Sunday, April 19, 2009

Time To Put PAT Out Of Our Misery

A Port Authority radio commercial has finally convinced me that the authority should be dismantled.

I distinguish the Port Authority -- as comprehensive a failure as exists in a region nearly wrecked by bad government -- from public transit. I see public transit as an unadulterated good -- good for everyone, essential for those who lack automobiles -- particularly in a region whose downtown is constrained by rivers and bridges. This is one of the reasons I despise PAT and wish to see it destroyed.

The Port Authority has been mismanaged at every level -- by elected officials who botched strategy and appointed talentless hacks to the board; by boards overrun by conflicted and distracted (did I mention talentless?) hacks; by management that enriched itself while capsizing the transit system. Absurd employment contracts have plotted an unsustainable trajectory. PAT's day-to-day operations are as expensive as they are substandard.

But even against that backdrop of daily incompetence and decades of strategic failure, the radio commercial stood out. The Port Authority is digging a pointless hole underneath the Allegheny River. The cost of that hole is staggering -- hundreds of millions of dollars. The decision to build that hole was so misguided that its parents abandoned it long ago and can no longer be found (at least, not by Pittsburgh's standards of journalism). The opportunity costs -- a spur to Oakland, or a line along I-279 North, to the Alle-Kiski Valley, or to the airport, or even a fiscally sound transit system -- are heartbreaking. The dig created employment (as would have a hole aimed straight down until funding was exhausted, with similar practical results). That effort and money could have been directed more fruitfully in nearly countless other directions.

Every citizen of this region knows the project has been a debacle; PAT should be searching for ways to grovel and apologize in a proper manner. Instead, to my astonishment, PAT has been buying radio commercials to tout the tunnel. It actually boasts about how -- even if you never use the damned thing, even if you don't understand the point of it, even if it wasted resources this region needs desperately -- everyone has to admit the tunnel is cool.

I nearly drove off the highway. Cool? PAT is bragging about the tunnel? With commercials funded by public money? Everyone involved in the decision to broadcast that commercial should resign immediately, or be fired by the end of the day.

That commercial crystallized my thinking. PAT must be killed. After substantial consideration, I reject placing the entire board, most of the management staff and many of the employees in that tunnel before sealing both ends. But I believe it to be imperative that the authority be closed and a successor approach to public transportation created in its wake, so that mass transit might have a chance to succeed in Allegheny County. Now that would be cool.

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