Friday, January 19, 2007

PAT's flip-flopping again

Pittsburgh PA - Once again, the Port Authority of Allegheny County is spinning so fast that they can't keep from flip-flopping like a fish out of water.

"As part of our public comment process, we would certainly encourage interested private options for substitute service where we must completely vacate. This would include private for profit or nonprofit providers."
Stephen G. Bland

CEO, Port Authority of Allegheny County

This was said towards the beginning of January. Now, not even a couple of weeks have passed and we get this from PAT:

"It's premature to discuss the 28X as if it's already gone for good," he said. "There is a chance it could stay. That's why we're having public hearings. When a final plan is submitted in March, then our board will make a final decision."

This flip-flopping they are doing is saying more than the PAT and Allegheny County officials think. PAT and County officials have already made it clear on multiple occasions that the 28X route is history and nothing will change that. We now have a private operator willing to take the route and PAT starts crying that it's not certain the route is going.

What this is telling me is that this entire hack and slash plan they are pushing is just another cry wolf from the ailing transit system to try and pry more money from the State without changing a damn thing about the way they operate. If they were truly serious that these cuts have to be made, they would have jumped at the chance to dump the 28X route while making sure service would remain.

PAT and County officials have continually said this time that these cuts are real and even if money comes in, they would go through regardless. If they are shooting down a proposal from a private carrier to take a route then I really have to question the legitimacy of their hack and slash route cut plan.

It looks to me like it's business as usual at PAT. It's just another attempt at crying wolf to get funding. No wonder the hack and slash plan was so draconian, they really had no intentions of actually going through with it.

PAT is once again trying to use the public as a political tool to get what they want without actually changing anything. They have no intentions of getting rid of the waste and want the status quo to continue.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County earns another Lance for using the public strictly as a political tool. PAT really is run by a bunch of morons...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

LRT and fare avoidance

Denver CO - A story out of the Denver Post gives yet another problem with Light Rail Transit (LRT), fare avoidance. Many LRT systems use the "honor fare" set up to get around expensive fare collection methods such as manned booths or turnstiles.

The problem with the honor fare method is the penalties issued to riders that don't have a valid proof-of-payment (POP) don't deter the fare cheats. Most transit systems don't have the money to hire a crew of fare inspectors to wander around the LRT cars to check for a riders POP.

As with Denver, the odds of getting caught are slim. In the other systems, the odds aren't much better that you'll get caught without valid POP.

The costs to add expensive fare barriers that riders must pass through are much more expensive than paying a few fare inspectors so the transit system opts to go with the honor fare. Here is where the transit systems make a big mistake. They only hire a handful of fare inspectors to cover hundreds of daily trips and their appearances are few and far between.

In Salt Lake City, they have transit police checking for POP instead of doing the job they should be doing which is responding to problems. In Pittsburgh, they will have the transit police checking the subway once the new fare increase goes into effect which eliminates the free zone. Again, this pulls the transit police away from what they should be doing.

This is just another issue with LRT that few think of. The cost to enforce fare collection. It's far cheaper and easier on a bus than it is with an LRT system that requires either millions of dollars of expensive fare barrier devices or a full crew of fare inspectors annoying everyone with demands to see their POP.

Nationwide, millions of dollars in lost revenue can be attributed to fare cheats and LRT leads the way in allowing the fare cheats to succeed. This only further raises the cost to operate LRT.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An MTA temper tantrum?

Los Angeles CA - The LA Daily News has a story about the Los Angeles MTA questioning a plan by the Govenator to slash transit funding. What is confusing in this story is this:

With the MTA already considering fare hikes to reduce its deficit, officials are grappling with news that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to withhold $100 million they'd counted on to build transit projects in the nation's most-congested area.

It sounds as though the money that Arnold Schwarzenegger is planning on holding back in his budget plan is capital money, not operating money. If the MTA is swimming in red ink as they claim, building more transit projects would only put them deeper in debt.

This is really making me question why the MTA is crying poor and threatening fare hikes and other revenue raising items to cover the red ink. If the money in question is capital funding, they wouldn't be able to use it to keep service on the road anyway. What I am getting from all this is that the MTA might be having a temper tantrum because they can't build more transit projects without the money.

This points out a big problem with public transit administrations today. They are losing touch with what they are supposed to be doing and that is providing service. Many transit systems are too busy planning the next big project to build and can't be worried about focusing on providing simple transit service.

If the money that Gov. Schwarzenegger is planning on withholding is truly capital funding, I don't have a major problem with it. Yet various news reports from various transit systems are all screaming about this and every one of them has the same tone to it that indicate that it's capital money for various transit projects these systems so desperately want to build.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Sun Tran offers "How to Ride" clinics

Tucson AZ - The Arizona Daily Star reports on Sun Tran's program for educating Tucson residents about how to ride public transit.

This program is something that should be done everywhere. While it seems illogical to many that people actually don't understand how to ride the bus, many really don't. How to ride your local transit system is something that is rarely taught in school and even if it was, changes over the past 20 years have made your local transit system even more confusing.

From how to read a schedule to using wheelchair lifts, it can be daunting for someone who has never ridden or hasn't ridden in many years. By reaching out to the community and helping to educate them, transit systems can help bolster ridership numbers simply by showing people how easy it is.

Seniors and the disabled tend to be the most confused with riding at first however, your average commuter can be just as confused. Where to board, when to pay and how much, transfers, where the bus goes along with a host of other issues can keep potential ridership off the bus simply because don't understand the operation.

