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Archive for July, 2013

Essential Air Service Program Survives In A Time Of Austerity

Congress has decided that high-speed rail spending bad, but airline subsidies are very, very good:

The House has rejected an attempt to cut off subsidized air travel to rural towns and cities where taxpayer costs exceed $250 per ticket.

The current permissible subsidy is $1,000 per ticket. That’s forced just a handful of communities to lose service. New reforms in a transportation funding bill being debated by the House cut those subsidies to $500 a ticket or $1,000 per round trip to airports subsidized by the $200 million-plus Essential Air Service program.

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Airline-Style Boarding

Matthew Yglesias has been having a field day criticizing Amtrak’s airline-style boarding procedures:

At Union Station there’s a bizarre process where they list a gate instead of a track. The gate is a door and the door is closed. Outside the closed door there is a long snaking line. You wait in line, and then eventually the door opens. Then everyone shows their ticket to an agent, walks through an ante-chamber of some kind, and only then do you reach the platforms.

The ticket-checking is completely superfluous because you could walk to any platform once you’re out there. But it’s also unnecessary because conductors check the tickets on the trains anyway. But then you walk to the appropriate platform and board the train that’s waiting for you.

This method is both slower than the standard method and also involves overcrowding the interior of the station. Amazingly, Amtrak says it wants $7 billion to ameliorate track capacity constraints and station interior overcrowding when for the low price of $0 they could adopt standard train-boarding procedures.

Indeed, this is totally idiotic and without justification. But it gets worse — because the policy is being replicated all over the country.

Station plans for the California High-Speed Rail show lots of security theater; including mezzanine-level “waiting” rooms (holding pens), pre-boarding ticket check, and perhaps even x-ray machines. There is no thought to passenger circulation, and the underground platforms will be every bit as cramped as the “obsolete” ones at Union Station. All this security theater doesn’t come cheap. The new Transbay Terminal in San Francisco just got hit with $56 million in cost overruns to meet “unanticipated” Federal security requirements.

And then there is the All-Aboard Florida rail project. Here is how they plan to manage train boarding with station ushers:

Because the AAF service will be an ‘all reserved service,’ ticketed customers will pass through a control gate to gain access to the vertical circulation leading to the secure ‘ticketed passengers only’ spaces. In all cases, passengers will not be allowed access to the station platforms until approximately 4 or 5 minutes before departure of an arriving train. Train departure and arrival information will be electronically updated both in the public ticketing/information area, as well as in the secure waiting room and Business Class lounge. Access to the platform will be provided by means of two escalator/stair pairs and ADA compliant elevators, controlled by an AAF usher in the secure waiting room.

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A study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that urban areas were far safer compared to the countryside. Mainly because of (drumroll) fewer car accidents:

Although homicides in cities far outpace those in rural areas, overall the risk of dying from some form of accident or injury is 20 percent greater in the most rural counties of the United States than in the nation’s biggest cities.

“As you moved further and further away from cities you got less and less safe. Even going into the suburbs dropped your safety a little bit,” she said.

“It’s a little counterintuitive,” she said.

Myers said when people think of their personal safety, they tend to think about intentionally inflicted injuries, such as being attacked or shot, but the researchers found that the risk of dying from an accidental injury is 40 percent higher in the nation’s most rural counties than in its most urban.

This actually is not a counterintuitive result. Previous studies have come to the same conclusion.

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Not sure what there is to test, but at least there is progress:

Amtrak’s Ethan Allen services will begin accommodating bicycles on board in a demonstration program later this month, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said Tuesday. But an Amtrak spokesman cautioned that the program was only a pilot and is not yet available to the general public.

The demonstration project follows a push by state Sens. Betty Little and Brad Hoylman, as well as Schumer, to allow passengers to take their bicycles with them to destinations throughout the Hudson Valley, Adirondacks and Vermont.

Amtrak will use specially fitted cafe cars that can carry the bicycles and their riders on the Ethan Allen.

 

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Recent changes in MAP-21 have made Buy-America rules more strict. It will now apply to all contracts associated with a project, even ones that aren’t paid out of Federal dollars. This caught highway planners by surprise, and nearly halted a $1.3 billion expansion of CA highway 91 in the Inland Empire:

Inland officials are sounding alarm bells about a new twist on an old federal policy they say threatens big transportation projects set to launch in a few months. Going to bat for those officials are local members of Congress, who are urging the U.S. transportation secretary to be flexible in enforcing a provision concerning the use of domestic materials on roads and bridges, plus utility lines that have to moved. Hanging in the balance, officials say, is the massive makeover of Highway 91 between Interstate 15 and the Riverside County-Orange County line due to start by year’s end. The $1.3 billion project entails building four toll lanes, two general-purpose lanes and a connector ramp, and aims to deliver relief to tens of thousands of weary commuters who drive to jobs near the coast.

The projects could be postponed for months, if not years, officials said.

“We’ve always had Buy America on our contracts that use federal funds,” said Garry Cohoe, director of project delivery for San Bernardino Associated Governments.

What’s different, officials say, is federal lawmakers have extended the “Buy America” requirement to every contract associated with a project. That includes contracts signed to move gas pipelines, electrical wires and phone lines that are in the path of construction — though utility relocation typically isn’t paid for by federal dollars.

This is nothing new for transit agencies. They’ve always had to deal with this nonsense. This was the stated reason for rejecting the XPressWest HSR loan application. And Houston’s LRT project was severely delayed because two test vehicles were assembled in Spain (even though no Federal funds were involved).

Oh, and as for that Hwy 91 project….the DOT immediately granted an exemption.

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A loan application to build a Las Vegas high-speed rail line was rejected because the operator wanted to use foreign-built trains:

The Department has made clear that we prioritize projects that build a foundation for economic competitiveness by advancing domestic rail manufacturing in the United States. The FRA expects recipients of RRIF loans to purchase steel, iron, and other manufactured goods produced in the United States for their projects, regardless of whether the rolling stock is separately financed.

We recognize that a foreign equipment manufacturer may face challenges in meeting these Buy America requirements when responding to an initial opportunity in the United States for a limited order.

Note that the loan was not going to be spent on the train-sets. They would have been purchased separately. But the mere fact that any non-US goods were to be used was enough to kill the project.

And how exactly is this rigid adherence to Buy-America supposed to create jobs?

Now some would argue that this was a bad project anyway. The line would have terminated too far from Los Angeles to attract enough ridership. I agree with that point, but the rejection letter makes no mention of this. So what happens when the next HSR application comes along — and it is a really solid application. Will the DOT again make unreasonable requirements on rolling stock?  There is no domestic HSR manufacturing, and it is unrealistic to expect HSR manufacturers to magically spring out of nothingness to market trains for a project.

What we have here is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Domestic HSR manufacturing cannot exist without HSR lines being built. And HSR lines cannot be built if the DOT mandates domestic rolling stock.

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Amtrak Secret Board Meetings

Even though it receives billions in taxpayer subsidies, Amtrak is not governed like a public agency. It is a Corporation. As such, the Board of Directors does not (as far as I can tell) meet in public nor publish agendas/minutes. According to the unions, the Board classifies their meetings as “strategic retreats”.

This is not a good state of affairs. Without public meetings, it is difficult for members of the public to promote reform, or even know what decisions are being made. I think this is one reason the Amtrak Corporation has become so dysfunctional — and why it takes an Act of Congress to implement a pets policy, examine its losses on food sales, or provide bike access.

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