Monthly Archives: October 2013

Election in D7: Policy, Politics and Biases

Beyond My Ken

By Bram Reichbaum

The two leading candidates in the Special Election for City Council District 7, Deb Gross and Tony Ceoffe,  are politically similar within the broad spectrum.

They both believe strongly in civil rights and social equality, on the duty to invest in public transportation and education, on the need to inject tax fairness into our “Eds and Meds” economy and in the advisability of public funding for the arts. One is the Democratic nominee, the other retains significant support in the Party, and both have been local Democratic committee members.

Where the candidates differ distinctly on policy is the direction they would take the City — and who they would take with them.

Gross supports remaining with Act 47 for now, has not called for a larger police force, and is allied with a future mayor and a County Executive who aim to cooperate on the shared provision of services.

Ceoffe favors withdrawing from state oversight as well as a call for the hiring of 130 new officers, and has been pointedly critical of the prospect of “mergers” with the County.

The Comet has already addressed the imperative for continued financial discipline favoring our pension crisis using Act 47. It should be obvious that the hiring, training, care, feeding, maintenance and supervision of a police officer is one of the most expensive long-term investments a City can make (besides which, now seems like a time in the Police Bureau to focus on leadership, vision and strategies). And there are so many broke units of government in our region destined to continue performing similar services, that any way in which the City and County can begin collaborating just to show it’s okay is at the very least highly interesting.

In light of that, formally withdrawing from Financial Distress status, an eagerness to hire more “boots on the ground” in the neighborhoods, and alarm over City-County collaboration sounds less like a strategy for long-term civic stability than like a formula for giving away ice-cream cones: to the public-sector managers and workers most desirous of greater resources and control and disproportionately active in politics, and to fearful residents unaware of the extent of the City’s continued financial straights and suspicious of outsiders.

That analysis confirmed my bias going into this race: that Deb Gross has long supported Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, and the “progressive” movement in local politics which takes as its mission curtailing patronage and transforming government to run more efficiently and responsibly, whereas Tony Ceoffe by in the past supporting Jack Wagner, Luke Ravenstahl and Len Bodack has been more representative of that “old school” more likely to protect the status-quo and make decisions based on political expediency and voters’ immediate gratification.

Now is when we have a real duty to examine those biases.

Tony Ceoffe Jr. is experiencing his own special kind of purgatory.

He has published a photo of a Democratic party ward chairman / Citiparks employee allegedly “campaigning for Gross during City hours of operation”.

He blasted the participation of “professionals” from Public Safety, Public Works and City Planning in a roundtable organized by Gross on Oct. 21st on the topic of “City Services”.

He claims a tweet by the Gross campaign was at first tweeted mysteriously by a certain public official’s Twitter account, before it was deleted there… and that nobody said anything.

And, of course, he argued unsuccessfully in Court that he was narrowly cheated out of the Democratic nomination, and besides which that various Committee members were threatened or promised things from Democratic leaders in exchange for supporting Gross.

Tony tells the Comet he sees a lot of bias in how his own accusations are being treated by various media — or rather, ignored by it — given the electricity such accusations have garnered in the past.

The Comet thinks it entirely likely Tony has a point here. Not that long ago, the Democratic party’s machinery and Bill Peduto’s own “progressive” coalition were at odds in most local elections. Once Peduto won the Party’s mayoral nod in May, the two mega-factions must have had to begin planning a Shotgun Royal Wedding.

City politics has been unscrupulous in the past, old habits die hard, and this Special Election to fill a vacancy forced the newlyweds to begin working together without an adjustment period. If Ceoffe feels like his candidacy is being ill-treated by a powerful new coalition, an entrenched establishment and 3rd-party media observers all at once, that is probably is because it is.

Other sources of bias impact the race.

Rocky IV – Training Styles

The Comet perceives four models on how to get into politics:

