Tuesday, July 31, 2012

No story here... move on....

Maybe it would be interesting if compared to this national trend:

So let's see...   Labor force = (working age) population  x labor force participation

using deeply atrophied algebra (algebra you may not have noticed is under some deeply deeply defeatist attacks of late):

population = labor force / labor force participation

hmmmm........   but so as to be a bit more thorough, it is important to note that Pennsylvania's labor force participation is up 0.5% over the year (June to June).. which if true for the Pittsburgh region would be responsible for a year over year increase in the size of the labor force of around 9,000 people (remember it's a ratio of the working age population)... or roughly 3/8th of the total increase in the region's labor force (+24 thousand) over that time.   What you often see in public punditry is an overeliance on the explanation that people are 'jumping into' or out of the labor market as conditions change.  Labor force participation changes a lot more slowly than most presume and is not the answer for most variance in the labor force regionally.  It is a different issue than for the nation since migration impacts regional labor markets in a distinct way compared to the national labor market. 

and just btw...  population flows are typically greater than labor market migration flows since workers often bring with them their families.. not all of whom are made up of folks in the labor force.

And just in case we are lacking a resident labor historian I will point out one last little observation.  Compare the rates at which Pittsburgh's labor force was growing in the 1970's and what has been the trend the last few years here.    Comparable periods?   There was this minor social phenomenon called the 'baby boom' that resulted in more than a few people entering the workforce mostly in the 1970s.   I think we can all rest assured on the assumption that there was not some secret ramp up in births in Pittsburgh 20 years ago that is responsible for what is going on now. 


Monday, July 30, 2012

Pirates' Memorex Moment


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pirates as metaphor


Saturday, July 28, 2012

How many natural gas vehicles are there in Pennsylvania?

Seems like a simple question doesn't it.  All the talk, buzz and policy swirling around the future of natural gas you would think someone would have information on the total number of natural gas vehicles currently in use in Pennsylvania.  I could not easily find anyone with a guestimate even which I thought is strange.  Can anyone find what I missed?  Even an estimate would be something.

That was inspired by this article in the Economist recently on some international benchmarking of natural gas vehicle usage by country.  I simplify the infographic into something that is surprising. My question is how big would Pennsylvania's dot be if we had the data?  Big enough for screen resolution to show?

This post is really a test to see if Wiz's 3rd shift is awake yet.


Friday, July 27, 2012

Let there be a bridge

No matter what you think of the MFX this is cool in itself.  h/t to The Atlantic Cities for catching this time-lapse video posted online by Brenda Smeltzer capturing the erection of the  Monongahela River Bridge, a section of the nearly vestigial Mon Fayette Expressway.   See below.

I will say that the current picture of the bridge in waiting has an almost impressionistic quality to it.

Even as someone who tries to follow such things I find that the true status of the greater Mon Fayette Expressway is hard to discern.  I believe it has been years since the local project office closed. Still the explanation of the office's closing..i.e. that it was merely: "pause in project advancement due to funding limitations" remains a paragon of bureaucratic euphemism.  The project's web site clearly identifies itself not as for the full "Mon Fayette Expressway" but merely for the Brownsville to Uniontown segment

One thing is for sure.. the MFX has a nearly perpetual history to it all.  Some good comments on that history in this old post here .  I am reminded of how long that history is every time I go over the Birmingham Bridge.  If you ever wonder why that bridge is so seemingly over-engineered (photo in that link via Evergrey on the Skyscraper forum), it clearly was once intended to be a cog in the greater highway vision. So it was not intended to be merely a connection between the Southside and Oakland/Uptown, but the major ingress to the city for a highway that never came to be.  Even if it is being underused in that sense, they ought to oil the joints as they are supposed to, but seem to overlook.  To be fair, that problem was a bit more complicated than that, but still lack of maintenance was a contributing factor.

I digress...  What I would love to see is a compilation of other Pittsburgh-themed time-lapse videos that are out there.  We at least need a top 10 don't you think?  Nominations?

Anyway...  the new bridge:


Monday, July 23, 2012

Just because I think it is cool


No Takeoff for San Juan

Remember the slightly curious news about how the Allegheny County Airport Authority was vying to take charge of the operation of airports in Puerto Rico?  I guess it was not as completely out of the blue as one might think.. I forgot that USAirways had a significant number of Carribean routes for many years

Anyways.. it was a thought, but I missed the PR on this last week. So just ICYMI as well....   Bond Buyer: Mexican Firm Wins P3 Bid to Operate Puerto Rico Airport


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ha? Ha!

I swear the only alteration of mine is the highlighting in red I added... but below is what I read early this AM on a PG story running today.  The online version has changed to one without the opening interjection, but did that make it into ink? I am not in town to check myself.

It does makes a point worth poking at:  I really think someone ought to develop the full time series say on what the estimated total gas-related royalty payments have been to Pennsylvania landowners have been over the last several years up until the present.  Maybe then make a projection into the future and if really a busy body do it all by county. 

