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What do newcomers to Pittsburgh say when they’re back home?

Filed under: , The Future Of,Pittsburgh,Rants — jet @ 16:12

Since moving to Pittsburgh I’ve been exposed to the constant refrain of, “How do we get businesses/people to come to Pittsburgh?” Since any answer requiring Pittsburgh to change is probably going to be ignored, I think there’s a different question we need to ask. That question is, “How can we make Pittsburgh, PA a place that new residents speak highly of when they’re back visiting their home towns?”

I’m one of those people — I spend a fair amount of time back in California or at least emailing/chatting with friends of mine in San Francisco, Mountain View, Palo Alto, etc.

Lately I feel like I’ve been as frustrated with Pittsburgh (and Pittsburghers) as not. For every sales pitch I make to a friend back in Cali involving low property prices and access to local farm produce I seem to have an equally horrid story about things like the idiocy of stopping on on-ramps instead of merging, the massive taxes with no open records laws or other ways of finding out where my money goes, or the state bureaucracy in general.

Today I got bit by a combination of two things — the Pittsburgher attitude of “what do you mean you didn’t know that, everyone here knows that?” and a state bureaucracy from hell. We’re (you’re) not going to be able to convince people that this is a great place to move to until stories like this stop being what newcomers tell when we’re back visiting our friends in other states. Maybe that requires changing state and local government or maybe it just means not treating newcomers to Pittsburgh like we’re aliens or mentally challenged.

Those of you who’ve never lived in Pennsylvania will probably be surprised by how vehicle registration works. First off, you don’t go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Public Safety to register your car in the state. Nope, the only thing you can do at a PENNDOT office is deal with driver’s licenses. All vehicle registrations must be done at the state capitol in Harrisburg, PA.

No, I’m not making this up. Vehicles can only be registered at the state capitol.

That’s pretty out of the way for most of us. To make things easier, the state has allowed certain companies, known as “messenger services”, to do the business of taking your paperwork to the capital for you. And no, it’s not free, nor even cheap.

This week I finally got around to registering a vehicle I bought while out of state after moving to PA. It’s a vintage bike, there’s only one dealer in town for this make, and it’s a good 30-45 minute drive away so I call ahead to see what I need to bring. Title, PA driver’s license, and proof of insurance, then pass safety inspection. Since it’s an obscure bike, I’m going to the dealer on the off chance I need some random part to pass inspection.

Today I roll into the dealership, paperwork in hand. First surprise: I have to pay PA sales tax on any purchase made in another state. (So, when I’m on vacation, do I need to pay tax for gifts I buy and bring back to my friends here?) It takes a good 30 minutes to do all the paperwork and then the clerk says, “ok, now I need two checks. One for $x for the state and one for $y for us.”

This caught me off guard, and since I rarely carry my checkbook these days I just kinda sputtered, “Uh, what? Nobody said anything about bringing checks when I called. Can’t I use a charge card or an ATM card or something?”

The clerk was not apologetic, but explained in that slow way you talk to people you think aren’t paying attention, “We can’t give the messenger service a credit card, we can only give them checks.” It wasn’t condescending as much as, “how can you not know that you need to pay for this by check? Everyone knows that you have to have a check.” Hell, I didn’t even know what a “messenger service” was until today, much less that I needed to pay for things with checks.

So, 3 hours driving/waiting and still no title transfer, no inspection, no nada. I go back tomorrow — with a checkbook this time — in hopes of finishing this.

This isn’t the sort of story that my friends back home need to hear. They need to hear how trivial it was go to to PENNDOT and drop off all the paperwork at once. They need to hear that when someone who didn’t grow up here is trapped in some sort of bureaucratic nonsense that the locals will be sympathetic, not just throw up their hands and say, “sorry, that’s just not how it works here”.

[tags]bureaucracy, penndot, pennsylvania, pittsburgh, rants[/tags]

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