Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Disappearing Railroad Blues

"Good mornin' America, how are ya? Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son."

I suppose I am a bit partial to using lyrics in my blog, but they often seem so appropriate. These particular words come from Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” lamenting the death of that train running between New Orleans and Chicago under the now-fallen flag of the Illinois Central Railroad. The Coast Starlight (shown in picture waiting at Seattle's King Street Station) would also likely be deleted if Mr. Bush follows through with his veto threat.

Those sentimental words belie the urgency that many felt at the time as passenger services across the country began to falter. The time, I'm afraid, has come again. Mr. Bush is once again prepared to destroy a part of America's infrastructure.

Today, the Senate passed bill S.294 with bipartisan support. This bill would reauthorize Amtrak, giving it the funding it needs to continue to serve 46 states. This bill would also continue high speed rail initiatives in many areas and would provide needed Homeland Security funding. The bill now goes to the House for passage, and after that, to the President's desk.

Mr. Bush seems determined to ensure that rail service is dropped in 24 states. He and many conservatives are determined to trim all of Amtrak's long distance (national network) services. Economics, they say, dictate that America stop the subsidization of this unprofitable enterprise. Travel on the Northeast Corridor from Newport News to Boston will probably survive, as will service in California, along the Empire Corridor, Keystone Corridor, and between Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia. Chicago will still play host to the short-haul trains that operate from places like Saint Louis and Milwaukee, but no longer will one be able to ply the rails from sea to shining sea.

Frankly, America needs to get its priorities straight. One of the reasons that Amtrak has almost yearly funding crises, is because it's almost annually starved for funding. Why? Conservatives tell us that we shouldn't reward Amtrak for failing to become self sufficient with a bailout; liberals tell us that Amtrak is a social service. The fact of the matter is that there is truth in both statements, and it is also true that both leave out quite a bit.

Amtrak has conflicting goals. Typically, when a government agency has conflicting goals, it ends up neglecting one and doing poorly at the other. Amtrak is a perfect case study in this phenomenon. Amtrak was set up with two main goals. The first, most obvious, goal is that Amtrak is to operate a national rail system. Therefore Amtrak has an obligation to serve places where density is not conducive to high train ridership. The second goal is that Amtrak should become profitable. This is the goal that Amtrak has neglected. It is not possible for Amtrak to serve all of the United States and turn a profit. We must remember that the entire reason that Amtrak was created was because the private railroad companies were trying to get out of the business of passenger travel.

First, let’s address the neglected goal. The reason that Amtrak cannot be expected to make a profit is the same reason that the railroads asked for the creation of a national passenger system in the first place. Federal subsidies to other modes, most notably air travel and highways, made railroads unable to compete on a level playing field. I am not criticizing things like the Interstate Highway Act, however. Subsidies to highways and air travel caused major positive changes in this country. However, the federal government does not demand that Interstates pay for themselves. The reason is that Interstates pay back this country in ways other than in pure dollars. Railroads do the same thing, and it is essential that passenger service continues to be a viable mode.

A national system will not always be full or profitable, just as an Interstate highway in Idaho won’t ever carry its design capacity or render a true return on investment. In an age of increasing sprawl, oil shocks, and environmental awareness, passenger rail service looks increasingly attractive. As a matter of fact, ridership has been increasing on Amtrak for several years. If anything, this country needs more Amtrak service, not less. A truly national system would offer alternatives to other modes. The federal government should be just as willing to subsidize this mode as it is with other modes. Passenger rail is not a competing mode, but a complimentary mode when looked at from many perspectives, including that of national security. All of us remember the days after September 11, 2001. While the airports were shut down and rental car facilities were empty, our national rail system was still chugging along. Our most energy efficient mode will help to move America away from foreign oil and will mean a cleaner world for our children. The Interstate System is aging rapidly, and needs are far outstripping our ability to meet them. Today, we need Amtrak more than ever.

This year, President Bush should not veto Amtrak; instead he should offer a vision of an America for the Twenty-first Century. That vision must include alternatives, and it must include upgrading America’s transportation infrastructure to accommodate a changing reality. The age of oil is at its end. While Mr. Bush has so far decided to hold out for hydrogen, it is time to realize that we can make a marked difference in consumption now; without major structural change in the way we power our vehicles. Instead of condemning other modes as “social engineering” or as a wasteful social program, Mr. Bush should recognize that the automobile is one of the most subsidized modes on the face of this continent. The federal housing policies that forced Americans into the transit-unfriendly living conditions of today were far more reminiscent of social engineering than any type of national rail program. Mr. Bush should recognize that the power of government lies not in its ability to lay waste to foreign lands, but to create a society built for the betterment of all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Fifty States' Quarter

I’ve decided to start a new section of my blog devoted to introducing Washington. My first profile is appropriate because it introduces the most well-known aspect of the Capital City as a part of this region.

For countless Americans the symbol of our national capital is the Mall. This expanse of green is bounded on each side by marble monoliths. This park-like stretch of monuments, museums, and federal offices along with a few surrounding blocks make up Washington’s Federal Quarter.

The idea behind the Mall dates back to Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. Unfortunately for early Washingtonians, however, the plan was not realized until the McMillan Commission of 1901 cleared the area of its railroad tracks and slums. The area on the reclaimed Potomac Flats was set aside as the National Capital’s contribution to the national memory. Based on the ideas of the city beautiful, this part of Washington became home to the temples of democracy and memorials to fallen Americans.

While all of Washington holds a special place in the American psyche, this is undoubtedly the part that truly belongs to all Americans. From the Lincoln Memorial on the banks of the Potomac, the President who held this country together during its most difficult time looks admonishingly eastward. His gaze falls not only on the eager eyes of school children, but also on the houses of Congress two miles distant.

The Federal Quarter was meant to make Washington rival the capitals of all the other great nations of the world. In that effort, it does a supreme job. Here, in the shadow of the obelisk memorializing the first President, stand America’s monuments, her government offices, and national museums.

