Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Black History Month - First Black Pilot and Pittsburgh

More transit musings are coalescing in my head, but this has gotten too emotional. My own fault I suppose. That and I have heard from many with insightful comments that are not part of the public debate. I will try and pull some of that together in a few days. I think this debate will not be over by then.

Here are some contributions for Black History Month. I don't see this mentioned elsewhere, but there is an exhibition of historical photos from the Pittsburgh Courier at the Renaissance Hotel downtown.

Also I see little written about the unheralded Charles Wesley Peters who grew up in Pittsburgh and who is reported to have been the first black to pilot a heavier-than-air craft in 1911. He is also said to be the first African American to actually build an airplane... his skills practiced by making man-carrying gliders he tested himself flying off of Herron Hill. When I was a kid I remember my neighbor Joe strapping plywood to his bike somehow and flying down Edmond street in some hope of taking off before hitting Juniper St. I don't recall it working, but Peters must have had more success.

Something else that is mostly lost in the history. Several Pittsburghers would become Tuskegee airmen in World War II, but the very first African American combat ace could have been James Lincoln Holt Peck of Sewickly who supposedly joined the Spanish government in the Spanish Civil War as a pursuit pilot and ended that conflict with 5 kills. He would be named an ace by the American Aces Society though there seems to be some debate over the veracity of his aviation experiences in Spain.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

confusing counterarguments

We'll I seem to have hit a nerve. Given some of the mail I have received I feel like I shot someone's cat. People seem to love Curitiba woman and her prescription to solve all of our public transit funding problems here in the burgh. Don't you think I wish it were true?

Let's just clear up a few things. It is a perfectly legitimate view to think there is some new route map that would make sense for PAT to use. Whether it would make sense to blow up 50 or 100 years of commuting patterns to implement is a question worth posing but that is another matter. Realize that generations of people have at this point voted with their feet to live on of off those bus routes. But what I have discovered is people do not understand what the Sunday cartoon was actually advocating, whether the authors realized it or not.

Here are some facts. The innovation of the Curitiba system at its core is a Bus Rapid Transit system. People who argue that a Curitiba system should be implemented are almost always making an argument about why subways and other Light Rail Transit (LRT) type systems should NOT be built. So everyone who says something like "the system works in DC (or fill in your region of choice with a subway)" are contradicting themselves. If you think a subway/LRT system is needed then you would typically be arguing against the implementation a Bus Rapid Transit (or Curitiba) system. Nothing I said implies that a DC-like system would not induce many more people to ride public transit.... but that is NOT what is being put forth in that Sunday cartoon by referencing the Curitiba system.

Here is the irony. If you were to say OK, Ms. Curitiba is great, let's implement it here. What would you do? You would build a system of bus only roadways, utilize transit only tunnels and bridges where appropriate and in an American version probably build park and ride lots dedicated specifically for the busways. What would this look like? It would be identical to the East and West Busways, the Wabash Tunnel and NSC and the underutilized PAT parking lots. So many of the things that are considered by many to be the cause of our problems are now suddenly the solution because they appear in a cartoon?

Think this is wrong. I have plenty of esoteric academic references but here is a quote in the Seattle Post Intelligencer talks about the Curitiba system and then says in the next sentence:
"The first advanced U.S. bus rapid transit system was developed in Pittsburgh and operates on dedicated bus ways completely separated from other traffic"
Here is a quote from San Diego:

"Conceived more than 30 years ago in transit-dependent Curitiba, Brazil, which is southwest of São Paulo, bus rapid transit still is something of a novelty in the United States. The service is available in Pittsburgh and Orlando, Fla., among other areas, and is coming to Boston, Cleveland and Eugene, Ore" (emphasis added)
The service is available in Pittsburgh??? Sensing a pattern? The Curitiba system is not about putting in some glass tubes to ease ingress and egress from buses....a nice accessory I am sure, but anyone want to predict what they would look like in short order if put into place here. It's about the busways.

Which leads to this unspoken requirement of putting in (or expanding technically) a Curitiba-like system in Pittsburgh: it would be expensive. It means building more busways or expanding ones we have. Personally I think that makes sense but nobody should think it would be cheap no matter how you do it. What did the West Busway cost?

