Monorail Phenology

January 13, 2016

While cleaning out my monorail cars I came across a few interesting documents. Several notebooks marked “Phenology” describe local wildlife seen along the monorail track. Phenology is defined as “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life”. An article from 1979 explains these notebooks:

“The operator/tour guides keep their eyes open and when a phenlolgical event is spotted, they record this observation, its date and location in a phenology logbook kept by the stationmaster. This data is summarized each day on a report board in the station for all the MZG’s public to see.” (from MZG Newsletter, Minnesota State Zoological Board, 1979)

example

For those interested in reading these notebooks, I’ve scanned and uploaded PDFs here. There are a few torn and missing pages, so these are not 100% complete. There is also some water damage and fading from sitting in the train for a few years, some pages are hard to make out.

Phenology – Train 2 (Covers the period of 8/15/2001 to 8/30/2013)

Phenology – Train 3 (Covers approximately 7/4/2008 to 6/19/2012)

Also found in the monorail were several info sheets on various zoo animals seen along the route. These are probably cheat-sheets for the operator / guide staff to describe what passengers would see along the way.

info

I’ve also made a PDF of those sheets for archival purposes, available below.

Animal Info Sheets from Driver’s Cab

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MNsure Rants

December 16, 2015
Minnesota is one of 13 states experimenting with a local healthcare exchange under the ACA (most states use the federal HealthCare.gov system). As a Minnesotan it’s been my misfortune to use our state insurance marketplace; MNsure.org.
Rather than writing a full review of the nightmare that is MNsure.org, I’ve collected some of my past frustrated emails to the organization. As there seems to be no centralized tech support or contact point, these have gone to an assortment of agency-related email addresses. I’ve occasionally received responses, typically more apologetic than helpful, but have yet to discover if any of my comments get to anyone who can do anything. This year I also got around to hassling the board of directors and my state legislators. Their contact info is at the bottom of this post, in case you’d like to share your own experience with Mnsure.

2013:

I’ve managed to lock my account on mnsure (after finally getting the site to work long enough to create one), and all of the security verification questions are useless.  The most memorable location in my life? Heck if I know, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner yesterday. My best friend from 3rd grade? I grew up in a ghost town. Where did my parents meet? I’d probably have to call them every time I forget my password. Please change it so users can select actual useful questions of our own, the kind that real people will actually know the answers to. Or you could offer the option to send a password reset email to the registered email address, like every other website does.
This time I’ll be sure to write down the password and all the BSverification questions and put it on a sticky note on my computer at work, where everyone can see it. I don’t even care how secure my password is, based on the quality of programming I’m just assuming the thing will be hacked in the next month or so. (actually I just looked that up and found that mnsure already emailed SSNs to random people last month, nice work).

2014:

I interacted with MNSURE again recently, to change my insurance after PreferredOne gave up on us. I have a few complaints/suggestions for the service. I hate to complain about site usability, since I’m a computer science graduate and have built websites myself… but this site has many obvious things missing:
-The enrollment process needs to be easier to start, with the links easier to find. Currently the page seems to go through two different “Sign in” screens, then one eventually finds their way to the enrollment inside a link past a sidebar menu and under a dropdown. Terrible navigation and terrible user interface.
-The security questions are too limited and not applicable to all persons. If I don’t like sports, am not in a relationship, do not know my grandfather (which one?), have a single parent, have never owned a car, and do not know where I’d like to retire, that eliminates most of the security question options. It would be better to let people enter their own or have more options (or I could just answer “banana” to each one and keep that on the sticky note with my password).
-There needs to be some confirmation code or proof that *something* happened after the enrollment process. I thought that I’d beat the rush on December 15th and get enrolled back in November. I eventually found the sticky note with my password and security questions, jumped through the hoops, clicked all the things that didn’t apply to me, and wasted a half hour on things I didn’t care about. The system told me I had no benefits, discounts, or tax credits coming, so I went ahead and selected the cheapest flavor-of-the-year for insurance providers…. Or so I thought. Now I log in again to find no record of a current enrollment. Instead, it seems I have a pending application for something or other. What did I apply for? What’s the status on this theoretical application? How do I actually enroll in something?
-The site could use better error-handling or retry options. My current session threw an “unable to contact the server” error, then eventually loaded a “Congratulations” page saying my enrollment is completed…. but I got the Congratulations page back in November and never received any follow-up from MNSURE or my chosen provider to indicate that the website had done anything at all. When I click the “done” button it goes to a mysteriously blank page, and the “Enrollments” link still shows no plans enrolled. Am I enrolled or not? It’s a mystery without some kind of confirmation.

