Friday, May 30, 2008

Yikes! Is This A Tipping Point For Mass Transit?

Think about it. People everywhere are talking about the need for mass transit. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Network News (ABC NBC CBS), folks in Savannah's coffee houses, office workers, mom's in Forsyth Park.... the whole world has awakened to the subject. Well, I guess $4 a gallon gas is having an effect in more ways than one.

I have written about a few of my CAT board/County Commission experiences from 02, 03, and 04. What I have said is true and anyone who was there is welcome to correct my observations if they feel that what I have described is inaccurate.

Fast forward to today. The County Commissioners, led by Pete Liakakis Chairman of  CAT, have basically failed to recognize the advantage and positive potential of a county wide mass transit system. They have done nothing in their term to draw more ridership, improve the system and plan for the future. Bottom line, they have ignored mass transit while energy costs skyrocketed. Worse, they appointed a person to head up the system who only a few years ago voted for years to keep the system in the hands of First Transit. Someone who fought tooth and nail for a Transit Center location that nobody favored except him, his cohorts on the CAT board and a small handful of vocal riders. The CAT board was off track then and is now it is in the ditch. You would think they would not repeat their mistakes. 

Hope exists this year because we have reached a "tipping point" in our thinking as a community in the need and value of a healthy mass transit system. We might expect to see a "bottom up" transformation of transit planning, a consumer/voter revolt because nothing has been done to build a proper and successful CAT system. People will soon be hearing from multiple candidates for county commission who appear to be committed to quality of life issues. Issues not only surrounding mass transit, but policy change that includes canopy tree protection, curbside recycling for unincorporated Chatham County and far more bike ways and bike paths. That all sounds exciting to me, I hope it does to you.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

P.S. An Appropriate Day To Reflect On The Need For Mass Transit

What in the world was up with traffic in Savannah today? Something was fouled up on Bay Street as all cars and TRUCK (as in SEMI-TRUCKS) were being funneled off of Bay and down Price Street. I watched a dozen big rigs just about jackknife trying to negotiate the east turn down Broughton Street. None were able to make it. Same deal for the big rigs at Oglethorpe.

At around noon I was driving to WTOC off Chatham Parkway (nice new traffic light by the way and zero trees lost) only to find I16 East bound totally stopped. All vehicles were being diverted off at Chatham Parkway to who knows where. Later this afternoon I ran out to the southside and Abercorn was messed up (orange cones everywhere) and traffic was miserably bad, worse than the normal Abercorn bad. (Just wait until the Truman Parkway dumps into Abercorn at Home Depot!)

I thought about how nice it would be to have some form of mass transit in place in Chatham County. You know like the Green Line, or Bart, or Marta? We had better start thinking about a light rail metro type line that would speed across the county in both an east west line, and a north south line. If this were a reality instead of a concept, this mornings headline, "Derenne Study Underway" wouldn't have been printed.

For the pessimists out there, what was happening today on our streets will be commonplace before you know it. Think about it, $4 a gallon gas, hours just wasted idling in traffic. To know that this County Commission hasn't even paid attention to our small and limited CAT bus system, is not very reassuring. In fact, it is another example of the limited vision and substandard work product of the TEAM COMMISSION over the past 3.5 years. What exactly have they done besides exalt one another?

I guess you can call the Chairman anytime, at least he says you can, but don't ask for more than a pothole fix because anything beyond that would be idle dreaming.

Part 3: Mass Transportation "It all depends on..."

After 3 months passed and after the money had been approved for 200 new CAT bus stop shelters, I made it a point to inquire about how CAT was doing with the implementation of the new shelters. I probably sounded a bit like a little child on a road trip, "Are we there yet?" "Are we there yet?"

No we weren't was the constant answer from the Director of CAT. After 6 months had passed I grew frustrated and basically said look you have had plenty of time, this board and commission has a right to know where the system is on building 200 new shelters. I was assured that we would receive a detailed report at the next CAT board meeting. Fine.

