Editorials from around Pennsylvania:
SUBSIDIZING MORE TRAINS? TAXPAYER DANGER AHEAD, June 27
Whatever the cost is of yet another study on adding two daily passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to the one that serves Greensburg, taxpayers should hope that’s all this idea will cost them.
A state Senate resolution calling for the feasibility study doesn’t specify its cost. That, in itself, should make taxpayers wary — as should what’s known about this idea. The state pays Amtrak $2.1 million annually to run the daily Pennsylvanian. Adding just one train would hike that taxpayer-funded subsidy to an estimated $3.7 million to $6 million annually.
Then there’s the hardly trivial matter of fitting additional passenger trains into the busy schedule of freight trains that share the tracks, which Norfolk Southern owns. But never mind that, because this idea should never get to the point where it would be an actual concern.
Pouring more taxpayer dollars into passenger rail service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg makes no sense. And if this latest study finds otherwise, we have a railroad bridge we’d like to sell you.
—The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
LET’S PUT GERRYMANDERING IN REARVIEW MIRROR, June 25
While the U.S. Supreme Court considers Wisconsin’s proposed legislative district changes, we’re hearing that Pennsylvania lawmakers may be inclined to consider changing the way our state’s voting boundaries are set.
Traditionally, the party in power determines new legislative district borders based on population but in a way that gives that party the best opportunity to continue to remain in the majority.
The practice is known as gerrymandering — named for Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who led just such a partisan redraw effort back in 1812.
Some recent examples in our region:
In 2016, Republican Wayne Langerholc won election in the newly aligned 35th state Senate district, which now includes GOP strongholds in Bedford and Clearfield counties. John Wozniak, a Democrat, had held the seat for many years.
The former 12th district map — stretching from Johnstown south and west past Pittsburgh to Greene County — was once described as an upside-down flying dragon. Voters had little concept of the region represented by their congressman.
The new 12th looks more like a pendulum swinging up to the right — equally ridiculous.
In the Wisconsin case, lower courts ruled a redistricting plan as unconstitutional, halting the process. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has said he is confident the high court will declare his state’s GOP-led realignment effort constitutional, but the decision could be a year away.
“Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Wisconsin Democratic state Assembly leader Peter Barca told reporters.
That’s the gerrymandering debate in a nutshell: Is the process unfair to voters?
We don’t like the fact that one party can maneuver the system to its own long-term benefit.
But voters do have some power. They can come out in support of either Republican or Democratic candidates.
More than a year ago, we reported that state Rep. Brian Sims, from the 182nd district in Philadelphia, was introducing a joint resolution to amend the state constitution and change the way political boundaries are established — taking the process out of the hands of elected party officials and assigning the task to a “neutral” committee.
Sims’ effort was unsuccessful.
Now, legislation introduced in May is gaining some traction in the General Assembly. This bill — which has 90 co-sponsors — would likewise establish a redistricting commission.
Taking the politics out of this political process could have far-reaching ramifications, as our Harrisburg reporter, John Finnerty, noted. If a bill to reduce the size of the Legislature were to emerge and be passed, how would Pennsylvania decide which districts would be merged or eliminated?
State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, noted that any change to the manner in which Pennsylvania establishes voting districts will need to pass through two votes by the Legislature and then a statewide referendum to amend the constitution.
And to have an impact on the next redistricting period after 2010, the process would need to move along in 2017 and 2018, Barbin told Finnerty.
Still, if Pennsylvania can find a way to create more reasonable district maps in a way that treats the voting process fairly, we’ll fully support the concept.
Barbin’s 71st House district, for example, looks a bit like a large ice cream cone on its side with a martini glass stuck in the top — if you use your imagination.
“A third-grader could draw better maps than we’re using,” Barbin said. “If a third-grader could do a better job, we ought to change the way we do it.”
We could hire a bunch of third-graders.
Or we could get serious about adopting a better process for setting our political boundaries.
—The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat
REGULATION SAVES LIVES, June 28
Condemnation of the “regulatory state” is so common that “job-killing” has become the most common adjective to describe the rules to enforce everything from environmental standards to vehicle safety.
Before rushing to broad regulatory rollbacks as some sort of economic panacea, advocates of that policy should take a look at the June 14 fire in London that killed at least 79 people.
Investigators have focused on two major issues, the combustible exterior cladding on the building and the plastic rear panel on a refrigerator that might have melted rather than contain an electrical fire that started in the appliance.
The United States bans the cladding used at Grenfell Tower and 75 other apartment towers in Britain, for buildings higher than a few stories. The material has a polyethylene core that has been shown to burn. Investigators believe that fire spread rapidly up the building as it consumed the cladding.
Likewise, U.S. refrigerators have safer metal, rather than plastic, rear panels. A British study, conducted prior to the Grenfell fire, found that Britain has more deaths than the United States resulting from refrigerator fires, even though its population is about 80 percent smaller.
There undoubtedly are cases of excessive regulation. But the London fire shows that safety regulations need a scalpel rather than an ax.
—The (Scranton) Times-Tribune
IT’S TIME, June 23
Speaking about rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure last month in Cincinnati, President Trump pointed to a five-day shutdown on the Ohio River last year, which was caused by a hydraulic failure at a lock near Wellsville, Ohio, about 50 miles west of Pittsburgh.