-The site could explain itself better. For example, the application page states that I qualify “for help to buy health insurance through the exchange”, then says “$0 off/month” and “0% Reduction”. So, what is this “help” it’s referring to? Not financial help apparently. Does this “help” refer to a MNSURE staff member helping me through the process? If so, that’s not made clear.

-The page layout is also annoying. I have a large (24″) monitor, but the page still requires scrolling and won’t scale to less than 60% of my screen. It would be great if it could all fit in one reasonable space. I understand some people can’t read small text, but you could save a ton of screen real estate by shrinking your header bar, eliminating some of the white space at the top, and de-nesting some of the frames.

Personally, your entire site could be replaced by a big red button that auto-enrolled me in the absolute cheapest thing possible (and spit out a confirmation code). I suspect that would meet the needs of many MNSURE users as well.

And another from 2014:

Once again I made the mistake of using the MNSURE website, and was unsurprised to find it just as useless as every other time.This time I was trying to find a magic “MNsure ID Number” requested by the flavor-of-the-year lowest-cost insurer (who couldn’t even manage to create a real invoice for my first payment). I was hoping to find some kind of account information or settings, but the MNSure site appears 99% geared towards pipelining me into an application, so it took a while. The site still makes me click “sign in” twice in a row, then doesn’t take me anywhere useful once I do get signed in. About 60% of the time I get a blank screen, 30% I get a 403 error, and 10% I get dropped into a new application. I think I’ve completed 3 applications so far with no follow-up to indicate that they went anywhere or did anything.

Anyway, there really needs to be some way of getting to my user account or settings page once I’m logged in. (Yes, I previously stated that the whole site could be replaced with a “Enroll in cheapest thing possible” button, but if the insurance providers are so disorganized that they need me to supply my own account number, then there needs to be a way to extract that number from the site).

On the rare occasions when I can log in AND get to some sort of account information, there seems to be nothing there. No payments, no enrollments, and those three mysterious applications which have mysteriously been “processed” in some way.
I eventually found the magic ID number by accident, hidden in a PDF file under “Notifications”. Then I realized that these “Notifications” also have information about those mysterious applications. They don’t seem to be in any particular order, and are very slow to appear on the screen (if I didn’t click each one and wait around for a few minutes, I’d assume it’s blank like the “Enrollments” page). This is the first time I’ve stumbled across the notices, as I don’t think they’ve been emailed or snail-mailed to me. That’s some useful “notification” right there… I sure do feel informed and notified! Maybe at some point in the past I clicked on “online notifications only” or some such option… I must not have realized it would be the Douglas Adams method of “notification”.
On the plus side, the website is just barely functional enough that I was able to avoid hours on hold, hours which I can now use to whine about MNSURE online. I imagine I’ll be back to whine some more next year when the latest cheap insurer goes belly up and I have to fight the website again. Based on the quality of the site and the quality of the provider’s communications I can only assume the actual insurance, should I ever need it, will be of the same quality (so I’m expecting that if I ever make a claim, you’ll just mail me a brick).
And 2015:

Yay, it’s that time of year again when I have to use your horrid mnsure website, because flavor-of-the-year cheapest insurance company has raised its rates (at least this one stayed around for more than a year). And as usual, I get to do the annual dance with forgotten passwords and locked out accounts. Since there are no email contacts on the site to deal with the inevitable problems, I get to decide: is it more useful to spend 20 minutes on the phone, or 20 minutes looking up the personal email addresses of the board of directors so I can whine at them? (I actually managed to get access to my account this year with only two calls to customer service, which is a new record)

Please consider some of the following changes to the mnsure site:

1. Back off on the level of login security. My bank has less security than this, and I actually care if someone gets into that account. If someone is masochistic enough to sneak into my mnsure account then they’re welcome to it.

2. Make the “Get Help” button actually do something instead of a 404 error (specifically on the Password Reset Failed page)

3. Provide a contact in case of locked account. Right now it just says “The user account is locked or disabled. Please contact the System Administrator”, but doesn’t have a way to contact this mythical creature.

4. Make the password challenge questions something that anyone can remember, I don’t want to have to call my parents every time I need to log in, to ask what city they met in. I guess orphans or children of single parents aren’t eligible for MNSURE at all.

5. Have an email contact for help. I don’t have time to call the 800 number.

6. Just publish a list of insurers and prices on the front page, which is pretty much the only reason I go to the stupid website.

7. Do something useful with the “Notifications” part of the account. It’s hard to find, doesn’t make any sense, and doesn’t actually notify me of anything.

8. Do something useful with the rest of the account. I seem to have access to such pages as “Home”, which says “No messages”, even though I have unread notifications, “Payments”, “Activities”, and “Enrollments”, all of which are blank (so what are these sections for? Am I enrolled in something? Do I make payments?), “Applications”, which has some mysterious applications with no information (I apparently have to go to “Notifications” for actual information about applications), “Contact Information”: blank. “Notifications”: Appears blank at first but eventually offers cryptic PDF files. “Appeals”: Blank, and of course, “Assister” (apparently some special person who the state has to pay to decipher the website, because they forgot to pay the programmers or testers to make sure normal people could use it). Maybe you could provide some sort of guide or walk-through of what all these weird blank pages are supposed to be for, and why anyone would ever need to use them?
9. Delete the whole site and replace it with something more useful to the public, like an animated gif of a dancing potato.
By the time I managed to get into my MNSURE account this year (about a week after starting), I’ve forgotten why I wanted to, and even if I knew what I was looking for, I doubt I’d be able to find it.
And most recently; the letter sent to the board of directors and my congresspeople in 2015:

Hello, I’m writing about MNSURE, the state healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act. I was a supporter of the ACA, but am deeply disappointed in Minnesota’s implementation of the exchange system. I’ve been using the service and their website since it began, and have been repeatedly frustrated and inconvenienced by it. I would like to see an overall reform of the MNSURE website, either a total remodeling, or abandonment altogether and a move to the Federal system (I have no experience with the Federal system, but I expect anything at all would be better than what MNSURE currently offers).

I am a Computer Science graduate with professional IT experience, and have learned the importance of testing, end-user experience, and reliability when it comes to a website or software product. The MNSURE website displays none of these characteristics.

For example:

-The user interface is terrible. Upon login, users are pipelined into an application regardless of their reason for visiting the site. Finding the status of completed applications requires searching through an obscure subsection of the site which is not easy or obvious. Sections of the user account appear blank and/or do not have their purpose explained. Accessing account settings or other information is not intuitive. The layout is also awful, with outdated design elements like nested frames and gratuitous white space more appropriate to the late 90s than something programmed in 2013.

-The site seems geared towards driving users away from itself, and into the hands of telephone “Assisters”. It constantly offers to connect me with an Assister, to the point where I suspect it serves only to keep them employed. When I’ve attempted to contact MNSURE staff regarding website issues, they have also suggested I use an Assister, and shown little or no interest in making the website a usable resource. I am honestly not sure why the website exists, as it is nearly unusable by the general public (or even IT professionals such as myself). I realize there is a portion of the population who will not use any website, and will always prefer a call center. However, I wish MNSURE would realize that there is a portion of the population who avoids call centers, and will always prefer a website. I am one of the latter group. My day is structured in such a way that I do not have time to call in and sit on hold, but I do have time to use a website or online application (as long as its functional).

-There seems to have been little to no testing done, either in the pre-release development, nor during the 2+ years the site has been live. I have reported various bugs and issues to MNSURE in the past but have not seen any fixes or changes made. Certain sections of the site have broken links, HTTP 403 errors randomly occur, data is slow and/or unreliable to load, and the site seems unable to handle the expected number of users. During the application process I am told I qualify for discounts, then later I am told the discount is $0.00, 0%. On occasion I have completed an application, reached a “Congratulations” page on the site, then been informed months later via snail mail that I didn’t actually complete an application. The website gives the impression of having been programmed very hastily and without any quality control or follow-up maintenance.

-There is no obvious tech support contact or way to report issues or concerns. It is not clear who, if anyone, maintains or updates the site. I’ve started to assume it was programmed and then abandoned with no updates or maintenance done over the last 2-3 years. It feels like the state paid $12 million for the server, set it up in a closet somewhere, turned it on, and forgot about it. There are a few emails listed on the site, but I’ve never gotten useful responses from them regarding ongoing website issues. There seems to be a phone number I could call regarding the website, but I’ve never had time to try it.

-The site gives the impression of high security, but unfortunately this is to the point of inconvenience. Signing in takes several steps and is slow to load. Password resets are difficult, and security questions are not applicable to many users. Some of the few options for security questions include “where did your parents meet?” (what about orphans?), “What was your grandfather’s occupation” (which Grandfather, at which time in his life?), “Where would you like to retire” (what if I don’t know?)  and “What was the model of your first car” (what If I’ve never owned one?). There are so few choices for security questions that I am forced to pick at least one that I literally cannot answer. Despite all of these hoops to jump through with imaginary password security, I have zero confidence in the back-end database, encryption, or authentication. I can only assume these things were programmed just as poorly as the rest of the site. I fully expect that anything I enter into MNSURE will eventually be leaked online if it has not already (I notice that employees have already managed to leak private information: http://www.inforum.com/content/mnsure-looks-reassure-minnesotans-after-information-leak).

Just recently I read an article about MNSURE misusing $500,000 worth of Federal Grants for remodeling their office: http://www.startribune.com/mnsure-to-refund-500k-in-grants/362427261/ This frustrated me greatly, as I could imagine several ways that $500,000 could have been spent on the website. For example, 10,000 person-hours of Quality Assurance testing at $50/hr (hey, I just gave you an hour’s worth for free!). Or perhaps they could hire a full-time tech support person for 5 years with $100k salary. Or maybe a year of enterprise-level database hosting? It could even save money in the long run, if MNSURE put money towards creating a functional website instead of cushier office chairs, they could downsize their staff into a smaller office (with fewer chairs!) and pay cheaper rent and fewer salaries.

Overall, I am very disappointed with the incredible waste of money that is the MNSURE website (and I suspect, the entire organization). As an experiment in state-run healthcare exchange, MNSURE has failed. As an alternative to the federal system, it has failed. In performing any useful purpose in exchange for the tax money spent on it, it has failed. After nearly 3 years of failure, something needs to be done.

I would love to see the people responsible for the website fired (or, if they were contractors, barred from future MN government contracts). I would also love to see the entire MNSURE site erased, deleted, and replaced with something even fractionally more functional and user friendly. Failing that, it would be great to see an outside review, testing, and revamp of the site so that it can be used by Minnesotans in the way it’s intended. It would be amazing if the site were a legitimate way to purchase health insurance, and not just a neglected failure that confuses and frustrates people.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Yours,
Gabe Emerson
St. Paul, MN

Finally, here’s some contact info pulled from government documents and other sources (I was not able to find emails for every board member). Share your love of MNsure with these fine folks:
MN Congresspeople: http://www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts/
MNsure Board of Directors:
Allison O’Toole
MNsure CEO
allison.l.o’toole@state.mn.us
Pete Benner
MNsure Chair / Independent Consultant
pete.benner@state.mn.us
Kathryn Duevel, MD
MNsure Vice Chair
kathryn.duevel@state.mn.us
Tom Forsyth
General Mills VP of Global Communications
tom.forsythe@generalmills.com
Phil Norrgard
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Director of Human Services
Phil.Norrgard@fdlrez.com

Media contacts:

Shane Delaney, Director of Marketing & Communications
651-539-1365 / Shane.M.Delaney@state.mn.us

Joe Campbell, Deputy Director, External Relations
651-539-1334 / Joseph.J.Campbell@state.mn.us

Other MNSURE-related emails:

publicfeedback@mnsure.org (sometimes responds to emails)
outreach@mnsure.org (community outreach)
webmanager@mnsure.org (for website ADA issues?)
AEO@MNsure.org (for ADA issues)


The Saveitforparts Monorail

June 1, 2015

Saveitforparts.com is finally putting itself on the map, with the purchase of a genuine, bona fide, electrified, six-car monorail!

1218141509

That’s right, I’ve bought an entire six-car monorail train from the Minnesota Zoo. The zoo’s elevated monorail system was retired in 2013 after 34 years of service, with the state-owned agency seeking to dispose of the equipment. As a lifelong train enthusiast with ongoing railroad history and model railroading projects, I couldn’t resist the chance to preserve a piece of local history!

1218141543c

While it would be awesome to construct a track and actually run the monorail, my resources are more suited to a static use of the cars. My initial plan is to park them on a rural property and use them as weekend cabins, as each car is similar to a small camper or RV in size. Interestingly, some of the Twin Cities’ TCRT trolley cars were used the same way after their retirement (sadly, most were scrapped or burned).

Below is one potential layout I came up with for a single middle car, leaving as much of the original body intact as possible (the seats are molded into the fiberglass inner shell). As the cars already have lights, heating vents, and multiple doors, it should be relatively simple to retrofit them for such a use without much alteration. I have some ideas for using multiple cars as well, the final layout will be exciting to develop!

Potential Middle Car Renders

Below are some close-ups of what the cars look like inside and out:

m4  1108141448

I’ve also been doing quite a bit of research into the history of these monorail trains. While it’s certainly a very niche field of study, I’ve collected a few details that might be of interest to other monorail enthusiasts.

Aerial

Monorail switch and maintenance building, courtesy of Dakota County GIS.

The Minnesota Zoo’s Monorail was built in the late 1970s by Universal Mobility Inc (UMI), and is a “Unimobil Tourister” model. It began running in September of 1979 at the new Minnesota Zoological Garden (opened May 1978). The Minnesota legislature authorized the monorail with the provision that it be self-financing, separate from the zoo. A nonprofit corporation, Minnesota Zoo Ride Inc, was incorporated in 1976 to finance the accepted construction bid from UMI. The system included 3 trains, an oblong loop of track, an enclosed maintenance shop, single switch, and indoor & outdoor sidings for storage and maintenance.

1218141517

Minnesota Zoo monorail car barn. Photo by Gabe Emerson

 

Based in Salt Lake City, Universal Mobility designed and installed several similar monorail systems in the United States. One other Tourister of nearly identical design was installed at the 1984 World’s Fair, then moved to the Miami zoo where it still operates. Updated Tourister II models operated at King’s Dominion, King’s Island, and Carowinds amusement parks, while older, open-car versions operated at various amusement parks and are still used at Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Another Unimobil system reportedly operated at Fuji Highlands in Japan. Several proposals were floated to install UMI monorails in metropolitan areas for public transit, but none were funded.

Califorina UMI study

The fiberglass car bodies were produced by Intermountain Design, who still manufactures monorail, people mover, and aerial tramway cars for various users. The mechanical drives and control systems were supplied by Maschinenfabrik Habegger of Switzerland. This company was tied to Von Roll Holding Co (designer of the Sydney Monorail among others). Both companies also designed ski lifts and aerial cable tramways (The Skyride at the Minnesota State Fair is a Von Roll system). Bombardier / TGI later acquired many of the UMI and Von Roll patents and produced another very similar monorail, known as the UM series. Von Roll / Habegger also marketed a very small monorail for use on farms and vineyards.

map

1970s concept drawing of zoo and monorail (note maintenance spur and car barn at lower right)

The Minnesota Zoo monorail ran into trouble almost immediately after installation, as ridership was not as high as predicted. The legislature refused to pay the full installments to investors, covering only what the ride actually made in fares. Shareholders (including various local and national banks) sued to demand the full loan amount in 1980. The state supreme court sided with the legislature and attorney general, saying that the state had no obligation to pay if the legislature chose not to.

The state was again sued, this time accused of securities fraud. Court cases dragged on through the early 1980s, involving investors, insurance companies, and various state agencies. The monorail remained operating, with profits covering only a fraction of the installments. Fares in 1980 were $1 for adults and 50 cents for seniors and children.

In September of 1985 the monorail system was repossessed, then sold back to the Minnesota Zoological Foundation with help from private donors and new loans. The monorail continued to report little or no profit, despite fares climbing to around $5 per person in recent years.

cab

Monorail control cab, photo by Gabe Emerson

 

These ongoing money problems may show why monorails never gained much of a foothold in the US, despite the optimistic press of the 1970s. The energy crisis briefly brought a renewed flirtation with public transit (as well as other energy-efficient projects and proposals in Minnesota and elsewhere). Proposals for installing UMI monorails (or related people-movers) included downtown Saint Paul, Los Angeles, and other cities. Concept drawings for some of these installations can be found in several 1970s government studies.

proposal1

Concept art for proposed St. Paul People Mover, courtesy Metro Transit via MNHS

 

A proposal for downtown Saint Paul imagined a monorail or people mover running through the former Selby streetcar tunnel, as well as a section of subway with station at the State Capitol.

DPM

Other cities considering monorails looked closely at the Minnesota Zoo as a test case. The zoo’s system was one of the first all-weather monorails installed in the US, and underwent extensive winter testing to prove it could function in northern cities. This monorail was one of the few with onboard cabin heaters, others had only A/C. A custom snowplow was fabricated for the train, mounted to one of the lead cars. Later a small street-sweeper device was built, and made to look like a miniature version of the monorail.

sweeper

Winter operation studies found that the elevated track did well at preventing snow buildup, but sometimes iced over and impeded traction. The power rails were located under a lip at the track edge, which helped keep them dry, but there were occasional issues with ice and thermal expansion.

guideway

Hard specifications for this monorail are difficult to nail down, each document I’ve found lists a slightly different weight, speed, and capacity for this system. As best I can determine, each of the three trains could carry 96 passengers seated, or 120 with some standees.  Trains were 100ft long and consisting of 6 cars. Wheel bogies were shared between cars, with a total of 7 per train (normally 4 powered and 3 idler bogies). The motors developed about 300hp at peak output, for a theoretical top speed of about 35mph. Normal cruising speed was around 3-4 mph and operations at the MN zoo were limited to a 7.5mph top speed. The main track included a 6,628ft loop and a 358f long maintenance spur. A moving switch connected the spur and loop, and a lateral transfer beam allowed switching between tracks at the maintenance building.  Approximately 1,000ft of guideway made up the lateral beam and service rails at the maintenance shop (some of the outside sidings were removed). About 730ft of guideway was at-grade, the rest elevated on steel columns.

switch

The drive system consists of rubber tires driven by 480v DC motors, with side-facing guide wheels riding the outsides of the track. Power and control signals were picked up from electrified rails under the lips of the track. Braking was dynamic, with emergency and holding brakes. The system was supposedly very quiet (“…as softly as a cloud”), although the AC compressors for summer use could be noisy.

wheels

The system was designed to be fully automated, controlled by an analog computer. Cars could be timed and spaced automatically, with multiple trains slowed or stopped as needed to avoid collisions. Human drivers could override the system, and also manned a microphone to narrate the ride and identify animals along the route.

power

I am looking forward to preserving one of these very interesting trains, and creating a unique and historic vacation cabin! And who knows, maybe someday, or somehow, I can get some track laid down!

For additional information on this and other monorail systems, check out the links below:

UMI Downtown People Mover Winterization Test (1982 report including details specific to the MN monorail).

The Monorail Society (general information, technical data, and monorail history)

Minnesota Zoo history & timeline

1888 South Saint Paul monorail (overhead track)

Star Tribune article on this monorail

Wired article on this monorail


Trash update

January 23, 2013

As an update to my previous post, I’ve gone ahead and switched to Highland Sanitation, away from Advanced Disposal FKA Veolia.

After wasting a lot of time on the phone with Advanced Disposal last month, they said they would lower the bill to match Highland. Instead, the next bill that came seemed to show the same amount (although it was fairly difficult to decipher), and showed an underpayment, even though I paid what the prior phone rep at Advanced had agreed on. It also still had the “You may see an increase next month” warning at the bottom.

Meanwhile, my employer has been having some trouble with Advanced Disposal as well. They’ve been sending out overdue-bill notices for January, despite having cashed January’s payment nearly a month ago. When our accountant called Advanced, they weren’t able to find the payment in their system at all, even though our bank had a scan of the cashed check. Indecipherable bills aside, losing payments is a pretty big billing snafu, and combined with last month’s “computer error”, gives me zero confidence in their accounting department.

So today I switched to Highland Sanitation, who is both cheaper (consistently so, as they don’t have the variable fuel surcharge), local, and answers the phone on the 3rd ring, rather than sending you to hold music and a call center in who-knows-where. I can only assume they have a better accounting department too, as pretty much anything would be better than Advanced Disposal’s accounting.


Trash Service in Saint Paul

December 14, 2012

I’ve been hearing for months that my current trash service, Veolia Environmental Systems, was being sold to a Florida company. Trash service salesmen keep coming around the house, and my office, trying to pitch the benefits of their companies, and warning of price increases. I’d mostly ignored it.

Today I got a somewhat half-assed bill from “Advanced Disposal”, the new owner of Veolia. I had a couple issues with this bill:

1. Who is Advanced Disposal and why should I open their letter? I almost shredded the letter for recycling without opening it, as I do with all the approved-credit and new-gutters and give-our-church-money postal spam that I get. If I don’t recognize the company, 99% of the time it’s going to be junk mail. I don’t remember any official notification that this would be the new company, and if not for all the salesmen, I wouldn’t have associated this letter with my trash service.

2. The due date was Dec 15th, and the letter was received Dec 14th. So there’s no way a check would make it on time. This is either incredibly sloppy invoicing,  or slightly shady business practice (my initial thought was ‘are they hoping people will throw away this bill and/or not make the due date, and be racking up late payments right away?’)

3. The invoice claims there may be a price increase on the next invoice, but the price had already gone up on this on from what Veolia used to charge ($2/mo more)

I called up Advanced Disposal, and after being treated to some overly loud and scratchy hold queue audio, I discussed the bill with a rep. She said that the due date “Should have been Dec 20” and they “Just noticed” the mistake. That’s still not a lot of time to get a payment mailed out, most of my other bills have a 2 or 3 week lead time. She also said that the price increase had already gone through.

