Saturday, June 23, 2007

PAT continues in the fiscal death spiral

Pittsburgh PA - Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) on Friday approved more service cuts, layoffs as well as a yet to be determined fare hike. This will only further push PAT into the abyss from which it can't escape.

The years of living large under the former executive director, Paul Skoutelas, have caught up to PAT. Wasteful spending practices were honed to perfection under the Skoutelas reign at PAT which left little wiggle room for unexpected emergencies or cost increases which would immediately tilt the delicate balance.

The result of the wasteful practices was a 15% service cut with associated layoffs that went into effect last Sunday. Now an additional 10% of service has been approved for slashing as well as what will be a hefty fare increase.

Of course not all blame is to be laid on Skoutelas' doorstep. The State and local politicians are also to blame for not being willing to fund transit properly. It is hard to fund a wasteful organization properly however but the service shouldn't be destroyed for the people that depend on it just to cover political rear ends.

We as a nation just went through a national "Dump the Pump" promotion of public transit. What is happening in Pittsburgh is the very model of the opposite of what the promotion is all about. PAT is now at the point where it may never recover the lost ridership and what ridership remains will be finding other methods to go where they need to go.

Critics of PAT often cite duplicate service as a wasteful measure. It is true PAT operates what seem to be more duplicate routes than other systems but there is a reason. Pittsburgh has one of the most difficult service areas of any transit system in North America. The hills and valleys with roads that wander along the lay of the land make duplicate service hard to avoid. Roads in this area are designed to funnel into the Point in Downtown through a series of ever narrowing corridors. As buses head out of town, the routes break off a main trunk and head into the various communities tucked away in the geography.

Even with PAT's long overdue plan to overhaul the entire service under the "Connect '09" initiative, they will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, not to have duplicate service in the majority of the natural geographical corridors.

PAT does need to control its spending. There is no question about this fact. PAT also needs a reliable source of funding it can depend on as well. Reliable funding is something that Pennsylvania has never allowed any public transit system in the state and it is long overdue.

The current fiscal crisis PAT faces effects every transit system in Pennsylvania but primarily the two largest operations, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The State Legislature is stuck in session until something is done regarding funding the transit systems.

It's much more than just wasteful spending practices that triggered this crisis. Fuel, health care, wages and other operating expenses continue to go up while more and more unfunded government mandates continue to be placed on transit systems. All of this has helped push transit nationwide on to the event horizon of a massive fiscal black hole.

Nowhere is the effect as devastating as it is in Pittsburgh. This region has many areas that appear to be very close to a major transit line, as the crow flies, but can actually be a several miles away by road and sidewalk (if the road even has a sidewalk). This issue makes it much more costly to provide service in Pittsburgh. Something needs to be done to prevent public transit from failing completely here. It will hurt the entire region if PAT is allowed to continue to implode.

I have been critical of the most of the various plans brought up to help fund transit in Pennsylvania. The plans championed by various politicians do little toward actually solving the funding problem and everything to allow the politicians to pick the pockets of the taxpayer. None of the "cures" brought up to date address the problem of the need for a dedicated and dependable source of income for public transit.

The various proposals brought up by the politicians will still require the same method of distributing the funding. This means it has to be added to the state budget and then left open to being slashed for political pet projects and other agencies and groups in the state that are screaming loudly for money.

While I know taxes will have to go up to save transit in Pennsylvania, I will not nor cannot support any tax increase until the politicians allow a truly dedicated source of funding that is distributed equitably and not subject to the political whims of the politicians and activists. The public transit systems also need to continue to clean up their act and eliminate wasteful spending practices if such a funding scheme does happen.

Public transit is important to many people as well as the economy of the region it serves. It can't be allowed to crash and burn however we taxpayers also can't allow new taxes to be placed on the books for transit just to maintain the status quo. Changes are needed before we can accept more taxes for transit. Let's face a fact, PAT isn't the model of fiscal efficiency but it is improving. Those improvements need to continue and the state needs to allow for a truly dedicated funding source that is can be depended on.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Art project rusts while costing city plenty

Ventura CA - In an event that is more common than most think, yet another piece of art that adorns a transit facility is being damaged by the elements and costing the taxpayers much more money than the art is worth.

The City of Ventura built a transit center at the north end of the Pacific View Mall in 2002. This art work, which the city calls a shelter, cost $2 million. Since its installation, the structure has started to rust away. Fingers are being pointed and now is in court, wasting even more taxpayer money.

The city isn't maintaining it and trying to get the contractor to pay for restoration while the contractor insists that the city should pay for it since they didn't maintain it. The artist had final say in what paint and undercoating were to be used and he blew it. The result is a $2 million dollar rusting hulk that will take a few hundred thousand to restore, not including the money spent on the legal proceedings.

Anytime Federal funds are involved, art is mandated. If Federal money isn't involved, the local cultural community whines and complains until they can get art installed. Both scenarios are fully at taxpayer expense.

What few seem to understand is that these artsy-fartsy designs, sculptures and other permanent art work cost millions and the cost is on-going for maintenance. In some instances, the artwork takes priority over the facility itself due to the agreements over the artwork. If the piece doesn't get pristine maintenance, the artist and cultural groups begin hiring lawyers.

I have always had a problem with the rules requiring artwork, especially in transit projects. Most of what I see in these public art projects that cost millions to have is pure junk. I've seen better junk being tossed out on trash day.

Art is an acquired taste as well as one of personal taste yet the cultural community has succeeded in shoving their vision of art on everyone at the taxpayer's expense.

Transit systems are especially hit hard by having to maintain the mandated art due to the threat of expensive legal proceedings if they don't. In addition, if the art isn't maintained, it makes the facility look shabby. There is nothing wrong with a clean facility using easy to maintain materials, especially when the taxpayers are footing the bill.

