Editorial Roundup: Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 31, 2022.

Editorial: Publicizing legislator expenses is common sense

Sometimes a bill comes along that’s such an obviously good idea that you wonder why it took so long. It’s almost always because legislators themselves stand to be inconvenienced, even if the public gains.

That’s exactly what’s happened with Pennsylvania House Bill 2449, which would require House and Senate members to post their expenses online, where the public can easily find and scrutinize them, on a quarterly basis.

An investigation by Spotlight PA last year uncovered an astonishing amount of taxpayer money spent by the state legislature on members’ expenses: $203 million divvied up among 253 members from 2017 through 2020. That’s over $200,000 a year per member in expenses alone. That doesn’t include their annual salaries — the nation’s third highest at roughly $90,000 — or their staff’s salaries.

Small wonder Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s most expensive legislatures.

There are some good reasons for this: The commonwealth is one of 10 states with a full-time legislature. State legislative offices serve constituents in many ways, such as helping to secure public assistance or a driver’s license, and fielding pothole complaints. Not every state works like that.

Pennsylvania is also big enough that many legislators require regular hotel stays (or apartments) to do their business in Harrisburg, while also serving their districts back home. All this doesn’t come cheap, and that’s even more reason to shine a light on legislators’ expenses. Private-sector employees must submit detailed expense reports for their bosses’ scrutiny. So should legislators submit expenses to their bosses: the people of Pennsylvania.

Those reports should be specific and complete: no massive expenses for vague items like “supplies,” or redactions for unspecified legal or privacy concerns. Legislators spending taxpayer money should be prepared to explain themselves — in full.

Politicians might fear that this information, if made public, will be unfairly depicted in rival campaign ads. Voters in far-flung regions, such as Erie, will have to accept that their representation costs more than Camp Hill’s, right across the Susquehanna from the capitol. It’s probably no coincidence that the bill’s sponsor — Keith Gillespie, R-York — can commute easily from his district to Harrisburg.

But if making expenses public undercuts incumbents’ electoral advantages, we certainly won’t complain.

Cynics like to say that when a proposal is bipartisan, the people are getting doubly screwed. Maybe legislators can, for once, prove the cynics wrong.

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. April 5, 2022.

Editorial: The common problem of Pennsylvania bridges

Pennsylvania’s bridges need work.

It isn’t just the ones with obvious problems — the ones with crumbling concrete or decaying superstructure. It’s not a question of which. It’s a question of when.

The Fern Hollow Bridge spanning a Frick Park ravine collapsed on the morning of Jan. 28, while people were on their way to work or school or doctor’s appointments. It was a morning little different from any other, and that is the point.

The Fern Hollow Bridge was no different than so many other bridges in Pennsylvania. It was an aging passageway that had been rated poor by PennDOT since 2011. That is 11 years of cars and trucks and buses, college students and toddlers and grandparents driving over a structure the state said was not as safe as it should be.

While that bridge is being replaced and attention has been directed to the state’s and nation’s infrastructure, it is important to realize that every bridge is a Fern Hollow Bridge waiting to happen. The only thing that stands between a bridge that lasts and one that falls is recognizing that maintenance and upkeep are not only important but also absolutely necessary.

Take the Charles Anderson Bridge. In 2012, the substructure of the bridge that allows the Boulevard of the Allies to pass over Schenley Park’s Junction Hollow was rated as fair. In 2016, the deck was rated as fair. But in 2018, the deck, superstructure and substructure were inspected again. This time they were rated as poor.

That is a lot of deterioration in just two years. How much more has happened in the four years since?

The difference between the work being done at Fern Hollow and what is only in the early planning stages at Charles Anderson is a declaration of a state of emergency. It should not take the infrastructure equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane to accomplish what everyone knows to be needed.

Bridges are built of stone and metal, concrete and asphalt. These are materials that erode and corrode. They succumb to rust and salt. Water seeps into the cracks and expands when it freezes. All of the same forces that create the potholes that plague roads every year are working against bridges in the same way.

The City of Pittsburgh has created a commission to study bridges, along with roads and tunnels, to determine how to allocate funds for repairs.

