by James A. Bacon
Virginia should overhaul its funding formulas to reward local transit companies for superior productivity and performance, argued Thelma Drake, director of the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) during a presentation yesterday of the McDonnell administration’s funding reform plan to the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
“The current system dates back to 1986,” Drake said. “If you were inventing it from scratch, you wouldn’t do it this way. … He who spends the most money gets the most money. There’s no rewarding performance.”
Under the proposed “hybrid” approach, which must be approved by the General Assembly, DRPT would allocate roughly $150 million per year in state operating assistance based upon a balance of ridership numbers, operating expenses, and performance-related metrics such as costs and the number of customers per revenue mile. The formula would be “a 21st century model for funding transit.”
But the hybrid model received heavy push back from the Virginia Transit Association (VTA) and individual transit companies. Performance metrics are a great management tool but not a basis for allocating funds, said Linda McNiminy, executive director of the VTA. The DRPT proposal would pit transit companies against one another, make funding more volatile and ignore unique circumstances in each enterprise.
The DRPT proposal does recognize that there are big differences between transit systems serving the Washington metropolitan area and the town of Chincoteague, said Drake. The idea is to put the state’s nearly 40 transit systems into one of five peer groups based on population, population density, ridership, operating costs and other criteria. Each peer group would receive its proportional share of the state allocation based on operational expenses, and each smaller pie would be divvied up between the enterprises in the peer groups.
The state should “reward and incentivize our transit systems to be more efficient,” Drake said. The proposed approach would hold them more accountable.
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton described the presentation as “positive, upbeat.”
McNiminy countered that peer-group comparisons could be unfair. Consider Blacksburg transit, which serves a large captive ridership of university students and has access to a workforce of part-time student drivers. How fair is it to compare that situation with, say, the Roanoke bus service, which is spread over a much larger area and does not have access to a large pool of part-time labor?
Fran Hooper, representing the Charlottesville-area JAUNT public transportation service, said the service is unlike any other. Riders, many of them wheelchair-bound, must call a day ahead of time. According DRPT’s metrics, which are suitable for conventional bus companies, JAUNT would be judged inefficient and its $5.7 million budget would be cut. The DRPT would “create winners and losers,” Hooper said, but not necessarily on the basis of productivity.
The state pays a modest fraction of operating costs and an even smaller fraction of capital costs, yet through this proposal it would “take control over local transit systems,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It would be like a minority shareholder taking over a company.” The real issue, he added, is the need to find more transit funding.
One benefit of the proposal, said Drake, is that it would allow DRPT to go to the General Assembly and more effectively make the argument for more funding by addressing widespread concerns about inefficiency in the transit industry. “We’re not trying to punish anyone,” she said. “We want to encourage people to make good decisions.”