Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Capital Project Bonanza

(Fair warning: This post is going to be very nuts-and-bolts, in the most literal sense. People who don't feel like a very personal jaunt through RTA's operations should click away now.)

Yesterday, RTA's CEO Larry Rubio invited me to a meeting at RTA headquarters to discuss many things, but primarily this post, where I called him out for not recommending that the Board should use STA funds to forestall the recent service cuts. Mr. Rubio, I don't do this often, but in case you didn't get it from our meeting I'd like to publicly apologize.

You see, I was unaware of the vast mountain of capital projects that RTA has been putting off since STA disappeared. It turns out that the agency has been sitting on a lot of much-needed maintenance to both their facility and their fleet that, if not accomplished soon, will start essentially (and in some cases, literally) exploding, taking buses off the road and requiring the cannibalization of local (operations) funds to repair and replace them. Topping the list: the NABI 40-LFW buses (97 in the fleet) are reaching the point in their design life where they require engine overhauls- otherwise, they not only burn more fuel and are more difficult to manoeuvre into traffic after a stop, but they risk the failure of certain critical parts. If those parts fail, it triples the already-steep ($18k/bus) cost of the overhaul. Next, the buses have a 12-year design life, which they are rapidly approaching (the fleet was purchased in 2001/2002). While this can be extended through certain kinds of maintenance, there's another ticking time bomb in the equation- the CNG fuel tanks are only certified for 15 years, and that's a hard limit imposed by the DOT. (Which one wasn't made clear, but I'm guessing federal.) At that point, it's just cheaper to buy a new bus... which doesn't mean to say it's cheap. At the last Board meeting, RTA staff were already preparing the grant applications for the funding it'll take to replace the ~100 bus fixed-route fleet. This is apparently a 5-year process... look for new buses on the road in 2015-2016. Add to all of this the fact that the facility that RTA runs on is literally cracking under the load- cracked concrete pervades the yard, and the facility was designed for a 30 year life around, well, 30 years ago. The reason the Agency has decided to dump this windfall into capital projects now is so that they don't have something break in half and then have to divert operating funds to fix it later.

I'm still unconvinced that the $100k that would provide holiday service is an absolute necessity for capital projects, but I AM convinced that RTA thinks it's an absolute necessity. Furthermore, my visit confirmed much of what I already thought about the staff at RTA: they're a bunch of very hardworking people, doing the best they possibly can to put buses on the road in the context of a political environment that is, at best, apathetic. (I also found that at least Mr. Rubio and CFO Mr. Fajnor were completely cognisant of the political arena in which their agency operates, and largely share my frustrations.)

So, RTA, thanks for opening your doors to me yesterday morning, and thanks for being engaged enough in the public discourse to respond to what I write over here. Let's hope we can all look forward to better funding days ahead.

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