Saturday, March 31, 2007

Charlotte's historic streetcar to sit

Charlotte NC - The Charlotte Observer reports on the latest boondoggle by the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). This time it was restoring a vintage trolley car before checking on the implications of running it with the new LRT cars.

While a noble act and one that as a transit fan of history I truly appreciate, CATS literally blew $180,000 of tax money to restore Charlotte's last remaining true streetcar. Surprisingly, CATS even admits that they didn't bother to assess the risks before spending the money. In other words, they were in such a rush to spend taxpayer money that they didn't think. They only saw the positives through the rose colored glasses they wear when it comes to rail.

Plans were to run the venerable number 85 in service on the new LRT line. The Feds nixed that idea when they found out about it because the old streetcar could not stand up to a collision with the newer and heavier LRT cars.

Now number 85 will sit and be brought only on special occasions and that will be rarely as it will disrupt the LRT line operations. Basically CATS paid good money to make a static exhibit.

While $180,000 is chump change in the public transit industry these days, this story still shows the desire of transit systems to find new ways to spend taxpayer money on everything except providing service. It also shows the lack of planning and foresight of CATS and why there is currently a push to get the dedicated sales tax repealed.

Friday, March 30, 2007

AC Transit's Van Hools drawing debate

Oakland CA - The Inside Bay Area site reports on a bus that you either love or hate, the Van Hool buses that AC Transit currently operates and has an order in for more.

When I first saw these things, my first thought was "they are going to be expensive as hell to repair if damaged". Well it turns out I wasn't far off as drivers have confirmed this at the most recent AC Transit board meeting.

The critics of the Van Hools, many of whom are seniors and disabled individuals, cited at the AC Transit board meeting a jarring ride, seats that are difficult to reach and narrow aisles. Drivers cited a narrow wheelbase that leaves a large overhang which smacks into objects on sidewalks as well as a ride that jostles passengers.

Proponents of the Van Hools also had their say. They love the looks and praised the reduced noise and emissions. They also cited a survey that gave the Van Hool high marks. Personally, I'd like to see that survey as well as the raw demographic data collected on it as more than likely the results are skewed to reflect the view of the transit system.

AC Transit is to get in the first prototype for the second order in May with many modifications made to it. Additional changes can then be done on the rest of the order if needed.

Now for a few comments from myself. First off, screw the looks of the bus. I can agree with the reduced noise and emissions but when one of the top reasons for proponents liking the bus and wanting more of them is strictly the appearance, they probably don't ride much.

Appearance doesn't get many butts in the seat either. Good, clean, convenient and reliable service does. The bus could look like an old Ford Edsel and people will still be willing to ride if the service is good. You don't need a "Euro" look to attract riders unless your trying to attract the snobs that wouldn't ride even if they were paid to ride.

What I found as a rather ignorant comment from Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty was this. When he chided the Van Hool detractors for not working out their issues with the elected AC Transit board. Excuse me Mr. Haggerty but I've been reading numerous news reports on their attempts at trying to work things out with the board for 5 years over the various issues with the buses. Perhaps you just closed your ears to their attempts and if the AC Transit board is anything like the board of directors at my transit system, the critics would just be ignored anyway.

Hopefully AC Transit will make the needed modifications to settle this issue.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is Charlotte next on the transit chopping block?

Charlotte NC - The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) gave its story of doom and gloom to the public on the subject of the effort to repeal the half cent, transit dedicated, sales tax. The Charlotte Observer reports on this as well as the retort by critics.

CATS is threatening massive route cuts and higher property taxes if the half cent tax is repealed. The critics say this is simply scare tactics. The critics of CATS may have a big surprise coming.

The big problem here is that the rail line is almost complete so guess what, it has to run or a huge repayment of funds to the Feds will have to occur. If the line doesn't run, Charlotte is on the hook for over $300 million that must be repaid (the FTA requires immediate lump sum reimbursement) and I can guarantee you, that line is going to run and the bus service will ultimately suffer to keep the rail line running.

The critics waited way too long to try and do something to stop the line. Hell, many opposed to the rail line now were in favor of it initially. There are also questions about how the signatures on the petitions to repeal the sales tax were obtained which puts a cloud over the critics.

This situation wouldn't be occurring if CATS didn't just have to have expensive rail toys to play with. Now that they have their toys and have the pro-rail crowd wetting their pants in joy over a new rail operation starting up soon, it has to be paid for. The repeal of the dedicated transit tax is a stupid move by the opponents of the system and I truly question why they waited so long to act. They fail to understand that they'll just pay for the line through higher property taxes and higher rental payments for those that rent.

As far as the CATS proposals, they are putting forth the doomsday plans to the public. Yes, it is a scare tactic to a point but cuts will come if the dedicated funding source that provides 60% of it's operating money is taken away. Simply hiking fares won't cover the loss of the funding. Property owners will fight getting their taxes raised but the taxes will go up but not enough to cover the shortfall of repealing the dedicated tax. The critics of CATS are totally wrong to try and pull the funding from the transit system at this late date. It smacks of a child that wants his way throwing a temper tantrum.

