Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Politics over purpose

Honolulu HI - The Honolulu Star Bulletin reports on the dismissal of two critics from key positions just before a vote to finalize the routing of Mayor Mufi Hannemann's legacy line.

Donovan Dela Cruz and Ann Kobayashi were removed from the Council Transportation Committee which will keep them from sitting on the Oahu Planning Organization Policy Committee that will be voting on the key route for the project. The move comes at a time that raises suspicion of political meddling to quiet the critics of the rail project.

While this move is perfectly legal, it is suspicious due to the timing. The move was requested by Committee Chair Nestor Garcia with no reason being given for the request. Given the fact that Garcia was not listed as a critic by the media, it is safe to assume that he is in favor of the project. While City Council Chairwoman Barbara Marshall downplayed any meddling by the Mayor's office, once again it is rather safe to assume there was some.

In politics, there is a long history of moves such as replacing critics with people more favorable toward an issue. Given Hannemann's almost rabid desire to get this transit project rammed through, it wouldn't surprise me that at all that this move to replace Dela Cruz and Kobayashi was strictly political rather than because they weren't performing well on the committee.

Critics are an important part of making sure the best plan moves forward. They bring up points often ignored or glossed over by proponents however, transit systems and politicians pushing transit projects have recently started following a new trend to shut the critics up using whatever means necessary. It appears that new trend is being followed in Honolulu by removing two critics from a key committee and replacing them with what appears to be two individuals that are sympathetic to the cause.

The move to replace Dela Cruz and Kobayashi just brings more shadows to Hannemann's legacy project. It comes across as an attempt to quiet the critics so that the already highly questionable plan can move forward. The move also shows me that the pro-rail crowd will do whatever it takes to ram through rail projects.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Security or just trying to hide something?

Portland OR - The Oregonian reports on a Tri-Met decision that would allow the transit system to further isolate itself from the public. This move is being repeated across the country as well and has allowed public transit systems to literally make up data that it spoon feeds to the public.

Light rail critic Mel Zucker recently asked Tri-Met for ridership data for analysis on a proposed rail line. He was denied for security reasons. What Zucker was requesting was the raw data, something most transit systems are reluctant to give up to start with, but the excuse of security is a rather new method of refusal. The excuse is one that is sure to come up more often in our post 9/11 world.

The problem as I see it is this. The new cover for public transit gives the transit systems a free pass to make up any data they wish and there will no longer be any way to verify it's accuracy. This data, such as ridership numbers, are used by transit systems to justify costly transit projects as well as the running of routes.

Public transit systems have always manipulated their data and have been reluctant to reveal the true raw data. Under various state and local laws, this data could be obtained if you were persistent enough. Now by using the catch-all term security, these systems can keep critics at bay and ram through expensive transit projects as the critics no longer will be allowed any access to the needed data to show that the project is not needed. In short, a critic now can only state opinion and observations and have no real data to back them up and the transit system is free to greatly manipulate its data to fit whatever they wish to do.

This move to hide behind the shield of security comes at a time when public transit systems are all finding themselves in a cash crisis. They are demanding more of the public's money and now can freely manipulate the data they spoon feed to the public through the media without the fear of being caught manipulating the data.

Even the media will be effected by this new method. Currently the media can get much of this information but sometimes needs to go to a local or even state court to get the release of data. Now the stakes are raised and the media will be forced to go to the Federal courts to get any information from the transit system beside the manipulated data that the system wants to spoon feed to them. A much more costly and time consuming proposition.

I can see the need for heightened security towards the data, even as far as a background check to obtain the requested data. What Tri-met is doing however is blocking off all access to the data and thereby giving itself the autonomy to make the data fit what they want it to fit without any chance of being discovered.

My take on this move by Tri-Met is this. Tri-Met has been caught with its pants down a few times with manipulated data that they used to ram projects through with. They now are ducking for cover and using a Federal law to hide behind so that they no longer have to answer their critics and can be free to spend whatever they wish on whatever project they wish.

The taxpayers who have to foot the bill for public transit spending sprees and the critics that look for waste in the industry have now had an important avenue of checks and balances closed off to them.

Tri-Met earns a Lance for trying to keep the public in the dark while they continue to pick their pockets to fund their operation and various spending sprees.

Another rail fight in Madison

Madison WI - The Wisconsin State Journal reports on the battle between two competing rail proposals. A commuter rail proposal that would connect Madison to outlaying communities and the streetcar proposal that is championed by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.

The problem is that both plans are taking the steam out of each other. Mayor Cieslewicz suggested that the proponents of the commuter rail plan cool it so his plan can go forward. While both sides agree that both types of rail need to be done, the order in how it is done is what they are fighting over.

The Dane County officials that are spearheading the "Transport 2020" plan for commuter rail responded to the Mayor's suggestion with a comment that "the mayor is out of sync with the broader community here". Mayor Cieslewicz was a part of the "Transport 2020" task force before throwing a temper tantrum and pulling out because the focus of the panel wasn't on his personal legacy streetcar line in Madison.

The fear of both sides is that competing projects will kill off both projects by making it too expensive to proceed. Neither side wants to budge and both projects continue to compete with each other for attention.

Putting aside the fact that Madison can't afford to run what it already has, I admit that the commuter rail proposal would be more beneficial and serve a much broader population (if done properly) than the streetcar proposal being done primarily for personal legacy reasons. The Mayor is so desperate for his personal legacy line that I truly expect this fight to become rather nasty as each side escalates tactics to get their proposals pushed forward.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cash strapped MUNI throws party for T-Third line opening

San Francisco CA - A commentary piece sent to me tells of the MUNI parties they held to celebrate the opening of their new T-Third rail line. The cost of these parties to the cash strapped transit system: Approximately $158,000.

MUNI hosted two parties, one for the general public and one for VIP's which included politicians, career bureaucrats and activists. A harpist, uniformed servers passing around quiche and salmon treats, and a red carpet were the highlights of the indoor VIP party.

The $158,000 paid for catering, tables and chairs, entertainment, sound and video systems, portable toilets and a number of other items that go into putting on big celebrations. While no cost breakdown can be found, it's easy to guess that the VIP party took the biggest chunk of the money.

While I have no problem with celebrating a grand opening, MUNI went overboard considering their financial situation. I have been to many grand openings of various transit projects and the celebration cost was usually budgeted anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $35,000. Spending $158,000 while at the same time screaming for more money to operate just tells me that the operation is looking for ways to waste money.

I'm sorry but a harpist is not needed nor is a separate party for the politicians given the financial situation at MUNI. A much more subdued approach would send a message that MUNI is trying to watch its finances. All this did was send a message that the agency is not financially responsible.

I'm awarding MUNI a Lance for wasting money when they can't afford it. They could have done a satisfactory celebration for far less and put the difference into actually running the service.

I won't even get into the problems the new line had on party day...