Sunday, December 25, 2011

3,600-word rant on transit funding (Sep. 3, 2010)

Current mood: angry

I am a rider, only a rider. I am not nor have I ever been employed by Port Authority, any of its unions, or any level of government. I am here to set the record straight on where this financial mess came from, and what it will take to fix it, both this year and in future years.

Mainly I have an axe to grind with the amount of misinformation people have on this topic, followed very closely by Republican intransigence against raising taxes as fixes for this problem.

FY11 marks the 19th year I've been involved in Port Authority financial woes. I also found a newspaper from 1982 that, with some minor differences of the time, describes recent years' crises quite well. The point is, although the stakes are higher this year, this is an annual story because of the way state law is set up. We've managed to avoid the hangman's noose for a long time. No more.

It is not Port Authority's fault that we are in this mess.

Three sentences sum up the problem:
1) This is not a Port Authority problem but a Pennsylvania problem.
2) This is not a transit problem but a transportation problem.
3) This is not a spending problem but a funding problem.

If you have an objection to what's going on that does not nicely fit into the above set of sentences, you need to change your mind, as you are misinformed.

The problem is very simple. After years of arguing, in 2007 Harrisburg finally came up with a plan to fund highway and bridge repairs, and public transit. The money was to come from putting tollbooths on I-80. That required the Federal Highway Administration's approval, but that was denied, not once but three times. So now we're stuck with trying to find $472M, this year and every year. About half of it is for roads and bridges. About half of it is for transit. Port Authority's piece is about $27M of that state-wide $240M. (PAT’s actual deficit is about $47M, the rest being the usual uncontrollable increases in health care and fuel costs.) Solutions are needed for plugging both the transit hole and the highway hole. Not finding a transit solution means 35% of the buses running today cease to run in early January 2011, putting 500 Port Authority people out of work, and who knows how many thousand others who will have no other way to get to work.

Clearly we need to find a way to keep the system running. My complaint is that too much blather gets in the way of finding funding solutions, both from ignorance and stubbornness.

Over the past few weeks, in free moments here and there, I read the tweets of several dozen people who contacted Port Authority on its Twitter feed. I read all their tweets, not just the conversations with @PGHTransit. I wanted to take the pulse of the average Pittsburgher, especially in regard to the news of the pending cuts in January and the TDP changes in September. I was not pleased with what I found.

Nearly everyone has a minimal to zero understanding of the funding sources and processes that Port Authority faces each year. I know them quite well, having served on the citizen riders' advisory group ACTC (Allegheny County Transit Council) and the Save Our Transit lobbying group, for many years. I will not try to delineate them here, as that topic alone can barely be covered at the surface level in less than 1,000 words.

All that really matters is that we are probably stuck with these huge cuts, because the vast majority of people, who might actually pick up a telephone, pen or keyboard and contact their legislators about transit, will do the opposite of what's needed. I fear that the majority of people who do call will request that nothing be done, that transit be allowed to fail, or forced to fail. This is because most people are uninformed, misinformed, and misdirected. I trace much of this to the media, particularly talk radio, and long-standing methods of news reporting.

I am so tired of hearing the same old lame objections and finger pointing about Port Authority's annual transit funding problems. These objections get in the way of being able to talk about it intelligently. I want these objections to simply go away. Arguing from ignorance is inexcusable. If one of these is yours, close your mouth, open your mind, and learn. If your mind is closed, then just shut up. I refuse to offer an apology if this offends you. If anything, you owe an apology to the thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs for lack of a solution to this problem. Get out of the way so we can get at the meat of this problem.

Shall we begin?

I am tired of hearing that Steve Bland should resign, take a pay cut, blah blah blah. Steve Bland is not the problem, nor was Paul Skoutelas before him, nor Bill Millar before him. He's the man at the top. He makes $180K. Find 10 other people working in the region with 3,000 people working for them, supervising over $400 million in annual budgets, who do not make $180K. In the private sector, if you found 10 such people, they are making well beyond $180K. He is not overpaid. And even if you removed his position or forced him to work for free, you have only eliminated $180,000 of the $47,000,000 hole, or about 1/250 of the problem. Sorry, but there are not 250 Steve Blands on staff to fire. So, if this is your argument, get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing that the Board of Directors should resign, and a Board more amenable to figuring out a proper solution be put in place. Often this goes along with a request that the Board take a pay cut. First of all, the Board is not paid a cent. Second, they are not there to solve a problem, but to decide on a solution presented to them. Any other Board you put there is going to have the same set of choices. Any Board is going to have to decide how to make $280M in revenue cover a $330M expense. Answer: You don't. You cut. If you cannot understand this, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing about service problems. "My bus was late." "The A/C didn't work." "The seat cushions were on the floor." "The driver yelled at me." "It takes me three buses to get to work." This is off topic! This is not going to find $47 million dollars to keep the buses running! If this is the best you can do, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing about the cost of tunnels under the river, and how we should use that money to run the system. First, they're different budgets, so you just can't. Second, the tunnels are needed, regardless of what you think of them. We really should have built them decades ago when the subway was first put in. Third, the tunnels are almost done, so we may as well finish them. Fourth, people have become so soured over this project because of mainstream media misinformation campaigns (more on that below) that they cannot see that it truly is a good thing to have. Regardless, tunnel objections have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Bringing it up distracts from the real problem. If this is the best you can do, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing demands that the Poured Drink and/or Car Rental Taxes are being misused, or should be eliminated, or why can't that be used to fill this hole, or something similar. I can understand some of this, as it isn't clear to most people. Transit is funded by a mix of local and state sources, in addition to farebox and advertising revenue. The drink and rental taxes provide part of the local share, and county property taxes provide the rest. The local share is needed in order for Port Authority to qualify to get the state share. If the local share wasn't there, the state money would not be obtainable. Here's the problem: The local money *is* there, but the state money is *not*. Finding about $240M in state money is the matter at hand. As to the drink and rental taxes themselves, the alternative was to raise county property taxes. However the money is raised, the local share is there. It's the state share that is in question. Can we please move on?

