Saturday, July 14, 2007

Another flawed rail study?

Charlotte NC - Critics of Charlotte's light rail line charge that a study done by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) and commissioned by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce is skewed to favor rail. The report, used to bolster public support for a controversial tax, has critics of Charlotte's rail operation and tax to support it questioning the fairness as well as the accuracy of it.

Questions surrounding the study and report center around the fact that it was commissioned by a group favorable to the rail plan and tax. Records indicate that the President of the Chamber of Commerce, Bob Morgan, may have influenced how the rail study was handled by the UNCC.

The UNCC is investigating the matter but it's like in Washington DC when politicians police their own members. They won't find much that they did wrong. Even if researchers purposely ignored certain facts, the study was more than likely handled properly within the realm of the UNCC policy.

The policy prohibits "serious deviation" from commonly accepted research practices, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. Even ignoring key data and cherry picking the results would not fall within the grasp of the policy. Only making up their own data in lieu of gathering the data properly, deliberately changing results or stealing results from another source would violate the policy. I don't believe that happened here.

What I believe may have happened was that key data was ignored and not even looked at as well as results being cherry-picked to create at report that the people, who commissioned the report, wanted to see. The UNCC did nothing wrong beside possibly not looking at all information and not including information that didn't meet the study criteria. Research is like statistics, data can be viewed and even ignored in a variety of ways while not violating any ethics policy.

This isn't the first time such a thing happened. Studies generally tend to slant toward the views of whoever commissioned the study, regardless of who does the study. This is why I tend to question all the various studies that are being waved around by various groups and government agencies. The studies to believe lean more toward those studies that end up being buried by the groups that commissioned them as it doesn't say what they want it to say.

Personally speaking, the various studies being done for anything and everything these days aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Few produced are done without being commissioned by some group that is paying for the study to be done and setting the study criteria. Of course the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce will get a report favorable to their position when they are the ones setting the criteria of the study. I would bet that if the rail critics commissioned a study and set the criteria, they'd get one that supports their views.

Using commissioned studies to sway popular opinion has become a big business these days. Few are accurate and even fewer are non-biased. While the UNCC study will hold up to the internal investigation since it most likely didn't violate any internal policy, it is still a highly questionable report given the fact that it was a commissioned study which had the study criteria set by the group paying for it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Someone woke up to the RTD FasTracks boondoggle

Avarda CO - Denver suburbanites are beginning to take notice that the RTD's FasTracks program was over-hyped, full of lies and is costing them plenty. An opinion piece in the Mile High News by Tom Graham expresses many of the concerns that I have long held about rail and many other public transit projects.

Graham appeared to be a supporter of the FasTracks project to place new rail lines in the suburbs that would connect to Denver. Today he calls it a boondoggle. Why the change? The Utopian facade of rail is starting to fall apart with rapidly escalating costs, promises that weren't fulfilled, total lies and plans to take even more money from the residents to pay for it all.

RTD planners originally touted the project as a relief to the mounting traffic congestion in the Denver area. I could have told Mr. Graham from day one that reason was just spin to garner support by the traffic weary residents. There isn't one study, that anyone can produce, which shows rail will have a significant effect on the reduction of traffic. In most cases it is just the opposite and traffic congestion increases after a rail line opens for passenger traffic.

As Graham feels his wallet getting lighter by the minute, he has woken up to the fact that rail isn't the answer for Denver, or for many areas for that matter. He states that Avarda residents are already paying $2,600 each per year and not even one train is running. He fully expects that amount to increase and I agree.

He then complains that what is happening isn't what the people voted for. Again, I have to agree but also add this; What did he expect to happen when government is involved? What the voter wants rarely coincides with what they actually end up with. The Utopian vision painted by the supporters makes it easy to say "I want that" and cast a vote in favor of the plan. The reality is that what is presented is just spin. The ballot initiatives are written to encourage a yes vote as well.

