Friday, April 20, 2007

PAT's CEO posts contract for all to see

Pittsburgh PA - In a long overdue move, the Port Authority of Allegheny County Executive Director, Steve Bland, has posted his contract on-line for all to see. The move, reported in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is aimed at making the transit agency more transparent to the public. This is something that all public and non-profit agencies should be doing.

I also see a hidden motive behind Stave Bland's move to post his contract. This motive is to take a jab at the union and force them to accept concessions, something the union is fighting.

PAT's union has stated for years that they don't feel they should make concessions when the management doesn't. A complaint that I have to agree with. Well now, PAT's management is making concessions and the big boy took many concessions himself. The union complaint is no longer valid and by Bland publicly posting his contract, as well as the concessions he took, it will put added public pressure on the union to make contract concessions.

I have stated for decades that the various contracts at PAT should be made public when the taxpayers are paying for it. This goes for the management contracts as well as the union contracts. The taxpayers deserve to know what they are being forced to pay for. I am so tired of hearing that these types of items are "confidential" when the money to pay for these "confidential" contracts are paid for by the public.

Steve Bland earns himself a Laurel for allowing the public access to view his contract, especially since his paycheck and benefits are paid for by the taxpayers.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Passing the buck (or in this case, not passing the buck$)

Harrisburg PA - Pennsylvania State Republicans pretty much told the various transit systems in the state that they need to look towards their city and county to provide them the additional funding they claim they need to continue operating. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on this important stance by the State GOP regarding the public transit crisis in Pennsylvania.

While I tend to lean towards agreeing with House Republican Leader Sam Smith in terms of the philosophy of what he states, what I actually see here is hypocrisy and passing the buck. The buck I see being passed is from the tax and spend State Legislature to the local municipal level of government. The hypocrisy I see is that these same politicians have no problem porking out and earmarking tax money for their pet projects that benefit far fewer than public transit does.

Representative Smith correctly states that transit systems in the state already receive $900 million each year in state funding. He also correctly states that it is time the city and county start ponying up more. In Pittsburgh, for example, the City of Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs provide absolutely no funding assistance and Allegheny County provides a small amount of funding but even at that, they are trying to get out of providing that funding.

Out of the $900 million already provided by the state, a far from insignificant part of that funding is squandered by the transit systems in paying to operate various unneeded transit projects that they just had to build and didn't need as well as what seems to be the transit industry goal of finding new ways to waste money. The remainder is used to pay the workers, keep service on the streets and various other operational activities.

While I strongly oppose Governor Rendell's "Big Oil" windfall tax he is proposing to help fund transit systems as it will do nothing but punish Pennsylvania residents and the transit systems in the long term, it shouldn't be used by the State Legislature as a way to pass the buck in the transit funding crisis. The State Legislature needs to come up with a new funding structure as well as a funding mechanism that works. By attempting to blame the Rendell plan, no matter how ill-conceived it is, and using that to avoid doing what needs to be done, the politicians of Pennsylvania are only helping to destroy an important part of the State's infrastructure.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County is cleaning up it's act and eliminating waste as well as scaling back operations. SEPTA, is more efficient than PAT is but they are saddled by having a large rail network (pre-dating SEPTA) which is sucking down money. Neither the city or county in either area can fully fund the deficits and Rep. Smith knows this but I do agree that both the county and municipal governments need to start contributing more to running transit in their jurisdiction.

We won't likely see the State (or even local) politicians curtail their spendthrift ways on pork projects nor are we likely to see enough of an increase in local level funding to cover the deficits incurred by rising fuel and health care costs.

This poor attempt to pass the buck by Rep. Smith is simply a ploy being used by both political parties in Pennsylvania to avoid dealing with fixing the problem of a lack of a proper funding mechanism for public transit. I will give Smith credit for this, at least he isn't giving us political lip service about the situation like the Democrats routinely do.

The State Legislature needs to understand that public transit is an important part of the economic infrastructure of the State. It helps bring people to the jobs that haven't been chased out of the State by the business unfreindly environment in Pennsylvania. Public transit also is an important tool for emergencies, especially in the post 9/11 environment, to get people out of an area.

