Friday, June 29, 2007

Reforming Pennsylvania's Public Transit Systems

Pittsburgh PA - In an editorial out of The Valley Independent, a rallying cry for the privatization and free market competition in the reform of public transit is once again heard. While the editorial has some valid points, it misses the mark.

The paper correctly points out what other "reformers" are doing which is throwing good money after bad while not actually solving the core problem of why public transit is in a crisis. The problem I have with the editorial is that they are too busy pointing fingers at the union and laying the whole problem on them while ignoring the administration as well as the multitude of other issues that have helped price transit out of the market.

The problem public transit faces today just isn't the union, as the paper will have you believe, it is a whole cadre of issues. Wages, benefits, mis-management, inefficient operations, rising costs outside of the control of the system, etc. While the union definitely plays a role in the wasteful practices, the waste in some of the transit administrations across the country can make a generous union contract look like Ebenezer Scrooge wrote it.

The call for privatization that the paper wants is based on information that is more or less cherry picked. Denver's private operations, for example, have more than its fair share of problems and the costs continue to climb. Rider complaints are much higher on the privatized service than on the agency run service. You won't hear any of this mentioned however. It is detrimental to the cause of privatization and Denver's problems have recently received national press so that city, once the poster child for the privatization movement, was completely ignored.

In Pittsburgh, privatized maintenance on specialized transit vehicles known as Small Transit Vehicles (STV's) resulted in massive over billing for services by the contractor, many times for services which were never performed. The same will happen with contracted service. Money that should be used for service will also end up paying lawyers to settle the multitude of disputes that will arise between the overseeing transit authority and the contractor.

I also find it funny that the editorial doesn't mention the Westmoreland County Transit Authority (WCTA) which is right next door to Pittsburgh and the same editorial staff also writes for a paper in Westmoreland County. The WCTA contracts out services to private carriers just like the editorial writer wants. The reason they don't mention this system is that the WCTA has had many problems with its contracted services. From complaints, lack of maintenance, many missed trips, disputes between the WCTA and the contractors, etc., the system isn't the Utopian model that the privatization crowd wants you to see.

Privatization isn't the answer. Public transit is incapable in today's market to succeed without subsidies and the wasteful bureaucracy that is in place now will still be there overseeing the contracted service. Even in the golden age of transit in the 40's and 50's where private operators ruled, transit operations often were in and out of receivership multiple times and some just outright folded.

The cost to provide service today is even greater. With EPA and ADA regulations that cost systems millions of dollars to comply with as well as the new burden of security, the cost of providing service is going through the roof and it doesn't matter if the service is contracted or not, it won't contain the costs.

The reform that is needed is to eliminate the wasteful internal practices, reduce and even eliminate much of the politics that have come to drive transit systems these days (i.e. politically motivated routes that haul few), get transit systems out of the real estate development market, stop building new transit projects, chain up the marketing department and stop letting them literally run the operation, and concentrate on the basics of providing service. It is possible to run efficient operations even under a government agency and PAT did just that in the 1970's with a massive route expansion that was funded through streamlining the entire operation to make it efficient.

I totally agree with the premise that changes must occur. The status quo can't be allowed to continue. I just can't justify the position of the editorial however. Trading one set of expensive problems for a new set of expensive problems isn't a good idea and won't benefit the public that depends on transit service.


Anonymous said...

What about opening transit markets to competition via "curb rights" as opposed to the monopolistic practice of contracting?

And what about minibus or jitney services run by nonprofits, individuals or other organizations?

Government-run transit systems are, in my opinion, very costly to operate and, in many ways, are no different than the privately-run transit monopolies of yesteryear.

RDC said...

The big problem you'd face is that the activist groups and government will become involved and soon ADA regulations and other expensive mandates will shortly follow.

Already some disabled activist groups are trying to get the government to reign in the jitneys in many cities and force them to become ADA compliant so they can ride them too and benefit from the much cheaper service. They fail to understand that once they get what they want, the prices will go way up to pay for all the ADA mandates. Non-profits involved in transit service already are required to provide service meeting ADA requirements and that is beginning to push some of them out of the business.

Curb rights, jitneys and other such alternatives work in limited applications but trying to do an entire city will cause chaos, in my opinion.

Pittsburgh was perhaps the closest to a true competitive market that there was back in the 1950's. Well over 30 operations ran (PAT took over 33 of them) and it was a patchwork of different fares and varying levels of dependability. Transfers were not available and there were always a long list of complaints being filed at the Public Utility Commission by the various operators against each other.

Even then, you still had the government making rules and regulations on the private operators. The PUC did force operators to hang onto routes that served few and in addition, operators often hung onto some routes simply to maintain their franchise and keep other carriers out even if they knew they couldn't serve an area that was developing. Politicians who were mad at a company often started toying with the operator by forcing them to move stops frequently or other form of political harassment so they'd lose ridership and money and would be forced to acquiesce to their demands.

I really don't see transit being run today without some form of government involvement simply because of the cost. It needs tax money to operate and that leave the door open to government meddling.