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.