Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bus deal becoming a fiasco - Who's to blame?

Broward County FL - A news story from the Miami Herald tells of more woes for Broward County Transit (BCT). Besides a maintenance backlog and missed service, which was told about in an earlier Laurels & Lances column, we get more details on the reason why no new buses have been ordered for the system.

BCT put out an invitation to bid for an order of buses and received bids from North American Bus Industries (NABI) and New Flyer Industries (NFI). NABI bid $116 million while NFI's bid came in at $141 million. The problem was that BCT tossed NABI's bid and awarded the contract to NFI and NABI filed a protest.

Apparently NABI didn't meet the specifications written up by BCT which was the reason the bid was tossed in favor of a more expensive contractor.

Let's examine this for a minute. Transit systems across the US all write their own specifications for buses they order. Buses, unlike cars, aren't pre-built but are all custom built. Everything on the bus order has specifications that must be met, practically down to the last bolt.

The problem with this industry practice is that it allows systems to nitpick when they receive a bid from a builder they don't want. Given that most systems work under low-bid or preferred low bidder laws, when a system gets a low bid in from a manufacturer they don't want, they can and do nitpick over the silliest things in order to try and toss the low bid in favor of the manufacturer that the system wants.

The reasons behind why a system wants a certain manufacturer over another can vary widely. From a slick sales pitch down to legitimate concerns from previous bad experiences with a particular manufacturer. When a low bid is tossed and the reason for the bid being tossed is danced around, such as is happening in Broward County, it raises flags that the reason for the bid being tossed isn't legitimate.

From how the news report reads, I get the distinct impression that there isn't a problem with the bid that NABI submitted besides that they weren't the manufacturer that the BCT wanted. It is not uncommon for bids to be tossed simply over the personal preference of key officials.

While there could very well be a legitimate reason for tossing NABI's low bid, the simple fact that the BCT Director, Christopher Walton, danced around the reason with the reporter on why he recommended the higher bid from NFI tells me there wasn't a good reason. If there was a valid reason, it would have been stated.

The BCT can't be picky and because they have been, they will need to spend about $20,000 per bus more to meet newer environmental requirements for 2007 model buses. NABI isn't to blame for the higher cost for the delayed 2006 order which will need adjusted for 2007 prices regardless of who is ultimately awarded the bid. The BCT is to blame for choosing to spend $25 million more of taxpayer money on the higher initial bid from NFI.

Broward County Transit officials get the Lance for what is obviously a thinly veiled attempt to skirt the procurement process through selective enforcement of the procurement procedures. The actions taken by the BCT have hurt the transit system through not replacing buses that need replaced which has caused system wide service delays. It also will ultimately cost the taxpayer much more money, money that shouldn't have to be spent if the BCT accepted the NABI bid.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Metro's Adopt A Bus Stop returns

Houston TX - The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) has reintroduced its Adopt-A-Stop and Adopt-A-Shelter program according to a Houston Chronicle story.

The main focus of this program is to allow businesses and community groups that want to help do their part to control crime and improve transit to become involved. The volunteers are the watchdogs of their adopted stop or shelter and are given numbers to report crime, vandalism or other incidents including just plain lack of maintenance of a shelter or stop by Metro.

The program is a very low cost method to help improve the safety of the area as well as helping to keep Metro notified of problems at a particular stop or shelter that need attention. By getting the community involved, it helps both police and Metro out through giving both agencies many more eyes and ears.

A low cost program such as this is something that transit systems should be doing everywhere. It helps build awareness of the transit system as well helps give the transit system that positive image which so many operations across the country are willing to spend millions of our tax dollars on. The big plus is that it also helps put more eyes and ears out to help police reduce crime.

This is one of the few times you will read or hear this writer say anything along these lines: While the Adopt-A-Stop program does cost some money to administer and run, the overall benefits to the transit system and the community far outweigh the small cost of the program to taxpayers.

A Laurel goes out to the Houston Metro for putting this program back in place as well as one to Dimitrios Fetokakis who's phone call about problems at one of the Metro's stops and willing first volunteer in the program was the catalyst for Metro to reintroduce the program.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Can the TTC reinvent itself?

Toronto ON - A Dr. Gridlock article on the web site offers some commentary on what ails the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and what could help solve the problem. Most of what follows in my commentary can be applied easily to any transit system, not just the TTC.

In the article, reporter Jeff Gray asks former Toronto budget chief, David Soknacki about what he thinks is wrong with the operation.

Soknacki's answer could fit just about any transit system in North America. An outmoded, monolithic, top-down organization that is too resistant to new ideas.

While I agree with Soknacki's assessment for the most part, I would add to it the following so that it works with the majority of public transit systems: Oblivious to their purpose. I say this simply because too many transit systems have lost touch with what transit is supposed to be. Moving people from point A to point B has lost its meaning as transit administrations across North America focus more on "style over substance" methods of operations.

Soknacki has a vision of dismantling the existing TTC and creating separate agencies for each mode of transport. Each mini-TTC would be overseen by an overarching regional body, aka an umbrella agency or mega agency. This type of set up, Soknacki believes, would allow for quicker adjustments to meet rider needs as well as coming up for new ideas in improving the service overall.

While Soknacki brings forth some valid points for breaking up the TTC into smaller pieces, I think he misses the fact that what he is suggesting is an even bigger bureaucratic monster. One that will further drain the already anemic transit funding coffers. The umbrella agency concept does work but it creates a larger overall paper pusher style of administration which increases the overall cost of providing service.

In Soknacki's vision, the mini-TTC's which are created would handle bus, rail and subway operations and would be able to respond quicker to ridership needs. Where the problem with this comes in is that you then need to wade through many more miles of red tape created by the paper pushing umbrella agency which ultimately will slow everything down.

Many transit systems are considering the umbrella agency method for public transit to try and salvage their failing transit systems. They are using a different reasoning than Soknacki uses however. Other systems see such an umbrella agency as a means to leverage more money out of the government rather than a means to improve operations.

Toronto's Mayor, David Miller, thinks Soknacki's idea would destroy public transit in Toronto. Mayor Miller thinks the problem strictly the lack of adequate funding.

The Mayor is partially correct but this is where Soknacki's earlier comments come into play. The TTC is too resistant to change. It is a lumbering and hungry beast rather than a lean, mean fighting machine.

Adequate funding is needed but the administration needs to trim the fat as well and streamline how the system runs. In many operations, there are too many managers with too little to do besides come up with new ways for the transit system to waste money. The focus should be on service, not bells and whistles like marketing the system and coming up with expensive capital projects. Unless the administration does its part, public transit will continue to go deeper into the fiscal black hole until it finally self-destructs from the ever increasing monetary waste and top heavy bureaucracy.

"It is a waste of time and energy to try to reinvent the TTC" states the Mayor.

Not exactly true. There is not one transit system in North America that can honestly claim to be running at top efficiently regardless of what efficiency ranking is awarded by a transit industry trade group. From how trips are assigned to eliminating duplicate or unneeded administration positions, the savings add up. The funding deficit at any transit system could probably be knocked down by 25 percent from just running an efficient operation which isn't top heavy. That requires reinventing yourself.

An important part of Soknacki's vision for the TTC is about expansion of the system. To expand a transit system without incurring massive costs, one only needs to look to how the Port Authority of Allegheny County did it during the 1970's and is summarized in an earlier article on Laurels & Lances. Simple things such as trimming a trip here and there, eliminating non-performing and duplicate routes, extending trip times by 10 minutes on some routes and using logic when assembling the route assignments allowed for more than enough resources to be freed up to be used for many new routes in Pittsburgh. In short, it involved going back to the basics of public transit. It's not rocket science nor doesn't cost millions of dollars as Mayor Miller suggests.

