Wednesday, February 28, 2007

mineral and vegetable

Just because the story about planned soot removal from the Cathedral of Learning reminded me of it.... does anyone remember what the Carnegie Library in Oakland once looked like? Growing up I swear I thought the building was made of some black granite and was shocked when I saw what it looked like with the soot removed. Not many pictures of the the building when completely soot encrusted online.. A few pictures and more detail than you may want to know about the changes on the CofL are in this paper:
Soiling Patterns on a Large Limestone Building. Changes Over 60 Years. By Cliff Davidson and others at CMU. 1999.

...but speaking of changing Pittsburgh.. this also sparked a neuron. The NYT today has a piece on some customer angst among the customers of Whole Foods. What does that have to do with Pittsburgh? Nothing really, but it has been interesting seeing the success of the Whole Foods store in East Liberty. People have talked about it as filling some long latent demand that nobody was addressing. Yet there have been attempts to fill the high-end grocery niche here before. Right up from where Whole Foods is was one of the first of two Food Gallery supermarkets in the region. Yet it couldn't really make it here in the 80's and 90's, and the site would eventually be bought out by Giant Eagle and made into a regular store. Yet now that same section boasts the Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's and the same site has been rehabbed by Giant Eagle in their high end market-district motif. So it's not that retailers suddenly woke up and realized there was some unfulfilled market in the city... it's a sign that the city itself that has changed more than anything else.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Voting machines, endorsements, primaries and our perpetual election cycle

Given all the controversy over electronic voting machines these days, a fun video to watch is Behind the Freedom Curtain, a voting machine sales video circa 1957. Where is Herb Tarlek when you need him? Maybe people would be happier with the new machines if they were named "freedom screens".

but speaking of voting... Sunday is the big day for local candidates seeking election. The Allegheny County Democratic Committee will nominate its endorsed candidates this weekend. How important is the party endorsement? Depends on the race. It's probably safe to say there is an inverse correlation between how important the party endorsement is and how high profile the race is.

The fact that there is an endorsement process raises a bigger question concerning the primary election itself. Or the primary to follow this one technically. There is a growing debate over the timing of the Pennsylvania presidential primary. Is it too late in the primary season to matter? PG covered the question last month, but a more in depth perspective came last week from PA politics guru Terry Madonna in his January 25th Politically Uncorrected column. Today the AP is reporting that a state senator is proposing that Pennsylvania's presidential primary be moved to February 5th. Think about that timing for a minute. That means candidates would have to file by New Years. Would that mean that the party nominations would take place before XMAS? One way or another it's going to be a perpetual election season. We have to get through this election then by fall the presidential primary season will be in full gear. By the time a new president elected the next mayoral campaign will be gearing up.

Which then makes you wonder why do we have primaries at all? Plenty of modern democracies do not hold primaries.. Not even all states in the US have primaries. The caucus system is still in use in Iowa as we will all re-learn a year from now. Can you imagine a caucus system in place here?

It turns out that the direct primary system got its start just outside of Pittsburgh. Crawford County, Pennsylvania created the direct primary in 1842. The local Democratic Party had a chaotic and ultimately failed county convention that year whereupon no slate of candidates was nominated. In the machinations that followed, they ultimately dealt with the situation by allowing all Democrats to cast equal votes for who would represent the party in elections that fall. Seems like a normal enough idea now, but it had never been tried that way before. The idea was so well liked that it transformed from a provisional measure to the permanent method of selecting party nominees. While the idea spread throughout the state and nation, it was not an overnight change. Pennsylvania would not have a comprehensive law requiring primaries until 1913.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Pittsburgh a retirement haven? not exactly.

So the New York Times today is writing on the apparent surge in elderly return migrants from southern states, especially return migrants to Pittsburgh. You may think that this correlates with a PG story over the weekend reporting that Pittsburgh is a great place to retire to. Yet the same paper, even the same business section, reported just a couple years ago on some other research concluding that Pittsburgh is the single worst place to retire , a veritable "tax hell" for retirees according to Money Magazine..

So which is it? A great place to retire to, or the worst place? Neither, of course. In fact the idea that retirees are looking carefully at either costs or taxes when choosing to move in or out of Pittsburgh is probably not right. I think other factors are really driving the decisions to leave or come back.

Lest anyone get confused, new retirees flee out of Pittsburgh faster than young people do. I would even speculate that the net loss of population due to new retirees moving out is larger than the net loss of "young people" in their 20's in some ways. Note I said net loss.. I am sure the flow of young people into and out of the region is larger, but people think that flow is all one way and that just isn't the case. and I also said new retirees.

New retirees are mostly a one way ticket out. Younger elderly, or new retirees who are not yet elderly, don't move to places like Pittsburgh to retire. They just don't and its not possible to compete against the weather in Florida, the Carolinas and places out west that attract most new or seasonal retirees from across the country. Uncompetitive cost of living or not.

