Monday, December 31, 2007

OT: The long road to Ottumwa for John McCain

It's a bit hard to believe the Iowa caucuses are just a few hours away. What's a caucus?, See Mike M's expert explanation over on Pittsblog. I figure nobody in Iowa is reading here, but I just wonder at the large number of candidates in the mix. It will get thinned out pretty quickly I figure. Without a doubt, every candidate has some unique story of how they wound up thinking they could be president someday.

If asked I bet most people would know about John McCain's history as a prisoner of war for over 5 years. Yet the most amazing piece of his bio comes from before that began. Anyone who has spent a week in the Navy over the last 40 years has seen the video below which is the classic training video on shipboard firefighting. The circumstances were pretty tragic when in 1967 onboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal the accidental launch of a rocket from one aircraft parked on the flight deck hit another fully armed aircraft at the other end of the ship. I suspect this video is why I just can't watch anything labeled 'reality TV' to this day. Nothing staged here.

Most of the video is really about the heroic if sometimes ill-trained fire fighting efforts that eventually saved the ship. What is often overlooked is that the plane that was 'hit' by the rocket at the center of this was John McCain's. If you saw the full actual film (vice the youtube resolution) you would see then-Lieutenant Commander McCain literally climbing out over the fuel probe in the front of his plane seconds before the cascading explosions from the bombs on his plane cooked off and that would kill most everyone on the flight deck at the time.

So that is not meant to be a political comment really, and I doubt many Iowans read this blog anyway.... but between that and the 5+ years he was a prisoner of war, after having been shot down no less, you just have to wonder why the man is alive. One way or the other, the video is one of the more amazing real-time videos of a disaster as it took place.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Will Warren Buffet someday own Pittsburgh?

A joke? not exactly. Fester has been diligently covering the linkage between the crisis in the municipal bond insurance market and the potential implications for the City of Pittsburgh. It's a big topic that is nearly impossible to keep esoteric-free. So wonks only will want to read further.

Suffice it to say that local governments in the US have a lot of debt in the form of municipal bonds. The City of Pittsburgh has long had such poor credit that it has had to purchase bond insurance in order to float debt in the bond market. Today virtually all the city's nearly $900 million general obligation debt is covered by bond insurance issued by one of the handful of firms that issue such insurance. The insurance means that if the city ever fails to make a bond payment, the bond insurer kicks in so there is less risk to whomever buys the bond. There is a cost to the city for this in the form of an additional premium to the bond insurer, but the payoff is that the city gets to issue debt at the bond rating of the insurer which is much by definition is higher than the city's. Why the bond insurance market operates as it does, and how insurers set premia, is something of a mystery to me. I am not alone in that perspective.

The problem is that the bond insurers are running out of money. That's a bit simplistic, but the bond rating agencies are looking to downgrade the bond insurers' credit ratings almost across the board. Since the only real product of a bond insurer is it's credit rating, that's pretty bad. It is a crisis akin to the sub-prime real estate crisis that makes more headlines. Municipal bond insurance just does not make for decent copy the way a foreclosed house does: no furniture on the street and virtually nobody to interview.

Where does warren Buffet come in? Warren likes a good deal and distressed municipal debt must look like an opportunity for him. That and he has big pockets. So just as the big wall street firms have been looking to Dubai and China for big cash infusions to cover their potential losses in the sub-prime credit crisis.... so too have the bond insurers have gone looking for sugar-daddy's to recapitalize and prevent ratings downgrades. There was talk that Buffet was going to do just that for one of the big Bond insurers Ambac, which insures some of the city's bonded debt. The news just yesterday is that he is instead going to try and build his own bond insurance company and thus leave Ambac out in the cold to fend for itself or find some other funder. So the next time the city refinances, Warren may be the insurer. Which raises an interesting question, if he does enter the bond insurance biz, will Warren Buffet insure future debt of the city of Pittsburgh? As of right now, the answer would be no only because news accounts say he is only looking to operate in 4 states that do not include Pennsylvania.

