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.