Environment

Sunday Train: What's in SUPERTRAINS for Small Town and Rural America?

{Reprinted from the Hillbilly Report.org, April 21, 2009.}
{ Except for updating images to correct for link rot, edits in braces and italics.}

This last weekend I wrote up a small diary, cross-posted to various places ... which even stumbled into being wrecklisted at Agent Orange ... about the High Speed Rail plan [http://www.fra.dot.gov/us/content/31 released by the Obama administration].

That diary focused on laying out the three "tiers" of HSR in the announced plan. "Express HSR" is one of the bullet train systems, like they are planning for California. But between that tier and conventional rail, are two more tiers:

  • "Regional HSR", with a top speed of around 125mph, able to provide trips at average speeds in the range of 100mph, operating in existing rail rights of way, but mostly on its own track, with upgraded signaling and substantial investment in grade separation and/or the top level of "hardened" level crossings, normally with electrified lines; and
  • "Emerging HSR", with a top speed of 110mph, able provide trips at average speed in excess of 80mph, operating on existing rail right of way with improved capacity, but sometimes sharing track with freight rail, the 110mph standard of quad gate, speed sensitive level crossings, and provided by either electric or diesel 110mph tilt-trains

The bullet trains are the show ponies ... but for small town and rural America, the genuine seat at the table for Emerging and Regional HSR is the real good news from the announcement.

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Sunday Train: Transport Cycling and Austin's Awesome Bike Plan

Last week, I came across a post at People for Bike, called Four Simple Lessons from Austin's Brilliant Bike Plan Update ... and after reading the post, I clicked on through to the overview of the Bike Plan Update that they were referring to, and it was even better than they said. Once I saw that, I know that Sunday Train was going to talk about both Austin's Awesome Bike Plan and the Four Key Lessons that People for Bikes draw from it:

  • 1) The point of bike plans isn't to appease bikers, it's to make bikes useful to everyone.
  • 2) Good biking makes good transit better.
  • 3) You're not going to turn every long car trip into a bike trip - all you have to do is turn short trips into bike trips.
  • 4) A good bike network increases the capacity of your entire road system.

So follow me below the fold to consider both these four important points and also the general Awesomeness of Austin's Bike Plan Update.

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Sunday Train: Koch Brothers Aim to Screw Tennessee Transit Riders & Motorists

In a move to squash the freedom and local political autonomy of Nashville residents, the Koch Brothers-finded Americans For Prosperity turn out to be supporting a proposed State of Tennessee law outlawing Bus Rapid Transit systems that have dedicated lanes. From ThinkProgress:

On Thursday, the Tennessee Senate passed SB 2243, which includes an amendment that “prohibits metropolitan governments and any transit authorities created by a metropolitan government from constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane, or other separate right-of-way, dedicated solely to the use of such bus rapid transit system on any state highway or state highway.” The amendment is aimed at Nashville’s proposed $174 million rapid bus system called the Amp, but would apply to any mass transit system proposed in Nashville.

The Amp, a proposed 7.1-mile bus rapid transit system that would cut commute times along one of Nashville’s major corridors, has been staunchly opposed by the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity, a lobbying organization founded in part by the Koch brothers. AFP’s Tennessee director told the Tennessean that SB 2243 was the result of a conversation he’d had with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Tracy. In addition, AFP pushed the Senate to vote on the bill — efforts that led to StopAmp.org, one of the lead groups opposing the Amp, thanking AFP in a press release after SB 2243 passed the Senate. The transit system’s opponents say it would create traffic problems and safety issues due to its middle-lane location, a claim that a spokesman for the Amp Coalition disputes.

One thing we know is that the claim of traffic problems and safety issues from a middle lane location is a red herring ~ not because its patent nonsense, though it is, but because that's not what the bill restricts. The bill does not ban center lane Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or side lane BRT, it bans effective BRT. If passed by the House and signed into law, it requires that any BRT system run exclusively in mixed traffic ... which means that its not likely to be a BRT at all, but would be, instead, a new coat of paint on city buses and some improved facilities at some city bus stops.

So more on why the Koch Brothers are against Tennesseans having effective BRT and so also against improved traffic conditions in Tennessee cities, below the fold.

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Sunday Train: Our Trebly Broken Highway Funding System

Over the balance of this year, you are likely to hear more and more about our broken Highway Funding system. For instance, William Moore, of the consultancy group Vianovo and member of the Transportation Transformation Group, wrote at Infra Insight this last 13 March that:

Absent swift action by Congress, state departments of transportation will begin to have cash flow problems that could delay payments to vendors and slow projects. Without action by the fall, new projects may have to be shelved until Congress can resolve the funding crisis that confronts the Highway Trust Fund.

However, this is just the most visible layer of pending crisis in our highway funding system. Even if we were to fix the threat to engage in spending at status quo levels,status quo spending has been falling behind the damage done by cars and trucks to our roads for decades, and even if we were to fund our transportation to address the massive shortfall in maintaining our current highway system, we have not seriously begun in addressing the fact that our current transport system is one of our principle contributor's to our economy's present climate change suicide course.

We have a trebly broken highway funding system, and there is no guarantee that we will actually address the simplest of the problems.

The good news is that we do not need massive technological breakthroughs to fix this triple layer cake of crisis. The bad news is that what we do need is a political movement with both the focus and the clout to push the existing available solutions onto the table, in the face of determined status quo resistance ... and those who have at least glanced at our political system over the past decade would be aware that building such a movement is a "to be solved by reader" kind of problem.

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Sunday Train: Car Subsidies & Ebbing Vehicles Miles Travelled

Earlier this month, the philly.com from the Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story, Drop in traffic on area highways forces review of plans. It cites several "area" road funding decisions based on assumptions of growing traffic, which turned out to be false:

  • A $2.5b New Jersey Turnpike widening justifiedm in 2005, by projections of a 68% increase in traffic volumes over the coming 25 years ... where turnpike traffic in 2013 is only 90% of 2005 levels
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission undertook to provide up to $900m in annual funding for other roads around the state, based on projections of Turnpike traffic growth of 3% to 5% ... while to date, there hasn't been any appreciable traffic growth
  • The Scudder Falls bridge taking I-95 over the Delaware River was a four lane bridge that the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission decided in 2003 to replace with a nine-line $328m bridge based on projected traffic increases of 35% by 2035 ... and to date, that growth in traffic has not yet materialized

The article poses the question of "whether" the traffic growth that went away following the Panic of 2008 and which hasn't shown up in the ensuing Depression of 2008 to, optimistically, 2015, might not ever turn up.

Well, it probably won't. And that raises the follow-up question, what are we going to do about it?

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Sunday Train: Four Rules for Transit-Oriented Development from Five leaders

This week's Sunday Train features a piece from John Karras' urbanSCALE.com, How Your City Can Succeed In Transit Oriented Development. John looks at DC, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City and Cleveland to argue that your city can also succeed in pursuing Transit Oriented Development:

Here are the 4 key ingredients needed to create successful transit oriented development:
  • TOD Ingredient #1: Connect dense employment centers
  • TOD Ingredient #2: Regional collaboration
  • TOD Ingredient #3: Proactive planning and public policies to encourage TOD
  • TOD Ingredient #4: Public-private partnerships for joint development

This is an important argument, and ties in with many themes address in previous Sunday Trains, including Sustainable Real Estate Development is Good for the Economy and Other Growing Things (30 June 2013), Trains & Buses Should Be Friends (24 Nov 2013) and 'the successful communities are going to be the ones who get rail.' (1 Dec 2013), so join me below the fold for the most recent consideration of these issues and Transit-Oriented Development, commonly abbreviated as "TOD".

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Sunday Train: Cap&Trade Funds should help finance the California HSR

An encore of a Sunday Train from 22 April, 2012, on a topic that has come back in the news

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

One element of the recent California HSR "revised" draft 2012 Business Plan (which we shall call the Other, Other Plan) involves looking to one particular means of finance in addition to general fund bond finance and Federal transport grant funding:

Cap-and-Trade Program Funds
Assembly Bill 32 (Statutes, 2006, Chapter 488) mandates a reduction of statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In accordance with that law, California will implement a market-based cap-and-trade program. Funds from the program can be used to further the purposes of AB 32, including for development and construction of the high-speed rail system.

This has led to the current controversy in which the California Legislative Analysts Office, the LAO, has argued that the Cap and Trade funds might not be usable for HSR (pdf: p. 8).

One of their points, "Other GHG Reduction Strategies Likely to Be More Cost Effective," involves a serious and common misframing of the question of the use of funds dedicated to reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: when reducing GHG emissions in a project that serves multiple purposes, the cost effectiveness of the GHG emissions spending depends on what share of the project funding is represented by that GHG emissions spending.

So more on transport, Green House Gas emissions, and the peculiar analytical weaknesses that crop up whenever the California LAO turns its attention to HSR, over the fold.

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Sunday Train: The Ends of Amtrak

At the beginning of last month, Paul Druce of "Reason & Rail" discussed the possible impact of the pending upgrade of the Amtrak Acela route in Acela II is the path towards Amtrak operational self-sustainability:

The forthcoming Acela II isn’t just supposed to be significantly faster than the current Acela service, cutting 24 minutes from the scheduled time between Washington and New York and 38 minutes between Washington and Boston, but it will also represent a significant boost in capacity. ...

With an increase in seating capacity, Amtrak will be able to garner significantly more revenue, even if it lowers the price of Acela seating somewhat. This added revenue comes with no significant increase in operational cost and quite possibly a lowered cost, as there should be a higher rate of availability and lowered mechanical costs for what is essentially an off the shelf train, along with significantly lower energy consumption. With current averages for occupancy and passenger revenue unchanged, an Acela II train service could see $742 million in revenue, with $447 million in operational profit.

This will have an even larger effect upon Amtrak’s financial deficit than initially appears because starting in FY2014, the states bear a greater responsibility for the short distance train corridors. This had the affect of reducing Amtrak’s FY2014 budget request to only $373 million for the operating grant; 2013’s appropriation, by contrast, was $442 million.

Note that what Paul Druce refers to as "operational profit" is what I have been calling "operating surplus" in the Sunday Train, the surplus of revenues from operations over operating costs. This is nothing like an operational profit, at present, since a profit is a financial benefit from a difference between revenue and costs, and there is nothing in the current organization of the Acela services that make a surplus on their operations into a distinctive financial asset for any purpose ... whether public or private.

Whether or not all or part of this operating surplus should be made into an operational profit is a question that goes to the heart of what is the purpose of Amtrak. The way that this surplus is spent can be the means to service a range of ends ... but what are the ends that are a legitimate use of these means?

Since Amtrak was established, and exists, as a political compromise, this is not a question about what is the proper "End" for Amtrak activities, but what are the proper "Ends" for Amtrak activities.

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Sunday Train: Carolina High Speed Rail & The Piedmont Service

The Southeast HSR corridor can be divided between the "real" SEHSR corridor, where there is actual, ongoing work on improving the speed and, even more critically, the capacity of the corridor in support of services that will begin operating within the current decade, and the "notional" SEHSR corridor, the land of feasibility studies and preliminary planning, where even if a pedal to the metal intercity rail investment program were to commence in 2017, any new services entering into operation before the latter half of next decade would be subsidized conventional rail service.

And given the importance of state governments in the current bottom-up process of intercity rail development, it should be unsurprising that the boundary between the two part of the SEHSR runs quite close to a state boundary. As discussed two weeks ago, Georgia lies in the middle of "notional" SEHSR country, with Rapid Rail connections to Birmingham; Columbus, GA; Savanna; Charlotte, NC; and Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville at various stages of being studied, but without active ongoing investment. By contrast, there is current active investment and planned roll-out of new service throughout Virginia and North Carolina, all the way through to Charlotte, NC.

One reason that Virginia and North Carolina are engaged in ongoing investment is that they are well positioned for incremental development of Rapid Rail passenger service, with a legacy of through Amtrak corridors providing a platform to build upon, urban development taking place along urban arcs in both states, and close enough to the growing major metropolitan center of Washington, DC to use Washington as an anchor for longer distance intercity transport.

The greatest current focus of investment in the "real SEHSR" is the Piedmont Corridor in North Carolina, which is the focus of this week's Sunday Train.

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