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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Board OKs new Water Line in Gas Drilling Area

BusinessWeek


A Pennsylvania state water and sewer project financing agency on Tuesday approved nearly $12 million to extend municipal water service to residents of a small town who are complaining of tainted well water in the midst of heavy Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

State environmental regulators view the money approved by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority board as essentially a down payment, saying they plan to sue to recoup the money from Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

The board voted after hearing a lawyer's threat that Cabot will sue to overturn an approval, as well as pleas from Dimock residents who say that for two years, they have been unable to use their brown, methane-tainted and rash-causing well water.

One man from Dimock, a rural community 15 miles south of the New York border in northeastern Pennsylvania, toted a plastic milk jug of brown water -- poured from his tap, he said.

The clash between the state and Cabot over Dimock is Pennsylvania's highest-profile regulatory dispute in the Marcellus Shale since drilling crews, financed by cash from around the world, were lured two years ago by what could become the country's largest natural gas field.

"The only thing that I regret is that it's taken two years for this company, Cabot, to be faced with a solution," John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said after the meeting. "You saw today what Cabot does: They bring the lawyers in. They've done that for two years. They are unique in having lawyered up, as opposed to really dealing with the problem. Every other company I've dealt with ... has accepted responsibility and gone through the work of fixing the problem."

The applicant, the Pennsylvania American Water Co., would use the money to connect 14 households, and possibly more, to the water system of Montrose, a town about 6 miles away. Construction is expected to take more than a year, and would be completed after a newly elected governor, Republican Tom Corbett, takes office in January.

Cabot denies that it is responsible for the polluted water wells, saying its wells were properly designed and built to prevent gas from migrating underground and into the water table.

A Houston-based lawyer representing Cabot, Douglas Daniels, asked the board to put off consideration of the application, and said its rushed filing and consideration violates state laws and agency procedures -- assertions rejected by authority staff.

Daniels then said numerous parties, including some local governments, plan to sue over the approval.

"Because Secretary Hanger has made abundantly clear ... that he will seek to use the resources of the commonwealth to force Cabot to pay for this line, Cabot will have no choice to join in those efforts," he said.

The board approved a $11.6 million grant and $172,682 loan.

EDITORIAL: Marcellus Shale Tax a must for Pennsylvania

DelCo Daily Times


For the last couple weeks, the Daily Times Editorial Board has been interviewing candidates for state and local offices. There hasn’t been a lot of happy news coming out of those sessions — particularly those with incumbent state legislators.

Republicans and Democrats alike say Pennsylvania is staring at a fiscal abyss in the next year. With an economy that barely has a heartbeat, it’s being projected that the state is looking at a deficit of anywhere from $3 to $5 billion.

Making the situation worse is the fact that the man who is most likely to become the next governor — Republican Tom Corbett — has flatly ruled out any new tax or tax increase to help fill that gap.

(Corbett this week did propose one revenue producer: Selling the state store system. But that’s an idea that’s been bandied about Harrisburg for decades, always with the same result: An ignominious death.)

There is another source of revenue that most lawmakers deem promising. That is a proposed tax on natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale region — a rock bed the size of Greece that lies about 6,000 feet beneath New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Since late 2008, gas drillers have crowded the area, which they believe could supply the entire country’s natural gas needs for up to two decades.

Almost all of the natural gas produced in the United States is subject to a severance tax, which produces a significant source of revenue for a wide variety of services — as well as dealing with the inevitable environmental problems the extraction process, called fracking, produces.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that does not impose a severance tax of any kind. That, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, has led to a $100 million loss of potential revenues in the last year alone. The commonwealth is giving away, for free, a one-time resource to energy companies that gladly pay for it everywhere else in the nation, the center said in a report issued Thursday.

Now, $100 million is a drop in the state’s money pit. But it’s nothing to be ignored.

How likely is it that the state Legislature will do the right — and fiscally responsible — thing?

It’s not looking good at this point. Harrisburg Democrats, seeing riches, are proposing substantial tax penalties; Republicans, saying they fear a big tax will scare drillers away, want minimal levies. Gov. Ed Rendell, who knows Corbett opposes any extraction tax, has been trying to play the middleman and bring those parties together.

But Thursday, he said that process “clearly is dead” for this year and blamed GOP intransigence. A spokesman for Senate Republicans said they were surprised by his stance, and they are willing to continue talking.

Perhaps it will take the November election to get the process going again. If Corbett wins, as expected, that may spur responsible members of both parties to come to an agreement.

Clearly, the tax is the right thing to do. The prospect of drowning in $5 billion worth of red ink makes it the necessary thing to do, too.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Penn Evaded Harvard Losses With `Defensive' Fund, Marks Says

Bloomberg

The University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League school founded by Benjamin Franklin, outperformed its wealthiest peers by avoiding many hard-to-sell assets such as real estate, according to Howard Marks, former chairman of the the investment committee.

Penn held less in private equity and property, more in stocks and owned a “defensive” mix of hedge funds, as well as “substantial” cash and short-term U.S. Treasuries, Marks wrote in an Oct. 20 memo to trustees, obtained by Bloomberg News. The Philadelphia school’s investments fell 16 percent in the year ended June 2009, versus the 27 percent and 25 percent declines of Harvard and Yale, the two richest U.S. universities.

“Most things in investing are two-edged swords: if you do more of them, you’ll make more if they work but lose more if they don’t,” wrote Marks, chairman of Oaktree Capital Management LP in Los Angeles, who left his endowment post on June 30. “Two prominent examples are (1) using borrowed money, or ‘leverage,’ to magnify results and (2) investing in illiquid assets that can’t always be sold on demand other than at a substantial discount from their fair value.”

The $5.7 billion fund outperformed Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, again in the past year, while still trailing them over the last decade. Yale’s David Swensen pioneered the strategy of using private equity, real estate and commodities to beat stocks and bonds. These infrequently traded stakes ballooned as a percentage of big endowments when markets tumbled after the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

5.6% a Year


Penn averaged annual increases of 5.6 percent in the past decade, compared with the 7 percent and 8.9 percent returns at Harvard and Yale, and its own target of 8.25 percent. In the year ended June 30, Penn gained 13 percent on investments, tied for third-best in the Ivy League, while Harvard’s $27.6 billion endowment climbed 11 percent and Yale’s $16.7 billion fund advanced 8.9 percent.

Columbia University’s $6.5 billion fund in New York led with a 17 percent gain, followed by Princeton University’s $14.4 billion endowment in New Jersey, which increased 15 percent. Cornell University’s $4.4 billion endowment in Ithaca, New York, matched Penn last year.

Yale was the worst performer among the eight Ivy League schools, while Harvard ranked fifth.

Marks, 64, started Oaktree after leaving TCW Group Inc. in 1995. The firm managed $75.1 billion, as of June 30, in investments including distressed debt, high-yield and convertible bonds, private equity and real estate. Marks, who graduated from the Wharton school in 1967, served on Penn’s investment committee for 13 years and established the Marks Family Writing Center in 2003 on campus.

Not ‘Superhuman’

“As I wrote last year, ‘everyone had regrettable investments in his or her portfolio -- given the climate, you’d have to be superhuman not to,’” Marks said in his final letter to trustees after 10 years as the head of Penn’s investment board. “What matters is how many, how big and how bad Endowments in general had more of these than other investors in 2007-08, and thus they experienced bigger problems.”

Robert Levy, chairman and chief investment officer at money manager Harris Associates LP in Chicago, has taken over the chairman role at Penn, Marks said yesterday in a telephone interview.

“Investors have a choice between trying to maximize and trying to build in security,” Marks said in the interview. “There isn’t a right over wrong. Everybody has to make that choice for themselves. I think the events of these recent years demonstrate that choice and action.”

Stressing Stability

Penn’s investment committee emphasized stability over maximizing returns and achieved “a respectable return and minimized disappointment and difficulty in bad times,” Marks said.

In the past decade, the endowment added holdings of non- U.S. equities and hedge funds, lessened its preference for value stocks over growth companies, diversified its mix of investment managers and added venture capital and buyout firms, albeit to a smaller extent than its peers, Marks wrote. In 2004, the school appointed Kristin Gilbertson as CIO, growing its internal endowment management capabilities, he wrote.

The Ivy League schools are private institutions in the northeastern U.S. None has recouped the record losses incurred in the year ended in June 2009. As investments tumbled, universities cut jobs, froze salaries and postponed building projects.