Soknacki's vision isn't the answer to the TTC's problems but neither is Miller's vision. Both of them miss the point that a large portion of the waste in the TTC is in the administration and how the system is managed. One wants to increase the overall administration while the other wants to leave it alone. No one wants to actually look at trimming the administration back.

Change is at the heart of Soknacki's vision for the TTC. It is something I have believed for years regarding public transit in general. Public transit needs to change how it thinks. While David Soknacki and I have different ideas on the changes that need to be made in transit, we both realize that the few with the ability to initiate the needed changes will step up and do it. My experiences with transit administrations across North America are that they don't want to change. To change how things are done disturbs the status quo.

What the TTC is facing is similar to what most every transit system in North America is facing. The solutions to helping to solve the problems are also similar for every system.

Public transit has lost its way and the simplest way to help it find the right track again is to go back to the basics of what transit was designed to be. Many of the problems will become manageable, if not eliminated, by doing so.

Now if only someone will bother to listen...

Copper thefts effecting Little Rock trolley

Little Rock AR - I had to laugh reading the story reported on KATV-7's web site. Apparently there is one more cost issue effecting light rail and streetcar operations and that is theft of copper.

To combat the thefts of copper grounding wires from the Little Rock trolley line, the additional expense of cameras and video monitoring of the track now need to be added to the price of running the Little Rock trolley line.

Copper theft from rail lines is nothing new. It's been going on practically since the days of the first electric streetcars. When copper prices rise, so do the thefts of any copper a thief can get their hands from electric rail lines.

It's a cost that rarely is considered in the building and operation of the line but it adds up quickly.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Streetcars for all the wrong reasons

Washington DC - reports that Washington DC is now jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. The reasons given are all of the standard boiler plate Light Rail Transit (LRT) arguments which proponents try to overwhelm the general public with.

Once again we hear about the economic boom times that are ahead once the line is built. We hear about all the development that will occur. We hear how it will reduce traffic. We hear how it will clear the air. We don't hear one word about if it will actually move people any better than a decently operated bus route could.

We even receive an environmental brow beating from Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington's delegate to Congress. "Light rail is the wave of the future if you care about the environment" Holmes tells us.

As stated in an earlier Laurels & Lances article, it is unclear as to how well rail lines actually help the environment. Rail lines, like streetcars, don't reduce pollution near as much as proponents claim. The traffic will still be there and congestion will increase. Cars and trucks will be spewing more pollution into the air from the increased congestion. Pollution will still be generated to run the streetcar, albeit at a distant power plant. The environmental claims of reduced pollution for LRT and its offshoots are a dubious claim at best.

The line is planned to run by the new Washington National's ballpark set to open in 2008. The ballpark is what will spur development in one of Washington DC's poorest neighborhoods, not the streetcar line. We'll never know that once the rail proponents start spinning the facts and claim anything that is built in the area, including the ballpark, is proof that streetcars spurred the development.

What is often overlooked in these deals are that the poorest residents, the same ones that the politicians claim they want to help, will be displaced. The poorest residents will be pushed out so development can occur. This little fact is one of the most glossed over items of revitalization efforts in any city. The politicians and pro-side activist groups will end up getting the residents all excited about having their neighborhood and life quality improving so that none of them will question anything until they get a court order to move out so a developer can build a condo. Rather than actually improve the lives of its residents through proper education and proper investment in the community, cities opt for unneeded capital projects which ultimately force the "problem" out of their area and into another area.

Although the city is financing to build this line, it eventually will be dropped onto the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) lap to operate. WMATA is already facing a multi-million dollar operating deficit and this is just what they need, another fiscal black hole to try and fill.

Then there is the American Public Transit Association (APTA) comment from Bill Millar. "Washington seems to be following what many cities are doing: to see how the use of streetcars might be helpful in not only solving transportation problems, but in helping with economic-development issues", states Millar. His comments are typical of what I expect from APTA as they are just a lobbying group that routinely calls for "style over substance" transportation solutions as well as refusing to address the true problems facing the future of public transit.

While this streetcar line may actually work well, the reasons being cited as to why the line is needed are not the reasons it should be built. Not one reason given in the story is a good reason to pour millions of tax dollars into building and operating the line. It's all political spin that is based in conjecture rather than fact.

Such a streetcar line, as this one in Washington DC, should be built if it is the best transportation mode for the area. This line is not that and the proponents make no claim that it is. It's just another attempt to jump on the LRT/Streetcar bandwagon using the worn out pro-rail rhetoric.

Honolulu's proposed rail transit

Honolulu HI - A commentary piece in the Hawaii Reporter regarding the proposed rail transit line brings up a few points that need further discussion.

Hawaii State Representative Colleen Meyer (R) questions the recent vote by the Honolulu City Council on their desire to jump on the Light Rail Transit (LRT) bandwagon. The main issues? The cost as well as if it is really needed.

Rep. Meyer correctly states that public transit usage is declining. While there has been a recent increase in ridership over the past couple of years, this is mostly due to higher fuel costs and the spike of ridership is already declining nationwide.

Also mentioned in the article was the point that LRT is not exactly the choice of the people living there. A survey of residents show 53% said they would not use the line. While surveys leave a lot to the imagination, the survey was commission by the City and County of Hawaii, who were pushing for the line, and it didn't come back exactly as they had hoped but they still pushed the vote through.

Rep. Meyers suggested that the residents should have a chance to vote the project up or down. There's little chance of that happening. Rail activists have done a good job spreading the word of all the "benefits" of having an expensive toy built. The residents won't believe that LRT isn't all that was promised to them until after the line is built and by then it's too late.

While there are places LRT will work well, it won't work well everywhere. My major problem with LRT are mostly the arguments made by the proponents. False promises of good times ahead if only you support building the line. I have heard the same arguments made for every rail line proposed. The proponents gloss over or ignore any problems with having an LRT line such as the cost, effects on the rest of the transit system and how much it will cost the general public. All you hear is of economic boom times and the massive development that will occur if only you support building the line.

Rail proponents from all walks of life are so desperate to get LRT lines slapped down all over North America that most refuse to even question the proposals. Questions such as, "Why is the line being proposed where it isn't needed?" and "How are you going to pay to run this line when you are already screaming about fare hikes and route cuts for your transit system?", are rarely asked by rail proponents.

Rep. Meyers has a better handle on what is happening than those that have control of the project. A rare trait in a politician these days. The whole proposal needs to be looked at again and by a neutral party that has no interest one way or the other. Traffic congestion will not be eliminated or reduced by Honolulu's multi-billion dollar LRT line. One of the major selling points to the residents is that this rail line will solve the traffic issues.

The general public need hard facts, not activist and political spin, to better understand what is happening. Pro-LRT spin is among the top for being smooth and effective among the general public. Those who dare question LRT proposals are routinely shouted down as being closed minded and being against improving the "quality of life".

A Laurel goes out to Hawaii State Representative Colleen Meyers (R) for questioning this rather ill-conceived plan.

Surrey still pushing for LRT any way they can get it

Surrey BC - A news story from the Peace Arch News reports on Light Rail Transit (LRT) proponents that are brandishing a new consultant report in their fight to get LRT in their community.

The City of Surrey commissioned a report that looked at a scaled back version of the 27-km Translink plan. The Surrey plan was a fraction of the length and assumed single track operation. The Translink proposal would have run between $360 - $700 million (CAD) while the shorter Surrey proposal would run around $110 - $150 million (CAD).

There has been a new catch phrase born to identify this type of rail line, "community rail". It sounds like something a Liberal would dream up since it conjures up warm and fuzzy images of a quaint trolley line connecting small towns together. Will we all have to hold hands and sing peace songs too if it's built?

A major problem is that you have single track operation in the Surrey proposal. It's disaster in the making. No, I'm not talking accidents. I'm talking about service delays. One mishap and the entire line can be closed for hours. Systems foolish enough to build a single track LRT line soon find out that single track operations are a major headache and detrimental to the line. Most systems that have single track only have it due to geography issues where double tracking is impossible and hold single tracking to a bare minimum.

