July 9, 2009

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I’ve only recently joined the Twitterati, http://twitter.com/nonnythemouse and not being the most technologically proficient of folks, accidently hit the ‘yes’ button to something that obviously must have read, ‘you don’t have any friends, you loser, so how about adding these twenty random people to your contact list?’ One of them, for some unfathomable reason, was Senator John McCain. I’ve managed to pare down my ‘friends’ list to… well… mostly actual friends, but I’ve kept Sen. McCain on the list out of the same morbid curiosity that has me reading Red State’s emailed newsletter on a regular basis.

This morning, my Twitter box had a tweet (give me a break, I’m still learning the slang!) from Sen. McCain which said, ‘Vote on my amendment to eliminate $6 mill in wasteful govt subsidy to private bus companies for GPS systems - need to stop wasteful spending.’

Hmmm… thought I. Let’s go see what this is all about.

Other than the mention on Twitter, I haven’t had much success, even on the senator’s own website, in finding much about an amendment to axe funding for GPS systems in busses. . A general Google search pulled up a plea by Peter J. Pantuso, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Bus Association, urging his members to petition members of Congress to reject a White House budget proposal that would eliminate $10 million a year to private bus operators from a national security program. The Obama administration considers the cuts justifiable as ‘the awards are not based on risk assessment, and the homeland security investments in intercity bus security should be evaluated in the context of the risks faced and relative benefits to be gained.’

But nothing specifically about Global Positioning Systems for busses.

In March of 2006, Mr. Pantuso addressed the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation regarding the perceived need for security measures for the bus industry, a transit system that carries more people in two weeks than Amtrak transports in a year, and nearly 800 million passengers a year, more than all the passengers of airlines and rail services combined. Obviously, our nation’s bus transit system, both public and private, is an important component in mass transportation – which I personally would like to see more government support for rather than subsidies and tax breaks for oil companies.

But over the last decade, just about anything to do with government funding or subsidies of anything whatsoever for the benefit of the public sector had to be tied into that enormous sacred cow, ‘national security’: firefighters doing obligatory counter terrorist training in order to qualify for funding for emergency communication systems or better rescue vehicles, night-vision cameras on police helicopters more useful to picking out carjackers than al Qaeda sneaking through the hedges in our backyards, and even the FBI has had to become creative in linking more mundane investigations like telemarketing fraud or tracking down meth labs or sports bribery to counterterrorism and the War on Terror.

Our public transportation system, like our health care system, is a sorry joke in comparison to those in too many other Western countries. And Mr. Pantuso is probably quite sincere in his plea for better security on our nation’s busses – but the bottom line is, even our public transportation system has to beg for funding by making that all important six degrees of separation to terrorism. So Mr. Pantuso did what everyone else who goes to Washington with cap in hand has had to do – he asked for money to fund training bus drivers, dispatchers and even mechanics in ‘threat assessment’ and ‘crisis management’, communication systems, driver shields, bus stop cameras, ‘wands’ to scan passengers, and – yes – GPS systems.

The amount of money we’re talking about here isn’t all that significant in the grander scheme of things – a subsidy amounting to six cents per passenger in comparison to the subsidies granted to commercial airlines of $4.32 per passenger and $46.06 per Amtrak train passenger. However, I can see where CCTV at every bus stop in America or ‘wands’ to scan every bus passenger is not only unfeasible, it’s an intrusive invasion of privacy. A savings of $10 million may be just a drop in the bucket in the vast ocean of debt the Obama administration is attempting to navigate, but it’s still $10 million that could be better spent elsewhere…

…except for maybe the GPS system. Because while it may or may not be useful to national security for bus operators to know in ‘real time’ the status and location of all their motorcoaches, it is a significant factor in reducing financial costs to running a public transit system. With a GPS system, precise real-time arrivals at bus stops can be accurately computed, minimizing wait times for passengers, which would well be appreciated for those using public transport users shivering at bus stops in winter, 6 degrees below freezing with a wind chill factor of a lot colder. Transit authorities, particularly those who operate on a rural on-demand system, a GPS information system is essential to designing a flexible and dynamically more efficient bus schedule, improving operational efficiency as well as customer service. GPS is a proven cost-efficient way to overcome the limitations of the traditional static dead reckoning and signpost technologies. You can read an excellent study of this system in the on-line edition of GPS World, ‘Where’s My Bus’. The article covers the practical applications but doesn’t mention counter-terrorism or national security, and is perhaps a bit heavy on the mathematical equations as it’s written by Professor Ahmed El-Rabbany, PhD, of the New Brunswick and York Universities and his research doctoral student, Mahmoud Abd El-Gelil of York University in Canada…

…oh wait. Those are Arabic-sounding names. Even worse, they’re working for Canadian universities.

That definitely isn’t going to fare well with the American obsession to tie everything into Homeland Security and counter-terrorism. Scratch that idea..

A quick look at McCain’s Facebook page (login req'd) and this bold, mavericky move to oppose GPS systems in busses is gaining followers, judging by such erudite and rational comments from readers as: “Well after all bus companies tend to cater to certain minorities that happen to be much more taken care of than the typical white person. Don’t you know, it’s a sin to be white,” (thus making GSP somehow a racial issue), and “They have managed for years without them, if they feel they need one, they can buy themselves one!” (the logic here seeming to be related to the same mentality that objects to taxes being used to fund artificial limbs for our Iraqi vets, just because I don’t happen to need one), to the more succinct and pithy, ‘Socialism at its finest!” and that all-time favourite trump card, “Obama SUCKS.”

Yup, all very persuasive, ya betcha.

Frankly, any savings that can be made in the national budget – big or small – is welcome. Cutting the $10 million subsidy for CCTV cameras and security ‘wands’? I don’t have a problem with that. But that fraction of the budget that would be spent on GPS systems for our public transportation system?

It’s not glamorous. It’s not terribly controversial, even. It’s certainly not about counterterrorism, but it is cost-effective and useful.

So sorry, Senator McCain. I’ll keep you on my Twitter list. But on the issue of subsidizing GPS for busses, I’m afraid I’m all for keeping the wheels on my bus going round and round…

crossposted at Mouse Musings.

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