Send This to the NFTA

The NFTA is staring down a $10 million deficit.

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.

RochesterSubway.com

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.

rochesterhomepage.net

rochesterhomepage.net

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.

WBEN, Riding the Nativist Derp Train to Fraudville

It used to be that references to undocumented immigrants as “invaders” were reserved for the outermost fringes of the body politic. 

Stormfront. Short wave. Nazi/Racist/Neo-Confederate bulletin boards. Infowars.

Now, because of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the right-wing freakout over “illegal” “invaders” has become commonplace. Neo-Nazi hate-speech is now mainstreamed. 

Add to that the spectacle of underemployed, underinformed, angry white folk, (whose immigrant ancestors came from somewhere), who have nothing better to do all day than to turn parts of the American desert into little clones of Afghanistan – complete with weapons and extralegal checkpoints

Not to put too fine a point on it all, but what’s going on along the US-Mexican border is unprecedented – youngsters are crossing into the US en masse and rather than running from Border Patrol in order to get further into the US, they are surrendering immediately upon arrival, just like the Cubans do under our unusually generous “dry foot” policy

(Hint: Just tell the wingnuts that these kids are from Cuba, and maybe they’ll treat them as human beings.)

Unsophisticated, poor families in places like Guatemala and Honduras – economically awful, socially violent, and politically dysfunctional places – are being tricked by human trafficking cartels to pay to send their kids to the US, where, they’re told, the kids will be able to claim asylum and stay forever.  Of course, there’s no federal “DREAM” Act, but a 2008 law requires the government to grant any kid from a non-border country an asylum hearing

These children and their families are being taken advantage of by con artists. They are the tired, the poor – the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Tempest-tost wretched refuse, these children and their families are naive victims. Yet when they come here, our nativist right wing freaks out. Peak temper tantrum, hurling hateful invective not only at these Central American tweens, but at Obama, the liberals, and everyone else who doesn’t slap a Gadsen flag on their bumper and an eagle on their timeline. 

It is a humanitarian crisis because these children come with nothing – have nothing – and because ours is a country of laws, we are not empowered simply to shove them back on a bus across the Mexico border. We have due process.  We have laws. We have to detain them – humanely – while we process them all. That is how a 1st world country works, and that is what the law requires. 

It’s gotten to the point where any school bus filled with brown people is suspect. An Arizona state legislator running for Congress stoked the confrontation, and hatefully declared that food and shelter for a bus-full of brown-skinned children isn’t compassionate, but an “abrogation of the rule of law“. 

As it turns out, it wasn’t a bus-full of undocumented migrants, but a bus-full of Arizonan kids on their way to YMCA camp. Seriously

While the wingnuts with all that extra time on their hands accost kids on their way to the Y, other kids are dying. The border patrol is a law enforcement agency – not a refugee non-profit. The government is unprepared to deal with something like this, because of its massive scale and the unprecedented nature of what’s going on. Washington alternates between grandstanding and dithering

By treating these kids as “invaders” and an “army”, you dehumanize them as well as any World War II-era cartoon of a bespectacled, slanty-eyed Tojo. By focusing on blaming Obama rather than trying to solve a legal and humanitarian crisis, the right wing contributes not only to the further erosion of whatever was left of its Latino support, but exposes itself for the craven practitioner of racialist, nativist politics that it’s become in recent years. 

At the local forefront of this racial animus is hate radio WBEN, led by right-wing kook and operations director Tim Wenger. 

Sometime on Tuesday, this appeared at WBEN’s scat-strewn Facebook page: 

First of all, it links to “Gateway Pundit”, who is widely regarded by anyone with a brain to be one of the stupidest people in the right-wing blogosphere. Not just wrong – stupid.  Here, he links to something called “Mad World News”, which I’ve never heard of, and which certainly doesn’t seem like a completely credible source. 

Because it’s not.

I won’t link to either one, but if you go to “Mad World News”, it seems that some nosy hausfrau encountered a busload of brown-skinned people getting off a school bus at a Wal-Mart in rural North Carolina. She tried to communicate with them, but these durn Messikinz didn’t speak any English. So, she simply leaped to the conclusion that, because one of them had managed to communicate with her that they were recent arrivals to America, they must be “illegals”. Not only that, but our brave Mexican-whisperers concluded that this busload of “invaders” was paying for its Wal-Mart goodies with “EBT cards”; welfare handouts. 

Except not a word of it was true, and the tea party says so

OK, OK – yes, a busload of foreign migrant farm laborers did show up at a Wal-Mart in North Carolina, but they weren’t “illegals”, but legal guest-worker migrant farmworkers; people who had valid visas to enter the US and perform all the horrible manual farm labor that you consider to be beneath you

They weren’t paying with welfare cards. Their wages are paid to rechargeable debit cards, which they used to buy items for themselves at Wal-Mart in rural North Carolina. 

They weren’t on a government bus, but were instead being transported by their employer to the Wal-Mart for a shopping trip. 

But, you know, brown people on a bus using plastic at a Wal-Mart. Because right wingers instinctively think the worst of everyone and everything, these had to be (what else?) “illegal” “invaders” spending welfare EBT cards thanks to Obama inviting them to the US. 

So long as the tea party remains “diligent” when they really mean “vigilant”, we’ll all be a little safer and don’t forget your gun. 

Now, despite that this is completely untrue, having been factually debunked by WBEN’s own partisan allies, this radio station continues to perpetrate this fraud on Buffalo and its listenership by refusing to delete or update the post to point out that it’s a lie. Rather than be “accurate” as a putative “news” entity, WBEN sides instead with the people who would “go to war” against these kids

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that story about n0bummer giving some of these kids a resort experience in Weslaco Texas is also completely false

In the meantime, the administration and Democrats will try to find a humane and legal solution to this problem while the Republicans continue to antagonize Latino voters and Millenials.  In the meantime, sane and rational people will call out wildly horrible local hate radio for the embarrassment it is. 

Not every problem is one that needs to be solved with hatred and guns. 

(Crossposted to Little Green Footballs)

Failed Experiment Fails

Are you wondering what’s going on with fiscal cliff negotiations? I mean, most mass media talk about it as a scary horrible thing that Washington is having trouble negotiating because Obama might be socialist and the Republicans are protecting taxpayers. Whatever. 

So, read Krugman, who notes that there’s no debt crisis – borrowing costs are at historic lows – there is a political crisis

a word about the current state of budget “negotiations.”

Why the scare quotes? Because these aren’t normal negotiations in which each side presents specific proposals, and horse-trading proceeds until the two sides converge. By all accounts, Republicans have, so far, offered almost no specifics. They claim that they’re willing to raise $800 billion in revenue by closing loopholes, but they refuse to specify which loopholes they would close; they are demanding large cuts in spending, but the specific cuts they have been willing to lay out wouldn’t come close to delivering the savings they demand.

It’s a very peculiar situation. In effect, Republicans are saying to President Obama, “Come up with something that will make us happy.” He is, understandably, not willing to play that game. And so the talks are stuck.

Why won’t the Republicans get specific? Because they don’t know how. The truth is that, when it comes to spending, they’ve been faking it all along — not just in this election, but for decades. Which brings me to the nature of the current G.O.P. crisis.

Since the 1970s, the Republican Party has fallen increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues, whose goal is nothing less than the elimination of the welfare state — that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. From the beginning, however, these ideologues have had a big problem: The programs they want to kill are very popular. Americans may nod their heads when you attack big government in the abstract, but they strongly support Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. So what’s a radical to do?

Reminiscent of something? Maybe the Romney campaign? The Republican Party is about to become post-supply-side, and less hung up on social issues, or it will wither away. For years it has relied on the idea that it can rely on scaring easily frightened white people, and win elections. Not so much anymore. 

One is “starve the beast,” the idea of using tax cuts to reduce government revenue, then using the resulting lack of funds to force cuts in popular social programs. Whenever you see some Republican politician piously denouncing federal red ink, always remember that, for decades, the G.O.P. has seen budget deficits as a feature, not a bug.

Arguably more important in conservative thinking, however, was the notion that the G.O.P. could exploit other sources of strength — white resentment, working-class dislike of social change, tough talk on national security — to build overwhelming political dominance, at which point the dismantling of the welfare state could proceed freely. Just eight years ago, Grover Norquist, the antitax activist, looked forward cheerfully to the days when Democrats would be politically neutered: “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”

But it didn’t work out that way. Democrats didn’t roll over, and the things for which Democrats stand for have suddenly become more popular while the Republicans have completely run out of not only specifics, but any kind of ideas at all. The Romney campaign was set up to basically point to Obama and say, “f*ck this guy”. That’s not a winning strategy. 

And look at where we are now in terms of the welfare state: far from killing it, Republicans now have to watch as Mr. Obama implements the biggest expansion of social insurance since the creation of Medicare.

So Republicans have suffered more than an election defeat, they’ve seen the collapse of a decades-long project. And with their grandiose goals now out of reach, they literally have no idea what they want — hence their inability to make specific demands.

It’s a dangerous situation. The G.O.P. is lost and rudderless, bitter and angry, but it still controls the House and, therefore, retains the ability to do a lot of harm, as it lashes out in the death throes of the conservative dream.

Our best hope is that business interests will use their influence to limit the damage. But the odds are that the next few years will be very, very ugly.

People have been predicting the Republican Party re-orientation back to a reasonable political actor for years now, but you have to reach rockbottom before you admit you have a problem and get help. Get help, people. We like good ideas. 

While you’re at it, read this set of charts from the Atlantic that show a statistical round-up of income inequality. It’ll make you angry going into the weekend. HAPPY WEEKEND. 

Happy Birthday, Romneycare!

Six years ago, Massachusetts’ then-Governor Mitt Romney signed the Commonwealth’s universal health insurance act into law. Try as Romney might, there is no doubt whatsoever that Obamacare directly descends from Romneycare – it is the Massachusetts plan writ large and federalized. Six years is the half-life, apparently, where a conservative path towards universal coverage becomes socialism. 

But Romneycare has resulted in an almost 100% coverage rate in Massachusetts, and though not perfect, has been dubbed a success story

Yet the 2012 model of Mitt Romney has nothing whatsoever to say about Romneycare on its sixth anniversary in the middle of a Presidential campaign. It’s his most significant and marketable achievement, and he’s painted himself into a rhetorical corner to avoid drawing attention to the similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare.  They’re almost identical. 

Romney’s argument in 2012 is that he’s proud of Romneycare, but disagrees with the notion that every state be required to follow one particular model. It’s the cowardly Republican’s disingenuous argument – when in doubt, go with state’s rights. The problem is that the crisis – really the shame – of uninsurance and underinsurance is a national one, one that requires a national response. The problems of medical bankruptcies (handled exclusively in federal courts), and of the uninsured using emergency rooms for primary care, the cost of which is then shunted onto taxpayers are national, federal issues. 

If Mr. Romney even believes these things to be problems needing solving, he should present a plan to fix them. If he wants to be true to his supposed 10th Amendment feelings, the federal government could simply mandate that states reach universal health insurance coverage, and let them each come up with their own ways to do so. 

I eagerly await President Obama to call Mr. Romney on this particular bluff. 

Well, Happy Birthday, Romneycare. Thanks for setting up the system that the federal government modified to apply to the entire country!