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.


Blogger abqdave said...

Oh oh, ABQ Trolley covers pretty much the Red Rapid Ride route, they might put it out of business.

Here is their Balloon Fiesta ad...

I remember ABQRide said they were not going to offer State Fair shuttle service at all. Soon after, the Mayor's office announced they would. It is an election year, after all. I think ABQRide's effort was half-hearted. I think I agree with ABQRide, was any special service needed, since 2 Rapid Ride lines go by the fairgrounds?

Interesting issue. I am still waiting for the Bush administration to end and for the Change we Can Believe In to kick in. Do you know when it is supposed to start?

9:16 PM  
Blogger Busboy said...

Thanks, abqdave. I hadn't heard the "no shuttle > OK, I'm running for mayor again, so some shuttle" explanation before now. Makes more sense than ABQ RIDE worrying about the FTA rule.

Speaking of the FTA rule, however, I wonder if ABQ Trolley is why ABQ RIDE didn't have a trolley this year. On the other hand, I seem to recall some ABQ Bus Riders Forum discussion about the ABQ RIDE trolley not being in very good shape.

Finally, what I'm reading about the current FTA pro-privatization/non-competition rule is that the Obama folks are resisting a legislative effort to overturn the rule in the hope that the FTA itself will make the decision. My sense is that it's a matter of time before the rule is retired.

7:37 PM  

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