Saturday, June 2, 2007

North America could learn from Brazil

São Paulo Brazil - The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., better known as the IEEE had a very interesting article in the IEEE Spectrum magazine regarding the transit operation in São Paulo Brazil. Suffice to say, São Paulo operates one of the most complex bus operations in the world and rather successfully I might add.

While the pro-rail crowd in North America still often points to Europe to show the success of rail operations, São Paulo has quietly turned the bus into something even more successful.

"People won't ride smelly buses" and "Rail attracts the riders" are just a few of the comments made by the pro-rail crowd however, they become silent when São Paulo is brought up. Why? Perhaps it is because São Paulo has turned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) into a low tech as well as low cost art form that works extremely well in a city of over 18 million people.

While there are problems with the São Paulo BRT operation, it really is no different than what one can easily experience in the US and Canada. It doesn't matter if we're talking bus or rail, the problems are the same and can even be found in Europe. Outmoded equipment, facilities that need expanded and/or improved, better speed to move riders, etc. effect every mode of transit. The big difference is the cost, both short term and long term.

While São Paulo does have rail operations as well, which are larger than the dedicated BRT operation, it's the buses that do the vast bulk of the passenger hauling. Plans are in the works to expand both bus and rail in the city with emphasis being placed on the less costly bus operation.

The BRT operations in the US and Canada are a joke compared to what is in place in São Paulo. Here, everyone and their uncle are trying to hop on the rail bandwagon which drains money out of bus operations when all is said and done. BRT is often times the last resort when a city can't even meet the relatively easy Federal standards to get a rail line. São Paulo views BRT completely different and that attitude is paying off.

Granted that São Paulo and North American cities are totally different in terms of transit usage, the fact remains that bus operations are not overlooked in São Paulo and are treated as an important part of the cities transportation infrastructure.

A few quick facts on São Paulo's operation.

  • Population: 18.3 million
  • Number of buses: 26,391
  • Daily bus passengers: 10.5 million
  • Bus: 1,908 routes & 34 transfer stations
  • BRT length: 146.5 km
  • Rail length: 270 km
  • Subway length : 60 km

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It seems the common folk have the right idea

Montreal PQ - In a letter to the editor in the Montreal Gazette, Dolly Tiger of Montreal states rather well that rather than spending billions of dollars on a new transit plan for Montreal, they should spend that money to fix what they have in place already.

It's a sentiment I have long held when dealing with anything political, especially public transit. Politicians and activist groups are hot to trot to spend money to roll out new and expensive toys while ignoring the infrastructure already in place. This is perhaps one of the main reasons public transit is falling apart today.

Just imagine how popular public transit could become if the transit agencies and politicians would invest in fixing what is already in place rather than building more things that puts further strain on an already strained system. The Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh did just that in the early 1970's with very successful results. Over time it failed as they fell into the trap of ignoring what was in place and began focusing on expensive new toys and wasteful spending habits.

Having politicians and transit system administrations actually embrace fixing what is already in place most likely won't happen very often in our times. They can't get the face time in front of the media for ensuring proper funding is there to fix and improve the existing infrastructure. Because of the political treatment of transit, which is geared for new things rather than maintaining what's in place, it's easy to get government money for new transit projects but rather difficult to get money to actually run and maintain what is in place already.

While there are some flaws in Dolly Tiger's idea such as 20 minute service on every route, she is headed in the right direction. Fix what you have first before adding more. I often see letters like Dolly's and it makes me question why those in charge are so dense when the general public gets it.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Is Toledo next on the LRT bandwagon?

Toledo OH - Planners are envisioning light rail for the Toledo Ohio area even though the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) is in a funding crisis and has a lackluster transit operation.

This desire for rail has spurred a long article in the Toledo Blade touting the benefits of rail as well as an article in the same paper that dredges up the National City Lines (NCL) conspiracy once again even though it had little to nothing to do with Toledo eliminating their streetcars back in the 1940's.

The NCL conspiracy is another trick used to generate support for rail operations and is usually greatly exaggerated. An interesting and well documented article on the NCL conspiracy was written by Cliff Slater for the Transportation Quarterly back in 1997 (HTML or PDF available) and dispels many of the conspiracy theories. Naturally Slater's article has been condemned by the pro-rail crowd because it sheds light on the myth they love and disproves many things they have come to believe.

In Toledo's case, the rail operations were eliminated because the Community Traction Company (CTC) couldn't afford to run the aging and ever increasing costly streetcar lines and local political pressure was heavy on the company to get rid of the streetcars so they could pave over the tracks. NCL had nothing to do with the CTC's decision to dump the streetcars yet what does the pro-rail Toledo Blade bring up to generate public support for the light rail proposal?

