Friday, March 2, 2007

Repeal the transit tax drive gains momentum

Charlotte NC - The Charlotte Observer reports on a drive to repeal a sales tax dedicated to mass transit because of massive cost overruns and poor planning of the new light rail line.

The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) and the city are taking notice of this drive too. They have basically warned the people that if they vote to eliminate the tax, they'll get their money by raising other taxes such as property taxes.

CATS basically put itself in this position of risking their dedicated funding by the mismanagement of the light rail line that is set to open in November 2007. In addition, they are already spending millions in planning the expansion of the line without even knowing if light rail will work in Charlotte. These two issues are primarily what is driving the petition drive to eliminate the dedicated sales tax for CATS.

The big problem for CATS is that the dedicated sales tax also helps pay for the bus operation. Since the passing of the tax in 1998, CATS has greatly expanded bus service. Without the tax and the first line of CATS new expensive toy just about ready to roll, bus service will literally have to be sacrificed at the alter to pay to run the LRT line. Not just the recently expanded service but the service that existed prior to the tax being passed.

While the City and CATS are threatening property tax increases to cover the loss of the sales tax, it will put the money that CATS gets into a more unstable funding environment.

What the supporters of the petition drive should be doing rather than trying to repeal the sales tax is to get something like the following on the ballot for the next election:

Do you support eliminating the planning for the expansion of the existing LRT line for a period of XX years?

By forcing CATS to stop planning future extensions of the line for the time being, they will then learn if LRT works for Charlotte or if it's just a huge white elephant. It will stop the spending of millions on studies and plans on extending a rail line that hasn't proven itself. If the line proves to be successful, then after some number of years, CATS can then expand it. If it's a waste of money, then pressure can be more easily used to keep CATS from expanding the rail line.

The bottom line is that by repealing the mass transit tax in Charlotte is like cutting your nose off to spite your face. It will hurt the bus operation that many do depend on.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

MARTA shows some signs of its problem

Atlanta GA - In an editorial piece in of all papers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they point out the waste in MARTA's costly proposal to rename 4 of their rail stations. They also point out the mixed up priorities in the proposal. I'm still in shock that the AJC sees the light in terms of the waste and screwed up priorities in this proposal from Atlanta's transit provider.

The cost of renaming the 4 stations along the MARTA rail route is close to $1 million. Details of the story can be found in the 2/28 edition of the AJC.

The reason for this wasteful and incorrectly placed priority? Officially the claim is to make the stations reflect the neighborhood they run in. Unofficially it is to kiss up to the MARTA Board of Directors who four of their past members will be honored with a station named after them (i.e. give them their legacy).

The claim that by not changing the names, people outside of the area will be confused is strictly spin to make the change seem more important than it is. Most of the time, these types of name changes of stations and routes are strictly political in nature and do little besides confuse riders until they get used to the changes and of course waste money.

While MARTA isn't planning on rushing out to redo its system maps and schedules like most operations would if it changes the name, it still is a very expensive change that isn't needed.
MARTA has problems as do all transit systems. They need to be focusing on correcting their problems rather than finding ways to waste money.

This name change proposal is strictly wasting money. While the money is capital money which can't be used for operations (I've heard that line so many times it isn't funny), it is still tax money that shouldn't be wasted. That $1 million could be used for other issues that could be paid for out of the capital fund which are far more critical to improving the operation.

MARTA earns a Lance for clearly showing how mixed up their priorities are and for finding yet a new way to waste taxpayer's money.

Note: You may need to be registered at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to view the links in the story. You may be able to pull up the source stories from Google News.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fare cheats hurting MUNI

San Francisco CA - The San Francisco Chronicle reports on massive losses from fare cheats on the San Francisco MUNI system. Sadly this is a problem that isn't limited to MUNI but effects systems nationwide.

From fake passes to just plain refusing to pay, MUNI estimates it loses tens of millions of dollars each year and that's just from the rail stations. The estimate of between $24.7 to $33.4 million a year doesn't include the bus operation which could raise the amount by at least 10% or more.

While part of the problem is a large amount of broken fare boxes on the buses at MUNI, the bulk of the loss occurs on the rails where between 54 and 73 percent of the riders don't pay or show proof that they paid. Expensive fare barriers and fare collection technology has had little impact in keeping the fare cheats off the system and most likely it never will.

What MUNI and other systems need to do is just bite the bullet and hire sufficient numbers of fare inspectors and give up on the billions wasted on the useless technology that has ended up costing them billions in lost fares nationwide.

In addition, fines for counterfeit passes need to be higher than $500 and just a summary offence and the fare policy needs to be strictly enforced. It needs to be a misdemeanor with fines in excess of $5,000 to even start to make a dent in the fake passes. Those that distribute the fake passes need an automatic $100,000 or more fine and a year cooling their heels in jail. Once people have to start forking out serious cash and even serving jail time, you will find a dramatic drop in the number of fare cheats riding the system and the enabling others to cheat on the fares. It won't eliminate the problem but it will stop many from buying the fake passes if they know they stand a good chance of getting caught and paying hefty fines along with getting a criminal record.

Albuquerque's bus system on the wrong road?

Albuquerque NM - The Albuquerque Tribune reports that the city's buses will be "taking art on the move". Normally this wouldn't garner my attention but one quote in the article immediately caught my eye.

The City's Transit Director Greg Payne stated the following:

"We're a much different transit department than we were a year ago," Payne said. We will do anything and everything to attract people to mass transit, including putting art exhibits inside and outside of our buses."

