pfaffman has plans for a walk with interpretive signs.

Needless to say, another multi-multi-million dollar project with some spare change thrown into interpretive signs, doesn't get Hill District residents involved and interested. If Rob Pfaffman and his crew really want to save the arena, they will find a vision for the new site that appeals to Hill District residents. Historians and those stepped-on by history have a chance of creating the momentum that will be needed to sway the Penguins management. How about a Hill District charter school on the site? Or a museum dedicated to the area?

Lastly, may I suggest a compromise? Incorporating architectural elements of the old building into the new development would act as a reminder and a teaching point for years to come. At the Waterfront, we have relic smoke stacks. At Station Square, there is an old train car. While these are not perfect examples, at least it's something. Clearly, it's too early for either side to give in to compromise, but I hope that in the end they find some middle ground.

Thanks to Eve Picker for putting together an informative panel and generating a lively discussion on the future of the Igloo at the monthly CityLive! event. If you haven't been to a CityLive! event and you care about issues in the city, you're really missing out on a great time. Next up, on June 29, Eve and her crew are tackling the issue of water in the city. RSVP today. Bonus? The events are free.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pay Your Parking Meter

I've gotten one parking ticket in Pittsburgh (for an expired meter) and I was shocked at how low the fee was - $16 in Oakland. It's the same in Downtown and Uptown. Outside of those neighborhoods, you currently pay a measly $11. Most parking enforcement fees settle at $15. Considering you'd be lucky to find parking in a garage in Oakland or Downtown for that price, I'm betting most people find it worth the parking ticket risk, especially when they're running late for a $100 per ticket Penguins game. (But whatever you do, don't park in a handicapped space or you'll be facing fines of $200 and lots of bad karma.)

The city of Pittsburgh has noticed this discrepancy and in the latest round of "what-can-we-tax-next" has settled on parking enforcement fees. So far, they're not seeing much push back, and the preliminary vote is today. Personally, I think Pittsburgh has dropped the ball on this one. The rates haven't been raised since they were decided upon in 1988. Has anything else in this country stayed the same price in those intervening 22 years? Certainly, our meter maids salaries have risen in the meantime putting a crunch on the city's budget. I implore the city to research and find other oversights and to put into place a reasonable plan for increasing general fees with inflation and stay away from silly, divisive taxes on pop. Nobody likes to pay more for services, but unfortunately that's the nature of money.

Perhaps this move will also take some pressure off the leasing of the parking garages fear. If the city is willing to raise rates involving parking and the sky doesn't fall, maybe we will survive a lease of the parking garages.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Happy Primary Day

If you're registered for the Republican or Democratic party, today is the day to get out and vote. Read up on the issues including my run-down of the Governor and Senator candidates. Then make your own decision.

If you're not registered for a party, but you live in Pennsylvania's 12th District (Murtha's former district), then get out and vote because they are having a special election to replace the late Representative Murtha.

Then we can all breathe a sigh of relief as we get a short break from being bombarded with awful election commercials like this one.



Thanks to 2 political junkies for sharing this one.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Allentown is on Fire

Saturday, Popup Pittsburgh held an event highlighting the progress of Pittsburgh's Southern hills centered in the neighborhood of Allentown. According to their twitter feeds, City Council members Natalia Rudiak and Bill Peduto made appearances. When I showed up at 4PM, I was delighted to see more people than I'd ever seen trolling for parking and wandering the streets. Thanks to the folks at the Leadership Pittsburgh Inc that made this event happen.

During the event, Hilltop Alliance members were attempting to spread the word vacant lots in the hilltop. This area of Pittsburgh has 300 city-owned vacant lots. If one of these lots is adjacent to your home, you can buy it for a measly $200 through the city's side lot program.


