Yearly Archives: 2013

2014: Morning in Midlandish Appalachia!!

The overweening issues are twain in number:

To the bafflement of some of his colleagues on council, Mr. Peduto wants to remain in the program, even though it means continuing to answer to state overseers. The incoming mayor believes the city is still in a precarious financial position. 

“It’s not a question,” he said. “We must stay under Act 47.” (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Raise your hands if you’re baffled.

As the city moves forward, though, city Controller Michael Lamb warns that the opportunities to put money typically used for city operations into capital projects will diminish, as expenditures rise faster than revenues[…] 

Mr. Lamb warned that the city will continue to struggle to fund infrastructure maintenance and predicted that operational surpluses will diminish as expenditures outpace revenues. (P-G, Balingit Deux)

City Controller Michael Lamb is a lot of things, but he’s never baffled.

Mr. Ravenstahl, a Democrat, hopes that the Republican takeover of Harrisburg increases the chances of cities moving to defined-contribution plans. This is bigger than party loyalty. 

“The system needs overhauled entirely,” Mr. Ravenstahl said. (P-G, Brian O’Neil, 3 yrs ago)

That’s one idea.


And then there is this:

Urban Affairs Officer Valerie McDonald-Roberts said all subcommittees on her team emphasized the need for changes stemming from the grassroots. 

“It needs to come from the ground up, from the people, from the residents,” she said. (Trib, Melissa Daniels)

That old thing.

First let me say this about municipal park rangers: true, I was a little amused at first.

But the more I think about it, a limited professional interdisciplinary team amongst the Departments of Public Works, Public Safety and Innovation and Performance could be just the thing for those “sticky situations” in this heavily forested city and to develop knowledge bases that could prove creative and constructive down the road. Perhaps during disaster relief operations we’ll even be able to send them north of the Wall.  *-UPDATE: More accurate description of team recommendation from John J. Chapman, Comet FB.

Second, the full-bore version of the Office of the Mayor-elect’s City Ethics Hearing Board transition team recommendations are archived here:

UPDATE / CORRECTION: Under Transparency, while the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics annual report is a good one (pdf) the City of Oakland Public Ethics Commission annual report (pdf) we thought particularly boffo.

There is not any stopping us now! We’re on the move. We do believe the worst is behind us.

Bus Rapid Transit: A Smorgasbord of Improvements, Rife with Perils

Aaron McFarling’s Blog

BRT looks like the big new public works project headed down the chute for quality assurance control in this City of Champions.

“This is an economic development project,” clarifies Port Authority interim CEO Ellen McLean. “It gives us a chance to add amenities in the third biggest corridor in the state,” including “significant transit efficiency opportunities.”

In addition to the common features of bus rapid transit schemes as distinguished from conventional routes — differently designed vehicles, dedicated and separated lanes, smart signaling etc. — proponents of the project in Pittsburgh are intending to provide a host of both economic and infrastructure development benefits along the corridor between Downtown and Oakland.

“Above all we’ve learned BRT is a vehicle for community vitality as well as mobility,” says Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh, an organization which has driven the community input process thus far.

Many of the benefits will be centered around Port Authority stations where riders should be able to get in out of the weather, purchase passes, and receive real-time information on arrivals.

“We’re working with UPMC on a model station,” says McLean, at or near the corner of Atwood and 5th Ave. “A big thing for developers is the permanence of the stations.”

Stations should similarly provide development opportunities in the middle of the route, such as Uptown, but such details are yet to be determined.

Two things hold up the process in terms of providing specifics to examine before a federal grant deadline in October.

First, the Port Authority is waiting on the Peduto administration to arrive, appoint and provide direction to somebody on the project Steering Committee — which also includes the County, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Allegheny Conference and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

“Remember, this is a City project technically,” says McLean. “The financing will likely be TIF“.

In recompense for the public financing, the City is likely to seek infrastructure upgrades beyond even that which will be necessary to operate the bus rapid transit, such as bike lanes — real, raised up, separated-from-traffic bike lanes, for example.

