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January 29, 2009 | Link to this story

MFX: Dep't. of Dead Horses

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

(Third in a series of ruminations on the Mon-Fayette Expressway.)

Editor's Note: I'm not "anti-highway." Longtime readers know that I love to drive.

I'm also not "anti-development." If Tube City Almanac has a bias, it's toward building more shiny, new things in the Mon Valley.

Finally: I'm just a simple country doctor reporter, not a moon-shuttle conductor statistician or civil engineer. My conclusions and comparisons may be completely inaccurate. Caveat emptor.

. . .

Before we get into this installment, I'd thought I'd point out a couple of comments from Monday's Almanac.

First, Andrea Boykowycz of PennFuture --- an outspoken opponent of the Mon-Fayette Expressway --- says my math is off. Based on current traffic levels along the Parkway East, I "guesstimated" that 60,000 to 70,000 vehicles might use the MFX in Allegheny County.

Andrea cites a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission report that says it's more like 50,000 vehicles a day. Also, she says that as of last March, the cost of completing the legs of the MFX north of Route 51 had climbed to $3.8 billion.

Naturally, that all makes the math behind the MFX considerably worse than I suggested.

. . .

Second, Alert Reader R.D. points out something obvious --- that areas in the Pittsburgh metro area that have the healthiest business districts --- like Monroeville, Cranberry and Robinson --- all have direct interstate highway access:

I was already working in Cranberry just a few weeks before the Parkway North opened. In addition to cutting my commute time significantly, the effect on local business, home construction and tax revenues was unbelievably dramatic.

By the time I left in 1995, development was completely out of control ... Would that we in the Mon Valley should have such problems.

. . .

It's impossible not to see a connection between the growth of Cranberry Township and the completion of I-279.

(We're very, very loosely measuring development in terms of population. A better measurement might be assessed property valuation, or property tax revenues, but those numbers aren't easy to come by or compare.)

The highway opened in 1989. According to the U.S. Census, Cranberry's population went from 11,066 in 1980 to 14,816 in 1990 to 23,625 in 2000.

Cranberry's boom actually starts before I-279, in the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1980 (the time period that I-79 was completed) Cranberry's population more than doubled, from 4,873 to 11,066.

The latest U.S. Census estimate puts the township's population at more than 27,000.

. . .

Highway access obviously helped make Cranberry more attractive for development.

If highway access is one of the main causes of development, then Ross Township should have experienced a similar population boom. It's also on I-279, and it's much closer to Pittsburgh.

But Ross's population has been generally flat since 1970 --- stuck at about 33,000.

(On the other hand, McCandless Township --- which isn't accessible from I-279, and must be reached via congested and dangerous Route 19 and "McKnightmare Road" --- went from about 22,000 people in 1970 to 29,000 in 2000.)

. . .

This all implies that something more complicated than "highway access" drove development of Cranberry.

Geography is one factor. Butler County's terrain is ideally suited for development. The county's landscape was formed by glaciers, not rivers. Cranberry is marked by rolling hills rather than the steep slopes that characterize the Mon Valley.

Another factor was the decline in agriculture in Pennsylvania after World War II, which left many farms available for development.

According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, Butler County had 2,274 farms covering 215,101 acres in 1959. By 2001, it had 1,260 farms covering 127,500 acres.

All of that land was pristine and "shovel ready."

In Ross Township, the areas that were easy to develop were already "built up" by the 1960s, so growth was marginal or slower.

. . .

Even having vacant farm land and an interstate highway (or two!) is no guarantee of development. Let's look at Washington County, which sits at the junction of two cross-country interstates --- I-70 and I-79 --- and which is the home of Southpointe.

Interstate 70 in Pennsylvania was completed in 1968. Interstate 79 in Washington and Greene counties was complete by 1978.

At the same time, Washington County had a lot of farm land available for development. According to the Penn State Extension, active farms in Washington declined from 317,729 acres in 1959 to 200,000 in 2001.

The combination of vacant farm land and highways should have logically resulted in a major population boom for Washington County.

Instead, Washington County lost population --- from 217,000 to 205,000.

. . .

Let's focus on two specific Washington County communities that are similar to McKeesport in many ways.

The city of Washington was once a manufacturing hub and a corporate headquarters (Washington Steel and Jessop Steel).

Nearby Canonsburg was the home of Fort Pitt Bridge Works, Pennsylvania Transformer and other companies. Like McKeesport, both communities date to the late 18th century.

Washington has multiple exits on I-70 and I-79, but its population declined from 20,000 people in 1970 to 15,000 in 2000.

As for Canonsburg, despite its location directly on I-79 and its proximity to Southpointe, its population went from 11,000 people to 8,600.

. . .

Highway construction does not seem to lead directly to growth for urban communities like Canonsburg or Washington.

Indeed, if towns like Canonsburg and Washington are any indication, highways can't even keep existing people or businesses from leaving.

Other factors --- including land availability --- are just as important.

. . .

And the happy combination of factors that made Cranberry easy to develop just don't exist in the Mon-Yough area.

The Mon Valley lacks large tracts of flat, unused land (some parts of Elizabeth, Forward and Union townships might be the exceptions). Most of the buildable land is already occupied.

Of the vacant land available, it's mainly in old industrial sites that are contaminated with pollution, criss-crossed with utility lines, or partially blocked by active railroad tracks. These brownfields have serious liabilities and headaches.

If the competition for development is between "vacant farm land with highways" and "old urban communities with highways," local evidence suggests that communities with vacant farm land will probably win --- but as Washington County's history seems to indicate, that's not guaranteed, either.

. . .

It's true that the Mon-Fayette Expressway would definitely make it easier for existing residents and businesses to get to and from Pittsburgh and I-70.

Whether the cost ($158 million per mile) is worth that convenience is a philosophical question.

But it's difficult to make the argument for the MFX --- at least for the portion that would serve the Mon-Yough area --- on a purely economic basis.

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January 28, 2009 | Link to this story

Personal Note

Category: Pointless Digressions || By

I'm currently recovering from the dreaded lurgy, which may have been brought on by reading the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's annual reports, or possibly from examining U.S. Census numbers for Cranberry Township from 1940 to the present. Regular updates resume shortly.

Meanwhile, Alert Reader Frank sends along this press release, which he calls a "major announcement." I'm surprised it didn't get more attention:


     PITTSBURGH, Jan. 28, 2009 --- United States Steel Corporation (NYSE: X) announced today that it plans to relocate the coke works of its U. S. Steel division from Clairton, Pa., to the company's corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pa. The relocation will take place gradually over the next several months.
     As part of the move the UPMC sign atop the company's headquarters building will be removed so a billowing smokestack can be installed.
     Mayor Luke Steelerstahl will permanently keep his football season name in honor of the move. The mayor says the clouds of smoke will transform downtown into an industrial icon, what he calls "the very smokestack of our great nation. The smoke which will waft over downtown will return Pittsburgh to the WWII industrial greatness we once had."
     He adds that the scattered citizens of Steeler Nation will be tempted to move back home.
     Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato says plans are underway to transform the former Clairton site into a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant.

I think Frank may be funning me, but I'm too loopy from cough medicine to argue.

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January 26, 2009 | Link to this story

MFX: At Any Price?

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Jason Togyer photo(Part 2 of a series.)

(Editor's note: Danger, math ahead!)

