The Nation’s Worst-Managed Transit Agency

For years, Washington, D.C. has been considered by many students of government to have the nation’s worst city government. Similarly, the Washington area transit system, Metro, is in contention as the nation’s worst-managed transit agency.

The Metro Rail system was built with federal dollars, with the understanding that local governments would pay for its operation. But no one was prepared to pay for rail reconstruction, which is needed every 30 years or so and which costs a substantial fraction of the original construction cost. Now, some of the system is approaching 30 years of age and is breaking down with increasing frequency.

But Washington’s Metro is not the nation’s worst-managed transit agency — not by a long shot. That dishonor goes to San Jose’s Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

VTA persuaded local taxpayers to raise sales taxes to construct billions of dollars worth of rail transit lines. But it failed to budget enough money to operate those lines. Even as it opened new light-rail lines in the early 2000s, VTA was forced to severely cut bus and rail service on its existing lines. The result was a 34 percent decline in transit riders.

A few weeks ago, a consultant hired by VTA released an audit blaming the system’s board of directors for its failures. “The Board has approved capital projects that were political solutions to address the needs of certain local neighborhoods at the expense of regional congestion management,” states the audit. “As a result, VTA has built transportation systems that have low ridership and are also expensive to operate and maintain.”

After the audit was published, VTA’s chief financial officer resigned. Unfortunately, none of the board members followed. Instead, they hired a temporary chief financial officer for the munificent sum of $13,600 per week for 39 weeks. That’s a total of $530,400 and more than three times the weekly pay of the previous CFO.

It gets weirder: The new CFO has no history in the transit industry. Instead, he is a former mining company executive who oversaw a shell game of companies taking over other companies. “He has a lot of experience with projects and a lot of our money is tied up in projects,” says VTA’s general manager. There are so many similarities between digging gold and sapphire mines and building transit lines — like none.

One wonders what the new CFO might do. Merge VTA with Washington Metro? Bull the stock with rumors of an untapped source of transit riders? Corner the market in light rail?

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to ignore the gorilla in the corner, which is that VTA’s board wants to spend $4.7 billion to connect the San Francisco BART system to San Jose. The agency only has enough money to build to the edge of San Jose, but even if it had all the money for construction, its general manager admits “we clearly do not have the money to operate the system.” Nevertheless, the board recently voted to spend $185 million — more than half of VTA’s annual operating budget — on preliminary engineering.

Meanwhile, VTA is still short on operating funds, so it is contemplating “eliminating or consolidating” service on more than a quarter of its remaining bus lines.

Almost every Bay Area transit group opposes the BART line. But the audit (which itself cost $500,000 — I would have done it for $5,000) barely mentions the BART line, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group (formerly the Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group) strongly supports it.

Last June, San Jose voters angrily rejected VTA’s request for a further sales tax increase to build the BART line. VTA’s board members are hoping they can convince taxpayers that they are fiscally responsible enough to deserve a tax increase anyway. But spending $530,400 for less than one year’s work by a temporary CFO hardly seems conducive to gaining the taxpayers’ trust.

Fun with Copyright

A Southern California law firm … claimed that Noland’s on the Wharf [in Santa Cruz] was violating a trademark by printing the words “Surf City USA” on a $17 T-shirt. The rights to that combination of words belong to the Huntington Beach Conference & Visitors Bureau, the letter said…. Huntington Beach, with its warm weather, sandy beaches and steady waves, has long argued that the Surf City title is its exclusive property, granted to it by the 1963 Jan & Dean song hit “Surf City.”

Jan and Dean may have been surfer royalty, but who knew they had the power to grant patents and monopolies? You never know what you’ll learn in the Wall Street Journal.

Topics:

The Josh Bell Busking Backstory

If you’re not aware of the fascinating experiment conducted in January and published this week by the Washington Post, this story (and especially the videos) are really worth a look and a listen.

To convert this general-interest item into something relevant for this blog, I give you the backstory. From WaPo’s online chat with the author:

I set up an interview with Jack Requa, who was at the time Metro’s acting director. Requa listened to the proposal, agreed it was an appealing use of public space for a potentially revealing urban behavioral experiment, and that it would be a nice thing to do for the citizenry of Washington. Then he said:

“I don’t think we can do it, because it violates our rules.”

I said: “I know. That’s why we’re coming to you. We’d like you to loosen the rules, just this once, for 45 minutes, for a worthwhile reason.”

Requa said: “Well, also, it might look as though we are giving preference to one news organization over all others.”

I said: “Uh, well, The Washington Post would have no objection if you made the same concession to any other news organization that happens to be proposing placing a world-class violinist in one of your stations as a sociological experiment!”

Requa said he would investigate the possibilities. A day later he called to report it was looking problematic, and urged The Post to pursue other possibilities. But he said he wanted to discuss it with his security personnel. Days passed.

Finally, a verdict: No. The regulations were complicated, Requa said, but under one interpretation, busking in the Metro was not only against the rules but against the law, and he did not feel jurisdictionally empowered to authorize a breach of law. If Bell performed, Requa said, he would be arrested. Metro would do nothing to stop it.

Total time elapsed to get a “no” answer: Eight days, four hours.

Things were looking bad. Time was running out. I started traveling the Metro and getting off at every downtown stop, seeking adjoining indoor areas. Eventually, I hit L’Enfant Plaza, which was ideal. The indoor arcade was at the very top of the Metro escalator, and had three exit doors: Two to the outside, and one to a retail mall operated not by government, but by a private management firm called The JBG Companies. JBG managed the arcade area, too.

