Archive for March, 2012

BART’s “Fleet of the Future”

BART’s 1960’s Rohr-cars were ahead of their time. Their superior power/weight ratio saves energy and accelerates trains quickly. By contrast, it appears their 21st-century “fleet of the future” will be weighed down with FRA-style collision posts.

The new design features smooth and flush surfaces. It also includes strong vertical posts built into the face of the cab to provide enhanced protection to people on board in the event of a collision.

Collision posts are expensive and unnecessary. Every extra dollar spent on them takes away money from actual safety improvements. Undoubtedly, this is the result of the 2009 Washington Metro collision. Federal regulators made a huge deal out of the lack of collision posts, even though the cause of that accident was a flaky train control system.



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East Bay Punked Again

A giant sucking sound coming from the Peninsula:

“This is a really big deal – we’re resolving a lot of regional conflicts,” said Adam Alberti, spokesman for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

True, but the plan also locks up much of the region’s federal mass transit spending for years to come – virtually shutting out any other grandiose schemes, like extending BART into Livermore.

First the CHSRA changes the route from Altamont to Pacheco. Then the phantom Altamont “overlay” is dangled out there, before being yanked from the Plan. And now BART-Livermore.

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BART Noise Levels

Screetching noise is the #1 complaint of BART riders. So what are the noise requirements for the “next-generation” car order?

We received a lot of feedback from the public asking that we make the new fleet quieter than the old cars. As a result, BART will be  requiring the carbuilder to meet the highest standards in the United States regarding train car interior noise and noise absorption.

One has to wonder what exactly is meant by “highest standards in the US” given that BART’s own PR department believe they already run the quietest in the nation:

The National Academy of Sciences’ Transit Research Board sponsored an independent study in the 1990s to look at rail sound. The study concluded, “With trued wheels and smooth ground rail on ballast and ties, BART is one of the quietest vehicles in operation at U.S. transit systems.” BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson said that according to the report, “You’d be hard pressed to find a quieter system” anywhere in America.

Just a suggestion, but why not require noise levels meet the highest global standards? Or at least quantify the sustained decibel level riders can expect in the transbay tube with the new cars.

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Holy smokes! Have the FRA bureaucrats finally seen the light?

A new report Technical Criteria and Procedures for Evaluating the Crashworthiness and Occupant Protection Performance of Alternatively Designed Passenger Rail Equipment looks at standardizing metrics for transit agencies wanting to use non-compliant rolling stock.

As explained in the Introduction:

The Federal Railroad Administration‘s (FRA) primary mission is to provide for the safety of the Nation‘s railroads by administering the railroad safety laws and regulations. Railroads and operating authorities can petition FRA to waive regulations, including the crashworthiness regulations that apply to rail passenger equipment. Each petition for waiver is expected to contain sufficient information to support the action sought, including an evaluation of anticipated impacts. To provide for safety while making best use of its resources and to facilitate passenger rail industry growth, FRA has decided to develop, in consultation with the rail industry, alternative criteria and procedures for assessing the crashworthiness of rail passenger trainsets that are applicable to a wide range of equipment designs. These criteria and procedures are intended to be used by the rail industry in developing information to support waiver petitions and by FRA in evaluating waiver petitions. 

The objective of this effort was to develop criteria and procedures for assessing the crashworthiness and occupant protection performance of alternatively designed equipment to be used in Tier I service. Alternative designs include trainsets originally intended for operation outside the United States that may not be compliant with current FRA Tier I crashworthiness regulations. As defined in Part 238, Tier I service includes any passenger rail service operating at speeds up to 125 mph. Criteria are defined by the conditions that will be evaluated and the critical results from the evaluation. Procedures are defined as the analysis and test techniques applied to demonstrate compliance with the criteria. The criteria and procedures that have been developed take advantage of the latest technology in rail equipment crashworthiness. The criteria and procedures include aspects that are fundamentally different from current regulations, such as the scenario-based train-level requirements. No such requirements exist in FRA‘s current Tier I regulations

Pinch me…I must be dreaming.

One minor criticism of the report is that they are still fixated on accident survivablility. PTC and other accident avoidance measures are also important components for overall safety. Still, it will be interesting to see if any policy change get enacted.

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In his scathing resignation letter to Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith wrote:

Get your clients — some of whom are sophisticated, and some of whom aren’t — to trade whatever will bring the biggest profit to Goldman. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t like selling my clients a product that is wrong for them.

He was referring to derivative products sold to private investors, but this is applicable to government clients too. Firms like Goldman Sachs have made a killing selling interest-rate swap deals to various government agencies, including transit agencies. The politicians who bought them were (to put it mildly) unsophisticated investors.

Here’s how municipal swaps worked (in theory): Say an issuer needed to raise money and prevailing rates for fixed-rate debt were 5 percent. A swap allowed issuers to reduce the interest rate they paid on their debt to, say, 4.5 percent, while still paying what was effectively a fixed rate.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

The contracts, however, assumed that economic and financial circumstances would be relatively stable and that interest rates used in the deals would stay in a narrow range. The exact opposite occurred: the financial system went into a tailspin two years ago, and rates plummeted. The auction-rate securities market, used by issuers to set their interest payments to bondholders, froze up. As a result, these rates rose. For municipalities, that meant they were stuck with contracts that forced them to pay out a much higher interest rate than they were receiving in return.

Even worse, municipalities were locked into these deals with very high early-termination fees. This is precisely the situation that the city of Oakland (CA) finds itself. The cash-strapped city received an up-front benefit of $9.1 million from the interest-rate swap, but now must pay out $5 million annually to Goldman Sachs as part of the Faustian bargain. The swap deal runs until 2021, and the early termination fee is $19 million.

But that pales in comparison to what has happened at the MTC:

Fast forward to 2009. A year into the financial crisis, interest rates collapsed. LIBOR, which had been fluctuating around 5 percent and reached a peak of 5.8 percent in September of 2007, plummeted to virtually zero. The flow of payments became entirely one-sided, from MTC to banks that offered this deal. The advantage of the swap evaporated, and it became a toxic asset. While the Federal Treasury would offload similar toxic assets from the “too big to fail banks” using the TARP program, local governments were stuck with them.

As Ambac careened toward bankruptcy in 2010 due to its absurdly over-leveraged portfolio of credit default swaps, the MTC was forced to terminate its swap agreement with the company, paying the exorbitant sum of $104 million, after already having paid out $23 million in interest. All of this was essentially bridge toll money, surrendered by drivers crossing the seven state-owned bridges administered by BATA: the Bay, Antioch, Benicia-Martinez, Carquinez, Dumbarton, Richmond-San Rafael, and San Mateo bridges. The drain on MTC funds indirectly affects all of its programs, including operational support for AC Transit, Muni, and other regional bus and train services.

Incidentally, one major client of Goldman Sachs is the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). Goldman’s expert advice on structuring Public-Private Partnerships was that private investors receive 100% revenue guarantees — and to wait until the project reaches profitability before privatizing. In other words, taxpayers assume all the risk while Wall Street investors get all the profit. Like the interest-rate swaps, this would be a horrible deal for taxpayers.

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TRB 2012

Proceedings of the 2012 Transportation Research Board are available online, with dozens of presentations on bike/ped facilities. It is gratifying to see bike/ped becoming so important among professional planners, even if a lot of researchers are only re-rediscovering things Dutch cycle planners have known for decades.

Here is my attempt to separate some good papers from the dreck. Note that full papers require subscription, but the Abstract and slides summarize the key results.

Cycling in the Netherlands: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations (Heinen, Eva) – This paper compares the outcomes of a PhD-research on bicycle commuting with policies on cycling. Policies (at least in the Netherlands) are frequently not derived from (academic) research findings, but often based on common sense or best practices. This paper investigates to what extent the policies in Netherlands are in line with the research findings and which other policies could be considered. Policies and campaigns adopt different strategies to encourage cycling, of which some  correspond with the recent research results. Many programs recognize the importance of the employer when it comes to commuting. Other programs aim at increasing the awareness on the 15 benefits of cycling, or change the individuals travel habit by making commuters aware of the option to cycle to work. Nevertheless many factors that affect cycling are left untouched and policies address issues of which the effect is unknown. Additionally, this papers presents several ideas to stimulate cycling, both existing Dutch programs as well as ideas derived from the recently obtained research findings.