. . .

A lot of Mon Valley residents have probably assumed that because the Mon-Fayette Expressway is a toll road, that tolls will pay the cost of the portion between Jefferson Hills and Pittsburgh.

To my surprise, it's not even close.

Based on some very unscientific calculations, it would be almost impossible to cover the costs of building the 24-mile stretch of the MFX through West Mifflin, Dravosburg, Duquesne and North Versailles by relying on tolls.

The rest of the cost will have to be subsidized by the taxpayers.

. . .

How much will the highway cost? The estimates keep going up.

Back in 2003, the cost of construction and property acquisition was estimated at $1.8 billion.

Three years later, the cost had jumped to $2.7 billion. It's no stretch to assume the cost is well more than $3 billion now.

Why so expensive? Although the existing 57 miles of the MFX passed mainly through unpopulated areas, the part of the MFX that goes through the Mon-Yough area would require hundreds if not thousands of homes and businesses to be purchased, bypassed or relocated at the expense of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.

In fact, the 24 miles of MFX between the Parkway East and Route 51 in Large have frequently been called one of the most expensive highways ever planned, second only to the notorious "Big Dig" in Boston.

And that project required blasting a tunnel through one of the most crowded central business districts in the United States.

. . .

Tube City Almanac graphicHow much money would MFX tolls generate? First, we have to estimate how many cars and trucks will use the highway between Large and Pittsburgh.

For comparison's sake, let's look at traffic levels for the Parkway East and Interstate 279.

In 2006, according to PennDOT estimates, about 85,000 vehicles used the Parkway East between Swissvale and Monroeville every day. About 63,000 used I-279 north of Pittsburgh's city limits.

. . .

We'll split the difference and "guess" that 70,000 vehicles would use the Mon-Yough sections of the MFX every day.

(That estimate may be high. According to one report, about 20 percent of cars and 1 percent of commercial vehicles will avoid toll roads if free alternatives are available.)

Twenty-four miles of highway multiplied by 365 days multiplied by 70,000 vehicles gives us 613 million vehicle-miles per year --- assuming the MFX is busier than the Parkway East from Squirrel Hill to Monroeville.

. . .

Then we need to estimate how the tolls would be distributed between cars and commercial vehicles.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, trucks account for more than 30 percent of the traffic on one-fifth of the nation's interstates.

Giving the MFX between Large and Pittsburgh the benefit of the doubt, we assume that 30 percent of the 613 million annual vehicle-miles will be contributed by trucks.

Tolls on the existing sections of the Turnpike gross 7 cents per mile for passenger cars and 22 cents per mile for commercial vehicles, according to the Turnpike Commission's most recent annual report, dated May 31, 2008.

. . .

By that formula, commercial traffic would rack up 184 million miles per year at 22 cents per mile, or $40.5 million per year in toll revenue. Passenger car miles would amount to 429 million, or $30 million at 7 cents per mile.

As a result, we're "guesstimating" that the MFX through West Mifflin, North Versailles and the surrounding areas might gross $70.5 million per year if the tolls were kept the same as on the mainline turnpike.

Admittedly, all of our estimates amount to "SWAGs." But they seem like they're in the ballpark.

. . .

In fact, our projections may be too generous to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. According to a June 2008 report by state Auditor General Jack Wagner, the entire Pennsylvania Turnpike system handled 5.7 billion vehicle-miles across its 537 total miles during fiscal year 2006-07.

Each mile of turnpike thus averaged 10.6 million revenue miles. Extending that average to the 24 miles of the MFX north of Large gives us about 255 million revenue miles --- a lot less than our estimate.

Also according to Wagner's office, passenger cars accounted for 86 percent of the turnpike's total traffic, not 70 percent, as we're assuming.

Commercial vehicles --- billed at the higher rate --- were only 14 percent of the traffic. That could make our revenue projections overly optimistic.

. . .

But let's be even more generous and assume that the MFX in Allegheny County would be wildly successful.

One of the busiest stretches of highway in the Pittsburgh area is the Parkway West between the Fort Pitt Bridge and Green Tree. It handles 129,000 vehicles per day.

Applying that traffic volume to the unbuilt 24-mile stretch of the MFX gives us 1.13 billion revenue miles per year.

And if the Turnpike Commission gets permission to turn Interstate 80 into a toll road, it wants to charge 8 cents per mile for passenger cars and 30 cents per mile for trucks.

So let's hike tolls on the MFX to that rate, which gives us annual gross toll revenues of $165 million.

. . .

If every single dime of that toll revenue was applied to the construction bonds it would take 18 years just to pay off the $3 billion in principal. We wouldn't have any money left over to pay the interest or any operating expenses, like maintenance and toll collection.

And again, that's assuming that every inch of the MFX is as busy as the Parkway West, which seems unlikely. (It's hard to imagine the stretch from Large to Clairton seeing 120,000 cars per day.)

Using our less generous estimate --- "Parkway East" levels of traffic --- the numbers are much uglier.

If the 24 miles of MFX cost $3 billion to build, and they generated $70.5 million in revenue, and every dime of toll revenue was put toward the debt service, it would take 42 years to pay off the principal.

Our highway still doesn't have any maintenance department, any toll collectors, or any means to pay for those overhead expenses, and we also haven't touched the interest payments on the money we've borrowed.

Naturally, the numbers get progressively worse as the traffic levels go down.

. . .

If these "back-of-the-envelope" guesstimates are accurate, there is no way that the MFX in the Mon-Yough area could be built without massive taxpayer subsidies.

Here's a big surprise --- even the MFX's supporters agree!

In 2004, a report by the Allentown Morning Call quoted Joe Kirk, former executive director of the Mon Valley Progress Council, as saying that tolls would only cover 25 percent of the cost of building the Mon-Fayette Expressway.

"The balance will have to come through grants, taxes, new fees or additional borrowing," noted the Morning Call, whose headline labeled the highway a "black hole" for tax money.

But what about the "public-private partnerships" that Gov. Ed Rendell and the Turnpike Commission have touted?

Unfortunately, those seem to benefit the "private" side of the partnership a lot more than the "public" side.

. . .

(To be continued.)

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January 25, 2009 | Link to this story

MFX: No Money, No Mo-Fo?

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Jason Togyer photoThere was an interesting juxtaposition of articles in Monday's Daily News.

On page 3, there was a "Viewing Harrisburg" column by Mark Scolforo of The Associated Press reporting that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission faces "daunting financial challenges."

On page 4, there was a report by Pat Cloonan about a panel discussion at Mon Valley Hospital in Carroll Township on the Turnpike Commission's biggest construction project --- the Mon-Fayette Expressway. Proponents said a "new vision" for the project is needed.

(Only a cynic would point out they didn't really have an "old vision" for the multi-billion dollar highway that the Angry Drunk Bureaucrat calls "the Mo-Fo Excessway.")

Read together, the articles lead me to believe the Turnpike Commission may never complete the highway --- not because it's a bad idea, but because it's never going to get the money.

Although opponents of the MFX may be disappointed if the highway fails because of lack of financing rather than a lack of its merits, sometimes the outcome is more important than the reasons why.

After all, remember that the feds got Al Capone on income tax evasion.

. . .

Let's take Scolforo's news analysis first. He writes that "problems with the bond market" have increased the cost of borrowing money, and that's only one of the PTC's "financial headaches":
Revenue on the 531-mile turnpike system is down even though passenger-car use has typically increased about 3 percent annually for the last two decades.