I laid out the proposal to Amanda B. Kearney, JBG’s senior property manager.

“Sure,” she said.

“No one can know anything about this in advance,” I cautioned. “No one other than you. A single breach in security and the whole experiment is compromised. “

Amanda said: “I won’t even tell my husband.”

Total elapsed time to get a “yes” answer: Six seconds.

Abracadabra! County Pulls a Subsidy Out of a Hat

Jacob Grier, the blogger-barista-magician with a highly coveted Vanderbilt degree, has been writing about Montgomery County’s plans to evict Barry’s Magic Shop from the site in Wheaton, Md., where it has survived for 31 years. As he wrote last June:

The real story is that simply because a few county planners have decided that the land could be better used to attract developers than as a magic store, the man who owns the building has had his property forcibly taken from him and a small business that has thrived for decades is being evicted years before its lease is up.

The county used eminent domain to take the building in order to build a walkway as part of a grand plan for Wheaton. The plan has been in the works for years, and there are no immediate plans for actually building the walkway, but the building has been seized.

But today there’s good news! For Barry’s and its customers, anyway, if not for Maryland taxpayers and property owners. In addition to spending over $2 million to take the building and build the walkway, taxpayers – in the person of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett – are also going to spend $260,000 to relocate the magic shop.

So first the county spends taxpayers’ money to seize private property in the name of its own vision of what that corner of Wheaton should look like. Then it spends more taxpayers’ money to subsidize a small business.

Here’s an idea: Why not let the market decide where businesses locate, without subsidizing the businesses and without seizing their property? As Jacob says,

This is a story that should make people angry. Angry that George Chaconas had his land taken from him. Angry that Barry Taylor and Suzie Kang are being evicted years before their lease is up. Angry that this is all being done with taxpayers’ money to subsidize the developers who will eventually move into the area, just because some guy named Joseph Davis thinks that’s the way things ought to be.

Montgomery County, Maryland: Where everything goes according to plan. Or else.

It’s Official—Democratic Leaders Want a Third War

Yesterday, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) made clear what many of us have been suspecting for some time: the Democrats want to “redeploy” out of Iraq and into Sudan. Unfortunately, the full transcripts aren’t on Nexis yet, but here’s Biden:

“I would use American force now. I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

“Let’s stop the bleeding. I think it’s a moral imperative.”

Whatever one’s views on the merits of starting a third war with an Islamic country in the span of six years, what was most alarming was Biden’s desire to look past the fact that what is going on in Darfur is essentially a civil war. There are two sides fighting, and multiple rebel groups that make up the resistance. Still, he practically begged US envoy Andrew Natsios (who, in fairness, doesn’t have the soundest track record) to overlook the fact that atrocities are being committed on both sides, and to reduce the conflict into Good Guys vs. Bad Guys so that we could get involved. Here’s a part of that exchange (link is to an audio clip):

BIDEN: Are the atrocities that are being carried out sanctioned by, cooperated with, or blind eye being turned by Khartoum, umm, not significantly greater than the atrocities that are occurring at the hands of the rebels?

NATSIOS: There is no equivalency whatsoever, Senator.

BIDEN: Well, I wish you’d stop talking about it–

NATSIOS: Well, I’m talking about it, Senator, because the rebels think they can get away with it. And it’s getting worse, and what’s happening is no one’s saying anything about it because it’s politically sensitive. We can’t let any civilian get–

BIDEN: No, it’s not politically sensitive, I mean, why won’t you just say, is genocide still the operative word?

NATSIOS: Yes.

BIDEN: So genocide is occurring in Darfur?

NATSIOS: Yes.

This is illustrative of the nature of so many foreign policy debates in Washington. If someone can get the other side to agree to a slogan of their side (“Saddam is a threat to global security,” say), then the debate ends. If “genocide” is occurring in Darfur, fire up the B-2s. And never mind all the “nuance” about the nature of what’s actually going on and who’s killing whom over there. If Biden had been reading his New York Times more closely, he would know that things aren’t so simple.

Biden’s unrelenting attempt to interpret a highly complex civil war where America has no discernible security interest through the lens of Bush-style Manichaeanism doesn’t inspire much confidence in the Democrats’ vision of U.S. national security policy. (And to the extent we do have a security interest, it’s probably in acquiescing to Khartoum, since they’ve sporadically cooperated with the war against al Qaeda and would probably be less likely to continue doing so if we start a war with them.)

The whole thing harkens back to when Howard Dean was simultaneously standing against the Iraq war and favoring U.S. military action in, umm, Liberia.

Scant Evidence? That’s Voter Fraud Calling

One of the more clever country song titles I ever heard was If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me.

That’s something like the predicament of searchers after the menace of voter fraud, who can’t seem to find much of it. The New York Times today reports that “scant evidence” exists of a significant problem.

Voter fraud is the idea that individuals might vote multiple times, in multiple jurisdictions, or despite not being qualified. This is distinct from election fraud, which is corruption of broader voting or vote-counting processes. While voter fraud (and/or voter error) certainly happens, it is apparently on a trivial scale. It probably has not changed any election results, and probably will not do so if ordinary protective measures are maintained.

This is important because voter fraud has been used as an argument for subjecting our nation’s citizens to a national ID. The Carter-Baker Commission found little evidence of voter fraud, but went ahead and called for adopting REAL ID as a voter identification card. One of the Commission’s members apparently retreated from that conclusion, having learned more about REAL ID.

For proponents of a national ID, if the phone’s not ringing, that’s voter fraud calling.