Friday, February 27, 2009

Voter mashups

Allegheny County has a pretty good polling place locator online, but you have to wonder what the next step could be. What if you wanted to find out all the elections you should be voting in... Many don't know. Check out:

one of several projects by CMU's Mattt Thompson.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Book of the Moment

Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data by Joel Best

I think I am going to buy a case of these books and instead of arguing with people who quote bogus data to me as happens often.. I will just give them a copy.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Charlotte... Pittsburgh... recession..

So here is a quote in the media:

Think you’d rather ride out the recession in Charlotte than in Rust Belt cities such as Buffalo or Pittsburgh?

Think again.

Interesting because it was actually written in Charlotte last week.


Actualizing Actuaries

Only for the financially wonkiest... We should learn the state of the city's pension system tomorrow I think. I have been thinking about something that is generally applicable to the pension problems everywhere, not just here. Buried in some corporate filings you are beginning to see inklings of a new accelerant in the pension crisis here and elsewhere. As the world grapples with the possibility of real deflation, or at the very least minimal inflation for some time the actuaries are being forced to take notice. It appears to me that assumptions of future inflation are directly or indirectly via other markets resulting in lowered discount rate assumptions. Think about what that means for the NPV calculations of future pension liabilities which are typically long term streams of fixed $ payouts. I'll leave it at that, those who know what I am talking about don't want/need me to expound.. those who don't have probably stopped reading already. This is not just a Pittsburgh story, but could have huge impacts for most all big pension funds, not the least of which are the major auto companies in the news. Might be one of the bigger financial stories out there.. uncovered because of the sheer wonkiness of it all.

Whatever we learn of the current state of the city's pension fund balances.. realize that its probably already a dated number. Whatever the pension fund balance was at the end of December, or even the end of January... consider how the markets have fared in just the last few weeks. Dow overall is down ~18% from early January. Factor that into the numbers and.........


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Even those Google folks need to eat?

Just funny. See: Google Street View Driver taking a break at Wendy's in Pittsburgh, PA.

From a cool site:

I wonder if Wendy's will want to sue Google? OK, bad joke.


migrant renters?

OK.. this is all tied together.

First, see the Trib's coverage of some proprietary metrics on rental vacancy rates across regions and you see Pittsburgh comes in with a remarkably low rate of rental vacancy. Big news in itself. Lots going on there and what some of my real estate friends tell me is that the middle market for housing, which would include the quality rental housing market is doing quite well. A lot of that is unquestionably the fact that folks who in the recent past might have purchased real estate are finding it more practical to be renting.

But another reason has to be an artifact of how well the region has been doing relative to many other regions. Has to be some new people in the region impacting rental rates. In the past I explained the connection between regional economic conditions and migration into Pittsburgh. At the time, most of the regions we typically exchange population with were doing far worse than we were by most economic metrics. The only big exception at the time was the Washington, DC area. That may still be the case broadly speaking, but the Washington Post had a decent series of articles yesterday on the state of the regional economy down there. They do not paint a rosy picture for how DC is expected to fare as the recession continuees. You may need a (free) registration to read the articles but one of the main ones is here for those who are interested. But if DC is no longer the exception than nearly every region which is a major destination of Pittsburgh migrants is faring worse than we are and that will have bigger impacts on migration flows.


Dead (and dying) malls

OK, I said this last year in 95 words... but I am feeling cranky enough to say the same thing with 1000. If you didn't see it, check out the story in the PG in the weekend over the state of local malls.. in particular the apparent demise of Century III Mall.

Some may think it is part of some new return to the city.. maybe an extension of the fear of all things suburban that as briefly at hand when gas prices were zooming toward $5/gallon. Or maybe the recession at hand is somehow to blame. Is it something new that malls fail? Let along malls here? Check out the local representation of local venues at a great web site: (which has listed Century III on it's featured list for several years already). That should answer that in itself.

Consider also that sheer number of new malls that have opened up in say the last decade. Given that malls are built for decades, and many leases last for quite some time you would not expect to see instantaneous changes caused by new malls to be felt instantaneously elsewhere... but that does not mean the effects will not be there. Here is a little economic secret. The amount spent on retail spending in the region is pretty much fixed. FIXED! More stores and more malls only means that the same pie gets divided up that many more ways. What happens to other retails when new retail gets built is generally called displacement for a more scientific term.. and for a region like Pittsburgh its pretty unavoidable. So until we build a competitor for the Mall for America and we get shoppers from all across the Midatlantic coming to spend their money here the decline of old malls will be inevitable.

