Monday, May 30, 2005

No more free rides

Jake Haulk and Eric Montarti of the conservative Allegheny Institute write in today's Trib in praise of the Port Authority's long overdue proposal to outsource 20 percent of its bus service and vehicle maintenance to private contractors:

This is a radical idea in Pittsburgh. But it is not one without experience in other parts of the country. The Denver Regional Transportation District has contracted out a portion of its non-rail mass transit service since 1988. Recent amendments to the state law that created the outsourcing arrangement raised the level of bus service provided by qualified private carriers to 50 percent.

Under Denver's arrangement, the district owns the buses, solicits bids and determines routes while leaving driving and maintenance to contractors. The savings are substantial. Operating costs per vehicle hour were lower, as were hourly wages for contracted drivers and mechanics. In addition, the wage progression for district personnel was much more rapid than for contractors. Based on recent numbers, the district is saving at least $30 million per year due to the contracting program, and that number will rise over time.

A similar plan could bring down costs in Allegheny County's system. Bus passenger trips per hour are lower than comparable systems while per-passenger expenses are higher. Put alongside systems in 20 other cities -- including New York, Atlanta, and Detroit -- average hourly wages for drivers, operation costs and driver wages per passenger trip are well out of line.

Closer to home, our research on mass transit service in Western Pennsylvania shows that authority driver wages are far higher than those of the Beaver County Transit Authority, the Mid-Mon Valley Transit Authority and the Westmoreland County Transit Authority. The Mid-Mon Valley and Westmoreland County authorities do not directly operate their buses; they contract out service to private operators.

The union that represents Port Authority workers, of course, is dead set against the proposal. Perhaps they should consider the alternative--escalating costs that lead to fare hikes and service cuts, which in turn drive down ridership, further eroding revenues. And Ed Rendell won't be governor forever. Pennsylvania may one day have a chief executive less sympathetic to mass transit and less willing to circumvent the Legislature to fund it. Business as usual is over.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Talk a walk on the South Side

As I was driving down East Carson Street last night, I noticed that Rynn's Luggage, near 19th Street, had closed. But fear not, loyal Rynn's customers--it turns out it is merely moving a few blocks down the street to the new SouthSide Works. Now, there is nothing out of the ordinary about a business changing location. Businesses need to go where they can maximize profits. It's possible that they've needed a better location for quite some time, and the new SouthSide Works will give them newer digs while remaining in the same part of town.

Unfortunately, SouthSide Works might not exist were it not for the subsidies its developer received through the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. And when retail development occurs absent an increase in the local population or its buying power, then existing stores and retail districts will suffer. And let's not forget that the promise of all the region's subsidized retail complexes is that they will bring in new businesses, not poach existing ones.

You know, the free market, while messy, works pretty well most of the time. This city might want to look into it.

The Sunday paper

Today's Trib includes a spot-on column by Jack Markowitz about state Act 72, which would allow school districts to give their residents property tax relief--funded by gambling revenues--if they raise their wage tax by 0.1 percent and agree to allow residents to vote on any tax increase above the rate of inflation.

Most districts have said thanks, no thanks, and Markowitz chides the governor and the General Assembly for the law's hypocrisy. Of referendums, Markowitz writes:

But referendums are good for local school boards.

Funny, they're not good for the governor and the Legislature. They don't need to consult the voters on tax increases. Or pay and pension increases. Or, indeed, on idiotically inviting the gambling interests to take a huge role in all future state politics. But apparently a local school board member really oversteps when hiking millages without consulting John and Mary Public.

Markowitz explains that many school boards, in addition to chafing at the referendum requirement (which would probably just ensure that districts hike taxes just enough every year to stay below the level needed to trigger the referendum), probably don't believe they will get enough revenue to offset the hike in the wage tax. And they may be right. Besides, Pennsylvania's true property tax problem stems from the disparity (see May 26 post) in wealth among the state's 501 school districts, a problem that no amount of gambling money is likely to solve.

In matters less temporal, Carl Prine turns in a touching tribute to military chaplains. It turns out that a disproportionate number of priests from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh have served as chaplains, who, by the way, serve in forward units without the benefits of carrying arms.

Because they administer last rites, even for enemy bodies scattered around them, priests often expose themselves to sniper fire. A strong belief in living with the troops means unarmed men of peace risk the same gunshots, shrapnel wounds and imprisonment as the GIs whom they serve -- a life of sacrifice that's endeared them to the warriors they served.