Here's a solution, if the cultural community insists on art then let them pay for it as well as maintain it on their dime. It will never happen as it is just so much easier to spend your money than it is to spend their money.

The last two paragraphs in the article say it all and are sentiments expressed by the vast majority if the public in every city:

“It’s just rotting away and they paid $2 million,” Comstock said. “Somebody should be paying for the upkeep since they spent so much money on it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I guess it’s art. They call it art. I don’t understand it.”

Sally Ramos, owner of Allison’s Country Cafe which faces “Bus Home,” echoes Comstock’s sentiments. “I think it was a waste of money. I think they should have built something practical like a structure that people could stand under when it’s raining and not get wet,” Ramos said, then added, “You look at it and just kind of wonder ‘Why?’”

Thursday, June 21, 2007

PA Dems out to pick pockets for transit

Harrisburg PA - Higher vehicle fees, higher emission sticker fees, higher tolls, increased fuel taxes, higher taxes on tires, titles, inspections and taxing professional sports are all on the plate with Pennsylvania's tax and spend Democrat legislators.

I have mentioned in the past on the AMCAP Transit Talk discussion board that I truly believe that the Liberal politicians are trying to price the automobile out of existence through taxes and fees and once again, my vision of the future is coming true. Pennsylvania Democrats are trying for everything except congestion pricing at this point to generate money for transit but Governor "Fast Eddie" Rendell wants to tax oil companies at the state level instead.

If these Democratic plans go through, most of the money generated won't go to transit anyway. Pennsylvania's transit funding crisis is simply a convenient excuse for the tax and spend politicians to justify picking the taxpayer's pocket once again.

It's just not in Pennsylvania that such lunacy is taking place. One example is New York City, home of the ultra-Liberal Mayor Bloomberg (who actually was a life-long Democrat who only changed parties since the Dem ticket was too full for him) wants congestion pricing and is promising lower fares if his initiative passes. Yeah right, lower fares. It's not happening in London, the showcase for congestion pricing.

Luckily, the Pennsylvania Legislature is controlled by the Republicans who are resisting raising taxes. Most of these new taxes are dead on arrival when it comes to a vote yet the Dems keep coming up with more ways to raise taxes while offering nothing toward showing any fiscal responsibility.

Trying to tax the automobile out of existence won't help public transit, period. Even if all the tax increase went toward transit, all that would happen is that the status quo would remain in place for a few more years and then we'd be right back in the same exact position we are in now.

It is also a proven fact that taxing automobile ownership doesn't work. Minnesota has such a scheme to fund transit and they are finding that as people abandon their cars for transit, the automobile generated revenues for transit are dropping rapidly, placing the systems in a financial bind. Fares just don't cover the operating expenses of public transit today.

A single dedicated funding source such as a local 1/4% or 1/2% sales tax is a far more equitable method of funding transit rather than nickel and diming every aspect of automobile ownership. Any form of funding should also come with a string attached which is that wasteful spending practices will be punished by the system not being funded.

Much of the funding crisis is the direct result of wasteful spending practices at transit systems for decades. My local system, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) mastered the technique of wasting money on everything except putting service on the street. Simply taxing the hell out of the taxpayer to pay for transit service by wasteful systems is useless as they'll continue to blow money and have their hand out for more next year.

Transit funding is a complicated issue. The two things that are clear however is that public transit does need to be adequately funded and public transit administrations and unions need to stop wasting money and refocus on the basics. It's like matter and anti-matter with the funding being obliterated by the wasteful practices at many agencies.

The answer to funding isn't to tax the car owner out of existence. It won't solve the transit funding crisis and will only serve to push even more people out of the state. The Pennsylvania Democrat's plan is a disaster in the making and decades of evidence on past political behavior show that much of the money raised will not go to what it is intended for and transit will still be left with inadequate funding.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In Kenosha's tracks?

Kenosha WI / Madison WI - Madison WI Mayor David Cieslewicz and his partner in the pro-rail spin machine, Charlie Hales (streetcar consultant to Cieslewicz), are attempting to use Kenosha's streetcar system as proof that a streetcar system in Madison will work.

The article in the Madison Times had me laughing for quite some time. These 4 paragraphs are pure gold:

"It a boon to tourism," Cieslewicz said. "And tourism is one of the reasons for a streetcar here."

However, on a recent Monday, there wasn't a tourist in sight on Kenosha's downtown lakefront.

The weather was glorious. The sun was glinting off the water. The breeze was mild enough to keep the small crowd gathered at a transit transfer point comfortable in the 80-degree heat without messing up their hair.

But none of that crowd got on the streetcar. They were waiting for buses.

The article then goes into mentioning the empty streetcars that frequently run on Kenosha's tourist line. 50 riders a day is average for a weekend during tourist season. "There are fewer riders in the winter, when Brandup cuts back the hours of service so people don't see empty cars going by as often."

Cieslewicz and Hales then state that streetcars aren't about ridership. Excuse me? Not about ridership? That's one of the reasons Cieslewicz has frequently stated as to why he is trying to ram his streetcar proposal through, it will reduce the traffic congestion in Madison.

Cieslewicz wants his streetcar line for two reasons. One is that he thinks that in time, it will be a positive factor for his legacy and the second is development. Once again, no mention was made of the fact that the bulk of the development which will occur will occur on the taxpayer's dime. Grants, no-pay back loans, tax breaks and other taxpayer funded methods will be used to lure developers to build along the line. It can take 20 years or more before any real development occurs. As I have mentioned before, I'm still waiting for the promised development along the rails in my hometown.

I have to give Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz a Lance for this performance.