My problem with the cartoon is that it leads people to think there is some simple and inexpensive solution to PAT's financial problems and that just isn't the case. Let's make a bold prediction that even is all the proposed cuts are put in place and nothing else happens, PAT will be in a similar situation in short order.. maybe a couple years from now.. but maybe not even that long. At the very least the solution proposed in the cartoon is something that a) we have already tried to implement here more than most other American cities and b) is expensive to implement more fully.

Maybe someone should try and solve the City's fiscal miasma with a cartoon. I would like to see that.


Superbowl stats.... sort of

If I had time I would do a Pittsburgh version of this.. but at the nexus of Superbowl hype and wonk nation is this:

Census Bureau's Facts for Features on Superbowl XLI


Monday, January 29, 2007

false choices and McAnalysis

Before I get into this I have to say I really like the PG's new feature "The Next Page" and as a disclaimer its progenitor John Allison has been more than fair to me in my oped'ishness over the years in his former vocation as the oped editor. but Sunday's edition with the cartoon edition of "how to save public transit" just about drove me bonkers. The idea that you can draw some cartoon and somehow address some serious issues says more about the dumbing down of public discourse than it does about public transit. What really drove me over the edge was this idea that we could just adopt this Brazilian strategy to somehow save public transit here. Coincidentally I was actually at a conference just a couple months ago with several urban scholars from San Paulo and the topic of Brazilian public transit came up. Their stark message, they themselves NEVER take public transit, it just does not work for them nor for most middle class commuters in Brazil. Buses there are amazingly crowded, unairconditioned, have minimal accessibility to the disabled, do not have extensive coverage in middle class areas and transit usage has had declining market share there. More and more Brazilians are being forced to use informal transit systems(think group jitneys). Most of the the system discussed is only feasible because in Brazil your average bus driver, let alone construction worker or mechanic, is making the equivalent of $1-2 per hour, a little fact the cartoon left out. So this idea that you can draw a funky cartoon and lead people into some false conclusion about how to address our problems here does not even rise to the level of McAnalysis. It confuses and confounds more than anything, but sure is fun to read. 1

If you accept the premise out there that there is some atypical inefficiency at PAT then you have lost the argument to save public transit even before you begin. Is public transit in the US inefficient. YES. Is PAT some poster child for that inefficiency as some want to believe? Lets look at that some. The most damning fact is that PAT collects only 22% of its revenue at the farebox, compared to 55% from the state and 10% from other local sources. Bad for sure but atypical? The average collection at the farebox for the top 50 transit systems is only 37%. So PAT may not be doing so well, but nobody should think most other systems are doing that much better. It is also crucial to account for the fact that Allegheny County is an old county. The elderly in the county get mostly free transportation with state lottery revenue coming in to offset the cost of all that free ridership. The state pays the full zone 1 base fare for each elderly rider-trip. That in itself adds up to ~$25mil per year. That pushes down the farebox percentage and pushes up the state contribution. I bet if you just adjust for the disproportionate elderly ridership in Allegheny County you get a pattern of farebox collections much closer to the average for the US.

Let's also address the idea propounded that implementing some hub and spoke public transit routing in Pittsburgh will address the problems at PAT. It's an idea worth discussing and from a simple analysis of area-covered per route-mile type of perspective, I am sure the hub and spoke system makes a lot of sense. Yet the cartoon says it would be 'fun' for people to take three bus trips (i.e. two transfers) in the place of one for most trips. I myself know lots of people who are marginal bus riders in that they sometimes drive to town and sometimes do not. The cost difference (including both gas and parking) vs. convenience tradeoff for them is near breakeven. If those people have to take 3 seperate buses in place of one to get to work everyday, they will clearly be driving themselves in the future. Yes, that may not seem to makes sense to many... in the same way that others routinely drive alone in a 2 ton SUV's across town does not seem to make sense, but they do it.. The policy question is how to give them incentives to do something else. Any effort that makes public transit less convenient to average middle class commuters will continue to push public transit into being viewed as an adjunct to the welfare system, which will cause public support to evaporate and destroy it in long run.

One urban transit advocate is a little more blunt saying: "Curitiba, to some extent, is serving as a fantasy-world decoy to divert some planners and decisionmakers from more implementable, workable, and effective transit solutions". A somewhat more even handed perspective is here.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Transit disconnect

I said earlier that I feel the Port Authority hearings on their proposed route cuts border on meaningless. The chance to vent at the PAT board, which by the way is a voluntary board appointed locally, does not do much to sway or even prompt a debate in Harrisburg.