  1. Be born into it. Learn by watching your family work.
  2. Work to become a politician’s right hand, and wait your turn.
  3. Get active in community groups and “squeaky wheel” organizing, liaising between your neighbors and government.
  4. Develop skills and contacts through your profession and other public-spirited pursuits.
Each of these are legitimate paths into public office. City Government can boast representatives from all four. Each tend to entail certain advantages as well as certain disadvantages at the polls and in office. Deb Gross comes from Source 4 and perhaps a bit of a Source 2; Tony Ceoffe comes from Source 3 as well as Source 1.
One uncomfortable truth is, if you hail from a challenging socioeconomic status or class, Source 3 is likely the most accessible pathway to you. But its advantage is, those stemming from Source 3 will be able to make a strong case that community group work is the best qualification for public office because they roll up their sleeves, are visible and know what’s really going on.
Yet one thing candidates from each “Source” are equally capable of is acquiescing to short-sighted or self-satisfying pressures, even the arbitrarily political ones. Pittsburgh needs to elect candidates with the right instincts, no matter where they hail from — who act in fidelity to all the facts of what’s “really going on”.
Tony Ceoffe Jr. tells the Comet that he has identified the funding to hire 50 additional police officers, and that “obviously the long-term funding issue is something that would have to be worked through with the community at the [Council] table” for the remaining 70 he now seeks. He has signed on with Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith’s legislation that attempts to “trigger” a hiring process when the count dips below 900. He also maintains that although crime statistics have risen of late only in line with the seasonal norm, it’s the intensity of incidents that seems to have increased and what is causing residents’ concern.
Ceoffe clarifies that he would “never sign on” to something like sharing city RAD parks services or management with the County unless the hydraulic fracturing issue was disposed of at the Council table (a legal mechanism by which a services agreement makes City fracking more likely than otherwise is unclear) as well as the critical issue of “what happens to those jobs” (sources close to Peduto say any excess staff would be transferred to other overworked functions, rather than laid off.)
Finally, during an interview with GLTV, Ceoffe claimed he had high regard for Patrick Dowd as a “great” prior Councilman who was visible in the community, who is doing an honorable thing now by making a transition into education advocacy, and whom he will miss… but at the same time that he ran against Dowd in 2011 because he felt Dowd would not stick with the the job and always had his eye on something else. When the Comet asked Ceoffe to clarify this seeming contradiction, Ceoffe responded by confirming he “was not surprised” Dowd left office early, and reaffirmed that was the very reason why he ran for office in 2011.
Dowd narrowly won office in his own right in 2007 by unseating then-Councilman Leonard Bodack with a fiery campaign targeting “Patronage” and championing “Efficiency, Transparency and Accountability.” Today, Ceoffe’s campaign war chest, less than a third as flush as that of Deb Gross, boasts a $500 check from Friends of Leonard Bodack, for whom Ceoffe had worked as a youth. We couldn’t get Tony to open up too broadly on that race and dynamic, but he says Lenny donated to him this year because he “knows that I do good work out in our neighborhoods.”
I feel like I’ve examined my biases as thoroughly as I can. Although Pittsburgh’s “Old School” candidates are getting a lot smarter, more passionate and more progressive than in the past — which is phenomenal news for the City — there is still a “School Whose Thinking Is Old” with regards to a visceral resistance to internal transformation, efficiency and collaboration with others. Natural skepticism of transformative designs is a healthy commodity, but Pittsburgh already has it in abundance. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and you’ve run field tests on it to mitigate against duck bias, then it is probably destined to be a force for unnecessary friction, obstruction, and retrograde spin. At least until a little more restorative time is spent in the political wilderness.
Meanwhile, Deb Gross comes with excellent recommendations and varied experiences, demonstrates both intelligence and a fidelity to sound policy, and for a long time in local politics has been on the righteous side of history. She seems to me like the safer bet. What are you going to do?

Act 47: The REST of the Story

By Shawn Carter

Yesterday’s treatise on fiscal restraint was a timely reminder to those of us who have followed, for whatever reason, the City as it traveled the road to fiscal sanity and a pretty decent primer for those of you who are just now beginning to pay attention to these sorts of things.

Throughout the year, ever since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl petitioned the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development for rescission of the City’s distressed status, it has been the topic of several local discussions.

As a City employee myself who has concerns about the impact of said rescission upon certain upcoming negotiations, I understand that Act 47 limits the damage the City’s bargaining units can do the City’s fiscal situation through either negotiation or binding interest arbitration.

Some background:

Act 47 forced the City of Pittsburgh, largely as the Coordinators had to drag it, kicking and screaming, to get control of its fiscal house.  Employees were let go, budgets were trimmed, maintenance on infrastructure was deferred, just to name a few.  As some of you may know, the biggest drags on the City’s budget were (and still are) payments to service the City’s general obligation debt and pension bond debt and legacy costs to retired City employees (most of whom happen to be policemen or firefighters).

The problem, historically, with cost-containing measures with respect to police and fire contracts is that the panel of arbitrators who get to decide the award should the City and union come to an impasse was PRECLUDED from factoring in a municipality’s ability to pay in deciding the question.

Yes, that’s right!  A panel of arbitrators could decide that despite the fact that a municipality could not actually pay the wages being sought, the municipality could be forced to do so anyway under a binding arbitration award.

This is where Section 252 of Act 47 steps in to safeguard the treasury of a distressed municipality.

In relevant part, Act 47 states:

     (a) General rule. Except as provided in subsection (b), a collective bargaining agreement or arbitration settlement
executed after the adoption of a plan shall not in any manner violate, expand or diminish its provisions.

In OTHER words:  Once the City has adopted a Recovery Plan pursuant to Act 47 and said Plan is filed with the Commonwealth, no police or fire contract can exceed the fiscal limits imposed by the Plan, and no panel of arbitrators can force the City to do so through arbitration.

You can see why Act 47 is a constant target for destruction.

I listened during the primaries as various candidates argued either in favor of or in opposition to remaining a “distressed” municipality.  There are legitimate arguments on either side of it.  I’ve read an editorial in last week’s Post-Gazette in which they cited as their primary reason for supporting the candidate they endorsed was that candidate’s support for remaining in Act 47.

And, despite the fact that the proponents of remaining IN Act 47 have been beating the proponents of getting OUT of Act 47 over the head for being fiscally irresponsible, here’s a question the “Let’s stay in Act 47” crew, myself included, have not bothered to let slip:

Does it even MATTER at this point?

We’ll start with this quote —

     “We hold that Section 252 of Act 47 does not impinge upon interest arbitration awards under the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act” – 29 A.3d 773 (2011)

Yeah, and that pretty much is what happened to our protections under Act 47, too!!!  LMFAO!

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in ruling in favor of the FOP and Firefighters Local Union No. 60 in their legal battle against the City of Scranton, Pa., another “distressed” municipality, basically said that Act 47’s contract protections do not apply to contracts negotiated or awarded pursuant to Act 111 of 1968 – the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act — the very two unions the statute was designed to reign in.