I know when I was young, my local transit system used to offer a program where they would go to schools, senior centers and other locations to teach people about the system and how to use it. Even though I was already well versed in how to ride, I still learned about a few things I didn't know about until that moment.

I see this type of education program as a needed operating expense for public transit systems nationwide. Sadly, this type of program is one that few systems want to put up the money for these days as they are too busy wasting money on useless marketing attempts at attracting new riders. The more people know about how to utilize their transit system, the more likely they will be to utilize it. It's a well proven fact.

Sun Tran gets a Laurel for reaching out to their community, explaining how their system works and how the residents can utilize it.

The streetcar debate rages in Madison

Madison WI - This is a two piece article, all in one, regarding the streetcar proposal in Madison.

Two interesting articles were posted in the Madison Capital Times that I felt needed to have some additional comments made on them.

First, in a commentary for the Capital Times, writer Rob Zaleski gives an overview of Little Rock, Arkansas' trolley operation as food for thought regarding the streetcar proposal in Madison. A few items I disagree with based on past knowledge of how cities do things. Primary in my disagreement is where development is discussed.

A good part of the development occurs at the taxpayer's expense. Through grants, tax breaks to the developer and low interest loans (which are often not repaid), developers will come in to build. The issue is that the development is attributed to the rail line without any mention of what it actually cost the taxpayer to get the development there in the first place.

This tactic conveniently ignores the fact of why the development happened and is a good example of the spin used by the pro-rail crowd when trying to ram another rail line through. The dirty little secret is that the development would happen with or without the rail line as long as the developer received the taxpayer supported monetary incentives to build.

Beside the development issue, there was also mention of the "cheap" fares. While it is mentioned that the Little Rock trolley is hurting the bus system by not allowing it to expand to where it needs to, it omits the point that the "cheap" trolley fares are being subsidized by the much higher bus fares.

The high ridership of the trolley line is a direct result of the "cheap" fare for the rail line. To charge the full bus fare on the trolley route would deeply cut into the ridership numbers that the transit system and the city need to justify the trolley line.

The second part of this article deals with an article in the Capital Times that makes the claim that rail doesn't hurt the Portland bus operation.

Using FTA and APTA reports, the writer, Ward Lyles states that rail service has not effected the bus operation. He fails to mention that those numbers are highly massaged numbers and often are off by 30% or more. It's not just rounding up to the next highest 100 or even 1,000. TA's have a mathematical formula they use to calculate ridership which includes a fudge factor that is manually applied to get the numbers they want to see or in some cases, have to see.

Transit systems routinely massage ridership numbers and other data to generate what they and key officials want to see. We, the general public, will rarely get to see the true raw data used to generate the numbers that are reported to the government and to the APTA industry trade group. All we usually will ever see are the post massaged numbers with no explanation as to how they arrived at the numbers in question.

That's where the pro-rail crowd gets much of their power, from the government and industry approved final numbers that they love to wave around. If one were to actually look at the raw data before the transit systems massaged the numbers, one would find much of the success in many rail lines are grossly exaggerated.

City leaders and transit officials have to cover their butts when pushing for expensive projects like rail. In my home system, I have had internal reports of dropped ridership on the LRT line yet when the raw data is processed, it suddenly turns into an increase in ridership. They manually increase the raw ridership numbers to show an increase. The reason in my home system? To try and justify an unneeded rail extension that they ultimately can't afford to operate.

"But it will bring development and help the region's economy" they state. Wrong, the development is occurring because of the two stadiums. By the time all is said and done, the pro-rail crowd will be claiming the two stadiums were built because of the rail line. As far as helping the economy, the transit system can't afford what it has now and is planning a major hack and slash of service and jobs. How does cutting entire sections of the county off from transit and eliminating jobs help the economy?

The bottom line should be "can the system afford to operate what they so desperately want?" In many cases, the answer is no but through political spin and waving heavily massaged ridership reports around, city and transit officials, along with the pro-rail crowd, convince themselves they can make it work.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Give PAT the fiscal Band-Aid

Pittsburgh PA - A reporter on the transportation desk, Joe Grata, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows me again that he is off the mark. Well known for his softball style questions on tough issues to transit officials, Mr. Grata clearly shows he doesn't understand what the true problem at the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is.

"All House and Senate members from Allegheny County should be there, too, if they aren't too busy scrambling to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh or getting comfy in their new digs at the Capitol."

"They should be the ones squirming in their seats for not passing long-term, dedicated funding and reform legislation that would have enabled transit officials to contain the bleeding long ago."

In short it reads, give PAT the money they want and the waste will stop.

In reality the exact opposite is true, give PAT the money they want and the waste will get worse.

PAT needs to clean house internally to eliminate the source of the waste. Something the administration is only making token efforts at doing. The past decade of fiscal waste at PAT has literally sent the operation into a fiscal death spiral that it will take decades more to correct.

Chopping service in the hack and slash manner that PAT is planning isn't going to solve the financial situation. While there are many problems at PAT, one of the major ones is how management works and their philosophy of transit in Pittsburgh. It is a management style that generates waste and the philosophy over the years has become one of how to find more ways to spend money.

While I agree that there needs to be a more stable method of funding transit in Pennsylvania as well as fact that some routes do need to be eliminated, the problem won't diminish until the administration wakes up to need to fix itself.

Simply put, giving PAT another fiscal Band-Aid to stem the bleeding won't solve anything. All it will do is put off the inevitable. PAT needs to streamline its management and internal rules as well as change its philosophy to focus on service if it is to survive. Giving PAT money without fixing these issues will not stem the bleeding but allow for the generation of more ways to waste money.