Weekend essay: The persimmons twins of Jones Mountain

Any gardener worth his mulch loves a challenge. If you see an interesting but unfamiliar plant species on a trip, you think, “Hey, I’d like to grow that!”

So, you snip a few leaves, pick a few berries or seed pods, then take it all home in an attempt to make a positive identification. And once you have – and as long as you’ve not imported an invasive species — you put your junior horticulture skills to the test.

Thus began The Great Persimmons Experiment five years ago.

Two persimmons, once dubbed “the fruit of the gods,” made their way back to Western Pennsylvania from a trip to Southern Shores, N.C., along the Outer Banks. Not trees, mind you, but the fruit, which, technically, is a big berry.

Persimmons, of which this gardener was not very familiar, look like a cross between a half-grown peach and a small tomato. (The fact that the flower sepals stay with the orb when picked reinforces that visual.) Cut it and, ripe, the “meat” is the consistency of pudding. Taste it and it’s just as sweet, apricot- and even date-like.

About a dozen seeds were harvested. They were conditioned (“stratified”) over the winter of 2012-13 – kept moist and cool in the refrigerator for a few months — then planted in the spring of ’13.

Very late that spring, two of the seeds finally germinated in a large plastic pot. And what a kick it was to watch something “new” grow. Four years later, the root-bound persimmons twins had outgrown that pot. Which presented a challenge:

With no available space at my humble abode, where to plant them?

But last month, the perfect spot finally was found. It’s at a place I’ve dubbed Jones Mountain.

In West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, it’s not far from my birthplace. Nor from the final resting place of my paternal great grandparents, my paternal great-great grandfather and a great aunt and uncle. They’re buried high on a hillside overlooking a large creek’s peaceful waterfall.

Those persimmons trees, now more than four feet tall, are thriving at their new home. Chicken wire protects them from the voracious deer that tend to eat even everything they’re not supposed to like. Bees visit often, though there have yet to be anything resembling blooms. Perhaps next spring.

And, silly as it might sound, how satisfying it is for the custodian who sowed their seeds to see them on their own — greeting the fog deep in the valleys of each mountain morning, basking in the afternoon sun and welcoming the solace of each mountain night in a place that truly is “home.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Lackawanna Voters Will Have Say on Reassessment

Voters in the northeast county of Lackawanna will decide this fall (in little over three months time) whether they want the County to conduct its first reassessment in five decades.

We wrote a blog in July noting that the board of commissioners approved a motion to move forward with the question–the actual wording of which asks voters to approve incurring debt of no more than $13 million in order to bring values up to date.  One commissioner noted that the dollar amount is not valid since no bid has been solicited (that number came from research done by staff for the board of commissioners) and that the mention of the predetermined ratio (the ratio of assessed to market value) in the question was confusing.  That same commissioner wanted to move the question to the spring ballot, but failed in his attempt.

Would a voter be in favor of a reassessment if it ultimately cost $9 million in order to update the old values, but not if it cost $13 million to do so?  That could be part of the consideration that comes into play by putting a dollar figure into the question instead of just asking a “yes or no” on reassessment.

Thus the County’s taxpayers will have the opportunity to attend public information sessions, view a video (which was approved in a separate action by the commissioners) and do a little research on their own to get a sense of determining how a reassessment will affect their property values and taxes.

 

 

Notes on the state of things

The fallout from Philadelphia’s tax on sugary drinks is redefining “sour.”

A new Tax Foundation study says Philly’s 1.5-cent-per-ounce impost has created a true public policy mess. It even suggests (based on prior studies) that the tax, which is 24 times the Pennsylvania excise tax rate on beer, might even have driven some consumers to more alcoholic beverage consumption.

The foundation also notes that Philadelphia’s beverage tax collections originally were promoted as a vehicle to raise money for pre-kindergarten education. “But in practice Philadelphia awards just 49 percent of the soda tax revenues to pre-K programs.”

And “poor revenue performance” – think everything from depressed soda sales to tax avoidance” – threatens the very programs the tax was designed to support.

Hundreds of jobs have been lost, too. Lawsuits claim that since the soda tax is levied against distributors, who pass on the tax to consumers, and that consumers then are taxed again when they purchase such products, it amounts to double taxation, a violation of the Sterling Act.

And so onerous has the tax proven to be, Pepsi doesn’t even bother trying to sell some of its brand products in grocery and convenience stores in Philadelphia.

