Friday, June 29, 2007

Reforming Pennsylvania's Public Transit Systems

Pittsburgh PA - In an editorial out of The Valley Independent, a rallying cry for the privatization and free market competition in the reform of public transit is once again heard. While the editorial has some valid points, it misses the mark.

The paper correctly points out what other "reformers" are doing which is throwing good money after bad while not actually solving the core problem of why public transit is in a crisis. The problem I have with the editorial is that they are too busy pointing fingers at the union and laying the whole problem on them while ignoring the administration as well as the multitude of other issues that have helped price transit out of the market.

The problem public transit faces today just isn't the union, as the paper will have you believe, it is a whole cadre of issues. Wages, benefits, mis-management, inefficient operations, rising costs outside of the control of the system, etc. While the union definitely plays a role in the wasteful practices, the waste in some of the transit administrations across the country can make a generous union contract look like Ebenezer Scrooge wrote it.

The call for privatization that the paper wants is based on information that is more or less cherry picked. Denver's private operations, for example, have more than its fair share of problems and the costs continue to climb. Rider complaints are much higher on the privatized service than on the agency run service. You won't hear any of this mentioned however. It is detrimental to the cause of privatization and Denver's problems have recently received national press so that city, once the poster child for the privatization movement, was completely ignored.

In Pittsburgh, privatized maintenance on specialized transit vehicles known as Small Transit Vehicles (STV's) resulted in massive over billing for services by the contractor, many times for services which were never performed. The same will happen with contracted service. Money that should be used for service will also end up paying lawyers to settle the multitude of disputes that will arise between the overseeing transit authority and the contractor.

I also find it funny that the editorial doesn't mention the Westmoreland County Transit Authority (WCTA) which is right next door to Pittsburgh and the same editorial staff also writes for a paper in Westmoreland County. The WCTA contracts out services to private carriers just like the editorial writer wants. The reason they don't mention this system is that the WCTA has had many problems with its contracted services. From complaints, lack of maintenance, many missed trips, disputes between the WCTA and the contractors, etc., the system isn't the Utopian model that the privatization crowd wants you to see.

Privatization isn't the answer. Public transit is incapable in today's market to succeed without subsidies and the wasteful bureaucracy that is in place now will still be there overseeing the contracted service. Even in the golden age of transit in the 40's and 50's where private operators ruled, transit operations often were in and out of receivership multiple times and some just outright folded.

The cost to provide service today is even greater. With EPA and ADA regulations that cost systems millions of dollars to comply with as well as the new burden of security, the cost of providing service is going through the roof and it doesn't matter if the service is contracted or not, it won't contain the costs.

The reform that is needed is to eliminate the wasteful internal practices, reduce and even eliminate much of the politics that have come to drive transit systems these days (i.e. politically motivated routes that haul few), get transit systems out of the real estate development market, stop building new transit projects, chain up the marketing department and stop letting them literally run the operation, and concentrate on the basics of providing service. It is possible to run efficient operations even under a government agency and PAT did just that in the 1970's with a massive route expansion that was funded through streamlining the entire operation to make it efficient.

I totally agree with the premise that changes must occur. The status quo can't be allowed to continue. I just can't justify the position of the editorial however. Trading one set of expensive problems for a new set of expensive problems isn't a good idea and won't benefit the public that depends on transit service.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

O'Toole wrong on this one

Victorville CA - A story out of the Victorville Daily Press tells of the difficulties of the loss of commuter bus service in the Victorville area, especially for the disabled and low income residents. It is a situation that is all too common in many areas of the country. Trips on the commuter bus that cost $9 now cost between $28 and $120 using taxi, Greyhound, Amtrak or the local paratransit service.

Enter Randall O'Toole from the Cato Institute. While I generally agree with most of what O'Toole comments regarding public transit, I believe he's wrong on his latest comments regarding issuing vouchers for transit.

O'Toole comes across as though issuing transportation vouchers will reduce government bureaucracy. "Instead of trying to pay for a service that will never turn a profit, O’Toole suggests giving them vouchers — like food stamps — rather than subsidizing a bloated bureaucratic agency" states O'Toole.