“We simply cannot tolerate a fiveday shutdown on a major thoroughfare for American coal, American oil and American steel,” said Trump.
He pointed to federal Department of Transportation figures showing that inland waterways support more than 270,000 jobs and $30.9 million in economic activity and that the inland waterway system requires $8.7 billion in maintenance.
He added that a single towboat hauling a load of coal is the equivalent of 1,000 trucks hauling that same load on roadways.
“I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans to join together, if that’s possible, in the great rebuilding of America,” the president said. “Countless American industries, businesses and jobs depend on rivers, runways, roads and rails that are in dire and even desperate condition.”
However, a week later, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, DPa., criticized Trump, noting his budget contains no funding for crucial improvements to dams in Charleroi, Elizabeth and Braddock. The billiondollar Lower Mon Project received $82 million in federal funding this year.
“We’re in danger of losing vital economic opportunity,” said Casey. “I’m going to fight with everything I have to prevent this illadvised budget proposal.”
Casey said he is willing to work with the Trump administration if it is willing to make “serious investments to strengthening Pennsylvania’s infrastructure.”
He also discussed his plans to free up more than $100 million for lock and dam projects in the future while making reforms aimed at limiting cost overruns.
To be fair, Trump is not the first president to zero out funding for the Lower Mon Project, according to U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, RUpper St. Clair. He said President Obama did likewise, but Congress later set aside money for the project.
“I’ve been battling for full locks and dams funding for over a decade. We’ve made great strides, and I’m confident Congress will do the right thing and fund this project through to completion,” said Murphy.
Also vowing to support the project is U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, RHollidaysburg, who represents 11 counties, including all of Fayette County and parts of Westmoreland, Washington and Greene counties.
“As Congress moves through the budget and appropriations process, I’ll continue to work with the administration in my capacity as chairman of the House Transportation Committee to highlight the importance of these lock and dam restoration projects to western Pennsylvania and our country’s waterways infrastructure,” said Shuster.
Trump’s lack of support for these vital regional waterway projects is disturbing, particularly since he won this area by such a wide margin last year when he campaigned on bringing manufacturing back to this region. Let’s hope that Shuster and Murphy will able to pull the president to their side. Otherwise, there could be serious problems.
Jeff Hawk, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Pittsburgh PostGazette that the risk of failure at a local dam and lock increases as the years go by. He added it could take two years to repair, with significant disruption to barge traffic.
In the end, that would certainly be worse than a fiveday shutdown on the Ohio River.
RESIDENTS STILL CAN’T BUY THE COOL FIREWORKS IN PENNSYLVANIA, June 21
There are strange laws, and then there are strange laws.
The law in Pennsylvania governing fireworks, and who can buy them, is more than strange. It is flat-out bizarre, even by Pennsylvania standards. It makes absolutely no sense.
As it is, residents of Pennsylvania cannot buy what are commonly known as “consumer,” or Class C, fireworks. This category of pyrotechnic art includes what we almost always think of when we think of fireworks, the kind that you launch to the heavens, resulting in a bloom of sparks and explosions — the kind of fireworks that are, well, fun and associated with celebrating the nation’s birthday.
Sure, you can buy sparklers and other novelties that, in the words of York Daily Record reporter Rick Lee, “rarely elicit oohs and aahs from anyone over age 5.”
But the good stuff, the kind of stuff that would allow you to put on a show for the kids, is illegal in Pennsylvania. And the reason for that is simple — you could burn down your neighbor’s house, or cause serious injury to yourself or bystanders if you don’t know what you’re doing.
But Pennsylvania doesn’t seem to care whether nonresidents can get their hands on these things. Knock yourself out, Marylanders, seems to be the ethos at work.
You may have noticed fireworks shops along the Maryland line in southern York County — one is a very short drive from the Shrewsbury exit of Interstate 83. If you live in Pennsylvania, you cannot walk into any of those shops and buy cool fireworks.
Those shops are permitted to sell fireworks only to out-of-state residents. They have to produce ID, fill out some paperwork and promise to leave the state within 48 hours.
So it’s legal for residents of Maryland to drive to Pennsylvania to buy fireworks that are illegal in Maryland. It would be akin to Maryland legalizing the sale of marijuana, but only to residents of Pennsylvania.
The Hubble Space Telescope couldn’t find a planet where that makes any sense.
There is a bill in the state Legislature designed to address this, sort of. The proposal, introduced by state Sen. Donald White, a Republican from the Pittsburgh area, would make it legal for Pennsylvanians to buy the same category of fireworks that out-of-state residents can now purchase. The bill would still restrict the sale of larger fireworks, professional-grade pyrotechnics, to consumers.
That would at least put some equity into the law. And it would make sense.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee because fireworks fall under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture? What do fireworks have to do with agriculture?
Well, this is Pennsylvania. The state motto should be “An alternate state of being.”
Compounding the weirdness is a proposal that would name celestine the official state mineral. Celestine, mined in the commonwealth, is a source of strontium. Strontium is used in fireworks — fireworks that Pennsylvanians cannot buy in Pennsylvania.
So, to recap, you cannot buy exploding fireworks in Pennsylvania that contain what may soon be the state’s official mineral. But people from Maryland can, even though they are illegal in that state.
Just try to make sense of that.
—York Daily Record