A ‘Great Re-ordering’ (of another kind)?
The Port Authority of Allegheny County is resuming full service on its light-rail system to Pittsburgh South Hills. However, it will be another two months – not until Aug. 23 – until the mass-transit agency offers full bus service.
But the latest ridership numbers are instructive.
As the Post-Gazette reports, the Port Authority’s “ridership remains low despite easing of COVID-19 restrictions.”
Bus ridership tanked by more than 80 percent during the height of the state-ordered shutdown of businesses. But the authority says it only has recovered by about 10 percentage points even though the county now is operating in the far-less restrictive “green” phase.
Officials say the light-rail rebound, if you can call it that, was even smaller.
Yes, passenger capacity for both modes had been restricted. But the numbers certainly could indicate that large numbers of commuters, allowed to keep working at home, perhaps permanently, are not flocking back to their workplaces. And there certainly could be a cohort that does not yet have resumed employment to travel to.
But whether this is a temporary tide or a sea change in commuting/employment practices remains to be seen.
That all raises another issue that soon will confront public policy makers in the City of Pittsburgh.
As Jake Haulk, president-emeritus of the Allegheny Institute reminds, another “wrinkle” to the work-at-home development is that the payroll preparation tax is paid only for employees working in the city.
Companies with employees working at home in, say, Ross Township could opt not to include those wages in the tax liability.
Now, it’s unknown at this point exactly how much of that already is happening but “the city might decide to change the payroll prep tax law” – or, if it can’t legally, lobby the Legislature to do so – “but the ‘try’ will come if the collections fall off,” says Haulk, a Ph.D. economist.
The work-at-home trend also could be reinforced by companies and employees uncomfortable with the recent spates of civil unrest which, as Haulk says, adds “even more reasons not to have people coming into office space in the city.”
Office space, we again are forced to remind, was having trouble being filled Downtown prior to that unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic and unrest “could well be turning points in Pittsburgh’s business and employment attractiveness and it was not good before these events,” Haulk says.
Call it “The Great Re-ordering,” but largely under the radar. Until now.
The theme of “city flight” indeed has gained new attention, if not attraction, in light of both developments.
As The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger astutely wrote last week in a column on “the coming urban exodus”:
“Failing progressive governance is making daily life too chaotic and stressful in many U.S. cities.
“People with all sorts of political beliefs are going to get out because they are watching city after city reach a tipping point of social disorder and political disorganization.”
And with that, we remind, public policy chaos.
But, but, but we were told ad nauseum that we live in the age of the rebirth of the American city, that the period of 2010 to 2020 was “the decade of the city,” Henninger reminds.
Never mind that the migration to America’s cities has reversed sharply in the last five years, he says.
And it has become that public policy nightmare.
“The quality of the response by both political and institutional urban leadership to the pressure of (the pandemic and the civil unrest) has been so uniformly unproductive that it sends a message: The cost-benefit just isn’t working anymore, with incentives mounting to move out.”
Pittsburgh certainly resembles these remarks. How much longer it can survive public policy making that is incompetent and incoherent must be answered — and soon.
Observers long have commented that the great erstwhile Steel City continues to be a mere shell of itself, no matter the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah spin otherwise. Now they are rightly fearful that there soon won’t even be a shell.
Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org).