Sunday, March 25, 2012

Going Postal

The Post Office has a proud heritage in the United States. Ben Franklin served as the first Postmaster General under the Continental Congress, and when the new Constitution was drafted to replace the Articles of Confederation, the Post Office was one of the few governmental operations explicitly mentioned. It has been a grand tradition. However, the U.S. Postal Service is spiraling downward. The Clarksburg Sorting Facility that was built in the ‘90s (resulting in the loss of postal jobs in Parkersburg) is now itself slated for closure, as this government “business” struggles to avoid hemorrhaging money. There continues to be debate about ending Saturday mail service (I can live without it!) as a way to cut losses. I’m afraid that it is all a losing cause.

I can remember when Congress “privatized” the postal service in the early ‘70s. It was heralded as a new quasi-governmental entity, designed to operate as a business, but with Congress to back them up if necessary. At that time, the price of first class postage had just gone up from 6 cents to 8 cents per letter—and we thought that was bad! I never would have believed that we would be paying 45 cents per letter today.

Most folks probably blame e-mail and the internet for the downward spiral of the postal service. The growing acceptance of electronic payments over the web using credit/debit cards (are we headed towards a cashless society?) was not foreseen four decades ago. These have certainly played a role, but there are other factors as well. I’d like to point out three other factors that I believe helped to shape the destiny of the USPS.

First came the emergence of the “non-federal” Federal Express (later known simply as FedEx). When President Nixon signed the Postal Reform Act creating the current quasi-governmental entity, the old Railway Express Agency (REA) was the main competitor for sending parcels. However, just as the railroads (and the REA) died off, a new and more powerful competitor emerged. In the mid-‘70s, the founder of FedEx came up with the idea of basing a package delivery system at Memphis (a mid-point for the continental United States), where his planes would fly each evening, the parcels would be appropriately sorted and routed overnight, and then be sent on their way by morning. It didn’t take long for Federal Express’s overnight success to be copied by UPS, DHL, and others eager for serving business with this quick turnaround delivery service. This siphoned off the lucrative parcel delivery service from the USPS, hurting their profits. It was much easier for FedEx to start by only focusing on major city business deliveries, when the USPS is required by law to provide its services to every single citizen in the country.

Secondly, because the USPS had started as a governmental entity, it inherited the civil service job protections and bureaucratic rules, as well as a powerful union. It was spun-off from government to act like a business, but was hamstrung by its existing labor-management relations. It is hard to have a business that is located not just in every state, but also in every small hamlet and township across the land. Too often unions and management decide that the way to compromise is to promise more money in the future, such as enhanced retirement benefits. It may not have seemed too extravagant at the time these promises were made, but they failed to take into consideration the changing landscape over time. We do not live in a steady-state universe, and the march of technology and inevitable change means that it is not easy to make long-range plans, so making long-range promises can come back to bite you.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly in my mind, is the effect of the Direct Marketing Association—the junk mail senders. This powerful lobbying group represents every company that sends you unsolicited offers through the USPS. They put all their effort in pushing to keep mail rates low for them, thus resulting in a continuing increase in first class postage rates. Is it any wonder why we have gone from 8 cent stamps to 45 cent stamps, while bulk rate postage has not increased by a similar percentage? There is no viable organized lobbying effort to hold down first class postage increases and instead to encourage raises in the junk mail rates. We tend to just understand that the postage rates continue to increase—and throw away the junk that pollutes our mailboxes.

All three of these factors are often overlooked as everyone blames the internet for the decline of the postal service. Personally, I wish I had less junk mail in my mailbox, and more money in my pocket after buying stamps (the few times I have to buy them). By the way, I always enjoy going to the post office and buying commemorative stamps (a tactic I first learned in the 1980 John Anderson presidential campaign), rather than the basic stamps. However, I rarely need stamps, because I don’t send letters anymore (thanks to the internet) and most of my bills are paid electronically. I guess I am contributing to the demise of the postal service myself, but I will miss it when it is gone.

180 days--NOT!

