Saturday, March 22, 2008

Return of the Spine Line?

It's baaack! Penn PIRG, the Sierra Club, the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, the SEIU, and a gaggle of politicians want to revive the Spine Line: the semi-mythical light rail line between Downtown and Oakland.

In the years since this project went down the tubes, we've seen traffic congestion and gas prices climbing into the stratosphere, not to mention the number of people working and studying in Oakland at the ever-metastasizing UPMC, Pitt and CMU. If it had been built, the Spine Line would have been up and running by now, helping to relieve Oakland's infamous congestion and parking problems.

The whole Spine Line saga parallels the Star Wars saga:
  • Spine Line: The Prequels. Trolleys and the PatTrain take the same route to oblivion as the Jedi, with the ill-fated Skybus serving as a sideshow distraction like the pod race. A new order of limited light rail for downtown and the privileged southern suburbs emerges.
  • Spine Line: A New Hope. Light rail links are proposed for the North Side and Oakland. Millions of dollars are spent in studies and route planning. Hope rises to the point where people start squabbling over whether the Spine Line should go through the Hill District or along Second Avenue.
  • Spine Line: The County Commissioners Strike Back. The Three Stooges, er, Allegheny County Commissioners (Bob Cranmer, Larry Dunn and Mike Dawida), politicians whose antics not only sealed their own doom but torpedoed the entire concept of the county commissioner, cancel the Spine Line and the North Side connector. The Connector was later restored, but only for serving the stadiums, apparently on the theory that suburbanites can't walk across a bridge to go to football and baseball games. It doesn't go to places where people actually live (the rest of the North Side) or go to school (CCAC).
  • Spine Line: Return of the Spine Line. Now, years later, someone has finally decided that it's better late than never: the Spine Line should be built.
How this is going to happen is another story. There's almost certainly no money for it right now, not even for redoing the necessary studies. County Executive Dan Onoroto says that the Port Authority shouldn't build it until it gets its financial house in order, a prospect that seems as remote as that galaxy far, far away.

Perhaps, like the fabled Star Wars sequels, the sequel to the Spine Line saga will live only in the imaginations of public transit riders and everyone who's ever been stuck in traffic while trying to get to Oakland. But maybe, just maybe, this project will be dusted off and begun anew. Maybe the next president will decide to jump-start the economy by blowing some of our tax money on infrastructure instead of flushing it down the rathole in Iraq. Maybe $4.50/gallon gas will be the kick in the pants that we need to get behind alternatives to the car. Maybe our local leaders will finally support transportation projects that don't involve ripping up great swaths of Pittsburgh to make way for more cars. Maybe one day, I'll take the 91A into town, hop into a light rail car, and be whisked on the new Spine Line to Oakland and beyond. It may be a doomed dream, but someone just cranked up its life support.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fear and Loathing at the Sharpsburg Bingo

I was on the bus with Jamie a few days ago. She and her girlfriends went to the bingo in Sharpsburg last weekend. Apparently it was, er, interesting:

“When we got to the bingo, we found some empty seats and sat down. Then this lady came running over to us. 'You can't sit there! That's my lucky seat!' She made such a scene that we got up and moved across the hall. But when we sat down there, another lady started yelling at us. 'I've been sitting there for 20 years! You can't sit in my lucky chair!' So we moved a third time. Another person told us we couldn't sit there because she was saving that seat! Finally, I went to the woman who runs the bingo and asked her, 'Is there anyplace safe for us to sit?' She showed us to some seats in the back.

“Then we got started. All of the regulars brought little figurines and statues to put around their bingo cards. A lot of them had those wire note holders – you know, the ones you put on your desk to hold business cards and notes? Only these ones all had their lucky bingo numbers in them. Some of them had so many that they made a square around the cards.

“This one woman had a whole bunch of little elephant figurines: all sorts of elephants in different shapes and sizes. She had them lined up around her bingo cards like some kind of elephant train. Anyhow, during the break I went over to look at them. I pointed to of them and told her it was really cute, but I accidentally touched it when I was pointing at it. She jumped up and started screaming at me! 'You ruined my elephant! You drained all the luck out of it! I can't use it again!' She was going on and on about how I messed up her elephant and how she wasn't going to win anything tonight because I had screwed up her luck. I just went back to my seat.

“An older lady had about 20 bingo cards in front of her and she kept track of them all in her head. Didn't use bingo markers, chips or anything. She knew exactly where her numbers were and when she won. I've never seen anything like it!

“Anyhow, I won the $75 prize. The elephant lady didn't win anything. They have good prizes at the Sharpsburg bingo, but the people there are just crazy. The lady who runs it apologized to us and said that the regulars tend to scare everyone else away. That's the last time we're going there, that's for sure.”

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dealing Oxycontin to Pay His Cable Bill

Guy gets on in Sharpsburg. His face looks like it's seen some wear; could be he's in his '40s. His eyes are an odd shade of green in the gray morning half-light. He sits across the aisle from me, snaps his cell phone open like a switchblade, and snarls into it.

His buddy gets on a few stops later, slumps down beside him. The second guy is older, lighter haired, thicker around the middle. He complains about his hand, which was broken in a fight. Everything on his body hurts these days. (Funny, he doesn't look like the kind of guy who gets into brawls – he seems too laid back.)

“You got to go to the pain clinic. They'll set you up,” Cellphone Guy says.

Fighting Guy isn't so sure. “I just take tylenol,” he says.

“They gave me a scrip for Oxycontin for my back,” says Cellphone Guy. “I tell them my back still hurts, they refill it.”

Fighting Guy seems impressed. “Didn't know your back was that bad.”

“It ain't. I take advil and sell the Oxycontin. It pays my cable bill, and I get the Platinum package with On Demand.”

Now there's a man with modest ambitions. No “get rich or die tryin'” for him. He's satisfied with his HBO, pay-per-view boxing, and digital porn.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tales of the 91A

Every 20 minutes, a 91A bus leaves the Harmar Garage bound for Downtown Pittsburgh. People from Harmar, Blawnox, Aspinwall, Sharpsburg, Lawrenceville and the Strip District get on and off juggling their fares and passes, their shopping bags, briefcases, purses, iPods and phones.

Every person on the bus, every neighborhood the bus passes through, every bridge and street the bus goes down has its story. Here are some of the ones I've discovered.