Sadly Randall, that isn't the case and you should know it. All your doing is transferring the bureaucracy from one area to another area. The taxpayer will still be shelling out for a bloated bureaucracy to monitor and run a voucher program.

O'Toole is using the free market philosophy which I support but when it comes to public transit, the free market quickly becomes government regulated which drives up the cost of providing services. The residents are already using the free market options and the cost is much greater. Add vouchers to the mix and the cost will go up more because your creating more paperwork for the private entities which will lessen the value of the government issued voucher.

Whenever I hear the word voucher, the first thought that comes to my mind is the bloated government bureaucracy needed to run the voucher program. Vouchers also will not reduce the bloated bureaucracies that are inherent in public transit systems. With the paper shuffling that will be required to run a voucher program, your going to greatly increase the cost of providing service by having to create whole new departments to handle the vouchers.

Why O'Toole thinks vouchers are the answer to reducing costs, spurring free market competition and reducing the size of government is beyond me.

While I sympathize with the plight of the residents that depended on the commuter bus service, instituting a government voucher program isn't the answer to the problem they face nor is it an answer to reducing the cost or size of the bureaucracy in a transit system. All it will do is increase the problems as well as the cost to everyone.

What is needed is what the Victorville Valley Transit Authority General Manager, Kevin Kane, suggests. Get the non-profit social service organizations involved. So far these groups have been reluctant to step up to the plate, even with the carrot of a free van to provide the service. Perhaps the VVTA needs to reduce the bureaucratic weight on such groups that provide service to make it happen or cover their operation using the VVTA insurance.

The cost for a non-profit group to provide such a service isn't cheap. Insurance costs alone can make or break such an operation. Then there are the many government regulations that add to the cost of providing service.

Whatever the reason, the non-profits won't step forward to assist and the reasons need to be made clear. Once understood, perhaps a deal can be worked out to get the idea moving.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Don't try to ride if you don't live here

Apple Valley MN - A battle over parking spaces at an overcrowded park and ride lot has prompted the the City Council of Apple Valley to implement a rather odd plan. The plan is to ban anyone except Apple Valley residents from using a publicly funded Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) park and ride lot.

Police are already licking their chops at the prospect of being able to write more tickets. A $29 ticket will be issued to anyone outside of Apple Valley that parks in the publicly funded MVTA park and ride lot.

The debate over this stems from the fact that 59% of the parkers at the park and ride lot come from outside of the Apple Valley special transit tax district. Therefore the claim is made that the residents of nearby Lakeville and Farmington don't have the right to park there.

Naturally the residents of Lakeville and Farmington, areas not served by the MVTA hence why they are not in the special tax district, claim that existing property tax and motor vehicle taxes they pay already go to helping the MVTA.

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL) politicians, Minnesota's version of an Ultra-Liberal Democrat, tried to take advantage of the conflict to raise taxes by expanding the special transit tax district to a 7 county area. The measure was defeated primarily by the counties that have no transit service because the MVTA doesn't serve there and has no plans to in the future.

Similar situations are occurring all over the country. It's just the banning of riders that is a new twist on an old theme.

The simple premise of barring certain people over political boundaries will do nothing to encourage transit usage. To the contrary, it will force people back into their cars. Considering that the MVTA receives State and Federal funding which is paid by the Lakeville and Farmington residents, the residents are paying. Just because Apple Valley residents voluntarily voted to approve an additional tax on themselves doesn't give them the ability to ban others.

Here's a solution. If Lakeville and Farmington join in the special transit tax district, the MVTA gets off their duff and starts providing service to those areas along with a park and ride lot all their own. It is obvious that the demand is there. The main reason these communities haven't joined the tax district is that the MVTA has absolutely no plans to serve those areas.

If Apple Valley goes through with its plan, look for this to be dragged into court. In the mean time, look for Apple Valley residents and politicians to continue to complain when the banned riders are forced to another lot further up the line where they can board first. Complaints of parking will be replaced with complaints about overcrowding of the buses before they reach Apple Valley.

Apple Valley's City Council received a Lance for the attempt to ban transit riders simply due to political boundaries. The MVTA also earns a Lance for not serving areas that obviously generate quite a lot of its ridership. The MVTA could easily get the outlaying areas into its special tax district if they would only serve it as well as genuinely increasing its ridership numbers.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Streetcars give a lift but at who's expense?

