The Citizen Advisory Panel
Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission
Serving southwestern Pennsylvania (1994 - 1998)
In the beginning
he CAP was formed by area citizens in conjunction with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission (SPRPC) in July of 1994. The CAP mission was to provide the region's citizens with a means for proactive participation in the deliberations and decision-making with the region's transportation planning and the allocation of federal transportation dollars.
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The CAP was formed in response to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). In order to be eligible for Federal transportation funding, ISTEA required Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO's), such as SPRPC, to prepare a public participation policy which would provide for proactive citizen involvement. The Federal Highway Administration was so impressed with the opportunity for public participation which the CAP provided the six-county region around Pittsburgh, the agency used the CAP as an example in its presentations and recommended it as a model for other regions of the country.
The CAP itself was modeled (with some noteable modifications) after a group which SPRPC consultant Peter Longini had set up for the agency the year before. Feeling threatened by citizen involvement, SPRPC had eliminated that group after it met several times and began offering its opinions. The defunct prototype had been referred to as a "citizen advisory panel" and the moniker was adopted by the CAP for its official name.
The CAP in action: uncovering major irregularities
s its first order of business, the CAP's task was to review and comment upon a new regional Long Range Plan (LRP) which was then up for approval. A Long Range Plan Committee was established and its members quickly recognized that the fundamental basis of the LRP was faulty.
The LRP had been created backwards to provide for a previously existing list of politically desired projects. To justify the backwardly created LRP, the plan's creators projected an amazing 19% increase in population over the length of the planning period. CAP members challenged this projection, pointing out that the region would need to experience a wave of geriatric pregnancies for it to happen. (The region's population had been declining for decades and continues to do so today.)
From optimism to subterfuge — The CAP eventually discovered there was much more than an innocent, albeit somewhat humorous, error involved. It seems that the task force of local experts which SPRPC enlisted to develop the plan's underlying projections had, for the most part, proceeded honestly even though they leaned considerably, relying upon deliberately "optimistic" assumptions. Nonetheless, the task force had not been able to demonstrate a level of growth that would be needed to justify the projects on the plate. To resolve the impass, SPRPC's management simply ordered its staff to change the final projection numbers to whatever would be needed to justify the projects, and to make their subterfuge seem acceptable, they euphemistically referred to it as "handsetting the policy considerations."
Noble intent — Apparently having some scruples, the staff who were involved cleverly over exaggerated the population increase projections even more than would be needed to clinch approval for the politically sanctioned pork barrel projects. It's said this was so when the required environmental modeling was performed, the plan and all its projects would fail to meet the federally mandated air quality standards. The staff could then reopen the planning process and be forced to kick out the unwarranted projects. It worked! ... to a point. When the air quality modeling was first performed, the plan didn't pass and it looked as though a number of projects would need to be dropped.
Serial cover-ups — The only problem, though, is the environmental modeling team was composed of different staff. When the air modeling failed, its team simply employed a series of inappropriate and, in some cases, specifically disallowed procedures to successively falsify the model's output until the Long Range Plan and its list of bogus projects could squeak past the permissible limits. The next year, when the LRP again couldn't pass a kosher test, the team merely cooked the numbers again, though this time with a slight variation. By the time the third year rolled around, the team changed its shady tactics once more, and, once again, even with the improprieties, the hokey plan barely crossed the line.
Federal regulations require that an area with "non-conforming" (poor) air quality redo its long range plan after three years. In 1996, the region's poor air quality forced SPRPC to begin the process of developing a new Long Range Plan. New computer modeling was performed early on, generating new population projections which confirmed the CAP's assessment — the model showed a continuing decline in population for the next 15 years (with possibly a very small upturn after that).
The house of cards was exposed, and it threatened the core of the region's public policy. For decades that policy has been based upon huge public subsidies (much of it in the form of spending for costly new infrastructure) to encourage and help underwrite myriad real estate speculation projects. Under the influence, if not direction, of the Allegheny Conference, SPRPC voted to reject the new, federally mandated planning process before it was even completed. Instead, the Commission members turned around and unlawfully reaffirmed the falsified 1994 plan.