“We all want our bridges done as soon as possible, but we need to determine which ones need the work ASAP,” Councilman Corey O’Connor said.

This is something every municipality should do, but it’s also important to realize that while repairing bridges in bad shape is expensive, it is costly for a reason. Neglect.

It would have been cheaper to keep the Charles Anderson Bridge in fair or good condition with maintenance than it will be to rehab it to bring it up from poor to good. That’s another thing all of Pennsylvania’s bridges have in common.

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Scranton Times-Tribune. April 5, 2022.

Editorial: Help workers save for retirement

About 2 million Pennsylvanians work for businesses that do not offer retirement benefits. That’s bad for workers and, eventually, for taxpayers who tend to absorb social service costs for people who retire with inadequate savings.

Nationwide, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 27% of people who don’t have work-based retirement plans have saved any money for retirement. And among the 47% of workers nationally who do not have access to work-based plans, only about 40% have contributed to other retirement plans.

Research shows that people are far more likely to save for retirement if they can do so through payroll deduction. Many employers provide incentives for workers to participate, contributing to individual accounts if employees agree to contribute a certain percentage of their pay.

Pew research shows that most people who are not enrolled in work-based plans not only do not save otherwise for retirement, but never have access to retirement plan tools that calculate likely future needs and saving rates.

Most businesses that do not offer retirement benefits are small and lack the revenue or the administrative wherewithal to provide savings plans. But in a Pew survey, 67% of such businesses said that they would make a state-operated plan available to their employees.

Bills are pending in the Legislature to create a program, Keystone Saves.

The savings instrument is known as an auto-IRA, for individual retirement account. Employers would need only to register and allow for payroll deduction of workers’ contributions. To engage as many workers as possible, employees would have to opt out of contributing. Contributions would be tax-deferred, and the accounts would be fully portable, going with workers if they leave for a different job.

Pew calculates that Pennsylvania will have 57 households age 65 and older by 2030 for every 100 households under that age, a 50% increase since 2015. The state Treasury has estimated that state costs due to inadequate individual retirement savings will total $14.3 billion from 2015 through 2030.

Keystone Saves would improve retirement security and reduce taxpayers’ burden without imposing undue costs on anyone. The Legislature should approve it.

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Uniontown Herald Standard. April 3, 2022.

Editorial: Electric cars are coming, and we should welcome them

Want something cheerful to think about as you’re pouring $40 or $50 worth of gasoline in your tank? Imagine a scene that might not be all that far in the future.

You’re driving down the road and pass a gas station. They are still there and still selling the gasoline that’s been used to fuel vehicles for more than a century. But they seem increasingly outmoded, like video stores were once Netflix arrived, and then when streaming brought movie libraries straight into our homes. You can glance over at those gas stations and ponder how often you had to stop at them and how much you had to pay because you don’t have to do that anymore – you’re driving an electric vehicle.

As gasoline prices have soared past $4 per gallon in recent weeks due to increased demand and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, news reports have indicated many Americans have decided that now is the time to invest in an electric vehicle. Even with an increase in the number of purchasers, the slice of the market taken up by electric vehicles will likely remain relatively small, at least over the next couple of years. But the day when electric vehicles are the kings of the road is going to be here, and relatively soon.

Last year, Chrysler, General Motors and Ford all said they were aiming to have electric vehicles make up half their sales by 2030. Whether that happens in just eight years remains to be seen, but electric vehicles replacing the gas-burning variety seems inevitable. And as the marketplace for electric vehicles gathers steam, it will generate jobs. Plans to build a battery factory in West Virginia were announced last month, and on Tuesday, a manufacturer of electric vehicles and batteries revealed it would be investing $4 billion in a facility in North Carolina and would be creating more than 7,000 jobs as a result.

Also, electric vehicles will be better for the environment and our health. On Wednesday, the American Lung Association released a report stating that zero-emission vehicles would save the lives of close to 8,000 Pennsylvania residents each year, and would generate $86.8 billion in public health benefits. There would be close to 150,000 asthma attacks avoided and 735,000 fewer lost days from work. The association ranked the Pittsburgh metro region as the 15th in the country that would benefit most from the transition to electric vehicles.

