Thursday, September 20, 2007

More on the free ride problem at PAT

Pittsburgh PA - In reference to a Laurels and Lances article I put up earlier in the week, I was informed yesterday that the free fares at Pitt and CMU are not only for the students but any university employee. Janitors, secretaries, professors, etc. This makes the situation much worse than it was previously reported as these two universities are major employers in the Pittsburgh area.

Thousands of people are employed between just those two institutions alone and makes the fact that PAT must absorb 80% of their travel even more critical to deal with. It's one thing if it was just student travel but the situation in Pittsburgh is totally unacceptable. PAT can't continue absorbing this cost and if these universities want their employees to have free rides, they better start coughing up the cash to pay for it.

The University of Pittsburgh has been whining the most about how much it has to pay now to PAT for the free ride program and has been angling to pay less. The simple fact here is that PAT can't afford to subsidize Pitt's program, especially at 80% subsidization, just so Pitt can use the program to help lure in students as well as employees.

I'm not against free transport for employees and students at a university but I am against providing it when the university doesn't want to pay the full freight for it. The college and/or university is the one that benefits from such an arrangement, not the transit system. The supporters of the program claim it will encourage transit use which is true but on the flip side, it is also helping to bankrupt the transit system so that all the encouraged use will be for nothing.

Pitt, CMU and other institutions and businesses that have such plans need to pay for it. The transit system can't continue to afford subsidizing these free rides to the tune of 80% of the cost of each rider, as is the case at PAT and the Pitt/CMU arrangement.

As mentioned in the earlier article, PAT isn't innocent in this mess. They failed to charge enough on the first contract so the precedent is set price wise. The universities have been balking at the cost from day one and want to pay less but they really need to be quadrupling their payment for the free transit perk for their students and employees. PAT officials, trying to help encourage transit use as well as polish its image, were too eager to acquiesce to demands for smaller contract fees initially.

What I see happening in Pittsburgh is that PAT will get the universities to pay a bit more but nowhere close to the amount required. If PAT is lucky, they'll end up subsidizing each ride to the tune of 65% to 70% rather than the 80% they currently do. PAT is painted into a corner on this one.

If PAT were to not re-up the contract where it continues to heavily subsidize the free rides, students would be protesting on the street over the callousness of PAT's actions while being urged on by the university. University officials would be sending out press releases blasting the decision and claiming PAT is turning away riders and trying to make the cost of education even more expensive. The Liberal leaning Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (who totally ignored this story by the way) and campus newspapers would be blasting PAT from all sides in both news stories as well as in editorials. Few would hear PAT's side under the din of protest which is that PAT is losing tens of millions of dollars subsidizing a free ride service that the universities should be subsidizing since they are the ones that want it.

Even if PAT ends up getting a bit more money, universities will lambaste PAT by increasing tuition under the excuse of having to pay PAT their blood money. It's a public relations nightmare PAT faces in addition to the fiscal problems they already have. As I have long said, "once the government giveth, it can't taketh away easily". PAT is basically in a lose-lose situation over this while the universities hold the trump card.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There's Snow Worries at OCTranspo

Ottawa ON - After a mess in 2005 with heavy snows stranding many buses, OCTranspo has been looking for snow tires to place on the buses. To date, they haven't found any.

What happened in that city, especially with the articulated buses, happens everywhere there is snow. Ottawa is acting like this is the first time ever that buses had problems in the snow. Here are a few options.

In Pittsburgh, with it's hills and every type of weather imaginable, they used sanders for decades to help buses get around in the snow. With the advent of low floor buses, sanders can't be used any longer as there is no place for the sand hoppers and sander apparatus. Chains are also an option but only for a short period as they break and can chew up the wheel wells of the buses.

One other option OCTranspo might look into is keeping a decent set of tires on their buses rather than baloney skins. A set of tires that actually have some tread can do wonders for getting a bus moving in bad weather. These tires aren't called snow tires but regular tires that aren't worn out.

