David T. has been on a multi-year quest that stresses the mismanagement and corruption in our region's transportation.
Allegheny County's public transit quality has deteriorated.Edit
The governor is committed to dedicated funding for transit. But sadly, none of his proposals do anything to address the real, underlying problems.
The crisis has two issues: accountability and effective funding.Edit
Rendell's possible removal of the handle of funding could significantly reduce accountability and could make matters worse. Guaranteed funding without any other changes would enable PAT to drop below the legislature's radar where it could even more easily restrict opportunities for public oversight. Rural and suburban legislators are rightfully concerned. Accountability cannot be divorced from funding considerations.
The public hasn't monitored PAT's management and accounting.Edit
PAT's General Counsel, Dennis L. Veraldi determined that PAT is exempt from the state Sunshine Law. More public accountability is unlikely.
Calif. State Senator Jim Mills was responsible for two milestones in transit: Mills initiated light rail transit (began in San Diego) with accountability. San Diego remains the most efficient and effective light rail transit in the US. Mills also got dedicated transit funding. Plus, they went hand in hand.
Fundamental differences and conflicts among aspects of public transit clash. Mills said, "We had a bus company, and I could see that no matter what we did, it was always going to be a bus company." Rail operations is markedly different. "So we set up a separate, independent rail company, then over both of them we created the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, which tells each where to go and when to be there and plans all transit construction. Outside of that, bus and rail are left to manage their own operations independent of one another, each doing what it does best."
Mills ensured accountability and eliminated the problems of competition. San Diego obtained efficiencies which no combined transit operations in the country can match.
Early in the last century, California, Pennsylvania, and others adjusted state constitutions that prohibit the collected gasoline taxes to be spent upon public transit.
Wrong way is an hike in the Real Estate Transfer Tax.Edit
Rendell's proposed increase for the real estate transfer tax falls hardest upon the poor, pushing many low income buyers totally out of the market and forcing the rest to choose lower priced, lower quality properties, while at the same time significantly undermining property values of all. Residents in distressed urban communities are the most transit dependent.
Meanwhile, rural and suburban home buyers get to make purchases of higher cost property without any benefit. Rendell's plan is a lose-lose situation with the poor being hurt the most. Quite possibly, the additional hurt is worse than having no additional transit funding. Unintended consequences are sure to be pronounced.
Taxes affect people's choices, by design. Tax collections and the income from the taxes as those funds are spent give the impact.
California's model stopped the throwing of money down a transit toilet. California hitch new transit funding to results in greater ridership and alleviated congestion. A clever tax can get more people out of their cars and ease everyone's quality of life without the pain and no gain.
To shift behavior, they could have heavily subsidized transit or highly taxed driving. Instead, they chose a more balanced approach, creating the same effect through a relatively smaller tax upon driving, with its entire proceeds dedicated to funding transit.
Mills' political genius was in getting past that constitutional hurdle which stymied them just as it has us here. Since transit needs two kinds of funding, one for annual operations, the other for capital projects (construction, long term purchases, etc.), Mills divided the problem. Transit operations desperately needed dedicated funding, capital projects could wait. Key to Sen. Mills success was being able to use the accountability and efficiency he had established in San Diego to convince the rest of the state to go along with extending the state's sales tax to cover gasoline sales (they were previously exempt, just as in Pennsylvania now). The entire proceeds were dedicated to funding transit operations â€” and it didn't take a constitutional amendment.
With transit operations stabilized, Mills later initiated a two year constitutional amendment process similar to ours, here. In earlier battles, the primary argument against using the gas tax to fund transit had been that drivers cover their own operating costs while the gas tax goes toward infrastructure (e.g. building highways and bridges). Mills completely circumvented that argument with an amendment that allows gas tax revenues to only be used for building transit infrastructure.
When last we spoke, Senator Mills, by then retired, even offered to come to Pennsylvania and work with our elected officials to show them the ins and outs of the California solution. Unfortunately, 10 years ago nobody was interested.
So how do we implement his solutions today?
The legislature can create a package deal: dedicated transit funding coupled with a split in PAT's operations; rail transit to be handled by a new, independent, regional rail agency serving southwestern PA. Similar to San Diego, both it and PAT could then be coordinated by our present metro government, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the primary purpose of which is already regional transportation planning. Not only should this create more accountability, but expanding rail transit regionally spreads the benefits of transit to more of the state, a step which would widen support for transit in the legislature and help ensure passage. It sure beats having our legislature stampeded into a bad solution.