Less than 24 hours after this lively, family-friendly event, Allentown residents saw first-hand one of the unfortunate consequences of these abandoned houses. At 3:30AM, a fire started in a vacant house in the 900 block of East Warrington Ave and spread to a neighboring house where 2 adults and 2 children resided. Looking on the Allegheny County Property Assessment page, I find that there are a number of addresses in the 900 block that are city-owned. But there are also signs of potential speculators including Venture III, Inc, Gulli Construction Corp, and Greenvue Development LP. Pittsburgh has a rental registration program in place intended to try to address the problem of absentee landlords. The registration program is currently on hold pending a lawsuit resolution. But what have they proposed to deal with absentee owners? It's just as serious a problem to be a slumlord who doesn't rent their properties as one that does. I propose an anti-homestead rule. If no one is living in your property then, you have to foot extra property tax for the extra burden you're placing on your neighbors. National studies have shown that these vacant properties cause 12,000 fires per year and have greatly increased likelihood of crime taking place in and near them. We need to kick these vacant property owners to the curb, aggressively pursue the side lot program and demolish or renovate these eyesores.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Senate Candidate Rundown

The most exciting race in the upcoming Democratic primary has to be the battle for the Senate.

Everybody that discusses the Senate race refers to Specter's fame. Everyone is supposed to know Specter inside and out because of his long history in the senate. However, if you've moved to Pennsylvania since the last time he was up for election, maybe you (like me) don't know much about him.

Arlen Specter

Arlen Specter is the incumbent and the longest serving Senator in Pennsylvania. He made waves last year when he switched parties from Republican to Democrat after his vote on the Stimulus bill made him a pariah. Not many politicians have the guts to do that, and it's earned him quite a bit of friends at the top-level of the Democratic party. Most notably President Obama is a staunch supporter of Specter. Since his party switch, he has voted with the Democratic party 95% of the time, but he also has a history of taking a stance against Republicans, criticizing President Clinton's impeachment and President Bush's wiretapping of US citizens. He supports a woman's right to choose, gay rights, and has other liberal leanings. However, he historically voted with the Republican party including voting for the Iraq war (along with 29 of the 50 Democratic Senators that were in office at the time).

Joe Sestak

Honestly, Joe Sestak strikes me as a bit smarmy. He's a little too-polished for my liking. I like that he has a history of being a democrat, and his platform is clearly resonating in Pennsylvania as he is jumping leaps and bounds in the polls. Sestak is currently a Congressman from the Eastern part of the state looking to move up the ladder. Politically, he supports Roe v. Wade, received an F from the National Rifle Association, and has voted with the Democratic majority on the Stimulus Act and Health Care Reform amongst many others.

Either way, the winner will ultimately face off against the Republican, Pat Toomey. Much of the fear and hoopla about this senate race involves who will be the better Toomey opponent. This smacks to me a lot of old politics. When Hillary Clinton was facing Barack Obama, I heard a lot of the same rhetoric. That they shouldn't slash each other, that Clinton would make a better McCain opponent, but happily, we all know how that turned out. So I'm not going to let that influence my decision.

But honestly, I'm torn. I admire Specter's long history as an independent thinker in the Senate, and given his senior status he holds many choice committee positions. I also like listening to him talk. But Sestak is obviously the classic Democrat who in general lines up with my ideals more closely. However, Sestak is a current Congressman who can continue to serve the party admirably in that capacity.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary election, I will gladly vote for him in the November election against the slime-ball Pat Toomey who wants to amend the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, disagrees with Roe V Wade, and much more.

How are you voting?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Time To Get Serious About our Bridges

Fact: Pennsylvania bridges are in horrible shape.

"Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of structurally deficient bridges, with 5,646," the governor said. That is more than the deficient bridges in the New England states, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and Virginia combined.

Fact: Pennsylvania legislators are idiots. After the Bush administration rejected tolling of interstate 80 on the grounds that the tolls were going to spent on other roads besides 80, Pennsylvania legislators decided to ask the same exact question of the Obama administration. Needless to say, the "ask mommy" approach didn't work. Only now are they considering asking for the right to toll and repair those particular roads. But this time, it's an emergency and their casting their net as wide as interstates 95, 81, and 79.