Penn dodged the hundreds of layoffs, construction delays, discounted sales of illiquid investments and debt issuance of several of its peer institutions because the university was less dependent on its fund, getting 10 percent of its budget from endowment earnings, Marks said. In comparison, Harvard and Yale get more than one-third of their budgets from endowment income.

“Never forget the 6-foot-tall man who drowned crossing the stream that was 5 feet deep on average,” Marks said. “Prudent financial management doesn’t get you through ‘on average’ -- rather, it enables you to survive the low points."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pennsylvania Airport with Feral-Cat Problem announces Plans to trap, neuter and release Cats

LA Times

 
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — An airport in eastern Pennsylvania that is dealing with a feral cat problem has announced plans to trap the felines and send them to a farm -- not euthanize them.

Lehigh Valley International Airport has reached an agreement with the Allentown group No Nonsense Neutering.

The Morning Call of Allentown reports the airport plans to have the cats trapped, spayed or neutered and then sent to a farm.

Animal lovers were upset last month when the airport said it would consider killing the cats.

Martha Kahan, president of No Nonsense Neutering, says the new agreement is a "win-win."

On Saturday, she trapped three of the cats and she says she plans to keep trapping them until she gets them all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rehabilitating the Housing Authority

Philadelphia Inquirer

This old agency is in dire need of repairs. The legislature can help.

The maelstrom surrounding the Philadelphia Housing Authority and its former executive director, Carl Greene, has yielded promises to do better. We can probably expect a new director, and maybe some new direction, soon.

But all may be for naught if we don't address the root of the problem: the lack of coordination between the Housing Authority and the city government. That can't be remedied without state legislation, which determines how the Housing Authority is run.

As it stands, the commonwealth requires the authority's governing board to include two members appointed by the mayor, two appointed by the city controller, and a fifth chosen by the other four members who is supposed to represent tenants. As such, the agency does not have to coordinate its efforts with the city administration. Regardless of his or her morality and competence, no PHA executive director is obligated to heed the city government or its elected officials.

No other U.S. housing authority of any size is run this way. The PHA's counterparts in other cities are generally controlled by mayors and city councils.

It took a scandal

 
We need to make the Philadelphia Housing Authority - which has a $400 million budget and ranks fourth nationwide in housing units - similarly accountable to the city.

The state law governing Pennsylvania's housing authorities was written during the Great Depression. The structure of government has changed dramatically since then, and public housing has become a far greater part of the city. Its integration with city planning and budgets is long overdue.

It shouldn't have taken a scandal to make us recognize the problems inherent in the Housing Authority's long-standing lack of accountability. True, the PHA - like many other housing authorities in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country - has taken advantage of changes in federal policy and demolished many dangerous, crumbling high-rises. And it has replaced some of their units with safer, cleaner, more efficient, low-rise housing. But that shouldn't have blinded everyone to the agency's flaws.

Now several members of Philadelphia's legislative delegation have promised to press for reforms to the Housing Authority's structure and oversight. The state House Urban Affairs Committee plans to hold a public hearing Thursday on updating and improving the state housing authorities law (Act 265 of 1937).

Corrective measures
 
I will be urging lawmakers to take the following steps:

Add a provision saying that all Housing Authority board members appointed by elected officials serve at the pleasure of those who appointed them.

Expand the PHA board to include seven members, as the legislature did in Pittsburgh, four of whom are appointed by the mayor.

Instead of the city controller, give City Council, which is intimately involved in housing and community development, the power to choose two appointees to the board. One should be picked by Council's majority leader, and the other by the minority leader.

Create a mechanism for Housing Authority tenants to choose their own representatives.

Eliminate the recently enacted provision calling for five-year contracts for Housing Authority employees. Three years is a more reasonable term.

Subject all Housing Authority subsidiaries and related organizations to the rules that apply to public agencies, including the open-meetings and right-to-know laws.

Require that the financial statements of any Housing Authority subsidiary or related organization be consolidated with the financial statements of the Housing Authority.

The state legislature cannot let this issue fester much longer. The current controversy could bring the PHA to a near-standstill and jeopardize its ability to qualify for some federal funds.

Pennsylvania needs to move quickly to change the way the Philadelphia Housing Authority is run. Some of our neediest citizens depend on it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Philadelphia School Partnership Launches

Kansas City Star

Organization Pledges to Raise $100 Million to Support High Performing Charter, District and Parochial Schools in Philadelphia
 
Today marks the official launch of the Philadelphia School Partnership-- a collaboration of business leaders, foundations, city leaders and educators from the School District of Philadelphia, public charter and parochial schools. The goal of the Philadelphia School Partnership is to make Philadelphia the highest performing city in the country in terms of educational achievement by 2015. The Philadelphia School Partnership will do this by increasing the pace of education reform in Philadelphia and by financially supporting great schools that can serve additional students within the charter, District and parochial school systems.

The Philadelphia School Partnership has established a five-year goal to raise $100 million and to strategically invest the funds in initiatives that will directly increase student performance across Philadelphia. To date, the Philadelphia School Partnership board and anonymous donors have seeded this fund with $16 million.

"The Philadelphia School Partnership speaks, acts and stands for quality education for the children of Philadelphia, wherever they attend school,” said Mike O’Neill, Chair of the Philadelphia School Partnership Board of Directors. “This organization is a public recognition that we share more educational goals than differences and that now, more than ever, Philadelphia has to pull together to support this common agenda.”

Central to the Philadelphia School Partnership’s approach is working with innovators from the three major schools systems in the City: public charter, District and parochial. The organization will invest in high performing schools that agree to be held accountable for achieving outstanding levels of academic achievement for the students they serve. The organization will monitor school performance and will continue to work only with schools that achieve the highest levels of student achievement.

The Philadelphia School Partnership has the support of city and state leadership, including Mayor Michael A. Nutter who commented on the impact of the organization.

“The Philadelphia School Partnership can be a powerful and inclusive new force in the city with the ability to create tremendous positive change for the children in all of our schools,” he said. “We support their focus on creating quality seats and on activating parents as the primary advocates for their children.”

A launch event will occur today at 10 am at the National Constitution Center. Remarks will be provided by Mike O’Neill, Nick Torres; Executive Director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, Representative Dwight Evans, State Senator Anthony H. Williams and Lori Shorr; Chief Education Officer from the Mayor’s Office of Education. More than 200 top education, government, business and philanthropic stakeholders are expected to attend the announcement.

Philadelphia School Partnership

The Philadelphia School Partnership is a collaboration of business leaders, foundations, city and state leaders and educators from public charter, District and parochial schools. The organization works to ensure that every child in Philadelphia attends a great school and graduates from high school prepared for college or the work world.

The goal of the Philadelphia School Partnership is to make Philadelphia the highest performing city in the country in terms of educational achievement by 2015. To get there, the organization leverages philanthropic giving to serve as a catalyst to increase student achievement in schools across Philadelphia.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Range Resources plans to add staff, build office complex in Pennsylvania

Fort Worth Star Telegram

 
Range Resources Corp. plans to more than double its regional headquarters staff in the Marcellus Shale natural gas field to about 500 employees "over the next several years" as it moves into a new $30 million office development in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Fort Worth-based company said Monday.

Range, a leading producer in the Marcellus, has 225 employees in its regional office in Canonsburg, Pa., said Ray Walker, senior vice president for Appalachia operations. The new facility will be a quarter-mile away in Canonsburg, 20 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Most of the new jobs "will go to local residents, demonstrating the positive impact that Range is having on the community," Walker said.

Range said it has contracted with Horizon Properties Group of Pennsylvania to develop and lease its new headquarters. Construction is to begin immediately in the Southpointe II development and is expected to be finished by November 2011.

Canonsburg has become a hotbed for dozens of energy companies operating in the Marcellus, a geological formation thousands of feet beneath large chunks of Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio.

The initial phase of Range's project calls for construction of a five-story, 180,000-square-foot Class A office building on 13 acres. The facility is to include a 225-seat auditorium, cafe and outdoor event plaza.

The second phase calls for a building expansion of up to 100,000 square feet.

Walker said Range has authorized Horizon to develop the project for designation under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, program, certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.

"Our plans call for a state-of-the-art 'green' facility, designed to accommodate what is anticipated to be dramatic growth in our office staff, while incorporating the latest in energy-efficient technologies to help us minimize our environmental impact," he said. The building will feature reflective roof material, energy-conserving glass, recycled waste material and advanced energy-management systems.

Kyle Poulson and Jack Huff of Huff Partners in Fort Worth represented Range in the selection of Horizon Properties for the project and in contract negotiations.

