Pennsylvania in California?

There has been a California in Pennsylvania for a long time, as confusing as that is for many who learn of it for the first time. Now we learn that one of Pennsylvania’s worst flaws is having a painful impact in San Francisco. To wit, the Bay area transit workers have gone out on strike, something that Pittsburghers and Philadelphians have seen and are threatened with every contract negotiation.

One is tempted to say, well, Californians, you voted for the people who gave transit unions the right to strike and you keep returning rabid union supporters to office. So when you are stuck in a massive traffic jam trying to get to work or when the old and sick cannot get to their doctor’s appointment or the poor cannot get to the grocery store, just remember who is responsible for this situation. Look in the mirror.

Perhaps a lesson will be learned but past electoral experience in California and Pennsylvania does not offer much hope that any lesson will be taken away from the strike caused hardships. Indeed, the transit strikers are supported by many of the most harshly affected on the grounds that the strikers are part of the downtrodden who are fighting for justice. And that is tied to their inability or unwillingness to see that well paid unionized public employees are a major cause of high taxes and inefficient service delivery.

It is a story being played out all over the country in non-right to work states.

Will County’s Counsel on Transit Be Heard?

Since announcing the formation of a Special Committee on Public Transportation in mid-April, two meetings have been held. The first, in April, lasted 48 minutes. The most recent, on May 10th, lasted 30 minutes. A total of seven County Council members have attended, with four having come to both.

The Committee’s goal stated at the outset was to "…develop a unified public transportation plan that county officials can present to Governor Corbett and legislators". Soon after the County created the Special Committee the Governor announced his own transportation task force, a task force which has been written on in the blog and in Briefs, and it will be deliberating through the summer and is expected to issue recommendations by August 1st. Now the County wants to have its deliberations and feedback forwarded to the task force by the beginning of July.

Will the County have a unified transit plan? Usually the chorus of voices that is the loudest chants about dedicated revenues, which the Governor’s task force is going to look at, but in a broader scope for roads, bridges, transit, airports, etc. What are the ingredients of the unified plan? It is very unclear, but the May 10th hearing produced a few interesting tidbits from the PAT CEO. First, answering a question from a Council member he noted there have been "…increases in utilization of the Authority’s park and ride lots near the routes turned over to Lenzner in the North Hills". Recall that the board voted to allow the private provider take over two routes that the Authority was no longer going to operate. Thus far there has been little evidence about how Lenzner is doing on those routes and while the CEO’s comments don’t provide any detailed numbers and could be anecdotal.

Second, the CEO stated "…escalating legacy costs will likely hamstring the Authority in the event that the performance based funding model is perpetuated from Act 44 to the new legislative solution". The 2010 single audit for PAT shows an unfunded retiree health care liability of $812 million and an unfunded pension liability of $198 million. PAT put in over $60 million for both benefits in 2010. What is the "performance based funding model" you ask? According to PENNDOT factors like passengers per hour, cost per hour, revenue per hour, and cost per passenger trip would factor into allocating scarce dollars. No wonder officials at PAT are scared: our Brief last week showed that PAT has very high passenger costs on buses and those costs increased over the decade at a very high rate.

Alternatives to the Port Authority’s Planned Service Cuts

Facing a budget deficit of $47 million the Port Authority (PAT) says it will cut service hours by 35 percent, lay off 500 employees and eliminate service to 50 communities. The reasoning behind the 35 percent service reduction when projected revenues are only off by only 14 percent has not been adequately explained. One explanation is surely the outrageous level of health care and other benefit costs, especially those related to retirees that cannot be cut.

In any event here’s a better plan than the one PAT is talking about. First, the Legislature and the Governor should remove PAT’s monopoly over transit service and order the agency immediately to allow other transit providers to offer service, especially in those areas where PAT is planning to eliminate service. Moreover, the Legislature should eliminate the right of transit workers to strike.

Finally, PAT should ask all City and County officials, as well as civic and business leaders, to admonish the transit unions to make immediate pay and benefit concessions in order to save many jobs and lower the number of service hours that have to be cut. The retirees should be asked to make some sacrifices as well.

The continual slashing of service is no way to run a railroad, especially when PAT has no competition to fill the service gaps.

The lesson here is that government granted monopolies of a needed service whose employees are permitted to strike will become bloated, grossly inefficient, a heavy burden on taxpayers and a poor excuse for a service provider. That is PAT in a nutshell.

Music City Turns to Pittsburgh for Fine Tuning

This weekend, a group of representatives from Nashville is coming to Pittsburgh to learn about, among other things, waterfront development, improving public schools, green building, and how Pittsburgh "…was able to generate public support while planning its transit system".

Hopefully they aren’t going to devote massive amounts of time on the last point to the North Shore Connector, because that process was massively lacking in public support. Recall that the Connector moved along because of the "use it or lose it" belief of officials that the Federal money would go away if not dumped into the Connector’s maw.

And improving public schools? If the visitors look at recent enrollment, expenditure, and performance statistics they might be too impressed.

What’s most surprising is that the delegation is coming to Pittsburgh instead of the other way around. Consider that Nashville and its parent county, Davidson, have been a merged entity since the early 1960s. Its metro government provides services through an urban services district (Nashville proper) and general services district (remainder of Davidson) much like the ill-fated Nordenberg panel proposed.

After merging, Nashville’s Census population ballooned from 170k in 1960 to 448 in 1970. Since that count the merged entity’s growth has remained positive (up 21% from 1970-2000). Maybe the delegation is mad that Pittsburgh officials visited new-kid-on-the-merger-block Louisville and did not venture further south to Nashville and is using the opportunity to bring its message to the City.

A 2008 PG op-ed even noted an opinion piece that appeared in a Nashville paper by an academic whose son moved to Pittsburgh and "…among the first things that he noticed was how uncoordinated its local governments were. Pittsburgh, with more than 30 governmental entities within Allegheny County, was simply a mess".

Whether the delegation will be singing Pittsburgh’s praises or giving the City the hook remains to be seen.