Keystone Crossroads

Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU and three other public media newsrooms in Pennsylvania are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis -- and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, Web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

 

For months now, Governor Tom Wolf has been promising a radical departure in his budget proposal for next fiscal year.

On some counts, he delivered on Tuesday.

Gone from Wolf's plan are the broad-based taxes the Democrat attempted to pass in his last two budgets. Instead, the proposal is balanced largely on a little more than $2 billion in efficiency savings.

"Harrisburg," Wolf said in his address at a joint legislative session," has been living beyond its means. Households can't do that, and neither can we."

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

 

The Municipal Sanctuary and Federal Enforcement, or SAFE, Act would restrict state funding for communities where law enforcement agencies don't cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The bill would require municipalities to prove they're complying with the law  when submitting applications for certain state grants, loans and economic development and other programs.

More than$1.3 billion could be affected, according to estimates from legislation sponsors.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

 

Communities patrolled full-time by Pennsylvania State Police,  instead of local officers, would pay $25 per resident under the budget proposed for next year by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Troopers are solely responsible for policing more than half the state's municipalities, home to 21 percent of Pennsylvania residents.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

 

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority issued an advisory to nearly 100,000 city residents to boil water before using it. While PWSA found no contaminants, lower than normal levels of disinfection were found at a reservoir supplying much of the central and eastern parts of the city.

The Highland Park Reservoir water is treated with microfiltration, but an additional chlorine treatment ensures redundancy, making sure all pathogens have been removed. Lower than normal levels of chlorine triggered the advisory.

Jessica Kourkounis / Keystone Crossroads

 

 

Walk around the offices of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, and you'll find plans to do good behind every door. There's a food bank, a land bank, a work skills class, and programs to assist with affordable housing.

Executive Director Alan Jennings pokes his head into an empty classroom packed with chairs.

"This is a community room where we hold, in this case, home ownership seminars," said Jennings. "We have some 75-plus people who will be here tomorrow, learning how to become first time home buyers."

Keith Srakocic / AP File Photo

 

 

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) announced Thursday that State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh will shut down by June 30, 2017.

As the state faces a $600 million budget gap this year alone, DOC said the most effective way to cut costs is to close prisons. Falling rates of crime, incarceration, and recidivism means inmate populations are down, and allows this reshuffling of inmates, said Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

Emily Cohen / Newsworks

 

At 5:30 in the morning of November 9, 2016, Natasha Taylor-Smith crept into her 13-year-old daughter's bedroom. 

She picked up her daughter's smartphone, typed "CNN.com" into the browser and saw a large picture of now-President Donald Trump.

Taylor-Smith put down the phone and woke her daughter up.

"As soon as she opened her eyes, she says, 'Did Hillary win?' and I said, 'No,'" Taylor-Smith recalled. 

Her daughter gave her a confused look. 

"'Donald Trump's going to be our president?" she asked.

"Yes," Taylor-Smith replied.

Jason Plotkin / York Daily Record

 

Pennsylvania communities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials would not only possibly lose some federal funding under President Trump’s latest executive order — they’d get cut off from state grants, too, under a bill that cleared a state Senate panel Wednesday.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

 

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed two executive orders on immigration. The first called for a "large physical barrier" between Mexico and the United States. The other announces plans to remove federal funding from sanctuary cities. 

Sanctuary cities are places that do not cooperate with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in the apprehension and detainment of people in the country illegally. 

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

 

It's been three weeks since the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) announced five prisons were being considered for closure: State Correctional Institutions Pittsburgh and Mercer in the western part of the state, and Waymart, Retreat, and Frackville in the east. More than 2,500 prisoners will be relocated to other prisons throughout the state.

Over the last two years the state’s inmate population dropped by nearly 1,600 people. That reduction allows the Department of Corrections to reshuffle inmates and shutter prisons.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

 

Autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous broadband internet, improved energy systems — attendees at the U.S. Conference of Mayors buzzed with the potential technology in store for their cities.

In the 20 years the internet has existed, it has revolutionized the way we interact with the world, said Joanne Hovis. She’s president of CTC Technology & Energy, an IT consulting firm in Maryland. She said communities that prioritize global access to the internet spur innovation and entrepreneurship.

John Minchillo / AP Photo

 

While Washington, D.C. prepared for the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, more than 300 mayors gathered blocks from the White House for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

They chatted, they swapped cards, they exchanged insight on engaging seniors, dealing with hunger, and and how to pay for infrastructure.

While Pennsylvania mayors said they’re largely hopeful that the new administration will work with cities, they’re not holding their breath.

collage of pictures of Trump supporters
Lindsay Lazarski, Jessica Kourkounis, Margaret Krauss / Keystone Crossroads

Keystone Crossroads will be checking in with Trump voters from around the state throughout his presidency. This is the first installment in an occasional series called "I Voted Trump," telling the story of the next four years through the eyes of the new president's supporters.

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

 

More than 2,500 municipalities and 67 counties just released their budgets for the upcoming year. So what are the trends? What rises to the top?

It's tough to say in any kind of comprehensive, precise way because, well, Pa.'s governance is really fragmented.

Statewide data also tends to publish on a two-year lag and submissions are inconsistent in number, content and form.

That said, here’s what we found:

Gaming revenue impacts, explained

Eleanor Klibanoff / WPSU

 

At Monday night's State College Borough Council meeting, council members voted unanimously to make State College a sanctuary city. Sanctuary cities are places that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities in the pursuit and detainment of people who may be in the country illegally. 

As councilman Jesse Barlow explained it, State College "will not voluntarily assist in any effort by the federal government to apprehend, detain or deport community members." 