I am tired of hearing that bus drivers make six-figure salaries, are overpaid, blah blah blah. It is simply not true. Maybe someone from Port Authority's HR department would care to chime in with actual numbers, but I simply do not see how someone making about $25/hour can take home $100K. A full 40-hour week for 52 weeks at top pay works out to around $52K. In order to make $100K, someone would have to drive about 64 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Who would do that? Do you think that management would even allow that? And even if that really was true, they earned it! When did it become reprehensible to knock honest, hard work? But back to the basics. Sure, $25/hour is decent money, but even that figure is misleading. That is the top wage. Many drivers are not at top wage. Still, there are plenty of other hard-working Pittsburghers making that kind of money. Stand down on Grant Street on Labor Day and watch the parade. Some make more, some make less, but they're part of our community. Their wages are buying your daughter's Girl Scout cookies. I don't begrudge them a cent, and suggest strongly that you follow likewise.

I am tired of hearing that PAT is mismanaged, corrupt, runs an inefficient system, and pays its people too much. I contend the opposite. Most of this criticism comes from people who have nary a clue as to how a transit system works, and never use the system themselves. I think I can talk intelligently about transit in general and Port Authority in particular, from working with the staff for almost 20 years, and relying on it daily for fully 20. Transit is my avocation. I study trends, know the issues, and understand the finances, the politics, the technology, the operating environment, and many of the people and the jobs they do. Sure I have disagreed with various decisions and approaches to things over the years, but in general, I know what they are up against, and often agree with their handling of things. No, they are not mismanaged, and they are not overpaid.

I am tired of hearing about Port Authority's supposed inefficient operations and duplicative routes. Inefficiency criticisms may have been accurate five years ago, prior to Act 44's requirement that PAT, and Philadelphia's SEPTA, streamline their operations and become more accountable. PAT did this. That was the whole purpose of the Transit Development Plan, or TDP. Those changes really are making the system more efficient, more attractive, even if the changes are irritating. The inefficiency criticism no longer applies. If this is what you are arguing, stop it right now.

I am tired of hearing about generous labor contracts in past years. What is that supposed to solve today? Management held the line during the 2008 contract negotiations like they never have before. It very nearly went to a strike. We cannot turn back the clock and re-negotiate 1995's contract or 1968's or any other year. We have what we have. Deal with it. If you insist on dragging past history into the current discussion, stop right now. We need solutions, not cold beef.

I am tired of hate radio. That's the best term I can use to describe talk shows which thrive on bashing Port Authority and all its shortcomings, real and imagined. Just like schoolchildren complaining about cafeteria food, it's human nature to bash a service for which there is no real public alternative. (Yes, you can bring a lunch. Yes, you can drive. That's not my point.) The talk shows make their living by provoking passionate arguments, always working from the negative. It gains listeners, which drives up the ratings and therefore pays the bills. If you do manage to call to get a sensible word in, you get laughed off the air, and the next five callers machine-gun you into a smoldering wreckage. There is almost no point in trying. After years and years of this goading, is it any wonder so many people have a negative view of Port Authority? It stinks, and is simply not fair. If your impression of PAT has been influenced by hate radio, and you have no interest in changing your mind, get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of the mainstream media's hateful coverage of Port Authority. Good news is no news, it seems, and the only stories deemed newsworthy are the negative -- wrecks, police activity, disputes with customers, disputes with labor, political wrangling, and anything that doesn't work or causes someone some distress. If news shows did not sell air time, this would be a very different world. If people could be interested in boring facts more than trouble and carnage, this would be a very different world. I, for one, live in a different world. I am fascinated by the boring and have not owned a TV or watched a news show in 16 years. Maybe that's why I have so little tolerance for all this anti-transit piffle. How about you do likewise? How about if you can't, then get out of the conversation and shut up?

I am tired of Republican intransigence on taxes. They vote as a block, and will not even consider any discussion of a new tax or a hike in a tax, no matter how small, and no matter what good it might do. In particular, if Governor Rendell suggests it, they respond as one with a resounding rejection of the proposal. They will fight you to the death to prove to you that 2+2=5. This is lunacy. We are talking about solutions to both the highway and bridge problem, and the transit problem. Permanent solutions. Remember what I said at the top? This argument goes on year after year? This is why. A proper fix to the problem comes along, and no matter how much sense it might make, since it's a tax, the answer is no.

