Stand me in front of the firing squad, but before you pull the triggers hear me out.
From my earlier musings you might have gathered that I am not a big supporter of public/private partnerships. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and public transit is in a desperate state. It all boils down to management problems, coupled with political interference.
In the private sector, management employees are hired based on specific skill sets, the goal being to make the business not just viable but profitable. If an employee does not meet performance expectations, he/she is quickly replaced.
The City has a history of promoting from the rank and file, and not necessarily concentrating on appropriate skill sets. I am a believer in “on-the-job” training, but because an employee was a great bus driver doesn’t mean that same employee will be a great manager. And because some City Hall manager is good at managing one aspect of City operations doesn’t mean he/she can aptly manage an urban transport system.
I recall some of the silly decisions that have emanated from the transit department. Remember when there were concerns about safety in the 23rd Street Downtown Bus Mall and one solution was to play classical or operatic music over a sound system to drive the thugs away? I wonder how many riders left with them, if in fact the unsavory element left at all. And let’s not forget the entertaining story about a former city councillor who was cruising a bus mall in his ward, baseball bat in hand, to address the safety concerns at the mall expressed by his constituents.
Then, there was the purchase and deconstruction of several small businesses on the corner of 23rd Street and Third Avenue. Purportedly the plan was to have a depot where people could wait inside during inclement weather, grab a coffee or beverage of choice, read a magazine or use Wi-Fi. What is it now? A surface parking lot. Was it wise to pay for the properties and the cost of razing the buildings, which previously had been generating property tax revenue for the City coffers?
What about the purchase of high-mileage old buses from Calgary? Is it reasonable to think that Calgary would be selling off good buses, or could it be because Calgary’s transit department knew these old beaters were going to start costing money for repairs and maintenance? And why would Saskatoon, the fastest-growing city in Canada, want to buy beaten-up buses at a time when it is trying to enhance public transit and attract new riders? Given the condition of our roadways, the nuts and bolts from these old buses will be littering the streets. Will more mechanics be required to keep the fleet operational? Will routes be suspended or cancelled because of a lack of roadworthy buses?
Do you remember the early morning service that was supposedly in demand, yet the buses ran empty of riders? Even subsidized bus passes and/or employer shared bus pass costs didn’t garner ridership.
Millions of dollars were lost in both revenue and expenditures because of the illegal lockout. Who was held accountable for that faux pas? Either council was operating in a vacuum or it was given extremely poor advice from both its management and legal teams – for which there seemed to be no consequences. As a result of the lockout, council did not approve a necessary fare increase in an attempt to lure back riders. It didn’t work and ridership and revenues continue to decline. The battle with the transit union continues, legal disputes on back pay are unsettled and who knows what the status of the pension plan is.
If the City’s long-term goal is a reliable and efficient rapid transit system, why didn’t it plan for a bus, emergency vehicles and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on the new bridges and roadway infrastructure projects? There is no point to creating a city app to tell riders when the bus is going to next arrive when it is stuck in traffic and it is impossible to say how fast the traffic will move. And why not incorporate park-and-ride lots in the high-density new areas in the far reaches of the city which might reduce traffic gridlock and encourage use of public transit?
Now, the City has hired retired army veteran Jim McDonald to be new director of Saskatoon Transit. McDonald, after his military career, worked for Edmonton transit, most recently as fleet maintenance manager. (I am sure that background will serve our system well given the old buses in our fleet.) From his website information, he appears to have varied skills in transportation issues. But does he have the management skills for the general operations side of the job? Will he bring a “boot-camp” mentality to an already fragile relationship between transit workers and City management and council?
In the army, insubordination might get you a stint in the stockade, but in a unionized public service environment it gets you time before the Labour Relations Board. However, McDonald does have a background with the Richard Eaton singers, so maybe he will have everyone “whistling while they work.”
In the first quarter reports of the fiscal year, Saskatoon Transit is financially bleeding. With the summer ahead and people walking and biking and the lack of student riders, there is no reason to expect it will improve. The City’s idea of using savings from other budget lines to offset the losses does not fix the problem. It is like using Band-Aids on surgical wounds.
Clearly, in a publicly-owned transit system, profitability is out the window and some public subsidy may be necessary to keep the fares affordable. But can it become viable? Not as long as we lack management skilled in urban transportation and decisions being made for political reasons rather than planning for a long-term fix. Thus my hypothesis for a fixed-term private contractor acting autonomously from City Hall making the right decisions for the right reasons. For those appalled by the idea, don’t panic – because there isn’t anyone in the private sector stupid enough to take up the challenge.
Good luck to Jim!