A study released this month by consultant Wilbur Smith Associates as part of the latest bond offering estimated that vehicle traffic on the system in fiscal 2009 would would be about 2.5 percent below what it was last fiscal year and remain below that level until fiscal 2013 ...

Seven months into this fiscal year, the commission still has not adopted an operating budget as it scrambles to adapt.

The same story quotes Matthew Brouillette, president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, as saying that the PTC's debt load has become dangerously high and that "we can't keep raising tolls" to cover it.

. . .

One of PTC's biggest "financial headaches" is the state Legislature's Act 44 of 2007, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Markosek, a Monroeville Democrat who also represents parts of North Versailles Township and Murrysville and is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

Act 44 requires the Turnpike Commission to provide PennDOT with millions of dollars in funding for road maintenance, construction and mass transit in Pennsylvania --- $750 million in the last fiscal year and $850 million this fiscal year.

But Act 44 assumed that the Turnpike Commission was going to get control of Interstate 80 and turn it into a toll road. It didn't and it couldn't.

That means the PTC has to borrow a lot more money to meet its Act 44 obligations --- this month it issued some $317 million in bonds to help make the payment.

. . .

In part because of PTC's new Act 44 obligations, Fitch Ratings Inc. last year downgraded the commission's bonds from "high grade, high quality" to "upper median grade."

The PTC's most recent annual report, dated May 31, 2008, showed total assets of $5 billion (that's everything from the highways to cash to the desk blotters) versus debts (not liabilities) of $3.76 billion.

Presumably the debts are up over $4 billion after the last round of borrowing. While I'm no economist, it seems to me that the Turnpike Commission is about $1 billion from hitting the limits of what it can borrow.

The commission's 2008 debt represents an increase of 44 percent over 2007. Revenues --- primarily tolls --- increased just 2 percent.

. . .

Now to the panel discussion, which was apparently ignored by the three Pittsburgh network TV stations, the Tribune-Review and the Post-Gazette. (I'd link to the article, but, well, it's the Daily News website, so it's not there.)

Cloonan points out that the discussion --- sponsored by the Mon Valley Progress Council, one of the loudest voices supporting the MFX --- coincided with the PTC's announcement that three groups of private investors may be interested in putting money into the completion of the expressway through West Mifflin, Dravosburg, Duquesne and North Versailles.

The MFX is currently complete between Large and Brownsville.

. . .

One of the panelists was Michael Krajovic of the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council, who is quoted as saying that the United States is losing "2,000 acres a day of farmland" but argues that the highway "plays a role in sustainability."

Highways tend to spread out development rather than concentrate it. Building the MFX will certainly spread development to parts of Washington and Fayette counties that are currently used as farmland, just as I-79 spurred the development of Southpointe and Cranberry.

If you think the farmland of Fayette County should be developed, then that's fine, but say so. Otherwise, buzzwords like "sustainability" are meaningless.

. . .

Another panelist was retired P-G transportation writer Joe Grata.

"Unless somebody, sometime, somewhere transforms what will soon be 57 miles of modern expressway into an asset for the future, it will be forever scored as a lonesome highway and a $2 billion boondoggle," he told the panel, according to Cloonan.

With due respect to Grata --- who's a good guy and a hell of a reporter --- it's hard to see who "somebody, sometime, somewhere" will be in the current economic climate, or even in years to come.

In the next Almanac, we'll explore why the Turnpike Commission's hope that "private investment" will bail out the Mon-Fayette Expressway may be wildly optimistic. (Danger! It involves math!)

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January 23, 2009 | Link to this story

Even More Blatant Self-Promotion

Category: Shameless Horn-Tooting || By

I'll be the Rev. Jay Geisler's guest Saturday on "Focus on the Mon Valley," heard over McKeesport-licensed WMNY (1360). The other guests are Gladys Hunt-Mason and the Rev. Earlene Coleman.

The program airs at 6 a.m. I think you'll agree that 6 a.m. Saturday is prime radio time. It's ideal for all of you who are farmers or who get up early to go to the bathroom.

Of course, you can also download it from

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January 21, 2009 | Link to this story

'Old Pittsburgh' Still Important in New Economy

Category: Local Businesses, News || By

Pittsburgh's economy is holding up better during the recession than those in most other parts of the United States, and contrary to popular belief, we're not overburdened by government.

But Southwestern Pennsylvania is nearly as dependent now on higher education and health care as it was in the late 1970s on steel.

Those were the conclusions presented Wednesday by management and policy consultant Harold Miller, president of Future Strategies and an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon's Heinz College.

Miller was one of five speakers at a "Show and Tell" event sponsored by CMU's Project Olympus, a two-year-old initiative funded by the Heinz Endowments that links student and faculty researchers with venture capitalists in an effort to turn technological breakthroughs into viable commercial businesses that can be developed in the Pittsburgh region.

Olympus was founded by Lenore Blum, a distinguished career professor of computer science at the university.

Miller, former president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and former executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said that raw numbers about employment and unemployment don't tell the whole story of regional economic health.

For example, unemployment rates in Silicon Valley are higher than in some Midwestern metro areas. That can mean that more people are seeking work in Silicon Valley while able-bodied workers are leaving the upper Midwest.

And while Pittsburgh didn't add jobs as fast as some areas over the past 10 years, it also hasn't lost as many jobs during the current recession as similar metro areas, Miller said.

Perhaps his most surprising conclusion came in Miller's discussion of manufacturing in Western Pennsylvania. The loss of many basic steel industry jobs --- especially evident in the Mon Valley --- has led many residents to conclude that manufacturing is no longer important.

In fact, Miller said, manufacturing jobs accounted for about 13 percent of the regional payroll in 2006, making it the single largest employment sector. (The numbers are significantly smaller than they used to be; in 1980, according to Miller, about one-third of all wages paid in the region came from manufacturing jobs.)

Health care is close behind, at 12.5 percent, he said.

Those statistics don't count technical and financial jobs supported by manufacturing, Miller said --- for instance, workers at U.S. Steel's research and development center in Munhall are not included.

"Manufacturing is a critical component of the region's economy," said Miller, an adjunct professor of public policy and management at CMU's Heinz College. "We can't ride health care and higher education alone."

Besides direct employment, manufacturing jobs also support many other businesses. The closure of the Sony Technology Center in New Stanton is going to hurt many suppliers --- some of which relocated to Western Pennsylvania or opened facilities here specifically to do contract work for Sony, Miller said.

The region must continue "to provide a competitive environment" for existing manufacturers and potential start-up companies, he said.

Despite the widespread belief that Western Pennsylvania has too many government agencies paying too many employees, the 10-county region actually has a lower percentage of government jobs than most metropolitan areas of its size, Miller said. Some regions of the country that have added more jobs than the Pittsburgh region saw their highest growth in government sectors, according to Miller.

But Western Pennsylvania still lags the national average in the number of start-up companies. "Our rate of entrepreneurship is lower than most other regions," Miller said.

One way the region could nurture start-ups is by encouraging existing employers to support locally owned businesses instead of buying from out-of-town vendors, he said.

More details can be found at Miller's blog, Pittsburgh's Future.

