Sunday, September 27, 2009

BUS STORY # 152 (The Public Option)

This year, for the first time I can remember, there has been no daily ABQ RIDE shuttle service to the State Fair.

There has been weekend service.

The ABQ RIDE website offers no explanation for the cutback.

Busboy emailed Greg Payne asking if current Federal Transit Administration policy re: local transit service to special events was the reason for the withdrawal of weekday service.

Here’s why: On May 1, 2007, the Bush administration rolled out a new FTA policy that prohibits local transit agencies from competing with private enterprise charter companies.
"The rule was intended to shield 'private charter operators from unfair competition by federally subsidized public transit agencies,' as the Bush administration wrote in its initial regulatory justification.
As a result, public transit agencies were barred from offering bus services to special events if a private company was able to do the job instead."
The rule is specific to special events where that service is: not part the regular schedule; the fee is higher than the regular fare; or a team or other group is involved, and negotiates a special price for the service.

We’re talking about state fairs, sports events, city festivals like our Balloon Fiesta, special events like the Luminaria Tour, and concert services like the Rock Star Shuttle.

Because the penalty for failure to comply is the withdrawal of all federal transportation funding (!), many municipalities took no chances and refrained from submitting bids for these services. As Jim LaRusch, general counsel for the American Public Transit Association, understated, the penalties “really kind of chilled public transportation agencies in their provision of services.”

Some municipalities applied for waivers from the rule because it was evident private enterprise was not up to the challenge.

A couple of prominent events did get waivers the first year only – the Transit Authority of River City (Louisville, Kentucky) for the Kentucky Derby, and IndyGo (Indianapolis, Indiana) for the Indy 500.

Seattle’s Metro “successfully petitioned the FTA to continue providing Mariners service until June 30” [2008]. The Metro transported 66,000 fans to the Mariners games the previous season. -- Seattle Times.

The impact on riders has mostly been financial, with increases up to six times the city bus service fares for the same service. Here’s a Washington Redskins fan’s reaction to his first encounter with privatized transportation:

"Have you heard the story about the federal bureaucrat who derailed a long-running and extremely effective mass transit program that cut down traffic and saved energy for Redskins fans going to Fed Ex Field?" -- Washington Post
That fan is now paying $20.00 for a service his local public transportation system delivered for $6.00. But at least he’s getting to the game on time. Not everyone has been so fortunate in the privatization transition. Consider this story from Minneapolis-St. Paul:

"Dressed in shorts and pushing strollers, Minnesotans who found themselves in long lines for free State Fair shuttle buses were unwitting bit players in a nationwide privatization debate that has affected events from college football games to the Indy 500 . . . Over the fair's first weekend, the transition left some people waiting an hour or more for even short rides to the fair and contributed to chaos at the bus lots on Como Avenue." -- Minneapolis StarTribune
And my personal favorite from deep in the heart of Texas:

"The Huddle Shuttle has been sacked by the University of Texas, leaving about 2,500 football fans looking for a fresh way to attend Saturday's game against Texas Tech and the four other home games this season . . . The company [Executive Coach], which took over the service this year from Capital Metro because of federal regulations giving private carriers precedence over public transit agencies for bus charter service, had not provided enough buses for the Longhorns' first game Sept. 5 against Louisiana-Monroe, the university said . . . The university then approached Capital Metro, hoping it would resume the service for the remainder of the 2009 season." -- Austin American-Statesman
If private enterprise is Texas’ dominant political philosophy, football is the state religion. And no matter which denomination one belongs to – Cowboys or Texans, Aggies or Longhorns, or the local high school team – everyone comes together at the recessional: “Just Get Me To The Game On Time!” Clearly, UT fans aren’t letting their political philosophy get in the way of the practice of their religion.

It is wonderfully ironic that, in the home state of the President whose administration authored the regulations, and whose population is predominantly and profoundly conservative, these UT fans sought salvation in, of all things, a public option: Capitol Metro.

