Two Takes on Suburban Transit

I am a regular reader of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper.  Generally, I think the paper does a good job of covering news from across the Twin Cities and throughout the state. Sometimes, however, it seems to me that the paper goes out of its way to pick a fight with suburbia.  I am not sure why they do this.  Maybe it’s motivated by the desire to right a perceived social justice wrong.  Maybe it sells more papers.  I don’t know.  But they sure picked one last week with David Peterson’s piece on suburban transit.  If you haven’t read it, here’s the link:  Brewing Bus Battle:  Fancy or Frill Free.  I give the article itself a D+ for its factual content and tone, but I’ve got to give that headline an A because I like alliteration in my headlines.

And now, I highly recommend you read the following rebuttal from my friend Len Simich, CEO of SouthWest Transit.  It clarifies and corrects the information and misinformation from the Start Tribune article.  Well said, Len.

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT ON TRANSIT

I feel the need to respond to the August 24, 2010 article written by David Peterson in the Star Tribune which in my estimation did not give the entire picture regarding the current debate over the provision of transit services in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.

While the article did point out various statistics like the subsidy per passenger and distances traveled, it did not, in my opinion, go far enough to explain the debate at the core of the argument.

One thing missing from the article are the questions: Are all costs being accounted for? Is the same method of accounting being used by all? In the case of SouthWest Transit, what you see are our true “fully allocated” costs. You are not seeing our system averages or marginal costs, nor are any other funding sources first deducted from the total cost prior to determining the subsidy per passenger. With SouthWest Transit, what you see is what you get. We are not confident this the same for everyone else.

As for distance traveled, SouthWest Transit operates 10 of the 15 longest transit routes in the region. Some of our routes travel in excess of 35 miles one way with the average route exceeding 25 miles. Fares are set by the Metropolitan Council and currently there is no distance based fare, meaning it costs the same to take an express bus 10 miles from Downtown Minneapolis as it does from the outer edge of our service area some 35 miles away.

When you factor in the cost of providing service that takes longer to provide (more miles = more fuel and driver time), plus factor in the inability to turn that bus around to make multiple trips during the peak hour, you begin to see why suburban service generally costs more to provide.

While we recognize that the subsidy on our local route is higher than the regional average, one needs to realize that we are talking about just one route and just one bus. The primary purpose for this route is to provide service to local job sites for those individuals traveling from the central city to our community as well as providing mobility to those in our community who have no other transportation options. This route also enables SouthWest Transit to meet its federal responsibilities to provide service to disadvantaged populations.

A couple of other things from the article need to be further addressed. First is the value the suburban providers bring to the region. As stated, our service travels greater distances, but what is lost in the distance factor is the number of cars we take off some of the most congested roadways in the metro area for the number of miles we travel. Not only do we help reduce traffic congestion, but we play a critical role in helping to improve air quality throughout the region.

In the article Chairman Bell made a statement that the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit provide 94% of the service but only get 85% of the funding. This may be true when you just factor in the amount of funding received through the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax. However, the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit both have other sources of funding many of the suburban providers do not have access to, such as the state supplemental funding and federal grants like the one being used along I-35W. When these are factored in, the story is much different.

The article also focused around a comment related to Nordstrom. The comment was taken completely out of context. SouthWest prides itself on the customer service we provide and we are constantly looking toward other industries on how to do that best. That is where the Nordstrom reference came in. What was not printed in the article is that we do not think customer service is something that needs to cost more. It’s really part of an organization’s culture, something everyone needs to understand and embrace. If you don’t buy into the customer service perspective, you will not be working for SouthWest Transit.

There was also a reference in the article that SouthWest’s nice black buses are more expensive than what the rest of the region is operating. The truth is the Coach vehicles we first brought into the region in 2000 are now being used by the majority of transit properties including Metro Transit. The Coach seats virtually the same number of passengers as an articulated bus, but costs almost $120,000 less and has a useful life two years longer than the average large bus – a value, not a drain on the region’s resources.

The article also took an unfair swipe at the landscaping in place at the SouthWest Transit facilities. While SouthWest does pride itself on the appearance of its facilities, one simply needs to visit our six park and ride lots to see that they are not all landscaped the same. SouthWest Transit has been recognized nationally for its efforts related to Transit Oriented Development. Because some of our stations have been developed in conjunction with housing and retail which both appeals to and attracts additional transit users, we have a responsibility to maintain our open spaces in conjunction with the development that surrounds us.

Missing from the article is that we sold or leased the pads adjacent to some of our stations which were priced and sold based on a number of factors including landscaping. In some cases we receive an annual payment from tenants to maintain the common area we control. The bottom line is through these development activities, SouthWest Transit has been able to create an additional revenue stream which translates into additional services we can provide to the public not to mention the additional tax base we have generated in the cities we operate from.

Finally, the article failed to mention the success SouthWest as well as all the other Suburban providers have had at attracting and retaining new transit riders. The suburban providers posted the highest percentage of bus ridership increases in the metro area over the past ten years. The more people we can attract to use the bus really provides benefits such as reduced traffic congestion and improved air quality to everyone across the region.

The debate should not be about “fancy versus frill-free” or the suburbs versus the urban core. The debate or actually the challenge is how can we raise the “transit” bar for everyone. Investing in attractive facilities, clean and comfortable buses, and good customer service attracts riders to the system. And when we do that, we all win.

Thank you for the opportunity to tell the rest of the story.

Respectfully Yours,

Len Simich
SouthWest Transit
CEO

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