Sunday, January 26, 2014

Woodstock Moment

>> From Bill Peduto's Facebook page this morning:

>> It makes me think of the famous "brown acid" moment at Woodstock, where the stage announcer sacrifices the objectivity and remove of the party line in order to *actually help people*.

"To get back to the warning that I received. You may take it with however many grains of salt that you wish. That the brown acid that is circulating around us isn't too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that. Of course it's your own trip. So be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, ok?"
>> Bravo, Bill. This one's for you:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Endless Bridges to Endless Nowheres

>> Slow news day? I think not! Two articles in the Post-Gazette. One's about literal bridges, the other about metaphorical ones.

PennDOT offering private sector a partnership to fix bridges
At least 500 decaying bridges would be replaced starting in 2015 under a partnership in which a private entity would be selected to design, build and maintain the bridges, in exchange for payments from PennDOT that would be tied to performance.
>> Apparently, this plan has been circulating unofficially for three or four months.
"A great portion of my members are very interested in this program," said Eric Madden, executive vice president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania, comprising more than 125 companies.
>> This is the kind of public-private partnership that should enrage a population. A number of reasons:

>> 1) Infrastructure is an absolute bedrock of governmental function. It is the classic example of a 'public good' - a useful service which benefits all citizens and businesses, a common carrier used by all. Its maintenance is the minimum standard to which any governing body in any location should be held. To forfeit not just the maintenance of transportation infrastructure of the state, but it's management as well is, in essence, to hand the Mantle of Heaven to private industry. To whit:

>> 2) Furthermore, such a partnership would not absolve PennDOT from it's actual job, listed as the following mission statement: "Through the active involvement of customers, employees and partners; PENNDOT provides services and a safe intermodal transportation system that attracts businesses and residents and stimulate Pennsylvania's economy." That is to say, such a partnership would not be an expansion of PennDOT's mission or reach or scope, but simply an abdication of the organization, and a literal passing of the buck down the line to private industry. It would be not so much a public-private partnership as it would be a simple giveaway.

>> 3) Even further, despite the supposed cost-savings listed in the article, such a partnership would invariably send any proceeds into the hands of private businesses, and keep any problems public. What happens when the eventual winning bidder declares bankruptcy five years down the line? I'm sure there would be much legal wrangling, and I'd bet top dollar that the state would, in the end, eat the costs.

>> 4) Finally, if one were to ignore the first three points, and accept the potential partnership, a question arises: If PennDOT has hired outside firms to manage the reconstruction and ongoing maintenance of the bridges, and that (hope against hope) seems to be going well, why are we still paying PennDOT to do anything? The prospect of any governmental agency privatizing much of its function and reducing itself to the roll of toll-collecting middleman is a monstrous ethical tangle. We (the citizens) would essentially pay the Commonwealth to employ gatekeepers whose sole job it is would be to extract their cut from any contract made with private industry. (Like the Turnpike Commission? HEY-OH!)

>> On to article two!

Conservator asks to liquidate August Wilson Center assets
Faced with a dire financial situation, the conservator for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is asking for court permission to liquidate the facility's assets.
In an interim report filed today, Judith Fitzgerald, a former U.S. bankruptcy court judge, said she sees "no possibility of continued viability of [the August Wilson Center] as it currently exists."
She recommended that her appointment be converted to a liquidating receivership to sell the center and its assets.
 >> The AWC was always meant to be a metaphorical bridge. From its location in the Downtown Cultural District, to its partnership with the Cultural Trust, to its overall mission of "preserving, presenting, interpreting, celebrating and shaping the art, culture and history of African Americans in Western Pennsylvania and people of African descent throughout the world," the center was always meant as a means to showcase the cultural works of the 26% of the city's population who "increasingly question whether [Pittsburgh] is truly livable for and welcoming to us." And yet despite these good intentions, it all went terribly awry, and in the absence of a timeline, mission, or vision, the vultures have been called in to pick at the bones.

>> I'm of two minds on this. One mind makes the connection between the two articles, ignores race, and points to the AWC as an exemplar boondoggle in a long history of municipal boondoggles, especially those involving externally driven "development through the arts", as if airdropping culture into a block improves that block. Whatever happens to the building, and hopefully something sensible happens to it, the taxpayers will end up footing some significant portion of the bill.