So where does that leave us?  At present, up a creek without a paddle.  Because without legislative action by the General Assembly, and FAST, the City will be without this crucial protection come the beginning of contract negotiation season (which begins July 1, 2014).

More importantly, as the Department of Community and Economic Development hasn’t given a determination one way or the other on the Mayor’s request, the Act 47 Coordinators aren’t even in the process of developing what would be the Second Amended Recovery Plan, which by the way, does usually take some time.

So, proponents of remaining IN Act 47 have failed to mention that any future benefit of retaining the declaration of distress is dependent upon a Governor and a Legislature, all Republican-controlled, voting to enact revisions to Act 47 during a season where 25 out of 50 state Senators, all 203 members of the House and his Honor, the Governor himself, all facing re-election, knowing that statewide, policemen and firefighters represent a powerful constituency and typically support Republican statewide candidates (outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia).

So, what are the chances that the Republican-controlled legislature can pull off this gambit between now and June 30, 2014?  Even if they do, simply changing the law won’t be sufficient, the City must adopt another Amended Recovery Plan BEFORE June 30, 2014 for the City to benefit from such a gift from Harrisburg.

We wait with baited breath.                         

Act 47: A crucial and welcome Enhancement

Fashionably Geek

Pittsburgh owes so much money…

By 2003-04, in the wake of suffering mass traumatic population loss, Pittsburgh voluntarily entered into State Act 47 Financial Distress status — due to high debt to the banks, and due to mushrooming pension, workman’s comp and other workforce costs.

At the dawn of Act 47, Pittsburgh cut the City’s workforce and services way down. Firefighters, police officers, laborers and administrators accepted early retirements or were laid off, pools and recreation centers were closed and resources withdrawn. It was painful, shocking to many. But since that first wave, there have been few further cutbacks.

Eventually in interacting with the Act 47 Coordinators and with the ICA, Pittsburgh managed to get a lid on its debt to the banks — meeting payments steadily, not borrowing anew for many years, receiving credit upgrades. It looks forward at this rate to having paid off a fair chunk of that debt by 2018.

However, Pittsburgh never made any progress on the mushrooming pension and other prior workforce obligations.

Near midnight on Jan. 1, 2011, a State repossessions vehicle was backed up against the City County Bldg., threatening not to leave until it had either a $220 million check made out to the City’s own pension funds, or seized power to make all our pension fund investment decisions for us and enforce a payment plan of its own formula for most of the entire $700 million we are unfunded. Then come what may.

(Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said we ought to get the sought-after $220 million ransom for pension fund, and get as much again to play around with, to boot, by trading away the City’s metered parking spaces and our public garages to a private firm backed by J.P. Morgan. City Council said, “Nah.”)

At midnight Pittsburgh asked to the repo men from the State, “How about this. Here is the City’s extra-last $40 million rainy day fund, all up front, and here is a revised payment schedule to start making up the balances. Sound good?”

An extra $13 million the first couple years, and extra $26 millions thereafter… a future payment schedule “equaling” the $220 million up-front required to make the pension fund merely half-full.

The State replied, “Ugh. Sounds good. Man, I hate you guys.”


Utah Mud Wars

So Pittsburgh has and will again owe an extra $13 million, and soon an extra $26 million thereafter, into the pension fund.

To connect this with our reality, the City’s annual capital budget for road work and neighborhood projects required a bailout recently. Although Pittsburgh certainly had improved its credit profile by refraining from borrowing for a long time, the City did finally borrow $80 million in order to top off the “capital budget” during 2012 and 2013 budget years at previous levels. But that money is now dried up, and presuming the pattern does not shift, we will continue to be impacted by this increased need of roughly $40 million more annually for roads, repair and rebuilding.

Consider the two together, and Pittsburgh will walk into future budgets with an approximately $53-66 million of increased annual tug-of-war budget pressure. Zero-sum squabbling, re-wringing the sponge, and scraping together efficiencies.

Here are several things that Act 47 has enabled the City do:

1) It puts a box around the raises that can be sought in collective bargaining (generally about 2-3%) based on the City’s ability to pay.

2) Has ensured that employees pay a small percentage of their health care premiums.

3) Has ensured that workers compensation claims be verified by doctors approved by the City.

4) Created a new trust fund called “Other Post-Employment Benefit” for everything not covered by either pensions or worker’s comp.

Every point is helping saving the City a ton of money in the current framework already.

Disengaging from the Act 47 financial relationship while our operating and capital budgets are experiencing increasing pressures of the pension tsunami seems inadvisable.

(Fleeing Act 47 with the intention also of embarking on something like a major police hiring spree, at a time of low general crime stats and problems implementing some targeted public safety initiatives, seems reflective of an alarming pattern of financial and/or political instincts.)

Thankfully we do benefit from the relationship with the State, and retain a fighting chance at balancing the books even while maintaining City services and providing workers with good pay, benefits and protections, if we make the right decisions. The improvement on the debt side allows for encouraging headlines and the ability to borrow more cheaply, but the wolves are at the door in as far as our contractual obligations to our workforce.

Pittsburgh’s financial recovery is decidedly half-finished. Let’s not turn around and go back.

Friday: Links for Octoberween

Winter is coming, you had better stock up on pierogis!!  Pierogi Fest is to be thrown in benefit of a new riverfront park that extends development to the water’s edge, and stands in good stead with officers of the peace, modern families and lovers of local cuisine. Dumplings, if you are new; the things which race around the ballpark during the 7th Inning Stretch.

