The commission approved the move on a 27 to 22 vote.
Gov. Ed Rendell announced two weeks ago that the $45 million was available. The money was taken from a discretionary fund that the governor can use for transportation infrastructure projects; according to the governor, it was taken from projects that were stalled or had been cancelled.
In a presentation to the 10-county regional planning board, PennDOT deputy secretary for planning Jim Ritzman said that "no projects across Pennsylvania are impacted because of this ... No money is taken from projects of the SPC."
Some commissioners took exception to the move, noting that the SPC has "flexed" money to the financially-beleaguered agency twice before. But supporters, like Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, noted this move wasn't the same as flexing, which involves diverting road and bridge funds to mass transit.
But commissioners, like Patricia Kirkpatrick from Armstrong County who voted against the proposal, felt differently. She cited a 2008 SPC report that noted 1,700 miles in poor roads, and 1,400 bridges considered structurally deficient. "There are many people in my county who never have the opportunity to have an alternative system" of transportation, Kirkpatrick said. "They rely on roads and bridges."
She questioned why the governor's proposal didn't divvy up the $45 million among the 10 counties that are represented by the SPC. "Why come back with 45 million or nothing? What kind of statement is that?"
Port Authority CEO and SPC member Steve Bland and other county leaders have repeatedly noted the agency's $47.1 million shortfall is on account of the collapse of Act 44, the state's funding formula for transportation funding. When the federal government rejected a proposal to toll I-80, it cut Act 44's funding in half. And even under Act 44, Bland says Port Authority actually saw a 2.1 percent decrease in state funds.
"The deficit issue is not an expense issue or a passenger fare issue, it's a state issue," Bland told the SPC.
He and Onorato have noted improvements the agency has made. Onorato cited a $96 million concessionary agreement with the transit workers union. Onorato said he has asked the authority to come up with an 18-month plan to help the transit agency stretch the money out to give the governor-elect and legislature time to address the state funding crisis.
In a synopsis of the plan, Bland said that if the authority received the money, January fare increases would still go into effect and "some level of service reduction [would take place] in March." Those cuts, he estimated would be "[c]learly not 35 percent -- probably 15 percent and in all likelihood probably another 10 percent later this year or early in 2012." He said layoffs would also still be necessary, but in proportion to the service reduction. Under the 35 percent reduction, up to 540 workers could have lost their jobs.
After the SPC vote, Bland said he was thankful for the bridge funding and that the 35 percent reduction was off the table. He stressed 15 percent was a "rough" number and "I can't even conjecture what that would look like." He added it was "premature" to discuss a second round of cuts.
But the authority will stretch the money through June 30, 2012, he pledged.
Bland said fare increases -- 25 cents in zone 1 and 50 cents in zone -- will still go into effect Jan. 1, and the authority's board will have enough time to alter the service cuts at its January meeting. Bland says the agency will weigh its options in the next few weeks. "We're working through things," he said.
"Any plan that gets us to June 30, 2012 ... would include service reductions, it would include layoffs, it would include significant downsizing of the system. But clearly it wouldn't be the level of disaster of 35 percent -- it wouldn't be as harmful."
Tags: Slag Heap
One interesting beat in this well-crafted one-man show is how the title is explicated. A "runt," in the usage of the rural Jamaican grandfather Edwards lived with as a child, isn't the smallest critter in the litter (as I'd always thought). Rather, among dogs at least, it's the one lowest in status -- the one who eats last at the trough, if at all. (The size of the fight in the dog, as it were.)
"Runt" is a measure, Edwards says in the show, of "how much fear an animal allows to live within itself."
It's an interesting and elegant phrase, and one that the writer and actor, as the son of an overbearing and verbally abusive father, obviously applies to himself here.
The hour-long show had eight performances here Dec. 2-12, at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's bare-bones Downtown performance venue, the Trust Education Center.