"I wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for a chaplain," said Larry Donovan, 75, of Scott. "He kept me going when we thought there was no hope left."

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Forrest Gump with attitude

Here's a response to the Rick Santorum profile in the New York Times Magazine, and a discussion triggered in part by my post on the article.

My favorite drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist

A few of my fellow local bloggers (here and here) have been cheering for George Galloway, the British official who rebuked a Senate panel investigating the UN oil-for-food scandal. Here's another take from Christopher Hitchens, who Galloway called a "drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist."

TO THIS DAY, George Galloway defiantly insists, as he did before the senators, that he has "never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf." As a Clintonian defense this has its admirable points: I myself have never seen a kilowatt, but I know that a barrel is also a unit and not an entity. For the rest, his defense would be more impressive if it answered any charge that has actually been made. Galloway is not supposed by anyone to have been an oil trader. He is asked, simply, to say what he knows about his chief fundraiser, nominee, and crony. And when asked this, he flatly declines to answer. We are therefore invited by him to assume that, having earlier acquired a justified reputation for loose bookkeeping in respect of "charities," he switched sides in Iraq, attached himself to a regime known for giving and receiving bribes, appointed a notorious middleman as his envoy, kept company with the corrupt inner circle of the Baath party, helped organize a vigorous campaign to retain that party in power, and was not a penny piece the better off for it. I think I believe this as readily as any other reasonable and objective person would. If you wish to pursue the matter with Galloway himself, you will have to find the unlisted number for his villa in Portugal.

Even if the matter of subornation and bribery had never arisen, there would remain the crucial question of Iraq itself. It was said during the time of sanctions on that long-suffering country that the embargo was killing, or had killed, as many as a million people, many of them infants. Give credit to the accusers here. Some of the gravamen of the charge must be true. Add the parasitic regime to the sanctions, over 12 years, and it is clear that the suffering of average Iraqis must have been inordinate.

There are only two ways this suffering could have been relieved. Either the sanctions could have been lifted, as Galloway and others demanded, or the regime could have been removed. The first policy, if followed without conditions, would have untied the hands of Saddam. The second policy would have had the dual effect of ending sanctions and terminating a hideous and lawless one-man rule. But when the second policy was proposed, the streets filled with people who absolutely opposed it. Saying farewell to the regime was, evidently, too high a price to pay for relief from sanctions.

Hitchens remains the most intellectually rigorous defender of going to war in Iraq, WMDs or no WMDs. He still hasn't convinced me, but the moral weight of his arguments is not easily dismissed.

Monday, May 23, 2005

"A Catholic missionary"

This captivating portrait of Rick Santorum should send a signal loud and clear that this guy will not go gently into that good night next year, no matter how many bloggers line up against him. What's worse for Democrats, he may be indicative of a Republican Party that having cemented its own base, is eager to chip away at the opposition's:

When he last ran in 2000, he was endorsed by The Philadelphia Tribune, the city's largest black newspaper, and also by the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity. The support did not translate into many votes, but in a ''light blue'' state like Pennsylvania, it is enough for a Republican just to chip away, to cut into the huge plurality that a Democrat must take away from a city like Philadelphia -- much as President Bush did in November in the decisive state of Ohio, where his narrow victory was partly attributed to winning 16 percent of the black vote, better than the 9 percent he won in 2000. ...

I talked to Santorum several times over the course of a month in Washington, and I also traveled with him one day to Allentown, a struggling, midsize city about an hour north of Philadelphia. The core of the city has become largely Hispanic, mainly Puerto Rican. The people he encountered spoke to him, at times, as if he were a visiting holy man. ''You're a man of Christian principles and values, and our people will embrace you because your values are our values,'' Wanda Mercado-Arroyo, a Republican and community activist, told him as they rode in a car between events. Santorum just sort of nodded and smiled.

I know he's far behind in the polls, and I hope they prove to be prophetic, but it's just hard for me to believe that either this guy or this guy are the ones to bring him down.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Till death do them part

Andrew Sullivan is onto something:

Rapist marries her former victim. And she has a constitutional right to do so that no government can take away. A faithful married lesbian couple in Maryland - together for decades? The Republicans won't even let them visit each other in hospital.