“And you’re also opening up streets for things like water and sewer,” suggests McLean, though she clarifies she does not want to get ahead of City determinations.

Second, a preliminary engineering and environmental study is underway and set to come back with information on preferred routes, station locations, streetface design, roadway signaling, noise impacts, historic impacts and potential displacement.

It is still unknown whether BRT buses would be better off heading down Forbes and back on 5th, for example, and those determinations will have long-term effects.

There are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of unknowns that need to be known, before the project can begin to move forward. Once it begins, transformations will likely need to be taken on in stages.

The “New Starts” grants of under $250 million for transportation projects “are enormously competitive,” warns McLean. In order to win one Pittsburgh would need to bring “total commitment.”


There are a variety of concerns circulating about BRT in the public:

  1. It could distract the Port Authority from restoring service cuts
  2. It could ruin efforts to expand light rail to Oakland
  3. It could make the corridor impractical for automobiles
  4. It could bypass poor communities
  5. It could gentrify poor communities
  6. It could prove not worthwhile in terms of improved service
  7. It could be a Trojan horse for future privatization

Call that a mixed bag.

Creepypasta Wiki

There are differences between operating funds and capital funds, and still others among grant money and TIF proceeds. If an organization like Port Authority is fundamentally so incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, then we may as well resign ourselves to failure in all things.

The argument about light rail is more interesting. It was perhaps most eloquently put by one of Pittsburgh greatest electronic heroes of rationality and justice: that the urge to seek BRT is symptomatic of institutional myopia and a conception of transit as a reaction to, not a driver of, economic development.

“The community has decided they want something now” after so many decades of nothing much at all, states McLean at the Port Authority.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether a completed BRT would ultimately or for all time preclude the pursuit of work on expanding light rail east. It is at least theoretically possible that BRT stations can be spaced where plans for T stations have already been drawn up; or that on that shining day when the T is permitted to grow, that BRT resources can be reprogrammed elsewhere.

Concerns about automobile traffic should be addressed in the study, McLean says, but she does not anticipate it should be an insurmountable obstacle.

“I don’t know about you, but right now you ride in the middle three lanes,” of automobile traffic in Uptown, she says — not as much the far left or the far right or left lane.

How about whether the convenience and prosperity is going to bypass the communities BRT, well, passes by?

“People believed that because BRT is coming in, we’re not going to operate that local service,” affirms McLean. But she denies that is the case. Similarly, the mere presence of the concern about gentrification raises questions about a concern over bypassing communities.

Now, in doing our own research, the Comet heard a surprising number of people simply saying transit service between Oakland and Downtown was already smooth and acceptable. Is it really worthwhile to shave 5 minutes off of a 10 minute trip?

Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie offered a critique of that anecdotal research: we were talking only to transit riders. “There are an equal number of people who don’t ride the bus, because it stops at every corner,” he argued. This is a way to grow the total ridership.

The argument about sneaky privatization, perhaps the one most terrifying to local Democrats, rests upon the suspicion that by upgrading and making distinct certain high-capacity routes, that must be the first step in marketing them to private interests. It is a hard speculation to address.


Court Gould at Sustainable Pittsburgh advises, “The on-going study process has this optimism driving the interest in ways in which BRT can extend prosperity to all in the downtown-Oakland corridor.”

Until we know the specifics of what Pittsburghers may be bringing to the table here — and given the cornucopia of infrastructural and economic life we may breath into the City center alongside an exciting new transit gateway — engaged optimism seems like the reasonable posture.

There is a school of thought in activism that if the government is conducting a study of something you do not like, you had better kill the study or else kill the project before the study comes back — or else the manipulative momentum of a rigged study will be too powerful to reverse.

That strikes the Comet as amusingly close-minded and fearful.

Now is not the time to kill Bus Rapid Transit with fire.

Now is the time to lard up the BRT proposal with all the efficiencies, amenities and pleasantries we can possibly attach to it.