Range is producing the equivalent of about 160 million cubic feet of natural gas per day in the Marcellus, "which is ahead of its midyear target," company spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Monday.

Range said in late July that it plans an additional $210 million in capital expenditures in the Marcellus this year.

With the spending boost, the company said it expects to double its net production from the equivalent of 200 million to 210 million cubic feet of gas per day by year's end to 400 million to 420 million cubic feet by the end of 2011.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Philadelphia Inquirer Buyer Said to Cancel Purchase, Forcing New Auction

Bloomberg

 
A deal to sell the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper fell apart, forcing the publisher operating under bankruptcy protection to consider putting itself up for auction, a company attorney said today.

Philadelphia Newspapers LLC, the company that controls the Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, is negotiating with the group of lenders who backed out of a contract to buy the newspapers today, Lawrence G. McMichael, a lawyer for the company, said in an interview. The company can continue to operate because it has enough cash and is approaching the busiest time for advertising sales in the newspaper industry, McMichael said.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said McMichael, with the law firm Dilworth Paxson LLP. Fred Hodara, an attorney for the lenders, declined to comment.

Under the company’s plan to exit bankruptcy, a group of the newspapers’ lenders, including hedge fund Angelo Gordon & Co. and a unit of Credit Suisse Group AG, had until noon today to complete the purchase of the company.

The sale collapsed after members of the Teamsters union refused to agree to change their pension plan, a person familiar with the standoff said today. Under the contract to buy the newspapers, the lenders had the option to back out if they failed to win support from all of the unions.

Frank Sabatino, a lawyer for the Teamster Pension Trust Fund of Philadelphia & Vicinity, didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

‘No Worries’


Philadelphia Newspapers had planned to file court papers this afternoon seeking a new auction, McMichael said. Those plans are on hold while the company talks to the lenders and the lenders talk to the Teamsters, he said.

“There is no reason for panic by anyone,” McMichael said. “There are no worries about shutting down.”

The newspaper company filed for bankruptcy in February 2009, blaming the recession and a slowdown in advertising.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How Philly's Navy Yard will become Mini-City of Energy Innovation

Philadelphia Inquirer

 
Congratulations. You've blown some insulation into the attic, screwed in some compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Perhaps you replaced those old, drafty windows.

Energy-saving moves, all of them.

But that's nothing compared to what is coming at the Navy Yard.

Pennsylvania State University and a slew of partners plan to implement and develop the very latest in eco-friendly technologies at the South Philadelphia site, with the help of $159 million in federal and state grants announced last week.

"Dynamic" building facades that adjust in response to changes in outdoor temperature and sunlight. High-tech materials that remove humidity from the air without cooling it to the bone-chilling level of the typical air conditioner. Electronic sensors that perceive harmful particles in the air and activate filters when needed.

Some of this is still in the concept stage, while other elements are on the market. But they are rarely implemented as parts of a system in which buildings - even entire neighborhoods - can slash energy costs by engaging in a computer-controlled give-and-take with the environment and the electrical grid.

So-called smart buildings have been built here and there, but not in a way that can be replicated at low cost for a mass market, said James Freihaut, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State. The goal is to develop technology that will pay for itself within five years, cutting energy costs by at least 50 percent.

"It's not rocket science," said Freihaut, the technical lead on the project. "It's actually a lot more difficult."

But he thinks it can be done, starting with several of the Navy Yard's redbrick structures as guinea pigs. Among the site's benefits is that it has its own power grid, said engineer Satish Narayanan of the Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.

"It's sort of a mini-city," said Narayanan, whose employer is a project partner.

UTC makes Carrier air conditioners, among many other products, and this expertise is expected to be a big source of cost savings.

Today's air conditioners cool the air well below room temperature in order to remove humidity. In a typical commercial building, the air must then be reheated - a significant waste.

In a home with central air, the machine comes roaring to life every so often, emitting air at 55 degrees until the overall temperature is brought down to the desired level.

If the humidity were removed from the air in some other way, the air would not need to be cooled as much, and the machines could be smaller - saving energy and capital costs, Narayanan said.

Humidity could be lowered with some sort of membrane or chemical dehumidifier, perhaps by mimicking processes found in nature, said Penn State's Freihaut. For example, certain desert toads have skin that can capture water from the air, he said.

Other technologies that will be studied at the Navy Yard include window glass that can be electrically manipulated to admit different amounts of light depending on the time of day. Such a system would be automated to anticipate and respond to weather changes and how many people are in the building, said Narayanan.

The project's biggest recipient of federal funds is Penn State, with $34 million. UTC will receive $10 million for research and will chip in $5 million of its own, while Bayer MaterialScience is to get $2.5 million and contribute about $3 million. The partners include 11 universities and five corporations.

Several buildings at the Navy Yard will be retrofitted, among them Building 661 - a 30,000 square-foot edifice that once housed a gymnasium, swimming pool, and offices. A separate laboratory facility will be built from scratch.

Various forms of high-tech insulation will be used, but that requires more focus on indoor air quality, said Mike Gallagher, director of the government services group for Bayer MaterialScience. The air in a tightly sealed building can suffer from "off-gassing," chemicals emitted from synthetic materials.

So the company, part of the German-based Bayer Group, has developed eco-friendly urethane coatings and other materials with negligible levels of volatile organics.

Still another technology involves impregnating concrete or another rigid building material with a second substance, such as a waxlike polymer, that has a melting point near room temperature.

Called phase-change materials because they change back and forth from liquid to solid, melting or solidifying depending on the temperature, they serve as a sort of insulator.

They rely on the principle that a substance requires energy to change its phase - to melt (or boil, for that matter) - energy that is absorbed from the surrounding environment without changing the material's temperature.

The melting point of the substances used in building materials is typically above room temperature. So when the outdoor temperature exceeds that melting point, a certain amount of the heat is absorbed for the purpose of melting. Similarly, when the outdoor temperature comes back down at night, the heat from the material is released.

While these and other green materials already are available, rare is the building that has them all working in concert, said Thanos Tzempelikos, an assistant professor of architectural engineering at Purdue University - another project partner, which is getting $6 million.

A building has many complex subsystems, and they are generally designed and installed by different people. Unlike with say, an automobile, these professionals do not necessarily communicate with each other - from the developer to the architect to the subcontractor.

And the project leaders acknowledge that all the gee-whiz gadgetry in the world will not make a difference if no one uses it. The project officials will visit schools to describe their work and encourage people to enter the green-building field.

Business owners will be able to follow their work on an interactive website.

And some research will look at policies to encourage adoption of the technologies, such as incentives or regulation.

Still others will study energy generation and storage - for example, batteries to capture excess solar or wind energy for later use, when it is not sunny or windy.

Then there's a concept called combined heat and power - generating electricity on or near the site, perhaps with a gas-powered microturbine. Large power plants lose much of their energy in the form of waste heat, whereas the excess heat from a small, on-site plant can be used to heat the buildings.

The bottom line, said Freihaut, is that there is a lot of innovation to be done:

"I tell my students, 'Look, you can be richer than Bill Gates.' "

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pennsylvania May Get Oil Company Tax Under Rendell Road-Repair Proposals

Bloomberg

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell proposed taxing oil companies and increasing motor-vehicle fees to generate an additional $1 billion annually for transportation infrastructure.

Oil companies do about $5 billion in business each year in the state while paying some $35 million in taxes, less than their fair share, Rendell, a 66-year-old Democrat, said today. A Republican spokesman said Rendell’s proposed tax is unlikely to pass, and might be unconstitutional.

Profits of oil companies doing business in the state would be taxed 8 percent under the proposal, bringing in about $576 million during the first full fiscal year. Motor vehicle fees, some of which haven’t been increased in decades, would be adjusted to reflect the rate of inflation, Rendell said in a press conference in Harrisburg, the capital.

Transportation funding is “one of the most important and immediate challenges facing the commonwealth,” said Rendell, who is serving his final year in office. “We all know that we’ve averted tragedy by happenstance here in Pennsylvania. We can’t endanger public safety any longer. We cannot wait another month before we get to work on these projects.”

Pennsylvania has 5,646 state-owned structurally deficient bridges, the most of any U.S. state, and more than 10,000 miles of roads in need of repair, according to a statement announcing the plan.

Scaling back


On Aug. 12, the Pennsylvania Transportation Commission, which sets transportation priorities for the state with the fifth-largest road network, cut its planned expenditure for the next 12 years from $67.9 billion to $51.6 billion, citing questions about federal funding, inflation and the lack of additional resources.