But there are only a few companies that exist in this business and they all seem to have some precarious finances these days. Like all such crises, it's not that it wasn't predicted by anyone. The bellwether report seems to be the 2002 report "Is MBIA Triple A" put out by Bill Ackman of Gotham Partners about one of the other major bond insurers. He now predicts that MBIA will be bankrupt by the 2nd quarter of 2008 which isn't too far away. What that means for Pittsburgh bonds insured by a bankrupt company is a bit of uncharted territory. The bond lawyers may have to earn their fees if that ever becomes a real question.

A more interesting question is whether Warren Buffet already insures the City's debt. Even without being a player in the bond insurance world, Warren Buffet is a big player in the reinsurance business. Reinsurance is the insurance of insurance so to speak. Most insurance companies will then insure themselves against large scale losses with the few heavily capitalized companies that can afford to cover such losses. While the details are not quite transparent, I would bet that most of the big bond insurance companies have reinsurance for their bigger potential losses. I would bet that the city of Pittsburgh's bond portfolio represents some of the bigger risk in several bond insurers' portfolios. In fact you can look at the history of the AHERF bankruptcy here in town and see that when it went into Chapter 9 Bankruptcy it did indeed default on bonded debt which then cascaded into a big hit against the excess against loss (i.e. reinsurance) insurance that bond insurer MBIA had with several of the bigger reinsurance companies in the world. If you think all that AHERF miasma is ancient history, finances take a long time to unwind and MBIA only this year was able to settle some of the last issues remaining from the bond insurance-reinsurance claptrap they built for themselves. And if MBIA sounds more familiar to you than a bond insurer should, they are indeed the company that once oddly gave the City of Pittsburgh over $70 million dollars for tax liens that they obviously didn't think though how they would ever be able to liquify other than through sheer extortion... but that is another long story.

So if Buffet's company has reinsurance policies with the city's bond insurers... maybe the ultimate holder of the city's risk portfolio is really the sage of Omaha. Since Warren is such a good investor, does that mean that the city is really a great investment in the end? Maybe, but Warren has made a few mistakes in the past, not the least of which was his big investment in USAir a few bankruptcies ago. That or the namesake of his investment company, the long since shuttered Berkshire-Hathaway manufacturing company which had it's plants closed by Buffet only to retain the name and corporate history.

So the question is does Warren Buffet already own Pittsburgh. Maybe if we rename it Buffet-Burgh we can buy the city back on the cheap? But when you add it all up: the city's fiscal miasma, AHERF, MBIA, tax liens and so on. It's rather amazing that they all tie together in more than trivial ways. Fester has been musing on the potential implications to the City of Pittsburgh's finances if bond insurance rates go up or go away altogether, thus forcing the city to borrow at much higher interest rates. I say flip that logic and ask what impact the city of Pittsburgh's precarious finances could have on the entire bond insurance market and beyond. The City's bonded debt is a drop in the bucket of the entire municipal bond market, and also pretty small part of all the bonded debt out there... but it is probably not an insignificant part of the bonded debt really at risk when you factor in the size of the city's debt and the state of city finances. Are bond insurers in the situation Japanese banks were through the 1990's? Could a hypothetical future city default be the lead-weighted feather that pushes a bad situation over the edge?


Friday, December 28, 2007

Purple Rain

There is quite a supply of tickets down the road. The Baltimore Sun has a quote from down there that they expect 30-40% of the stadium to be filled with Steelers fans this weekend. They even say that there is a Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Maryland with a banner reading "Baltiburgh".

You can check out the prices for Steelers-Ravens tickets on ebay which seem to reflect the surrender of the purple people eaters purple dinosaurs.


radio news

Most would not recognize him, but many would know his voice. Bob Kopler retires this morning as the morning news anchor at KDKA radio after 19 years there and over 40 years in the local media market.

Which brings up a question. It's been more than a few months since John Mcintire's unceremonious departure from the radioverse. You would think that the radio market would find some slot for a host with a known market. I presume one issue is that talk radio is not much of the spectrum these days and locally-produced talk content even rarer. There are just few outlets for pure talk anymore. Maybe something on WPTT in the new year?

How did that song from the Buggles go?


Thursday, December 27, 2007

missing the Prothontary already?