Well Mr. Payne, what will attract riders is a clean, safe, reliable and convenient operation that takes people where they need and want to go. As I have commented in the past, you could have 5-star service with attendants fluffing your pillows while serving you drinks and it won't attract the ridership if your service isn't up to par.

Mr. Payne appears to have fallen into the marketing trap of style over substance transit operations. The roving art exhibit isn't going to bring new ridership and neither is any other fluff marketing campaign. What sells transit is good service and advertising that good service without the Madison Avenue treatment that is more lies than truth.

The best advertising for any system that provides good transportation service is education. When you educate the public about the transit service and how to use it to their advantage, you will attract ridership. Trying to sell a transit system like a can of Pepsi does nothing but waste valuable money that could be used to improve service.

I've been finding that transit systems that hide behind the style over substance type of promotions tend to be rather poor transit providers. Their system tend to be sadly lacking in providing convenient and reliable service and that fact is buried in the "sell the sizzle, not the steak" style of marketing they use. People aren't fooled however and ultimately what happens is the marketing campaign flops, costs a lot of money and you usually end up with less riders than when you started out with the campaign.

Mr. Payne, concentrate on providing quality transit service and people will ride. The "anything and everything" concept will only cost money while not doing anything to put new butts on the seats.

(Edited to change the name of the City Transit Director which I originally has posted as Scott Payne instead of Greg Payne)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Transit politics in overdrive in Milwaukee - Pt 2

Milwaukee WI - The Milwaukee Small Business Times gives us the second round in the fighting over the proposed streetcar line for the city. This time, it is Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman (D) who responded to criticism of the streetcar proposal by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker (R).

What Alderman Bauman fails to understand, while he kneels facing west and prays to the Holy See of Light Rail in Portland Oregon, is that Milwaukee can barely afford to run what it has now. He is so obsessed with getting an expensive toy for his city that he looks through a pair of rose colored glasses and sees nothing but positives.

Milwaukee's transit system is literally falling apart. The last thing the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) needs is an expensive streetcar that they have to pay to operate when they are already having major problems. Bauman can't see that simple fact in his rush to jump on the rail bandwagon.

While I don't agree with Walker's statement that fewer people will need public transit if the economy is better, he is right in one repect on this. That is the fact that you need a better economy. Streetcars won't bring you that better economy.

Bauman can't seem to understand that simple point. He is determined to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a rail line when he can't even cough up the money needed to run the transit services they already have in place.

Bauman sees the streetcar as the "saviour of the city" and refuses to even acknowledge that there will be many problems and it won't do as advertised. It won't clear the air, it won't reduce traffic congestion, it won't spur massive development and most importantly, it won't solve the transportation problems that the transit system is currently having.

On the contrary, it will have a negligible effect on air quality, traffic congestion will increase, development will only occur after the city makes costly sweetheart deals with developers that will cost the city billions of dollars and it will further overburden the existing transit system financially.

Bauman is your typical Democrat. He's chomping at the bit to spend millions of tax dollars on a transit project that will do nothing but cost the residents of Milwaukee millions of dollars more each year to operate. He can't see that you need to fix what you have already because that's too simple and won't cost as much.

Slapping a rail line down won't save the MCTS. It won't save the city. All it will do is break the back of the faltering MCTS and cost the city millions to keep the operation afloat. Most politicians don't seem to understand that expensive transit projects are a nails in the coffin for the existing transit system, especially when that transit system can't afford to operate what it already has.

This rail fight in Milwaukee is only going to become uglier as time goes on.

Monday, February 26, 2007

PAT is broke but Maglev is still on the table

Pittsburgh PA - The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported that the $3.5 billion maglev proposal is still floating around the halls of the Port Authority of Allegheny County's (PAT) expensive offices.

While it appears that the unneeded project is finally dieing, hope remains among the supporters that somehow funding will come through so that maglev can be built and further strain the PAT budget.

Currently, PAT is in the process of completing the environmental impact reports for the Feds.

This project is even more unneeded than the useless North Shore Connector. PAT needs to pull out of the consortium with Maglev Incorporated now as PAT simply can't afford this white elephant when it is planning major service cuts and fare hikes to run what they have already.

Of course, Maglev Inc is pushing hard to build this line. PAT would be responsible for a large portion of the cost of building and operating the line however. This plan has been in the making for about 10 years and as much as I'd like to blame the former PAT executive director Paul Skoutelas for getting PAT into yet another mess, it was Skoutelas' predecessor, Bill Millar who roped PAT into this useless project.

Millar is the head of the American Public Transit Association, an industry trade group, that pushes for the style over substance style of transit operations as well as unneeded transit projects.

The last thing Pittsburgh needs is a maglev. PAT can barely run their existing transit system yet alone having yet another expensive toy that won't ever come close to paying for itself. PAT needs to pull out of this maglev proposal now before it is too late. If it progresses much further, PAT will be stuck paying to build and operate it when it can't afford to operate what it already has.

Also, while I'm hardly a fan of Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha (D), he at least puts this as a low priority funding project unlike Pennsylvania's U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (RINO) who is pushing hard for this white elephant.

The simple fact of the matter is this. Pennsylvania can't afford this maglev, PAT is in no position to help with funding or operations and who will ride at $25 for a one-way trip besides a handful of tourists and maglev fans. Maglev for Western Pennsylvania isn't needed and is a pure waste of taxpayer dollars. End it now.