But what may be changing is later life migration of older retirees after they have spent time away. What my friend Peter Morrison and I have looked at is a counter-flow of elderly migrants into Pittsburgh, but it is very different group of people compared to those who are moving out. Specifically, the elderly moving into Pittsburgh tend to be several decades older than ones leaving. Along with being older they are more likely to be widowed and have far more health problems. So these people are not coming to lounge around the pool spending their lifetime of savings. I bet those savings are mostly expended before they come back. The Trib wrote about this research a bit last year. We also put some of the results in this issue of our PEQ newsletter. Still an ongoing thing, but clearly something having an impact here.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Health Care/Pharmaceutical Lecture

Lunch and lecture downtown next week:

The High Cost of Healthcare: Prevention, Intervention and Innovation
Bob Ingram
Chairman of Pharmaceuticals, GlaxoSmithKline

The Omni William Penn
530 William Penn Place, Downtown Pittsburgh

Wednesday, March 7, 2007
11:45 a.m. Luncheon
12:30 p.m. Presentation
1:15 p.m. Adjournment

Sponsored by the Economic Club of Pittsburgh.
More information and reservations info: click here


Friday, February 23, 2007

evermore Warhola

Baltimore has nothing on us. Forget the mystery of the Poe visitor. The NYT today writes on the mysterious annual visitor to the Andy Warhol grave in Bethel Park.


on incentives

I seem to have been invoked by the irascible and inebriated pencil-pusher (aka ADB) in this post about the role of incentives in the successful retention/attraction of the USAirways operations center. Lots of important questions embedded in her comments....

One historical point worth noting. While they may not have been the first to coin the term, I believe it was actually the folks in the Thornburgh administration that popularized use of the term "smokestack chasing" in the early 80's. As a pejorative it reflected the trends at the time. Where once the attraction of a new manufacturing facility was the holy grail of economic development, the cascading failures of heavy industry here had become our undoing. Thus the shift in policies toward 'high tech' or other forms of industry targeting. ADB's comments imply a subtle question: have we moved away from the "smokestack" more than the "chasing"?

But what is the role of the incentives? Former Pittsburgher Ronnie Bryant has this thoughtful comment in the Charlotte Observer just last week on the role of incentives in economic development. It really is worth a read. It is a little ironic that he wrote this over a week ago and Charlotte was one of the regions that was said to be bidding for the USAirways project. Yet he was actually talking about a $260 million package of incentives offered to Google to put a data center in North Carolina.

I share some of Ronnie's sentiment that no matter how much one wants to eliminate most of this ad-hoc tax competition it is nonetheless a fact of life for now. I myself had hoped for a different result in the recent Supreme Court case Cuno v. DaimlerChrysler that has at least delayed judicial intervention to limit the role of state level incentives. We will have to see how the anti-incentive forces regroup and go forward.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Mystery web site on the race for mayor

So the mayor's race seems to be getting into gear. With that as the only introduction I'm not going to tell you what this link is about. If you trust me here is a mystery web site. Just for fun.

Also interesting, how many of this group are still in office?


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

on neighborhood development

Way way too much stuff to comment on. Luke Ravenstahl appoints Pat Ford as 'Development Czar'... Bill Peduto plans to study neighborhood development.... Neighborhood and preservationists battle over a post-arena Hill District. The theme sure seems to be neighborhoods and economic development.

Unfortunately Roger Ahlbrandt passed away some years ago.. If the question is how do communities and neighborhoods, and in particular Pittsburgh neighborhoods and communties, fit into economic development plans, here is just a small sample of Professor Ahlbrandt’s writings one ought to read (in no order):

Neighborhoods, People, and Community (Environment, Development, and Public Policy Cities and Development). Book
By Roger Ahlbrandt

Public-Private Partnerships for Neighborhood Renewal
Roger Ahlbrandt, Jr.
The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,
Vol. 488, No. 1, 120-134 (1986)

Pittsburgh Residents Assess their Neighborhoods.
Roger Ahlbrandt and James V. Cunningham. School of Social Work and University Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh. December 1980
Scanned at:

Factors Affecting Economic Growth in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
University Center for Social and Urban Research. University of Pittsburgh. Roger Ahlbrandt, James DeAngelis, Frank Giarratani, Edwin Wells, Donald Goldstein. 1984
Scanned at:

A Cry for Leadership.
Roger S. Ahlbrandt Jr. Associate Provost. University of Pittsburgh. Presented at the Joint Ventures in Housing and Economic Development Conferernce. Co-Sponsored by U.S. Deparment of HUD and ACTION-Housing, Inc. October 23, 1984.
Scanned at:

The Role of the Corporation in Community Economic Development.
Morton Coleman and Roger Ahlbrandt. University of Pittsburgh. 1987
Scanned at:

Management: An Important Element of the Housing Environment
Environment and Behavior, Vol. 8, No. 4, 505-526 (1976)
Roger S. Ahlbrandt, Jr., School of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh and Paul C. Brophy. ACTION-Housing, Inc.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords

from a good piece on the 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords.


