Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Streetcar battle about to heat up

Fresno CA - An effort by Fresno Mayor Alan Autry to bring streetcars to the streets of Fresno for redevelopment reasons is about to get ugly.

Fresno City Council voted on Tuesday, October 23rd not to invest city time or money into the idea. The Mayor, of course, plans to veto the City Council's decision and move forward with a study of having streetcars in Fresno.

From what I can see so far in this, it is just another legacy line that Mayor Autry wants. He's so desperate for this streetcar line that he has bypassed the City Council and submitted his proposal for funding of the study to the Council of Fresno County Governments directly.

Of course, when the Mayor presented the plan to the Council of Governments, the impression was made that everyone was "on board" with the idea. To the contrary, many are not.

While the City Council voted to scrap the streetcar study, there may not be enough votes to override the Mayor's pending veto but that doesn't mean that the Mayor won the battle. The Council of Governments is going to review the funding request again based on the new evidence of the Mayor's staff misrepresenting the support for the streetcar study. The Mayor may not have the funding to do the study for his legacy line if the Council of Governments decides to revoke the funding.

This really doesn't surprise me. It happens all the time. A similar thing happened in Pittsburgh with the North Shore Connector last year. The transit system lied through their teeth saying everyone wanted the useless rail line under the river to obtain the funding. The FTA came close to revoking the funding once they found out that the line was not wanted by anyone except the transit system and a handful of politicians.

The people of Fresno need to keep up on this and do the research to learn that the Mayor's streetcar line will do nothing but cost them money. It won't revitalize the city nor will it solve any other problem. All it will do is give the Mayor a legacy line which will have a brass plaque somewhere along the route with his name on it as being instrumental in building the line.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cincinnati ready to bet it all

Cincinnati OH - Cincinnati City Council is all set to hop on the streetcar bandwagon but has already had a power failure. The City Council, eager to show how business will support their plan, found out that businesses aren't quite as eager to participate as they had hoped.

Chris Bortz, a member of council, stated earlier that Duke Energy could pay to build the power grid needed for the city's streetcar plan but Duke Energy quickly put a stop to that idea. Duke Energy stated that it would not be the "sole funder" of the power infrastructure.

Not deterred, Bortz spinned Duke's refusal to go along as insignificant. He stated that "even without Duke, the streetcar line is such a good investment that other companies will put up money to make it happen."

Excuse me while I stifle a laugh.

While Bortz may find support from other businesses as he claims, that support will primarily be symbolic, not financial. The City Council wants private business to pick up the tab for about a third of the cost of the proposed $102 million dollar boondoggle. That proposed cost will surely be $200 million or more by the time all is said and done. Businesses, while supportive, have their own worries and making sure the city can build a streetcar line isn't one of them.

What is even more worrisome about the project is that the city is jumping on the streetcar bandwagon while already facing a $29 million dollar deficit without the project. Taxpayers of Cincinnati, hold onto your wallets as your about to get rolled big time if this streetcar idea isn't stopped now.

The streetcar line is being proposed strictly for developmental reasons. A virtual guarantee of financial failure. Taxpayers will be picking up the tab for decades to come for a project that won't even come close to doing what it is being promised.

Development will not occur unless the taxpayers are forced to fund tax breaks, sweetheart deals, grants and low interest loans (which are rarely ever paid back). This will cost hundreds of millions more on top of the cost to build and operate the streetcar line.

What is going to happen if this unneeded streetcar idea moves forward is this. Businesses will not even come close to contributing a third of the cost. If the city is lucky, they might get 5 to 8 percent from the private sector. Taxpayers will have to pick up the rest of the tab. Development will not happen for decades and then only on the backs of the taxpayers. Ridership will come nowhere close to projections and at the proposed 50 cent fare, a year's worth of farebox revenue will barely make a dent in the cost to operate the line for a week.

I give the Cincinnati City Council a big Lance for going out of their way to find new ways to spend money while already facing a huge deficit. The streetcar line is unneeded and the city clearly can't afford the luxury.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

MTA drops the signal on cell phones

New York City NY - The New York MTA is about to drop the connection when it comes to connecting up the subways and stations to allow calls.

The MTA entered into an agreement with a new start up company to connect the subways and stations to allow riders to use their cell phones. The problem is that the company, Transit Wireless, has no track record and the deal shows many of the signs of being too good to be true.

What I see happening here is that the MTA has set itself up to be screwed. They allowed the awarding of the contract without initially requiring that Transit Wireless was properly funded and bonded. After some pushing by city council, the MTA is now requiring Transit Wireless to get funding and bonding by its major contractors.

The deal the MTA entered into is supposed to cost the MTA absolutely nothing and it has the possibility of earning the MTA a little bit of cash. I doubt that will be the case. The deal has already cost the MTA money. Conveniently, the money spent to investigate, write up the specs and bid the contract are ignored. Money will continue to be spent to monitor performance once the wireless network in in place as well as additional indirect costs.

Personally I think the MTA rushed this cell phone plan through. Bit on the first bid and ran with it. That move may turn around to bite them back.

Additionally related to the upcoming wired subway network, New York City Council is urging the MTA to have "quiet" cars where riders could go to get away from their fellow travellers who insist on yakking away on their phones. It won't be officially enforced but enforced by the fellow passengers. Yeah, that will work well. It's just like passengers stopping other passengers from committing vandalism and littering.

I sense problems ahead in the MTA's rush to wire up the subway system given what I have seen so far. This plan really should have had more time to properly investigate as well as properly choose a provider that at least had a track record of delivering what they promise.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

UTA doing the old "Bait & Switch"

Salt Lake County UT - Yesterday I posted a quote from John Inglish, general manager for the Utah Transit Authority. The quote was simply "What's wrong with this picture?" regarding the transit tax repeal effort that is happening in Charlotte NC.

Today, it looks like Mr. Inglish may be facing his own fight to keep a voter approved transit tax. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is now trying to change the terms of the voter approved tax from a 30 year tax to a 50 year tax, with the possibility of it becoming a never ending tax. This without voter approval.

Needless to say, politicians in Salt Lake County are quite angry over this move by the UTA because it wasn't what the UTA said the tax would be. I'm more than sure the voters aren't happy about this either.

What happened was that the UTA misrepresented the original sales tax proposal to make it more palatable to the politicians and the public in order to secure funding to build, what else, a light rail line. Now that the tax was approved, the UTA has decided to change the terms so that it can pick the pockets of the public for another $5.5 billion dollars if it goes to 50 years and much more if it becomes a tax that never goes away.

The sales tax was approved to help fund building the line. That was what the UTA represented the tax as. Now it says that once the line is built, they need the tax to continue so they can operate it, basically a tax that will never go away. Technically, that additional operating funding should require another vote when the time comes to actually operate the line but the UTA decided to play dirty and change the rules after the tax to build the line was approved so that they wouldn't have to face the taxpayers at the polls.

That is exactly the kind of arrogance that led to the transit tax repeal effort that is currently happening in Charlotte, Mr. Inglish. To hell with the taxpayers who foot the bill for the spendthrift transit systems. If the UTA doesn't watch itself, Mr. Inglish will find himself in the middle of a tax repeal effort squarely directed at his transit system.

I do question why these same politicians that are mad about the bait and switch that the UTA is attempting didn't question how the UTA was going to pay to operate the line once built. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that it would cost money to operate the line and the UTA would be begging for money to run it. Perhaps they did ask and were too confused with the answer as the UTA tap danced around the question. It wouldn't be the first time a TA baffled the public and politicians with bullshit because they couldn't dazzle them with brilliance.

While I generally am not in favor of transit tax repeals, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry on Charlotte, I am changing my mind. The transit systems need to understand that they aren't getting free money and need to be responsible. Tricks like the UTA is trying to pull show the total lack of understanding of where the money really comes from. If the residents start fighting back by pursuing a tax recall, it might start waking some of these arrogant transit systems up when their revenue source dries up.

In the UTA's case, they obviously couldn't sell the rail line with the true costs to the public. So they lied. That tells me that they really didn't need the rail line in the first place. If the rail line was so desperately needed as the UTA claims, it would have sold itself to the public even with a never-ending sales tax to fund it. Having to pretty up the figures in order to trim billions off the cost of the rail line for public consumption says a lot about how the UTA perceives the taxpayer.

The UTA earns a Lance for the bait and switch tax move they are pulling on the taxpayers who were generous enough to approve the original tax that the UTA wanted. To try and change the terms after the fact without voter approval to grab more money may end up costing them much more than they think if a tax repeal effort happens and is successful.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Transit leaders getting worried

Charlotte NC - The American Public Transit Association (APTA) is holding its annual meeting in Charlotte this week. While not officially on the agenda, the transit tax repeal effort going on in the host city is squarely at the forefront of discussions at the meeting among transportation agency leaders from across the country.

Why? They are getting worried that the repeal effort could become a national trend.

