Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Lehigh Valley Has a Mass Transit Crisis

Yesterday, in Easton's City Council Chambers, LANTA conducted the first of three public hearings before it raises fares and cuts our bus service. It's simply amazing. Just a few weeks ago, at least 170 of the Lehigh Valley's movers and shakers nibbled on brie and sipped chardonnay as the Brookings' Robert Puentes talked about rail. He made clear that no form of transportation, including buses, should be ignored.

Our local Congressman, Charlie Dent, is a co-founder of the House Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus, and actually wants to convert Route 78 into a hydrogen highway. Even the prez wants us to reduce gasoline consumption, and is proposing, for the first time in twenty years, that we improve mileage standards for our cars, SUVs and trucks.

In addition to this increasing interest in alternative transportation, LANTA's bus ridership is up 60% since '97. Alternative transportation is finally in, bippy.

And this is where the land of midnight payraises enters this story. Incredibly, the state legislature has no solution for a transportation funding crisis. LANTA may have to raise fares and cut service while Harrisburg drones on about property tax reform for another year.

Public hearings on LANTA's proposal will be held again today at Noon at the Lehigh County Government Center in Allentown, and tomorrow at Noon in Bethlehem's City Hall. If you can't attend a noon meeting like most of us, you can let LANTA know how you feel on its website.

Steve Schmitt, the local director of our coalition for alternative transportation, claims he can't write. But he summed things up nicely in an email being circulated everywhere. "This is a crisis. If our region can find the money to rebuild a $12 million dollar bridge on Route 33 that falls into a sinkhole; if we can find the tens of millions of dollars it is going to take to redo the surface of Route 78 that needs unusual repair right now, if we can find $1.5 million to run a constant emergency service on Route 22 for people that run out of gas, if we can find the $750,000 to replace the lights on cemetery curve, then we can find the $1.6 million to prevent a deficit at LANTA."


And how about a bike rack at the judges' $46 (and climbing) million Taj Mahal in Easton!

17 comments:

Jnny said...

Why is this a crisis? The LV buses serve so few people and don't really run anywhere significant. We should shut down all the buses in the LV and let people start up jitney services. It'd be much more efficient and allow local entrepreneurs to serve everyone much more efficiently.

Bernie O'Hare said...

jnny,

Ridership is up 60% since '97, 10% of that in the last year. Two summers ago, I used the buses and they were filling up.

They don't run anywhere signifigant? Taker a look at the schedules. They run thru the hearts of the downtowens and even make the trek to our far flung industrial parks.

Jitney service? LANTA has that, too. Haven't you seen their smaller buses?

And what about service for a poor handicapped person who only earns $20 per week, as revealed at yesterday's hearing?

LVDem said...

Bernie, don't try to reason with the facts. It's unfair.

Don't forget the fact that 51% of people using LANTA are using it to get to work.

Anonymous said...

My problem with Lanta is it is never on time.

Billy Givens said...

Future Delaware River flooding is inevitable, like those of Hurricane "Ivan the Terrible" of 2005 and the two 2006 inundations immediately following transformed turned Easton into the Little New Orleans of Katrina and Rita, twin terrors that drew the ire of director Spike Lee.

In an article published in The New York Times and posted on my blog, Lee scathingly criticized N.O.'s Mayor, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Brown (His first name eludes me at the moment), Brown's boss, Department of Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and President George W. Bush.

Back up here Easton, on the day thet city's Mayor Phil Mitman announced he would not seek a second consecutive term, that evening's WFMZ-69 TV newscast at 6 attributed his decision to the flooding and the murder of Easton Police Officer Sollman at the hands of a fellow officer, occurring in broad daylight and in the substandard Easton Police Headquarters crowded into a corner of an Easton Parking Authority garage.

The garage's five massive, crack-crazed concrete decks, neglected since the poorly designed, constructed, and maintained over the 30-odd years of its existence have allowed rain, sleet,and snow to breach the decks' structural integraty, leaching through the decks' cracks and crevasses, rusting hundreds of the steel cables, called "tendons." wi

God knows how many more of these cables have never been X-rayed.
undetected because the decks have never been X-rayed.

What I'm reporting here is confirmed by an article by former The Express-Times reporter Josh Richman published December 11, 1995, which happened to be a Monday.

And that's the only fateful reason Josh's article ever saw the light of day: A Sunday editor, like Anthony Salomone, not a regular like Jim Flagg, and let the damning article slip through.

The article obviously described the quarterly November 1995 Parking Authority meeting attended by its board members chaired by Susan Coffin; authority solicitor Philip Lauer; authority secretary Tom Hess, a retirned Easton police captain who's also Easton City Council clerk; and Michael Dimitri, the president of Ramp Associates, the parking garage consultant, a position required by Pennsylvania's Municipality Authorities Act of 1945.

When I requested a copy of the minutes of that November 1995 meeting, Hess told me they did not exist, that they might have been lost in the move to the Alpha building from the art deco City Hall building at 650 Ferry Street, which was razed to make room for Northampton County's prison for the young.