Can I have 15% of your money

I didn't realize that the British term for a slot machine was fruit machine when I wrote this old post. Duh. You learn something new every day I suppose.

but I learned a few things about gambling last week talking to some lawyers who know about the business. What I learned was that the minimum slots payout for Pennsylvania is set at 85% by law. What is the payout percentage? It is simply the ratio at which you win your money back every time you play. If it were 100% you could theoretically play slots forever, though you would never come out ahead in the long run, you would also never lose. Anything below 100% and you are slowly losing your money to the house. The further below 100%, the worse the bet, the faster you lose your money and better the deal for the casino. The every time is the important point. At an 85% payout, on average you will lose 15% of your wager with every pull of the lever. Play just 6 times and you will be down to (0.85^5=) 37% of your wager. How long does it take to play the slots 6 times?

More on how that compares to other venues and tax implications in a minute. But what was fascinating was how that 85% will be audited in Pennsylvania. It was not 85% per hour, day, week or month. Given pure randomness, it would be hard to enforce a set percentage for a small period of time, but aparently, in Pennsylvania the 85% is a requirement to be met over a 3 year period! 3 years can be a long time.

What I do not know is whether Pennsylvania allows for adjustable payout rates. Old mechanical slots machines had their payout percentages set when manufactured, but with today's networked slots machines, I have to imagine there is some central computer that can adjust the casino-wide payout rates collectively for all machines, but that is speculation as to how it will work in practice. The implications are big. You could easily come up with all sorts of reasons to change the payout rate over time. Maybe you would have a higher payout rate when the casino's open as a way to entice people to come to Pennsylvania slots venues, but over time bring it back down once a market is established. It also means that if there is a period of high payout now, yet only a 85% requirement over the long haul, that there could be a period well below 85% in the future.... the law of averages and all.

Then there are these tax implications. One of the most common complaints among casino operators in PA from the get-go is that Pennsylvania is taxing casino gross revenues more than anywhere else. Currentlly 52% of the gross take goes to the state in taxes. a very high rate. True enough. but that is 52% of the house margin which over the long haul could be as high as 15%. Compare that to other states where the taxes are lower but the house margin is much smaller as well. From what I read, the slot payouts in Nevada range between 92-99%. Thus the house margin on slots is 1-8% which pretty much means that even without taxation, Pennsylvania slots are more 'profitable' per dollar injested by the slots machines. (potential house margin of 15%, net of taxes is 7.2% of total $ bet). Hmmm.


Monday, February 19, 2007

place based vs person based community development

just passing this on.. anyone reading this blog ought to read this blog post by Randall Crane who is a professor of planning at the UCLA School of Public Affairs on the state of what we know about:

place based vs person based community development.

I of course appreciate his reference back to some more historical research on this, in particular Lou Winnick's 1966 essay, "Place Prosperity vs. People Prosperity", but I also need to mention Ed Hoover's prognosis for Pittsburgh a few years before that:
...the Pittsburgh region's future depends to such a major extent upon retaining and attracting highly qualified and professional and technical people and business enterprisers, who are in demand everywhere and who command a high standard of residential amenity and cultural and professional opportunities.
This all comes from Region With a Future. Volume 3 of the Economic Study of the Pittsburgh Region. Produced by the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association. Edgar Hoover, Study Director. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. 1964.


Monday Read Board

Just some things you may not have seen:


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wal-Marts are like tribbles

Just reading the news that a new Wal-Mart is slated for East Hills.. I am reminded of this video-graphic: "The Diffusion of Wal-Mark and the Economies of Density" (wmv file, but also there is a youtube version) put together by Thomas Holmes of the Economics Department at the University of Minnesota. Really worth watching.

Also I mentioned last year, Penn State's Stephan Goetz and Hema Swaminathan had a paper looking at the impact of Wal-mart on communities. Here is a press release on their article "Wal-Mart and County-Wide Poverty" in the June issue of Social Science Quarterly. There is an earlier verion of their paper available here.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

on shrinking cities

For those who have signed into the Washington Post (it's free but requires registration) there is a good read in today's edition about Urban Retreat, an exhibition in Detroit on Shrinking Cities. Surprisingly Pittsburgh does not seem to be one of the cities the exhibition focused on. But I learned a new word "blot" which seems to be an amalgam of 'blighted' and 'lot' referring to the parcel expansion and de-densification of Detroit.

