Metro: Brighter commutes from subway station overhauls

June 25, 2012
By Solomon D. Leach


Photo: Customers warmed quickly to new and improved stations. By: Kevin Cook, Metro.


(Metro Philly) The most expensive and most visible project of SEPTA’s nearly $200 million in federal stimulus spending was marked by a ribbon-cutting yesterday at the Spring Garden subway station, which along with the Girard Avenue station received a combined $30 million makeover.

It was the largest of 32 SEPTA completed with $191 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It also was the first time the stations had undergone major renovations since they were built in the 1920s.

The improvements involved nearly every aspect of the stations, including the installation of elevators, new street-level stairwells, cashier booths and fare lines, repairs to the ceiling, walls and platforms, along with new lighting and signage. SEPTA also commissioned permanent artwork from local artists through the SEPTA Art in Transit program. In total, the project involved dozens of contractors and 507 construction jobs, officials said.

During the three-year project, SEPTA kept both stations open with minimal inconvenience to riders. Some passengers said the amenities make the station much more inviting.

“It’s clean,” Andrene Grizzle, a New Jersey resident said of the platform area. “It’s important because believe it or not, appearance does add to safety or feeling safe. … If the station seems clean and nice I’ll want to come here.”

South Philadelphia resident Bri Kurmue also recognized the cleanliness and the artwork. “Actually, it looks great. They [the stations] both look beautiful and I love the colors.”

Denice Brown, a member of SEPTA’s Advisory Council and an advocate for the disabled, said the elevators will enable more disabled riders to take the subway and shorten their trip.

“This really opens it up for more people. It makes it easier and makes it more convenient,” she said.

Stations are part of bigger transit plans

The renovations to the two key stations not only benefits passengers, but is a critical component to transit-oriented development (TOD) along North Broad Street, Council President Darrell Clarke said.

Clarke cited developer Bart Blatstein’s conversion of the former state building at Spring Garden into luxury apartments with retail space and another developer’s residential project near the Temple University regional rail station in North Philadelphia. Both projects are being done, in part, because of their close proximity to public transportation.

The city has been working with developers to identify other opportunities for TODs, which typically feature less parking and promote pedestrian travel.

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Posted in Economy and Workforce, Improving Transportation and Infrastructure, News, Uncategorized

Philadelphia Inquirer: Lack of computer access a major hurdle for the poor

June 11, 2012
By Alfred Lubrano


Instructor Hamidou Traore (right) talks with students (from left) Shakeya Precha, Teisha Reynolds, and Ashley Epps during computer class in the technology center at Families First at People’s Emergency Center.
By Tom Gralish, Philadelphia Inquirer Photographer.


(Philadelphia Inquirer) Fingering an orange flash drive like a good-luck totem, Teisha Reynolds took a break from the computer class she hopes will change her life.

At a KEYSPOT computer-access center within the Families First/People’s Emergency Center in West Philadelphia, Reynolds is enrolled in computer classes to help get off welfare.

Reynolds, 36, keeps hearing the whole world is online. That’s not entirely true.

“When you’re poor and without a computer, there’s a big gap between you and everyone else,” Reynolds said. “For me and my two sons, it’s very hard not having one.”

Throughout the nation, a stark divide separates those with access to computers and computer training, and those without.

For low-income Americans, it’s akin to being stuck yelling out a window to communicate while everyone else is using the phone.

Overall, 90 percent of Americans making between $50,000 and $74,999 are online, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center in April. For those making more than $75,000 annually, it’s 97 percent.

Among Americans who make less than $30,000 a year, however, just 62 percent are online.

And, only 43 percent of people without high school diplomas use the Internet, compared with 94 percent of people with college degrees.

“The more people without access to the Internet get left behind, the greater the gap between the haves and have-nots becomes,” said Greta Byrum, technology expert with the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington. “It robs people of a voice.”

Being connected to the Web is “part of being a fully functioning member of our society,” said Curtis Skinner, a family expert with the National Center for Children and Poverty at Columbia University.

Most people can’t apply for jobs without being online. And a growing number of services for the poor – including food stamps – may soon be available online only.