Other presenters included Luis von Ahn, who created the reCAPTCHA project that helps block spam and digitize lost texts; José Moura, who is developing programs that automatically write computer code; Lorrie Faith Cranor, a computer security and online privacy expert; and Marek Michalowski, who is helping commercialize the Keepon robots now being used for autism therapy.

. . .

Disclaimer: The author is an employee of Carnegie Mellon University. However, opinions expressed at are not those of Carnegie Mellon University, its staff, faculty or affiliates, and no influence was extended upon the author nor any remuneration received for writing this story.

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January 20, 2009 | Link to this story

From the Archives

Category: Cartoons, Politics || By

(c) 1974 Universal Press Syndicate

This "Doonesbury" from Sept. 2, 1974 some how seems appropriate today. Your mileage may vary.

(© Universal Press Syndicate, all rights reserved.)

. . .

Update: This is great, too. On Friday night, Your TV Pal, Dave Letterman, delivered one last kick in the pants to "Whatever His Name Was" (see 1:38).

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Whatever His Name Was got through the oath of office (twice!) without flubbing it.

. . .

Update II: An Alert Reader forwards a link from NPR's "On the Media" about how Whatever His Name Was "ridiculed the press, ignored the press, stonewalled the press, bullied the press, maneuvered around the press, co-opted the press, censored the press, jailed the press, fabricated for the press, lied to the press and, for example, when caught illegally wiretapping Americans without a warrant, blamed the press."

Eh. First of all, WHNW is no longer the president. Our long national constipation is over. Let's move on. We have a whole new president to blame any time something goes wrong. (Is it too soon to dub the Obama administration a failure? Answer: Nope!)

Second --- I had occasion to deal with Obama's press people a few times during the campaign. They weren't terribly cooperative.

In fact, the professional organizers in his McKeesport office refused to answer any questions in person or over the phone and directed reporters to call his state campaign headquarters.

So I'm not convinced that the new president is going to be all that open, either. Call me cynical. The new president had better get his feet held to the fire, too, when he screws up.

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January 19, 2009 | Link to this story

Mon Valley Pride and Prejudice

Category: Commentary/Editorial || By

Pittsburgh Courier photo

Twelve-thousand people came to Forbes Field on Sunday, July 9, 1961 ... not to root for the defending World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates, but to see the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke at a "freedom jubilee" sponsored by the Central Baptist Church and which also included Count Basie and His Orchestra.

During the summer of 1961, "Freedom Riders" were campaigning against segregated public transportation in the South. Other activists were defying laws that banned interracial marriage in 16 states (including West Virginia), or trying to overturn poll taxes that kept many black voters from the ballot box.

Some people said it was too much change, too fast. At Forbes Field, Dr. King answered them, telling the crowd that "the clock of destiny (was) ticking out" for the United States.

"If America is to remain a first-class nation, she can no longer have second-class citizens," he said. "Gradualism is no more than 'do-nothing' ism, which ends up in 'stand-still' ism."

Sure, anyone who says prejudice has been eliminated is dreaming. But we've still come a long way since 1961.

. . .

On the other hand, we have a long, long way yet to go. Over the weekend, the Post-Gazette reprinted one of the "Harper's Index" tables from Harper's Magazine, which noted that 39 percent of Americans think that Muslims should be forced to carry special ID cards.

And then there was the hearing before Allegheny County Council last week to debate the creation of a Human Relations Commission. West Mifflin Democrat Bob Macey, who represents much of the Mon-Yough area, was one of the original co-sponsors of the legislation.

He has since withdrawn his support, telling Pat Cloonan of The Daily News that he's "against discrimination in all forms" but that the legislation "has legs of its own and it is becoming too much of a controversial thing."

. . .

Although Macey didn't say what parts of the legislation have become "controversial," it's well known that the American Family Association is lobbying hot and heavy (you'll pardon the phrase) against the bill because it would protect gays, lesbians and the transgendered from housing and employment discrimination.

Indeed, several members of the clergy condemned those parts of the bill during the council hearing.

Maybe I'm adding two and two and getting five, but it's hard not to conclude that Macey pulled his support under pressure from Mon-Yough residents and their pastors.

(Swissvale Democrat Chuck Martoni, who represents the upper Mon Valley and Turtle Creek Valley, remains a co-sponsor of the legislation, as does Joan Cleary, Democrat of Brentwood, whose District 6 includes Clairton, Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills and West Elizabeth.)

. . .

Creating a "human relations commission" won't end prejudice any more than creating a hospital ends illness. It's largely symbolic.

Yes, the Allegheny County legislation would allow a judge to levy a fine of up to $50,000 against landlords and employers convicted of discrimination. But some discriminatory practices are already prohibited by laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Act, and it's likely that many violations of those rules go unnoticed or unreported.

Still, even if the county's legislation was purely symbolic, the symbolism is important, and that's what made Macey's decision so disappointing. It sent a bad message --- that in the Mon-Yough area, certain groups aren't welcome.

If anyone thinks that McKeesport and its surrounding suburbs are somehow going to recover economically while keeping "undesirables" out, we might as well just drop the bomb at the intersection of Fifth and Walnut right now.

You want to know why our young people grow up and get educated in the Mon Valley, and then flee as soon as they can? Maybe it's the attitudes they hear expressed around them.

. . .

Some people are reluctant to compare the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians to the civil rights battles still being waged by African-Americans.

And there are some very important and unsubtle differences in the scope and degree of discrimination that people of color have faced.

For instance, there aren't many gay white people who have been followed around in department stores by clerks worried that they might steal something.

Lesbians were never banned from the Kennywood Park swimming pool or the G.C. Murphy Co. restaurant in McKeesport. People don't move out of neighborhoods because a gay couple buys a house there.

. . .

Pittsburgh Courier photoYet if you accept the mountain of scientific evidence that suggests that sexual orientation is a function of genetics --- that people don't choose their sex or gender preferences any more than they choose skin color, eye color, height or allergies --- then it's hard to justify not extending civil-rights protections to all people regardless of race, color, creed, religion or sexual orientation.

Most of the people who object to civil rights protection for gays, lesbians and the transgendered justify their actions by pointing to certain Bible verses --- specifically Leviticus and the epistles of Saint Paul.

Back in the 19th century, slave owners justified oppression of blacks the same way.

In his letter to the Ephesians, for example, Paul tells slaves to "be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ." In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges servants to "regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed."

(It's not just Paul, of course. In the Old Testament, Chapter 21 of Exodus gives specific instructions for the ownership of slaves.)

I could go on, but you get the point.

. . .

As someone with the middle name "Paul," who graduated from high school in St. Paul's Cathedral, I don't lightly question the writings of an apostle.

But I can't morally and ethically defend discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation any more than I could defend slavery.

In another local speech --- this one at the University of Pittsburgh in November 1966 --- Dr. King said the fight against prejudice wasn't one of "white versus black."

America, he said, "has pitted too often black poor against white poor," exploiting fear to turn "winters of delay into summers of violence."

. . .

In a region racked with poverty (about 20 percent in the city and Clairton, more than 20 percent in Homestead, and above 30 percent in Duquesne), we still need to stop pitting "black poor against white poor."

We've got too many poor people --- period --- and too many people who blame one ethnic group or another instead of pulling together. (The tensions came to the surface around here in some pretty ugly ways during the presidential election.)