These officials should worry. For decades, public transit has come up with new ways to squander public money. Led and urged on by APTA, which is nothing more than a Washington DC lobby group, transit systems across America have abandoned the concept of providing service and jumped on the numerous unneeded transit project bandwagons that ply the nation.

APTA president, Bill Millar stated that he can't recall any transit tax repeal vote like what is happening in Charlotte. Well Bill, get used to it as it will be happening more often as time goes on.

Many people are tired of the waste that generated from transit systems. Beside the waste generated from the TA's who have lost focus on what they are there for, cities use the transit systems more or less as prostitutes to further their goals such as development. APTA often acts as the pimp by pushing for rail or other unneeded transit projects that do little to serve the public and everything to waste money.

"What's wrong with this picture?" asked John Inglish, general manager for the Utah Transit Authority. What's wrong John is this; Charlotte's transit system can't afford to run what it has now, has lost focus on the basics of providing service and hasn't been a good steward of the taxpayer's money that it already receives.

The tax was originally passed for the system to help fund the operation of the rail line. Before the first rail was laid, CATS was already aggressively planning more rail lines. The original rail line needed to prove itself first before people were willing to pay even more for additional rail lines. CATS couldn't grasp that simple concept and thus the tax repeal effort was born.

Perhaps if the people of more cities across the nation adopted efforts to slap down their spendthrift transit systems and force them to fix what they already have in place before building more, public transit could become a viable option for many people again.

Clearly the APTA way of expensive transit projects isn't working well towards getting butts in seats. Its methods have helped push many transit systems over the brink yet the TA's continue to blindly follow.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Transit Tax Opponents Touch A Nerve

Charlotte NC - While I still believe that repealing the transit tax in Charlotte will ultimately hurt public transit more than it will help it, I am leaning more and more towards siding with the tax opponents based on many recent events.

The focus of the transit tax repeal effort is focused on the light rail line in Charlotte. An expensive line that many believe isn't being built for transportation but for developmental reasons and I completely agree. A commentary piece in the Charlotte Observer by two Mecklensburg County commissioners helps back that point up as well as shows the rabid response they received from the pro-rail crowd for opposing the line. Mecklensburg County commissioners Karen Bently (R) and Dan Bishop (R) penned the piece that appeared in the paper, primarily in response to another commentary piece in the paper by Observer columnist, Fannie Flono.

Flono calls for a "serious debate" without the exaggerations. Exaggerations such as that the line is being built for development rather than transportation is one of them. Ms. Flono, that is the point. I don't believe that you want a "serious debate" as when a well documented fact is presented to you it is brushed off as an exaggeration and you claim "What's next? The mass transit tax is a conspiracy to steal our babies?"

The simple fact of the matter is that the Charlotte line is being built for development purposes. It has been stated as such in many news reports as well as in public meeting that development is the main focus of the line. Moving people is just a side benefit and therefore it isn't placed where it should be for moving the most people.

The Commissioners bring up an important fact in response to the pro-tax critics. That fact is that the transit plan has been hijacked. It isn't focused on improving public transit. The plan is really a development plan but needs to have a rail line to help the development goals move forward and to get the rail line, you have to classify it as a transportation plan.

"The first aim of transportation spending should be improving transportation, not creating lifestyle choices." A good quote by the Commissioners. That is exactly what is being done with rail under Charlotte's transportation plan. I would also go a bit further and add that the plan also is designed to displace the poor so that they are forced to move elsewhere and become another community's problem. That is also another well documented fact of light rail placement when done for developmental purposes.

The commentary I made in this Laurels & Lances article states it well: "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."

In addition, CATS can't afford the luxury of a rail line that hauls a few percent of the population while sucking down more than half of the budget needed to run the entire system. The transit tax will help there but only to a point as the tax will not generate enough money to even remotely offset the losses generated by the rail line. CATS also needs to work towards fixing what it already has in place rather than rushing out to plan many more rail lines, with city leaders who steering the proposed lines towards areas they want to redevelop.

The more I learn of the Charlotte transit tax fiasco, the more I favor the efforts of those that wish to repeal it. CATS hasn't learned much at all over the negative response nor have many of the politicians. Perhaps losing a precious revenue source might be the only way to wake them up.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The push is on for streetcars in Tacoma

Tacoma WA - The push is on once again for streetcars to ply the streets in Tacoma. The Tacoma Daily Index has a story on one of the activists pushing to saddle the city and its taxpayers with the expensive toy. Now that the city is once again considering the plan, the activists are coming out of the woodwork.

Tacoma resident (at least he's a current resident unlike the Kansas City meddler) Morgan Alexander has been leading the charge at the grassroots level to bring back streetcar. The article on him stood out to me based on a quote from Alexander which was: "I guess it's just one of those ideas you either get right away, or you don't get at all."

Based on the rhetoric Alexander uses for his support of bringing streetcars back, I don't think he gets it.

Alexander of course uses the standard boilerplate argument that developers will flock to Tacoma. What Alexander won't tell you is that it can take decades to get developers in and then the vast majority will only come after hundreds of millions in tax concessions and other taxpayer funded sweetheart deals are offered up.

The line is clearly being considered strictly for development with transportation secondary. Alexander so much as states this in the last part of the article. "The advantage of a streetcar over a bus is that it's a real visible, physical improvement and investment in the city that developers will build around. Plus, they are just fun. I think it's key for the City of Tacoma because there's really not a lot the city can do to really impact economic development itself. The current model is to have developers and business owners do it. I think it's a great way for the City itself to build a community, and the system be a visible outgrowth of the city's spirit."

Alexander also won't tell you that the local transit system, the Spokane Transit Authority, will suffer. Where does he think some of the funding to run the streetcar will come from? That's right, a swap of funds from the STA to the city or non-profit entity set up by the city to run the operation. More than likely, the STA will be stuck running it while the city coughs up only a small portion of the true operational costs. That ultimately translates to fare hikes and route cuts down the road.

The STA is a rather well run system and I even honored them with the MOD Award on January 12, 2007 for their back to basics approach to public transit. Tossing in a streetcar will throw that agency into a tail spin. Even though the STA is well run, they still are on a precarious perch financially and don't need a fiscal black hole sucking down the money needed to run the entire bus system.

His explanation of how this streetcar line will be financed is confusing to say the least. It does involve the "tax everything" philosophy however. While he admits that the private sector must be involved in helping to finance the building of the line, he doesn't relate the fact that it will be hard to obtain the private funding and that offsetting taxpayer funded tax incentives to the private entity will need to be done.

Of course, the obligatory trip to the Holy See of the streetcar movement, Portland Oregon, was done and the city tossed up as an example of how great Tacoma could be if they only listen and build the streetcar line. Again, Alexander fails to state how many billions of dollars Portland truly spent on their rail lines through making taxpayer funded sweetheart deals that will cost taxpayers for decades to come.

Alexander also goes on about how much public support there is for a streetcar line in Tacoma. Of course there is. When the question is worded in such a manner that it paints the streetcar as the saviour of the city, people will say they support it. I've seen the same thing in Pittsburgh. The North Shore Connector, when originally brought up, was widely supported by the general public in various polls until the cost of the project was discovered in addition to the fare hikes and service cuts. People then realized that the system couldn't afford it but it was too late to stop the project.

While I am the first to admit that a streetcar is nice, I also realize that it is expensive and doesn't do what proponents such as Alexander claim it will do. What Alexander is doing is literally akin to the old snake-oil salesman of the past. Selling a product based on totally false claims. Development, solving traffic problems, cleaning the air, etc. are all dubious claims that are routinely used to promote rail.

Tacoma really needs to rethink the streetcar plan. It won't do what they think it will and will ultimately end up making the city much more expensive to live in due to all the increased taxes that will either directly or indirectly be needed to pay for the building and operation of a rail line that really isn't needed. For once at least I can't use the argument that they need to fix what they have in terms of the STA since that agency is one of the shining stars in the otherwise bleak cosmos of public transit these days but they still don't need the fiscal black hole known as a streetcar.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More on the free ride problem at PAT

Pittsburgh PA - In reference to a Laurels and Lances article I put up earlier in the week, I was informed yesterday that the free fares at Pitt and CMU are not only for the students but any university employee. Janitors, secretaries, professors, etc. This makes the situation much worse than it was previously reported as these two universities are major employers in the Pittsburgh area.

Thousands of people are employed between just those two institutions alone and makes the fact that PAT must absorb 80% of their travel even more critical to deal with. It's one thing if it was just student travel but the situation in Pittsburgh is totally unacceptable. PAT can't continue absorbing this cost and if these universities want their employees to have free rides, they better start coughing up the cash to pay for it.

The University of Pittsburgh has been whining the most about how much it has to pay now to PAT for the free ride program and has been angling to pay less. The simple fact here is that PAT can't afford to subsidize Pitt's program, especially at 80% subsidization, just so Pitt can use the program to help lure in students as well as employees.