There are indications that the regulations are going to change. The impact has been so onerous to so many that 19 lawmakers (three of them Republican) have asked the senior members of the House transportation committee to reverse the non-competition rule.

The Obama administration has already reversed a policy instituted by the Bush administration that rewarded public transportation systems that outsourced their operations and maintenance.

Still, the administration has not moved forward on the non-competition rule.

Which is why it’s good to have friends in high places.

Sen. Patty Murray (D) happens to be chairman of the appropriations panel that recently drafted legislation to fund federal transportation projects for the coming year. She managed to get the pro-privatization rule reversed for her home state of Washington – only. “Murray's motivation . . . seems clear. Seattle Mariners fans in her home state lost out on $3 local bus service to baseball games this year, after the city turned down a private company's bid to charge nearly $20 for the same ride.”

Returning to the beginning of this post, could the FTA pro-privatization, non-competition rule be the reason ABQ RIDE curtailed bus service to the State Fair this year?

Since Greg Payne hasn’t answered my email, I simply don’t know. And while there are plenty of stories out there about the impact of this restriction on many other cities, I found nothing in my googling, including searches of local media and blogs, about the FTA rules and their impact on ABQ RIDE or Albuquerque.

I’d guess the reason for curtailed weekday service is simply a matter of resources. Offering weekend service makes sense because ABQ RIDE’s schedules and routes are reduced – buses and drivers are available. I’ve yet to see a 300 or 400 running on the weekend since the 900s were added to the fleet.

With less than two weeks before the start of the Balloon Fiesta, the ABQ RIDE website Transit Events reports “There are currently no upcoming events.” The city website does have a direct link to the Park And Ride site of the Balloon Fiesta website. If this is not a private operation, it is a remarkably well-camouflaged public undertaking.

The Rock Star Shuttle still has a quick link on the ABQ RIDE page. However, that link now takes you to a page that requires a log-in and password – with no indication how to get one if you don’t have one! Is this somehow related to the FTA rule? I haven’t a clue.

Finally, although there is nothing on the ABQ RIDE site about the annual Luminaria Tour, the city website does state “ABQ Ride offers luminaria bus tours on December 24th.” However, the announcement includes a link to purchase tickets for 2008 . . .

So do I think Albuquerque’s public option has been silently eased out? Not really. Not yet, anyway. I think all these little signs are nothing more than how we normally do things here in the Land of Enchantment.

But I am staying tuned.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

BUS STORY # 151 (Ancient Honorable Barter System)

I’m moving down the aisle and spot an almost empty seat. The guy sitting by the window has two plastic grocery bags on the aisle seat. I pause and look at the seat. He quickly grabs the bags and pulls them onto his lap. He smiles up at me.

“Thanks,” I say, and sit down.

It doesn’t always work out this way. Across the aisle, our co-rider has his backpack in the window seat while he sits in the aisle seat with his head buried in a book. He knows exactly what he is doing.

“It’s crowded today, no?” asks my seatmate.

“That time of day,” I reply.

He wants to talk. He tells me he’s a great-grandfather. I tell him he doesn’t look like one. And he doesn’t. He looks to be about 10 years younger than me. I may look like the grandfather I am, but a great-grandfather? No way, I reassure myself.

He goes on to tell me his story. It’s a familiar variation on a theme. He was born and raised here, but split for southern California when he turned 18. Worked two jobs out there, got married, had a daughter, then came back home. His facial expression tells me coming home was a bad career move.

Later, he was in a car wreck and injured his left arm. Now, he tells me, it’s developed into a degenerative nerve disease. He just got qualified for SSI, and he’s relieved. “I’m tired of being broke,” he says.

He opens one of the grocery bags and invites me to look inside. I see two jars of Folger’s instant coffee.

Then he shows me what’s in the other bag: Two more jars of Folger’s.

“Looks like you’re set for the spring,” I tell him.

“They’re five-fifty apiece,” he tells me. “I’ll sell you two of them for seven dollars.”

It’s impossible not to ask why someone who just spent $11 on two jars of coffee would turn around and sell them for $7.

“Oh, I didn’t buy them,” he explains. “This woman gave them to me. See, I went to see her this morning because she owes me 10 bucks. But she didn’t have the money. So she gave me this coffee instead. Five-fifty apiece, seven for two,” he repeats, looking at me. “It’s a good deal.”

“Yup, but I’m all set for coffee.”

He tells me he’s been riding the bus all day. He started out on Coors. His first stop was for the woman who owed him the $10.00. Now he’s heading for Louisiana. He knows someone who might buy the coffee.

As we pull into the stop at Louisiana, he gives me one last chance. “Two at five-fifty, for seven.” His voice has that are-you-sure sing-song to it. I wish him luck.

The photo at the top of this story is titled "Orthez: bus du commerce équitable" and is posted with the kind permission of fredpanassac. You can see this and all fredpanassac's photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

BUS STORY # 150 (Shorts 12)

In last week’s Bus Story, I wrote “Paris Hilton isn’t roving my neighborhood, but at least one coyote is . . . ” Turns out Paris is roving my neighborhood after all. And I’m much more likely to encounter her again than I am my coyote. You just have to expect the unexpected, I guess.


Back on June 7, This Week's Feature linked to a May 31 story in Parade Magazine:

Thanks to a little-known policy at the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the guy sitting next to you on the bus could be a convicted felon. As part of a cost-cutting program, the BOP allows more than 25,000 prisoners each year to ride unescorted and unannounced between federal correctional facilities. At least 50 have escaped, including a drug dealer who is now considered armed and dangerous.
Parade article
Here is a challenge to that article posted June 1 on the blog of a former Greyhound bus driver:
Recently, there has been an alarmist article that has been making the print media and the Internet. The claim is, The Federal Bureau of Prisons is permitting convicts to transfer themselves between facilities . . . While the article is compelling, it blurs the facts.

Greyhounder response


He arrives at the Rapid Ride station carrying a plastic bag. He looks up at the time. “Whoa. One minute.” He pulls a 16-ounce can of Keystone Light out of the sack, then a Big Gulp cup with a straw in it. He sets the Big Gulp on the bench, then pops the can. Foam spews everywhere. “Damn.” He sets the can down on the bench, shakes the suds off both hands, then pries the top off the Big Gulp. He pours the beer into the Big Gulp, presses the cup top back on, straightens the straw. He sets the cup down, picks up the can. He looks around, looks up at the time, looks around again. Then he tosses the can back into the plastic sack. The bus arrives. He boards with his plastic sack and his Big Gulp.


At a Central Avenue bus stop east of Louisiana, a woman is standing on the edge of the sidewalk. With her left hand, she is aggressively signaling she is hitchhiking. With her right, she is incredulously signaling to each passing car, “Why aren’t you picking me up?”

Thanks to JM in Brooklyn for this week's feature story: Last Week In: London.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

BUS STORY # 149 (A Walk On The Wild Side)

Outside my front door, I can tell by the sky the sun is about to rise on the other side of the mountains. I walk down the sidewalk to my bus stop. Across the street, at the far end of the sidewalk and heading home to the foothills after a night’s work, comes a coyote.

He trots a bit sideways, his hind quarters not quite aligned with his front paws. His tan coat looks good – not ratty like a lot I’ve seen. He’s eating well. I suddenly realize I’ve never been this close before.

We keep to our walking but we also keep an eye on one another, two pedestrians with someplace to go, each minding his own business and hoping the other is similarly inclined. We pass each other mid-block. At the end of the block, I turn and look back. He’s still heading east, crossing the street and looking back at me.

A front door opens nearby. A woman comes out holding a small black dog in her arms.

“Was that what I think it was?” she asks me.

“I think so,” I answer.

“I was just about to take my dog out for a walk when I saw him,” she says, clutching her dog a little tighter.

I’m thinking he was probably more interested in all the new rabbits in the neighborhood or the field mice down by the arroyo. But a small black dog on the way home, well, I can imagine how that might look to a coyote like some kind of death-by-chocolate brownie.