Governing magazine's blog is already feeling nostalgic over the demise of the Allegheny County Prothontary.

Who knew? Prothontary even has a wikipedia entry. I bet WorldBook never stooped to such lows.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Happy Boxing Day...

... also known as the day after XMAS. Many of us have acquired a lot more 'stuff'. If you have not seen it, making the rounds is this online video presentation of The Story of Stuff that is remarkably well put together.

Alas, none of my new aquisitions came from Wired editors' list of the Top 10 Things they would have liked to get. It didn't have to be the Olevia 747i TV, I would have been rather thrilled to get the Legos Imperial Walker.

Of course I feel guilty now watching that video... Legos blocks must be one of the least biodegradable items on the planet. I bet most will still be around in 3978 along with the Statue of Liberty.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Second City Cometh

Just because I spent a few hours in Canada earlier in the month... Adfreak wonders whether the ongoing writers strike will eventually force viewers in the US to endure some Canadian TV.

Actually it was kind of sad, the local papers in Toronto all had public service advertisements discussing potential new passport regulations to get into the US which were very uninviting. And the loonie is now worth the same as our dollar which makes it expensive to head north. Of course, the converse angle is will Canadians start flocking into Pennsylvania for cheap Christmas presents (no sales tax of clothing even)? I know more than a few people who had relatives who went to college in Canada because the exchange rate and lower tuition rates made it a pretty good option. I wonder if that will continue at these exchange rates?

Long ago, over on Pittsblog, I mused over the lack of inclusion of Canada in regional economic development thinking. I think it's closer to get to Toronto than to Philadelphia depending on traffic. Is there a Buffacleverontoburgh out there eh?


Saturday, December 22, 2007

political numerology and more

Given that the countdown to the Iowa caucuses is now measured in hours here is what you will need for your political obsessions. The University of Michigan has what may be the best omnibus political site for information on the presdential campaigns. See:

and for the latest survey analysis, I have mentioned this site before: Political Arithmetik. Also a web site that I can't quite decide if I found it, or it found me: the wonkosphere wonkoblog.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Rust Belt Globalization

There is a blogosphere buzz over the impact new immigrants could have on rust belt regions. Immigration was one of the focuses of a radio program looking at regional impacts of globalization with a focus on the rust belt. For more see (or listen to) Global 3.0 produced by American Radio Works a couple years ago. A Pittsburgh specific segment was "The Rustbelt, Again?".

But to link that to something a bit more recent on globalization in the traditional rust belt. There is news that pretty soon parts of Ford Motor Company will be sold to Tata of India. Read more from the Times of India today: Vroom with a whew! Tatas set for motown debut. Which lead me to catch something a bit off topic, but coincidentally about a ship I served on briefly. Globalization or not, there is a sad commentary on the state of cultural awareness in the US in the very first paragraph of this article on the sale of the former USS Trenton to the Indian Navy.

Taking those snippets altogether I can't help but wonder what the angst will be like if US Steel really does ever get sold to a foreign company......


Thursday, December 20, 2007

mysteries of the mane

For those few out there who do not know... yes it's Thursday, but there is a Steelers game tonight. From Slate's great explainer is this article of all the questions they did not try to answer this year. Some are pretty funny, but I wonder who this question refers to (it really is in there, on the third page of the article):

Why don't long-haired football players, many of them of Polynesian descent, get their tresses tugged during their gridiron clash?


When all is lost: send email to the CEO

This got caught in one of my rss filters... While this blog post from the consumerist has one of the most graphic pictures of a Primanti's sandwich in mid-munch it is actually about someone in town getting mad at Apple tech support.. Someone who apparently has Steve Jobs' email handy. Not me. See:

Steve Jobs Rescues Your MacBook from Pittsburgh...

I really have to wonder what Steve Jobs' inbox looks like.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tech transfer metrics.....

Lots of interesting stuff in this report put out a couple months ago by the Pennsylvania Economy League in Philadelphia: Accelerating Technology Transfer in Greater Philadelphia, Identifying Opportunities to Connect Universities with Industry for Regional Economic Development. It includes benchmarking against Pittsburgh and other regions for topics such as venture capital, technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Certainly not a new idea on my part... but I still wonder if people realize how much of the fight against global warming is going on right here. For example check out the location of the authors of this article just out: The United States Department of Energy's Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships Program Validation Phase. Environment International. Volume 34, Issue 1; January, 2008; Pages 127-138.