What is needed is to pressure the politicians, the same ones that the critics most likely voted for, to stop CATS from continuing with the planning for the expansion of the rail line when the first line hasn't even proven itself yet. The critics that are claiming CATS is just using scare tactics and demand that the dedicated sales tax be repealed will be the first ones whining when cuts do happen and property taxes go up.

While I agree CATS needs to straighten itself out, especially in management, the critics are going about trying to correct the problems in completely the wrong way.

If the critics can get the dedicated sales tax reversed on the ballot, why didn't they just have a ballot initiative saying no more rail after this? After all, the planning of the expansion of the rail system is what got this tax revolt started in the first place.

What is happening is Charlotte is rather confusing and becoming more clouded as time moves on as more and more reasons are being tossed into the pot as to why the tax should be repealed. All I know from following this story for a while is that the critics blew it by waiting so long to do anything. Now it's too late and anything done will ultimately hurt the public. Not just those that depend on transit but all of the residents since repealing the tax at this time will put a stranglehold on a big part of Charlotte's economic engine.

I've been there and done that. Pittsburgh, after years of scare tactics to get money, is finally making massive service cuts (finalized and going into effect in June 2007). Those that say transit systems won't do massive cuts only need to look at Pittsburgh to see that times have changed. Transit systems can't just make threats of cuts anymore, they have to do it as money is tight. Charlotte residents appear to be on the verge of learning a new tactic in public transit, threats can be real.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Low bidder needs to meet the bid requirements

St. Paul MN - A battle is brewing in Minneapolis - St. Paul over a bus order that was awarded to Gillig Corporation rather than New Flyer Industries (NFI) who was the low bidder for the order. How this is being dealt with by the politicians shows a problem that can effect every transit system.

Minnesota State Senator Tarryl Clark (D) has introduced a bill that would force the Metropolitan Council to award the bid to the low bidder, NFI.

Sounds good right? Awarding the bid to the manufacturer that can supply the buses at the lowest cost is how it should be done *but*, there's a hitch. NFI didn't meet the bid specifications.

The bid specs clearly stated that there was to be a 2 year warranty. NFI refuses to honor a 2 year warranty and would only offer a 1 year warranty with conditions. This really doesn't surprise me as NFI has had issues in the past with other transit systems that required a performance bond be posted, something NFI refuses to do and why my local transit system doesn't have any NFI buses running around.

Another issue in the request for bid was training. While this issue is cloudy as the bid asked for 3,000 hours and NFI stated a dollar amount of training it would provide. They could net out but the warranty issue is extremely critical.

While the low bidder should get the contract, the simple fact that NFI didn't meet the criteria, especially on the warranty, should disqualify them. In most cases, it would however NFI has a plant in Minnesota and the NFI union and politicians are howling over this and trying to force the system to award the bid to NFI.

The big problem here is that political muscle is going to be used to award a contract to a bidder that did not meet the bid requirements. This could spell problems down the road for Minnesota transit systems where NFI could low ball the bid without meeting any of the requirements. "Warranty? What warranty? There's no stinkin' warranty".

This is almost an exact opposite of a similar issue in Broward County, FL. There, NABI was low bidder and met the requirements but transit officials kept trying to award the bid to NFI. Here, NFI was the low bidder but failed to meet the bid requirements. If NFI met the bid criteria or was off by a trivial issue, I would be on the Metropolitan Council's case for awarding the bid to Gillig but a warranty is hardly a trivial issue.

Government needs to watch themselves when they push bills such as what Senator Tarryl Clark is putting forth. These types of knee jerk reaction bills tend to back fire badly in the long term and in this case, it'll be all of the transit systems in Minnesota that suffer when it does back fire.

Monday, March 26, 2007

SEPTA is "short shrifted" according to one columnist

Philadelphia PA - The writer of a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer obviously hasn't been west of the Allegheny Mountains. I was chuckling while reading Mark Bowden's commentary piece which was claiming that SEPTA was the most "short shrifted" transit system in the United States.

All Mr. Bowden needs to do is take a trip from Philadelphia over to the neglected Pittsburgh area if he wants to experience a short shrifted transit system, both financially and politically. I am still questioning how he can say SEPTA is being shorted when they receive the lion's share of state operating funding.

Approximately 75% of the state operating funding goes to SEPTA. Pittsburgh receives only about 23% with the remaining paltry 2% being split up among every other transit system in the state. SEPTA is short shrifted? Hardly.

In just about every state-wide expenditure, transit or not, the Philadelphia region receives the lions share of the payout. The reason? They have a more population as well as more powerful politicians. Mr. Bowden would probably still complain even if Philadelphia received 100% of the money.

As far as politically, SEPTA hasn't had multiple attempts by politicians to ban buses from the streets of the Center City of Philadelphia as has been pondered by politicians in Pittsburgh when they have attempted to ban buses from Downtown on multiple occasions over the years.

While I agree with Mr. Bowden that public transit across the country gets "short shrifted" as he puts it, SEPTA isn't getting the shaft as bad as he's making out in his article. Please pay Pittsburgh a visit some day and stay for a few weeks to experience PAT in all its glory. You'll leave with a whole new appreciation for SEPTA.