I’ve heard stories about pets disappearing from foothills back yards. A former co-worker in the Edgewood area once referred to coyotes as “Mother Nature’s feral cat control program.” But I can’t imagine a coyote going for a pet with an adult human standing right there.

Later, I will google “coyote” and have my imagination straightened out. I learn that not only have coyotes attacked people, but a number of websites and blogs have first-hand and eye-witness accounts of small children and pets being attacked when an adult human was close by.

A lot of these stories are coming from southern California where so much urban development intersects abruptly with wilderness area – much like the entire east side of Albuquerque.

According to the Los Angeles Times, a study done by UC Davis found that from 1978 to 2004, “there were 89 attacks on people or on pets in the presence of people. More than three-quarters of those came after 1994.”

Another site, DesertUSA, quotes from the study:

“Out of the 89 Coyote attacks in California, 56 of the attacks caused injury to one or more people. Out of those that caused injury, 55% were attacks on adults. In 35 incidents, where coyotes stalked or attacked small children, the possibility of serous or fatal injury seemed likely if the child had not been rescued.” (Coyote Attacks: An Increasing Suburban Problem, Timm and Baker ’04)
And then I read this:
There is only 1 known fatality that occurred in California in 1981. A 3 year-old girl was attacked and killed by a coyote when she was playing unattended in her front yard.
I am momentarily stunned by a memory. More googling confirms I know the mother of the only child to have died from a coyote attack here in the States. She told me the story almost 20 years ago at a class reunion. Her child died in the operating room after several hours of surgery.

I’m beginning to feel like a real city slicker about that sidewalk encounter.

Later, I read about what I should have done when I encountered the coyote:

If you start seeing coyotes around your home or property, chase them away by shouting, making loud noises or throwing rocks.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
Don't run or turn your back on the coyote. Face the coyote and back away slowly.Rocky Mountain News
Given a next time, I’ve decided I will stop walking and keep myself turned and fully facing him until he’s out of sight. And maybe pull my umbrella out of my backpack and have it at the ready. I seem to remember reading that popping an umbrella open at an oncoming bear will deter an attack. Or was it a mountain lion? Maybe it was geese, an angry gaggle of geese . . .

Truth is, I’d feel a whole lot more apprehensive if that coyote was a Pit Bull. And somehow, my future plans make me feel more embarrassed than smart. As if I were the provocateur here. Or as if I thought my old, stringy, inconveniently-sized carcass must surely be irresistible to any discriminating coyote. I figure I’m in more danger of being hit on by Paris Hilton.

On the other hand, I’m thinking this could be the epitome of urban naiveté. Paris Hilton isn’t roving my neighborhood, but at least one coyote is, and there’s no getting around all those coyote attack stories. And one of these days, I’m more likely to be tottering down that sidewalk than striding, old and feeble, a classic candidate for being culled from the human herd . . .

Out here in New Mexico, there are dozens of Native American stories about the coyote as “trickster.” Some of them are not so far in spirit from the stories folks my age remember about Wile E. and his relationship with our state bird. These make it easier to take the coyote less seriously than the supremely competent animal he is. And maybe that’s the real trick he’s mastered, the one that lets him get away with living and thriving in such close proximity to our kind – among us, actually, as many stories and Shirley Two Feathers’ remarkable photo suggest. Looks like a real sweetie, doesn’t he?

I know it’s nobody’s fault. There’s more and more of all of us, and less and less room. And, as the experts point out, food and water are abundant and readily available wherever humans are living. “Why are they going to go chase rabbits when you got Fifi locked up with a bowl of water to drink right next to her?” as one professional animal trapper puts it. As my IT friends would put it, we’re both "working as designed."

And that’s the trouble, isn’t it?


The photo at the top of this story is titled "coyote rides the bus" and is posted with the kind permission of Shirley Two Feathers. You can see this and all Shirley Two Feathers' photos on Flickr at: