A modest proposal

In the aftermath of the drinks tax passage, a new issue has risen to the front page: the City of Pittsburgh police claim that their fleet is in such disrepair that they are not able to efficiently respond to incidents. Therefore, I propose that the police department buy a bunch of prepaid bus tickets and have their officers respond to low-urgency calls by taking the bus. PAT’s funding woes get solved, the cops get the transportation they need, and you can bet that people will start moving to the back of the bus when a uniformed officer tells them to. Everyone wins!

In seriousness: while several of my blogging colleagues (Mark and James, I’m looking at you) are correct that we can’t tax our way to prosperity, it’s also true that basic civic infrastructure costs money. Mass transit in particular creates positive externalities (better air quality, decreased congestion on streets, increased sense of community, and fewer drunks on the roads) that can’t be captured by transit fares alone. Is a drink tax the right way to pay for it? Maybe not, but at least they’re taxing something that nobody *has* to consume. If I don’t like the tax, I can invite my friends over instead of going out to a bar. If I go out and my drinks are a bit pricier (though *still* way cheaper than Philly, New York, or DC), I can enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that my beer is helping clean up the air.

It ain’t perfect, but money has to come from somewhere, and until we get the political will to stop wasting money on giant tunnels and questionable highways, the drinks tax seems like a relatively good alternative to me.

7 Comments so far

  1. James Foreman (unregistered) on December 8th, 2007 @ 1:47 pm

    It is not the responsibility of government to decide what I need and what I don’t need, and punish me for buying the stuff it thinks I don’t need.

    I’m glad you can feel all warm and fuzzy about this city’s rampant financial abuse of its citizens, Alik, but I don’t.

    The solution to PAT’s problems is not taxation but reducing operating costs. The most obvious way to do this is by fixing the gross iniquities in the pay and benefits structures of its employees, but this will never happen as long as the union maintains its control.

    Thus, we have the standard Pittsburgh government solution: tax!

  2. Alik Widge (unregistered) on December 8th, 2007 @ 10:58 pm

    Who said anything about deciding what you do/don’t need? You’re conflating this with the tobacco tax. I’m making the point that alcohol is a luxury good — it’s not like taxing air. It’s an easily-avoided tax if one chooses.

    As for PAT’s abuses… yeah, they do have problems. No question. But I’d argue with you that the union ain’t necessarily the place to look for blame. What about those golden parachutes for their recent executives? What about the ridiculously expensive headquarters Downtown? How about we complain about those before we go begrudging some poor bus driver his wages? That’s one difficult job, most days.

  3. John Morris (unregistered) on December 9th, 2007 @ 12:45 pm

    I feel like a lot of these issues must be connected. The need for a lot of police cars and lots of miles and maintanance is likely related to sprawl. This also relates to fire, EMS and all kinds of other city services.Police on foot and bikes play a big role in dense cities like London and NYC.

    Responsible taxpayers who live in or want to live in areas that would be cheap to maintain are forced to pay for “free roads”, subsidised parking and all this redundant infrastructure often for people who do not pay city taxes. They also have to face the impact of regional “amenities” like the stadiums.

    My personal recomendation whould be to move core services and infrastructure in towards the areas of density or potential density– Downtown,The Strip, Oakland, Bloomfield, Southside, East Liberty, Shadyside, and the near North Side. Then suggest that people move to those areas and potentialy charge those who don’t some kind of tax that relates to the true cost of providing them services or warn them that these services cannot be provided.

    One clear and obvious thing to do is increase the cost of parking and slap tolls on some of the roads.

  4. John Morris (unregistered) on December 9th, 2007 @ 1:17 pm

    Serendipity made a good point about the drink tax, transit and drunk driving. The blunt fact is that the current way the city is laid out must lead a lot of people to drink and drive. This is something I noticed from the first day I moved here and I think it was the subject of my first post here.

    “While we are on the subject of drinking and driving- there is an interesting point I haven’t heard in this debate. People with cars are anxious to let public transit slip away from Pittsburgh. Hell, they are happy not to have to sit behind another goddamn bus in traffic. They don’t use mass transportation, so why should they care? And furthermore, why should they be asked to help pay for it? The answer is simple- many of the folks we rely on to keep an orderly and healthy city rely on buses to get to and from work (and that includes a lot of the staff in restaurants and bars throughout the city). Without such access they would lose their jobs. But another (perhaps more compelling reason) is that many of our fair city’s drinkers end up with suspended licenses each year. It makes sense that they should be asked to pay up front for the services they will come to rely on later- when they aren’t allowed to drive. Maybe if we actually had a well-funded public transportation system, people would use it to get home from the bars and avoid causing trouble for everyone on the road.”

    I think it’s somewhat easy to pick out the “drunk driving bar”, It’s the one on a road with no access to transit or in an area where few people live and it likely has a big parking lot. The bars in the Strip, Station Square and around the Stadiums likely get the bulk of customers driving in and out. A reasonable thing to do would be to tax that type of bar or more fairly to do constant sweeps and DWI checks around these binge drinking spots and fine the hell out drunk drivers.

  5. John Morris (unregistered) on December 9th, 2007 @ 1:55 pm

    I forgot to include the link to Serendipity’s post on the drink tax.


  6. Alik Widge (unregistered) on December 9th, 2007 @ 2:23 pm

    There’s truth to the thought that our layout encourages drunk driving.

  7. John Morris (unregistered) on December 9th, 2007 @ 3:47 pm

    There is a self evident connection. The DWI epidemic among Hollywood actors is related to the fact that so many of them live in places in which they have to drive to party. This is not a common problem on the upper east side of Manhattan or in the Village.

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