That was the theme of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s otherwise unremarkable 2013 budget address.

“Today, however, we’ve brought the promise back to Pittsburgh,” Mr. Ravenstahl said, crediting financial sacrifices that included paying down $250 million of debt. (P-G, Joe Smydo)

If you don’t believe us, check out the pdf of the budget address: not only is it titled “Bringing the Promise Back to Pittsburgh,” but that phrase appears in boldface on the three occasions in which it appears. It’s important.

Councilman Bill Peduto, who already has formed a mayoral campaign committee, said it was inappropriate for Mr. Ravenstahl, who initially opposed the Act 47 recovery plan as a councilman 2004, to brag now about the financial improvements that oversight helped to engender. (ibid)

Sure, there’s a whole lot to that. Take away the “dark days” of “despair and hopelessness” in 2003-2004 — not to mention all the frustrations with Act 47 and the ICA since then telling us “no” and “lol” — and we certainly wouldn’t have gotten within fifty miles of where we are today, able to use a bit of borrowed money to pay for a modest capital budget.

But at the same time we suddenly have this casino, a new hockey arena, more doings between the stadiums, a more commercially viable Market Square, Fifth and Forbes starting to shuffle into place, and Bridging the Busway as apparently a thing. And everybody and their cousin has a master plan in the works. This all feels like momentum. Add to that the controversial decision to accept hosting the G20, and the brightened city skyline — these all do something to reinforce a palpable feeling of resurgence.

So it’s going to be challenging for anybody to convey, “All the good things you see and like, they have nothing to do with those guys over there.” The buck stops here is a double-edged sword.

But Controller Michael Lamb, another would-be challenger to Mr. Ravenstahl, said the city still isn’t putting enough money into the pension fund to boost its long-term solvency. The fund was 57 percent funded June 30.

Mr. Lamb also criticized Mr. Ravenstahl for touting six years of decreasing crime rates in his address, noting that police Chief Nathan Harper, in the bureau’s annual report, said the reductions “mirror the national trend.” (ibid)

As we of this salon know, the pension fund is not anywhere near 57% funded really. Heaven fore fend anybody ever learn that account’s real liquid state. But more to the point, it wouldn’t even have been funded halfway to that halfway point if it weren’t for a shaky, last-minute model of the “Council-Controller Plan” which Ravenstahl fought for half a year, vetoed, and continued to criticize for another half a year.

But again, however we got here, we are emerging from Act 47. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove — how much worse could things have gotten under different leadership for the past six years, making different decisions?

Good times are good times. Success is success.



All that burns me today as a straight-shooter is “BRINGING THE PROMISE BACK TO PITTSBURGH”. Are we trying to subconsciously link the Pittsburgh Promise — which is not increasing enrollment, is not drawing new residents to the city, is certainly not doing any favors for academic achievement, and which is beyond question actively sucking community resources and energies away from that which might more directly benefit academic achievement — are we on this date trying to link the Pittsburgh Promise to Pittsburgh’s resurgence?

To its fiscal recovery? Its development boomlet? Its low unemployment, its famous livability? Don’t be coy. Are we trying to position the Promise (along with the Mayor who seized on it like flotsam in the ocean and rode it to the shores of credibility) to take credit for what has been happening in Pittsburgh among Pittsburgh residents and Pittsburgh businesses for the last decade and more?

Well, it’s genius. A familiar bouquet of genius. That’s what it is.

So are the tiny grants in key neighborhoods, utterly segregated from Council.

So is the Downtown task force to keep the chamber-of-commerce busy and optimistic.

So are a hundred other things that come with epic tag lines, standard — but they will all be repeated, frequently and loudly, like a chorus of jackhammers.

“Oh, you say I’m too laissez faire? Are you calling me a Republican!? We invented the Alternative Homecoming! Get out of here with that weak sauce!”

(By the way, a hearty kudos to the city’s Youth Council for hitting that one out of the park. Huzzah! Huzzah! And way to make the Propel Pittsburgh commission look like a pile of ruin. The last time that thing was in the news was because Sonni Abatta was on it, and she’s been gone for three years.)


Bottom line: they’re much better at this than you. And it’s getting hard to justify the proposition that they’re failures at running a city. With the loud volume, the repetition and all the trump cards, it’s hard to remember why we ever thought they were.