More on the exhibition itself is at


Friday, February 16, 2007

Repeat - Public Transit Utilization

Just because it seems useful to the current debate, a repeat blog-post from last June I think. Here is:

Public Transit Utilization in Allegheny County - 2000

Also, Mark once took this and overlaid a map with population density to see where there are concentrations not using transit. I think the intention was to identify where there could be new markets for service, of course we seem to be going in the other direction.

For those who are interested, I have thrown together a short bibliography on transportation policy issues in Pittsburgh. You can view it here. It is by no means whatsoever comprehensive, it is just a compilation of some things I have scanned, have used or know of for the most part. I know this is something ideal for the Wiki idea that Mark and Jim started. I have to admit that if I knew how to actually do something with that I would try, but for the moment this is just a quick and dirty data dump I will expand as I have time.

and there is still good discussion going on in the earlier post: Bus Economics....


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Eastside redux

For those who are under any preconception that the redevelopment of East Liberty has much hope of helping traditional East Liberty residents... Check out this CP news blurb that mentions the work my colleague Sabina and others did to try and put in place just a tracking system for displaced residents. They really tried to push this and got nowhere. Basically, nobody wanted to know the answer and trying to figure it out now, years after most left, is a pretty meaningless gesture.

Funny though when you read something like this. If the topic is about people and former residents, the discussion is all about "East Liberty" and no mention of "Eastide". If the discussion is about big box retail coming in it is just the opposite even though they are talking about the same exact piece of geography. I once saw a advertisement that described the corner of Penn and Highland solely as the intersection of the Shadyside and Penn Ave. Arts Districts with not a single mention of East Liberty.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

New poverty guidelines

On the list of topics I get at least one question on a week is poverty. So for those who are interested, the 2007 guidelines for the US definition of poverty were recently published in the Federal Register.

Persons in family - poverty threshhold (annual income)
1 - $10,210
2 - $13,690
3 - $17.170
4 - $20,650
5 - $24,130
6 - $27,610
7 - $31,090
8 - $34,570


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bus Economics postscript

Just because there are some insightful comments in a post from a few days ago.. comments far more insightful than my blathering at least. You may want to go back and take a look at the continuing discussion in Bus economics and the (proposed) demise of the 28X Airport Flyer.


The City Strikes Back

Since I do some work for SPC on Project Region I don't feel it appropriate to comment on my own too much about their regional town meeting last night. It was too late in the evening for there to be any media coverage today, though I am curious if there will be any items in the news tomorrow even. It certainly was more important than a lot of things that get coverage. At the Downtown site there were some insightful comments and discussion among those who attended the meeting at the Regional Enterprise Tower.

but there was one particular comment that really summarized the big historical picture of where we are when it comes to rationalizing city vs. suburban development. One attendee pointed out the history of how we look at cities. He reminded the audience that if you look back 70 years or so, the focus back then was clearly centered on moving people out of the city because of the perceived problems of crime, health and environment among other things. Even if some of that sounds familiar today, it's hard to really imagine what people thought of cities back then. Something I have mentioned before, but I encourage everyone to watch the archived documentary entitled The City (American Institute of Planners, 1939, available as an MPEG stream via the Prelinger Archives), which may be the single best explanation of how deeply ingrained that logic was. It is complete with an original score by Aaron Copeland if you can believe that... After first watching it I had to go re-watch the opening credits to make sure Frank Capra didn't direct it as well. He didn't, but it sure seems like he did.

Basically the film idealizes the suburbs as Utopian places to live and proselytizes massive city re-engineering with a lot of images of pre-war Pittsburgh as the ultimate scourge to be beaten back. If you don't have time to watch, the title text pretty much summarizes the film's message:
"Year by year our cities grow ever more complex and less fit for living. The age of rebuilding is here. The time to remould our old cities and build communities better suited to our needs."
All that is missing from that is the slow fading text scroll into a background of stars. For those who do get through the first part. Here is the link for Part 2. For the musicologists out there: listen to the score and realize it was written 5 years before Appalachian Spring debuted.

What should you take away from it? The policies put in place back then really set the stage for the depopulation of our cities and their growing uncompetitiveness with respect to the suburbs in following decades. By the early 1980's things had gotten so bad that urban policy in the US came close to advocating cities be abandoned entirely. We have moved away from that to some degree, but many of the policies that make cities uncompetitive places to live and work are still in place and affect almost all regional planning efforts across the country.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Information Warfare - postscript

Those who read the City Paper's cover story on local blogs probably read the sidebar about the ever changing Wikipedia entry for Luke Ravenstahl. Readers here remember when I first wrote about the topic last month. What I would encourage everyone to read is a comment left about that story on the CP web site. The City Paper is now the first paper in town I think that allows for online comments to its stories. Click on the story Ill Defined and scroll down to the bottomm andthe entry by a persona named Jon Bo.

His(I presume?) comment on the story about Wikipedia editing is really insightful and gets at some of the fundamental issues affecting Wikipedia's future. He also questions what is appropriate behavior for Wikipedia "editors" when it comes to policing (and is that really the right verb for this type of collective content management) wiki content. The story explains what Wikipedia has non-public info about the content generators. Jon Bo points out some basic Wikipedia policies that seem to preclude efforts to disclose that info to the public. Some have gone to court to gain access to that info and Wikipedia has fought back such attempts.

I would only add that it seemed the LR entry was being adequately corrected from the first clearly mischievous posting, often with editors far away and far removed from the local political process.. so the need for the new "local group of Wiki editors policing the Ravenstahl site," is confusing to me. Nonetheless, it raises some very fundamental questions that need to be understood if not answered. If content editing is open source just as content production is on Wikipedia.. then who edits the editors?


Reminder - Project Region Town Meeting TONIGHT

Just a reminder. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commissions's Regional Town Meeting is TONIGHT from 6:30 - 8:00 pm. If you ever wonder where all the plans for all the major transportation projects in the region come from, this is it. The meeting will be held at 11 different sites across 10 counties that will be networked together. The one downtown is at:

Regional Enterprise Tower (aka the old Alcoa Building)
425 Sixth Ave., 31st Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15219


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Bus economics and the (proposed) demise of the 28X Airport Flyer

A side issue in the entire Port Authority/transit funding debate, but why exactly is the airport bus (28X) being eliminated? Everyone seems to agree that the route is great, yet PAT thinks it must go. Why the disconnect? The answer gets to the fundamental question of whether to evaluate public transit as a public good or purely as a business.

Some background. The 28X is actually a new route by PAT standards. For decades there was no such route and it was only in 1996 that PAT created the route in the first place. Before then and likely in the future, the only way to the airport other than ones own car was a taxi or a fairly costly shuttle that ran from fewer local stops.

One of the most vocal groups to oppose the demise of the 28X are college students who say the route is a great benefit to them. Realize that a lot of students and university staff ride free under the agreements several schools have with PAT. So PAT is not getting much incremental revenue from all those buses filled with students. This gets to the issue of what incentives PAT is operating under. If a big piece of service provided to the university comes in the form of this airport service, then does Pitt get to renegotiate a lower payment to PAT if that route goes away? That would reset those incentives pretty quick. Yet PAT may be of the opinion that this service is not really part of the deal with the schools. In the original deal PAT actually forced Pitt into the deal in the first place because some of the local shuttles Pitt used to operate violated PAT's legal monopoly on public transit. Alas, I digress into a different issue that could waste paragraphs. Maybe later.

but back to the 28X... if you look at PAT's detailed scorecard of what routes should be cut you see a lot of obvious things. What metric caused the demise of the 28X? It came in last in the measurement of riders-per-mile. That really set it apart from a lot of other routes and went a long way toward putting it on the chopping block by my reading of PAT's own analysis.

This gets to a very core point of where the question of efficiency fits into the whole public transit debate. From an internal cost-benefit perspective, it makes perfect sense to measure the number of riders-per-mile of service and to use that as a metric for evaluating routes. If this were a for profit company you would have to do just that. Yet it is a little perverse that the 28X is being cut because it provides more service per rider than almost any other route. It is almost too successful as a route, or too necessary depending on how you look at it. It borders on a tautology that any long transit route would score badly by that measure. By this logic, if I were to create an ever more redundant route that only ran between Oakland and Downtown, I am sure that route would attract a fair number of riders over a relatively short distance. It would look great by the metric of riders-per-mile and be saved... all while the 28X got axed.

So let's just take PAT's numbers where they calculate a cost per rider metric for each route. The 28X comes with a score of "7" which they say equates to a range of $10.50 to $12.00 per rider. I am a little dubious that that is the marginal cost and not the average cost, but be that as it may let's take those numbers for granted. Given that the service is slated to be replaced by a private sector service at a cost of $19 per trip you still have to wonder about the entire process. The fact that a service PAT itself provides for at most $12.00 per rider is going to be replaced by a (less frequent and less extensive) private sector service that costs at least 60% more is the clearest example of how applying narrow cost-benefit analysis to a public service leads to inefficient outcomes.

