Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | March 10, 2010

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Becky FengerA matter of safety

A funny thing happened on the way to getting improved bus service and Dial-A-Ride in the Valley. Light rail transit (LRT) came to the party and crashed it. There is currently talk of what bus lines to cut in order to keep feeding the LRT beast. The hapless folks who count on Dial-A-Ride now need to make reservations a day in advance, just the opposite of what they were promised if they voted for the tax.

Meanwhile, a tour bus owned by Tierra Santa Inc. of Van Nuys, California, rolled over and crashed on our Interstate 10 last Friday, killing six people. Now we learn that Tierra Santa has a long history of safety violations and buses with inferior construction, which contributed to the deaths and injuries of their passengers.

After seeing photos of the mangled bus, I had an opportunity to talk to several of our own city bus drivers who had plenty to say about the state of our bus system. They complain that the buses are poorly maintained. "Some have practically no shocks at all and are hitting bottom a lot," they report, "which makes them difficult to control." At times the motors just die.

When I asked who is to blame for this, they pointed the finger at the provider, Veolia Transportation, headquartered in France and the largest private sector operator of transit in North America. That includes buses, rail, shuttles and taxi services. They manage and operate our ground transportation services at Sky Harbor Airport and have the contract for our light rail system. Their parent company, Veolia Transport, provides public transportation in 30 countries. Their Web site states that their goal is to provide "safe and sustainable mobility solutions." Their mission is to "improve public transportation, to enhance quality of life and to combat global warming." (Thank heavens for their politically-correct efforts towards the mammoth task of fighting the scourge of global warming.)

The suggestion was made that, since Veolia in effect has a monopoly on our bus service in the Valley, there is no incentive for them to spend increasing amounts of money on maintenance. Here is where privatization and competition might come in and change the playing field.

Another complaint is that it is difficult for the bus rider to find any bus schedules unless they walk around with a book and a map. "Schedules and routes should be posted clearly at the bus stops," the drivers maintain. Instead, out-of-towners and even locals wait until a bus stops and then take up time finding out where the vehicle is headed.

It's been almost a year ago since a driver told me how much money Phoenix was losing per day due to the malfunctioning fare boxes that the city spent millions retrofitting the buses with. The new boxes were so defective that the drivers were told by management to just let the people boarding the bus ride for free. That's cute. It's not as if their fare covered the cost of their trip even when the fare was actually collected. Now we have free rides for the folks, courtesy of the taxpayers. It would be interesting to find out if that problem was ever resolved.

As I have said for the last 15 years, if the boatloads of money that were spent on light rail had been spent on the buses instead, we could have leather seats, flat screen TVs, every amenity known to man, and attractive servers doling out refreshments to happy riders instead of the cut backs we now face.

Valley Metro would have us believe that LRT would be a success if not for the recession. The truth is that cities with LRT averaged a loss of tens of millions of dollars annually back when the economy was strong. Instead, we have the increased air pollution and traffic congestion that our best billion-plus dollars could buy!