Even though Pennsylvania State Representative Sam Smith (R) pulled no punches and made the situation clear without the political spin, he earns a Lance for trying to pass the problem of public transit off onto someone else to deal with. It is the lack of a proper funding mechanism which the State Legislature refuses to allow that has helped spur this problem and it's been going on for 40 plus years. Deal with it already and quit trying pawn the problem off onto someone else.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Pro-rail crowd has a new tactic

Myrtle Beach SC - One of the many places you wouldn't expect to find a streetcar is in Myrtle Beach but pro-rail backers are hoping to change that.

The Sun News reports on plans that were presented to the city recently to showcase a $6.6 to $10.4 million dollar "test line" that is approximately a quarter of a mile long. The test line proposal wouldn't do much of anything except sit in the open and wouldn't connect any two things together.

This news report brings up an important new tactic in the pro-rail movement. A test line is the newest method in the pro-rail playbook for getting rail into a city that can't justify having rail. They convince a city to build a small test line at the local taxpayers expense that really doesn't connect anything. Once built, the city is forced to try to extend it so their investment isn't just pure waste. Now that they have something built, they can more easily justify to the Federal and State government the need to get funding to extend it so it will be useful.

In the past, the method was to get a city to build a "starter" line that actually was somewhat useful but the desperation within the pro-rail movement is sinking in now because funding is getting harder to get. This has resulted in the new push for rinky-dink test lines just to get a rail toe-hold in place so it will be easier to get the Feds to cough up taxpayer's money to extend the line.

The news report is filled with the typical code words of the pro-rail crowd such as "the vision" and the "cool factor" as well as "development and rising property values". Of course, the Holy See of the streetcar movement, Portland Oregon, just had to be mentioned also as the streetcar success story. Myrtle Beach is hardly Portland Oregon, no matter how far you try to stretch the comparison.

There is no word as of yet if the struggling local bus system will be stuck running the line if it is built. Most likely it would be as that would be the only way the city could get the Federal money to extend the test line to the point it could actually be useful.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tax dollars spent to support tax hike

Milwaukee WI - The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on a regional governmental transit authority using tax dollars to support a tax hike it claims it needs to institute a commuter rail operation between Milwaukee to Kenosha and Racine. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is spending $496,000 of tax money in the attempt to woo support from the public to increase a tax for itself.

Three separate activists groups, Citizens for Responsible Government, Club for Growth Wisconsin and Americans For Prosperity's Wisconsin are fighting this use of public money to lobby the public for support of a tax hike on the already established rental car tax. These groups claim that the three-county government agency is wasting tax money and that the RTA has no legal authority to use the money for lobbying and publicity efforts.

What we actually have here is a government created transit authority looking for something to do. They've latched onto the commuter rail concept for that purpose but now they need to further dip into the taxpayer's pocket to fund it's dream. The current $2 rental tax is insufficient and the RTA wants to boost it another $13.

I question the expenditure breakdown that the RTA made available. 23% for lobbying efforts and the remainder went to research is the claim. From seeing the numbers on other lobbying groups and the amount of research they did, I tend to think the bulk of the money went to lobbying and the small remainder went to producing slick reports based off of previously done research. I also feel safe in saying that much of the research is probably on researching on how to market the tax hike plan to the public and politicians before the lobbying started.

This story does bring up a point that I see periodically in the news. That point is should public transit authorities, whether operational or administrative as the RTA is, be allowed to lobby the public or politicians with taxpayer money. I often see news reports where groups criticize a transit system for lobbying for a tax hike with taxpayer money.

Personally speaking, the transit system needs to get its side out there as to why they need a tax hike or new tax but this can be done through press releases and news conferences. Every city has transportation reporters that can bang the system's drum to get the word out. The expenditure to the system needs to be kept to a bare minimum however. No glossy brochures, no media ads, no gift buying for politicians.

If the transit system's plans are solid, a low cost press release will sell itself. The problem I see is that there are few solid plans out there these days. Most plans today are the visions of a few that want a legacy for themselves on the taxpayer's dime.

