Archive for December, 2013

California, like most states, has not increased its gas tax in a very long time. Instead, the state has relied on a combination of bond measures, and local transportation sales taxes. The last statewide transportation bond measure was Proposition 1B, which raised $19 billion. Most of Prop 1B went to highway projects — including the Caldecott 4th bore, and massive widening of I5 in LA.

Now that Prop 1B funds are running out, highway construction lobbyists are plotting a new ballot measure. This one would permanently increase the vehicle license fee, providing $3 billion per year in new revenue. The new revenue is certainly welcome, as is using the VLF.

Unfortunately, their expenditure plan leaves much to be desired. It would devote 90% of the funds to highways, leaving only 10% for transit. Bikes and peds would receive nothing. If we are going to raise taxes to fix the infrastructure, then let’s fix all the infrastructure.

Even worse, the distribution formula to counties is based on the number of registered vehicles, and the number of road miles. This rewards sprawly counties, at the expense of urban counties with low car ownership.

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Air Travel Predictions Were Wrong Too

There have been a number of reports about those wildly inaccurate predictions of future highway travel demand. Motor vehicle travel is declining, but highway agencies keep planning more highways.

The same can be said for air travel. A decade ago, transport planners were predicting unlimited growth in air travel. Their estimates seem crazy now. Consider what happened with airports in the SF Bay Area. The region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) predicted SFO would grow to 46 million passengers by 2010 (up from 37 million in 1998). In fact,  SFO last year had just 30 million passengers — a significant decline from the 1998 level.

Similarly, Oakland was predicted to increase from to 16 million passengers by 2010. In fact, the airport had only 10 million passengers in 2012. And San Jose airport was supposed to reach 18 million passengers by 2010 — way more than the 8 million passengers that currently use it. San Jose has fewer passengers now than it did in 1998.

These inflated estimates were used to justify some horrendous projects. SFO proposed a controversial runway expansion plan that would have paved over part of San Francisco Bay. Billions are being spent on BART extension projects to airports, on the basis of the inflated passenger demand. San Jose is struggling to pay off a $1.7 billion terminal expansion. And, of course, there is the high-speed rail project. It would cost over $60 billion — in order to relieve “congestion” at California airports.

And what has the MTC learned from all this? Their 2011 updated plan still predicts unlimited growth in air travel.

Correction: Last year’s passenger count for SFO was actually 44.5 million. Even so, total passenger count for the 3 airports is significantly less than predicted.



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Putting the Pub in Public Transit

Two great things about Brno: the beer and the trams. Even better is to combine them.


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Another Cubic Scam

Transit card, or banking scam?

The contract to replace Chicago’s fare payment system was awarded to the publicly traded corporation Cubic in 2011 by the previous mayor, Richard M. Daley, for $454 million, and implemented with alacrity by the current mayor Rahm Emanuel. I’ll have much more to say about this company and its many dubious works in the next part of this series. For now, consider this. In a separate part of the project, Chicagoans are offered the following opportunity, as advertised on the back of their Ventra cards: “Go beyond transit. Call or go online to activate your Money Network® MasterCard® Prepaid Debit Account and use your Ventra Card for purchases, direct deposit, bill pay, and at ATMs.” This is how the City of Chicago intended to turn its millions of captive citizens over to the commercial banking industry: hoovering spare change from the pockets of Chicago’s marginal communities into corporate America’s overstuffed coffers.

Chicagoans who choose to turn bus cards into bank cards will be socked with hidden fees: $1.50 every time they withdraw cash using your bus-card-cum-bank-card from an ATM,$2.95 every time they add money using a personal credit card. Two dollars for every phone call with a service representative (or, oops, each “Operator Assisted Telephone Inquiry”). Two bucks for a paper copy of their account. An “account research fee” of $10 an hour.

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On the subject of horn blasting, FRA officials will always say that safety is their primary concern. But in fact, the rule can do more harm than good. An egregious example is the iconic tracks in San Clemente, California.


The tracks run past a beach with heavy pedestrian traffic. With no formal crossings, people just crossed wherever. This was obviously very dangerous, so the city proposed a reasonable solution — formal pedestrian crossings, with audible warning systems and other safety features. Fences and landscaping would discourage crossing, except at the designated locations. The idea was that the wayside audible warning system would provide as good (if not better) safety compared to train-mounted horns blasted from a quarter-mile away.

San Clemente applied to the FRA to obtain quiet-zone status for the crossings, but was not successful. The city then approached the PUC, asking the commission to approve quiet-zone status anyway.

Surprisingly, the PUC went along and the crossings were built. But the BNSF railroad derailed the plan, arguing that the FRA had primary jurisdiction over quiet-zones. BNSF filed a lawsuit against the PUC.