Thus, big new malls in one part of the region almost have to result in serious declines elsewhere within the region. How could it not? Pittsburghers all of sudden become the biggest spenders in the nation? Not expecting that anytime soon. It's not like there are so many malls here that the impacts can be spread across them all with minimal impacts on any one. Given how many malls have opened, you have to see some major losses somewhere.. What has opened here in what counts for recent in mall-years... a few little projects like say the Waterfront, like South Side Works.... how about the moderately sized Pittsburgh Mills mallapalooza.... or not just Robinson Town Center itself, but the big box jungle that didn't exist all around it 15 years ago. (ok.. Ikea must have opened a few years before that, but not that many years earlier?). It just isn't possible that people are spending more collectively at these new stores. Something has to give.

Again... they are all going for the same dollars. and people like new and shiny. Old and run down is hard to revamp.. though I see the concurrent news of late of new tenants at Ross Park Mall. Yet there many know there has been ongoing declines up and along Mcnight road. How is Northway Mall doing? Not the same section of town, but I can imagine what the marketing material for the Parkway Center Mall once promised... a near perfect location at the 'center' of the region, close to major traffic access and along the booming airport corridor. How has that worked out?

What's it mean? My take is that one of the bigger stories that will result from the recession nationally will be proliferation of these new greyfields. What to do with the defunct, or near defunct shopping mall is a big big problem. Goes beyond the malls of course. How many big box Circuit City stores are going to remain empty for some time to come. Some malls get transformed in some semi-bizarre ways. I now realize many people reading this blog have no idea what Allegheny Center Mall once was even though it sort of exists today and is just a short walk from Downtown in the center of the North Side. To many in town, Allegheny Center Mall is no more than reason for the bizarre traffic patterns trying to get to either of the stadia. Some dead malls eventually become hazards enough that they have to be razed completely.. Eastland Mall anyone?

Let's not even go into the sad state of zoning laws in Pennsylvania and just focus on why these malls get built or don't. Decisions to build malls may be market driven... but often, or very often, there is a lot of public money that goes into them directly or indirectly. Except in extraordinary circumstances its hard to justify that type of support. At the very least, the cost of cleaning up old mall sites has to be taken into account in the calculus. How much money and effort was spent over decades in support of the Pittsburgh Mills Mall development along Route 28? It was not cheap to build all those highway access roads necessitated by the new mall... and that would be just a beginning of an accounting that will never be done. What I don't get is that that money spent there raised only incidental notice yet people get mad at building a tunnel for mass transit? Just think... if Zayres had survived it would soon have its own subway stop.

Check fire.


Monday, February 23, 2009

File under: People that make Pittsburgh Pittsburgh

A loss: Clarke Thomas 1926-2009

I saw Clarke last just a few months ago ensconced in the 3rd floor Pennsylvania section of the Carnegie Library in Oakland diligently researching his latest project. May we all have the same passion for what we do.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

data 2.0

Just trust me.... required reading from the Google Blog which I retitle: the future of data.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hoo's yer government?

Given the recent thoughts out there on government consolidation... including Dan Onorato's idea that local municipalities could be consolidated along school district boundaries... and the governor's idea that the number of school districts should shrink (wait, has anyone put those two ideas together to see what it ends up with?).... Governing covers some recent news from Indiana where aparently they have decided against local government consolidation. And this is a state that is used as a model for how Indianapolis/Marion County merged to some degree its city and county functions. So it's not an easy thing anywhere.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Only in Pittsburgh part II

So you can't believe all that you read on blogs. I recently suggested that County Councilman McCullough would be on short list of potential Republicans to run for County Executive someday. I also wondered why there had not been much news coverage of an ongoing grand jury investigation into accusations he swindled money from an elderly client. Given the news today that the councilman was indicted and arraigned I figure that does not bode well for any future run for office whether he gets convicted or not. But you never know. Can you be kicked off of County Council?

Politics in Pittsburgh is like a family affair. If you read the Trib version (which does not mention the origins of the story in a Dennis Roddy PG piece) you see that McCullough was arraigned by District Justice, former City Council President and counterfactual mayor Gene Riccardi... think about it, he likely would be mayor today if he did not resign his City Council seat to become a district justice. and who is McCullough's attorney? Cliff Levine, local campaign organizer for the President. If I were to guess I would speculate Cliff would be on the short list the Prez would be taking advice from on who should get the local US Attorney's post. Who is on the obvious list for that post has to be Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County District Attorney. Was the grand jury investigating this run out of the DA's offices? I dunno, but that would be my guess. It's just that some days you think we all live in Peyton Place.