The Comet’s prescription now is only that the communities BRT would directly impact be given every opportunity to forge synergistic agreements with the regional stakeholders. It should be a matter of excitement how that boils down in terms of infrastructure, economic and transportation benefits.

Even if it does not come to fruition this cycle, that work should still provide everyone mileage.

Pension Change: That Sound we Keep Hearing

Lean Blitz

And we’re talking about this…

The mistake that municipal workers and their unions are making today is failing to learn from this debacle. As great as defined-benefit pensions sound, they are only as secure as the finances and political will of the future. (Keith Noughton, P-G)

Given this bloke is a former Republican consultant, what do you say to the reasoning?

It’s not as though this idea is wholly unfamiliar. And it’s not as though the City of Pittsburgh’s recent value-injection and the recently roaring stock market provide any semblance of sustainability.

Loading, the post you’re waiting for…

Maybe by 6:00 Later.

Future is Uncertain because Life is Awesome.

Getty Images

The Strip District is one recent example:

Pittsburgh City Council on Monday delayed a vote for a second consecutive week on whether to grant historic status for the Strip District’s landmark Produce Terminal. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Ideas for the building are just starting to circulate, a new Council rep and Mayor are just coming aboard.

Mr. Ferlo argued against proposed alternatives, saying “we can’t afford to let more of the building fall apart while we wait for a faction of the preservation community’s ideal to materialize.” (P-G, Mark Belko)

Well we could always take basic, critical-needs measures to maintain our building, if any are truly necessary. We could also take “The Preservationists” seriously. It’s not like they are an exotic or foreign Hobbit-like race. They’re just the half or so (or more?) of regular Pittsburghers who harbor an affinity for innovation and doing things better.

*-UPDATE / THOUGHT: To view the Terminal from the David McCullough Bridge — perhaps our greatest bridge — approaching the development site from the north, and viewing it on approach from Downtown, the opportunity to deliver and build upon historic value lies to the west. Let us not destroy that. Points east also deserve historic exposure. There is also a strong sentiment for riverfront access. Why not demolish the middle, creating a short north-south avenue of retail and other commercial or boutique residential bisecting the Terminal? The surviving two approximate thirds of the Terminal on either end can be preserved and commercially or otherwise advantageously adapted, as well as made to suggest an architecturally consistent one-time connection between each other — which has an aesthetic appeal. Entertain discussions about signage and other opportunities.

Quickly, on Kevin Acklin and Right Hands

Game of Thrones funny scene

An increasingly critical responsibility, in this complex work-a-day world.

Acklin will hold the top administrative position in Peduto’s office and essentially function as the mayor’s gatekeeper. (Trib, Team Editorial)

PROTIP: If you cannot make it through Acklin, try an end-around using Twitter. It is this Mayor’s wheelhouse.

He also will oversee development bodies such as the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, Sports & Exhibition Authority and Stadium Authority. (Tribid)

The Planning Commission, too? No, no, no. See? Now already we have problems. Do a search on the Comet for “many-hatism” or “many hats” disease. We can address this detail down this road however, it is of no immediate concern.

Panning back:

Over the decades Pittsburgh mayors have grown more and more dependent on their aides to get things done. While the support staff’s influence often didn’t become apparent until after the mayor left office, their impact on the direction and health of the city is undeniable. (Christopher Zurawsky in 2009, P-G)

Quite the trip down memory lane, what with a note about “twisting arms” and “killing” therein. The incumbent, outgoing and affectionately monikered Hand of Dread is profiled here and here. No word on the specific nature of Mr. Acklin’s fearsome visage, but the standard City uniform is spiked plate mail.

This is why fish fries are important.

Friday: That Which Will Not Kill Us


From the overworked “Nobody Said Anything Was Easy” department…

Surprised by a threatened veto from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, the transition team for Mayor-elect Bill Peduto is revising an early pension plan for employees who may lose their jobs in the next administration and replacing it with a buyout proposal. (P-G, Timothy McNulty)

The new plan bypasses the state’s fundamental religious objection to “pension enhancements”.

