Monday, June 11, 2012

My comments on the P-G article on the June 8 transit protest

I posted a long comment on this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article:

The comments had less to do with the protest, and more with Port Authority's long-standing funding issues. With only minor corrections, here is my post.


This is long: ~730 words, excluding this line. So, you can TL;DR it, or actually learn something. Your call.

I have read the article and all 14 comments so far. I see two patterns: One, a set of people who repeat the oft-repeated mantras of PAT mismanagement and union greediness. I can hardly blame them. There is a grain of truth therein, but they are only two factors in a hugely complex equation. The second pattern comes from people who have gotten very closely involved in the situation over the years (I've been in it over 20), and know how complex this equation is. What one commenter said is true: PAT did some serious house-cleaning, and a complete rearrangement of the routing system to make it more cost-effective, an exact response to the demands in the 2005 funding fight, and implemented in Act 44 of 2007. Look at the numbers: Ridership rose 6% despite a 15% service cut. Thus, if all you have to say is to complain about unions and mismanagement, you lose much credibility for any other point you try to make.

While it's true the city has half the population it had 50 years ago (2010=305K, 1960=604K), the county has changed considerably less in comparison (2010=1.2M, 1960=1.6M its peak). The real interesting comparison is to 1930, when all public transit was provided by private, tax-paying companies. County population was much the same, but far more lived in the city itself (city=670K, county 1.37M). The population in these outer areas was in dense communities with their own, smaller, privately run transit systems, which became part of PAT when it was formed. The problem came after suburban sprawl began after WW2, and continues to this day. If PAT made any truly bad decisions, it was to try to serve these sprawly outer areas. People became too spread out to make transit cost-effective, but had enough clout to demand the areas be served, so they got the service, and simply expected the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

If you live in a house built since 1950 or so, on a street that was built since 1950 or so, YOU are the problem. Since you moved 15 to 30 miles out, instead of staying in the city where your (great-)grandparents lived, you are expecting the taxpayer to fund the cost of both transit *and* all those wide, suburban thoroughfares for your cars to travel on. The state cannot afford to fix roads and bridges OR fund transit. Something has to give, and really both are (raising taxes to fix roads is a different argument, though intimately related), but transit is getting the headlines.

What's getting cut now? These outer areas, mainly, though inner ones like Troy Hill and Mount Washington are getting caught in the same net. The bigger problem is that it costs lots more per person to serve the outer areas, much more than can be recovered through fares. While that's where a lot of the people are, the jobs are Downtown. Those jobs provide the income for the people paying the bulk of the STATE's income tax revenue. So it truly is in the state's interest to help underwrite the cost of public transit. But will Governor Corbett and the GOP-led House and Senate do that? I'm guessing no; they're slaves to Grover Norquist, Roger Ailes, and Rush Limbaugh. It won't happen. We're screwed.

Move the jobs from Downtown to the suburbs? That will be an option for some employers, but it causes more problems than it solves. Sure, you can commute from Port Vue to Cranberry, Kennedy to Monroeville, Aspinwall to Southpointe, when your employer moves operations there, but who would want to? And all the resulting traffic from everyone else doing the same thing? No, losing transit service is only the headline grabber of the moment. The real problem will be when decisions are made *because* the buses are cut. People will move. Employers will leave metro Pittsburgh altogether. And surely, any national company looking to set up shop will simply cross Pittsburgh off the list of places to even think about.

Would you like a proposed solution? How about this? It would surely help if the "non-profits" chipped in. UPMC has 54,000 employees. If it just out-and-out paid $1K apiece for an annual bus pass for each of them, that's $54M of PAT's $64M deficit. Play with the numbers, get buy-in from other companies to do something similar, and you've solved the deficit problem without touching taxes. I'm waiting to hear a concrete suggestion from anyone else.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Musings upon my daughter's graduation

Eight hours ago, I was sitting in a football stadium, watching as my little girl, my youngest child, graduated from high school. In three short months, she will be off to college and starting life. But that is a blog post for another day. Right now is to reflect on how she got here.

North Allegheny is a huge suburban school district, with over 8,000 students. Maybe a sub-title for this post might be "Never anything but the car," as that aptly describes how NA works. Every child, every time he or she goes to school, every time a parent needs to visit the school, a car (or school bus) is involved. With almost no exceptions, nobody walks to school. Even those living in houses bordering a school's property are carted to school on four (or six) wheels. No sidewalks, no trail system, no bicycles, no bike racks, no public transit of any sort. It's all done by cars and school buses.

Whatever. It works. Six hundred forty-five graduates. Of them, 158 have grade point averages of 4.0 or better, and it's not grade inflation. These kids are well educated. My own daughter pulled a 3.8 GPA for third-tier, mere "with honors". These are the kids who got 600 on each section of the SAT -- when they took it in seventh grade as a placement test for some other program. This is the school district whose marching band is so good, it played in President Obama's inauguration parade, the only one in Pennsylvania to do so. Night after night for years, we "parental units" were called upon for homework help, and the resources I drew upon to provide that assistance were more what I learned in college than high school.

I look at my daughter and think, "What did we do right?" and the answer is, a lot of things, starting at birth, but even that is not the whole story. It's the district, and the ability for the automobile to provide the backbone of support, from kids who oversleep the alarm clock, to needing to be shuttled home after school, or carting an art project or large musical instrument to and from, to getting kids to another one's house for a study session. It also does not hurt that everyone in this district is well paid, lives in a huge house, and owns three cars apiece.

Nearly every child drives by 17. The district has two high schools, one for 9th and 10th grades, and another for 11th and 12, and the junior high has about 30 designated parking spaces for student parking. Yes, enough 10th graders apparently need to drive to school rather than take the school bus that got them to the same school the prior year, that space is provided for them. That is how embedded the car is in the North Allegheny culture.

I can only wonder if we've reached a peak of sorts. What will happen to this district when it no longer becomes feasible for each family to keep three cars on the road? Are we there already? I don't have to think too hard to come up with a smattering of families who have moved, houses foreclosed upon, or a parent left to take a job after a long period of unemployment. Even in my own case, I muddled through a few years of austere existence, pretty much unable to do little more than provide food, housing and heat, and that only because I had only one car and no car payment. If I had had to replace a car six years ago, I don't know how I would have continued to live here. You have to be rich to live in North Allegheny. I honestly don't know how everyone else manages.

Well, we will see what happens when the frog boils. I've been saying for a while that life will change, big time, when daily use of a car becomes unsupportable. The effects will be felt in areas like this much sooner than in walkable areas. It will be less a matter of "how do we make do with only one car?" and more "why would anyone want to live out here if a car is so necessary?" And when those choices are made on a large scale, the people who have said means will choose not to live here but somewhere else instead, and leave NA for those who have no other choice but to live "out here". This might be a generation away, maybe only 10 years. Thus, I write this down so as to take a snapshot, to preserve a glimpse of how good it was, and how good my daughter had it, when it all still worked.