The life and death of Pittsburgh

Bob O'Connor could do a lot worse than to heed the advice Dennis Roddy dispenses in this column. To wit:

Let a thousand pushcarts bloom: This will drive some of the merchants nuts, but just now you need population in the Downtown. Fifth and Forbes, mistaken as an eyesore by Tom Murphy, is an ideal spot for the kind of open-air market that enlivens the Strip District on Saturdays. Forget "upscale" developers and let the little guy have a shot at creating the critical mass for busy weekdays. Encourage pushcart vendors -- make it easy, with nominal licensing fees -- and let them ply Fifth and Forbes selling hotdogs, magazines, maps, whatever. It will displace the current open-air commerce you're worried about. Where will these vendors come from? Read on.

If memory serves--and I'm much too tired and lazy to look this up--Pittsburgh's licensing fees for pushcart vendors are about five times what they are in New York City, and their locations are tightly controlled. This is indicative of the contempt with which this city's old guard of political and corporate leaders hold cities. As I've said a thousand times, the people who run Pittsburgh claim to love cities, but they hate what makes them unique. Tom Murphy is the living, breathing incarnation of this. All I can say, Mr. Mayor, is that Butler County awaits.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Cells in a petri dish"

A bill that would ease restrictions on stem cell research is bitterly dividing Congressional Republicans, according to this Washington Post account. Backers of the measure, including its Republican co-sponsor, say the bill has enough votes to pass, and it is supported by former Republican Senator John C. Danforth, an ordained minister who has been critical of the GOP's ties to the radical religious right.

Advocates are winning support from some antiabortion leaders with the argument that "cells in a Petri dish" that would otherwise be discarded are not comparable to a fetus that "would become a person in the normal course of events," said John C. Danforth, an ordained minister and former Republican senator who served as Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.

James C. Greenwood, a moderate Republican who retired from Congress last year to become president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said he is "cautiously optimistic" that, given the large number of co-sponsors, the House will pass the bill.

Proponents of an identical bill in the Senate say they have enough votes to kill a filibuster. (In light of the battle regarding filibusters for judicial nominees, I'm sure we'll see plenty of bi-partisan hippocrisy should conservatives try to filibuster the bill.)

Months too late for John Kerry's presidential bid, it appears that stem cell research may become the wedge issue he tried to make it. I think that proponents of stem cell research (and it is important to remember that the president did not ban it, he merely restricted federal funding) need to acknowledge that it presents some moral quandries. But politicians sympathetic to the religious right on this issue need to explain why they are not taking a similar stand against fertility clinics, where embryos are routinely discarded.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Barreling down the pork highway

President Bush, after presiding over four years of ballooning deficits, suddenly fancies himself a fiscal conservative and is threatening to veto a federal highway bill unless Congress trims $11 billion off what is surely a pork-laden piece of legislation. Congress is claiming it has to spend all that money in order to reduce highway fatalities and ease congestion. In other words, Congress has to pump billions of tax dollars into ensuring that Americans can live far from where they work and shop. Yet again I'm reminded of the classic Sam Kinison bit, in which the comedian said he longed to tell those starving Ethiopians they wouldn't be hungry if they would just live where the food is.

Of course, it would be one thing if building or expanding highways actually eased congestion. For some reason, our so-called leaders have failed to learn that the more roads you build, the more congestion you create. What's that you say, the bill also includes $50 billion for mass transit? Well, given how the Port Authority of Allegheny County spends its federal transit dollars (think the planned North Shore T line) I'd just as soon say thanks, but no thanks.

We have to endure many insults to our intelligence from our elected officials, but the idea that they are motivated by concern for the public welfare is the limit. Of course, a little honesty is slipping through; legislators are claiming the bill will create 47,000 jobs, and those jobs no doubt will go to constituents who can be counted to remember their own representative or senator on Election Day, even as voters clamor to throw the bums out. Let's not forget that spending tax dollars to create jobs that wouldn't otherwise be necessary is what's landed Pittsburgh on the brink of bankruptcy. But at the federal level, as our vice president would remind us, deficits don't matter.

Monday, May 16, 2005

All the news that's free to print

Andrew Sullivan's post about the New York Times' decision to charge for its online op-ed pages is dead on:

By sectioning off their op-ed columnists and best writers, they are cutting them off from the life-blood of today's political debate: the free blogosphere. Inevitably, fewer people will link to them; fewer will read them; their influence will wane faster than it has already. The blog is already becoming a rival to the dated op-ed column format as a means of communicating opinion journalism. My bet is that the NYT's retrogressive move will only fasten the decline of op-ed columnists' influence.