An ephemeral idea has been floating around that the golden message for an effective challenger is to portray the replacement of a political administration as the final capstone of Pittsburgh’s renaissance. We’ve come a long way, that story goes: we’ve cleaned our air, we’ve cleaned our rivers, we’ve transformed our economy and transformed our river fronts. Now all that’s left is to transform our dirty politics.

But that’s a huge application to download, and there’s only so much bandwidth.


You’ve heard of the concept by now, is this a “change election” or is this a “choice election”. Right? Well, let me make it simple for you. If this is any kind of standard election, Ravenstahl wins.

Period. Full stop. Any kind of conventional election, Ravenstahl wins.

If however this is a heist — if this plays out more like a big con, Oceans 35, Oceans 40 tops — well then sure. Absolutely. Sky’s the limit. But you’d better get to work.


  1. Anonymous


    Here's an excerpt from the Pittsburgh Gazette of 1811 which might be of some slight relevance to the title and focus of this blog:

    – a fiery Comet has for many months appeared in continual view . – – Tornadoes have ravaged the continent from Maine to Georgia. – – The Ocean has been the subject of Volcanic terror; and new Islands have arisen therefrom. The great scale upon which Nature is operating should be a solemn admonition to men, (or those ANIMALS in the shape of men) to abandon the pitiful, groveling, schemes of venality and corruption in the prosecution of which they are so ardently engaged. – – An HONEST heart, alone, can view those great events with composure. [The?] political swindler the assassin of REPUTATION, must feel severely, the visitation of conscience, at such momentous periods when Nature appears, in spasmodic fury, no longer tolerate the moral turpitude of man.

    Pittsburgh Gazette, 27 Dec. 1811, p. 3, available at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/1811.

  2. Anonymous

    I and several other public transit advocates and organizers, from pro-busers to pro-bikers, from pro-Bizness to pro-The-Little-People, recently attended the MOVEPGH “Prioritization” workshops. The four sessions had been well-publicized by the Mayor's office in a range of media and I had dutifully tweeted out their announcements and posted them to our Facebook pages and our events calendar.

    At the session, we were told that our own feedback and assessment of the projects they'd culled through was important to the next stages of the process – final selection and implementation. But the report and assessments of the multitude of proposed projects for rail, bus, bike trails,road/bridge/sidewalk improvements – were represented by many pages of tiny fine print that allowed no digestion of the data dump. And only a few copies of each report were provided – we needed to stand in line to get our hands on the reports at all.

    Those of us stubborn enough to do so could receive no explanation of how evaluation criteria had been applied. When I and others asked if we might procure copies or access the reports online so that we might provide real feedback that might be meaningfully relevant to the process at the remaining three MOVEPGH sessions, we were told it would be quite some time before any such detailed information would be accessible.

    By which time, it seemed to several of us, the decisions would have been made without our input.

    I and several other advocates had come to the meeting truly ready to believe the best of MOVEPGH efforts. But, in terms of observing evidence of interest or respect for what nonprofit, advocacy and business organizations might have been able to contribute from complementary angles of interests, expertise, or experience, well, at least the meeting I attended might be best described as “All Promise.”

    Yes, just one meeting, yes, just one data point on a larger scatter graph that demonstrates significant patterns – patterns of fanfare and lack of substantive follow-through that make a real difference to Pittsburgh.

  3. Anonymous

    You nailed it. Re “The Pittsburgh Promise” all we've seen as citizens is a moving target of what determines “success” and a lot of anecdotal “evidence.” What we need is a real audit – fiscal and otherwise – of “The Promise.” How about it Michael Lamb and/or Chelsa Wagner? In the meantime, we've lost roughly 1,000 PPS students a year for 10 years. We used to send our kids to PPS because they had great programs. Now people on the street are referring to “The Promise” as “The Bribe.”

  4. Anonymous

    My comment regarding MOVEPGH is in no way criticizing the advertised intent of the project – I'm all for well-founded planning based on real data and the real needs of our various communities, which means real engagement and feedback from stakeholders.

  5. Anonymous

    Right on! Big government knows what they REALLY want to do. Screw up transportation and pretend like they WANT your input! And then use small font! What a joke! Fight the power! What do we want? Larger font! When do we want it? You know…

  6. Bram Reichbaum

    Anon 9:35/ 2:33 and Anon 1:50 – Well I agree with the former among you; full disclosure of the methodology is important (when anyone IS interested to learn it). You can always get it using a FOIA request, but here it seems like Planning should be more than happy to furnish you with the major records you seek after a reasonable interval to process the request.