“The legal battles and consumer angst the tax has attracted make the tax unattractive …,” the foundation says. “Other localities wishing to avoid these travails should seek funding for programs with broader-based, more predictable tax instruments.”

Here’s hoping any Pittsburgh officials perhaps with similar taxing designs pay heed to the Philadelphia experience instead of learning the hard way.

One cannot help but be struck by the intellectual vapidity of a protest sign at a Sunday rally in Pittsburgh following the horrific weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Included in an otherwise acceptable litany of appeals for “No Racism” and “No Fascism,” among others, were entreaties for “No Capitalism” but “Yes Socialism.”

Good grief. Consider this thought, from the late, great Carnegie Mellon economist Allan Meltzer:

“Alternatives to capitalism, whether socialism, communism, fascism or some religious orthodoxies, offer some groups (a) utopian vision of mankind that becomes the one ‘right path.’ Utopian visions and orthodoxies always bring enforcement, often brutal enforcement.

“The 20th century saw many such outcomes. None achieved both higher living standards and greater individual freedom. National Socialism, Soviet and Chinese Communism instead produced mass murders of millions.

“This should have extinguished the appeal of utopian visions, but it has not,” the distinguished late scholar continued.  “Many still believe that social justice can only be achieved by ending or severely regulating capitalism. … (But) capitalism disperses and limits power while the alternatives concentrate power in a few hands.”

Tyrannical “few hands,” it must be noted.

This is not a difficult lesson to learn. History is a most adroit teacher. Why then do so many among us remain so blind to the manifest dangers of socialism?

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has nominated Jerry Oleksiak, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the powerful teachers’ union), to be the next secretary of the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Oleksiak, a longtime special education teacher and union boss, appears to have no experience pertinent to the job.

That is, unless the administration plans to change the name of the department to the Pennsylvania Department of Organized Labor.

Ahem.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

The Stadium Authority that Will Not Go Away

Summary: The Stadium Authority, which should have gone out of business with the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium, continues to exist.  And now it plans to extend its life to 2049.  This Brief explains why that extension is very bad public policy.

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Nearly two decades after Three Rivers Stadium was imploded and removed from the landscape, the authority created in 1964 to build and manage the stadium is still in business.  It is useful to recall the points made about the ongoing existence of the Stadium Authority that were made in our Policy Brief of November 15, 2001.

Quoting that Brief: Remember that the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority was supposed to go out of existence once Three Rivers was demolished? In light of the fact that the Sports and Exhibition Authority (formerly the Auditorium Authority) had taken over the construction and ownership of the new stadiums, why would a Stadium Authority be needed? Yet here we are nine months after the disappearance of Three Rivers and the Stadium Authority is still very much with us. And, we also learn that the Authority continues to own land on the North Shore and is a principal player in any potential development of the property between the new stadiums.

 The obvious question is why this happened. It is hard to see any reason other than a desire to maintain some City control of the North Shore property.  Stadium Authority members are appointed exclusively by the City.

 As late as October 25 (2001), the City’s website carried the statement that “the Authority’s existence and function will conclude with the planned demolition of Three Rivers Stadium.” Obviously, that was written prior to February 2001(when Three Rivers was demolished—added for clarification of timing.)

 What happened to the plan to terminate the Authority in 2001? And here we are 16 years later asking the same question; why does the Stadium Authority still exist?

Today the Authority still owns parking facilities on the North Shore. It has no staff of its own opting instead to share personnel, including the director, with the joint City-County Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA).  Purportedly, the Authority’s sole remaining function is to use revenues from its parking facilities to pay off bond debt associated with the facilities. Through an agreement with City Council in 2013, it was to go out of business in 2028 when the 15 years remaining to finish paying off the bonds for the garage on General Robinson Street would have been completed.

But wait. Owing to a plan to refinance the garage debt in a joint arrangement with SEA, the Stadium Authority board just voted to extend its life for an additional 21 years through April 5, 2049.  The relevant question here is: Which decision actually came first, to refinance or the decision to extend the life of the Authority—which required the extension vote they just took? Extending the Authority’s life beyond 2028 needed a plausible reason. How do they justify the vote to extend?  By refinancing the bonds, not only for lower rates but to get a longer maturity.