If he does leave council before the end of his term... you would have the majority Democratic County Council responsible for filling an interim replacement for the seat which according to the County Home Rule charter would have to be filled by someone of the same party. That could be an interesting dynamic. I'm thinking, could Dave Tessitor register as a Republican just to be allowed to be appointed? Maybe it could be Mark Rauterkus' one chance to hold an elective office.


and I can't decide if this is completely non sequitur or not.. but there is more coverage and some more screen shots being made pulic of the upcoming video game The Pitt set in a post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh. Don't ask me to explain it all, I don't know the details, but an anonymous commenter on my previous post on this explains the game or whatever it is and the Pittsburgh connections with the game developers. My own gaming days ended with... I can't remember.... it wasn't as far back as missile command, but it was long ago.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Spoke too soon - more real estate

Don't need me to just repeat news, but note the news on foreclosures

Residential foreclosures in the Pittsburgh area dropped for the second year in a row in 2008, a 6.6 percent decline from 2007....
What I don't get, I thought we knew this already? So what I said earlier is that it's not just one year's decline, but a 2nd year of decline. How many regions in the country have seen two straight years of decline in foreclosures? Compare the local numbers to the recent news from up the turnpike on record foreclosures in Ohio.. although it notes there are the first signs of decline in some of the hardest hit areas.

More on Howard Hanna's meeting in Cleveland worth a scan. It sounds like it was kind of... different?


Best line in the news yesterday in of all places a story about another hotel project on the North Side.
It might not be long before hotel rooms outnumber Pirates fans on the North Shore.

I hate to say it out loud... but is there a connection between investment there and the NSC?

Speaking of the NSC... I would love to poke fun at the Port Authority over this.. but even that might be a bit unfair given just how screwey the world is these days. Nonetheless, it is about as odd a story as I ever heard in some time on how they are going forward with the project because they 'think' there is money in the stimulus package for them. You could paraphrase that story as: We speculate that possibly.... hopefully... if we understand the Aramaic that the bill was written in... or if we're just plain lucky... that there might be $100 million dollars in there for us somewhere, but we really aren't quite sure about that.

Passed on by Jim R: Another Jero sighting.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Real Estate Odds and Ends

I know nothing about this, but would love to know more. Minyanville has a story that mentions folks from China of all places coming to the US to buy foreclosed homes.

More than 100 buyers from China's ever-growing upper- and middle-class have gone on these tours in the last few months, according to Chen Hang, the China-born vice president of real estate at Fortune Group. The Pittsburgh-based company shows foreclosed property to Chinese buyers.

A Pittsburgh firm showing foreclosed properties to Chinese buyers?? Does that mean Pittsburgh properties? I assume it's for properties elsewhere, but anyone who sees buses full of Chinese tourists driving slowly through Homewood or some other local neighborhood, let me know. Not very long ago Chinese land ownership would have been either an oxymoron or just plain illegal for them. No matter where this is happening, that socialism thing in China must really be over.

From NE Ohio, but an optimistic view of recent trends in real estate in some radio coverage of Howard Hanna's annual meeting in Ohio.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

on the politics of... Easter egg hunts?

The burghosphere is abuzz with all that Pat Dowd is up to. One commenter out there said the following about one P. Dowd:

He’ll stay golden so long as he doesn’t make Grassroots organize an Easter Egg hunt!

Confused? Check out the Dowdometer at the Georgetown Voice along with associated comments. The dude kind of looks like the pending mayoral candidate even. Probably 20 years younger. I expect obligatory comments from my Hoya-educated readers which I know are out there.

Election time is hard for blogging, at least for me. Everything get's hyper-political. So I need to clear out some things now that I'd rather not get too caught up with the debate of the day when the actual race gets going. Actually there is one thing I wouldn't mind being injected into any mayoral debate:

I for one would normally be anathema to suggest that more governments are needed in the region, already one of the most fragmented in the country… but maybe there is a case for just one more authority in town. No I am not talking about the funny historical factoid Jason T. brings up about the possibility there might already be 131 municipalities in Allegheny County. But hold that thought….

