When Mayor Peduto enters The Warhol Museum, he’s greeted by Steve DiMiceli and I and then chats for a few minutes with the Warhol’s Director, Eric Shiner. His ability to keep one foot in the world of fine arts, then seamlessly transfer to a conversation centered around technology with two dorks is what sets Mayor Peduto apart from most politicians.
Mayor Peduto made it quite clear that not only would Pittsburgh aggressively pursue tech jobs, it would use technology to attract them. The mayor explained a creative Plan A and Plan B to create jobs by connecting the places supporting the land use with the places our smart people study. If you want to be a technology-first city, as Pittsburgh does, then you have to put technology first. Pittsburgh, with the vision and direction of Mayor Peduto, is on its way to that lofty goal.
Back when he was a Councilman, Peduto developed his concept of making Pittsburgh a technology hub. Instead of Silicon Valley, he envisioned a “Silicon Hollow” as a play on Panther Hollow that would link Oakland to Hazelwood.
“In 2004, there was a lot of developmental pressure coming through Oakland into the East End,” he said, as we sat in the lobby of the Warhol, under the multi-media eye of the departed artist. “I started to wonder, ‘Where are we going to put everyone if Eds and Meds come fully online?'” So he developed a concept that would link Hazelwood to the technology factory of Carnegie Mellon University using an already-existing heavy rail line, currently operated by Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVRR) and owned by CSX.
The basics of the proposed route play like this: the “hub” is at the intersection of S. Neville Street and Forbes (link opens Google Map), near Central Catholic and CMU. It would run south on the AVRR line through the Panther Hollow area down to the Monongahela River to the proposed ALMONO development. ALMONO is undergoing its environmental review and the Mayor expects the results to come back no later than April 2015. “We already have multiple clean technology companies queued up, ready to make a commitment,” he said. Naturally, non-disclosure agreements prevented him from saying exactly which companies.
But why stop there? The AVRR line runs north to the Allegheny River and meets the river at 33rd Street, so now that could open up two zones of development for companies interested in bringing technology to Pittsburgh. The Mayor and his staff have had preliminary discussions with AVRR about extending their access from the current termination point (around 20th Street) all the way into the City. Both sides have something the other wants, which is typically how deals get done.
“We’re building capacity by combining smart economic policy with good land use management and transportation planning,” said Mayor Peduto. “We now could offer companies two distinct areas to meet their potential needs.”
“It’s the chocolate in the Reese’s peanut butter cup”
How much would this Lawrenceville to Hazelwood rail line potentially cost, though? “We had a study done by a firm out of Baltimore two years ago and the cost estimate was if the existing heavy rail was used, we could create a park-n-ride system for $87 million dollars.”
There was a little bit of background noise from the piped-in music and the figure kind of hung over the table in one of the few breaks in conversation, until Steve chimed in. “That’s nothing,” he said, with a pause for, “relatively speaking of course.” In the grand scheme of things for a city of Pittsburgh’s size, that’s budget dust. When the end result could be an economic investment tenfold, twentyfold, or even greater, that would be money well spent.
In the event the Silicon Hollow heavy rail line falls through, the Mayor has a second concept in reserve. Earlier this month, private ride-sharing startup Uber announced that it was seeking to open a research and development center in Pittsburgh in the field of autonomous vehicles. “It could really take off within a year. We could become the world’s leading center for autonomous vehicles,” stated the Mayor. Uber is partnering with CMU on various trial concepts. The Mayor posited the idea of an alternative route through Schenley Park on rubber tires as the Silicon Hollow line to Hazelwood.
But the Mayor’s long-term transportation vision doesn’t stop there. “When the MLK Busway was done back in 1974, they planned for it to eventually be converted into a Light Rail System, so the base and concrete thicknesses in place today could support LRT,” he explained. “Now if that’s an LRT and then you create a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Oakland to Pittsburgh, you’ve just linked the 2nd and 3rd largest economic centers in Pennsylvania. If you run a line going west out to the airport and use the concept that you two developed to go north, now you’ve built the spine of a robust transportation network. The buses could then be used as a feeder system to these spine lines.”
Obviously, the cost to complete all of this work is far more than budget dust, so how would those funds be generated? “It could be through ‘sin taxes’ or a newly created tax levy, but we would also look heavily at P3’s,” said Mayor Peduto. P3’s are Public-Private partnerships in which a private company fronts a large portion of the money to construct a project, in exchange for a portion of the revenues on the back-end to operate it. These are becoming more and more common for governmental bodies to reduce the backlog on existing projects and pay for proposed projects.
The Mayor’s thirst for technology isn’t just all long-range, though. As soon as he entered office last year, the Mayor tasked the Public Works Department with developing a way to better account for the usage and location of the city’s snow plows during major events.
“The genesis of this came about from Snowmaggedon 2010,” said the Mayor. “People were calling the DPW and asking when their road was going to be done, but they were never able to track that info and say for certain when the next pass would be.” So the Mayor hired a new Assistant Public Works Director, Lee Haller, from the consulting firm Deloitte.
“We’re just at the nascent stage of this with Snow Tracker version 1.0,” the Mayor stated. The trucks were all fitted with GPS units so that the public can track the progress of the plow driver’s route. “We are working to develop a Route Smart system so that instead of having to rely on paper maps, especially if a driver is brought in from a different sector and is unfamiliar with the area, they can just grab a pre-programmed unit that will guide them by the most efficient route.” The Snow Tracker system may be so advanced and detail-oriented one day that a user can log on and see if the plow was up or down on the last pass and if the spreader is turning on the truck. The same technology could also be employed to coordinate street sweeping and trash pickup to make both safer and less intrusive to residents.
I read once that ‘Vision is seeing things not as they are, but as they could be’. Nevermind that it was from a fortune cookie (and that the fortune still sits on my desk on work). The statement holds true for Mayor Bill Peduto. Every great Mayor in this City’s history has had a signature ‘thing’. Mayor Peduto is shaping up to be The Technology Mayor.
Kevin Creagh is the author of Creating Christ, available now on Amazon