Saturday, January 6, 2007

It's a tough sell for transit

London ON - An commentary column in the London Free Press by Ian Gillespie discusses a recent decision by the London Transit Commission to spend millions to overhaul their operation.

In the article, Mr. Gillespie interviews Douglas Leighton, an associate professor of the history department of Huron University College. They lament the fact that transit is losing to the car culture but they end the article at a critical point.

Are there many people who would really rather take a bus than drive a car?

I think not. And the big challenge is to change that and coax people onto public transit.

"But the question is, how do you do that?" says Leighton. "And I'm not sure having jazzier or sexier buses or whatever will do it."

Here is where the critical part of the article stops. While Leighton is 100% correct that "jazzier or sexier buses" will not attract people to public transit, he either missed the opportunity to state that good service will or he truly doesn't know the answer to his own question.

The lack of good service is the problem that plagues mass transit systems across North America. It is a well known and proven fact that if public transit agencies provide a service that is convenient, safe, takes them where they want to go and is affordable, people will crawl out from behind the wheel of their car to ride.

The true concept of good service has been abandoned by many operations in favor of expensive transit projects, bells and whistles on the vehicles and the system's precious image. Many transit systems truly believe that these wasteful items will attract the masses. It's been a dismal failure overall.

To provide good service doesn't have to be a multi-million dollar undertaking. What it takes is understanding the operation and the area it serves. By understanding the operation and the service area, a transit system can quickly adapt to shifts in the ridership trends.

Responding quickly to ridership trends is something I give a failing grade to most every public transit operation. When a transit system can clearly see it's ridership dropping on a route and that coincides with something else that has occurred in the service area such as a new mall or business park opening, transit needs to quickly adapt to this change. What normally happens however is that transit managers sit there, scratch their heads, wonder why their ridership is dropping on a route and then do nothing.

While selling transit to the car driving public is an uphill battle, it can be done. The problem is that many transit systems lost the understanding of what transit is all about. Spending millions to overhaul an operation just to load it up with frills won't attract and keep ridership. Only good service can do that and good service can be done for far less cost overall.

Transit will continue to suffer until transit officials and politicians wake up to the fact that they need to go back to the basics of public transit. Good, reliable, clean and safe service at a reasonable cost that takes people where they want to go when they need to go there. Without good service, the battle to attract ridership is lost.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Dayton ditches bus advertisments

Dayton OH - The Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (GDRTA) will be ditching advertising on its buses according to a news story in the Dayton Business Journal.

Bucking the trend of ad wrapped buses that have been appearing across transit systems all across North America, the GDRTA has determined that the revenue generated for having buses wrapped up as a rolling burrito and other advertisements is minuscule to its overall budget.

The GDRTA wants to make it's buses more appealing to ridership by having a uniform fleet color and a clean appearance. Advertising, including standard exterior board type ads, detract from the appearance.

One thing I found interesting from reading the article is that the GDRTA repaints its buses after an ad wrap is removed. Unlike my local transit system in Pittsburgh which rips the ad wrap off and sends the bus back out in service with the adhesive still applied to the bus so road dirt and even litter will stick to it (at least where it didn't rip the paint off with it), the GDRTA realizes that a clean appearance is important to making public transit appealing to the public.

A clean and uniform livery for the fleet is a good method to make a transit system more appealing. Psychologically, it tells people that you have a system that works and is well ordered. When you have a variety of fleet liveries with various ads slapped on them, it subconsciously transmits that the system is messed up and doesn't know what it is doing.

I will be watching how the GDRTA does without bus advertising. I like seeing buses without ads slapped all over them but I realize that advertising is an important part of the revenue stream for many operations.

The GDRTA earns itself a Laurel for understanding that a uniform fleet appearance will do more to attract ridership than a rolling burrito will.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

LTD's EmX is running a little late

Eugene OR - The Register-Guard paper out of Eugene OR report that the test runs on Lane Transit District's (LTD) new EmX Bus Rapid Transit project are running behind what they were hoping to see.