Fact: Pennsylvania legislators are cowards. Legislators are afraid to raise taxes this year to solve this emergency problem because it's an election year. Of course, this isn't a unique problem to Pennsylvania. To them I say, it's a lot worse to have a bridge collapse on your watch than to raise taxes. Ask Minnesota. The I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis was rated "structurally deficient" for years before this heavily used bridge's 2007 collapse. PennDOT has started to make progress on repairing the thousands of structurally deficient bridges in Pennsylvania, but the progress is slow and steady. With a lack of funding we will again lose ground.

Minnesota learned their lesson the hard way. After the bridge's collapse, the state legislature passed a $0.055 per gallon fuel tax. Let's take our lessons from them and save our bridges before its too late. Of course, the best way to save our bridges from further deterioration is to decrease their usage. According to Port Authority of Allegheny County, one bus can take up to 60 cars off the road. One light rail vehicle can take up to 125 cars off the road. A double-pronged approach of repairing bridges and increasing funding to public transportation will go a long way towards solving our problems in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Green Spring

If you think it's been quiet in this neck of the woods, you're right. But it's not because I haven't been blogging. Between Earth Day, Pittsburgh hosting World Environment Day, and general Spring feelings, I've been focusing my efforts on "Green is Good."

Check out the recent posts on Pittsburgh's air quality (bad but getting better if we keep fighting) and the state of rail in Pennsylvania.

Now go plant a tree.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pennsylvania Governor Candidate Rundown

Since I'm officially registered as a democrat in Pennsylvania, I get the dubious honor of voting in the May 18 Democratic primary for Governor.

The Candidates:

1. Dan Onorato. Our very own chief executive is running for governor. Love him or hate him, he is a controversial fellow. Recently, Chris Potter has reported some highly questionable behavior in Dan's courting of both the pro-life and pro-choice constituents. Dan has accumulated a sizable war chest, so expect to see lots of him on TV in the near future.

2. Joe Hoeffel. Montgomery County Commissioner. Progressive. Joe has really reached out to everyone in the state during this race. I had the opportunity to meet him in Pittsburgh last Fall before I even knew who he was.

3. Jack Wagner. State Auditor General. This is a local boy from Beechview who's gone on to have a long career in state politics including stints as Pittsburgh Council president and State Senator.

4. Anthony "Tony" Williams. A State Senator. This businessman grew up in urban Philadelphia and turned to politics to save his community.

The Issues

In fact, it seems like the candidates agree on most issues. They all want to fight corruption in Harrisburg. During a debate last month, they were cordial and found little to disagree on. Today, in honor of Earth Day, the candidates released a joint statement agreeing on taxing the Marcellus Shale natural gas, renewing Rendell's green programs, and enforcing clean-air regulations.

Honestly, I'd like these candidates to try to differentiate themselves more from each other. At this point, it seems like a popularity contest. According to a recent poll, Dan Onorato has the lead with 20%, but Joe Hoeffel and Jack Wagner are not far behind with 15% and 13% respectively. However, there are still a whopping 47% undecided.

Personally, I'm leaning towards Joe Hoeffel. His outreach campaign has impressed me, and he isn't afraid to speak strongly and clearly about his socially progressive leanings from health care to his pro-choice stance to the environment.

If you're registered as a Democrat, don't forget to vote on May 18.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pittsburgh Springs Open

It's springtime in Pittsburgh. The flowers are booming, and we're surrounded by news of new developments, plans, and openings.

Here's just a smattering of the new businesses popping up I've noticed in the past month:

The Sharp Edge is opening a new location downtown. This is really a coup for downtown as the Belgian Beer mecca has opened many suburban locations and only has one city location. As this new business will be just down the street from Seviche, Sonoma Grille, and August Henry's Saloon, I'm looking to this section of Penn Ave to become a downtown nightlife haven, just as Fifth Avenue is becoming a retail haven.