What else is happening…

In a sudden and unexpected gush of not merely sensible government but collaborative government, the City has agreed that if it doesn’t meet its 8% investment returns annually it’s going to make it up the difference to the pension fund, annually. Now at least one semblance of reality is on the books. But eventually a year will sting us. 8% is an aggressive expectation for stock market speculation. [P-G, Trib]

In further tiny fortunes, the PWSA variable rate bonds or “swaptions” are insured again. [Null Space]

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is being silly. [One, Two, Three, Four, @MayorLuke]

Pittsburgh-based robotics entrepreneur John Thornton may be the first human being to exploit the Moon. But not necessarily in a bad way. [The Verge]

And finally, the Post-Gazette endorses Democratic nominee for Pittsburgh City Council District 7 Deb Gross with these words:

This variety of work, over a range of issues and for a broad sweep of constituents, has given her experience with different interest groups and, we hope, skills as a consensus builder.

The Post-Gazette endorses Deb Gross, the candidate most likely to work productively with the city’s new mayoral administration on citywide issues.

The editorial made very clear its endorsement hinged most acutely on Gross’ tolerant approach to state financial oversight. In a race involving many stated policy similarities among the frontrunners, that makes for one interesting contrast with leading rival Tony Ceoffe — along with with his calls for hiring 130 more police officers and his alarmed aversion towards shared City / County management of the RAD parks. Is it possible these isolated but obvious contrasts fit together somehow?

Election  Day is Tuesday, November 5th. Join us starting this Sunday for #Race4D7Week at the Pittsburgh Comet, and all over the ‘Burghonet. We might learn a thing or two!

Les Grand Boulevard Smithfield, Sans Buses

Les Grand Boulevards

by Helen Gerhardt

Bill Rudolph seems very enthusiastic about Bill Peduto’s vision of a”grand boulevard” on Smithfield St, as laid out by Mark Belko in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past Sunday. “It could be the icing on the cake.” Rudolph said, “A street like that in the middle of Downtown could take it to a whole new level.”

Bill Rudolph has at least two hats from under which he can observe matters of downtown development. Bill Rudolph serves the City of Pittsburgh on the board of directors of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Bill Rudolph also serves as a principal and a member of the investment committee of McKnight Realty Partners.

Two hats. Two roles. Two angles of vision. If Mr. Bill Rudolph could stand in the middle of that not-yet-quite-grand Boulevard of Smithfield and look down toward the intersection with Sixth Avenue, here is what he would see:

Mr. Rudolph could look left at one of the properties on this street that McKnight Realty owns, 610 Smithfield, home to tenant Fragasso Financial Advisors, Flaherty & O’Hara Attorneys at Law, and, at street level, both the Carnegie Library and Brooks Brothers.

Then Mr. Rudolph could look to the right at the former Gimbels building  where McKnight Realty not long ago housed their old tenant, Office Depot, the building that may soon house another clothier. Of course, the deal might be more tempting for possible incoming McKnight tenants if Mr. Rudolph can influence Pittsburgh decision-makers to clear the way for some more attractive peoplescapes. Those crowds of working people waiting for the bus on the sidewalk sometimes don’t look so grand,especially when they’re being rained or snowed on.

But then, Mr. Rudolph is one of those decision makers. As one of five URA board members, should we trust that he did not influence the URA vote in 2012 for what seems like a sweetheart deal for McKnight Realty, working hand in hand with our current Mayor Ravenstahl to secure the plum development of the former Saks Fifth Ave property, along with partner developer Milcraft Industries, including space for at least 600 car-dependent shoppers to park and pay big bucks?  How can observers not be concerned that Mr. Rudolph and his development company did not directly profit from his position on that board in a clear conflict of interest

CLARIFYING UPDATE:  Bill Rudolph did not cast a vote as URA board member on this decision. There’s a good reason why I framed our concern as a question about the disproportionate influence of his interests on the public development planning process and decisions that his position on the URA board allows him. But I see that without including information on Mr. Rudolph’s recusal from the vote there is a clear implication that he actually violate the legal parameters of conflict of interest and I apologize to all for my use of a phrase that allowed such a misunderstanding. I thank the commenter that pointed out that information, as well as for the further information that they provided that should surely be a matter for more public consideration.

In my radio conversation with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald on Essential Pittsburgh, as Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit, when I raised the concerns about undue influence of developers in the public transit planning process, and the need for more substantive public input, Mr. Fitzgerald yet again asserted that riders should not expect door-to-door service.

But how can we not consider the likelihood that Mr. Rudolph is not using his URA position to currently advocate for the comfort and profit of another future McKnight Realty tenant, the Embassy Hotel,  about to move into the Oliver Building, just a little farther down Smithfield, where door-to-door valet curb service for the well-suited and high-heeled would evidently be inconvenienced by the current bus lane?

In our meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald yesterday, when PPT Coordinating Committee member Paul O’Hanlon, also a member of the Committee for Accessible Transportation and the Disability Rights Network, reminded Mr. Fitzgerald of the removal of the old highly-used bus stop at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street after pressure on Port Authority by wealthy developers, with numerous, widely expressed negative impacts on our community of persons with disabilities, Mr. Fitzgerald assured us that he had never heard of such concerns about that stop and that we should trust him that there would be no such influence by developers in current planning.

