Lance Diamond was a Buffalo icon. He kept Buffalo dancing, he kept us singing, but above all things, Lance Diamond kept Buffalo funky.
Lance Diamond was a Buffalo icon. He kept Buffalo dancing, he kept us singing, but above all things, Lance Diamond kept Buffalo funky.
For some reason, not all of my posts transferred neatly from Artvoice to here. Nevertheless, even though I already wrote that year-end retrospective posts suck, here is my sucky 2014 retrospective.
Tom Bauerle’s episode. Geoff Kelly and I didn’t think the story was newsworthy enough to run with, even though we had enough information to publish something. The Buffalo News ran it, and I questioned why it might be something for public consumption. Its abrupt relegation to “life and arts” seemed like vindication.
We had to vet a former Buffalo chef’s bullshit. By way of reminder, his dad’s credentials to tell you the weather are “has looked out the window before”.
The NYS Thruway Authority is the worst. It is emblematic of what’s wrong with all NYS Authorities; mired in 50s groupthink, resistant to change, wasteful.
I posted this. It’s still accurate. Today is “elevated”.
WBEN is, generally, the voice of horrible things and people. Not Buffalo. Its operations director went so far as to fantasize about committing acts of physical violence against Hillary Clinton, and cheering street thugs harassing a peaceful protester. It came down to Tim Wenger’s WBEN basically being fascist.
In an astonishing display of self-parody, certain people were offended that Mark Poloncarz ceremoniously “pardoned” a butter lamb.
The dad of my best friend from grade school and college passed away this year, and this was my effort to pay homage to him.
Mark Grisanti so angered the gun-hugging right that they opted instead to elect a pro-union liberal Democrat. Thanks, dummies!
Carl Paladino – a guy whom I got to meet in person for the first time this year – is also still horrible.
Horrible people made up lies about the local League of Women Voters in order to try desperately to score a political point.
I don’t think building some apartments and other buildings on the Outer Harbor is such an awful idea. Neither would a customs and immigration union / statutory harmonization with Canada.
Local Republicans practically salivated over the prospect of Donald Trump running for governor. Boy, that would have been awesome. Bob McCarthy got to fly in Trump’s jet and likely sharted from excitement.
We might be getting some sort of justice, as it seems that AwfulPAC is under state and federal investigation.
What would a 2014 retrospective be without invoking Kathy Weppner, who kept us entertained all season long? Thanks for running, Kathy.
Happy New Year! Nice skating rink and stuff!
Nevertheless, the authority is planning no layoffs or fare hikes – at least not yet – as it pleads for greater funding from Albany. All public transit systems require government subsidies to operate, but it won’t be enough for Albany simply to shovel more money in the NFTA’s direction.
There will also have to be a re-evaluation of what the authority’s mission is and what it should be doing differently to accomplish it.
The News suggests that the NFTA needs to figure out a better way to serve the growing medical campus, adding that,
For 20 years, it has used money meant for capital projects to balance its operating budget.
That money has now dried up. There is less money for maintenance, meaning broken escalators don’t get fixed and old buses aren’t replaced. That further discourages riders from using the system, further pinching the authority’s financial resources.
NFTA Commissioner Kimberly A. Minkel had it exactly right: Unless it’s interrupted, the NFTA is caught in a “death spiral.” The problems will feed on one another until only a skeleton of a transit system remains. That cycle, therefore, must be interrupted, and Albany is the only likely source of intervention.
The News notes that Buffalo’s urban poor rely heavily on the NFTA’s service. This is true, but limiting the NFTA’s scope to just serving people who can’t afford cars is self-defeating. Begging Governor Cuomo for more aid is hardly the solution to a longstanding, systemic “death spiral”.
The News’ editorial essentially rejects the notion that the NFTA could or should fix itself or aim any higher than the faded and tired service it provides to Buffalo’s underclass.
You don’t have to look too far. Rochester’s RGTRA was $27 million in the hole in 2004, with an annual budget of $70 million. It was, at the time, in “a crisis situation looking at service cuts and layoffs when the authority was looking for a new CEO.” Fast forward a decade,
RGRTA had a six-zone, complicated system and the fares were between $1.25 and $3.10. The cost recovery at the time was 28 percent and the on-time performance was 76 percent.
Today it is paying employees more, healthcare costs have gone up and fuel costs more, but despite that, it has become less reliant on taxpayer dollars than it was before.
It’s also grown to 840 employees, more than 400 vehicles, an on-time performance up to 90 percent, it’s eliminated the six-zone system and went to one fare for all rides. In 2008 the fares went from $1.25 to just $1.00 for a ride. And the cost recovery is up to 41 percent.
This strategic shift is something the team has been really focused on, [RGTRA CEO Mark] Aesch says. RGRTA has increased ridership six consecutive years, up to just shy of 18 million folks a year and it has had five straight years of surpluses and will have made $33 million over the last five years.
I don’t know if the NFTA has the brains or will to hire someone as effective as Mr. Aesch, but luckily he wrote a book about his experience. Basically, the RGTRA re-focused its goal from “save money” to “achieve excellence”. In this interview, he explains that the RGTRA board was, in 2004, in the same boat as the NFTA is now, and the board recognized the crisis, a business-oriented board with a clearly defined notion of success, and a willingness to make bold decisions. (Here’s another article about Rochester’s amazing success).
Instead of a survivor mindset, which would result in just cost savings, they pursued excellence.
“Some people would say we’ve cut service. No, we were looking to drive productivity,” he says. “We were strategically trying to become more efficient in our delivery to the community.”
He continues, “They look at other people and they say, ‘We’re going to cut service on some route.’ Well, there are two people riding it.
“You’re going to jeopardize 60,000 people a day over two people that you’re running a bus one way 30 miles for? I’m not sure that’s cutting service, I think that’s silly.” He stresses, “It’s all very strategically driven.”
There were two changes that were critical to this process. One was changing the thinking from customers to passengers and the other was becoming less reliant on tax dollars.
“We wanted to get us to no longer pick up passengers but to pick up customers,” Aesch says. “You can easily get people to just parrot that. ‘Fine, if the boss wants us to call them customers instead of passengers, that’s what we’ll call them.’
“But it’s getting people to culturally think of it differently.”
Specifically, the change in language was key to changing the corporate mindset – a passenger is someone with no choice, Aesch says.
In “Driving Excellence,” he says he tells the story of one of their employees that he had an encounter with. “He essentially said, who cares if we get the buses cleaner, they were riding before, what difference does it make if we make them cleaner?”
A big difference, as it turns out. Bus cleanliness is important to the customer. Even the very poor customers who have no choice.
What changed it at RGRTA was putting together a plan with a vision, strategies, operating tactics and a measurement system so that everybody can follow where the agency is headed.
And in six years Aesch says they haven’t adopted a budget, they adopt a plan.
The plan is the vision statement that he says tells them what they are trying to be “when they grow up.” The plan also outlines the strategies needed to implement to achieve that vision.
The last piece, he says, is aligning the money to realize those operating tactics and then building a measurement system to outline whether they are successful.
“One thing I just love about the plan more than anything, this is very transparent, we put this out in front of everybody so for each one of our four strategies … we say 14 months ahead of time on March 31, 2011, ‘The authority is successful if,’ and there are numbers with each one of these things.
Vision and plan? On Planet Byron Brown? Is this even possible? Is this real life? Aesch went on to rally the troops and hold a pep rally when things started to look up.
“What I said to the employees was, if you felt like you helped this year, to dig us out of this massive hole to succeed, you can come up now and we’re all going to sign the letter submitting the plan to the board for the coming year. “
He explains how they ended the pep rally, with U2’s “Beautiful Day” playing in the background, the high energy and excitement in the garage and employees coming up and signing their plan.
One of the drivers that had challenged policies when Aesch came on board, came up at the rally and said he wasn’t going to sign the letter.
“He’s looking down — tall guy — and I said, ‘That’s OK, Caesar, don’t sign the letter.’” And Aesch says he was thinking at the time, “Don’t bring me down on a day that’s exciting.”
The driver said he couldn’t sign the letter. “I kind of hesitated for a minute thinking if he can’t read or write, that’s not why he’s going to sign?
“He says, ‘I’m not going to sign the letter because I don’t deserve to. I didn’t help, I was in the way, I was an obstacle, but this coming year I will help, I will do the right things, I will advance the organization and next year I’ll be able to sign the letter.’”
I’m pulling so many quotes because I love everything about this whole story about how Rochester’s mass transit system pulled itself out of mediocrity, and wishing to God almighty that the NFTA takes a cue from the people 60 miles to the east.
They recruited RIT to help test everything that the RGTRA uses.
One of the areas they’re working together on is with the vehicle diagnostic testing pre-breakdown so when testing equipment, it will send an automatic signal back to radio control before the bus breaks down, telling them the bus is thinking about breaking down.
And this – the NFTA could, at the very least, do this.
And when he talks about technology advancements, Aesch stresses that it’s all about achieving a strategy. Another that they’re in the process of is rolling out signage at stops to let riders know when buses are coming.
“We’re not putting them up because they’re cool,” he says. “About 70 percent of our customers who call our call center are looking for information on timeliness of when the next bus will be. Seventy percent.
“We’re doing this investment to help reduce the number of incoming calls to the call center so that we will be able to address that from an efficiency perspective.” He stresses, “It’s a very specific investment that we’re making.”
When you stop thinking of riders as mere passengers and start thinking of them as customers with a choice to take – or not take – the bus, you improve service and results. The service started partnering with schools and businesses to get subsidized routes.
Talking about their partnership with RIT leads to a discussion of how RIT subsidizes the route and that it’s not the typical “paying for passes” that many educational institutions have with transit properties.
“Businesses would typically say, ‘Well I pay taxes, so run a bus, bring me customers, bring me employees.’ Our reaction to that is, you also pay taxes to have water lines put in but you don’t expect to just get your water for free, you’re clearly going to get a water bill at the end of the month for the water that your company consumes. So if we’re going to extend a bus line to bring you customers to shop at your mall or employees to work at your nursing home or students to go to your college, we will enter in to a business relationship to deliver that to you.”
When providing service to the community, RGRTA questioned whether the responsibility of the agency is to provide a bus to provide service to people who ride it or if it’s to take as little money from the taxpayers to support it.
“After chewing on that for a couple months, we decided the answer was, ‘Yes,’” Aesch says. “What we did is we took and built a measurement system which takes the service side: how many people are on board a bus, and we give it a score. Then we take the cost recovery side: how much does the taxpayer have to put in, and then we give the bus a score.
“Then we add those two together and that tells us the answer to how are we doing and rather than ‘cutting service,’ as so many folks are apt to do, we’re able to go in with a microscope and then a scalpel.”
As he explains, if there are a lot of people on board a bus but very low cost recovery, there is a service obligation to provide that service. Conversely, if there are only a handful of people on board the bus but it has a high cost recovery score because it’s a subsidized route, the taxpayer’s not putting money in.
“What we’re looking for is, where do we have very few people, or nobody, and where is the taxpayer paying and that’s where we get the microscope and the scalpel to find those kinds of trips. We’re looking to balance all the time,” he says.
So please send this to the NFTA board and urge them to learn the lessons and implement the strategies that improved service and saved the RGTRA from an identical crisis a decade ago. There are no excuses – Rochester is similarly situated to Buffalo in every conceivable way. By 2011, the RGTRA had been running five consecutive years of surpluses, while ridership and revenue both improved.
[Aesch] suggests to other agencies: Build a road map, have a plan and have a measurement system which tells you whether or not you’re being successful in the implementation of your plan. And the last piece he says is to have the courage to make the right decisions.
Aesch will be leaving RGRTA at the end of the year. He really likes what he does and he says he’s really proud of how they do it, but the part that really excites him, that he’s really passionate about, is the public sector management piece.
He says, “It happens to be public transit today, but whether it’s a hospital, a school district or a sewer system, I like being able to take what people traditionally see as stodgy, tired government bureaucracy and turn that into a lean, mean efficient, less-taxpayer-dollars-needed business mindset organization.”
The NFTA can do it, if it wants to.
It was, on its face, harmless – no one was attacking or criticizing Paladino, and not all that many people realized it was his house.
So, Paladino sent an email around, entitled “This Westchester House”, featuring a picture – poached from the New York Times – of Andrew Cuomo’s Mount Kisco manse:
Of course, Paladino had to take a political swipe at Cuomo. It’s Carl being Carl®.
UPDATE: Don’t forget that Carl’s candidate, Astorino, only released one year’s worth of tax returns when he ran for governor this year.
Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, has released every single tax return he’s filed going back to 1992. To answer Carl’s question re: “walk[ing] the walk”,
Mr. Cuomo reported $16,000 in charitable contributions, more than 4% of his income. All went to HELP USA, the affordable housing nonprofit he founded.
How soon before some wingnut on WBEN starts yelling about liberty and trees being rewatered and the NWO?
Buffalo’s making world news for something other than its architecture, its culture, its startup entrepreneurs, and its Shark Girl.
This time, it’s the snow.
If you think about it, this is the first major, news-making snowfall to happen in Buffalo since things like Facebook and Twitter became ubiquitous. The October storm was in 2006, and the last time communities around here saw 6 feet or more of snow in just a day from a freak Lake Effect situation was back in December 2001. (There was a similar storm in November 2000 that messed with afternoon rush hour and left thousands stranded in short order).
I live in the Northtowns, and we got nothing – just a dusting of wet, sticky snow on Monday night. All of Tuesday was sunny, but we could see the looming band of lake effect cutting the sky to the south and west. Schools were closed because teachers couldn’t get in, and there weren’t enough subs to go around.
While Clarence saw a mere dusting, the adjoining town just south of us – Lancaster – is one of the hardest-hit communities, seeing over 5 feet of snow.
But what’s different this time as compared to past massive snowstorms is the use of social media. No longer solely reliant on radio or TV updates, people are communicating via Twitter and Facebook. Snow-free Northtown people are in awe of the walls of snow their friends in the eastern suburbs and Southtowns have – these types of pictures even made it to the front page of Reddit. Amazing photographs of the edge of the snow event, taken from the air, have gone viral.
They canceled school again Wednesday and I wanted to go into downtown to grab some work to do from home. I knew the 190 was closed from the 290 to the 90, so as I exited the 990, I opted to take the 290 towards the 33. I forgot, however, that the Thruway is closed from Rochester to the Pennsylvania line. So, all traffic was forced to exit the 290 at Harlem Road / Sheridan Drive.
I took Harlem south to meet up with the 33. There was no snow at all until I crossed Main Street. Then, there was a dusting. The snow progressively intensified as I traveled further south, through the double roundabouts at Kensington, and again at the next light. By the time I got to the T-Shirt man, it was a whiteout, and I already knew the lake effect band had hit downtown. I thought I could do a quick grab & dash at the office, but I turned around on Harlem Road, not wanting to end up going 10 miles per hour with my hazards on in a blinding whiteout on the 33.
If you track back to the middle of the last decade, when the effort to change Buffalo’s image from a snowbound post-industrial wasteland picked up steam thanks to blogs and social media, the freak October storm of 2006 is the only thing that made any sort of news. But that storm now pales in comparison to storm events that have crippled many parts of the Northeast in the past few years, so it’s not something that outsiders link with Buffalo’s overall reputation.
We’re hyper-aware of every time Buffalo makes national news, because we’re defensive about how we’re perceived as a gray, cold, failure. No listicles this time, no Forbes survey has us peeved – now we’re in the midst of a proper snowpocalypse just 2 weeks into November, and our lake effect is all over social media and regular news.
It’ll be 60 degrees on Monday, by the way. We were wearing shorts last Tuesday in 70 degree weather.
What, if anything, will be the effect on Buffalo’s reputation? We’re seeing news all over about good samaritans with snowmobiles and snowblowers, further cementing our reputation as the city of “Good Neighbors”. The brunt of the storm hit the affected areas somewhat late in the day Monday, so traffic was not at its peak – we don’t have the mass strandings that we’ve come to expect. So, we get a few snow days, people post incredible – and often humorous – pictures of walls of snow and massive drifts, and we take it all in stride.
In all, epic snowfall like this and the way in which people are finding the light, empathy, and humor in a tough situation should serve to burnish Buffalo’s reputation as a fundamentally livable place, in spite of the snow. After all, the snow might keep you stuck where you are for a time, but it’s generally not, e.g., washing or blowing your house away. No epic drought, no fires, no landslides. We’re just, for the most part, sitting tight.
So, sit tight, Buffalo. Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to. Keep warm, help each other out, and marvel at what’s going on.
Suburban school districts should welcome students from failing Buffalo schools whose families care enough about education to do something about it, so long as Buffalo (or some other source ) covers each district’s cost to educate each student.
It could be the first step towards convincing people that some sort of regionwide district alliance – if not a unified school district – is one of the solutions to be considered to the rising costs of education and reducing administrative and fiscal redundancy.
Every kid deserves an excellent education, and we can’t ask families to wait around for substandard schools to get better. Districts should welcome motivated and eager students from failing city schools. It’s really as simple as that. The great societal challenge is to get the people who don’t care, to care. Good luck with that.
He may be underfunded, and he may have a dramatic party enrollment disadvantage, but Republican mayoral candidate Sergio Rodriguez has staked out a unique position here. While Mayor Brown touts “progress” which he hasn’t had a lot to do with, and while Bernie Tolbert shows random people who “believe” in him for unexplained reasons, Sergio shows a set of fundamental problems – crime, unemployment, lack of opportunity, and despair – and declares that it’s time for a change.