I have read some other articles on a LRT proposal for the Surrey area, which was called the "Evergreen LRT" line proposal if I recall correctly. It proved too costly and didn't generate the projected ridership numbers to build even with the transit industry's technique of artificially shaving costs down and inflating projected ridership numbers.

At least the city is attempting to do its homework and realizes that the operating costs of approximately $6 million (CAD) a year will be a big problem. Estimating only a 20 to 30 percent recovery from the fare box, the local government would be left to foot millions of dollars each year to run the line.

I did like what city Engineer General Manager Paul Ham told council in his report. He recommended shelving the rail idea because of the costs as well as creating expectations that may not be achievable and diverting money from other area projects.

The thought on creating expectations that aren't achievable hits at the core of the LRT proponent's argument. Unrealistic expectations are what surround many of the rail proposals around North America. The general public is routinely sold a load of bull regarding economic boom times, development, cleaner air, less congestion, and other unrealistic goals on each and every rail line that is proposed by rail activists and politicians that want something to have for their legacy.

The fact of the matter is that you don't have economic boom times. You end up paying more through taxes to support these expensive projects. You may get some development but it can take decades and most often, the general public pays again through giving massive tax breaks and even low-interest loans which are rarely repaid as well as grants to developers to build something near a rail station. Rail doesn't effect the air quality enough to even measure and there are many reports across North America of increased traffic congestion once an LRT line is built.

What I see here is another example of politicians and activists doing anything they can to get an LRT line built when it's really not needed. The rail activists and politicians pushing for this proposal really need to just let it die. Try improving what you have already as the expensive toys won't solve any of the problems in the area. Surrey politicians and area rail activists get the Lance for continuing to try and push this unneeded project.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

WMATA considers 'congestion fares'

Washington DC - An Associated Press story in The Examiner reports that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is considering instituting 'congestion fares', better known as 'peak hour fares', to help reduce the $116 million budget gap the system has.

A congestion fare is being considered to help spread out the demand for WMATA services from peak periods to less busy times. By shifting a part of the crowd to less heavy travel times, WMATA hopes to increase the efficiency of some of the non-peak trips, eliminating overcrowding on peak trips as well as raking in more money from those that won't or can't change their travel times.

It is figured that if WMATA can shift 5% of it's peak hour patronage to the fringe periods of just before and after the peak period, overcrowding issues could be eliminated for awhile at least.

There is a gamble in doing such a move at many transit systems. With WMATA, the gamble is less due to more captive riders that enter the congested zones of Washington DC. Due to parking issues and greater parking expenses than in many other cities, what many would call a choice rider elsewhere are more or less a captive rider on WMATA. It is important to note that this particular type of captive rider still can abandoned transit far easier than a true captive rider.

Many critics of peak hour fares consider the increased cost as a punishment to those that choose to ride. Critics charge that it drives away ridership and is more of a cash grab by the system than tool to use to equalize demand and eliminate overcrowding. In many cases they are correct. Peak fares do punish the rush hour ridership and do keep some from riding but there is a flip side to it as well.

Transit systems are designed around the peak period. While off peak carries far less in terms of ridership, transit systems need to be set up for peak period which is the bulk of their ridership and where most of the fare box revenue comes from. To be set up for peak period service means more employees, more vehicles and more cost to operate the system. Even a bus or rail vehicle that is just sitting at the depot costs the transit system money.

That is part of the reason that various transit systems across the country have charged peak fares at one time or another from as far back as the days of the horse cars. It costs more to run peak service than it does to run off-peak since you have to have the additional infrastructure in place to handle peak periods.

While higher ridership tends to offset the higher operating costs, it doesn't offset enough of the costs. With fuel, insurance, wage and other associated costs continuing to rise, the offset between revenues and expenses continues to grow.

This is where a balance needs to be struck between off peak and peak service. Tough ridership standards need to be implemented where if a route doesn't meet its minimum ridership numbers, it needs to be cut. Too often, transit systems tend to chop the peak service and leave the unproductive off peak service alone. That trend has to stop.

If your going to charge a peak fare, riders will be less tolerant of route cuts in peak periods. In addition, riders will hold the peak service to a higher level which most transit systems these days can't meet. Riders will be even less tolerate of missed trips, crowding, etc.

To impose a peak fare requires the transit system to look at peak periods differently. This is because your now operating more or less two different operations. In a standard fare system, your just adding more vehicles for peak periods. In a peak fare system, your not only adding more vehicles but also a different fare structure and having to adjust routes more often for services like express and limited stop routes.

In some cases, peak fares actually generate more costs for the transit system in order to hold the ridership. A general rule of thumb is that for each 25 cent increase in fare, you lose around 5 percent of your ridership. This holds true with peak fares and to try and keep that peak ridership which the transit system depends on, the transit system usually ends up spending more money in various improvements such as extra buses or creating new express routes.

While WMATA hasn't decided if they are going to do the congestion charge yet, I suggest they look very closely at the issue before making the decision. It is still a gamble and if they lose the gamble, they could end up losing more money and ridership than if they just did an across the board fare increase.

Personally, I don't think the congestion charge will do what WMATA thinks it will.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas




May this holiday be filled with Peace, Joy and Love

...and a personal thank you to those that have taken the time to look over my words on this blog regarding my views on improving public transit. The comments and e-mails are appreciated.

Take the bus to the mall? Maybe.

Waterford CT - A news story from the web site brings up a problem that many transit systems face, bringing transit service to shopping centers.

In Waterford, Southeast Area Transit (SEAT) has been attempting to serve the Waterford Commons shopping complex. The problem is the owners of Waterford Commons are concerned over liability issues of having buses running on their property.

SEAT seems confused over what Waterford Commons means by liability issues but from the story, it appears clear that they are referring to having the buses destroy the pavement. A common occurrence at malls and shopping centers which aren't designed for having a steady flow of heavy vehicles.

This brings up an important point. Why aren't shopping centers, malls and other such development built with transit service in mind?

Many zoning regulations don't have any mention of public transit access so developers aren't required to build to accommodate transit so the owners ignore it. While I'm not a fan of adding new regulations to the already over regulated businesses, zoning regulations for large shopping developments should include public transit access.

Many shopping developments across the country do encourage transit service and even go beyond zoning regulations to ensure transit ridership can patronize the businesses within the development. By working with the transit system, the owners of these developments can easily allow access for buses without having problems.

If buses are causing problems with pavement deterioration, the transit system needs to pony up the money to repair it. If there are other issues related to public transit at the development, then action should be taken by both sides to solve the problem before pulling service.

Another part of the problem is that owners of some developments are scared of the long standing belief that public transit will bring the "wrong element" to their property. This is more of the primary driver in the move by some shopping complex owners in keeping transit out. While this belief may have some truth behind it, other evidence suggests that the problems the owners fear would have occurred whether transit was there or not.

Many people are dependent on public transit to shop. Businesses generally don't want to turn away any potential customers so it seems odd that the owners of some of these complexes try to make it harder on the public, as well as the businesses that pay to be in those complexes, by making it difficult for them.

The bottom line is that owners of malls, shopping centers and other large business developments that depend on the public showing up should work with the local transit system to allow transit service to their complexes. By ignoring transit, the owners of these complexes are not only hurting the public but the businesses that lease space at their complexes.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

NY Congressman calls for bus takeover

Staten Island NY - The Staten Island Advance reports on New York State Congressman Vito Fossella's (RINO) attempts to force a takeover of two South Shore bus routes that are currently handled by a private carrier.

The problem with Fossella's attempt is that the two lines, run by Atlantic Express, have a good track record and very low rider complaints. Why then force these lines to be taken over by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA)?

