Saturday, May 26, 2007

Political Perks - Busway permits

Pittsburgh PA - A story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tells of an unwritten policy that gives selected politicians and government agencies permits to drive on the Port Authority's 3 busways.

The story was brought to light when Post-Gazette transportation writer Joe "Softball" Grata apparently found out that former PAT Executive Director and former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey (R) had such a permit.

This story does bring up an important issue regarding the use of the busways. The issue is that the busways should be for buses and not for politicians and selected government agencies. The method in which PAT hands out and regulates the busway permits is ripe for abuse since there are no official regulations regarding the permits.

When built, the busways were supposed to be used for transit vehicles as well as the PAT non-revenue support vehicles. Emergency vehicles such as fire, police and ambulances responding to emergencies could also use the busway. Permits initially were issued for out of county operators to utilize the busways.

Over time, the permits began to be handed out selectively to politicians and government agencies to utilize the busways. Given the list provided in the article, the vast majority of the 73 permits should not have been issued. Most appear to be political in nature.

As there is no clear policy on who is eligible, all permits should be revoked in my opinion. Not one of the permits issued is vital for emergencies and marked vehicles responding to an emergency are already allowed to use the busway without a permit. The one rule in place is that the permit is for official business only but we all know how that goes in politics. Everything is official to them, from going to a meeting to wanting to get home after a day at work.

Roddey's permit should have been revoked when he left. There is no question about it but given PAT's reluctance to state the other individuals who hold and use the permits, it smacks of an abuse of the permits that PAT doesn't want to acknowledge.

Granted, 73 permits is a rather small number but it is still 73 people that have been given preferential treatment on the taxpayer's dime by a public agency. The politicians can sit in traffic like everyone else or hop on the bus if they want to be on the busways.

A few of the permits issued do raise flags. Why are there 4 permits for the Monroeville Police Department? What makes them so special that they need permits for unmarked cars when the East Busway isn't even in their jurisdiction? What about the other police departments that also have to have officers go into the city on business but have to sit in traffic?

Then there are the 3 PAT board members that have special permits. Why just those three?

How about the permit issued to the Federal Reserve in Pittsburgh? I'm more than sure that permit isn't for the armored truck carrying money but for one of the top management of the FRB.

PAT needs to come up with a clear policy on who gets issued permits and then keep tabs on those permits. The current method is selective and easily abused and amounts more to political pandering rather than an actual true need.

Personally I believe no special permits should be granted to any politician or agency. The only permits that should be issued should be to other transit systems for their buses. Marked emergency vehicles going to an emergency should continue to be exempted as well.

The busways are designed for bus transportation, not as a private highway for select politicians and agencies just so they don't have to sit in traffic. There is nothing that important that the select few should be granted special privileges that the rest of the public would be immediately ticketed for.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Detroit City Council narrowly approves placing deputies on buses

Detroit MI - In a narrow 5 to 4 margin, Detroit City Council voted Thursday to approve the expenditure for placing Wayne County Sheriff Deputies on board the city buses.

As I predicted the other day, there were plenty of council members that voted against this. I have not found any news story as of yet which tells why 4 of the council members voted against this measure. I can make an educated guess however and that is that these council members were afraid that it would pull money from the pet projects they have in motion in their voting districts.

This is not a political issue yet the Detroit City Council has made it one. The issue at hand is and always has been the safety of the drivers and ridership, in other words, their constituents. The claim of needing clarification on liability issues does not take that long to resolve and this was simply foot dragging by the City Council.

For the record, the Detroit City Council Members that voted against putting the safety of the drivers and transit riders above politics in Thursday's vote were JoAnn Watson, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, Brenda Jones and Shelia Cockrel.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

PAT shows its true colors

Pittsburgh PA - The head of the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) showed the total disregard for the ridership PAT has when he made a comment in the PAT's finance committee meeting.

"Right now, if I lived in Troy Hill, I'd be buying a pair of good walking shoes," quipped PAT's CEO, Steve Bland.

Troy Hill residents are outraged over the comment as well they should be. The comment takes a slap at the residents complaints over PAT's route cut plan that left the heavily transit dependent Pittsburgh community virtually isolated from service.