In the news this week was a report that West Virginia schools may actually complete this instructional year without losing any snow days, resulting in compliance with the 180 day requirement for the first time in ages. Unfortunately, the reporters did not dig deep enough on this issue, because the 180 school year in West Virginia is a fallacy. This announcement immediately took me back twelve years when I was seeking re-election to a third term on the Wood County Board of Education (while also serving as President of the West Virginia School Boards Association).

It was the school calendar issue that cost me that election in 2000, so I am familiar with this issue. The truth of the matter is that West Virginia students will not be getting 180 days of instruction, regardless of the lack of snow days this year (or any year). The most that a student in a county school system can get is 175 days. This is because the Legislature decreed that Faculty Senate days should be counted as instructional days, even though students do not attend (teachers have powerful union voices in the Legislature, but there are far fewer speaking on behalf of the education of students). It was a way to provide a benefit to the unions without needing to find revenue in the budget to pay for it. This is not to say that Faculty Senates are a waste of time, but they should not have been provided by taking days away from our children.

The 180 day school calendar used to be the norm, but with growing concerns about our international competitiveness (most other industrialized countries have much longer terms, if not year-round schooling), many states and/or local school districts have been adopting additional days, such as a 185 or 190 day calendar. Yet West Virginia has not adopted a longer calendar, and refuses to acknowledge that our students don’t even get the 180 days that are mandated.

Between snow days (which are not required to be made up here, as is the case in some—maybe most—other states) and the Faculty Senate days, there is no way that West Virginia students get more than 175 days. To make matters worse, West Virginia allows schools to use “bank time.” Rather than holding ten half-day Faculty Senates over the course of the school year (which parents hated, because the mid-day dismissals were so disruptive to normal afterschool arrangements), school systems can use a full day off for a faculty senate day if they add a few extra minutes to the minimum length of their school day. Over the course of the entire school year, one extra minute equates to about three hours (about half a school day, which is necessary to balance out the half-day Faculty Senate meeting).

Yet how much real learning takes place with those minutes at the end of a school day? Wouldn’t a real school day produce more learning? I’d be in favor of a genuine 180 day calendar along with a few extra minutes each day!

In Wood County when I was running for re-election to a third 4-year term, I pointed out the fact that the prior year our students had only completed 167 instructional days (and other counties had even less!). There had been three snow days and then the ten full-day (thanks to bank time) faculty senate days that kept Wood County from 180 days. This meant that our students had 13 fewer days than the national standard (even though the national standard is trending upward from 180 days).

Is it any wonder why West Virginia students start off with decent test scores in national testing, but their results decline in compared with others the further they progress towards graduation? If students are going to school 13 days less than the rest of the country (assuming the 180 norm), and since there are 13 years in a K-12 school system, then 13 days over 13 years equals 169 lost days—which is more than what our students had received in the previous year (167 days). Thus, our students were a FULL YEAR behind their peers by the time they graduated, thanks to our shortened school calendar. No wonder West Virginia test scores lag behind!

As the president of the West Virginia School Boards Association, we decided in 1999 to make this a major lobbying push during the 2000 Legislative Session. This topic was not on the radar of the two major teaching unions, but suddenly we were making progress in getting lawmakers to understand the problem. School calendar reform “got traction” that year, and although a bill did not get approved, it became a recognized issue (and continued to be debated over the years since). The teacher unions in their report at the end of the 2000 session made a big deal about how their biggest success that year was stopping this legislation, which they had not seen coming prior to the session. As a result, they went all out to defeat me—and succeeded.

I’ve forgotten a lot about being on the school board, but this issue still upsets me. I was working hard on behalf of improving education for our children, and it cost me my political career. It hurt for a long time. However, the bright side is that it provided me a way off the sinking ship of public education. More importantly, it opened the door for me to teach at the college-level. I am very grateful to have had that opportunity to teach American Government and Constitutional Law at WVU-Parkersburg. Teaching was much more fulfilling than serving on the school board!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Megabus - Morgantown

On occasion, I have to go to DC as part of my job. Over the years, I have traveled there in a variety of ways—by car, by motorcycle, by airplane, and even most of the way via bicycle (the C&O Canal biketrail follows the Potomac River for 180 miles from Cumberland, MD to DC). I recently learned that a new discount bus service added a stop in Morgantown, so I decided to leave my car at Anna’s and give “Megabus” a try.