Given some of the problems OCTranspo has during winter with its buses, it really makes me question the quality of the tires they use as well as even question if the drivers know how to drive in the snow. Again, in Pittsburgh, buses traverse hills in snow on a routine basis without special snow tires. They do this by having a decent set of regular tires as well as drivers that know how to drive in the snow.

As far as articulated buses go, of course they will have more problems in snow, especially those articulated buses that use a pusher turntable with the engine in the rear. The answer there not to send them out on routes that aren't clear in bad weather. OCTranspo is expecting the articulated buses to behave exactly as a standard bus and that's like expecting an 18-wheeler to behave exactly like a small Chevy S-10 pickup.

Then there is ice. The ice that forms under the snow on the road surface. No snow tire will help there unless they are studded. Studded tires are much more noisy than regular snow tires which are noisier than regular tires. If I recall, in the 2005 fiasco in Ottawa, there was plenty of ice in addition to the deep snow.

OCTranspo really needs to refocus its efforts from trying to find a new way to spend money by getting snow tires to making sure the tires that are on the buses to start with are good, drivers are trained properly and the city gets out and plows and salts the roads. Snow tires wouldn't have helped very much at all with the 2005 mess and chances are they won't really help much in the future. In heavy snows, few things move and buses are one of the things that usually don't move except on snow routes that are primary roads that get attention first.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Discounted fares and the transit funding deficit

Pittsburgh PA - It's been a while since I had the available time to comment on various activities that effect the transit industry. When I came across this story regarding how discounted fares are effecting my local system, I made a little time to say something on it.

The primary issue in many of the reduced fares in every transit system is that it fails to generate revenue. Say that again RDC? OK, in simple terms, reduced fares should actually increase the bottom line. That's why stores have sales. It generates additional money. In transit circles, those sales are in the form of reduced fares. Some reduced fares have become unfunded mandates such as those dealing with disabled and senior fares and lose money since they are dictated price controls. Others, such as monthly passes actually do generate more income in the long run than not having them since more people buy them and that helps cement the use of transit so they can get their money's worth out of the pass.

The big issue in Pittsburgh however are the student fares for college students. Colleges and universities are contracting with the Port Authority (PAT) to provide free transportation for the students. That sounds fine and dandy until you realize that the colleges and universities aren't willing to pay anything except a small fraction of the actual cost of providing the transit service for their students.

What wasn't covered in this story is that the local Pittsburgh colleges and universities are whining and complaining about the proposed cost increase to provide free transit service for their students. They don't want to pay more and actually want to pay even less. This situation has been going on for a few years now in Pittsburgh but is coming to a head finally due to PAT's finances.

Part of the problem with providing college students free rides lies with PAT in failing to initially charge the colleges and universities a realistic rate. Now that the low price to these institutions has become precedent, they are balking at a proposed increase in the contract price. At the same time however, it is not PAT's responsibility to absorb 80% of the college student's transportation costs just so the college or university can use free transit as a selling point to get more students to attend their institution.

To be honest, I think the college students should be paying just as I have to pay. I'm tired of hearing about the "poor college student" who has little money but still has enough of money to go out to bars and clubs to party when not in class. I'm also tired of hearing many of the college students claim that free transit to students is a "right". I brought this subject up once several years ago on another forum and was bombarded with e-mails from college students trying to make the case that free transit for college students was a right under the US Constitution. Ah, that entitlement mentality brought to you by the Liberals and preached in the pathetic public school system rears its ugly head once again.

If these colleges and universities want to provide free transit for their students then they need to start coughing up the money to pay for it. Yes, educational costs are high but so is the price to provide transit service. It is not the transit system's responsibility to absorb the the bulk of the cost of providing student transportation (80% in PAT's case), it is the colleges and universities that need to absorb that cost since they are the ones that want and benefit from it.

The bottom line here is that between the mandated discount/free fares and the student transportation free ride, transit systems across the country are taking a big hit that they can't afford. In PAT's case, a hit of $30 million which is the vast bulk of the deficit. Colleges and universities need to cough up the money if they want the free ride for their students to continue. As the cost to provide transit service continues to climb, transit systems can't afford the luxury of providing free service just so the colleges and universities can use the perk to help boost their enrollment.