Reduce Pittsburgh’s hidden tax on infrastructure

You’ve been paying it for but didn’t know it, explains a transportation investor

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The cliche of first-time visitors to Pittsburgh is the “wow” view that bursts out of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, with the city and rivers appearing instantly in all their glory. But what seems always missing from the breathless prose is that before the “wow” there is the slow crawl along the Parkway West. In this respect we are truly a world-class city, sharing with much larger cities the distinction of having one of the 20 worst highways for traffic congestion in the country.

Approaching from the east, after the Squirrel Hill Tunnel slowdown, there is the Greenfield Bridge … as well as the bridge under the bridge, whose sole purpose is to catch falling debris. While we are the City of Bridges, we are also the City of Crumbling Bridges.

Adding insult to injury, “smart highway” signs now advise us of delays. While this is an improvement, their least useful advice is “consider alternate routes,” as there are no alternate routes. Apparently the highways are smarter than we are.

I admit to being transportation-centric but must point out that almost anywhere else in the world (yes, the world) there would be better mass-transitalternatives. Even Los Angeles, which is synonymous with freeways, has invested heavily in transit, albeit largely to replace the private-sector light-rail system that existed until the late 1950s. But this makes us look even worse, because we had, despite being a much smaller city, a larger private-sector LRT network that was almost as big extending throughout the region into the mid-1960s.

Why should we care?

While Pittsburgh may have a high quality of life, our quality of work is substantially eroding due to wasted travel time. This is a huge cost, and in some places — such as Oakland — a constraint on growth.

Another consideration is that hapless out-of-towners arrive with the expectation of a more developed transit and taxi system. I cannot help but feel that ours increasingly serves as a competitive disadvantage. I have transit cards for the London, Washington, Boston and even Los Angeles systems, but I do not carry a Port Authority Connect Card because the only route that goes where I need to go is usually the 28X to the airport.

How did we get here?

The word “infrastructure” is one that many Americans first learned to spell in 2007 with the collapse of the interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis. It is an especially relevant word in Pittsburgh, where less-visible aspects of infrastructure not only impose costs but also pose dangers. Our antiquated sewer system helped create the flash-flooding death trap that was Washington Boulevard.

The problem with infrastructure is that it requires long-term and substantial investment and is controlled by a public sector heavily focused on the next election. For this reason, it is often seen first and foremost as a source of employment and patronage. Examples include Pittsburgh’s now defunct MAGLEV high-speed transit project and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In the case of highways, we pay tolls or taxes to build and maintain them, but we also pay a tax when we don’t: the value of our travel time. One could argue that this is the ultimate liberal conspiracy: a hidden progressive tax (the more valuable your time, the higher the tax) on a politically incorrect mode of transportation.

A cultural explanation could be that as a region we do not value public services. This is reflected in, for example, the state of public education and public transportation, both of which are grudgingly provided as cheaply as possible. Our cultural roots are in commodity production such as steel and coal, so we tend to look at things more in terms of what they cost, in marked contrast to places like New York and Silicon Valley where the norm is to look at what things are worth.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our major employers have already taken care of themselves. For example, UPMC, Pitt and CMU each have their own transit systems.

What can we do?

Pittsburgh’s culture is all about working hard, but ours is hardly the only region defined hardly the only region defined by its work ethic; for example, people in Silicon Valley work hard but they also work smart. I therefore offer the following suggestions as to how we can work smarter:

• Recognize that Pittsburgh has been paying a hidden infrastructure tax for generations.

• Dismantle our most Soviet institutions. For instance, the Public Utility Commission, like the Liquor Control Board, exists to protect Pennsylvanians from themselves. Prime example: It characterizes the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services as dangerous but ignores the risk of drunken driving when you can’t get a taxi home.

• Diversify the stakeholders in planning processes. For example, the prioritization of having a direct Pittsburgh-to-Paris flight among transportation initiatives seems more for the vacations of the business community than for the work of the business community.

• Draw on history to think ahead. For example, remind ourselves of the leadership role the Allegheny Conference played in dismantling our mass-transit infrastructure through its engagement of the notorious Robert Moses in the 1930s before he went on to tear down and pave over significant parts of New York City.

• Aspire to “smart growth” but recognize that we are not like Toronto, where transit-oriented development has shaped the city for decades. At best, we practice development-oriented transit, applying infrastructure fixes after the fact. This ranges from the North Shore LRT construction to the Homestead High Level Bridge overhaul, which occurred only after The Waterfront had been built (at the expense of Squirrel Hill’s commercial district, by the way). A more realistic aspiration would be “wise growth,” which could include private-sector provision of, say, some segments of public transportation.

• Redirect public funding toward infrastructure and level the playing field for the private sector by eliminating public-sector funding of non-core activities, such as real estate development. For example, shutting down the Urban Redevelopment Authority would force the marketplace to decide which developments make sense or not.

• Put the “public” back in public transportation in Oakland by finding a way to combine the private transit systems of UPMC, Pitt and CMU with Port Authority services. If these institutions combined their transportation budgets, public routes could be structured for the needs of all Oakland travelers and congestion could be reduced.

• Make decisions based on value as well as cost: Our time is in fact valuable (listening to NPR in your car doesn’t count).

• Scour the world for solutions and funding. For example, instead of looking at Bus Rapid Transit for the Downtown-Oakland-East End corridor because it’s cheap in Cleveland, look also at light rail in Phoenix because it’s used. Under a build-operate-transfer scheme, it might be possible to attract a private-sector investor. If a proposal includes foreign investors, fine, let the Europeans subsidize us.

In conclusion …

• Don’t ask what it costs, ask what it’s worth. The cheapest solutions may not be the optimum solutions.

• Recognize that the problem is primarily cultural: We need to work smart as well as hard. The survival of the state-controlled liquor system reminds us how difficult that change will be.

• Aspire to become America’s Most Workable City as well as one of its Most Livable.

• Measure progress by who actually uses Port Authority transit, keeping in mind the words of Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogota, Colombia: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” Mobility is a human right!

Consider that, even though The Economist ranks Pittsburgh highly on quality of life, it also stated in 2012 that “the next president should fix America’s ramshackle public services. Even the most productive startups cannot help an economy held back by dilapidated roads, the world’s most expensive health system, underachieving union-dominated schools and a Byzantine immigration system that deprives companies of the world’s best talent. Focus on those things, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, and you will be surprised what America’s private sector can do for itself.”

Pittsburgh’s biggest fundamental economic problem is that our economy is now driven more by the non-taxpaying nonprofit sector than the private sector, but that’s a story for another day.

Henry Posner III is chairman of Railroad Development Corp., a Greentree-based railway investment and management company that focuses on emerging railroad markets (www.rrdc.com). It has operated in Peru, Guatemala, Germany, Estonia and numerous other countries.


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