Saturday, August 25, 2007

Former PAT union boss defends improprieties

Pittsburgh PA - The former head of PAT's union, Joe Hutzler, is defending the deferred retirement he set up for himself while retired but serving as union president as well as sitting on a 4-person pension board.

Hutzler believes that he did no wrong and that the current union president, Pat McMahon, has a vendetta against him.

Joe Hutzler is using the defense that it was wrong to collect a pension while collecting a union paycheck at the same time as well as that McMahon had a vendetta against him over differing views of union leadership. By claiming a vendetta as a big part of his defense, it sets off my alarms that there is much more here than meets the eye and that the vendetta may be in the opposite direction and aimed at McMahon rather than at Hutzler.

Regardless of the defense that Hutzler has offered, there are still some very serious questions regarding the self-crafted pension agreement that Hutzler set up as well as the secrecy surrounding his retirement.

The first point was that he retired from PAT but kept the retirement a secret from his union. Second was that while keeping the retirement a secret from his union, he was negotiating a union contract that ultimately stripped many protective work rules away from the union. Third was that he created the pension plan for himself and that would not have been done for others in the union as there was no such provision for it in the union contract or union rules.

At least to me, it seems as though Mr. Hutzler is trying to deflect the criticism of his bad decision(s) and trying to turn himself into the victim by claiming that the current union president had a vendetta against him. The points I mentioned in the previous paragraph all speak of a questionable act(s) by Hutzler.

While there may have been bad blood between Hutzler and McMahon, the criticism of Hutzler's actions are valid. Even if no quid pro quo occurred between PAT's management and Hutzler during this period, the simple fact that Hutzler crafted a pension deal for himself that no other union member would receive as well as keeping his retirement a secret from the union itself raises many valid questions that need to be answered and Hutzler's defense answers none of them.

While I normally avoid dealing with internal union issues here, this is one that I needed to comment on. I still believe that Pat McMahon was correct in his criticism of the Hutzler pension deal. There are just too many questions regarding it not to be critical.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Teen that knows transit

West Roxbury MA - A 16-year old high school student, Stuart Spina, probably knows more about the transit service in Boston than those that run the MBTA. Spina is also several steps beyond most transit fans whose interest is mostly in the vehicles.

Much like myself, Spina is not just interested in the vehicles themselves but in how those vehicles provide service. He pays attention to not only the current routes but the history of those routes as well. While not directly mentioned in the article, I get the distinct impression that he also is very interested in what I call the back room which is the administration and management of the system.

Unlike what I dealt with growing up with my local transit system, the MBTA seems more willing to accept Spina's ideas and suggestions. At PAT, my local system, they never really shook off the Pittsburgh Railways mentality which was "it's our way or no way". The MBTA is already looking into implementing one of Spina's ideas which is a hand held Charlie Card reader which can be used to help cut down on boarding times.

Transit systems often times brush off "fans" as an irritant. Many times they are and I know many that I am embarrassed being seen with in public with but we "fans" also have an insight into the transit operations that the administration and employees just can't see. The fans like Spina and myself, who are interested how service gets on the street, are often times able to easily see problems that the insiders completely miss.

I'm glad the MBTA is taking Spina's suggestions and ideas seriously. With a little luck, Spina may one day run the MBTA and use his "fan" expertise along with work experience to further improve the MBTA operation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

SEPTA fighting to end paper transfers

Philadelphia PA - SEPTA is continuing to fight to end the issuing of transfers and has appealed a lower court decision which forced the transit system to keep them.

While I haven't covered this issue before, it is something that needs to be addressed as SEPTA is trying to set a precedent and is being looked at by many transit systems as to the final outcome. If SEPTA wins their case, look for many other transit systems in cities across the country to start dumping transfers over the next few years.

Transfers are one of the most troublesome parts of any transit operation. Transfer thefts, reselling at a higher price on the street, attempted use of expired transfers, etc. have made transfers an item that many transit systems have on their list for possible elimination. The vast majority of fare disputes involve transfer issues as well.

The problem however is that transfers are needed. Given that no transit system can take everyone where they need to go without switching buses, transfers become a necessary evil in the transit industry to help make transit service somewhat convenient.

Better technology exists today to allow transfers to be issued while eliminating many of the headaches associated with the old style paper transfers. For example, coded transfers that are timestamped by a fare recording device and can be read by fareboxes eliminate the use of expired transfers. Cities that have adopted coded transfers have seen a large drop in transfer abuse and fare disputes but that technology doesn't come cheaply.

Eliminating transfers in a city such as Philadelphia will not spur transit usage. On the contrary, it will encourage people to find alternative means of transport that bypass the transit system completely. While SEPTA says it wants more riders, it is also making it more difficult to get those riders.

SEPTA is assuming that people will rush out and by a monthly pass or just pay full fare on multiple trips and the SEPTA financial coffers will start overflowing with money. It won't happen. As I mentioned, people will find alternatives to SEPTA and cut them out of the loop completely so that they end up pulling in less each month than they are now. In cities such as Philadelphia, unregulated/illegal low-cost jitney service is already a very common competitor with the transit system and eliminating transfers will just send many riders over to the competition.

Where I live in Pittsburgh, we used to have rather strict transfer rules which made sense even though it was somewhat complicated. The policy was loosened up over the years and ultimately have led to widespread abuse of transfers. In the distant past, you could only use a transfer for a one-way trip continuing away from the boarding point. Today they can be used for round trips and have a greatly increased valid time.

Not being familiar with SEPTA's transfer procedure, it may very well be the case that SEPTA just needs to tighten up the procedure as Pittsburgh needs to do. The problem here is that once the government gives the public something, it is almost impossible to take it away later. In other words, reimposing an older and more strict policy would meet with howls of protest, greater than what is occurring with the complete elimination of them.

In SEPTA's current eagerness to eliminate transfer privileges, it is setting a bad precedent in my opinion. By making transit more inconvenient for the rider, it will lose ridership in the long run and defeats the very purpose of what transit is there for. The added capital expense of implementing coded transfers is worth it as it helps make taking the bus or LRV more convenient, especially for the occasional rider which the transit systems would ultimately love to have as a regular rider.

SEPTA earns a Lance for its attempt to make riding transit more inconvenient. This move will only serve to keep people off of the transit system, not attract them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Questionable doings not just a management thing at PAT

Pittsburgh PA - The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review unearthed a highly questionable act by the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) transit union. The highly questionable act was the formation of a special retirement package by former ATU Division 85 Union President Joseph Hutzler for himself which was kept quiet, even from his union.

The special pension deal revolved around allowing Hutzler to collect pension payments in a special account while he was retired and still union president. While Hutzler retired from PAT in 2001, he kept the retirement a secret from the union. This has upset the current union local leaders as Hutzler was leading the union in contract talks with PAT at the time which ultimately stripped the union of many protective work rules.

The pension arrangement was crafted when Hutzler was president of the PAT union and sat on a four-member pension board. The current union leadership called the Hutzler's self-crafted retirement deal an abuse of power. Current ATU Division 85 Union President, Pat McMahon, said ""I think he abused his position on that board to his own benefit."

Here I must credit the current PAT union president, Pat McMahon. When the Hutzler deal was discovered, McMahon and the current union leadership brought the questionable deal to the attention of PAT's management as they should do. PAT's corrupt management however swept the affair under the rug as they were too busy double-dipping into the management pension fund for their own benefit. Hutzler's arrangement was very similar to the controversial DROP program which key management people participated in during the same period.

The news came to me without much shock. I was aware there there were some shady deals occurring within PAT's union during the Skoutelas years at PAT. What did shock me however was Pat McMahon's response to the controversy. Instead of defending the former union leader, he said what was needed to be said which was that the deal was wrong and self-serving.

While I often disagree with Pat McMahon on transit matters, I must award him a Laurel for not trying to bury an embarrassing union incident under the rug and showing that the current union leadership is not acting as their predecessors. He's earned a lot of my respect today.