It's a lauded show, and not new -- its premiere performance was at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, in Scotland, where it won the coveted Fringe First award. It's also been a BBC radio drama and a feature film, and Edwards (who now lives in L.A.) has performed it around the U.S. and the world.
The Pittsburgh shows were the start, in fact, of a revival and new national tour. When I interviewed him for a preview piece, Edwards, now 43, said the show resonates differently with him -- more deeply -- than on the first go-round.
One thing that emerges clearly is Edwards' resolve, as an artist, to make his father a full-blooded person, not some monster.
To be sure, in Edwards' verbal and physical characterization we feel the substantial weight of the father's anger-filled psyche, the menace behind even his more conciliatory words, and even at his happiest moments: This very wealthy, hard-driving businessman simply can't bear that his son is unlike him. And he's an alcoholic and unrepetant womanizer besides.
But quite early in the work, Edwards says that his father, his bluster either notwithstanding or the proof in the pudding, was in truth consumed by fear. Later, he ties that insight to a key dynamic in their relationship: "I was his only son, the the only one who could ever make him wrong."
Tags: Program Notes
Pittsburgh congressman Mike Doyle is among the House Democrats opposing President Barack Obama's controversial tax-cut compromise with the GOP.
"This has been brewing for quite some time," Doyle says of Democratic opposition. Not only do House Democrats question the terms of the deal, he says, but they feel they deserved a larger role in negotiating them.
"There's been a frustration for House Democrats," says Doyle. "We've really carried this President’s agenda, only to watch it languish in the Senate." That's been true on a slew of progressive causes. But in this case, Doyle says, they had no role in crafting the agenda at all.
Under the terms of the deal, Obama has agreed to extend tax breaks on the wealthy; in exchange, Republicans have agreed to support an extension in unemployment benefits and other aid for middle-class families.
But "Parts of the package were just too much," Doyle says.
Specifically, Doyle points to the proposal's scaled-down estate tax. Under the compromise, the tax would be levied at a lower rate (35 percent instead of 55 percent) and on a much smaller number of inheritances -- those worth at least $5 million rather than $1 million. Estimates of the impact are hard to come by, but the government could be giving up an estimated $50 billion in revenue. And the benefits of such a tax cut accrue to a very small fraction of wealthy Americans.
"To spend all that money to benefit 37,000 of the wealthiest estates of America -- some of us just can’t swallow that," Doyle says.
Doyle also thinks the administration could have done a better job even on negotiating its own end of the bargain.
Take the 2 percentage-point cut in the payroll tax, whose proceeds pay for Social Security. That tax cut would generate an estimated $1,000 for the average American, but as it's currently structured, Doyle notes, it would "dribble out" over the course of an entire year, in the form of a tiny $20-per-week reduction in withholding.
"This will be a tax cut no one believes they got," Doyle predicts. And human nature being what it is, "No one will notice the cut, but they'll complain when it expires." That, he frets, will make it easier for Republicans to begin calling for the tax cut to be made permanent -- just as they've been doing with the Bush-era tax cuts Obama has reluctantly agreed to extend.
Cutting the payroll tax permanently would be a problem for Democrats, because a permanent cut could exacerbate a funding shortfall in Social Security, which has long been in Republican crosshairs. Social Security already faces fiscal challenges that Republicans have been only to happy to trumpet; cutting the payroll tax -- which will cost an estimated $120 billion a year -- will only worsen the problem.
Doyle says that if he had his druthers, the tax break would came as a one-time upfront payment -- perferably early in the year. That would feel more like a sort of bonus, rather than a long-term reduction of the rate. Not only would such a payment have more upfront impact, he surmises, but Republicans would have a harder time trying to make a tax cut permanent, since Americans would see the same amount coming out of their paychecks every month.
"This is the messaging part of things," Doyle says. "Too often we win these battles but lose the argument." He notes that Obama cut taxes during his first year of office, but because that break was spread out over the course of a year, "I can't tell you how many meetings I've been to and asked 'who got a tax cut?' and nobody raised their hands."