Of course, a lot of the coal that has been burned over the last century has come from the vast Pittsburgh Seam. For more on how the region's energy history ties together you can read my old oped: Energy-Burgh.

and an obligatory plug for something else I have mentioned in the past: the Pitt Veggiemobile.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Play and Poverty in 1930s and 40s Pittsburgh

From a website named is this video clip of a senior explaining some important Pittsburgh history:


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Can Ohio's Cities Be Saved?

Brewed Fresh Daily gives a heads up to a lot of stuff worth reading in this series on the state of urban America put together by the Columbus Dispatch. See:

On the Brink. Can Ohio's Cities Be Saved?


Saturday, December 15, 2007


Some more news this week on the recurring idea that Pittsburgh may get a direct flight to Amsterdam. For those who have flown into Schipol, it defines the term Aerotropolis, it even has a casino inside the airport. I had more comments and a few relevant links in one of my first blog posts: Is "Aerotropoli" really a word?


Friday, December 14, 2007

Pittsburgh Obliterated......

....... in a comic book that is.

I was going to post this on December 22nd when it supposedly happened, but it is just too depressing a post for the days before XMAS. So lest we forget, it was 20 years ago this month that Pittsburgh was completely obliterated (in a comic book). That was the entire plot for an one-issue Marvel Comic Book that came out in 1987 titled creatively "The Pitt".

Just a comic book? Maybe, but it says something that Pittsburgh was the chosen as the foil for such a story in the mid 1980's. I'm not so sure it was a completely random choice.


Thursday, December 13, 2007


The CP has their 'best of' selections out this week. Where is the transparency? Who added up these votes? More than a few hanging chad on the floor down there at the CP... Here are a few of their select categories and what my vote would have been.

Best Place to Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

CP: Dozen's Cupcakes
Me: Paddy Cake Bakery in Bloomfield

Don't believe me? Go and see what the do with the leftover frosting for cakes when they use it as 'filling' between two big chocolate chip cookies which altogether sells for half the price of a cupcake at that 'other' establishment. I guarantee it's the most calories per dollar you can get in the city.

Best Local Bookstore:

CP: Joseph Beth
Me: Is there a real bookstore in town?

Best Pittsburgh Movie

CP: Striking Distance
Me: Achilles Love

Though at least Bruce Willis gives a indelible reference to Bigelow Blvd. in SD.

Best Music Store

CP: Paul's CD's
Me: Jim's Records

Best Political Activist

CP: Bill Peduto
Me: Doesnt Rauterkus get an honorable mention for setting some record for running in more local elections than anyone in history.

Best Antique Store

CP: Zenith Antiques
Me: Crown Antiques

Nothing against Zenith at all.. but wear your miners helmet with light when you are digging through the fifth floor at Crown.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Fake government?

OT but from the economists at the Marginal Revolution blog is a pointer to this story that must form the straight line to a multitude of jokes... In India they recently cracked down on a fully functioning, but fake, government office that they only discovered by accident. I may have to have Kinko's print me up a banner for the City of Pittsburgh's 10th Councilmatic district. How long would it be before I get a call about some pothole somewhere?


Slots-burgh musings

So I have to admit I am a bit confused about the news of groundbreaking at the site for the Majestic Star Casino. I thought the City Planning Commission's hearing was delayed until January 14th. You would think from all the rhetoric that someone would chain themselves to the backhoe or something. Back in the day....... but it is funny to compare the current news to this headline from almost a year ago: "Pittsburgh casino license winner tries to speed building process"

update: I didn't catch that Don Barden is also the focus of a story in the New York Times today: For Casino Owner, Winning a License Was Not a Matter of Luck

But on the future casino business here this is just a purely anecdotal observation... I had to stay a night in Erie, PA the other day and surprisingly found many of the hotels booked and the rates higher than I expected for the area. Talking with people up there they explained that the opening of the casino at Presque Isle Downs earlier this year is responsible for both a jump in occupancy rates and a big increase in rates. Adding to that, a local hotel manager I happened to speak with explained they were planning on demolishing one of the larger hotels up there to have it rebuilt several times bigger.