Toledo is just another city that wants to jump on the rail bandwagon when it can't afford what it has already. I was surprised that they weren't trying to push it for development although it was brought up. The proposal was discussed more in terms of actually moving people. That's a rarity these days as using rail for actual transportation is down the list behind development and political legacy reasons.

In addition, the manner in which TARTA is funded is unstable. Ohio transit systems rely heavily on voter approved tax levees to fund their operation. Some systems have come and gone based on voters rejecting a levy. Also, TARTA has issues with communities wanting the ability to pull out of the system with little advanced notice. This situation places TARTA's funding on an even more unsecured footing.

To add an expensive rail operation that will not serve all the outlaying communities will spell major problems for TARTA. As costs go up to operate a rail line, communities that don't benefit from the rail line will balk about having to pay for it. Levy rejections and pull outs from the TARTA system will likely happen which will leave TARTA struggling even more to find the money to operate.

TARTA General Manager James Gee acknowledged the all important point which is how would TARTA pay to run a light rail line. Most systems ignore this point but Gee seems to be looking more at the whole picture rather than putting on a pair of rose colored glasses.

Toledo would be better off starting with a Bus Rapid Transit operation similar to Lane Transit's EmX operation in Eugene Oregon to establish a corridor and build up ridership. While Toledo's ridership has increased, it is still not very strong and isn't even remotely close to being able to justify a light rail line, even with falsified ridership projections.

NJ Transit employee newsletter is costly

Newark NJ - The Cherry Hill Courier Post had an interesting article about the NJ Transit employee newsletter and the costs involved to produce and distribute it. While the article was clearly biased against the costs involved with the newsletter due to the upcoming fare increases, the article provided a good look into one of the rarely considered costs that are helping to drive up the price of public transit.

The cost to produce and distribute the "En Route" employee newsletter is over $400,000 a year. While hardly a large amount considering that $400,000 is a drop in the bucket to the overall total budget, it is something that should be looked at.

I've seen many of these employee newsletters from various transit systems across the United States and only an issue or two is worth the cost of producing. Most are simply a waste of time, resources and money. Most employee newsletters from transit systems that I have seen are on the more expensive glossy paper, multi-color printing and multi-paged.

Most of what is included in these employee newsletters are management spin on issues effecting the system and many fluff pieces to fill up the newsletter. I have seen a few employee newsletters that literally were little more than free political advertising that was paid for out of the operating funds needed to run the system.

The cost of the "En Route" newsletter is rather high in my opinion. Many places can kick out a quality newsletter for less than a quarter of the $400,000 plus that NJ Transit pays to produce their employee newsletter. They're usually a little more informative as well.

NJ Transit seriously needs to look into trimming costs in this area as do all transit systems that issue employee newsletters. With the cost to provide service continuing to rise, every penny counts and these employee newsletters do nothing to keep service on the streets.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rendell pushes for his windfall profit tax

Philadelphia PA - Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell pushed hard for his proposed 6.17% windfall oil profits tax at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) board meeting. Claiming his tax will save SEPTA, Rendell urged the SEPTA Board to lobby State Legislators to pass his tax.

Rendell projects that his tax will generate $720 million each year from any profits by oil companies that operate or sell within Pennsylvania's borders.

What this tax will do is be the catalyst for skyrocketing fuel prices and fuel shortages across the state. This will adversely effect public transit and keep them in the same exact situation they are in now while the citizens of the state have to pick up the tab through higher costs for everything.

The cost of the tax will be passed onto the consumer through higher fuel prices. In addition to costing even more to fuel a private auto, public transit as well as trucking and rail companies will be hit hard. This will force transportation costs to rise and that will be passed off to the consumer through higher prices from food, clothing, electronics and everything else the public takes for granted.

Also, given the long term history of tax money being funneled off for other things, much of this "windfall" won't end up in the public transit coffers but into political pet projects and other governmental agencies that will be screaming for their fair share of the pot of gold.

Fast Eddie's proposal is not sound. Even the spendthrift State Legislature and people from Rendell's own party see this. If rammed through, all Pennsylvanians will feel the sting from it and public transit will not be saved.

Let's face the facts here. Oil companies will pass on the costs and if the tax proves too expensive to operate in the state, they'll pull out. Shortages will then occur that will spur even higher prices due to the shortages.

This tax isn't just on "Big Oil" either but the entire oil structure within the state border. From the small wells to the retail outlets and everything in between, all will be taxed under Rendell's windfall profit proposal. Small mom & pop operations all the way up to BP will be effected and nobody will be spared.

This is just another "feel good" law that plays off the public outrage over higher prices. Punishing "Big Oil" for being greedy is a big business these days in Liberal circles and is based not off of facts but feelings. These knee jerk reactions will only serve to further destroy this state.

To quote my favorite radio host, Jim Quinn and Quinn's first law: "Liberalism always generates the exact opposite of its stated intent." Fast Eddie's windfall profit tax is a perfect example of this.