And none of that begins to address workforce issues. If the airport and airport corridor is really one of the economic growth engines of the county, without bus service is it possible for low income workers to ever participate in that growth? Even if deeply discounted, they sure are not going to be taking $19 commutes to work each day. Yet, none of that is captured in PAT's internal accounting. If I were to guess, the only reason you do not see more angst among airport employers over the potential loss of employees is due to the particular circumstances of late at the airport. Right now we are at the tail end of a lot of airport employment downsizing, which has affected all jobs out there. Thus there is a very short term dynamic going on where most employers out there are not in a hiring phase. The result is that the need for the 28X in the short term is mitigated. If that were to change??

and no... I am not so naive as to believe PAT really wants to cut the 28X. It is a high visibility route across the region, much more so than a lot of more local routes. You have to believe there are routes thrown to the wind just so they can appear to be 'saved' in the end. Anyone want to bet the 28X is the first route that is retracted from the list. It will give the appearance that the entire public comment process had some superficial impact despite being predestined. In the end if the 28X is the only route to be saved it will be a very subjective, if not hypocritical, decision. The logic to save the 28X applies to most of the routes being eliminated and if the 28X should be saved there are a bunch of others that should arguably be saved before that.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Migration mapping tool

Fester points out this neat graphical tool put together by the Charlotte Observer and Sun Telegram displaying population migration patterns derived from IRS tax filing data. What is interesting is that they did not just do it for their own area, but for all counties in the nation. You can click on any county and get a spatial map of where people are moving to or coming from. Here is the Pennsylvania Zoom of the site. Try clicking on Allegheny County for example. Then it might be interesting to compare that to where people moving into other regional counties are coming from. Worth a look.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Plan the region's future

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is conducing a set of networked town meeting for their Project Region: The Southwestern Pennsylvania Plan. These will take place this coming monday in the evening. If you care about transportation planning or regional economic development in general, you probably want to be there. Where do all long term transportation projects get their funding?

The where and when:

Regional Town Meeting Web Conference
Monday February 12, 2007
6:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.

various locations throughout the region that will be connected somehow. In Allegheny county there are two locations:

Pittsburgh:Regional Enterprise Tower425 Sixth Ave., 31st Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 (downtown)

Penn State Greater Allegheny
Ostermayer Room, Student Community Center 4000 University Dr., McKeesport, PA 15132


meta-metablogging and a new blog

Anyone reading this already knows that Marty Levine, formerly of the City Paper btw, is the latest to write about the Burghosphere (Burghosphere is capitialized right?... what does the style guide say?) and its debatable impact on the world around us. He certainly had fortuitous timing with the entire episode over a certain former blog of a certain councilman blowing up just in time to give him fodder to write about. If I didn't know for a fact that Levine had started that story before any of that began, I would have thought the councilman had precipitated the CP story, but no it was just his bad luck. There are a few other similar story lines in the pipeline I hear, it will be interesting to compare the different perspectives that come out.

but in the realm of analytical journalism, you have to give kudos for the complementary work CP put together to create its local campaign finance database which is now online. Some interesting stuff in it I would comment on, but I am sure it others will data-mine it to death before this election cycle is over with.

but on the general topic of political blogs... something that seems to be intended more as a general news feed and not a blog per se; political wonks should pay attention to a new blog just started by Dennis Roberge: Pittsburgh Mayoral Race General News. I suspect it is meant more as news feed than blog just because Denny seems to have recently created a whole slew of these blogs on various political topics: national and local for Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. His more opinion focused blog seems to be here. For those who don't know who Denny is, he is based in Columbus, but is no stranger to Western PA politics having been the local field director for Al Gore's campaign in 2000 and Rendell in 02.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Energy Lecture - Feb 14th

For those who may be interested. Energy wonks or just about anyone who cares about the price of gas. Lecture/Lunch downtown next week:

The Future of Energy Policy in the Wake of Political Change
Dr. John Felmy, Chief Economist and Director of American Petroleum Institute’s Statistics Department

February 14th, 2007
Omni William Penn
11:45 a.m. Luncheon
12:30 p.m. Presentation
1:15 p.m. Adjournment
Sponsored by the Economic Club of Pittsburgh
for reservations info click here.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

and again.. pensions

For those who wonder why Pittsburgh City Council is in Harrisburg asking (pleading?) for help with city pension funding.. the answer is a $1 Billion dollars in pension liability coming due. The City of Pittsburgh supports 3 major pension funds for city Police, Fire and General Municipal workers. The amount of money in each of those pension funds is estimated to be at 33%, 57% and 47%, respectively, of the amounts they need to be solvent.

The different funding levels for the 3 different plans is both curious and problematic. The lowest funded pension plan is for city police, and when it gets closer to zero it will essentially become a pay-as-you-go pension plan. The city just won't have the money to pay that. If you have problems sleeping you can also read the entire actuarial report for the 3 funds: 1) Police, 2) Fire and 3) General Municipal. Cheaper than Ambien I promise.

