City Council wants to fix Pittsburgh's roads and bridges, but where will the money come from?
Legislation to address Pittsburgh’s many infrastructure needs won near unanimous support on Wednesday during City Council’s standing committee meeting. The three bills would create a commission to help prioritize what assets need investment first, require regular reports on city infrastructure, and also create a task force to ensure that infrastructure investments are made equitably.
“It will be helpful for peace of mind,” Councilor Anthony Coghill said. “The public is questioning the safety, our neglect of our bridges over the past decades.”
Wednesday's council action comes weeks after a multi-lane bridge considered to be in “poor condition” collapsed in Frick Park. There are more than 20 other city-owned bridges in poor condition. The designation is not a proxy for danger but it does make people worry. “I second guess bridges I go across now,” Coghill said.
While amendments to the bills addressed concerns raised in last week’s meeting, Councilor Ricky Burgess continued to urge council to sharpen its focus.
“Where do we go from here, where’s the real work?” he said. “The real work is getting the money.”
No one disagreed.
President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law will create new pots of federal and state funding, but in most cases, municipal governments must first put up their own funds as matching money.
Burgess said that simply reallocating funding from other initiatives would be neither sufficient nor prudent. He noted that the city has committed itself to fund affordable housing, to support community organizations, and to combat institutional racism.
“Let me tell you where we’re not taking the money from,” he said, noting that Pittsburgh was faced with difficult financial choices when it entered a state program for distressed cities called Act 47 in 2003. “We took it from low- and moderate-income communities, they got less resources.”
Instead, Burgess was adamant that council find new local money to fund infrastructure, and said there are only a few choices: to raise property taxes, something he opposes, or to create new revenue streams.
Councilor Daniel Lavelle suggested two other possibilities: to borrow money, which he said he would not support, and “going after chronically under-assessed properties, that could be new revenue we currently don’t see.”
A series of amendments added four new members to the commission on infrastructure asset reporting and investment: along with representatives of the construction industry and organized labor, the group will now include a representative of the National Society of Black Engineers, a representative of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a representative of Southwestern Pennsylvania Engineering Outreach, and a representative of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania. The mayor will appoint the members, and another amendment made those appointments subject to council approval.
Councilor Deb Gross applauded the inclusion of “subject matter experts” and the commission’s more narrow focus on the city’s “most vulnerable assets”: bridges, tunnels, major roadways, and infrastructure at risk of being damaged by landslides.
The joint task force that will ensure equitable disbursement of infrastructure investments will create an “Equity First Spending Plan.” The legislation says that the plan will prioritize projects that support community and economic development projects in Black communities, that create opportunities for Black and minority-owned businesses, and that invest in infrastructure and transit assets “in low-income and predominantly [African American] communities to reverse decades of intentional disinvestment and deferred maintenance.”
All three bills were recommended for passage, and will go to a vote next week.