>> The other mind makes that race connection, and wonders whether the mostly preventable fall of an explicitly African American cultural center implies that, to paraphrase the biggest worries of the Pittsburgh for Trayvon organization, "Pittsburgh might be a city where property is valued over Black lives."

>> Today is certainly a day where the commons looks to be tragic. Both bridge narratives point to a general mortgaging of the future, abdication of responsibility, and lack of leadership. Both serve as cautionary tales for the incoming mayor, who made bridges a signature visual theme in his campaign.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


>> To really seal the honeymoon deal, the mayor has announced a 72 hour pothole-patching blitz before the weekend weather sets in. Andy Sheehan over at KDKA has helpfully provided some awkward verbiage regarding the pavement menace for us all to reflect upon:
"They’re big, deep and nasty — and they’re all over the place."

>> So that's all well and good.

>> Let me provide a soundtrack for you that is slightly less prurient. I expect every Department of Public Works truck to keep this cranked at 11 from now until midnight Friday.

Not a Drop to Drink

"The water crisis started Thursday, when a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a Freedom Industries plant into the nearby Elk River. Complaints came in to West Virginia American Water about the odor, and officials discovered that the source was the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol that spilled out of a 40,000-gallon tank." - West Virginia Water Crisis Eases in SpotsPittsburgh Post-Gazette

>> The name of the lackadaisical poison-leakers in question, Freedom Industries, speaks for itself about the kind of what-happens-to-the-American-Dream-deferred state of play in West Virginia. This is form overtaking function - the most cliche and hollow name for a company whose terrifying utility value is the plausibly deniable holding and distributing of chemicals widely regarded as "dirty" on behalf of a very dirty industry. So plausible, in fact, that the state itself hadn't visited their factory since the early 1990s, and was not even particularly aware that they were a company that held chemicals.

>> Unlike the heinous behavior of various robber barons, mountain top removers, and other titans of industry, this is a robust example of the kind of rampant and egalitarian capitalism 2014 deserves. This is subcontractor behavior, so far from the actual money and the beholden-to-standards-boards industrial activities as to be, not exactly the power behind the throne, but the sort of background noise of outsourcing upon which that entire industry hinges. In any case, Freedom Industries is so much a product of ultra-capitalism as to be fundamentally unregulatable. The promulgation of sub-industries can always, always occur faster than the Man can catch up.

>> This is SOP in West Virginia, a state that is defined by two mostly-opposing forces: wealth extraction and intense rural poverty. I have a great liking for the actual people of West Virginia, and a great mistrust of anyone there with capital, because they are obviously from out-of-state. Money doesn't come to West Virginia without a good value proposition. The long term population are, of course, the long-suffering externalities of two hundred years of such adventurous capitalist equations.

>> What we have here is the kind of perverse incentives that cause builders to dump waste materials in abandoned lots - a lack of localized care. The on-the-ground action of the industry is far from the eyes of those who it might affect, far from the eyes of those who are paying the bills, and far from the eyes of regulators and others in the oversight business. The only people in a position to notice the aging tank were the ones who worked for Freedom Industries itself, and I imagine that the pay scales that far down the supply chain don't really inveigh one to earth stewardship.

>> As for Pittsburgh's role in all this, well, here's a map of all the rivers that flow into the Mississippi:

>> Pittsburgh is at the far eastern edge of that map, but we are certainly part of it. The rolling semi-Appalachian hills around Charleston are of a kin to our own. The heavy industry in that part of the world is, in fact, part of our own industrial supply chains. We are the benefactors of two separate river systems, and the potential for us to be affected by similar situations grows in direct proportion to the extent to which the Commonwealth models itself after West Virginia's regulatory system.

>> Two callers to today's Essential Pittsburgh broadcast discussed, for the benefit of our new Health Department Director, the merits and demerits to public health of transporting hydraulic fracturing waste fluids by barge, train, or truck, and the potential for any of those transport methods to fail, the fluids to hit the rivers, and a similar crisis to occur. The second caller noted that one needs to be rational about making such choices - double-walled barges, to his mind, were a far more safe transport method than single-walled train cars.

>> The question of greater rationality here is this: In a region defined by the waterways that connect it and give it life, why are we investing in systems whose end products include water-soluble poisons? They aren't an error, or an accidental and occasional fluke. They are something that we have designed in.