Anyway, a screen shot of what I was reading.  Got a chuckle out of me.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

We fly just like birds of a feather

Pirates challenging for the division and Pittsburgh reaching a new employment peak. Just like the news (strike that.. the lack of news) yesterday.  It's like 1979 all over again.


Yes, despite the curious mythos of the 1970's*  it really was on February 1, 1979 that you had this story about how Pittsburgh was reaching a new all-time employment peak.   

It was quite a year.  A Superbowl (XIII), a superbowl season (leading to IV in Jan 1980), a World Series... and a new all time employment peak. Back then we at least noticed in passing the employment mark:

* You know what is kind of funny...  Google "Cliff Stoudt" and see what you get.


Friday, July 20, 2012

All time peak employment

Yes it is indeed all-time...  as in ever..  peak employment for Pittsburgh employment with the release of June data on total nonfarm jobs in the region.  We will likely see an (I guess I should say another) all-time peak labor force number for the region for the same period when that data is  released next week. (week and a half actually)

Yes.. a peak higher than anything before steel declined and now a peak above the somewhat artificial summer of 2001 which had a lot of construction going on.  Take out that itinerant construction employment and the trend has looked a lot more positive over much of the decade than many want to acknowledge.  Not really 'new' news in that we have been hitting comparative month peak employment since last fall., In many ways this was inevitable at some point over the summer... but there was that summer of 2001 all-time peak that kept the declarative a bit equivocable. 

What is interesting to me at least is that this all-time peak actually is coming in several months before I predicted.  That is awfully interesting.  Also quite interesting because we tad are hitting this peak with regional construction employment still relatively depressed compared to recent history.  If you net out construction employment which can be highly variable, the latest numbers look a whole lot better than they do nominally. Seriously, construction employment in the region was nearly 18% higher 5 years ago if you compare June data.  If we had those jobs back then we would really be well into a new peak in local jobs.

Anyway... I am sure there is some negative way to spin it all.  Just may need to be a bit more creative than usual about it.

But why did this happen sooner than expected?  That is important since it says a lot more than the level does about where the future is going.  Here is a parse worth looking at.  Below is the change in total nonfarm jobs between May and June of each year.  Note that the data just out for 2012 is a large measure bigger than any comparable jump over the last 20+ years. 


Washington Post on the Strip District


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

New transit fight, Same as the old transit fight

I have to admit I don't fully get the full context of this...but more from the Pittsburgh Press on March 1, 1964, the day Port Authority became Allegheny County's transit agency.  This was the editorial cartoon of the day.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wall Street Journal on East Liberty

WSJ on East Liberty. See:A Neighborhood's Comeback, by James Hagerty

Subtitled: Part of Pittsburgh Finally Recovers From 1950s Planners; Google Sets Up Office -


(and check out the map)


Annual is as annual does

PG has an article today: Prospect of defense cuts looms over Pa. that references some industry sponsored study of potential employment impacts of cuts in defense spending.

Funny thing is that there ought not to be a need for the industry sponsored report... at least for the city.   Mentioned in the past here as an example of how out of date Pittsburgh's city code is. There are a lot of things buried in city code that are just plain overlooked or completely forgotten about. Something esoteric, but related to the defense story is this which is directly from Section 204 of the Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances: Specifically § 204 i 4 - says this verbatim:
4. The mayor shall present an annual report on the tax monies paid per capita and the citizens of the City of Pittsburgh to the federal government that is allocated to military spending. The report shall include an analysis of the impact of the military budget on the City's economy in relation to jobs and social services. The mayor shall advertise this analysis in two prominent daily newspapers in the City.

That all happened once I do believe though I never have found the actual advertisement. May not be required any longer because of a unique legal opinion on the definition of 'annual'. A bottoms up review of the city's home rule charter might not be a bad thing at some point. Call it a once in a generation cleaning.   Maybe another contest is in order..  what else is screwey or at least out of date in city code?  Does the city still have a "Director of Water" as referenced? 
That or maybe a contest for what changes people want.  I think somewhere in city code should be the word 'tweet'. 
Boring I know.. but just things that catch my eye because I started out as a defense budget wonk long ago.  Some of you were not even alive I bet when that was published.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Pittsburgh Incapacitated

Paging Brian O'Neill and Ed Glaeser.   

Also from the March 1, 1964 Pittsburgh Press. A remarkable quote, possibly the most remarkable quote ever from Ben Chinitz (who?) and that says a whole lot:
... the Pittsburgh District incapacitated itself by leaning too heavily on a coal-steel economy which depended to a large extent on unskilled labor.

"We don't need big husky guys to work in the mills now...  we need smart guys"

Now he said the district is trying to overcome problems like water pollution and a low education level to attract new industry.
That is a quote from 1964!  And yeah..  I know. "Smart guys".  It still was 1964. Don Draper would have likely been written off as a progressive dilettante in Pittsburgh of the day.  The thing is....  how much to you think anyone really agreed with Chintz's core point at the time?  How much do the powers that be agree with him today? 


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Before the North Side became the North Shore

So there is some talk that some of the planned cuts down at the Port Authority will be deferred.. but  whether that turns out to be true or not, it is hard to deny that transit service is a pale vision of its past in Allegheny County.  It all just made me look up what the thoughts were for the future back when the Port Authority was created. 

