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Worries About The Public Discourse.....
Murphy Still Mingles With The Folk

We here in the Western Hills should count our blessings. We still take for granted things the rest of the country has lost. One of those things is direct communication with our politicians.

Ask folk in Kentucky, San Francisco, Nevada or Arizona. They never see Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid or John McCain except on TV from Washington. Their refusal to hold town meetings, debate opponents or appear in public has become so rigid opponents run political ads about it. McConnell's opponent last election ran a series of ads featuring a hunter with a pack of hounds looking for the Senate Majority Leader. In San Francisco, Pelosi's opponent ran a series of ads claiming she was lost at sea. McCain was accused of wandering around out on the desert. "Who votes for these people?" asks Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Secretary of State who ran against McConnell and lost. "How do they win? If you can't ask them questions, if they won't even talk to reporters, how does anyone vote for them?" It's a reasonable question. But it's one we don't have to ask.

Whether you voted for Tim Murphy as our Representative to Congress, whether you agree with him on every issue, or whether you belong to the same party he does, you have to grant him one thing : Nobody can accuse him of dodging the voters. Murphy not only shows up, he takes off his coat and tie and gets right in there.

Tuesday, Murphy spent the day at Moon Park celebrating July 4th. He's not from Moon. He lives in Upper St. Clair. But Moon hosted the biggest July 4th celebration in his district, the place where he could meet the most people, so that's where he spent the day.

Murphy clearly has a life outside of politics. He plays the guitar and banjo and has long been an avid Blue Grass music fan. He picked up his banjo, climbed on stage, and joined the Stoney River Boys for several songs. Before and after, he talked to anyone who approached him, asking them questions, answering theirs, sometimes offering them evidence or opinions counter to their own.

"This is important," he told reporters backstage after laying down his banjo. "We've got to keep communicating. I have to know what my voters think about these issues. I'm supposed to be representing them. I can't do that unless I know what they want."

Murphy worries about the current state of public discourse. "Democracy depends on vigorous debate on every issue," he insisted. "But I see more and more people shutting down debate. They don't want to hear it. They identify as a member of one party or the other, and they go to the website of their party and find out the talking points, and that's all they want to hear."

Americans, Murphy believes, should only be Democrats or Republicans during campaigns. "The parties might be needed to nominate candidates, raise money, buy ads and run campaigns. But once the election's over, we should all go back to being Americans trying to solve problems for the best interest of the nation."

He sees people of one party supporting a bad idea just because it's their party's idea, or refusing to even consider a good idea because it's the other party's, as suicidal. "We can't solve problems thinking that way. We have to consider all ideas and be skeptical of all ideas."

Murphy's also concsrned about the media. "I called a paper the other day," he relates. "I said, you carried an article in today's paper that has the facts dead wrong. Can't you guys research fhe facts before you run an article?" He was told the article had been sent in by a reader. "I said, 'why does that matter? No matter who writes it, don't you have a responsibility to check the facts before printing it?" They told him No. "So how am I supposed to trust the media? How can the voters trust the media? But we have to be able to trust the media. How else do we get our information?"

Almost everyone who comes up to him wants to talk about Health Care. Murphy is particularly qualified on the issue. He earned his doctorate in Psychology from Pitt and was a practicing psychologist for 16 years, plus a Pitt faculty member, before running for the state legislature because he was frustrated by Pennsylvania's inability to deal with health care issues.

He's the author of several books and a list of articles on medical issues. He wrote the Pennsylvania Patient Bill Of Rights. In 2002 the nonpartisan website Politics named him one of the state's best legislators. He is now serving his eighth term in Congress.

But the health care issue perplexes him.

"Obviously, we have a crisis," he admits. "We let the situation deteriorate for decades before we tried to do anything about it, and now we're playing catch up. Every single American has a stake in health care, so everyone has an opinion. But not everybody has a firm grip on the facts."

A woman comes up to talk to him, her jaw set, her mind clearly made up. "If you vote for this repeal," she tells him, "I'll never vote for you again. It will throw 22 million people off their insurance and cause all our rates to go up."

Murphy keeps his calm. "I appreciate your concern," he tells her. "But the problem is all our rates are already going up. They're going sky high. If we do nothing, they're going sky high. So we have to do something. Now, about those 22 million. We're not throwing anyone off their insurance. But we do want to repeal the mandate that you have to buy insurance or face a heavy fine. We don't think it's constitutional to force Americans to buy something, no matter what it is. But if we repeal that mandate, 22 million people say they won't buy the insurance. Now, I don't think it's smart for someone not to buy health insurance. But how do we have the right to force someone to buy it?? So anyway, it's not 22 million being thrown off. It's 22 million saying they won't buy if given the choice."

