Saturday, January 13, 2007

The RFTA's BRT pothole

Carbondale CO - The Aspen Times reports that the Roaring Forks Transit Authority's (RFTA) plan for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) operation has hit a bump. The City of Aspen voted against funding a design and management team for the proposed BRT system.

I personally like the RFTA. It is a rapidly growing transit system that is currently doing rather well overall. From reading this news story however, I question if perhaps they are growing a bit too much and a bit too fast. Considering they unofficially refer to the BRT plan as "the RFTA on steriods", it does makes one wonder if they're biting off more than they can chew.

The all-for-one, one-for-all attitude of the governing body of the RFTA makes me question a few things. Primary of which is if there is uncontrolled growth of the operation. By uncontrolled growth, I mean growth of the operation without concern for what lays in the future.

Aspen has shown what could very well happen in the future if the system is allowed to become bloated. One or two of the contributing governing entities could very well vote against funding in the future and that could spell a major cutback in services to a heavily bloated system that needs more and more money every year just to survive.

The Three Musketeer's style of governing the system makes me question how in depth potential problems are really looked at. When you have a "good idea" that sounds great brought forth to the board by another board member, is it analyzed properly for problems or does everyone just vote in favor of it? In my experiences with government bodies that follow the all-for-one, one-for-all governing style, it's usually the latter.

While I'm sure the BRT plan that the RFTA has proposed is needed given the traffic and bus ridership levels in the area, one still must ask: "Can the system really afford it, now and in the future?"

MUNI: On-time costs extra

San Francisco CA - In a typical Liberal move, San Francisco is seeing how it can kill off the transit system. Reported on the San Francisco Examiner's web site, the story tells of an effort to make MUNI service more on-time and the costs involved.

A pilot program aimed at one single route that wasn't in too bad of shape has cost MUNI an extra $168,000 for the 3 month test. If run all year, the cost would balloon to around $750,000. The story is a bit misleading in stating that the $750,000 annual cost would be annually for a system wide effort. The $750,000 is for the test if it was run for a year and the test is just 1 route. To do it system-wide, the costs would run a few million dollars a year at minimum.

This test is being done because of a voter approved ballot measure that demanded on-time performance be at least 85% or higher. Then there is Mayor Gavin Newsom who is also demanding the on-time performance improve without raising any fares, cutting any service or any increase in funding to MUNI to fund the additional costs.

While issuing of tickets to motorists who park and block the traffic flow can conceivably help offset the cost of the program, it won't cover all the costs. To run the test program cost $168,000 and they raised $88,000 from tickets. The fine money is dubious to depend on as well as once people become more accustomed to knowing they'll be fined, they'll avoid the tickets and the revenue from the fines will drop.

I'm not defending MUNI's poor on-time performance and while it's laudable to want to increase the on-time performance, a voter ballot measure and political mandates aren't the way to do it. As the MUNI test is clearly showing, it is further hurting the already cash strapped agency and placing the operation that much closer to a major fiscal crisis.

As Jim Quinn, one of my favorite radio show hosts, always states, "Liberalism always generates the exact opposite of its stated intent". This is a great example of what he means. The San Francisco residents are pushing for a government cure for the on-time issue at MUNI and that cure will ultimately increase costs to every taxpayer in San Francisco as well as put MUNI at more risk for a complete shut down of operations. The end result down the road? No more worries about on-time performance since there won't be any service left to be on-time.

The residents that voted for this stupid measure and Mayor Newsom will be crying when MUNI is forced to just shut down operations system wide. They'll point fingers at everyone except themselves for the situation, a situation they pushed for by forcing MUNI to spend more money to fix a problem through government mandates.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The MOD Award - Spokane Transit Authority

Spokane WA - The Spokesman Review tells of increased ridership on the Spokane Transit Authority (STA). What's especially nice in reading this story is that the ridership increases were from focusing on the basics of public transit rather than some marketing department campaign that does little except waste money.

From increasing service where needed and improving connections to offering more fare options for its riders, the STA increased it's overall ridership by 9.5% over the course of the year since the route changes went into effect.