But we also need to stop pitting Christians versus Muslims, believers versus non-believers and straights versus gays.

. . .

I don't know what Dr. King would think about extending equal rights to gays, lesbians and the transgendered. The research into sexual and gender preferences was pretty primitive in 1968, when King was slain.

Even his family is divided on the issue; his daughter, Bernice, helped lead a march supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage even as her mother (King's widow) was denouncing them.

Dr. King --- who had forgotten more theology than I'll ever know --- would likely have struggled with the Bible passages that seem to condemn homosexuality. Yet because he also took very brave stands against the Vietnam war, the draft and oppression of all kinds, I suspect he would have sided with anyone whose rights were being suppressed.

. . .

This day that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a good day to remember that no one --- black, white, mixed-race, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, non-believer --- deserves to be treated as a "second-class citizen" in a first-class nation, and not in the Mon Valley, either, if we ever want to be a "first-class region" again.


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January 18, 2009 | Link to this story

More Blatant Self-Promotion

Category: Shameless Horn-Tooting || By

Someone --- Ben Franklin? --- famously said, "Tis better to keep one's mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

To test that theory, I'll be speaking about For the Love of Murphy's at 7 p.m. Wednesday to the Mifflin Township Historical Society at Barnes & Noble in Homestead.

Admission is free, and in honor of the historic location, the first 50 people will get to shoot at a barge full of Pinkertons, and will then get their heads bashed in by the Coal & Iron Police.

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January 16, 2009 | Link to this story

Today's Weather

Category: Cartoons || By

Cartoon (c) Jason Togyer/Tube City Online LLC

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January 14, 2009 | Link to this story

City Ponders Cameras Downtown

Category: News || By

City officials are investigating the purchase of several security cameras that could be placed at different locations in the central business district.

The move was prompted in part by the recent theft of 12 parking meters from the 300 block of Fifth Avenue.

Mayor Jim Brewster told council last week that the city is looking at vendors who could supply movable cameras that can be placed temporarily in areas where residents and police report criminal activity --- drug dealing, for instance.

The city would seek funding to pay for the cameras, Brewster said. The boroughs of Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall have already announced plans to install cameras at the entrances and exits of The Waterfront shopping complex (which spans all three boroughs) after two murders and several armed robberies.

As for the parking meters, members of council suggested the ones that were stolen were obsolete and likely taken for their scrap value, rather than the quarters inside.

Several councilors suggested the city investigate the purchase of so-called "smart meters," which reset to zero when the car parked at the meter pulls away. The technology prevents other cars from pulling into an empty parking space where unexpired time remains on the meter.

Meanwhile, there's word that the Midtown Towers apartment building will have a new owner soon. The low-income high-rise, valued at more than $2 million, is currently operated by Seattle-based Security Properties Inc.

City officials said the potential new owner has promised better screening of tenants, capital improvements to the facility, and an increased security presence in the building.

In a related item, city council by 5-0 vote awarded a $7,695 contract to Singer Paint & Glass of White Oak to install new entrance doors between Midtown Towers and the adjacent city-owned parking garage. Councilors Loretta Diggs and Paul Shelly Jr. were absent due to illness.

The new doors will keep garage users separate from residents of Midtown Towers. City documents indicate that the cost will be reimbursed by parking leases from the garage and Boulevard Shops LLC, the Pittsburgh development company that owns the old Midtown Plaza Mall storefronts along Lysle Boulevard.

. . .

In Other Business: City council by 5-0 vote approved the sale of a vacant lot in the 500 block of Fifth Avenue by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport to JRA Development Group of Pittsburgh's Strip District.

The lot --- next to the current Social Security Building --- is being considered by the federal government for construction of a replacement for that structure, built in 1996.

Once used as a parking lot by employees of the former G.C. Murphy Co. home office, located across the street, the 1-acre property is valued by county assessors at $77,000.

. . .

Sidewalk Contract Let: Joseph Palmieri Construction of Ross Township was the apparent low bidder on a contract to build sidewalks between the 15th Avenue Bridge and the 2000 block of Walnut Street.

Council by 5-0 vote awarded the $180,446.60 contract to Palmieri. Phillip Herman, project engineer for Senate Engineering, said the bid was consistent with previous estimates. Nine other bids were received; the highest came in at more than $363,000.

Funding is being provided by the state's Elm Street Program.

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January 13, 2009 | Link to this story

Old City Hall Awaits New Tenants

Category: News || By

Click for Google Maps

New lights, new paint, new ceiling tiles and new carpeting don't hide the fact that the city's vintage 1959 municipal building is also one of its least-loved pieces of architecture.

Still, it's looking a lot more cheerful on the second floor of the former city hall, where parks department employees are renovating the offices in hopes of attracting new tenants.

City council last week authorized five-year leases with the Regional Chamber Alliance (descendant of the old Mon-Yough Chamber of Commerce) and the Twin Rivers Council of Governments. If both leases are signed, the RCA would relocate to the city from White Oak, while the COG would move from its present location in the West Mifflin Municipal Building.

The city stands to gross nearly $40,000 from renting the mayor's former offices and more than $66,000 from the office suite formerly used by council and the city clerk.

All of the offices should be ready for occupancy in early February.

The building at the corner of Lysle Boulevard and Market Street --- distinguished by an all-glass front and fifties-style V-shaped entrance way --- is still used by the city police and fire departments as a public safety building. In addition, the first-floor city treasurer's office is now rented to District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.

But the offices upstairs have been vacant since the mayor, council and other administrators moved into the former McKeesport National Bank building at Fifth and Sinclair.

Twin Rivers COG has been searching for a new location since West Mifflin opted out of the organization and joined the neighboring Steel Valley Council of Governments. Twin Rivers currently provides joint purchasing and shared municipal services to 12 municipalities in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, including the city; Elizabeth, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln, Port Vue, Versailles, West Mifflin, West Newton and White Oak boroughs; and Elizabeth, Forward and South Versailles (Coulter) townships.

Executive Director John Palyo says the COG is currently renting its space in West Mifflin on a month-by-month basis. An office search committee has looked at more than 20 locations in the Mon-Yough area and McKeesport's former municipal building is one of the finalists.

"It's definitely a spot we want to look at, and it's a location central to our members," Palyo says.

A earlier proposal to rent the vacant Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County office and garage on Walnut Street in Christy Park --- a former Super Dollar market --- fell through.

One feature that could affect the COG's decision is access to garage space. The COG currently owns a street-sweeper that's shared by its member municipalities and recently purchased a new recycling truck, and would like to put both pieces of apparatus in a weather-proof garage, Palyo says.

The COG's recreation equipment also needs to be stored somewhere, he says. McKeesport officials have suggested that COG could have access to the garage bays currently used by the fire department when a new public-safety building is constructed on Walnut Street in the Third Ward.

But no date has been set for opening a new police and fire complex, whose construction is partially tied to Allegheny County's plans to build a regional court facility in the city.

Until then, Palyo says the city would give COG access to a separate garage. Visitors' parking would be accommodated on Market Street, he says, while COG employees would be allowed to use the so-called "Memorial Lot" next to the War Memorial on Lysle Boulevard.

The decision will hopefully be made "in the next couple of weeks," after the search committee has time to inspect the renovations, Palyo says. The process was delayed because COG board members had to finalize their municipal budgets in December, he says.

