Fair Fares?

 

A friend who lives and works in the city texted me:

Please explain why the port authority would reduce zone 2 suburbanite fares??? $3.75 doesn’t cover the cost right now. When will they start sharing the costs of working in the city??? What are they going to do start driving?

She was reacting—maybe over-reacting, maybe not—to the Port Authority’s recent proposal to change the county’s fare structure. Under the new structure, Zone 2 fares would be reduced from $3.75, as it now stands, to $2.50, which is currently the cost of a ride anywhere within the city of Pittsburgh and the near suburbs. Of course it is unheard of for a public utility or public service to reduce its charges to the customer, so maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

A recent letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette jarred me back to my senses. The author faulted the thinking that the Port Authority’s “mission is to provide OK public transit to those who can’t afford cars—college students and the urban poor.”  That stands in the way, the author argues, of our getting “world-class transit.”

Of course anyone who has followed our Port Authority knows that its executives truly want a “world-class transit” and they seldom let the obstacles of class and race stand in the way—the poor, the elderly, the disabled, low-income workers, and minorities are not a factor in their goals.

My friend is right. Subsiding suburbanites and the urban gentry has been a constant in Port Authority planning. A Mt. Lebanon resident working in the city and choosing to forego the current PAT option would incur truly onerous parking rates downtown on top of the fuel and maintenance of an automobile; the current T fare ($3.75) is not merely a bargain, but an overly generous subsidy. Moreover, PAT has provided suburbanites with 49 costly- maintenance park-n- ride lots (8,700 spaces are free) to entice suburbanites to avail themselves of these subsidized fares.

Similarly, the $3.75 (28X) city/airport bus is a hyper-bargain when compared to the alternatives: cabs or UBER ($30-40). There is simply no rational, economically efficient basis for the vast difference between the Port Authority fare and the cost of other options. Clearly, the 28X is a massive subsidy for those who fly frequently, those of a more elevated economic status.

And the downtown fare changes reflect the same preferential treatment for the non-city residents. Surface buses—formerly free for travel throughout downtown– will be charged $2.50 under the new scheme while travel between downtown T stations and through the tunnel to the North Shore will remain free. Free surface buses were of benefit to “college students and the urban poor,” to quote our unnamed letter writer, a benefit that they and others will lose.  Free T and tunnel service are of benefit to those going to and from the South Hills suburbs and those parking on the North Shore or attending entertainment or sporting events (Not surprisingly, the region’s biggest freeloader, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has stopped paying a subsidy for the free T rides to the stadium, though the PAT website still thanks them!). Unspoken is the fact that no one would ride the downtown and connector T if she or he had to pay, testament to the irrationality of these construction boondoggles.

It is a not-too-hidden secret that politicians, developers, and the foundation fuehrers have floated the idea that PAT redirect downtown buses to the periphery or to the North Shore in order to drive “undesireables”—the poor and minorities—from street corner bus stops so as not to offend the sensibilities of downtown condo owners. The downtown fare strategy reeks of that strategy.

Going forward, the Port Authority plans to charge a $.25 surcharge on cash customers in order to encourage the use of Connect cards. Did it escape the PAT executives and the Post-Gazette editorial writers who hailed the new fare structure that many of the urban cash customers are financially strapped and unable to take advantage of fare discounts available for Connect card users? Do they ever ride the bus and see who pays cash? Did it occur to them that offering a means-tested subsidy might be more socially responsible rather than placing an added burden on those least able to shoulder it?

Suburbanites get the $1.25 subsidy, the cash-reliant rider without the means to secure a Connect card suffers a surcharge! And $1.00 transfers are gone for cash customers as well; they must pay $2.50 to change buses.

So why has the frequently cash-strapped PAT management decided to give up an estimated $4.4 million in annual fare revenue in order to sweeten its already generous subsidy of the urban gentry and the suburbanites?