But will Doyle's stand -- and those of his fellow Democrats -- make a difference?
The initial conventional wisdom was that today's vote doesn't really affect the bill's prospects: The compromise is expected to receive heavy Republican backing, so support from liberal-minded Democrats isn't necessary. Then again, House speaker Nancy Pelosi is citing the vote at the basis for negotiating changes to the compromise:
In the Caucus today, House Democrats supported a resolution to reject the Senate Republican tax provisions as currently written. We will continue discussions with the President and our Democratic and Republican colleagues in the days ahead to improve the proposal before it comes to the House floor for a vote.
"The leadership is on board," Doyle says. "I don’t think anyone in our leadership likes what’s going on. This bill isn’t going to be brought up in its current form."
Of course, the fear is that this is the best deal Democrats can hope to get. In January, control of the House will shift to Republicans as a result of the November elections. And that means Doyle and his colleagues will have even less leverage than they feel like they've had so far.
So what would he tell an unemployed Pennsylvanian whose benefits are set to expire? A Pennsylvanian who thought the compromise at least bought some time, but is now holding his or her breath?
"Well, I'd say that we are the party that is committed to helping the unemployed," Doyle says. "It's our priority, not the Republicans'. And it's why we will end up swallowing some things that are so distasteful to us -- becuase we care so much about working people. But at some point, you have to say, 'Enough.' I've been one of the president's biggest champions in the Pennsylvania delegation. But sometimes, friends have to tell friends, 'This isn't working.'
"I don't think anyone believes we'll get a better deal on January 5 [when the new session of Congress convenes]," Doyle adds. "But this is only Dec. 9. We're not looking to kill the process now and not come back until January. We want to rework this into something we can vote for.
"We know this battle won't last forever, but Dec. 9 is not the date to surrender. We're going to fight this fight, and get the best deal we can."
ADDED: I should also note that Doyle says his staff has logged roughly 250 calls on the issue. And so far, he says, "95 to 99 percent" of them have been opposed to the compromise.
Tags: Slag Heap
It's a nice little juxtaposition, celebrating your dance company's 35th anniversary with the very show where you introduce three brand-new performers (more than half the troupe). But Dance Alloy Theater, under the direction of Greer Reed-Jones, pulled it off with a smart, lively show whose four-performance run ended Sunday.
The program was a solid mix of new and old. But it opened with an historical tribute. With help from performance poet Vanessa German, Reed-Jones sectioned the Alloy's history into four chunks, each with its own representative movement style.
Dancers, for instance, worked in between video of early-1980s interviews with former artistic directors Susan Gillis and Elsa Limbach. And there was a fun group work that accompanied early-'90s (I think) footage of the troupe appearing on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, rolling around on big exercise balls.
More poignant, for reasons that had only partly to do with the dance itself, was the tribute to the Mark Taylor era -- 1991-2003, making him the longest-serving of the company's artistic directors. This was a Tayloresque solo by Michael Walsh, the lone current dancer to have performed under Taylor. (Walsh joined the Alloy in 1999; Taylor is still on the group's board of directors.)
The 2003-09 artistic directorship of Beth Corning was represented by a moving solo by Maribeth Maxa, whose Alloy tenure began with Corning's. The piece utilized a straight-backed red chair -- a tip of the hat to one of Corning's original choreographic works, and in general to her commitment to dance theater. (It was Corning who added the "theater" to the company's name.)
New also joined old in "The Son is the Father to the Man," a sturdy duet by former company member Kevin Maloney, danced by Walsh and newcomer Raymond Interior. And the whole company seemed to have a blast with Taylor's "Swan Lake: Act II," an inspired bit of silliness parodying the famed ballet, complete with Tchaikovsky score.
Fittingly, though, this anniversary program's most memorable piece might have been the newest work: "When You Hear Hoofbeats, Think Horses," by former company member (and now Pennsylvania Dance Theatre artistic director) André Koslowski. It's an all-out dance-theater piece -- movement-based, but often more like experimental theater than traditional dance.
