Bus Rapid Transit: Four Years Later, Does It Look More Tempting?

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When Bill Peduto was elected mayor, one of the first things he proposed together with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was a new “Bus Rapid Transit” or BRT corridor through Uptown, to be completed hopefully within 3 to 4 years.

3-4 years later, and they are literally back to the drawing board, trying to earn that project’s first green light.

The Post-Gazette in particular seems to like the idea. We mean, really, really like it, in the coordinated promotional “news” article sort of way.

Little wonder:  the Allegheny Conference — the city’s historic chamber-of-commerce behemoth dating back to Mayor Davey Lawrence — has in the past called it “an economic development/transformation project that happens to have transit as a component.”

Indeed, that growth focus is part of the reason BRT wasn’t universally popular. That lack of consensus may have been why it failed to earn any competitive grants the first time around.

The universities, UPMC, and the business community all love the idea of a faster, more prominent and more snazzy transit link between Oakland to Downtown. Real estate speculators have been putting off redeveloping the still-shabby Uptown district in the middle, presumably waiting for some excuse or sign of life to begin making moves. The Port Authority itself thinks BRT will get more riders on the bus, increasing fare collection.

screen-shot-2017-03-15-at-12-48-15-pmBut it’s not the sort of public transit improvement that residents and everyday commuters are exactly clamoring over.

The Downtown-Oakland corridor is already pretty well-served by our present bus lines, unlike many outlying neighborhoods and suburbs. The trip isn’t lightening fast, but 25 minutes doesn’t seem that unreasonable, and shaving up to 10 minutes doesn’t seem $250 million-style necessary. When Pittsburghers talk about transit improvements, they usually talk about restoring service cuts to outlying communities, extending that service later into the evening, disentangling Downtown from every bus trip from one part of the city to another — or extending the city’s myopic light rail system to the east. Peduto used to talk about a county ballot referendum to fund more light rail, but it’s been a long time. It seems reasonable to assume that if we set up BRT to Oakland and points east, light rail is off the table basically forever.

Then there is the “gentrification” concern. While more economic development would help the City pay its many, many bills, using public transit to spur growth is not a super look when the city has yet to enact its long-studied and discussed affordable housing strategy. It plays into what has become a certain stereotype.

Then again, the number of Pittsburghers who are more frightened of gentrification than economic stagnation is limited. And since operating and capital budgets are different things, BRT skeptics haven’t made clear what they’d prefer to buy at the same price.

Mayor Peduto obviously intends to test the lefty opposition by promoting and discussing BRT in the community smack dab in the thick of his reelection campaign. The idea seems to be to use his political resources to help popularize the project, then use his reelection (Pittsburgh mayors usually get reelected) as a mandate to prove to funders and doubters that his constituents want it.

Will it work? Last time around, they applied for these grants under President Obama. Pittsburgh is fortunate that Transporation Secretary Elaine Chao is singularly distinguished among Trump cabinet appointments as qualified to run their department and seemingly less suited to disassemble it brick by brick. But is the Trump administration any more likely to devote hundreds of millions for public transit to a Democratic mayor, a Democratic county executive and a Democratic governor? Meh. It could be we have this backwards — maybe this is a way for Peduto to create the appearance of progress during his campaign, when little is forthcoming.

Either way, Peduto and Fitzgerald could use a transit win. Their Downtown circulator or “bus free Downtown” plan was throttled in its crib, the “Envision Downtown” coalition they put together in the wake of its wreckage has been struggling over smallball, and the “Oakland Transit Connector” aka Uber PodWay through Panther Hollow seemed to die with the Smart Cities grant. Fizgerald’s whole tenure overseeing the Port Authority has been marred by upheaval.

Public transit improvements are one of the best ways for local officials to appear “transformational,” which seems to be everyone’s objective. Marrying the Mayor’s reelection campaign with this BRT proposal might be this set’s best chance yet of getting on the scoreboard.

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Flood Rescue on the Scene: Preliminary “Green First” Plan Unveiled

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-2-51-00-pm“Anywhere we have the word ‘Run’, we have floods.”

That’s how Mayor Bill Peduto described the problem to City Council today, at a special meeting on flooding called by Councilor Darlene Harris. Peduto came prepared with a preliminary “green first” stormwater plan and the backing of about eight Departmental officials.

By the end of this year, they intend to finalize a plan that will both “keep water from ever being able to get into the system, and make our rivers cleaner.”

The plan consists of engineering in seven primary “action areas” including Negley Run, Four Mile Run, Sawmill Run and Streets Run for increased green infrastructure: restoring streams and lakes, wetlands, rain gardens and bioswales, while skirting both development and future development. In addition to mitigating flooding, it is supposed to help the Alcosan comply with a 2007 federal order to separate wastewater from stormwater.