March 1, 1964 was its birthday (as a transit agency that is) and this was the Pittsburgh Press' front page story.   Note the very first thing on its agenda for the future...  a 'Tube' under the river to the North Side...  Before the North Side was de-branded of course.  The fellow in the bus.. one State Senator Robert Fleming.  Denizens of the North who come down Route 8 and cross over the 62nd Street Bridge, which had opened just two years earlier, may notice the sign that says the bridge is really named for him. 

That issue is great by the way.  On an inside page is a related story to the potential of a subway to the North Side on where the planned future stadium was going.

At least they knew it was going to be round.  Perfectly compass-round.   Probably written into some law that it had to be that way. Note the dotted line for the future "Ground Transportation Station" while real transportation geeks may note that the notional subway line came over the river and was going to then go East... not West.  Intended to someday head out along the Allegheny Valley?  We will never really know what that future held.

and I will save until tomorrow a great Ben Chinitz story in that edition as well.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

As goes North Dakota.....

Via the Christian Science Monitor: Thanks to North Dakota, US waste of natural gas grows rapidly

Check out the composite photo of North Dakota satellite imagery at night over 20 years.  Anyone have anything similar for Pennsylvania?  The older dark sky maps of Pennsylvania show some pretty dark areas...   So dark that just a few years ago (although an eternity in Marcellus years) the New York Times wrote about it: Dark Sky, Bright Lights over Pennsylvania


Friday, July 13, 2012

Who owns what? What owns whom?

So just a short note.  The travails in Scranton have reached a certain level of national noteriety at this point with Mayor Dougherty cutting everyones pay to minimum wage.  Or trying to at least.

So as a result Scranton was going to try and 'sell' their sewer authority as a means to raise cash.  A little trick they may have learned from us actually.  Turns out they can't sell their sewer authority, because they don't really own it in the first place

That is just the beginning of how convoluted their financial situation is...  it all makes our notional parking asset look as solid as a contract on soybean futures at least.

A sad note in municipal finance minutia that does not impact us?  There were some real questions over the absolute and final ownership of some of the city's parking assets back when the city was trying to liquidize their value.  It also comes up when talk of 'privatizing' the sewer authority comes up.  You really have to wonder about all the overlapping liability of debt and ownership that underlie all the special districts and authorities in the region.  It all because very metaphysical very fast when you think about it too much.  You could never draw all the lines (dotted or not) if you wanted to. 


Thursday, July 12, 2012

It's back....

So I mentioned it here first a couple weeks short of 5 years ago, but then it quietly disappared from view with nary an explanation.  What is it? A boutique "Hotel Indigo" .

I honestly saw those signs when they went up as well, but I think I wrote the off as not meaning what they do.  I recently saw a new-looking Len Bodack for Council yard sign up as well.   Only after a moment did I realize the sign itself was facing a wall and other the other side was a new message.. Lemonade 50 cents and the obligatory young sales person with table.  Gotta be the best reuse of a yard sign ever... but so I thought the signs for the hotel were not quite a new development either.

Apparently it is all real via the Epic Development Blog h/t the Pittsburgh City-Data forums.  It is still interesting.. back then when I looked at it more the selling point the hotel was pitching was its proximity to Downtown and Oakland which seemed a stretch.  Now maybe it does not need to justify a weird hook like that?  Now where is our future pod hotel?  Still a 'Boutique' hotel in Pittsburgh... let alone the heart of East Liberty is way way up on the Toto scale. 

Now if folks really want funk for East Liberty...... Bring back the Cantini!!  Yeah, yeah.. I know. It's right around the corner, but that isn't where it was intended.  I hear there is a DeLorean driving around town of late.  No joke.

Speaking of Len... or one of the Len's succesor ..  To follow up on a recurring subject here... Most will have seen this news items already, but it looks like the transfer tax loophole that has hit the School District and City of Pittsburgh's tax collection has been fixed via an ammendment in the states tax code.  If you just look at the lost revenue in a few recent big transactions, I bet one could work out the math to show that the Senator has more than paid for the entire NPV of his future pension with just that one little ammendment.  I think there are still a few ways to get around the transfer tax, but this was a big easy way that was used too much.


Meso-analysis for the nabobs still out there

There is a corollary to the theory that all important trends are mesofacts...  It is that we only really notice changes long after they really began. It is more than most anywhere else a particularly Pittsburgh thing. I long ago called it a "persistence of memory" that is just so strong here.

I was just looking at some Census estimates of the population by age for each year between 2000-2010.  Specifically these county level estimates. Estimates can be fraught with peril we know, but these are the county estimates which are a lot better than the municipal estimates.  Still the age breakdown is essentially an estimate of an estimate, so take with a grain of sale. 

Still, the recent news is all about how the region's population is turning around.  Is it a new story?  The overall population has only recently started to go up if you just check the top line number.. but remember that through most all of that decade the elderly population was going down just by force of sheer demographic fate.  So if population even remained flat, there would have to have been growth in the younger population to make up for that loss. 

