Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another call for (at least partial) privatization

In yesterday's Ottawa Business Journal, Walter Robinson wrote about Ottawa's current transit dilemma(s). In a column bizarrely tagged as a "news story", Robinson recommended that OC Transpo at least be run as an arm's-length agency of the city, because "debates over route choices, human resources and customer service are left to managers, as opposed to politicians."

Robinson then went on to tackle the issue of privatization. He painted his recommendations as neither black nor white--transit can be only partially privatized, he wrote.

Privatization could take many forms, from competitive tendering of various route choices to better-sourcing office and maintenance functions. And this isn't about union busting, as local organized labour advocates will surely charge. Successor rights prevail under labour law whether the city or ABC bus lines is in charge.

But cities such as Las Vegas, Denver, Boston, and San Francisco, along with those in Europe and Asia, have contracted out parts of their systems and realized, according to dozens of studies, significant savings and service improvements.

(For the record, Denver's Regional Transportation District won a 2008 Outstanding Public Transportation System Achievement Award from the American Public Transportation Association. It also won that award in 2003 and 1993.)

Robinson wrote that OC Transpo "will suffer a marked and sustained ridership decline thanks to this strike". Those who are wary of transit, he continued, will ask how much taxpayers should subsidize the service: "50 per cent, 60 per cent or 70 per cent, or more?"

He went on:
From my vantage point, a transit system two-thirds rider-financed and one-third subsidized would be ideal, regardless of ownership and service structure. But international experience has shown more often than not (yes, there are some failures – in South America, most notably) that to move to this, privatization (selected, partial or full) is the proven route to follow.

And then snuck this in:

Labour disruptions are also much rarer in privatized systems.

Robinson is no stranger to privatization debates. Not only is he a former chief of staff to mayor Larry O'Brien and candidate in the 2004 federal election, two venues of public life where such issues pop up, but talking about this is what the man does for a living.

According to his bio (scroll down a bit) at the TACTIX Government Consulting website, Robinson provides advice to clients on a range of issues, including P3s--in lay terms, public-private partnerships.

Just another voice in the privatization debate.


Anonymous said...

Let's guess... he doesn't actually take public transit.

David Reevely had a very good post on this recently on his Greater Ottawa blog.

However, OCT shouldbe run by a hands-off commission as they do in Toronto and most other cities. Council should set the budget and and general policies and leave the provision of services to the experts.
Part of the problem with OCT is that Council does get too closely involved and for all the wrong reasons.

Anonymous said...

Just a comment on the "privitization" comments made by said 'expert.' The media and the public at large tends to throw around the term "privitize" a little too much.

First off, contracting-out is far from privitization. In the UK and the Australian State of Victoria, compulsory-contracting requires that all programs consider contracting-out as an alternative.
Yet, in no way does this mean every service is privitized.

In a privitization arrangement, the private sector owns and controls the entire service. This means, the Public Sector loses complete control.

In Contracting-out arrangements, policy and decision-making authority is controlled by the Public Sector. Virtually no risk is transfered. Kinda like Garbage collection or snow removal. It is very common, yet it is not privitization.

In P3's, risks are shared. Control depends on how the contract is written. Privitization means no control.

Comparing contracting-out to privitization or P3s is like comparing apples and oranges. The media has a responsibility, not to fear monger, but rather to explain the whole story.
Transit | Policy | Commentary | Ottawa

Dwight Williams said...

If my memory of Robinson's columns is correct, he did ride the bus regularly once upon a time. There was one edition where he complained about the slovenly riding habits of his fellow passengers at some length, too. Rudenesses real and perceived got a fair bit of Sun Media ink thanks to that edition.

If he has quit riding the bus, that might explain it.