The LTD wants buses to run the line between downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield in 16 minutes. Tests have the buses completing test runs anywhere between 13 to 19 minutes or longer with drivers simulating stops. They expect to see lower times once drivers get used to the operation and learn the ropes of pulling in and out of the stops and using signal priority.

I see a small problem here and that is the LTD is putting a very narrow time period on the route and expects it to be even less as time goes on. Even if this was a rail line, the margin of time allotted is narrow and can easily be blown by issues such as slow passenger boardings and other unexpected delays.

I think the LTD will find their time estimate of 16 minutes is too low once the operation is open to public ridership.

Rushing the EmX timing, as it appears is being done, can create safety issues. As drivers try to make time on a tight schedule, mistakes become more common as little things like checking mirrors before pulling out, jumping a traffic signal a second or two earlier, speeding and other issues can put people at risk.

Safety should not be compromised just to meet a schedule. While the LTD admits they may have to adjust the schedules to allow for a slower running time, it would have been more prudent to initially make the running time slower and then adjust it up from there rather than make a fast schedule right out of the box.

The Port Atrocity of Agony County

Pittsburgh PA - There are many problems at PAT. Too many years of running the status quo and a decade of waste have led to a major mess for the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

A big problem at PAT are labor costs. PAT drivers and mechanics are among the highest paid in the United States while the Pittsburgh region is one of the lower cost of living areas in the country. This has always been the case however and PAT employees have always been well paid from the inception of PAT in 1964 when they were saddled with the existing Pittsburgh Railways Company contract.

Increased fuel costs and benefit costs over recent years have also hurt the agency.

The main problem effecting PAT however are the inefficiencies in the operation over the past 20 years.

These inefficiencies have been allowed to grow and create a cancer on the system. It's not just too many routes like PAT is trying to get us to believe, it's how the system is run in general.

In a poor attempt to eliminate the inefficiencies, PAT will eliminate 124 out of 213 routes, raise fares and lay off 400 employees. According to PAT and County officials, this will greatly increase the efficiencies in the operation.

Excuse me while I laugh.

What is being done is will not solve the problems of inefficient operations. What it will do is destroy the operation. The downsized Port Authority will no longer need as much money and the State will chop the funding provided and PAT will be back screaming for more money and chopping more routes.

The PAT cuts are not going to greatly effect the City of Pittsburgh all that much. What it will effect is the suburbs. The same suburbs that PAT has been trying to ignore for many years now. PAT has ignored the reverse commuting trend as more jobs move out of the Downtown core. Suburban routes are always the first thing PAT cuts service or reduced service on. PAT has not woken up to the fact that Downtown isn't the focal point anymore.

Let's look at this calmly for a little bit.

PAT's funding is based on how many buses it has, its service area as well as how many riders it hauls. While the PennDOT rules classify it as a Class II system which is a transit system that has under 1,000 buses, the other aspects play into it. PAT will not receive as much State funding as it is now once they chop the system down.

PAT claims that even though half of the routes are gone, it will be left with 75% of its service hours intact. On the surface that sounds as though it will be more efficient but one needs to look at the map and see, for example, that entire communities will be isolated. While remaining service may be near as the crow flies, in actuality with the geography of Western Pennsylvania, what may be a half mile straight line can turn into a 1 to 2 mile hike walking to the stop. That will not attract the ridership and the ridership losses incurred will put PAT back in the same situation it is in today.

How PAT operates internally is the problem. Both in Management and the Union. PAT is top heavy in management and I truly believe that many in management are lucky they know what the inside of a PAT bus or trolley even looks like. I know of at least 2 that don't yet they help run the operation. I also have issues with PAT's Union with make work rules and many other things.

As far as the system hack and slash, what PAT needed to do could only be described as selective surgery on the system. Eliminate service on completely non-performing routes. On many routes they needed to take the existing headways and double them so that if you had a route running every 15 minutes, that route would then run every 30 minutes. This would free up 50% service without adversely effecting the ridership. That freed up service could then be placed in areas that need more service or areas that have begged for any type of service and told they couldn't have it because there wasn't any resources available. If really needed, that freed up service could just be eliminated while still providing halfway decent service to the suburban areas.