I also noticed that Advanced Waste is not listed as a licensed garbage hauler in the city of St. Paul. I believe Veolia used to be, but they are not currently on the list (linked below). The phone rep claimed that they are licensed in St. Paul, using the same tax ID as Veolia. I’m not sure how often the list gets updated (see notes below).

The rep did offer to possibly match “base” price (minus tax, fees, fuel surcharge, etc) with another hauler, so I’ve been shopping around. Supposedly if I cancel today, there would be a “cart return fee” for Advanced to take back Veolia’s cart (or I could drop it off somewhere and avoid the fee), as well as a prorated bill for the pickups already made in December.

While the dodgy invoicing and possible lack of license makes me pretty leery of this new company, I decided to give it a shot with a price match. The second rep I talked to re-stated that the due date is an “Accounting calendar error” due to the purchase of Veolia, and said that late fees would not be assessed until the end of December. After talking to a supervisor, she was able to lower my bill to $17.97/mo, or $53.91 quarterly, about $12 cheaper than what was on my invoice. As I told the rep, I’ll see how late/sketchy the next invoice is and decide if I’m going to stick with them.

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For possibly-helpful-reference, here’s what various companies are charging for garbage service in St. Paul, as of Mid-December, 2012. The city does not have a municipal trash service, residents need to sign up with a private company. I’ve tried to compare apples-to-apples on price, each company seems to prefer it’s own flavor of size, billing cycle, pickup schedule, etc. Each company has a slightly different service area as well. For simplicity I’m trying to get prices for the smallest container (which seems to work just fine for a two-person household).

The list of “Licensed Companies” in St. Paul is here: http://www.stpaul.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/14276. Unfortunately there’s no date on the document, and some companies had merged or gone out of business, so I’m not sure how often they update this list.

Allied Waste Services, (651) 455-8634: $15/mo(?) for a 68 gallon container, and 50 cents less for the 35gal. This one was a bit confusing, as the phone rep initially said $15/mo billed quarterly, then said “About $55 every 2 months” with taxes and fees (So it would be $27/mo?). The information was too inconsistent, so I wrote them off.

Aspen Waste, (612) 884-8000: $21.60/mo for a 35gal bin, Billed quarterly, comes to around $64 per bill including taxes and fees. Weekly pickup. Friendly local guy on the phone.

Highland Sanitation, (651) 458-0043: $17.91/mo for 35gal, including tax. Can bill monthly or quarterly paid in advance. No fuel surcharges. Weekly pickup. Extra fee for yard waste (first bag free).

Horrigan Hauling: Phone # listed on city website was disconnected.

Ken Berquist & Son, (651) 699-2442: $24.25/mo for 35gal, “Including taxes”. $27.10 for a 65, and $29.95 for a 95. Doesn’t serve parts of St. Paul, including my area.

Gene’s Disposal, (651) 293-9310: $19.33 for 38gal, the “special price” for a 1-year contract (cancellation fee if close account early).

Walters Recycling Inc, (651) 493-4598: $21.04/mo for 35gal, including taxes and fees. Will take a couple extra bags at no extra charge, and cleans/sanitizes trash bins a couple times a year for free. Local family-owned.

A2J Disposal, merged with Walters, see above.

Red Arrow Waste Disposal, merged with Walters, see above.

Waste Management: Their website says pickup is every 2 weeks, which is too much of a hassle (I can barely remember what month it is). Didn’t bother calling them.

Garbage Man Inc: Went straight to hold, didn’t feel like waiting.

Mudek Trucking: Does not do residential garbage service.

Pete’s Rubbish Hauling: Doesn’t serve my area, but they recommended Highland Sanitation or Gene’s Disposal.

Advanced Disposal (FKA Veolia): $23/mo based on my invoice from Advanced. Talked down to $17.97/mo. Was previously $21/mo with Veolia. Extra charges for extra bags, and yard waste.