Showing posts with label money. Show all posts
Showing posts with label money. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Transportation Ignorance

I like to make fun of the Trib, but I have to hand it to them, they've been all over the transportation/infrastructure stuff!

Check out this article from yesterday's Trib

This article seems to provide a really good barometer of Pennsylvania's public opinion concerning our transportation and infrastructure situation. 

The bad news is everyone appears not to care.  At least not enough to address it.  My crack analysis shows that only a little more than a quarter of your average Pennsylvanian thinks that transportation and infrastructure should be a priority for our incoming state government.  The silver lining to that cloud is that we Pittsburghers seem much more keenly aware of the issues facing our Commonwealth when it comes to repairing our infrastructure and upgrading our transportation systems.  Given the general apathy, I'm sure the rallying cry for the next four years at least will be much the same as it has been: "Don't take my money to pay for your fancy shmancy public transportation" 

Given the low numbers, it's not suprising to see that a majority of those interviewed would not support higher costs to support infrastucture/transportation improvements.  Even less suprising is that those numbers are highest in rural areas. 

The biggest question I have is: why don't people care?  Eventhough Corbett has pledged up and down he will not raise taxes, he, and his appointed transition committee members seem keenly aware of the poor state of our infrastructure.  Why doesn't your average Pennsylvanian feel the same sense of urgency?  The news on the state of our infrastructure has not been kept in the dark.  Yet, most people are still concerned with lower taxes than a bridge collapsing, or getting cars off the roads. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Should we add railroads to the list of Passenger Rail enemies?

A lot of HSR stuff in the news.  It’s no secret that Obama’s vision for a national High Speed Rail network is under attack.  Many newly elected officials are far from passenger rail fans.  Everyone’s heard about what’s happened in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio.  Meanwhile, what should have been a milestone event in Illinois turns out to have simply added more fuel to the anti-rail fire. 

While I do not buy in wholesale to the premise of the article, it brings up some very practical and real issues with the implementation of the Obama Administration’s implementation of HSR and with expansion of our passenger rail network in general.  The biggest and most interesting, in my mind, is the buy-in of the host railroad.  The article surmises among other things that Union Pacific may have “driven a hard bargain” to Illinois and Missouri in exchange for their cooperation with the project.  To me, when they say “hard bargain” they mean $$$.  By money I have a feeling they mean state contribution for upgrades to infrastructure including track and signaling equipment.    

I understand Union Pacific, like all freight railroads want to protect their profitability.  They make their money by moving freight, after all.  However, it’s disconcerting to see they are willing to accept negative effects to our national transportation infrastructure so they don’t see a reduction in their margins. 

The freight railroads, for the most part know they have a captive audience.  Most operating rights of way in this country are private and are owned by corporations.  Any public agency or partnership that wishes to expand service must cooperate with the freight railroads and basically must submit to whatever conditions the carrier lays out, or risk outright refusal to cooperate.  There are legal means to get around this refusal, but a profitable freight railroad is much better equipped to handle a potentially protracted court battle than a coalition using funding which is tight to begin with.  Also, let’s face it, a lot of transportation projects, especially rail projects often face significant opposition, and a public legal battle would not help the situation. 

We’ve seen similar issues here in Pennsylvania.  Look no further than the Keystone Corridor which on paper extends from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.  In reality, the section from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh is little more than a line on a map.  Between Harrisburg and Philadelphia multiple electric powered trains per day whiz back and forth at maximum speeds up to 110 mph.  West of Harrisburg, a lone diesel powered daily train takes riders to Pittsburgh.  While the line from Philadelphia to Harrisburg sees only local freight service and is owned by the state, the line west of Harrisburg is one of two major rail arteries between New York and Chicago, and is owned by a private company (NS).  Even though there is room to expand (the line was once 3-4 tracks for its whole length, and is now 2-3) NS has gone on record saying that it will require significant investment from public sources for NS to buy in on any service expansion to Pittsburgh. 

Another example is the ongoing Commuter rail saga here in Pittsburgh.  This time last year, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh would be gaining two rail lines; one to New Kensington/Arnold via the AVR, and one to Greensburg via the NS.  By July however, NS’s tune apparently changed, as they became “highly unlikely to allow commuter trains on their tracks”.  As a result, we’ve gone from a dual line heavy commuter “system” to a single line light rail system.  While it’s impossible to know what changed, clearly something did. 