So when did the middle mass of the population (say ages 25-64) start going up for the Pittsburgh MSA?  What I add up from the census estimates looks like the graph below.  Granted I have exaggerated the scale to highlight the point, but the drop in population pretty much stabilized by 2006.  So there is no new story here. The point where sheer demographics was turning arount is now at least 6 years in the past.  The actual misused 'inflection point' people talk of?  Even further back in history. It is all one of those things you miss if you only look at data in decade-wide increments (I just could not convince them the story was not all bad). A decade is a long time and what seemed pretty bad if you read the 2010 Census a bit superficially. I think it was actually giving evidence of a serious change in trend.  If the graph below is roughly accurate, we have more than made up for recent losses in this population and the region is moving upward at what is for Pittsburgh a rapid rate. Still unproven?

*,^  The two different 2010 values come from some inconsistency between the estimates produced for the period 2000-2010 and for the newer estimates since 2010. Itself interesting since it means that as time goes by the trend they are coming up with is getting more positive for us in this sense.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012


So I am unclear if this is good, bad or indeterminate.  A recent analysis from last week of Delta's international routings has no mention at all of its Pittsburgh to Paris flight. See CAPA: Delta's 4Q2012 International Route Cuts Free Up Significant Widebody Capacity

Strange... they mention most of the other one-off international Delta flights whether they are keeping them or cutting them. But nary a mention for what is happening with our Paris flight. We are just under the radar. Let's just hope it means we didn't crash?

Yes, I see that Delta is net adding 4 flights to New York City. Before you get excited, note they are adding 5 new flights daily from Cleveland to New York as well

I am not so clued in to say much on this, but last year there had been serious chatter of possibly getting a flight to Germany scheduled into the airport.  Whether that was real at all, and I can't really say, I suspect much hope for that in the near term would have been delayed by European financial miasma, but also the high fuel costs earlier in the year. 

Now if they could only make a NatGas powered plane.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Going against the flow

Just a semi-obligatory assessment note and a mention of an extended letter to the editor today of one homeowner's reaction to the appeals process in Allegheny County: Allegheny's assessment mess: Here's one story about what homeowners are going through

Not meant ad hominum... more just sheer awe, but Mr. Spiegler is setting some record for prolific opination.   If anyone ever needed a blog (says the pot to the kettle that is). That link by the way is for a profile in the Chicago Tribune just last year. A long profile he earned for his extensive letter writing to them. I don't think any local paper ever profiles their own letter writers?? 

So he suggests he may be heading to "peaceful and serene" Peters Township as as result of all of real estate reassessment in Allegheny County.  He ought to wave to the folks coming the other way of late.  Too bad I can't infer causality from correlation the way most do or else I would suggest that maybe the assessment process is responsible for the big turnaround in net migration and population for Allegheny County. Maybe it is a better question how we can be having this truly astounding blip up in local real estate prices right exactly as the assessment process is finishing up.  That PR is for the region of course, but a lot of it is driven by what is happening in Allegheny County.  Go figure.

I also suspect that the author of that piece may find the specific prices in Peters Township of late a bit pricey.  Local real estate prices are indeed entering a brave brave new world.   Learned folks are now telling folks in New York they should try to be like Pittsburgh. .NYT today: Why can't the Bronx be more like Brooklyn.  Seriously, see the Pittsburgh reference in that.  Take that Sienna!   But seriously, it is not your grandfather's Pittsburgh.  WSJ today: A Fading Vision of the Old World.

Toto has been sucked up into the big Isaly's in the sky. 


Counting the Big Z

Well.. just because someone needs to follow up on the stories (Trib,   PG  ) about how Butler County's Zelienople was undercounted in the 2010 Census.  I went over the long story in a past post here.  This was all about money and by falling below a population of 4,000 a municipality loses out on some direct Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. 

So what happened?  Turns out the census folks agreed to make a change, but it didn't work out as some may have hoped.  Zelienople's official of population of 3,812 was changed to...  3,812.  There were a few changes of population between some of the individual census blocks in the borough, but the total population count is the same.

The thing here is..  I suspect the borough had a case.  The 2010 Census apparently shows no group quarters at all.  Group Quarters can include nursing homes and other similar facilities.  In 2000, the borough of Zelienople had a GQ population of 67, but in 2010 it shows zero. 

The problem is that I think the census folks feel constrained by statute in how much they can 'correct' data from the decennial census. The Constitution itself says the census happens once a decade, not for years to follow.   The Count Question Resolution process by which the revised numbers linked above were produced really can just move folks around.  They can't really 'recount' anywhere and most of the corrections are populations that were in fact counted during the census, but possibly were placed in the wrong location.  If someone was completely missed, they pretty much remain missed in the official decennial stats.  The census can do a special census to put better numbers into a public record, but the decennial counts stays the same.

So...  if a future special count gets them back over 4,000 it seems likely HUD will still allocated them their CDBG money.  They will need a lot more than the 67 to get there.  We'll see.