The answer lies in a report commissioned and issued in May of 2014 by the Urban Land Institute. PAT CEO McLean praised the $125,000 study (not surprisingly, since she used to work for the ULI) which outlined a series of reforms to “improve” the area’s transit.

Now the ULI previously inspired Mayor Murphy’s $4 billion failed effort to revitalize downtown as a retail business magnet (a program that threatens to arise again!). As a result, he was rewarded with the appointment of senior resident fellow for the ULI. The Institute is noted for channeling public funds into private projects, a challenge that Murphy enthusiastically embraced.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the ULI study endorsed the latest PAT boondoggle, the BRT. It also urged PAT to “focus more on transit-oriented real estate development” and to contract out service during peak times or nights (incipient privatization). Also in the game plan was the predictable acknowledgement of the “New Pittsburgh” fetish: “appeal to millennials” and make bus stops readily available to bike riders.

And, of course, it recommended that PAT simplify bus zone fares.

But understanding that this would come at a cost, the study also recommended that PAT charge a fee for park-n-ride, a change that would generate an estimated $3 million or more annually and radically reduce the revenue loss from the fare restructuring. PAT chose to ignore this recommendation.

While fare cuts to the far suburbs may benefit some low income riders, as local politicos like to repeat, there is every reason to believe that the PAT vision of enticing more affluent suburban riders is failing and will fail. For two decades, transit ridership nationally has grown twice as fast as the population. Allegheny County has not enjoyed that growth. While there are many reasons for this, the recent cut backs in service certainly play a big role in the latest ridership stagnation and loss. But lessons can be drawn from the restoration of many routes. PAT figures show that added trips and route restoration of 12 largely urban Zone 1 routes accounted for nearly all of the growth after funding was restored (Post-Gazette, March 14, 2015).  Does this not suggest that further improving services in the city and near suburbs might reap immediate and solid ridership rewards? And doesn’t this suggest that continuing to incentivize the more affluent suburban communities has impacted ridership very little?

Sitting on a $11.3 million budget surplus, PAT might give some thought to dispensing with glitz and incentives for the affluent and focusing on plain vanilla services: more routes, more buses, and more bus drivers. And maybe a little something for the workers who sacrificed their wages and benefits to put the system back on a sound footing.

–Greg Godels

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Riot!

Many shout-outs of appreciation to my colleague Greg Godels for shredding one of the big lies associated with the myth of the 1960s “black riot”– that disturbances such as the 1968 eruption in the Hill District caused “white flight” and led to our present patterns of urban segregation. That process was started years earlier by the racist disregard for — no, animus towards — African-American communities under the federally-supported policy of “urban renewal.”  (Check out “Sorry Chapters in Urban Arrogance,” elsewhere on this site.)

Black riots are blamed for white flight, black middle-class flight, capital flight, urban blight, and so on.  In its most benign forms, the mainstream narrative sees rioting as an understandable but misguided, angry reaction to kind of legitimate grievances.  At its most fearful, the popular imagination sees these eruptions as anti-white, self-defeating proof of the hopelessness of “those people.” In all cases, black people are seen as aggressors to one degree or another.

You don’t see “black” riots justified as acts of self-defense on the part of African Americans in the mainstream media.  Nor are modern (post-Depression) riots thought of as acts of aggression against blacks and other people of color.  It seems like we’ve forgotten about the 10-day York riot of July 1969.  Even the city of York acts like it has forgotten.

Olde Yorktowne

I was hanging out with a coworker in downtown York, Pa. one evening while on a business trip last year.  I have to say that if I were younger and whiter, I might really enjoy little York: it has a downtown that Pittsburgh hipsters would die for!  The area was packed with bars, restaurants and cafes, all of them bustling and all of them overwhelmingly white.

We found a bar and ordered our beers, and while my friend was in the rest room, I made small talk with the twenty-something bartender, commenting favorably on York’s downtown scene.  Seemingly out of nowhere, he told me that, according to his father, York used to be a really nice town until the riot (I don’t remember if he said race riot) in the 1960s changed everything.  The young man paused and looked at me with sincere eyes, as if he expected me to solve a riddle.