A Municipal Pension Board official called the plan a bad deal. “There’s no way in the world I would take it now, and my phone’s been ringing off the hook all day,” said John Sibbett, board president, who planned to retire early under the original proposal. “People aren’t going to go.” (Trib, Bob Bauder)

If a smooth and orderly transition isn’t in the cards, it just isn’t in the cards. The new administration will just have to make explicit its performance standards, and monitor compliance.

But meanwhile…

The Municipal Pension Board, chaired by Public Safety Director Michael Huss, lowered the rate from 8 to 7.5 percent, a move that will force the city to increase its contribution to the funds by about $5 million annually. 

The measure passed 5-2 with Ravenstahl voting in favor and Huss against. Ravenstahl Finance Director Scott Kunka, who serves as non-voting executive board director, argued against the decrease. 

Ravenstahl had consistently opposed lowering the projection… (Trib, Bob Bauder)

MORE:  Null Space

Just add it to our tab:

As it turns out, [Ravenstahl’s] budget team miscalculated, sending the city’s real estate tax revenue — its single biggest source of income by far — into the red this year. And it could force incoming Mayor Bill Peduto to “readjust” the millage, aka implement a tax increase, in one of his first acts in office. (Early Returns)

And remember:

“Because the City now has moved through a succession of balanced budgets, it appears that its time of financial crisis may be over, which also should mean that the need for the Public Service Fund and the nonprofit contributions that it has collected no longer exists.” (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Between the City’s actual inherited challenges, and the folks who are trying only to break this administration, and the folks who have already given up entirely on City government, and who have punted on government in general, Pittsburgh is set to grow unprecedentedly strong!

Sunday Notes: Managing Passions

Yoga for the #newworld

Bus Rapid Transit: the push is back on, with local executives piling on political support.

A preliminary estimate of the overall cost is $200 million and the project would have to prevail in a highly competitive federal grant program to move ahead, Ms. Stern said. A federal grant would likely cover only 50% of the cost. (P-G, John Schmitz)

The application is due in October. The benefits sought are an economic development surge, cascading infrastructure upgrade opportunities, a more intense and striking public transit gateway along a strategic corridor, and of course increased service efficiency along it. But before anybody swoons with pleasure, remember the fate of the Penguins TIGER application and read the introduction to this federal program.


A City police officer drove to work drunk. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.

This was an apple flagged for badness previously:

Officer Gibson was charged with insurance fraud in late 2011 after he admitted to lying to an insurance appraiser, saying that his car was struck when he had actually damaged it while parking. As a result, the bureau transferred him from the bureau’s North Side station to the warrant office pending an internal investigation. 

In July of last year, a Common Pleas judge sentenced him to complete 200 hours of community service and fined him $200 under the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, which is for first-time offenders who can fulfill certain requirements with the hopes their charges will be withdrawn. Court records indicated he had not yet completed the program. (P-G, Moriah Balingit)

Routine consequences for an officer committing conduct “unbecoming of an officer” ought to be seriously attended; at least such a thing is worth considering. Numbly reinforcing officer privilege seems not to be doing them many favors.


The world has lost a most unusually successful 20th Century leader in Nelson Mandela.

There was violence, primarily white-on-black violence which then provoked black-on-white violence, despite a Gandhian philosophic core of the blacks’ approach to the struggle, and Mr. Mandela was prominent in the direction of the African National Congress’ armed Spear of the Nation militia, even from prison. 

But what stands out as Mr. Mandela’s signature characteristic was his belief in the need for forgiveness to achieve his goal of a democratic, multiracial South Africa. That was remarkable in someone who was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of those spent breaking rocks on an island penal colony. (P-G, Editorial Triumph)

That is a relevant detail for anyone that has been trying get down to the heart of the matter. That being that forgiveness can be so wondrously pragmatic.