Speaking of census errors.   The thing about any potentially missed group quarters in Zelienople it is fair to say that is the census' fault.  If there was a GQ population there in 2000 and it just went missing it should have raised red flags.  A bigger group of folks that look like they were missed was the entire new dorm, Shannon Hall,  converted for  the Art Institute in Downtown Pittsburgh.  700 or so folks in  apparently are not showing in the 2010 Census.   Someone forgot to tell the Census folks about the new dorm.  They rely on local input for new things like that so that isn't on them.  So ~700 folks that were not counted.  It was adding them into the latest population estimates for the city that appeared like rapid population growth.  Makes a bit of an impact for the city of Pittsburgh, but really is saying the Downtown resident population is a decent chunk more than we all thought. I think it means that the increase in the student population Downtown exceeds the increase in the population in all the new condos/apartments Downtown over the decade. So kind of a big deal.

So here is a serious question for the crowd.  Any other large Group Quarters type facilties (dorms, but also nursing homes, prisons or related and similar) built in the city between 2000-2010?  If we get a list, along with specific locations, I'll check to see if they were included.  Maybe we can go MacGyver on the population counts and jury-rig a higher population for the city.  If successful maybe we can even get a finder's fee from the city?  Use comments for any candidates.. remember to provide as specific a location as possible.

Bonus points for who can identify what the original Big Z was in Pittsburgh and where it was located.  I am talking of a place, not a person. 


Monday, July 09, 2012

Shadow Pennsylvania

So just something inspired by this Bondbuyer article last week... but does anyone have a Pennsylvania version of this chart?


Sunday, July 08, 2012

Pennsylvania's Fleet in Being

So just to start read the solid overview of all things Marcellus in the Philadelphia Inquirer today: Natural-gas prices force down number of Marcellus drilling rigs

Lots in there, but basically it comes down to this.  They are not making a lot of money, yet they are still drilling and what may be a bigger impact, they have lots of production ready to go online.

So if you think natural gas prices are about to spike?

In naval strategy, or historic naval strategy, there is this concept called the "Fleet in being".  Basically even if your fleet is all bottle up in port, it still can have a stragetic impact.  The metaphor jumps off the page with where the natural gas industry is these days.  The drillers have this huge conundrum.  They want to drill.  In many cases they legally need to drill to keep their leasehold rights. Yet they have effectively drilled themselves into oblivion on the price they recoup in the markets.  Not only the market price overall, but there was for a time this great belief that the city gate prices in the Northeast would provide margins no matter.  Those city gate differentials have collapsed along with the price of natural gas.  Not too long ago Cheasapeake's investor presentations would have slides of what they would earn potentially if natgas prices were literally 4 times what they are today.  Sure must be fun thinking about. I bet they still do muse like that on occassion. 

If there is this growing supply being held back in a way it does not even get reflected in most statistics.......... the article says fully half of the 5,000 marcellus rigs are awaiting completion or shut in just waiting to be turned on.

Anyway.. I said wait until September when some sort of transversality has to happen in the national natural gas storage market... maybe later in September if the heat keeps up. But storage is not a commodity and really a lot of different storage capacities across the country.  It appears the story from Pennsylvania is out and storage is likely to fill up sooner.  Storage actually isn't free and it is question what happens if the price of natural gas falls below what it costs to store?

How about this for a bigger thought experiment.  What if.. just hypothetically...  it is another relatively mild winter later this year as well?  What happens then?  Not something you even see the natgas producers even talking quietly about in public.


Saturday, July 07, 2012

Wuthering Heights

I still need to figure out how to run a Wald-Wolfowitz Runs test on this... 


Friday, July 06, 2012

Revenge of the Insulbrick

So it made a bit of news, but really not what it deserved.  I will say that there really is something weird (a technical term) going on in Pittsburgh's real estate market.  By some recent data, the year over year price appreciation in the local real estate market is an insignificant smidge below +13%. That just isn't normal anywhere these days, and certainly not normal for Pittsburgh at anytime in recent memory.  Remember that national real estate markets remain mostly in the dumpster and given relatively low inflation rates we are talking what may be truly unprecedented price jumps for the Pittsburgh region when measured in real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) terms.

Maybe not so weird actually.  Sometimes that darn economics gives an insight.  Let's stick just to supply and demand.  We've gone over how net migration for the region has turned positive in recent years and I will lay a professional guess that it remains so strongly as I type.  The change in net migration is in itself not a big flow, but remember prices are set at the margin.  So the switch from net decline to net gain could at the margin be quite impactful in some parts of the real estate market.

But supply.  The real estate professionals, and I concur, are saying there is a big local supply shortage of housing at this point.

Let's focus for a second on just the City of Pittsburgh.  The main story is for the region, but I have personal observations that some really extraordinary things are going on in some city neighborhoods.  What is the supply situation there?   Here is a time series of note.  This is the time series for the total number of residential housing units specifies in building permits within the City of Pittsburgh. 

So note these are just the numbers in the building permits.  Not all permits result in final construction so if anything these numbers are higher than reality.  Yet they are pretty minimal numbers.  Roughly 150K housing units exist within the city.  So you would need to see maybe 1,500 new units a year if we were growing or replacing at a rate of 1% a year.  We are not even close to that rate anyway.