Like a broken record

I'm engaged in a lively debate at Ol Froth's blog over the government's role in promoting suburban sprawl.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

For sale

For sale: iMac computer, purchased in 2000. 64 MB RAM, 1 gig hard drive. Comes with Epson 4-color inkjet printer and floppy disk drive. Good condition. Best offer.

Interested? Contact me at

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Just say no

The National Review, the pre-eminent journal of American conservativism, also has been one of the nation's most persistent critics of the war on drugs. In this essay, Rich Lowry pillories drug czar John Walters for his campaign against marijuana users, even as the use of more dangerous drugs is on the rise:

The fight against marijuana isn't even working on its own terms. According to the Sentencing Project, since 1992, the price of marijuana has fallen steadily, declining by 16 percent. In 1990, 84.4 percent of high-school seniors said it was easy to get marijuana. In 2002, 87.2 percent said it was easy. Daily use by high-school seniors tripled from 1990 to 2002, going from 2.2 percent to 6 percent — the same level as in 1975.

As Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of the pro-decriminalization group NORML, puts it, "Increased arrest rates are not associated with reduced marijuana use, reduced marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users, reduced treatment admissions, reduced emergency-room mentions, any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the price of marijuana." Besides that, the war on marijuana is a smash success.

Marijuana is not harmless, and its use should be discouraged, but in the same way, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day should be discouraged. The criminal-justice system should stay out of it. Twelve states have decriminalized marijuana to varying degrees, fining instead of arresting people for possessing small amounts. They recognize that — as the authors of a new study for the conservative American Enterprise Institute argue — "the case for imposing criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana is weak."

It's good to see a publication with such stalwart conservative credentials waging the good fight against the nation's hippocritical and costly drug war. But I'm starting to despair of seeing this nation enact a more sensible drug policy anytime in the near future.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Shameless self promotion

I had a book review published in Sunday's Post-Gazette.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Silver Fox

Bill Steigerwald zings mayoral favorite Bob O'Connor for claiming he can solve the city's financial problems even though he was complicit, as a city councilman and City Council president, in causing those problems. Bill also reminds us that O'Connor signed on to all the city's hare-brained redevelopment schemes, and he insists the city can get its house in order without any pain:

Manager O'Connor won't make quarter-billion-dollar blunders like Mayor Murphy. But he still thinks the subsidized sports stadiums and the convention center expansion were good deals for Pittsburgh, and he's against privatizing the city's paramedics, garbage pickup or 32 swimming pools.

It's silly to expect out-of-the-box thinking from an unreformed, economically challenged big-city Democrat.

Indeed. O'Connor has said that he can find private money to re-open all the city's swimming pools, without even bothering to consider whether the city and its incredibly shrinking population need all those pools. O'Connor also has said he would have signed the same lavish contract for the city firefighters that Murphy did in 2001 in order to eke out his narrow victory against O'Connor.

Steigerwald turns to urban thinker Joel Kotkin for some advice on managing the city. I've disagreed with Kotkin previously but he offers some excellent ideas here:

"You've got to scale down your government to the size of your city," he said. "Start acting like what you are, which is a small place. Then take the advantage of being small. Be streamlined. Figure out what the strengths are of being small."

As for realistic role models, Kotkin pointed to Des Moines and Indianapolis. It sounds funny, he said, but O'Connor could emulate cities like Burbank, Calif., that "are very business- and customer-friendly and are run very much like businesses. Become a progressive city in the turn-of-the-century sense of progressive -- clean, well-run."

Meanwhile, he said, speaking to the city's befuddled professional ruling-and-boosting elites, "Pittsburgh should be aggressively Pittsburgh. What you're selling is an older city with soul and great neighborhoods and a lot to do in a small place that is affordable. There aren't a lot of those places left."

Pittsburgh has many great assets, Kotkin said. "Build on your strengths. Stop trying to be hip and cool. Stop trying to prove that you're a big high-tech center. Why don't you just try to be a nice place where middle-class people who own businesses and pay taxes might actually choose to live?

"It's sort of basic, isn't it?"

I don't know enough about the examples Kotkin cites to say whether they are truly cities Pittsburgh should emulate. But his broader point is correct--we need to work on making Pittsburgh a nice place to live, and stop trying to be so many things we are not.