In Florida, for example, people seeking unemployment benefits must apply online. Some can’t, and a large proportion of claims are being denied, Skinner said.

How people get on the net is changing, of course. Among smartphone owners, for example, those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say their phone is their main source of Internet access, according to Pew. Experts suspect that may be because smartphone Internet access can be cheaper and more convenient than owning a home computer with broadband access – an always-on, high-speed computer line.

A large percentage of poor Americans also get online by using computers in libraries.

In Philadelphia, the poorest city with more than one million residents in the United States, it is estimated that 41 percent of people lack access to computers in their homes, according to an analysis based on 2008 census material. Some researchers using updated figures, such as Temple University urban studies professor Charles Kaylor, believe the real number is closer to 54 percent.

David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., which has created a program to get more low-income Americans online, said no more than 15 percent to 20 percent of residents were hooked up to broadband in poor communities.

By comparison, 85 percent to 90 percent of residents in better-off communities get broadband, Cohen said.

Overall, the Philadelphia metropolitan area (including Camden and Wilmington) ranks 35th out of 100 in broadband adoption rates, according to the most recent information compiled by the American University School of Communication. The Bridgeport, Conn., metropolitan area had the highest rate, at 77 percent of households. The Philadelphia metropolitan area registered 64 percent.

Interestingly, Skinner said, low-income students with Web access spend more time than their better-off counterparts using online time for games and social networking rather than schoolwork. That may be because there aren’t that many low-income adults with sufficient computing acumen to police their kids, experts said.

To help poor people get online in Philadelphia, the Freedom Rings partnership – including city agencies, nonprofits, and Drexel University – has used federal grant money to create 77 KEYSPOT computer-access labs.

It’s not easy for low-income adults to be cyber-savvy.

“This new world is strange for them,” said Hamidou Traore, an instructor at the People’s Emergency Center. “Their reading levels and writing skills aren’t all there. It’s overwhelming.”

To help address such problems, Comcast last year created Internet Essentials, which offers a discounted $9.95-a-month home broadband Internet service to people whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch. The program also helps low-income people buy a computer for $150.

The nation’s largest provider of residential Internet service, Comcast agreed to the program as a condition of its deal to buy NBC Universal Inc., Byrum said.

“The whole company has a passion for this,” Cohen said.

The program has had mixed results, with just 463 broadband activations in Philadelphia, as opposed to more than 5,000 in Chicago, Comcast figures show. Overall, 41,000 U.S. households signed up for it. “That’s not much at all,” Byrum said. The program doesn’t allow the elderly or any low-income people without school-age children to participate, she added.

Philadelphia groups that represent the poor, notably Action United, say Comcast did a poor job of publicizing the program and set up too many hurdles to apply.

“We did a terrific job publicizing it,” Cohen countered. In Philadelphia, for example, fliers were sent home with public school students. He added that senior citizens were not a target audience for Internet Essentials, and that applications were now easier.

Even if the Comcast program improves, it won’t connect the poor to the Web overnight.

Besides, said Melissa Gilbert, urban studies professor at Temple, the poor suffer problems beyond the Web.

She related the story of a woman who showed up at a computer-training class with her brother. To see the screen, the two needed glasses. They were so destitute, however, they had to share a single pair.

“Are you concerned about access to the ‘net if you’re hungry?” Gilbert asked. “Probably not.”

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Posted in Broadband Expansion Round Two, Economy and Workforce, News, Public Computer Centers

City of Philadelphia: City Announces Sale of Revenue Bonds for Building Energy Conservation Project

March 26, 2012
Mark McDonald, Press Secretary

(City of Philadelphia) On May 31, 2012, the City of Philadelphia, through the Philadelphia Municipal Authority, completed the sale of its City Agreement Revenue Bonds, Series 2012A and Series 2012B (Federally Taxable Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds) totaling approximately $12.6 million. Proceeds from the bonds will fund implementation of energy efficiency upgrades at Philadelphia’s City Hall, Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, Municipal Service Building and One Parkway. The project is a major step toward achieving the goal of reducing City government energy consumption by 30% by 2015 as outlined in Greenworks Philadelphia, the City’s comprehensive sustainability plan.