PAT should have left the majority of the Express and Flyer routes intact. Commuters are the main source of fare box revenue yet PAT axed most of these services.

PAT should have dropped the North Shore Connector project. This project will do little besides suck out more operating funds once the line is opened. Given the fact that they are also reducing service on the rail line that would serve this extension, it makes the project even more useless than it already was.

PAT should have worked with their Union in coming up with the doomsday plan. Instead, in typical PAT fashion, they didn't notify the Union until the day before the announcement.

PAT is dreaming if they think riders will now flock to the stops to ride the "new" system. Besides the massive cuts, PAT is also planning a fare increase and a yearly adjusted fare increase every year after. Every fare increase drives ridership off but those in charge don't understand that simple fact.

State Legislators have indicated that no new money is coming PAT's way until they become more efficient and I agree. The problem here is that the way PAT is doing it will not make them more efficient. All it will do is lower all bars at the same rate and PAT will still be an inefficient operation. The core problems at PAT will still be there. Think of it as resizing a photograph on a computer. You can make it smaller but it's the same picture as before.

Some however are cheering this downsizing. This is to be expected but these same people, such as Dr. Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, who is chairman of the conference's transportation and infrastructure committee misses the point that this isn't the way to do it. Dr. Cohon obviously didn't bother himself to look at historical trends that show route cuts and fare hikes permanently drive off ridership. Once PAT initiates these cuts and raises fares, the exiled ridership will find alternatives to public transit. Once found, it will be difficult to get these people back and PAT won't have a "workable transit system" in any length of time.

Again I point back to the 1970's at PAT as the method to deal with this situation. To have a "workable transit system" you need to provide service to where people want to go. What PAT is planning to do is to take service from where people want to go.

I have studied how public transit works since the 1970's. I can point out what will and what won't with at least a 75% accuracy rate based strictly on historical trends in the industry. That number is even higher when it comes to PAT since I have studied that operation the most. I know this hack and slash move that PAT is planning will not work as they think it will. It is poorly thought out and is not addressing the real problems the current operation faces. This hack and slash is yet another stop gap measure to avoid dealing with what really needs to be done with the system.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Port Authority refuses to learn from the past

Pittsburgh PA - The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is set to do a major hack and slash of the transit system in June of 2007. Officially announced today, PAT is proposing half of it's routes to be eliminated along with a fare hike. A listing of the changes can be found here.

PAT and County officials refuse to look back at what happened in the 1970's at PAT and learn how to run a transit system properly. PAT Executive Director Steve Bland and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato believe that the hack and slash of the system will make Pittsburgh's public transit system more efficient.

Wrong. What it will do is spin PAT into an uncontrolled death spiral that it will never recover from.

Add to this that the unneeded North Shore Connector light rail project will still be built so it can further strain the finances and you end up with a pretty good picture of what is wrong with public transportation in Pittsburgh today. While dismantling the transit system county-wide, PAT and County officials are still running a style over substance operation. The North Shore Connector will serve a very small percentage of the population yet PAT and County officials are fully committed to the unneeded project.

While these changes are "proposed", past experience shows that when route cuts do go through from a proposed plan, 90% plus of the proposed cuts are done.

Until this point, I was giving Steve Bland the benefit of the doubt. He was left a disaster in the making from the former wasteful PAT Executive Director, Paul Skoutelas who steered PAT onto this collision course. I knew Bland would have to make some tough choices but what I saw of the proposed listing of route cuts, it's clear that he has little idea of what needs to be done to save PAT. I was expecting a much more methodical approach to this with less cuts and more service changes to make the operation run more efficiently.

They have literally cut off service to many areas of the county. Instead of selective surgery to the operation to make the operation efficient with minimal impact to the people that depend on the service, PAT opted for the bull in the china shop approach and just chopped service.

They went through a ruse asking the public to assist in coming up with a service score card to help assist the system in choosing what needed to be changed. Between using massaged ridership numbers for routes to get the results they were looking for and a preset decision that routes were going to be axed, they went at it. I made a mistake in my judgement and actually thought that PAT wanted to really do this with minimal impact since they seemed to be trying to involve the public to help guide their decisions.