How can we trust Mr. Fitzgerald to listen and respond to drivers, who know the practical operation of the system the best, and the riders who are most affected by his decisions, when they have been ignored so many times in the past, when he flat out states to us, “there will be no buses on Smithfield?” He acknowledges that research shows that public transit is far more efficient for mass circulation, that cars cause far more gridlock, but states to us flatly, “No, we’re not taking cars out of downtown.” No plan yet, he states, but most certainly it seems that he has already made several unilateral decisions without either community process and without regard to hard data on comparable efficiencies and outcomes from across the world.

After all, the Embassy hotel’s deep-pocketed, out-of-town guests don’t really need those buses to travel through the showcase of an urban cake that is envisioned as the future of downtown Pittsburgh, for the profit of those developers that can afford to cater to those who can afford be served by hotel labor making far below living wage, customers who will shop at the fancy boutiques that will be invited from afar to occupy our city, who will fill the seats of stadiums, who will eat at fancy restaurants on the cleared sidewalks. The men and women who work hard to produce the wealth and have been shunted elsewhere, well, let them eat cake, if not the “icing on the cake,” as Rudolph referred to the Les Grand Boulevard Smithfield of at least some people’s future vision.

Such priorities can be seen in gentrified urban streetscapes across the globe, as described by economist David Harvey.

How often are developmental projects subsidized by the state in the name of the common interest when the true beneficiaries are a few landholders, financiers, and developers?…Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money, as has the city itself in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries, as well as perpetual resort to the economy of the spectacle, have become major aspects of the urban political economy… a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyle as a developer product to fulfill urban dreams. (David Harvey, Rebel Cities)

One of the things I love about Pittsburgh, after the far chillier civility of Minneapolis, is the way that people talk to each other, joke together, share stories, out on the streets, in checkout lines at stores, out at the bus stops, talking with each other across all the very real divides of race and culture and class. But I’ve got to admit real surprise at my long conversation with Mr. Rosenstock, the owner of what can only be termed a boutique shop, the Canadian Fur Company right next door to the old Office depot.

He did not look too hard at my scuffed tennis shoes, he very kindly showed me around, invited me try on a fancy, fur lined coat I couldn’t dream of buying, and then he sat down with me to talk. He spoke out strongly in support of both Mr. Bill Peduto, who we both cheered on in his campaign for Mayor, but also for the public transit roaring right by his door.

“If you move the transit to the outside perimeter of downtown, you’ll hurt local businesses, create worse congestion, block up those outside streets, take away our foot traffic” he said, and too many times under the current administration, “big businesses come from out of town, they make their money and send it somewhere else.” Mr. Rosenstock doesn’t want an exclusive protected habitat for his customers – and he does indeed want to encourage more of the shoppers who can indeed pay the big bucks for his luxury goods.

Such business can indeed bring in much-needed tax revenues for our cash-strapped city, to help pay for the basics we all need – schools, sewers, street repair, bus shelters. Development can be a great thing, Mr. Rosenstock said, but he knows the downtown is the main connective hub for the countywide Port Authority system.  He couldn’t see good reasons for the city offering decision-making power, big perks, and incentives to tenants from outside our city that ultimately did not reinvest in the larger community and downtown business district. “But I’m very hopeful, I really think things are going to be changing for the better with Peduto. I’m going to write him a letter about this.”

I have no doubt that Mr. Rosenstock would have listened with just such respect to Patricia Bates, a resident of the Hill District. She makes it clear that her concerns are not just about her own comfort as a working person: “I spend hours every day commuting by the buses. I’m a personal care attendant in Dormont for an elderly woman who needs me – I get up at 4:30 am and go out a half hour early to make sure to catch an earlier bus than the schedule says, because if that first bus is late for me to make my transfer downtown, my client can’t take of herself. We’ve seen a lot of decisions made from above by developers like the Penguins here on the Hill that have had really bad results. We need to have more of a voice in what happens with our routes.”

And Ms. Bates is a very respectful listener herself. When it comes to the transportation planning decisions that affect us all so much, we need to have Mr. Rosenstock and Ms. Bates, small business people and personal care attendants and developers and hotel workers and drivers and transit planners and social service agencies and theater directors from the Cultural District, all talking together, sharing concerns, experience, and first-hand knowledge of how our communities and lives can better fit together as linked by public transit.

In his campaign, Bill Peduto promised to change the old patterns of Davey Lawrence top-down planning, to fully engage communities in the decisions that would affect them most. Ms. Bates and Mr. Rosenstock and me and so many other Pittsburghers who want to believe in a functional democracy, we will work to be ready to do our part. We will wait to see if campaign promises will roll forward into reality.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit invites all who are affected by or involved in public transit planning to participate in one or more of a series of public meetings to fully consider these issues. We will develop an outline of concerns, priorities and proposals to promote more inclusive and informed public engagement in public transit decisions. These outlines will be presented to media, transit planners and our elected officials in early 2014 as Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald begin the work of bringing City and County together to begin planning new route configurations downtown.

All editorial views expressed at the Pittsburgh Comet are my own, and do not reflect the positions of Pittsburghers for Public Transit.

if by “Bus Free Zone” they meant, “Street Flow Renaissance 2014” …

by Vannevar Bush

My previous post examined the misbegotten public rollout of a backroom plan to remove 48 bus stops from a core downtown area defined by Liberty Avenue, Stanwix Street, Blvd of the Allies, and Grant Street. The plan was publicly declared to be motivated by business concerns about queues of transit users on public sidewalks. Whether it was also motivated by cost savings through service reductions, implicit racial bias, or class bias to keep the streets clear of lower classes – who can say?