That of course is not really the story for the city.   We are an outlier in another big important way.  Its not like the existing housing stock would be stable if there were no new building permits.  The city of Pittsburgh has one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation.  If there was a measure for 'real age' I am sure we would be off the chart.  Unlike some other 'old' cities and regions (Boston for example), I will stake a large bet that our housing stock is at a whole different level of disinvestment.

To put a point on that and crib from some colleagues.  Below is a map the average age of housing by city of Pittsburgh neighborhood.  In itself it may not seem like it is that interesting, but suffice it to say that the range of ages depicted are not normal for a large swath of the nation.  Let's put it another way.  In a lot of places, any housing that remains from the 19th century is likely a tourist destination. 

One likely result of such old housing almost has to be a rate of depreciation higher than most anywhere else at this point and the effective loss of housing every year. Likely that loss is more than the minimal building permits data so we are likely net negative.  That situation is probably further compounded because even the housing that is habitable likely is not the type of housing marketable to your typical new resident moving into the region. Couple it all with historically low mortgage rates in a region which likely has a lot more folks with decent credit compared to elsewhere these days and it all makes a lot of sense.

I have an idea!  Let's have a contest for the ugliest insulbrick anywhere in the region.  I will think of a prize.  Bonus points for pictures that show walls with multiple layers of different types of insulbrick. 


Thursday, July 05, 2012

Not all pensions are created equal

So here is one of those factoids that may confuse those who read too much news.

So what do we know about the City of Pittsburgh's pension system? Officially it was funded at around 56%, but that really is an old number. It also is a number that is more than double what it would be if you took out the notional 'asset' that I still find hard to talk about seriously.   No matter.  Pretend it really is 60% for sake of argument.  Only in Pittsburgh logic is that a 'success' when the rest of the world would call it abysmal. 
We also know that the Pennsylvania school pension system (PSERS) is better funded ataround 75%, all real assets by the way. Some consider that low, but still a lot better than a lot of municipalities. Could be better.   
Now all propblems at the Port Authority are being laid at the feet of escalating pension costs.  Sure must be that the Port Authority's pension system is in far worse shape than the city of PSERS right?  Just must be.  
And like all common wisdom, it is far more common than wise.  Here is the time series (page 25) up to the latest public info on the funding ratio for the Port Authority drivers pension system.  Is this what you expected given what is in the headlines?

Seriously.. what number would you have guessed? It turns out a lot of pension math is misconstrued in public.

Note the latest data there is for January 1, 2010 which is still on the heels of some bad stock market losses for most funds.  2010 and then 2011 were both real good years for public pension systems in the US, so maybe they are even higher than the 87%.  Think about that.  The current funding ratio might be a slightly relevant number for the current public debate?
The absolute numbers of relevance are that the calculated liability is $781 million and the assets available are $681 million.   Compare to the City of Pittsburgh which is now over a $billion in calculated liability and an ever diminishing amount of liquid assets to cover it.  I have never seen any reporting on how well funded the drivers pension plan is.  In fact, I have seen no reporting of the hard data on the pension plans $$ assets at all.    
In fact..  I wonder a bit.   That January 1, 2010 calculation for the liability value is a dynamic number as actuarial valuations too often are.   The assumptions include some very steady wage increases for the Port Authority drivers.. all of them.  What do we know?   A lot of drivers are about to be laid off as routes are cut.  Lots of that liability is about to be lopped off, maybe a lot of that liability has already been taken off the books given layoffs since that January 1, 2010 reference data now 2.5 years ago.  I bet wage increases will come in a bit lower than the actuary assumes which would also lop off a big part of the liability calculation.  A small change in that assumption will bring down the calculated liability a lot actually. Could it be that if there was a current actuarial valuation that the current asset values would make it fully funded?  If not, it certainly may be the best funded large public pension system in Pennsylvania.  You would never get that from the headlines though. 
Now..  the retort is that the the issue is health care costs, and in particular pension health care costs.  True.  But note that once you start talking about health care costs you are talking about something different from the pension discussion normally in the public debate for say the City of Pittsburgh.   Lots of public institutions have a big health care liability that is completely unfunded and is basically a big train wreck going to happen. It is a nearly ubiquitous problem in both public and private sector.  It just becomes an apples and oranges discussion when you talk about the pension problem at the Port Authority if there is any comparison to the pension debate for the city which mostly ignores the problem. 
In fact there is a really convoluted aspect to this.   The Port Authority has some big pension cost problems when it comes to health care expenses now and in the future.  The big reason is that the health care liability has no $$ put toward it.  That is a very different problem than what I think most people assume that the pension fund itself is underfunded.  Like most public institutions you can't say it was a big secret this health care bill was coming due.