I am not from York — as I had told him — and I was the only African American I had seen for a block or more, so I declined to answer.  I told him I had never heard about that riot.  He shrugged and, looking both sad and confused, moved on to other business.

I had never heard of this York riot, but now my curiosity was aroused. I particularly wanted to know what had happened that was so terrible for the white people.  Everything downtown looked just like it looks here in the ‘burgh, only more so: during the day, I saw a smattering of black and Hispanic people downtown, but few were dressed in business attire, except those whose business was to serve.  All the restaurants and cafes seemed to cater to the “right” kind of people.

To me, these were all signs of white economic, political and cultural dominance.  I had heard that there were sizable black and Latino communities, but they apparently hadn’t been integrated into the high life of the downtown district.  Was this why the bartender was so sad-eyed?  Did the young man want to see more integration?

Ghosts

York is an historic little town (about 44,000 people). Named for an English snob, York was briefly America’s capital at the end of the Revolutionary War.  It also has the distinction of being the biggest northern town to fall into the hands of the Rebs during the Civil War.  Fortunately, they only stayed a few days before being summoned to destiny at nearby Gettysburg.  By the early twentieth century, the city of York, surrounded by farmland, had settled into life as an industrial, working-class town.

I have stayed in York on three separate occasions, each time at the historic and rundown Yorktowne Hotel, an art-deco-style, pimped-out relic that must have been a big deal back in its day.  The photographs in the lobby, the impressive list of famous guests — ballplayers and boxers, Presidents and First Ladies, actors, politicians and celebrities — all attest to this fact, implying also that, once upon a time, York  was hot shit .

Of course, York Peppermint  Paddies are all over town, as are references to York as “Muscle City USA” and the nation’s “first” capital.  But I never saw anything about any riots.  They say that the Yorktowne is haunted, but I was never visited.  The biggest ghost I encountered around York was this riot — the bartender is the only person to ever mention it to me.  I soon forgot about the York riots until “Sorry Chapters . . .” jogged my memory.

The Gangs of York

York’s whites always had a hard time accepting the area’s initially small but steadily growing African American population.  In 1947, the city closed its huge municipal pool rather than allow blacks to use it.  By the early 1960s, blacks were protesting police violence at the all-white City Council and unsuccessfully demanded a biracial civilian review board.

Retired York newspaperman Art Geiselman told the Baltimore Sun in 2000:

That town is just north of the Mason-Dixon line, but it might as well have been in the South for all the terrible, terrible hatred of blacks that existed at the time.

Racist policing practices continued, with the small town’s police-dog unit deployed to curb protests.  The mayor at the time openly referred to African Americans — about one-tenth of the population — as “darkies.” The period also saw the rise of racist white youth gangs.  At least one gang, the Newberry Street Boys, was mentored and supported by a young cop who would eventually become mayor in the 1990s.

A series of street brawls and fire-bombings in 1968 set the stage for July 1969.  When black rage erupted, the armed white gangs were ready but they were confronted by a black community that shot back.  In 1o days of rioting, 60 people were injured, over 100 arrested, and houses and buildings were fire-bombed.

There were two deaths: a rookie white policeman was shot while on patrol in a black area, and an out-of-town black woman was killed on Newberry Street when the car she and her family were driving in was riddled with bullets, Bonnie-and-Clyde style.  The first cop to respond to Newberry Street was Charlie Robertson, the future mayor.  No arrests were made — for decades — in either death.

In 1999, York’s daily newspapers ran articles on the 30th anniversary of the riots.  The county prosecutor decided to reopen the case, again questioning witnesses.  One of those questioned committed suicide not long after talking to investigators in the spring of 2000; he left behind a detailed taped confession and the words, “Forgive me God.”  According to a deputy prosecutor at the time, eight people involved in the riots had committed suicide over the years.