Let’s put aside the botched rollout and consider what might have been, even what could have been their best intention? What jewel might the ChangeMakers have hidden within their rhetoric of satisfying downtown merchants?

Suppose when they said, Bus Free Zone, they meant Street Flow Renaissance 2014? Suppose their mantra was, Safe Sustainable Streets but they wrapped it up funny to sell it to the downtown chamber of commerce? Maybe Fitzgerald isn’t crass and PAT hasn’t caved and they’re just very shrewd in the way they’ve packaged a very wise and courageous vision.

The vision would be the next Renaissance for Pittsburgh. Instead of focusing on real estate development, on buildings or riverfronts, this would focus on establishing a modern safe street flow – in other words, on implementing a downtown Complete Streets program.

This would make downtown safer for pedestrians with traffic calming. The downtown core, so aptly identified in the early proposal, would see traffic calming, a 20-mph speed limit, some lane reductions, an HOV-2 policy and restrictions on truck traffic during office hours.

The lane reductions would have two effects; the downtown core would become less attractive to through-traffic, saving downtown streets for downtown traffic, and opening lanes for downtown walking plazas and bikelanes (remember, bikeshare debuts in 2014).

(click to embiggen)

Some streets within the Ren2014 core that are currently two lanes would become a single lane plus a segregated walking plaza, or a single lane plus a segregated bike lane.

Street congestion in the designated core would be also be reduced by enforcing an HOV-2 policy on privately owned vehicles, and restricting large vehicles (other than public transit) between the hours of 0600 and 1800.

StreetFlow Ren2014 would see more mass transit, and a re-designed transit flow. There probably would be a downtown circulator route, somewhat like San Francisco’s cable cars.

Persons departing the Ren2014 Core via mass transit would get transfers for their complete trip to their destination, and their travel home is free – hence, “bus free zone“. Sunday mornings, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the Ren2014 Core streets would be closed to vehicular traffic for a Ciclovia.

If that’s what they meant by their proposal for a smarter downtown street flow, then by cracky I am all the way behind them, and why wouldn’t they do such a thing – why shouldn’t they do such a thing? Make Pittsburgh a livable city, a safe city, a walkable city? If that’s what they mean to come out of this process, I compliment them. Huzzah!

edit to add: spoiler-explainer

If by “Bus Free Zone”, You Mean…

by Vannevar Bush

On October 4th, the Post Gazette’s wonderful Jon Schmitz wrote an article which performed a significant public service by shining light on a previously undisclosed process to change the nature of downtown public transit. The headline answered the what question: “Proposal will make Downtown Pittsburgh core totally bus-free” and the subhead answered the why question: “Overcrowding at bus stops frustrates business owners”.

The article is really worth reading; it provides direct quotes from elected officials, and identifies the reasons for the changes. We note that Allegheny County Executive Fitzgerald talks about removing stops and removing queues from sidewalks in front of businesses; the presumptive next mayor, Peduto, talks about changing routes and implementing a circulator system. The business advocates talk about removing stops. The passenger in a wheelchair says, please don’t remove my stop.

The response was a hue-and-cry. This post will address the article and the proposal as described in the article, along the lines of Noah Sweat‘s 1952 If By Whiskey speech; the next post will address the other side of the coin.

Focusing on the article is appropriate because it’s written by a responsible journalist in a reputable paper; although some have said “there’s more to the plan”, nobody has offered a public view of the plan, and nobody has disputed the veracity or accuracy of the quotes or content; PAT has not released any documents related to the plan; and finally, there clearly is something underway that has been disclosed by the reporter and newspaper. So let it be said: well done, Mr. Schmitz and P-G.

The article, and ACE Fitzgerald’s own words, suggest that the problem is clusters of people standing outside of downtown businesses on the sidewalk. Let’s take that a bit further, let’s extend that by asking: who is waiting outside in the rain for the bus, and who owns the downtown businesses?

Personally, I end up concluding that wealthier business interests don’t like having queues of people of color standing outside their establishments. They’d like them to stand elsewhere, and guess what – moving the bus stops further out would accomplish just that.

And to me, that’s exactly what that article reads like.

So those old people, the folks with a bum leg, the people carrying groceries home, the cleaning lady that’s tired after a long day – they can walk another four blocks in the rain and the snow, because we don’t want them lining up for their bus in front of the jewelry store or the boutique. Mind you, we want them to work, but do they have to stand here? Why can’t they get cars, anyway, like everybody else?

This is racist and classist. Cities everywhere are adding public transit into downtown core areas. Not Pittsburgh – no, Pittsburgh is moving the bus stops out of downtown, because of the lines of people waiting for the bus. Unbelievable.

Fun fact1: The County (PAT, but in this administration the ACE) chooses the bus routes, but the City (Peduto) gets to set the bus stops, so it’s a dance. Fitzgerald can change the route, but if Peduto doesn’t agree then the busses can’t stop.

Fun fact2: How many bus stops does the proposal remove? This is a map of downtown bus stops, the boundary of the bus-free zone as identified in a subsequent Post-Gazette article, and each stop that would be lost is numbered; all 48 of them. That’s right; they intend to remove 48 bus stops.

If this proposal was driven by congestion – if that was the problem we were solving – the answer would be traffic calming, restrictions on trucks and large vehicles between 0600 and 1800, and more (rather than less) public transport. Each bus is 60 cars. We note that the proposal makes no impact on suburban bus stops (and their Anglo riders).