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January 12, 2009 | Link to this story

The Original 'D-TV'

Category: History || By

Sixty years ago yesterday, the nation's fourth TV network debuted its newest station with a national broadcast live from the stage of the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh.

The network was DuMont, which was slugging it out with CBS, NBC and ABC while Rupert Murdoch was still wrangling kangaroos in Australia. The station was WDTV, Channel 3.

. . .

For the next eight years, that station (which became KDKA-TV in 1955) would be the only commercial* VHF television station licensed to Pittsburgh. And since most TV sets only had VHF tuners (UHF tuners weren't mandated until 1962), WDTV was for all practical purposes the only TV station most people around these parts could watch.

Well, you could try to pull in a fuzzy picture from WJAC-TV in Johnstown, which signed on in September of 1949, "serving millions from atop the Alleghenies." And a few people around here did.

But at least one ratings survey indicated that more than 90 percent of Pittsburgh area TV sets in the early 1950s were tuned to WDTV. Even after WQED-TV debuted in 1954 and Channel 11 (then WIIC) debuted in 1957, many viewers still weren't watching them.

They couldn't watch them. Their TV tuners had literally rusted to WDTV.

(Quick! Without looking it up, what Pittsburgh TV station was originally licensed to Irwin? Post your answer in the comments. Alert Reader "Does It Matter?" is not eligible to participate.)

. . .

Many of you think I spent all of my time over the holidays scratching my pasty white rear. But I only spent some of my time doing that.

In between scratching, I also did a quick 'n' dirty rebuild of Clarke Ingram's DuMont Television Network historical website.

The site, which Clarke has maintained since 1999, was unceremoniously nuked by AOL a few months ago. (Having lost most of its customers to broadband providers, AOL is apparently determined to chase away the rest by eliminating services like webhosting and blogs.)

Through the courtesy of my friend Tom and his Skymagik Internet Services (which also hosts, the DuMont site is alive again, just in time for the WDTV/KDKA-TV 60th anniversary.


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January 11, 2009 | Link to this story

Apologies If You Were Lead Astray

Category: News || By

Just call me "Old Lead Bottom."

Angelia Christina of Clairton, lead inspector for McKeesport Housing Corp., says last Monday's story about lead poisoning contained a few clunkers that went over like ... well, lead balloons.

"People get freaked out when they hear about lead --- I wanted to make sure that they have the correct information," she says.

The Almanac implied that children get lead poisoning from chewing or digesting lead paint chips. Not quite, Christina says.

"Children do not need to chew any leaded surface to become poisoned," she says. "The most common way for them to consume lead is through lead dust." The dust settles on floors, stairs and window sills where children play; they put their hands in their mouth, and consume the lead.

And the Almanac erred in saying that lead dust gets into the air. Sure, it can be stirred up when lead paint or pipes are drilled, cut or sanded, Christina says, but it doesn't float around in the atmosphere.

"Lead really doesn't stay airborne ever," she says. "It will fall out very, very close to where it's created. It can't stay up in the air for too long --- it's very heavy."

Because, well, duh, it's lead.

Christina has been a lead risk assessor, inspector and supervisor for six years. She says lead dust only travels when it's picked up and accidentally carried by hands, feet, shoes and even pets.

I also didn't mention another potential source of lead, Christina says --- there might be lead in the soil outside your house, deposited there decades ago by car exhaust or steel mill pollution.

The good news, she says, is that lead risks are easy to minimize. One of the easiest, cheapest things that homeowners can do is to make sure their window sills and floors are swept clean of dust.

"For people who live in older houses, cleaning is the biggest thing," Christina says. "Don't let dust collect on window sills and floors or anywhere that children play."

And blood tests for lead are easy and quick. They're also free for children, according to the Allegheny County Health Department, and are conducted every Monday at the WIC office in the Wander Building, 339 Fifth Ave., Downtown. Call (412) 664-8870 or (412) 578-7942.

Finally, there's more good news, especially if you're a contractor. McKeesport Housing Corp. is going to host a lead supervisor course from Feb. 23 through 26. Contractors and remodelers can get certified in ways to mitigate lead exposure and risk in older buildings.

The course is being run by Youngstown's Mahoning Valley Real Estate Investors Association and is being taught by John Zilka, considered one of the top experts in lead risk reduction in the Northeast. Cost of the course is $395. To register, call (412) 664-7003.

In the meantime, I'm going to lay low until Binghamton cools off. If anyone needs me, I'll be on Taratupa, having a couple of drinks with Tim Conway and Ernest Borgnine.

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January 08, 2009 | Link to this story

City OK's New Fire Engine

Category: News || By

"Nothing but problems."

That's how city Fire Chief Kevin Lust describes the history of his department's two 1997 KME fire engines, based at Station No. 2 on Eden Park Boulevard.

Built with lightweight aluminum frames, the engines were purchased "off the rack" --- they were demonstrators that weren't constructed to the city's needs.

As a result, Lust says, the engines have a hard time coping with the city's narrow (often bumpy) streets, steep inclines and tight corners, leading to maintenance headaches and lots of downtime.

"You can't actually hold it against the company," Lust says, "but they're just not holding up."

City council on Wednesday by 5-0 vote approved the purchase of a new "Marauder II" from Seagrave Fire Appartus of Clintonville, Wis., at a cost of $496,932.

That price is not a typo; new fire engines generally run a half-million dollars or more.

"I always tell people that 'fire' is a four-letter word beginning with 'f,'" Lust says. "As soon as you put the word 'fire' into the description of any piece of equipment, the cost goes way up."

City officials say the timing of the fire engine purchase is unfortunate (nine people were laid off in December) but that it's been in the works for 18 months.

The Seagrave, to be delivered in about a year, will be custom-built to the city's specifications and replace one of the KME engines. The other would remain as a backup.

The deal was handled by Premier Emergency Equipment of Penn Township, Westmoreland County.

The purchase will be funded by grants, city officials said; that grant money cannot be used for salaries.

And the Seagrave pumper will not be a "parade queen" with fancy paint and trim designed to win contests. "It's not an unattractive engine, as far as that goes, but there won't be any 'bells and whistles,'" Mayor Jim Brewster says.

It won't sit still much, either. According to reports from Lust's office, city firefighters generally respond to between 80 and 100 calls every month. In December, crews responded to 77 calls, including eight structure fires.

Two of those fires involved fatalities and one was a conflagration fed by paint and toxic chemicals at the Ziebart auto body shop on Eden Park Boulevard.

The purchase is the product of more than a year of study by a planning committee of city firefighters.

"They had to prove their case to the administration," Brewster says.

The city's next fire equipment purchase should be a new river rescue boat, the mayor says, calling the existing craft a glorified "fishing boat."

"We protect 200 slips at the marina and two rivers," Brewster says. "We need a professional river rescue boat."

Meanwhile, Lust would like to find a home for the city's 1974 Mack-Baker aerial truck, which was retired several years ago. Although the drivetrain is obsolete, the chief says the aerial boom is still functional and could be mated to a newer truck chassis.

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January 07, 2009 | Link to this story

Scaife Pledges $100K Toward Demolition

Category: News || By

Newspaper publisher Richard Scaife has pledged $100,000 for the city of McKeesport to demolish dangerous and abandoned buildings.

Officials made the announcement during Wednesday night's city council meeting.

