The UC Economics Center, a business that seems to produce only favourable ‘economic impact’ studies for its clients, recently reported1, after being paid an unknown amount by SORTA itself, that SORTA is the ‘leader in operational efficiency’ among a group of peer cities.
I heard about this a while ago from several different news-sources, though only recently got around to finding it and reading the actual report2. Curiously, none of the news sources I found actually linked to the paper itself, though i did find it just now on SORTA’s website.
My nutshell take-away is this: SORTA is the ‘most efficient’ among the (only) 12 cities studied entirely because of it’s disproportionate reliance on fare revenue as a source of operating money. They actually phrased one aspect of this measure in the executive summary as “fare revenue earned per operating expense”, which is at best an awkward way to say something very simple, or at worst, distinctly misleading about the agency’s raison d’etre.
The study itself, and a couple of the articles that wrote about it did draw attention to this odd definition of ‘efficiency’, though I want to reemphasize it here and draw further notice to the conclusion the report draws based on this unusual metric. The paper says in conclusion to the executive summary:
…Metro’s demonstrated operational efficiency should position it favourably to receive and efficiently manage additional funds. …
Well, this is really like saying a starving person is well positioned to receive food, that an anorexic is being efficient with her calories and thereby deserves more. But it also raises the question: well-positioned with who?
I think it’s reasonable to presume we might first think of the federal government since this study compares major US cities, but it never mentions capital funding at all and the feds simply aren’t in the business of giving operating funds to local agencies. That leaves us with state and local sources of funding, but aren’t these the same people who’ve been starving the agency to the point where it’s the ‘most efficient’ in the region? The report indicates that PA is much more generous with its city’s transit agencies, but somehow I doubt we’ll convince them that we’re well positioned to manage funds from the state of Pennsylvania.