The answer is simple. Fossella thinks the Government Transportation Monopoly, aka the MTA, can do a better job regardless of the fact that it has been blasted for years over poor quality service.

Based mostly on a handful of complaints he received over Atlantic Express service, he came to the conclusion that everyone feels the same as the few critics do. Rep. Fossella needs to realize that you can't please all people. Atlantic Express could run every 5 minutes with 5-star service, spotless buses, never be late and offer free fares and some critic will still find something to complain about. A few complaints hardly warrants pulling the two routes from Atlantic Express unless Fossella is of the belief that Government can always do things better than private industry.

Given the fact that Atlantic Express has run the two South Shore routes well, ridership is increasing and hundreds of daily riders support Atlantic Express running the service it appears clear that Fossella can only see Government as the answer.

Fosella stated: With MTA-operated buses, he said, "there's reliability; there's accountability. I think that has and continues to be denied to the people of Staten Island" because of the MTA's refusal to take on these routes in the past.

Give me a break Rep. Fosella. The MTA's reliability is far less than Atlantic Express' reliability and don't get me started on accountability to the public. The MTA has a very poor track record when it comes to being accountable to the public.

Public transit is hard to operate to start with, public or private. When you have something that is working well, leave it alone. The problem is that politicians can't leave well enough alone. They just have to meddle and usually make things worse. Rep. Fossella is doing just that with his proposal to force the MTA to take over the routes run by Atlantic Express.

New York State Congressman Vito Fosella (RINO) gets the Lance for his attempts to force a takeover of the two bus routes run by Atlantic Express. It is not in the best interest of the public to do so and only serves to punish private industry for daring to do what the Government Transportation Monopoly can't do.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bend's new transit system has more problems

Bend OR - Bend Area Transit (BAT) has more problems with their new transit system besides just buses that are breaking down. The Bend Weekly reports that a lawsuit has been filed against the transit system stating that the bus stops are not accessible for the disabled.

The Oregon Advocacy Center (OAC) has filed a complaint in the United States District Court alleging that the City of Bend and BAT have not made the system's fixed route bus stops accessible.

Even though BAT blew it with the bus order which was chronicled here earlier in the week, I find this particular lawsuit as more of a nuisance suit and here's why. The transit system is less than a year old and not every stop in the service area can be "brought up to ADA standards" that quickly, In addition, some stops probably can't be brought up to ADA standards without spending millions to redo the roads and sidewalks.

There is not one city that has 100% of their bus stops fully accessible. The transit systems and city government will deal with such issues if complaints are made to them. The problem is that advocacy groups such as the OAC want things done yesterday and it doesn't matter how much the cost is as long as someone else pays for it. Further wasting taxpayers money on nuisance lawsuits isn't going to bring these changes any faster. All it will do is raise taxes and further hurt the fledgling transit system.

BAT has been trying to work with the disabled community since before service started but as usual, advocacy groups have to complain about something. Within the disabled community, legal ADA standards aren't sufficient for some.

While there is room for improvements, the OAC lawsuit tells me that there were options given to them by the city and BAT which didn't meet their demands. As advocacy groups tend to use the position of "it's our way or else" in working with public transit systems, past history tells me more about what is going on here than the news story ever could.

This story has made me think on one issue. That one issue is my position on moving service from areas that don't utilize it to areas that will. If advocacy groups like the OAC will file lawsuits over every bus stop in a brand new system, why would transit systems want to utilize service efficiently. To do so means they'll get sued by some advocacy group that is having a slow day.

The Lance goes out to the Oregon Advocacy Center. By filing these nuisance lawsuits, they are doing nothing but helping to price public transit out of the marketplace.

Christmas Samaritan surprises Spokane bus riders

Spokane WA - A touching story for the Christmas season comes out of Spokane Washington. The Spokesman Review tells of a good Samaritan who has given away several thousands of dollars to the riders of the Spokane Transit Authority's North Division buses.

A woman in her 50's or 60's, along with a child helper, quickly pass out Christmas cards and say "Merry Christmas" to riders of whatever trip they happen to be riding before quickly exiting the bus. The anonymous benefactor disappears off the bus before anyone realizes there is small gift included in the card. Inside of each Christmas card was a $50 bill.

Such acts of random kindness are rare these days. A special Christmas Laurel goes out to this woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, for thinking of others.

LA's Orange Line is crumbling

Los Angeles CA - Two news stories, one in the Los Angeles Times and the other in the LA Daily News report that the pavement on the recently opened Orange Line busway in Los Angeles is deteriorating.

The problem is stated to be related to the specifications used in the asphalt mix that paves the 14-mile long busway. Currently there is a lot of finger pointing between the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority and the contractors.

Between cracks in the pavement and rutting of the surface, the busway surface is in poor shape. Nobody can seem to figure out why the pavement is deteriorating.

I really question the use of asphalt in projects like busways. I am very curious as to why they didn't use cement. Three busways in Pittsburgh were built with cement and there has been little problem with the roadway surface and the busways are holding up well.

The noise factor from tire noise between asphalt and cement in the low to medium speed Orange Line would be minimal. The MTA tried to limit the noise further by paving some sections with a rubberized asphalt coating and found that it only lowered the noise by 2 decibels, a minimal amount that is barely noticeable. The same would be true for cement versus asphalt, a minimal reduction in noise. The busways in Pittsburgh are no more noisy using a cement roadway than they would be with an asphalt roadway.

Asphalt is not really good for applications like busways in my opinion. Sure, it's cheaper in the short term but in the long term, it ends up costing more due to more frequent maintenance and repaving.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A free marketing campaign? Where's the champagne!

New York City NY - The site has a story of a nice little courtesy campaign for the Christmas season being run by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Partnering with the folks on Broadway to bring Dr. Seuss' Grinch character to the subways, the MTA is using the Grinch to remind people about simple common courtesy on the subways.

The people who run the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" are offering a $10 MetroCard with purchases of tickets to the show and the MTA is offering free promotional mention of the show on the subway courtesy ads featuring the Grinch.

The lyricist of the musical provided three transit related rhymes in the Seuss style to be used for the MTA courtesy campaign.

What is extremely nice about this campaign is that it costs the MTA nothing as it is a trade of advertising between the MTA and the Broadway show. It is also a fun way to remind people to show some courtesy during the holiday season.

At most, any costs which are incurred by the MTA for the logistics of the campaign (printing costs and costs to place and remove the ads) will be a small fraction of the cost of doing this without partnering with the people at the musical.

The MTA earns itself a Laurel for this innovative and low cost courtesy campaign.

Broward County Transit - A Perfect Storm

Broward County FL - A perfect storm has hit Broward County. No, not a hurricane but a whole slew of problems which are causing the Broward County Transit (BCT) to literally fall apart. From the Miami Herald, a report on the BCT problems tells of mechanic shortages, a quickly breaking down bus fleet and rider complaints.

Much of the problem stems from BCT having close to 25% of the mechanic positions opened. This has caused an aging fleet of buses to become backlogged with various problems that need repaired and because of that, the bus service is becoming very unreliable.

The mechanic issue appears to be two fold. First is that the current contract with BCT has been expired for 14 months and the new contract is still in mediation. Second is that BCT is being out priced by other public and private firms who pay more for mechanics. These two issues combined and created the mechanic shortage

BCT has an older fleet of buses, with some being 14 years old compared to the Federal recommendations of 12 years old. While this normally shouldn't pose much of a problem, the mechanic shortage has stalled needed maintenance on the older fleet which now finds many of the buses broken down.

Now, add into the mix that a new bus order is tied up court due to a dispute between the county and bus supplier.

Then add in that BCT is increasing service when it can't meet the schedule now.

What you get is a perfect storm that is ultimately hurting BCT. From employee moral to ridership moral, the current BCT problems can take years to overcome the bad image the system is gaining. The effect in the mean time will be ridership losses and higher costs to operate.