What else would you expect when you return from intermission and the stage is set with props including a metal collander, a pushbroom, a hardhat, a pile of tree branches ... and a larger-than-life inflatable zebra? The darkly provocative 45-minute work, which Koslowski developed with the dancers through journaling and other assignments, seemed mostly about its characters either abusing or ignoring each other.
Read into it what you like, but a labored sequence or two aside it was fascinating to watch, and a chance for newcomers Jasmine Hearn and Gretchen Moore to show off their acting chops as well as movement technique. Moore in particular was delightfully mischievous -- a nice complement to her comic turns in "Swan Lake: Act II."
Tags: Program Notes
The Cultural Trust's press conference for the annual New Year's Eve celebration was the first I've attended (this year, anyway) to feature giant dancing penguin puppets.
There were two on the sidewalk at Liberty Avenue, and three more inside the building at 805 Liberty, The latter were swaying to the Caribbean Vibes steel-drum band, the musicians dressed in tropical shirts and playing seasonal fare like "Under the Boardwalk."
The dancing was a little distracting, but it should be said that after the press conference, the indoor penguins did cease bopping and stood respectfully to listen when Cello Fury played a number to close things out.
As to First Night itself, after eight years running it, the Trust and its partners have the formula down. To paraphrase poet Samuel Hazo, First Night is "always differently the same."
It's still a bunch of events (150 or so) in 40 or more Downtown locations -- some outdoors but most indoors. It still costs $8 for a button that gets you into most events ($10 at the door). And it's still mostly live performance -- music, dance, a little comedy -- and hands-on art projects. Parades, fireworks, etc.
Judging by the thousands who fill the streets each year, it's a formula that works.
While even many of the performers will be familiar from years past, there's some news among the headliners. The big-stage bill-toppers are crowd-pleasing veteran funk 'n' soul outfit Tower of Power, whom I recall making people very happy some years ago at the Three Rivers Arts Fest. They go on at 10:45 p.m. at the Highmark Stage.
Other highlights include the Chicago-based stage troupe The NeoFuturists, who perform "30 plays in 60 minutes" in a show at the O'Reilly called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
Meanwhile, local lads and lasses Squonk Opera do three sets at the Byham; saxophonist Tia Fuller (known for her work with Beyoncé) plays two sets of jazz at the Trust Arts Education Center; dance troupe The Pillow Project and Zafira Bellydance perform at 119 Sixth St.; and Pittsburgh-based theatrical guru Dan Kamin is at the August Wilson Center with something called A Cheap Evening of Expensive Theater.
There will also be attempts to tie in the Jan. 1 NHL Winter Classic, the Heinz Field hockey matchup between the Pens and the Capitals.
The full schedule is at firstnightpgh.org.
Tags: Program Notes
The 10-year-old series' final page was turned Friday night, and it was a happy/sad sort of affair: Unlike arts groups that fold for lack of funding, or just fade from relevance, Gist Street went out under its own steam and at the top of its game.
The event made me think about what might take Gist Street's place on the local scene, and turned my thoughts to a promising new reading series across town.
More about that in a minute. But first back to James Simon's cozily funky Uptown sculpture studio, where Gist Street's monthly pairings of poet and fiction writer have been held since early 2001.
The studio, like a small loft, seats only about 80. And it wasn't long after Gist Street started that you couldn't get in the door for these 8 p.m. readings unless you showed up like an hour early.
The reason had much to do with the programming, of course. Co-founders and organizer Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski regularly brought in quality artists, most of them also pretty good at presenting their work (especially for audiences as attentive and appreciative as Gist Street's.)
The series sometimes featured local talent, like poet Terrance Hayes (well before he won the National Book Award). But it specialized in out-of-towners who might not have made it to Pittsburgh otherwise, like poets Ilya Kaminsky and Tim Seibles, and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning short-story writer Lori Ostlund (who just read here last month).
