Wednesday, February 29, 2012

All of Our Buses Must Sail in the Same Direction

Ed. Note: This is a long, rambling post about Economic Development and the Port Authority, that contains nothing funny and no vulgarity except for one "shit" and a "twat"... and since you've passed them already, you can be assured that the rest of the post is G-Rated. There's an inordinate repetition of "two", however, which we can't account for, but it does provides for a nice Manichean dualism of sorts. We'll pause for a second while you go look up what "Manichean" means in an online dictionary and try to to figure out what in the name of holy hell we were trying to get at. Anyway, feel free to skip this entry and move onto the next post where we'll probably make fun of... let's say... Chartiers City.

With today's Big Ol' Transit Meeting and the impending opening of the Northshore Connector, I figured we'd take a few moments to discuss some more esoteric points of contention about the Port Authority, mostly because I enjoy playing with transit models in my head, but also because I feel the need to need to use the word "esoteric" in a sentence.

Before we begin, however, let's recognizing two things that are important in framing the discussions about PAT: money and money. I feel the need to repeat these points in my discussions about PAT, because they seem to be fundamental assumptions that most people are oblivious towards.

First, there is a difference between Operating Funds and Capital Funds. Operating Funds are those sources of money that allow you to pay for staff, supplies, rent, repairs, etc.; Capital Funds are those sources of money that allow you buy and build stuff. In the Port Authority's world, Operating Funds pay for drivers, advertising, mechanics, schedules and so forth, while Capital Funds get them buses, parking garages, and tunnels underneath the Allegheny River.

Second, these funds are always separate and by statute the twain shall never meet. You can't use Capital Funds to pay for Operating Expenses. Ever. So, for the people that complain "Oh they have money to build the Northshore connector, but why don't they have the money to keep my bus route?" the answer is: PAT was granted a large amount of Federal, State, and Local money to build the Northshore Connector and ONLY the Northshore Connector. If they tried to use the Northshore Connector money to pay their drivers, Steve Bland would be in jail right now. The complaint about service cuts is, at its heart, a complaint about fairs and state and local operating funding.

[As a side point, those in any Local Government know that if you tell the Federal Government that you no longer want the money that you had asked for, the Federal Government pretty much ignores you the next time you ask.]

Now with that out of the way, let's get back to today's meeting. The P-G reported

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald opened the all-day hearing saying the loss of transit service could reverse economic gains seen recently after decades of stagnation.
Let's dissect that for a moment, shall we?

I'd say that there are two major strains of economic development happening in Pittsburgh today. The first being the traditional bricks & mortar that the URA, County Economic Development Department, Allegheny Conference, et al. try to foster. The tools used are familiar: site development & remediation, loan interest loans & grants, TIFs and tax breaks, etc. Philosophically, this kind of economic development can range from lowering barriers to entry for marginal companies to outright "Smokestack Chasing."

On the other side, you have non-traditional economic development, typically coming out of the universities centered around technology transfer and knowledge in general. This is generally smaller scale stuff (the proverbial two man start up working out of some guy's apartment) and is fostered by the free exchange of ideas in and around the university community. These are incremental changes that start to build a wide base for certain industries, but often they result in big things: Google in Larimer, 31 St Studios in the Strip, or UPMC... well, everywhere. The Politicians have a tough time with the non-traditional economic development as there's no building, sewer line, parking garage, or other bricks and mortar "thing" to point to and say "Hey! I helped with that; vote for me."

Which leads me to my point about PAT and Economic Development.

There are two ways that I see PAT influencing Economic Development in and around Allegheny County. First is the traditional way -- new infrastructure, transit lines, and bus routes allow new areas to open up for development and allow old, built up areas to grow without getting choked. Consider the Northshore as a new area and Oakland as a built up area. Through the Northshore connector (arguably), the Northshore becomes more closely integrated with Dowtown, allowing for expansion of the otherwise congested Golden Triangle. Transit in Oakland, meanwhile, reduces the need for space wasting parking garages and impossible to find street parking, thereby allowing more people to come into Oakland on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the second way that PAT can influence Economic Development: moving people around. Think about the late 28X bus route for a second. This route helped commute high wage earners from the Western suburbs into Downtown, while moving low wage earners from the inner city to retail jobs out in the suburbs. So, if a business has a reasonable access to high skilled workers from downtown or low skilled workers in the suburbs, the cost of doing business goes down for the business owner and the cost of being employed goes down for the employee.

So, here's my question: is PAT leading in economic development or is it following?

Let's go back to the Northshore and Oakland again. While the Northshore Connector concept goes back to the days of Skybus, it didn't really get its legs until Stadiums (Stadii?) were already being built. Clearly, PAT was reacting to a development opportunity, rather than using it's resources to help make the site more attractive. Similarly, Oakland is bursting at the seams nearly 20 years after the Spineline concept was proposed. Because of the fear of the cost involved in such an expensive undertaking, PAT is proceeding down a more cautious "Bus Rapid Transit" model, instead of something more integrated with the existing T-Line or at least something off of the existing right-of-ways.

It seems to be a case of institutional myopia. PAT is, in a sense, the one Economic Development engine that straddles both the City and the County. Indeed, it's very presence has a huge impact on the flow of commerce in the region, its air quality, equal opportunities for employment access, physical linkages, site development, and so on and so forth. It is, however, run very much like a bus company. Which is a shame, as there's a real opportunity here to think of PAT as something more than just a conveyor of people and a place for smelly college students to complain.

What is to be done? I'm not sure. Certainly, one of the basic changes that need to be made is to try to see the Port Authority as more than a bus company at the State and Municipal level. Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and Transit Revitalization Investment Districts (TRIDs - a type of TIF area around transit nodes) need to be integrated into the Port Authority's long range plans, rather than a mere afterthought. If this is already happened, PAT is certainly not keeping it a good secret.

In the end, a Port Authority that's thinking about more than transit, but how the Region develops around transit will be a better Port Authority.


deegazette said...

I am willing to do my part in the effort to have PAT seen as something more than a bus company. Why just today I rode the blue line trolley to town to see my podiatrist and I can see how I might have been able to turn the trip into something more. I love Broadway show tunes and feel the trolley will provide a captive audience to display my weak talents the next trip I take to town. I hope this is what you had in mind and that other ADB readers will come up with equally amazing ideas to get the party started. It can be MORE THAN A BUS COMPANY.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is a Null Space-worthy post. Good job.