PAT's CEO Steve Bland knows this full well I am pretty sure. If not he has learned it the hard way of late. On Friday he was on record as saying he felt stranded in the political wilderness. There is a real question there about why there has been little public debate among elected officials to match the emotional debate the public is having over the future of PAT. The problem is that the answer is rather obvious.

Now these are my own calculations, completely unofficial and you will not find them elsewhere. But I went through and figured out which state legislative districts represented public transit commuters. While the results should have been obvious it even more extreme than you may think and explains a lot. Here are some factoids of note about the 203 state legislative districts:

  1. 112 (or 55%) have commuters where less than 1% use public transit. I am NOT missing a zero in there. One point zero percent or less.. typically much less.
  2. 157 (77%) represent districts where less than 5% of commuters use public transit of any kind.
  3. 172 (85%) represent districts where less than 10% of all commuters use public transit.

Here is my list of the top twenty districts ranked by the prevalence of commuting by public transit. I was going to do the bottom 20 as well, but it just didn't make sense to rank. The bottom twenty all have percentages 0f 0.1% or less. So here is my unofficial calculation of the unofficial transit caucus in Harrisburg. If these are not the people fighting for public transit, don't expect any of the other 183 legislators to care much more:

House      County   Incumbent    Public Transit
District Percentage
 190   Philadelphia Blackwell    33.5%
186 Philadelphia James 33.1%
197 Philadelphia Williams 31.5%
195 Philadelphia Oliver 31.4%
24 Allegheny Preston 28.9%
191 Philadelphia Waters 27.7%
181 Philadelphia Thomas 26.9%
19 Allegheny Wheatley 26.6%
201 Philadelphia Myers 25.2%
188 Philadelphia Roebuck 24.5%
180 Philadelphia Cruz 23.7%
179 Philadelphia Payton 22.%9
192 Philadelphia Bishop 22.6%
198 Philadelphia Youngblood 19.5%
23 Allegheny Frankel 18.3%
184 Philadelphia Keller 17.9%
203 Philadelphia Evans 16.8%
185 Philadelphia Donatucci 15.4%
36 Allegheny Readshaw 15.3%
21 Allegheny Bennington 15.2%

and it drops off pretty quickly after that. 'nuff said.



Friday, January 26, 2007

Party Line Voting II

Just some maps.. not directly relevant to the primary coming up but still important.

Percentage of Ballots Cast as Straight Democratic Party Votes - November 2006 General Election - Allegheny CountyPercentage of Ballots Cast as Straight Republican Party Votes - November 2006 General Election - Allegheny County



Thursday, January 25, 2007

If the Penguins stay... how long?

So the Governor says talks with the Penguins ownership are going well.. at the same time Mario is visiting not just KC but Houston as well. Whatever the case is, there is a question of what the deal with be with the Penguins will be if they do stay. This is all happening so fast in a sense that you wonder how the final contract will be written. So just for comparison I was able to obtain from contract maven Tim Murray (aka one of the Messrs Carbolic Smoke Blog) the contract between the Sports and Exhibition Authority and the Pirates leasing PNC Park. For those so inclined it is interesting reading even for the non-lawyers among us. On page 37 (or page 42 per the PDF numbering) is the kicker where the Pirates agree not to relocate for 29.5 years. I am told its a pretty tight deal with little wiggle room for the Pirates to get out of the deal. Will there be a similar clause in the yet to be signed deal with the Penguins? Just asking.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Happy Anniversary City Wage Tax

An anniversary worth noting. Tomorrow, January 25th, marks the anniversary of Pittsburgh City Council passing the city's first wage tax on residents in 1954. The wage tax had been pushed by the powers that be for years as a mechanism to keep the tax burden on local industry from increasing.1 That may have worked I suppose, but the consequences on residents are being felt more every year. Given how small the city of Pittsburgh is, even for those who prefer city living it is very easy to still live outside the city proper and escape some or all of the 3% combined city and school district income tax you get hit with just for living in City. I am sure there are people actually living in the city who maintain some other address outside of the city limits just to escape the tax.