For a young Marine who is getting jerked around left and right by every Republican political machine with which he comes into contact, he’s showing people that he won’t give up, won’t back down, and can’t be bought. That is refreshing all by itself.
Admittedly, he doesn’t go into details of what that change would look like, and the candidate himself only makes a cameo appearance at the end, but I think it’s easily the best ad from any Buffalo mayoral campaign in perhaps ever. Kudos to Sergio and his team, and I’m looking forward to the hashtag mayoral race.
They’ve been talking about and doing the inevitable, repetitive “studies” to determine how, when, and where they might move the Williamsville toll plaza a bit further East and possibly upgrade the facility to work better. We are still using 1920s technology in 2013 – we actually hire human beings to take toll tickets from a dispenser and hand them to non-transponder motorists. Is there some compelling reason why we need to pay someone 50 large to act as a middleman between the ticket dispenser and you? Except for job #1 being “don’t kill the job”, no.
Frankly, the upgrades the Thruway Authority is planning, suck. “Could possibly include 35-mph E-ZPass toll lanes to to cut down on traffic jams” is the Thruway Authority taking a pointed stick and jamming it in your eye. 35 MPH?
There are massive flaws with the existing Williamsville tolls. Firstly, for some reason upstate toll plazas do not adhere to the downstate toll plaza rule that commercial trucks stay to the right and leave the E-ZPass lanes towards the left for car traffic. Secondly, we have absolutely zero number of high-speed E-ZPass plazas here, and it doesn’t sound like we’re going to get any. 35 MPH is not high-speed; it is well below regular highway speeds. Your E-ZPass and license plate are perfectly capable of being read at regular highway speeds. In Florida, they make non-transponder traffic pull to a plaza on the side of the road while transponder traffic just keeps moving at 65 MPH. The 407 in Toronto has no toll plazas at all – it takes a picture of your plate and sends you a bill.
Thirdly, if the plaza was re-made to accommodate high-speed transponder traffic, you eliminate a lot of noise and pollution from idling vehicles, and you can move the plaza further east to not only enlarge the toll-free commuter area for Buffalo, but also to alleviate Main Street traffic and put the plaza somewhere in the middle of nowhere farmland to minimize NIMBYism.
The Clarence town board debated the issue this week, and Supervisor David Hartzell voted against a resolution in favor of moving the plaza East. He explained that the toll plaza is,
the town’s “golden goose,” because of the traffic it drives there. Take away the barrier, he said, and “Transit Road would just dry up.”
That’s nonsense. Pembroke is within the toll area, and Route 77 isn’t some five-lane juggernaut of strip plazas and Wal*Marts. Transit Road isn’t what it is today because of the location of a toll barrier in Williamsville. On the contrary, Main Street in Williamsville is the mess it is today because of the toll barrier – people use Main Street to avoid the barrier, which backs up much more often and worse than exit 49 at Transit. Bernie Kolber has it right, but only partly.
The present location of the Williamsville toll barrier hinders economic activity, wastes travelers’ time, wastes fuel, adds to traffic congestion on adjacent roads, decreases efficiency of travel, contributes to air pollution and in general detracts from the quality of life of suburban residents,” he said, arguing that improving the current barrier won’t solve those problems.
You need to do both. If the Thruway insists on maintaining tolls on a road that was supposed to be toll-free when it was paid off in 1997, then it needs to do so in a way that is most beneficial to motorists. Furthermore, it should move the toll barrier back from Williamsville to somewhere between exits 48A and 49. There is plenty of emptiness in that stretch to minimize difficulty for nearby residents. Hell, you could put it near the quarry between Gunnville and Harris Hill Roads – if Buffalo Crushed Stone doesn’t bother you, neither will a state-of-the-art high-speed (not 35 MPH, but 65 MPH) toll plaza.
Then trucks and other traffic coming from points east will more readily use the Thruway to access the 290 and 33, and alleviate the through traffic now congesting Main Street in Williamsville, which is planning traffic calming and other measures to render that ugly five-lane mess something more pedestrian-friendly.
Or maybe we can just pretend it’s still 1965, and hire state workers to make us stop so they can hold our E-ZPasses up to the windshield for us before we pass through.
You likely saw the New York Times article that was published Wednesday, explaining how Buffalo’s Niagara Falls Medical Campus was transforming the city for the better. It was all over Facebook and Buffalo Twitter yesterday. Well, this also happened: