The Next Page: Greetings from NEW PITTSBURGH
Imagine a $1 trillion stimulus program that wasn't laden with pork. Imagine a program that ended decades of sprawl and decline. Imagine investing in the cities that built America, the cities that have lost jobs and population for the past 30 years. Imagine developing a program that could reverse that trend and create a new triple bottom line of sustainable economic growth, investment in built environments and opportunity for all.
That would be some program.
Now stop imagining.
This year, Congress will have the responsibility -- the opportunity -- to decide how to spend nearly $1 trillion in a stimulus plan. It will also be making one of the most critical decisions on the fate of older cities, suburbs and small towns in our lifetime.
Difficult choices will need to be made. These choices will determine whether we continue on a path of urban decay and the continued development of our remaining open spaces -- or if we begin a new vision of revitalizing Pittsburgh and the other cities that are the keystone of our heritage.
We must focus on "fixing it first." Existing infrastructure must be given priority over the building of new highways and new real estate developments.
With population loss and high taxes, we do not have the ability to pay for new. We need to modernize what we have.
Constructing new and losing population is a death spiral for a region, leading us to higher taxes that we simply can't afford. We need to make strategic investments in public transportation and rail systems that can open up access to jobs in developed areas while reducing the need of vehicle miles traveled.
We need to focus on programs to rehabilitate and make energy efficient existing and historic structures. We must train our workers, from the GED to the Ph.D., for the new green jobs that will come with these types of investments. A new, worldwide, trillion-dollar industry of product manufacturing, research and construction is arriving with new standards of green building.
Pittsburgh has the research, development and manufacturing capabilities to be a global leader in this new industry -- if we invest wisely.
We must use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address our aging combined sewer overflows that spill pollution and raw sewage into our waterways. Together with our poor air quality, these are the critical barriers that keep new-economy industries from locating here.
Lastly, we need to invest in communities that have struggled with abandoned and vacant properties -- structures that continue to pull down the value of housing and cause residents to abandon once thriving neighborhoods.
By doing all these things, we have a chance to revitalize once great cities like Pittsburgh and give them a chance to compete in a 21st-century economy.
The stimulus program must invests in three key areas: 1) housing, 2) transportation and public infrastructure and 3) economic and workforce development. That's how we can create sustainable and inclusive economic growth. If we squander this opportunity, we may never have the resources to modernize our aging cities and will forever keep them at a national and global disadvantage.
So how can the stimulus program be developed in order to encourage sound investment?
I have been involved with a group of more than 50 organizations and individuals working to create a "New American Resolution" to end sprawl and decline. These groups have been on the front line of revitalizing older cities and their network has grown.
Last month, we sent to the leaders of Congress a detailed plan for the stimulus package. A summary of the main points is presented here.
The complete plan and details on the group can be found on my City Council Web site: www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/district8
Neighborhood Stabilization and HOME Program: Too many communities need help to deal with foreclosures and abandoned properties. These programs include match funds for communities to build, buy and/or rehabilitate affordable housing. All funding should require the greening of rehabilitated properties as part of their program.
Green Funds for Transit Oriented Housing: Under this program, rental properties near public transportation would be eligible to receive funds. Seniors and low-income families would benefit. According to the National Housing Trust, 90,000 green jobs would be created.
Increase Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit and Historic Preservation Fund: An increase from 20 percent to 40 percent for small "Main Street Projects" would help revitalize our forgotten neighborhood business districts. In addition, an increase from 20 to 26 percent for all other certified historic structures will help preserve our history and our heritage. Finally, a change to the Home Energy Assistance program for historic properties would help guarantee the long term security of our treasured past.
Invest in State Rehab Tax Credit Program: State deficiencies have backlogged projects that could have been instrumental in revitalizing neighborhoods. Current economic conditions have made this even worse. Federal funds would generate a significant number of jobs and provide a needed stimulus in all communities.
Repair Crumbling Bridges: Pennsylvania leads the nation in bridges in disrepair and we don't have the money to fix them. Also, funds need to be spent to modernize existing highways and increase multi-modal accessibility on roadways. A modest proposal to upgrade and centrally manage all of the traffic signals in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan region would do more for traffic congestion than building any proposed roadway.