Bland's comments also show the total disregard that PAT management has for providing transit service. PAT management has always had somewhat of an attitude that came off as uncaring but over the past 10 years, this attitude has gone from one of indifference to outright contempt for the ridership.

It reminds me of comedian Lily Tomlin's Ernestine character which lampooned the telephone company arrogance of the time. "We don't have to care, we're the Port Authority *snort*" could easily come from Ernestine's lips these days.

Dan Onorato, the transit loving Democrat and Allegheny County Chief Executive who pushed hard for the cuts and wants to get out of paying the County share of financing for PAT, demands Bland apologize for the Troy Hill comment. While Bland should apologize for the comment, the hypocritical Onorato should apologize as well for demanding the residents of Troy Hill be isolated by insisting on the original hack and slash route cut plan.

Steve Bland, you've earned a Lance but you do show that you fit right into PAT's management structure. The complete arrogance of the comment as well as the total lack of understanding of how the route cuts will effect communities completes your assimilation into the PAT culture.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Detroit operators walk out

Detroit MI - In response to Detroit City Council's foot dragging on the issue of placing sheriff deputies on the buses, Detroit's bus drivers walked out Wednesday. This move has been long in coming as the violence issue on Detroit's buses has been increasing for years yet the city has been reluctant to address the situation.

I have seen walk outs for ridiculous issues over the years at various transit systems but this is a serious issue and one that I do support the transit union on. City Council's lack of action for well over a year (a story I located in an archive search indicated the problem went back much further than that) spurred this move and perhaps it will motivate them to address the issue.

Then again, perhaps not. The procrastinating City Council immediately got on it's high horse and talked of intimidation by the union. "There is a way to lobby" stated Detroit Councilwoman Barbara-Rose Collins. Well Ms. Collins, they did lobby for well over a year and the City Council wouldn't listen.

A temporary fix went in to get the drivers back starting on Thursday. The fix is a one time deployment of the sheriff's deputies for 24 hours to "give Council the time to discuss the matter". There is no guarantee that the City Council will vote in favor of permanently placing deputies on the buses and I feel safe in saying that if there is actually a vote tomorrow on the issue, there will be plenty of council members that will want more time to drag their heels so they don't have to address the problem.

The drivers did what they had to do in this situation. The number of driver and passenger assaults is continuing to rise yet the politicians want to stall. Why? Most likely because the money used to pay for security will have to come from their pet projects and bus security won't generate the face time that pet community projects will.

Is PAT really trying to save money?

Pittsburgh PA - In yet another desperate bid to stay in it's new expensive downtown digs, Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) officials have latched onto a new idea of leasing out it's old Manchester headquarters to State agencies displaced by the closing of the State office building in Downtown.

PAT officials whine that the old Manchester building, built in 1973, needs rehabilitated and asbestos removed before they could even think about moving back yet they have no qualms about sticking others into that environment.

Then PAT announced officially the end to metallic paints and excessive amounts of decals being slapped all over the buses to save a few bucks. This still won't end the rainbow fleet nor the inventory expenses of having multiple colors of paint stocked.

The cost provided to repaint a bus now compared to the original stripe livery is based strictly on direct labor and parts cost. It ignores the indirect costs of inventory, additional labor and their oh so precious image.

If PAT were truly serious about cutting costs they would move back to Manchester. If it's good enough, as is, for other people then it's good enough for their them. Also PAT would adopt 1 single paint color with minimal embellishment as the standard livery rather than being determined to keep a rainbow of colors stocked for repainting. A single color livery would save more than they think they are saving with the non-metallic rainbow fleet.

Granted this is nickel and dime nitpicking but all the same, PAT needs to clean up its act before it turns to cutting service and raising fares. PAT has decades of finding new ways to waste money built into its thinking. Nickel and dime issues do add up and PAT officials need to address them rather than trying to justify the them because they don't want to change their ways.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County officials earn themselves yet another Lance for trying to spin their way out of doing everything they can to save money beside cutting service and raising fares.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bill Millar "softballed"...

