The coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, and it may mean a significant shift in how southwestern Pennsylvania’s planning agency approaches its work.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is a federally-mandated body, called a metropolitan planning organization. It’s a forum that allows the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding 10-county region to collaborate on things like transportation, economic development and even on issues such as green infrastructure.
Vincent Valdes is the commission’s executive director; he started this summer and previously worked as the associate administrator for research, innovation and demonstration at the Federal Transit Administration. He said as a society we have to rethink what transportation means.
“Broadband, or 5G, or whatever means is used …. connectivity is the new transportation mode,” he said.
Valdes said it’s uncharted territory, but it’s crucial to shift our thinking. People rely on the internet to get to school and work and medical appointments. Right now, he and his staff are working to create a planning process that prioritizes that reality. The commission would be one of the first metropolitan planning organizations in the country to do so, he said.
One of the primary roles of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is to articulate a shared vision for the region, and Valdes said doing so in our current climate requires embracing the “art of the possible.”
“The thing I am firmly convinced of is that there is an overlap,” between the needs of the city of Pittsburgh and the broader region, “and that’s where you focus the conversation,” he said. “There are commonalities there that you can serve, serve well, that are going to bring benefits.”
Valdes sees internet connectivity as just one of those areas of common interest, and added there’s room to work individually with counties to support projects and needs that fall outside of areas of overlap.
Every organization faces new financial restraints and Valdes said the commission will advance projects that get “the greatest bang for its buck,” while being equitable, and heeding the different needs of its stakeholders.