Because of the garage's dilapidated condition, it cannot support additional decks.

This has led the Easton Area Land and Industrial Development Corporation and Easton Historic District Commission member and architect Jeff Martinson to recommend the proposed parking deck as the foundation for seven stories of boutiques and luxury condos called Riverview, all located in the Delaware River-Bushkill Creek flood plain.

So LANTA patrons, if this albatross isn't sunk by publicity of the kind provided in my Billy Bytes publications, will, at inevitable times, have to roll up their pants legs to wade to their busses and the bullshit of corporate heads like Phil Mitman and Arcadia Properties' CEO and president Richard Thulen and vice-president of sales, College Hill Brahmin Shawn Langen.

If LANTA busses, and LANTA itself, still exists, that is, not drowned in inevitable Noah-sized floods and debt.

Billy Givens said...

I have no choice but to run for mayor of Easton, again.

And I'm also retro-gressing in other ways: from blog, to website, to single or back-to-back two-page newsoetters hand-distributed, to bullhorn.

I'm 73 years old (74 next month) and I'm going back to the future, like Michael J. Fox.

I liked it better back then, especially better than the last 2 years that I've spent in Blairstown Township, Warren County, New Jersey, and then here in Easton.

When I ran for Easton mayor in 1991, one of my platform planks was the annexation of Easton by Forks Township.

The idea, though it seismic convulsions through both municipalities, was not exactly novel: Local historian Lance Metz had recommended the inclusion of Forks Township in Downtown Easton's National Historic District.

But that didn't happen, of course, and not until last year, about 30 years later, same age as the parking garage, did Easton City Council adopt a local historic district ordinance that gives the national designtion enforceable zoning teeth - though council doesn't use them to bite; seems only Billy Bytes does that.

So now Forks Township is a shithole too, a comparison frequently voiced at last night's packed meeting in Lower Mount bethel Township on the subject of the proposed 90/10 zoning ordinance amendment recommended by the township's planning commission for the preservation of farmland and other open space.

Jnny said...

Facts are cool, but I repeat where is the crisis? What percentage of the LV population relies on the buses? You wanna argue economics, you gotta bring the economics. The reality is LV is too spread out and low density to economically sustain anything approaching mass transit. It’s square peg – round hole thinking to believe otherwise.

What Lanta provides is not jitney. Jitney service means customized routes with shared riders. Think midway between taxi service and bus service. Vehicle size is optimized to the actual number of riders, instead of the fixed routes. This can net reduced pollution. Jitneys can also provide customized service for handicapped riders that matches conveyance to need.

I envision a centrally dispatched service with independent contractors who own the vehicles. The dispatches are computer optimized to minimized route distance and time spent in transit. This improves customer service and reduces wasted time. Do you recall the story from the Morning Call of the bus customer who wasted nearly 2 hours each day going to and from his job due to the bus schedule?

Also this is Pennsylvania, any service that is started would be regulated to the teeth anyway, so subsidizing low-income riders would be designed into the regulatory functions.

Anonymous said...

Two facts:

1. Billy Givens is crazy. Half a page with nothing to do with LANTA. He has his own blog to post that drivel. Concrete in parking decks is irrelevant to LANTA.

2. There is no mass transit crisis. If it had enough riders, no crisis. The problem with the alternative transportation folks is that they want the government to pay for everything. They want buses, bikes AND trains.

Bernie O'Hare said...

jnny, Actually, the more you explain your idea, the better it sounds. You have many good arguments. Brookings, when it discussed mass transportation, said ALL options should be on the table. I think your idea is one that should be considered.

It is a crisis for folks who can't afford to drive and rely on buses. Your point about the 2 hour one way trip is very well made.

Anonymous said...

In response to the 'facts' posted by anonymous:

I do not know Mr. Givens or the state of his mental health, but he does hit on one point: it is not a transit crisis, it is a transportation crisis and our infrastructure - highways and transit - is crumbling and the state is not providing enough funds.

Transit is subsidized with public funds. So are highways and bridges.

Transit riders pay fares; auto drivers pay gas taxes. Neither are sufficient to maintain and grow these systems.

Funny how we talk about transit productivity but never measure highway productivity.

The trouble with auto drivers is that they want good roads and plenty of them and they expect government to pay for everything.

It is not just a crisis for those who cannot drive. It is a crisis for everyone because transportation affects everyone.

Jnny said...

Thanks Bernie. I didn’t get a chance to reply to your post because I've been away, traveling on that other disaster of mass transit . . . the airlines. A 1:45 flight turned into a 5-hour nightmare in a cattlecar with a malfunctioning AC. I love to travel; I hate airports and flying!