“The City of Philadelphia is committed to a sustainable future, and important projects like this show that the City is leading by example,” said Mayor Michael A. Nutter. “This project reduces our long-term energy consumption, creates new opportunities for businesses, improves City facilities, and saves money which we can use in other areas of need.”

The project uses $6.25 million of the City’s allotment of Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds (QECBs), tax credit bonds that qualify for an interest rate subsidy from the federal government. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $15 million of QECBs to the City of Philadelphia for funding qualified conservation projects. The 2012 bonds benefited from improving market reception of the City’s credit, and received favorable interest rates, resulting in a true interest cost (net of Federal subsidy) of 2.31% for the 15-year bonds.

The project is being completed under the auspices of the Pennsylvania Guaranteed Energy Savings Act (GESA) program. The act allows municipalities to contract with energy service companies (ESCOs) that guarantee energy efficiency upgrade project savings and commit to pay the difference if actual energy savings fall short of expected savings. The City of Philadelphia contracted with NORESCO, an ESCO, to perform energy audits on targeted buildings and install energy conservation measures (ECMs). The energy savings achieved will more than pay for the energy efficiency improvements, with the energy savings expected to exceed net bond debt service by more than $10.2 million over the life of the transaction.

The City plans to install ECMs, including lighting replacements, control system upgrades, and water conservation improvements, among others. The upgrades will reduce energy usage in the four buildings by approximately 20%, increase human comfort, reduce the immediate capital needs of the facilities, and make the facilities easier to operate. The project’s Economic Opportunity Plan contains aggressive minority, women, and disabled owned business participation rates.

Posted in Creating a More Sustainable Philadelphia, News, Press Releases

Curbed Philly: Highlighting infrastructure upgrades

May 4, 2012
Curbed Philly

The good folks at Curbed Philly — the must-read local franchise of the Curbed blog network on urban living — have an entertaining and mildly flattering write-up of progress being made on the new, stimulus-funded bridge connecting Schuylkill River Park to the Schuylkill River Trail.

Wednesday we told you about the bridge truss or the truss bridge or whatever you call it arriving from Minnesota to connect the Schuylkill River Park to the Schuylkill River Trail. The bike community has been advocating for this for more than a decade, so the fact that it’s actually happening is something of a triumph. The project was funded by the stimulus (remember that?) and will be one mile of safe passage for pedestrians, runners and bicyclists—except for the possibility of them running into each other.

It’s good to see the local community and the media take notice of some of the great projects that have been made possible with Recovery Act funding. Improvements like the new bridge were part of a tidy $17M stimulus award from the U.S. Department of Transportation to Philadelphia that are helping Philly become a greener, more walkable and livable city.

But it’s not just bridges and trails. Curbed posted a video of Streets construction manager Mike Fagan explaining the bridge project, whom they found “endearing.” We agree, but we’re even happier about the jobs that the stimulus has supported for hard-working professionals like Fagan. It’s people like him that are keeping this city moving forward.

Here’s Fagan:

Just as importantly, infrastructure investments like these are laying the foundations — quite literally — for future economic progress. That means more jobs and opportunities for Philadelphia residents as well as our guests.

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Posted in Improving Transportation and Infrastructure, News, TIGER

LA Times: Government stimulus moves may have ended recession, study finds

May 03, 2012
By Jim Puzzanghera

Study by Fitch Ratings finds that bailouts and stimulus package boosted the U.S. economy, but also produced negative consequences.


Seal of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.


(Los Angeles Times) Without the unprecedented stimulus actions by the federal government triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, the Great Recession might still be going on, according to a study by Fitch Ratings.

Those incentives, however, came with a price: accelerated budget deficits and rock-bottom interest rates that hurt savers, according to the credit rating company.

Still, the $700-billion bailout fund, the $831-billion stimulus package and the Federal Reserve’s near-zero interest rates, among other federal efforts, continue to spur the nation’s economy, the study released Wednesday concludes.

The boost from those policies helped the nation’s gross domestic product increase 3% in 2010 and 1.7% last year; absent the stimulus, the U.S. “might still be mired in a recession,” according to the study, done in conjunction with Oxford Economics.

The U.S. economy would have seen little or no growth the last two years without the policies, the report says, and those actions appear “to have significantly softened the severity of the decline” in GDP in the year immediately after the recession ended in mid-2009.

Though the Fed’s monetary policy actions were helpful, fiscal stimulus by Congress and the White House “had the strongest positive impact on consumption during the recent recovery,” the study found.

The conclusions mirror findings in February by the Congressional Budget Office and a 2010 study by economists Mark Zandi and Alan Blinder about the positive economic effects of the $831-billion stimulus package, officially called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Republicans have been highly critical of the package, a mix of tax cuts and government spending that they said wasted taxpayer money.

They have noted that the stimulus did not keep the unemployment rate from going above 8%, the level that Obama administration officials predicted it would not surpass. Instead, unemployment rose to 10% in October 2009 and has remained above 8% since then.

The Fitch analysis looked more broadly at all federal stimulus policies, such as the Fed’s large-scale asset purchases. And though the study said the stimulus policies “appeared to have achieved their intended effect,” it warned that the actions came with negative consequences.

“The very high deficits of the last few years have led to unprecedented levels of government indebtedness, which will weigh on the federal government for years and require contraction in spending,” the report says.

“Furthermore, while low rates clearly benefit borrowers, at the same time, they hurt savers,” it says.

The government’s huge budget deficits increase the pressure on policymakers to wind down the stimulus actions, the report says.

The deficits and the inability of the administration and lawmakers to make deep enough cuts in a deal last summer to raise the debt ceiling led Standard & Poor’s Financial Services to downgrade the U.S. credit rating.

Fitch also has been concerned about soaring U.S. government debt, but it reaffirmed its AAA credit rating for the U.S. in August in the wake of the debt-ceiling deal.

[Original]

Posted in News

Technically Philly: Mayor Nutter cuts ribbon on energy-saving wastewater geothermal technology

April 17, 2012
By Yael Borofsky


Photo: The NovaTherman ribbon cutting.


(TechnicalPhilly) Mayor Michael Nutter joined Center City-based thermal energy technology company NovaThermal Energy and the Philadelphia Water Department in the basement of the Southeast Water Pollution Control Plant to cut the ribbon on  newly installed commercial scale wastewater geothermal technology that can reportedly cut heating costs by 50 percent.

The trial of this new energy-saving heatpump is part of the Philadelphia Water Department’s participation in Greenworks Philadelphia, a citywide effort to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the country. The PWD’s pilot project marks the first time the technology has been demonstrated in the United States, according to a press release.

“I am proud to say that Philadelphia is taking another groundbreaking step in becoming the greenest city in America,” said Mayor Nutter in a release.

The technology, which was transferred to NovaThermal from China, is expected to save up to $18,100 annually and $216,600 in heating and cooling costs over the 15-year project. It is also projected to save the equivalent of 276,000 gallons of gas over the life of the project.

To be sure, cost-saving projections on new technologies are often a dubious science, particularly in the energy efficiency space. For example, when they first launched, the Nutter administration touted big savings for new, much ballyhooed Big Belly solar trash compactors in Center City when they launched, only to face claims two years ago from City Controller Alan Butkovitz that the benefit was exaggerated at best.

This new project, part of a mosty lauded shakeup at the city’s Water Department,  is funded in part by the Obama administration’s stimulus act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), through the Greenworks Pilot Energy Technology (G-PET) Grant.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners of SE Pennsylvania is contributing a grant to support the measurement and verification technical assistance of the project, according to a the release.

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Posted in News

Philadelphia Inquirer: Connect Philly’s aim is to do just that

April 5, 2012
By Jeff Gelles 


Photo: Brian James Kirk, cofounder of Technically Philly, says connecting the city, on both sides of the digital divide, should be a goal of anyone who wants Phila. to succeed. By: Jeff Gelles, Philadelphia Inquirer.


