The Upside of Snowmageddon


Mar 28, 2010

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 28, 2010.

The city's lame response shows, yet again, why we need more cooperation among local governments.

In February, as Pittsburghers shoveled snow and endured extended commutes on roads made impassable by mounds of snow, we were reminded anew that the fate of the city and its suburbs are inexorably intertwined. We ignore the needs of our neighbors at our own peril.

The series of winter storms that started Friday, Feb. 5, affected us all, but hardly equally. The storms crippled the entire region for about 24 hours. Then circumstances began to diverge depending on geography. By late afternoon on Saturday, residents of certain suburbs were out and about on relatively clear streets, while city dwellers remained snowbound. This pattern continued into the following week, as more winter storms passed through our region.

The homes of the nearly 200 RAND employees are scattered all around the Pittsburgh area. As those of us who live in suburban neighborhoods ventured into the city toward our office in Oakland, it was as if an impenetrable wall had surrounded the city over the weekend. The streets were snow-rutted graveyards for parked and stranded cars, almost completely cutting off access to the city.

While some suburban residents may have felt rather smug about their relative good fortune, we and our RAND colleagues were not among them. When a lack of snowplowing leads to lost income for individuals or businesses, the snowbound roads become more than just a nuisance. Good driving conditions near home do no good if you can't get to the places you need to go -- your workplace, your daycare center, the home of an aging relative with whom you were planning to have dinner. The immaculate clearing of some roads does not ease mobility when other roads are virtually impassable.

The problem is obvious: Each municipality, if responsible for plowing only its own streets, isn't doing as much as it could to contribute to the larger goal of region-wide mobility. And it is clear that the region as a whole suffers when people can't get where they need to go because of variations in services across our municipalities.

The solution is just as obvious. Our community should organize and act as the region that we are. Doing so could yield benefits far beyond the ability to plow whatever Mother Nature dumps upon us.

Government consolidation, which has been long debated here in Pittsburgh, could take many forms. The simplest proposal calls for cooperation in providing such local government services as garbage collection and snow removal. While more initiatives of this sort are under consideration, enthusiasm seems tepid at best.

More formal consolidation could involve political mergers of government functions and services countywide, though these options raise questions about local representation in governance. RAND work on this topic published in 2008 concluded that "key signs point to some version of consolidation as being helpful for the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County" by promoting unity of leadership and sharpening of economic-development initiatives.

Much of the debate about these consolidation proposals centers on the need to increase the efficiency of government services. Pittsburgh's snowmageddon experience, however, highlights that some sort of consolidation is desirable for other reasons.

For example, after years of negotiation, the area still does not have universal fiber-optic high-speed Internet access despite being one of the high-tech capitals of the United States. This is in part because one prospective service provider has had to negotiate separate agreements for each neighborhood through a myriad of municipalities or associated councils of government. This is an example of how fragmentation can dampen economic development and opportunity.

We are not arguing that all local government services should be consolidated, or that city-county political consolidation is the right approach. Municipal control is important, and municipal residents should have a say in how much service they want and are willing to pay for.

But we do favor an aggressive approach to resolving the widely acknowledged drawbacks of our region's fractionated government.

In a Feb. 14 Forum article, Elsie Hillman and David Roderick said it well: "The city of Pittsburgh is the center of our regional universe and deserves our attention and support." We would add that every satellite municipality should accept the reality that its success depends upon the success of the city.

There is no good reason to delay putting the issue of consolidation on the table. It's time for all Pittsburgh area communities to come together to identify what services and functions should be organized regionally for the benefit of all, and to start doing it.

Susan Everingham, Stuart Olmsted and Henry Willis work in the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research and public policy organization.

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