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.

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