Friday, January 23, 2009

Desperately Seeking Stimulus

I honestly mostly wrote this post weeks ago but never got around to finishing it.. and now it looks like the Port Authority is ahead of me. I would have looked far more prescient if I put it up earlier.

I know everyone is planning for how to use the big infrastructure stimulus tsunami that is in the works. It is worth keeping in mind that the little caveat about being 'shovel ready' is not just a minor detail. Not many things we might want to get built are really that ready to get started anytime soon. Can anyone say "environmental impact statement"? The first big push of things that are really ready to be funded soonest will be a small small subset of any larger wish list. I really bet that the first projects that get $$ pushed to them will surprise many folks.

So just one example, take the Trib's recent mention of how the regions 3rd Maglev project is now focused on selling itself as being truly 'shovel ready'. The 3rd maglev project you ask? No not the big Maglev in the sky that was to connect Greensburg, Pittsburgh and the Airport, and no not even the slow Maglev project which is the local project to connect the Hill District with Downtown... but the 3rd which is a people mover type system for the campus of California University of PA. Think it's a bit far fetched? Folks at CUP don't think so. Could shovel ready rule?

Which leads to the Port Authority and the 2nd most controversial transportation project in town*. Are not the most shovel ready projects the ones where the shovels are already digging? That just came to mind reading the coverage on the current state of the North Shore connector where the tunnel-digger is about to finish its journey back under the Allegheny. One point always covered is whether the project is on or over budget. I was just thinking how the whole issue of funding the remainder of the NSC is almost moot. Given the mad rush to find shovel ready infrastructure projects it is nearly impossible that the NSC connector will not be finished at this point. If there is a big shortfall then you have to think that any marginal funding needed to complete a project that is 80-90% finished will be first on the list when the new Federal expenditures start to flow. You might as well claim you are broke to get at the front of the line.... and it looks to me like the Port Authority powers that be were thinking the same thing of late.

Which leads to a further thought. The North Shore Connector has been scaled back several times because of funding cuts and escalating costs. Would it not make sense for the Port Authority to try and leverage new infrastructure investment and put back some of the features that have been gutted from the project.. not the least of which was access to the actual North Side neighborhoods it's supposed to service. The new spur was supposed to extend to the vicinity of the West End Bridge and include 4 new stations built along with the tunnel. Right now I think the plan is just for three new stations and ending short.

Those apoplectic over anything related to the NSC have stopped reading by now, but think about it. A lot of the public antipathy for the project is because it has been scaled back to the point it is hard to justify its existence. Well.... now would be the time to put back the original vision to include the new stations that were planned, or even start to extend the spur toward the airport which was really the original goal or maybe even that spur that would head north toward commuter-hub Cranberry. Even if you are opposed to the whole NSC concept, the fact is that the costliest parts of the project are almost done. The tunnel was the expensive part. At this point does it not make sense to get as much use of the new tunnel as possible? That would mean extending the new line as far as possible and not keeping the minimalist station plan that was forced upon the project by funding constraints. In economic terms, the big fixed cost is already sunk (literally) and the marginal cost of getting the best bang for the buck is a lot lower.

So I am saying: McKees Rocks or bust for the T. For the unbelievers, just keep repeating to yourself: 'shovel ready'.

* No, #1 isn't skybus anymore. Even Pittsburghers' memories start to dull a bit after nearly 40 years. MFE will top the list for some time, whether it ever gets built to completion or not.


Anonymous MH said...

Why bother? It'll just give the union a bigger set of hostages when they strike in 2012 before any of the real cuts from the 2008 contract actually start.

Friday, January 23, 2009 5:25:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

"Would it not make sense for the Port Authority to try and leverage new infrastructure investment and put back some of the features that have been gutted from the project.. not the least of which was access to the actual North Side neighborhoods it's supposed to service."

Now you're cooking with gas. The idea of sinking this money into a project that "suddenly" wasn't going to get done without it peeved me. What were we planning to do if McCain won the election?

Friday, January 23, 2009 5:49:00 PM  
Blogger Schultz said...

A Maglev at Cal U???? I smell something, smells like pork......ah yes, Cal U is in Congressman John Murtha's district. He is the king of pork!!!

Seriously though, this smells funny. According to the Trib story Cal U officials told them the maglev train would carry 15,000 people a day. That seems very high to me. Then I read on the Cal U website's press release that the maglev train would carry 6,000 riders each day. Where are they getting the 6,000 figure from?

From the university's about us page:

"The university lies within the Borough of California, a community of approximately 6,000 residents."

I guess they expect all 6,000 residents of California PA to ride the new maglev each day! This is indeed a pork project if I ever saw one and it is things like this and his pork projects in Johnstown that makes me disappointed that Murtha escaped defeat this past fall.

Friday, January 23, 2009 6:04:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry said...

Imagine you hired a plumber to replace the water line to your house. Not because it needed replacing, but because you thought it might enhance the value of your house. And so you hired the plumber, and he came out and dug a gigantic hole in your front yard.

Then that night, after the hole was done but before he replaced the line, KDKA announced that you had hit the lottery for $3 million.

The plumber showed up the next day and said, "Hey, I'm realizing this was more work than I thought and I'm gonna need to ask you for another $2000. Otherwise I'll just have to abandon the project and leave this giant hole in your front yard."

Now that $2000 that you could have used for other projects is gone.

It's not a perfect analogy, I know -- as Chris points out, that extra money for the cost overrun might not actually exist for other projects if it's not used for the one already in progress. But the whole thing stinks. If they get more money, and don't redeem themselves by extending the line as far as possible -- allowing it to terminate virtually at the front door of the new casino -- well, that will just be wrong. I think blackmail would be the best word for it.

Friday, January 23, 2009 8:12:00 PM  
Blogger Bram Reichbaum said...

Oh, and congratulations on the post title.

Saturday, January 24, 2009 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger illyrias said...

They want Maglev to connect students to outlying housing??? Wouldn't it be cheaper to build brand-new housing closer to campus??? I completely agree with Schultz. This is a pork project if I've ever heard of one.

"It is true the State System of Higher Education's investment will be large, but the returns will be even greater."

If Obama stimulus money and/or state education money contributes to a maglev on a college campus, I might lose my faith in all government.

Heck, I'd prefer the MFX to this pork project.

Sunday, January 25, 2009 2:23:00 PM  

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