In 2001, two-term Mayor Charlie Robertson was arrested and charged with murder, just days after winning a close Democratic primary over the first African American to run for mayor.  He dropped out of the race, admitted that he had been a racist in those days, but insisted on his innocence.  The trials attracted hate groups like the National Alliance, who came to York and clashed with anti-racist protesters.  Two men were convicted of the death of the black woman; Robertson was acquitted.  Two black men were convicted of killing the rookie officer.

Moving On

York’s population has held steady over the past two decades, but of its 44,000 people, about 28 percent are black and 28 percent are Hispanic. (For the county, it’s 6.5 percent black, 6.5 percent Hispanic, and 85 percent white).  When Obama and Hillary faced off in Pennsylvania eight years ago, the city was 55 percent white.  A decade before that, it was 70 percent white.  Is this white flight?

African American Kim Bracey is in her second term as York’s first black mayor.  Is this progress?

Sandra Thompson, York NAACP president, noted that the board members of government bodies and nonprofit agencies are mostly white.  “That tells you how far we’ve come in this community.”

— Jim Collins

York, PA’s the Sunburst Band, promoting heavyweight champ, Larry Holmes:

 

 

 

 

Sorry Chapters in Urban Arrogance

 

Vulgar urban mythology has it that the “riots” after ML King’s 1968 murder instigated white flight from the Pittsburgh neighborhoods with a sizeable Black population, resulting in the patterns of urban segregation we now witness.

The truth is somewhat different.

Pittsburgh, with a relatively small modern-era African-American population segment compared to similar or larger cities, offered some hope that the apartheid-like patterns of segregation and white suburbanization found in most US cities could be avoided. Indeed, in 1930 only 6 census tracts were 50% or more African-American, a count that expanded to 23 by 1960.

But the last hope for a reasonably integrated city was squashed by the post-War “urban renewal” project, Renaissance I, foisted on the city by a cabal of elites. By displacing 1551 low-income African-American families in the lower Hill District and hundreds of businesses, the moguls realized their vision of an imposing entertainment center, commercial real estate, and hi-rent apartments for 594 families. Thus began a process of dislocation of African-Americans variously dubbed “serial forced displacement,” “ethnic cleansing” or “American Apartheid,” a process that continues today with the nearly instantaneous gentrification of East Liberty.

Renaissance I not only drove African-Americans from the lower Hill, it also set in motion other processes of which the city fathers didn’t anticipate or didn’t care. An influx of residents into the upper Hill District brought social problems to an already overcrowded neighborhood. A vigorous outmigration ensued to Homewood Brushton and East Liberty. In a decade, stable, integrated Homewood Brushton went from 21% Black to 71% Black. The demographics of East Liberty shifted even more dramatically. Social tensions, poverty, instability, and other pressures predictably destabilized once integrated communities.

By 1960, 36% of Pittsburgh’s Blacks lived in the Hill District—the first time in history that fewer than 50% of the city’s African-Americans resided in that neighborhood. Renaissance I disrupted African-American historic housing patterns, raised racial tensions, exacerbated social problems, and sparked white flight.

As Ray Lubove wrote of Renaissance I in 1969, “…for the Negro community it has been a highly visible symbol of old-style renewal, indifferent to the housing needs and preferences of low-income families.”

But Renaissance I was not unique to Pittsburgh; it was one instance of a massive dislocation of one million people— 75% minorities—through 2500 projects in 993 US cities. Nor was it the last of a particularly pernicious set of avoidable or manageable processes that systematically displace African-Americans or destabilize their communities. Academics Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace identify nine such processes, many of which struck Pittsburgh’s Blacks disproportionately: segregation, redlining, urban renewal, planned shrinkage/catastrophic disinvestment, deindustrialization, mass criminalization, gentrification, HOPE VI, and the foreclosure crisis.

They, in part, explain the Hill District’s loss of population from 38,100 in 1950 to 9,830 in 1990.

American Apartheid Today

The continuation and intensification of these processes impoverish and erode Pittsburgh’s Black population. And once again, the lower Hill is the epicenter (along with East Liberty) of the struggle for just and equitable policies that benefit all citizens and not just the elites and their political enablers.