Of course, fewer gas-burning vehicles on the road will also help heal the climate of the only planet we’ve got.

Not surprisingly, there is some resistance to electric vehicles, but there were probably many people who were unwilling to part with their buggies and hang up their manure shovels in the early part of the 20th century. But electric vehicles are coming, and we’d be wiser to adapt to – and welcome – this change, rather than fight it.

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Wilkes-Barres Citizens Voice. April 5, 2022.

Editorial: Control mine drainage for long term

About 7,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s streams, 8% of the state total, are polluted by drainage from abandoned coal mines, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. That is by far the most of any state.

In Northeast Pennsylvania the most obvious example of the problem is the orange, mineral-laden plume that spews from abandoned mine works into the Lackawanna River at Duryea, near the confluence with the Susquehanna River.

Pennsylvania will get more money this year than any other state from the new federal infrastructure program, $245 million, to clean up land and waterways damaged by the state’s long coal-mining era. That will provide an enormous boost for cleanup efforts, which normally rely on much smaller allocations from a fund fueled by a tax on current coal production. The amount this year is about three times the amount of the state’s annual federal grant. Of $11.5 billion for mine pollution cleanup projects that the infrastructure program has authorized over the next 15 years, Pennsylvania will receive about $4 billion.

Mine drainage into waterways poses a problem far different than land-based pollution. Typically, a project to repair damaged land can be conducted within a defined period. And once it is complete, further work generally isn’t necessary.

The problem with mine drainage is that it requires ongoing, open-ended water treatment.

Grants to deal with mine drainage usually are structured to recognize the need for continuing treatment. The infrastructure law that authorized the new $245 million, however, does not provide for ongoing treatment.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton has introduced the Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines Act, or STREAM Act, along with Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright of Moosic and Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia have sponsored the same bill in the House. It would alter the infrastructure law’s rules to match those of the annual grant program. States would be able to invest 30% of the money to earn interest that would fund ongoing water treatment far into the future.

The bills propose the best use of the infrastructure funds because they ensure an ongoing effort rather than a one-time project. Congress should pass the bills.

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LNP ' LancasterOnline. April 3, 2022.

Editorial: Smart growth summit addressed Lancaster County’s formidable land use issues. Now we need action.

Single-family homes ring the edge of a field. Local planners say that if this type of growth continues, it will chew up more farmland. But many Lancaster County residents are wary of high-density developments.

The aim of the summit held Thursday at The Ware Center in Lancaster city was to improve life for everyone in this county.

To make the county more climate-conscious. More cooperative. More accommodating to people of varying income levels. More sustainable.

This county is thriving, but its challenges around land use, housing and growth remain formidable. Our hope is that in the wake of the Places2040 Summit, a consensus will form and real solutions will be implemented. This will require courage on behalf of municipal officials.

We appreciate the desire to make change, but municipal officials too often cave in the face of public outcry.

We no longer can merely discuss these challenges. We need to meet them in concrete ways.

The Places2040 Summit was hosted by the nonprofits Tenfold and the Coalition for Smart Growth. Tenfold is an equitable housing advocacy organization that was the product of the merger between Tabor Community Services and the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership.

As LNP ' LancasterOnline reported, “Architects, nonprofit developers, social workers, engineers, researchers and municipal officials were just some of the more than 250 people on hand at the sold-out event, trying to glean some insight to help them with development issues that sometimes seem intractable.”

The summit covered five themes:

— “Beyond My Backyard,” which asked participants to reconsider restrictive zoning laws that were compelled by not-in-my-backyard thinking.

— “Beyond the Bubble,” which was meant to inspire collaboration among Lancaster County’s 60 municipalities and across ideological, political and cultural views. This collaboration is imperative if we’re ever to solve the county’s land use issues.

— “Beyond the Narrative,” which emphasized reliance on accurate, data-driven facts to solve problems. As the summit’s program noted, one example of “an untrue, but popular narrative is: affordable housing and poverty are ‘city problems.’ ”

— “Beyond Borders,” which urged thinking beyond municipal boundaries and engaging in regional cooperation.

