It shouldn’t be easy to overlook the bus stop at Penn Avenue and South Saint Clair Street in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Located just a few hundred feet from the new multi-million dollar Whole Foods development, it’s supposed to be a covered shelter, a gracious place to wait.
Instead, the stop is demarcated only by a small rubber floor mat and two bright orange milk crates that someone has fashioned into a seat for those waiting on the 71C, the 77, and the 88.
The Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, or DOMI, was supposed to pour the concrete and then put up a shelter last summer. Pittsburgh Regional Transit will now lay the concrete instead, said Adam Brandolph, the agency’s spokesperson.
As far as infrastructure problems in Pittsburgh go, a missing bus shelter offers little cause for alarm. But it hints at a larger problem.
The city is full of infrastructure — including more than 1,000 miles of roads, 800 sets of steps, and close to 150 bridges — and a lot of it is in pretty rough shape. One group of people is tasked with turning that around: the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, or DOMI. And they could use some help.
Rick Swartz leads the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation, a few blocks west on Penn Avenue from that missing bus stop. When he looks at the city’s capital budget, he can’t help but notice that the list of projects on DOMI’s ledger just keeps growing. Meanwhile, the department has promised since 2018 to complete an overhaul of the neighborhood’s key commercial corridor.
“Then you find out, ‘Well, that deadline we gave you last year, doesn’t look like we’re going to make it,’” Swartz said. (He added that PennDOT has had to be involved in the project, which adds its own delays.)
Pittsburgh Regional Transit often works with DOMI, as its bus service depends on city roads, Brandolph said.
“We believe DOMI needs more support,” he said. “It would be beneficial to PRT, our riders, and folks across the city and the county.”
Leaders of Bike Pittsburgh have noticed a holdup in traffic-calming measures, such as planning speed bumps, new road markings and other ways to slow down cars.
“There’s hundreds upon hundreds of requests all throughout the city for traffic calming,” said Eric Boerer, the group’s advocacy director. He praised existing employees for their work, but said, “The only way to accomplish more is if there’s more staff to do it.”
Leaders of DOMI have made perennial pleas for more staff. During the 2022 budget season late last year, Director Kim Lucas stressed to city councilors that her department is responsible for a lot of projects and a lot of capital dollars: The majority of the capital budget often falls to DOMI, she said. Even so, she added, “The number of staff that we have to achieve those projects is quite small.”
Councilor Erika Strassburger thanked the department for making do, and for tackling the “small things that touch [people’s] daily lives,” before noting their work is often not so small. “Sometimes it’s making sure that we have confidence in our bridges.”
Strassburger said DOMI’s work is critical to the city’s future for another reason.
“It actually can help to restore faith in government,” she said.
In the beginning
Former Mayor Bill Peduto wanted to reimagine city streets, and so the administration decided that transportation needed to have its own department.
The administration created DOMI in 2017. That year’s budget allocated funding for just four staff, and the five-year plan only anticipated a modest half-million-dollar growth by 2021. But the new department was asked to manage the city’s physical infrastructure, as well as dream up ways to make roads safer, and find ways for people to get around without cars, all with the aim to “to support the social and economic mobility of the people of Pittsburgh.”
The next year, the department took a major leap when the administration sliced off the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Transportation and Engineering, and annexed it to DOMI. The budget provided for 73 full-time positions. Still, it’s taken a few years to get closer to what leadership and council consider an appropriate amount of staff.
Even when the funding to bring on more people exists, positions often sit vacant, Lucas told councilors in December.
“We are nowhere near the staffing levels nor the compensation levels that we need to be competitive,” she said. “The job market is tough for everybody right now, but I can tell you we’ve got positions we’ve posted with zero candidates.”
In almost every year since DOMI’s creation, between $250,000 and $750,000 budgeted for salaries was left unspent. In the last three years, four different people have held the role of municipal traffic engineer, a position required by state code. That post is just one part of the department’s executive team, which also includes the director, deputy director, assistant director of policy, planning, and permitting, a chief engineer, and a fiscal and contracting supervisor.
DOMI’s executive team was just fully staffed last year for “the first time in a long time,” Lucas said. She later added in an email that having the full team allows DOMI to “focus on the most needed priorities in our neighborhoods.”
Pittsburgh Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak, who also leads the city’s Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged that it can take longer than average to hire people for DOMI, which frequently leaves the department in a “capacity crunch.”
That doesn’t surprise Jacob Gottlieb, a research specialist with the National League of Cities, or NLC, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for local governments. Gottlieb said municipal governments not only have to compete with the private market for candidates, where professionals such as engineers can make a lot more, but also with other local governments.
The coronavirus pandemic only added to those challenges, Gottlieb said.
Typically, local governments have “a uniquely high concentration of folks who are of retirement age,” many of whom left the workforce during the pandemic. While every sector of the economy has struggled with the tight labor market, “local governments have struggled significantly more,” Gottlieb said. Citing a recent study from NLC, he noted that recovery there has been 18 times slower than the private market. Gottlieb added that jobs related to building or maintaining infrastructure are harder to fill than other positions.
Vacancy, turnover, an ever-growing list of projects: They all combine to create real costs, said Alex Pazuchanics, DOMI’s former deputy director.
“The longer that a project takes to get finished, the more expensive materials are, the more likely that something will slip because the contractor ended up getting other work,” he said. Backlog can be even more problematic in an aging city like Pittsburgh, where government workers are forced to “play catchup on a half-century of underinvestment” in infrastructure, Pazuchanics added.
Fundamentally, DOMI needs “a boatload more revenue and more staffing,” Pazuchanics said. But absent those, he said there are still things the city can do to help to speed up the agency’s work.
Pazuchanics noted that even fairly small contracts — less than $50,000 — need council approval in Pittsburgh, which was not the case at his job in Seattle. Pazuchanics said DOMI can continue to fine-tune how it moves a project through the phases of planning, design, engineering, construction, and maintenance.
“You can’t construct something that hasn’t been designed yet,” he said, but the goal is to have people in place when you need them “in order to minimize the idle time of a project.”
The next phase
Pittsburgh Deputy Mayor Pawlak said getting DOMI established involved some growing pains. But he said the office’s 2023 budget allocation reflects careful thought about operations, and about where best to add staff. For instance, the department is now divided into teams that each focus on a specific infrastructure challenge.
“You’re not going to start your day looking at a sidewalk, come back after lunch looking at a bridge and spend the end of your day looking at a landslide,” he said.
Pawlak said the administration plans to continue to invest in DOMI, adding salary increases and staff over time. But he stressed that higher pay is not the only factor, and that there are other things the city can and must do to bring in more people, like forging stronger partnerships with the area’s engineering schools.
“As the mayor is very fond of saying — and I’ve basically got tattooed inside my eyelids at this point — there are no microwave meals.” Pawlak said. “None of this stuff happens in 10 minutes or less.”
In the meantime, DOMI will have to prioritize mostly big-ticket items like bridge and road maintenance, as well as key projects at the neighborhood level. For most everything else, DOMI municipal traffic engineer Mike Maloch told Council in December, “It’s bailing water out of the ocean.”
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