The only study I know of that looked specifically why people moved out of the city and into the suburbs is this report: The Impact of the Earned Income Tax on Locational Decisions and the City of Pittsburgh. put out by the City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning. April 1987. Actually I have it scanned in pieces, here is part 2, and part 3. It's twenty years old now, but I can't imagine the basic results being much different these days. Basically it documents the obvious and says it is indeed taxes that is the number one reason people move out of the city yet stay in the region.

see Research: An Instrument of Political Power. by Edward F. Cooke. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 1. (Mar., 1961), pp. 69-87.



Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Transit problems elsewhere

Lest anyone think our transit turmoil is unique. Here is an article from yesterday about the crises in the Chicago Mass Transit Authority. While a lot of that seems to be about their rail infrastructure which may not apply here directly. The fundamental issue is much the same: where will the $ come from to keep the system running? Consider that Chicago has these problems despite soaring ridership, the same can't be said for ridership locally. Nonetheless their numbers are staggering and put PAT's deficits, operational or capital, to shame.


Otis White's Seven Big Lessons for Local Government

We will have to revisit the Port Authority issues, but for the moment it is worth noting that Otis White is ending an almost 5 year run publishing his daily Urban Notebook column on It's quite a body of work. For those who have not read all of that he has graciously summarized his thoughts in his final posting which is worth a thorough read. See his Seven Lessons for Local Government

Lesson 1: Innovate, save money, throw the bums out and use good sense.
Lesson 2: Protect the order of public spaces.
Lesson 3: Get dense: It's how you make residents and housing affordable.
Lesson 4: Save the property tax.
Lesson 5: Tie transportation to land use.
Lesson 6: Don't act helpless: why local leadership is important.
Lesson 7: Have fun: Cities are funny, funny places.



Monday, January 22, 2007

Permanent Bus Stops

I should add a disclaimer before I comment on public transit. I have mentioned before that my mother tells me my second spoken word was 'bus' most likely trying to hail a 54C long ago. Most everyone should know by now that the Port Authority is on the verge of implementing a fairly drastic cut in public transit across Allegheny County. This is my composite of how these proposed cuts will impact across the county:
This map may have strained my mapmaking capability to its limits. While I admit it is not the clearest illustration ever, it is at least as helfpul at summarzing the proposed changes as the maps PAT put out trying to explain the difference between their existing routes and the route map after proposed cuts for regular weekday service. The red lines are routes or route segments that still exist in the proposed PAT plan. Anywhere where you see green are routes or route segments that exist now, but will not exist in the future according to the plan PAT has put out there. and yes, for the map-purists, I dont think I got the county map overlay just right because I couldn't quite figure out what projection the PAT maps were using... but it's pretty close. One way or the other you get the picture.

If you think this is important, there are a series of public hearings scheduled on the proposed cuts. Here is the Public Hearing Schedule. The first two are actually TODAY:

Monday, January 22, 2007
10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Pittsburgh Hilton Hotel
600 Commonwealth Place,
4:00 - 8:00 p.m.
University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall
4227 Fifth Avenue,

What's my take on the cuts? In a sense, the cuts come from areas where public transit is least utilized. That would seem to make sense. If you live in the city, or near a T stop you are likely not going to be hurt by this too much, at least not for regular weekday service. BUT, and this is a big but, the danger to this type of minimalist strategy toward public transit is how it positions public transit in the future. If public transit only provides useful service for a concentrated urban core and some other lower income areas, it is pretty likely that popular support for public transit will erode further in the future. If you lose the middle ground, you will eventually lose all support for public funding. So this is clearly a short term strategy. What makes sense now will come back to haunt you in the future.. The ironic thing is that I bet public transit does a better job of supporting itself financially in lower income areas than it does in middle class or more affluent areas in the region. The structural inefficiency in the system is likely to come from providing service to areas with the lowest incidence of public transit usage... areas which just happen to be more affulent.

The problem is that PAT does not have much choice at the moment. These public hearings are in many ways just for show and amount mostly to preaching to the choir. PAT does not want to see these cuts any more than than do public transit riders. If there is an unavoidable structural deficit that needs public money, then this becomes an issue for the powers that be in DC, Harrisburg and to a lesser degree locally. Yet to this day I have only ever seen one legislator of any ilk actually on a bus legitimately using it for transportation and not just for show. Public transit makes for a hard sell, even among those inclined to support it.



Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Path to PNC Park

I will be the last to predict how the whole Penguins/Arena issue will resolve itself in the end. But just in case anyone thinks the path that ended up with the Pirates remaining in town and PNC Park being built was straightforward, a concise breakdown of that convoluted path was put together by the PG in this timeline. and I say that timeline actually starts about 3 decades after they first started to think about building a baseball stadium in town as this image will attest (the sports vision of the future, circa 1963).



Friday, January 19, 2007

analytical journalism: legislators and cars

I have to admit I am a little unclear the news value of this but it's interesting nonetheless. The Philly Inquirer has put together this graphic of the car leases the incoming, and supposedly reform-minded, state legislators are getting from the state.

and nothing to do with the cars per se.. I did a double take when I saw Eugene Depasquale's name there since I am pretty sure Eugene "Jeep" Depasquale is long since retired. I seem to have missed this story about how this is actually the son of former Pittsburgh City Councilman Eugene "Jeep" Depasquale who elected to a state rep seat in York County.



For those who don't get it in the mail, the next issue of the Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly is out.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Redlining Redux

Maybe this would have been a better post for MLK day. I was reading the October 2006 issue of the Milken Institute Review. There is an article in there (page 90) oddly titled Entrepreneurship by Barth, Yago and Zeidman which covers a hodgepodge of issues, but has a table of how MSA's compare in terms of something they call Loan Bias defined as "one minus the percentage of loans going to low income borrowers divided by the percentage of the population with low income". By my thinking that means low numbers are good in that it means low income borrowers are getting a proportional number of loans, and high numbers are bad. I really only noticed because Pittsburgh ranks pretty bad. Their numbers in order are:

Tampa 0.96
San Diego 0.92
Pittsburgh 0.92
Seattle 0.89
Atlanta 0.86
Orlando 0.81
Dallas 0.80
Riverside/SB 0.80
Minneapolis 0.79
Orange Co,CA 0.79
Kansas City 0.79
St. Louis 0.76
Sacramento 0.73
San Jose 0.65
Miama 0.64
Fort Lauderdale 0.63
Los Angeles 0.58
Phoenix 0.53
Oakland 0.52
San Francisco 0.41


Monday, January 15, 2007

For MLK Day:

It remains truly amazing to this day how sharp the difference is between areas that are essentially all Black or all White. There are few neighborhoods within the city, let alone the county, that are diverse in any any meaningful sense.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

moving moving moving

Worth a look is this report put out regularly by United Van Lines on moving patterns across the country. Also available is their detailed data by state.

This is a useful bit of information, but best to realize it's not the entire picture. Not everyone gets captured by moving companies when it comes to migration patterns across the country. People who move themselves, move from overseas and other migrations are often not captured by this type of data. For example, I am not sure you want to put to much emphasis in one conclusion from this data that everyone is fleeing Florida.

One big factor is that youth migration is not really captured well. Young people often dont have that much to move and move themselves. Also, Pennsylvania is consistently the largest net attractors of students matriculating into college and that plays a big role in population movements across the country as well. Thus it is interesting to compare this data to census migration estimates which shows Pennsylvania near breakeven when it comes to migration within the US.


Friday, January 12, 2007

biggest news in the world

Some may not know I am far away from my office these days. but I wonder if people realize that the biggest news story in the world is the announcement that David Beckham is going to be playing soccer for the LA Galaxy.

Yes, for those who may not realize it, there is indeed major league soccer in the US.

Just to be clear, I didnt say it's the biggest sports story in the world... for days it has been the single biggest news story period. Wars, disasters, famines.... it does not matter. Above the fold, top of the broadcast type of news on every media outlet for days on end. It really is quite amazing.

Does this mean we will be able to catch him playing against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Unfortunately Pele quit his post-career career in the US before the Pittsburgh Spirit came into existance.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

party line votes

Note the story about Dave Schuilenburg announcing his intention to run for City Council District #1 again. Now I don't know much about Dave at all. Honestly, if I were a District 1 voter I would probably be less inclined to vote for him now that he has actually become a US citizen. Remember, he was a Canadian citizen who was allowed to run for city council despite the fact that he could not actually vote himself. Just the sheer novelty of having a non-citizen running for City Council would have earned him my vote. According to the story he has recently become a citizen so the novelty factor is gone.

