President Joe Biden traveled to Pittsburgh Wednesday to make his case for a sweeping infrastructure investment across the country. Even before he arrived, jockeying for how to spend the money in Pittsburgh was underway. Several local representatives, including state Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, wrote a letter promoting an extension of the Martin Luther King East Busway and the last leg of the Mon-Fayette Expressway.
At one of Biden’s campaign stops in Pittsburgh, Biden looked directly at Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and a handful of other politicians and told them he would be back because Pittsburgh was so important to the country. “Less than 100 days and here he is making this major major speech in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a big supporter of our building trades and infrastructure and putting people to work.”
The details in the plan Biden announced on Wednesday afternoon will likely form a template for the $2 trillion infrastructure bill. But Congress will make changes as it gathers support. This process can often lead to the inclusion of a hodge-podge of individual projects promoted by special interests.
And there’s not enough money to go around. PennDOT alone has $15 billion in need every year but less than $7 billion in revenue, according to Vincent Valdes, the executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. And that was before a 15% drop in commuters due to the COVID-19 pandemic cut gas tax revenues by $500 million.
PublicSource talked to 13 local experts, academics, politicians and nonprofit leaders to ask: What are the most pressing infrastructure needs for the Pittsburgh region?
Kent Harries, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "You could ask that question to 20 experts and get 50 different answers. If I own a hammer, I’m going to say nails.”
The answers were edited and condensed for clarity and brevity from phone interviews, except where noted.
Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County executive
- The sewer infrastructure. The federal government needs to be a partner in cleaning up our sewage overflows. Years ago when this started, the deal was the federal government was going to be part of the solution, along with the local ratepayers. It turned out it’s only been the local ratepayers trying to shoulder this massive infrastructure need to clean up our rivers.
- Unlock the Hazelwood Green, Almono site by widening the street connections. That can really open up that whole 178-acre site to the residents of Hazelwood and other folks in the Mon Valley and the city, which will provide jobs to maximize the potential of that site.
- The East Busway Extension extends now to Swissvale, Rankin, and we want it to extend it further into areas like Braddock and eventually Duquesne.
- I think PreK is so needed in this region to get young kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods ready for kindergarten and ready to learn. All these new jobs are going to be available and this will help ensure that they have the skills and support to avail themselves of this opportunity. I think the president is calling that human or social infrastructure and isn’t going to talk about that today but will be part of the plan going forward.
- [Fitzgerald said his fifth priority would be the Bus Rapid Transit and airport projects that are already underway, but he called back to amend his answer.] I want to add one more thing into the mix: broadband. It’s not that there aren’t broadband holes here in our county, but for the most part it’s more pronounced in Armstrong County, Greene County, Butler County, in rural areas that have a lot of dead spots with internet connections. Joe Biden said when he ran, “I’m going to work just as hard for the people who voted against me as the people who voted for me.” And in a lot of those areas he didn’t do as well as in Allegheny County, but he’ll make that commitment to those areas because he knows it’s the right thing to do.
Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the City of Pittsburgh
We have about 440 bridges overall in the city; about 146 of them are a local responsibility for the city. More than 20% are structurally deficient. I don’t want people to freak out that they’re in danger but they're in substantial need of investment to be in a good state of repair. We have two tunnels that we’re responsible for locally that could use a good deal of maintenance.
Because of climate change, we’ve experienced substantial land movement in the city. Each one of those affects not only our streets but also the underground sewages and water as well. So stabilizing the slopes will require substantial investment.
Of course our public steps, which we adore, are structural. Anything structural costs quite a lot when we go to invest in it. So the dollar figure for those are somewhat breathtaking when you add it all up.
We have lived the recent era of telecommuting and people realize maybe they don’t need to live in the biggest of the big cities. This gives us a chance to attract some of those people. We need to get ahead on affordable housing if and when that happens, so we don’t go through the same cycle that other cities that were less prepared for went through. Affordable housing is important to transportation, too. We know people are needing to make tradeoffs about where they can afford to live and where the efficient mobility systems are.
Things not quite not as expensive that would pay tremendous dividends for equity and livability are safe pedestrian infrastructure and safe bicycling infrastructure. That’s a very low-cost means of transportation for an awful lot of folks. And, almost weekly, I get reports of one or more crashes involving a bicycle or pedestrian, and we just can’t have that.
[Stop light] infrastructure is something we also want to see. You can go around the city and see some truly vintage signals. That doesn’t allow us to take advantage of smart technology for traffic management because those analog signals can’t manage traffic or adapt like our newer signal infrastructure. So our roads are not safe as they could be and streets not as efficient as they could be. We can’t prioritize transit movements in the way that we’d like to. We need modern signals to reflect those values that we have.
I know the [Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority] has tremendous needs to address combined sewer overflows and lead pipe replacement and modernize their system, which is really important to me because leaky pipes can lead to sinkholes and land movement that have implications for the infrastructure that I need to maintain.
Robert Sroufe, professor of sustainability and supply chain management at Duquesne University
Energy systems are high on this list. We tend to use coal-based utility systems that are 150-year-old technology. There are more innovative sources that would also help alleviate problems with air quality. It would also employ more people, create innovative jobs and higher wage rates. Renewables should be subsidized for as long as fossil fuels have been subsidized. They’ve been subsidized for 100 years. Let’s subsidize renewables for the next 100 years.
I have solar on my own home. And when one solar company came into the area in 2015, within 12 months it had installed 1,800 solar rooftop installations. They couldn’t find enough people in Pittsburgh to do the work, so they recruited people from Maryland to install this. Now I can get cheaper electricity and generate my own. I can drive 10,000 miles a year now for $176 in electricity cost in my electric car.
State Rep. Austin Davis, a Democrat representing the 35th District in Allegheny County
The focus for infrastructure and transportation investment needs to be in the Mon Valley. It’s long been underserved and under-resourced. And as we’ve seen many other communities’ economies recover from the steel industry, the Mon Valley has not done that. Primarily that’s because it’s difficult to get to.
Downtown McKeesport, where my office is, is 10 miles from Pittsburgh’s downtown but it takes an hour to get there, 45 minutes on a good day. We have to figure out how to connect the Mon Valley to the urban core if we’re going to see growth in our region. When we don’t invest in our infrastructure, we end up with communities hollowing out and gripped with significant levels of poverty.
The two major job centers in Allegheny County are downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland and if it takes you an hour to get to those places, in a not easy fashion, it’s going to prohibit people from wanting to live in your region. And while we have some of the most affordable housing stock, people aren’t buying housing to live here because it’s too far from work and it’s underserved.
Some proponents say we should do light rail to the airport. But the reality is the only people who use the airport are people who can afford to use it. People in the North Hills have significant access to mass transit. If you live in the South Hills, you have the access to the T as well as mass transit. If you live in the Mon Valley, you have access to bus service that is sparse in a lot of ways.
Extending the MLK Busway is significantly cheaper than the Mon Valley Express and would change a lot of the economic fortunes of our region. Look at East Liberty. It’s been able to thrive because of the busway, its proximity to a dedicated transportation system.
Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable growth
We know across the state there are thousands of structurally deficient bridges and most of the highest traveled ones are in this part of the state. So that’s important for dealing with current needs around infrastructure. There is another conversation that should be part of the overall conversation: How we are approaching our future needs?
The City of Pittsburgh did a report with Siemens not that long ago that showed that aligning investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, vehicle electrification, can make important gains in carbon reduction and, at the same time, generate tens of thousands of jobs. So that’s the kind of alignment we should be looking for.
We’re already on this path in a number of ways. We just saw the county’s hydropower announcement. We know the University of Pittsburgh has done something similar. There are other efforts across the city to expand and improve some of that energy infrastructure, such as the airport’s microgrid, the [Community College of Allegheny County] solar installation. The Port Authority is moving increasingly to electric buses. I appreciate that the conversation is becoming about more than what is broken that we need to patch back together.
Workforce infrastructure is an important part of this: training and lifting communities throughout the region that have seen opportunities disappear. Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create jobs, getting people engaged and building that more resilient and climate-friendly tomorrow.
Kent Harries, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh
You can look at our roads and transportation infrastructure. We’re a region that relies desperately on corridors, down valleys and river runs and we don’t have a lot of options. The last 50 or 60 years, people have been migrating to the suburbs, which adds greater and greater demands because it expands the infrastructure. We can’t just throw money at the problem. That may address short-term issues, but there is not enough money by factors of 10 to address all the problems.
The reality is, in my lifetime, we’re going to see bridges abandoned. A bridge becomes inoperable for whatever reason, decay, degradation, the reality is we’re going to make the decision: We’re not fixing that bridge. It may not affect you and I, but the folks who live at either end will not be too happy about it. These are the decisions we need to start making.
The sewage consent decree that the entire region is under is an absolutely massive issue. I’m not sure how we’re possibly going to address it. I struggle to see how local rate hikes are going to cover it.
Telecommunications is often not considered infrastructure because it’s private and that has been leading to an “us and them” kind of thing. One hundred and fifty years ago when water companies were entirely client driven, there was no oversight and they would go in and whoever paid could get the water. We’re seeing a similar type of thing in terms of data/telecommunications and that has an effect on society.
The economy has a shorter-term objective. Not sure how long it will take us to recover from current COVID but let’s say 5 or 10 years: That requires these shovel-ready projects. We’re getting an influx of funds in order to deal with the backlog of what people have already prioritized to get the economy going. But it’s not addressing the big picture, and we need to be looking at the big picture from a planning perspective since this is going to long outlast me and probably my daughter.
We have a couple projects that are not high priorities. We have a very good operating airport and it’s not unrealistic to get to it. There is an example of something that works reasonably well already. There is no question there is some need to improve the airport’s facilities. But on the other hand, if I was prioritizing the entire region, I’m not sure I would put aviation as No. 1.
Corey O’Connor, Pittsburgh city council member
Every municipality throughout the region, they know what their major projects are and getting those projects up and running creates a continued economy when looking at construction jobs and building trades jobs, which are important to the region. They are probably construction ready, and the more we get people out working, the better we’re going to be down the road.
I would do a shift to some green infrastructure needs, being the chair on the ALCOSAN board. We don’t talk enough about it; that’s a big subject that will impact us for a number of years to come.
Daniel Armanios, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University
My concern generally is not just what infrastructure but where. What I’m most worried about is making sure the infrastructure projects that are being developed are going to communities in need.
What my most recent research has found in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, at the census tract, if you have a greater percentage of African-American or Hispanic residents, it’s associated with less bridges. And if they get a bridge, it’s associated with a more restrictive one. So one thing I’m worried about is access to new infrastructure projects, thinking of the most vulnerable communities.
In a work that just got accepted, we found the prevalence of new bridges increases the founding of high-growth startups. The reason is, when people think of physical infrastructure, they’re thinking of mobility or transportation. But what’s happening is these provide access to ideas. So if I can connect to different communities that I couldn’t before I can start getting new ideas.
One factor is the sidewalk length of the bridge. My thought is if you are running on a bridge or walking, you stumble on people you see and start talking about new ideas. So if you connect these two studies, my worry is if we don’t have more distributed infrastructure, the degree to which I can participate in the American Dream may be decided on our bridges’ sidewalks.
One thing I’m concerned with is, if they are talking about shovel-ready projects, they’re probably those that have immediate economic returns. And if that’s the case they’re going to be placed in places that already have quite a bit of infrastructure. So my concern is that where this infrastructure is placed is equitably distributed.
So at least in 2018, the estimates of what would be needed for bridge repairs in Pennsylvania was $7.7 billion. Under the current funding, it would take 13 years. There are way too many bridges that need repairs, and not enough money. We can add equity measures to prioritize communities that could really use it and make sure it’s used most effectively.
Erika Strassburger, Pittsburgh city council member
Most people’s eyes glaze over because they think it will be all roads and bridges. But what I really like about the proposed plan is that it’s a broad definition of infrastructure. And so I see that public schools, childcare facilities, community colleges are part of the [Biden] plan, along with in-home care and all sorts of jobs and innovation work.
I see people throughout the city who are disproportionately women who are either, by choice or not by choice, who have been left out of the workforce or forced out of the workforce during the pandemic. Part of what we need to get them back is child care. I see firsthand that childcare facilities are already on razor-thin margins, not fully enrolled and having trouble recruiting staff.
And when we’re talking about funding to Pittsburgh, it’s not just Pittsburgh, it’s Southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The Appalachian region should hang together as we seek funding from the federal government, so we’re competing against California and New York and other regions. My hope is there is a commitment to job creation outside of the fossil fuel and extractive industry and more toward job creation that is healthy for people who live nearby and creates good paying jobs.
Government is finally correcting some of the wrongs of past decades and past years, and in order to right these wrongs we need to be investing more heavily in communities of color who disproportionately feel the impacts of environmental racism and environmental injustice, who have not had access to high-paying jobs in a way that, frankly, white men have in the past.
So we have groups working day in and out on vacant land remediation and putting people back to work as they are doing that work. It has to be an all-hands-on-deck effort if we are going to remediate our vacant lands and vacant residences and get them back on the tax rolls, so then we have more tax revenue in perpetuity to provide services. We could do what we did after the Great Depression: park maintenance, trail maintenance, getting people outside to restore wetlands, helping farmers adopt new agricultural practices, planting trees.
Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University
I think it’s really important that whatever we do is done inclusively and equitably. This region has a history of doing infrastructure that cuts communities in half, which especially disadvantages Black and brown people. Whatever we do has to be intentional, thoughtful, inclusive and equitable. That’s the starting line.
Right now, a lot of our infrastructure is very car focused and that’s not equitable, it’s not subaintable, it’s not green. A lot of people don’t have access to cars or reliable transportation. So what can be done with busways and when the come to help them get around.
We created SurTrac, an autonomous traffic signalization, at CMU based on machine learning and robotics. It can see bikers and pedestrians. It reduces travel times and reduces emissions and improves safety. It would be great if we could do that at every intersection we possibly can. Not in dense urban areas, where pedestrians rule, but in other parts of our region where we can help streamline traffic and improve safety and have priority for buses and high-occupancy vehicles—when we’re comfortable being in high-occupancy vehicles again. Those days are coming.
The following three responses were sent to PublicSource by email.
Costa Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University
- Remove lead service line pipes in the water system.
- Reduce street flooding, combined sewer overflows, and landslide risk with more green and conventional infrastructure.
- Increase in green infrastructure in all communities.
- Accessible sidewalks and protected bike lanes in all communities.
- Dedicated Bus Rapid Transit service with city-wide coordinated traffic signals.
Chris Briem, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research
Locks and dams. I usually give that answer, but in light of the Suez news over the last week, everyone should be more keenly aware of what the shutdown of one of our locks might mean to parts of the regional economy. There is still a lot of commercial river traffic that would shut down a fair bit of local jobs if there was an extended stoppage.
Jordan Fischbach, director of policy and planning at The Water Institute
We’ve badly underinvested in a patchwork stormwater infrastructure system designed for the conditions of the past that has already failed. Moving forward, we need to rethink our relationship to rainfall so that it goes from liability to asset: reducing flooding and sewer overflows now and in future climate conditions, restoring natural systems and flows and building quality green space, and investing in stormwater infrastructure that improves the lived experience of residents during “sunny day” and stormy conditions. This means a big investment in “green and gray” likely to go well beyond the currently planned ALCOSAN Clean Water Plan capital spending.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.