Reality is like a slap in the face with a dead fish but the voters in Avarda and other Denver communities got exactly what they voted for because they didn't do their homework and find out more. Just listening to the RTD, politician and activist spin without bothering to take the time to look at the opposite side of the issue just played right into their hands. It's exactly what they were counting on.

Tom Graham has nailed the situation in the Denver area pretty good. It's just too bad he didn't see the light before now since it's too late to do anything about it. It's an expensive lesson that too many people learn after its too late simply because they believe the Utopian spin that rail is the Saviour and everything will be fine once a rail line is slapped down.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

PAT gets funding with strings attached

Pittsburgh PA - Pennsylvania lawmakers finally approved a budget which includes dedicated transit funding for the state's transit systems but there is a string attached. To get the funding, local government will need to put up matching funding.

In Allegheny County, the state is going to allow Allegheny County officials to impose up to a 10 percent poured drinks tax as well as a $2 per day tax on rental cars. In other words, the state politicians passed the buck to the locals.

Now, to Allegheny County Chief Executive Director Dan Onorato's (D) credit, he stated that he would not impose the new taxes until the Port Authority gets its union and management costs down more. Yet another string on the funding. Given Onorato's desire to implement the original and poorly conceived PAT hack & slash plan which left large sections of the county without any transit service, I really believe he will hold to what he is stating.

The Port Authority has a long way to go to trim costs. The union is willing to reopen the contract for negotiations however they will fight against any major concessions. Management is busy doing a smoke and mirror act with many of its costs.

There are some problems with the new funding plan for Allegheny County also. Primarily is that it is yet another "sin" tax. A poured drink tax is a targeted tax aimed at a select group of people, most of whom will have no problem taking their business across county lines. These types of "sin" taxes have proven to generate far less than projected in addition to chasing away money to other areas that are more money friendly.

Secondly, the string attached to the so-called dedicated funding by the state politicians is designed strictly to take the focus off of them the next time there is a funding crunch and place it on the local politicians. The state also must budget and tax the residents for the maximum amount of the funding even if it isn't used. Unused money from one year won't be carried over to the next year in the budget either.

Each year the state politicians will still have to do exactly as they have been doing since 1964 and budget the money. In effect, all the state politicians have done is to increase the red tape and bureaucracy since they now require the local government to tax and match to get the funding. I didn't expect anything less from the state politicians.

How I see this going down is as follows in Pittsburgh. The county will impose a small portion of the tax, around 2-4%. Some of the revenue generated will go to get matching funds but not all of it. PAT's management and union will not bring costs down much more than they already have which will keep the county from providing the full amount of money to get the state's matching funds. Probably around half of the poured drink tax revenue will be skimmed off for other county needs even though it was implemented as a transit tax. While all this is going on, each year the state politicians will find new reasons to reduce the state funding pot. In other words, nothing really will change except for more taxes and more bureaucratic red tape.

PAT, SEPTA and the other state transit agencies are breathing a huge sigh of relief over the new state budget but they aren't out of the woods with the new policy on transit funding that was passed by the state politicians. Some may squeak out a few years before being in the same position they are in now. Others may be lucky if they can make it to next year before crying about being out of money again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Failure despite success

Toronto ON - The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is in a unique spot these days. Its ridership is greatly increasing but is causing overcrowding as well as cash flow headaches. The TTC finds itself unable to cope with the influx of riders as politicians and activists push harder to get more people on board.

This is a problem every transit system in North America faces as they try to find ways to get people out of their cars and onto transit. It's a Catch-22 where even if you win, you lose.

Of course there is no additional money forthcoming. The TTC claims it needs $6.7 million (C$) to battle the overcrowding by adding more transit vehicles and drivers. Where does this leave the TTC? Wanting to hike fares to help cover the expenses of increased ridership.

Now, one more time people. Let's look back at the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) during the early and mid 1970's. They had a massive increase in ridership yet this was handled without dramatically increasing costs and without fare increases or increased funding. New routes were added, service was run efficiently which allowed more service out of one bus and driver as well as having just about every fare incentive out there to get even more riders on board.