Freight railroad's lack of cooperation in allowing passenger operations on their rails is understandable but detrimental to our nation transportation network.  The only real way to get them to help is to force them to.  Unfortunately, that is a thorny subject.  A lot of people in this country don’t like when the Government tells companies what to do.  Additionally, just like every other lobby, there’s a lot of money behind the railroad lobby and any legislation forcing railroad compliance would have to fight not only political will, but good old fashioned money. 

I have to wonder what the answer is.  I for one don’t know.  It’s hard to see our national rail network ever expanding if railroads themselves will make it cost prohibitive.   

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Public Hearing: The Day After

I won’t rehash the many arguments made at the hearing yesterday.  They all have their merits, and each covered a small piece of why public transportation is a PUBLIC SERVICE and is absolutely indispensable if we want our city to remain a great place to live and work. 

However, I cannot emphasize this point enough:  Public Comment is NOT over.  Let’s hope the 200+ speakers from yesterday’s public hearing is not even the tip of the iceberg.  

You can mail in your comment to: 

Port Authority Fare & Service Proposals
Heinz 57 Center, 345 Sixth Avenue, Floor 3 
Pittsburgh PA 15222-2527

For those of you that are more technologically inclined, you can fill out an online submission form here.  

If you use public transportation in Allegheny County, and enjoy the mobility you have, PLEASE make your voice heard.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Really? You're using this?

Poor, poor NSC.  It’s been the regional whipping boy for years now.  It’s taken the leap to the national political stage.  Here’s the article.

I’m no NSC cheerleader, but realize that it’s already near complete and will provide value to the region.  Check out this post for a more detailed opinion.

This is absolutely ridiculous.  Don’t use the NSC as your political pawn to validate your political agenda.  The NSC is not representative of the bailout, and the way in which it is presented is just plain misleading. 

The NSC is such a tiny piece of the overall stimulus package ($62.5 million out of $ 800 odd BILLION dollars).  I could probably find just as many examples of the Stimulus program helping to stimulate job growth as you could find examples like the NSC, but that is not the point of this post.

People constantly argue that the NSC should not have been built, but it was.  If they would have had to stop the project, the 4000 or so jobs related to this project would have been prematurely ended (while the economy was at its worst) and the Port Authority would have inherited tunnels that it could not use but still had to pay for.  You could argue that the cost per rider will be expensive, and it will, but PAT will at least re-coop at least some money through ridership.  If no one is using the tunnels because they could not be completed, then no money is being re-cooped and the tunnels and other related infrastructure would just be sitting there, unused and eating up dwindling Port Authority funding (it still costs money to maintain infrastructure, even if its not in use, especially tunnels that could collapse if not maintained). 

Finally, and here’s the biggest issue I have with this.  You want to blame an administration for the NSC?  Fine, blame the Bush Administration.*  That administration approved the project and funded it to the tune of $348 million (80% of the projected cost at the time of approval).  I could argue that had the Bush administration not agreed to award the money, then the project would not have to be bailed out because it was over budget due to inflation.  I could say that this is another example of the Obama administration having to “bailout” a decision made by the Bush administration.  If you want to look strictly at the numbers of how much each administration has spent on the NSC; the Bush administration spent a lot more on the project than the Obama administration has.  

I am not actually trying to make that statement, but it’s about as accurate as someone saying “look at the NSC, it's bad, it got bailed out by Obama's bailout, Obama’s bailout is bad.”  The point is, the project needed to get finished, and no matter who is in the oval office now, the money probably would have been spent to finish the project.  The funding also just happened to come from Stimulus funding.  If that would not have been available, it probably would have come from somewhere else.

Politics in this country is disgusting.  Nothing can be taken at face value, because nothing is ever presented at face value.  Every “fact” is tilted, twisted and wrung out until it matches an ideology. 

*Blaming the Bush Administration for DOT’s approval of the NSC is just as foolish as directly blaming the Obama Administration for the use of bailout money on the NSC.  I would wager that neither President had direct knowledge of the physical approval for either instance.

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.