So good or bad... the casino is coming and we are going to be noticing some impacts... How big an impact? The Erie Times had a report last week that over one week (November 26- December 2) at the casino up there:

Gamblers wagered $29.7 mil
The amount returned to players:$27.2 million.
The gross revenue -- the amount of the gamblers' losses: $2.2 million.
Divided out that means $1.2 million went to the state and $1 million to the casino.

The $1mil is best described as a gross profit number since they must have expenses before getting to net... and I have no idea how representative that particular week is of the year..... but still, if only a part of it is 'tourist' generated, for Erie in a cold December? They have 2,000 slots machines up there... Majestic star is going to be something closer to 6,000 I think. You do the math.

So like it or not, there will be an impact here when the casino eventually opens..... assuming it ever gets built of course. I know he has a big incentive to get the construction started as soon as possible, but given the weather at hand, you have to wonder how much work can get done before the weather breaks in the spring. But there is a "construction progress" site it appears:, though it does not have much to say at the moment... although it does say they are looking to fill 1,050 full time jobs.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Obligatory Kennywood Rant

OMG! You have probably read that Kennywood of all things is being sold to a Spanish firm. Can you believe that? What next? Westinghouse may be sold to the Japanese and US Steel will be sold to the Russians. wait a minute......

at least you can alredy read Null Space in Spanish.



With a new round of news on opposition to the casino, you have to wonder how long Don Barden will keep up the public front of congeniality with local leaders. But more on that later maybe....

The PG's ER blog yesterday mentions state Rep. Elisabeth Bennington in the news. You know it's election season since you see all of the many people up for reelection looking for ways to get into the news. She even had a letter to the editor in the PG recently. In district 21 her 2006 election against Frank Pistella came out per this map. Will Pistella run again? Or will there be another opponent out there. Rumors of a certain former police commander looking to run could make it a tough re-election campaign. A big factor will be if there is a split opposition as happened in dist 20.....

Speaking of which... Don Walko won Dist 20 in a split 3 way race. Will he have a single opponent this time around? This is the mayor's home district, you have to wonder who he supports. Last time around Walko's opponents split the vote which you can see in these maps for the support of Banahasky or Purcell. Will either, both or neither run again? Purcell some may recall ran previously for County Council District 1 where he lost to Matt Drozd in an extremely close (0.2% actually) race.

How about District 24. Joe Preston won last time, but Ed Gainey had some support and has been working down in the Mayor's office which has to help at building support. Anyway, those maps and others from the last general assembly cycle are on my map page.

Any other close races expected for the primary?


Monday, December 10, 2007

Allegheny City Redux

Stories over the weekend on the history of Allegheny City and its merger with the City of Pittsburgh. My own comments on this were in this older post: The Neverending Story. If you ask me, the most important consequence of the Allegheny City merger is very counterintuitive. It expanded the city, but at the same time set in stone the opposition to future municipal consolidations not just here, but across the state. Thus the reason the region and state remains as fragmented as it is in terms of local government can all be traced to changes made to the PA Constitution as a result of opposition to the Allegheny City merger. Also here is the complete timeline of the territorial growth of the city of Pittsburgh ... something I made into an approximate dynamic graphic that looks like this:


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Diaspora note: David Karnes

Staten Island Today has a note on the retirement of Pittsburgh native David Karnes from a 24 year career in the Marine Corps. That career had a brief civilian interruption which would document him as one of the first heroes of 9/11 in New York City and had a connection to Allegheny County's 911 system.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Baltimore on the Mon

From the entertainment desk...... I was a big fan of the Squonk Opera's introspective look at all our innumerable hangups which they made into the show: Pittsburgh: The Opera last year.... They have been on the road and it is interesting to read this review in the Baltimore Sun of their show down there. see: Pittsburgh on the Patapsco. I sense a bit of "We're allowed to say that, but you aren't" from the Baltimoreans..... Imagine a bit if a troupe from elsewhere came to town and attempted to do a show telling us about ourselves. We would run them out of town or they would quickly be subsumed by our collective angst and need to be institutionalized.