I’ve enjoyed charter bus trips I’ve taken to NYC (thanks to Lisa Starcher Collins and her Arts & Culture tours!) and to various WVU bowl games over the years, but this would be my first common carrier passenger bus trip since my college days. We had first become aware of Megabus when we saw one in Chicago during our Amtrak adventure to the Windy City years ago. Unlike the old Greyhound bus service (which I used once while a student at UC and once while at WVU) which had brick-and-mortar bus terminals in cities around the country (even in Parkersburg), Megabus (as well as a few other new services) rely on the Internet for ticketing and information.

This allows for very low fares, but they can vary based on demand. When I first checked, the round trip from Morgantown to Union Station in DC was going to only cost $17.50. By the time I convinced the “powers that be” to approve this form of transportation, the cost had gone up to $22.50 when I purchased my ticket. However, with gas nearing $4 a gallon, this Megabus fare is still cheaper than what it would cost to drive—even with my Prius. Just out of curiosity, I revisited the Megabus website on the morning of my departure to see what a last minute ticket would cost me, and the total had risen to $34.50—which is still a pretty decent fare.

This bus route starts in Pittsburgh, and then stops at the new multi-modal transportation facility adjacent to the Medical Center PRT station (in the Green Lot). This facility includes a parking garage, bicycle lockers, and a bus station lobby for use by local buses, as well as Megabus. It arrived at about 12:25, just a few minutes prior to its advertised 12:30 PM departure. There was about three other passengers (who appeared to be college students) who headed out from the lobby to get on the Megabus. The driver got out, reviewed our tickets to ensure they matched the listing he had (one can either print a copy of the ticket that Megabus e-mails to you, or simply show the e-mail to the driver on your smartphone) and allowed us on-board with one carry-on (a backpack for me), while he stowed our other allowed piece of luggage (a small overnight/laptop bag for me) in the storage compartment at the back of the bus (behind the bathroom). I’m not sure how many passengers a Megabus could hold, but there were lots of empty seats. My guess is that there were only about two dozen people on this particular trip.

Megabus utilizes double-decker buses, and this was my first experience on the modern ones (during that previously mentioned Chicago trip, I rode one of those old-fashioned double-decker tourist buses where the top floor is out in the open). The Megabus driver sits low in the front, and the other passenger seats on the first floor are low to the ground. Some of the first floor seats are configured facing each other, with a small table in between (reminded me of Amtrak). As mentioned above, it doesn’t have the typical huge storage bays under the bus, but simply one storage room at the back. In the front and the back are stairways leading to the upper floor. The ceilings on both floors are lower than in a typical bus, and don’t include the large overhead storage bins. However, on the top floor you get a skylight (I’m glad I grabbed my sunglasses before I left!) along the length of the bus (with the exception of the two escape hatches). Also, if you are lucky enough, the front seats of the upper deck allow a panoramic view (those seats were already taken when I got on board). I chose a seat directly behind the back staircase, which meant I didn’t have any seats directly in front of me, giving a better view out the side windows for me.

The double decker design gave me my highest view I’ve had traveling this section of highway (which I have done numerous times). For example, I had never been able to see the mountain creek which tumbles down Cheat Mountain adjacent to the highway. I was pleased that the higher seating position did not result in an extreme leaning in the turns—I didn’t really notice any swaying difference from the standard bus riding position.

One advantage to Megabus is that they provide power outlets at every seat, as well as wi-fi internet service. I didn’t try the Internet service (it appeared many others were using it), but I did take advantage of the power outlet just to recharge my phone. I prefer watching the roadside scenery and listening to non-fiction podcasts while I’m traveling.

This Pittsburgh/Morgantown/DC route makes one stop along the way—a “rest stop” at the Pilot/Arbys truckstop in Grantsville, Maryland. This stop took about half an hour off our time. While it may be halfway for the folks who got in Pittsburgh, I felt (after only being on-board for about an hour) it was not that necessary. Perhaps Megabus gets some monetary consideration from Pilot for stopping there—another Megabus also stopped there while we were there. I’m okay with it if it helps to keep costs down.