Meanwhile, the Trib is praising Mandela for renouncing “Stalinist ‘progressivism'”, which I think we are obliged to accept as a proof of a certain tortured conservative luminescence.

#TransitionWatch: Person your Stations!

National Geographic

A few items merit some attention:

Mayor-elect Peduto’s employee retirements jubilee legislation advanced in committee.

Four members voted for the bill, three abstained, and one was absent. Darlene Harris, Corey O’Connor and R. Daniel Lavelle said they needed more time to consider the bill. 

Ricky Burgess was absent but said later that he opposes it. A final vote is scheduled for next week. Burgess called the offer unfair because it’s being offered to employees who “did not earn and did not deserve” it. (Trib, Bob Bauder)

Well, they do not otherwise qualify for it. It is precisely the question before the Council, whether or not they will have “earned” or “deserve” it.

Peduto argues that the total budget impact of his retrofits on city government are likely to be minimal due to other budget moves, and the fact that only roughly half of the small pool of eligible nonunion employees are expected to participate in this.

As we stated last time in a post and some comments, it should be immediately clear that hitting the ground running and without distraction will bring considerable efficiencies. And it can be construed as unfair that employees who built their lives and families’ lives around the proposition that the City would operate as it always had, must now see their retirement plans exploded because all of a sudden it will operate some other way.

A specific consideration is litigiousness. If the Mayor-elect essentially proclaims for all to hear, “Sorry, I don’t think you’re good enough to work for me and you must go,” why should a dismissed employee not respond with, “You are only getting rid of me for very bad reasons, such as prejudice or a political vendetta. Cities cannot do that. I am suing, and I am subpoenaing all sorts of things!”

Those cases might rarely be of any merit, but they would certainly satisfy the cheering throngs, and we could not prejudge a single one of them.  That makes for an annoying, time-consuming, distracting and ultimately costly slog — especially for the city’s Law Dept.

The Mayor-elect’s legislation is not only an investment in a smooth transition, it seems to be measured and right-sized. The Comet very much appreciates the seeming incongruity of seeking new predictable revenue streams while making unexpected investments, but this one is a money saver in the long run.

Near the Housing Authority, things are looking a little rough:

“It sounds to me just like the pure greed of money,” said Larry Blair Jr., 46, a car salesman who is president of the Oak Hill Residents Council. (P-G, Lord & Zullo)

It’s a long story. Oak Hill in 2009 was quite the thing, but it sounds like the developer has been getting the short end of the stick on upkeep.

Kevin Acklin, who is heading the transition and will be Mr. Peduto’s chief of staff, called the housing authority “really the only authority that we haven’t found any significant cooperation with.” (ibid)

Cactus McCoy

Hard to say whether this is a function of changed administrative priorities towards socioeconomic integration in certain parts of the Hill, or of a certain developer being on the political outs, or of Councilman Burgess just happening to be the Mayor-elect’s nemesis, or of a personality clash within the transition and the Authority provoking increased scrutiny. But it’s a messy indicator and indicative of a need to break out the scrubbing bubbles.

Elsewhere in the city center, rumor had had it that the Planning Commission would formally introduce the Penguins’ plans for the Lower Hill, early next week at its final meeting of the year. While an introduction is followed later by presentations, a hearing and perhaps other measures before a vote, this might have been one case where the Mayor-elect’s ability to wrangle the direction and appointment of a new Board in real time would be tested. It begins to appear however that the reality of the impasses between the Pens, the community and the next mayor have become so significant, the Penguins might be taking a quick hustle back to the drawing board. We hope it is a pivotally constructive session.

*-UPDATE: Hill groups have composed a letter to the Dept. of City Planning asking that it conduct a fair market housing study for any plan submitted for the 28 controversial acres, and are inviting other interested groups across Pittsburgh to cosign it.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Comet is humbled to disclose that we are working on the Mayor-Elect’s City Ethics Hearing Board subcommittee of the Law and Ethics transition team. It should go without saying that this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

After inspirational introductions by the Mayor-elect and his apostles, roughly fifteen of us were ushered into a spacious college classroom for more specific guidance and instruction from Solicitor-designate Lourdes Sanchez Ridge. Then we were left to it. Our subcommittee has a couple of past members of the Ethics Board to provide insiders’ perspectives, and more than enough attorneys besides.