PAT had crowded buses and trolleys but they were able to handle the quick influx of riders quickly, effectively and efficiently. It's too bad the PAT management of today doesn't understand this basic principle but that's another rant for another time.

This is what bothers me on the Toronto story. The TTC has plans for various new transit projects while ignoring the existing service. Just about every other transit system in North America is the same way. Rather than make their operation efficient, they instantly put their hand out for more tax money and when they don't get it, they punish the ridership by raising fares and cutting service.

Politicians, activists of various causes and transit officials all want more people on board. When they get them, they aren't prepared for them. It doesn't take much to prepare either. Run an efficient operation and the ability to handle the crowds becomes easy. You don't need more money to handle an increase in ridership.

The answer most of the politicians, activists and transit officials see is to build expensive transit projects that benefit few and take away from the rest of the area's service to pay to run the project. Rarely do you see any of the above decide to make the system cost efficient and focusing on what they already have in place. As the above groups push harder to make driving more expensive by wanting to tax private car ownership to oblivion, they are also hurting the transit systems. By forcing unneeded transit projects to be built and sacrificing the rest of the operation to pay to run these projects, they ensure people keep finding new ways to keep driving, regardless of cost.

The TTC is also pointing the finger of blame at the monthly pass holders for its revenues dropping while ridership increases. What a load of BS that is. That makes absolutely no sense what so ever. Again, PAT in the 70's had just about every fare incentive you could think of to get riders on-board and it wasn't losing revenue doing it. The vast majority of the riders back then used some form of pre-paid discount fare instrument and fare revenues were increasing, not decreasing. PAT turned the worst fare days into the best with the Tuesday Special reduced fare for everyone during Tuesday off-peak. Using the TTC excuse, the PAT of the 70's should have been losing money faster than water going over Niagara Falls with the Tuesday Special. The TTC is just trying to justify a fare hike with the claim that monthly pass holders are costing it money.

Toronto is just one of many operations that are experiencing a rider surge. More will follow, some will totally screw it up *cough* PAT today *cough* while others will adapt and deal with it. Toronto seems to be trying hard to screw it up while at the same time trying to slip their hand into the tax till for more money.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Is PAT Really Trimming The Fat?

Pittsburgh PA - Allegheny County Councilman Matt Drozd (R) has spoken out that it is time for the PAT unions to give back like the management has in light of the fiscal crisis that PAT is currently in. Drozd doesn't address this however.

PAT has 19 jobs in upper management currently posted in-house and 15 currently posted on their web-site. The lowest salary is for $4,800 a month ($57,600 a year) with one going for $9,800 a month ($117,600 a year), not including benefits.

Considering that some of these positions can be merged together into one position and that the bulk of the positions would go for less in the private market, it tells me that PAT is still not being fiscally responsible.

Matt Drozd needs to mouth off about this issue but I doubt he will.

While I agree that the unions do need to make concessions, Drozd is letting management off the hook once again as they are trying to refill their ranks at a higher price than the private market in Pittsburgh offers. The fiscal crisis PAT finds itself is cannot be solved by a one-time theatrical act of cutting management staff and salaries while then silently going out to fill the vacancies at greater than market prices.

As I have mentioned before in various Laurels & Lances articles on PAT's financial woes, the agency has decades of waste built into the management philosophy. As one can see, that philosophy is still there. Many of those management positions need eliminated, merged with existing positions and salaries reduced to market levels consistent with the Western Pennsylvania area.

County Councilman Matt Drozd (R-Ross) earns himself a Lance for letting management off the hook on this situation while pounding the drums about the union needing to give back. While I do agree with him on that point, PAT's management still has a long way to go before they can even be remotely considered fiscally responsible.

Fare Free Transit - Does It Work?

Whidbey Island WA - The Seattle Post-Intellegencer had an article regarding fare free transit for Island Transit on Whidbey and Camano Islands in Washington. The article went into the benefits of providing a fare free system. It did list some of the cons as well however they were glossed over in my opinion.

