Friday, May 4, 2007

Chicago in crisis

Chicago IL - The Chicago area transit network is in crisis and literally on the verge of collapse. The Chicago Tribune reports on the frustration being expressed by the transit systems in the Chicago area over insufficient funding.

The problem is a lack of adequate state funding claims the RTA who oversees and divides the existing funding among the CTA, Metra and PACE operations.

There is more to the story that isn't being reported on. The funding crisis goes beyond public transit and effects the road infrastructure as well. One must ask, what are the underlaying causes and the answers aren't simple.

  • The CTA has an old rail infrastructure that is in desperate need of repair. Rail operations inherently are more expensive and far less flexible than bus operations to start with. This often leads to putting off needed repairs to the infrastructure.

  • The CTA also has had far from stellar management over the years. Internal waste at the CTA is rampant.

  • Having an "umbrella agency" structure also doesn't help. The RTA who distributes the funds among the 3 operating agencies takes a slice of the operating pie to run the show.

  • Look at the city itself. There are 5 major transit systems in critical and dire straits currently. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. A common thread among all 5 of these cities is that they've been controlled by Democrats for decades (all also have well established rail operations).

  • Chicago's transit ills have recently gotten worse as they have been selected as the city for the United States bid to host the 2016 Olympics. What does this mean? More strain on the system due to required transit projects that will have to be done. While this may get them some funding to fix the infrastructure, it also means less money will be available to operate.

While adequate and reliable funding for public transit is needed, little is usually done to stem the internal hemorrhaging of money within the system. In a sense, increased funding is little more than a Band-Aid being placed on a torn artery with how public transit is run currently. The core problem that creates the need for increased funding is rarely repaired and that leads to more problems in the following years.

The funding crisis in Pennsylvania, for example, is forcing PAT and SEPTA to finally start addressing many of the core problems within their agencies. The RTA in Chicago is still trying to ignore the core problems and address it with another financial Band-Aid with the hope that the influx of funds will balance out the cash hemorrhage.

With public transit being turned into a social service thanks to years of government ownership, nobody in charge is willing to do what has to be done for fear of the backlash. All 5 cities I have mentioned have another common thread which is that they run mostly on historical routes and all systems need a complete route overhaul to streamline the operation. Such route overhauls are never popular but if the system is to survive, it is something that has to be done.

While I disagree with Illinois' state government for putting transit funding on the back burner, it may be what is needed to force the RTA and the three Chicago transit operations to clean house and start addressing the cancer that has been slowly killing them for years.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Tieing funding to performance

Galveston TX - The Gavleston County Daily News reports on a problem occurring between the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and Island Transit. The problem is how much should the UTMB pay for the service.

Currently the UTMB pays $200,000 a year to subsidize the route for Island Transit and in exchange, Island Transit allows UTMB employees and patients to ride free on that route. It is a deal similar to what many universities across the country enter into with the transit system in their area.

Although there is no problem with the service that Island Transit provides, the UTMB has decided to base future payments on the systems performance. Under the new arrangement that Island Transit reluctantly agreed to, the base payment moved from $200,000 a year to $160,000 a year but the transit system can stand to make up to $240,000 a year if it performs well.

At first glance, that sounds like a reasonable deal. The problem I see is that as time goes by, it will force Island Transit to focus on that one particular route due to this one fact. Performance is based on the UTMB's assessment alone. Too often I see such arrangements go bad as more demands are made on the transit system by the paying agency.

Contracts such as this should be based on the cost of providing "X" amount of service, not strictly on performance. By entering a contract based strictly on performance, it can start the process ignoring the rest of the operation to focus on one particular route.

Given the fact that the UTMB had no problem with the current level of service, nor the quality of that service, the change demanded by the UTMB is not warranted. The excuse being used that the lowering of the base payment will ensure that Island Transit won't let it's service to the UTMB slip is a red herring in my opinion.

That red herring is that the UTMB wants more service without paying more for it. While the UTMB stated that if service remains the same the payment will remain at $200,000, I don't really believe that. When the time comes to pay for the contract, the UTMB will find fault in order to cut its own costs and save $40,000. This move will also force Island Transit to increase service just to try and keep the $200,000 payment.

As I see this, the UTMB agreement will ultimately end up hurting Island Transit by driving up costs. Already extra expenses are being spent to check for problems on the route, which by the way is not being done with the rest of the system.