Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Flood of Tears and Dollars

A Tale of Two Cities – Clairton and Johnstown

It was the best of times, it is the worst of times: With apologies to Charles Dickens, let me tell you about my hometown; Clairton, PA. As you browse through past posts about Clairton you will see that it has a rich history. The area was originally settled by various Indian tribes, and then farmed under patents from the British and was later the site of the Whisky Rebellion. Industry began to creep in during the latter 19th century with a piano factory, a baling wire factory, a glass factory and other manufacturing plants. Since Clairton sits on the Monongahela River it was an attractive location for factories to receive their raw materials and ship their finished products using the nation’s original interstate highway system – the rivers of the area. In the early 20th century the steel industry discovered Clairton and surrounding communities and giant steel mills were built along the rivers. Clairton grew and thrived. Fortunes were made by a few and a good life was enjoyed by many as the mills paid the bulk of local taxes. The City of Clairton had state-of-the-art police and fire equipment and the schools generated first-generation Americans, African Americans, and Anglo Americans who went on to college and made their marks on the world. Many have been highlighted in earlier posts.

The Worst of times: With the decline of the steel industry Clairton began to not only lose jobs and its tax base from the mills, but many of those bright, promising young people who left for college and the military, opted to not return. As the older generation began to die off the hopelessness of a poor economy enticed younger ones with the usual sinister issues of substance abuse, crime, and more feelings of hopelessness. Downtown business closed and a thriving community that once boasted as many as 12 new car dealerships, three movie theaters, and some of the most elegant homes in the area began to crumble – literally. A few hearty souls continue to try to restore Clairton to some semblance of its former glory, but it has been a difficult task. But then there came a glimmer of hope!

Pennsylvania Turnpike Highway Route 43: Route 43 is often referred to as the Mon-Fayette Expressway although it is officially named the James J. Manderino Highway. It was named after the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, who died in 1989. Route 43 is a 66 mile leg of the Pennsylvania Turnpike system that is designed to go from I-68 near Morgantown WVA to I-376 in Pittsburgh. The highway has been mostly completed up to Route 51 in Jefferson Hills near the edge of Clairton, but the funding for the last segment seems to have dried up. The reason that final leg is so important to Clairton residents is that once that it is completed, Clairton becomes attractive as a bedroom community to young professionals who work in Pittsburgh. The 20-30 minute commute will offer the low taxes and unbelievably low housing prices. Clairton is a place where a home can be purchased for less than the price of a car! Where might those funds have gone? Let’s look 85 miles to the east.

The Great Johnstown Flood: In a few days the village of Johnstown, PA, 85 miles east of Clairton, will mark the 120th anniversary of the Great Johnstown Flood. That flood killed more than 2,000 people and caused $ 17 million in property damage. The more recent flood came as the result of a powerful politician by the name of John Murtha – but this time the area became awash in dollars rather than floodwaters. Murtha, a powerful Democrat from Johnstown decided his community needed an airport upgrade and did he ever get one! Using ten times the amount of money caused by damage from the Great Johnstown Flood, Murtha, known as “The King of earmarks” was able to upgrade the sleepy Cambria County airport – which was recently renamed the John Murtha Johnstown Cambria County Airport. (The sign in front of the airport shows the Murtha name much larger than the airport name)

A Study in Earmark Money: The Murtha airport is located about 2 hours by car, or 12 minutes by commercial jet from the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. If a Hertz car rental is needed at Murtha, one must phone the agent in Johnstown, who will deliver the keys. In the past decade the airport has received over $150 million including money for a $7 million control tower (staffed by FAA controllers of course), a $14 million hangar that mostly sits empty, and an $18 million reinforced runway that can accommodate any commercial plane that flies America’s skies.

A place to explore: At 10 a.m. on a recent morning, one of the busiest times at most airports, not a passenger could be found at Murtha. Sometime later four passengers wandered in and passed easily through the seven-person TSA security line en route to board one of the three daily flights – all to Washington D.C. Each passenger’s ticket price is subsidized with matching funds. An average of 20 people per day cost the government about $2,000 daily for those subsidies. A recent Washington Post article reported, “Inside the terminal on a recent weekday, four passengers lined up to board a flight, outnumbered by seven security staff members and supervisors, all suited up in gloves and uniforms to screen six pieces of luggage. For three hours that day, no commercial or private planes took off or landed. Three commercial flights leave the airport on weekdays, all bound for Dulles International Airport.” Oh, by the way, in case you wonder where some of your stimulus money is going, $800,000 of it went to pave a backup runway at Murtha’s airport.

Highways vs. Skyways: Rep. Murtha uses the airport frequently during his campaign jaunts between home and Washington. It must be important to him to have high tech radar, the type of which is usually only placed in international airports, inside the brand new state-of-the-art tower. He is a large man, so perhaps it is important to have a restaurant in that new terminal, a full contingent of security guards, supervisors, carousels and related luggage equipment. Communities such as Clairton and others along the proposed Route 43 continue to languish without funds for the completion of their highway. They come to the table in sackcloth and ashes and like the orphan Oliver Twist they beg for just a little more. Meanwhile, 85 miles away, some 20 passengers per day walk through a luxurious, fully staffed airport and select one of three nearly empty airliners with leather seats and full amenities that will take them to the Nation’s Capital. Johnstown got the pork. Clairton got the beans

A little blogging music Maestro.... “Pork and Beans” by Weezer.

Dr. Forgot

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is REALLY funny... and sad.