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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wait For Me, I’m Your Leader!

Who Will Be the Alpha Male in Regional Transit Services Planning?

There’s a’ gonna be a transit plannin’ meetin’ Friday and it’s not the one that East Texas Council of Governments (ETCOG) wanted. In fact:

  1. ETCOG didn’t organize it – the TxDOT District Engineer did.
  2. ETCOG apparently didn’t want anyone else to organize it either – an ETCOG official actually called TxDOT’s Public Transportation Department and told them to tell the district engineer to, in essence, “Butt out!”
  3. Those invited to attend include health and human service providers, economic development councils, civic leaders, elected officials, advocacy groups, consumers, transit providers, state officials, chambers of commerce and business people, few of whom have yet been invited to the table by the Council of Governments self-appointed regional service planners. Now in a part of the country where the “One Man, One Pickup” rule is a way of life, public transportation is not likely to get much attention, though lack of adequate alternatives to a personal automobile directly impacts one in five adults and indirectly impacts a far greater percentage when you factor in the families and friends that folks without a car bum rides from.
So, doesn’t it make sense that you should include people like the ones listed above in the planning process? Apparently not if you go by ETCOG’s historical position. Even today, when TxDOT is demanding greater community participation in the planning process, ETOCG officals are complaining that getting everyone together Friday to talk about what regional service planning looks like “gets us a little bit ahead of ourselves”.

The COG says they are already “…working on doing a plan (Longview, Tyler and ETCOG)”. Note the players. Longview Transit, Tyler Transit and ETCOG Rural Transit. All transit providers. Now, whose needs are going to be number one at that table? No offense to Ed Esparsa and Norman Schenck from Longview and Tyler respectively. If ETCOG calls, they have to answer in self-defense. And both are good faith participants in developing a plan for coordination. My complaint is not with them, but it’s the same complaint I had 5 years ago.

Where’s everyone else that should be in on the planning process? COG official comment was that they “will have a key role for the HHS groups. It wouldn't be an accurate or effective plan otherwise. But it will be a little later on in the planning process.” Like when? Why should the HHS providers inclusion be later in the process? And why is there no mention of other key players like advocacy groups like ETJTA, The Arc, AARP, TASCA and such? Where are the economic development councils? Why are we back to 3 transit providers in a room doing regional planning?

Here's what it looks like from the outside.

  1. It looks like ETCOG wants to work up a preliminary plan that first and foremost meets the needs of the transit providers. It's easier to get what you want into such a plan if you do the first draft without any pesky non-transit people involved.
  2. It looks like their planning process isn't responding to public transit needs, but rather responding to providers' need to spend the money so it uses the appropriation in a way that best benefits the providers. What happened to having a plan that gets transit where it needs to go, if the people who need to go there aren’t included in planning until after the fact?
  3. ETCOG officials in public say they are “tickled that they (the organizers of Friday’s meeting) are helping get all of the Health and Human Service groups in on the planning process”. Telling the TxDOT district engineer to “butt out” doesn't sound "tickled" at all.
  4. When someone says we're getting "a little ahead of ourselves", what I hear is "You're making us do things we don't want to do or weren't prepared to control." I would think an opportunity to touch base with an influential former TxDOT Commissioner, the chairman of the Texas Assn. of Economic Development Councils, the District Engineer, public officials and representatives from communities all over your service area, would be welcomed going into a transportation summit. Instead letters and phone calls went out from the COG encouraging people to stay away.

I've said all along that a summit cannot be useful unless you've had a whole bunch of these kinds of local working groups to prepare for it - unless, that is, the summit was designed to present us with a fait' accompli. "Here's the draft plan, guys, already drawn up. Isn't it lovely? Don't look too closely at the fine print."

Five years ago at a TDHHS public forum, I asked why there wasn't a regional service plan for transit in East Texas. ETCOG’s rural transit director stood up and told us that there was indeed such a plan. I asked who wrote it. She very candidly said, "Glory, Kay and I." That group represented Tyler Transit, Mini-Bus - which was serving Longview at the time - and ETCOG’s transit director. It’s the same group this time that did all the planning five years ago - all transit providers.

As an afterthought, COG planners say that including health and human services providers is important. Unfortunately, they don’t even mention advocacy groups, civic officials, business people or economic development folks. Frankly, a lot of people, from small fry like me to city and county officials and other major players see ETCOG as not a good-faith partner in this process. ETCOG representatives over the past 5 years that I've been involved in local transportation advocacy have on repeated occasions stood up and flat told advocacy groups, consumers, civic leaders and, now, even TxDOT officials to "Butt Out!"

The Greater East Texas Transportation Alliance (GETTA), a TxDOT organized public advisory group, was publicly told by a COG official that it should stick to only one issue – namely advising the district on 5310 funding. Basically we were told to butt out! It nearly ruined the effectiveness of that group, but the need was so urgent that we soldiered on anyway, ignoring the proffered advice. With no encouragement from the COG; often with outright discouragement, a coalition of GETTA members put together a proposal to the DOT and was awarded $36,000 to survey the transit assets of the district in preparation for regional coordination and planning.