Do we need a Hospital Authority in the City of Pittsburgh. What would a hospital authority do? As a start it could potentially absorb EMS services in the city of Pittsburgh. A hospital authority could potentially have some structure to rely on local hospitals for both management and funding. Not to hide that fact... I think it could relieve the city of a certain about of expenditures that would fall collectively on the institutions. I still think it is not a zero sum type of transfer and could be more win win if managed well. The hospitals may appreciate the chance to restructure the EMS system. It’s not privatization really and workers might prefer being employed by a hospital authority or the hospitals themselves. There are a lot of ways it could be structured.

Again, just hypothesizing since any such entity would need a lot of enabling legislation that does not exist right now… but such an entity might be better positioned to do what we keep talking about and expand city services to local municipalities. A lot of municipalities may really desire to be served by a hospital authority in some form... whereas the expansion of city EMS services beyond the city’s borders is probably not feasible for a lot of reasons. I am not overlooking the difficulties. Big challenges to implementing anything like this: legal problems, practical problems, political problems among others. Probably just getting local hospitals to work together would be a challenge, but is a worthwhile goal unto itself. Compared to a lot of the other big picture things we want to achieve around here this would be small change. If you can’t do this there isn’t much hope for some of the more ambitious goals some have. Gotta walk before you can run.


Monday, February 16, 2009

P-day data

In honor of tomorrow being P-Day.. Some folks may have fun poking through my consolidated file of past election returns in the City of Pittsburgh. See the excel file here.

For those who prefer lots of graphs... from a few years ago: Voting Patterns by Race in Allegheny County. And for mapophiles: various election maps.



Sunday, February 15, 2009

Everyone knows it's windy

Just random surfing came across this article on what was, and may still be, the world's largest wind turbine. Most of have seen the massive Somerset County wind far when driving down the Turnpike or possibly while biking the Allegheny Highlands Trail. The Somerset County windmills have blades measuring ~66 meters across from I read. The wind turbine in that article has blades 123 meters in diameter. Can you imagine what those would look like with a swath nearly 4 times as large as what are operating in Somerset now. I suspect it isn't feasible to get such large turbines installed up on the mountain, but imagine what that would look like driving by... even at a distance.

Seems to me there is windmill envy in today's energy conscious world. Looks like Queen Elizabeth has commissioned something even larger to be built by 2012. I think it's for a windmill with blades 150 meters across, which would give it a swath 5 times what is in Somerset. Imagine!

Completely non-sequitur: PG's techman covers a new video game which is based on a plot where once again Pittsburgh gets blown up. I've said before, it's just weird people like to think of Pittsburgh being obliterated. The new game is even called "The Pitt". Any copyright issues with the past comic book also based on a premise that Pittsburgh is blown up and called The Pitt as well?

At least one casino publication says that Atlantic City Will Soon Lose More Customers To Pittsburgh Casino.

AP has a blurb: States look to booze for shots to economy which mentions Allegheny County's recent experience with the county 'Drink Tax'. The article actually talks about how "Pittsburgh" implemented the new drink tax.

Honestly, the ability of even a county level drink tax to generate revenue even during a recession may make it a model for a lot of broke states and counties. If it gets replicated elsewhere it may be the biggest legacy of the tax in the long run.


and finally... the Boston Globe continues the (inter)national media's obsession with Pittsburgh with a travel blurb focused just on Station Square.



Saturday, February 14, 2009


Months until football comes back.... not even much spring training news... Penguins are struggling... Sports talk may have to resort to commentary on ....... Luge? From the Luge wire:
The Junior World Championship came to a close today with the final event – the Team Competition – and the United States closed with a silver medal winning performance by its team of Robby Huerbin*, Kate Hansen and the doubles team of Trent Matheson and Taylor Morris. The trio stopped the clock with a total time of 2:26.116, just 0.315 seconds behind the gold medal winning German team of Julian Von Schleinitz, Madeleine Tueber, and the doubles team of Nico Walther and Nico Gruenneker, who crossed the line in 2:25.801. Third place went to the Russians.

* Robby Huerbin from the North Hills.


Friday, February 13, 2009

Look Ma, no wheels

In what may be the most symbolic event of late in the tortured history of Mon Fayette Expressway, the Turnpike Commission closed it's project office in Duquesne. Infer as you wish.

