Photo: Jason Altmire, (D-4th-PA) at labor meeting
Residents Speak Up
at ‘Town Hall’ Forum
and Job Issues
By Carl Davidson
Beaver County Blue
Congressman Jason Altmire got an earful at the Feb. 17 “Town Meeting’ on transportation issues held at Beaver County Community College, with some voices straying beyond the official agenda. But then, that’s what the representative from PA’s 4th CD called for when he launched sessions around the district inviting public participation.
The topic was Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and traffic patterns, and how to keep the state, district and county from being shortchanged on all fronts. But it widened to include environmental protection, youth unemployment, racism in hiring, high-speed rail, rebuilding lock and dams, and general praise for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
The immediate issue was getting a fair share of the Federal Highway Authorization, when the current $286 billion allocation expires this fall.
“The Federal Highway Trust Fund is broke, “said Altmire. “The need is unlimited, but the funds are limited, even with the stimulus. That’s the problem.” The unmentioned context was that this was the legacy of years GOP neo-liberal tax cutting, war spending and general favoritism to a cheap petroleum culture at the expense of infrastructure and other social needs.
Both Pennsylvania and Beaver County are particularly hard hit. Several speakers pointed out that the state had 6000 “structurally deficient” bridges and more miles of state highways than New York, New Jersey and New England combined, largely due to its terrain of mountains and numerous hills and hollows with small towns. Its weather patterns, with frequent dips below freezing, also wreak havoc on infrastructure, with salt water expanding and contracting in asphalt cracks and bridge joints. Some 300 of these bridges in dire need of repair are in the 4th CD.
“I will bring home more money to Beaver County as a result of this next bill than anyone who has ever held this seat,” Altmire told the nearly 70 people at the meeting. “That’s a promise, you can write it down.”
Altmire went on to describe his top priority as the “Crow’s Run Project,” a widening of Freedom Road from Beaver County’s Conway Rail Yards to the new Westinghouse plant in Cranberry Township, Butler County, an area with a large mall and residential growth. Beaver County Commissioner Joe Spanik also joined the discussion, stressing his desire to see the complete conversion of the four-lane State Route 60 into Interstate 376.
“Until this is designated as an interstate,” explained Spanik,” when industrial developers look at the map, they think this is just another country road and pass us by. We need this to draw new business.” While it serves as a major artery now, the full Rt. 60 conversion will be complete in two years.
Some at the meeting expressed concern for environmental issues, as well as alternate transport, including better use of the rivers and high-speed rail. While Altmire said these were off-topic for this meeting, he declared himself as a supporter of rebuilding the Montgomery Dock and Dam, a Mag-Lev train from the Airport to downtown Pittsburgh and out to Monroeville, and high-speed rail linking Cleveland and Pittsburgh as part of his wider “Tech Belt” development project.
“I’m a big fan of high speed rail,” state Altmire, “and I sit on the railroad committee, where we’ll deal the billions Obama has designated for it. Likewise with Mag-Lev and the rivers. These are the key to longer range development that also helps the environment.”
But a number of tougher questions came from a group of African American county residents taking part in the discussion. Several men challenged those up front on how unemployed Black youth could get hired on new infrastructure projects-“I’m retired, I don’t need a job. But when I look at people working on these jobs, I don’t see many of us,’ said one man. The answer was that hiring would be done “through the usual process”, including union apprenticeship programs.
“Our President is about change,” replied Darselle Patillo of the Aliquippa Tyler Community Youth Center. “We cannot be about doing things the same way, which leaves our young people out. We need to work together on some job readiness programs, so our youth are in a position to take the pre-apprenticeship exams and do well on them. We have some programs here at the community college, but we have to do better, and work with our young people.
The issue then turned to disabled veterans, with one vet pointing out that there were to be three percent “set asides” for minorities on these projects. Altmire replied that the “set asides” were tied to federal programs, but in these cases, federal monies were spent by the states. He agreed he would “look into the matter.”
Other concerns ranged from bureaucratic foot dragging-“I’ve been waiting since 1948 to see some of these changes,” said one man-to Obama and gun control. Altmire was quick to declare himself as “100 percent” in agreement with the National Rifle Association, and not to worry.
This served to underscore some of the problems local progressives have with Altmire. While generally taking a positive, even leadership role on a number of economic projects, such as his ‘Tech Belt,’ he lags behind on many social issues, from getting on board with HR 676 Medicare for All or bringing a rapid end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His NRA record is the least of it.
“Jason said he wouldn’t make this meeting political,’ said one resident at the close of the gathering. “But I will. I want all of us to honestly look back and see where these problems got a big start. It was with Ronald Reagan and his philosophy, and he was much loved by many of you. Obama didn’t carry Beaver County (52-48, for McCain), so think hard about how you voted. And think hard about who’s leading us out of this mess now.”
Indeed, from beginning to end, there was nothing but warm praise for Obama and the stimulus. But as one participant, Lonzie Cox put it at the end, ‘We’ve still got a ways to go in de-Reaganizing a lot of the thinking around here.”
[Carl Davidson also serves as webmaster for ‘Progressives for Obama’ If you like this article, go to the http://progressivesforobama.net site and make use of the PayPal button.]