Thirty days later show time came and we were informed that around 50 shelters had been erected and another 50 were "close to being ready." There was a lot of excuses about how the city permitting process was slowing things down. But something caught my attention. I don't remember exactly what it was. Maybe it was the way the CAT Director was avoiding eye contact with me, maybe it was the way he buried his head looking down into the staff report while he read it. Then it dawned on me.

I asked a point blank question, "How many of these 50 recently erected CAT shelters were 'New' shelters?" The director replied, "All of them." I followed up with, "By new, what I mean is how many are now in place that were not there at all 6 months ago."

Well, I was told the truth but it seemed I just hadn't been asking the right questions. Something like 10 shelters were new in the sense that no shelter existed at a given stop 6 months ago and 40 were new shelters that were "replacing an existing shelter." The director sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, "They are all new."

Next I got a long winded explanation about what bad condition the 40 replaced shelters were in, how down right dangerous those shelters were. Ahmm... yea but we said we wanted to increase our total number of shelters.

The post script to this semantic dust up was that it was much easier to replace existing shelter because you didn't have to go through permit process and then poor concrete and and and...

It was a learning moment for a new County Commissioner. Thereafter, I began to think very carefully before I asked a question and I had to contort my thinking so as to imagine every possible alternative meaning to any question I asked. It was an invaluable lesson and another example of how CAT management selectively processed CAT board directives. And we wonder why the system is failing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Part 2: Mass Transportation "Gimmie Shelter"

There was a constant struggle on the CAT board in 2003 and I was proud to be one of those pushing for a refocusing of the CAT mission. I had always been sympathetic and supportive to calls for a bigger service area and better overall CAT system. To me that meant more riders. I was always amazed by how empty the CAT buses were and I wasn't the only one who noticed. I thought several things needed to be done. 1) Smaller buses 2) Clean fuels for the buses 3) More bus stop shelters 4) Attracting a cross mix of riders.

So I asked the Director of CAT during a CAT board meeting, "Please tell me how many bus stops CAT has." He wasn't sure. Right then I realized CAT management wasn't focused on riders. What a shame. CAT is suppose to be in the transportation business right? Well, when the Director and his staff can not tell me how many bus stops the system has I asked how many shelters for riders are in the system? I knew this was a more manageable number since I saw few shelters and many people standing in the hot sun to ride CAT.  I just felt from a logical basis that in this hot and often rainy climate that having a place for your customers to wait for their bus made good business sense.

I was told that staff would have to research that and get back to me. 

The number of shelters at bus stops was incredibly small, I forgot the actual number but it was inconsistent with a smart business model and absent adequate shelters any chance of growing the ridership seemed  remote. We were in SPLOST discussions at the time so I got enough votes together on the County Commission to put $500,000 in the SPLOST budget just for CAT  shelters. Next, we instructed CAT management to start implementing a plan to build 200 new shelters. SPLOST passed and we believed that soon we would be seeing new shelters sprouting up around town. A good first step in creating a more rider friendly and attractive alternative transportation system.

Not so fast McMasters..... Next installment: "How do you define NEW shelter?"

Monday, May 26, 2008

Part 1: Mass Transportation

When this commission took office it cost us under $40 to fill my wife's car with gas. Yesterday it cost $78.54. That is a 100% increase in 3.5 years. The commission has zero control over fuel costs, we all know that but the county commission (9 votes out of 13 on the CAT board) does control our mass transportation system - Chatham Area Transit. 

If you didn't read yesterdays lead article in the Savannah Morning News, you should. The County Commission has done little to build up the CAT system, improve its standing in the community and help move people from point A to point B. Clearly, the article describes a failing transporation system that is losing ridership big time and with bigger expenses to riders and taxpayers.

Having served on the County Commission and CAT board in 2002, 03 and 04, let me share with you my first hand impressions of how county government views with and deals with mass transportation.