Yet even if MFX is really on the verge of a perpetual quiescence, could another massive transportation project be getting new life? This really is just a question, I just can't tell. But in the stimulus bill just passed is a massive new chunk of money for 'High Speed Rail'. Could Maglev be on the verge of.... levitating?


the other side of the coin

The Canadian Press has an interesting story on the recent history of Pittsburgh's Nova Chemicals. See: Once-mighty Nova Chemicals needs rescuer in the Financial Post. It's fascinating because gives the perspective of a region that lost a corporate HQ to Pittsburgh, not the other way around. Nova isn't doing so well at the moment as is the case for a lot of US chemical* firms, but Calgary where Nova used to have its HQ, sounds like it is exhibiting just a bit of schadenfreude. Looks like some investment from a Canadian public pension fund is being considered, likely because there still are a lot of Nova jobs located there.

* Yes, I know the industry wants us to call it the chemistry industry or something like that. I kind of refuse. I'm sure the marketers had some focus groups telling them the term 'Chemical Industry' had bad connotations for some... but I just can't get past thinking about experiment set for kids when you call it the "Chemistry industry".

About that empty sports arena (no not ours)

Remember when there was talk Kansas City would steal away the Penguins from Pittsburgh. Well, now folks are talking about the New York Islanders moving to KC. KC remains a story in the saga of stadium economics. Some folks get angry at the public financing of our relatively new stadia, but in KC they built the Sprint Center without a major tenant. Imagine how angry people would be here if we spent the money for any of our new venues without teams for all of them. Could we ever wind up with an empty major venue? I think all of the contracts with the professional teams here are pretty solid at keeping the actual teams in town. Arguably the Pirates are the relatively weakest team within their league... but recession or not most do not question the future of MLB. I would think recession pressures may hit hardest on hockey which as a league is the most financially beleaguered. Not long ago, especially during the strike, it was not inconceivable for pundits to consider the possibility that the NHL could fold. Not much chatter of that at the moment and a recent Canadian editorial says the NHL "will feel the effects of the recession less than other sports". But it's an interesting question if the NHL will be around in its present form in 30 years.

Census 1, Commerce Nominee 0

Amid all the hubbub over the withdrawal of Judd Gregg's nomination to be Commerce Secretary, there are some more interesting stories at the nexus of the census and politics.... at least locally. Read this story covering comments made by Acting Lt Governor Scarnati on the importance of the State Supreme Court election coming up. He tells a local GOP group in Centre County that the High Court Election is Vital.

State Supreme Court races, much like the races for most state row offices, are often low profile affairs. But redistricting is coming up we all know. In Pennsylvania, it seems likely the state house and state senate are going to go into redistricting season with leaderships split D and R, respectively. That may bode ill for a easy process as far as redistricting occurs, which is rarely easy anyway. It is likely the state supreme court will have an importrant role in how redistricting plays out. As a result Scarnati calls the race for an open supreme court seat "the year’s most important election". When it comes to the big picture and certainly for national politics over the coming decade, he may be right.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Parking Space (and rates)

So I hear at least some parking rates at Downtown garages are going up ever again. Just waiting for the gnashing over the mandated decline in the parking tax rate to go another round even though the city did what it was told and keeps lowering the tax rate itself. Probably a good time to address the idea of selling the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.

It was not my idea since it has been talked about for decades, but I think I suggested the idea of selling the parking authority last August. As has been in the news the city now agrees it might be an idea to ‘lease’ the parking authority to fund some of the pension liability. So nothing wrong with that idea in itself, but the devil is in the details. Why lease the parking authority’s assets as is being suggested? Is there any reason at all to not just sell the parking authority’s assets outright? Is there really any conceivable benefit from keeping open the option that 99 years from now the legal successor to the special district government otherwise known as the Pittsburgh Parking Authority would be around to repatriate the assets. A lot of cities get by quite fine without owning a lot of parking lots. Leasing the assets would mean some non functioning public authority would have to stay on the books long past when the reason for existence becomes moot. (Why does the Stadium Authority come to mind?)

The argument the city has put out there for 'leasing' and not selling the Parking Authority's assets is that the buyer would then not have to pay the real estate transfer tax which is indeed quite high for properties in the city. But think about that. A high transfer tax would be taken into account by a potential buyer. If they capitalize the entire tax into their bid price it just means they should offer that less in terms of the purchase price. But then the city will collect the tax anyway and the net effect ought to be the same from the city's perspective. Some tax implications at the margin for the buyer, but not anything that ought to justify keeping the city as a nominal owner of property it has leased away for a few generations. Not the biggest of issues, but still.

