Friday, February 27, 2009

A red-headed stepchild no longer? Good for Pittsburgh?

Then President Elect Obama's train ride from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. for the inauguration was meant to be a symbolic gesture to his political hero Abraham Lincoln, I am hoping it is also symbolic of things to come in America. A re-birth for passenger rail. A counter revolution to the explosion of automobile ownership and use, that helped nearly push American railroads over the edge after World War II. Many railroads were pushed past the point of no return and fell into bankruptcy, and those that remained abandoned moving people and re-trenched in moving things.

The unenviable task of moving the few people left that still utilized movement by rail fell to Amtrak. They inherited broken equipment, and poorly maintained infrastructure. So far (since 1971) they have managed to survive, but never thrive. Basically, Amtrak was the son from a previous marriage to the Federal Government, while the airlines and interstates were the favorite kids. The government didn't want anything to do with Amtrak, but couldn't just abandon it, so they put as little effort (money) into Amtrak as possible. There are lots of debates as to why this is, but that is another blog for another time.

President Obama has pledged to change that, and has paid alot of lip service to what will happen with Amtrak. Now is a great time to increase our rail movement options. Gas is slowly but steadily climbing higher (again), and airline options out of Pittsburgh seem to be dwindling every day, and are not an inexpensive option.

Included in his remarks are talk about a high speed inter-city rail network, similar to Amtrak's already operating Northeast Corridor. Post Gazette has jumped on the bandwagon, and has reminded us all NOT TO FORGET PITTSBURGH!

I agree, don't forget Pittsburgh, but let's take a step back first. Before we try and get schnazzy electric powered trains running between Pittsburgh and points east and west, let's get some decent service that won't require billions more in stimulus money to come our way.

Here's a really easy solution: better choices i.e. more trains. As it stands right now, if you are conducting business in Harrisburg or Philly, you would have to leave a day early ( @ 7:20 AM from Pittsburgh) if you wanted to be in either place at the beginning of the business day the following day. Otherwise, if you leave the day of your business, you would not arrive in Harrisburg until 12:45 PM, or Philly until 2:50 PM.

If you arrived in Harrisburg @ 12:45 PM, you would have approximately 2 hours to conduct your business before you would have to catch a train at 2:26 PM back to Pittsburgh. If you are in Philly, forget it, you are stuck until the next day at noon.

If you want to go to Chicago, drink your coffee! You have to catch a train at midnight. This train at least would get you into Chicago at a manageable time (8:40 AM). On the way back, your train would leave Chi-town at 7:05 PM and get you into Pittsburgh bright and early at 5:30 AM.

Here's an idea, add a couple trains, one that leaves around 7 AM, but skips all the stops in the middle except Harrisburg and Philly. Then add one more from Philly that leaves at, say 5 PM and gets into Pittsburgh around 10 or 11. That way, business people can at least get their business in, and have the trip be somewhat practical. Additionally, add a couple of trains to and from Chicago as well. Instead of having a through train that stops in Pittsburgh, have a train that starts in Pittsburgh and travels to Chicago. Schedule it leave in the morning, from both locations. That would put the trains in their respective destinations around mid afternoon. Again, the point is to give people options. If you don't give people viable options, they won't choose to use different forms of transportation aside from their own cars.

These ideas are by no means an in-depth plan, just some ideas that came off the top of my head. One thing I do know is that the market is there. The new luxury bus service between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg is doing well (well enough to add additional service after only a few months of operation). I certainly support this service, but wouldn't mind seeing the Federal Government begin to properly subsidize additional forms of transportation other than highways.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Good Stewardship

I like reading other blogs, it keeps me from having to be original (way too much pressure). I was reading a post about transit profitability here on a great site called "The Transport Politic". The article focuses on the eternal argument between (in my mind) pro transit people (like me) and anti-transit people (Like the Trib).

At the risk of over-simplifying things, generally there are two camps, the group that thinks transit should be funded by the public, and those who think that it should not. Those that think transit should not be funded by the public want transit agencies to "pull their own weight", and attempt operate at a profit, with little or no help from the public. If they fail, so be it. That way, we can use public money on interstate after interstate, and give suburban soccer moms and their Hummer H2's easier mobility through massive urban sprawl.

For what it's worth, here's my take on the argument. Mass transit is not, and should not be treated as a for profit enterprise. Mass transit is a public service, with emphasis on the public. In my mind a public service's main effort should be on supplying whatever service it is that they provide. A for-profit company worries about one thing: profitability(duh). If said company is not profitable, it will do anything, and everything in its power to become profitable, even if it means removing a service from an area entirely, laying off any amount of people and/or closing facilities. In my mind, this could create a conflict of interest, if a for-profit company is running transit, they may cut an "unprofitable service", even though that service may still be a viable public service. This defeats the purpose of providing a public service.

And now, for a BIG CAVEAT....