First, CAT suffered from incredible mismanagement from First Transit, the company the County Commission/CAT board contracted with for annual management of the system. The Director had a majority of votes on the CAT board including Chairman Hair in his pocket. This meant that common sense issues could be shot down at will and grandiose ideas could move ahead with great ease.

What common sense ideas am I referring to? Each year, 02, 03, and 04 I asked for a phasing out of big buses and a phasing in of smaller buses fueled by natural gas. There were not enough votes to move ahead with this plan. Too many of my colleagues saw no point in changing over.

What plan got a lot of attention and money was something called "The Bi State Mobility Plan." As good as it sounds, the center piece of this plan was high speed ferry service to Daufuski Island and Hilton Head. Now as to Daufuski Island, the consultant who wrote the Bi State Mobility Plan briefed me and another commissioner on his study. Basically, we were informed that there was a great desire to visit Daufuske Island (and to privately develop the Island) but one small impediment. There was no road to the island. So, through the largess of all Chatham County taxpayers, a couple of multi million dollar ferries would fix that right quick. We of course were being sold the notion that the real need was from tourism - all those people just clamoring to visit Daufuski Island for the day to play golf and eat lunch (and visit  the model homes!).

So clean fueled, smaller more efficient buses were unnecessary while studying ($100,000) high speed ferry service to a private island made perfect sense.

NEXT: Bus shelters and "How many bus stops do we have?"

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Old School Thinking

Someone recently pointed out to me the median age of the Chatham County Commission is like 60. For the record, I don't know their ages and if you exclude Kicklighter (the baby), the median gets higher. I turned 55 this year so I guess I fit that general calibration. I know compared to Pete Liakakis, I am a full generation younger.

Lots of people say that age is all in your head. That sounds nice but I think otherwise. What then tells us most about a person's mental agility? Perhaps what a person says sheds the most light on what goes on upstairs. Recently at Pat Farrell's first ever Town Hall Meeting (May 6) Pete was defending his deciding vote which raised property taxes in 2005, "If you live in a $50,000 house, it means you only have to pay 45 cents more a month in property taxes."

My guess is that the average home value in 2005 was almost 3 times Pete's number. In fact, I don't think there are any homes anywhere in Chatham County with a fair market value of $50,000.

Maybe how adept a person is with information technology provides another clue to whether or not they are "with it." Scott Larson recently reported that Pete told him, "I have small knowledge of computers." Indeed, Pete does not have a computer and I imagine he does not know how to use one. Odd for 2008, but not so odd for someone born during the great depression.

I'm trying to be fair, let's face it when I was in college there were no desktop or laptop computers. But I did go to college and graduate in 1976 from the University of California. As my professional career slowly started, I bought a computer and learned to use one.

If Chatham County is going to change with the times (maybe catch up is a better way to put it), we need to think quicker and smarter. Recycling is not a new concept. Impact fees have been around since 1991 in Georgia. CAT buses running on diesel is way old school. Bike paths and sidewalks are everywhere except in Chatham County. Regional thinking and planning must be established. Stacking the MPC with Realtors and developers is a turkey shoot on the environment. 

It probably wouldn't hurt, and probably would help,  lowering the median age on the county commission.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Impact Fees on New Construction

In 1991, the Georgia legislature passed a law allowing for the imposition of impact fees on new development. Of course the home builders challenged the law all the way to the supreme court where the high court decreed that impact fees were legal, appropriate and not a new form of tax.

The basic purpose of an impact fee is based on the undisputed fact that newly constructed residential and commercial projects create a larger demand for county/municipal services than is covered by their tax base. The new property taxes cover enough for maintenance and operations but not enough revenue to capitalize new projects.

This imbalance results in a strain on existing infrastructure unless local government can find a way to fund the new needs created by the new projects. 

Simply said, without putting a small one time impact fee on all new residential and commercial projects all the people who reside in the county are paying for the impact created by the new people who have moved or will move into the county. It is interesting to note that Bryan County, Effingham County and Jasper County all have chosen to go with impact fees. So have 20 other Georgia counties all of which are experiencing rapid growth.

