Saturday, February 24, 2007

Chicago's RTA - Two reports

Chicago IL - Two news stories on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) which oversees the transportation services in Chicago and the Suburban Chicago area literally contradict each other.

The first report is from the Chicago Tribune tells of an audit that shows what a disaster the RTA really is. The second report is from the Chicago Business site tells us that the Chicago Transit Authority, PACE and Metra needs to concede power to the RTA if it wants the money it needs to operate.

First off, the RTA is what I call an "umbrella agency" which does little beside skim off much needed money from the actual transit system. It is basically extra administrative layers of red tape that needs to be waded through to get anything accomplished. This red tape ends up wasting money in the long term and public transit can't afford to be wasting money on mega-administration agencies that do nothing to put service on the street.

In theory, such agencies are to handle paperwork for funding and expenditures but in reality, they produce rules, policies and dictates which do nothing but create more ways to waste precious operating money and skim off of any funding they do receive on behalf of the transit systems that they are over.

The audit which is reported on by the Chicago Tribune tells of wasteful practices, poor leadership and screwed up priorities at the RTA but State Representative Julie Hamos (D) wants to give this screwed up umbrella agency even more power according to the Chicago Business report. This doesn't surprise me when a Democrat wants to give more power to a screwed up bureaucratic agency as the two go hand in hand since Democrats think government is the answer to all the problems.

The RTA has literally created a situation where the CTA, PACE and Metra fight over everything. Instead of working together, the RTA has inserted wedges between the groups. Again, this doesn't surprise me at all since the RTA is strictly a bureaucratic red tape machine.

The Chicago area would do better to disband the RTA and let the CTA, PACE and Metra do their own thing. They will work together if given the opportunity but the RTA doesn't create the political environment to let them work together. To give the RTA even more power will only serve to make things worse for public transit in the Chicago area.

What is happening at the RTA in Chicago should be a warning sign for other cities that are planning on creating a regional transit authority which will act as an umbrella agency over the existing transit systems. These umbrella agencies create waste and ultimately become corrupt, ineffective and too powerful as time goes on.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Transit politics in overdrive in Milwaukee

Milwaukee WI - The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel offers up a story that is all too common across America these days. It deals with the political fighting over public transit.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is in opposition to a trolley proposal for the city and he's being attacked by other city politicians. The reason? Walker isn't rushing out to spend tax money on an unneeded transit project.

While I'm not fully up on all the dirt in this fight, I know enough of what is happening to see that Walker has a better understanding of how transit needs to be run than the politicians that are in favor of building a project that will siphon off money to run the bus system.

Considering the fact that Milwaukee is having a lot of problems with its bus operation, adding a fiscal black hole to the deal would only make things worse.

The politicians that support the trolley proposal need to take off their rose colored glasses. Milwaukee will not have massive development, cleaner air or less traffic congestion. Walker understands this point. He also understands that a trolley would ultimately hurt the bus system, county-wide.

Walker's detractors point out that he favored a fare hike and route cuts as well as opposed a transit sales tax. Let's look at a few key points.

First, Milwaukee's fare is $1.75 after the fare hike. That is rather mid-range for public transit in terms of fares. In addition, the fare hike only effected passes and strip tickets, not the base fare.

Second, as I have been preaching for decades, you can't run buses with few riders. If people don't ride a route, you can't hang on to it because 1 or 2 people do ride. Public transit is expensive to operate and you need to maintain some manner of ridership in decent numbers. Most systems use 8 riders per trip as a minimum and I'm sure, Milwaukee had some routes that couldn't meet that very generous number.

Finally, I am not 100% sure of the details behind the proposed transit sales tax but I am sure of this. It wouldn't have brought in the amount of cash that proponents claimed it would. These taxes never do and most likely, various advocacy groups for the poor were fighting it as it would spread the pain to everyone rather than to key groups.

The simple fact of the matter is this, Scott Walker understands the concept of public transit enough to know that a trolley line would hurt the bus system and the operation can't afford it, even if the transit sales tax was in place.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

WMATA looking at administrative cuts to save money

Washington DC - News 7 reported that Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) general manager John Catoe announced that WMATA will look at cutting jobs to save money.

Catoe stated that every position within the agency will be looked at to make sure that it is in fact a needed position.

I feel it's safe to say that if he is serious in his statement and does a proper evaluation, he'll find at least 20% of the staff positions are unneeded. Transit systems across North America are loaded with unneeded positions, especially in the offices. From creating positions when funding was less of an issue to creating positions for the sake of nepotism which is common within the public transit industry, unneeded positions abound in the administration.

John Catoe earns a Laurel for looking at all the positions within WMATA to make sure they are needed before doing any fare hike.

Pennsylvania transit systems tag hopes on wrong issue

Altoona PA - An article out of the Altoona Mirror regarding Altoona's transit system, AMTRAN, mirrors what is being said at most transit systems in Pennsylvania. The support for Governor "Fast Eddie" Rendell's plan to tax oil company profits for transportation.