The state spent $3.9 billion on highways, bridges and transit in 2009, aided in part by $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, said Erin Waters, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The state needs an additional $3.5 billion in annual funding to maintain infrastructure, according to a May report by the Transportation Advisory Committee, which was established in 1970 to help determine the state’s needs.

Oil companies operating in Pennsylvania avoid most corporate income tax because their accounting credits profit to parent firms based in other states, Rendell said.

Under the proposal, the companies would be exempt from the 9.99 percent corporate net income tax. They would be barred by law from passing the new tax on to consumers at the pump, he said. The proposal would allocate money to the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Revenue to enforce the tax though audits.

33 Cents

Motor-vehicle fee increases would cost the typical Pennsylvania driver approximately 33 cents a week, Rendell said. That would add almost $434,000 to the motor license fund, according to calculations by the governor’s office sent in an e- mail from a spokesman, Gary Tuma.

The proposal may create as many as 40,000 “good-paying” jobs in the sixth-most-populous U.S. state, Rendell said. The General Assembly may vote on the measure in coming months.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican, said such a tax would be unworkable and unpassable.

“The specific plan to tax oil company profits -- and somehow prohibiting the companies from passing that cost on to Pennsylvania consumers -- has serious constitutional issues under the Commerce Clause,” said Erik Arneson, the spokesman. “At best, we would face years of litigation before seeing any possible revenue from that scheme.”

He said that the plan would likely die in the Senate.

House Republicans favor exploring public-private partnerships and greater contributions from local governments and users before turning to taxes and increased fees, said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rising Enrollment Strains, Crowds Western PA Colleges

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review



During her time at the University of Pittsburgh, Sandy Bly has seen the impact of ballooning freshman enrollment.

Students living in converted lounge areas. Difficulty in registering for required courses.

"It's pretty frustrating," said Bly, 20, a senior majoring in accounting and general management.

Colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation are coping with similar growing pains. Enrollment is rising because of a lack of jobs, employers' demands for a bachelor's degree and more older students returning to the classroom.

At Pitt, where the number of new students increased 12 percent between 2005 and 2009, students initially assigned to lounges were in regular rooms within months, said Bly, a resident assistant. Still, the problem is repeating this fall.

About 50 freshmen will start the school year at the Wyndham Hotel Pittsburgh-University Place in Oakland, Pitt Provost Patricia E. Beeson said. Officials couldn't say how long those students might be there.

At Robert Morris University in Moon, about 200 students will live at the Holiday Inn Pittsburgh Airport this year because of a housing shortage that coincides with a record freshman class of more than 900, said Jonathan Potts, a university spokesman.

Beeson said she and her counterparts at schools across the country had a tough time anticipating the sizes of last year's and this year's first-year classes.

At Pitt and RMU, more students accepted admissions offers this year — boosting freshman class sizes, officials said.

"The economic uncertainty has made it difficult to know how many students to accept," she said.

A 2009 report by the National Center for Education Statistics projected that America's undergraduate enrollment will increase by 12 percent between 2007 and 2018. That would bring the total to 17.5 million students, up from 15.6 million.

Enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds is projected to grow by 9 percent during that period, to 12.1 million, while the number of 25- to 34-year-old students could mushroom by 25 percent, to 5 million.

"Today, you need a bachelor's degree or you're not going to do well in the short-term, the next three to five years," said John Hammang, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert based in Cranberry, published a report last week that shows recessions typically spur college enrollment in pursuit of such programs as education degrees. The average annual increase during a recession is about four times what it is otherwise, he concluded.

Critics argue that higher-education officials haven't handled the demand appropriately this time around.

"In almost any other endeavor with a product or service, they're able to achieve economies of scale," said James A. Boyle, president of College Parents of America, a Virginia nonprofit. "Why can't they try to serve more students with a fixed level of investment, like more classes online?"

Pitt officials have no plans to add online courses targeted to traditional undergraduates, said Kit Ayars, a senior assistant to Beeson.

RMU officials plan to start eight online-degree programs, including business degrees, this fall, Potts said, but those are aimed at working adults.

Pitt is adding class sections of key freshman courses such as anthropology and composition. RMU hired eight faculty members to accommodate its bigger freshman class and programs, in addition to adding 34 class sections for the freshmen, Potts said.

Earlier this month, Pitt announced a $17.6 million project to build 48 on-campus apartments for 155 students before the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

Pitt officials generally can guarantee only three years of on-campus living for undergraduates, said Linda K. Schmitmeyer, a school spokeswoman.

A $12 million apartment-style residence hall for 190 students at RMU is expected to open in fall 2011, Potts said.

Duquesne University is building a residence hall for the first time in about a decade, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management. Scheduled to be finished in spring 2012, the $38 million building will house 400 upperclassmen in suites.

"Our freshman class size has gone up for the past number of years," Cukanna said. "The increase has been by design — not by happenstance."

When Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty arrived in 2001, a total of 1,191 new students entered the school. Last year, that number was 1,432, Cukanna said.

Competition in the higher-ed marketplace has compelled Duquesne officials to offer new programs, such as a pharmacy degree that students may earn on weekends, he said.

Friday, August 13, 2010

PA Company has Tombstones Going Digital

Philadelphia Inquirer

 
WAYNESBURG, Pa. - The concept of barcodes on tombstones and interactivity at the cemetery was considered too far-fetched when Glenn Toothman first traveled to funeral industry conferences 10 years ago.

"Nothing in the death-care business happens too quickly," he said.

After years of waiting, technological developments have finally allowed Toothman to get to a point of "rebirth" for his Waynesburg company, the Memory Medallion.

The Memory Medallion story began one Sunday evening in 1999, when Toothman, then the district attorney for Greene County, was visited by his father, a retired judge.

"I spent the day in the cemeteries," the judge told his son. "And I hate to think that life comes down to this dash" between the birth and death dates on a tombstone.

You're the problem-solver of this family, he told his son, and you need to think of a better way to honor the deceased.

Toothman has always been a "frustrated electronic engineer," and he knew the answer had a technological solution , replace the dash with a high-tech dot that can direct cell phones to websites and video about the deceased.

A standard Memory Medallion remembrance package costs $225 and includes a barcode medallion for the grave site, a website of eight photos and 1,000-word story and a printed biography. Family members also can record a video about the deceased that plays on smart phones that scan the barcode, called a QR code.

QR codes have become hot tools for advertisers hoping to hook young shoppers with promotional deals. Japanese companies started the trend of putting them on tombstones.

Toothman said his board of directors doesn't like him to tell this next part, but what's true is true: The solution came to him in a dream.

Surveying Green Mount Cemetery on a recent morning, Toothman recounted the dream with tears in his eyes. He saw himself walking through a cemetery holding a device that touched the tombstones and displayed photos of his family.

He had his first prototype after about 30 days of tinkering in the basement. His wife would find her moonlighting husband asleep in the suit he'd worn in court that day.

In 2001, the company applied for funding from Innovation Works, a nonprofit venture capital firm that provides funding for startups.

He secured a $300,000 grant.

The smart phone market has been a godsend for Memory Medallion, which previously required users to lug a laptop to the tombstone and download the information through a USB cable.

The accompanying remembrance website links to online genealogy sources and also can have customized links, such as a personal Facebook page. A fourth link was introduced recently and is available for corporate sponsorship.

A certified genealogist on staff, Candice Buchanan, sets the page up for families.

The company is in talks with public memorials that honor those fallen on Sept. 11, 2001, and Memory Medallions has been used as a supplement to historical tours that stop in a cemetery.

The first year Memory Medallion saw about 50 sales. Last year the company recorded about 5,000, and Toothman expects business to grow about 200 percent in the coming years. His staff of seven workers also will grow in scale, he said.

Toothman, who resigned as Greene County's district attorney in 2001 to focus on the Memory Medallion, expects 2011 to be the first year he'll make more money in the new job than he did in his old one.

The company works out of a vine-covered, Victorian home, complete with a turret and second-story wraparound porch.

Clients come from near and far.

Marilyn Kerr, of Waynesburg, has more than six Memory Medallions for her immediate family, but her first Medallion was for a distant cousin with no children or relatives.

"There would be no one to hear her story without it," she said. "It's something that lives on and on and on. When I'm not here to tell my children about them, I want them to feel more closely related to that individual," she said.

Toothman talks about the project in evangelical, not fiscal, terms, viewing it as a chance to help his depressed community economically and his fellow man spiritually.

And industry executives say the skepticism has faded over the years.