The Fairmont hotel has opened with a LOT of fanfare. They are courting the Pittsburgh community with special party after gala-event after special party. China Millman, the Post-Gazette's super-critical food reviewer even seems to have fallen in love with them and their new restaurant, Habitat. For more restaurant opening information, check out Ms Millman's timely blog, "First Bites." I'm looking forward to Kevin Sousa's new venture, Salt Of the Earth.

The biggest opening of the year will inevitably be the Penguin's new home, the Consol Energy Center. The new arena has already attracted concerts such as Lady Gaga, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, and Rush.

Of course, the city isn't the only one gathering up the openings. Ross Park Mall is booming with recent announcements of an Apple Store, California Pizza Kitchen, and (the most buzz-worthy) Crate and Barrel.

If all this news doesn't make you think the recession is passing and everything is rosy in the Pittsburgh area, I don't know what will.

Of course, not everything is staying. While Mellon Arena's fate may be up in the air, UPMC Braddock is ready to be razed. Robert Morris University announced today that they are contracting their efforts to the suburbs and leaving their landmark downtown building. But I'm guessing some developer out there sees that as another downtown opportunity.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Luck and Parking

Over a year ago, back in the heart of the recession, when the Pittsburgh parking garages were added to the chopping block, I begged the powers-that-be to hold off instead of risking a fire sale in light of the poor economy. However, it turns out I was wrong. The snail's pace of government has brought us full circle to the tail-end of the recession. Combined with the Pittsburgh's international exposure during the G20, we have managed to wrangle up 7 solvent international companies to bid on lease of the garages. Impressive timing or good luck? I don't know. But full steam ahead to see what the bidders have to offer.

As to whether leasing the garages is a good idea? I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. And with a variety of folks interested, I'd say the odds are pretty good that we can strike a bargain that doesn't immediately screw downtown commuters while giving a much-needed infusion to the pension fund. If Mayor Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh City Council can continue the good cop/bad cop routine for this whole process, we may even come out ahead. How about for a few extra million we let them install those fancy credit-card accepting parking meters like they have in Mt Lebanon? Then no one will have to carry any quarters around unless they're headed to the casino.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Homeless Follow-Up

Less than a week after my blog post on homeless people in Pittsburgh, one of those unfortunate souls met with his death in a South Side "camp." The Post-Gazette points out that the victim, Dennis Farley, a US Navy veteran and father, was not actually homeless, but often spent time at the camp near Giant Eagle. I'm happy to report that the Pittsburgh police thoroughly investigated this homicide and have already arrested the alleged killer. While his life may have slipped through the cracks, at least his death was resolved quickly. However, I'm guessing any new million dollar security cameras will not be recording this section of Pittsburgh.

Friday, April 2, 2010

On Cameras and Crime

Do cameras deter crime? Do cameras help solve crimes?

I breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when I learned that the police had arrested the alleged shooters of the retired fireman who was killed and left on the street with his dog guarding over him. The police credited these arrests with the use of surveillance cameras in the area. Without the cameras guidance, the police may never have discovered the perpetrators of this crime.

It's not too surprising that in light of this news and the recent rash of homicides in the city (including the innocent bystander that got killed by a stray bullet in Homewood last week) that Mayor Ravenstahl is renewing the charge for more cameras on our streets. With federal stimulus money still up for grabs it should be a no-brainer to put in a request for more funding. Of course, given the city administration's track record for incomplete and late stimulus requests, it's lucky for them that Carnegie Mellon has joined forces in the city's request. After last week, when a student was pepper-sprayed and robbed on Ellsworth Avenue, the pricey university has plenty of reason to be step up security.

