Friday, May 29, 2009

Gas Creep

Don't pull your F650 out of storage just yet! An article from the most reputable new source in the world talks about how, despite the bad economy gas prices have had a solid recovery (for OPEC that is). Additionally, the future is looking bright as well (for OPEC). The USEIA(United States Energy Information Administration) has reported that it expects the prices to continue to increase as the economy gets back on its feet. The price per barrel is expected to reach $130 by 2030.

This is good for transit, bad for suburbia. I was worried that all the new hubbub about transit which took place around this time last year might be a shorter fad than slap bracelets or Zubaz (unless you live in Pittsburgh). Now however, it seems that my fears were nothing more than that.

After all the optimism in the U.S. when everyone was paying $2.00 a gallon and damn happy about it, it now seems that the recent spike in gas prices will continue for the foreseeable future. I don't need to sit here and tell you why getting your climate wrecking sprawl creating fossil fuel from an international cartel is bad.

Instead I will celebrate! Hopefully, this means that interest in transit will not wain. I say the sky's the limit, I can't wait for the day when we pay $5.00 a gallon! That would be the day when we would really see an honest effort put forth by the government and private industry to beef up our transit infrastructure and increase access to transit.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Raise the Roof Pittsburgh!

I realize this is totally non-transit, but I am happy any time Pittsburgh gets good PR. I'm pretty sure that I couldn't ask for a lot more than this (other than a Stanley Cup).

The G20 conference will be held in Pittsburgh on September 24-25. This will be a great opportunity to showcase our awesome city and our significant efforts to become a leader in green (They better get moving on those LED streetlights!)

I'm not entirely convinced that our "success" as of late has been somewhat overstated because of the good PR we've received, but hey, who am I to turn it down? The short term benefits to our economy and the long term benefits to our reputation could be great (as long as the city doesn't collapse into a fiery heap because of angry protesters....that would suck)

DMU Update

This post appeals to the technical geek within the history major that is me. As part of my in depth and hard hitting series "My Idea for Heavy Rail in the East End Part 7" I wrote about potential rail vehicles for this new commuter service. One big issue was the fact that Colorado Railcar had gone out of business. They were, up until their demise, the only manufacturer in the world who produced an FRA crash worthiness compliant DMU.

I wanted to follow up to see if their have been any developments because this could have a significant impact on an commuter operation from New Ken to Pittsburgh. By this I mean, if no compliant DMU could be found, whoever would operate the service (WCTA or PAAC) would have to consider either:

#1: Buying new full trainsets consisting of a diesel and passenger cars. (This is bad because it costs alot of $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$)

#2: Scrounging up used trainsets or RDC cars ( This could be expensive in itself and the equipment would require at least an overhaul, if not a full re-build. Using old equipment could also lead to increased maintenance costs and decreased publich perception of any service).

This update comes via a post from Seattle Transit Blog from last month. In an article about the last Colorado DMU which was shipped to Alaska Railroad, they mentioned a company called "Value Recovery Group" which is supposedly interested in purchasing the remaining assets of the company and resuming operations. I sent the company a message via their website asking if the information on Seattle Transit Blog is correct or not. No answer yet, but I just posed the question.

Again, their are international players as well, but it's hard to find any real information on whether their current product lines could be made FRA compliant or not. Again, I think it would be great for potential operations around the U.S. and especially Pittsburgh if the proven designs built by Colorado Railcar could be resurrected and produced again. I will certainly post again on this subject as more information becomes available.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Am I a hypocrite?

I got a comment a few days ago (I think, I put away the blog for the weekend) basically asking me why I don't practice what I preach. In other words, I blog about sustainable communities, when I don't really live in a sustainable community.

It's a fair question, and is certainly worth a response on my part. I guess the short answer is I do live in a sustainable community. I can hit the busway with a stone from the back of my house, can get a bus to just about anywhere I need to within the city and can walk to basically everything I need (food, booze etc.) The problem is I don't WORK in a sustainable community.

