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.

On a recent weekend stroll at Point State Park, in Pittsburgh, visitors sunned themselves in the grass and along the low walls of the park. The park is a triangle of green at the very place where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio River. At the tip of the Point kids splashed in a fountain, and a rainbow shimmered through the spray. Looking east along the rivers bridges stitched the city together with yellow seams. 

Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

Across the state, students are wrapping up internships and summer jobs, signing up for fall classes and preparing for another school year at one of Pennsylvania's 200+ colleges and universities.

But once they graduate, how many of those students will stay in the area where they were educated?

Map of city road conditions.
Christoph Mertz

Christoph Mertz spends his days looking at cracks in the street.

“Once you’re involved in something like this, you see every crack in the road, every pothole, you say, ‘ohhh, this is interesting,’” he said as he wove around sizeable potholes on the narrow streets behind Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. A small camera mounted on his windshield much like a GPS device shot video of the pavement unspooling in front of him as he drove. He said he relished finding really deteriorated streets because “it’s a really good example for my data.”   

Sounding the Alarm for Volunteer Firefighters

May 8, 2015
Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

The idea of volunteer fire departments originated in Pennsylvania and it's certainly a hallmark of the state: around 90 percent of Pa.'s fire departments are volunteer. But these departments are facing big challenges. Volunteer numbers are down and for many municipalities, funding is an ongoing headache.

Irina Zhorov/WESA

Homer City Police Chief, Louis Sacco, is one of just three people – two active and one retired – in his pension plan. He drives around the tiny borough, about 50 miles East of Pittsburgh, with views of looming power plant stacks in the distance and a partly shuttered Main Street.

He’s constantly waving at passersby, many of them people he grew up with, people whose tax payments help fund his pension. What’s it feel like to be the guy in such a small plan? I ask.

Kelly Tunney/WPSU

Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

It's Friday, which means it's time for our roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Don't miss our TV program: Keystone Crossroads: Bridging our Communities


Emily Previti/WITF

 Some Pennsylvania lawmakers say the rules governing public pensions need to change, but not everyone follows the guidelines already in place.

And it looks like they might not have to.

For example: The state audited 325 public safety retirement funds in the past year. More than one quarter of them were cited for awarding pensions in excess of what the law allows, according to an analysis by Keystone Crossroads.

That’s a problem.  But not much effort seems to go into fixing it.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

At the end of 2011, the city of Allentown had a problem. There was a gaping hole in its fire department.

No, not a literal hole. Forty-three of its firefighters retired at once. Not only did the city lose wisdom and experience. But suddenly, it owed millions of dollars more every year in retirement benefits it couldn't afford.

What drove these city firefighters out of their jobs?

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Many Pennsylvania municipalities are already taking steps towards reforming their pension plans. Because municipalities cannot legally break pension obligations already promised, reform usually means changing the pension plans for new employees while older employees' pensions remain intact. So what does that mean? Is the younger generation bearing the brunt of pension reform?

"Set for life"

Courtney and Alex Hayden live in a house just outside the Borough of State College with their two cats.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

As we were reporting on the problem of unfunded pensions in Pennsylvania, it occurred to us to ask: How did pensions come about, anyway? Who ever thought to let people retire and keep paying them after they’ve stopped working? And is the problem of underfunded pensions a recent phenomenon?

Our attempts to answer these questions pointed us to North Carolina State University professor of economics Robert Clark, who wrote "A History of Public Sector Pensions in the United States."

Joe Rosipal, 70, a retired Monroeville police officer, with a photograph of himself in his 40s, when he was part of the motorcycle division.
Irina Zhorov/WESA

Standing in a sun-drenched room, Jim Rosipal pointed to a framed assemblage on the wall. In it, a police officer’s uniform shirt, a medal for valor, a gas cap cover from the Harley Davidson he rode, and valve stem covers in the shape of little pigs. “Back in those days we were called pigs every now and then,” Rosipal said. “Didn’t bother us at all.” 

Rosipal worked for the Monroeville Police Department for 28 years. After serving in the Vietnam War and a brief stint as a security guard, it was his first and last full time job. 

Commuter traffic in Philadelphia
AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek

Compared to commuters in other states, a larger portion of Pennsylvanians commute alone and have relatively shorter trips to work.

Researchers expected that, according to Penn State Data Center analyst Jennifer Shultz.

What they did not anticipate: Pennsylvania workers seem to have an earlier afternoon commute, compared to other states such as New York, Schultz says.

group shot of 2015 Blueprint Communities graduates
Kate Lao Shaffner

What does it take to turn a community around?  Revitalization work is certainly more than just ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Every new bike path, main street project, or historic rehab likely represents stacks of paperwork and years of planning. 

A knockoff of Walker Evans' 1935 photograph from St. Michael’s Cemetery in south Bethlehem looking at the blast furnaces in the distance taken March 11, 2015.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

 Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

Happy Friday! Here's this week's roundup of recommended reading.