Dave Bishop offers Memory Medallions to clients as senior executive vice president of sales at McCleskey Mausoleums of Atlanta, and the rate of purchase is about the same for clients who are planning their own grave site or buying one for a deceased relative.

Bishop said his company does not get a cut of Medallion profits , he simply sells it because he believes in it.

"Cemeteries are the receptors of heritage," he said. "It's really neat, but we have to make sure it is going to last."

But the company long ago satisfied its most important customer.

Before his father died in 2001, Toothman showed him the first Memory Medallion.

"He said it finally gave him a reason to own a computer," he said.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pittsburgh Commercial Real Estate Market Improving

Pittsburgh Business Times

Real estate research company RealSTATs says the Pittsburgh region's commercial real estate market showed an increase in sales volume for the first half of 2010, compared to the same period last year.

RealSTATs data shows the volume of commercial sales in the Pittsburgh region during the first half was $395.98 million, up 54 percent from the first half of 2009, when the volume was at a five-year low of $256.9 million.

The average commercial sales volume for the first half of the year in the region over the past five years is $667.3 million.

In Allegheny County, commercial sales volume was up 34 percent over the first half of 2009, to $277.5 million. Within the city of Pittsburgh, two sales accounted for almost half of the first half's $160.3 million total: the $38.6 million sale of the Federal North building at 1315 Federal St., and an eight-story office building on Penn Avenue, which sold for $35 million.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Collingswood PATCO Construction Project Nears an End

Philadelphia Inquirer


Two years of pokey trains, parking disruptions, and noisy nights around the Collingswood PATCO station are almost over.

Just when a columnist - puzzled by the seemingly inscrutable and endless goings-on - got curious enough to ask a couple of questions.

Turns out a $12 million project to replace 5,000 concrete pads under the tracks along a half-mile elevated stretch of the commuter line should be finished this month, PATCO general manager Bob Box says.

Although this sort of infrastructure project is a major undertaking, there's little glamour attached. The need isn't evident to the public, but the annoying nature of the work is all too clear. And there's little visible difference after the project is done.

Hardly the stuff of photo ops and ribbon-cuttings.

But the wear and tear caused by the trains and the weather made continued spot replacement of the pads on the 42-year-old viaduct impractical. So in October 2008, crews began jackhammering out, and pouring a replacement for, each of the pads, which sit atop the concrete deck and keep the tracks at proper grade.

The rails were then bolted into the new pads.

"It's very precise work," Box says.

Noisy, too: "Pennsylvania concrete contractors are working at night removing concrete. It's an inconvenience for people who live around the viaduct, and it impacts the [train] schedule."

PATCO, which carries about 36,600 passengers on a typical weekday, maintained service during the project.

Work was done during off-peak hours and involved closing sections of track and slowing trains to 15 m.p.h.

While the 219 trains that hurtle along the viaduct on weekdays (156 on Saturdays and 124 on Sundays) should run a bit smoother and quieter after the repair, passengers may not notice. But the job was essential.

"You could call it a midlife rehab," Box says.

Whatever you call it, the imminent completion is good news.

"We'll be happy to see it end," observes Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, who says PATCO was generally cooperative in resolving noise and other complaints.

"In the evening you could hear them out on the tracks with heavy tools. It was definitely noticeable," says Michael Miles, a lawyer who lives in the LumberYard condominium complex adjacent to the viaduct and uses PATCO to get to work.

"We got through it!" says Betsy Cook, director of the Collingswood Farmers' Market, a Saturday morning attraction under the Speed Line between Irvin and Collings Avenues.

Two dozen vendors and thousands of patrons had no choice but to go along for the ride. And the market's musicians found themselves competing with not only the rattle and roar of trains but also the buzz of generators, the hiss of hoses, and the rat-a-tat of jackhammers.

"Some of the seniors complained," says Cook, whose house backs up to the viaduct. "There were bright lights and loud noises in the middle of the night. It was annoying."

"But I grew up in Collingswood," she adds. "The Speed Line is my neighborhood train. It really does make a contribution to the town. So whatever they had to do to fix it up is all right with me."

In the enveloping heat of the station platform Wednesday, riders Chad Jackson of Philadelphia and Rose Del Vecchio of Collingswood had no complaints about the project. Or PATCO, either.

"I've been taking the train for a while, and I hadn't even noticed, really," said Jackson, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer.

"I take this train to work every day," said Del Vecchio, an Atlantic City casino worker. "I love it."

Gotta love this, too: PATCO has no major projects planned for the Collingswood station area for the next several years.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Taxpayers Fund Building Amid the Slump

Philadelphia Inquirer

Much of the scant construction in Pennsylvania in the near future will be funded by taxpayers, including the projects crammed into the $1.6 billion "Public Improvement Projects, Transportation Assistance Projects and Redevelopment Assistance Capital Projects" signed by Gov. Rendell last week.

My colleague Suzette Parmley has written about the $10 million offered developer Robert Ambrosi for his conversion of the former Pincus Bros. clothing factory in Old City into a hotel, apartments, and stores.

Our Harrisburg staff detailed the state's plans to immortalize the political papers of lame-duck Sen. Arlen Specter and the late Pentagon contract specialist Rep. John Murtha.

There are a lot more like those packed into House Bill 2289.  
City projects include:

$20 million for the proposed American Revolution Center in Center City, plus $5 million for the Independence Visitor Center.

$15 million for "redevelopment" at the former Tasty Baking Co. at Fox and Roberts Streets bordering Nicetown and East Falls.

$10 million for projects, including the Specter library, at Philadelphia University in East Falls.

$10 million for a "research/education facility" at Drexel University.

$5 million for "mixed-use development" in South Philly's Grays Ferry section.

$5 million for Norris Square Civic Association's redevelopment project in North Philly.

$5 million for Aspira Inc., which has a long track record recruiting and supporting Latino students for college, to "develop" the former Cardinal Dougherty High School in Olney.

$3 million "for a new Community Legal Services building" to house antipoverty lawyers.

$750,000 for "campus expansion" at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine on City Avenue.

And in the suburbs:


$15 million for concrete construction at the Keystone Industrial Port Complex in Falls Township.

$10 million for "blight removal" and reconstruction at Chester's Union Square Neighborhood Revitalization District.

$7.5 million "for a mixed-use commercial/retail development" at Fornance, Wood, and Locust Streets in Norristown.

$5 million for "construction, renovation, and improvements in the Bucks County remodeling enterprise zone" in Bristol Township.

$5 million for "the retail development of a 35-acre site in Upper Darby."

$1.5 million for "an industrial facility project" at an unnamed site in Montgomery County.

Where'd we get the money for Pennsylvania concrete contractors and construction? We're borrowing it, from the regular sale of state bonds to private investors, Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma told me. Taxpayers will be financing these projects for decades, as they do with most of what governments build.

A lot of the projects require additional funds from private developers, Tuma said. Plus, the state Office of the Budget can impose conditions before releasing the money.

So maybe not all the projects will get built - this year, or ever. Some of the money will end up going to projects in next year's bill.

There is no all-wise Harrisburg agency picking economic winners. No "invisible hand" of the free market killing off the worst proposals.

This is a grassroots political process, if by grassroots you mean politically adept developers and private and community interests pushing legislators to let them get their hands into the public wallet.

Grabbing Pennsylvania public funds for your firm and your buddies, in the name of higher social goals, goes back to Ben Franklin and Robert Morris, as Charles Rappleye's new Morris biography reminds us.

From the public's perspective in these job-scarce times, the process is only tolerable if a lot of people are hired to build these projects, and run them, once they're done.

America's Warehouse
Besides tax-funded projects, almost the only action in Pennsylvania commercial real estate these days is out in the warehouse districts clustered along I-78 from Allentown down to Chambersburg, where the grandchildren of miners and steelworkers seek work pushing pallets and packing truck containers.

Pennsylvania's toll-free Interstate belt, along the inland truck route from New York to Washington, now ranks as America's Warehouse, the postindustrial home of places where stuff made somewhere else gets parked until East Coast consumers and businesses want it.

Check, for instance, the latest "industrial space" report from Philadelphia-based national landlord Liberty Property Trust.

So far this year, Liberty has leased three million square feet of warehouse space - that's as much as all the office space in Philadelphia's two Liberty Place towers, plus the Liberty-built Comcast Center - in the state's warehouse belt.

New tenants include companies such as Diversified Distribution Systems Inc. , of Minneapolis , which is moving from a smaller Baltimore facility into a nearly half-million-square-foot facility near Chambersburg in search of extra space and a "more advantageous labor market," as president Gary Langer told me.