Now I hear many say the whole pension crisis is due to some extravagant benefit level the city pensioners receive. The average general municipal pensioner in Pittsburgh receives less than $800 per month, many get even less. Police and fire pensions average a little higher, but many still get less than $1k/month. So if you consider that extravagant it's your call, but for the most part the pension funding crisis is due to the city just not putting money away for this expense when they should have over the last couple decades. I think many extrapolate what they hear from other industries or other cities (or even in Harrisburg) where average pensions are 2-3 or more times that. Not here.

but this all has been known for years (decades?).. why is city council getting overly concerned now? Part of annual required payments into the funds are paid by the state and part by the city. For reasons I have explained in the past, the state's contribution to the city has been stagnant and the city's required contribution is rising fast.

and no, this is not even beginning to talk about health care costs which are a separate issue... this is just for actual pension checks. According to the Government Accounting Standards Board, large cities should be doing an actuarial accounting of future health care liability. Anyone ask the city if they are going to comply? The answer I read here is a clear NO. but that is probably another $250-300mil that the city will owe.... but for those struggling to get interested in the city controller race, it's a great question for the ever-growing field of candidates.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

assessments in the news again... and again... and again

Last week was groundhog day, but as I said long ago, it's always groundhog day when it comes to property assessments in Allegheny County. Think the news over property assessments is over? It may be just beginning. Mr. Prothonotary explains that today the final briefs in the ongoing legal battle over county assessments should be filed. Judge Wettick may issue a ruling any time after that.

What? you say... didn't we get through this? The County has implemented a base-year system and we don't need to worry about this any longer.

Well, maybe or maybe not. The current litigation is based on the constitutionality of the base-year system itself. If the Judge rules against Allegheny County's use of the system, it will surely be appealed to higher courts which could then impact property assessment across all counties in the commonwealth..... or not.

How long has this been really going on? For the history wonk, some interesting yet amazingly relevant points are in the Jaffurs report from 1976. In it you will learn that even through the late 70's the main documentation of most properties in the county were in the form of WPA -era line drawings. no joke. That little invention named the polaroid camera was just too newfangled a device to be used here.

The bottom line. Stand by.


Monday, February 05, 2007

metabloging the race for mayor

I wonder if there is a Second Life mayoral race going on? Just for fun, here is the race between Bill and Luke in the greater Blogosphere.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

press musings: energy, tax incentives

For those who read Harold Miller's commentary in the business section of the role of coal in the local economy.. then you may also be interested in Slate's article on the underappreciated importance of the coal industry in their series on obscure economic indictors. I agree that there is an underappreciation of how much energy related industries have played in both the development of the Pittsburgh economy and it's likely future. Some may remember my comments in the past on Energy-Burgh. The dots connect pretty clearly between what we were, what we are and possibly what we will be.

Also for those who saw Bill Toland's piece on the role of incentives in business attraction. I would suggest he missed an important piece of history. Most will consider that the escalation of modern tax incentives at the state level to originate with Pennsylvania's package of incentives to successfully attract the Volkswagen Plant to Westmoreland County in the 1970's, not the Saturn plant that went to Tenn. in the 80's. On that subject some may remember my commentary on tax incentives pending the now decided case of Cuno v. DaimlerChrysler.
Not something I had time to get into in that piece... but the most important thing to look at when considering the role of the Volkswagen incentive package is that the site (which would become the Sony plant after VW left) was originally slated to be a Chrysler plant. Chrysler had decided to build a plant there and had begun major investment on the site only to pull out when its national business turned sour. But then in the 60's the major work of site selection was pushed not by the government, but by local utilities which are the ones that assembled the site and did a lot of the heavy lifting needed to persuade Chrysler to come to the Pittsburgh region.
Thus there is an interesting historical point that supposedly industrially uncompetitive Pittsburgh remains one of the few regions in the US to attract not just one, but two new auto factories since WWII. Think there is no auto industry here in the region. Anywhere north or west of Allegheny County you will see commuting and business impact of the Lordstown General Motors plant in Ohio just over the border.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

beer beer everywhere

Lost amid many other things, I did not notice the news that Sheetz is now going to be selling beer. But is this really something new? The Philly Inquirer notes that there are supermarkets in the state now selling beer under some loophole in the law. Who else will be selling beer now that the door has been opened ever wider. Anyone want to take bets that all those new Walgreens will soon be selling beer or someday wine and other alcohol. There has to be some reason so much investment has been going into retail drug store chains of late. It’s not like it’s the most lucrative of businesses, as the remnants of Revco and Pharmor will attest.

But something that is actually a little confusing to me. The PG story on this comments on small point that Sheetz is not actually the first convenience store to sell beer because there was a Wawa outside of Philadelphia a dozen years ago that used to sell beer. Huh? I can walk around the corner to the convenience store formerly known as 7/11 (now under new ownership) at the corner of Friendship and Pacific and buy beer as you have been able to for the last 15 years at least. Hate to see us not get credit for being first at something.