(Philly.com) How hard is it to find a public-access computer in Philadelphia, or a place that offers free computer training, or WiFi access for the disabled?

A lot easier than before, thanks to the launch of a new service, Connect Philly, that identifies more than 200 such sites throughout the city.

Send an address or intersection by text message to 215-240-7296, and you’ll get a response directing you to a site that offers access. Add a word such as disabled or WiFi after the address, and you’ll be steered to particular kinds of facilities, which can also be found with an interactive map at the Connect Philly website.

Due to be unveiled this afternoon by Mayor Nutter at a City Hall event, Connect Philly was created by Technically Philly, a local start-up that sees itself both as a media company and as a catalyst for the region’s technology community. Its texting tool is a low-tech app, available to anyone with an ordinary cellphone, but it has a high-minded goal: directing potential beneficiaries to a multifaceted campaign that aims to bridge the “digital divide” – the large and growing gulf between those of us who use the Internet regularly and those left behind by the digital revolution.

Last week in Tech Life, I told you about the persistence and magnitude of the problem, including data showing that across large swaths of North and West Philadelphia, fewer than one in five households enjoy home Internet access. Experts say it’s likely that a third of the city’s residents are disconnected from what is plainly becoming an essential tool for participating in the 21st century’s economy and culture.

That’s where Connect Philly, and the broader program whose resources it highlights, the Freedom Rings Partnership, come into play.

Financed by 2009’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, Freedom Rings is a collaboration of 16 institutions and organizations, including the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology and the Urban Affairs Coalition. Since 2010, it has opened about 70 public-access sites, each equipped with about five to 15 computer work stations, that aim to supplement the heavily used public-access computers at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s 53 locations.

With seven more sites due to open by late June, and a handful of movable sites, Freedom Rings expects to have about 80 facilities available by this summer. (You can find out more about the sites, now known as “Keyspots,” at the website www.phillykeyspots.org.)

Can a public-access program make a major dent in a problem that’s been with us since the dawn of the Internet era – a problem tied, in large part, to the economic divide with which it is highly correlated?

Those who have helped design the Keyspots program, such as Ashley Del Bianco of the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, comanager of Freedom Rings, say the goal is to address the divide at every conceivable level – not just by providing public access to Internet-connected computers, but by offering training and support for people in whatever context they need it.

“It’s not just technology for technology’s sake,” Del Bianco told me this week. “It’s about helping people achieve their life and family goals, their workforce goals, and their education goals.”

Del Bianco says a key goal is promoting so-called “digital literacy” – helping people learn the language of computing and the landscape of the Web, so they can learn to go where they want, and accomplish what they need to accomplish, without further support.

Each of the public-access centers, many located at city recreation centers or housed within existing community organizations, provides both open-access hours and at least 15 hours a week staffed by personnel known as “Web guides.”

If you need help in learning how to search, say, for health information online, the Web guides will help you do that. You can schedule basic computer instruction, training in Internet safety, or a session on using the Web to apply for jobs, build a resume, or improve your employability. Teenagers are learning how to create videos or music – some of the sites are even equipped with Macs, especially conducive to multimedia work.

Del Bianco says people can sign up online at the Keyspots site. But in recognition of the target audience, “we really recommend that people drop by or call,” she says. You can find a Keyspot by calling 215-851-1990.

Or you can use the Connect Philly texting app – which includes retail sites such as Starbucks – by calling 215-240-7296.

Technically Philly cofounder Brian James Kirk says connecting the city, on both sides of the digital divide, should be a goal of anyone who wants Philadelphia to succeed.

“My dad was a computer geek, and when I was 5 I had access to a computer,” recalls Kirk. “It gave me a significant advantage.”

Now a 28-year-old Temple grad and a successful entrepreneur, Kirk wants to share that advantage. And Connect Philly is a great start.

Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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Posted in Broadband Expansion Round Two, Economy and Workforce, Employment and Training Adult, Employment and Training Youth, Projects and Grants, Public Computer Centers