Saturday, August 29, 2009

Low Cost Alternatives

Pennsylvania's submission is in. Politics and Place and Green is Good beat me to the punch, so I won't rehash what they have already capably covered, EXCEPT to say, Keystone Corridor West…really? Don't patronize us. If you have no real plans of making it a corridor, don't call it one. I can call the Turtle Creek Industrial Railroad the "Export Corridor", but that doesn't change what it is. The same can be said for the "Keystone Corridor West"; you can call it a corridor all day and all night but to PENNDOT, it's a freight railroad with 1 passenger train each direction every day.

Enough Ranting…Instead I want to make a pitch for more "standard" service. Despite the problems of the late "Steel City Flyer" I do believe the market is there for greater service. In 2008 the Pennsylvanian's ridership increased 12%, and increased another 1% in the first half of 2009 (I know 1% is hardly stellar, but not bad when you consider that overall ridership on Amtrak has slipped from the huge increases in 2008).

Combine the increases with the fact that there are some holes in the current service and you get the opportunity for more service. Someone cannot take a train from Pittsburgh (which leaves at about 7:20 AM) go to Harrisburg or Philly, and expect to get anything done that day and return on a later train to Pittsburgh. The same goes for anyone traveling to Pittsburgh from Harrisburg or Philadelphia. In fact, that is even worse. If you have business in Pittsburgh, better be ready to make a 3 day trip! If your business takes place on Tuesday, you'll be leaving Monday afternoon in order to arrive on Monday evening. I hope your business takes all day, because your next opportunity to head east will be on Wednesday morning.

The bottom line is, we can do better, and do it for a lot less than an electrified HSR system*. The track is there, the signaling is top notch (used by 60+ freight trains a day). If you think said 60+ trains a day are a problem, consider a quote from an NS exec who when asked about the Pittsburgh Line in a Trains Magazine article from 2005 said that "We've Got Room to Grow". He is right. Most of the right of way from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg at one point had more tracks than what they have now. That means, if need be, another track could be put in place. This would certainly minimize interference between freight and passenger trains.

We, as a state could foot part of the bill and have Amtrak operate it, much the same as the Keystone Corridor, Lincoln Service, and Downeaster, to name a few. That would save on rolling stock costs. If we wanted to get crazy, we could follow the path of Vermont who has been pursuing DMU's for its Vermonter service. Everybody knows where I stand on DMU's. They're FRA approved so they could operate with freight trains. Additionally, they're cheaper to build and maintain than traditional trainsets.

This is by no means hard analysis, but it can be done, again maximizing existing infrastructure in order to save construction/operating costs. Pennsylvania would be doing its own citizens a much better service by committing to lower level but more frequent service instead of wasting a few million here and there every few years to study HSR west of Harrisburg with no real intention of ever building it.

*I haven't changed my position on HSR, and would support it if PENNDOT ever got serious about it west of Harrisburg. However, since they don't seem to be serious at all, we should at least get some form of transportation investment west of Harrisburg.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Are you happy? I'm happy

The big day is here and the results have been released (at least to the Press, oddly enough they're not yet available on the TDP website) It seems as though option two has won out, and that is a good thing.

It's good for alot of reasons, not the least of which is that the fact it was long overdue. Pittsburgh's population distribution and development patterns have changed dramatically over the last 50+ years, and the Port Authority never adapted their service to the changes. This was much needed. Better service will be provided to the now high density areas, and areas that do not have the same transit usage as in past years will see corresponding cuts in service.

Additionally, this should show, to the people who like to use the arguments that mass transit isn't efficient, or that mass transit agencies don't operate efficiently, that the Port Authority is making a good faith effort to both decrease operating costs while increasing service. Talk to any businessperson out there, that's good business thinking.

Finally, this is excellent timing. With transit funding stagnant in Pennsylvania, any way the Port Authority can save money is a good thing.

Public comment will be held from today through September 30th. TELL THEM YOU LIKE IT!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Perfect Storm for Public Transportation in the United States?

The Good

The last two years have been an exciting time if you are an advocate of public transportation in the United States. Among other things, we have seen a major spike in gasoline prices, and although they seem to have stabilized somewhat have pushed people away from their personal automobiles and towards alternate means of transportation in record numbers. Case in point: Amtrak saw a 14% increase in ridership between July 2007 and July 2008. The poor economy has eroded some that increase, but ridership is still higher than it was at this point in 2007. It's also important to keep in mind that this is with a smaller system than Amtrak has ever had along with stagnant funding. Check out the master list vs. what service is in place today.

Ridership on public transit is up. Way up. In 2008, transit ridership was the highest since 1956! That's big. That's 52 years of highway dominance, out the window in one year.

Additionally, the winner of the 2008 Presidential campaign brought even greater hope by promising to invest in our long neglected transportation system along with our national infrastructure. This promise was highlighted by the symbolic train ride that the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect took from Philadelphia to the inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Things sure are good in the transportation world aren't they? Not so fast. Some big issues in America right now are forming together with the record success of transit to form a perfect storm of sorts that threatens to hamstring transportation development in this country, if not set cause a massive setback.

The Bad

While transit use is up, which is great, funding remains flat. Check out an article here in the Post gazette that touches on the issue. Local transit authorities are faced with increased demands on their infrastructure and calls for service expansion all while dealing with the same funding levels that they dealt with 5 years ago. In some cases, because of the hard economic times funding has even been cut, again, while ridership increased. The system is broken, that's not news. The Gas Tax hasn't increased in 16 years and the Highway Trust fund is broke. You can't get better transit if you don't have the money to pay for it.

The Ugly

The healthcare debate, among others swirling around Washington seem to have caused enough strife to further the notion that our current funding strategy will suffice for another 18 months. The Post Gazette covers it here . It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the funding system doesn't work now, it will continue to not work for another 18 months. Things will stay about the way they are now. Ridership looks to stay high, and funding will be inadequate which will cause further cutbacks and potential fare increases.

Hope isn't completely lost for a new funding package before the September 30 deadline of the current deal, but an 18 month delay could cause a permanent halt to a funding overhaul and renewed emphasis on transit.

The political tides seem to be shifting. The tremendous support that the Obama administration and their policies enjoyed may be at least wavering. The Senate Committee charged with appropriating the initial $4 billion dollars of HSR funds decided only to appropriate $1.8 billion. While this is not the end of the discussion, the figures initially discussed are already being paired down. This does not bode well for future HSR funding. The same can be said of transit funding. If support for HSR is still high and the money is being cut, imagine what happens when the support dies down, or gas prices come down.

I don't want to be a Negative Nancy here, but in my mind, we as a nation are at a crossroads. The demand for transit is there (and hopefully will continue to rise). What is missing is political will. If we put transportation in the back seat and don't fund it now and fund it properly, our best case scenario is we will have what we have now. Aging infrastructure, too many roads, and not enough alternate forms of transportation. That's the BEST case scenario.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The link between Healthcare and Transportation

While relationships between healthcare and transportation may not seem immediately clear (except for the fact that the people who work for and operate transportation companies/agencies/authorities all generally have healthcare) there are similarities in the debates between the various camps on either side of the issues.

First, let me say that the point of this is not to shout my opinions about Obama's healthcare plan, there are plenty of other blogs where you can find people's opinions about Government healthcare. When reading an article, found by way of The Radical Middle yesterday, I was shocked by some of the ridiculous arguments being made, by both sides on the medical debate. The far left view was that anyone who oposes their idea of Government healthcare is basically a heartless fascist who is just a puppet of big business, while the far right view was that Government healthcare was tantamount to communism and would force poor granny to go in front of a "death panel" that would decide her medical fate.

Both arguments are downright ridiculous, and the people who further these types of arguments should be ashamed of themselves. They turn important policy debate into a turd flinging contest. Their intent is also not to compromise and create the best course of action for everyone but to demean the opposition through the spreading of ridiculous lies and insults.
Where am I going with this you ask? After all, this is not Shadyside Hospital Blog, it's East Busway Blog. My point in this is the same ridiculous, emotional attacks that are clouding the healthcare debate are always present in the transit world, and it's a problem.

When lies, misconceptions and anecdotal arguments are allowed to influence public policy, the outcome is a dumbed down, half-assed version of an ideal policy. A perfect example in Pittsburgh is the hated Allegheny County drink tax. I have made it well known that I support the tax, because I looked at it rationally and to me it makes sense. You've got plenty of drinkers in Allegheny County, and the proceeds from the tax would serve a worthy cause, transit. However, the opposition to the tax was immediate and just plain angry. From radio ads by the owner of the Church Brew Works invoking Abraham Lincoln, to a gentleman who wanted to challenge Dan Onorato to a boxing match because of a tax on his beloved beer.

Most of the opposition was rooted in the fact that people just didn't want to pay more for alcohol, there wasn't a whole lot of rationality to their argument beyond that. The closest thing I saw to a coherent argument was that the tax would cause such an outrage that people would abandon drinking at bars in Allegheny County and flock to neighboring counties (which has happened to an extent, how much however, is not all that significant) which would cause bars to go out of business. However, even that argument which was rooted in rationality was taken to the extreme. Supposedly, the drop in business would lead to some mass bankruptcy in the bar industry, causing huge losses in jobs and revenues.

As it turns out, the "losses" have been minimal. The decrease in drinking at bars has been negligible, and I don't believe there is any quantifiable evidence that the drink tax has caused any bar or restaurant to close and the tax exceeded expectations for revenue. (Check out one of my favorite comment strings from way back on a "discussion" about the effects of the drink tax). My friend "anonymous" may have some valid points, but they are clouded by his insults and condescending tone.

The HSR debate is another example. There are logical arguments why HSR would not or could not work that could be made by reasonable people, and then there are people like this guy. (check out comment number 5). This quote came from Trains for America, and they seem to get more than their fair share of ridiculous, emotion based polarized arguments. You don't like trains? Fine, don't belittle rational discussion with regurgitated garbage you probably picked up off your favorite political radio talk show host.

I know that you find whackos anywhere, and two examples in a blog does not an argument make. However, go onto a news website and look at the comments that follow and article or opinion piece or watch a town hall meeting. It's frightening, not so much what people are saying, but how many people are saying the same crazy things, meaning the lunacy is widespread.

Why this polarized thinking has become so prevalent is another topic for another blog, but it certainly is present in transportation/transit policy debate, and it's damaging our infrastructure and de-railing (pun intended) our future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Getting Back into the Swing of Things

I read an interesting opinion piece over the weekend about tolls vs. a gas tax as funding sources for "transportation". Check it out here.

I am assuming that by transportation the writer means solely highways because he doesn't really refer to any alternate forms of transportation. Between the author and the commentors, there a lot of misguided arguments. You get everything from the idea that increasing the gas tax alone will help, to the very common misconception among the pro-highway set that, other than vehicle cost/repair/maintenance (including filling up at the pumps) driving is and should always be free.

The events of mid 2008 have shown, in my mind that relying on a gas tax to fund transportation is not a solid bet. As gas prices increased independently of the tax, people drove less, to the tune of 12.9 billion miles. This caused the revenues of the tax to decrease by nearly $71 million. Tolling, I think has worked well, and should be expanded. Pennsylvanians need to know that driving is not free, and tolling provides the perfect method of explanation to the public at large. Ok… you can't toll everything, but I sure wish you could, and it certainly seem more stable than a gas tax. During 2008, the revenue from tolls increased despite the fact that nationally, vehicle miles driven decreased. (The increase was NOT from a fare increase either: the toll revenue increase occurred because the amount of vehicle miles traveled was higher in 2008 than 2007). There are mileage tax plans out there, but I don't even know if I like big brother having the potential of knowing where I am all the time, let alone what Cletus in central Pennsylvania will think of the idea.

I don't have the answer to taxing highway or road usage and the point of this post wasn't to propose an answer. At the risk of generalizing, this submission and the subsequent comments just go to show how ignorant people really are. There is a general misunderstanding of how roads and transit are funded; people still have this concept that "I pay for transit that I don't use and it's therefore a waste but don't have to pay for roads I don't use, and that makes roads more economical".

Another thing to take away is people's general dislike of transportation agencies. The Turnpike Commission gets a bad rap, but unlike PENNDOT was profitable until Act 44 required a $750 million contribution that put their numbers into the tank. There's a reason that Ed Rendell wanted to Toll I-80, it works on I-76.

Check out the Turnpike Commission's webpage here which goes into the details on their finances.

Monday, August 17, 2009

“Hybrid” Grants: A Small Step

Check out the article here. I certainly can't fault the concept, I just wish we could get more, and dare I say, I have some opinions on doling out the money. The Port Authority along with CSX, U.S. Steel, and Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania are getting federal money to invest in hybrid/pollution reducing technology.

The Port Authority will replacing two internal combustion buses with two Diesel Hybrid buses. Additionally, nine buses will be given new engines to bring them up to 2007 EPA standards. CSX will upgrade 1 single engine, U.S. Steel will be placing filters on some of its dump trucks, and the Contractors association of Western PA will place filters on some of its construction vehicles.

I think that is great, however it is just a drop in the bucket, and I am curious if the actual impact will be as great as the estimates quoted in the article.

Here's an alternative solution: Take the grant, give it to one entity, and make them a "poster child" for the greening of Pittsburgh/ Allegheny County. For example, instead of giving the Port Authority $875,000, give them the $3.49 million and let them go to town. That would get them 8 hybrid buses and 36 upgraded, more emission friendly buses.

I think arguments could be made for all the entities, but the Port Authority makes the most P.R. sense. Think about it, Pittsburgh and the region are already getting great publicity as a leader in green. 8 hybrid buses and 36 upgraded buses would make a pretty big splash nationally, better so than 2 buses, 1 locomotive, and a bunch of dump trucks.