I'm not against free transport for employees and students at a university but I am against providing it when the university doesn't want to pay the full freight for it. The college and/or university is the one that benefits from such an arrangement, not the transit system. The supporters of the program claim it will encourage transit use which is true but on the flip side, it is also helping to bankrupt the transit system so that all the encouraged use will be for nothing.

Pitt, CMU and other institutions and businesses that have such plans need to pay for it. The transit system can't continue to afford subsidizing these free rides to the tune of 80% of the cost of each rider, as is the case at PAT and the Pitt/CMU arrangement.

As mentioned in the earlier article, PAT isn't innocent in this mess. They failed to charge enough on the first contract so the precedent is set price wise. The universities have been balking at the cost from day one and want to pay less but they really need to be quadrupling their payment for the free transit perk for their students and employees. PAT officials, trying to help encourage transit use as well as polish its image, were too eager to acquiesce to demands for smaller contract fees initially.

What I see happening in Pittsburgh is that PAT will get the universities to pay a bit more but nowhere close to the amount required. If PAT is lucky, they'll end up subsidizing each ride to the tune of 65% to 70% rather than the 80% they currently do. PAT is painted into a corner on this one.

If PAT were to not re-up the contract where it continues to heavily subsidize the free rides, students would be protesting on the street over the callousness of PAT's actions while being urged on by the university. University officials would be sending out press releases blasting the decision and claiming PAT is turning away riders and trying to make the cost of education even more expensive. The Liberal leaning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (who totally ignored this story by the way) and campus newspapers would be blasting PAT from all sides in both news stories as well as in editorials. Few would hear PAT's side under the din of protest which is that PAT is losing tens of millions of dollars subsidizing a free ride service that the universities should be subsidizing since they are the ones that want it.

Even if PAT ends up getting a bit more money, universities will lambaste PAT by increasing tuition under the excuse of having to pay PAT their blood money. It's a public relations nightmare PAT faces in addition to the fiscal problems they already have. As I have long said, "once the government giveth, it can't taketh away easily". PAT is basically in a lose-lose situation over this while the universities hold the trump card.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's Snow Worries at OCTranspo

Ottawa ON - After a mess in 2005 with heavy snows stranding many buses, OCTranspo has been looking for snow tires to place on the buses. To date, they haven't found any.

What happened in that city, especially with the articulated buses, happens everywhere there is snow. Ottawa is acting like this is the first time ever that buses had problems in the snow. Here are a few options.

In Pittsburgh, with it's hills and every type of weather imaginable, they used sanders for decades to help buses get around in the snow. With the advent of low floor buses, sanders can't be used any longer as there is no place for the sand hoppers and sander apparatus. Chains are also an option but only for a short period as they break and can chew up the wheel wells of the buses.

One other option OCTranspo might look into is keeping a decent set of tires on their buses rather than baloney skins. A set of tires that actually have some tread can do wonders for getting a bus moving in bad weather. These tires aren't called snow tires but regular tires that aren't worn out.

Given some of the problems OCTranspo has during winter with its buses, it really makes me question the quality of the tires they use as well as even question if the drivers know how to drive in the snow. Again, in Pittsburgh, buses traverse hills in snow on a routine basis without special snow tires. They do this by having a decent set of regular tires as well as drivers that know how to drive in the snow.

As far as articulated buses go, of course they will have more problems in snow, especially those articulated buses that use a pusher turntable with the engine in the rear. The answer there not to send them out on routes that aren't clear in bad weather. OCTranspo is expecting the articulated buses to behave exactly as a standard bus and that's like expecting an 18-wheeler to behave exactly like a small Chevy S-10 pickup.

Then there is ice. The ice that forms under the snow on the road surface. No snow tire will help there unless they are studded. Studded tires are much more noisy than regular snow tires which are noisier than regular tires. If I recall, in the 2005 fiasco in Ottawa, there was plenty of ice in addition to the deep snow.

OCTranspo really needs to refocus its efforts from trying to find a new way to spend money by getting snow tires to making sure the tires that are on the buses to start with are good, drivers are trained properly and the city gets out and plows and salts the roads. Snow tires wouldn't have helped very much at all with the 2005 mess and chances are they won't really help much in the future. In heavy snows, few things move and buses are one of the things that usually don't move except on snow routes that are primary roads that get attention first.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Discounted fares and the transit funding deficit

Pittsburgh PA - It's been a while since I had the available time to comment on various activities that effect the transit industry. When I came across this story regarding how discounted fares are effecting my local system, I made a little time to say something on it.

The primary issue in many of the reduced fares in every transit system is that it fails to generate revenue. Say that again RDC? OK, in simple terms, reduced fares should actually increase the bottom line. That's why stores have sales. It generates additional money. In transit circles, those sales are in the form of reduced fares. Some reduced fares have become unfunded mandates such as those dealing with disabled and senior fares and lose money since they are dictated price controls. Others, such as monthly passes actually do generate more income in the long run than not having them since more people buy them and that helps cement the use of transit so they can get their money's worth out of the pass.

The big issue in Pittsburgh however are the student fares for college students. Colleges and universities are contracting with the Port Authority (PAT) to provide free transportation for the students. That sounds fine and dandy until you realize that the colleges and universities aren't willing to pay anything except a small fraction of the actual cost of providing the transit service for their students.

What wasn't covered in this story is that the local Pittsburgh colleges and universities are whining and complaining about the proposed cost increase to provide free transit service for their students. They don't want to pay more and actually want to pay even less. This situation has been going on for a few years now in Pittsburgh but is coming to a head finally due to PAT's finances.

Part of the problem with providing college students free rides lies with PAT in failing to initially charge the colleges and universities a realistic rate. Now that the low price to these institutions has become precedent, they are balking at a proposed increase in the contract price. At the same time however, it is not PAT's responsibility to absorb 80% of the college student's transportation costs just so the college or university can use free transit as a selling point to get more students to attend their institution.

To be honest, I think the college students should be paying just as I have to pay. I'm tired of hearing about the "poor college student" who has little money but still has enough of money to go out to bars and clubs to party when not in class. I'm also tired of hearing many of the college students claim that free transit to students is a "right". I brought this subject up once several years ago on another forum and was bombarded with e-mails from college students trying to make the case that free transit for college students was a right under the US Constitution. Ah, that entitlement mentality brought to you by the Liberals and preached in the pathetic public school system rears its ugly head once again.

If these colleges and universities want to provide free transit for their students then they need to start coughing up the money to pay for it. Yes, educational costs are high but so is the price to provide transit service. It is not the transit system's responsibility to absorb the the bulk of the cost of providing student transportation (80% in PAT's case), it is the colleges and universities that need to absorb that cost since they are the ones that want and benefit from it.

The bottom line here is that between the mandated discount/free fares and the student transportation free ride, transit systems across the country are taking a big hit that they can't afford. In PAT's case, a hit of $30 million which is the vast bulk of the deficit. Colleges and universities need to cough up the money if they want the free ride for their students to continue. As the cost to provide transit service continues to climb, transit systems can't afford the luxury of providing free service just so the colleges and universities can use the perk to help boost their enrollment.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Routes should serve public, not politicians

San Jose CA - In an editorial from The Mercury News, editors have said things I have been saying for years: Transit service should serve the public, not politicians.

The writers of the editorial appear somewhat surprised that transit service today is political. Sadly, that is exactly what it has become and one reason I have spoken out often about taking the politics out of transit. The political issues with transit have done little except to increase the cost of providing service and have done much to push transit systems to the wall.

From being forced to hang onto routes that haul few because of political threats to the countless bad decisions made based strictly on political pandering, public transit today is a mess.

In this situation, the editorial is based on the plan that the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) came up with to change many routes to better serve the public. The VTA Board of Directors wishes to play politics instead and have been reluctant to approve the plan. Why? The VTA route restructuring plan would eliminate many of the political routes that few people ride but politicians just have to have.

It's time to stop the political pandering to brain dead politicians that wouldn't be caught dead riding a bus or streetcar unless it afforded a photo-op. The political pandering hasn't solved any transit problem in this country nor will it in the future. All it's accomplished is to make it too expensive to provide service.

The political issues of transit is the main reason I often state that transit needs a dedicated source of funding that isn't doled out by the politicians. If you take the politicians out of transit decisions, you ultimately will end up with a better operation that is more efficient.

I know a few transit fans and transit insiders that want more government involvement in public transit. They think it will solve the problems. I just laugh at them and show them the mess the political pandering has gotten transit into already and ask them if the politicians have screwed it up this bad already, what makes you think having more involvement from them will solve it? They usually see the light after that.

Although transit has always had politics involved in it, the impact wasn't too bad until the politicians began to meddle in the day to day activities. This started in the 60's but reached current levels of political butt kissing back in the late 1980's and early 1990's. That period was when I noticed many politicians jumping in and meddling with operational decisions at various transit systems as well as threatening transit systems, almost annually, over funding unless their ideas were incorporated into the operation.