The STA increased overall service by 13% overall. While this may seem high, the increased ridership shows it is working. The increases to service were well planned and done in areas that needed and wanted service. As word spreads of the new services and as long as the STA provides convenient and reliable service, the ridership increase will exceed the overall service increase.

The transit system has more changes ahead in its service to improve on the good job they already have done. They have a goal of 22 riders per revenue mile and are already up to 20.2. Those numbers are better than many larger operations in the country who are much more focused on the marketing image of the system rather than the service the system provides.

The basics of public transit is something all systems need to do. Too many public transit operations are focused on marketing an image rather than providing good service and where is it getting them? Nowhere and fast. At least the STA has woken up to the fact that the basics work and hopefully other transit systems will follow the STA's lead.

The Spokane Transit Authority wins a MOD Award for moving back to the basics of providing good service. As it can be seen in Spokane, public transit can work well if it is run properly.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Broward County determined to spend $25 million more

Broward County FL - In a move that needs to be explained to the public, the Miami Herald reports on further developments on Broward County Transit's (BCT) fight over it's next order of buses.

Again, no details are given as to why the BCT insists it needs to spend $25 million more to buy from New Flyer Industries (NFI) rather than the North American Bus Industries (NABI). All the BCT will state is that the NABI didn't meet the specs for the order and NFI did.

How? What specs weren't met? They won't say and most likely it's over trivial issues that won't effect a thing. Considering they will be using second hand buses soon to try and meet schedule, used buses that most likely don't meet the BCT's "stringent" standards, I can't see the logic behind their fight.

All I can see is a transit system hiding behind the legal language in order that they can spend $25 million more in taxpayer money and they'll continue to waste even more money to challenge the decision from the hearing officer that the BCT tossed NABI's bid inappropriately.

The BCT is now angling to toss everything and re-issue the invitation to bid so that it can rewrite the specifications so that only NFI can win the bid with the challenge to the hearing officer's directive. That is a typical tactic used in the public transit industry when the TA doesn't particularly like a winning manufacturer for any reason (including things like the personal preference of a key official).

Given that the BCT so desperately wants to spend $25 million more of taxpayer dollars, they need to tell the public what is wrong with the NABI order and why it would hurt the system if they accepted the NABI bid. They won't and that is because the reason for tossing NABI's bid is based on trivial issues that won't effect the BCT at all. Hiding behind vague phrases like "they didn't meet our qualifications" is far easier for the political hacks that just want to spend more money than stepping up and telling the public what the situation really is.

The Broward County and BCT officials pushing to spend more without any clear explanation grabbed the Lance award and they deserve it.

PAT's poor decisions and bad planning

Pittsburgh PA - A Pittsburgh Post Gazette story tells of more woes at the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT). This time it involves poor decisions and bad planning that are going to hurt PAT for decades to come.

One such poor decision and bad planning move was the rebuilding of the old Wabash Tunnel which opened to traffic in late December of 2004. This tunnel, originally purchased by PAT in the 1960's for the failed Skybus project, was remade in the new century into a high occupancy vehicle lane to help with traffic problems in the South Hills area.

The problem? Hardly anyone uses it and PAT has no buses in the area to use it either. The tunnel is in a very poor location for it's intended purpose.

PAT is stuck paying over half a million dollars a year just to run and maintain the tunnel. The amount was higher until they contracted out the services to a private company to do it for them.

An attempt at passing the white elephant off onto the State, where it really belongs, brought a response from the Federal Transit Administration that PAT would have to give back at least $20 million dollars immediately to the FTA.

Since the tunnel was abandoned by the Wabash Railroad in 1946 and the bridge across the river dismantled, it has been called the tunnel to nowhere by many. This still holds true today even though you can now travel through it.

Poor planning and decision making at PAT forced this white elephant to feed off the much needed operating funds for the cash strapped transit system. It most likely will remain feeding off of PAT since PAT can't afford to return the Federal money used to rebuild the tunnel for vehicular traffic. It should have just remained fenced off or if such a program as an HOV lane really needed to be done, let PennDOT do it and take responsibility like should have been done from the start.

Another case of poor planning and poor decision making holds true with another white elephant project, the North Shore Connector light rail transit line. This line is not needed but it's too late to stop it. It will feed off of PAT's cash strapped coffers at the expense of transit service elsewhere in the Pittsburgh area.

To cancel the project now will mean returning 80% of the Federal money and at least $30 million in claims from contractors. Although PAT thinks it can weasel out of repaying part of the 80% since it was spent on planning, they still will be returning millions immediately if the project is cancelled.

Another no win situation simply because nobody in the prior administration used a single brain cell to consider the simple fact that they could not afford to operate the project they so desperately had to have.

What should be done:

While it won't help the financial matters, I really believe that those responsible for the mess PAT is in currently should be investigated in a criminal probe. The poor state that the transit system is currently in is the direct result of the prior administration of PAT and the PAT Board of Directors who ultimately approved these schemes to waste taxpayer dollars and cripple the transit system. The complete mismanagement of PAT has cost hundreds of millions of dollars and the end result is that the taxpayers and ridership now have to suffer for the actions of a handful of people and it's only going to continue to get worse.

If such actions that were done by the prior PAT administration and the Board of Directors were done by a private corporation, we'd see the key executives and board members being frog marched to court to be tried on a variety of counts that would be filed against them.

As this is a holier than thou public agency, no one will be held accountable for it even though there were hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted in poor planning and poor decision making. All that will happen is that the riders and taxpayers will be punished through a system wide hack and slash of service and higher taxes while those that caused the problems get to sit back and laugh.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

LRT may not be so easy in Orange County

Orange County CA - In a comment that will get the pro-rail crowd upset, the new chairwoman of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), Carolyn V. Cavecche, has announced that she wants the negative impact of rail expansion explored before slapping down a new line.

Reported in the Los Angeles Times, Cavecche wants more scrutiny of future rail projects in Orange County.

All I can say is that it is about time. Too often the negative impacts of LRT lines are ignored and glossed over by the pro-rail crowd that pushed for the lines. Once built, it's too late to deal with the problem an LRT line can create. This process may help get a better handle on solving problems before they occur and possibly place the bar a bit higher to get an expensive project rammed through.

If Cavecche is successful in pushing her idea, it won't eliminate new LRT lines but will make the process more complete and less one sided. Currently, how rail will effect surrounding communities is often viewed in the idealistic sense. Problems are rarely considered until after the line is built and by then it's too late.

The pro-rail crowd will hate it if she gets her way. They don't want anything brought up that may hamper getting another LRT line in place. By exposing the negative aspects of LRT during the planning stages, it does risk not having the line built and that's blasphemy for the pro-rail crowd. As mentioned, Cavecche's idea will not eliminate any future line unless the negatives far out weight the positives. The risk for denial is still there however and that will not sit well with the pro-rail crowd.

Carolyn V. Cavecche earns a Laurel for wanting to get information on the negatives of future LRT projects before they are approved. The expense to taxpayers for expensive projects need to be scrutinized much more than they are. More operations out there need to do the same before they just slap a line down.

Ottawa hid true LRT costs from public

Ottawa ON - In a move that doesn't surprise me in the least, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Ottawa City Council hid the true costs of its recently shot down North-South LRT line.

"It was an accounting shell game," said Councilor Alex Cullen, a light-rail supporter who turned against the project when costs began to soar.

This is typical of any large scale government project but seems to be more prominent when it comes to LRT lines. The city and transit system often play the "shell game" with the figures to help make it appear that the cost to build an LRT project haven't gone through the roof.

While the City Council of Ottawa deny there was any attempt at hiding costs, the documentation speaks differently.

The Ottawa Citizen had to file a municipal freedom of information request to obtain documents on the financing and awarding of bids from the city and even then, the city is still reluctant to release all the information. Currently, the paper has gone to court to force the city to release the additional documentation.

That tells me that the city was in fact hiding the true costs. This brings one to ask why? The answer is quite simple. The city wanted this line at any cost and knew if the true costs were released, there would be a public backlash.

This sadly is a common situation in when it comes to public transit projects. The accounting shell game keeps the reported costs lower while the actual costs are often hundreds of millions of dollars more. More people are waking up to this little game that governments in both Canada and the United States play so hopefully there will be more pressure to release the true costs of these expensive projects to the public.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Red Tape Alert

Rockland County NY - At least 9 brand new buses have been sitting since November due to bureaucratic red tape according to The Journal News report.

The brand new MCI commuter coaches came without the required "Buy American" paperwork to prove at least 60% of the bus was assembled in the United States.

Given the fact that the buses have already been paid for by Federal and State funds, having them sit over a paperwork snafu is a bit on the ridiculous side. Once the paperwork arrives from MCI, the buses will continue to sit until the papers are audited to ensure 60% of the bus was assembled in the US.

It's a waste of needed resources to keep these buses, which are already paid for, out of service when they are needed over such a trivial issue. I shouldn't be surprised though, public transit in general is drowning in sea of bureaucratic red tape.

Those buses should have been put in service when they arrived. If the paperwork shows that the buses failed the 60% rule, then sue the manufacturer.

Under the current setup, all that would happen is the manufacturer would replace a few parts on the buses, it would then pass the audit and the same buses that initially failed would then be accepted. Keeping these buses out of service, given that MCI is a reliable manufacturer and sells to many transit operation, is a dumb move in my opinion.

The Great Streetcar Hoax

Randal O'Toole has a very interesting article in the Madison Capital Times and went into why the current streetcar bandwagon is more of a hoax being perpetrated on the public than anything else. I encourage everyone to read it.

In the article, he goes after the "Holy See" of the modern day streetcar movement, Portland Oregon. Portland is always the example used by cities when they come up with plans for a streetcar line. The plans for the any new streetcar line usually include a trip to Portland as well, at taxpayer expense of course.

The pro-rail movement has so distorted the truth regarding the Portland streetcar line that one can't come away without thinking it's a roaring success. Even the city and transit system buries the problems when visiting officials make the pilgrimage to see the line.

O'Toole goes into the development factor along the Portland streetcar line and how the development happened through taxpayer subsidies to private developers. Just from the taxpayer subsidization of the private development, Portland taxpayers are stuck with a quarter million dollars of debt. This doesn't include the cost to build the line or to operate it.

The pro-rail crowd will never admit that the majority of the development along a rail line demands government subsidies to entice developers to build. What we get from them is that development always follows rail. They'll deny up one side and down the other that the development occurs primarily from fleecing the taxpayers through, often times, quietly issued government subsidies to the private sector.

Mention is also made of how the streetcar line effects the rest of the Tri-Met operation in Portland. Fare hikes and service cuts were needed to help keep the trolley running which resulted in reduced ridership on the system. While the streetcar wasn't the direct cause, it sure didn't help the finances.

Again, the pro-rail crowd will never admit that a streetcar line will effect existing service except to improve it. They claim that the streetcar will enhance service by attracting people to ride system-wide. The reality is the exact opposite as the streetcar doesn't come anywhere close to being cost efficient and siphons money from the rest of the operation to keep it running. That money comes from cutting service elsewhere.

I still believe that political legacy plays a huge part in why cities are jumping on the streetcar bandwagon, something O'Toole doesn't address. What he does address however, is very scary to read. Knowing more about how much pro-rail rhetoric is spun in order to hide the actual facts is something every citizen should know.

Again, I encourage you to read the O'Toole article. It's very insightful in exposing the streetcar hoax.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Bus stop snowed in? Don't complain to your transit system

Denver CO - A 9News report out of Denver tells of snowed in bus stops and the reaction from the public to them. The story also points out a little more than the reporter thought as well.

The snow packed bus shelters don't belong to Denver's Regional Transit District (RTD) but to private advertising companies that have contracted with private land owners to erect advertising shelters. This creates a legal dilemma for the RTD and its riders as the RTD isn't legally allowed or obligated to shovel out the snow to make the shelters accessible.

The RTD's 585 shelters that it owns are cleaned out and ready to go however.

This points out an issue I have had concern with for a while now. When a private company supplies a shelter or bus bench for advertising and doesn't maintain it properly, the general public instantly points fingers at the transit system as though it was their responsibility. This ultimately gives a public relations black eye to the operation.

The issue at hand is that the transit system doesn't own the vast majority of the stops nor has the right to maintain them. In most instances, the property owner is the municipal government but contracts for shelters often come with a provision that the shelter owner take responsibility for the stop so the land owner doesn't have to deal with it.

With advertisers realizing that transit advertising works and has been under utilized for years, they're rushing to erect ad shelters and ad benches as fast as they can get the contracts with the land owners the stop is located at. In most cases, the transit system receives no revenue from these ad benches and ad shelters nor even has a say in the placement, design and ads displayed even though those shelters reflect directly on the transit system.

Shelters and benches should be labeled clearly as to who owns and maintains them and contracts between the ad agency and stop owner need to call for a 24 hour period at most to respond to any problems. After all, these shelters reflect directly on the transit system, not the advertising agency that put them up. The Denver news report shows that many people just blamed the RTD and had no idea that those shelters were privately owned and I'm willing to bet that there was no clearly visible labels stating who to call for problems regarding those shelters. The RTD received a public relations black eye from the advertising companies not getting the shelters dug out in a timely manner.

In the RTD's case, one of the ad shelter owners, CBS Outdoors, was unprepared for the snow storm and now has a vast crew of 11 people out shoveling the snow out the 2,600 stops it owns. No word on the other 4 ad firms that own many of the other stops in the RTD operating area.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

PAT is out of touch with reality

Pittsburgh PA - The more I learn about the route cuts the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is planning, the more convinced I am that they did not think the plan through. Actually, that doesn't surprise me when it comes to PAT.

There's an old saying that many PAT employees often cite: "There is the correct way and then there is PAT's way".

I have long believed that if PAT was in the funeral business, it would screw up a one car funeral procession. The lack of understanding the product they offer is key to why I think this way. They have a long track record of not understanding how transit needs to work to be successful. Sadly, it's not just PAT as most transit systems across the country are like this anymore but PAT holds the record for having a complete lack of understanding and it's even sadder to know that PAT once did understand this concept back in the 1970's.

In PAT's infinite lack of wisdom, they are axing many successful rush hour routes. One route, the 13K - Cranberry Express, is a rather successful route which is often standing room only. Why eliminate it? PAT can't give a valid answer to this question. PAT increased the costs to operate the route by shifting it from the Ross Division to the Harmar Division several years ago. The route runs within sight of Ross but one of the few management types at PAT that actually use the system didn't want to "slum it" on the city style buses so he had the route transferred to Harmer so he could ride on suburban buses.

A big part of the problem at PAT currently is that the management is completely out of touch with reality. They have literally elevated themselves to a superior status and refuse to consider ideas and suggestions that come from the peons known as its ridership. They dismiss ideas and suggestions without due consideration simply because they don't believe the public has any good ideas. PAT's management treats their drivers and mechanics much the same as they treat the general public, as a group of dumb people that wouldn't know a good idea if it came up and bit them.

This disassociation with reality that PAT's administration has is responsible for why the system is in the shape it's in now. Between 1997 and 2006, PAT's administration became completely out of touch and led to massive waste within the operation. The ridership now has to suffer because of a decade of pure waste and poor managerial decision making.

This whole plan to "save the system" is poorly thought out. They'll make a few token efforts to eliminate some waste in the system's internal administrative structure to help deflect some criticism but really won't do too much. They don't want to mess up the status quo of the administration. To do a complete overhaul of the administrative structure would disrupt the universe given the way the administration thinks.

This route cut plan needs scrapped and done properly. I have seen many route cut plans over the years from many transit systems and this one that PAT dreamed up is the worst one I have ever come across.