As Ray Marvin, chairman of the Bart Township Board of Supervisors, and Scott Peiffer, the borough manager of Quarryville, wrote in a column published in the March 20 Perspective section, thinking beyond boundaries “isn’t just Kumbaya togetherness — it’s a practical necessity.” They noted that “road networks do not respect municipal boundaries. Sometimes a single parcel of land is located in more than one municipality. Municipal authorities sometimes include more than one municipality.”

And they wrote that planning regionally for smart growth — that is, growth that curbs sprawl, preserves open spaces and builds on land designated for development — “simplifies the process, lessens review/approval time and reduces costs for individuals, farmers and businesses seeking approval for their projects.”

Marvin and Peiffer say collaboration is occurring in the county’s southern end. It needs to occur up, down and across the county.

— The final theme was “Beyond the Plan,” which focused on aspects of life — race, gender, aging, immigration and others — in Lancaster County that weren’t addressed in the county’s Places2040 plan.

Differences of opinion no longer can hold Lancaster County back.

As former Manheim Township Commissioner Carol Simpson and retired landscape architect Robert Shenk — co-chairs of the summit’s steering committee — wrote in a March 13 Sunday LNP ' LancasterOnline column, “Unless we return to the spirit of cooperation, we’ll only further the decline of discourse that has made for great political theater, but has eroded faith in institutions that are crucial for solving the serious problems we face.”

The housing question

Among the thorniest problems Lancaster County faces is the lack of affordable housing. One of the key obstacles is our unyielding insistence that high-density developments not be built in our own neighborhoods. We may approve of such developments in theory, but we want them built somewhere far from our backyards.

Last year, county planning officials used 2020 census population and housing data to calculate the average amount of land occupied by homes in Lancaster County. “The analysis showed the density levels of new developments between 2015 and 2019 remain stubbornly low, about 4.6 homes per acre. The county set a 7.5 homes-per-acre goal in 2018,” LNP ' LancasterOnline’s Tom Lisi reported at the time.

Homes are being built on land designated for development — but because they are single-family homes, they’re taking up too much land.

As we noted in October, “land that could be used in a smarter, less expansive and more inclusive way becomes yet another sprawling development of single-family homes on oversized lots. And those new single-family homes often are priced at more than $300,000, which is beyond the reach of even many middle-class families. That was the case even before the current seller’s market and the national rise in construction costs.”

No wonder that, as LNP ' LancasterOnline noted, a particular statistic was repeated throughout Thursday’s summit.

It was this: There are about 4,300 homes in Lancaster County with rents low enough to accommodate families of two or three making around $40,000 a year or less.

As this newspaper reported, “To meet the demand for such units, the county would need about 1,150 more to become available each year over a decade, according to Michaela Allwine, director of housing and community development at the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.”

And under current conditions, “we’ll be lucky if we hit 100, 80 in a good year,” said Claude Hicks, senior vice president of real estate development at Lancaster-based HDC MidAtlantic.

If this trajectory is to change, municipalities will need to coordinate zoning ordinances to make them more uniform and predictable, LNP ' LancasterOnline noted, and they will need to remove restrictive zoning that impedes anything but single-family homes. Municipal officials also will need to find better ways to engage local residents so that public meetings about mixed-use developments do not turn into angry shoutfests, as they now too often do. And those officials are going to need to summon the courage to explain why, for instance, a suburban plot of land in a designated growth area is just as good, and as necessary, a location for affordable housing as the city site of a former hospital.

Lancaster County employers need workers. And those workers need homes that won’t drain their incomes.

Officials also are going to have to counter the narrative that apartment buildings worsen transportation problems and stress public schools. As Scott Standish, executive director of the county’s planning department, told Lisi last year, that’s not necessarily the case. A multiple-use development can include stores and eateries to which residents can walk, thereby reducing local traffic. But that misconception often derails even preliminary discussions about such developments.

If Lancaster County is to retain its farmland, wide-open spaces and natural habitats, things are going to have to change, and soon.

We laud the Places2040 Summit organizers for bringing people together in the aim of helping Lancaster County to make the most of its many assets.

Now we need to see a substantive plan that offers real solutions to the problems we’ve been discussing for too long.

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