Tampa FL - A Wall Street Journal story that was picked up by many papers focuses on Tampa's streetcar system in an attempt to show how having a streetcar will spur massive development. It at least acknowledges that the $68 million streetcar line in Tampa as a transportation tool is a total dud.

Unfortunately, the story by Thaddeus Herrick of the WSJ barely mentions anything about how the massive development is funded. It sings the praises of using streetcars as a development tool while glossing over the fact that the taxpayer is shelling out billions of dollars to developers each year across this country. From tax breaks, grants, low interest loans that are often never repaid and other sweetheart deals, the cost to lure developers often is never recovered in tax revenue from the development.

The public is routinely spun a tale of how a rail line will spur development on its own. Sadly that isn't the case in most instances. The public pays for the development through the various sweetheart deals that the politicians create.

I would love to see the true amount that a developer is given in taxpayer money through various incentives versus the cost of the actual development for transit projects. It's a closely guarded secret it seems as I have tried to obtain this data and have been stonewalled every step of the way. I have been told off the record (but haven't been able to verify with my own eyes) that many times the tax breaks for developers on transit oriented development exceed the actual cost of development. That really doesn't surprise me given other sweetheart deals in non-transit project related development where this was in fact true.

The taxpayers need to understand that the development isn't free. They are paying for it though their taxes. While transit systems struggle, police and fire are being cut back and other other important services curtailed, a nice chunk of that money is given to the developer in one form or another. Either as a grant or loan or through having their tax burden greatly slashed or even eliminated. The taxpayer is left holding the bag either way.

Then there is the congestion argument once again:
While streetcars lack speed and mobility, proponents say the role they play in urban development makes them a worthy transportation choice. They (proponents) argue that by helping to draw development to urban areas such as downtowns, and by providing a transportation link in those areas, streetcars reduce the need for extra lanes of highways to the suburbs and limit the need for cars in and around downtowns.

Actually that isn't true. No streetcar line built in the US has reduced traffic congestion. It's had the opposite effect of causing more traffic congestion. Proponents refuse to understand that easily observable and documented fact.

The final part of the article goes into how Tampa's streetcar line is losing $1 million a year. It's attracting tourists but I must ask, does the revenue from the approximately 195,000 tourists that visit the Tampa area each year and are reported to ride the line cover the losses of running the line? Obviously the answer is no since the line is losing $1 million a year and the city has decided not to pony up more money to keep it running. If the line was such a boon to the city coffers, they'd have no problem stepping up and pouring more money into keeping the line operating.

The bottom line is that the WSJ article is just a bunch of pro-rail rhetoric designed to help generate support for getting more streetcar lines slapped into various cities. A real story would have included the cost to taxpayers for subsidizing the private developers. If the developers truly believed the streetcar was a draw for their development as Fida Sirdar, president of Key Developers Group LLC stated in the article, they wouldn't need sweetheart deals to build there.

Monday, June 25, 2007

When a cut is actually an increase

Sacramento CA - In a letter to the Alameda Times-Star, Dale E. Bonner who is the Secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency (governmental) responded to an article posted in the paper that whined about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's cuts to transit in the State budget.

Bonner wrote:
A RECENT ARTICLE ("Bakers Bemoan BART Budget Issue," June 20) misrepresents Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed transportation budget.

First, referring to Gov. Schwarzenegger's public transportation budget as a "cut" is inaccurate and misleading. The Governor has increased funding for transit by more than 20 percent over the last year and more than 400 percent over three years ago. His budget proposal shows tremendous leadership on public transit by increasing funding for state and local transit by $321 million.

State funds account for a very small portion of transit agency funding. According to the state's non-partisan legislative analyst, state funds accounted for only 2 percent of all transit agency operating revenue statewide over the last 10 years. The remaining 98 percent comes from federal and local revenue sources and passenger fares. Attributing any change in a local transit agency's budget to the state's traditional 2 percent contribution is illogical and unwarranted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger supports transit in the state. He championed last November's Prop. 1b, which included $4 billion for public transit, intercity and commuter rail and waterborne transit operations, and has promised to continue to build infrastructure for the next generation of Californians.