As previously mentioned in Laurels and Lances, this plan is not going to solve the problem. All it will do is raise costs to public transit through higher fuel prices and every one of these operations will be right back where they are now, crying for money and threatening the public with fare hikes and route cuts.

These transit systems are so afraid of losing another penny of public funds that they're willingly supporting a plan that will ultimately cut their own throat. This is because this poorly conceived plan is the only thing that is really being considered. To oppose it means risking their position to get funding in the future.

This form of tax that is being proposed never brings in what the politicians and activists claim. The tax ultimately is passed through to the consumer through higher prices. In the case of public transit, here is what will happen:

Transit systems would initially see increased funding and then when their fuel contracts expire, they would be facing major increases in the cost of fuel. At the same time, John Q. Public would also be paying more at the pump. This would push many onto public transit creating a demand that couldn't be met due to the rapidly rising fuel costs to the transit system. As more of the public switched to transit, the windfall profit tax would drop and so would the available amount of funding.

In effect, public transit would cut its own throat by getting people out of their cars. As people reduce their car use, so too does their use of gas which directly effects the amount of available funding the transit system would receive.

Considering the fact that every rider on public transit is heavily subsidized already, fare hikes will still happen as well as massive route cuts. For a transit system to charge the true fare for each person and break even, fares would need to be at a minimum of $10 or more per trip (and this assumes a fully packed 40 foot bus).

A 1% sales tax dedicated to transit is a much better method for dealing with the funding crisis yet no politician is in support of this plan. It sounds so much better to tax the "big, evil oil companies". Well, the "big, evil oil companies" have the upper hand and as you increase costs to them, they'll simply pass that cost back to you through even higher prices.

Until politicians and transit systems stop advocating such taxes to fund transit, it's only going to get worse. Stop wetting your finger to see which way the political wind is blowing and coming up with whacked out plans that will ultimately fail in the long term.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

PAT looking for excuses

Pittsburgh PA - The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) is trying to find excuses to continue renting expensive office space while it's old administration building that it owns, sits vacant. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review gives us the story of PAT's attempt to find excuses to keep renting the expensive office space.

The big point is missed however and that is that PAT should not have moved in the first place. Why isn't the name of former Executive Director Paul Skoutelas, the man who devised new ways for PAT to waste money, mentioned by anyone? He was responsible for the move that is continuing to waste precious operating money that is needed for transit service.

The simple fact of the matter is here is this. PAT's administration doesn't want to go back to slumming it in the old administration building that was built in 1973. They will find any and every excuse they can to continue to rent expensive office space in the high rent district of Downtown Pittsburgh.

While PAT is hardly alone in the transit industry with the "Taj Mahal" mentality for the main offices at public expense, they simply can't afford it. Other systems have built what have literally been called palaces for their main operations. What these idiot administrators fail to realize is that they are a public agency, not a private corporation. The money to pay for these expensive administration offices comes from the taxpayer, not from profits from the product they offer.

About the only way PAT will move back to their old building is if they are literally under court order to do so or if their precious funding is tied to moving back. That is very unlikely to happen as the politicians don't have the backbone to force PAT's hand. The politicians are all bark and little bite and PAT will continue to rent expensive office space that it can't afford.

Let's look at a quick fact. PAT could apply for a Federal or State non-transportation grant to remove the asbestos and do the repairs that it claims are the reasons they can't move back. PAT won't apply for such a grant. To do so would mean they could no longer rent the expensive and luxurious office space in Downtown.

PAT gets another Lance for finding excuses to continue to waste money.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Another politician wanting a legacy

Passaic & Bergen County NJ - The news site reports on yet another politician that is out to build a legacy for himself.

New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell (D) wants a light rail line that can't even meet the lax requirements of the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA). To get around this, he's managed to get various earmarks in Federal appropriations to fund his legacy line. To date, he's picked the pockets of all Americans to the tune of $19 million and he's not through picking our pockets yet.

Pascrell spouts off the usual pro-rail rhetoric of massive development, clearing road congestion and clean air to push an expensive light rail line that may carry 750 to 1,000 riders daily. Please note, these projected figures are just that, projected and are usually way on the high side so realistically, your probably talking around 400 to 500 riders a day.

Given the fact that this light rail line can't even meet the very lax FTA requirements for Federal transportation funding, a big Lance goes out to New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell (D) for continuing to waste taxpayer money on a light rail line for political legacy purposes.

Don't get excited just yet Joe

Pittsburgh PA - The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) has saved $1 million dollars on it's $435 million dollar North Shore Connector project.

From reading Joe "Softball" Grata's article, you'd think PAT saved the day and made this unneeded project a cost effective necessity. While any cost savings on this unneeded project is welcome, $1 million is a drop in the bucket.

They'll spend more than they just saved on the federally mandated artwork that does absolutely nothing besides give a wad of cash to an untalented so-called artist. I've seen toddlers make better looking art than some of the garbage that is passed off as art for these mandated requirements.

When all is said and done, the North Shore Connector project will go over budget by far more than the measly savings they lucked into at the start of the digging. That's not a prediction, it's a fact, especially when we're talking about PAT.