Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidates Debate Bike Lanes, Lead, Uber, Immigration & More

May 9, 2017

Mayor Bill Peduto acknowledged there may be some merit to Democratic challenger Rev. John C. Welch's plan to limit lead in Pittsburgh's drinking water at a mayoral forum hosted by 90.5 WESA and The Incline on Tuesday.

"I think Rev. Welch's idea of point-of-entry systems is something that needs to be explored," Peduto told a small crowd at the South Side studios of the Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corporation. "We're working now with tech firms and with Google [on] a heat map in order to find out where the lead areas of the city are concentrated."

Point-of-entry units, which are installed at a single tap to treat only the water intended for drinking and cooking, could be "a potential part of that solution, but we still are going to have to remove the pipes," Peduto said.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority tested at 22 parts per billion in June 2016 and 18 ppb in December, both well over the Environmental Protection Agency's cautionary threshold of 15 ppb.

That makes Pittsburgh home to the country's second largest water provider testing at or above the federal action limit, according to a new EPA database.

Welch, of Homewood argued that city-sponsored water pitchers would only reduce the amount of lead in drinking water, not eliminate it. The EPA has recommended point-of-entry units to small water authorities struggling with lead.

"[Using pitchers] really is a smokescreen or is a deceptive tactic of the city," he said.

Harris, of Spring Hill doubled down, insisting the problem is directly related to PWSA staffing changes several years ago.

"We have an opportunity to fix our water system, but it's not going to happen overnight and it's not going to be for free," said Peduto, of Point Breeze. "It can't be done under the structure that we have right now, because the PWSA has over $750 million in debt and can't borrow a billion dollars that's needed...and it's going to take some time to replace what may be over 20,000 [water] lines."

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review fact-checked a portion of Peduto's comments on lead. Read more here.

Candidates discussed and debated a range of issues, from the very serious -- affordable housing, public safety, how to best help the city's homeless population and the ongoing testing of autonomous cars -- to the light-hearted -- recalling the last time they each rode a Port Authority bus and which of Pittsburgh's former mayors were their most esteemed.

"Well, I've worked with seven of them and I loved six," Harris said, looking at Peduto and drawing laughs from the crowd.

Harris said later she had a "real problem" with undocumented workers.

"If there’s refugees that are coming over, then the church or the organization that brings [them] over should help them to get jobs so that they can live a good life," she said. "Not just bring them over and let them go and be poor."

Being undocumented is not a "criminal crime," Peduto said.

"It's a civil crime like jaywalking," he said. "We shouldn't be locking people up for jaywalking or for being undocumented."

Welch voiced support for police body cameras, community policing tactics and better and more regular training for officers, policies Peduto also praised during former Police Chief Cameron McLay's abbreviated tenure.

Harris said rather than genuine community involvement, that lately "it's just been that, you know, the [police] have somebody come in and talk."

She argued bike infrastructure wasn’t addressed in advance with enough stakeholders -- “we've worked with a group of people, we have not worked with the whole community” -- and that the data collected while testing self-driving cars wasn’t fully explained.

Welch, too, said he’s concerned about the selective technology behind autonomous cars and wonders why more advanced fields like aerospace and U.S. Department of Defense scenario modalities aren’t in play here.

Uber is just the most noticeable of five different companies now testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, Peduto said, and their presence gives the city an opportunity to help define Uber and others’ future protocols.

“What's missing right now is a social compact with the industry defining what the automobile industry will look like,” he said, “and what the responsibilities will be with the communities they serve.”

"Uber scares me," Harris said.