Transit systems across the US need to put an end to this and refocus the operations. They need to become efficient and that will never happen as long as they have to pander to the egos of politicians that have no clue what transit is about.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Former PAT union boss defends improprieties

Pittsburgh PA - The former head of PAT's union, Joe Hutzler, is defending the deferred retirement he set up for himself while retired but serving as union president as well as sitting on a 4-person pension board.

Hutzler believes that he did no wrong and that the current union president, Pat McMahon, has a vendetta against him.

Joe Hutzler is using the defense that it was wrong to collect a pension while collecting a union paycheck at the same time as well as that McMahon had a vendetta against him over differing views of union leadership. By claiming a vendetta as a big part of his defense, it sets off my alarms that there is much more here than meets the eye and that the vendetta may be in the opposite direction and aimed at McMahon rather than at Hutzler.

Regardless of the defense that Hutzler has offered, there are still some very serious questions regarding the self-crafted pension agreement that Hutzler set up as well as the secrecy surrounding his retirement.

The first point was that he retired from PAT but kept the retirement a secret from his union. Second was that while keeping the retirement a secret from his union, he was negotiating a union contract that ultimately stripped many protective work rules away from the union. Third was that he created the pension plan for himself and that would not have been done for others in the union as there was no such provision for it in the union contract or union rules.

At least to me, it seems as though Mr. Hutzler is trying to deflect the criticism of his bad decision(s) and trying to turn himself into the victim by claiming that the current union president had a vendetta against him. The points I mentioned in the previous paragraph all speak of a questionable act(s) by Hutzler.

While there may have been bad blood between Hutzler and McMahon, the criticism of Hutzler's actions are valid. Even if no quid pro quo occurred between PAT's management and Hutzler during this period, the simple fact that Hutzler crafted a pension deal for himself that no other union member would receive as well as keeping his retirement a secret from the union itself raises many valid questions that need to be answered and Hutzler's defense answers none of them.

While I normally avoid dealing with internal union issues here, this is one that I needed to comment on. I still believe that Pat McMahon was correct in his criticism of the Hutzler pension deal. There are just too many questions regarding it not to be critical.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Teen that knows transit

West Roxbury MA - A 16-year old high school student, Stuart Spina, probably knows more about the transit service in Boston than those that run the MBTA. Spina is also several steps beyond most transit fans whose interest is mostly in the vehicles.

Much like myself, Spina is not just interested in the vehicles themselves but in how those vehicles provide service. He pays attention to not only the current routes but the history of those routes as well. While not directly mentioned in the article, I get the distinct impression that he also is very interested in what I call the back room which is the administration and management of the system.

Unlike what I dealt with growing up with my local transit system, the MBTA seems more willing to accept Spina's ideas and suggestions. At PAT, my local system, they never really shook off the Pittsburgh Railways mentality which was "it's our way or no way". The MBTA is already looking into implementing one of Spina's ideas which is a hand held Charlie Card reader which can be used to help cut down on boarding times.

Transit systems often times brush off "fans" as an irritant. Many times they are and I know many that I am embarrassed being seen with in public with but we "fans" also have an insight into the transit operations that the administration and employees just can't see. The fans like Spina and myself, who are interested how service gets on the street, are often times able to easily see problems that the insiders completely miss.

I'm glad the MBTA is taking Spina's suggestions and ideas seriously. With a little luck, Spina may one day run the MBTA and use his "fan" expertise along with work experience to further improve the MBTA operation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

SEPTA fighting to end paper transfers

Philadelphia PA - SEPTA is continuing to fight to end the issuing of transfers and has appealed a lower court decision which forced the transit system to keep them.

While I haven't covered this issue before, it is something that needs to be addressed as SEPTA is trying to set a precedent and is being looked at by many transit systems as to the final outcome. If SEPTA wins their case, look for many other transit systems in cities across the country to start dumping transfers over the next few years.

Transfers are one of the most troublesome parts of any transit operation. Transfer thefts, reselling at a higher price on the street, attempted use of expired transfers, etc. have made transfers an item that many transit systems have on their list for possible elimination. The vast majority of fare disputes involve transfer issues as well.

The problem however is that transfers are needed. Given that no transit system can take everyone where they need to go without switching buses, transfers become a necessary evil in the transit industry to help make transit service somewhat convenient.

Better technology exists today to allow transfers to be issued while eliminating many of the headaches associated with the old style paper transfers. For example, coded transfers that are timestamped by a fare recording device and can be read by fareboxes eliminate the use of expired transfers. Cities that have adopted coded transfers have seen a large drop in transfer abuse and fare disputes but that technology doesn't come cheaply.

Eliminating transfers in a city such as Philadelphia will not spur transit usage. On the contrary, it will encourage people to find alternative means of transport that bypass the transit system completely. While SEPTA says it wants more riders, it is also making it more difficult to get those riders.

SEPTA is assuming that people will rush out and by a monthly pass or just pay full fare on multiple trips and the SEPTA financial coffers will start overflowing with money. It won't happen. As I mentioned, people will find alternatives to SEPTA and cut them out of the loop completely so that they end up pulling in less each month than they are now. In cities such as Philadelphia, unregulated/illegal low-cost jitney service is already a very common competitor with the transit system and eliminating transfers will just send many riders over to the competition.

Where I live in Pittsburgh, we used to have rather strict transfer rules which made sense even though it was somewhat complicated. The policy was loosened up over the years and ultimately have led to widespread abuse of transfers. In the distant past, you could only use a transfer for a one-way trip continuing away from the boarding point. Today they can be used for round trips and have a greatly increased valid time.

Not being familiar with SEPTA's transfer procedure, it may very well be the case that SEPTA just needs to tighten up the procedure as Pittsburgh needs to do. The problem here is that once the government gives the public something, it is almost impossible to take it away later. In other words, reimposing an older and more strict policy would meet with howls of protest, greater than what is occurring with the complete elimination of them.

In SEPTA's current eagerness to eliminate transfer privileges, it is setting a bad precedent in my opinion. By making transit more inconvenient for the rider, it will lose ridership in the long run and defeats the very purpose of what transit is there for. The added capital expense of implementing coded transfers is worth it as it helps make taking the bus or LRV more convenient, especially for the occasional rider which the transit systems would ultimately love to have as a regular rider.

SEPTA earns a Lance for its attempt to make riding transit more inconvenient. This move will only serve to keep people off of the transit system, not attract them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Questionable doings not just a management thing at PAT

Pittsburgh PA - The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review unearthed a highly questionable act by the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) transit union. The highly questionable act was the formation of a special retirement package by former ATU Division 85 Union President Joseph Hutzler for himself which was kept quiet, even from his union.

The special pension deal revolved around allowing Hutzler to collect pension payments in a special account while he was retired and still union president. While Hutzler retired from PAT in 2001, he kept the retirement a secret from the union. This has upset the current union local leaders as Hutzler was leading the union in contract talks with PAT at the time which ultimately stripped the union of many protective work rules.

The pension arrangement was crafted when Hutzler was president of the PAT union and sat on a four-member pension board. The current union leadership called the Hutzler's self-crafted retirement deal an abuse of power. Current ATU Division 85 Union President, Pat McMahon, said ""I think he abused his position on that board to his own benefit."

Here I must credit the current PAT union president, Pat McMahon. When the Hutzler deal was discovered, McMahon and the current union leadership brought the questionable deal to the attention of PAT's management as they should do. PAT's corrupt management however swept the affair under the rug as they were too busy double-dipping into the management pension fund for their own benefit. Hutzler's arrangement was very similar to the controversial DROP program which key management people participated in during the same period.

The news came to me without much shock. I was aware there there were some shady deals occurring within PAT's union during the Skoutelas years at PAT. What did shock me however was Pat McMahon's response to the controversy. Instead of defending the former union leader, he said what was needed to be said which was that the deal was wrong and self-serving.

While I often disagree with Pat McMahon on transit matters, I must award him a Laurel for not trying to bury an embarrassing union incident under the rug and showing that the current union leadership is not acting as their predecessors. He's earned a lot of my respect today.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Empty seats just don't pay the bills

Sacramento CA - As fare box receipts and funding continue to decline, Sacramento's Regional Transit (RT) is facing the same realization which many other transit systems across North America are facing. That is, empty seats don't pay the bills.

RT is looking at service cuts to less patronized routes as well as service adjustments to trim out the worst of the under performing routes. Cries of protest naturally are occurring from the decision however, RT can no longer afford the luxury of funding routes that carry few people.

In Sacramento, one route waiting for the budget ax to fall is the Downtown Trolley which averages about 5 riders per hour. "The bus' value transcends skimpy ridership numbers" states RT driver Stephen Renda in defense of the under performing route. Renda then continues that the tourist trolley bus is a "Welcome to Sacramento' bus for tourists".