Friday, February 02, 2007

alternative transit

Well, it has been an interesting blog week here for sure. and I have kept a promise to myself to stay out of blog-topic #1, as funny or sad as it is. I am sure I will have more thoughts on public transit soon. Lots of transit comments have have come in from friends, colleagues and others that I still need to digest. So stay tuned.

but just to cap the week's discussion on the future of public transit.. I was just wondering that with the plan for a casino on the North Shore, will someone try to resurrect the plan to build an aerial tram from Mount Washington to the North Shore. Check out where it was supposed to go: right to where the entrance of the Majestic Star is slated to go.

Lest anyone get confused. As fun as it sounds I am kidding, though these people sounded quite serious. I suspect it is neither feasible nor legal. But if they did do it, I could see some great future movie scenes filmed with it, maybe not with James Bond though.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Is public transit usage in Allegheny County high or low?

It seems a basic question to ask. Not anything new, but I put together a list of the largest 100 counties in the US ranked by the proportion of commuters who use public transit. I will paste the top 20 below. Commuters are just part of the users of public transit, especially here in Allegheny County, but it gives some perspective. Allegheny County ranks 20th with 10.5% of the commuters using public transit. Low? High? At first look it seems rather low. Consider that of the 19 counties ahead of us, 4 are counties within New York City, and 5 others are immediate suburbs of NYC. So somewhere between the NY Subway, the LIRR, NJ Transit, Metro North and impracticality of having a car in the City you get numbers like 59% public transit usage in Manhattan (#1 in the US). 3 counties are in the Washington DC metro area. 2 each in Boston and San Fransicso. Also Philadelphia, Cook County (Chicago), San Francisco County, Multnomah County (Portland) and Alameda County, CA. (correction: as an astute reader pointed out, I am west coast geography challenged, Alameda County is part of SF)

So there are only 8 7 metro areas with counties showing higher public transit ridership than Allegheny County. I suppose one could argue that is nothing noteworthy, but in the big list of metro areas that puts us near the top. Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) is at 6.2%. Hamilton County (Cinci) is at 5.0%. Milwaukee County 6.9%, Frankllin County (Columbus) 3.1% and Erie County (Buffalo) 4.1%. I suspect that if one controlled for the fact that poverty rates and recent immigration rates into Allegheny County are relatively low, thus pushing down some of the normal sources of demand for public transit, we compare even higher in terms of providing a competitive public transit option.

Here is the thing. There is a clear tradeoff in the scope of public transit and how efficient you are by whatever metric you want to use to quantify efficiency. The only way you can really get higher transit usage is to provide more and more coverage for populations that otherwise wouldn’t use transit. If you disenfranchise those without cars, they will either fall out of the labor force or move to be close to public transit. So higher rates of public transit usage among workers can only come from providing service to ever more inefficient subareas…. It’s almost an immutable law sometimes called the law of diminishing marginal returns for the record. For whatever reason, we have chosen to this point to be on the higher cost, but higher utilization end of that tradeoff.

Thus the only way I can really make sense of the current debate (or lack of debate it appears) over the fate of public transit in the region is that the public consensus has decided that on that big tradeoff of public transit utilization vs. efficiency.. we want to be more on the end of that curve that says let's me more efficient, but offer services to a more typical (lower) percentage of the population. With that in mind, PAT could cut just a lot more and still be above average. It’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons that most reading this probably agree with or know the arguments without me repeating them. But the belief that it’s all about some vast inefficiency within PAT is just too simplistic to be meaningful. Its about the fundamental choice of whether public transit exists as a public service and whether public funding is worth pushing up that utilization rate. Better routes are a great idea, but they are at best a marginal part of this debate in any circumstance.

How low is the low end of where public transit could end up? For the top 100 counties (which I stipulate is an arbitrary but quick attempt at capturing comparable urban areas) the average utilization rate for public transit is actually 9.1%, not far below where we are now. But if you ignore just the top 10 counties which include most of atypical New York City, I get an average rate of public transit usage of 5.4%. It is a little scary to think what public transit usage would look like if that is where we are headed. But if the debate remains centered around rightsizing the route structure I don’t see how we could be heading anywhere else.

Anyway, here is the list which has the county name followed by the percentage of workers who commute via public transit – Census 2000.

NY, New York County 59.6%
NY, Kings County 57.4%
NY, Bronx County 53.7%
NY, Queens County 47.4%
NJ, Hudson County 33.6%
DC, District of Columbia 33.2%
CA, San Francisco County 31.1%
MA, Suffolk County 30.9%
PA, Philadelphia County 25.4%
NY, Westchester County 20.4%
NJ, Essex County 18.6%
IL, Cook County 17.3%
NY, Nassau County 15.7%
MD, Montgomery County 12.6%
MA, Norfolk County 12.3%
MD, Prince George's County 11.9%
OR, Multnomah County 11.1%
NJ, Bergen County 11.0%
CA, Alameda County 10.6%
PA, Allegheny County 10.5%