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Pittsburgh's possibilities are being forsaken

| Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007

They spend a lot of it, but local politicians get very little return on the public's money.

Spending started in Pittsburgh with clearing all the prime commercial land at The Point and continues to this day with an "idiotic" subway tunnel under the Allegheny River, says a retired economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Raymond L. Richman is pretty blunt about where the blame belongs: "The economic ignorance of Pittsburgh's elites."

The Regional Asset District and the Urban Redevelopment Authority• Richman would put them both "out of business." And he'd defy civic groups like the Riverlife Task Force and the Parks Conservancy to transform any more economic places to merely esthetic spaces.

"They want to make a cemetery," Richman said. "We don't need any more places to walk and ride bicycles. We need industry and jobs."

He contends that the city's one-party political leadership ignores -- if it ever knew -- the basic function of a city. "That is to export," he said. A city exists to make things that bring dollars in. In Pittsburgh, steel used to do that. Today, the city's exports are medical care and education, he said, great as far as they go. But the possibilities to manufacture in this geographical location shouldn't be forsaken.

"The reason you can't hold young people is because there are no jobs for them," Richman told the Thursday Discussion Group at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

About $1 billion in public spending on stadiums and a convention center, which replaced a perfectly okay stadium and convention center, haven't produced nearly enough benefits for the costs, he said. Add underused parking garages and transit-only tunnels ("at least taxis and multipassenger cars could use them"). Plus, most projects aided with tax increment financings (TIFs). All these favor special interests against competitors.

"Retailing is a zero-sum game," Richman said. "What you spend at this, supermarket you don't spend at another. Don't subsidize zero-sum games." Nor should we "privatize a monopoly," he said, as the state is poised to, by leasing out the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The $400 million tunnel to the North Side, PAT's gift to construction interests, required an "idiotic" federal government subsidy, "even worse, a Republican government," Richman said. "If PAT were private, it wouldn't do such stupid things."

The city's URA under former mayor Tom Murphy helped create the wasteland along Fifth and Forbes avenues Downtown by buying up properties that free market forces would have improved. The new Schenley Park Plaza removed 270 parking spaces much needed by Oakland's "export industries" in favor of unneeded green space. RAD's unelected members, all politically appointed, used tax money to finance sports stadiums, despite a specific public vote against that. So it goes with these "leaders," says Ray Richman. "It's not their money."

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