The woman glared at him. "That's not what the Congressional Budget Office says," she tells him. "I watched their report on C-Span."

"Well," Murphy says, trying to find common ground. "The CBO is very good at some things. They're good at producing numbers. But they have no way of finding out what's happening to cause those numbers. They can tell you so and so doesn't have insurance. But they have absoloutely no way of telling you why not." Others are waiting their turn. The woman steps back, only partially convinced but not as sure as she had been.

"Are you going to save Pre-Existing Condition Coverage?" asked an older man. Murphy nodded his head. "I promise you," he said. "I won't vote for any bill that does not include Pre Existing Condition Coverage."

It's a hot humid day and he's been at this for hours. But he greets everyone as if they're the first one to approach him.

"We could cover 85% of all Americans at reasonable cost with no trouble," he tells reporters. "It's that other 15% that we have to figure out. If a person has no job and no money and can't pay for their own insurance, how do we pay for it? That's always been the problem. Obama's idea was to charge everyone sky high rates to raise the money to pay for that 15%. People don't seem to like that. So what do we do? Impose some sort of tax? How much? What kind?"

By evening, Murphy has found a seat at a table and people pull up a chair to talk to him. "What about deductibles?" one voter demands. "I cannot afford a $5000 annual deductible." Murphy agrees that's too high.

Eventually, as darkness falls, everyone drifts off to enjoy the fireworks. Murphy will be in town for another week, visiting malls and anywhere else he can talk to voters. Many of them still disagree with him. But at least they get their five minutes of conversation.

Bring Back The Trolleys

They're talking about increasing train traffic, and about bringing back passenger trains between Pittsburgh and Monaca to serve the workforce at the new Shell Ethylene Refinery.

But we don't need to bring back passenger trains. We need to bring back the trolleys.

We once had a great trolley line running from Pittsburgh down the river through McKees Rocks, Neville Island and Coraopolis to Sewickley, where the cars circled a small turnaround track and headed back. They ran on their own tracks. The cars were clean, comfortable and fast. They ran on electricity (notice the overhead wires in the photo at left), so did not pollute and were cheap to operate.

It's a lot easier and cheaper to run a trolley car than a passenger train. At the other end, at Monaca, a turnaround track for a passenger train would be huge but a trolley turnaround takes up no more space than a basketball court. We still have them, in the South Hills, at places like Library. Go take a look. Even better, drive in to Station Square, board a trolley, and take a ride on the "Library Line," the so called Blue Route.

New trolleys probably would not look like the one pictured at left. They would look more like the ones now operating between Pittsburgh and the South Hills Shopping Center. They're very sleek, quiet and smooth. The city of Pittsburgh obviously does not consider them obsolete because it just spent several billion dollars and two years totally updating the tracks.

There was never a good reason to eliminate the trolley line and the Shafer Bus Line that served Coraopolis and the Western Hills for 50 years. They were cheap, reliable and went everywhere they were needed. The idea to close every trolley and bus line in Allegheny and surrounding counties and replace them with the beauracratic Pittsburgh Area Transit (PAT) was a political decision. The result was a bus line that has never provided service as good or as cheap as either Shafer or the trolley line. PAT has long been seen as one of the great boondoggles of the 20th Century in Pennsylvania.

Most people thought the Ohio Valley Trolley Line was part of the larger Pittsburgh Railway Company, which began operations in 1903 and continued until it was bought out by PAT. But it was actually a separate company, operating only the Pittsburgh - Sewickley line.

Residents of McKees Rocks, Neville, Coraopolis and Sewickley were caught by surprise by PAT's move to close the trolley and bus lines. The South Hills communities saw what happened here and quickly met and mobilized their forces and refused to allow PAT to close their lines. That is the reason trolley service remains today throughout the South Hills.

But bringing it back is also not a new idea. Pittsburgh has already built a tunnel beneath the river and rebuilt a line to the North Side. Plans are already in place to build one out to the airport. They are now considering rebuilding the line to Oakland and the Pitt/Carnegie Mellon area, and rebuilding one up the Monongahela River, possibly as far as McKeesport.