One would have thought the refinancing that extended pay off out 30 years should have been mentioned to the Mayor and City Council before any effort to refinance was undertaken or any deals made.  After all, in 2013 then Councilman Peduto, opposed a proposal by the Authority for a 35 to 50 year extension. The argument was that the Stadium Authority should cease to exist when the parking garage debt was retired in 2028. The then Councilman also recommended the Authority be folded into the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The Stadium Authority proceeded to vote for a 15 year extension through 2028 and no move to merge with the Redevelopment Authority has been forthcoming.

The director of the Stadium Authority and the SEA defends the extension on the grounds that it is part of a long term joint financing deal to get lower interest rates. How convenient. The argument that merging the Stadium Authority with another, such as the SEA, or even the Urban Redevelopment Authority, or even more appropriately the Parking Authority, would not be prudent does not hold water. The Stadium Authority could sell the parking garages to the Parking Authority (better still, why not sell to a private parking company?) and use the proceeds to pay off its debt.  Surely the outstanding debt is lower than the value of the parking facilities.  Now that would be a prudent step and it would get rid of an authority that was made obsolete by the destruction of Three Rivers and had announced 17 years ago it would terminate itself.

The Mayor’s Chief of Staff is quoted as saying “a reorganization or merger of the stadium authority with another public entity may require additional transactions costs without significant public benefit.”  How much would the legal fees be to do the paper work? Moreover, selling the garages and terminating the Stadium Authority would presumably free up any revenue from garage operations that is now being used to pay the SEA for its Stadium Authority work. That sounds very much like a benefit that would flow to the new owner of the parking facilities. Would it eliminate income of the SEA for the work done for the Stadium Authority? Now there is a question that needs to be answered.

So there you have it.  Even though the Authority has long outlived its original purpose, and should have gone away, it won’t go away. Furthermore, an extension through 2049 is for all practical purposes perpetuity. One can only imagine what the Stadium Authority might decide to get involved in over the next 30 years.

The reasons for another extension of the Authority’s life do not rise to the level of flimsy, especially in light of the far better alternative to sell its properties, pay off the debt and go out of business.  In short this is another illustration of governance Pittsburgh style.

Taxed by the mile, not by the gallon of gas?

Whether it is a public policy idea whose time has come remains to be seen. But it is, in the least, worthy of serious study. But would Western Pennsylvanians embrace such a concept?

We refer to word out of Eastern Pennsylvania that researchers will begin a federally funded $1.2 million study to investigate the viability of a mileage-based highway tax system to pay for highway infrastructure.

What’s prompting such a study in the Keystone State, and what led to previous studies elsewhere, is two-fold.

First, modern vehicles with better fuel mileage use less gasoline and diesel. Which means less money is being collected in fuel taxes at the pump. Which is how much of America’s highway system has been maintained for the last century.

Second, forays into alternative-fuel vehicles – electric, primarily, but also hydrogen fuel cells (and should either, or both, gain mass acceptance) — also would cut into gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.

As pennlive.com reported last week, “a very limited test of a mileage-based fee will take place in Pennsylvania and Delaware in the Interstate 95 corridor. A group called “The I-95 Corridor Coalition,” a multi-state partnership of transportation agencies and related groups is spearheading the research project.

To its credit, the coalition says is it not endorsing such a user fee but does deem it worthy of investigation. Thus, it is refreshing to see a prospective study without a preconceived conclusion, as too many government-funded “studies” begin.

So, is a mileage-based highway tax system a good and/or a reasonable idea? Would the motoring public accept such a change?

A year ago, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) offered a quite balanced overview. It noted that taxes could be based on a flat cent-per-mile charge. Or they could be based on GPS (global positioning system) data. They even might be still charged at the pump.

And, indeed, researchers note that charging highway uses by the mile could end up being an incentive to drive less, driving down collected revenues.

Implementation of a mileage-based road user charge would have to overcome other challenges, as well, CRS researchers Robert Kirk and Marc Levinson wrote in their June 2016 study.

There are privacy concerns; think of that GPS tracking.

There would be higher public costs to establish, collect and enforce such a new tax regimen; Kirk and Levinson say estimates range from 5 percent to 13 percent of collections. (Another study, by the Government Accountability Office, suggests a range of from 8 percent to 33 percent of collections.)

The billing process, itself, given the size of the private vehicle fleet (estimated then at 256 million), could prove particularly daunting. And expensive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge: “(T)he setting and adjusting of the road-user charge rates … would likely face as much opposition as increasing motor fuels taxes,” the researcher say.