Maybe some history is worthwhile: mentioned previously as well, but why was the Pittsburgh Parking Authority created as per the late City Solicitor Anne Alpern herself. So there are reasons for the authority to exist. It is worth some debate as to whether the reasons that existed a half century ago are still valid today. The existence of the PPA does not seem to put much downward pressure on escalating parking rates... you can't really blame it on the tax rate at this point. Raises an interesting question.. if the PPA is holding down parking rates, what would the actual market rate be for Downtown parking and what would parking tax revenue be for the city if the parking rates floated higher? Rates would probably have to go up a lot more than not before anything like this in Japan would be built even in space-challenged Downtown.

But worth noting is the city's stated intent to use the net proceeds of such a sale or lease to shore up the city's escalating pension liability. I know the city seems to think that discussion over whether the pension fund could run out of money is akin to "yelling fire in a crowded room"... but watching the markets in even the last month drop, you have to wonder what the pension fund holds right now. Not knowing how much the parking authority could generate, I think a ballpark figure being tossed out there is a payment in excess of debt payoff of $200million or so. Certainly could be useful to the pension fund which needs whatever it can get at this point.

Consider that by the summer the city's pension funds will likely be under $200 million in total. If you don't believe that, don't rant, just note the prediction and we will see how accurate it is when we learn July's fund balance. So $200 million + $200 million would put the pension fund up to maybe $400 million which is about where it was in January of last year. Most everyone agreed that the pension fund was in dire straits even before January of 2008. So the net result would be barely putting back into the pension fund the losses accumulated over the last 13 months.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Raining Appropriations

It's a bit worrysome that everyone is planning on spending the stimulus before anyone really knows how this will all shake out. When the news even covers how the Steel Valley School District has put in line items expected as part of the bill, you have to wonder a bit. They are not the only ones I am sure. Trib now has a blurb about how the Port Authority would get less under one version of the yet to be passed bill.

But the best explanation, or exposition I should say since it may confuse more than it clarifies... see the WashPo for the uber-graphic explaining where the stimulus money is going.


boring and local news... or not. Back to bond insurance

In Canonsburg there is a snippet hidden in a boring local story on their latest city council meeting ... but note where it is reported that a proposed bond restructuring was an error and should not be considered. Note the little comment in there on insurance (bond insurance I presume) impacting the ability for the borough to refinance and save some money. It's a telling story since I am guessing the bond dude thought there was a refi option based on changes in interest rates, but didn't think to note of the changing environment in the municipal bond insurance world. Remember when the city briefly had a major refi deal delayed because of escalating bond insurance costs. What happens when these interest rates go back up to normal levels, and I presume municipal bond insurance rates stay high as well. The only reason the muni bond insurance story is under the radar is because it has been subsumed by the changes in the yield curve itself.

Boring? For sure. Just a local story. Not a chance. Even with government bond rates at their lowest ever, you are seeing lots of municipalities unable to refinance and save money. Makes you wonder what may happen when interest rates return to more normal levels..... like when the recession ends. Yes it will end. But here is the big big story connected to that. From overnight read the article in Bond Buyer: Treasury Rejects Aid to Insurers.. Again, that is referring to bond insurers. Big implications down the road if the bond insurance industry completes it's implosion.

This old oped could use updating for sure, but since we are again on the cusp of a mayoral race again (or not?)... in 2006 I wrote: Candidates, be careful what you wish for. I bring that up because of one para in there I put in on the implications of bond insurance across the state. So yeah, it's all connected.

Finally just to complete the thought. The biggest public finance news these days that is not being talked much is all about how low interest rates are.... Government bond rates are at some historically low levels. That means the same for the savings accounts of most municipalities as it does for you when it comes to the interest rates you can get. Most municipalities collect a lot of their tax revenue up front in a given year when tax bills are typically sent out. That money is spent over the course of the year, but before it is spent it is typically put in some short term t-bills that historically has produced small, but palpable, returns. When you are talking about most of the budget of a municipality early in the year, it's not a small amount. But guess what? Low interest rates means those short term rates have all but dried up completely... virtually zero. I bet most municipalities out there have budgeted real $$ from this revenue source.. money that just isn't going to be there this coming year and be causing more unanticipated shortfalls all around.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Comparison Too Far

We talk a lot about how local real estate here is faring compared to other regions. Might be a lesson that you can push those comparisons too far. It's always an extreme case to look at NYC, but just for fun here is an example of a 4 BR - 4,000 sq foot Condo (just a condo) in Manhattan with an asking price of $4.5 million.