While BCT is exploring obtaining second hand buses from Miami and is expecting 6 new buses to arrive in February, their problems are far from over. The maintenance backlog will continue to grow as long as there is a mechanic shortage at the agency and these additional buses will soon be lines up waiting their turn to be repaired. With new routes slated to start in the first quarter of 2007, BCT will still be experiencing late and no-show buses due to the maintenance backlog.

While I'm not a fan of increasing costs for public transit, the BCT seriously needs to do a quick study of the starting wage rate for mechanics in the Broward County area. Assign someone in the office to start calling various garages and other government agencies in the area to see what they start new mechanics off at. Considering that the local school district in the county starts its school bus mechanics off at $24.45 an hour and BCT starts mechanics off at $16.64, I am pretty sure BCT pays on the low end of the scale for qualified mechanics.

If such a quick study was done and it's determined that the BCT is underpaying the mechanic wage based on the current wages paid elsewhere in the county, they need to bump the wage up to remain competitive. What I sense happening here is that the BCT can't attract mechanics because the mechanics can get a far better wage elsewhere with another employer. The 14 months of working under an old contract also isn't helping the BCT attract new mechanics.

With route expansions just around the corner, BCT officials are further cutting their own throat. A handful of new buses and some second hand buses will not solve the ultimate problem of not having enough mechanics to service the buses. They are doing the typical government method of slapping a Band-Aid on the problem without treating the problem to keep it from festering into a larger problem.

BCT needs to put the route expansion on hold until they address the real problem. If they don't, the route expansion will be pointless as they will just be rolling out an inferior product to potential new customers. It will also be a big waste of money to start new routes when they can't run what they have now.

The BCT has a long road to travel to repair not only the backlog of buses waiting for maintenance but to repair the bad image the system now has from the poor service it currently provides due to the lack of buses to meet schedule.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Translink testing power modes for next bus order

Greater Vancouver Area BC - A news story out of the Peace Arch News from White Rock and Surrey show a battle over what mode of power buses should have. While leaning towards hybrid technology, politicians battle over the results of a round of tests performed by Translink.

There is a contingent of politicians pushing for the use of natural gas as the power choice for future orders of buses for Translink. Even though Translink did try natural gas in the past, the results were less than spectacular. A common problem for transit systems that have tried natural gas vehicles in cold climates.

While the news story doesn't release the mileage or emission reports, the article states the following regarding Translink's testing:

  • Hybrids did better in fuel economy and emissions than diesel and natural gas powered buses.
  • Diesel buses were the cheapest to operate and maintain.

Without the results being available, it is hard to determine how much better one mode is over the other in terms of fuel economy and emissions. Based on past examples, the differences aren't that dramatic. The big difference is the cost to buy and operate the different modes.

Some Translink directors want Translink to explore fuel cell technology in the next round of tests that is just getting underway. Translink is also going to test a hydrogen/natural gas fuel mix in the second round.

While I applaud Translink for doing its homework before making another bus order, I hope they don't go too eco-crazy and rule out consideration of the clean air package diesels which will save them much more money in the long run than any of the currently available alternative fuel options.

The big issue that overshadows these tests is the push for natural gas when previous experience with the vehicles proved to be a "dismal failure" according to Burnaby Mayor, Derek Corrigan. When Translink placed 50 natural gas buses in service back in 2002, there was some controversy over this move due to the heavy lobbying done by the natural gas industry and that some who had a direct say in the choice having a financial interest in the natural gas industry.

From Surrey Councillor Marvin Hunt comments in the news article and his position on natural gas buses, it sounds as though the lobbyists are pushing again to make natural gas the fuel choice for Translink, even though Translink's experience with the natural gas buses has been less than stellar.

The tests need to be conducted without bias. The decision on what will power future orders of buses need to be decided without bias. To have directors of Translink and other politicians trying to push one mode over another will not result in a fair decision based on the results of a fair test. It will result in a decision based on lobbyists and personal preference of the politicians, not what mode is the best for the transit system.

This type of situation is a big problem throughout the public transit industry and is one of the many causes of why public transit is in such dire financial straits these days. Decisions made by directors and politicians which make their decisions based on personal preference or having been influenced to choose the lobbyist's choice. Many times, results of tests as well as warnings from manufacturers are ignored in the name of politics.

The bottom line is that decisions with such an impact on the operation need to be made in the best interest of the transit system and the public. To not do so only further hurts the transit system and drives the costs up for everyone.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Transit systems shouldn't be in the tourist business

Atlanta GA - The Atlanta Journal Constitution* reported on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) and the struggling tourist bus operation that they run.

MARTA's two route shuttle service, introduced last spring, has been struggling since its inception. The problem? MARTA runs standard city style buses with appliqu├ęs to distinguish the bus from a regular route on the lines rather than cutesy motorized trolley style buses that tourists want.

Now MARTA is trying to save the money losing shuttles by proposing that they partner with Central Atlanta Progress, a local downtown business group partnership, which has been working on starting its own shuttle service.

The shuttle services connect many of the tourist attraction in the Atlanta area. The fare is $1.75 which is the same fare as regular route MARTA buses.

First off, MARTA shouldn't be running "tourist" buses. Yes, they are a transportation agency however these shuttles are a specialized service which A. is losing a lot of money, B. is not even remotely close to its ridership projections, C. requires specialized equipment if the line is to even stand a chance at succeeding and finally D. such a line can be run by a private entity.

Looking at the four points which I listed, it is clear that this service needs to be eliminated from MARTA's direct control. MARTA, like all transit systems in the United States, is screaming over insufficient operating funding. To hang onto these shuttle routes strictly to promote tourism in the city is a bonehead move.

MARTA estimated that the two shuttle routes that run every 30 minutes from 8 AM to 8 PM would carry 1300 people a day. A recent ridership count showed only 338 per day on average. Almost 1,000 people a day short of projections.

Tourists as well as city politicians have been complaining that they were disappointed having the bus looking like a regular bus. They wanted something along the lines of a "charming sight-seeing bus". City council has blasted the service as "poorly conceived and executed."

Given the fact that a downtown business group was planning its own shuttle, MARTA needs to just let them do it. They could run the line far cheaper than MARTA however MARTA is determined to save their shuttle routes.

This type of specialized "tourist" service is best left in the hands of groups like Central Atlanta Progress. The problem is MARTA doesn't want to give up control since they were the ones that dreamed up the service and have already invested heavily in the shuttle lines.

MARTA avoided a possible lawsuit from private charter companies since they purchased 30 foot Opus transit coaches rather than the cutesy trolley style buses for this shuttle line. Setting it up as a bus route rather than a tourist line, MARTA was able to side step Federal regulations regarding providing specialized services which a private carrier was able to do. MARTA did this strictly because they wanted control over the shuttle lines.

MARTA gets the Lance for trying to hang onto these failing shuttle lines. It is costing them money daily and providing no real service.

* The AJC site requires you to be registered to view the item. Try using this link from Google to the AJC story if you can't see the story directly from the AJC link provided at the top of the story.

Health care costs hurting PAT

Pittsburgh PA - The Pittsburgh Tribune Review has a story related to the rising health costs and how it is effecting the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT). The article tells of an attempt by some Pennsylvania politicians to try and reign in the costs but as usual, the political approach doesn't address the issue of the problem.

The cost of providing health care costs has gone up 15% a year on average and is one of the largest chunks of the operating budget. This cost doesn't just pay for current employees but it also pays for the retiree health care package. Health care costs actually effect PAT more than rising fuel costs do in the long term.

This health care issue stems from some very generous contracts from the 1970's where PAT was offering some very lucrative benefits. These benefits are now saddling the cash strapped agency with an ever growing expense because more benefits were added through the years during contract negotiations.