That is, the politics of such a proposed public policy could be brutal.

Then there’s this: A number of small-scale studies have been undertaken to date in the United States, Kirk and Levinson remind. Large-scale studies would provide better information. One such larger study is being undertaken by the University of Iowa.

A February 2014 study by the Reason Foundation supported transitioning from taxes on fuels to taxing miles driven.

“The replacement should be a direct charge for the amount of highway services a motorist uses,” wrote Robert Poole Jr. and Adrian Moore. “It should be sustainable, fair, efficient, and – for major highways and bridges – tailored to the capital and operating cost of those individual facilities.

“The system used to implement the direct charge should not create privacy concerns by enabling governments to track where and when people travel,” they stress. “And it should give motorists choice in how to pay for their miles traveled.”

That’s a smart overview. But, again, such a transition likely would be easier said than done.

Both the Reason and GAO studies suggest going from a fuels tax to a mileage-based tax also could reduce congestion by better allowing the implementation of congestion pricing. That is, motorists who chose to travel at peak congestion times could be charged more – an enticement to drive outside traditional rush hours to reduce traveling costs.

But would that create new rush hours? Ah, the Bastiatian “seen and unseen.”

Of course, human action being what it is, it is difficult to gauge how highway users would react to such a change, in theory and in practice.

Perhaps residents in the heavily urbanized Eastern Pennsylvania will react differently than, outside of Greater Pittsburgh, those in more rural Western Pennsylvania. Perhaps Pittsburghers, who still appear to have an aversion to crossing rivers, would cross even less?

Once quipped Albert Einstein, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Here’s to well-rounded, science-based and politics-free studies of the mileage-based highway user tax. For it’s the only way We the People will be able to make an informed decision.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: The pains of August

High school cross-country runners are everywhere this time of the year.

You see them – harriers, they once were called — in the early morning hours, shaking off the previous day’s aches and, sometimes, agonies.

You see them in the afternoon heat; they know that meet conditions won’t always be morning-pristine.

Others prefer the cooling night for some good speed work.

They’re working hard to learn how to not be fooled by “rabbits” and come to understand their inner pace, if not the concomitant exhilaration and inner peace of having achieved the nirvana of a “second wind” in the middle of their second mile.

The truly devoted have been hitting the pavement thrice daily and no matter the weather.

Their goal is to log the miles — hundreds of miles, maybe even 1,000 miles — over the summer. And they’ll hit the hills — hard — and “stride out” for 50 or so yards at the top.

They understand how the burning in their lungs and the rubber in their legs now can make them winners later. The pain of August leads to the payoff of October and November when the championship meets roll around.

Having once long ago been one myself, I can attest that cross-country runners are a dichotomous and curious lot. There’s the communal aspect of the team and learning the strategies necessary to win. (The lowest score prevails, do remember.) But cross-country, by its very nature, is one of sport’s most solitary endeavors.

And by that same nature, it just might be one of sport’s greatest teachers of discipline — a discipline that will serve these young runners well long after they’ve retired their flats and spikes.

As these runners prepare to take their first “mark” of the season, they’ll be taking another step on their long journey to becoming good human beings.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Beware the Foxconn con

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald tells the Post-Gazette that “Pennsylvania is well positioned to become competitive” in an effort to lure some kind of Foxconn facility to Penn’s Wood.

Translation: Hold onto your wallets, Keystone State taxpayers.

Foxconn is the world’s largest contract maker of electronics. It’s perhaps best known for making liquid crystal displays (LCDs) for Apple iPhones. It recently said it would build a $10 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) plant in Wisconsin to make LCD panels used in television and computer screens.

But that deal comes with a steep price for Badger State taxpayers – up to $3 billion (again, that’s billion with a “b”) in cash payments over 15 years if the facility ends up employing 13,000 people, the Post-Gazette reports.

But as The Washington Post detailed in a March 3 story, Foxconn has a pretty remarkable history of making grandiose promises it does not keep, including here in Pennsylvania.

To wit, four years ago Foxconn said it would invest $30 million (that’s million with an “m”) and hire 500 workers for a high-tech factory in Central Pennsylvania. Nothing came of it.