That piece may have been a bit too kind. It duly reports that Dave said his vote was "depressed by straight-ticket voting". The problem is that it looks like he came in last out of 6 candidates in that race. Dead last. Seems to me a little unreasonable that he was the one who took the hit for straight party line voting. Would the people inclined to pull the Democratic lever (er.. I guess I mean push the button) really be the ones most likely to switch their vote to the the candidate who came in last.
But the issue of party line voting raises an interesting question. That particular race was a special election held at the same time as the general election. Were the machines programmed such that the same party line option applied to both the general elections that day and the special election? Seems a little like apples and oranges to me if that were true, but I don't really know it worked. How much could party line voting have affected the results in that race? In District 1 3,085 votes, or 32% of the 9,620 total ballots cast were straight Democratic Party votes. Going back to the Harris victory. She blew away all other candidates with 4,333, or 47% of the vote. Since she was the nominated Democrat in the election, she would have received all those straight party votes. So literally 71% (3,085 of 4,333) of her votes came from straight party line voting. That is a pretty amazing number in itself. Does any of that imply the results would have been different if there were not straight line party voting for the special election? Probably not. People who vote straight party tickets are the ones most likely to vote for an endorsed Democratic candidate almost by definition. Certainly there is no reason to think the nominated Democrat would not get at least a proportional number of votes from those who would otherwise have voted a straight Democratic ticket. At the same time, the party line votes must have played into how lopsided the final results were. It will be interesting to compare the primary results coming up with the special election results from November.

OK. I do feel bad for picking on the guy. More power to him for choosing to become a citizen. Anyone who has ever been to a citizenship ceremony will attest that it is a very moving event.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

research tidbit for the day

If there is a discussion of the Penguins leaving town... I am unaware of any serious study of their economic impact. But a starting point for looking at the economic impact of a sports franchise in the region could be this study by my predecessor which looked at the economic impact of the Pirates:

Rushen, Steven: Economic Impact of the Pirates on the Pittsburgh Region, Public Administration Quarterly, Fall 1999, Vol. 23, Issue 3, p354-367

update: Mike Madison has put me to shame. He quickly pointed out at least one paper I was unaware of looking specifically at the economic impact of the Penguins. See his post on Pittsblog which references Bruce K. Johnson (Centre College), Peter A. Groothuis (Westminster College), John C. Whitehead (East Carolina University), The Value of Public Goods Generated by a Major League Sports Team: The CVM Approach, Journal of Sports Economics, Vol. 2, No. 1, 6-21 (2001).


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

data, data and more data

There is a goal out there to create the ultimate online data universe, where all datasets in the world can ‘talk’ to each other. It's a worthwhile goal, yet it is important to note that it is difficult in ways that are not necessarily technical. There is this myth out there that data is a commodity. Yet all data is not created equal. Even identical data from different sources can differ in accuracy, veracity, context and explanation. That is important to keep in mind when you see projects that attempt to create this semi-mythical (for now) data nexus.

That all came to mind because I was playing with one site attempting to create such a place:, which bills itself as the ‘youtube for data’. It’s a good attempt but clearly has a long way to go. To give it a test I have put up a bit of data on unemployment rate in Pittsburgh.

With much more limited goals you may want to look at some of the links I put on the right hand of this web page with some projects going on that attempt to do some similar things for Pittsburgh specific data. These include the Either the GIS version or a tabular data versions. Also the Pittsburgh Indicators Project deals with many of the same issues that this swivel project clearly is grappling with.


Monday, January 08, 2007

minor self promotion

If you are north of the city and really have nothing better to do on the morning of 18th, you can come hear me speak at NexTier Bank... also more info here.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Slim Pickens Revenge (or What I would blog about if I were Tom Clancy)

Sort of a local story. Not getting as much attention as all the other stirring in DC is that our neighbor to the south, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is now the President Pro-Tem of the US Senate.. a job that normally goes to the most senior senator in the majority. Who cares? If nothing else he is now 3 heartbeats away from the presidency. What about heartbeat #4?

ok.. unless you are really bored you ought to stop reading now.