Pittsburgh PA - Bill Millar, president of the transit industry lobby group known as the American Public Transit Association (APTA) came back to Pittsburgh recently. He had some pearls of wisdom for the area concerning the Pennsylvania transit funding crisis. As the Port Authority of Allegheny County's (PAT) former Executive Director for 13 years, he does have a unique view of the problems facing PAT. Some of his thoughts I agree with, others he's way off base on.

Millar's stance is pretty much "mo' money, mo' money and even mo' money" is needed. Not once in the interview with Pittsburgh Post Gazette transportation writer, Joe "Softball" Grata did he say that public transit needs to run efficiently and watch its expenditures. Given APTA's leanings toward wanting to saddle cash strapped transit systems with expensive transit projects, this doesn't surprise me at all.

One must remember, many of the problems PAT faces today in terms of wasteful spending were set up during Millar's tenure as Executive Director. A later Executive Director at PAT took the wasteful spending practices to a whole new level and made Millar look like a penny pincher.

In a typical comment to try and pin the funding crisis on Republicans, Millar took a swipe at former Pennsylvania State Governor Tom Ridge (R) for not constantly giving transit systems more money on demand when Ridge was Governor between 1995 and 2001. He made the claim that the Ridge administration refused to come to the rescue of PAT and other Pennsylvania transit systems during those years and that is a false statement. As was the case when a Democrat was in the Governor's office, additional state aid did come after the decades old annual ritual of threatening the public with fare hikes and route cuts.

Millar is correct in that the State Legislature and Governors over the years have not placed a priority on a proper funding mechanism for public transit in Pennsylvania. It's just not the Republicans that didn't act however, the Democrats also stalled on this. The transit funding crisis has been effecting public transit in Pennsylvania since the early 1970's and was nothing new when Millar first sat in the PAT Executive Director chair in 1984.

Millar then went on about the "success stories" in several cities. I almost fell off the chair laughing. Many systems he mentioned are having major problems and a few examples are below:

  • Denver has built itself into a fiscal black hole through transit projects it can't afford.

  • Salt Lake City is facing major route cuts and fare hikes as well as attempts to dissolve the transit system.

  • Atlanta is having major funding issues while looking for new ways to spend money.

Then he went on about Smart Growth. For those unfamiliar, Smart Growth is designed to incorporate public transit into development plans. It sounds good but it's loaded with expensive problems which is why Liberal Democrats love it, it wastes tax money. In reality, Smart Growth policies cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year through things like sweetheart deals that use public money to benefit private developers. It's basically the modern day version of the expensive 1960's Urban Renewal fiasco that destroyed more areas than it ultimately helped.

"I'm shocked to see that Allegheny County is not putting any more money into the Port Authority today than it did 10 years ago. Local folks are major beneficiaries of the service, so it's not unreasonable for the county to support it" states Millar.

There is no mention of the fact that Allegheny County government is controlled by transit loving Democrats and the current transit loving Democrat in charge, Dan Onorato, is trying to get out of financially supporting PAT completely. Mr. Millar and "Softball" Grata are fully aware of this yet no mention of it. I must question why there was no mention of this little tidbit of important information.

"The issues were very much the same then (1984) as they are today," Millar recalled. The issues were very much the same in 1973 as well, Bill. The problem isn't Republicans as you and Joe attempt to make it out to be. The problem is with the politicians in general, regardless of party. No politician really wants to deal with the problem as it will take money away from their pet projects. Sure the Dems talk a good talk about wanting to support public transit in Pennsylvania but when push comes to shove and that support threatens their pet project money, they scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on.

I will give Bill Millar credit for this though, he did ride the bus when he was Executive Director of PAT. That act alone brought about a big change in the PAT 17B route which always had the oldest and most dilapidated buses assigned to it until he was placed in charge. Suddenly the 17B received the new buses that were actually clean since he rode the route. The old and dilapidated buses were then scattered around the other routes.

APTA needs to concentrate more on getting transit systems to run more efficiently. Instead, under Millar, APTA is pushing for more wasteful spending through unneeded transit projects and Smart Growth projects. In all the years Millar has been in charge I have yet to hear APTA mention that in order for public transit to succeed, it must run efficiently and focus on the basics. I did hear those words out of APTA prior to Millar but once he became head of the group, the whole focus became on helping transit systems find new ways to waste money.