I'll tell you this much, I'll never make that judgement error again. This route cut plan is very similar to an earlier hack and slash plan from the Skoutelas years and that is more than enough to tell me that the decision had already been made and the public input was just to cut down on some of the backlash.

While some of the routes eliminated did need to go, many more just needed adjustments to service such as making trips hourly instead of every half hour for example. PAT is also eliminating most all of the Flyer service which came to be as part of the successful plan that turned PAT around in the 1970's.

Even if the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suddenly comes up with money to cover the deficit, PAT and the County have already made it perfectly clear that the unprecedented hack and slash of the system will still occur as scheduled.

Major slashing of the service and hiking fares will not make the Port Authority more efficient. It is detrimental to the operation to do such things. The PAT of the 1970's knew this. Why does the PAT of today refuse to look back to that time in order to learn how to handle the situation?

Steve Bland, congratulations! You've earned yourself the Lance as well as the legacy of being the one that made the ultimate decision to destroy public transportation in Pittsburgh. Dan Onorato also earns himself a Lance for supporting this unconscionable plan.

This hack and slash plan also earns the Port Authority the first Chambersburg Transit Authority Award for a royally screwed up transit operation.

Transit's funding crisis

"By this stage of the 20th century, with a lengthy history of transit failures to look back on, it would seem that our community and political leaders would have come to understand this one universal fact: the long-term answer to financial problems of public transportation cannot and will not be found in cutbacks, in service and in the work force, nor in increases in fares."

"These stop-gap measures have been tried repeatedly in the past, and they have proved to be regressive and self-defeating. Such steps, if tried again, will certainly least to complete downfall of this and other public transport systems."

John T. Mauro, Former Port Authority Executive Director - September 1975

Transit systems all over the U.S. are literally screaming for more money. Many have multi-million dollar deficits and are facing massive changes unless they can find a way to get the money in to cover the operating deficit.

Regardless of how much money is pumped into these operations, next year it will be the same thing. My local system, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT), has pulled the route cut and fare hike card out too often to force the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to pony up more money to keep them afloat. Each year however, the deficit grows and one must ask why is that happening.

Higher fuel costs and higher labor costs are a given but one thing rarely mentioned is the inefficiency of these various transit operations. Hanging onto non-performing routes, route assignments that have the driver making multiple trips to and from the garage, make work rules in the union contract, wasted vehicle downtime and maintenance costs to fix trivial options that really didn't need to be ordered, and so on.

Simply giving public transit agencies more money each year isn't the answer to solving the yearly threats of route cuts and fare hikes, regardless of what the transit system officials and transit advocates tell you. What is needed is for public transit to go back to the basics and run an efficient operation. Millions of dollars are wasted every year at most transit systems through inefficient operations and practices.

Part of the problem stems from management that doesn't understand what they are managing. They fail to think in terms of efficient operations as they don't comprehend how transit should work.

The biggest part of the problem is also one of the most difficult to deal with. This is the maze of rules and regulations that public transit operations need to deal with. From ADA regulations to environmental laws, each year they become more stringent and much more costly.

Unions need to understand that the public transit funding crisis is real. While I'll catch hell for saying it, some givebacks in the contract may need to be considered if the union truly wishes to preserve as many jobs as possible.

There are many more issues that effect this situation also. Items such as:

  • Light Rail Transit for cities that can barely afford to run a bus system. LRT is inherently more expensive to operate and requires many more people in the support team to keep it running.
  • Spending millions to try and create an "image" for the system. It's a bus and moves from point A to point B, you don't need an image as people already know what it is. Providing good service is far better advertising than trying to create an image.
  • Running the system as a social service rather than a business. If a route can't meet minimum ridership standards, the route should go and the freed up resources moved to an area that will utilize the service especially if other routes are nearby.
  • Ordering buses that have unneeded options. When PAT in Pittsburgh pays about $100,000 more for the same bus as TANK in Northern Kentucky, there's way too many unneeded options on that bus. Those unneeded options will ultimately effect the operating budget through more downtime and bloated parts inventories.

The funding crisis in public transit is real but as I have said, simply pumping more money into a wasteful and inefficient operation isn't the answer. Running an efficient and cost effective operation will cut the deficits way down, and in some cases, it may actually eliminate the deficit.

To let public transit continue with the status quo, the waste and inefficiencies will only continue to grow and we'll be having to deal with the threats of route cuts and fare hikes every year.

It can be done and has been done. Surprisingly it happened at PAT in the 1970's. Yes, at PAT, the same operation that is planning a major hack and slash of the system in June of 2007 pulled off the impossible in the 1970's simply through efficient operations and running the operation as a business. I encourage you to read a couple of articles.

1. John T. Mauro's final report to the PAT Board of Directors in September of 1975

2. The Port Authority of Allegheny County history in the 1970's

3. An earlier Laurels and Lances column

The above will give you a very good idea of what needs to be done in order to have public transit succeed with an efficient operation. While the PAT of the 1970's wasn't perfect, they sure pulled off successfully what needs to be done today.

Fainting dieters among cause of MTA delays

NYC NY - A story at the site caught my eye. The number 3 reason for subway delays in New York City is due to dieters that pass out on the trains. While other illnesses are also included in that number 3 ranking, fainting passengers lead the pack for the "sick customer" classification according to the MTA.

Only track work and signal problems beat out the dieters for delaying the subway network in the Big Apple.

The last line of the story will bring some grief for the MTA:

The MTA strongly urges all riders to eat something - anything - in the morning to keep the subway rolling.

You just know some group is going to complain about the MTA encouraging people to eat in this day and age of the government and advocacy groups telling us all that we're too fat and that we need to diet and exercise. "How dare the MTA encourage people to eat just so they can keep the subways on schedule" and "What about the homeless or poor that can't afford to eat in the morning?" It's coming, just wait...

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Talk about wanting a legacy...

Honolulu HI - The Honolulu Star Bulletin report says it all in the first 2 sentences:

A toy monorail train circles a track under the Christmas tree in the reception area of Mayor Mufi Hannemann's office.

"Mufi Express," the sign on the display reads. "Full size coming in 2012."

Those two sentences tell me all I need to know that this plan is not well thought out, being built for all the wrong reasons and will only serve to fleece the taxpayers who will have to pay for the line for decades after it's built.

The Honolulu fixed guideway plan is more for the political legacy of the Mayor and other politicians than for the transportation needs of its citizens. That sign on the toy train display in the your office tells the general public more than you thought it would Mayor Hannemann.

Not to worry Mufi, the "Mufi Express" will get rammed through one way or another and you'll have a brass plaque somewhere on the project that bears your name as one of the principal people that helped get it built. Your legacy will be secure and you may even get a station along the line named after you.

The primary choice for the planned route is rail. An expensive option that will do no more than a far less expensive busway. Any of the possible options will not do what is claimed however and that is to reduce traffic congestion.

In case people are wondering why I am jumping all over this particular project, the answer is simple. This project not only effects the residents of Honolulu, it effects every taxpayer in the United States since Federal funds are going to be applied for in order to help fund the project. In other words, once Fed funds are dumped into the project, I'm paying for it too.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Public transit in Pittsburgh is in a death spiral

Pittsburgh PA - There can be no better example of a public transit system that is falling apart as there is in Pittsburgh. Almost a decade of finding new ways to waste money and poor management is poised to strike at the heart of the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT).

PAT, once one of the best transit systems in North America in the 1970's, is at the brink of collapse. "Doomsday" plans are being prepared if the Pennsylvania State Legislature doesn't come up with more money to pump into the ailing system.

Some of the problems at PAT date back to its inception in 1964 when the PA State Legislature created the rules for transit funding for publicly owned transit agencies. The rules that were approved by the state heavily favored Philadelphia with 75% of the available funding dedicated to that city with only 24% of the available funding being allocated for Pittsburgh. Every other public transit system in the state was then left to fight over the remaining 1% of the remaining funding.

Another big issue that effected PAT was from the 1970's when generous contracts were offered to the transit union. While those contracts allowed for PAT management to be on friendly terms with the union and get many of the needed operational changes through at the time to improve service, it haunts the PAT of today.

Today, PAT faces higher fuel costs and even higher benefit costs. Between these two items, it is squeezing the finances to the limit. Then add to this the fact that PAT has no dedicated source of funding besides what the PA State Legislature decides to allocate for the system each year. With costs rising and funding not increasing at the same rate, PAT faces a multi-million dollar deficit that will ultimately force the system to crash.

There is one more important piece to this story. A piece that has greatly accelerated PAT's downfall.

The major problem that effects PAT was the previous 10 years of its history. The former PAT Executive Director, Paul Skoutelas, tried to remake the system in his own image. This involved many wasteful programs and poor decisions that did nothing but cost the system, and ultimately the taxpayers, more money without any real improvement to the service.

Style over substance may as well of been the PAT slogan between 1997 and 2006. Service was placed secondary to expensive marketing campaigns that didn't generate ridership, trying to find an image and the philosophy of finding new ways to waste money.

Moving the executive offices from a building that PAT owned to the high rent district in Downtown Pittsburgh, hiring strolling violinists for a retirement party, renting thousands of dollars worth of Christmas decorations each year for the office, painting buses in every color and hue found in the DuPont paint catalog and numerous golf outings for management, PAT was literally finding new ways to waste money. What's listed is only the tip of the waste at PAT during that period and this blog probably couldn't handle the thousands of line items of pure wasteful spending that occurred each year during the Skoutelas years of PAT.

Granted the Skoutelas administration at PAT was left with a far from perfect situation when William Millar had left the Executive Director position. The big difference were the changes initiated by the Skoutelas administration that left the marketing department in a position where they could overrule the operations area. From ordering buses to routes, many reports tell of the fact that little could be accomplished unless the marketing director of PAT signed off on it. The changes that allowed marketing to have free reign over the operational area is one of the key problems that helped PAT dive head first into a period of wasteful spending.

PAT has a new Executive Director since the middle of 2006, Steve Bland. Within a week after he arrived, Mr. Bland had cameras shoved in his face with reporters demanding to know why PAT was not questioning thousands of dollars of questionable fees from a lobby group PAT had contracted to lobby politicians for various items PAT wanted. The first of the many wasteful items that came back to haunt PAT from the Skoutelas administration, the lack of proper accounting practices.

Mr. Bland has his work cut out for him. PAT is a disaster in the making and Bland has to prepare for the upcoming disaster that was left to him by the Skoutelas administration.

PAT is pretty much stuck with building the unneeded North Shore Connector rail project that the Skoutelas administration pushed hard for. This project will only increase costs for PAT and they can't afford to run what they have now.

With the system poised for collapse, Bland needs to restructure the entire operation which will mean massive service cuts, increased fares and many needed routes being permanently eliminated. Ultimately, this will send PAT further into its death spiral. Unless more money is found to run the system, the PAT death spiral will only get worse.

I grew up with PAT. I was born one day after the first of the brand new buses for PAT snaked their way through Downtown Pittsburgh in 1964 to show the public that public transit would be improved in Allegheny County. I saw the best of times and the worst of times at PAT. What I witnessed between 1997 through 2006 I thought would be the worst that I would have to endure and that PAT possibly could rebound. Was I ever wrong on that.

What Steve Bland is going to be forced to do will literally destroy the operation and PAT will probably never recover the ridership it will lose. The sad thing about all this is that he inherited the mess that the former Executive Director left behind and Bland will be blamed by all when the history is written for what he ultimately has to do. PAT will end up being a small shell of its former self if the "doomsday" plan has to be implemented.

Some leaked route cuts, eliminations and changes which have come to my attention tell of high ridership corridors being served by one route. Corridors that had multiple routes will have the multiple routes served by one route doing a hit and miss method of providing bare minimum service. The proposals go far beyond running Sunday type service during weekdays as what will be left of the system will make the current low volume of Sunday service seem fantastic.