We're now America's Warehouse? "You pretty much nailed it," says Liberty spokeswoman Jeanne A. Leonard.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Phoenixville Hospital to build its Third Cardio-Cath Lab

Philadelphia Business Journal


Phoenixville Hospital is getting ready to build a third cardiac-catheterization laboratory to keep pace with patient demand at its burgeoning heart program.

The Chester County hospital performed 1,192 diagnostic and therapeutic catheterization procedures — such as balloon angioplasties to clear blocked arteries — in 2007, the year its second cath lab opened.

This year the medical center expects that number to reach 2,059 procedures.

“This is an area where we’ve had significant growth,” said Stephen Tullman, president and CEO of the hospital. “We’re at capacity at the two cath labs now.”

The $3 million price tag for a new cath lab is a small portion of an ongoing expansion and renovation project expected to carry a final cost of between $90 million and $100 million when completed over the next two years.

Phoenixville Hospital — which is owned by Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn. — last year concluded the bulk of its expansion, spending $80 million on a new patient tower, a medical office building and much-needed parking garage. The tower project enabled the medical center to grow from 138 hospital beds to 160 beds, all now in private rooms. The hospital also increased its count of intensive-care units and telemetry beds, which feature continuous monitoring.

Expanding the hospital’s heart program is a strategy that began in early 2002 and continues today. The hospital performed its first cardiac intervention and first open-heart surgery in 2003. Over the years, other services were added, such as implantable defibrillators and peripheral intervention procedures, robotic-assisted surgery and, last year, electrophysiology.

Phoenixville Hospital has a clinical affiliation in cardiology (along with oncology, pathology and diagnostic imaging) with the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Tullman cited several factors for the growth of the hospital’s heart program.

He said the hospital has recruited one of the largest groups of acute-care cardiologists in the region. A 12th heart physician, Dr. Karthik K. Linganathan, who specializes in the care of chronic heart failure patients, is joining the team later this month.

Tullman also noted the communities served by the hospital have grown with the housing boom in western Montgomery County and northern Chester County over the past decade. In addition, he said, the region’s population has aged and older residents require more heart care. And they want to get that care close to home.

“Patients want to stay here,” said Dr. Hans M. Haupt, director of cardiothoracic surgery at Phoenixville and the surgeon who performed the first open-heart surgery at the hospital in 2003. “They don’t want to go into the city for surgery.”

Dr. Rajiv Dhawan, the hospital’s cardiac catheterization lab co-director, said that “very few” patients at Phoenixville opt to make the trip to one of the larger Philadelphia hospitals for heart care. “We have all the technology and all the services here,” Dhawan said. “That really counts.”

Haupt said Phoenixville, like other hospitals around the region and the country, is seeing a decline in open-heart surgical procedures as more therapeutic catheterization procedures — such as those involving angioplasties and stents to clear blocked arteries — are handled in cath labs. He said Phoenixville’s surgical volume has not dropped dramatically because of the large volume of elderly patients the hospital serves who are not strong candidates for the cath lab procedures.

Dr. Herbert Fisher, an interventional cardiologist at Phoenixville, said one of the unique features being planned for the third catheterization lab is a “hybrid” operating room that will allow surgeons and interventional cardiologists to work side-by-side.

The hybrid OR will combine the high-tech imaging capabilities of a cath lab with a large operating room to allow a patient to receive an angioplasty, then a bypass procedure, without having to be transferred to a different room.

Fisher said Phoenixville Hospital is also in the planning stages of enhancing preventative primary-care programs in heart care to provide more diagnostic screening of otherwise healthy patients to catch heart ailments earlier.

“We do all these fancy procedures on patients who represent just a small section of the population we serve,” Fisher said. “We want to do more to keep patients out of the [operating room]. We do colonoscopies and mammograms now, we should be doing more Indianapolis heart examinations on patients at midlife.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

N.J. Motorists run into Delays as $2B in Construction Projects Begin

NJ.com

 
More than $2 billion is being spent this year to repave highways, replace bridges, add new lanes and make other improvements on roads across the state. Though the roadways were clear of construction work for the past five days, due to the long Fourth of July holiday, starting at noon today the crews — and their orange cones will be back, and so will the delays.

To keep score on what's happening, here is list of the places near you and around New Jersey where road crews will be at work this summer and, in some cases, far beyond. Avoid them if you can. But if you can’t, approach with care.

• Route 1 North Brunswick bridge replacement: The Route 1 bridge will be replaced over the abandoned Sayreville Railway and local roads in the Milltown Road and the Ryders Lane interchanges north of the Route 1/130 interchange in North Brunswick Township. The construction will replace the five-span bridge with a single-span bridge. Construction will end in Summer 2011. The project will cost $24.1 million.

• Route 1&9 Saint. Paul’s Viaduct: Viaduct replacement in Hudson County over St. Paul’s Avenue will restore the deteriorated viaduct, while providing a more continuous traffic flow. The project will take an estimated four years to complete and cost $250 million. Traffic flow is continuously shifting in the area.

• Route 27 Metuchen bridge replacement: The Route 27 Bridge over Conrail in Metuchen Borough closed in April in order to safety repair the deteriorating bridge. NJDOT will provide detours for trucks and cars during the repairs. The project is scheduled for completion around October. The new bridge featuring single 12-foot lanes, 10-foot shoulders and 10-foot sidewalks in each direction. The project will cost $9 million.

• Route 36 Highlands Bridge over Shrewsbury River: NJDOT will replace bridge. The lanes will be expanded to 12-feet, with eight-feet shoulders and a median barrier. The improvements will help traffic flow and minimize seasonal impacts and diversion of traffic to local streets. The project will finish at the end of this year.

• Route 52 Causeway replacement Contract B: The bridge in Atlantic and Cape May counties will be replaced. Two fixed and two moveable bridges will be replaced by two bridges that will have two high fixed spans over Ship Channel and Beach Thorofare with new 12-foot expanded lanes, with two going in each direction. A new visitor’s center, multi-use sidewalks for bicyclists and pedestrians and several fishing piers will be provided as a part of the project by the NJDOT. The project is scheduled for completion in 2012 and cost $400 million.

• Route 70/73 Marlton Circle: The Marlton Circle will be eliminated in Burlington County. The project is scheduled for completion in winter 2011. The project will improve traffic flow and reduce accidents at the intersection. The project will cost $63 million.

• Route 295 rehabilitation projects: 25 miles of pavement will be repaired and resurfaced in Gloucester, Salem, Burlington and Camden counties. Project will switch to southbound lanes in 2010. The three projects will cost $170 million total and is expected to end in July of 2012. 17 bridge decks will be repaired and resurfaced, the acceleration and decelerations lanes will be upgraded and have new guide rails.

• Gordon’s Corner Road over Route 9: NJDOT installed a new precast concrete bridge structure connecting Gordon’s Corner Road and Tennent Road to Morganville and Wickatunk Road over Route 9 in Monmouth County, NJDOT officials said. The bridge will have upgraded clearance and guide rails. The project costs $6.3 million and is expected to be finished by late this summer.

• Route 35/36 in Eatontown: In Eatontown Borough and Monmouth County will undergo construction that will widen highway shoulder and relocate Wall Street. New left-turn lanes along Route 35 south will replace the existing loop ramp. The project is scheduled to end in summer 2012. The project will cost $12.4 million.

• Barrier Gate Replacement: The barrier gates, warning gates and traffic signal at the Route 71 bridge over the Shark River in Avon by the Sea and Route 88 Bridge over the inland Water way in Point Pleasant will be replaced. No construction will take place during the weekend.

• Route 9 Ocean Gate Drive: The intersection between Route 9 and Ocean Gate Drive/ Korman Road in Berkely Township will see improvements. The $345,000 state-funded project will improve safety by providing left-turn lanes from the cross streets on to Route 9. All construction will take place during the day, and the project is scheduled for completion by July 2010.

• Route 9 over Route 70 bridge deck replacement: The Route 9 bridge deck over Route 70 in Toms River will be addressed by concrete contractors to help improve conditions. NJDOT will also resurface the bridges approaching Route 9 in both directions. The project will cost $1.8 million and is scheduled for completion in November 2010.

• Route 195 Resurfacing: Route 195 will be resurfaced as a part of a $9.2 million fedearlly-funded project. Construction will mainly take place at night, with minimal daytime closures. No weekend lane closures are planned during the summer, and the project will be complete in late fall.

