Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Missing the Point

Eventhough I am in the midst of writing my groundbreaking and wildly entertaining blog series titled "A History of Failure" starring David Hasslehoff, I read a great article here that inspired me to take a short blogging detour.

To paraphrase, the author basically writes how the "system" in Pittsburgh's transit system is a loose term at best. It is hardly a coordinated and integrated system where one person can move easily from one end of the system to the other quickly and with few transfers if any. As I was reading this, I got to thinking about all the light rail fanatics vs. the bus people and their rhetorical back and forth arguments and squabbling over which mode of transit would be better for Pittsburgh and the world. I also thought how for every point one side makes, the other side seems to be able to counter it. Neither side can gain an upper hand and they continue to squabble long into the night.

(For the record I am a light rail proponent, but having the busway in my backyard has softened my stance over the past few years)

While thinking about these two points, the little light went on in my head. The critical issue for Pittsburgh is not HOW we get to an integrated system (whether that be light rail or bus), its the simple fact that we get one.

The issue first popped up for me about 6 months ago. My fiance' wanted to go to South Hills Village. At first I screamed in horror at the thought of trying to drive on Route 19 to the mall on a saturday afternoon and becoming lost in a sea of screaming teenage South Hills rich girls. Then I checked the Port Authority's website and quickly screamed again at the thought of spending an hour and a half(one way) making the trip only to become lost in a sea of screaming teenage South Hills rich girls. Luckily for me, after some vigorous whining I disuaded her from taking the trip.

I couldn't help but think if I lived in...ohhhh...say Boston, where you can use their excellent subway system to get just about anywhere in and around Boston, while making one, at most two transfers. Not so in Pittsburgh. Although going from the East End to the South Hills is RELATIVELY easy (you only have to make one transfer downtown). Going anywhere else with transit is anything but easy. Try going from the East End to the Airport or better yet, try going from Monroeville to the South Hills. It wouldn't be pretty.
Let's face it; Pittsburgh's transit system is fragmented. The main bus-routes on the East Busway (EBA, EBS, EBO) only go on the east Busway. The T that extends from downtown into the south hills, does just that, and only that. Let's not forget that the South and West Busways don't really go anywhere and none of the busways tie into any other busway at all. So while you have the light rail and bus people arguing that one mode of transportation is better than the other, what you've got in reality are two half'assed modes of transportation that aren't nearly as effective as they could be because they're fragmented.

Pittsburgh needs either an interconnected seperated grade busway system (say where you can go from Monroeville to the airport without the bus setting foot on public streets, and one or two transfers at most) or an integrated seperated grade T system that won't just take you from Heinz Field to Mt. Lebanon.

They both have advantages, and they both have disadvantages. Draw straws, who cares, just pick one and build it! Pittsburgh needs and deserves a good transit system. All the squabbling between the two sides distracts us from our goal and leaves the Pittsburgh mass transit system fragmented and un-effective.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A History of Failure Part III: The Pittsburgh Beltway System

I should start off by saying while I think we would have been better off as a city today if a beltway were built in the 1970's, I think the Mon-Fayette Expressway is an investment in the wrong mode of transportation at the wrong time. It's expensive, and our region would be better served to built its transit infrastructure than highway infrastructure when most people already drive around town to begin with. We should concentrate on getting people to switch, not to enable their current habits. But alas, that is another blog for another time.

Around the time of the GREAAAAATTTT SKYBUS, there an additional piece of the Pittsburgh Transportation Study was going on to plan a modern highway beltway system throughout Allegheny County. Presumably, this would go hand in hand with a rapid transit system to help catapult Pittsburgh into the 21st century.

If you look at the original plan, you'll see an extensive network of roads throughout the county. I'll be here all day, and you won't waste your time reading this if I were to detail every highway that was to be part of this system, but suffice to say that the proposed system looked like a plate of spaghetti on the map.

If at least part of this would have gone through, in conjunction with some form of rapid transit system, whether it be skybus or subway, Pittsburgh would have ended up with a pretty comprehensive transportation system providing the city and county with multiple mode options to residents of the area.

The one key difference between this failure and other past and present transportation failures in Pittsburgh, is that this one was not actually due to political wrangling in local government. This is not to say that certain factions didn't oppose portions of the proposed highway system (WRATH, a collection of citizens from Whitehall vigorously fought a south hills expressway) , but it is safe to say the plan wasn't killed from local government action, or lack thereof.

This time it was the state of Pennsylvania that did this project in. As of 1969, it seemed as though everything was on track for this new system. Land acquisition had already begun on several of the projects.