Capitol recap

Capitol Recap is our weekly look at how state government affects cities. This week: Pa.'s billion-dollar pension problem. (Did you know Pennsylvania's two statewide retirement systems for teachers and state workers are the second-worst funded in the country?)

Q & A with Meghan Ashlin Rich on revitalizing small cities

Mar 9, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Meghan Ashlin Rich is a professor of sociology/social justice and women's studies at University of Scranton. Her research involves issues like race, class, and social change in urban neighborhoods. Rich has studied revitalization efforts in Scranton and Baltimore, Maryland. Keystone Crossroads' Kate Lao Shaffner spoke with Rich about Scranton's revival, the advantages of small cities, and whether big city revitalization ideas can work in smaller communities.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

It's Friday! Here's a roundup of recommended reading from this week.

Budget unveiled

Let's start off with the governor's budget address.


Keystone Crossroads publishes a weekly roundup of links related to Pennsylvania cities. 

Is it Friday already?

It's time for our weekly roundup of city-related reads you may have missed (you know, if you need a break from obsessing over llamas and the white-gold/blue-black dress).

Capitol recap

Report says Pennsylvania's income growth is 'lopsided'

Jan 26, 2015
AP File Photo/Matt Rourke

The Economic Policy Institute and Economic Analysis and Research Network released a report today measuring income growth inequality state by state.

The report looked at Internal Revenue Service pretax income numbers before and after the Great Recession to determine which portion of income earners have benefited the most from recovery.

Credit AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

The National Rifle Association filed suit this week against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lancaster, claiming these cities' local gun ordinances defy state law. These lawsuits are made possible by new state legislation that took effect last week.

Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU

Urban revitalization often brings to mind preservation and rehabilitation—people like the idea of saving old buildings. But the reality is, in Pennsylvania's post-industrial cities, there are many, many buildings that will never be rehabbed.

Sometimes, before you rebuild, you have to tear down—and it helps do to it strategically.

Marielle Segarra/WHYY

This is the second story of our three-part series on the state's bridges.

Twenty-three percent of Pennsylvania's bridges are structurally deficient, and many need to be replaced. But between permitting, design, and construction, building a new bridge takes years.

That's why the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is trying to speed things up.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

This is the first story of our three-part series on the state's bridges.

If you drive in Pennsylvania, you've probably crossed a structurally deficient bridge. Maybe you're driving over one right now.

State College pilots web project to boost civic engagement

Dec 11, 2014
Kate Lao Shaffner/WPSU


What stops people from being engaged in your community? Perhaps local government meetings aren't held at convenient times. Or people feel like they don't know enough about local issues. Or maybe they don't think they can make a difference.

Whatever the reason, it can be tough to get residents involved in community matters.

Keystone Crossroads mapped out all of Pennsylvania's structurally deficient bridges. Check out the interactive map on Keystone Crossroads' website.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Registered voters head to the polls on Tuesday to cast their ballots for Pennsylvania governor, U.S. Representative, State Senator, State Representative and local referendums. Catch up on who is running in your district and other essential information about Election Day 2014.

Back to basics

If you are a registered voter, but unsure of where to cast your vote, find your polling place by punching your address into the Pennsylvania Department of State database.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Here's a scenario many Americans have experienced first hand: You're loaded with debt. Your checking account's near zero. And you need a lot of cash.

What do you do?

Would you sell your car? If you own your house, would you get a home equity loan?

Cashed-strapped cities in Pennsylvania are asking a similar question — specifically: should they lease or sell their assets to balance the budget?

The "new oil"

Pocket guide to Pennsylvania gubernatorial race

Oct 15, 2014

Want a quick and simple summary of the gubernatorial candidates' backgrounds and platforms? Check out Keystone Crossroads/Newsworks' pocket guide to the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race here

What are the issues facing Pennsylvania’s cities and towns? That’s the question being explored by a new public radio project called Keystone Crossroads. WPSU is a part of this project and tomorrow in Altoona we’ll be holding a forum to find out what you think we should be reporting on. WPSU’s Emily Reddy talked with Keystone Crossroads’ editor, Naomi Starobin, about the project and the forum.

The forum takes place Oct. 7 from 7-9pm with registration and refreshments starting at 6:30pm. Click here to sign up so we'll know you're coming.

A new municipality in Antietam Valley?

Sep 24, 2014
Kate Lao Shaffner

Pennsylvania has more local governments than any other state except Texas and Illinois. There are some downsides to this, including the inefficiency and expense of duplicated services, and the potential for competition among municipalities.

Outdoor Cafe
AP file Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

"Five Questions with ..." is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania's top urban thinkers and doers. Todd Erdley is the president and CEO of Videon in State College.

Q: What amenity or service that you've seen in your travels to other places do you wish you could bring back to your community?