If you think you know your civics really well, do you really understand the presidential line of succession? A little snippit of my past is that my career started as a defense analyst. In college I had courses focused on things like nuclear counterforce targeting and central front warplaning. No joke. It is a good thing that the end of the cold war made both of those skill sets obsolete overnight, but it does keep many things in perspective. An occasional topic that would come up is a exactly how the Presidential chain of succession worked (you have to know who gets to push the button). I actually once had a whole class focused on what happens in some of the Tom Clancy like scenarios where the Presidential chain of command gets wiped out. Even the best civics classes do not explain the real screwey possibilities out there.

What am I talking about? Most everyone knows the VP takes over when the Presidency is vacant. Actually the presidency is never vacant, the VP becomes President instantaneously. The swearing in of the Vice President they do is completely pro forma. Most also know that if the VP is not around you go looking for the Speaker of the House and then the President Pro Tem of the Senate, assuming they were born in the US and old enough to be president that is, otherwise they get skipped over theoretically. For years that would have meant nonagenarian Strom could have become president, a scary thought in itself. After that the cabinet secretaries in rank order of seniority based on when the department was created. (again dependent on the persons holding those positions being eligible by nativity and age) So the Secretary of State is first all the way down to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. For decades the Postmaster General was in that list as well. I think they still need some new law to put the Secretary of Homeland Security in that list although I think by default that person is there automatically at the end becasue the department was created last. There have been some attmepts in recent years to rejigger the order so the Homeland Defense moves up the list.

The fine print isn’t really that clear. It turns out that the Speaker or President Pro Tem, if they assume the presidency, serve out the remainder of the presidential term. However the cabinet secretaries only act as president and would be replaced by either the speaker of the house or the president pro tem once someone gets appointed to either of those posts. Which one? Well, that is the question. Essentially, whichever one gets appointed first. And if the President Pro tem becomes president, does he or she have to give it up when a Speaker of the House shows up? No. which makes this real complicated. There are even some completely untested secret rules in the House about who becomes the House Speaker pro-tem in case the speakership is vacant. Whether such a person could become the president is vague and probably untenable. Since that list could go through the 435 house members before being exhausted it would essentially obviate the provision for the Senate President Pro-tem or below from ever being needed in the line of succession. Wasn't it much clearer when Al Haig was put in charge?

So theoretically, there is this bizarre-yet-possible scenario where the house and senate race each other to appoint a top person. Whichever gets appointed first becomes the president. If the house and senate were controlled by different parties at the time..... the legal wrangling after the 2000 election would look like small claims court. Of course, if a plane rams into the capital during the state of the union speech, you probably lose a quorum of the supreme court as well.

So yes, this is all nuts. But people forget that the Cold War world was pretty nuts. Anyone remember watching the watered down movie "The Day After" or its much more accurate British version "Threads"? All those missiles were real, armed, and ready to launch 24 hours a day.. and yes, people really did think through things like who would be president. The massive luxury bunker under the Greenbrier Resort is evidence enough of that.

Ok, back to your regular programming.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Who will the casino employ?

Who will be employed at the new casino? Without getting into the issue of whether the casino is good or bad overall, it's still a good question in itself. I note the question because the it was raised by KDKA and I assume others will raise the same question in the future.

First off, the question should not be asked in such a narrow way. It's not who the casino will employ, but how much net new employment will be generated. A worker could benefit because someone else gets hired by the casino, opening up a job elsewhere. At least in the short term I suspect a lot of workers, and a lot of other local businesses, will notice an impact as the casino starts hiring. In the long run the question more becomes how much of that casino employment displaces other work in the region. How much is net new job growth vs. how much is displacement is a research question if nothing else. But assuming some net new job growth, which workers will benefit the most?

The bigger question is who benefits from new job growth period, whether it is from a casino or other new growth. There is a requisite book on this by Tim Bartik at the Upjohn Institute actually titled Who Benefits from State and Local Economic Development. I am not presuming that the author would consider casino generated employment a good thing or not, but he surveys the research out there on this question. It's something like a quarter of new workers are typically hired from the existing local population and workforce; which means 75% or so of new workers come from outside a region. Why does new employment not benefit local workers more is a big question. Local skills may not match the needs of the new jobs may be the best, if overly simplistic answer, but there are other reasons. Whether skill-matching is as big an issue for the new casino employmnt will need is another question worth asking. Job growth that induces workers to move into the region is a driver for migration and population growth in the end.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Urban reading bag

The New York Times had a piece on Sunday on the state of regional planning worth taking a look at: Happy 2030 New York, Where the Dreamers Are Asleep By Joyce Purnick. The story mentions New Yorks Regional Planning Organization. The comparable Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association used to be a much more active organization.

