Archive for December, 2012

NTSB Mindset

An inattentive trucker with a history of speeding violations is operating a rig with 11 of 16 brakes worn out, and the ABS disabled. He crashes into the side of an Amtrak train, killing four passengers and a conductor.

It goes without saying that the NTSB is going to conclude that stricter regulation is needed for the hauling industry, right?

Ha, Ha! Just kidding:

Among other things, the panel also recommended the development of side-impact worthiness standards to minimum encroachment into rail cars and requiring passenger rail car doors to be designed to prevent fire and smoke from moving between cars — although they acknowledged fire doors would not have made a difference in this case.

No matter what the primary cause of a fatal railway accident may be, the NTSB recommendation is always going to be “build the railcars like tanks.” That is their mindset.


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Herding Cats

The next time someone from the Agriculture Dept. says they need more food inspectors to control e. coli outbreaks, someone should ask how much they are spending on herding cats:

Mr. Hemingway spent most of the 1930s in Key West completing some of his best work. Now, his former house at 907 Whitehead Street is a museum open to daily tours and the occasional wedding. It also continues to be home to 40 to 50 six-toed cats that are a living legacy of Hemingway. As in Hemingway’s time, the cats are allowed to roam and lounge at will in the house and on the one-acre grounds.

At some point several years ago, a museum visitor expressed concern about the cats’ care. The visitor took that concern all the way to the US Department of Agriculture and, literally, made a federal case out of it.

Soon USDA inspectors showed up in Key West. They said that if the museum wanted to display cats it needed an exhibitor’s license as required under the federal Animal Welfare Act. (That’s the same law that regulates circuses, zoos, and traveling dog and pony shows.)

Federal officials advised the museum that it also needed to take action to: Confine the cats in individual cages each night, or construct a higher fence around the property, or install an electric wire atop the existing brick wall, or hire a night watchman to keep an eye on the cats. The museum was ordered to tag each cat for identification, and add additional elevated resting surfaces within the cat’s enclosures. USDA officials also advised that the museum would face fines for noncompliance.

The museum appealed to a Federal court, and lost.

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Train Robbery

Once again, SMART rail planners try to raid bike/ped funds:

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials are seeking $6.6 million in federal funds to buy more train cars, money that otherwise would be used for local pedestrian and bicycle paths.

“SMART is committed to go to Cloverdale and to Larkspur and as you go farther, you need more vehicles,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

SMART’s request is drawing fire from bicycle advocates because the rail agency would be taking the lion’s share of $9.9 million that Sonoma County is getting for such projects as bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, traffic lights, Safe Routes to Schools programs and even construction of SMART’s own pedestrian and bicycle path.

“It would mean that most jurisdictions would have to put off implementing most of their bike-pedestrian plans for five years, at least,” said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

The coalition has been a staunch supporter of SMART but is strongly opposing this bid. “We don’t understand how it makes sense for one train set to take two-thirds of the funding for the entire network,” Lupien said.

This problem all stems from a very ill-advised decision by SMART to custom-design FRA-compliant railcars. Compared to the global price, the SMART DMU’s will be nearly twice as expensive. And the decision to run under FRA rules adds huge cost; for example: the $12 million spent on the quiet zones. It would be one thing if SMART needed the $6.6 million to cover legitimate shortfalls. But in this case, it is to pay for self-inflicted problems.

And here again, we see the downsides to Buy-America rules on railcars. $6.6 million taxdollars could be used to hire local Sonoma contractors to build bike-paths for local Sonoma bike riders. SMART instead would send that money to subsidize jobs out in Illinois, which does nothing for the local California economy.


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World’s Most Dangerous Highway

With an official death rate of 180 per year, the N2 is perhaps the world’s most deadly highway. It was financed by the World Bank. Like most of their road projects, it was done with the purpose of speeding up motor vehicle traffic, without any regard to pedestrians or cyclists:

 On the road with me is Greg Smith, an affable Australian who works as the regional director for the International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP), an organisation that star-rates and assesses roads around the world mile by mile. Bangladesh’s road accident record is bad, but it is by no means unique. Around 1.3 million people now die every year and 50 million are injured on the road, the vast majority in poor countries such as Bangladesh. Road accidents now kill more children than HIV and Aids, malaria and diarrhoea put together.

“Basically this road is like driving a 10-tonne truck through a pedestrian mall,” Smith says. “And nobody is doing enough to stop it.”

He points to the sides of the road: no crash barriers. In the middle of the road, there is no central reservation to prevent dangerous overtaking and stop the majority of the head-on collisions. No pedestrian footpaths, no footbridges, no traffic lights or speed controls.