As we neared DC, the outbound traffic on I-270 was backed up, but we had smooth sailing until we hit the beltway during afternoon rush hour. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about doing the driving—I could just enjoy the view and listen to my shows. Stop and go traffic may have slowed us down, but we made it to the parking garage behind Union Station right on time at 5:00 PM. The driver opened up the back door to the storage room, gave me my bag, and I was on my way. Soon I was inside Union Station (an old favorite of mine in DC) enjoying dinner at Chop’t (an interesting fast food fresh salad restaurant). After eating, I could have taken the subway, but I opted for the Metro Circulator bus to take me to my hotel (it was cheaper than the subway, plus let me enjoy the scenery above ground).

After several days of working in DC, I hopped the subway to Union Station Friday afternoon to catch the Megabus back to Morgantown (a Turkish TV crew was roaming around the station and they interviewed me about the American election—I should have mentioned WVU basketball player Deniz Kilicli in my interview). I arrived about an hour prior to scheduled departure, thinking I might be first in line so I could get a top front seat. However, there were already eight people in front of the line when I got there. While there is no TSA screening malarkey to deal with, they do have established lines set up in the parking garage for the different bus companies and routes. It was easy to find the right bus line, and soon the Pittsburgh Megabus customer line extended far behind me. Most of the folks in line seemed to be college students, but there were a smattering of other types as well.

Finally, we started to board. I showed my printed ticket and handed over my suitcase for stowing in the back room. Although I didn’t get a front row seat, I was able to get a good one near the front of the upper deck, just behind the front staircase that comes up behind the right side of the front row, so once again I had a good side view unimpeded by seatbacks directly in front of me, yet I could also partially enjoy the sensory experience of watching out the panoramic front window as well (now filled with four college students). This time, the bus was nearly full, with only a few people not having someone sitting directly beside them (luckily, no one sat beside me—maybe I looked too much like a college professor).

The bus left at its scheduled time of 5:45 PM, with the safety video being shown on all the monitors. It was a bit like the talk you get at the start of an airplane flight. Megabus does have seat and shoulder belts, but I think I was one of the few who bothered to wear them (I didn’t want to go “down the hole” of the staircase that was directly in front of me had we stopped quick).

It was wonderful not to have to deal with all the downtown traffic as we slowly worked our way to the beltway, and then I-270, and finally beyond Frederick where the traffic eventually thinned out. It was great sitting topside and getting the view out the front windows. Since there is very little swaying even on the top floor, one could easily imagine that we were in some futuristic transport bus that was automatically taking us to our destination. After all, it was weird to be looking out the windshield but seeing no driver or steering wheel—just four college kids watching videos on their laptops with their headphones on as we sped down the road. Already Nevada has passed legislation allowing for driver-less cars. DARPA has been holding robotic car competitions for several years now, and Google has been funding research on this for the fleet of cars that take those street view pictures. Someday folks will look back on how quaint it was that people actually had to drive to their destinations, rather than letting their cars do it for them. The ride on the upper deck of the Megabus provided me a glimpse of that future.

You could really tell a difference in the increased passenger load when we got to the mountains, because the bus really bogged down on some of the steepest hills. We did our half-hour rest stop at the Pilot/Arbys truck stop in Grantsville, and arrived in Morgantown last night at 10:30. This was about 15 minutes later than advertised, after dealing with the Friday beltway traffic in DC as well as a bit of a backup on the Mileground in Morgantown where the cops were running a sobriety checkpoint.

All in all, it was a great way to travel to DC!

[By the way, to give a little insight into “what makes me tick,” here is the list of podcasts I listened to on this trip: • Several episodes of NPR’s Science Friday (I especially enjoyed the show with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson) • The BBC radio show “The Naked Scientists” (just a catchy title to a science program) • John C. Dvorak’s “No Agenda” podcast (Dvorak is a PC Magazine columnist I like, but I grew tired of the time they spent honoring donors to their ad-free show) • Grammar Girl (featuring a discussion on the use of the word “that”) • Freakonomics & NPR’s Planet Money, two shows that use good journalism to examine our economy • Penn Jillette’s show, featuring Adam Carolla and Arsenio Hall • This American Life, a public radio show hosted by Ira Glass.]