While fuel prices and health care costs have brought the problems at PAT to a head, much of the impact could have been greatly reduced if the previous administration would have followed the basics of public transit instead of trying to find new ways to waste money. Many of the wasteful ways initiated between 1997 and 2006 will take decades to eliminate. Some will never be eliminated like the North Shore Connector, a light rail extension that will just continue to suck much needed operating money from the bus system.

PAT needs to go back to the basics of public transit. Tougher choices have to be made today thanks to a decade of waste but it still can be done. The tough choices that have to be made sadly will turn away tens of thousands of commuters and even captive riders monthly.

This is what happens when public transit ignores the basics and runs an inefficient operation where style takes priority over actual service.

Perhaps some good can come out of this if the "doomsday" plan is activated. The unproductive routes will be gone and when service can be expanded again in the future, hopefully they will go back to the basics and focus on substance over style like they should have been doing all along.

Transit decisions based on ideology

Honolulu HI - The Hawaii Reporter has an article regarding the recent decision to build a fixed guideway mass transit system in Honolulu. The writer, Richard O. Rowland, brings a good viewpoint regarding why these plans are approved.

Rowland correctly points out that if it was a private business that built a fixed guideway system and it failed, the business would lose it's money and go out of business. When government does such things, the public continues to pay regardless if the line is a failure or not.

Too often, the handful of politicians that come up with these plans use their personal ideology to drive the idea rather than the facts or what is best for the people they represent. While forward thinking is needed, plans such as Honolulu's push for light rail are driven by past thinking and fantasy dreams of the future. Rowland points this out in his article rather well.

While I agree with Rowland's premise, he missed one point. That point is that the Honolulu Council members are also looking for a legacy. Many politicians will sell their constituents up the river just to get their name emblazoned on a brass plaque that's placed on some edifice that will be there long after they leave this world.

Personal ideology often clouds the decisions that are made in politics. Public transportation politics are no different and are often more blatantly obvious in the abuse of personal ideology. It's why we have expensive transit projects being built in many cities across the United States. Projects that will further strain transit systems that can't even afford to operate what they already have.

The fixed guideway plan for Honolulu has little basis in reality for relieving traffic congestion. The plan is based around the hope of future development which the proponents also hope will bring economic boom times. It is also based in looking at the past with rose colored glasses. The good 'ol days when life was easy and streetcars and passenger rail ruled the transportation of the area.

The desire to go back to those good 'ol days is one of the personal ideologies that drives many decision makers when it comes to approving these expensive transportation plans. When it comes to rail, the rose colored glasses are put on to drive them towards the legacy they all want. I've questioned politicians before regarding this where I live and you could just see their reality drifting away as they transported themselves back to the past in their own mind when everything was better, the air was cleaner and rail was king. A definite look back with rose colored glasses in my area of the country considering the time frame that one politician drifted back to when I asked why he was supporting an unneeded extension to the rail line in Pittsburgh. He drifted back to the 1940's when Pittsburgh was pitch black at high noon due to pollution but you'd never know that from from his descriptions of how clean the trolleys made the air.

Even putting such a plan up to a vote of the residents wouldn't deter the proponents of these expensive plans. They routinely feed the public half-truths based on questionable studies and that would continue. All too often I see people who were totally disillusioned after one of these projects are built. They were promised all kinds of things to support the project but once built, they realize they were handed a bill of goods that includes increased taxes, increased fares and reduced transit service.

Transit projects need to be based in reality. Not future hopes and dreams or looks back to the past. Yes, the preceding are important in the fine tuning of the decision but they shouldn't be the basis of the decision. The majority of transit projects planned for the U.S. aren't based in reality and in fact, reality is often ignored in order to ram the expensive and unneeded projects through.

A Laurel goes to Richard O. Rowland. He gets what so many out there don't. Politicians need to wake up to reality and stop trying to ram these expensive projects down the taxpayer's throat and the already over stressed public transit agencies that will be forced to come up with a way to operate them.