• Route 130 resurfacing: Roads will be resurfaced and Pennsylvania concrete contractors will repair roadways in Burlington and Mercer counties. NJDOT officials said they plan to mill and repave asphalt sections of the road and make repair to concrete surfaces on the northbound and southbound lanes between Bordentown and Hamilton.

• Route 30 Copper River Drainage: A new drainage system will be installed to prevent the high tide from reaching local ramps. Project will cost $7.8 million, and is scheduled to be completed in November.

• Route 73/Fox Meadow Road: The $18 million project will improve roads by realigning and widening lanes on Route 73. Project is anticipated to be complete in spring 2012.

• Route 78 Newark: A 2.2 mile stretch on both sides of I-78 in Newark will be resurfaced in a $12.7 million project. The project will be completed later this year.

• Route 1/9 northbound Express lanes in Newark: Delancey Street exit ramps will be permanently closed. Express traffic heading to Delancey Street must cross over to local lanes before exiting. The $2.1 million project is scheduled for completion in July.

• Route 280 East Orange, Livingston, Newark, Orange and West Orange: Resurfacing over 35,000 square-feet. The project is scheduled for completion in March of this year and will cost $21.6 million. Overnight single and double lane closures will occur on both sides of the roadway.

• Wittpenn Bridge on Route 7 in Jersey City and Kearny: Bridge will receive structural and mechanical repairs in an $8.3 million project. The bridge will remain open to traffic weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. but traffic shifts and lane closures may occur overnight and on weekends. The project is expected to be completed this winter.

• Route 280 Harrison and Kearny: More than two miles will be resurfaced in both directions from milepost 14.79 to 16.83. The $6.8 million project is expected to be completed in October of this year.

• Route 46 Fairfield: New acceleration lanes, deceleration lanes and ramps will be installed on the Hollywood Avenue exit off Route 46 in Fairfield. The $5.5 million project will begin the week of July 6 and is scheduled for completion in November 2011.

• Newark bridge replacement: The project will replace superstructures for Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Streets as well as Roseville Avenue over New Jersey Transit’s Morristown Rail Line. The construction will cost $13.5 million and is scheduled for completion in fall 2011.

• Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City and Newark: The Skyway will be repaired in a $27 million project to redirect rain runoff away from the steel under the deck in the sections with open curb. The project began in February and is estimated to be completed by October 2011.

• Route 46 Palisades Park: The Roff Avenue Bridge, which has been closed to traffic since March, will receive major renovations by fall of this year. Roff Avenue motorists are being detoured around the construction zone.

• Route 80 Bergen and Passaic County: Road resurfacing will take place on eight miles of the eastbound side of Route 80 from west of Madison Avenue to Polifly Road. Single and double lane closures will continue until the project is completed later this summer.

• Route 17 Rutherford, East Rutherford and Hasbrouck Heights: The $14.7 million project, which began in September 2008, will be completed by August and will improve traffic flow at Highland Cross in Rutherford, Union Avenue in East Rutherford and Franklin Avenue, Malcolm Road and Williams Avenue in Hasbrouck Heights.

• The Route 3 Bridge over the Passaic River: Bridge will be replaced with construction beginning later this summer. The project area extends from Main Avenue in Clifton to the Route 17 interchange in Lyndhurst and Rutherford. Route 3 will not close during any point during construction.

• The Route 46 bridge in Dover: The bridge over the NJ TRANSIT rail line and the Rockaway River will be closed on or around July 9 for replacement. The bridge will remain closed until $50 million project is completed at the end of 2011.

• Tuckahoe Road Bridge in Estell Manor: Bridge over the Cape May Branch rail-line, which has been closed since March 15, be replaced. The $4.9 million project is scheduled for completion in late-fall 2010.

• Route 49/55 Millville City: Ramps from Route 55 southbound to Route 49 will be elongated in a $10 million project expected to be completed by fall 2011.

NEPA Schools Preparing Students for Gas-Drilling Jobs

Times-Tribune

With the boom in Marcellus Shale natural gas development throughout the region, area educational institutions are growing to keep up with work force demands.

New training, certification and degree programs are being created at local schools to ensure local job skills are tailored to white- and blue-collared job needs related to the natural gas drilling industry.

Already, Lackawanna College and Johnson College in Scranton, Keystone College in LaPlume and the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport represent the growing trend of educational institutions offering course work and the hands-on training needed to become employable in one of Pennsylvania's growing industries.

And, college administrators agree the reason for the trend is simple: There's a demand for it by both the industry and potential workers who want the training and the jobs that come with it.

An industry-financed study conducted by Penn State's department of energy and mineral engineering, which offers an undergraduate degree in natural gas engineering, expected Marcellus Shale natural gas extraction efforts to create more than 200,000 jobs in the state and have an overall $18 billion economic impact by this year.

"Marcellus Shale is going to be big business," said Christopher Kucharski, Lackawanna College spokesman. "Problem is there is just nobody trained to handle the positions they want filled."

It appears a change is under way.

Larry Milliken, director of Lackawanna College's energy program and a natural gas instructor, just finished guiding the first class of 18 students through its first year of study to earn an associate degree in natural gas technology.

Based at the college's New Milford campus in the center of the action near gas fields in Susquehanna County, the program is preparing students for well tender jobs - a position that requires monitoring and maintaining natural gas wells during their lengthy production phase.

There is generally one well tender employed for every 20 to 40 natural gas wells, Mr. Milliken said, and the entry-level annual salary is $36,000. Sixteen students have paid internships with natural gas drilling companies this summer in western Pennsylvania, he added.

"The industry has been very supportive of wanting to get (our students) on board," he said. The college also is hiring three additional instructors this year to accommodate the increase in students who have enrolled in the natural gas technology degree program for the 2010-11 school year.

At Lackawanna College's new campus in Hawley, college administrators recently announced a new certificate course for fall centered on training accounting assistants, accounting clerks and administrative assistants specifically for the oil and gas industry.

Tracy Brundage, managing director of work force development at Pennsylvania College of Technology, said administrators decided to take the leap into offering natural gas drilling-related courses this year. The decision followed an in-house study that determined growing employment opportunities because of the prevalence of natural gas development under way in the region.

"The jobs are going to be around for a long time," Ms. Brundage said. "We're just getting started … to get our arms around what is happening … and how we need to respond."

Pennsylvania College of Technology has just begun offering training and certification classes in welding specialized for the industry's infrastructure and commercial driver's license classes, and has tweaked some of its academic majors - including diesel and electrical technology - to include natural gas drilling-related coursework.

So far, about 350 students have enrolled in the non-degree programs.

The college plans to expand its offerings, perhaps to include training for natural gas well operators and emergency response technicians, Ms. Brundage said.

Keystone College, known for its focus on the liberal arts, is also jumping on board.

Robert Cook, Ph.D., the college's environmental resource management program coordinator, said the college will be offering a handful of new courses early next year that include mapping underground natural resources tied specifically to natural gas.

The environmental resource management degree, a four-year Bachelor of Science, has had its "highest level of interest this year" in part because of the Marcellus Shale boom and an expectation that jobs will be available for graduates, Dr. Cook said. The degree, which includes environmental law courses, can also prepare a would-be environmental regulator, he added.

"It's clear energy is going to be an important subject for decades," said Dr. Cook, a professional geologist. "It's thrilling to see our discipline become an important skill set."

Keystone is also hiring a new instructor to teach undergraduate courses within a new natural gas and petroleum resource curriculum that is now under development.

Marie Allison, director of continuing education at Johnson College, said the college will be offering its first class in pipe welding next week tailored to techniques needed by the natural gas industry. The college also will offer a class for advanced welders to prepare for certification in a specific style of welding demanded by the industry.

The college's welding program had been defunct since 2001, because of declining enrollment, but the multitude of pipes and fittings that will be laid by the industry in the coming years yields greater demand for skilled welders, she said.

"They need welders," Ms. Allison said. "We want to give someone the fundamentals and give them the opportunity to find a job."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On South Philly Block, a Legal Fight Over Parking

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Road worrier: Bobby Lemons contends permit parking on McKean Street curbed business at his store. He led an unsuccessful counter-petition he says was sandbagged by his councilman.
 
It's about fairness, says the woman affectionately dubbed the mayor of McKean Street.

It's about politics, gripes an adversary down the block.

It's about democracy, contends the councilman who green-lighted it all.

It's about - what else? - parking in South Philadelphia.

In March of last year, the 900 block of McKean Street became one of more than 800 areas designated for permit parking by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, allowing neighborhood residents who buy a $35 annual sticker to park on the street at all hours and limiting other vehicles to two-hour parking between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Previously, drivers faced no such restrictions.