The bottom line is this: Who should pay for the results of growth (new libraries, police precincts, roads, recreation, jails, and courts)? Those who already live here, or the people who have chosen to move here? It's an easy answer in my opinion.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

County Tree Ordinance Is Needed

Building a better tomorrow begins today. Actually it should have started a long time ago but we can see from the recent Pat Farrell town hall meeting last week (May 7) that nothing has improved when it comes to the county valuing the Islands old oak tree canopy. The recent loss of two canopy oaks on Johnny Mercer Blvd to allow for commercial development confirms this.

Here are the facts: The trees were in the public right of way which makes them public property. They were not interfering with the commercial development and had been specifically designated by the MPC to be "saved". For some reason the county decided to give the developer a 375 foot deceleration lane next to his project to allow for right hand turns into the new office project. The developer says he didn't even want the new lane but this county tree cutting has gotten so hot that now it's impossible to tell who is telling the truth.

What is not in dispute is that the property was zoned residential, not commercial. The Islands Land Plan duly adopted in 2001 specified the property to remain residential granting even more importance to its residential status. Of course what happened next is the all too predictable "zoning variance" which was granted by the MPC so the developer could build commercial. Why have a land plan at all if you are not going to follow it?

So now there are two issues hatched from this, "spot zoning" and the taking of canopy oak trees in the public right of way. When over 120 people showed up to Pat Farrell's 1st town hall meeting on the islands (since being elected almost 4 years ago) he was unprepared. The county staff pointed fingers in every direction, Pete Liakakis tried to point out that it was just two trees and the Islands has many more and the county has worked hard to give the citizens out there everything they wanted (except trees).

Alas, the most obvious thing was that the Chairman and the 4th district commissioner just don't get it. Well, I do and what I propose is an ordinance that specifically states that any canopy oak tree in the public right of way, public area or eased area will not be taken down without 1) public hearings, 2) a majority vote of the commission. This may not go far enough for some but it goes a long way to stopping canopy oaks from coming down without any discussion and without any direct accountability.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Why Such Jail Expense? Who Is In Charge?

Recently citizens of Chatham County learned that the new $110,000,000 county jail expansion contract was going to be awarded to a company (The Facility Group) that was recently indicted on 16 federal counts of bribery to elected officials. The bottom line as to costs on this jail project brings up serious questions. Why should the citizens of Chatham County be asked to spend $122,000 per jail bed when other recent in state jail expansions have been completed at a cost of around $30,000 per bed? 

The Savannah Morning News reported that most of the current commissioners said they voted and were prepared to approve the Facilities Group contract based on Sheriff Al St. Lawrence's urging and recommendation. County commissioners have a responsibility to those who elected them and that does include independent thinking for tax payers best interests on all projects.

The Chairman runs commission meetings and directs discussion. He or she has a larger obligation to vet and lead the commission on important issues. How this got by Mr. Liakakis is a curious question that I will be asking Mr. Liakakis through the election discussions and debates.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

TAD (tax allocation district) Bad News for Taxpayers

The current county commission recently voted unanimously to create a TAD (tax allocation district) that encircled a billion dollar residential development project called Savannah River Landing adjacent the Savannah River and just south of River Street. What this means is that for 20 years, yes 20 years, all the property taxes due from the new construction and sales will go exclusively to pay for the infrastructure improvements surrounding the development. This also means that the property taxes paid by new owners of these multi million dollar residences will have to be dedicated to only the infrastructure improvement costs, $54,000,000. None of their property taxes can legally be spent on police, fire, parks and recreation, libraries, or public transportation.

We must wonder why, when faced with the worst real estate market since the Great Depression along with an unrepresented foreclosure rate, the county commission would fall in line and vote to obligate (restrict) property taxes for 20 years from such a predictably risky development venture. The upshot of this public policy failure is most likely higher property taxes for everyone living in Chatham County.

Here is a link on the subject:
"Priming The Pump" Savannah Morning News