I learned a great lesson in the Army that I think really relates well to this argument. I had a commander that always used to tell us,
"... just because we're not trying to make money here doesn't mean we shouldn't be good stewards of the taxpayers money"
That statement right there is where transit agencies and governments fail big time! (Can You say Mr. Steelerstahl's little jaunt to the Post Gazette Pavilion with a police SUV and 50 of his best buddies) I think a major source of the argument about making transit agencies for profit companies stems from the lack of stewardship of public money.

While I wouldn't go so far as to suggest the Port Authority be run for profit by a private enterprise, I would agree with those that say that major reform is needed in the Port Authority. They have definitely embraced not operating as a for profit business with open arms, but have not exactly been good stewards of the tax-payers money. All I have to say are "North Shore Connector, highest personnel costs in the country" and you should get the picture.

I do think they are making attempts. I think CEO Steve Bland has the right idea. They have negotiated a less destructive contract with the ATU 85 (although more remains to be done in this area), and they have begun the Connect '09 Initiative in order to refine their route structure which is horribly out of date. These are the types of reforms that should be done. They should not however, throw the Port Authority and the people that rely on its services out the door for the sake of making a buck.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Filthy Lies: Where's the Truth in Transit Planning?

So I was reading a post on Tube City Almanac about the rising cost of completing the Mon-Fayette Expressway, and one point in particular struck me. The author was talking about the over-inflated per day usage forecasts, and it got the little hamster in my head running.

Why is it that every transportation (that includes highways) forecast for usage or ridership is always waaaaaaaaaaaay off? It seems every forecast, even well beyond our fine city are hopelessly optimistic. This fact is commonly used as fodder by car and sprawl lovers to prove that we should "stop wasting our time on mass transit" and build more highways. My point is not to say that, but to say that mass transit administrations (PITTSBURGH ESPECIALLY!) should not give anti-transit people any more ammunition.

Look at the North Shore Connector; despite reducing the length and stops on its route (to lower the overall price tag so as to get government funding) they estimated the daily ridership around 10,000 riders per day. While it can't yet be proven or dis-proven, it seems optimistic for 1.2 miles and 2 stops. Sadly, that is far from the only example. The West Busway was projected to have 50,000 riders a day!!!!! WHAAAA????!!! So far, it attracts around 8500 riders a day. Granted, the plan for the busway was 8 miles, but I question if three miles would have made up the difference (although the last three miles would have been the most important to efficiency, the section that took the busway into the city was excluded, now you have buses entering general traffic, and losing all the advantages of a separated grade system. See my post "Missing the Point" about a lack of an integrated system).

The Wabash Tunnel is yet another example, Port Authority said it felt that approx. 2500 vehicles per rush hour would use the tunnel. It turns out, and depending on who you listen to, the tunnel hosts more like 100-300 vehicles per rush hour. Even the East Busway, which is relatively successful has never met expectations for daily ridership.

Again, I ask why? I dug around on the Internet and found this is a systemic problem. Pittsburgh is not alone by a long shot, there is a great report here called "Transit Cooperative Research Program Synthesis 66". It's basically a survey taken from various transit agencies around the country, and they focused on research methods. It brought up some very interesting points.

One point stuck in particular stuck out in my mind. There is no standardized method for gathering and applying data. Various transit agencies have various methods/formulas/criteria for determining potential ridership. For example, one transit agency may use population densities at the origin and terminus of a proposed route, along with traffic density on surrounding routes (bus routes, rail routes, highways etc.). Another transit agency may only factor in population densities at the origin and terminus of a proposed route. In my mind, there is clearly something wrong with this approach, if I am a federal panel reviewing a research study on a potential project, how am I supposed to trust the conclusions presented if I don't understand the methodology and data used to reach the conclusion was gained?

I didn't find this anywhere in the report, but in my expert opinion, I think that transit research, both here and elsewhere in the country is treated as a means to an end, and not as objective research to prove or disprove a theory or proposition. In other words, instead of saying we have an idea for a new transit project, and we want to validate it, agencies say, we have an idea for a new transit project, let's make a report that will back up our idea. It's subjective, and it is not a realistic measure of a project's potential success. I'm sure agencies use this process because it produces better, more immediate (relatively speaking) results, but in the long run, it hurts everyone. It adds ammunition to the arguments of anti-transit groups/people, and it makes those that might normally support large capital projects be skeptical of them.

How do we solve these problems? Well, the first part is easy, again relatively speaking. Standardize methods. I'm not going to attempt to lay out what these standards might be, but in my mind it's common sense. I understand there are individual factors facing each project, but there are also common traits among them all.

The second part is harder, and I think goes well beyond public transit agencies, to most government agencies. Get rid of the subjective nature of transit research and reports. Don't even ask me how to accomplish this. It seems that people in transit agencies, just like government at large have agendas.

Either way, how can you expect the public to support mass transit, when all they see is overspending, and inaccurate/overinflated research? It's just one piece of the puzzle for what is wrong with mass transit, but if we could solve it, that's one less piece of the puzzle to solve later!