“They built this road with absolutely no basic safety features,” he says. “As an engineer I look at this road and all I see is a systematic failure. And this is a World Bank road. You would never ever build a road like this in a developed country.

Deaths and injuries do not factor into World Bank cost-effectiveness calculations:

At the World Bank no one wants to be linked to the N2. When I ask how they can account for an almost 50% rise in accidents since the 2005 renovation I’m told the N2 is an “old project”, that they have suspended all road building in Bangladesh because of corruption, and that a rise in accidents post-renovation is “to be expected” when there is more traffic on the roads. They say road safety is one of the Bank’s biggest priorities. And, ultimately, all the Bank did was give the loan. It’s up to the government to do the rest. It is “their” road.

“We want to see economic growth and greater access to markets associated with renovating a road,” says Ellen Goldstein, country director for the World Bank in Bangladesh. “We clearly don’t want to see hospital beds filling up. But there is definitely a financial trade-off to be made by every developing country not just with road safety but with other development issues. The ability to get to Sylhet in five or six hours is unbelievable compared to what it once was. So when you look at the huge economic benefit this brings then, of course, you will have a cost, which is the potential for fatalities and injury.”


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Rock Bottom? It Is A Bottomless Pit

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Proposition B1 Post-Mortem

As a lot of readers know, the Alameda County transportation sales tax measure (Proposition B1) came just a few hundred votes short of the necessary 2/3 super-majority needed to pass. A transportation measure in Los Angeles also failed by a slim margin. Predictably, this has led to calls to water-down the vote threshold for transportation sales tax measures. Senator Carol Liu has already introduced a constitutional amendment, SCA-4, that would lower the threshold to 55%.

Bicycle and transit advocates were obviously disappointed that B1 failed. The measure would have increased bike/ped funding in the county, and prevented further cuts to the local bus system. So should they get on board with a lower 55% threshold? I think that may be ill-advised.

The advantage of the 66% threshold is that it ensures all constituencies have a seat at the table. That was not the case in 1986, when only a simple majority was needed. The result was that bike/ped advocates were completely shut out. Transit riders didn’t do so well either. Here is a comparison of the simple-majority 1986 and super-majority 2002 measures:


Note that Alameda county surpassed 80% approval. Other urban counties have also been generally successful with local measures, despite the 2/3 requirement.

So what went wrong this time? In the case of Alameda, the county over-reached. Unlike past measures, Proposition B1 had a controversial provision making the tax permanent. Many voters were concerned that once the existing expenditure plan was completed, the county would continue collecting the tax in perpetuity without input from the voters.

Some have also argued that a 2/3 requirement is inherently un-democratic, because it gives greater weight to the “No” vote. That is nonsense for a number of reasons. For one thing, all democracies have built-in safeguards to protect minority interests. And the “Yes” campaigns have an unfair fundraising advantage from the developers and the road lobby.

Ok, but even if mistakes were made in 1986, surely planners have learned their lesson. This is the 21st century, and planners are more knowledgeable, and will use the 55% threshold responsibly, right? I’ve heard a surprising number of environmental advocates make that case. Well, anyone who believes that, then I have a bridge to sell you.

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Two things right-wingers really don’t like: the Americans With Disabilities Act and the United Nations. So no surprise that a UN Treaty on Persons with Disabilities would bring out the crazies:

The Senate rejected a United Nations treaty aimed at banning discrimination against individuals with disabilities Tuesday, falling five votes short of the two-thirds needed in a 61-38 vote.

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities calls on participating countries to work to attain equality in access to education, healthcare and more, and was based largely on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It was negotiated by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2006 and has since been signed by President Obama. So far, 126 countries have ratified the treaty.

The treaty, which passed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before an attempt to ratify it through a voice vote fell flat in August, had a broad base of support, with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) standing next to each other Monday to implore senators to join their cause.

Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), backed by his wife, fellow former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), attended Tuesday’s vote to urge the treaty’s ratification. The former Senate majority leader looked on from his wheelchair as senators voted from their desks instead of approaching the room’s podium.

The reasons for opposing the treaty were bizarre, to say the least.  Rick Santorum went so far as to argue that had the treaty passed, then the UN would kill his special needs child.

Bob Dole (far right) wheeled in to Senate by his Wife, Elizabeth Dole. Dole, once the GOP''s Party leader, failed to sway Republicans.

Bob Dole (far right) wheeled in to Senate by his Wife, Elizabeth Dole. Dole, once the GOP”s Party leader, failed to sway Republicans.

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