Pittsburgh’s political tragedy of the commons

Pittsburgh’s political tragedy of the commons

It is a key to so many things – a vibrant and growing population. But word that the Greater Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) not only continues to lose population but leads the nation in natural population decline more than suggests that our 25-year-plus advocacy for fundamental change in the execution of public policy must be heeded.

As the Tribune-Review first reported last week, the seven-county Pittsburgh MSA lost 13,755 residents between July 2020 and July 2021, according to U.S. Census estimates.

The MSA includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

“The biggest factor of that loss was the region’s natural decline, which is when an area experiences more deaths than births,” the Trib reminds. “The Pittsburgh metro area’s natural decline of 10,383 was the largest natural decline of any metro area in the United States, according to census estimates.”

The decline comes fast on the heels 2020 decennial census numbers which showed a slight uptick in MSA population growth (not including the City of Pittsburgh).

But University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem tells the Trib he suspects the decennial count showed growth mostly at the front end of the 2010s. And, no doubt, deaths from COVID-19 are, in part, contributory to those natural-decline numbers, he says.

Allegheny and Westmoreland counties paced the rise in natural population declines with 3,862 and 2,536 fewer births than deaths, respectively, for the year ended July 2021.

Such a declining metric should give all policy makers serious cause to pause. Whether they do or not is doubtful.

For across the MSA, we’ve built this, taxed that, publicly subsidized multiple thises and thats – repeatedly — all the while claiming each successive more shortsighted, politically inspired and onerous act to be the key to economic renaissance and population growth.

It hasn’t been, of course.

A converted and beefed-up trolley-to-light-rail system with a Downtown subway in the 1980s? Nope.

A new airport in 1990s? Nope.

A new baseball field? Nope.

A new football field? Nope.

A new hockey arena? Nope.

A new convention center? Nope.

New bank skyscrapers (again with millions of dollars in public subsidies)? Nope.

The North Shore Connector? Nope.

And one would think that this succession of at least eight “nopes” would have been a lesson learned. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope.

Witness the current and nearly $1.4 billion terminal modernization program at Pittsburgh International Airport, no longer a vibrant hub and long a struggling origination and destination facility. Demand creates the need for a modernized airport. It’s not a modernized airport that creates demand.

Witness a planned extension of the light-rail system to points west and north, with a cost sure to exceed $1 billion and funding unknown. For what? Fewer and fewer patrons in an era – perhaps permanent because of “the pandemic effect” – of lower rail transit utilization?

Again, it is a rising population and a growing economy that create demand for more and better public services, not the other way around. As long as Greater Pittsburgh continues to fail at this fundamental economic axiom, it is doomed to perpetuate this vicious cycle.

That iteration after iteration of “leaders” engage in a repeated political version of the tragedy of the commons will leave Greater Pittsburgh bankrupt, economically and morally.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).