If they built that Monongahela Line, it would be ironic justice. The very first trolley line in Western Pennsylvania was built through Turtle Creek, Braddock, Homestead, Duquesne and on to McKeesport. The idea of an electric trolley was new and most people distrusted it. To entice people to try the trolleys, the PRC established a station atop the hill between Homestead and Diuquesne and advertised a picnic park for family excursions on Sunday afternoons. They named the park Kennywood. For 50 years, Kennywood was known as a "trolley park."

A Pittsburgh - Monaca trolley line could cross the river at Stowe and go down Neville Island. Or it could stay on this side and come down through the woods to Coraopolis, building a new trolley track parallel to the CSX Railroad tracks.

Appreciate The Moment

Sometimes you have to stop and look around and appreciate the moment.

Imagine if you had been living in 1919, when Neville Island was a rural strip of land in the middle of the river, occupied by truck farms. Every morning they loaded their horse drawn wagons and motorized pickup trucks with fruits and vegetables and delivered them to the open air markets in Pittsburgh's Strip District. One morning you saw two brothers, Frank and Ralph, supervising the staking out of a huge piece of land in the middle of those farm fields with little orange flags. You asked what they were doing and Frank Dravo told you they were going into the boatbuilding business. You would not have realized they were about to change the history of the island and the valley. Before they were done, Dravo Corporation would employ 16,000 men and make Neville Island the richest island in North America. They would receive the Congressional Medallion for their service to the nation in World War II

A year later, imagine yourself standing at the bottom of Thorn Creek on the western edge of Coraopolis and watching Colonel Willard Rockwell, clipboard and fountain pen in hand, pointing to workmen as they began levelling land for construction of Standard Steel Spring & Axle Company, which would extend for two miles along the river and the railroad and employ 6,000 men.

Now imagine that in 1939 you noticed bulldozers preparing a site on the eastern end of Neville Island. Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical Corporation opened there in 1940 to convert bituminous coal to high quality coke to use in smelting iron ore in Pittsburgh area blast furnaces. PCC would go on to employ another 6000 men and spin off the activated carbon division, Calgon, which would become the largest employer in Robinson Township.

Each of these developments began innocently enough but would have a huge impact on Coraopolis, Neville Island and the surrounding area. Yet most people at the time paid no attention and never dreamed of the changes they were about to see.

Already there is talk of restoring passenger train service from Station Square to Monaca, stopping in McKees Rocks, Cory and Aliquippa to pick up workers and ease the traffic that would result if 8,000 cars a day descended on Monaca. Pennsylvania and Beaver County are planning a new rail line between Monaca and Erie, where ethylene pellets could be loaded on cargo ships for shipping across the Great Lakes and overseas to plastics factories. Railroads are going to become much busier beginning in 2017, and they'll need a lot more men to run those additional trains.

For 50 years Coraopolis, Neville Island and the surrounding area have been in a slow downward spiral, as one mill and factory after the next shrank and finally closed. Men lost their jobs and towns and schools lost their tax base. Thousands moved away seeking jobs. Schools lost students, towns reduced spending, and old timers wondered if they would live long enough to witness a resurgence.

We mention these examples because right now --- today, late 2016 --- we are witnessing two similar developments. Bulldozers are moving soil and foundations are being laid for the CSX Terminal in Stowe Township and the Shell Cracking Plant in Monaca. In their own way, these two facilities will have a huge impact on Coraopolis, Neville Island and the surrounding area. They will employ thousands of men, pour much needed tax dollars into the communities, and attract other smaller companies to serve the two main facilities. Roads will be built, tracks will be added to the single track railroad right of way, real estate prices will rise, restaurants and other businesses will open, young families with school age children will move into the area to be closer to these jobs, and barge traffic on the river will double.

The photo at right shows the Shell Cracking Plant under construction along the Ohio River just west of Monaca.

That resurgence now appears to be happening. It won't happen overnight, but activity will pick up in 2017 and keep increasing constantly for the next five years.

The Shell Cracking Plant is locating in Monaca because of the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Field, which underlies western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The Marcellus is the largest natural gas reservoir in the world. It will be supplying Shell with ethylene for decades. This will not be a short lived boom.

There will be problems. Chemical refineries give off both air and water pollutants. More rail traffic will mean more frequent blocked crossings. Highway traffic will certainly increase. Long 100+ tank car trains will be transporting natural gas through McKees Rocks and Coraopolis. Natural gas is flammable. Protective measures will need to be taken. The river has become a recreation source in recent decades, but suddenly boaters will be forced to the shores as tugboats push long barge assemblies up river. But it will be an exciting time, and these are problems which can be solved.