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Dec 4 / thomas.krafft

Caltrain approves GPS system for real-time delay updates

Here’s an example of a real issue I just heard about on the news the other day, over which traditional Republicans (the fiscally conservative kind) have every right to be crazy (as opposed to the vast number of fake issues being used today to only further polarize our populace).
One of the many local transportation authorities in my area, Caltrain,  just approved spending $1.8MM (million) to install GPS units on the trains they manage, which will be connected to sign-boards at each of the stations to provide more accurate notifications to riders of delayed trains. The money is part of an $8.7MM fund Caltrain has secured to update their control systems. And remember: Caltrain is just one of our transportation agencies. This decision by Caltrain follows a decision by Samtrans to spend $1.2MM on their own GPS system, for the same reasons. And you can be sure many other agencies are very likely to follow suit, spending millions of our tax dollars on GPS systems, and probably some other equally cool, but absolutely unnecessary technology and systems.
Here are the problems, which can be easily identified by informed, attentive fiscal conservatives:
  • We are in the middle of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression. While I appreciate good use of good technology, wouldn’t it at least be prudent and responsible to just wait a little while – and bring up the topic of spending millions of tax dollars on this system maybe in 2 or 3 years?
  • One of the ideals from our country’s origins was that there should be no taxation without representation. Put another way, or combined with our other American values and political ideals, the only government officials who should ever spend my money are those that I can vote out of office. Period. So, how did these various boards and agencies run by people who I did not elect, and cannot vote out of office, ever get the power to spend money without any direct oversight by the public? Sure, they hold public meetings – but everyone knows these are mere formalities, and often annoyances for the agencies involved. They’d much rather just spend and spend without ever having to (pretend to) justify it to anyone.
  • But here’s the most annoying issue: For the past nearly two years, Caltrain trains have arrived at their destinations, on time, 94% of the time. Of their 90 running weekday trains, most delays are on the order of minutes, with just a handful of serious issues causing significant delays or cancelled services – which are almost immediately communicated already via Twitter feeds setup (for free) by riders. Don’t use Twitter? Well, the morning news programs, radio traffic reports and all manner of communications that exist today will let you know if something really major has happened to your ride.

So, in spite of a global economic crisis, and huge cuts being made to budgets everywhere (or, apparently only to schools, fire and police – but not effecting transportation agencies or the postal service it seems), Caltrain, Samtrans and a whole host of other agencies, just in this one part of California, have decided to (and have the power to) spend millions of tax dollars to solve a problem that actually doesn’t seem to be that much of a problem at all.

And notice I haven’t once used words like “tax-and-spend liberals” here. I’m not – and should never be – casting broad generalizations against Democrats or people who support mass transit in this case. This is not something for which Republicans (the fiscal conservative kind) should be blaming President Obama or the Congress. It’s not his fault or theirs… And no one should go around making false connections between this issue and all the good and important reasons my mom has been a Democrat for most of her life.
I’m simply talking about one example of a government agency doing what government agencies do – which is to spend money, with little concern for where that money came (or will come) from. This is a historical fact about bureaucracies – a truism regardless of the country, the form of government, whether the prevailing political tide is more conservative or more liberal … This is one of those facts that just is – and this is the main reason our founding fathers wanted to (try and) make it more difficult for government to tax us, and spend our money.
I think more Republicans (the good old fiscal conservative kind), and more Democrats (the kind that believe their taxes should actually go towards the social improvements and advancement they support) would both be happy, if they both agreed to pass bipartisan legislation that removes all spending authority from unelected agencies and boards, which significantly increases the oversight of agency’s budget requests, and which attempts to tackle the other dirty little secret of bureaucracies, which is that they must continue to ask for more money every year, even if they didn’t have any plans to spend more money – because a static or reduced budget request is actually, ironically, often perceived by the legislatures as an indication of an agency’s failure.
With so many agencies, and so little time, legislatures have evolved to use a simple process every year when deciding whether an agency should be included in this year’s budget, or be eliminated: That process is simply to see whether the agency has asked for more money or not.
Any salesperson who sells anything to the government (any agency – city, state or federal) will tell you they get most of their government sales right at the end of the fiscal year (usually up through August). Why? If a government agency does not spend the money it requested for that fiscal year, their budget will be cut or eliminated the next year. So agencies (groups of people with simple human self-interests – like paying their mortgages or feeding the family) scramble to spend every last penny of the money they requested last year, even if they don’t need to – just to ensure their own survival through the next budget cycle.
Sad, isn’t it? I urge everyone to pay more attention to issues like this. It’s not a GPS system to help transit riders. It’s money that doesn’t need to be spent – and at some point in the last hundred years – most of us apparently lost our ability to vote wasteful spenders out of office.
Let’s try getting that power back – yes?