Also was no secret that most public institutions were not putting money away for the expenses they knew were coming due.  In fact I think the rule that nominally is forcing public institutions to address this big looming problem, something called GASB 45, was mentioned right here years ago..  2006 actually if you poke at that link so yes I know what the issues are.  That the Port Authority is ramping up payments to fund some of the that health care liability is actually commendable for the record.  But if you are are lead to believe that the Port Authority is in worse shape than the city which also clearly has several hundred $million in unfunded health care liability but is just choosing to continue without such contributions is a meaningless comparison.   Also a little issue with Allegheny County as well which has seen its pension funding ratio falling behind over the last 5-10 years.  Few mention that much, or talk of shutting down a third of the county.  Maybe we can lop off everything north of the Allegheny River? 


Wednesday, July 04, 2012

A Quantum of Hope

More elusive than the Higgs-Boson, but yet again first place. Despite the hype, the actual length of time the Pirates spent in first place by themselves last year bordered on being a singularity. So we will see how long this lasts.

Just think, in 1992 the public had no idea what the World Wide Web was, mobile phone usage was under a percentile, Goog*l was a number akin to Avogadro's and Justin Bieber had yet to be born.

and I just checked, but I think the spot price of the Sid Bream bobblehead is drifting down. I'd blame the Euro.... or maybe John Roberts.


Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Daily ranking: Greene and Westmoreland Counties Ascendant

So first this is a repeat performance as Washington County is showing up again as one of the fastest job gainers in the nation in the 4th quarter of 2011.  #6 among all 'large' (top 323) counties in the US. A side note is that that if WashCo had not had that over the top growth last year, it would have dropped off the list for not being among the 323 largest counties in the US.  It is now solidly at #305. 

But this this new.. in the same ranking, Westmoreland County ranks even higher in terms of how fast the average weekly wage is going up. #5 across the nation.

One of those funny media things. Nobody noticed the Westmoreland factoid because the press release that went with this data only chose to highlight the counties which had the biggest decreases in wages (those nabobs!). There was no table of the counties with the fastest wage increases as was ranked for employment growth.   Go figure.

Anyway.  Here is a bigger factoid for us.   Below is a table of the latest (4th quarter 2011) data on average weekly wages along with the now complete 2011 annual averages.  For the first time in the annual data, likely ever, Greene County now has the highest average weekly wages of any county in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  So for those who might think geography does not matter any longer, wages of jobs located in Greene county are now more than 50% higher on average than jobs in brodering Fayette County.  The caveat of course that Greene county is the smallest in the region with ~40K folks these days.  Still, someone should send a note to the O-R. 


On to Snodder's Switch

So I have to admit I have not quite been following all the nuances over the current spat on proposals for new development by the Buncher Company in the Strip District.   Part of the debate seems to be over a distinct proposal to restart the Allegheny Valley Railroad which might not quite mesh (my oversimplification) with what Buncher has proposed. 

The Allegheny Valley Railroad itself has one of those long Pittsburgh histories that are almost inexplicable in how long they have been debated. Actually the story of the AVRR's terminal connection to Downtown has been a news item just a few year longer than that.  Persistent we are.
As mentioned here a couple years ago...   and as noted in the PG article today there is a legal land dispute issue in all of this that needs to be resolved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.  If you really really want to learn the details on that there is a video record of the hearings which is actually online here. (wmv file, and the AVRR case starts at time 53:08).  As I said in 2010, transit wonks, or anyone interested in city development efforts in the Strip District or those interested in th AVRR will want to watch most of it as painful as that might be.


Monday, July 02, 2012

Data, information, knowledge - The Great Pittsburgh Population Caper Continues

Ok Yunzerwonks... switch out of counting in binary and check your significant digits.  The story of the great Pittsburgh population caper is getting stranger.  You will need to follow through to the end. When you finish consider that if it is so hard to jump the transom from data to inkling for such a simple story as this, consider the implications for some of the much more complicated stories we all obsess on routinely.

Anyway, see PG today for some confirmation on what some census data released last week really meant for Pittsburgh:  Census data shows unusual rise for Pittsburgh. One clear point from that is that the city's estimate here includes a rise of approximately 1,200 in the city's Group Quarters population (namely college students in dorms, prisoners, nursing homes and related) and that is the biggest factor in why these numbers look as they do.  . 

I won't repeat myself, but you can read a couple of the posts from Thursday and Friday to go through the big picture confusion over this data release that applies to most of the nation.  To put a point on the Pittsburgh numbers though here are some specific points to ponder.  I've deconstructed the data from this particular release to highlight the population estimates for Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh and how the change in group quarters population impacted the observed changes.

So take out the gain in group quarters population and the only nominal increase in population is coming from the assumption that the city's population grew at the same rate as the county's population.  No new information or analysis behind that assumption, it's just the methodology they used for this particular data because they didn't have the data they normally used for this particular annual data product.   If you don't believe that.. take the Pittsburgh net growth of 670 as a proportion of the county's net growth of 2,529.  Works out to 0.264.  Now take the city's population (305,704) as a proportion of the county's population (1223348).  Works out to 0.250.  So the new population is an artifact of methodology, and not reflective of any 2011 data for the City proper.

Only the beginning.

Beyond group quarters, maybe the city's population did grow, or maybe it shrunk.. the point is there is no information in this particular data to lead us to believe one way or the other.   

