ROAD WARS

An OPN News Editorial

“If you do not change your direction, you may end up where you are heading”  Loa Tzu

As Mayor, Bill Peduto is the number one representative of the people of Pittsburgh. So it’s all the more important to ask, and continue to ask, “Who does Number One work for?” In Pittsburgh, Mayor Peduto is generally regarded as a good guy with good intentions, even by those who might disagree with certain policies he proposes. But it’s not intentions that count – we know where the road paved with good intentions leads. What really matters is how those intentions play out when the rubber meets the road. Unfortunately, when it comes to certain development projects, it seems the Mayor is taking a completely one-sided approach: the side of the developers, not the citizens of Pittsburgh.

Many local public servants are working on transportation-related projects to relieve road congestion, reduce greenhouse gas, address mobility needs, and make Pittsburgh a “Complete Streets” city. But a major part of these intertwined projects is a controversial proposal:  the URA’s proposed private roadway plan through Schenley Park, meant to serve the Hazelwood Green development in the neighborhood of Hazelwood.

The URA/Private Partnership means to seize public property by forcing a highway through the middle of the Junction Hollow portion of Schenley Park, as well as commandeering publicly owned city streets at both ends in the neighborhoods of Panther Hollow and Four Mile Run, in order to link the two Oakland university campuses to the development in Hazelwood. Another part of the plan includes non-taxable housing that UPMC and CMU wants to build on those mostly vacant 178 acres, ultimately shuttling future students/customers back and forth via autonomous vehicles on public land.

A large majority of residents in both at-risk communities oppose the roadway. And officials’ duplitious implication that Hazelwood’s economic troubles over the last few decades is due to a “lack of mobility” couldn’t be more disingenuous.

Pittsburgh’s transportation issues are largely due to successive draconian budget cuts by the PA State Legislature, causing underfunding of our Public Transit system, and causing basic travel hardships for many Pittsburghers who make up a significant portion of the work force. But rather than tackle this austerity-driven issue at the source – our State capitol in Harrisburg – or work towards a solution that honors the needs of local communities, local officials are opting to push through their preferred solution that uses public land for private gain. This is privatization of the Commons: corporations and other privateers taking over public land, property and assets collectively owned by all citizens.

This fits within the current dominant Neoliberal philosophy about basic public services – purposefully de-fund those services, (while continually shrinking revenue via government giveaways in the form of corporate welfare) then point at those services as unworkable and claim they must be privatized. This is a form of gaslighting the public – pushing them to believe that the solution to all issues is to allow corporations and the 1% to own and control all things, while charging excessive, ever-increasing amounts of money to the public for using those basic services. 

Imagine a forest fire started on purpose, then fighting the fire with a garden hose tied in knots. With privatization, not only do you no longer own the hose, or control the flow of water or the means to direct the flow, but also the whole time the water is trickling down, the privatized meter is running up the ever-increasing bill.

Granting private companies the right to use and profit from basic public services creates an unaccountable monopoly. In the case of transportation, the public continues to subsidize the maintenance costs of roads, bridges, busways etc., but then additionally pays a private entity to travel on those streets and highways, while no longer collectively owning those assets. In essence, privatizing the profit while socializing the losses. Nice work, as they say, if you can get it.

The URA’s proposed private roadway plan includes a number of highly profitable organizations that dominate policy and land use in Pittsburgh, in this case UPMC/PITT, CMU, and this time joined by wanna-be Uber.

On this familiar road, what is especially hard to navigate is the willingness of our local officials to work with and reward Uber, a company that breaks the rules, makes up its own rules, or cheats within them with assistance by elected officials. Why is the City of Pittsburgh making deals with this kind of entity? Because, according to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald while defending the private roadway project: “You can’t stop the future.”

“That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

Noam Chomsky

Heavy-handed action within a shroud of secrecy is Uber’s modus operandi, and that seems to be our local representatives’ approach to development in the case of this, and other recent plans. Just take a look at the details within their proposal to Amazon’s HQ2 contest submitted just recently. But… we can’t, because what’s in the Amazon proposal is secret. Fittingly and unsurprisingly, possible locations pitched to Amazon includes the Hazelwood Green property as a destination for their new headquarters.

According to Kevin Acklin, head of the URA and until recently Mayor Peduto’s Chief of Staff, quoted in a Dec.2015 Pittsburgh City Paper article about resident opposition to the roadway plan:  “We are an evolving city. We can’t just sit idly by and not take advantage of this new economy.”

But the new economy is merely the 19th century economy recycled, renamed and repackaged, with even more automation and a greater disparity of wealth. The new economy is just another way of saying trickle down economy, or as in this specific case, “Economic Development and Job Creation.”

Our local representatives are driving us to the future while using the rearview mirror as a steering wheel. Giving away the Commons, as though our city is the business in a going-out-of-business sale, is a cannibalistic and unsustainable path on the road to ruin.

Mayor Peduto deserves some credit for working to try to make our city a better place, but the road to the future of Pittsburgh depends upon its people getting involved by taking the wheel, demanding accountability and complete transparency as our representatives seek solutions to our common issues. Anything less should be met with citizens blocking this road to ruin by any means necessary.

                  

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