Using the “I Will Make Sure Everybody Gets To Talk” gambit, I ruthlessly seized the chairmanship and proceeded to do pretty much only that. Here is what the team came up with in terms of goals, preliminarily:

For Dec. 2013:
1) Mission statement
2) Identify best criteria mix for Board Members
3) Provide justifications, specifications of funding / support needs
For Peduto’s first 100 days:
1) Have that board operational
2) ID opportunities for improvement in the code
3) Have given top City employees (executives, directors, asst. dirs) updated training
4) Clarify Ethics Board reporting duties
For the first 6 months:
1) All City employees trained up.
2) Adequate public reporting of routine Ethics Board business online
3) Be funded through legitimate budget lines or foundation boost
One year:
1) All City / City-County Authority personnel as well as Contractors trained & addressed.

What do you think? What did your transition team do?

Charitable Holiday Fundraiser and Online Competition!

At Task Work Management

We here at the Comet have a soft spot for Community Human Services Corp., and in the winter months particularly its Holiday Gift Project.

This year the blog I heart PGH has set a goal to inspire 100 different people to contribute online by Wednesday’s party at Hough’s, and invited us to help them spread the word.

Also, its lead editor proposed a little contest:  which of our online readerships can raise the most in donations by December 15, for providing the small holiday gifts such as gift cards for the many Pittsburghers who participate in CHS’s several programs?

We have our work cut out for us. I heart PGH is a wonderful and longstanding information source for cool events, new and exciting places around town, and resources for getting the most out of City living. The Comet is going to do something different:  harness the power of rage and bitterness to inspire a generous public attitude.

Donate via the Pittsburgh Comet’s own fundraising portal and spread some dark holiday love!

Cities are built by entrepreneurs and by monarchs or other military or political rulers, to exploit natural resources and various advantages, and then to exploit the large, diversified labor pools drawn to economic opportunity. Clever people enjoy living in dense communities with abundant opportunities for education, commerce and culture as well. Before long, regional and global industrial conglomerates as well as banks take the reigns to a significant extent. Things take on a life of their own. Among other things we encourage high property values especially Downtown, we design neighborhoods, arteries and regions for the conveniences for the most mobile, we thrive on the might of a profit-based health care industry. Many of us continue to enjoy very much the blessings of our cities, but how do we address issues of mental illnesses, physical limitations or traumas, addiction, poverty, poor education, malnutrition, incarceration and other hardships among families with children and all those less than fully adaptable to the demands and pressures of competition?


In a recent effort to restore some perceived semblances of balance, Occupy Pittsburgh came in for lots of justifiable criticism (from within and without) for its lack of capacity to sustain a population accounting for homelessness, transience and common urban social problems, and for contributing towards a scene of devolution and disarray. But if there’s anyone out there in Comet Country fortunate and able enough to be working high up in industry, or in real estate, or at a bank, or a major law firm, or is just a regular semi-well-off hipster or townie, might I suggest as humbly as possible, if the thought had not occurred already:  that we have convened Pittsburgh for a reason. Agglomerations of human misery is the price of doing so much business, and having so much enjoyment. Let’s all do our best to clean up after ourselves, and to take care of Pittsburgh’s less fortunate denizens as sustainably as possible. That can begin with affording them a little dignity, such as the opportunity to shop for a suitable gift like winter gloves or a children’s’ doll.

Thank goodness there are organizations like CHS doing the heavy lifting and making it relatively easy. Until we can do better and more than rely on charitable giving, donate via the Comet’s portal or through or to whom anyone else you prefer. Let’s beat I heart PGH, and happy Sparkle Season!

And if you can, go to the party in Greenfield on Wednesday!