Hark! Hark! Pay more to park

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You might not think great Romantic English poets have any business being in the same story with Grant Street politicians.

Think again. The latest idea from members of City Council and City Controller Michael Lamb has me pondering William Wordsworth.

I kiddeth thee not.

City council voted Wednesday to nix Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to lease the city's parking spaces for $452 million and use most of that to buttress the chronically ill pension fund. For months the mayor has pitched this desperate plan, and a company already has been selected.

The catch was higher parking rates for the next 50 years.

So council said hold it there, Crazy Lukey. Those prices are insane! The globe-trotting mayor's plan is now deader than Pirates playoff hopes, while council members and Mr. Lamb offer this alternative plan:

Sell the city's share of parking assets to the Pittsburgh Parking Authority for $220 million. Shove that windfall into the pension maw. The authority could float a bond issue, backed by parking rate increases, to pay that off.

The pension fund would be saved, or at least back on life support, and the parking fee increases wouldn't be as high as under the mayor's plan.

This, believe it or not, is where Wordsworth comes in.

While it's true that more people today know the theme to "The Flintstones" than any of William Wordsworth's poems, the guy was bigger than Beyonce in the early 19th century. I bring him up because Wordsworth hated Pennsylvania.

Why did he hate our commonwealth? Did a primitive Philly cheesesteak back up on him? No, it was our phoney-baloney bond schemes.

Evidently, in the Panic of 1837, when one American president inherited the knee-buckling economic problems of his predecessor (thank God that can't happen again), the Wordsworth clan found itself holding some Pennsylvania bonds that flat-out stopped paying interest.

This so incensed the poet that he did what poets do. He penned some scathing verse. (One can only imagine the fear that put into brawny village smithies hereabouts.)

"To the Pennsylvanians" has to be one of the worst things Wordsworth ever wrote, and I'm including his grocery lists. There's no need to share the entire screed, but here's the start:

Days undefiled by luxury or sloth

Firm self-denial, manners grave and staid

Rights with cheerfulness obeyed . . .

That doesn't fit too many modern Pennsylvanians, but that's how Wordsworth saw us, sober and hard-working -- until a speculative frenzy killed the American economy. So ...

All who revere the memory of Penn

Grieve for the land on whose wild woods his name

Was fondly grafted with a virtuous aim . . .

OK, that's enough.

Historians tell us that, after not paying a year or two of interest, Pennsylvania resumed payments. (Mississippi never did, repudiating its bonds, with no evident retaliation by any poets or minstrels.)

Could we be seeing a return of bad Pennsylvania debt?

Of course. The city of Harrisburg makes Pittsburgh look downright flush, having nearly missed a $3 million debt payment to municipal bond investors in September. It needs to borrow millions more to cover its payroll the rest of the year. Harrisburg's now looking to become the 20th municipality in Pennsylvania to be declared distressed, the same dubious distinction that Pittsburgh has worn for seven years.

So with this kind of track record, will anyone buy the bonds that council members propose? Of course. There are few surer bets than backing a Pittsburgher's willingness to pay top dollar just to get out of the car.

Face it. We've spent the past 60 years spreading out Greater Pittsburgh, and that has left many commuters with no choice other than driving to work.

Downtown parking garages have remained full no matter how many disincentives drivers have sucked up in recent years, be that a 50 percent parking tax or $4-a-gallon gasoline. The parking tax has been cut to 37.5 percent, but private parking operators haven't dropped their fees. Tight supply and high demand ensures that parking prices stay high.

Does anyone expect that to change with the Port Authority cutting routes and the Parkway North's HOV (Hardly One Vehicle) Lane telling us that car-pooling ain't hip?

The city taps commuters because the places where so many of them work, the hospitals and universities, are largely exempt from property and payroll taxes. (Don't bother rhyming that. It doesn't sound any better in iambic pentameter.)

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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