Connector a Success if No One Uses It? A Preposterous Argument

In a comment dripping with ex post rationalization, the Port Authority’s Executive Director says the Connector will be a success even if no one uses it. The Director claims, in effect, that the prodigious engineering feat of building the Connector justifies the costs. And concludes the amazing rationalization by saying we have built the project and it is up to the region to use it.

This is how spending nearly $520 million and creating untold burdens on businesses and travelers through the City is to be justified?

How can a half billion dollar, multi year project get built with no firm expectation or forecast of how may users it will have when completed and into the future? This is ridiculousness in the extreme. There were forecasts of ridership when the project was submitted to the Federal Government for funding. Why are those no longer valid? In a word, because they were not credible then and certainly not now in light of the elimination of the Steel Plaza station to the Convention Center leg of the project.

To have spent so much money, time and effort on the Connector and now all they can say in justification is "we hope it works" beggars description.

Can Western PA Board the Gravy Train?

Florida has declined $2.4 billion in Federal funding for a Tampa-Orlando high speed rail link, noting that it likely cannot pay to operate the system once built. What a contrast in outlook compared with officials here, whose "use it or lose it" attitude kept the boring of the twin tunnels of the North Shore Connector moving forward. Somehow, someway, someone will have a plan to fund operating the system, but that is another story for another day.

The key issue with the Tampa story is that the $2.4 billion now goes up for grabs and Pennsylvania is right in line for a slice of the pie. If we are to believe what local officials said here a few years ago Tampa may never get another shot at Federal money since they turned this opportunity down. What do Pennsylvania officials want to put it towards? Newspaper reports say they have applied for $248 million for additional improvements on the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, where the money could increase travel speeds from 110 mph to 125 mph. Note that the corridor received $145 million from 2002-06 and $26 million in 2010.

At some point the incremental improvements-in this case, spending $248 million in order to increase speed 15 mph-just are not enough and the purported benefits of rail travel will have to stand on their own merits.

That’s especially true if the government recognizes the opportunity cost of the rail money and the fact that there is another part of the state to traverse. Federal money has funded half of an upcoming $1.5 million feasibility study to determine what good would come of improving the connection between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg. The study would presumably confirm what PennDOT stated in an October 2009 funding application that "Increasing service from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is a logical progression to create a successful corridor linking most of Pennsylvania. The improved service corridor would encourage increased rail travel between key cities such as Harrisburg, Altoona and Pittsburgh as well as to other Midwestern destinations in Ohio and beyond".

Given the fiscal reality facing Federal, state, and local budgets, and realizing that taxpayers have already invested in the Harrisburg-Philadelphia connection, and realizing that returning the funds from the de-committed Florida project to taxpayers is a pipe dream, shouldn’t Pennsylvania’s officials hold any successful receipt of dollars in escrow for the Pittsburgh-Harrisburg connection?

Councilman Wants to Target Block Grant Money

The Councilman who led the fight for prevailing wage and is leading the campaign for living wages now wants to divvy up the Federal block grant in a way that focuses on poor neighborhoods. At issue appears to be $675,000 in money Council members are allowed to use in their own districts. Mr. Burgess wants the money directed to neighborhoods with the greatest need.

Assume there are 20 in-need neighborhoods. $675,000 would amount to $37,500 for each neighborhood. Does anyone believe that amount of money will make a significant difference in a neighborhood? In light of the enormous amounts of aid being poured into poor neighborhoods in the form of welfare, low income housing, medical aid, education dollars, food stamps, etc., why would anyone think that a few more dollars are going to fix any of the underlying problems? Number one on that list: The lack of employed people earning their own way and providing neighborhood stability. Crime rates that keep jobs away, failure to take advantage of education opportunities would are also important.

Mr. Burgess should understand that if throwing tax dollars at poor neighborhoods would solve their problem, those problems would have long since been solved.

Fighting Over Scraps in Pittsburgh

This is what a once great city has been reduced to. Federal community block grant funds of $16.5 million are being fought over by city council members with one member arguing that most of the money should go to the poorest communities. Let’s review the situation. $16.5 million is about $53 per resident. Obviously, not enough money to make much of a difference in every Pittsburgher’s life.

But the real problem is that Pittsburgh’s government and school district are soaking up so many taxpayer dollars that there is little left for community improvement. What’s more, the economic development policies, high taxes and unfriendly business climate and terrible school performance smother the private sector growth necessary to produce real, lasting neighborhood improvements.

And haven’t we seen massive amounts of money from many programs poured into communities over the years? Have they gotten better as a result of that largesse? In the environment of a super expensive tax city with little or no net job growth, getting better is a virtual impossibility. Perhaps the councilman would like to reconsider what is really wrong with the city and its neighborhoods and then he might start to work for the kind of policies that will actually encourage and empower citizens to prosper rather than pandering to the mind set that discourages individual and community achievements. But in Pittsburgh where the free market, individual responsibility ethos is so foreign, that would require an epiphany of a magnitude rarely encountered.

Can Johnstown Regain its Financial Footing?

In Act 47 status since 1992 and on its fourth amended recovery plan, the City of Johnstown just started off the year with having to layoff thirteen employees and raising its property tax 10 mills.  As if things could not get worse, the Council mentioned the possibility of pursuing Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, an option the members felt would have “far reaching and potentially devastating effects for every citizen”. 


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