The Impacts — During its tenure, the CAP discovered serious improprieties with a substantial number of individual projects. These, however, were dwarfed in comparison to the falsification of the Long Range Plan. The LRP involves a total of around $25 Billion, amounting to all the federal funding for surface transportation coming into southwestern Pennsylvania for a twenty year period. The net result has been a deliberate misallocation of somewhere in the range of 40% of the total, or $10 Billion. This available funding is desperately needed for transportation maintenance. Instead, as a result of these improprieties, the money is being applied to projects designed to subsidize and stimulate increased real estate speculation and more suburban sprawl. In the meantime, we are left with a system that is in woefully inadequate repair, and the subsidized real estate speculation is oversupplying a declining population, thus undermining our property values.
Enforcement attempted — From the CAP's eariliest days through August of 1997, CAP members repeatedly sought to bring these matters to the attention of various federal officials with little success. The Inspector General's Office (IG) of the US Dept of Transportation was finally notified in December of 1996. When nothing transpired, a CAP member eventually threatened to visit the IG and take with him a former Deputy Secretary of Transportation who could verify and substantiate many of the problems in the region. A Deputy IG agreed to send an investigator up from Washington, DC for a day. When he left after two days of reviewing documents and interviews with CAP members, he said he would recommend a full investigation. A letter of inquiry was later sent by the IG to SPRPC. Immediately, even before it responded to the IG, SPRPC announced its intentions to remove the CAP. A few months later, the IG quietly buried "the problem" and refused to explain why.
The finale: retribution, reorganization, and retrenchment of power
n April 27, 1998, SPRPC voted to change their public participation plan by replacing the regional, open membership CAP with eleven appointed Public Participation Panels (PPP's). Membership in each of these panels is limited in number and each county recommends the members appointed to its panel. One advocate and organizer for the Mon-Fayette Expressway was appointed to chair four of the new PPP's. The CAP opposed having limited membership PPP's appointed by public officials, holding they do not satisfy ISTEA's mandate for "proactive citizen participation." The divide and conquer strategy of separating public participation into multiple county-based panels has undermined the ability of citizens to effectively coordinate across the region.
At the same time that the CAP was replaced, SPRPC itself combined with its sister agency, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Development Council (sometimes referred to as "The Council"). The rationale given for the reorganization was that the expanded scope of the new entity would better enable it to implement "market-driven planning" (the "market" being the real estate speculation market). The merger also increased the former SPRPC's territorial control by adding 50% more counties (Fayette, Greene, and Indiana Counties). The agency now operates under the name of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC).
While the CAP's official affiliation with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission was ended, being an autonomous organization, the CAP chose to try to continue functioning as an independent advisory body. Two years later, SPRPC management complained to the Three Rivers Free Net (TRFN), which hosted the CAP website, about it being online and quickly obtained its removal (TRFN, which hosts this website, is operated by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and is publicly funded). The improper removal was discussed with the ACLU but not pursued. While the CAP of SPRPC has not officially disbanded, it has not met for several years.
The lessons learned: a final analysis
rom one perspective it might seem the CAP accomplished nothing. Not one unwarranted project was stopped and it did not succeed in adding anything that was needed. It might also be said that those who participated in the CAP were used by SPRPC merely to provide them cover. Had there been little or no involvement in the CAP, SPRPC would have had a bit harder time claiming full compliance with the letter and intent of the federal requirement for public participation.
Nonetheless, members of the CAP were able to shake the power structure in southwestern Pennsylvania as it had never been shook before, and that shaking was said to be responsible for the only change that was happening in the region. Even though those changes were to get around the citizens who were breathing down their necks, it did show that a small group of people could begin to have an impact. The number of fairly active CAP members amounted to less than one thousandth of one percent of the region's population. Still, it was enough that the powers-that-be felt seriously threatened. With more people and a means to prevent those in power from simply pulling the cord, it should be possible for the CAP model to be modified and applied elsewhere with real success.
"It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brushfires in people's minds." — Samuel Adams