In BNSF Railway v. PUC  Judge Robie sided with BNSF. The result is that trains now have to blast horns whereas they didn’t used to (before crossings were installed). The neighbors are understandably livid about that.

While Judge Robie may be correct on the law, this is still bad policy. In his analysis of the case, UCSD Law Professor Shaun Martin notes:

The opinion might benefit from a recognition that this result is suboptimal. For everyone. It harms homeowners (as well as beach visitors). It discourages cities like San Clemente from enhancing pedestrian safety (since the result will be massive annoyance to its homeowners). It seems not to advance public safety in the slightest. It’s simply the result of an ossified historical structure — the traditional use of horns located on the train — that does not comport with modern technological capacity.

How did we ever get to the point where FRA rules prevent cities from fixing pedestrian hazards?

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Life Imitates Art


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Last week, Bombardier demoed the new railcars for the Montreal Metro:

About 600 people were present for the unveiling at the Bombardier factory in La Pocatière — about 150 kilometres northeast of Quebec City — including Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois and hundreds of Bombardier employees. The new wagons have more standing room, bigger windows, and it will be possible for passengers to walk from one train car to the next while the metro is in motion.

Of course, Montreal’s new trainsets will be an articulated design. That is now a standard feature for heavy-rail metros. Articulated trains have better passenger circulation, and allow for more space.

Here is a diagram showing how the articulated section will look like on Montreal’s trains:


And here is an actual photo of the new rolling stock:


Many other transit agencies across North America have adoped articulated trainsets. A partial list includes:

Toronto: The newest subway cars (Toronto “Rocket“) is a fully articulated train design. They are built by Bombardier Transportation with designs based on the company’s Movia family of trains.

Vancouver:  Mark II ART rolling stock, manufactured by Bombardier Transportation, used for Skytrain.

Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic): I wonder how many are aware that the Dominican Republic has an impressive metro system? It uses articulated trains built by Alstom (based on the Metropolis design).

Panama City: Currently under construction, it will open in early 2014. Their system will also use the Alstom Metropolis design.

Conspicuously absent from this list is any transit agency in the United States. Transit planners in the US have a deep aversion to articulated trainsets. So-called 3rd world countries like Panama and the Dominican Republic get the best possible trains — whereas the US (richest and most technologically advanced country in the world) is still using crappy train designs from 40 years ago. And the US is paying more too!

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The investigation has just begun, but it is likely that the NTSB will find that the fatal Metro-North derailment was due to excessive speed. It is precisely the kind of accident that PTC would have prevented.

But the FRA has a different view. FRA Administrator Joe Szabo sent a blistering letter to the MTA complaining of unspecified problems in its safety culture:

The Federal Railroad Administration today called for mandatory safety retraining of Metro-North workers and the creation of a confidential reporting system that lets employees report safety concerns, according to a letter from the agency to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It directed MTA, which operates the railroad, to respond by Dec. 6. The MTA needs to show its employees “a serious, good faith commitment to the safe operation of the system and inform them of the steps that MTA will take to enhance safety in both the short- and long-term,” Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in the letter to MTA Chief Executive Officer Thomas Prendergast.

At best, his letter is premature. At worst, it is disingenuous for trying to deflect blame from the FRA.

Historically, the FRA was opposed to PTC technology (until Congress intervened in 2008). Since that time, the FRA has botched the PTC implementation. Rather than pointing fingers, the FRA needs to answer why the PTC implementation is taking so long, despite being a turn-key technology.

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Big Parking In Little Italy

Behold! San Diego’s new 10-story parking edifice:


This lot, near the Amtrak station and right at a light rail stop, is some very desirable real estate. How visionary of San Diego to utilize the lot for a giant parking garage:

The vision for the Waterfront Park at the County Administration Center led to the creation of the new garage. While visitors to the County building can use its new underground parking, employees needed a place close by to park. And the Little Italy structure allows the neighborhood to accommodate more visitors as well.

“It encourages people to visit this culturally rich and progressive community, a community with some of the best restaurants, hotels, stores, open markets and public events in the downtown area,” said Supervisor Ron Roberts.

General obligation bonds will be used to pay for the $24 million project.

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Did NPR Notify The Police?

From an NPR puff-piece on cycling. This lady is clearly deranged:

And then there’s the issue of safety. In fact, on Insua’s ride, a car cut through the single file of bicycles, missing one person by just a couple feet. So perhaps the greatest obstacle to bike trains is that drivers don’t like sharing the road.

“It’s like they enjoy taking up the lanes,” says Jackie Burke, who has lived in Los Angeles her whole life. She says bicyclists drive her crazy when she’s in a car and has to slow down for them.

“It’s very frustrating, to the point where I just want to run them off the road,” Burke says. “I’ve actually done one of those drive-really-close-to-them kind of things to kind of scare them, to try to intimidate them to get out of my way.”

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