Multiuser Perspectives on Separated, On-street Bicycle Infrastructure (Monsere, Christopher M.;McNeil, Nathan Winslow;Dill, Jennifer) – In the early fall of 2009 the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) installed a cycle track and a pair of buffered bike lanes in downtown Portland. A major objective was to test facilities that were thought to bring higher levels of comfort to bicycle riders through increased separation from motor vehicle traffic. After one year of use, an evaluation was conducted to understand how the facilities affected the experience of the various users, including intercept surveys of cyclists, motorists, pedestrians and adjacent business. The surveys found improved perceptions of safety and comfort among cyclists, particularly women. Cyclists also preferred the new facilities over alternative routes and facility types. Both motorists and cyclists liked the additional separation of the users. Motorists were more likely to attribute additional travel delays and inconvenience to the facilities; this was especially the case for motorists who never ride a bicycle and those surveyed on the buffered bike lane facility. Pedestrians liked the increased separation from traffic but had concerns about interactions with cyclists when crossing the cycle track. Businesses expressed support for these and other new bicycle facilities, but had concerns about parking and deliveries.

Cycle Tracks, Bicycle Lanes, and On-street Cycling in Montreal, Canada: Preliminary Comparison of Cyclist Injury Risk (Nosal, Thomas Gregory;Miranda-Moreno, Luis Fernando) – This paper estimates the relative cyclist injury risk of bicycle facilities with respect to streets without bicycle provisions, and explores the differences in cyclist injury risk between different types of facilities, namely, cycle-tracks and bicycle lanes. The cyclist injury rates for a set of four cycle tracks (totaling 11.75 km) and four bicycle lanes (totaling 3.76 km) in the City of Montreal are compared to injury rates for corresponding control streets using relative risk ratios. Nine control streets are used. Overall, it was found that most bicycle facilities in the analysis do indeed exhibit lower cyclist injury rates than the corresponding control streets. Furthermore, factors that may affect the injury risk of a particular bicycle facility include whether or not it is bidirectional, visibility, physical separation, presence and location of parking, vehicular traffic, and the direction of vehicular traffic. However, further research is required to determine the exact effect of these factors, and to address several limitations in data.

Safety Considerations for Permitting Bicycles on Controlled-Access Highway Shoulders (Kweon, Young-Jun;Lim, In-Kyu;Lynn, Cheryl Walker) – In an effort to meet increasing demands for travel options, highway agencies are working to  accommodate non-motorists into the transportation system. Because of the challenges in constructing separate paths for bicycles, highway shoulders are the most feasible alternative in many cases, and those once prohibited for bicycle travel have been opened or are being considered for bicycle use. Although studies of the safety aspects of bicycle travel on highway shoulders have been conducted, examinations appear to focus on summary statistics of bicyclerelated crashes and/or a handful of individual cases of such crashes. This study examined several aspects associated with the safety of bicyclists on shoulders of controlled access highways using empirical and theoretical analysis. The intent of the study was to determine the characteristics of a roadway segment that would require it to be designated as prohibited for bicycle use. Some of the study findings include (1) few bicyclist/pedestrian involved crashes were reported on the controlled access highways in Virginia; (2) the segments prohibiting bicyclists/pedestrians are predicted to have more run-off-right crashes, the immediate threat to non-motorists on shoulders, than the segments permitting such usage; and (3) although stopping sight distance for bicycles is not a primary concern in permitting bicycle use of shoulders in general, there are conditions such as downgrade segments with the design speed below 40 mph where it should be considered.

Implementation and Case Studies of Innovative Bicycle Facilities – presentation by Heath Maddox, SFMTA Bicycle Planner, of recent projects in San Francisco.

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Motherfucking Bike

I’m on a mother fucking bike!

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