Eight days after the first PG article, a second article reported that the Bus Free Zone project has been underway for eighteen months, and although channels exist for public input none has been sought. Implementation is now on hold until the new mayor is seated in January.

So – if by “bus free zone”, you mean moving queues of tired, poor, black and brown people away from the sidewalks in front of businesses, or away from the blocks where the comfortable walk between their conference rooms and their Starbucks, then this plan is dead in the water, and the people that advised you to do this are idiots.

On the other hand, if by “bus free zone”, you meant something else – more about that in the next post.

Council District 7 Forum in Bloomfield: Deb Gross, Tony Ceoffe, David Powell, Jim Wudarczyk & Tom Fallon

Hashtag Special 2013.

Thanks to @NUNYAMAN

Action starts at 12:35. Introductions start at 8:50.

Unfortunately, Stevie Wonder suffered some collateral damage during introductions.

 1. On potholes, litter and graffiti: Ceoffe would reassign his predecessor’s Council staff position for an “executive assistant” and re-program it as a “community services liaison” dedicated to partnering with community groups, which help organize requests for action. Gross promises to seek more funding to “get back” the Graffiti Busters program, and is demanding new management “at the top of 311” and more predictable, accessible information in planning street paving into the future. “It’s a political process that’s trying to curry favor. It’s not okay.”

2. On the police force: Gross echoes Peduto’s calls for more resource differentiation among police zones with deference to the knowledge held by each Zone Commander; however she “differs with Mayor-Elect Peduto” in that she believes Pittsburgh’s officers should remain City residents. Wudarczyk believes a national search for a new Chief would waste resources and destroy morale, yet/and he is also highly concerned about Pittsburgh’s “three federal investigations” and notes “issues with corruption”. Powell agrees with the move toward unburdening uniformed officers from scheduling police overtime and secondary details, but accuses proposed outside vendor Cover Your Assets of “incompetence or malfeasance” in its own right, and would rather “hire a civilian”. Ceoffe stands up for most officers on the force and its current Acting Chief (though he agrees with the need for a national search for permanent Chief) and he seems to indicate that in order to “incentivize” officers to remain on Pittsburgh’s force and give it their all, he would waive the City residency requirement.


3. The Bureau of Building Inspection, and absentee landlords: Gross kicks things off by pointing out BBI’s lack of a boss, lack of basic technology for staff such as cell phones or email accounts, and lack of willingness to pick up a desk phone. Wudarczyk points out that Pittsburgh is also one of those neglectful absentee landlords. Powell segues into his proposal for a land-value tax as a way to discourage slumlord speculation. Ceoffe desires expanding community landlord training programs by working with the justice system.  Powell thinks BBI is doing “the best job they possibly can”, that its Acting Director “is doing a phenomenal job,” that the computers in the closet were “antiquated” and that a main problem is that magistrates let deadbeat landlords off the hook.

4. Public schools and what, uh, we might do about them: Powell is for market-based solutions to education. Ceoffe promises to attend school board meetings, bring all sorts of attention continually and will seek  “qualified” board members. Gross mentions in regards to candidate qualifications, she is the only candidate who has been “hired in a leadership position,” and seems offended by the magnet school lottery and wants to focus more on the feeder schools, like “successful districts are doing.”

5. Seniors, housing and affordability:

David Powell emphasized his lack of all relevant expertise, yet hazarded that the occasional “tax break or subsidy” based on “good” ideas that are out there would probably be fine. Warns about the cost such investment however versus the cost of City pensions. From pensions Powell segued further into a closing statement about corruption and “lining the pockets of the well-connected”, finally cultimating on a short, quiet promise never to expand the drug war.

Afterwords, forum moderator Andy Sheehan reminded everyone that closing statements are right out.

Tony Ceoffe noted that affordable housing dovetails nicely with his recent work as a specialist at the Housing Authority, witnessing first-hand the effects on seniors of gentrification including transition to high-rises due to long waiting periods. else the care with which we must use Section 8 allocations, rather than doing it just to make the numbers work like at Doughboy Square, and the tragedy of pushing anybody out of their neighborhoods.

Tom Fallon affirms that we want to be able to “age in place,” and that we need senior housing in every community. He impressed on us the collateral roles of community block watches in keeping neighborhoods seniors-friendly. Says goodnight.

Deb Gross says that you need “a plan people can understand” with regards to seniors housing (as well as with anything). Thinks transportation through a seniors-lens is also very important, because seniors tend to have as many responsibilities and as active social lives as anyone. Thinks we need to get together and tell developers what we need. Says that one day retiring to Bloomfield, as had a friend, might be personally ideal.

Jim Wudarczyk thinks before we spend on new programs we should appoint an all-volunteer Budget Commission, trimming the fat, paying our down bills, so we might have money to spend later. Understands that the biggest problem is property “assessments”. Safety is also a concern, as well as public transportation. Criticizes the idea of having Downtown “free of buses”. More closing statements, and “no new taxes”.

EDITORIAL: Yes, it’s true. Ceoffe more often emphasizes the roles that community groups can play as partners, next points of contact, go-betweens with government; whereas Gross more often emphasizes that we can and should expect government to do much better, to plan and to act more strategically.

The Grossie in me wonders what happens if a neighborhood has no community groups, or a dud group, or feuding dramatic groups or a very political community group — as well as how we can hold community groups accountable for the responsibilities and resources we entrust to them.