With several cities as well as various transit activists pushing for this type of operation across North America, the article appeared as though it was commissioned.

Let's take a trip back in history first. In the early 1960's, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was a strong advocate of just such a scheme. In fact, it was tried in several cities for a very short time. Some cities, such as Cleveland, stopped the experiment within a few hours due to excessive crowds on the buses as well as fights and other rowdy behavior. The experiment was pushed by the ATU to "protect its drivers" from the hassle of fare disputes. The union became rather silent on the subject after the experiment.

Over the years, many cities implemented free fare zones in their downtown cores. This worked for the most part and was convenient for all, especially for systems like in Pittsburgh which has a zone fare structure that required paying first inbound and paying as you leave on the outbound.

Now to the present. Cities such as San Francisco and New York City as well as states like Connecticut are looking into such schemes again. The activists in these places hold up operations like Island Transit as well as Chapel Hill NC as the poster children. "It works there so it'll work here", they claim.

Wrong. What you will have is chaos in a larger city. Small towns can accomplish free transit rather easily. They don't have many of the problems that larger cities have with rowdy teens, homeless populations, crime, etc. In small scale applications, even in a large city, these factors can be controlled. On a large scale, these issues can't be easily controlled.

Many systems today already have many problems with disruptive people riding even with fares. Complaints are very common regarding the homeless that get free passes from other government agencies and then ride around panhandling on the buses and teens that get special discounted fares who ride around with nothing else they are willing to do besides cause problems on board. I could write a book on my experiences of riding buses and the majority of it would easily be filled with such incidents.

Then one must ask this. How will public transit in large cities make up the loss of millions of dollars in fare box revenues if they went free? Most cities can't afford the increased cost for transit as it is and to then throw out millions of dollars in income because they want to jump on a bandwagon which is being spearheaded by transit activists and Liberal politicians would simply create a situation that would cost everyone.

The activists and Liberal politicians would be having fits as service was slashed to cover the reduction of millions of dollars in fares. You know they have absolutely no plan to cover the loss of fares beside raising taxes on anything and everything. Much of that increased tax money wouldn't end up at the transit system anyway and we all know that.

The bulk of the various free transit plans being floated around currently are nothing but another example of Liberals once again refusing to look at what the results of their actions would be. They pop on their rose colored glasses and see a transit Utopia rather than the reality of further destroying public transit.

And don't think the transit activists and politicians would be silent once they push through a fare free system. They'll be whining about needing to add more buses to eliminate overcrowding from the people just riding around trip after trip after trip and causing problems. Don't push them off either or you'll be guaranteed to have other Liberal groups stepping in to fight and defend the rights of the people causing problems and keep them right where they are, on the bus causing problems.

The free transit bandwagon that is forming will attract even more willing participants. Like most things Liberal, it sounds good but has no basis in reality. It will further destroy public transit if instituted in a larger city simply because many of these same cities can't afford to run what they in place now.

Small operations like Island Transit work. There is no denying that currently. The problem comes if their subsidies suddenly change. If they lose a subsidy, they are screwed. Other taxes will go up to compensate of course but they aren't invulnerable to the rising cost of providing service, in fact they are more vulnerable to it since they have no quick patch to the problem.

Critics also point out fare collection costs. A valid point but in most cases, fare box revenues exceed collection costs by a good margin. The article shows this with the exception of Skagit Transit which is losing money on fares. One must then question why their collection costs are exceedingly high. I would bet they have padded payrolls and make-work rules in place.

The bottom line to all this is that fare free public transit in larger cities will not work. What it will do is further push people into their cars. It will also push people out of the cities and into the lesser taxed suburbs as taxes in cities go up to try and cover a fare free plan. In the end you'll be left with a shuttle service carrying those that can't afford to leave the area along with the troublemakers and panhandlers. It would be one more nail in the coffin for public transit brought to you by those that stand on their head and tell you that your are upside down.