Tearing down blighted structures has been a cornerstone of the city's redevelopment program for several years. Mayor Jim Brewster and others say dilapidated houses --- many of them abandoned long after their owners died or moved away --- depress the real estate market, provide havens for criminals and drive the surrounding neighborhoods into decline.

Scaife, owner of the Tribune-Review of Greensburg and Pittsburgh and several groups of suburban newspapers, has made gifts to several McKeesport-area charities since purchasing the Daily News in 2007. He served as grand marshal of the city's "Salute to Santa" parade on Nov. 22.

Brewster said Scaife told him about the gift during the parade.

. . .

Dozens of properties around the city await demolition, including 18 approved Wednesday night by city council. The most recent batch includes five houses on Evans Avenue (800, 806, 807, 818 and 1221), three on Versailles Avenue (3111, 3301 and 3215), and two on Soles Street (1219 and 1222).

Tearing down a house generally costs between $6,000 and $10,000, Brewster said Wednesday. Municipalities can place a lien against a property that's been torn down and attempt to recover the cost if and when the land is sold, but in practice, most of the liens go uncollected.

The money cannot be used to offset revenue shortfalls that in December forced the city to eliminate 11 positions, Brewster said. The grant money has been pledged toward demolition.

. . .

The ongoing recession that has hampered credit and caused home and retail sales to decline remains a serious concern, the mayor said.

"The monster is getting bigger," Brewster said. "We now have a worldwide calamity, which makes our situation even worse ... We have faced some serious dilemmas successfully over the past five years, but the next two or three years are going to be more challenging."

Lax collection practices bear at least some of the blame, city officials admitted. City Controller Ray Malinchak said McKeesport is owed at least $8 million in taxes and another $2 million in delinquent garbage, sewerage and other municipal service fees.

. . .

The city is working to update its collection procedures, which Brewster said are outdated and "unsophisticated," but some problems remain outside the control of McKeesport and other municipalities.

For instance, state income tax reports are two years old when they're forwarded to the city, he said, and many delinquent taxpayers have changed addresses before McKeesport learns about them.

(Act 32 of 2008, which consolidates Pennsylvania's 560 wage tax bureaus into only 69 and permits employers to withhold and remit earned income taxes, should help alleviate that problem.)

In other cases, Brewster said, landlords of multiple-family dwellings are paying for only one trash pickup when they should be paying for each family.

"The economy is only getting worse, and that really hurt us in 2008," because many residents fell behind on tax, trash and sewage payments, he said.

City Administrator Dennis Pittman said that of 11 positions eliminated, two were accomplished through early retirements. The remaining employees were laid off. Four have found other employment, he said.

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January 06, 2009 | Link to this story

Now It Can Be Told

Category: Commentary/Editorial, General Nonsense || By

(c) Batom Inc., all rights reserved

This "Funky Winkerbean" comic from Monday's Daily News reminded me of a story. I think I can tell it now, since it's been more than a year since the incident, and I no longer work at the place where it happened.

In November 2007, a new room in Pitt's Hillman Library was created in honor of the late U.S. District Judge Jay Waldman.

The room was adjacent to a section of the library that's named after former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a friend of Waldman and a Pitt alumnus who has donated his professional papers to the university.

I was assigned to cover the dedication. I arrived early, and the very first person I saw was Gov. Thornburgh, looking exactly like ... well, like Dick Thornburgh. Maybe a teeny bit grayer. He was leaving the room as I entered.

"Good morning, governor!" I said. (Real original, right?)

He gave me a big smile. "Good morning! Thanks for coming."

. . .

Attendance at the dedication was by invitation only, because former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was scheduled to appear. (Both Thornburgh and Giuliani had been federal prosecutors; Giuliani served as U.S. Attorney in New York City while Thornburgh was U.S. attorney general.)

At the time, Giuliani was still running for the Republican nomination for president, and his security detail arrived a few minutes after my brief encounter with the governor.

Two uniformed police officers were placed near the entrance to the Thornburgh room, and two undergraduates were given the names of the invitees and told to make sure anyone trying to enter was on the list. I stood nearby to count the attendance.

After a few minutes, Gov. Thornburgh returned. One of the girls at the door stopped him. "Can I have your name?" she said.

. . .

Thornburgh's eyebrows shot up, and his face betrayed just the hint of a smile. "Dick Thornburgh," he said, as flatly as he could manage.

The girl looked at her clipboard and frowned. "I don't see your name on the list," she said.

At which point the former governor and I pointed at the giant photo of Thornburgh that was hanging on the wall next to the girl with the clipboard.

If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'. I think both Thornburgh and I had a hard time stifling laughter.

. . .

The moral of the story is: Why do I read "Funky Winkerbean"?

Also: I would totally vote for Dick Thornburgh if he ran for public office again.

. . .

P.S.: Giuliani only spoke for about five minutes, but managed to work at least seven references to Sept. 11, 2001, into his speech. Again, if I'm lyin', I'm dyin'. Joe Biden's joke that Giuiliani's speeches consisted solely of "a noun, a verb and '9/11'" was only a slight exaggeration.

Giuliani's first reference to the terrorist attacks came within his first three sentences, when (if I remember correctly) Giuliani managed to compare Thornburgh's response to the Three Mile Island disaster to his own management of New York City.

He followed up with remarks about how Thornburgh was a federal prosecutor who understood the need to deal harshly with criminals, just as he (Giuliani) understood the need to deal harshly with terrorists.

All I could think of was a description (I think attributed to Jimmy Breslin) of Giuliani as "a small man looking for a balcony to make speeches from."

After seeing him up close, I was delighted that Giuliani's campaign fizzled; the phrase "President Giuliani" filled with me the same amount of dread as, say, "President Blagojevich" would now.

. . .

This has been today's "brush with greatness." Join us next time, when our hero (?) discusses the time he met Don Riggs at the Westmoreland County Air Show. "Funky Winkerbean" copyright Batom Inc., all rights reserved.

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January 05, 2009 | Link to this story

New Year, New Help for Lead Removal

Category: News || By

City property owners are being invited to get the lead out in 2009.

A new program that began Thursday will help both landlords and residents in McKeesport, Duquesne and Clairton test their homes for lead hazards and control the lead before it affects the health of any occupants.

"We can help make a home lead-safe, not lead-free," says Jim Haughey of the McKeesport Housing Corp.

Removal of all lead from a home --- abatement --- can cost tens of thousands of dollars; the program in which MHC is participating tops at considerably less.

. . .

Lead was once commonly used as a pigment in residential paints and in the manufacture and installation of pipes and plumbing fixtures.

Although lead paint has been banned for residential use since 1978, more than 90 percent of the houses in McKeesport were built before 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Roughly 50 percent of the city's homes date from before 1939.)

If lead leaches into drinking water or breaks down into breathable particles and becomes airborne, both children and adults can be at risk for lead poisoning, which can cause learning disabilities, memory loss, anemia, mysterious aches and pains, and other health problems.

Small children are particularly vulnerable because they may chew on banisters or other household items painted with lead-based paint. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 percent of children ages 1 to 5 have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood; African-American children are about three times as likely to have high levels of lead in their blood.

But grownups can also be susceptible, especially if they begin a home remodeling project that requires grinding, drilling or sanding down lead paint or pipes, releasing lead dust into the air.

. . .