I’ve been consulting with a group that is developing some futuristic public transportation ideas, so I‘ve got a pretty wide view of the subject. Notice I didn’t say mass transportation in the last sentence. With the advent of incredibly powerful computers and cheap, internet-based communication, public transportation can be set up to be more cellular and customized to the rider’s needs. The jitneys are merely a first step, but not optimal in heavily traveled urban areas, as they use the same infrastructure as regular personal transport. The real benefit of cellular travel will hit when a new infrastructure is built that can whisk the rider away from the current streets, highways and tracks. But for the Lehigh Valley, I don’t see the need for much beyond jitney service for the foreseeable future of the region’s growth.

My motto: mass transit is so 20th century.

Anonymous said...

jnny: Actually I think Mass Transit as we know it is a 19th century technology.

Is this the concept that you are suggesting? This is a report on recent technology projects as applied to transit:

"Prototype Technology for Automated Dispatching.

Autonomous Dial-A-Ride Transit (ADART) began operating in Corpus Christi, TX, in late 2003. ADART, developed with funding from the Federal Transit Administration, is a prototype technology that is the first automated distributed dispatching service in the country and provides door-to-door service in smaller sized vehicles. Corpus Christi is a city of about 300,000 residents. It has an established public transportation system and a region-wide, state-of-the-art radio system that serves as the communications backbone for ADART.

ADART is a subscription-type service that requires all customers to be registered before requesting a trip. Once registered, a customer can book a recurring or occasional trip up to two hours before the requested pickup time. The trip request can be made via the Internet or with a touch-tone telephone. The request is electronically received, logged, and routed wirelessly to an ADART vehicle. Computers onboard the vehicles determine appropriate pick-up and drop-off times, consistent with time windows indicated at the time of booking the trip. The acceptance of the trip request and scheduling of the trip is completely automated. The ADART concept is unique in that the only human involvement in this whole endeavor is the user requesting the trip.

The list of possible ADART applications was narrowed to paratransit services, welfare-to-work trips, service to university students, feeder service at the end of bus routes, late evening and weekend service, and service to high-employment areas. Although many technological elements of the project worked well, the needs of users were not completely addressed by the optimization algorithm used for paratransit operations, and therefore, community acceptance has not been as strong as desired."

Jnny said...

Yes, ADART is one of the concepts. I'm not real familiar with the follow-up studies, but I think the slow acceptance was due to the fact that it was an adjunct system instead of the main system. I'd love to see the economics on CC's main public transportation systems too.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Jnny,
How do you think LANTA's metro buses (which provide transportation for the elderly and handicapped) measure up to your jitney idea?

Anonymous said...

Jnny - if you are aware of where such a cellular-dispatched jitney system is working that would be a really good model to present locally to those concerned about alternatives to transit.

CC annual report for 2004 can be found here:

www.ccrta.org/Financials/
2004_CCRTA_CAFR.pdf

The Corpus Christi Texas area has a sales tax dedicated to underwriting transit operations.

From what I understand, jitneys usually appear wherever there is enough demand for small entrepreneurs to realize a profit. Northern Jersey, Atlantic City, Miami-Dade County and the like.

If people can make money providing such transit, why aren't they just doing it locally?

Again, if you know where such a system is thriving, perhaps the idea could be 'sold' to local providers. I'm sure everyone would like to get out from under subsidizing public transit.

Jnny said...

Bernie, sorry, I don't have first-hand experience with Lanta service to the disabled.

Anon, Jitneys are not permitted by law in many areas of the U.S. So for successful service examples you often have to go overseas, which skews the economic results.

Jake Barnes said...

I just read through this thread and am sorry if I am late to the party but I had this reaction:
jnny rushed into this conversation about a 'transit crisis' all enthused with his expertise and full of criticism for the current state of public transportation and calling for a new approach.
And then, oddly enough, when pressed as to what exactly that new approach was, he started to taper off with his comments saying he was not familiar with this and that the jitneys he so eagerly suggested were the crux of the solution were 'not permitted by law' in many areas.
So what was the point?
Where are the entrepreneurs or the young professionals perhaps who could create these highly successful and lucrative small businesses and fulfill a need that is so apparent?
I won't be coy: I have the answer. The answer is that there is public subsidy of public transportation in the US because no one in the private sector can make a dime on such business.
In the US and the Valley, we've spent the past 50 years designing our communities around the automobile and now we wonder why we do not have an extensive public transit system?
And there is no quick fix.
No passenger rail solution or re-establishment of light rail transit is going to solve our problems.
Such solutions are far too expensive and honestly, the horse has left the barn.
Where the hell would you put the tracks and where would they start and end?
The Lehigh Valley dismantled its light rail system in the mid 50's and the action was hailed by the local press and community leaders as 'progress.' To restore such a light rail system today would cost billions and is doomed to failure given the diversity of the origins and destination patterns that have developed from urban sprawl.
So, the idea of a cellular phone dispatched, demand responsive system is a good one but the notion that it will be profitable is unrealistic. It will cost too much per trip to be practical.
So I am looking to jnny to respond further with the magic answer since he so fervently promised one.
Yes?