Thursday, October 26, 2006

notes from 10/25 DUQ studio taping

The following are notes taken from an in-studio taping of a converstation with some past guests of the Guyasuta Fellowship program. Excerpts will likely be broadcast on WDUQ on Nov. 12, 2006. The converstation was moderated by Chris Potter of the Pittsburgh Citypaper and Khari Mosley (2002 Fellow and current head of the Pittsburgh League of Young Voters).

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Ken Zapinski (Allegheny Conference on Community Development) opening statement
- Focus on his statement about the business community recognizing the importance of taking a wholistic and longterm approach to transportation.

Steve Bland (Port Authority of Allegheny County) opening statement
- Reiterated the wholistic approach

Bracken Burns (Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission) opening statement
- We are speaking as a collective regional voice on transportation
- "There is no group existing today that is taking a regional approach to transportation...they don't interact, there is a glaring inadequacy there."

Pat Kane (American Society of Civil Engineers) opening statement
- National survey of infrastructure starting in 1998, this past year the regional American Society of Civil Engineers organization has taken

Potter Question 1 - What's wrong with us in the region?
- Burns response; There is no regional mechanism. "I want the people who have an interest in transit to be in the room together on a regular basis. We don't have that forum. SPC figures out how to distribute the money, but then we go home."

Potter Question 2 - What's preventing the SPC from doing that?
- Burns response; SPC is currently having initial discussions on these issues.

Mosley Question 3 - What can we do to foster this regional approach?
- Bland response; Burns hit the nail on the head. When you start talking about a large authority, there's a natural suspicion. Why would we want to adopt your cost structure? We could begin by a unified fare structure, coordinated schedule and routing. Pittsburgh has a major public transit resource compared to a city like Cleveland. In crisis, it's hard to keep focus on the longer term issues.

Potter Question 4 - Talk about the cost structure?
- Bland response; The bigger issue for the Port Authority is not wages but cost of benefits. That's not a problem unique to Port Authority but it calls into question do we sustain our system?

Potter Question 5 - What's the Allegheny Conference take?
- Zapinski response; Bland is right, this is not unique to Port Authority. In a private company, one of the issues would be "do we want to file for bankruptcy?". Private industries have done this to change their benefit structure, but Port Authority is prevented from doing this by the PA Constitution. This is a problem that we can't solve because of this Constitutional provision?
- Bland response; As a region we have to figure out what we want and how we're going to be able to afford that.

Potter Question 6 - Are we asking for the unions to make major concessions?
- Zapinski response; I'm making the point that Port Authority does not have the ability to confront this issue as a business would. I don't think these issues have been recognized and approached by the community as a real important issue.
- Burns response; The real culprit is the cost of health care in a broken system. We're all sitting here trying to figure out how to make it work - this is a business issue, this is a health care issue.
- Bland response; The region is also not addressing planning as a transportation issue. Suburban growth necessitates more expensive operations for mass transit - that is a cost of growth that's not being recognized for its impact on transit.

Potter Question 7 - What does Port Authority do to approach a more efficient system?
- Bland response; I'm on the road occasionally and it's empty, but I don't think we should tear up the roadway because of it. Even when you see few riders on a bus, it's part of a system that is very efficient. If you take a nurse's aid who must take the bus and she no longer has the ability to take the bus, you have to recognize what the cost is to society if she can't take that bus. What is the larger societal cost of those three people on the bus not being able to use it if service is cut. There is a cost to it that is not just simple accounting.

Potter Question 8 - The state contributes more on average to transit - can we expect local areas to pay more?
- Bland response; Pennsylvania state pays more because it has more restrictions on how municipalities can raise money to fund transit locally. Very often we find our hands tied.
- Burns response; As somebody who's pretty close to municipal government, there are probably only about 3 municipalities in Washington County that could even think about funding transit and those areas don't use mass transit. For a state legislator with a straight face to suggest local government to fund transportation is either joking or out of touch.
- Zapinski response; When you start talking about transportation systems, a county is a small level and you can't go any smaller than that. Counties only have the option of generating funding through property taxes. Washington County residents have no way to fund transit beyond raising property taxes and that's tremendously limiting.
- Burns response; Our number one priority is to provide counties with the ability to tax in other areas. We're locked in real estate and that's unfair to the little old lady on a fixed income.

Potter Question 9 - Is there a sense among businesses to contribute to transit through business revenue?
- Zapinnski response; The business community is interested in supporting a transportation network that is efficient and effective. The community is willing to bear the appropriate burden to carry that out. But that issue of benefits has to be addressed, ignoring it is no way to solve the problem. There are efficiencies and improvements that are precursors before you can even start on the revenue side.

Potter Question 10 - Bailing Ken out
- Kane response; While PennDOT has been implementing right-sizing and getting more cost-effective, bridges in particular, there are already steps that have been taken.

Potter Question 11 - What's the Federal role?
- Kane response; Pennsylvania used to fair fairly well, but we don't get what we once did.
- Burns response; It's called other states making up for lost time.

Mosley Question 12 - Let's talk about large structural reforms from a bricks and mortar perspective?
- Kane response; We did some flexing of funds from the highway side to the transit side, but the reality is that there is not enough money in either of these pots.

Potter Question 13 - Are we justified in complaining about the roads?
- Kane response; We're comparable to the national grade here in Pennsylvania. I would say that our overall is a D, but it stinks everywhere.
- Burns response; Our roads are much more difficult to maintain, there are more miles, more bridges.

Potter Question 14 - What's is "structurally deficient"?
- Kane response; It means that the bridge isn't what it once was.
- Zapinski response; Take a manufacturing company and they have two different sets of directions because trucks can't take the easiest route across the Rankin Bridge. This is a dollar and cents issue for a company like American Textile and a community like Duquesne. Funding is up three times the rate of inflation, but the rate of inflation for for infrastrucute is entirely different. We need to replace and maintain the infrastructure - imagine that all the roofs in a subdivision all go at the same time. It's alot more difficult to write a check to prevent something that's not going to happen until about 5 years down the road.

Potter Question 15 - Pimping the Mon-Fayette - should we be looking at new construction at a time like this?
- Burns response; I think we need them both. We can't end up with a road to Large, let's bite the bullet and finish it. The other side of the coin is that we do need to do a better job of maintenance. Here we are 60 years later and it's all falling apart - you're gonna have to pay the piper.
- Kane response; The best grade we had on our PA report card is for heavy rail. Down the road we have to look at where the development is going to happen.
- Zapinski response; One of the ironic things is that the Mon Valley developed because it had great transportation for what was needed at the time. Now we have a different sort of economy where most of the materials are carried by truck. Truck traffic in the Mon Valley is very difficult to manage.

Potter Question 16 - There's a sense that what's done for road come out of what could be done for mass transit?
- Bland response; What's really needed is a comprehensive, long term funding source for the whole transit system. It's damaging when we get into a debate between roads and transit. Let's argue for a bigger pie, that's where we're at on a state level.

Mosley Question 17 - How can we really start to foster that collaboration on long term planning?
- Burns response; The same folks that oppose the Mon Fayette would tell you the answer to urban planning is brownfield redevelopment, yet we're going to deny a roadway to our urban core in the Mon Valley. If we need to do in-field development we need to complete that road.
- Zapinski response; Transportation planning and civic democracy don't work very well together. If you don't do the whole thing, you don't get the whole benefit. The airport busway goes to Carnegie, not the airport. If you don't have the dollars to do it all, maybe you shouldn't do it at all.

Potter Question 18 - At what point do we fish or cut bait on the Mon Fayette?
- Burns response; I have to come back to you don't want to do an expressway to Large.
- Bland response; Try to take a wholistic look on a transportation investment. If you're assuming that the Mon Fayette will bring development, it will not be cheap to provide transportation to those new areas of development, we won't be able to afford to expand the system.

Mosley Question 19 - Is it worth the trade off to cut off the riverfront in exchange for the Mon Fayette?
- Burns response; It's a N.I.M.B.Y argument

Potter Question 20 - Commuter rail taking advantage of rail resources?
- Kane response; There would have to be agreements made.
- Bland response; There would be no busways without our region's extensive rail capacity. Bus rapid transit is the hot new thing in transit. You need to ask the questions 1) do we want to pay more for transportation resources, or 2) is there something we're doing that we want to cut back on in order to be able to pay for these new things?
- Bland response; Given the federal process, I can't see an extension of these systems in the next 10 years because of the Federal process for funding these types of projects.

Potter Question 21 - What role should the private sector be paying for these things?
- Zapinski response; We are encouraged by the concept of looking at public / private partnerships. There's pending legislation that would make that easier to do. Is is good to sell off the Turnpike? That's separate from the question of whether the state should have the ability to sell off the Turnpike if it wants to - we think that the ability to do so is good.

Mosley Question 22 - Give us some examples
- Zapinski response; Chicago, Dulles Access Road. Chicago Skyway was long-term leased to Australian/Spanish consortium for over a $1.9 Billion that goes to Chicago. The debates should take place around what you do with that money if you get that money, spending that one-time asset sale appropriately.
- Kane response; The real value of the asset is hard to determine.
- Zapinski response; Any deal must pass muster.

Mosley Question 23 - If we expand transportation we can be more competitive but how do you invest when you're losing people?
- No response.

Potter Question 24 - Allegheny Institute has proposed competitive contracting for bus services - is this a solution?
- Bland response; Those 33 private businesses failed. It used to be profitable, but that ceased to be the case. The government stepped in or there would have been no transit. Profit gets plowed back into the community in public transit; it's profitable from a community perspective but not a business perspective. If you live on the 204 routes that are not profitable, you'd be out of luck on a for-profit system. There's nowhere in the world that a pubic transit system works on a privatized basis, it's not a business model that works.
- Zapinski response; Public transit is not a profit making enterprise. There may be some benefits to competitive out-sourcing of service to introduce competition.

Potter Question 24 - What can members of the community do to have a role?
- Kane response; ASCE wants to raise the awareness of the general public. Let your legislators know that you recognize this problem, they're generally fearful of the wrath of the public.
- Burns response; Be a citizen. The one thing I would ask is to recognize that we're all in this together, it's about the Pittsburgh region. As long as we look at our own little community we will never get where we're going as a region. It makes the region I live in better. We need to encourage our legislators to be more responsive to this issue, it's not going to go away magically, it doesn't fit under the rug any more.
- Bland response; I think too often we base our opinion on headlines and sound bytes, but you have an obligation to learn the issues and understand there are choices that have to be made. People who are going to actively engage in the debate do have the obligation to learn the issue from a variety of perspectives to understand the issue.
- Zapinski response; Numbers represent real people, you have to understand that decisions effect people. If you're effected personally by a transportation decision, think about how the impact is on the rest of the region. Think about what you want for the region in terms of how it effects the region. If you are someone who has never gotten on a bus in your life, before you say you're not paying a dime to support transit, think about the one-quarter of the students and workers who use transit every day.

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