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Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2003 / 28 Tishrei, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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See what federal $$$ does?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Chris Matthews said something frighteningly stupid the other night on "Hardball."

While debating whether we should spend $87 billion to rebuild Iraq, Matthews said something like "there are plenty of dying cities in this country that could use that kind of federal money."

Wrong, Christopher. Very wrong.

Federal money is what has made our cities so sick. For half a century "free" federal billions have encouraged and enabled local governments like Pittsburgh's to destroy good things and build stupid things they wouldn't have dreamed of paying for themselves.

Cities are still trying to repair, replace or maintain these past boondoggles of revenue sharing, usually by begging for yet more federal or state subsidies. Take Allegheny County's Port Authority -- please.

Our local government bus monopoly is a perfect example of a federally fathered Frankenstein that continues to haunt and torture us. Like its similarly expensive, mismanaged cousins across the land, Port Authority was created in 1964 by the Urban Mass Transit Act.

Few people remember UMTA, much less realize how creepily socialist and un-American it was. With just $375 million ($2.1 billion today), UMTA gave local politicians the capital they needed to destroy private transit in urban America.

In Pittsburgh, the county got $39 million to form a single "integrated mass transit system" - a monopoly. Port Authority Transit, as it was called, bought 30 good and bad bus companies (whether their owners wanted to sell or not) like Bigi, the fine one I grew up riding in the South Hills.

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It also bought up the inclines, purchased 150 new buses and used eminent domain to seize Pittsburgh Railways Co., the perpetually bankrupt street-car and bus company whose 300 miles of track laced together Pittsburgh and its suburbs.

PAT made all the false promises we've come to expect from public mass transit. There'd be efficient, county-wide service for all. Travel times to Downtown would be slashed in half. Fares would cover 83 percent of operating costs. A government monopoly would operate efficiently.

No mention of a future of transit strikes, plummeting ridership, soaring costs or steadily increasing subsidies. No announcement that Pittsburgh would someday get the world's slowest light-rail system. No warning that 500 million federal dollars would be wasted on pricey busways that would cost far more than projected and carry a third of the daily riders promised.

Urban mass transit execs and their toadies will tell you the government transit takeover of '64 was good for Pittsburgh. They'll tell you most of the city's private bus lines were crappy, poorly managed and eager to sell. And that a privately owned bus system didn't work then and can't work ever.

What they forget is that before the Port Authority took it over, our transit "market" was not free, it was disfigured and badly regulated by the state Public Utility Commission. Laws kept fares too low to make a profit. Bus companies couldn't compete, needed permission to expand and were awarded monopolies on choice routes or communities.

In short, it wasn't market failure that made the transit business a mess, it was government regulation. Not only will we never live to celebrate local mass transit's privatization or demise, we'll never know how ground transportation would have evolved around here if all that free federal money hadn't come to town.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald