Monday, January 1, 2007

Public transit in Pittsburgh is in a death spiral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anonymous said...

You do not know what you are talking about. Paul Skoutelas brought $1 Billion, yes billion dollars of transit development to Pittsburgh. And only 10% of those funds came from the locals. The 'burgh will never experience that much growth in the transit system again. You fools are attacking the person whoc grew the system. The jerk that is in charge now is tearing it down, much like Millar did before Skoutelas came back to save the system. He was worth every penny that he was paid, and worth every penny of pension he is collecting now. You people who pick at the BS and miss the big picture are sad and a bunch of losers.

RDC said...

I haven't had time to deal with the blog due to work and family but this response forced me to find a little time to make a response to the above apologist for Skoutelas.

First off, the nickle and dime waste adds up and sets the policy for wasteful spending. You don't seem to get that simple point. Add to that the fact that under Skoutelas, PAT inflated costs in such areas as inventory due to having to have every bus order as different from the earlier order as they could get it. Even a brain-dead idiot can see the link between nickle and dime waste leading into larger wasteful spending practices.

As far as the 1 billion in development you claim exists, I seriously doubt that the 1 billion came strictly from private funds. A sizable chunk of that came from tax money through sweetheart deals, low interest loans from the taxpayer that rarely get paid back, special taxpayer funded grants and other items which ultimately are paid for by the taxpayer. Besides, PAT is there to move people from point A to point B, not to be a development agency.

Skoutelas may have "grown" the system through transit projects but he couldn't afford to run what he already had in place. Too many systems are doing the same thing these days. You need to live within your means and under Skoutelas, he was living large but without a way to pay to run it all. Think of it as living strictly off your charge cards. You can for a while but it catches up with you and soon your deep in debt with no way out. PAT has reached that point. It's too large and too costly to operate without major changes. One of those changes must include changing its fiscal ways which means living within its means, not growing the system more.

I have news for you "Anonymous", PAT would be in the same shape it is in today, if not worse, if Skoutelas was still in charge. His spending practices were largely responsible for helping to place PAT in the position it finds itself in today. I still find it funny that he jumped ship before the ax fell on PAT so that someone else would have to shoulder the blame for implementing the major service cuts.

Apologists for wasteful spending practices are the real losers and "anonymous", your a real apologist for wasteful spending. Transit can be run efficiently and effectively but your type can't understand that. You just want the fiscal band-aid to patch up the yearly budget while letting the hemorrhaging of cash through wasteful spending practices continue.

Under Skoutelas, PAT invented more ways to spend money on everything but providing service than happened under any other PAT executive director in its history so please, don't hand me that bull about how great of a fiscal leader Skoutelas was.

Nickel and diming adds up. Ignoring it as you want to do "Anonymous" only allows more money that is needed for keeping service on the street to be drained away for frivolous expenditures. By the way "anonymous", given how you seem to defend waste, I'm sure you can justify the $800 desk clock that Skoutelas just had to have when he became PAT's CEO and paid for by PAT out of operating funds. That clock was just the start of his wasteful ways. I wonder if that clock which I helped pay for through my taxes is still at PAT or is it on his new desk at his new job...