On these facts, all parties seem to agree. On the rest? Conservatively, permit parking lies somewhere between bureaucratized travesty and model of efficiency - validated in a vote marked by fraud and intimidation or stringent adherence to due process.

"Individuals love it. They all renewed their permits," said resident Norma Russo, thumbing through a yellow envelope of petitions and PPA letters on her kitchen table, next to the biscotti jar.

"We had a perfect, beautiful block here," said Bobby Lemons, plopping a manila folder of the same files on his corner store counter, next to the cigarette dispenser. "I just want my life back."

It started in the summer of 2008 when Russo - "our mayor," says neighbor Diane Colanero - proposed a permit system. Among the reasons: Teachers from nearby Bok Technical High School, according to residents, often parked on the 900 block so administrators would not notice vehicles missing from the school lot if teachers ducked out early.

The ordinance - for which votes were taken by door-to-door petition of block tenants - passed, 26-7, crossing the PPA's 70 percent threshold for implementation. Lemons was the most vocal dissenter, saying the two-hour limits would hinder his business, with fewer passersby parking on the block of his convenience store. (Lemons lives next to his business, nearly a block's length from Russo.)

Immediately, he appealed the result to the PPA and Frank DiCicco, his councilman. Some signatures were forged, he alleged, while a handful of Chinese and Vietnamese residents were told their cars would be towed if they did not sign.

"I told them I don't like it," said Steven Zheng, whose address was on the original petition. "But she said, 'We need to sign. We need to sign.' "

Russo insisted she had taken a translator, who lives on the block, to any homes that required one. The forgery issue, she said, arose when a man's cousin posed as a tenant and signed his relative's name.

And the car-towing rumor? According to Russo, it began when a neighbor asked what would happen if she did not buy a sticker and continued to park on the block for more than two hours at a time.

"You'll continually get tickets," Russo recalled saying. "If you don't pay for tickets, it's like anything else. Your car will be towed."

Lemons led a counter-petition - 20 names in all - prompting DiCicco to call for a vote by secret ballot in January 2009.

"You sign it, for or against, and it's kept secret by me," DiCicco said.

In March 2009, each property received a notice from DiCicco's office calling the tally inconclusive and announcing the start of an eight-month trial period.

Nearly twice that time has passed, and the sign still stands. No one has heard from the city or PPA since.

"It may have been a tie," DiCicco said.

Lemons contends the permit system gained approval as a political favor. On a speakerphone call with a PPA official last year - broadcast for customers to hear (and corroborate) - Lemons says he was told DiCicco's office had directed the PPA to push for permits. "They love it," Lemons theorized. "It's revenue for the city."

DiCicco and the PPA deny taking the initiative in this - or any - permit case, though the city is required to approve the installation of new signs once the PPA determines that a block has secured 70 percent approval.

"Residents request it," PPA spokeswoman Linda Miller said. "They call to say they're having problems with people parking on their block."

McKean Street's example, atypical as it may be, underscores a slew of quirks in permit procedure. Petitions require only one resident of a household to sign, regardless of how many drivers live there. Ten homes are listed on both the August 2008 petition for permits and a March 2009 list of those opposed. While some initial supporters changed their minds, the dueling petitions also reveal different signatures attached to the same address - daughter for, father against; yea from one spouse, nay from the other.

Michael DeMatteo, owner of Mike's Car Care on the east end of the street, says his business productivity has been hindered by the need to "play car jockey" with customers' vehicles every two hours. He also carps that he cannot buy a permit because his car is registered to his New Jersey home.

"I think that's unfair," DiCicco said. "But I don't make the state laws."

The boundless trial period is a final point of contention from Lemons' corner. Russo, for her part, says the system has existed for long enough that no official follow-up validation is required - like a common-law marriage.

She also says permits appear to alleviate parking congestion. Some neighboring blocks have taken notice of the half-empty sidewalks and followed suit.

"Before March, you would never see a spot," said Jean Hill, whose 1200 block of Dickinson Street approved permits three months back. "The $35 is not that big of a deal."

For Lemons, though, it's about the principle.

"I'll rip $35 up in the street. Our rights were violated," he said, face clenching. "Is this America?"

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pittsburgh Home to Harness Sunlight

Philly dot Com

PITTSBURGH - When Michael Merck's Pennsylvania remodeling crew is finished, sunlight that once streamed through dusty cracks in a vacant East Liberty home will strike a solar panel array capable of generating enough energy to support a family of five.

At least, that's the goal the owner of West Penn Energy Solutions set for himself in a novel bid to transform a deteriorating 100-year-old shell of a house into a Zero Energy Home , a "green" living space that produces as much energy as its occupants consume in a year.

"We want to show that we can take this great example of Pittsburgh housing stock and convert it into something as energy efficient or more energy efficient than what people are building new," said Merck, 32, of Regent Square.

Work began in March on the North St. Clair Street home and could be finished by year's end.

Merck hopes to sell the five-bedroom house for about $265,000. He'll list it for sale soon before it's finished in case a buyer wants his company to customize it.

Since minimal air will be able to enter or escape, Merck will use special wall paints and wood stains that emit little or no toxic gas. Rain barrels outside will catch water to irrigate the lawn and garden. Solar-thermal panels mounted atop awnings over two master bedroom windows will block some sunlight, yet catch enough to heat a water tank in the basement equipped with a 400-gallon reservoir. Sun-heated water will flow to showers, sinks and the wood-floored home's radiators.

Merck said the annual cost for electrical service and heating the home will be less than $300.

One drawback: No air conditioning, but a ventilation system will bring in cool, fresh air and exhaust stale air. A single window-mounted air conditioner could cool the entire house, if the owner installed one, he said.

"This really is Michael's dream and his initiative to do a net-zero energy house, and it's one of our core principles, so we're happy to be working with him on this Pennsylvania home remodeling project," said Nate Cunningham, director real estate for the nonprofit East Liberty Development Inc.

ELDI owns the house, but it has worked out a unique business deal with Merck and with two other developers: father-and-son-team Albert and Chas Suter and, separately, Thomas Bencho, who are renovating homes on North Euclid Avenue and Beatty Street, respectively.

The nonprofit purchased the vacant homes typically in economically depressed or crime-prone areas , and gave the small developers an option to renovate and sell them for a profit. Cunningham said ELDI is slowing creating a market for higher-priced homes with the goal of creating a mixed-income neighborhood of homeowners and renters.

"What we liked about them was they're not making us pay anything up front," Chas Suter said. "When we go to close with a buyer is when we pay them for the house and we pay a finder's fee."

The Suters are the first to nearly complete renovations to a house on North Euclid. Theirs is not a net zero-energy house. They preserved a stick-and-ball staircase, pine wood floors and created a master suite. The asking price is $239,900.

"It allows them to continue their mission of bringing homeownership back to East Liberty, and it allows Pennsylvania remodeling contractors with limited resources to renovate a property ... and sell it," said Coldwell Banker real estate agent Holly Sisk, who is working with the Suters.

Cunningham said a real estate market analysis shows there are few who own homes worth between $150,000 and $300,000 in East Liberty. ELDI is changing that.

Three of six homes on North Euclid that ELDI helped to build are sold or under contract. Each falls in or above that price range. People want to live near the improving Penn Avenue corridor, he said, which offers easy access to Whole Foods, Border's, Trader Joe's, a planned Target, and other retail and commercial gems.

ELDI has nine more homes it could offer to small developers.

"We are getting the pioneers now, but we are seeing a pick up in momentum from home buyers," Cunningham said.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hershey Modernizes, Tells Workers to Hit the Highway

Forbes

 
Hershey said late Monday it is planning $250 million to $350 million in capital investments to improve and expand its facilities, while at the same time cutting 500 to 600 jobs as part of its overhaul.

Hershey said it will expand its West Hershey facility to takeover production from its 100-year-old plant at 19 East Chocolate Avenue. The job cuts will be the result of improved efficiency in production. Hershey will also make improvements at an administrative and distribution facility in Hershey.

Hershey said the project, which it calls its Next Century program, will incur charges of $140 million to $170 million over the next three years.

As of 2014, ongoing annual savings will total $60 million to $80 million.

Hershey also said it is looking for 2010 net sales to rise 6%-7%, with earnings per share for the full year of $2.31 to $2.38, including $0.14 to $0.16 in charges per share.

The candy maker competes with Krafts Cadbury, privately held Mars and Switzerlands Nestle.