The plan would take 5-10 years to implement, and the price would be born largely by water ratepayers — at some eye-popping figures:

Washington Boulevard/Negley Run 

  • Moderate Control:  234 impervious acres managed, $76 – $100 million
  • High Control: 614 impervious acres managed, $200 – $260 million

Four Mile Run/Junction Hollow 

  • Moderate Control: 78 impervious acres managed, $25 – $34 million
  • High Control: 218 impervious acres managed, $70- $90 million

Some of those ratepayers already had advocates waving signs and signaling discontent over the expense.

Councilor O’Connor focused remarks on how the work would help spur over 1,000 jobs, many of them permanent — and how there are universities and nonprofits ready to partner in some of the work. The Almono development, for example, appears poised to deal with some of the runoff from Four Mile Run.

Councilor Gross pointed out that unlike some other cities, our City Code does not yet address green infrastructure — meaning, in addition to public investments, a lot of the necessary stormwater might be dealt with by residents and businesses if they are required to provide a little basic stormwater management.

Left unasked was the degree to which the costs of this “green-first” approach might realize offsets and savings from Alcosan’s original “gray-first” stormwater plans, consisting mainly of vast underground holding tanks, by pursuing a greener track instead. Although much of the storm water in the region drains towards Pittsburgh, Alcosan has limited power to mandate or organize work in any of the surrounding municipalities, making green-first a challenge.

MORE: KDKA2, WTAE, P-G, Trib

NOTE: The storm water issue is mostly separate from the drinking water issue.

City Council Weird, Tense and Tentative over Affordable Housing as Activists Rage

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-3-13-58-pmThe public got to speak at city hall on Wednesday evening, before the cameras, to tell City Council what they thought of the proposed “Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund”.

It would be a $10 million annual kitty, managed by the City, and structured to make investments furthering the cause of affordable housing for low-income people.

The overwhelming majority of the 100 or so speakers were wholly for it, and passionately — aside from a few real estate agents.

“Why is the city subsidizing market-rate housing?”

“I’m witnessing the 4th re-gentrification of the Lower Hill.”

“They’re being pushed to neighborhoods with less food, less transit…”

“Pittsburgh’s population is now less than it was in 2010.”

“Pittsburgh was cute before all the plastic surgery — now, it’s getting ugly.”

MORE: P-G, CP, WPXI

Yet when Council Members offered closing thoughts after the last of 50+ speakers, it became clear not just that the Real Estate Transfer tax may be off the table to fund it — but that a number of other changes are going to be offered.

And that the pressures are getting irritating.

“This fund is important, needed,” warned Councilor Natalia Rudiak, “but my residents weren’t here.”

She upbraided community organizers for not reaching out to her southern district, especially its “burgeoning refugee and immigrant populations.” That can easily be interpreted as a slight against her frequent ally, Pittsburgh United, which had been poised to canvass for an aborted ballot measure for funding.

“This is a progressive Council” insisted Rudiak, for some reason caustically.

Councilor Daniel Lavelle, with poker-face in effect, pointed out that “a bill to increase the RET tax is not before the Council.” They were only discussing the authorization and structure of the fund.

Yet even still: “A number of amendments [possible changes] are coming.”

The Affordable Housing fund now reflects recommendations by Lavelle’s own Affordable Housing Task Force, which was set up and supported by Mayor Bill Peduto to assess and help satisfy various and specific demands for a citywide policy to provide for housing affordability.

Dedicated funding for such low-income housing trust funds as these are recognized “best practices” by a number of progressive policy experts. Though “a drop in the bucket” alone, they can play a role in a larger strategy while housing some families.

Without the real estate tax as a funding stream, many wonder where the money will come from.

Councilor Deb Gross was concerned about the City’s commitment to that larger strategy.

“We have one vote for Inclusionary Zoning on this Council,” she declared — referring to herself, and to another recognized best practice in affordable housing, a one-time Peduto policy.

Gross’s district surrounding Lawrenceville is already receiving the brunt end of skyrocketing property values, and some forms of gentrification.

“It’s not all about new housing,” Gross warned, “Because that’s how to house the least amount of people for the most amount of money.”

Under the present legislation, half of the money would be set aside for work providing housing affordability to people making less than 30% of the regional median income. Half of the rest would go for those making up to 50% of the regional median, and the remaining portion for homeownership opportunities for those making up to 80% regional median.

Additionally, a larger “Advisory Board” made up partially of representatives from low-income communities and advocacy groups would get to pre-screen any investments by the Governing Board, which is dominated by city leaders.

Rumor has it the Peduto administration would like to increase the flexibility with which the fund can be used, by watering down some of those safeguards.

Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith said she was “concerned” about the real estate tax, curious why this can’t be addressed by URA, HCAP, or with the County, and nervous over who would really benefit from the fund. “Does it benefit the people,” she asked, “not East End developers and organizations?”