This small part of the district is an integral part of the city as much as it is an integral part of the nation. Washingtonians have at their fingertips access to some of America’s finest museums and galleries. The Mall is an excellent place to recreate. One of my first experiences on the Mall as a resident was a free concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol put on by the National Symphony Orchestra. Even in the height of tourist season, residents can be found jogging and playing baseball in this great park. The Mall is Washington’s answer to Central Park and Versailles all rolled into one.

An increasing number of Washington’s visitors are venturing beyond the parts of the city dominated by columns to find a diverse metropolitan area with far more to offer than a mere course in American History. Through these explorations, visitors uncover that Washington is more than a place to build monuments to those who’ve gone before us. They find that the District houses more than Senators and does more than just the business of government.

For many Washingtonians, the Mall is also a reminder of the Washington/National Capital dichotomy. While the residents of Washington experience this city in the same ways that other Americans experience their cities, there is a distinct difference here. Some believe that the District belongs to all Americans as the National Capital. This belief contributes to the continued denial of the District’s right to govern itself.

Of course, this dichotomy does not reduce the importance of the Mall to Washington the city or Washingtonians love for the Mall. The Federal Quarter may remind District residents of their lack of a vote, but it is just as symbolic of America to them as it is to all Americans. It serves as a reminder of the special place which Washington occupies upon the national and world stages. The Federal Quarter is what many see at first glance, and without it Washington would not be Washington at all.

The Federal Quarter is represented by all the state quarters, but the rest of the city is a stark reminder that some American citizens still don’t have their own representative in Congress or in coinage.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't Hail Me, I'll Hail You

Look, don't think me unsympathetic. I realize that cabbies up here in DC are between a rock and a hard place, but sometimes I just can't help but think that every single one of them is a maniac! And only part of that assessment is based on the fact that 4 out of 6 heart attacks in the District are caused by a taxi almost killing someone. When I heard about that cracked out lady driving through a street festival down in Southeast, I figured someone had just hailed a cab from more than 4 feet from the curb. In DC, that usually means that every taxi in sight (because every single one is it's own company) rushes to get you (even if that means driving through a plaza). I think if you hailed one when your plane landed at National, there'd be a line waiting for you to deplane right there on the tarmac.

I'm not sure what has driven them to the lengths they go. Perhaps it's being second only to West Virginians in the number of times they serve as the butt of jokes; perhaps it's Mayor Fenty and his kooky idea to get rid of the zone system in favor of a meter system. I mean, I know that the District is being revolutionary with this idea of "meters," and all, but there's no need to freak out and go all luddite on us. It's time for DC to be on the cutting edge, dontcha think? Here's the perfect chance too; as far as I know only a few other cities have converted to meters, for instance, every other city on earth!

Anyway, the practice which boggles me the most is the practice here whereby cabbies treat every person who isn't pushing a shopping cart full of his or her life possessions as a fare. Not a potential fare, but as a fare. If you set foot outside of a building anywhere within 50 miles of the Capitol, you will be swarmed by cabbies. They are more persistent here than the homeless people outside of MARTA stations.

I've never been the type to attract honks just for the pleasure of using the sidewalk, but DC cabbies are not to be outdone. I'm talking about the relatively common practice wherein DC cabbies hail fares. President Kennedy once derided Washington as a city "of southern efficiency and northern charm," and this taxi harassment seems to evoke this idea of Washington as a place where the normal rules of engagement are suspended. You see, in most cities when you want a cab, you walk to the curb and shout 'TAXI!' Here, you just stand around until one honks at you, then you get in.

This process, of course, leads to lots of false positives for the cabbies, though. Perhaps it's their eagerness to beat out their brothers in yellow, but they seem to have no discretion. For instance, just yesterday I saw a cabbie hail a guy waiting on a street corner for the walk signal. I also saw a person taking the trash out yesterday hailed.

This leads me to wonder how cabbies cope with complicated situations. Do they hail waiters in sidewalk cafes? Do they drive around in cemeteries honking at funerals? What about hookers? I can imagine that would be a bit touchy (whose meter is running then?) I'm honestly surprised that more "Express" hawkers don't end up being thrown bodily into a taxi by some overzealous driver eager for a nice tip.

They are even omnipresent at that most American of institutions, the mall. And no, I don't mean the one with monuments, I mean the one with kiosks and canned music. The mall across the street from my apartment has a constant parade of taxis. They drive along the front of the mall, turn around and repeat as necessary. Why? Not only does everyone drive to the mall, but there's also a Metro station right across the street.

Personally, I think that the real reason that there are so many traffic circles in DC is so that the Taxis have a place to queue up without stopping driving. Oh, and they're great places for the taxis to show that they all have a little bit of Italy in their veins: Somehow they can cut across four lanes and a median from the Mass Ave express lanes on Dupont Circle to P Street with a honk and only leave a few traumatized tourists from South Carolina and Nebraska in their wake (as if driving in DC wasn't traumatic enough already).

I've never set foot in a cab, and I don't plan to either. In this city, there's really no excuse to skip out on transit, and Washington is really very walkable. So I'll say this to the cabbies: even if I pause to tie my shoe, read the Post headline, or photograph something, don't hail me, I'll hail you.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

When Is It Going to Stop?

"When is it going to stop?"

That's what the Washington Post wanted to know on June 16 of this year, and they wanted to know it on the front page. This came in the wake of a fatal car accident that struck Northern Virgina particularly hard. The night of their graduation, two Fairfax County graduates and two others were killed on the Beltway. The case is undoubtedly tragic. I remember back in high school, it seemed that at least one person in each class could be expected to lose his or her life behind the wheel. I don't remember anything so tragic as a graduation night accident, though.

And while this particularly bloody crash was definitely gruesome, I don't know why it was a shocker to anyone. Today, in the metro section alone, let's see what the Post has to say:

Driver Whose Trailer Unhitched Won't Be Charged in Bridge Crash
"...The crash occurred May 10 on the west bound span....Police identified the dead as Randall R. Orff, 47, and his son Jonathan R. Orff, 19, both firefighters from Millington on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and James H. Ingle, 44, of Preston, also on the Eastern Shore."
3 Dead
Woman Is Killed When Her Car Hits School Bus
"A woman was killed yesterday in Bowie....Lorenda Gordon, 49, was driving....The bus driver and a driver's aide suffered minor injuries."
1 Dead
Pedestrian, 80, Dies After Being Hit by Car
"A pedestrian was killed last night....The 80-year old man stepped into the intersection at Seventh and D Streets SW and was hit about 8 p.m. He was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital."
1 Dead
Man Held Without Bond in Crash That Killed Child
"A man charged in a hit-and-run incident Sunday in which a toddler was charged with second-degree murder in the crash...that killed 2-year-old Brandi McComb and injured three women."
1 Dead
Woman Dies in Beltway Crash
"A Prince George's County woman was killed...when her car skidded into the back of a tractor-trailer...Carla Ann Steen, 36...heading north in the rain...slid off the ramp..."
1 Dead
Man Changing Tire Fatally Struck
"A man changing a tire on the shoulder of westbound Interstate 66...struck and killed...stopped near Centreville...hit by a Ford Ranger..."
1 Dead
Motorcyclist Dies in Accident
"A Mananas man was killed...lost control...William A Moran, 32...crossed the opposite lane of traffic...pronounced dead at the scene..."
1 Dead

Where is the shock now? Most of these stories appeared in sections titled "Maryland Briefing" or "Anne Arundel County." None--not one--even made it onto the front of the metro section. These sorts of things are so commonplace that they warrant perhaps a 15 second spot on the evening news. How commonplace are they? In the United States, 5 people die in car accidents each hour.

On Average 43,000 Americans die in car crashes annually.

How clear can it be?

When is it going to stop? Does it look like it's even close to stopping?

It will stop when Americans care. Sure, we all know people who have died in car accidents. A girl who grew up three doors down, a guy on the drum line's brother, the father, the son, the graduate... The list could go on indefinitely. We know that people die. We know that could be us. How many times have told the person in the passenger seat "that guy is going to kill somebody, cutting across traffic like that!?"

But we don't do anything about it. What if all 43,000 died on one day? What would it be like if 43,000 random people just up and died on, say, the second Tuesday of September? Are we clear on the magnitude of this problem? Georgia Tech has 17,000 students, Georgia has only 34,000, the University of Maryland has 35,000.

So let's go back to a bright, clear Tuesday in September. If it was for 2005, 43,443 Americans would have died. In 2004, 42,836. 2003 would have seen 42,643. 43,005 would have lost their lives in 2002. And on September 11, 2001--that bright, clear day--42,196 people would have died, senselessly.

What would America's reaction have been then? What would have assuaged our anger if terrorists had killed 42,000 Americans? How many nations would have had to fall before we were satisfied that the world was safe for democracy? Conversely, how would we feel if 43,000 American soldiers had been sent home from Iraq in caskets? Would Americans still support a war that had killed so many? Only 36,000 Americans died in Korea, and that was undoubtedly enough.

Where is the outrage? If a natural disaster claimed 43,000 Americans it would be front page news for weeks. When terrorists claim only a percentage of that, there are wars. When wars claim a fraction, there are protests. How many must die before we commit ourselves to change? How red must the streets run before enough is enough?

What I find laughable about this country is our assessment of risk. I'm sure there are psychologists who would tell me that it's not just Americans who are afraid of the wrong things, but I can't help but see a country so afraid of terrorism that it allows the government warrantless wiretaps, a country so afraid of crime that it won't take the subway, a country so afraid for family values that it makes irrational electoral decisions; yet so blase about cars that it refuses to buckle up, refuses to give up the keys after knocking 'em back at the tavern, does 85 in the 55 zone.

We could make our cars safer--if we wanted to. We could reduce our dependence on the automobile--if we wanted to. We could keep so many alive--if we wanted to.

We could pull over to talk when the phone rings. We could just go around the block when we miss our exit. We could take just a little longer checking the mirror--if we cared enough.

When is it going to stop?

It will stop when we care enough to stop it. From here, it doesn't seem like there are going to be new traffic patterns any time soon.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fruit of the Broom

I was very surprised to see the caption "Dumbledore Gay" on a news broadcast while I ate breakfast at my hotel in Philadelphia on Sunday. I was not surprised to see the coverage of the fundamentalists who are quite upset by this revelation. Since mid August, I have read the entire 7-book series twice. As I said, I was quite surprised, because nowhere in the entire series does Dumbledore out himself. Instead the public and posthumous outing of this esteemed Hogwarts official was made by author J.K. Rowling, quoted as saying "Dumbledore is gay, actually" at a recent Q&A session in New York.

This news tidbit has been reported in the muggle media as well as in the Daily Prophet. The Quibbler is reporting record sales of its issue reportedly exposing Dumbledore's old flames. Officials in the newly instated Shacklebolt Administration have refused comment, saying that "the personal lives of our fellow witches and wizards is none of the Ministry's concern." The Daily Prophet interviewed several bargoers at Merlin's Beard, a popular hangout for witches of a certain persuasion in Hogsmeade's fabulous Horizont Alley. One witch, quoted on the condition of anonymity, reported that she is "proud to hear that Dumbledore's sexuality is finally out in the open." She says that "it is time for the Ministry of Magic to recognize that witches and wizards represent a broad spectrum of individuals" and "that it is time for the discrimination to stop." Another patron "doesn't see what all the fuss is about." He says that since "Dumbledore wasn't exactly a Hippogriff Hawk and only made the occasional appearance at Showtunes Tuesday, it shouldn't matter who he slept with." If nothing else can be said about this revelation, it is that the owls will surely be flying for some time. No comment was made available by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by press time.

I applaud Rowling's characterization of one of the pillars of the Hogwarts community. When I originally read the Harry Potter books, I was dismayed at the lack of openly gay characters. It seemed to me that the gay community deserved representation in this modern take on the struggle between good and evil. Still, I thought to myself that since the books were geared to a younger audience, it might not be an appropriate venue for this particular battle against evil. Of course, there are good ways of exposing children to diversity, and I had hoped at some level that Rowling would be able to work it into this series.

Of course, now that Professor Dumbledore has stepped out of the proverbial broom closet, fundamentalists are coming out of the woodwork. I'm not particularly sure how this affects their children since they already wouldn't allow them to read the books (see my earlier post). Of course from all the commotion that they are making, one would think that the books have Dumbledore skipping classes to go to circuit parties or being seen at less-than-reputable Hogsmeade establishments in drag. The fact that Dumbledore seeks for the other Quidditch team has little bearing on the well-being of the readers of the acclaimed series because Dumbledore spends his entire tenure at Hogwarts in the closet.

I'm not sure what upsets the fundamentalists more, the fact that Rowling recognizes that there are such things as gay people or that she portrays a good person as homosexual. Maybe it's just a misunderstanding. It could be that the fundamentalist community is rallying against what they see as a historical inaccuracy. By their (convoluted) logic, in the great battle of good against evil, surely all of the homosexuals would have been on the side of Mr. Voldemort.

What is really at stake here, however, is something far simpler than a battle over children's books and gay rights. Fundamentalism's take on literature and symbolism seems to be based on a tenuous dichotomy wherein literature can reflect Truth or is meaningless. Meaningless, however, does not mean harmless from the zealot's viewpoint. From their perspective, revelations like Rowling's make their struggle harder by empowering free thought. For fundamentalism, any viewpoint of reality which allows symbolism to dilute the Word through interpretation is dangerous. Rowling's books offer a non-Christian interpretation on the struggle which fundamentalism claims to have a monopoly on: good versus evil. By attempting to reflect some semblance of reality in her books, Rowling has attempted what the fundamentalist community sees as a deliberate and offensive assault on their version of reality, which does not leave room for empowered women or openly gay persons.

The fact of the matter is that the Harry Potter books are true to form. In real life, we interact with gay people every day. Many of us have gay mentors and friends. Not all of those people live publicly gay lives, and like Dumbledore carry the burden of the closet in silence. This newly established battle over Dumbledore's legacy demonstrates how entrenched anti-homosexual feelings are in today's world. It is a shame that Dumbledore must symbolize the truth that many people live every day of their lives. I commend Ms. Rowling for her symbolism and her advocacy on behalf of those of us who find ourselves in yet one more alienated minority group.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where Have All the Streetcars Gone, Long Time Passing?

They've gone to Philadelphia, apparently. I snapped a picture of the #15 Girard Avenue line when I was there this weekend. Of course, Phily has had its share of bustitutions but this one of the last American cities to still use historic streetcars as a regular part of the transit network and not merely as a tourist attraction.

Anyway, I was very impressed with Philadelphia. Downtown, where I stayed with a friend from back home, is bustling all day and all night. We did quite a bit of walking, and I've decided to add Philadelphia to the list of cities I'm willing to live in. That's not to say that I'm planning on leaving Washington anytime soon, but I recommend visiting Phily if you get a chance. I didn't get to see everything, so I have reason to go back, but I feel like I saw quite a lot.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to beautiful Fairmount Park. The park runs for quite some distance up the Schuylkill River from Logan Square. There are some beautiful views of the skyline along the way, too. My friend and I made the traditional pilgrimage to the building where the United States got its start. But of course we couldn't get in because of all of the police baracades surrounding Independence Hall. The tickets were all gone for the day, so we just snapped some pictures and moved on. I couldn't help but wonder, though, what the founders would have thought of the national security Zeitgeist that is gripping this country. A quick subway trip over to the west bank showed that the University of Pennsylvania is contributing to a vibrant district which reminded me of Seattle's U District. I did consider Penn for grad school, but since it's private, I thought it a bit expensive.

Anyway, as is customary for me on trips to new cities, I did a bit of exploring on transit. In this case, that was mainly on SEPTA, but I also paid a visit to Jersey by way of PATCO. The ride across the outside of the Ben Franklin Bridge is spectacular. And while the Broad Street Subway and Market-Frankford Line are a litte dirty by Washington standards, they have that character that the modern systems lack. I don't know why, but although I haven't yet found a transit system I don't like, I am particularly attracted to the older systems. So far my favorite is the L in Chicago, but Philadelphia's is fun to ride too. Anyway, one interesting aspect of Southeastern Pennsylvania is rail transit outside of the city core. Philadelphia boasts one of America's only "S-Bahn" systems. The SEPTA regional rail network offers commuter-rail type service on high-frequencies every day of the week. Downtown, there is even a multi-track underground through-terminal which feeds trains from the former Pennsylvania Lines onto the former Reading Lines. It is a unique experience for the States. Other than perhaps on the Long Island Railroad and Caltrain, you have to go to Germany to experience a truly regional system. Of course, many American cities had similar systems once upon a time. Just like the streetcar tracks, though, we ripped them up in the name of progress.

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rethinking the Cityscape

Many of the posts on this blog have been about looking at the way we look at the city and other related things. As an urban planning student and former policy student, revising my outlook comes quite naturally. That can be said for another group of planning-minded persons in the area. The website has sought out to find new ways of revising the way people see the home of the University of Maryland, College Park. As of this afternoon, I have become an official contributor, with a post relating the redevelopment of Tech Square to the impending redevelopment of East Campus. I highly recommend the commentary, so make sure you check out this informative blog.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Duct Tape and Spitshine Holding CTA Together; Illinois isn't

Back in Cherokee County, Georgia, where I grew up, there is this barn over in Avery. For as long as I can remember, that sucker has looked like it was going to fall down any minute. Whenever I'd go by the place, it seemed like it was leaning a little bit more. The thing was at least 35 degrees off center on its vertical axis last time I saw it. My dad has a saying he always applied to that old shack; he'd always say that it was only the termites holding hands stopping it from falling over. I think the place must be sturdier than it looks, because a couple of three years ago a tornado hit just across the ridge. It did terrible damage to some homes and churches over there, but that barn just kept standing.

I suppose that Chicagoans must feel a little bit like that. I was in Chicago in March, and I have to say that I love the place. One of the highlights of my trip was riding the L. (Which I have been informed is the only correct way to spell it, not El or el). I've definitely been around the loop (sorry couldn't resist) when it comes to riding on transit systems around the United States and in Europe, but of all of those the L is my favorite. I can't put my finger on exactly why this happens to be the case, but I think it has to do with the character of the system. After you've ridden the L, places like Washington and Atlanta just seem so sterile. Sure, the L is loud and slow, crowded and jolting, but it is just so...perfect. Okay, so maybe it isn't perfect in a lot of respects, but the railfan in me loves it even when the transit planner in me cringes.

One of the things that struck me when I was visiting Chicagoland is the condition of the L. Frankly, it is in a horrible state of disrepair. Honestly, I am surprised that a structural failure hasn't occurred yet. Like many systems around the country, the CTA has been forced to delay or defer maintenance just to keep the trains running. It is a sorry state of affairs to see that what used to be one of the world's most extensive transit networks can't compare to systems in the second and third worlds. It occurred to me that if MARTA's funding had been cut as much as CTA's, Atlantans would probably just be getting by without a subway. For what it's worth, the CTA should be commended for the job it has done keeping Chicago on the move with the meager funding it has.

So it is disheartening to hear that CTA is facing more major cuts and fare increases. Live from the Third Rail is reporting that Chicagoans are facing massive cuts. Chicago is one of America's great cities, and it deserves a transit system to match. The advocacy group is dedicated to finding a solution to this nightmare. Of course there have been many different circumstances which have led to the situation as it stands today, but it is clear that more dedicated funding is needed. For the past several years Illinois has provided temporary fixes. It's time for a more permanent solution from Springfield. It's also time for a new direction in transportation policy in Washington, but I won't hold my breath. It doesn't look as though transit will be getting any windfalls while Mr. Bush keeps his nice view of LaFayette Square.

The dichotomy in this country between road building and alternative transportation is revolting. Within hours of the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, the Bush administration was promising to pick up much of the tab to rebuild what will become an even bigger bridge than before. It seems that there was never a moment when the planners stopped to ask whether the bridge should be rebuilt at all. The preliminary plans didn't even include provision for transit, although it seems that pressure from the mayor will ensure that the bridge is "light rail ready." At the same time, while transit riders around the country are facing service cutbacks, fare increases, and deteriorating infrastructure, the federal government refuses to step in.

As I have stated in previous posts, it is good policy from many standpoints to improve funding for transit. A growing environmental movement is seeking alternatives on the one hand. On another hand, it is a stated policy goal of the Bush administration is to reduce our dependence on foriegn oil. On still another hand, social justice advocates are as vocal as ever, and transit is one way of rebuilding our urban communities.

I won't deny the benefits of the automobile on American culture. However, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. America seems to have stretched its transportation infrastructure to the breaking point, and investing in some alternatives is a good next step. In the face of rising fuel prices, increasing instability in the Middle East, and declining environmental quality we must step up our efforts to get people out of their cars. Letting the L and other transit systems in the US fall apart is not the way to go about doing that.

For now, it looks like we'll just have to pray that those termites stay cozy with each other.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Walking in a Winter Maryland

It's funny. I always complained that Georgia's weather was schizophrenic. Apparently that qualification extends up the eastern seaboard to Maryland too. The weather has changed so drastically in the last three days that I'm almost shocked not to see snow in the picture at left (outside my office). Wednesday, we Marylanders were walking around in shorts eating ice cream. Thursday I needed a jacket, and I was still cold. It got even colder today with wind gusts upwards of 20 or 30 miles per hour. It wasn't too bad during the day, but in the evenings it is brutal. The weather we are having here is what I would expect for Thanksgiving in Atlanta. Of course, it's not really that cold. It's just the fact that overnight everything changed. The weathermen were saying that this past weekend was the last of the summer weather we were going to be having up here in DC; but I didn't believe him. I saw people get sunburned at the Maryland-Georgia Tech game on Saturday; how could we be in for winter so soon? I suppose I was wrong, because it is cold up here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

On a Road to Ruin?

In June of 1956, the federal government enacted a piece of legislation which would change the face of this country in a way I doubt many could have imagined at the time. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 created a "system of interstate and defense highways" which would connect almost every major city in the United States. For what it's worth, the idea of a system of limited access highways connecting defensive installations in the United States was not a terribly bad idea. The decade in which the bill was passed was marked by an increasing sense of hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States, and there was great fear that the battles of World War Three would be fought not along the deutsche-deutsche Grenze, but rather in Virginia's tidewater or in the hills of California. President Eisenhower had seen the effectiveness of the German Autobahnen and was eager to provide America with a means of transporting troops quickly across the country in the event of hostilities.

For a variety of reasons which I will not discuss here, the Cold War never escalated into direct hostilities. The Interstates have served their purpose in moving the National Guard around during times of crisis and in evacuating cities (very poorly) during national emergencies. However, the main outcome of this act was a contribution to the sprawling suburban development and complementary urban blight that would characterize growth in the United States for the next five decades.

It is likely that some degree of suburbanization would have occurred regardless of the Interstate System, and it certainly was not the sole factor in the middle class's sense of a suburban manifest destiny. The Interstates and their state-created counterparts enabled a strip of tract housing and auto-oriented shopping centers to stretch beyond the horizon, and in so doing, created a crisis.

Critics of this auto-oriented, unsustainable form of development came from a wide range of backgrounds, and over time their voices multiplied and increased in volume. The fight to change the course of American development originally allied two unlikely groups: farmers found themselves lobbying for the same types of legislation as urban dwellers. Indeed one of the major impetuses behind the earliest growth management legislation was the protection of "resource areas." Oregon determined that suburban development was rapidly destroying farmland, resource areas, and the scenery for which it is widely known. The passage of Senate Bills 10 and 100 beginning in 1969 marked the start of what would eventually become known as the "smart growth" movement.

The mid-1990s marked the coinage of the term "Smart Growth." Today, the term is probably a household term in many families. One of the biggest events in making the term more well known occurred when, in 1997, Maryland passed the Smart Growth Act. This act had many of the same goals as other growth control legislation throughout the country. Maryland saw the importance of protecting farms, resources, the inner city, and especially, the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay has long been an economic resource for Maryland, but it is widely known that the Bay is in danger. Decades of sprawl and pollution have weakened the Bay's ecosystem, and this in turn has hurt Marylanders.

Only ten years after the passage of the Smart Growth Act, it is likely too early to tell whether any major impact has occurred in Maryland. It seems to have at least changed attitudes, however. Many "new urbanist" redevelopments are occurring around transit stations throughout the region, and Governor O'Malley is encouraging a tripling of MARC regional rail service. When federal aid was not available, the state even managed to construct the first phase of Baltimore's north-south light rail line.

Yet it seems that perhaps the planners haven't quite gotten the message across to everyone in state government. While transit investment has increased, the state is still investing in major highway infrastructure. While this is not abnormal (in fact, Maryland does a better job funding alternatives than most states) for the United States, it does mark a disturbing trend for what purports to be a smart growth state. As I have opined before on this page, the end of the auto age is at hand. I'm not being fatalistic, but the auto-dependent culture which American society is based on at the moment is being stretched to the breaking point by high oil prices. The market closed this afternoon with Light Sweet Crude over $80 a barrel. Regardless of market fluctuations, the supply of oil is decreasing and the demand for it is increasing faster than ever. America will not be able to long sustain this pattern of auto-dependent sprawl.

So, it generates some suspicion when Maryland decides to create a new tollway across Washington's northern suburbs, a tollway which lies mostly along or outside of the Preferred Funding Area created by the Smart Growth Act. Congestion, economists tell us, is the market's way of charging drivers for the externality they are creating by using the transportation system at peak hours. By constructing new roads, Maryland is decreasing this cost. This will encourage people to make the same types of economic decisions they have been making since the federal government started building ribbons of asphalt across the country.

It is time that Maryland reassessed the need for the Intercounty Connector. The tollway will be a parallel freeway to the Washington Beltway, but will lie just south of the southern-most Baltimore bypass, Route 32, which complements another southern belt (Rt. 100) and the full Baltimore Beltway. If this highway acts as its predecessors have, we should inquire as to whether Maryland will truly be acting as a smart growth state.

Six years ago, I watched Atlanta, freeway capital of the South, kill off a similar northside tollway parallel to Atlanta's perimeter highway, only 30 miles further north. Of course, northsiders didn't kill off the Northern Arc because they were proponents of smart growth or environmentalism; they were more interested in NIMBYism. Still, if Atlanta can cancel a freeway, surely Maryland can. It is time for the Old Line State to rethink its transportation priorities. The time might even be right for a revamed smart growth law. The state should ask itself whether this highway will truly serve the needs of Marylanders in 2050. In five decades will we curse Maryland for not building this super highway or will we lament the lack of true alternatives to the sprawlscape of the late 20th Century?

The ICC:

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"I've Got My Fare, but Not a Nickel to Spare"

I couldn't resist putting another subject line reference to the song from which this blog gets its title, but I think it illustrates my point nicely. As reported before on this blog, Washington's WMATA is proposing a fare increase which they call "vital" to meeting Metro's funding needs. According to the agency, they need $109 million dollars to balance next year's budget. And that number includes an anticipated increase of funding of 6.5% from the constituent governments, without which service will need to be reduced or fares raised even higher. Washington remains the only rail system in the country with no dedicated funding. Essentially WMATA and all of the commuters in Washington are at the mercy of the budgeting process of each of the jurisdictions Metro serves. As irksome as the increase sounds, it appears that the metropolitan Washington region has no choice but to pony up to maintain and improve service.

Just who ponies up is perhaps the better question to ask however. Fare increases in our nation's capital are not the only ones around the country. Indeed all over the nation transit riders are facing increasing costs. Between 2005 and 2007 riders of the Los Angeles Metro, the Chicago L, Boston's T, Philadelphia's SEPTA, and New York's MTA, among others have faced fare hikes. Is it fair, indeed is it equitable, to charge transit riders more?

A national agenda based on reducing dependence on the automobile would seem to favor reducing fares as an incentive to get people off the roads. Of course we don't have such an agenda, although President Bush has affirmed the United States' commitment to reducing American dependence on foriegn oil in his State of the Union Speech every year since 2002 (inclusive). At the same time, the President has not encouraged Americans to find alternatives to driving; indeed he only encourages research to find alternative fuels. Still, in this age of global warming, peak oil, increasing pollution, and sprawl's incessant diet of farmland and natural habitat, it seems prudent to wean Americans of their addiction to the automobile.

Therefore it seems to make sense for Metro to propose a reduction in fares. Of course that kind of proposal is about as easy to implement as finding a seat on a Vienna-bound Orange Line train at 5:00. The main problem stems from the fact that Metro's riders pay for a whopping 79% of the cost of their ride, as reported by the Washington Post. The national average is around 30%, and Metro already charges the second-highest fare in the nation, after Bay Area Rapid Transit.

While Metro hasn't yet opened its doors to a reduction in the fare, many other cities are thinking about it. Why? It just makes sense. For years, both Seattle and Portland have offered "fareless squares" and Pittsburgh offers free travel on its light rail subway north of the Monongehela. Perhaps the most ambitious plan that's being talked about at the moment would give riders of the Bay Area's busiest transit system free access to the buses and trains. Muni, the oldest public transit operator in the country, shuffles commuters and locals around the city of San Francisco to the tune of over 700,000 trips each day. In March of 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Mayor Gavin Newsome's proposition to get rid of those pesky faregates. Of course, Muni's light rail system's overcrowding is as chronic as Metro's, and free travel would only worsen that. Of course, if more people took transit, perhaps the federal government would take transit expansion more seriously.

And as far-fetched as this idea may sound to people used to paying for their ride, the benefits are manifold. In the summer of 2006, transit systems all across the San Francisco Bay Region opened their faregates in an effort to "spare the air" six times. BART, the regional heavy rail provider, saw an increase of between 16,000 and 33,000 boardings (5-10%), but ridership on the Sausalito Ferry jumped 510%. Of course, free transit wouldn't be cheap. Just the cost of completely removing the fare on Washington's Metrorail and Metrobus would cost approximately $640 million annually according to their Fiscal Year 2007 Budget.

With the proposed increases in transit service in the region, it's not likely that we'll be missing the farecards anytime soon, however, this country stands to benefit from finding ways of increasing transit ridership. Among other things, it will reduce our dependence on oil (foriegn or otherwise), cut down on pollution in our cities, and increase safety on our roadways. Fewer cars commuting into our cities means less space devoted to parking and more space devoted to living. I doubt that cars will ever go away, and I'm not even sure that that would be a desireable alternative, but it seems likely that we will be forced to cut back on their usage in the event of more oil shocks regardless of our policy decisions now. From a law and order perspective, it would appear wise to take steps to provide alternatives sooner rather than later. We shouldn't forget that before the Second World War, America had the world's best transit systems. Today many of our great cities look amateur compared with even medium sized cities in Europe and Asia.

A good first step would be greater support for transit on all levels, including a reduction in the automobile subsidy. Many conservative thinkers will be hard pressed to remember, but before the federal government committed to building ribbons of asphalt across the country, transit was a profitable industry. Without federal subsidy to the automobile and policies detrimental to urban life (redlining, for instance), transit might still be profitable and "privatized." Fair is fair, it's time that transit recieved equal consideration, perhaps even greater consideration given the implications of continued reliance on the automobile for the majority of American travel. With additional governmental support, maybe the fare can be fair too.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

This Bud's for You

I enjoyed today's Georgia Tech-Maryland game, but unfortunately Tech lost. I suppose the only game I care about more is the Georgia Tech-Georgia game at Thanksgiving, so hopefully my Yellow Jackets won't disappoint.

Anyway, the Jackets-Terps matchup was the first away game that I've ever attended for Tech and it's definitely a different experience. Even though almost all of the fans in white and gold were crammed into one section at the very end of the stadium, we still made a huge racket. I was also impressed with the band, even though they only had a few members, they kept the crowd entertained.

I felt really heartwarmed during the 3rd quarter when the Budweiser Song played (an example of this Tech tradition is shown below). Even though I was sitting in the golden island of Tech fans in a sea of red, when the band started playing, I saw five Techies across the field bobbing up and down in time to the music. It is so awesome how we adhere to our traditions. I wonder what the Maryland fans sitting around them thought...

Anyway, I still have faith in Ma Tech, 'Scion of the Southland'.

Go Jackets.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

It's hard to believe that it's been two whole years since I came out, but it has. I still remember it like it was yesterday, I was so scared, but I really couldn't keep it in anymore. I had to tell someone. And I did, on the evening of October 5, 2005. It seems that so much has happened to me in those two years, and I cannot imagine what the next two will hold.

Coming out was, undoubtedly, the most difficult thing that I have ever done, but I feel like it made me a much stronger person and a much better person. Of course, I might be celebrating the anniversary of my coming out, but in truth it is a process which will end only when I die. It isn't really that difficult anymore. I've really made a lot of strides to deal with my feelings about the issue in the 24 months since an evening of too much coffee and too much stress at an all-night diner in North Atlanta where I came out to a friend.

These days, I really feel like I've come to terms with my sexuality. It is now just a part of my life, and I mostly manage to get through the day without dwelling on it. It, as I said before, wasn't easy and I've taken many steps to get where I am today. I remember one particular turning point came during my "pilgrimage" to San Francisco. I wasn't really on a pilgrimage, but I was visiting potential grad schools on the West (Left) Coast and Berkeley is just across the bay. I suppose it was a good omen, or perhaps just a coincidence, but the day I decided to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, what did I see but a faint rainbow shimmering against the backdrop of sailboats on the bay, the Berkeley Hills pale in the distance (shown above). Yet it was in San Francisco, in the Castro--which is often called the gayest neighborhood in the world--that I realized the importance of being me first and foremost. And while this seems to be a fairly obvious statement, it was not clear at the time. I had been out less than six months and I was doing my best to find my place in the gay culture, and it was not until I had my epiphany right there on 17th Street that I was able to see that my place would be a place which was for the uniqueness of mySelf.

It's funny, for all the fear I had of coming out, my life really didn't change all that much. I, of course, am the same person that I always have been. The biggest change is the fact that I no longer feel the need to repress my feelings. Most importantly, my friends came through for me for the most part. Only a few people had anything mean to say to me, most people stood behind me, and I can never thank them enough for the support they gave me.

I suppose that there is a bit of irony in today's events. With the UM Smart Growth at Ten Conference this week, I had to get up early to go and staff the registration table. On my way down the elevator early this morning, I was irritated to hear two other occupants disparraging an upcoming power outage as "so gay." While the rest of the day was fairly uneventful, my program had its weekly happy hour in Cleveland Park and afterwards I found myself talking to one of my classmates about me being out. She was very supportive and uplifiting and it was during this conversation--in such contrast to the one I overheard this morning--that I realized that today was October 5.

I'm usually not particularly outgoing about my sexuality, but I felt the need to express it tonight. In my opinion, one's sexuality is a personal matter, something which is not to be shouted from the rooftops. However, I am not in the closet, and I don't hide. But on an evening like this one, I can't help but have one little 14th floor shout. And tonight it will be a cry of affirmation, a cry of thanks, and a cry of joy.

As I said before, these last two years of my life have been something else. So many monumentous events have happened, not the least of which has been my relocation to Washington, but it's some of the lesser things that I really look on most fondly. One of those memories was when I went to see a new movie up in Atlantic Station with some of my closest friends--those people who felt like a second family to me when I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech. It was a film that made me laugh and cry; it was a film to which I could relate, and I am particularly fond of what is perhaps the film's most provacative questions:

"How do you measure a year in the life?"

1,051,200 invaluable minutes have passed since that fateful evening. And they are minutes which I would trade for nothing.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Maryland, the 'Old Power Line State'

Wednesday's Washington Post reported on a federal government decision which has declared "much of the Mid-Atlantic region ... a National Interest Electric Transmission Corridor." The corridor extends from Washington's northern Virgina suburbs to upstate New York and includes all of the District and most of Maryland. This ruling by the US Department of Energy will allow power companies expanded powers of eminent domain in case negotiations with local or state officals stall.

It just seems surreal to open the newspaper and discover that the entire state you live in has been declared a power transmission corridor. Track Twenty-Nine assumes that although "almost all of Maryland" has been delcared a zone for the further despoilment of both nature and the built environment, that the few exempted parts of Maryland might include the State House. Of course, one can't be too sure, just because its the oldest State Capitol Building still in use in the United States shouldn't stand in the way of New Yorkers' ability to blend smoothies.

It's ironic that the day before this story broke, the University of Maryland's LEAF house (solar powered) was taken to the National Mall. It's just uncanny that the Department of Energy announced this just before the DC Green Festival. The question, I think, should be what we can do to reduce our demand for energy, not how we can transmit more of it. If we don't have a drastic change of course in our energy policy, we may not have a need for power transmission lines in the Mid-Atlantic region. I suppose the Bush administration is determined to leave an indullible mark on society. Melting the polar ice caps would definitely achieve that, so I suppose Mr. Bush is on track to achieve his goal. Let's hope that one turns out as badly for him as Iraq.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Tuxedo Junction (what's your function?)

Perhaps I should just drop the Glenn Miller references on this blog, but I think it adds a bit of spice. I suppose with a name like Track Twenty-Nine, it was only a matter of time before I spoke to the terrible state of our nation's national rail system. I think I'll save that discussion for still later. But I can't help but think of how places like Baltimore's Penn Station (shown at left) must be "feelin' low, rockin' slow." Gone are the days of her namesake railroad; gone are the days when traveling by rail meant travelling in the lap of luxury. There's a certain aspect of loneliness behind that baux arts facade these days. Does the building mourn her lost sisters; orphaned by mergers and bankruptcies, killed by 'progress' and renewal?

In one sense, Penn Station came out of the post-war era in relatively good condition. Each day thousands of passengers still pass through her ornate halls, and countless trains still set off from beneath her aged canopies, yet there's a certain sense of sadness that permeates the lobby. This sadness seems to stem from what many believe is the beginning of the end. But has railroading in this country really reached the autumn, or dare I say, the winter of its life?

Just around the corner, Mount Royal Station, gem of the Baltimore and Ohio, still feels the rumble of trains as they pass through her airy trainshed, she still hears the clang of the streetcar as it passes behind her, but she no longer greets commuters and travellers each day. The sun still casts his orange glow on her tall clocktower, but it's little consolation to those old enough to remember her glory days. Still, it is better to be orphaned by the fallen flag of her father than to have been maimed in the name of a new America.

Mount Royal Station

A distant cousin stands many miles away from here. She is no longer recognizable as the beauty queen she once was. Her place on New York's 31st Street was as magnificent as any of America's Railroading terminals during the golden age of trains. Of course, real estate prices being what they are in Manhattan, the crown jewel of the Pennsylvania Railroad was torn down to make way for office construction. Trains still come and go here. Maimed beyond all recognition, millions of passengers still cross her platforms every year.

Perhaps saddest of all, though, are those cities who destroyed completely their stations. I find it hard to imagine a Chicago without its Union Station or a Boston without South Station; yet it was not hard for many mayors to envision their cities without the majesty and grandeur which they saw as representing the past. In a world where progress was every politician's middle name, these ornate palaces of urban design had to go. Atlanta is a city created by the railroads. Even its name is derived from the city's railroading past. Little can be seen today of that history. Although almost all passenger service into the Southeastern United States passed through the city, today nothing remains today of the city's two once-great terminals. No longer is there a "junction where the town folks meet" even though one can walk down Mitchell Street to this day and spot the remnants of Atlanta's hotel district. Steps away, one could have accessed one of the city's most ornate buildings. Designed by the firm that designed the fabulous Fox Theatre, Terminal Station stood as a monument to the grandeur of the Southern Railway. A few blocks away, Union Station served as a smaller monument to Atlanta's prominence as a railroad hub. It was, of course, not a true union station; it only served 4 of Atlanta's 7 railroads.

It is disheartening to see a city of Atlanta's size and importance to railroading with such a small amount of history remaining. Chattanooga managed to save the beautiful terminal station due, in large part, to the Glenn Miller song from which this blog's title is derived. In a similar vein, the train the City of New Orleans was resurrected from the dead because of the popularity of a Woody Guthrie hit of the same name. Of course, one would hope that America wouldn't have razed these fine buildings without reason. That is not, unfortunately, the case in Atlanta however.
Both the Terminal and Union Station were torn down in the early 1970s. The Terminal became the site of the new Federal Center, or as I like to call it, the Richard B. Russell Federal Cube. The non-descript building is, perhaps, one of the most forgettable structures in Atlanta. Of course, we needed cheap land on which to put all of those overworked federal employees, and since they aren't making any more of it, the Terminal went the way of Chicago's Grand Central Station.

Union Station wasn't so lucky. No one even bothered to build anything in place of the structure. Of course, we do have to have somewhere to park downtown; especially without the commuter service which used to feed into the stations.

Anyway, I hope that America has learned its lesson in regards to historic preservation. The gleaming future might have lots of potential for our society, but that is no excuse to destroy monuments to the past. For one, you never know when they might come in handy. I wonder how many of the millions of visitors to Washington's most beautiful point of entry realize how close Union Station came to being torn down. All I can say is that I'm thankful that preservationists managed to save this piece of history. Thanks to their efforts, its still a part of the present, and its one of Washington's most valuable landmarks (in terms of practicality).

Washington Union Station

Pictures of Atlanta's Union Station:
Pictures of Atlanta's Terminal Station: