Archive for June, 2012

You’ve heard of the bridge-to-nowhere and the train-to-nowhere. There is also the “plane to nowhere“:

Tea party lawmakers from rural areas were among those fighting the hardest to preserve taxpayer subsidies for airline flights into and out of small towns last year after senior Republicans tried to eliminate the oft-criticized program. Now, the House Appropriations Committee is awarding the program an 11 percent budget hike.

Next year, the subsidies would reach a record $214 million under a bill the GOP-run committee approved Tuesday.

The subsidies can reach hundreds of dollars per ticket — and can exceed $1,000 in a few routes. A recent change to the program will soon take care of such $1,000-plus cases, but critics of the program say more needs to be done to shelter taxpayers from runaway costs. Last year, the House voted to eliminate the program in the lower 48 states by 2013. But rural tea party lawmakers like Reps. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D., were among those who fought to save it. Instead of killing the air subsidies, Congress in February approved a watered-down set of changes when passing a measure renewing federal aviation programs.

This is the same Congress which eliminated high-speed rail funding, and severely cut bike/ped programs. Unlike the “essential” air services program, high-speed trains and bike paths don’t require operating subsidies.

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The far-east edge cities of the Bay Area were literally ground zero for the real estate bubble. But despite the real estate collapse and high gas prices, the zombie highway projects keep right on going:

State Route 239 is a legislatively approved but unconstructed route in the state highway system. The highway is to connect Brentwood to Tracy. The study area envisions a new roadway in the area currently covered by the Bryon Highway/J4.

SR 239 has moved from the concept phase to the early planning phase. The County has collected Federal earmarks totaling $14 million to study and construct the new highway. Even with reduced constriction cost $14 million will probably pay for the planning, environmental studies and possibly some initial right of way purchases. Additional funding sources will be needed for the actual construction.

Contra Costa County has selected a consultant team headed by Parsons Transportation Group to perform the technical work, economic analysis, public outreach, project delivery and consensus-building for the SR 239 Project, The work is expected to take approximately two years and will involve the City of Brentwood, City of Tracy, San Joaquin County, Contra Costa County, San Joaquin Council of Governments, Mountain House Community Services District, Alameda County, Caltrans, and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

In case you haven’t heard of the “planned” community of Mountain House, the New York Times had a feature on that development. It is basically a ghost town, with the highest percentage of underwater mortgages in the country. Here we are in the midst of major economic downturn, and Contra Costa County is going off and planning a giant new north-south freeway to feed unsustainable developments like Mountain House.

What is really infuriating  is the way this project has flown under the radar. There is no mention (that I can locate) in the MTC’s Federally mandated 2035 Plan. This is not uncommon for the MTC. Their lack of transparency has led to numerous lawsuits and Civil Rights complaints filed with the Feds.

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What better way to celebrate the Summer Solstice, than by driving around and around a freeway onramp in your SUV?

At least, that’s what I think Fresno County highway engineers had in mind when they built this tiny replica of Stonehenge — inside a cloverleaf interchange.

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Lighting $600k On Fire

Even in a down economy, San Jose figures out a way to light $600,000 on fire:

The city of San Jose has received a grant for $600,000 from the ArtPlace national arts funding organization. The grant is expected to be used to support a pilot program, called Illuminating Downtown. The project aims to light up sites in downtown San Jose, combining themes including art, technology, and environmental sustainability. Some of the areas include the South First Area and San Pedro Square, with the first project being the downtown gateway of Highway 87 at Santa Clara Street.

So let me get this straight…install decorative lighting — at a freeway off-ramp — to demonstrate “environmental sustainability”??

The artist for the first project is Dan Corson, who previously helped prepare San Jose’s Diridon Station Area Art Plan. It is expected to be installed by winter 2013.

Wow, who knew Diridon station even had an Art Plan? Too bad there are no passengers to see it.

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The Rod Diridon Quote of the Day

Rail “expert” Rod Diridon on the need for a new transbay rail crossing:

Rod Diridon, executive director for the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State, has long argued for a second BART tunnel under the bay, one that would have allowed BART to keep operating yesterday. And Diridon says the cost–estimates range from 2 billion to as much as 10 billion dollars–would be worth it considering how fast the Bay Area is growing. “Those amounts of funds are chicken feed,” Diridon says, “when you compare it to what happens to the economy of the Bay Area when those access routes are interdicted for any period of time.”

For the record: Diridon strenuously opposed the Altamont alignment for high-speed rail — which would have provided a new Bay crossing. Oh, at a cost much less than $10 billion too.

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FRA “Expedites” Waiver Process

The good news: the FRA has created an “expedited” process for transit agencies to get waivers on running modern light-weight trains.

The bad news: the process still takes three years to complete:

On Monday, June 4, 2012, Administrator Joseph Szabo of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in conjunction with the American Public Transportation Association Annual Rail Conference will formally announce approval of DCTA’s request to operate the Stadler GTW concurrent with traditional, compliant equipment. This means that for the first time ever; light-weight/fuel efficient, eco-friendly low-floor vehicles will be permitted to operate in rail corridors concurrently with traditionally compliant vehicles. The waiver, a first of its kind, will expand commuter rail options for transportation authorities across the United States.

In 2009, the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) prepared a set of technical criteria and procedures for evaluating passenger rail train-sets that have been built to alternative designs. The alternative designs enable lighter, more fuel-efficient rail vehicles equipped with a Crash Energy Management system to commingle with traditionally compliant equipment.

DCTA (Denton County Transit Authority) began the waiver application process in 2009. Even better, they had to rely on our good friends at LTK Engineering Services to make “safety” modifications:

Stadler, DCTA, and DCTA’s vehicle consultant, LTK Engineering Services, have been working closely with the FRA to achieve this waiver since 2009. DCTA partnered with Stadler to make modifications and enhancements to the GTW to comply with the required safety guidelines. Modifications include changes to the fuel tank design, window glazing and passenger and operator seats.

One wonders how much pure profit LTK earned on designing the FRA-compliant operator seat.

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Lego Bike Accident

If you don’t have kids, then you probably aren’t aware that Lego sells a “Lego-City” series of kits. My favorite is Lego-Ambulance  — it includes an ambulance, two paramedics, and a crashed cyclist. The scene of the accident is an intersection (traffic signal included).



As you can see, the cyclist probably crashed because the lego-street lacked segregated bike facilities.

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My travel to Fremont got all messed up this morning — because Mitt Romney decided to have a photo-op in front of the Solyndra building.

It is funny how the mainstream press will closely frame these PR stunts:

Here is a wider shot:

It would save everyone a lot of time and money if these candidates would just learn to use Photoshop.

And not to defend Solyndra, but a cost-benefit analysis of the Energy Dept’s investments should be based on the totality of the program, not a single failure. Romney understands this better than anyone, as surely his vast investment portfolio had a few stinkers now and then.

Like any other Venture-Capital effort, one major success can more than compensate for a string of losses. So, does the Energy Dept. have any big winners in its portfolio? Well, perhaps you’ve heard to these guys…their factory is practically next door to Solyndra. How could the assembled reporters not have noticed it when they were bused in?

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