I've thought a lot about my current situation and figured out that there are really four options. I tried to pick the option that is best for myself and my family while taking livability issues into account:

1. Find a better job (by that I mean, one in Pittsburgh that I could commute to via public transit). I'm constantly in the search for a better job, but the economy is not the best, and unemployment has finally begun to catch up with Pittsburgh. At this point I am glad to have a job.

2. Seek a job in a different city that would satisfy the requirements that I consider ideal(walkability, and easy access to public transit). I could probably find a job elsewhere in the country, but the fact is I am committed to living in Pittsburgh. It's important to me, and to my family that we stay here.

3. I could move closer to my job. I could cut down on my commute and save on gas, drive less and do less damage to the environment. However, I'd be moving to suburbia, and my reduced driving to work would be offset by the fact that I would have to drive to do everything else. I believe if I did this, it would make me more hypocritical than I may already be.

4. I could live in the city, but commute to work. This option represents my current arrangement, and I like to think of it as making the best of my current situation. Right now, I have to drive a lot to my place of employment, but I've tried to minimize the damage I am doing, both to myself and my environment. I drive a small car that gets 35-40 MPG (which will be replaced by a hybrid as soon as the budget allows), and I still live in the city. This means that for social events, shopping or most anything else, I can still walk or utilize public transit. This option is not perfect but allows me to stay in Pittsburgh while still having some benefits (the transit and walkability) that would not be available in a different option.

Am I a transit role model, of course not, but I think the important thing is that I try to take livability issues into account in the decisions I make. I think that is the key for us as a nation moving forward. Does everyone need to be religiously committed to moving into a T.O.D. condo or apartment complex? Of course not, but we need to start realizing that much of our suburban living is unsustainable, and for us to factor sustainability into our thought process in some manner.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Flair for the Obvious

In completely unsurprising, yet sadly true news, our Infrastructure is obsolete and it's broken. A group of state level heavy hitters from across the country, including the Governator himself, have also put together a report on how to overhaul our transportation system and our infrastructure.

To anyone who has an interest in transportation related issues this counld be the unshockingist news of the century. It is however right on the mark. Our transportation infrastructure is overburdened and outdated. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it will cost an estimated 2.2 trillion dollars to fix our transportation infrastructure. Additionally, the bipartisan coalition (with the Governator's help) issued a report on our transportation system which outlined the following changes that they feel must be made:

-Change the political approval process (less earmarks for transportation projects, more transparency)
-Emphasize Livable, Sustainable communities (YES!)
-Expand of public transit and passenger rail (YES!)
-Fix what we've got right now
-Tolls with variable pricing based on time of day
-Public/Private partnerships for transportation projects
-Create a stable revenue stream for transportation (Do something about the Federal Gasoline Tax and Highway Trust Fund)

I agree with all of these ideas and agree that these are all legitimate concerns. In my mind, the first concerns are fixing the infrastructure we've got now and making transportation funding solvent(that includes fiscal responsibility amongst transit agencies. No more$60,000 per year bus drivers who pay 3% of their health care and can retire at 50*).

However, the greatest long term point of emphasis needs to be sustainable living! Incentives have to given to stop the sprawl happy, auto accessible only types of development that have been the hallmark of the last 50 years. I can speak, from my terrible daily drive, that this kind of construction is still taking place around Pittsburgh. Public Transportation and alternative methods of transportation (i.e. trains) will only have so much value when there is a massive amount of sprawl. This will be a huge challenge given that some cities haeve nearly their entire infrastructure based on suburban style single family homes and single use commercial and industrial development.

While depressing to view, the beginnings of suburban slums and suburban abandonment signal something good. They signal that we are moving in the right direction and SLOWLY beginning to re-concentrate our population in ways that are more sustainable and transit friendly.

*I'm not attempting to cite a specific statistic, merely illustrate through rough estimation how labor costs for transit agencies are exorbitant.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A quick political Detour

I know I said yesterday (and I still maintain) that this blog does not discuss politics except for where politics intersect with transit/transportation, however I have to continue on my detour because of my genuine concern for this amazing city.

I'm obviously not happy about the outcome of the primary yesterday, but there's not a whole lot I can say other than: I hope a worthy challenger presents themselves before November or I hope our incumbent mayor shows us much more than what he has up to this point. However, that is not the point of this post.

What concerns me in this instance is involvement. Everyone knows we love our sports teams here in Pittsburgh (myself included). Just how much we love sports hit me today while I was surfing Post, and found under their "most e-mailed stories" that the number one story was not related to the election. In fact, the #1 story had something to do with the fact that James Harrison is afraid to fly. That whole election thing didn't even make it into the most e-mailed stories for today, period.

Is Pittsburgh sports REALLY that important, or do Pittsburghers REALLY not care about politics? I'm afraid it's a little of both. I'd be frightened to know the results if a poll was taken to see how many voters were swayed in favor of Mr. Ravenstahl because of his January "name change".

Turnout was low throughout the county at roughly 21%, and the unofficial vote count for the mayoral primary in Pittsburgh was roughly 45,000 or 13% of 334,000 residents (using 2000 census statistics). I understand that Pennsylvania voting laws don't help the situation, but if a republican or independant could vote in a democratic primary, would the outcome have been all that different?

I am surprised and saddened that a citizenry that is so fiercely loyal to this city is so apathetic to influencing the mechanisms for change. What can be done to change that? Are people disillusioned, or do they just not care? I sincerely hope it's not the latter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Most Monumental Endorsement in Pittsburgh Political History

This post will hopefully tip the scales in my mayoral candidate's favor, but time will only tell. I have political opinions but try (for the most part) to keep them out of this blog, except where they intersect with transit related issues. Today is big for Pittsburgh, especially because it is basically the general election. Whoever wins today will most likely be Pittsburgh's next mayor.

For what it's worth, I am putting my political might behind Patrick Dowd. He is the only candidate that seems to have a strategic vision for the city to move it forward and who is willing to fight to take down the road blocks that lie in his way (pay to play politics, pension/health care issues, lack of government transparency). Additionally, unlike the two other candidates he is the only candidate to mention transit as a part of his strategic vision.

Maybe it was the "Steelerstahl" incident, or the Toby Keith incident, but Luke Ravenstahl has been anything but a leader. His goal has been to tread water while taking credit for anything that has been accomplished during his tenure, whether he had anything to do with it or not. I don't see Pittsburgh reversing the tide of population and job loss with Mr. Ravenstahl at the helm given what we have seen so far, and given his "vision" for the future.

I was impressed by Carmen Robinson's candid nature, responsiveness, and willingness to engage a low life blogger in a sustained discussion about transit. However, I did not get the impression from her that she had a cohesive strategic vision for where the city needed to go. I think with time and some re-work to her message, she could be an excellent candidate. However, that time is not right now.

No one else seems to have the drive, and the fire to fix Pittsburgh like Patrick Dowd. When I look at the picture he paints of his Pittsburgh, it looks like a place where I want to live!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Transportation Center, No, a Bus Station, Yes

In the finest traditions of wordsmithing, the Recently re-built Greyhound Bus Station was re-christened as the "Grant Street Transportation Center".

Really???? Balderdash!!!! I think the Grant Street "We have a bunch of forms of transportation kinda close" Center would be more accurate. I'm not knocking the fact that they re-built the Greyhound station, it was old, dirty, and kind of smelled. But let's call it what it is, a bus station. This is Pittsburgh politics at its worst, we call something different than what it is, and then cite it as an example of how we're "moving in the right direction", when in reality little has changed aside from some hollow words.

