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Monday, November 14, 2005

Regional Service Planning - Custom or Spec, what's it gonna be?

Once again, we're hearing rumblings complaining about Greater East Texas Transportation Assn. being one of the lead agencies. People are asking "Who is GETTA?" and "Why should GETTA be there?" "They don't know what it takes to be transportation provider." "They don't represent everybody." "They're divisive and are responsible for too much negative outflow."

There've even been a couple of attempts by the COG (that we know of) to get county commissioners and city officials to name ETCOG as the one, the only, the true leader of regional transportation service planning - and this happened weeks after transportation stakeholder groups had already spoken and named TXDOT, GETTA and ETCOG as co-leads.

And the COG can't figure out why we don't trust them....

Here's why GETTA should be one of the lead agencies.



Greater East Texas Transportation Association is a coalition of East Texas transportation stakeholders, users and providers, funders and regulators organized for the following purpose:

  1. To create an open discussion process about transportation challenges faced by seniors, people with disabilities, low income workers and families, the homeless, commuters, tourists and transportation providers.
  2. To plan solutions to specific transportation problems and initiate projects that address specific community transportation needs.
  3. To recommend funding and service implementation strategies to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Department.
  4. To promote regional service planning and effective transportation coordination.


GETTA began as a TxDOT Tyler District initiative to create an advisory committee for the DOT’s 5310 rural transit program. The group quickly identified issues beyond the 5310 program that needed the attention of some sort of community advisory group. Prior to the creation of GETTA, regional service planning existed only as an annual exercise by regional transit providers and the East Texas Council of Governments done to meet the requirements of federal and state funders and to address the planning needs of the transit providers.

In the 4 years GETTA has existed as an organization, the members of the group have obtained grants for studies of regional transportation resources, promoted new local projects, worked with one area transit provider to obtain a congressional earmark for funding for an important transit project and participated in the process of restructuring how regional service planning is done.


GETTA is an organization whose members represent transit users, transportation and human rights advocacy groups, nonprofit organizations, the business community, health and human services, consumers and transportation providers. The state legislature and the Texas Transportation Commission have mandated that regional transportation service planning WILL blend provider-based planning and consumer-based planning priorities. It is critical that consumers take their place at the table to watchdog the process. GETTA, because it is not a government agency, can ask questions and express concern that organizations dependent on federal and state funding cannot ask, will not ask or dare not ask. GETTA has the flexibility to change its structure, composition or membership makeup to adapt to its new role as co-lead agency with TxDOT and ETCOG in the regional service planning process.

Already it has been suggested that the membership of GETTA be changed to include representation from other districts in the region and to cover a larger geographical area. This is possible for GETTA, whereas ETCOG and TXDOT are what they are and cannot make such changes in structure. It has been suggested that, because of the role GETTA has been asked to play as one of the three lead agencies for regional service planning, that we ask TxDOT and ETCOG to resign as formal voting members of GETTA to address concerns about double voting and the threat that GETTA’s vote on key issues could be tainted as a result by the dual membership on GETTA of the other two members of the lead agency team – namely TxDOT and ETCOG.

The point is, because GETTA is what it is, it can do these kinds of things to insure that consumers are well-represented at the table. In bringing consumer based planning into the regional planning process the great danger is that we would fall back to the old ways of doing things in which plans are made out of sight of the public and then presented to the public for comment – essentially for an up or down vote. This is basically provider based planning in that providers attempt to guess what the public wants without the benefit of ever having the public in the room to tell planners what it is they want. Plans are always better when the people for whom you are planning are in the room to tell you what they want and to give you ideas about what might work best.

It’s the difference between a “spec” house and a custom house. Builders like to build spec houses. They get to build them the way they want to, they get to cut corners and they don’t get asked to do the difficult or impossible or to change things halfway through the construction. Of course, spec houses can be harder to sell because if you don’t get it exactly right you could wind up having to sit on an unsold house for a long time till the right buyer wanders in who happens to like what the builder did.

Builders hate custom houses because the owner wants what he wants and sometimes what he wants is hard to do or adds to the cost. Custom houses are harder to build, but then the advantage is that for all the headache for the builder, the house is already sold before you hammer in the first nail.

The big debate in this whole thing is between those who believe transportation planning should be done on “spec” and those who believe it should be a custom design. Apparently the legislature thinks it can be a combination of both approaches. Like a good custom house job, it can be done in a way that meets the needs of both the contractor and the buyer. After all, we’re building a system for the people who ride it, not for transit providers. At the same time, transit providers need to be able to function efficiently and well in order for their agencies to stay healthy and to be able to continue providing services so they need to be an integral part of the process.

The problem is the providers have never NOT been considered an integral part of the process. Providers have always been drivers of the process.

Till now, however, the consumers have never been considered integral to planning. Historically, our job as consumers has always been seen by COG leadership as (and I quote) “to make the transit provider happy in order to get a ride,” not to tell transit providers how to do their jobs.

So, now that has all been changed by legislative proclamation. So does that mean that magically, an entrenched bureaucracy is going to suddenly open its doors and let us tromp through the house with our muddy boots on? That’s not terribly likely.

Ideally what we’ll get to eventually is a good partnership between builder and buyer. Unfortunately, the head builder in this case apparently doesn’t trust the buyer and wants to make sure he “controls” how much the buyer gets to participate. Every concession transit users have got so far has been taken, not given; has been protested and resisted by the self-appointed leadership. This is a disturbing trend and does not bode well for the future. Repeatedly we’ve been told that we don’t know anything about transit so we should sit down and shut up and let the pros take care of this for us.

Well, we don’t buy it and neither does TxDOT or the legislature apparently. We’d rather we were freely invited and welcomed to participate at the table, but if that’s not going to be the case, then we’ll bring our own chairs if need be – especially since we keep having to check the legs of the chairs we’ve been provided so far to see if they’ve been sawn through or unscrewed.

Someone at ETCOG recently lamented, “I can see right now you guys will never be satisfied.”

That’s only true if ETCOG isn't going to do anything differently. We just aren’t satisfied yet and with what we’re seeing so far, we don’t have a lot of reason to feel satisfied (or secure) either.

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

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