Three years ago, The Post said Foxconn hinted at building LCD facilities in Arizona and Colorado. Nothing. Indonesia? There was talk of a $1 billion facility. Nothing, the newspaper reports.

Promises of multibillion-dollars investments also were touted in India, Vietnam and Brazil. And while The Post says some facilities were built, the selling sizzle was far less than the delivered steak.

Now comes Wisconsin. Now comes again Pennsylvania, with one of its top elected officials touting a possible new Foxconn “investment” here.

But at least in Pennsylvania, it appears that Foxconn’s proposed 2013 “investment” faded away because, as it told CNN, the commonwealth – that is, taxpayers – didn’t cough up enough money to make the Harrisburg-area facility “economically viable.”

Sounds like a shakedown, does it not?

So how much have Pennsylvania “leaders” offered Foxconn on behalf of beneficent taxpayers. A spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development said he couldn’t say. There was a non-disclosure agreement. Well, of course there was.

But that same spokesman did tell the P-G that the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf continues to “aggressively seek” such foreign investment.

ACE Fitzgerald, too, cited non-disclosure agreements to the newspaper in not talking specifics about taxpayers being, yet again, set up as venture capitalists. But he did say the region and the state are “well positioned’ to be included in any additional Foxconn expansion.

Translation: Even more taxpayer money.

No one should find any comfort in such an assessment. And the taxpaying public should demand the details of any offer, past or present, to which their “leaders” seek to indebt them once again.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Port Authority is Facing Several Pesky Issues

Summary: A CEO search, a second delay of cashless fares, a performance review, and updated light rail statistics are in the news for the Port Authority. Some of the recent news does not put PAT management and operations in a very good light, especially operating cost numbers. Efforts by a transit support group to influence the CEO selection have the potential to slow the process.

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CEO Search

The former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) moved from interim to full-time in 2014 and served until June 1st of this year. The Authority is now being led by an interim CEO until a new full-time leader is hired.

That process began in April with a contract with a search firm for $91,925 and expenses of $20,000. The same firm conducted the search that resulted in the February 2014 hiring of the former full-time CEO. There is no deadline for hiring a CEO according to an agency spokesman.

On June 30th the board accepted $100,000 from a foundation grant to pay for the expenses related to the search. The same spokesman noted that the reason it applied for the foundation grant was so that it did not have to use its own funds for the search. That raises the question: what does the foundation want for aiding in the search for head of an authority? Is this a good practice? If the foundation is attempting to help low income users, it might want to set up a fund to subsidize monthly passes for them. PAT already benefits from RAD contributions and Turnpike borrowing of $450 million a year that gets passed through to mass transit in the Commonwealth. Then too, it gets other state and federal funding and the County’s matching funds.

In an attempt to add to the extensive list of qualifications that PAT included in its job opening announcement, a local transit group presented the board with a request that “labor, riders, policy advocates, neighborhood groups and foundations” be involved in the initial screening process for a new CEO. A particularly absurd demand by the group is that the CEO include community voices in all decisions. They also want the CEO to recognize that mass transit is to provide service and not make a profit. With taxpayer subsidies covering over half of ridership costs, one wonders where the notion that PAT has ever considered or will ever consider profit as a motive comes from. If the transit group has its way, it will create a long-term problem of inaction on needed objectives and actions on that make operations more expensive and even less efficient.

Clearly, the CEO working with the duly appointed board will set goals and strategic plans. Where public input is relevant on large, significant service changes, it will no doubt be sought. PAT’s job description does mention building internal and external relationships with various groups. But for all decisions to go before community groups would be a time consuming, controversy inducing disaster.

Missed Deadlines

Speaking of deadlines, the target date for implementation of the cashless fare system on the light rail system that was set for July 1st was pushed back earlier this year and has now been moved to later in the year. It now appears that the system will not go cashless until October at the earliest. PAT said the delay is related to issues with the contractor supplying the equipment related to paying off board the vehicle according to a June 28th press release. PAT announced its fare enforcement policy with on-board validation by uniformed PAT police in May with an implementation date of August 1st. That too will be on hold until the cashless system is up and running. Concerns were also raised about whether citations would be handed out to riders who do not pay for fear that it might reveal people who are undocumented aliens.

