Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Transit's funding crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. An earlier Laurels and Lances column

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

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