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.