Jessica Kourkounis / Keystone Crossroads

There’s been some talk in Harrisburg and around the state about tax incentive programs lately. Two programs in particular are standing out. The Neighborhood Assistance Program is firmly moving forward. The Keystone Opportunity Zones however, seem to be walking along a fine line.

READ MORE

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

 

It started as a pothole.

A driver blew a tire in the Borough of Ephrata at 6 a.m. on Election Day and alerted the public works department.

By the time the sun came up the following day, the sinkhole was 30 feet wide, said Paul Swangren, superintendent of Ephrata’s public works and water. By some estimates the hole was 20 feet deep. After swallowing the intersection of West Pine Street and Park Avenue, it threatened two apartment buildings and almost ruptured a natural gas line.

Marc Levy / AP Photo

 

Most challenges to gun-control ordinances in recent years in Pennsylvania have been dismissed outright — generally, because the plaintiffs lacked standing after the courts overturned a state law known as Act 192.

Lower Merion Township’s effort to ban the use of guns in its parks is different, however, because one plaintiff in the suit challenging that ordinance resides in the township.

While Montgomery County Court ultimately upheld Lower Merion's ordinance, an appeals court issued a 2-1 decision a couple weeks ago against the township.

Emily Previti / WITF

 

Some counties in Pennsylvania go without updating their property values for decades, far longer than the six-year maximum wait recommended by the International Association of Assessing Officers.

Almost everywhere else, revaluation is either handled at the state level or required at a set interval by state law, according to IAAO surveys.

Lindsay Lazarski and AP

 

If you've been spending time with family this holiday season, you may have come face-to-face with a truth Pennsylvania cities know all too well: it's hard to escape a nickname. Everyone knows Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love and Pittsburgh is the Steel City, which makes sense. The state itself is nicknamed after a keystone, the center, wedge-shaped stone in an arch that connects and supports both sides. It earned that nickname because it was in the center of the 13 colonies and was so key to the creation of the United States.

Lindsay Lazarski and Jessica Kourkounis / WHYY

 

The Keystone Crossroads team reflected on our body of work over past year and picked these highlights.

Take a look. Feedback is welcome. So are suggestions for next year's coverage.

READ MORE Keystone Crossroads is a statewide public media initiative reporting on the challenges facing Pennsylvania's cities. WPSU is a participating station.

Gene J. Puskar / AP File Photo

 

Moving people from one place to another means traffic: highway jams, crowded buses, overworked subways; and let’s not get into the bike lane squabbles. But one transit option remains blissfully serene: cable-propelled transit systems.

It’s a broad category of conveyance that includes gondolas, aerial tramways, funiculars, and in western Pennsylvania, inclines: cars that move up and down a set of tracks, driven by cables.

Photo Courtesy Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency

 

Across the United States generally, and Pennsylvania cities specifically, there's a constant, gnawing issue that worries elected leaders, social service agencies and the poor alike. There's not enough affordable housing and it often feels like there never will be. 

But there would be a lot less affordable housing available if it weren't for the creation of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program in 1986. LIHTC was created during the last major tax reform effort undertaken in this country under President Ronald Reagan. 

Ian Willms / Keystone Crossroads

 

What a difference a two hour drive can make.

Students in Erie, Pa. attend a public school district that’s teetering on the brink of collapse. 

Staffing has been downsized to bare-bones levels. Many of the schools are badly in need of repairs. And the superintendent has proposed shuttering all high schools.

The city district, though, is surrounded on all sides by better-resourced suburban schools that serve less needy children.  This is the hallmark of Pennsylvania’s K-12 landscape: stark resource discrepancies between schools in different zip codes.

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP file photo

 

During the 2016 presidential primaries, candidate Senator Bernie Sanders proposed an ambitious plan to make state colleges and universities tuition-free. On the campaign trail, the Democrat from Vermont spoke about how increased access to higher education would improve the nation's workforce. 

The idea didn't gain much political support (though it was very popular amongst his supporters). The consensus seemed to be that free college tuition was a good idea, but the chance of actually getting it funded would be next to impossible. 

Alex Brandon / AP File Photo

 

Pittsburgh is a pretty good place to talk about why reliable infrastructure matters, said Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

 

The Pittsburgh Tenants Union has been "a long time coming," said Ronell Guy, executive director of The Northside Coalition for Fair Housing. The resident-focused community development organization is spearheading efforts to create a city-wide tenants union.

“For the last 15 years, I’ve been trying to organize residents to stand up and have a voice in this city. The city of Pittsburgh is in a complete housing crisis,” she said, adding that the wait for affordable housing units can be years-long.

AP Photo

 

The last eight years were pretty good for the relationship between Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania's major cities. President Obama made visits to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the Democratic leadership in both cities worked closely with his administration. Sure, there's always room for more funding and more cooperation, but their progressive policies met little resistance from the Commander in Chief. 

Courtesy of Stockton Williams, ULI

 

The traditional narrative goes like this: After World War II, upper and middle class white families fled the inner cities for the suburbs. They were chasing the "American Dream" of white picket fences, two car garages and shopping centers you could drive to. The children of those Baby Boomers grew up, fought back and now, are moving back to the cities.

Ryan Loew / For Keystone Crossroads

 

Moving goods on barges is big business, but the lock system those barges rely on teeters on the brink of failure.

Deckhands Jeremy Groves and Dustin Frazee descend from the towboat D.L. Johnson to inspect their cargo: a single barge of coal. They circle the barge, walking along its edges — the gunnels — to make sure everything looks okay. Satisfied, they pick up kevlar lines and loop them around the barge’s timberheads. A 40-ton winch aboard the D.L. Johnson pulls the barge snug against the boat. That way, the cargo won’t wander as it’s pushed down the upper reaches of the Ohio River.

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