It is a bitter irony that the lower Hill—once the location of modest homes and rooming houses for mainly low-income Blacks—has been virtually gifted to moguls who make their money from one of the few remaining strongholds of celebrated white dominance: professional hockey. Today and going forward, the anchor of the area is an oasis for the entertainment of mainly white suburbanites who only favor our city for downtown office jobs, gladiator extravaganzas from the Steelers, and the Penguin celebration of white athleticism. When the cost of their engagement with the city is tallied, they take more than they give.

Similarly, the Penguin owners are takers more than givers. Under threat of the owners moving the financially troubled franchise (2007), politicos bundled the building of a new rink with the awarding of a local casino license in an arcane effort to disguise any appearance of public financing. When that deal collapsed, a new deal was constructed that put the state (and tax payers) on the hook for nearly 40% of the annual debt payments on the Stadium Authority issued bonds. And now that public funds have radically pumped up the value of the once-nearly-broke franchise, the owners—including the sainted hockey puck, Republican Mario Lemieux—hope to cash out by selling the franchise and its publicly funded perks for three-quarters of a billion dollars. A nice return on a once rummage sale franchise.

The Peduto administration, the Stadium Authority, and the URA are scrambling to put lipstick on the piggish owners and the deal that the city’s power brokers constructed to court them. In addition, the development rights to the surrounding area were awarded to the Penguins as a bonus along with $15 million in credits to buy the land and tens of millions in tax breaks! Adding to the embarrassment, the Federal government has refused a $21 million grant to advance the development of the 28 acre site. And an anchor tenant, USX, has reneged on its commitment to move its headquarters to the site.

In an effort to rectify some of the sins of the past inflicted on the lower Hill District, the Hill District Consensus group fought vigorously to insure the inclusion of affordable housing as part of the 28 acre development. But they have been forced to file a complaint with HUD over the Penguin’s failure to live up to the plan accepted in 2011.

With the Hill District Master Plan, the Penguins were to develop 30% of all housing for lower income residents who would, by HUD standards, be able to pay for housing affordable by those making 50% or less of the area’s median income. But that low bar is no longer acceptable to the City or the Penguins who have countered with a plan that would establish a benchmark for affordability at over twice the median level of Pittsburgh’s African-Americans, effectively denying all but a few Blacks an opportunity to live in the new development. The Hill District Consensus Group correctly identified this as a heavy handed ruse to escape any obligation to lower income Blacks and a further step towards the gentrification of the Hill District. Thus, they turned to HUD for relief.

Kudos to the Hill District activists who have challenged the juggernaut—the combined forces of the City administration, the Sports Authority, the URA, and a sports team. They and their counterparts in other neighborhoods hopefully constitute the beginning of a city wide resistance to the destruction of our neighborhoods, the dominance of urban elites, and the rejection of diversity. We sorely need a counterforce to the arrogance of elites.

Greg Godels

On to a Curmudgeonly New Year

The pessimist has been characterized as a person who gazes at a half-full glass and proclaims it half-empty.  But what if the glass isn’t even close to being half anything?  What if it’s damn near dry?

Take the displaced people of East Liberty and points nearby.  People use words like “renewal” and “revitalization” to describe the process but everyone knows those words mean that poor people have to go.  People with low incomes need low-cost housing, and gentrification is not about cheap housing. The historical record shows that gentrification always results in a net loss of affordable housing in the targeted neighborhood.

Being forced to move is hard for people who don’t have money.  In fact, just living in general is hard for people who don’t have money.  Maybe real urban renewal would include the creation of decent-paying jobs in the targeted neighborhood.

Maybe we could revitalize the entire region with an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour?  I bet the people pushing “revitalization” in the mainstream sense would oppose that idea: somehow, we are told, raising the wages of the least paid would hurt the standard of living of the better-off classes.  (We’re even told that higher wages for the poor would hurt the poor!)  You can’t please everybody, they say, so we should serve the good and universally-accepted cause of economic growth by  catering to the wealthy.  Makes $en$e to them.