The highway fix involves a fuel tax of maybe four cents a gallon. C'mon, four cents a gallon isn't even chickenfeed. Gasoline flips up and down 40 cents a gallon in any given month and you accept that. You spend four cents in gasoline driving around a parking lot to find a good space. Objections to that tax are groundless. They need to stop.

The transit fix involves a new tax, a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax. You would pay $1 for every 1,000 miles your car traveled in a year, to be added onto either the registration or inspection fees, both of which you already pay, and both of which require your odometer reading. The typical car travels 15,000 miles, so $15/year. Again, this is hardly noticeable in the cost of operating a vehicle. You spend that much in gasoline in three days. If you really cannot afford that, you are already not driving the car. Assessing it would put to rest this entire argument. We have been arguing about it every spring for half a century! Imagine that, a permanent solution to a constant problem! Yet the GOP rejects it out of hand because it's a new tax. It's sickening. It needs to stop. We need a financially responsible solution, and we need it now.

I am tired of hearing the Republican call not to do anything until a new legislature is seated. This foot-dragging really means they intend to do nothing until they control the legislature when they can continue doing nothing for another two years. The GOP wants to kill transit. This is their way of making sure that happens. It's sickening. It needs to stop. We need a humane solution to the transit problem, and we need it now.

Lastly, I am tired of the Republican calls for privatization. This, of course, is what this whole argument is about. There is money to be made from the desperate. Kill enough of the transit system so that the only thing left actually makes money, and the vultures will dive in to rip the carcass to shreds and eat heartily. The rest of the system can rot. That's what the GOP wants, and by making 35% of the system go away all at once, they're likely to get exactly that. They WANT transit to fail so their taxi/limo/van service friends can make money off of you, more money than you now or will pay Port Authority. If you can afford a car (or cannot afford not to have one), fine, their other friends will sell you a car. If you cannot afford a car, and do not have a bus to ride, to hell with you. You don't matter. THAT is the Republican line.

There is not a transit system in North America, probably the world, that operates without some sort of public subsidy. It hasn't worked here since the 1930s, when it was all tax-paying private industry, and the only competition was the private automobile. Big industry owned the legislature then, too. That was when Western PA was the center of the oil, steel, and glass industries, and wasn't far from most of the rubber manufacture (Eastern Ohio), in short, all the components of the auto industry short of the cars themselves. The laws were changed back then to favor private transport, most notably the 1945 amendment to the state Constitution that prevented the gasoline tax and license and registration fees from being used for public transit -- again, to emphasize, all of which were private, tax-paying companies at the time. Of course the tables were tipped! Why ride all those rattly, falling-apart trolleys? Buy a car! All the political power favored all that heavy industry, which anyone can tell you dominated Pittsburgh for over a century and was then at its peak. By the 1950s every one of those trolley and bus companies was bankrupt. Government took over them all, merging them into the single, publicly subsidized creature we have today.

Life is different now. We don't have any oil here anymore, and precious little steel, glass or any other heavy industry, compared to 70 years ago. After decades of building ever spreading suburbs, people are moving back into the cities, are demanding better public transit, and using it when it's available. At the same time, growing numbers of people are concerned about pollution, traffic, oil imports, and various other tree-hugging topics. Deny it and lash at it and poke fun all you want, but it doesn't change matters. But to kill transit just when it's becoming more needed than ever? Simply reprehensible. Damn the Republican policies!

Some closing thoughts. I have worked in software for over 25 years, white collar work, primarily in information organizations. All my experience and education have been centered on information analysis, with particular emphasis on what happens in the absence of it. The staff side of Port Authority handles huge amounts of information, but has been badly understaffed for many years. In what way? Well, consider this: Many of the complaints about Port Authority, especially at the service level, can be traced to customers not having the information they need in a form they can use. This in turn comes from not having the technology systems in place to provide that info, which in turn is directly caused by lack of money. That technology also needs people to administer it, to make sense out of it, and put it to use. That simply does not happen, and to me the results are blatantly obvious. I could name four dozen ways Port Authority could deliver a better product, but it costs money PAT cannot ever seem to get. This constant strangling of transit operations HAS to stop so that Port Authority can provide better service, not by the number of buses on the street, but by the amount of information both in customers' hands and internally. That costs money, big money, in machinery, software and people. Think what good those cameras along the parkways have done for managing auto traffic. That was an 8-digit number of your tax dollars spent. How about doing transit the same favor? We need not to be arguing about this $47M, but rather for the $20M/year beyond that in order to provide the information riders need, and which would lure non-riders out of their cars.

C'mon, quit complaining about transit costs. One major intersection rebuild in the North Hills last year cost $16M, just so cars wouldn't have to wait so long at a light. One corner. That's your tax dollars, too. How many times a year do we re-spend that money in a different spot? How about a central fix? It's called a bus!

Stop the bickering! Just fund transit properly!

Stuart Strickland

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