Private-sector involvement could help public transit

A young driver was highballing across Chicago’s west side at the wheel of a semi when his trailer clobbered a low overpass. He was nearly in tears as he telephoned his company.

Dave Millhouser

“We need that sucker fixed fast,” said his boss. “Don’t feel too bad, Chicago is famous for this sort of thing. The Fruehauf Trailer dealer is nearby. Get it repaired and get back on the road.”

A day later Fruehauf had worked its magic, and the anxious young driver rocketed out of the lot headed for the highway.

BAM! He nailed the same overpass from the other side.

You might wonder where such a hapless driver could find work in transportation today. He might be a fit for New York’s MTA, in light of a recent New York Post article, “MTA buses were in more than 21K collisions in just 3 years.”

That’s 7,000 per year, and MTA has about 5,700 buses, so each of them needs to hit something every 10 months just to pull its statistical weight. Our guy could help.

New York is a tough traffic environment, and not all these incidents were either major or preventable. But 21,000? During that period more than 2,500 people were injured, with 14 killed.

According to the Post article, bus drivers call MTA dispatch, not the police, following accidents. Personal injury lawyer Keith Sullivan is quoted as saying, “They’ll send people to the scene to mount a defense before the injured victim is even loaded into the ambulance.”

Whenever a politician suggests “privatizing” any government service, the response is predictable: Private-sector businesses aren’t as altruistic and won’t put the public’s comfort, safety and well-being first.

Gee, how’s that working out here? Don’t forget that it’s not just its own customers that MTA is injuring at an average of over 2.5 a day, but also collateral damage within range of buses gone rogue.

There are lots of excuses. Having driven a coach frequently in New York, I know how difficult it is. But 21,000 accidents and 2,500 injuries?

Ben Franklin once said, “He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” I didn’t hear Ben say it, but it sounds like him.

We will certainly be told it is our fault because we don’t give them enough money to fix things. Gee whiz, current MTA management, politicians and unions all inherited this sad state and lack the resources to climb their way out of the hole dug for them.

Who dug the hole? That’s the point. On the public side of things, people are rarely held accountable. Kicking the political can down the road is an art form that enables folks to escape before their bad decisions bubble to the surface like a broken sewer pipe.

There’s no incentive for long-term thinking, only for looking good until another job pops up or the pension(s) kick in.

For a number of years there was a transit executive who had the toughness and ability to “fix” things. Everywhere he went, things got better in relatively short order — then he’d be fired. Solving problems meant he offended the triad: management, politicians and unions.

He’d end up moving on, and repeating the cycle. He was a hired gun.

The “triad” never considered what was best for the public long term.

If we allowed more involvement by private-sector companies, could they possibly make it worse? (Go back to the paragraph about how MTA handles accidents.)

Is it worth trying? Not a ton to lose. We’re not talking about the “public/private partnerships” that are really corporate welfare. Every time the private company goes over budget, politicians find ways to funnel them more money.

It wouldn’t be surprising if those same companies donated to campaign funds. Just sayin’.

Vendors bid artificially low because they know that the politicians will wink and pay for overruns. It’s win-win. The announced cost is politically acceptable and the supplier gets its money down the road.

Does anyone know where (or who) the luminaries were that signed Boston’s $2.8 billion Big Dig deal and sold it to the taxpayers? The one that actually cost more than $14 billion for a poorly built tunnel?

Don’t look for them on the welfare roles. Do you think, for a nanosecond, they believed $2.8 billion was a “real” estimate?

Honest private-sector involvement isn’t difficult to understand. If an operator offers to run a route for $100, that’s what he gets. Bid $1,000 to dig a tunnel and that is exactly what your paycheck will read.

Then your motivation is accurately evaluating cost and risk, because YOU are gonna eat your mistakes. The public gets the truth about what a project or service will cost.

Seriously, 21,000 accidents? Ask yourself what would happen to a private carrier with stats like that.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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