More importantly, I see that the Squonk opera is bringing back it's Pittsburgh show in January. If you are reading this blog, I guarantee it's something you want to see. Then we just have to go convince The Absolute Pitts to make a comeback.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Set Yoke Throughout

One could argue that the US entered World War II on this day at the moment the Pittsburgh-built Westinghouse SCR-270 Radar first detected the incoming wave of aircraft approaching Pearl Harbor only to be told "don't worry about it". The testing for the new radar system was done years earlier detecting the approach of cars on what must have been route 30 through East Pittsburgh.

But given all of our increasing obsession with collecting data and measuring everything... the morning of Pearl Harbor points out pretty clearly that often we have have all the data we need... believing that data and doing something with it is another thing altogether. Given just a half hour of warning, the US Pacific fleet could have had its battle stations manned and watertight doors closed. It is not inconceivable that history would have recorded the Pearl Harbor attack as a colossal failure for the Japanese. What that counterfactual history would have meant for the history of WWII????

The PG has a story today on some local audio recordings made of radio news that came out. The links that the story references are on this page:

Some of the Pittsburgh specific recordings on that page are:

Broadcast #3 This bulletin from Honolulu, heard over WCAE (Pittsburgh, PA) at 4:15 p.m. Eastern time, offers the first direct-contact report from Hawaii.
Broadcast #4 Stating that "Japan has drawn first blood," this colorful report from Pittsburgh radio station WCAE describes Roosevelt's responses, and mirrors the stunned response of an unsuspecting country.
Broadcast #7 This newscast, heard over KDKA (Pittsburgh) at 4:30 p.m. eastern time, announces the immediate alert against both espionage and Japanese Americans, who were, according to the report, equally surprised and shocked by the attacks. and
Broadcast #11By the time this broadcast was heard over Pittsburgh's KDKA at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time, the nation was already on high alert against sabotage.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

no reason.....

Today is the anniversary of the largest municipal bankruptcy in the United States when Orange County, California filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy in federal court on December 6th, 1994. You can watch more on that thanks to youtube where someone uploaded a lot of the contemporaneous news coverage:

The causes and effects of the Orange County bankruptcy are too much to get into here, you can look up the details if you want. But the bottom line is that like a lot of the big hedge funds that all but collapsed in the past, Orange County had invested in ways that were very sensitive to interest rates. When interest rates moved different from they way they bet they would, their entire investment portfolio had a big cash crunch forcing default.

Because the Orange County case was pretty unusual, it has little direct analogy to anything that could happen here, but it still is an important precedent. In reality, I have said in the past that Orange county entered bankruptcy in better financial strength than say the City of Pittsburgh would if it were to complete and exit a bankruptcy process. Their problem was highly leveraged investments that arguably were inappropriate for a public sector investor. If there is an analogy directly, it is in how interest rates are really the key. The city has scheduled large balloon payments in much of its bonded debt which isn't abnormal. It just means that large chunks of debt will need to be refinanced at some point. Thus far municipal interest rates are not shooting up, but things like higher oil prices, a weakening dollar and inflation in general have the potential to push up interest rates which would then make the refinancing costs of the all such debt a lot more painful at some point in the future.

Which reminds me of a quote from the early years of the Clinton administration. When he was learning how the economy and Federal government really operated, it was probably Robert Rubin who explained to the new president how most everything depended on keeping interst rates low so to keep the costs of the Federal governments debt manageable. Even before he took office the quote from Clinton himself was: "You mean to tell me that the success of the economic program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of %^&^% bond traders?". I have to wonder if that will be the discussion up on the 5th floor someday.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quantifying Promise

Lots of pontificating over the news that UPMC has offered between $10 and $100 million to fund the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program for Pittsburgh Public Schools students. They say the program here has been modeled after the program in place in Kalamazoo, MI. The Kalamazoo Promise has an officially designated 'scorekeeper' in the form of the venerable W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. I bet they have research we may want to take a look at before pontificating too much ourselves. Take a look at their collection of research just on this one program:

But it did get me thinking about the math that will drive the costs and sustainability of a program like this. Lots of things go into the trends in census counts within school districts, but I was a bit surprised at how much of the decline in Pittsburgh Public Schools enrollment was just a very recent phenomenon.. by recent I mean the last 5 years even. Here is what that looks like:

Total Pittsburgh Public School Enrollment 1987-2005

Source: National Center for Educational Statistics, US Department of Education
I was going to supplement that graph with the most recent data, but according to the school districts own web page: "District-level enrollment information for 2007-08 is not yet available". How can that possibly be? It is now December and they have no idea how many students are coming through the doors each day?


Tuesday, December 04, 2007


You may have seen the news stories about Pittsburgh being ranked as the 9th most walkable. You can read the entire Brookings report online: Footloose and Fancy Free: A Field Survey of Walkable Urban Places in the Top 30 U.S. Metropolitan Areas.

And that was all with data before the Hot Metal bike/pedestrian bridge was completed. Subtle huh? See the comments on the previous post for some of the reaction to the idea I posted for (re)naming at least part of the span.


Monday, December 03, 2007

(Re)naming the Hot Metal Bridge

Apologies if this idea is floating around somewhere else, but an anonymous commenter here has suggested an idea that at least deserves being raised. Should the new bike/pedestrian bridge next to the hot metal bridge be named for former Mayor Tom Murphy?

Clearly, there are still a lot of emotions over the tenure of Tom Murphy. If I could shape the debate (not to even presume there is a debate actually) over this I would say it is not worth getting into the details over whether one agreed or disagreed with any specific policy over the years. From just the historical perspective, the 12 year tenure of the Murphy Administration makes this an obvious question. Consider that on the list of all Pittsburgh mayors, the 12 years he was in office is 2nd only to David Lawrence himself. The list of mayors with the longest terms in office is:

David L. Lawrence 1946-1959
Tom Murphy 1994-2006
Joseph M. Barr 1959-1970
Richard S. Caliguiri 1977-1988
Cornelius D. Scully 1936-1946
John Darragh 1817-1825
Charles H. Kline 1926-1933
Peter F. Flaherty 1970-1977
Sophie Masloff 1988-1994
William A. Magee 1909-1914

It is odd looking at the Murphy years in retrospect and compare that to what things looked like when TM first ran for Mayor. But just on the question of the bridge recently completed: It has been my observation that friends and foes alike credit the Murphy administration with most of the trail system that was set up within the City of Pittsburgh. I swear I have heard others talk about the possibility of naming the entire trail system for Tom Murphy, but I can’t place where that came from. So even if you oppose the general idea of naming things for him, the naming of just the pedestrian bridge could be the lesser option for posterity.

Musing more broadly, I will point out my previous post on the South Side Works redevelopment. Again, no matter what you think of the policies involved in getting that project completed it is clearly a big problem to deal with any of the region’s brownfield sites and the former J&L plant was one of the biggest. For anyone who has used any part of the trail system as it exists along the Mon, or the new bridge itself, that older post of mine has the image of what used to be on that site. That all didn't evaporate without an awful amount of work.

So it is a cop out to attribute this to an anonymous commenter. I would say for myself that naming the bridge makes a certain amount of sense for a simple reason. When you consider that the emphasis on trail development was not something that was happening on it’s own here, you have to ask how our trail system came to be. But if this comes to pass I will ask permission if his or her identity can be made known for the historical record so that credit (or blame I suppose) can be property placed.

Moreover, when you look back on transportation policy in the US, the focus here like most everywhere was focused solely on cars. Be it on the roads needed to commute by automobile or the parking needed to store your car while at work there was little effor on any alternatives for a long time. There is a great video on that mentality in the Prelinger Archives. See the snippets of Pittsburgh in the 1955 advocacy film: Freedom of the American Road. It is not as scary as the earlier anti-urban film I pointed out called The City... but they are variations on a theme. So the trails or the new bridge are symbols of a big shift in attitudes toward cities if nothing else.

Where is my bunker? I am pretty sure I have ranged grid 0-0.