So to get at least from data to information you have to look into where the data comes from.  That is always true.  Just reporting a number, any number.. even a 'Census' number takes more work than that.  Now go back and read the gratuitous Pittsburgh references in the LA Times coverage of this exact same data:  U.S. population in cities growing faster than in suburbs

To be clear.  There is nothing that "doesn't count" about Group Quarters populations.  If it was prisoners (aka the increase at the Allegheny County Jail Downtown in the 1990's) then the implications for the city's future growth may be minimal.  But college students in dorms or those in nursing homes actually have an economic impact in the city. The demographic implications are pretty different, but hold that thought.  Students in dorms have had a big part of the changing demographics of the city of Pittsburgh in recent years so there is nothing surprising about this.  Realize that students in dorms are only a part of the total student population, likely only a small part of the graduate student population which has seen marked growth at some local institutions.

So in the case here.. the new Group Quarters population was all from an increase in college students in dorms.  No increase in any prison population, nor any nursing home or military barracks (not that any exist which I am aware of) were part of this data.  So we have a story of a big new jump in the student population in the city eh? 

Not really it turns out. There is a longer term story here for sure, but the story in the latest data is evaporating quickly.   So it looks like most of the increase in the dormitory population may be coming from a dorm downtown that was... well..  missed in the 2010 census.  Looks like it was a dorm that opened in 2008 and somehow was overlooked and we are likely talking close to 800 folks which were put into the 2011 estimates data.   That would make a lot of sense since if you looked at the city's population change, it all happened in the 4 month period between the April 1, 2010 reference data for the 2010 Decennial census and the July 1, 2010 reference for the annual population estimates. That in itself didn't pass the smell test, which is in fact what set me off on this little mystery.

Lots of implications to that.  For one is that the Downtown population numbers may be off, as would be the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.  It also means that if you are looking at this latest release of population estimates for 2011 and imputing a growth rate over just a year and extrapolating forward.. then you may be extrapolating a lot more than is warranted.  It is in a sense a half empty-half full thing (where is ADB?).   There may be more people living in the city than was thought, but then the 'growth' in this data is a lot slower than it even appears nominally. 

Downtown population is always a bit tricky because of past Census Bureau errors.  In 2000 the Allegheny County Jail was misplaced in its geography in the census.  When the new jail was built it moved from Dowtown to the Uptown neighborhood technically.  That point was missed and the jail's population was all placed Downtown at its former location.  That error makes the decade over decade comparison difficult.  I once tried to do my own calculation of Downtown's residential population for the record to account for those errors.. but I am thinking now this new omission will require that work to be redone. 


Sunday, July 01, 2012

Sic Semper Saltines - part II, or how many crackers does it take to save Pittsburgh

A repeat for some, but as much as the current debate over the tax credits now going to Shell for a proposed 'cracker' is a big deal these days, it was a much bigger story in 1948.  So again, the headlines on the original Cracker that was going to save Pittsburgh are below. Just note the size of the font, I would need to check if Pearl Harbor had bigger billing. The stories inside were even more optimistic about how the one project would 'transform' Pittsburgh's economy, induce new industries to locate here, and protect it long into the future.  One thing is for sure is that Pennsylvania really does have a thing for big ticket economic development projects (cue up Ben Chinitz anyone?).  

Then of course there was the literal 'Cracker' plant which was the focus of so much public effort to keep open:

Maybe we should work on evicting Google Pittsburgh now located on that site and try to bring back Nabisco.. the ultimate cracker plant.  Actual crackers. In bulk. It was saved more than once by public pressure and $$. You know the Nabisco plant once was reported to have 850 employees on site, though it was nowhere near that much near the end.  The plant had this big positive eternality of making the entire East End smell fresh baked on a recurring basis

Special mention.  Not about a 'cracker' though it also comes down to that miraculous carbon atom in the end.  As I have decried in the past, the current paradigm of states throwing money toward competitive and very selective industry targeting is clearly a race to the bottom.  Where did it all begin, or put other way, where did this particular tax credit come from.   From us of course and the big tax incentives Pennsylvania gave to Volkswagen to build a new auto manufacturing plant in Westmoreland County. Pennsylvania's scale of incentive reset the standards for how big a role state governments play in economic development.  Then like now it was a big competition with Ohio and in the end Ohio was not willing to put $$ on the table like Pennsylvania was. Again, it sounds familiar.  Then like now the real payoff was supposed to come from all the ancillary employment that would spring up because of the plant.  Mega ditto.

What has been interesting this time around is that few have questioned the deal. Back in the day there were at least a few obscure folk not lining up behind the common wisdom.

Sunday morning proved George is still around and going strong.  The plant in question is a long forgotten memory. 

Imagine just for sake of argument that the governors of Ohio, West Virgnia and Pennsylvania had all agreed not to offer big incentives for the plant to be located in their respective states.  All this 'liquids-rich' natural gas is going to be produced no matter is it not?  By all accounts the proposed plant was going to be located in the greater-greater Pittsburgh (aka Power of 32?) region no matter.  What would have been the result?  Maybe the project would have been located where it made the most economic sense? We'll never quite know where that is I guess.  However, the three governors would have been written into a small bit of American history most likely?