Yet here in the resurgent Downtown Pittsburgh, what may be the best plot of real estate in the city other than the Point itself, with 3 acres of prime space to boot, the 16-story, 273,000 sq. foot State office building could not sell even for a nearly identical $4.5 million according to the news accounts today. $4.5 million? So even if you ignore the 3 acres of land, the value per square foot is nearly 70 times higher in NYC. Yeah, it's not the fairest of comparisons. Not really a meaningful comparison at all. The state office building is certainly described as a fixer upper for sure, but it still is an amazing location while that condo in NYC is probably in just a run of the mill Manhattan high rise. As they say: location location location.

The news accounts say that the state received several offers for the building. Does that mean the $4.5 mil that had been on the table had been the highest bid? Wonder if someone was trying to get the whole parcel and structure for... I dunno.. $3mil? What was the lowest bid you have to wonder. Worth noting is that the obviously tax exempt state office building is assessed at over $14 million. Makes you wonder what the actual market value is of the property right now if it had to be sold?


Monday, February 09, 2009

Let them read the web

This really takes the cake...

In the PG last week is a blurb about how the Port Authority is asking folks to review their planned route changes by reading a web page and commenting. No mention at all in that of any alternative means to learn about potential route changes.

Remember that little factoid that everyone knows... that we are an old region. Allegheny County has one of the highest percentages of elderly in the nation. I bet that when it comes to transit ridership we are literally number one by far since the counties in Florida that have high elderly concentrations are populations less likely to need public transit. If you have ever been on a bus anytime between rush hours you will see that most riders are elderly. That and the state pays the Port Authority a big chunk of its revenues each year, and a lot of that is tied to the number of elderly riders they provide service for.

So the Port Authority expects the web to be the means for the public to learn about their route changes? Who are the folks most impacted by route cuts? Those who have cars or the ability to walk additional blocks to a shifted bus stop? Wouldn't be the elderly would it? Changes that may seem minor or 'efficient' to a lot of us are nothing less than everything in the world to the quality of life for folks with limited mobility. That includes the vast bulk of our older generation. Access to a bus stop may be the single most important factor to the quality of life for many local seniors. Anyone think the Port Authority has a lot of incentives to keep the elderly from getting too too upset until it's too late. Probably already is....

I have been contemplating this post long before I saw that blurb in the paper. Some of us know the Port Authority has been planning route changes. As best I can tell there has been virtually no outreach to the core riders the Port Authority, which are indeed the elderly. I have occasionally asked around a bit to folks I know if there has been any material on the process distributed to or any other outreach that they were aware of into senior centers or senior homes which is the normal way to reach that population.. and basically the answer seems to be NO across the board. Or if the Port Authority has attempted such outreach, it must have been horribly ineffective to date. I was going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they at least tried or that they had a plan to do something in the future, but now the media is pointing toward only a web site with no alternate means of getting this information. It really makes you wonder if they understand how unique Pittsburgh's demographic really is... you can't just go applying methodologies that work elsewhere here and think that counts as being effective here.

The elderly DO read the paper. It may be the only thing keeping newspaper subscriptions from falling even further in town here. If the only thing they are going to learn from reading the newspaper today is a reference to a web site then what is the point? Is there no strategy to engage one of their largest rider populations? the one that will be the most impacted by route and stop changes? Try my little test yourself. Ask someone over 70 in town if they know the Port Authority is even considering moving their bus stop (you don't even need to suggest that some stops might actuallybe eliminated) and see their response.


And not to end on such a sour note. This will deserve a post unto itself once I get a chance to use it myself.. but the most revolutionary change in local transit infomatics may be what wizards at MapHub have just put together. That isn't hyperbole. Read and use They have put in place a text based query system you can use with your cell phone to learn when the next bus is arriving at a particular stop. It's implemented for just a few test stops for now, but this may be the best thing to happen to local public transit since.... well, forever... or at least the biggest change since the introduction of those fare collection machines which was not all that long ago. Seriously.


Sunday, February 08, 2009

Potholes 2.1

The painful ice and cold of late is going to make a really monstrous pothole season. I think I will just run this same old post annually around this time.


Potholes, paving and politics are inevitable rites of spring in Pittsburgh. I was just wondering: Who is going to put together a map like this? More on potholes in Cincinnati (note link appears void these days) where I learn that the average cost to fix a pothole in the Queen City is $15.71. I want one of the 'spray injector' machines the article talks about... but at $130K a pop I am not sure it's in the budget anytime soon.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Unemployment up.... stocks up... of course it's a Steelers story

It's Friday and it's not freezing.. this is all I got. No wonder the President was rooting for us:


Thursday, February 05, 2009

just a question - women on city council

There have been several periods when Pittsburgh City Council had two women members... but when Theresa Smith gets sworn in there will be 3: Councilwomen Payne, Harris and Smith. I can't think of a period when 3 women were on council. Am I missing something?