Renda also states that Sacramento needs more transit, not less. That brings me to ask this, how is all the extra service you want going to be paid for?

I hear the same in every city. More service not less but let's face a hard reality, transit can't continue to run routes and trips that carry nobody just on the hope that someone might ride. The same people that use the "more service, not less" battle cry are the same ones that have fits when their taxes and fares go up to pay for it or their precious social services get slashed to pay for it.

Transit needs to become efficient if it is to survive. Running routes that fall well below ridership minimum standards is not efficient. In Sacramento, the first route I would eliminate would be the Downtown Trolley. It serves few, is duplicated by other routes and is a luxury the system can't afford.

The RT, as well as most transit systems out there, need to take a good hard look at the routes they run. Many routes can stand some thinning out of a trip here and there. One of the tried and proven techniques of increasing efficiency is being on top of the ridership trends and shuffling service to meet those trends. Yes, that means low performing routes get the ax but it also means increased ridership as freed up service can be sent to routes and areas that justify having the service. Sadly, this technique isn't used much these days as transit has become so political and the brain dead politicians can't comprehend such things as they insist that low performing routes be kept so they can get a few votes at election time.

Low performing areas can often still be served by a simple deviation from an existing nearby route on select trips. This frees up manpower and equipment that can be better utilized elsewhere while reducing the cost to serve the low performing area. Another simple and proven technique is to trim back headways on certain routes. Taking a route that runs every 20 minutes and changing it to every 30 minutes has little impact on the existing ridership (beside a slightly longer wait time) but frees up 1/3 of the service for service elsewhere or just plain elimination.

I'm sure the administration at the RT has plenty of waste as well that can be trimmed to save money. Union contracts are another area that I'm sure has plenty of waste built into it.

Many of the problem transit finds itself in today can be traced back to the 1970's and 1980's. That was the period that many of the low ridership routes routes came to be along with generous union contracts as well as having the money available to just waste without worrying about it. Well, it caught up with the transit systems as costs continue to climb and inefficient operations became ingrained as part of the culture of public transit. Few operations during the 1970's and 1980's were immune to this. While some did well at making the routes efficient during this time like PAT in Pittsburgh during the early 1970's, they became top heavy in administration and were learning the ways of wasteful spending in other areas.

The bottom line here is that transit is at the brink of failure today. Through inefficient operations and plain wasteful spending practices. Of course the riding public is the one that suffers for it and the only way to even begin to deal with the situation that transit systems find themselves in now is to go back to the basics of providing service which includes eliminating low ridership routes and freeing those resources for use in areas that will utilize those resources effectively. Money is not unlimited and it's time for everyone to understand that point.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cornwall questions need for transit

Cornwall ON - While there are new start-ups of transit systems across North America on almost a monthly basis and cries for expanded service echo across the continent, some Cornwall Ontario officials are questioning the need for having a transit system at all. The city has hired a consultant to see if it is worth improving the transit operation in place or if the city should reduce or even discontinue the service.

I've ridden the Cornwall system in the past and found it a very freindly operation with very well maintained equipment. While not very crowded on most routes, even in peak, at the time I questioned the need for the large buses rather than smaller buses for their operation. While the cost savings would be minuscule, the appearance would have a big impact.

City Councilor Kim Baird however doesn't want to see smaller buses. She believes that having smaller buses would cause them to fill up. Isn't that the point Kim? A filled bus is far less costly to operate than one that only has a few riding it. Once you start filling up the smaller buses, expand back into larger buses. It won't be an overnight change and will take many years to attract and keep ridership based on the quality of service.

I would love to go in and overhaul the Cornwall operation. It is obvious that the city leaders don't really understand how transit works. Instead of having a 40 or 30 minute set schedule system-wide, routes need to be run based on demand. More frequently on routes that require it and less frequently on routes that have lighter ridership. Much of the change wouldn't impact the finances as it would simply be shuffling existing resources from areas that don't need it to areas that do.

That was one of the issues I had with Cornwall when I visited and rode the operation. The 40 minute headway on all routes at all times. I guess it was from growing up with service that ranged from every 5 minutes to once a day depending on the demand of the route but a system-wide schedule using the same headway does little to attract ridership.

Cornwall currently has a 4% share of riders versus population. That can easily be doubled through simple changes that could actually save money. On my trip there, I rode a route that had 7 people riding on it. When it reached the transfer point, 5 of the 7 people (who all got on at different stops) boarded another bus together. Immediately I questioned why the route I was on didn't continue on in the direction of the other route. Obviously that is where people wanted to go.

What was happening was that Cornwall was in fact getting the people to where they wanted to go but at twice the cost as it should have been. 2 buses and 2 drivers rather than a through routing that would free up 1 bus and driver for service elsewhere or just plain elimination of the freed up trip to save money.

Hopefully the consultant the city hired will look at such things. Cornwall could eventually pull a 15-20 percent share of riders versus population within 5 years if it runs the operation properly. Simply lowering the set system-wide headway from 40 to 30 minutes or adding Sunday service won't do it. Learning where people want to go, adjusting service to serve where people go as well as running an efficient operation will.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An excellent lead-in for a news story

Miami Fl - "A lot of well-heeled people who would never be caught dead on a Metrobus drove their cars and SUVs over to Miami's VA Medical Center last week to cut the ribbon on the first new bus shelter erected inside city limits in more than a decade."

The Miami Herald had that line as the lead-in for an article they published on July 30th. I understand the frustration with the politicians that the writer, Larry Lebowitz, showed in his article completely.

It mirrors many things I often say about the bulk of the politicians and bureaucrats who ignore transit unless it means a photo-op or they see a political advantage to temporarily supporting it. In this case, it was a photo-op that dredged up a bunch of politicians and transit administrators that are lucky if they know what the inside of a bus looks like.

The wheels of bureaucracy move at a snails pace but when something finally emerges out of it for the riding public, the first ones there to soak up the benefits of it are the politicians who want face time to sooth their over-inflated ego's.

It shouldn't take years to address something like transit shelters. Shelters benefit both the riders as well as the transit system by attracting new riders. I have witnessed first hand stops that had few riders that suddenly got a shelter installed and within a month, the passengers boarding at that stop increased dramatically. In a few cases, by 10 times the pre-shelter levels and that is reflected in the route ridership which also increased.

Providing proper amenities for the ridership will attract them. While shelters and benches do increases costs, deals made with advertisers can easily offset the increased costs. In many cases, the advertising agency also takes responsibility for erecting and maintaining of the shelter so it becomes a win-win situation. The riders benefit from having a dry and shaded place to wait as well as the transit system who benefits from increased ridership without incurring the costs of purchasing and maintaining the shelter. The ad agency also benefits by revenue from the ads it sells.

The politicians in Miami should be ashamed that it took so long to start putting up new bus shelters. Instead they bask in the glory of the first new shelter that has been put up in over a decade.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mayor drops streetcar proposal

Madison WI - Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz officially dropped his streetcar proposal Monday. The proposal had drawn fire from many sources due to the expense as well as the effectiveness of the plan.

The Mayor said in a press release, "There is an old saying in politics; when you've dug yourself into a hole, the first thing you do is drop the shovel. So I have decided I will not continue to pursue the issue of streetcars in Madison. The issue is off the table."

I do have to applaud Mayor Cieslewicz for dropping the controversial plan and not being stubborn and continuing to push it through. With a proposed Regional Transit Authority being planned for the Madison area, it will be tough enough to ensure they can run what they have in place now without the headache of a transit project that was designed more for taxpayer supported development than for actual transportation.

The problem I had with the Mayor's plan was just stated, it was to be for development at the taxpayer's expense rather than for transportation. Considering that Madison's bus system needs help and the streetcar line was not aimed at actual transit service, the plan was more of a fiscal black hole than a benefit.

Once Madison gets the RTA in place, the bus service up to par and a more reliable source of funding the transit system in place, it can be brought up again. Until then, it's best to put the proposal on the shelf.

I would suggest that any future streetcar plan be focused around actual transportation needs rather than the hope of development along a line that goes nowhere.

For backing down from his streetcar plan as well as finally recognizing that you need the broad support from the community before undertaking such a major investment, I'll award Mayor Dave Cieslewicz a Laurel.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Untested and unproven, you just have to build it

Mesa AZ - A Personal Rapid Transit system (PRT) is being pushed for by the creators of what is called SkyTran. It is a futuristic transit mode that utilizes small passenger pods on demand rather than running on a fixed schedule. Seeing the computer graphics of what the SkyTran system is to look like, I started humming the theme from the Jetson's.

Currently in Mesa, the city is in the midst of a long term transit analysis and exploring various transit options for the future. Supporters of the untested and futuristic concept, built by Unimodal, want it included in the analysis and as the focal point of the study. Mind you, the analysis will help steer the city's future transportation planning.

