Heyl: Peduto's scaffold scheme should be consigned to scrap heap

| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Far be it from me to meddle in Bill Peduto's curious interest in a once-precious metal.

But this needs to be noted: The Pittsburgh mayor might find his plan to obtain an enormous aluminum conversation piece ultimately foiled by the city's precarious financial condition.

Peduto covets the scaffolding used to encase the Washington Monument, damaged in a 2011 earthquake. Closed for repairs for nearly three years, the monument reopened on Monday.

If a deal can be reached with the New York company that rented the scaffolding to the National Park Service, Peduto wants it to be reassembled on the North Shore. It would serve as a monument designating the western end of the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail running between Pittsburgh and Washington.

Should the idea become reality, Pittsburgh not only would have a sure-fire tourist attraction in the nation's tallest bike trail marker; it also would take a significant step forward in developing a reputation as a global leader in repurposing scaffolding systems.

Don't think that's not an important consideration for corporations thinking of relocating here. Yet the city's continued financial woes raise serious questions about whether it could afford to permanently display the scaffolding.

Peduto told City Council on Tuesday that Pittsburgh is looking at a $60 million annual deficit that includes a $15 million operating budget shortfall. The mayor obviously is going to have to leave no stone unturned to unearth new revenue.

That could lead Peduto to make the difficult choice between keeping the monument intact or perhaps paving some city streets. Allow me to explain.

The 37 linear miles of primarily aluminum scaffolding weighs about 500 tons, according to Universal Builders Supply Inc., the monument scaffolding owner.

“That's an awful lot of aluminum,” said an impressed Martin Warhola, owner of Northside Scrap Metals Inc. on the North Side. He's the nephew of the late Pittsburgh-born artist Andy Warhol, whose most famous works, coincidentally, included silk-screened paintings of metallic Campbell's soup cans.

Interestingly enough, among the scrap items Warhola purchases is aluminum. He pays as much as 60 cents per pound for the stuff. Do the math. If market conditions remain similar to what they are now, the city could fetch about $600,000 for the bike trail marker.

Would Peduto junk the scaffolding to make such a small dent in the deficit? He might not have a choice. Some city streets have potholes deep enough that geologists could use them to measure the temperature of the Earth's core. Money to repave them has to come from somewhere.

But selling the scaffolding for a quick fiscal fix would be nearly as embarrassing for the city as bankruptcy was to Detroit last year. It would underscore the fact that even after a decade of state financial oversight, the city remains in a financial hole as deep as some of its streets' potholes.

Rather than risk the city suffering such an indignity, perhaps this conversation piece idea should be consigned to the scrap heap.

Before the scaffolding eventually ends up there.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412- 320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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