Though hard to believe, private transit was worse

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If ever you get to thinking an idea is new or will solve all problems, read some history.

Take public transit. (And take it quick, before your route is axed.)

Why not privatize it? The very word evokes a cleanup, like Simonizing the car or deodorizing your armpits.

But Pittsburgh had private bus service for a very long time. Only old-timers would remember the almost annual fare hikes in the 1950s, and fewer still would know that the Pittsburgh Railways Co. spent much of the first part of the 20th century in and out of bankruptcy proceedings.

Allegheny County's Port Authority took over Pittsburgh Railways and other transit lines, each with its own fare structure and no transfer privileges, in 1964 -- when these private carriers were circling the drain.

Dan Sullivan, 61, is an Oakland resident who rode the private trolleys as a kid and has been poking the powers on Grant Street for most of his adult life. But he isn't nostalgic for private lines.

A student of local history, Mr. Sullivan reminded me that Christopher L. Magee, Pittsburgh's 19th-century political boss, became nationally famous by artfully ripping off this city through the streetcar lines he owned.

Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraker, outlined that history in 1903 in "Pittsburg: A City Ashamed.'' (So many people were stealing from the city then that someone evidently absconded with Pittsburgh's "h''.)

Pittsburgh long has been allergic to a genuine two-party system, so a Republican machine ran the city then. Mr. Magee, a charming rogue in partnership with the harder-edged William Flinn, ruled all but absolutely.

"The city has been described physically as 'hell with the lid off,' '' Mr. Steffens wrote in McClure's magazine in May 1903. "Politically it is the same with the lid on.

"Magee wanted power, Flinn wealth. Each got both those things; but Magee spent his wealth for more power, and Flinn spent his power for more wealth.''

Rail, specifically the Pennsylvania Railroad, was king then. In Pittsburgh and in Harrisburg, its lobbyists distributed railroad passes to politicians. (Until Super Bowl tickets were invented, lobbyists had to make do.)

Rail barons became so adept at seizing land through eminent domain, Mr. Sullivan says, that America gained a new verb, "to railroad,'' meaning to rush something through. But the Magee-Flinn machine was too canny to just give plums away. The bosses kept the lion's share for themselves and the two men made ridiculous money.

"Magee did not steal franchises and sell them. His councils gave them to him. He and the busy Flinn took them, built railways which Magee sold and bought and financed and conducted, like any other man whose successful career is held up as an example for young men.''

Mr. Magee's Consolidated Traction Company was capitalized at $30 million at a time when the city's public debt was $18 million, Mr. Steffens wrote. Yet Pittsburghers not only tolerated this legal graft for a quarter century, they revered Mr. Magee. When he died in 1901, they began pitching in for his monument.

His memorial stands near the Carnegie Library in Oakland. Dedicated in 1908, when it attracted a crowd of 2,000 people, this bronze-and-granite tribute to Christopher Lyman Magee was one of the final works of the great sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Magee-Womens, the hospital Mr. Magee founded in honor of his mother, stands at the site of one of his old railway administration buildings.

Mr. Sullivan's website, www.savingcommunities.org, has a long section under the heading "Private Railroads and Plunder.'' He believes "forward-thinking plunderers are recognizing that the era of the automobile is coming to an end, and want to get their transit back.''

I don't buy predictions of the car's demise, nor of any wholesale switch from public to private transit. But it's clear the Port Authority can't continue as a vital way to get around without a massive overhaul.

On Friday, the head of the transit union offered the equivalent of 13 percent in wage givebacks (with some of that diverted to the pension fund). The Port Authority board rejected that offer and decided Saturday to move ahead with the route cutbacks that take effect today.

And there's no talk of building any monuments to anyone.


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


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