MHC has partnered with the federal Lead Elimination Action Program (LEAP) to test up to 50 homes in McKeesport, Clairton and Duquesne for lead exposure. To qualify, the home must be occupied by children under age 6.

If high levels of lead are found in the home or during blood tests, grant money can pay for up to 50 percent of any lead control work up to $6,000, Haughey says.

An MHC employee, Angelia Christina, is a certified lead program coordinator and is overseeing the testing.

Both owner-occupied homes and rental properties qualify for the program, Haughey says. MHC expects to test about 50 units this year.

Landlords who rent to people on public assistance are required to make their properties lead-safe, Haughey says, "so it would really behoove them to take advantage of this program."

. . .

Besides the LEAP program, MHC can also obtain grants or low-interest loans from other sources for residents on fixed incomes who want to correct lead problems, code violations and health and safety deficiencies.

Currently headed by Executive Director Les Petras, MHC has obtained $11 million in assistance for local homeowners over the past 24 years, Haughey says. That includes obtaining the financing for construction of 40 new homes in the city, such as the new houses being built on the old Union Avenue reservoir with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank.

"We can put together different funding sources to help people," Haughey says, "but we do have a limit of $25,000 per project."

. . .

For more information, call McKeesport Housing Corp. at (412) 664-7003.

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January 04, 2009 | Link to this story

No Country for Old Books

Category: Commentary/Editorial, Local Businesses || By

Over the holiday break, I finally made it to Book Country's new outlet store at the former Potter-McCune warehouse on Walnut Street. I'm a book addict, so I feel like I need some sort of excuse for why it took so long to get there.

(John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, pleading with Carrie Fisher: "I ran out of gas. I had a flat tire. There was an earthquake. A flood! Locusts! It wasn't my fault!")

Capsule review: It's well worth a visit if you live in the area. Driving in? Hmm. Not sure. Let me explain.

The prices are very good. I didn't see anything more than about $7, including the compendium of New Yorker magazine cartoons (with DVD) that came out several years ago at a list price of $35.

Most of the books are recent (2007 and 2008) best-sellers, including some big titles, so if you wanted to read something that's come out in the last 18 months and didn't want to pay full-price, check out Book Country first. (This is not the same Book Country that had a mildewed store full of 10- and 15-year-old books at Eastland Mall. Yes, same company, but completely different management.)

And there seems to be a decent selection of evergreen titles (Agatha Christie mysteries, for instance) and a nice assortment of fiction and non-fiction from African-American writers. Service is good and parking is a snap; they have free coffee and tea and accept checks and major credit cards.

But they seem a little bit "overshelved," as they say in the retail business. Too few books are spread out over too many square feet, which gives the store an empty appearance. My experience suggests people expect book stores to be a little bit crowded.

. . .

Book Country says that they have thousands of titles available in the warehouse, and they can look any of them up in a computer and retrieve them in a few minutes. That's fine if you know what you want before you get there, but part of the fun of shopping in an outlet store is finding stuff you didn't know you wanted.

(I found a 2007 book, for instance, called Conquering Gotham about the construction of Pennsylvania Station in New York. I didn't know it existed, and wouldn't have thought to ask. Book Country had it for $4.20, brand new, in hardcover. wants $21.)

There's also an old retail maxim that "you can't sell from an empty wagon." Simply having the stuff piled up in front of the shopper serves as an enticement to buy.

Bottom line: Richard and Sandy Roberts of Book Country deserve major props for opening a new retail store in the city and in a very tough economic climate. If you read, it also deserves your support; with a few tweaks (mainly bringing some of the stock out of the warehouse) it could and should thrive.

. . .

With My Little Eye: One of my purchases during the recent Book Country outing was a history of the late, lamented Spy magazine called Spy: The Funny Years. I started to page through it in the store, wound up reading part of it as I stood in the aisle, and then bought it and read it cover-to-cover in two long sittings.

It's hard to describe Spy, which thrived from the late 1980s until roughly 1991 or 1992. I can remember discovering it in the supermarket when I was 13 or 14 --- too old for Mad and not old, boring or pretentious enough for the New Yorker (I'm still not two out of the three). I was stunned that they were allowed to sell something like it at Scozio's in McKeesport.

Spy was snotty and disrespectful to people in power (and these were the Reagan years, after all), dismissive of wealthy Wall Street tycoons during the height of the "greed-is-good" era (it mocked Donald Trump and Ivan Boesky long before their disgrace) and loved to pull down the pants of Hollywood's best and brightest (Spy took on people like Bill Cosby and Arnold Schwarznegger when they were major stars).

Even if I didn't care about many of the people Spy went after (how many teen-age nerds from McKeesport knew who Mike Ovitz was?) I could appreciate that Spy spoke truth to power.

Yes, there was an annoying Ivy League preciousness to Spy --- swanky New York cocktail parties were the center of the universe, Spy's writers were the smartest kids in the room, and people who lived in places like Dayton and Minneapolis and (by God) McKeesport were amusing bumpkins --- but there was also fearlessness.

. . .

And Spy worked crazy hard: Its articles were meticulously reported. It was the first (and as far as I know, only) publication to expose Bohemian Grove, the notorious secretive California resort for conservative politicians and industrialists, and I can still remember its takedown of Wackenhut, a private security company who critics alleged had engaged in covert U.S. intelligence operations years before anyone heard of Blackwater.

I honestly hadn't thought about Spy in about 15 years. (The magazine closed in 1994, was revived, and finally went toes-up in 1998.) I threw out my copies in one of my moves after college, so reading Spy: The Funny Years was like reuniting with a long, lost (somewhat annoying) friend.

A few reviews on the Internet suggest that Spy is now a hopelessly dated artifact of the 1980s, like Jams or K-cars. Yes, many of the subjects that Spy covered breathlessly (Ivana Trump, anyone?) are now trivia questions at best, but what stunned me was how fresh the magazine still looks, and how vibrant the writing remains.

Websites like Wonkette have captured some of the tone of Spy, but they don't do the digging, they're snotty without being smart, and they just don't look as good. In fact, I can't think of a single magazine or website that combines that quality of reporting and attitude.

. . .

Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about Spy from the book was about Spy's movie reviewer, Walter Monheit.

Monheit was a spoof of movie critics like Peter Travers*, who seem to exist only so that studios can quote their reviews in advertisements.

Rather than write entire reviews, however, Monheit (who was depicted wearing a beret, monocle and ascot, holding a cigarette in a long holder) just wrote nothing but quotes for movie advertisements.

In Monheit's "Blurb-O-Mat!" column, every single movie got four stars or more (he actually used monocles instead of stars), was "Oscar-bait," and merited a "clever" punny adjective (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was "terra-pin-riffic!").

It turns out Monheit was (is?) a real person. Monheit fled from the Nazis in his native Austria, barely escaping the concentration camps. (His father was murdered by the Nazis; the Monheits are Jewish.) In his semi-retirement he became a man-about-town who got his kicks hanging out at celebrity parties while working part-time as Spy's courier.

The magazine's editors talked Mr. Monheit into lending his name and likeness to the movie review column, which (according to the book) he rarely read: "Who has time to read everything?" he supposedly said.

If Walter Monheit was a real person, then maybe Gene Shalit is, too. The mind reels.

. . .

P.S.: Canadian writer Joe Clark (not the former prime minister) maintains an archive of Spy clippings and reviews old issues at his website. It's worth a visit.


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