While commuter rail may be a good plan in concept, it obviously isn't selling itself on its merits so that makes me lean towards the side believing that the plan isn't really needed. If it was, it would sell without a big fuss. I've seen it happen enough to know it is true: The more you have to market something, the less it really is needed.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Knee Jerk Reaction = Higher Costs and Less Funding

Bay Area CA - The Oakland Tribune reports on a bill introduced by freshman assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier (D) of Concord, CA which would effect how transit systems are funded. The bill could effect the operating funding received as well as raise costs to the transit systems.

The bill he introduced would give reduced price rides to low income people to get around to work, school, shopping and medical care. It sounds good, right?

That's the problem. It's another knee jerk, feel good measure that wasn't researched to see the effect it would have on the transit systems in the Bay Area or how it would be paid for. Why politicians fail to understand the concept of "cause and effect" still amazes me.

Beside the fact that California is struggling for money and the money for DeSaulnier's subsidy bill would have to come from somewhere (and don't forget that the Governator has already stripped millions from the public transit funding pot to pay for other programs), nobody even mentioned the fact that you would have to create a whole new department to review low income applications for the reduced fare as well as do the accounting for the program. That isn't a cheap proposition and of course, it was never given a thought.

The way the California State laws are set up for funding transit, this additional subsidy could further reduce the amount of funding received from the State. This also was never given a thought when the bill was introduced.

At least DeSaulnier admitted he was "a little bit naive about this" although I'd say he was extremely naive about it. He was also bending over and grabbing his ankles for the activist groups who wear blinders when it comes to cause and effect. A hint for the politicians, the more vocal an activist group is, the smaller percentage of the population they really represent regardless of who or what they claim to represent.

Even though DeSaulnier admitted he didn't think things through when he introduced his bill, he still earns a Lance. Next time, do the research before trying to further bankrupt public transit.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Pittsburgh politicians want expensive toys for PAT

Pittsburgh PA - On the heels of a 15% route cut with promises of many more cuts to follow, and associated fare hikes, Allegheny County and City of Pittsburgh officials are now pushing to add more rail to the cash strapped Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT).

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh is now pushing for a rail link between Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland. City Mayor, Luke Ravenstahl (D) and County Executive Dan Onorato (D) are fully in favor of this of. State Senator Jim Ferlo (D) who is on the URA board is spearheading the effort.

Let's stop for a minute. These Dummyrats know full well the system can't afford what it has already and most likely won't be able to afford the scaled back system. What's their response? They are all in favor of further stressing the finances by adding expensive toys to the mix at a time PAT just can't afford it and neither can the City or County.

Now, let's rewind the clock a bit. Pittsburgh had it's chance to have a rail link to Oakland in the early 90's. Political fighting by the Democrats in charge at the time prevented the "Spine Line" from happening. Now that PAT is in a major fiscal crisis and is cutting service, these political clowns are proposing this again but are leaning towards streetcars.

While Pittsburgh needs a Downtown to Oakland transit link which could easily support a rail link as these two destinations are the 2nd and 3rd biggest transit generators in Pennsylvania, the bottom line is that PAT can't afford it. Period.

Those readers unfamiliar with Pittsburgh need to know this. The Pittsburgh region is rapidly losing population. The city is in dire financial straits as is Allegheny County. The city has been controlled by Democrats for over a century as the brain dead population here just can't bring themselves to vote for anything else but an incumbent Democrat (regardless of how poor a job they're doing). The transit system has been mis-managed for years and it's caught up to them.

With all of the above, the politicians here just have to find a new way to spend taxpayer money. So now, the push is on to build more rail so they can further destroy the transit system which can't afford what it has now and have an excuse to stick their hands in the taxpayer's wallet again.

These stupid Democrats just can't understand the concept that while you may get grants to build the rail line, it takes money to operate it and rail is inherently expensive to operate. Where are they going to get the money to run this when the system can't afford to run with what they get already? Where are they going to get the money to match grants for this new toy when they can't afford to run the City and County and vital services (police, fire) are being trimmed back.

This is just another example of stupid politicians that can't think past a legacy for themselves. They refuse to even consider the long term implications of their actions as they're too busy looking through rose colored glasses so they can ignore the problems.

State Senator Jim Ferlo, you earned a Lance. City of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, you earned a Lance. Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, you get 2 Lances as you of all people know the financial situation of PAT yet support this ill-conceived and poorly timed plan.