Performance Review

Another piece of information that finally came to light was the performance review of PAT that was mandated by Act 44 of 2007. The review has a cover date of November 2016 but according to staff in the Bureau of Public Transportation it was not posted until April 2017. The review presents data on transit operations and a bit of recent history of the Authority. But the heart of the review consists of comparisons of PAT’s bus and light rail operations to a peer group of thirteen transit agencies. Comparisons are made for FY 2014 and over a five year period ending in 2014. The comparisons utilize data reported to the National Transit Database (NTD), a source we have utilized frequently.

Measurements for PAT are found to be either “in compliance” or “at risk” on both cost and performance (cost related measures are operating cost per passenger and revenue vehicle hour, and performance related measures are passengers per revenue vehicle hour and operating revenue per revenue vehicle hour, presented on both an annual and five-year basis). The determination of “in compliance” is made by using the standard deviation from the group average. One standard deviation above on cost measures or one standard deviation below on performance measures places PAT’s grade in the “at risk” category

For bus service, PAT was found to be in compliance with all measurements except operating costs per revenue vehicle hour, where PAT’s value was $186.60 for FY 2014 compared to $136.56 for the peer group average—37 percent higher—and for light rail where the operating cost per passenger of $6.69 for FY 2014 was well above the peer group average of $5.11 (31 percent higher). The five year trend for light rail showed almost a $2 difference ($7.06 for PAT to $5.07 group average.

PAT’s highest ranking for bus service among the thirteen peer agencies was on operating revenue per revenue vehicle hour while coming in twelfth on operating cost per passenger, but was found to be in compliance on the cost per passenger metric because its value of $5.18 per rider was lower than the sum of peer group average cost and standard deviation total of $5.58.

It is interesting to note that over a longer time period (2005-14) based on NTD statistics that bus vehicle revenue miles and vehicle revenue hours have both been reduced by almost the same magnitude (30%) while the unlinked passenger trip count fell only ten percent (from 59.1 million to 53.4 million) during those same years. That indicates a lot of underutilized routes were eliminated along with cut backs in frequency of service on some routes. It should be noted while the performance review showed PAT was “in compliance” on most reviewed metrics; it was one of five agencies with a bus operating cost per passenger of $5 or more in FY 2014. With other transit systems having lower costs than PAT, there is a lot of room for improvement. This is even more true with respect to costs per revenue hour of operations. That ratio was obviously not improved by the elimination of underused routes and cuts in frequency of service.

Light Rail

Lastly, on the subject of light rail, as we have done since the opening of the North Shore Connector in 2012, we continue to monitor the ridership of the light rail system. NTD data for 2015 is now available.

2017 light rail data

As seen in the table, ridership was up 1.4 percent in 2015 and recorded its highest total in the five year period. However, rider count was very little changed from 2013, the first full year of North Shore Connector operations. Fare revenue was up 1.8 percent from 2014 to 2015 but was outpaced by the increase in total operating expense. The impact of expanding the free fare zone from the Golden Triangle to include the North Shore stations obviously had an impact on ridership when it first opened but the effect of the North Shore free rides on total ridership has not carried over in further increases since 2013. However, operating expense rose eight percent from 2013 to 2015 and stands $44 million above operating revenue.

With the change to a single fare (the elimination of zone pricing at the beginning of the year) and the elimination of free bus rides Downtown it would have made sense to also do away with free light rail trips. Later in the year as the cashless system presumably goes into effect and fare validation is implemented then the free rides and required proof of payment outside the free fare zone will likely become a political and operational nightmare.

With Act 89 of 2013 the dedicated funding PAT had clamored for over many years has been achieved. But PAT’s underlying cost problems have yet to be addressed in a substantial way.

Just say no to Stadium Authority extension

Pittsburgh City Council has a chance to strike a blow for better public policy. But that’s about as likely as the council deciding to ratchet back bike lanes on congested city streets.

The council must vote on whether to accept the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority’s dubious vote to extend its existence until April 2049. But this authority should have ceased to exist, as the authority itself declared, with the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium in 2001.

The Stadium Authority was created more than a half-century ago to shepherd the construction of Three Rivers.  It voted itself a 21-year extension on life in late July. Four years ago, it sought an extension of between 35 and 50 years.

But that proposal had no legs when then-Pittsburgh City Councilman (and mayor-in-waiting) Bill Peduto argued that the authority should cease to exist when the debt on the West General Robinson Street parking garage was retired 15 years hence, in December 2028. Thus, the Stadium Authority voted, in 2013, to extend its life until then.

The authority long has had nothing to do with sports stadiums. These days it oversees the 25 acres or so of property between PNC Park and Heinz Field.

That acreage now is nearly fully developed. It was done so in a sweetheart deal with the sports franchises and a handpicked master developer, void of any competitive bidding that has led to cookie-cutter architecture best described as “meh” – vanilla and boring.

It’s to what government-backed and or –directed central planning typically leads.

Mary Conturo, the authority’s executive director, defended the extension to the Post-Gazette. It is part of a long-term joint financing deal – still being negotiated – with the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority (which owns the sports stadiums on the public’s behalf, and for which Conturo also conveniently serves as executive director) for fixed-rate financing for three North Shore parking garages.

The Stadium Authority owns two North Shore parking garages and some surface lots; the SEA owns another garage.

The move ostensibly is designed to replace shorter term financing with longer term financing to capitalize on lower interest rates, Conturo told the newspaper.

The terms of that proposed financing – 20 to 25 years – necessitated the authority extending its life beyond 2028, she said.

Ah, we see: Keep yourself alive by reorganizing your debt to keep yourself “needed.” Only in government, right?

Or as Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk pointedly asks: “(W)hich came first, the refinancing or the vote to extend (the life of the Stadium Authority)?”

He wonders into what next the authority might inject itself to justify its continuing existence.

As far as Mayor Peduto goes, he and his administration appear to have had a change of heart regarding the Stadium Authority’s demise. In 2013, Peduto favored the authority becoming part of the city’s Urban Development Authority.

As Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin told the P-G last week, a Stadium Authority review (again, how convenient) of folding itself into the SEA, the URA or the city Parking Authority (which would have made the most sense) might have led to “additional transactional costs without significant public benefit.”

But that is a specious argument on its face.

Do remember, as the Allegheny Institute reminded in 2012, that, as per the Stadium Authority’s own website in 2001, the authority’s “existence and function will conclude with the planned demolition of Three Rivers Stadium.”

Sixteen years later, the authority is still around. And it will be around for another 32 years — unless Pittsburgh City Council puts the kibosh on the charade of rubber stamping an extension on a duplicative authority that already should have been long out of business.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: A city chicken

Once upon a time, in a land not so far, far away – in the 1960s, in Eastern Ohio, about an hour from Pittsburgh – city chicken was a supper staple.

Mom would take cubes of stewing beef and pork (fairly cheap cuts and/or scraps), alternate them on short wooden skewers, drench them in egg and bread them with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes crumbs.

Lore has it that the skewered meat dish was designed more than a century ago to mimic chicken legs which, for many during depressed times, weren’t very affordable.

Mom was a child of the Great Depression. Her family constantly kept a pot of stew going on the stove; whatever edible things they came upon on any given day were dropped into the mix.

That experience was the genesis for learning how, as an adult, to stretch a grocery store dollar. Think elbow macaroni in milk. City chicken was another of her many budget-stretching manifestations.

Freshly breaded then lightly seasoned, into a searing-hot iron skillet with crackling Crisco the city chicken went for a good browning. Next came a 40-minute oven bake at 375 degrees, turned once.

The aroma? Incredible. The results? Smothered in chicken gravy with plenty of mashed potatoes and wax beans on the side — melting-in-your-mouth dee-VINE. It might as well have been lobster for the four-brother brood. Not that we knew what lobster tasted like, mind you.

How sweet it was for all those memories – the tastes, the smells, the details –  to sweep over a certain cook this week as he made city chicken for the first time in a long time.

Consider the recipe quasi-faithful to Mom’s, given a changing product and cooking methods.

Today’s city chicken tends to be all pork and of choicer cuts. Marinating the skewered meat all day in a bowl of nicely seasoned beaten eggs leads to plumper and tastier “legs.” And butter, butter, butter has replaced the Crisco, as has a slightly hotter oven.

But the result was the same, if not better.

The meat didn’t quite fall of the skewers but neither was there any resistance. The gravy was the perfect complement to the meat and the cream-and-butter whipped potatoes. The wax beans, delicate in their taste, offered the perfect counter texture.

Fifty years ago, the standard city chicken leg allotment was one per person at the McNickle supper table known as “the nook.” One! Thus, cube by cube of beef and pork were savored, and with great reverence.

Four legs of city chicken were savored this past week. And, cube by cube, so were revered the memories that each one conjured.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).