To include PRT as a focal point of the analysis is simply ludicrous. PRT systems are not designed for mass transit, period. They are incapable of handling large passenger loads and are more suited for places like universities and large company complexes with many buildings spread out over hundreds of acres.

Wild and unsubstantiated claims on the SkyTran website such as SkyTran being able to "totally eliminate commuter congestion in any city" is literally false advertising and a complete misrepresentation of the product. Another claim of "SkyTran can END road congestion, car accidents and automobile air pollution" also state the impossible.

Where are the actual studies proving these claims? Not in-house computer projections or "what we believe" press releases but the actual independently conducted case study that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that SkyTran will totally eliminate 100% of the traffic congestion in any city? I already know the answer, there isn't any such study.

The author of the article, Jerry Spellman who is a volunteer coordinator for Unimodal/SkyTran (and would make a tremendously successful used car salesman), touts SkyTran as the cure-all to Mesa's transportation problems. It can make a profit that can be shared with the city, Spellman proclaims. The same claims were made about the money losing Las Vegas monorail. Unlike the Las Vegas monorail however, Spellman wants the SkyTran system as the focal point of Mesa's transportation future. An untested and unproven mode of transportation that is full of the promises of Utopia if only it can be built.

Another claim from the makers of SkyTran is that people will be traveling around at 100 mph around the city. If you sent someone in one of the passenger pods for a 4 block ride, you would not get it to 100 mph. If you did, that person would be thrown back and whipped forward as there is insufficient space for speeding up and slowing down safely. You also would have hundreds of switches and sensors along the line to allow the PRT pod to bypass stations and other pods. One tiny error in any of the millions upon millions of calculations per second the system must do or a small system glitch, as the driverless pod is whipping around the city at 100 mph, could easily spell disaster.

The SkyTran website reads like a science fiction novel. Between the wild claims being made, bashing every other mode of time proven technology and fancy computerized graphics, one gets a clear vision of how Utopia is seen through their eyes. I really had to fight to convince myself that the SkyTran site wasn't a satire site but a real site aimed at convincing people that SkyTran is the answer.

"No ongoing taxpayer subsidies needed!" exclaims Spellman in his article. "A load of bull!", I exclaim here. As with the Las Vegas monorail, more tax money will have to be pumped into it as time goes on. Simply put, SkyTran will not even remotely pay for itself yet alone bring in the big profit that Unimodal states it will. There will be no sharing of the windfall with the City of Mesa.

To pay for the operation, you will either have to charge a ridiculously high amount to ride it which will keep most people off of it (and you still won't meet the operating costs as the higher the price, the less will ride) or you'll have to be subsidized by the taxpayer. That's basic Mass Transit Economics 101 in this day and age, Jerry.

Given that SkyTran is envisioned by Spellman as the central core of Mesa's transportation system, there is no way in hell that more tax money won't have to be poured into it. Your not going to be able to have SkyTran be the core system while charging $25 a ride. Your going to have to get the price down to existing transit fares which will mean a big drain on the SkyTran finances. To make up for the loss, you'll be heading to city hall to plead for more tax money to keep the system running.

What disturbs me the most is that the SkyTran sales pitch is exactly what tax and spend politicians love to bite on. Something unproven, sure to skyrocket in price and is touting the "green" message that these politicians blindly follow like mice following the Pied Piper. If Mesa doesn't bite on the SkyTran proposal, they'll start hitting up other cities to fund their PRT folly.

If SkyTran is all that it claims, where is the test line on company property to clearly show everyone the concept in a full scale working model? So far, all I see are visions of what it should be with wild promises being made. There is a huge difference between theory and reality. So many things work in theory but in reality they fall far short. In theory, even some of the greatest blunders of mankind looked great on paper but failed miserably when unleashed on the public.

This isn't the only PRT proposal floating around either. There are a few others out there by other companies. An ongoing proposal in Minnesota as well as one in Washington state to mention two I personally am aware of. Each one sounds the same however, build it and all your transit problems will be forever solved. None have been tested nor have any been willing to build a test line completely on their own dime to prove their claims. These companies all want to place it as a central core part of the existing transportation infrastructure. As I see it, this means that they have an escape if things go wrong and can unload the responsibilities onto the government if it goes belly-up.

Mesa politicians should not even think about including such an untested and unproven concept such as SkyTran into the transportation analysis. The residents of Mesa need to make that clear to their elected officials. If built, it won't save money, it won't be safer and it definitely won't cure your transportation problems. You'll end up with an expensive white elephant that even more of your tax dollars will have to be sunk into just to keep it running.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Chastain's LRT plan continues to get more holes

Kansas City MO - Clay Chastain's Light Rail Transit {LRT} plan took a couple of big hits on Thursday but were, as usual, brushed aside by Chastain.

First there was the consulting team which issued its report to the city council and showed that the city just can't afford Chastain's dream system.

Then the city council learned that there were enough valid signatures on a petition to force the city to toss the plan or send it back to the voters.

Chastain of course instantly went on the defensive. He claimed the consultant report was deliberately overstating the building costs so as to shoot his plan down. A bit paranoid? It seems so but Chastain has a long history of being paranoid when things don't go his way. It's always that someone is out to get him.

What needs to be focused on is this paragraph in the news story: "He said the Missouri Department of Transportation should contribute $100 million to operate light rail. According to figures supplied by MoDOT, that would eat up what the state spends on general transit for about 25 years."

In other words, Chastain not only wants to decimate the bus system in Kansas City but he wishes to decimate transit in the entire state of Missouri just so he can build his personal legacy line at taxpayer expense.

Also highlighted in the consultant's report was that many of the things in Chastain's plan had problems and could even violate the law. There has already been many other questionable issues regarding the constitutionality of how he plans on funding it so that didn't surprise me.

What amused me was that he thinks the state will just fork over the money needed to fund all transit systems for the next 25 years to operate his legacy line. He's Clay Chastain so the state is just going to bow down to his royal highness. The bulk of Chastain's plan for funding revolves around such thinking. He thinks Kansas City will automatically go to the front of the funding line with the Feds. He thinks the state will just hand over money because he needs it to run his LRT line with gondola ride.

This is sure to end up in court as Chastain has no qualms about suing to get his legacy line built, even if the people vote it down in the next election. He was all for the people prior to this since they blindly voted for what he wanted but as soon as they learned what was happening and don't want his plan, it's to hell with the people. Sadly, when all is said and done, it will cost the taxpayers plenty but it looks as though Chastain's plan is getting more holes in it by the day and less likely to be built.

Kansas City residents have a chance it seems to officially dump Chastain's legacy line and send the meddler packing back to Virginia. With enough valid petition signatures, there is no reason that a re-vote of the plan can't happen with the next election. Let's hope these people understand what they are voting for this time.

If Kansas City must have a rail line, do it sensibly. Build it for service, not development or prestige. Don't go for the bells and whistles as they don't do anything but drive the price up. While I still think Kansas City can't support a rail line regardless of building price, it might just squeak by if it is done with transportation in mind in an existing high ridership corridor.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Talk about chutzpah

Pittsburgh PA - The former Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) CEO, Paul "Captain Scuttles" Skoutelas, filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer late last week. He charges that PAT has illegally reduced his monthly pension by more than $3,000.

The key issue in the lawsuit revolves around a pension agreement that was not approved by the PAT Board and hence not legally binding. PAT reduced Skoutelas' pension and requested repayment of almost $65,000 in over payments. Skoutelas' attorney argues otherwise and states that a promise was made and must be honored.

The man that literally lived large on the taxpayer's dime and brought a whole new meaning to the term government waste is now experiencing the repercussions of his leadership and he doesn't like it. From day one, he spent money like Fort Knox was part of the operation. I mean, nobody needs an $800 desk clock but he deemed it a necessity when he first arrived along with a desk chair that cost well over $1,000, all on the taxpayer's dime of course. The wasteful spending just skyrocketed from that point on.

A costly move of the administration offices from a building it owned into leased office space in the high rent section of Downtown. Continuing to increase the funding of a proven failure of a marketing campaign. Nickel and diming the operating funds for everything from dinosaur books, greens fees and rented Christmas decorations for the office to hiring but not monitoring the spending of professional lobbying agencies acting on their behalf (i.e. reimbursing the lobbyist blindly). Greatly inflating inventory costs by having to have each bus order as different from the previous order as they could get it and with every option they could get. This is barely even the tip of the iceberg in terms of wasteful spending practices that occurred under the leadership of Skoutelas and directly led to the fiscal crisis PAT finds itself in today.

While PAT has never been a really efficient operation, the decade under Skoutelas was ripe with wasteful spending which set PAT up for fiscal disaster. More new ways to waste money were invented under the Skoutelas administration than occurred under all of the previous administrations combined. Skoutelas jumped the ship before the actual crash so he didn't have to deal with the consequences.