State politicians want fix this problem by literally "stripping the vote" from PAT's retired employees so that retirees can't vote in union elections for union leadership. Some politicians believe that if the retirees have no say in the leadership of the union that still represents them that the union leadership will be more willing to accept changes in health care benefits.

As usual, the politicians have it back assward. Instead of dealing with the source of the high costs, they go after the end user. This proposal will do nothing to reign in the rising costs of health care at PAT or any other unionized transit system in Pennsylvania.

What will happen is that health care costs will continue to rise and any relief from the costs by union concessions will be temporary at best. Private employers have their employees pay a good portion of their salaries for their health care and the employers health care costs are still going through the roof. Given this fact, I fail to see how this proposed law will solve the problem.

While I agree that the union needs to wake up to reality and accept the fact that the days of low cost health care coverage are over and they need to start coughing up for a portion of the cost, the political approach being applied in this case won't do anything to solve the problem of rising cost of health care for PAT.

From information I have, PAT union employees currently pay 1% of the health care costs. While it's a start, the 1% barely makes a scratch in the overall cost of providing benefits.

I do understand the union's position on not wanting to give a concession on health care given PAT management's past behavior of wasting money. Many members of the union have stated similar sentiments in the past that basically state "before they ask us for concessions, they need to stop the waste in the administration". When you have key officials of PAT that double dipped into the already strained pension plan through a Deferred Retirement Option Plan or DROP, it makes asking the union to make concessions even more difficult.

No law barring the retiree vote for union officials will suddenly get the union to vote for concessions. What is needed is for the management to cut the waste and take the same concessions they ask of employees before the union will even begin to entertain making concessions to the contract.

While I'm hardly a fan of PAT's union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, what politicians are suggesting be done to control health care costs at PAT is just plain wrong. This attempt reads as more of a way to break the union rather than dealing with the rising health care issue. Until PAT management shows they are slashing themselves to the bone, I don't see much in the way of concessions on health care by the union forthcoming.

The core issues of high health care costs aren't because retirees have a say in their union leadership. The core issues are completely unrelated and too numerous to deal with here. This proposal needs to be called for what it is, an attempt by government to break a union as it sure isn't a way to reign in health care costs.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Turn that ringtone off on TheBUS

Honolulu HI - Poor Maile Spencer, she's going to turn off her cell phone ringer when she's on the bus. The Honolulu Star Bulletin highlights her sob story in a news story regarding a new law requiring cell phone ringers and other electronic noises be silenced on public transit vehicles.

"It sucks" and "That's not fair..." are some of the feelings the 18 year old had regarding no longer being allowed to have her cell phone ringer on maximum volume so she can hear it. I have an idea, how about putting it on vibrate like the many out there that realize how annoying cell phone sounds and ringers can be in public.

What people like Miss Spencer refuse to understand is that the driver of the bus needs to pay attention to driving to get you safely to your destination. Sudden loud sounds can be and are very distracting. Most cell phones just don't ring anymore, they are complete with a preponderance of annoying noises such as screams, gun shots, loud music and other distracting sounds.

I personally have been on a bus where some idiot had a gun shot ring tone. The driver almost wrecked when the cell phone of the idiot (who was sitting behind the driver) started ringing on maximum volume with the pleasant sound of a gun being fired.

Wake up Maile. You'd be among the first to file a lawsuit against TheBUS if you were on a bus and the bus driver was involved in an accident over suddenly being distracted from someones loud cell phone ring tone. The law is for everybody's safety whether you realize it or not.

People yakking loudly on their cell phones, as well as the loud ring tones, is among one of the top reasons people cite regarding why they don't take public transit unless absolutely necessary.

What is sad about this whole thing is that nobody has any common courtesy anymore. This law probably wouldn't have even had to be created if people actually showed some common courtesy towards each other. In the "it's all about me" mentality of the general public these days, it's a wonder there aren't more cities looking at this type of law.

Hybrid buses - Not the ticket

Just quickly scanning over this news story on hybrid buses I noticed many problems. There are many questionable tidbits in the article which makes one question the accuracy of the piece. It sounds more like a public relations department release than an actual news story.

While I don't dislike the hybrid technology, the claims of high fuel savings have always come up far shorter in reality than claimed by the proponents. Many of the same proponents that make these claims usually are the same groups that do the studies. This goes for hybrid cars as well as hybrid buses.

When Seattle Metro received hybrid buses, it didn't see this big spike in fuel savings that proponents claimed. What they saw was that many of the older buses were getting better mileage than the hybrids were. Many other systems also reported similar disappointment in the hybrid's fuel economy.

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory did a study on New York City's transit fleet and determined that the NYMTA was getting 1/3 better mileage than the diesel buses. Let's look at the agency that did the study. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. I'm supposed to trust a study by a government agency which is itself pushing for such technologies?

The main push for the hybrid buses are from politicians that are bending to the pressure of various environmental groups. The same environmental groups that have more or less made it their mission to price transit out of the marketplace while at the same time claiming they support transit. From pushing unneeded regulations to requiring transit systems to spend millions more to support new technology, these group have done little to support public transit. Most of the upper hierarchy of these environmental groups that push for these things wouldn't ride public transit if their life depended on it either.

The simple facts are that even if you instantly convert every bus in the country over to hybrid or even pure electric operation, it won't have a measurable effect on the air quality or on the fuel consumption of the country. The push to require transit systems to adopt much more expensive technology doesn't do much besides drive up the price of providing service and giving the manufacturers of these hybrid buses more of taxpayer money for less product. Clean Diesel technology is just as "clean" and efficient as the much more expensive hybrid technology.

The whole push for hybrid buses in the public transit market is strictly political. The manufacturers are only supplying what they know will sell and the hybrids will sell because of political pressure from weak willed politicians that cave to pressure from groups that represent far less than 10% of the population.

Being about 60% more expensive to purchase, hybrid buses are currently nothing more than another way to further separate the taxpayer from their money, give the environmental groups more power than they should have and to help drive another nail into the coffin of public transit through forcing higher operating costs onto the agencies.

Hybrids are much more expensive to maintain through their 12 year service life. Anywhere between 76% to 150% higher as presented in a report from the City University of New York (CUNY). The CUNY report also showed a 46% to 92% higher operating cost compared to existing diesel buses. While the CUNY report showed less emissions and higher fuel economy for the NYMTA venture into hybrids, the higher costs to buy, run and maintain the buses far outweigh the fuel savings benefit of 9% of the hybrid buses.

While transit should be environmentally effective, pricing the industry out of the range of the ridership isn't the way to improve things nor is forcibly fleecing the taxpayer to pay for this nonsense. Sadly that's exactly what is happening. With each new rule, regulation or mandate pushed for by the environmental groups, public transit becomes more expensive to operate and the taxpayers have to pick up a bigger portion of the cost. Getting 30 cars off the road for each bus in service is far more effective in helping to clear the air than pushing people off the bus and back into their cars because environmental groups have priced public transit out of the market.

NJ Transit to study bus routes

Newark NJ - After 24 years, NJ Transit is finally going to take a look at it's routes according to a news report found in The Jersey Journal.

While only looking at 5 counties, it's a start and something that is long overdue. Just about every transit system in North America needs to do such a study so that the system can be adjusted to changed ridership and demographic patterns.

The one thing I wish to comment on specifically on this story is that this study should have been an ongoing process from day 1. Too many systems have legacy routes that haul few people today but have always been around. By continually keeping after the routes and ridership patterns, this particular study wouldn't have needed to be done.

Public transit usually scores poorly when it comes to quickly adjusting to ridership trends. Waiting 24 years literally means that NJ Transit will need to do a major overhaul of the route structure. Ridership and demographics of the area should be, a minimum, reviewed at least once every 5 years to keep the entire route structure somewhat on track with the population.