I myself had been a little confused over the funding situation in California and could slap myself for not remembering one of the key political tools used these days (yes, the spin doctor was winning). An increase in funding over the previous year is considered a cut if it fails to meet the percentage level that the politicians pushing for it want. In their eyes, an increase becomes a cut in the world of political spin and the fact that it actually is an increase over the previous year is completely ignored. It's a tactic that is heavily used by politicians these days as they try to spin their way around each other and I'm ashamed I forgot about that often used little trick.

As with most transit systems across the country, California is no exception to wasteful spending. Remember the 30 page procedure to buy a cake for office parties story that was posted on Laurels and Lances on February 1, 2007. California operations are also much more cost heavy due to more stringent environmental rules which cost transit operators across the state billions of dollars in extra costs. The politics of transit is also very heavy in California which tends to make for wasteful procedures to satisfy the bureaucracy machine.

I have thought for quite awhile that what transit systems in California were doing was looking for the financial band-aid rather than trying for an efficient operation. Another Laurels and Lances column from March 8, 2007 shows the mentality of the Bay Area transit systems which were eagerly gearing up to build more transit projects while at the same time crying about not being able to afford to run what they already have.

As I am seeing this, the state increased its funding but not enough to satisfy the transit systems, local politicians and activists. My solution is to stop whining and trim the internal fat of the transit operations. Try becoming more efficient. Stop looking to build more transit projects when you can't afford to run what you have in place already. And please, stop the spin, I'm getting dizzy.

I'll say this for public transit systems these days, they're becoming worse than my local PBS station (WQED) when it comes to begging for money. I'm just waiting for them to call the riders a bunch of freeloaders like WQED called their viewership many years ago when they were shaking their tin cup a bit too hard...

HART's union unwilling to accept reality

Tampa FL - The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) was flying high only a few months ago. Big plans were in place to expand service and a recently negotiated 5 year union contract assured no threat to those plans. It was a win-win for everyone.

Fast forward to the present and HART is now sounding very much like most transit systems in the US, route cuts and fare hikes.

The sudden change that shot down HART's fast flying dreams was a change in the State budget. HART found itself $5.2 million short of what was needed to expand service as well as fund the new contract.

Union president Mike McCoy dismissed any idea of renegotiating the recently approved contract which gave union members a 5% yearly increase (25% increase over the course of the 5 year contract). "We expect that contract to be adhered to," McCoy said and added that the union won't go back to the bargaining table.

I'm sure Mr. McCoy will be the first to whine like a little baby when 50 of his union brothers and sisters are sitting on the unemployment line after they are laid off. Working in the best interest of the union membership? It sure doesn't sound like it to me when he's voluntarily tossing 50 of his members into the fiscal shredder and willingly taking away routes that his members would be driving otherwise.

The recently approved contract was rather generous and was based upon having the money available. I'm more than positive that the union actually wanted a double digit increase in pay each year and were forced to accept a lower amount to fit into the forecast of what HART would be getting in funding.

Unions, as well as management, often forget why they they are there in the first place. Let me remind them. They are there to serve the public with clean, reliable and convenient transit service. Unions have shown at many transit systems that they are more than willing to let the public, who are the ones that pay their wages by the way, suffer when projected income falls well below what was anticipated and the union contract becomes detrimental to the operation.

HART's union needs to rethink it's "screw you" attitude. Not only are they out to hurt the ridership with their outright refusal to even consider reopening the contract due to the sudden fiscal changes at HART but they are hurting their own membership and helping to push HART into the fiscal abyss that it may never be able to escape from. Once in the abyss, the downward spiral continues with more and more cuts and more layoffs.

Even one of the more difficult unions to deal with, ATU Division 85 in Pittsburgh, is open to contract negotiations to save their member's jobs and keep service on the streets for the public. Mr, McCoy obviously doesn't seem to give a rat's ass if the public is cut off from service or if his union brethren lose their jobs.

Mike McCoy, you've earned a Lance for not understanding the consequences of your actions. You alone have the ability to keep HART from entering the fiscal abyss that so many transit systems are in right now as well as determining if your members work or are sitting on the unemployment line.