On a related topic also worth a look is a new webstite at the Univeristy of Minnesota: NEXUS which "studies and reports findings on the relationships between Networks, Economics, and Urban Systems through dedicated project work and research by experts in engineering, economics, transportation, anthropology and communication". I see there a journal article worth a look on the value of bike paths: Tilahun, Nebiyou Yonas David M. Levinson, Kevin J. Krizek (2005) Trails, Lanes, or Traffic: Value of Different Bicycle Facilities Using Adaptive Stated-Preference Survey 05-2023) presented at 84th Annual Meeting of Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC, January 9-13th 2005.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Information warfare – Burgh style

I am not sure if this rises to the level of what may be called “information warfare” in other contexts, but there is a curious little battle of sorts going on in cyberspace.

Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for Luke Ravenstahl. Not everyone fully realizes that Wikipedia is a collective effort of the public at large. With certain exceptions, anyone can edit any entry on Wikipedia. As a result you can get competing, and ever changing, content. It may be best to think of Wikipedia entries less as the static content of a regular encyclopedia, but dynamic living content. Whether that is good or bad is part of a larger debate. To see the history of changes for LR’s entry you need to hit the “discussion” button that every entry should have.

If you decipher that history a bit you will see the ongoing skirmishes. For example, at one point someone updated the entry to say that Luke died in November. A few days later someone tried to blank the entire page only to have an editor revert the page. Also you see some efforts to give alternative versions of his political lineage and his role in the casino decision.

The battle is not necessarily between competing political actors. Some of these seem childish more than anything else. There seem to be anonymous and apolitical Wikipedia editors out there who revert some of the edits, and make some of their own, as they go. And not all edits are incorrect or biased against LR. A lot of the content seems to be drawn from the Mayor’s own PR and official bio which is positive if not one-sided in its own way.

Does this all matter politically. I doubt it. Anyone reading Wikipedia is likely to have access to plenty of other sources of info to base their decisions on. I have pointed out in the past that given the age of the local electorate I am pretty sure the median voter in town does not use the internet that much if at all.

But this is all still a phenomenon worth watching. At work my colleague Stu Shulman is the new editor of a new journal titled the Journal of Information Technology and Politics, the existence of which is itself a reflection of how important the nexus of politics and the internet has become. This may all be a microcosm of the larger debate on how to use and interpret Wikipedia. Some have felt it to be decidedly false and misleading, while at least one study has found it to be a relatively accurate source of info. It has even been misused in much larger political campaigns in the past, so this mucking around locally is nothing new.

as I type I see there is news today (this hour) about how some countries are blocking the ability to contribute to (not to read) Wikipedia to prevent various forms of net vandalism.


shades of San Franscisco

Well, I don't claim my post last month was overly prescient.. more just pointing out the obvious, but the drama in the Pennsylvania House today is straight from the Willie Brown playbook. Think the turmoil in the house is over with, I think not. The US Senate is by nature patient with the infirmity of Senator Johnson. Would it be presumptuous to predict there would not be the same level of comity if any similar circumstance arises in the PA house over the next two years.


Seagate Pittsburgh

Wired News has something you may not have read with a tour of Seagate's labs in Pittsburgh.


Monday, January 01, 2007

displacement: a definition

New Years seems appropriate for an alcohol related post. Just a classic example of displacement. I recently noticed that the state store in Shadyside on Craig, one block east of Aiken, has closed down. Seems a pretty clear result of the new state store opening at the Eastside development just up the street. I am a little curious what other changes we may see near there.

On a bigger scale, worth a note is this minor bit of business news the other day that the not-small Pittsburgh Mills mall has shifted ownership to its minority partner. I have noticed past news stories questioning the sustanability of the Pittsburgh Mills mall. Here I repeat a post from a few months ago:

So I note this story by Jon Delano:Pittsburgh Mills' Future Could Be In Doubt. The full timeline of the Pittsburgh Mills project is included in Mike Yeoman's: Pittsburgh Mills muscles its way into landscape. Brings to mind: Allegheny Center Mall. Which remarkably is not included here: but overall it makes you think, how many development projects are driven more by inertia than anything else.