Five years ago, members of the Tyler Homeless Coalition identified a lack of transportation in the evening that prevented many people with disabilities and homeless workers from getting second and third shift jobs. At one of those early meetings, someone stood up and asked us who had given us “permission” to organize. When we made it clear that we didn’t need anyone’s permission to discuss transit issues, the next thing they wanted to know was, “What’s the grant you’re going after (and can we get it)?” We made it clear there was no grant. All we had was a problem and we were looking for a way to solve it. Many local “leaders” lost interest once they knew there was no immediate chance of getting a grant. Pretty much from there on we were told repeatedly to “butt out” by a variety of officials, leaders and representatives of large local organizations.

We organized East Texas Just Transportation Alliance and located a grant fund we could use to support extended hours for Tyler Transit in the federal Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) grant. The ETCOG representative told us not to bother applying for a JARC grant because “they are useless”. ETCOG had had to send theirs back because they said the money was unusable – over $200,000 went back to the feds instead of going to increasing transportation resources.

We ignored ETCOG’s warning. It turned out that they’d actually failed to get the JARC grant in the first place (they didn’t bother trying to get an earmark and only earmarked projects got money that year). What they sent back was Dept. of Labor funding that was supposed to match the JARC money. Meanwhile, with the help of Tyler Transit, we pulled together a coalition of supporters. We went to Washington and got the Congressional earmark for JARC anyway and two years later we were part of the effort that got the toll credits for match money too. This fall, Tyler Transit's JARC project will extend the system's service hours till midnight providing transportation home for low income second and third shift workers and evening access to business, shopping and recreation for seniors, people with disabilities and tourists.

A couple of years ago, seniors and senior advocates at the annual REACH conference on aging were told by ETCOG’s transit director that "The transit provider doesn't have to make its riders happy. The riders have to make the transit provider happy if they want a ride." That statement spoke volumes about the COG's transportation department's philosophy about who they serve. Advocates in the room were appalled. Over the past decade, ETCOG has reduced the number of providers in the 14 county region to just one single closely controlled transit provider that is tasked with covering the entire region. It made the COG's paperwork a little easier, but many of us feel like it left us without the flexibility a diverse system would have offered. If we are going to meet the transportation challenges of a huge and diverse region like East Texas, it makes sense to have a lot of locally based resources, especially if you ever hope to leverage local financial support. ETCOG staff members have expressed displeasure time and again at my own participation as a transportation advocate, then later as a member of PTAC.

Meanwhile, on the PTAC, I was pushing for a new funding formula which would dramatically increase East Texas (and consequently ETCOG's) funding. The plan I advocated moves the East Texas to funding parity in far less time than the 20 years originally projected by the transit industry. At no time did I get a lot of support or help from the COG. In fact the COG supported TTA's proposal to freeze funding in place, which would have in effect drastically slowed the growth of funding for the region at a time when, although we were the second largest rural transit district, we were receiving less money than any other COG. To make things worse, the COG produced a series of awkward "Resolutions" that were presented to the Commission that frankly made the COG look greedy and out of touch. At any point, those of us who were working toward funding equity for East Texas would have welcomed the COG’s participation in the process.

Instead ETCOG often seemed to be working at cross purposes. The statement has been made throughout that the process needs to be “controlled”. Why is that? Who needs to control the process? I don’t think it’s who they think needs to control the process. And now, the COG’s message on regional service planning appears to be, "Let us fix this plan up for you and when we've got a handle on it, we'll let ya'll take a peek and make comment." ETCOG has consistently been out of step with the purpose of the legislature in passing HB 3588 and at cross purposes with the Texas Transit Commission and with the growing numbers of people in East Texas who realize that we've got to engage everybody in building a transit infrastructure. No one agency can carry all the water for transit.

There's an element of "Wait for me, I'm your leader!" in all this. If your supposed to be the leader and yet you find yourself running along behind your community saying, “this is bad timing” or that you were going to include them just a “little bit later on in the planning process” then, you never were the leader you seem to have thought you were in the first place.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the COG has not been a good faith partner in regional service planning. It is my belief that someone else should take the lead in regional transportation service planning. The regional workforce board or the Regional Mobility Authority could play a pivotal role. Whoever leads out needs to bring the right people to the table from the get-go.

ETCOG is now planning to ask TxDOT to provide them with a consultant to shepherd the planning process. That assumes that ETCOG should be in charge of the regional planning process – an assumption that I, for one, would challenge loudly. I don’t think I’ll be alone either. A consultant is not what we need. We need someone else driving the planning process.

Friday’s meeting should be interesting.

Just one man’s opinion…

Tom King

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