Answering the Mayoral Challenge

A non-profit foundation that is run by the Mayor of New York City is proposing a "Mayor’s Challenge" that, based upon entries received by September of this year, would award a grand prize of $5 million, or one of four awards of $1 million, for an idea that could "improve city life by addressing a major social or economic issue, improving the customer service experience for citizens or businesses, increasing government efficiency and/or enhancing accountability, transparency and public engagement".

Municipalities with a population of 30,000 or more can apply, which would qualify the Allegheny County communities of Penn Hills, Bethel Park, and Mt Lebanon along with the City of Pittsburgh. However, the web page on the Challenge says "applications must be submitted by city hall under the direction of a mayor" which would seem to disqualify Mt Lebanon since there are five commissioners directing that ‘burb. Good luck trying to find "city hall" in any of the four communities as well. Nonetheless, a prize of $5 million would obviously go a lot farther for a municipality with 30k people that for one with 300k, or larger.

In an accompanying article on the challenge it notes that there will be emphasis on how easily the idea can be replicated in other cities (Chicago’s 311 line, something that exists now in Pittsburgh, is mentioned on the challenge website) so here can be a slam dunk proposal for Pittsburgh: in 2010, the Mayor stated he was interested in levying a tax on sugary drinks that would have fallen on everything sweetened with the exception of diet soda and fruit juice. And what did the Mayor behind the challenge just propose for the Big Apple? A ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, with certain exceptions to type and place of sale. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery right? Turns out that Pittsburgh’s 2010 proposal (which went flat) was inspired by Philadelphia. Perhaps a prize split into thirds is in order.

All Hail the Port Authority’s Alleged Cost Savings

For sure, the heading is a bit tongue in cheek. In the latest press announcement, the Port Authority says through management efficiencies it has cut another $10 million from the cost of the North Shore Connector, bringing the total cost reductions since last May to $24 million. The estimate of the final cost of the project is now placed at $528. Of course, that assumes no unexpected cost overruns on the remaining 30 percent of the project-a big assumption.

What the Port Authority assiduously avoids telling us is that the final cost is still nearly double the estimated cost. In February 2004, the price was said to be $363 million. But then they cut the convention center leg and other elements of the project. These cuts were said to save $80 million. Thus, the project cost should have been lowered to $280 million and that means the $528 million new final estimate is 89 percent above the original estimate of the project’s cost.

Moreover, by dropping the convention center leg of the Connector a large and disproportionate fraction of the putative benefits of the project were lost. The per rider cost for a round trip on the North Shore Connector over its first 20 years will be $45, assuming the ridership forecast is accurate. It would be cheaper to provide limo service from the North Side to Downtown.

And so it goes with this ill-conceived money wasting boondoggle.