    In fact I'd like to see similar background rationale behind the new neighborhood development grants, in an ideal world if I had the time.

    Anon 10:09 – If you're going to be talking like that, you need to show or suggest how they're “screwing up” transportation. I wouldn't imagine they're automatically making things worse just by taking a serious stab.

  7. Anonymous

    Okay, gonna call myself the Bus-Lady for now, although I may occasionally appear as Khal Drogo when the fit takes me.

    @Anon 10:09

    I see how my comments can really be misread – I want to make very clear that I'm not blaming the few men and women who were a given a mighty heap of data to sort through, assess, and present in digestible form. I don't expect that small staff to have served the public like Big Government can, because to do so they would have needed to grow several extra hands and heads. Or Psyche would have needed to lend them her armies of ants to sift the plethora of projects and metrics of the criteria used to grade them. I don't expect the leaders of that meeting to take the buck.

    I say follow the money trail – or the lack thereof. It's easy to promise wonders and set the foot soldiers up to fail.

    So quoth Khal Drogo, who went to war without armor.

    (Bus-lady wanted to abscond with the multi-paged reports they teased us with. “Not ready for wider public consumption,” said the staff member, barely holding on by the staple as Bus-Lady tugged on the other corner.)

    Well,that staff member was right. All they got was a micro-grant to bring forth a mountain that no one would be able to fit in their mouths.

    Where's the buck when you need it? Where did those needed bucks stop instead?$?$

  8. Bram Reichbaum

    So you're alleging MOVEPGH was critically underfunded and set up to fail.

    Offhand, I wouldn't be shocked if it was underfunded. But upon discovering that I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to big monies going maliciously elsewhere. Everything is underfunded. Right? And these pesky things like police and emergency vehicles, building demolitions and pensions keep line-jumping. (Do you know HOW movepgh was funded? City / URA / outside grant?)

  9. Anonymous

    Well, no, I don't think the project was intended to fail. It's just that it's so easy to put resources into trumpeting promises and garnering showy credit before real investments of time/effort/cash/staff time. And so easy to let others lower down the chain of command take the heat from bus-ladies.

    Nor do I think the missing MOVEPGH dollars were nefariously spent – I should have made far more clear that I was referring to all those promised bucks from UPMC that somehow stayed stopped in their own mile-deep pockets. As you have helped inform us in other Comet posts, if the non-profit ponied up the dollars proportionate to their benefit of city budget there would have been far more of a pot for division among all those crucial city needs and benefits you listed above.

    If Promises were ponies…

    …bus ladies would ride.

  10. Anonymous

    Showy credit and big political maneuvering in transportation planning- very clever, Transportation-Stahl. And all because UPMC didn't live up to their commitment. Meanwhile, those lower on chain take heat. Now we get it. Nice job, bus lady. Would have never spotted the interlocking schemes and conspiracies without you.

  11. Anonymous

    Bus lady replies to @Anonymous 6:29 AM

    Nope, no conspiracy theories. Instead, based on many conversations and reports across a variety of media and community planning and advocacy fields (not just public transit) I would report widespread observations of neglect or of “micro” follow-through after all the Press Conferences and Promises, even as deep pocketed Penguins and non-profits such as UMPC are given lion's share of 'da breaks (whether literal tax breaks or massive parking profits on the Hill.)

    Many of us have important choices as we educate the public and organize for the upcoming primaries – I think we need to pay careful attention to the actualities of how the candidates have delivered in their respective roles, how seriously they take their responsibilities as demonstrated by their actions, not their pronouncements. And we need to pay attention to the people who have been affected by such delivery.

    Yes, elementary.
    Period. Full stop.

  12. Bram Reichbaum

    Heinz and the state DCED are the funders… that's right, Heinz poached Rob Stephany from the URA when it wanted to get into city planning. And this is part of the city's “Comprehensive Plan.”

  13. Anonymous

    Then bus lady was right all along. Big Ketchup+John Kerry+Gov Rendell+Gov Corbett+URA-Rob StephanyxSMALL font=Transportation-Stahl's empty promises. Criss-cross!

  14. Bram Reichbaum

    Anon 12:12 – Don't forget Pat Ford. He was the first to argue that it was nauseating we as a city don't have a comprehensive plan. Everything you describe is outlined in the copious notes he keeps in his underground bunker.

    What we really require here is an expert. [Deep long sigh.]


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