While NJ Transit should get a Lance for waiting 24 years to do what they should have been doing all along, I'll be nice and award them the Laurel for finally recognizing that they need to work on the routes and started the ball rolling with the long overdue study of the routes.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bend Oregon's new bus system "breaking down"

Bend OR - Bend Oregon recently purchased 6 used buses from Transit Sales International (TSI), a third party vendor of used buses, to start up its new bus system. The problem was that Bend's transit officials didn't do their homework according to a news story from the website.

Bend purchased second hand buses for much more than they were worth and literally let TSI hand them the stereotypical used car salesman lines to cover over the problems of the buses. The buses were sold as having about 1/3 less miles than the buses actually may have had. They also had a multitude of mechanical problems which were unreported to Bend officials.

The mechanical problems are what is causing the headaches for the transit system. As the system is dependent on the 6 buses that make up Bend's fleet, having buses breaking down can literally grind the entire operation to a halt.

While second hand buses are routinely used in smaller transit systems across the United States due to being a fraction of the cost of a new bus, they usually don't all come in at once and are scattered over various years to avoid what is happening in Bend, an entire fleet failure. Bend's entire fleet is comprised of the 6 used buses which were all built in the same original order for the Utah Transit Authority.

What happened in Bend was that city officials started a transit system on the cheap and are being burned for it now. Bend was in such a hurry to get a transit system running that they didn't think of the problems they may encounter. They rushed out to buy buses and quite literally grabbed the first buses they saw on the lot which were cheap and looked halfway decent.

Not doing the needed research is what got Bend into this mess. City Purchasing Manager, Bob Griffith, admitted "We normally don't research vendors. It might be something we should consider, particularly out of state like this and this much money."

That admission, on its own, is scary considering that the city is spending other people's money which is ultimately obtained through taxes. It also shows that the city isn't a good steward of the taxpayer's money if they'll give it away without doing the needed research to show that the money is being spent wisely. The statement also shows that Bend officials haven't learned their lesson as the statement clearly states that they "should consider" researching vendors rather than saying they will research vendors from now on.

Now, Bend may face spending much more of taxpayer money to initiate legal action as well as buy replacement buses in addition to the extra money already spent to make a multitude of repairs on the existing buses. While the city residents can and do utilize the transit system, Bend another example of a city that can't afford to run a system but has one. Given the number of cities that are like this, I really am expecting to read in the media soon that Bend is planning a Light Rail Line or a downtown trolley line. It would fit in perfectly since they can't afford to run what they have now.

While TSI is hardly blame free in this situation, the city officials in Bend get the Lance for not doing the required research needed to spot potential problems before entering into a purchase agreement. By not doing their homework, they now have the task of repairing the bad image their already struggling new transit system now has. In addition, the extra costs associated with the poor decisions made by city officials will ultimately hurt the transit system.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Public Vs. Private Operations in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh PA - The Allegheny Institute has issued another Policy Brief criticizing the Port Authority of Allegheny County's (PAT) wasteful ways. One of many but as usual, it hits pretty much on the mark in most areas but is out of the ball park in a few areas.

Pointed out in the Policy Brief is that PAT continues to massively spend on capital projects. The question is asked as to why they continue to spend massive amounts in capital money while screaming about not having enough money to run the system. The answer is quite simple, capital money is relatively easy to obtain compared to operating funds.

Does this fact make what PAT is doing right? Not at all. What PAT seems not to understand is that these projects they get funding to build keep on costing the system, and the taxpayers, for decades so that they can be operated and maintained.

As far as projected ridership, it is a problem nationwide as they state. As mentioned in an earlier blog entry here on Laurels and Lances, projected ridership numbers generally use massaged numbers with a complicated formula that generates nothing but a wild guess. Projected ridership numbers are virtually worthless. To attract ridership, one must go back to the basics of public transit, not build costly projects.

The one thing that the Allegheny Institute continually pushes for and is out of the ball park on is privatization of PAT. I don't believe they have a grasp on the issues regarding privatizing, the history of public transit in Allegheny County and that privatizing PAT will not end the public transit problems or lower the amount of taxpayer money that is sunk into providing it.

Transit problems in Pittsburgh go far beyond wasteful and inefficient operations. Many of the problems relate directly to the politics of the multitude of mini-fiefdoms in Allegheny County, activist groups that cry discrimination and file lawsuits at every attempt to get rid of or even just reduce service on nonperforming routes in minority neighborhoods as well as the maze of local, State and Federal rules, regulations and unfunded mandates. There are many more issues as well as the ones I just mentioned.

Privatization on the surface sounds good but to think it will solve the problems PAT is experiencing is foolish. A true private operation of the pre-PAT days will be impossible today. Even back then, many were going under and barely hanging on. There were a multitude of complaints on some operations as well. Many held out just so they could be bought out for more than the company was worth.

What you will get today is a semi-private operation. A public transit authority will still hover just above the private operation. The same wasteful transit authority that we have in place currently. Making the same poor decisions on how to spend money and keeping the transit system steadily on a downward slope.

The Allegheny Institute seems to think that a private or even semi-private operation will not be unionized. Wrong, the union will step in and unionize the operation and it will be the same union PAT currently has and you'll ultimately have the same contract that PAT has with the union now. Don't believe me? Look back to 1964 when PAT took over operations. PAT was saddled with the same exact contract that Pittsburgh Railways Company had with the union as that was the union the drivers voted to represent them under PAT. That contract was the most expensive contract of the Independent Operators that PAT acquired in 1964. To challenge the contract would mean a long and costly court battle that PAT probably would lose.

Private contract operations, especially the national contract transit operations, also have problems in many cities with massive amounts of rider complaints and their costs to operate are steadily increasing as their employee's wages go up with each new contract negotiation. Many of these problems aren't generally reported to the general public so the picture looks much rosier than it actually is.

Another issues with private contract operations is cost. Look at the mini-bus arrangement that PAT has currently for an example of this. A few years ago the contractor milked PAT to pay for more work than was actually performed. Nope, privatization isn't the answer, especially when public money is going into the operation.

You also have the multitude of mini-fiefdoms in the area. One look at what the Borough of Edgewood cost PAT in the East Busway extension should be clear enough to show this point. I still say PAT should have just tunneled under Edgewood and bypassed them completely, it would have been far cheaper in the long run rather than all the concessions that PAT had to make to place the busway through the community on an old rail right of way.

What is needed is a complete overhaul of how public transit is looked at. A few things would be items like getting rid of the politics in the agency except that the Board of Directors is elected, not appointed. The PAT Board of Directors has been a major reason that so much of the waste is occurring. They ultimately approve the massive expenditures and capital projects yet the public has no say in how the board is governed or who is on it and rarely, if at all, has a board member been replaced except through death or a member voluntarily stepping down.

That point then goes directly to making PAT fully accountable to the public. The budget, contract negotiations and other issues not currently able to be influenced by the public need to be made more accessible to the public and allow them to have more input. While this has drawbacks to it due to activists that don't have a clue, many costly things that have occurred at PAT would not have happened if the general public was able to have more of a say in it. Primarily the North Shore Connector project.

Streamline the service. One of the hardest things to accomplish. Not just because of the Union balking at just about every change made but neighborhood activist groups that cry discrimination and file lawsuits when a route is cut or reduced in service. It doesn't matter that the route hauls hardly anyone, these activist groups start crying, packing public hearing rooms and threaten lawsuits if you dare to cut or reduce any service. The legal department at PAT doesn't work for free either.

The Allegheny Institute is looking in the right direction but really needs a better handle on the history of transit in Allegheny County to better understand that it's always been like this in Pittsburgh, even when the private operators ruled. They point out successes in other cities but those operations are not without their problems. Many private operators in various cities are under the direct control of the local transit system. The local system makes the routes, sets the service, etc., not the private operator. The private operator just runs the route assigned to them.