But the series' cult status also had to do with the casual but deeply felt hospitality of the place: You felt like you were listening to great writers read to you in a cool pal's living room. A cool pal, by the way, who generally supplied very tasty food, including but not limited to whole roasted turkeys, homemade ice-cream and a bathtub full of beer. All this, for most of Gist Street's history, for $5. (The price went up to $10 last year.)
No wonder the line often wound around the block, and organizers sometimes had to turn away as many people as they let in.
No exception last night. The line began forming in the below-freezing chill, organizers said, at 5:20 p.m, or nearly two hours before the doors opened. Attendees outdid themeselves with the potluck feast, most of it home-made.
And it was a fine reading to go out on. San Diego-based poet Jericho Brown read, mostly from his American Book Award-winning collection Please, with considerable stage presence. And North Carolina-based Holly Goddard Jones offered an incisive selection from her collection Girl Trouble.
Just like nothing can replace the International Poetry Forum, which closed its doors in 2009, nothing can really replace Gist Street. But that doesn't mean the literary landscape is lying fallow.
On Nov. 20, in fact, I attended the first installment of Speaking Of ..., a new monthly series at the North Side's Amani Café.
In one sense, Speaking Of got off to a Gist-like start: It packed at least 100 people into its little space and had to turn more away at the door. And the attendance wasn't due primarily to the writers bringing their tribes. The strong line-up of poet Elizabeth Hoover, spoken-word artist Brian Francis and Flick herself (she's a fiction writer as well as an arts organizer) were new to many in the crowd, who'd apparently just shown up because they heard something new was afoot.
So kudos to organizers including Phinehas Hodges. With little but word of mouth, some handbills and a slick promo video on their web site (speakingofpittsbugh.com) they've gotten off to a running start. It's taking December off, but look for Speaking Of again in January. It'll be interesting to see whether it can keep up the quality level, as well as the diversity of performance-based and more literary work.
Tags: Program Notes
Obviously, this past fall has been a tough season for progressive causes. But at least one positive development did take place, though it slipped beneath the radar:
PNC Bank has apparently decided to stop funding mountaintop-removal mining.
As City Paper has noted before, PNC has reputedly been an increasingly important financial backer of the controversal practice, which involves lopping off the tops of mountains, and scooping out the coal beneath. The bulldozed land often ends up being pushed into nearby valleys, increasing the environmental trauma.
PNC has largely declined to comment on the issue, citing the need to protect client privacy. But with little fanfare, PNC released a new corporate responsibility policy this fall. Among its provisions was this assurance:
PNC will not provide funding to individual [mountaintop removal] projects, nor will PNC provide credit to coal producers whose primary extraction method is MTR. PNC will continue to monitor this industry while various regulatory issues are addressed through legislation and public policy.
The demand for power, jobs and other community impacts associated with coal mining will continue to weigh heavily in PNC’s lending decisions. PNC also recognizes the significant investment coal producers have made in their MTR operations, and acknowledges that these were entered into in good faith and in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.
Curiously, PNC doesn't appear to be anxious to discuss the matter further, making this one green initiative they aren't boasting about. Hell, they don't even mention the mountaintop ban in their statement of environmental responsibility, which brags about much less impressive initiatives, like using environmentally friendly office supplies.
The obvious guess here is that PNC is trying to burnish its green credentials without alienating existing clients in the coal industry. (A guess is all this can be, obviously, since PNC won't even identify who its clients are.) As we've reported before, Massey Energy -- a leader in mountaintop removal -- is apparently a PNC customer. And anything PNC does to call attention to its own virtue would risk making Massey, for one, look worse.
By the way, as I read this policy, I don't see anything that prevents PNC from continuing to offer financing to Massey. As near as I can tell from corporate filings, the vast majority of Massey's coal comes from non-MTR facilities. PNC can continue to work with Massey on those projects without violating its policy, because MTR is not the company's "primary extraction method."
