Act 44: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

To open the series on replacing Act 44, I feel I should put my cards on the table as to what my political goals are, as framing for readers. I am keeping liberal/conservative, Republican/Democratic politics out of this as much as I can, because I feel that they mostly contribute noise and bias versus signal, but they might creep in from time to time. My apologies in advance.

The topline summary is that this post is exactly what it says on the tin: I don’t want your money. I live in the city of Philadelphia, and if you live in the suburbs, or Pittsburgh, or Williamsport, I have no designs on taking your money to pay for any of the vital infrastructure that supports me and my ability to live in this city. If this sounds too good to be true, it might be; all (or rather, “all”) I ask is that I not have to pay for infrastructure where you live, unless I visit your neck of the woods and pay it in user fees.

I take this stance in large part because my choice to live here is more than a simple accident of convenience. I live in a city because I believe that cities, and especially large, dense cities like Philadelphia, are engines of growth and wealth creation for their inhabitants, and I’m willing to stake quite a lot on that proposition. I believe that my choice for where to live is an implicit bet that I can have a better quality of life here than anywhere else, for the same financial outlay, and that over time, despite the half-century of systematic sabotage, the normal order of wealth accumulating in cities will reassert itself. I recognize that these beliefs put me at odds with the median voter across Central and Northern PA, who see my city, and often all cities, as a vast poverty sink and welfare trough. I say let’s run the experiment out and see who wins out.

I think the vast majority of money that is collected by government in a jurisdiction for the purposes of building infrastructure should be spent in that jurisdiction. This is not a hard and fast ethical judgement; it’s a prudential judgement based on where American politics is today.

Too much of our political budgetary process has become a game of beggar thy neighbor. Every legislator who isn’t completely brain dead is looking to bring the most possible dollars (i.e. a disproportionate share of the whole) to their constituents. Thanks to the bizarre, unhealthy, incestuous, and byzantine cultures of our legislatures, both state and federal, this ends in one of two ways. Case One is that there’s a general consensus to just vote in favor of everybody’s wish list, with some kind of variably effective control algorithm to keep the big number at the end from reaching aleph-null, usually doing a poor job. Case Two, which we’ve seen in the U.S. House of Representatives since the 2010 election, is that a large minority bloc of self-styled “reformers”, have defected from the previous consensus to prevent the usual logrolling consensus, usually at the cost of all normal governance being brought to a screeching halt. We have never seen what happens when Case Two persists for an extended period of time, in America; we may be about to find out. Philadelphia is not particularly well-positioned to come out well in any event. However, there is a third way: if we set the amount to be spent at equal or very nearly equal to the amount collected from the dedicated stream, and prevent ourselves from deviating from that plan, we can remove the incentive to grab what can be grabbed, as well as the incentive to burn everything down in a fit of ideological pique, just to keep things in check. The number is what the number is, and it falls on the government of the day to set priorities within that framework. Continue reading Act 44: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

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SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but it’s been six and a half years since the last of former SEPTA GM Faye Moore’s “doomsday plans”, an annual exercise in political hostage-taking with the goal of obtaining more stable funding for SEPTA. The proposed cuts were severe and carefully targeted to inflame the most politically active communities, like the Airport Line (business travellers), the Chestnut Hill West Line (affluent city-dwellers in West Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill), and all weekend service (anybody who does things on weekends), while also having just as much cover as financially necessary to provide negotiating leverage. Eventually, the political brinksmanship worked, and SEPTA traded a fare hike on its riders every three years for Act 44, Ed Rendell’s deal with the Republican Legislature for the support of transit systems across all 67 counties of the Commonwealth, funded by the PA Turnpike Commission.

So when this week, Moore’s successor Joe Casey came out with his own “doomsday plan”, one that eliminated nine entire Regional Rail Lines, truncated two more, and eliminated all trolley service across city and suburb alike, and generally made Faye Moore’s threats look like a dinner party invitation, there was a strong feeling of deja vu among SEPTA watchers and veteran riders, and the reaction was muted grumbling punctuated by occasional howls of outrage. After all, with Act 44 broken by the failure to toll I-80, isn’t this just going back to the hostage-taking days of yore?

SEPTA today and projected 2023
SEPTA’s Rail network, before and after starvation

No. This plan is far, far more terrifying than any SEPTA has come up with before. Because after careful examination, I can only come to the conclusion that there was no political agenda at all in the formulation of this plan. This Doomsday Plan is a dispassionate listing of things that are going to fail that SEPTA does not have the money to replace.
Continue reading SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.