Fund Transit: Additional funding is needed for section 5309, Title 49 Program for immediate new transit investment and expansion of all transit options for more communities without shovel-ready projects. Additional funding could assist in rail relocation and improvement projects including the creation of a commuter rail line for Pittsburgh and our region. Other states have already documented needs for transit funding that would create over 80,000 jobs.
Pedestrian and Bicycle Facilities: Funding is needed to connect transportation networks, improve safety and encourage the least-cost transportation options. Pittsburgh lags behind almost every other city in pedestrian and bike options and safety.
Water and Wastewater Infrastructure: Older communities have been left with the legacy costs of an antiquated water system. The cost to repair it exceeds the tax base. Funds should be made available to bring systems with combined sewer overflow violations into compliance and promote source water protection and availability. No one wants to live or work in a region with dirty air or dirty water.
Increased Community Development Block Grants: Programs could be created for the renovation of public facilities, the improvement of streets and neighborhood centers, the adaptive reuse of our older, historic schools, the installation of energy conservation to public property including LED street lights and the development of renewable energy options such as wind and water turbines and solar energy projects. Without federal assistance and local prioritization our public infrastructure will continue to crumble and needed green investments that could lower costs will never be recognized.
School Modernization: The stimulus program should target funds to repair, modernize and green our older school buildings. Funds should be used to improve energy efficiency, equip them with first-class technology and revitalize them for another generation. We should never have to close a school because it costs too much to renovate; that decision should be made only for academic reasons.
Focus toward Private Sector: Public infrastructure improvements should assist private sector industries to carry out economic development and job creation/retention. Emphasis should be given to industry clusters with the ability to have the greatest multiplier effect on good jobs and should avoid real estate development or retail activities.
EPA Brownfields Program: Allocations are needed to fund all of the qualified applications for EPA Brownfields Cleanup and Site Assessment programs. Some 25,000 jobs would be created nationally and they would be in areas where the need is the greatest -- in census tracts with double the national poverty rate.
New Market Tax Credits: According to the U.S. Treasury, under the New Market Tax Credits program for every $1 of federal tax revenues, $14 of private sector investment is leveraged. Assuming jobs are created averaging the rate through 2007, an additional $1.5 billion would create over 40,000 jobs nationally primarily in areas like Pittsburgh.
Job Training: To fill the increased demand of skilled workers generated by investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy and manufacturing, additional funds would be needed under the Green Jobs Act of 2007. This would authorize new workforce development funds to national and state training programs, which could help to spur an entire new industry in the Pittsburgh region.
Community Outreach Partnership Centers: Pittsburgh is fortunate to have several universities within our borders. COPCs would help colleges and universities apply their resources to the challenge of revitalizing distressed communities. A University of Pittsburgh partnership could be expanded to assist neighborhoods with at least three of the following issues: housing, infrastructure, economic development, neighborhood revitalization, health care, crime or planning. Other programs could be created with other universities.
The Economic Development Administration's University Centers: This program would provide funding to higher-education institutions for the support of local and regional economic development. Centers generally undertake three broad categories of activity: direct technical assistance to clients, applied research, and information dissemination. It leverages staff, students, facilities, research capabilities and other university resources to economic development organizations or individual businesses.
Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program: To prevent the loss of additional manufacturing jobs, this fund would allow MEP centers to operate without the currently required, but largely unavailable, state matching funds. MEP centers provide services to small manufacturers to help them become competitive enterprises in the global economy.
Fully funding all of these programs nationally would require less than one-tenth of the anticipated funding for the stimulus program.
It would provide hope for cities like Pittsburgh.
It will give older American cities one last chance to finally be responsible and address the costs associated with the remediation of our industrial heritage.
It will help us to fix what is broken and create a new stable foundation to rebuild ourselves -- under the promise of a new, sustainable economic engine.
All it requires is political will.
First Published January 11, 2009 12:00 am