However, by 1973, all the projects were dead. I did some researching (I use that word loosely) to try and find out exactly why funding fell apart. I was unable to find out, but I do know that the plug was pulled on each individual route, and they were all cut at about the same time. Click here for a pretty good list and some interesting information about each of the planned highways and information about their planning and ultimate demise.

Unlike with other projects, this time the demise was so complete, that no part of the system was built, not one highway. The only structure Pittsburgh gained was the Birmingham Bridge. It is only piece of a "Oakland-Crosstown Freeway", and of the entire beltway project ever built. The Birmingham Bridge joins other notable "achievements" in Pittsburgh as the Wabash Tunnel and the Pittsburgh and Steubenville Railroad Tunnel as monuments to failure.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Dear Sean Casey and Friends....QUIT YOUR BITCHIN!

I am going to make a stand. The 1 or 2 people that read this blog and disagree with me be damned! I drink, and I like the drink tax. OK, I don't LIKE the drink tax, but overall, it serves a good purpose, and is at worst, is a minor inconvenience. What it is not, is a harbinger to the end of the restaurant and bar industry in Allegheny county as its opponents would have you believe.

The argument of the group known as FACT (Friends Against Counter-productive Taxes) has said that they do not feel it is their responsibility to bear the burden of helping out our local mass transit system, and that the tax will do more harm than good. First of all, for the record, I think it's sweet that they are all friends. I had no idea the local restaurant industry was such a close knit group.

Let's look at the arguments a little more closely shall we?

#1. What is the point of the drink tax? Right now, the Port Authority does not have a dedicated income source. It relies on state and federal grants, and fares in an attempt to meet its fiscal needs. The state (who is higher in the food chain by the way) has dictated that this funding will come from one of two places. Either a drink tax or an increase in property tax. Mr. Onorato and the city county government chose the drink tax.

#2 Why are bar and restaurant owners so angry????? Their main beef is that the drink tax will cause people to either decrease their drinking, or take it outside of Allegheny county, thereby causing a ripple effect where bars and restaurants would make less money, and possibly go out of business. Bottom line, they feel as though they are being unfairly targeted as the source of this tax that they feel they should not be involved in.
More specifically, their arguments are: 1. The tax is too high. 2. Problems with the Port Authority are not their problem. 3. The Port Authority has been stupid with money, and that is not their fault. 4. There are alternate methods for taxation, that will not cause the end of drinking in Allegheny county.

#3. My reaction: CALM DOWN. This is a classic example of Chicken Little screaming the sky is falling. I have yet to hear of a bar or restaurant that has had to close its doors for good because of the drink tax, and although I haven't seen figures, I have not heard one example in all the news and press coverage of this tax revolt about a substantial loss in business since the drink tax went into effect. Additionally, I will also respond to each previous point above with my own response.
1. 10 % does sound steep, granted. However, do the math. If you are drinking enough on a regular basis at a bar that 10% on your tab is too much , may want to seek help. Also, FACT has put a referendum in the November election to decrease the drink tax to 1/2 of 1 %. Honestly, why not just lobby for a repeal of the tax in the election? FACT claims their ballot as an "alternate solution". That's no solution, because nothing would be gained by the tax, it would rendered useless and more money would be wasted on its collection than made on the proceeds. In my mind, they are just being smart-asses because they are upset about the tax.
2. The fact is, the state of our transit system is every one's problem. Especially with gas prices that look like they've got no where to go but up. Investing in our transportation system is not pork, it makes sense.
3. I can't argue that the Port Authority has been dumb with its finances. There are many examples, including the approximately $400,000 in uncounted fares, and the fact that they have some of the highest labor costs of any transit authority in the nation. I will be the first to tell you reform is needed, and changes must be made to bring costs down, BUT that does not mean that they shouldn't get funding. It is possible to require reform AND fund them at the same time. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive.
4. First, see the response to #1. Again, reducing the tax that low is hardly an alternative. The other, less cynical alternative would be an increase in property tax. Did I mention how high this increase would be???? 25%!!!!! That is not a viable alternative. If FACT's main argument is that the tax is bad for business, imagine how bad a 25% increase in property tax would effect an already shrinking region! While it would be unlikely that someone would choose not to live in Allegheny County because of a drink tax, it would be much more likely for them to choose not to live in Allegheny County because of much higher property taxes. This could also spur on additional movement to surrounding counties where property taxes are lower. To me, that's a much greater consequence than paying an extra $2.00 on a $20 dollar bar tab.

Bottom line: The tax has had minimal consequences for local businesses, and has already beat projections for income generated (everyone knows we can drink in Western PA!), with no hard facts that business has decreased in Allegheny County. I am sick of hearing FACT's whining. We need to focus on the real issues that are holding our region back, and stop on the inconsequential crap. GROW UP RESTAURANT OWNERS