It's just another opportunity lost, or is it? There are several forms of transportation in close proximity; you've got the bus station, Amtrak, The T, and the busway. In fact Amtrak was originally supposed to be included, but for some unknown reason, was not. In my mind, you've already spent $40 million to re-build the thing, why not spend the extra few million (a small amount in comparison to the overall cost) to bring those things together, and actually MAKE it a transportation center. You're a few enclosed walkways from that being the case.

First things first, un-abandon the Penn Park branch of the T. The Port Authority said it was too expensive to operate. I agree, only because the manner in which they operated it was foolish. Have certain trains from the Overbrook line and certain trains from the Beechview line run to Penn Park instead of Gateway Center. Bring back that easy transfer to the busway, Greyhound, Amtrak, or to a potential commuter line. Additionally connect the busway and T stop to the Transportation Center and Convention Center via an elevated walkway, which was supposed to be included in the NSC project but was not.

Step Two, connect the railroad to the Transportation center. Again, one covered walkway could bring passengers from the station platforms to the transportation center. Right now, the Amtrak station feels more like a remodeled basement than a gateway to a city. Imagine if Pittsburgh sees increased Amtrak service under Obama's plans for expanded passenger and HSR service. Which would you rather people to first see when they enter Pittsburgh? This, or This?

Additionally, if any form of commuter rail becomes reality, again this is a perfect opportunity to integrate it into a real bona fide transportation center. Current plans call for the operation to either terminate in the strip district or at Penn Station. Either way it could be made to work (if the Strip option was chosen, the tracks could run right up to the Convention Center and an elevated walkway could be used to connect the the platforms to the transportation center).

As it stands now, there is no reason for most people to enter this $40 million "transportation center" unless you're parking there or taking a Greyhound bus. Give people a reason. For once, make a whole hearted attempt at integrating transportation modes. Don't make this new building a bus station with a fancy name.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Saga Continues

Strike 1 against the Port Authority's attempts to get funding for the last $60 million or so shortfall to complete the NSC. Read about it here. I'm tired of beating this dead horse. Anyone who has any questions on where I stand with the NSC can read about it here, and here.

Suffice to say, the only thing worse than spending $500+ million to get 1.2 miles of additional track is spending $300 million and getting nothing.

I know this isn't the last of the options, there will be more funding opportunities to cover the shortfall, and according to the article, there is enough money to keep working for another year. Hopefully this project doesn't become the next Wabash Tunnel (I'm referring to the 1st failure, not the 2nd, or 3rd)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

BRT: Deserving of of its Poor Reputation?

The heat's really been turned up on MBTA's Silver Line BRT service. The Overhead Wire and Transport Politic each have stories about the planned addition to this "system". Without re-hashing the articles, there's a lot of angst among Bostonians and pro-transit people because $115 million dollars is being spent to connect the currently separated "branches" of the Silver Line.

At face value, the concept of connecting the various branches to make a more complete "system" makes sense. However, if you read the details of the proposal vs. the original plan, there is reason for many people to be unhappy. Additionally, many commenters brought up personal experiences with the shortcomings of the Silver Line, including slow speeds through tunnels, awkward transfers, and efficiency issues (i.e. switching from electric power to gas power in the underground segments of the BRT.)

Their views and frustrations are certainly valid, the Silver Line has been poorly planned, and poorly run. Check out this report by the Sierra Club on the Silver Line (It's biased, but does make good points).

All in all there's a lot of information being flung like mud back and forth over the Internet between Pro-BRT agencies like "The National BRT Institute", or "The Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center" and Pro-LRT agencies like "Light Rail" or "Light Rail Transit Association". Both sets of websites are very one sided, and very biased in their viewpoint about transportation. If a person were to have no knowledge of transit and different modes of transit, and they logged onto Light Rail, they would leave the website thinking LRT was the best form of transit EVER, and thinking that BRT was garbage. The same goes for pro BRT websites. If a person logged onto a Pro-BRT website, they would leave thinking BRT is amazing, and LRT is a waste of money.

I don't like one sided viewpoints, so I tried to sit down and figure out if BRT really is deserving of its status as the crappy version of LRT. There are some common threads in the arguments that fly back and forth between LRT and BRT folks, which will be discussed individually. These are; which is cheaper to build/maintain, which is more cost effective, and which has the propensity to attract more riders?

Which Mode is Cheaper to build/Maintain?

BRT: BRT advocate's main argument is that BRT provides the same levels of service as light rail, but at a substantially lower construction and maintenance cost. One BRT website reports that the average construction cost per mile for LRT is around $70 million, while BRT is a "mere" $25 million per mile. Additionally, they claim savings in maintenance and operations costs, citing that there is less infrastructure, and simplified vehicle maintenance due to the fact that where as LRT has overhead catenary, a signaling system and rails/ties, BRT has paved road and buses, that are essentially no different from other buses which operate on the street, thus simplifying maintenance facilities, and employees needed.

LRT: LRT' advocates counter that these claims are a mirage. That in fact, Busways can be just as expensive as LRT if not more. They cite Pittsburgh's own West Busway as their main example. Which, like every other Port Authority project since the beginning of time has come in late and over budget. The cost of the project was $320 million for 5 miles of Busway, or roughly $40 million per mile. LRT advocates also claim that any cost savings in construction and lower overhead for maintenance are outweighed by the fact that the guideway for a BRT system has a MUCH shorter lifespan, along with the shorter lifespan of the buses vs. LRV's.

My Take: Edge BRT. There's a couple facts that should be taken into account. The West Busway was insanely expensive, and its cost per mile is much higher than what BRT advocates state the average cost per mile should be. However, that cost of $40 million is less than the average LRT. (Look at the NSC, if you DON'T count the tunnels, the construction cost per mile is approx $166 million*)

Which mode is More Cost Effective?

BRT: Advocates claims that BRT is more cost effective because the overall construction and maintenance costs are lower, and you get all the benefits of LRT. They even claim some advantages that LRT can not share, such as the ability of certain bus routes to operate at grade for portions of their route, and on the guideway for parts of ther route (for example, the Allegheny Valley Flyer which travels to East Liberty at grade, and then bypasses the bulk of Pittsburgh traffic by traveling the last 5 or so miles into Downtown on the Busway.)

LRT: LRT advocates claim that these benefits are overstated, and that BRT cannot provide the levels of service that LRT can. A study conducted by the city of Hamilton, Ontario found that in every city surveyed but one, operations and maintenance costs per rider were LESS for LRT vs. BRT.

My Take: Rest of the world, Edge LRT (Pittsburgh, Edge BRT). Why is that you say? There is a big caveat to this study; wanna know the only city whose cost per rider was higher for LRT than BRT? That's right, Pittsburgh. Across the board in Pittsburgh it costs more per passenger to run the T than it does to operate and maintain all three busways. The Hamilton report surmises that has to do with Pittsburgh's relatively low population vs. some of the other cities studied, such as Portland, San Diego, and Denver.

Which has the Propensity to Attract More Riders?

BRT: This is the one point the BRT advocates will readily wave the white flag on. They have recognized that the public prefers rail, whether it be a heavy metro or LRT. There are numerous studies on both websites to back this statement up. Even the BRT websites have not tried to directly challenge the assertions that BRT is less attractive to riders than LRT. Instead, they have undertaken studies on how to make BRT more attractive to those who prefer rail. (In short, their proposed answer is, make it as much like rail as possible).

LRT: Who's to argue with logic like that? When the BRT folks are conceding that they are not as attractive to riders, there's not much more to say.

My Take: Rest of the World: Edge LRT. Pittsburgh: Push. Once again, Pittsburgh bucks the trend. Pittsburgh's busways carry on average 17,000 more people per day than the T.

In most cases is LRT superior to BRT, in my unqualified opinion, yes. However, I think there is a tendency to dismiss BRT and I believe that notion to be a little bit short sighted. Clearly in the case of Pittsburgh, the Busway system has been very successful when you compare it to the T. Busways carry more riders and do it for less money.

Is a BRT a sure fire option over LRT? Of course not, but LRT is not always guaranteed to be a better option than BRT. In a place like Boston, BRT doesn't necessarily make sense, especially given the existing infrastructure and dense population. However, in a smaller population city like Pittsburgh, it's clear that BRT can fill a vital role. It can provide high quality, and rapid service by taking buses of the street and putting them on their own separated grade guideway, and do it more effectively than LRT. The point is, maybe urban planners need to look at both options, and don't just look at the biased opinions of special interest groups who clearly have an agenda beyond providing efficient transit service.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Connect '09 Recommendations Announced

The results of the Port Authority's Connect '09 study have been released. The report has not been uploaded to the website yet, but it should be soon, as the Post Gazette and Trib both have stories detailing the findings.

The report focused on three main options to improve efficiency and service (in no particular order): The Grid system, Better Radial System and Better Radial "Plus"; all of which are designed to reduce costs while increasing efficiency and ridership.

The "Grid System" idea was axed pretty quickly because it involved a number of feeder routes to existing separated grade lines, such as the T or East/West Busway. It was determined that this would not generate the needed ridership, and would also increase costs and lead to increased fares. (This is a shame, I think this concept has promise if you have a robust enough backbone system to support such operations. Think Chicago or Boston)

The "Better Radial System" is still in the running. This system maintains Downtown and Oakland as urban "hubs" and concentrates on moving people to these two hubs. As a result, some service would focus on moving people primarily to Oakland (thus bypassing Downtown) and moving others primarily to Downtown (thus bypassing Oakland). This would ultimately speed service to those hubs by reducing the number of buses and routes that have to get stuck in Downtown traffic BEFORE getting to Oakland, and visa verse.

The third system, known as The "Better Radial System PLUS" involves the changes outlined in the Better Radial System, and also involves a number of significant improvements to bus service. In my mind, this is the best choice of the two remaining choices, however, it will involve more investment to get it running than the "Better Radial System".

  • "Rapid" Bus Service: 61 series, 71 series and 500 would become like a "BRT light" system used by other transit authorities. Changes would include dedicated lanes where possible, priority signaling at intersections, upgraded stations, and "limited" service (A reduction in number of stops). This operation would be similar to Los Angeles Metro's "Rapid" service.
  • 28X, more of an "Xpress": Right now, the 28X Oakland to Airport service has a slow meandering route to the airport that includes a number of stops in Robinson Town Center. Operational changes under this idea would have the 28X bypass Robinson Town Center, slashing transit time to the airport. RTC access would be provided by extending the current 100 route.
  • More bus only lanes: This service concept would provide for bus only lanes (like 5th Ave in Oakland), and priority signaling wherever possible.

Universal Changes proposed include:

  • Reduce the 16,000 stops on the Port Authority system by a significant number (The actual number, I believe will be determined by another round of studies)
  • Eliminate variations of a single route
  • Route number overhaul (YES!) which would change many bus route numbers and get rid of the antiquated T route numbering system completely in favor of a color coded system.
  • Construction of new park and ride facilities.
  • Downtown routes would centralize on fewer streets with fewer stops, with the goal of simplifying operations and improving efficiency.
  • Creation of "transit centers" throughout Allegheny County in areas where several routes converge, i.e. RTC or East Liberty. These centers would have updated schedule information, as well as a climate controlled environment.
Overall, not too shabby, there's nothing glaringly wrong with this plan. I also like the basic premise, transit improvements on a budget, making the most out of the system we and resources we have Right Now.

I know this study was based on things we can change right now, but I still would like to see a capital improvement plan that would, ohhhh I don't know, get us an integrated separated grade transit system (See any recurring themes here?)