Will the last person leaving Pittsburgh - Turn out the lights

Some may remember that this came up during the run up to the Superbowl against Seattle... but read the Seattle Times' story on the iconic billboard that was put up there 38 years ago that read "Will the last person leaving Seattle - Turn out the Lights". They also have a scan of an old Economist article on Seattle titled mere: City of Despair.

I actually don't have a point, other than seems to hit a diaspora-related nerve. Since many think Seattle has been more a place to emulate of late than other regions, it may just be an datapoint showing that regions can turn around. You see a lot of angst among some who disbelieve any or all of the positive press on the region of late. Surely it's all a bit overplayed, but some folks seem to believe past must be forever prologue.... that it's inconceivable things can ever turn around. There was a time when folks felt equally pessimistic about Seattle for what it's worth. Although it turns out that the point of the billboard was not quite what it appeared to be. The Seattle Times article explains.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Braddock again and again.....

CNBC follows up on the NY Times piece on Braddock that ran Sunday. See their video here. WTAE tags along with their version.

For perspective for how long we have failed Braddock. Read a story from 1962 that describes Braddock, McKeesport and parts of the Mon Valley as a "hard core unemployment area"


Superbowl postscript. Read the WSJ Numbers Guy on the metrics of Six-Burgh and a benchmarking site even I had never heard of. See the Donovan Index which is supposedly "the ultimate ranking of cities regarding major professional sports championships. It identifies once and for all the true "City of Champions." It says we are #6 overall, just ahead of "New Jersey" which is not a city.


quick and dirty

The maps fwiw. The results for the special election for City Council District 2 are as follows. I should have added neighborhood boundaries. For reference you can look at the city's neighborhood map for the district. A tiny bit of commentary below:

Percentage Smith

Percentage Blotzer

Percentage Schubert

Percentage Metz

First off, it was a special election and as these things go you never get high turnout. The turnout here may have been low, but it rarely is much higher for an off cycle one-off election. I will tell you I know folks who could have voted in this election yesterday, people who wouldn't have missed the general election last fall (or in any presidential cycle) under any circumstances yet who didn't even know there was an election yesterday.
2nd... I have no comment on any of these candidates themselves, but there is something in these results that can apply to an awful lot of campaigns. Blotzer seemed to have a lot of support on the web. News accounts say she did well at fundraising and had some notable endorsement. Just under 25% may seem like a decent result given the general advantage given to the endorsed Democrat in an election like this.... but it was a very concentrated support. Look at the detail results and one thing stand out. More than 30% of all the votes Blotzer received came from a single district.... literally one of 41 precincts in the council district. Ward 19 District 28 gave Blotzer 194 of her 639 votes which is kind of remarkable in that it was 85% support in that one distict. I can only presume she lives right there. I don't doubt the results in this case, but when you see anomalous results like that in a single district you often have to wonder if there is not some error.
Clearly a lot of support from her neighbors and friends, but you see this a lot. Politicians or potential pols who have a core group supporting them, but not much beyond that core support. Consider the coincidence that if you take out that one district then Blotzer and Schubert tied exactly with 445 votes which would notionally be under 19% each. So the money and the endorsements and all the internet buzz really didn't generate any many more votes than what Schubert got without any of that, nor the endorsement.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

more Pittsburgh Phoenix comparisons

Posted by RoboticGhost over on Pittsblog. Yglesias on the Pittsburgh Phoenix comparison. Lots of comments worth reading as well.

Also sent in via email, but from the WTAE web site: the Phoenix viewpoint on fandom. As I type 140+ comments there as well. Is that true? It says they almost didn't sell out a playoff game. and of course, our version of fandom.

WashPo on Dan Rooney's prospects to be Ambassador to Ireland: Our Man in Dublin, by Way of Pittsburgh?

and who can forget the J-watch: Jero Named Best New Artist at the Annual Japan Record Awards


Monday, February 02, 2009

Phil's poor prognosticating

That Groundhog says more winter. He is probably right this year. I thought I helped get Phil fired a couple years ago. Oh well.

and completely unrelated, but telling. The odd search engine hit here today includes someone who is obviously in "need of space near the new Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh".

Also, just an interesting post-Superbowl blog post from the diaspora.


nuff said