Skoutelas also introduced a controversial pension program under his watch at PAT known as the "Deferred Retirement Option Program" or DROP. The DROP program literally allowed key employees to double dip into the already underfunded management pension plan. He was also allowed to buy pension credit for previous service at PAT as well as his time with Lynx in Orlando FL to increase his overall pension.

Sadly, with the way the courts rule on such matters, PAT will ultimately be out the money and Skoutelas will get his full plunder. The riders and taxpayers will get punished in the end to offset Skoutelas' share of the PAT loot.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to sue your former employer for money when you yourself steered that former employer into a fiscal disaster which has left the public with 15% less service, threats of another 10% and a fare increase on the horizon as well as the loss of employment for many employees.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Hannemann: Rail transit is only way

Honolulu HI - With Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann's legacy rail plan being questioned, the Mayor dug in and tried to shoot down any thought of looking at alternatives.

Hannemann ranted, "There is no way we are going to change horses in midstream and now explore a busway as an alternative to light rail." He continued with "It will not be done. I will not allow that to happen."

This outburst only further confirms to me that the transit plan in Honolulu is strictly for the personal legacy of Mayor Hannemann rather than for the good of the residents that must pay for it. The Mayor has always fought any plan that wasn't rail and has long refused to even consider exploring what would work best. Even the routing would be challenged by Mufi if it didn't fit into his vision of how he wanted his legacy line.

While the brief description of the BRT plan leaves me with a lot of questions, BRT was never really properly considered initially. Only rail was. Even the routing is questionable as many questions are still pending as to if Mufi's plan will serve the most residents. Hannemann has pulled strings, called in favors and at times bullied to get his plan going. Even though the rail plan is still in question, Hannemann acts as though it is a done deal.

Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall is unconvinced that Mufi's plan is the best because she doesn't believe all possibilities were given fair consideration during the early planning stages of the project. She is correct, they weren't. Mufi had already decided on rail and that was what he insisted be focused on.

Given that the line will require at least $5 billion dollars in taxpayer money (probably more when all is said and done), all alternatives need to be considered and the best technology as well as route chosen. Hannemann's refusal to consider anything but rail along the route he wants is a warning flag which proclaims that the project is a legacy project and doesn't serve the best interest of the residents.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Transit Funding vs. Other Public Projects

Atlanta GA - Susan Gast had a very interesting article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution regarding how the funding of public transit is viewed compared to funding for other government projects.

She is correct in her assumption that public transit operating funding is dimly viewed by politicians. In her article she questions why politicians often say that public transit doesn't benefit everyone so it shouldn't be supported while items like parks, roads and other infrastructure are (and let's not forget the $10,000 taxpayer funded BBQ pit at a senior center if your in Pennsylvania).

She does miss this fact though: Funding for transit capital projects which do little beside raise the cost of providing service is quite easy to obtain and politicians fight to get in line to hand that money out.

A big part of the answer she seeks comes from political legacy. Build a park, create a new highway and the politician, after they bite the dust and often before, can get a shiny brass plaque with their name on it for all of eternity proclaiming they were the ones responsible for this park or that road, etc.

Her example of Gwinnett County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau's comments reminded me of many politicians I have come across. They all have the same disdain for transit and fail to understand its benefits. They only embrace transit if they think it can further their political career or shut up some noisy detractors of their work.

The excuse that public transit is expensive and used by few is just that, an excuse. I pay for schools I don't use and know many others that don't have children to use the public school system but we still have to fork over money for the indoctrination centers. I pay for roads in the boondocks that are lucky they have 5 cars a day on them and I know I'll never have to use that road. I know many that haven't been to a public park in decades, including myself. Yet these all get funded with a smile by the politicians who proclaim "everyone benefits". Hardly.

A viable public transit system is an important part to the city economy. Without a good system, you will lose business. Not just a few lost sales from people that can't get to town to buy from the stores but entire businesses that pack up and move to somewhere that their capital is treated better. Far more people benefit from a viable transit system than just those that ride. Politicians are either too stupid to understand that fact or so dedicated to creating something they can hang a brass plaque on with their name that they ignore it.

Susan's article is very thought provoking and brings up an excellent point. After reading it, I was already going through the list of projects that my local and state politicians are rushing to give money to and very few of the favored projects benefited everyone. In fact, many were self-serving and benefited only the politicians and a handful of their contributors.

The "it must benefit everyone" argument is always applied to operating funding for transit by the politicians and rarely to anything else they rush out to give money to. While public transit does need to do a lot of house cleaning to make itself more efficient, it benefits far more people, including those that don't use the system, than the neighborhood taxpayer funded meth clinic or a new taxpayer funded road into a private housing development.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

PAT is still finding new ways to waste money

Pittsburgh PA - A columnist piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review really should be a news item. Columnist Eric Heyl informed the readers on Friday that the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is still finding new ways to waste money and offering feeble attempts at justifying the waste.

What is it this time? Another attempt at nickel and diming the money needed to run service so it can be spent on anything but providing service. PAT placed an ad in the Pittsburgh City Paper for $1,400 which is little more than political butt kissing using money that is needed to run the service.

The full page ad declared in bold face letters "THANKS TO THE LEADERS IN HARRISBURG, WE CAN KEEP YOU MOVING."

It then goes on with "We'd like to thank Gov. Rendell, the lawmakers in Harrisburg, and all those who have worked together on the funding crisis," the ad states. "Their hard work and vision have made it possible for us to continue to offer our riders the dependable transit they deserve."

PAT's spinmeister, Judi McNeil, went into high speed spin mode to defend the ad saying that it was to publicly thank the politicians for their efforts in passing the transportation bill. She was also quick to add that the money for the ad came from advertising revenues and not taxpayer money.

I'm sorry Judi, the ad is a waste of money and shows exactly what I have been saying for years. PAT will find any excuse to spend money on anything but providing service. These politicians don't need to be thanked for doing their job. The same could have been done for free at the PAT press conference where they announced the funding deal. Instead, PAT just had to find a way to waste more money so they went out and bought a newspaper ad in a free tabloid style paper that is used more for lining bird cages and paper training the family puppy than it is used for reading.

Also Judi, that advertising revenue is supposed to go toward the operating fund. Whether you think so or not, the taxpayer still has to foot the bill for that useless advertisement since that is $1,400 more the taxpayer must sink into the system to keep service on the street.

While $1,400 isn't even considered chump change in the grand scheme of the total amount needed to run PAT, it clearly shows how the mind set of waste is ingrained into the transit system's administration. This is just like the $700 or so worth of dinosaur books PAT bought for the board of director's children several years ago. It is something to simply waste money on and does absolutely nothing to keep service on the street.

PAT earns itself yet another Lance for continuing to waste money and I'm tossing in another Lance for PAT's mouthpiece, Judi McNeil, for trying to once again defend the waste.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Pennsylvania eliminates senior ride restrictions

Johnstown PA - The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat has a story regarding a change in the Pennsylvania State law regarding the times Seniors are allowed to ride for free on the buses.

Prior to the law changing, seniors could not use their transit identification card during rush hours. The CamTran general manager, Rose Lucey-Noll indicated that was to spare larger operations the problem of over-crowding during rush hour. Actually she is partially wrong. The original law was set up in part for that but it also dealt with the payout to the transit systems from the State Lottery fund which funds the free ride program for Seniors.

For small systems, such as CamTran in Johnstown, it won't have much of an effect on rush hour ridership and is a welcome change since they don't have much of a rush hour to start with. Now with larger systems, it may create a small problem.

That problem will be that larger systems may still restrict travel times for seniors using the transit identification card because of rush hour crowds. This will create unneeded hassle for the drivers that have to enforce company procedure while the law has no restrictions.

Overall, eliminating the restriction on senior riding makes sense. Currently in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, there is the "third rush hour" which consists of seniors trying to get where they are going before the real rush hour starts in the afternoon. This mini-rush hour has created some problems as both PAT and SEPTA still are running in off-peak mode. By eliminating the restrictions, that mini-rush hour will disappear and the crowd will be scattered out. Seniors, for the most part, will tend to avoid rush hour travel anyway due to the more crowded conditions.

While this change in the law won't bring in any more money from the State Lottery fund because the formula used to calculate how much each transit system receives will not change, it will be beneficial to the many seniors that depend on transit service to get around.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Chastain insists his plan will work

Kansas City MO - Clay Chastain, the former KC resident that now resides in Virginia but still meddles in Kansas City affairs, insists his rail plan for KC is workable.

Once again however, Chastain pinned his belief about his rail plan on hopes and dreams rather than reality. At a meeting between Chastain and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of Kansas City, Chastain did little to prove that his plan was workable beside suggesting more local taxes be imposed to pay for it.

Chastain told the committee he expected the pie of funding for public transportation to get bigger. “I think the pendulum of the federal government is swinging in the right direction,” Chastain said of the Democratic shift in Congress.

