Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, September 21, 2018

It's not like transit "outsourcing" I mean "public-private partnerships" are necessarily smooth sailing

WMATA has released an RFP for the operation of the second phase of the Silver Line ("Metro will outsource operation of Silver Line's second phase," Washington Business Journal). 

The Union announced they are opposed, seeing outsourcing as leading to safety and other issues,  although most comments on that score make the point that it's not like WMATA is running great now, with virtually all non-construction operations provided in-house.

While I do agree that WMATA needs to consider outsourcing as a way to reduce costs, and that needs to be seen in part as a shot at the major unions for their unwillingness to be more collaborative in considering system improvements and cost reductions, it shouldn't be seen as a smooth path.

Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post A-Line flagger Chris Dugent holds a stop sign as the train passes at Steele Street on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

Denver Transit Partners, the major example of finance-design-build-operate-maintain transit operation--this consortium got the contract for the Maryland Purple Line light rail too--is suing the transit agency in Denver in a dispute over charges against payments concerning certain aspects of operation of the A Line train ("Regional Transportation District sued by Denver Transit Partners," Denver Post). From the article:
Denver Transit Partners, through the lawsuit, is trying to force RTD “to reimburse them tens of millions of dollars for the crossing gate attendants that DTP has been paying for all along,” according to a RTD news release.

The transit consortium is citing a change in law, or a change in the interpretation of law, by federal and state rail safety agencies as being the reason for its failure to get final approval of grade crossings and quiet zones on RTD’s commuter rail system, according to RTD’s news release. Denver Transit Partners is attempting to recoup lost revenue, because of continual grade crossing failures, by suing the district, the release said.
That might be. I don't know the ins and outs of the safety regulations.

And in this case, maybe the change requires a mutual response from both DTP and the transit agency.

 And at least with there being flaggers in Denver, people aren't dying, as is the case in South Florida with the introduction of the Brightline railroad service ("Brightline train crashes into car in Hallandale Beach," WPLG-TV).

But usually it's on the other side, and the transit agency is left holding the bag.

When I was talking with an ex-Transport for London official when I was there in June, we discussed these kinds of issues, how such projects become 100% contractual, they aren't "partnerships." There, because of various national laws, transit services have to be operated by the private sector, with the exception of the London Underground, and services where the private sector will not bid, therefore requiring that the transit agency be the "Operator of Last Resort."

He commented on how the Crossrail concession wouldn't allow a change in technology which was developed after the contract was signed.

Using it will be cheaper and more reliable, but because it's not in the contract, they refused to change the specifications.  So the change will be installed after the trains are delivered, costing more money, and adding to the delays of opening the system--which has moved back by one year ("Crossrail delay: New London line will open in autumn 2019," BBC News).

I've written too about how the Purple Line is now a "contract" and there isn't much room for change or flexibility as a result ("A Purple Line update: the downside of Public Private Partnerships" -- they are contracts, not partnerships").

Even without complex financing-design-build-manage-operate-maintain contracts, lawsuits between government agencies and construction firms are pretty common.

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At 6:53 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

you seem to be ignoring the massive incompetence of WMATA, delivered at a huge ever escalating cost

At 8:28 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

There are plenty of contract disputes in transit outsourcing, e.g., Keolis with MBTA trains, various bus transit disputes, etc.

I don't think either is golden.

I'm not defending WMATA.

I do think they should consider outsourcing as a test.

And in my general transit planning writings, I argue that there should be regional planning setting expectations for network breadth, depth, level of service, and level of quality separate from the transit operators, and the region should contract with providers.

But like the German model, have a master brand, integrated fare system, etc. and the operators are invisible to the user as they are subsumed within the brand and "operating system."

The thing is, I am not so close to understanding WMATA that I can say with a certainty it's "incompetence."

I think it's a bit more complicated.

But we have to take the failure to deal with maintenance out of the equation. I remember reading articles in the Post in the early 1990s, about WMATA calling for more investment in maintenance as the system aged. Around that time, parts of the red line had been in service for close to 20 years. But the region's elected officials blew it off because they had to fund it. Is that WMATA's fault?

Anyway, to me a major problem with WMATA is structural, not unlike how the Big 3 Auto industry developed a particular business model including union labor, pensions, and health insurance that was different from what companies in other countries did and as the US market opened to other competitors with different business models later these differences made the US firms uncompetitive vis a vis firms like Toyota, BMW, Mercedes, etc.

WMATA's distance based Metrorail fares, charging by mode rather than by trip, which means many trips get two fares, and the federal transit benefit meant that for a long time they made more money from operations than comparable transit systems. Riders didn't care so much about rising fares because so many used the transit benefit. And local jurisdictions were more interested in the fact that higher fare revenues meant lower annual subsidy payments.

But they didn't anticipate hitting a ceiling on fares, or the eventual impact of pensions and high wages, plus increasing demands to spend money on maintenance.

I argue that the system was at engineering-operation equilibrium, except for the signal problem, which was known before the crash, but was blown off as one off problems.

But the Silver Line addition "punctuated the equilibrium," as it taxed the system's infrastructure to the breaking point, leading to the cascade of problems we have today.

Oh, + the problem of interlining, which spreads problems from one line to others like a virus, rather than containing them.

To me it's about both business model design and engineering and life cycle.

And yes, I think the WMATA example might be a good example for why the thinking that a third track is too expensive might be wrong.

OTOH, other people argue that other systems do ok without third tracks and WMATA is the outlier.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on this line of thinking. Thx.


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