Archive for January, 2014

MBTA’s Buggy Railcars

Here is a textbook example of all the problems Buy-America causes for new railcar orders:

A long-awaited fleet of MBTA commuter rail cars, delivered 2½ years late by the South Korean manufacturer, is now so plagued by mechanical, engineering, and software problems that it has to be shipped to a facility in Rhode Island to be fitted with new parts.

Even as a T spokesman described the problems with the cars as “standard operating procedure,” rail workers and their union representatives said the situation is unprecedented, and federal officials acknowledged they are “monitor[ing] the situation closely.”

“In my 40-some years of railroad experience, we’ve never seen problems like this,” said Tom Murray, president of the local chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America.

But Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority officials say the problems — including issues with doors, air-conditioning, brakes, and signal software — are a normal part of introducing new, more technologically advanced train cars into a transit system.

“Railroad coaches are not like new autos that a buyer drives off the lot,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said. “Modifications are made as necessary. . . . This is standard operating procedure throughout the transit industry.”

First, you have to marvel at the MBTA blaming the problems on a more “technologically advanced” train car. For God’s sake, these are primitive commuter coaches. To think that toilets, air-conditioning, and doors are some bleeding edge technology!

But Pesaturo is technically correct that all this debugging is “standard operating procedure” for the US transit industry. That is because railcars have to be custom-designed — in order to comply with the Buy-America rules, and the FRA nonsense.

There is a better way. Let’s do what every other transit agency in the world does: use off-the-shelf trains, follow the global standards. Why shouldn’t the MBTA buy railcars just like the new auto buyer?

So it was inevitable that MBTA’s special-snowflake trains would go through a considerable amount of debugging. This will go on for years. It is not only expensive, but dangerous:

Some of the problems center on the control cars, which are designed to be driven by engineers at the front of the train. The cars cannot be used on rail lines owned by Amtrak, which run south of Boston, because the car’s software is incompatible with the signal system. In some instances, signals inside the train indicate that the engineer has the OK to proceed when outside signals indicate that the train must wait. In those cases, engineers noticed that the signals did not match up and reported the problem.

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Andrew Rosenthal is wondering the same thing I am. Why hasn’t Justin Bieber been deported?

A foreign national living in the United States on a work visa is arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana, alcohol and prescription drugs, while drag racing in a residential area. Given the climate of hostility toward immigrants in many parts of the country, and the Obama administration’s love affair with deportation, you’d expect him to be sitting in a holding cell awaiting a one-way trip out of the country.

At least you would expect that if he were poor, obscure and, say, Hispanic. But what if the malfeasant were wealthy, famous and, say, Justin Bieber?

The answer is that Biber is here on a O-1 visa. Individuals with “extraordinary” gifts in the arts are eligible (which just goes to show there is no accounting for taste). Under Federal law, re-evaluation of O-1 visa status only occurs for prison sentences longer than 1-year.

Perhaps it is time for Congress to reconsider the O-1 visa conditions. Drag racing and DUI are serious offenses that can injure or kill other road users. Why should such dangerous individuals be permitted to remain in the country?

Canadian Prime Minister presenting Justin Bieber with the Diamond Jubilee medal. The medal is awarded to Canadians who have made great achievement abroad.

Canadian Prime Minister presenting Justin Bieber with the Diamond Jubilee medal. The medal is awarded to Canadians who have made great achievements abroad.

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A Bit Of A Sticky Wicket

London’s busy Victoria line is shut down — because a construction team accidentally poured concrete into the signalling equipment room.


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Here is another one of those stories about absurd parking subsidies. The city of Madison, WI has several parking garages that are functionally obsolete. The city wants to replace these facilities with new underground parking — and use the land above for new development.

In theory, that is not a bad idea. It frees up land for new infill development. The problem is that underground parking is ludicrously expensive. So the city is proposing a change in state law that would allow the use of tax-increment financing to fund it:

Under TIF, the city freezes the value of property in an area and uses new tax revenue there to support private development and public infrastructure. After loans and debt are repaid, all value is fully returned to the tax rolls.

In the early 1980s, the Legislature found TIF inappropriate for large public projects that rely on user fees such as sewage and water facilities. Madison can’t use TIF for municipal parking structures because its parking utility, created in the 1940s, has relied on user fees and revenue bonds to build structures.

Now, the city is seeking funding options to help pay for public parking at Judge Doyle Square and parking garages Downtown that must be replaced in coming years and decades. Being able to use TIF would make it more feasible to put parking underground and attract private development and private tax base on prime real estate above it, city officials said.

Putting parking underground can increase the cost of a garage by 50 to 100 percent, city Parking Operations manager Thomas Woznick said.

In other words, the city would subsidize the facilities instead of charging users the market rate. The development would receive other taxpayer giveaways as well:

The city is considering investing a record amount of public money into the project, which has evolved from a plan to replace the crumbling Government East parking ramp at Pinckney and Doty streets into a $160-million or more multi-phased effort including a luxury hotel, new office space and market rate housing.

First-term east-side Ald. David Ahrens has emerged as the most outspoken leader of the opposition, questioning the need for a new hotel that backers say will help bring more business to the city-owned Monona Terrace Convention Center.

Last month, Ahrens brought nationally known convention business critic Heywood Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas-San Antonio, to Madison for a public discussion on the project.

And first-term southeast side Ald. Denise DeMarb, who recently proposed an open meeting of the full City Council to discuss the project, says she has some serious concerns about a potential $50 million or more in tax incremental financing or other public subsidy.

“This is a huge project, with potentially a lot of taxpayer money going into it and that is something I take very seriously,” says DeMarb, the former finance director at Trek Bicycle Corp.


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Fort Lee Shenanigans

In New Jersey, government officials have abused their authority — possibly even broken laws. The victims were ordinary residents of Fort Lee, just trying to travel along city streets.

Oh, did you think I was talking about Governor Christie and his staff?

No, I am referring to Fort Lee’s Police Chief. He decided to ticket “distracted” pedestrians — even though there is no law against it:

After trying pamphlets and brochures, he’s ordering his officers to ticket careless pedestrians on the spot. “They’re not alert and they’re not watching what they’re doing,” Police Chief Thomas Ripoli told CBS 2′s Derricke Dennis.

Unlike careless driving, there’s no specific charge for being a careless pedestrian, but Chief Ripoli said his officers are watching, adding they’ll know it when they see it.

Fort Lee does have a problem with pedestrian fatalities. It averages one pedestrian collision per week. But it is crazy to blame cell phones instead of the fast-moving 2-ton vehicles.

The family of Jerry DeAngelis was particularly appalled by the Chief’s emphasis on “distracted” pedestrians. Jerry was struck and killed while crossing an intersection on the way to church. The family believes the driver was not paying attention. The DeAngelis family writes:

We all agree that pedestrians need to do their part and are often to blame in these accidents, but focusing your campaign almost exclusively on the pedestrians, while ignoring the issue of distracted and reckless driving, is both short-sighted and naïve.

We are not interested in publicity stunts and public relations campaigns. As Jerry’s family, our motivation is to see fewer families suffer the way we have.

We believe your campaign needs to be better researched and more comprehensive. We suggest you look at a number of methods to improve pedestrian safety, but most importantly, Fort Lee needs a significantly stepped up police presence.

Many residents express frustration that the town’s streets are unsafe and point to the lack of law enforcement presence and effective action as a major cause. The consensus seems to be that drivers in Fort Lee violate traffic laws with impunity. Research shows that a greater police presence will be the most effective means for gaining voluntary compliance with traffic laws – far more effective than handing out ice scrapers and florescent umbrellas.

Clearly, education initiatives are important but all safety campaigns must be accompanied by strict law enforcement measures and an acknowledgment of the increasing numbers of distracted drivers contributing to these accidents.

An effective pedestrian safety campaign should begin with a realistic assessment of the root causes of these accidents. A zero tolerance policy for motorists who put themselves, other motorists, and pedestrians at risk would go a long way toward reducing the number of accidents in Fort Lee.

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The California Alliance For Sprawl Jobs is looking to pass a VLF tax increase. Their ballot initiative would raise $3 billion annually in new revenues. Their expenditure plan, however, is extremely lopsided in that 90% of these funds would go to streets and highways. The remaining 10% would go for transit. Bikes/peds would not receive any funding.

If that sounds bad, it is actually worse when you consider the history of California’s VLF.

The VLF is really nothing more than a personal property tax. Until 2003, VLF revenues went into the General Fund (like any other property tax) and would be distributed to counties for health and welfare programs. The VLF allocation used a complicated formula to set the tax rate based on the health of California’s General Fund:

Under the law, local governments are “backfilled” by the state general fund for any loss of revenue due to VLF reductions. In 2004-05, this backfill will amount to $3.9 billion. The law has always contained provisions that if state general fund revenues are insufficient to fund this taxpayer subsidy, then the offset would be removed and the effective taxpayer rate would return to its 1998 level. On June 19, 2003, the California State Controller and Director of Finance made findings of insufficient revenues and the effective MVLF rate went from 0.65% to 2%.

A VLF “increase” occurred during the Gray Davis recall election. Schwarzenegger seized on the VLF tax during the recall. His first act in office was to reduce the VLF to .65%. However, that left a $3+ billion hole in the General Fund. This lost VLF revenue was one of culprits of what became a decade-long budget stalemate in the Legislature.

So now comes along the Alliance for Sprawl with a plan to partly restore the VLF. They are calling it new revenue for road “maintenance” —  but really it is a transfer from health and welfare programs to highway construction.

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As reported by BikePortland, there were zero bike fatalities in 2013:

This isn’t a new feat for Portland: the city also avoided any bike-related fatalities in 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2010. That’s a safety record that’s nearly unmatched from coast to coast.

San Jose, by comparison, was a bloodbath:

This has been a particularly dangerous year on roadways throughout San Jose, with 26 traffic fatalities involving a pedestrian or bicyclist — the highest total since at least 1997 and the most of any city in the Bay Area.

And the death toll in New York was over 100 cyclists pedestrians and cyclists.

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The debate over ski helmets is quite similar to that of bike helmets. A cottage industry is marketing helmets. But despite a huge increase in the use of helmets by skiers, there has been no reduction in fatalities.

Schumacher’s injury also focused attention on an unsettling trend. Although skiers and snowboarders in the United States are wearing helmets more than ever — 70 percent of all participants, nearly triple the number from 2003 — there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities or brain injuries in the country, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

Experts ascribe that seemingly implausible correlation to the inability of helmets to prevent serious head injuries like Schumacher’s and to the fact that more skiers and snowboarders are engaging in risky behaviors: skiing faster, jumping higher and going out of bounds.

“The equipment we have now allows us to do things we really couldn’t do before, and people’s pushing limits has sort of surpassed people’s ability to control themselves,” said Chris Davenport, a professional big-mountain skier.

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