In fact, what makes PNC's move most surprising is that, once the G-20 left Pittsburgh in 2009, there seemed to have been very little public pressure put on the bank to make this change. As I've noted previously, local media coverage of PNC's connections to mountaintop removal has been conspicuously absent. And there has been little in the way of protests here, despite the fact that PNC's headquarters are Downtown.
That said, the quiet probably wasn't going to last. No one in Pittsburgh was paying attention, but on Sept. 27, environmental activists staged a sit-in at PNC's flagship location in Washington, D.C. And there was talk among local environmentalists about closing out PNC Bank accounts and depositing them elsewhere -- a symbolic move, to be sure, but one that would have put the bank on notice.
Based on a recent conversation I had with Randy Francisco, who heads the local chapter of the Sierra Club, PNC would have been right to hear footsteps. Originally, Francisco noted, PNC was a far smaller player in MTR financing than institutions like Bank of America or JP Morgan. But one after the other, those banks caved in the face of public protest ... until PNC was the biggest bank still in the game.
"Each time, [environmentalists] target the biggest bank -- and when it drops off, the target has been the next bank in line," he says.
PNC has avoided that fate. And it has done so with a most becoming modesty. Then again, as one environmental activist has noted, " As with all bank policies, we’ll understand what PNC's policy really means in practice as we monitor their financial dealings with the coal industry over the coming months."
Tags: Slag Heap
After being elected as governor last month, Tom Corbett pledged to emulate the model of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Judging from roster of his transition teams, Corbett is going to keep that promise -- at least as far as putting the screws to public-school teachers goes.
Christie is waging a running battle with educators in his state, and teachers in Pennsylvania may well end up sitting in the corner too. For while there's plenty to be concerned about with all of these committees -- state Democrats have denounced the heavy representation of natural gas-drillers on the teams, for example -- the makeup of the education team stands out.
For starters, it includes Tea Partier Ana Pugh, who Democrats are denouncing for saying the kind of crazy stuff you expect from Tea Partiers: Liberals are working alongside the terorrists to undermine capitalism, Obama is a socialist, etc. etc.
And a fuller examination of the committee shows up Corbett's claim that he nominated "a wide spectrum of people" to the committees. When it comes to higher education, that may be true: The roster includes representatives from Catholic universities, trade schools and not-for-profit colleges alike. But at the public-school level, I can't find a single person who represents or advocates for school teachers or public school administrators. By contrast, I've found 20 commitee members -- including one of its co-chairs -- who have ties of one sort or another to charter or for-profit schools.
That's more than half the committee. And there may be more ties I'm unaware of: The connections I've outlined below are based either on personal knowledge, or the results of some websearching. So it's not definitive by any means.
Some of those connections are stronger than others: One committee member's only tie (that I'm aware of) is being a partner at a law firm who does legal work for a charter. And it's possible that there might be a committee member whose allegiance to public school teachers has escaped me. But overall, the ties to alternate education are deep and extensive. You've got politicians who've espoused charters and other alternatives to public schools. You've got people who make their living running such programs. And you've got people who spend their days espousing their cause.
Obviously, Corbett has made no secret of his position on school choice, and elections have consequences and all that stuff. And I guess if you're teaching at a college level, things don't look so bad. But if you're teaching at a public school, well ... the handwriting is on the chalkboard.
As for the individual committee members, let's see ...
One of its co-chairs is Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg. Which is perhaps no surprise, in September, the Pitt News reported that Corbett apparently had a mysterious meeting with university officials.
The other co-chair is Joel Greenberg, of the Susquehanna International Group. Greenberg and other Susquehanna execs were big funders of a long-shot gubernatorial campaign by state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams. Don't let the fact that Williams was a Democrat fool you; his principal distinguishing characteristic was his willingness to champion alternatives to public schools.
As for the rest of the committee, we've got:
Tags: Slag Heap