The Allegheny Institute also forgets the success of the mid-1970's at PAT. Using the basics of transit, PAT turned around a system that was losing ridership daily to one that became one of the top public transit operations in the United States with record ridership levels. PAT was a relatively efficient operation in those days as well. Public transit can be successful as a public agency and the PAT of the 70's proved it. Use the basics and it will work.

What is really needed is a complete new way to look at how public transit is handled, not just at PAT but nationwide. Privatization won't solve the problems of public transit in Allegheny County but restructuring the entire operation from the top down and from the bottom up stands a better chance at succeeding. Even then you still have the miles of red tape and countless hoops to jump through to navigate through the maze of costly local, State and Federal rules, regulations and unfunded mandates. These would have to be followed regardless if the operations were handled by a public agency or a private agency and sadly the number of these costly rules and regulations continually increases as time goes on.

Madison streetcar plan can't find the wire

Madison WI - The first public meeting regarding the Madison streetcar proposal didn't go well for the proponents of the plan. The Capital Times story tells of the meeting, which was attended by 150 people, and about the only ones excited about the proposal were the politicians and plan consultants.

The headline of the news article stated that the reception of the streetcar proposal was lukewarm. From the text of the article, it sounded more like the reception was a bit chilly.

Most of the attendees at the meeting expressed the same view: "Wouldn't enhancing and improving bus service in the city be a better bang for the buck?"

As more and more of these frivolous plans are dreamed up, designed mostly to provide a legacy to politicians, people are beginning to finally question the need for them and why can't the existing transit service be improved system-wide.

When are politicians and transit systems going to wake up to the fact that people want clean, reliable and convenient transportation that takes them where they want to go when they need to be there? Streetcars and other expensive transit projects don't give the vast majority of the residents what they want. People want public transit to go back to the basics of providing service. They don't want frills when the service is sub-par.

Political follies, such as streetcars in Madison, show how out of touch with reality many politicians and transit systems really are. Until people question these plans, force the issue and let their elected officials know that these pipe dreams they come up with are unacceptable, they'll just continue to trot out more of these ridiculous plans to waste taxpayer money and create a legacy for themselves.

A Laurel goes out to the citizens of Madison Wisconsin for questioning this plan and not allowing it to gain any traction to move forward. Perhaps after a few more meetings, Mayor Cieslewicz and his staff will get the message that this proposal needs the pole pulled and the power shut off.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Another Poll: Surprise - We Want LRT...Maybe...

Clark County WA - The Columbian reports on a recent poll suggesting that 68% of Clark County residents favored placing a light rail transit (LRT) line into Vancouver Washington and 76% of the 3 Portland Oregon area counties favored extending the existing Trimet line from the outskirts of Portland Oregon into Clark County Washington.

800 residents were polled in a 4 county area. There were two polls done with each one being done for 400 respondents. For the Clark County portion, which I'm focusing on, we have this: There are over 400,000 residents in Clark County alone and 400 were polled. 180 of the 400 come directly from Vancouver with the remainder scattered throughout Clark County. Vancouver represents 39% of the county's population but the poll skewed to 45% of the respondents being from Vancouver.

The poll, commissioned by the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) group, leaves a lot to the imagination. The CRC is a government formed group from both Oregon and Washington states which is attempting to come up with options for the I-5 corridor over the Columbia River.

Looking at some of the internal information in the CRC poll, LRT was not the main choice:

When asked what choice they prefer for the I-5 corridor, this was the result:

  • Combined
  • 35% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    28% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/Transit options
    19% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    7% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    5% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    3% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    3% - [DON'T READ] DK
  • Tri-County
  • 34% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    28% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/Transit options
    21% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    7% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    5% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    3% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    3% - [DON'T READ] DK
  • Clark County
  • 42% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    30% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/Transit options
    13% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    7% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    5% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    2% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    2% - [DON'T READ] DK

When asked for their second choice in the I-5 corridor:

  • Combined
  • 19% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/transit options
    16% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    15% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    14% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    13% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    6% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    16% - [DON'T READ] DK
  • Tri-County
  • 19% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/transit options
    15% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    15% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    15% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    13% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    7% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    16% - [DON'T READ] DK
  • Clark County
  • 20% - Replace existing bridge with wider lanes/transit options
    19% - Add a third lane in each direction of I-5
    15% - Replace existing bridge and add more lanes for auto traffic
    13% - Extend light rail into Vancouver and north into Clark Co
    13% - Incentives for business to offer flextime/work from home
    5% - Motorists would pay a fee to use I-5 during busy times
    15% - [DON'T READ] DK

That is hardly a ringing endorsement of light rail when 13% of 400 Clark County respondents state LRT as their first and second choice and only 21% on the Tri-County area responded with LRT as their first choice and 15% as their second choice. More respondents over the 4 county area favor replacing the bridge with a wider bridge and other transit options than favor LRT. Other transit options doesn't mean light rail as LRT was a separate available answer.

Another question in the CRC poll mixed LRT with bus lanes in the possible answer and that question got a 49% approval. Again, hardly a ringing endorsement of light rail and a loaded question as it mixed modes.

While LRT was heavily favored when asked strictly in the context of public transit, the other poll questions, such as the ones above, place LRT as being the primary choice in doubt.

There also at least three important classification question missing from the poll however and they needed to be asked. Those poll questions should read something like "Do you take transit?", "If so, how often?" and "Would you use transit if your choice was built?"

Those three questions were needed in my opinion and I'm sure a few other classification questions regarding transit and car usage to better determine the mindset of the poll respondents. Just because someone favors LRT or some other form of public transit in a question designed to choose the best transit mode doesn't mean that they'll actually use it if built.

I really haven't trusted polls in years. None are accurate and most are agenda driven. Every group out there cherry picks the results and tries to claim that the poll, such as this one, is accurate and represents the wishes of all of the population. Many polls these days are push polls however, the CRC poll wasn't all that bad in terms of loaded questions but it did lack some needed questions.

Given that Clark County soundly voted down light rail in the past, I seriously question the poll results. I know I don't trust the cherry picked results being reported by the media. Given the extremely small sampling of residents and questions that were missing, the poll can hardly be used to say X number of people in the county support this but sadly it is being used just that way.

While the LRT extension is far from a done deal, look for the released, cherry picked, poll numbers to be highlighted in every news story about transportation issues in the Clark County area as well as being used to obtain Federal funds for a preliminary report. You'll most likely see a pro-LRT group sprouting up in Vancouver to shout down the opponents of any LRT project before 2007 ends because the CRC poll suggests most people want this.

What is at stake with this questionable CRC poll are hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, not just in Clark County or the Tri-County area in Oregon but nationwide as 80% of this project will be funded through Federal tax dollars. While this poll alone won't cause the line to be built, the poll will be cited time and time again to further push the idea that Vancouver Washington needs to have an LRT line at taxpayer expense to ease traffic congestion.

TTC Chairman wants to "clean up"

Toronto ON - The new incoming chairman of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) wants to clean up the system, literally. The Globe and Mail reports that the new TTC chairman, Adam Giambrone, says the transit system is dirtier today than it was just two years ago.

It isn't just litter that is the problem but dirt and grime in the subway as well as on the buses and streetcars. "I'm worried that if you stand in our stations, you look at our stations, they're grimy" stated Giambrone after a TTC meeting recently. To that end, Giambrone wants changes to improve the cleanliness of the TTC stations and vehicles as well as an audit done to identify the dirtiest vehicles and stations so that they can be tackled first.

The new chairman also had a few words regarding the TTC web site that he wishes to "clean up" as well. "If you take a look at the TTC website, it looks like you took a bunch of topics and chucked them at the wall and then put them on the website," Giambrone said.

To help attract and keep ridership, public transit needs to be clean and information easily accessible. A Laurel goes out to Adam Giambrone for taking the initiative to tackle a couple of the most common ills and most commonly put off items in public transit right from the start in his new position as chairman of the TTC.