The public gets served

I wonder if they’re still teaching the old bull crap about the social contract in Pennsylvania’s public schools?

You know how it goes. The people faithfully perform their duty by paying taxes; voting for an assembly and governor to govern them; joining the National Guard or military so that people overseas (poor people who, much like our own, are often forced to move against their will) can be told how to live like us; and, most importantly, always obeying the rules and believing the official hype. The governor and legislators are hardworking, altruistic “servants” of the aforementioned people.

And they all went to heaven in a little rowboat . . . !

As you know by now, we will not have a state budget for the New Year and, if you’re reading this blog, you know what I think about that!  Of course, the Republicans are the biggest culprits.  Under former Governor Corbett’s leadership, they shamelessly cut education and social service funding while heartlessly refusing Medicaid expansion.

What are the priorities of the public servants of the GOP?  The privatization of liquor stores (so they can break the union and sell franchises to their cronies who will be able to hire people on the cheap), pension reform for teachers and real public servants (meaning the phasing out of guaranteed benefits and adding more 401(k) chips for Wall Street to gamble with), no new taxes and more tax relief for the overburdened corporations, and a sleeper, H.R. 1538.

H.R. 1538 would protect the identities of police officers who shoot people while the investigation is pending.  The director of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission writes:

The bill allows the release of officers’ identity only if they have been criminally charged, creating an additional requirement that names be withheld if the release of the information can “reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property of the law enforcement officer or an immediate family member of the law enforcement officer.”

This bill would obviously undermine present and future attempts at police reform everywhere in the state.  H.R. 1538 passed the state house in November and now awaits senate action.

The minority Dems in the general assembly and Gov. Wolf want to return funding to the schools and to social services, but they want to do it through regressive taxation — they now feel too sorry for the Marcellus Shale frackers to tax them.  In fact, Wolf proposed lowering the corporate tax rate from the very start.  These guys and gals may, for the most part, truly want to serve the public; but our society is divided into the haves and the have-nots. You can seldom serve both of them simultaneously.  The Dems, both locally and nationally, haven’t understood that for a long time.

Unless they have understood and are just pretending to care about us.  After all, the Dems joined the GOP in passing an antiunion bill that was all showboating and bluster: it makes it illegal for unions to do what is already illegal — stalk, engage in harassment, and threaten to use “weapons of mass destruction.”

Maybe we’re the ones who need to learn the lesson; maybe we should stop supporting people who just keep serving someone other than us. If we want 2016 to be a year of justice, then we’ve got to find ways to make it happen without counting on the Democrats to act out fairy tale versions of an obsolete civics lesson.

Our crazy corner of the world

I no longer know what to think about the case of Anthony Mohamed.  He is the African American gentleman from Hazelwood accused of paying his cab fare with gunshots on Thanksgiving evening.  He was also alleged — by the media — to have made anti-Muslim statements to the cabbie during his ride home. This news understandably riled up the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), and yours truly.

Now we hear that the victim of the shooting pointedly refused in court to accuse Mohamed of making such statements. Mohamed, as always, should be considered innocent until proven guilty, but not even his lawyer denied that he came out of the house leading with a rifle rather than his wallet.  Hmmm . . .  From now on, I’m staying out of it!

It’s not often I give kudos to the police, but some compliments are in order for the Pittsburgh police.  First, after the Thanksgiving shooting of the Muslim cab driver, Chief Cameron McLay met with the community at the Islamic Center to strengthen ties between the police and the local ummah. Then, earlier this week, during a shootout in Brighton Heights, police shot the armed suspect in the lower extremities, wounding rather than killing him.  Maybe it was just poor marksmanship, but I’d like to believe the police were actually trying to wound him.

Maybe 2016 will hold some positive surprises after all.  Just maybe . . .

 

— Jim Collins