Council President Bruce Kraus was more peevish than usual, his graces perfunctory. Twice the Sergeant at Arms was dispatched to quell out-of-turn audience interjection.

Councilor Darlene Harris seemed merry enough on her way in, chatting over her Monday special meeting on flooding issues, but made limited remarks and did not stay the duration. The other members were absent.

BEHIND THE DOOKIE WATER: Local Public Health Travesty Deeper Than You Think

Screen Shot 2016-09-18 at 4.47.38 PMA good test of whether your Facebook friends are up to delivering your news is whether you’ve already read this must-read Guardian expose on Pittsburgh’s problems with “dookie water”, and Brian O’Neil’s piece in the P-G on how local authorities are in way over their head.

Here is some background to open up just how much deeper these water problems go, and how greed and corruption are a factor. First:

In 2008, PWSA borrowed more than $400m in variable rate bonds just as the market collapsed. This year, debt payments alone accounted for 44% of the authority’s operating budget. (Guardian)

Imagine falling so far behind on your student loans to a predatory lender that almost half your income goes to penalties and fees. Now try to pay rent, utilities, eat, and whoops fix your truck or buy medicine. That’s more or less going on with the fancy “Swaptions” deal that our Water Authority signed, and it’s hard to imagine our water pipes getting fixed under that sort of handicap.  Continue reading

Million Dollar Condos and Big White Elephants: The View from Squirrel Hill

Screen Shot 2016-09-13 at 10.50.43 PMWith its 6 bedrooms and bathrooms; its “huge formal rooms,” domed breakfast room and art deco bar; its in-ground swimming pool and several garages; and its lions and goddess statues, the old Stern family property has sat empty for a long time.

The estate at 1830 Beechwood Blvd. rests near the corner of Forbes and Dallas, just south of Homewood Cemetery and west of Frick Park. Built of white painted bricks sprawling smoothly into a vast north-facing hillside, the emptiness of the bomb mansion now joins its gothic fixtures in lending it a haunted aspect.

No one with the money to purchase such a single-family dwelling, upgrade it and maintain its “manicured grounds” really wants to reside in the heart of the city, I guess.

Screen Shot 2016-09-13 at 10.52.52 PMNow a deal worth $1.8 million is pending on the property, which last sold for $525,000 in 2002, and is assessed at $628,400 by the county.

A construction company plans to demolish it all and develop eleven (11) new free-standing 3-4 bedroom condominiums to market at $900,000 apiece — for a grand total of just under $10 million.

Meanwhile, Continue reading

Pittsburgh Dodges Bullet, Loses “Smart Cities” Challenge

40 million dollars from the federal government, to enhance transportation infrastructure.

Another $10 million provided by a venture capital firm’s philanthropy — the carrot tied to the wagon of “high tech” innovations.

Pittsburgh, from a field of 78 applicants, had made it to the final round of 7 — the celebrated seven! We were competing against the likes of Portland, Austin, San Francisco, Denver… all the most shining cities upon hills.

The Comet applauds local officials for answering the nation’s call to begin planning and preparing cities for a likely future economy. But can you imagine what would have happened if Columbus, Ohio didn’t steal the grand prize, with its greater matching fund commitments and crisp pitch?   Continue reading

Dear Donald:

Way too many people don’t want you to be President. You’re a weak candidate, with no knowledge, you make a lot of mistakes, you can’t control your delegation, and you’re toying with forces beyond your understanding. You should drop out before things get even more embarrassing.

#CLINTONSTAHL: 7 Familiar Aromas as Hillary’s Machine grinds its Business

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 10.41.02 PMEmbattled former secretary of state Hillary Clinton is not embattled former Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Hillary Clinton has spent a long career in public service, and knows her stuff.

Yet Ravenstahl and Clinton assimilated into the same centuries-old political arrangements, and may be of the same species. That top-down, hierarchical “machine”-era politics which the one still pursues, was once pursued by the other.

This blasé politics of privilege, self-perpetualization and clientelism, together with enough arrogance and faith in spinmeisters, tends to produce stubborn questions about patronage and other official privileges.

It turns out, they’re displaying many of the same symptoms:   Continue reading

6 WEEKS TO PENNSYLVANIA: Fear and Change in the Rust Belt

Next City, Sky Kalfus

Next City, Sky Kalfus

The Democrats’ last presidential nominating contest was held in 2008. How long ago was that?

We were only just starting to write about these strange, alarming new creatures called “blogs” — all without once referencing “Facebook,” or “Twitter”.

Obama’s “Yes We Can” video spread like wildfire through the blogs upon YouTube, much as Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo did on television sixteen years prior.

There were no hashtags, few memes, and your friends’ parents, your boss’s vendors and your former side pieces were not in your “news feed” fact-checking each other regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Today, we live in another dimension. We have evolved. Or at least we have mutated. Continue reading