In my experience, the Democrats talk a good game but fail to deliver on their lip service. KC won't see any more money under a government controlled by Democrats than it received under a government controlled by Republicans.

You can't build and fund anything just on the hope that someone in the government will take pity and hand you a big check to pay for it. Chastain just can't seem to understand that simple point. He wants KC to jump to the head of the line and not have to follow any rules or regulations that the rest of the country must follow.

Chastain reluctantly agreed that you can't decimate the bus system and expect the Feds to pony up the money. However, that won't stop him for pushing for his personal legacy line. Another threat of an expensive lawsuit was also issued by Chastain at the meeting if he doesn't get his rail line with gondola ride built as he wants it, proving he doesn't care if the bus system does get destroyed in the process.

Clay Chastain's rail proposal is the perfect example of a personal legacy project that he wants everyone else to pay for. It's his way or he'll sue to get his way.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Environmental Impact of Light Rail

Seattle WA - An article on the Crosscut web site brings to light an interesting slant to the rail debate. The environmental impact of building a light rail line.

The writer, Emory Bundy, does a rather good job in pointing out that building a rail line has a much more serious impact on the environment than the pro-rail and environmentalist crowd would have you believe. Remember, rail is sold to the public as being good for the environment but the environmental costs are completely ignored.

Bundy states: "As an offset, Sound Transit claims it will save 14,000 tons of CO2 annually by running light rail trains on electricity, sparing the region emissions that otherwise would be generated by automotive traffic. Even if granted, it would take 90 years from completion of the line to break even on the energy transaction. If Sound Transit should manage to cut tunnel-related greenhouse emissions in half, by aggressive use of hydro electricity and human labor, an implausible proposition, it still would take 45 years to break even."

That's a long time to just break even on the environmental carbon footprint but Bundy failed to mention that even in the time frame given, the line still wouldn't break even on the environmental costs. Why? Even taking the shorter of the two times, 45 years, the line would have been rebuilt several times over. Each rebuild making more of a carbon impact and adding more time before the line breaks even on it's carbon footprint. The number also doesn't take into consideration the day to day maintenance on the line which also will add to the carbon footprint. In short, the Sound Transit extension will never pay for itself environmentally but will continually add carbon debt that will never be paid off. And no, buying carbon credits from Ozone Al won't cover it.

Actually, this whole carbon footprint nonsense is just that, nonsense. I am pointing this out the way I am simply to show people that rail isn't as environmentally friendly as proponents like to make it out to be. Those who are rushing out to buy "carbon offsets" (I could do a whole series on that scam) for a trip to the store will be shocked to see that the environmentally friendly rail line they take to work isn't as eco-friendly as they thought. As green is one of the big selling points for expensive rail projects, the public needs to understand that it isn't as green as the proponents say it is.

Getting back to Bundy's article. Bundy should have just left the article as a relatively decent informative piece. Instead he turned a good and informative article into a joke by going off in the last third of the article about how everybody should be riding bicycles to work. Over the years, I've worked next to people that biked to work and let me tell you, they stunk from their sweat in the summer, looked like a drowned rat if it rained and on some occasions, looked like they stopped off to do some mud wrestling on the way in. I'd rather take the bus.

While Bundy does miss a lot of points such as not comparing the impact of road building to rail as well as making assumptions on demographics, he brings up some valid points. Rail won't really help reduce the problems that its proponents say it will. In Seattle's case, hydro-electric power helps but in other parts of the country, all rail does is move the pollution from one location to another; namely to a coal-fired power plant in an already near capacity electrical power grid.

I could go on for days as each item in Bundy's article brings up two or more items that need to be covered. Slapping a rail line down isn't as simple as it may seem. The same goes for a busway or highway as well. Rail however, has more of a direct negative financial impact to it due to its much higher cost and as shown by Bundy, rail also has much more of a negative environmental impact than the general public is led to believe.

Beside the major distraction of his bike speech at the end, Bundy's article is pretty good. It brings up some good and valid points about the environmental impact of rail that are rarely mentioned. Many of these things I have been saying all along but there was some new information as well as a new way of applying what I already knew to better counter the pro-rail environmental rhetoric.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Tacky Trolleys proposed

Winston-Salem NC - Winston-Salem is considering adding night time, weekend trolley service (with the tacky trolleys) to the city. The trolley service, tried once before during lunch hours and fizzled, is stated to help drum up business during the evening hours as well as spur the night life of the city.

Normally with such a news story, I would just read it, roll my eyes and forget it but a comment by the Art Barnes, General Manager of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority (WSTA), caught my attention. That comment was this: “just because something doesn’t work in one venue doesn’t mean you should give up on it."

Upon reading that comment, I immediately thought of all the waste done by transit systems and city leaders across America based on that very philosophy. Try, try and try again until the idea can be force fit into the fabric of the city just doesn't spell good fiscal management nor does it spell success.

I like Art Barnes and have corresponded with him in the past but his comment is a philosophy that I see practiced almost daily and I must disagree with him. The philosophy he states usually fails with costly results. The philosophy is almost ingrained into the thinking of public officials who give little thought about spending taxpayer money.

Just like with my local transit system who mastered the technique of trying to get a failed strategy to work and literally crippled the operation due to the excessive costs, the Winston-Salem trolley plan is similar. It is a plan that has failed in the past and should be left to rest in peace.

What we hear though is that "such trolley services have been successful in other cities". Wow, then let's jump on the bandwagon! What works in one city doesn't mean it will work in another city if tried. A point often ignored and ignored in this case as well. Lunchtime trolley operations work in other cities but failed miserably in Winston-Salem.

If the venture is funded strictly through private money, it's a whole new ball game but it won't be. What will happen is that more and more public money will have to be sunk into the plan if it gets up and running. The WSTA will most likely end up on the short end of the financial stick as money that should go for regular WSTA service on it's many routes will be siphoned off to pay for the night time tacky trolley operation that will not even come close to being cost effective.

The comment toward the end about extending the proposed service to colleges and having them pay for it is laughable as well. Oh you may get them to pay a small portion of the service but nowhere close to what is needed to run the service. Colleges will insist on free service for the students as well for a fraction of the actual cost of the service.

I say, let a proven failure rest in peace. Resurrecting a tacky trolley operation on the public dime, when it has failed before, will do nothing to improve business at the bars and clubs nor will it keep the roads free of drivers that have had too much to drink.

Monday, July 23, 2007

PAT's costs are over budget already

Pittsburgh PA - The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is struggling to come up with excuses on the much touted (by PAT at least) North Shore Connector rail project. The project, which just recently started a few weeks ago, is already positioned to go through half of its $9 million dollar contractor contingency fund due to unexpected problems.

The totally unneeded $425 million project, pushed for by former PAT Executive Director, Paul "Captain Scuttles" Skoutelas, will connect Downtown Pittsburgh to the North Shore across the river. That, boys and girls, is less than a mile walk.

Overall, PAT has a $19 million dollar contingency fund for overruns. $9 million of that is for contractor overruns. Considering that the work just started and over $4 million has had to be drawn against the contingency fund already, prepare of one hell of an expensive project.

It is obvious that PAT's contractors, engineering and consultants failed to do their job. Soft ground? Ummm, why didn't you take core samples before you started work. What a bunch of idiots.

What will really make this North Shore Connector a disaster in the making is that no more Federal, state or local money will be pumped into the project. The public and political backlash from the lies of PAT's management have cost them dearly. When the plan was being pushed and even right up until work started, PAT claimed everyone wanted it. Management waved studies and polls around which weren't worth the paper they were printed on as they were totally fabricated. The truth is that only PAT wanted this subway extension. The public didn't want it, politicians were against it but yet the false studies and polls were accepted by the FTA for funding the project. The FTA stated earlier in the year that they wouldn't have approved the project had they known the truth which was that the politicians and public didn't want this project done due to PAT's financial crisis (which PAT officials also lied to the Feds about).

If this project runs through its $19 million contingency fund, work will have to cease regardless of how far along it is. Given that most every transit project out there goes way over budget, I'm projecting that when all is said and done, the North Shore Boondoggle will go from a $425 million project to a minimum of a $600 million dollar project. Where will that additional money come from? You got it, PAT officials will cry and whine about it before punishing the riders once again by slashing existing service and raising fares even though they can't use the money from that to pay off the project due to different funding types (but they'll punish the riders anyway). They must complete it or the Feds will want their money back on the project.

By the time that Steve Bland arrived at PAT in 2007, it was too late to stop the project without losing millions of dollars through having to pay contractors, engineers and consultants for something never delivered. PAT still should have stopped it. It would have been far less costly for the cash strapped agency to cancel it than to go ahead with it.

In the end, Paul "Captain Scuttles" Skoutelas will get his personal legacy line that he pushed so hard for. Ironically it will not be the legacy he wants but a new legacy. One of excessive greed, mismanagement and plain incompetence. Congratulations Paul, you've earned it!