The Ceoffee in me wonders whether Deb is likely to do a better or worse job than BBI, of picking up the phone when I call.

PERSPECTIVE?:  A look at neighborhood concerns in 2007.

Munich, Amsterdam and Pittsburgh: Differences as seen through Bicycling N’at


Bicycling is popular in both Munich and Amsterdam. In Pittsburgh, we see a newly encouraging number of brave, lonely souls pedaling amongst cars and pedestrians.

In Pittsburgh, the bicyclists wear helmets. And some loose approximation of athletic-styled gear.

Vanishingly few helmets are glimpsed in Munich; in Amsterdam, a helmet would look positively ridiculous. And it being October, most persons on bicycles in our two European experimental-groups are merely “dressed for autumn”.

But this is where obvious similarities between Munich and Amsterdam bike culture end.

Munich at any given location carries perhaps four times as many bicyclists as the ‘Burgh does at its most prime location and on its best day.

Munich also boasts about 4,000 times as many bike lanes as Pittsburgh, or three times more than seem warranted as a practical or political function related to its true number of bikers. And it may be misleading to call them “bike lanes”, they’re really “bike tracks” and they’re omnipresent.

Pedestrians be aware! The Munich bike tracks are usually raised up right even with the sidewalk, yet only painted or labeled in intersections. The trick is, milled asphalt is for bikes whereas tile, brick or stone pavement is for pedestrians. And these bike tracks are not just on “major” streets but on most secondary residential streets as well. Near any significant intersections, the Munich bike lanes acquire burgundy paint and sprout whole new left-turn lanes in most busy intersections.

Bicycling in Munich

Zoom they go! Munich bikers enjoy utilizing their clear right-of-way along the bike paths, and in all sorts of intersections, unless a traffic signal tells them to halt. (A traffic signal with a picture of a bicyclist on it next to a pedestrian.)

Amsterdam biking on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish

I’d say there are actually about four times as many actual bicyclists on Amsterdam streets than on Munich streets, or sixteen times as many as Pittsburgh. It doesn’t take much to have more bicyclists than Pittsburgh, but in Munich they’re still a supporting player on the grand stage of cars and pedestrians.

We can illustrate it like so: in Amsterdam, there are simply piles of bicycles along the side of streets.

“Where did I park my bike?” “Oh jeez, I just threw it in that pile of bicycles, and now that pile is so much bigger! Boy, this reminds me of that Seinfeld episode, only different.”

(Is how I imagine it must go. I’m a Pittsburgh bicyclist. A green one. The riverfront trails are nice…)

As an American might presume from their respective national and civic reputations, there is a lot more order in Munich, Bavaria (clear lanes for all modes of transport, traffic signals, traffic signs, clearly and uniformly market street signs, all individuals moving quickly, less eye contact, a little like New York that way) and a lot more free flow in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (boats are about the only thing with a convincing right of way along the canals; most modes of transport seem equal before the law assuming there is a law, cars seem perpetually outnumbered.)

Speaking of the law, I believe I saw the cops once in Amsterdam. They were wearing blue uniforms trimmed with white, and with geometrically precise hats and badges on their breasts. The possible cops were traveling in tight formation, the four of them on their bikes, two women in front and two men in back.

Munich police I think I also only saw once; they were wearing olive green leather jackets, ferocious boots, and were calmly but curiously addressing what might have been an alleged trespass of some kind at Oktoberfest.

Bicycle Dutch

Getting back to bicycle infrastructure, Amsterdam does possess a lot more of it than we are accustomed to, but mainly just at significant intersections. Red bike lanes will spring into being. Curbs slope at right angles. White lines appear to signify things on the ground. The difference is, Amsterdam bicyclists are more likely to ignore the bike infrastructure, even the ones toting babies.

And Amsterdammers rarely put as much effort into speeding around as the Münchners. Unless, of course, they are on a scooter or a motorcycle, which is a somewhat common way to avail of the civic bicycle infrastructure yet enjoy some of the deference instinctively paid to armored, motorized machines.

One way Amsterdam cyclists cope with their communal, multi-modal organized chaos is to chime. It’s a very soft chime, a demure “zhing zhing“. Just enough for somebody to sense, “Hmm, it’s almost as though there is a bike somewhere in roughly that direction, and he or she seems mildly mindful of a traffic situation.” It’s my belief that every time it looks like they might come within 8 feet of another sentient life form unaware of them, Amsterdam bikers “zhing zhing“. They might even be using echolocation. (“Them bikers is smart, they use radar.”)

And when I say multi-modal, I mean all major modes. Don’t get me started on the light rail differences (European rail goes directions other than South) or the rest of public transit.

In conclusion, we see that “bike friendly” can mean any number of different things, that is, express itself in personalities organic to many cultures. Just like “business friendly” or “technology friendly”.

And we also see that, suffice to say, the next time someone tells you Pittsburgh is a “world class city,” they are talking about natural beauty, history, sports, friendliness, or access to the global stage — all of which are fantastic amenities. But right now it’s impossible for Pittsburgh to measure up in terms of things like population density, high-end shopping options and all manner of transit systems and infrastructure*. For anyone who appreciates either biking or simply getting around without a car, these must be very major disincentives to invest very much time here.

+ UPDATE: Null Space finds a good recent video about cycling in the US by a Dutchman.

(*And perhaps in terms of other forms of “infrastructure”, period. I have a strong impression these cities aren’t still flinging their poop in their waterways. A topic for a future post, and a project in a future pipeline.)