Some may express concern that more cameras are an invasion of our privacy. I agree, which is why I favor strong regulations on the storage of any footage. But when teenagers are killing people in our streets, strong measures need to be taken. It's up to the judges and our laws to make sure that the information stored on our cameras isn't abused.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pittsburgh: Land of the Pessimistic Library

Some people look at a glass as half-full, and some people look at it as half-empty. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is the pessimist, while RADs auditors tend to look on the bright side. The difference? Millions of dollars. Where as the library was fearing a $1.46 Million dollar deficit for 2010, RAD found a surplus of $235,071. Likewise the 4-year projected deficit dropped from $4.39 million to just $300,074.

While I'm sure, the Carnegie Library is being realistic in its expectations after this down-market and years of cuts in library funding, I have some advice for them: Count your eggs until they're broken. And don't close any libraries because you're scared of the future.

Scrounging up an extra $100,000 per year in permanent funding is a lot easier and more likely than $1 Million per year. And while the $190,000 salary package of Ms Mistick, the library director may be "in the range" of other library directors, we should really re-consider whether a library director in Pittsburgh who's willing to close libraries in the poorer neighborhoods needs to be paid at "the high end of the range."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Do You Know Where the Homeless People Sleep?

This weekend I participated in the "Reclaim and Revitalize South Side Park" event. Lots of trash was collected and many trees were saved from the grasp of strangling vines. In addition to neighborhood members, we were lucky enough to have about 100 volunteers from Carnegie Mellon University helping out in the park crusade.

At the wrap-up, the students volunteered what they learned from the experience of getting out into the city park. One young woman popped up this doozie: "From cleaning up blankets and mattresses, I learned where homeless people actually sleep."

I personally view it as a failure of her upbringing that this was the first time she was exposed to some of America's underbelly, our unfortunate members of society who are too often swept under the rug and ignored.

However, maybe I had a harsh upbringing. Do you know where the homeless people sleep in your neighborhood? If you open your eyes, you see signs of homelessness throughout Pittsburgh (and most cities in the country) from the beggars in the streets to the blankets and newspapers hidden in various cubbyholes and parks. That knowledge is just as valuable as any class you can take at Carnegie Mellon.

If you want a first-hand experience of how homeless people sleep, check out the annual "Sleep-in For the Homeless" where dozens of people camp out on the steps of the City-County Building downtown with nothing but a sleeping bag to raise awareness of and funds for Allegheny County's homeless population. As of January 2009, Allegheny County counted 1,418 homeless "residents." 17% of them had been in the military service. 14% were victims of domestic violence. 18% of them reported serious mental illnesses. 23% of them were children.

Raising awareness and funds is the only way these numbers will decrease.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pittsburgh Snow Task Force Needs You

One of the greatest fears of anti-health care reform folks is that Doctor's will no longer be paid an exorbitant salary and we will lose great doctors who they presume are only in it for the money. (As an aside, this argument is bogus based on the fact that we have thousands of incredible teachers working throughout this country at sub-par pay.)

According to acting paramedic crew chief Josie Dimon, those pay cuts are already in effect.

"He ain't (expletive) comin' down, and I ain't waitin' all day for him," she [Ms. Dimon] told a colleague, crew chief Kim Long, at the dispatch center. "I mean, what the (expletive), this ain't no cab service."

Is she under the impression that ambulances are cheaper than taxis? For anyone who's ever ridden in an ambulance and paid for it out of pocket, if they had the choice, they would have much preferred to pay the taxi bill. Through Ms Dimon's and her colleagues lack of effort, Curtis Mitchell died on Sunday February 7. This is the worst example of the tragedy of the city's handling of the February snow storms. But it is not the only example. If you have more examples, please contribute to the snow task force site.

Ms Dimon is facing a 5-day unpaid suspension. Some of her colleagues are facing a 3-day unpaid suspension. City paramedics consider themselves scapegoats in this scenario. So tell your snow stories, and let's see some more deserved punishment spread out through other city departments. Pittsburgh deserves better.