Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10..9..8..7..6..5..4..3..2..1..

Ok, so we're almost done with 2008, and what a year it's been. From the most interesting election in decades to the economic collapse, we've seen it all this year. Next year starts in a few hours, and it promises to be even more interesting--especially for transportation. 

Let this be an open thread. What are your memories of 2008? Post them in the comments, both good and bad memories of this 8th year of the new Millennium. 

To ring out the old year, I'm listing my favorite posts from 2008.
I hope your New Year's Eve celebrations are fun and safe. I'll be ringing in 2009 by watching the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets beat LSU at the Peach Bowl. 

GO JACKETS!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Welcome to the Club, Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona opened a 20-mile light rail system on December 27. The system serves 28 stops in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. 

Congratulations Phoenix!

MTA Announces MARC Cuts

As I reported before, due to a severe budgetary situation, MTA Maryland had proposed cuts to MARC Commuter Rail service despite ridership being higher than it has been in years. The actual cuts have proven not to be as bad as the original proposal, but even this proposal is disappointing for a region with growing commuter rail ridership.

I've listed the proposed cuts to MARC service below:

Overall Service:
  • No service will be offered on federal holidays
  • No service will be offered on the Friday after Thanksgiving
  • No service will be offered on December 26
  • The 10-Trip ticket will be discontinued
Penn Line:
  • Train #447 (9:30p departure; Balt.->Wash.) is cancelled
  • Train #448 (11:00p departure; Wash.->Balt.) is cancelled
  • Local stop Train #410, will depart Washington 15 minutes later at 8:30a
  • Limited stop Train #412 (8:45a Wash. departure) is cancelled
Camden Line:
  • The midday bus from Odenton (Penn Line) to Laurel will be discontinued

Brunswick Line:
  • Train #871 (1:45p departure; Wash.->Bruns.) is cancelled Monday - Thursday. Service will continue to operate as scheduled on Fridays
  • As a condition of retaining two trains to West Virginia stations, passengers boarding at Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg will pay an additional fare. For a one-way ticket, the fare will increase by $2 at each of these stations. Weekly and monthly tickets will increase by $20 and $80, respectively

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays!

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy set of holidays. However you choose to celebrate, I wish you the best. 

Stay warm and stay safe out there!

I also want to apologize for the light posting so far this week. I'm visiting my parents down in Georgia and it's difficult to run Track Twenty-Nine from there. So I'll be drinking lots of coffee at Starbucks while I sip their free internet. As far as I can tell, it's the only place in my hometown that has free internet. 

And they're kicking me out right now.

Cheers!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Poll: Ray LaHood

I've got a new poll up. How do you feel about President-Elect Obama's selection of Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation?

Feel free to leave comments in this thread.

LaHood Tapped as DOT Head

It's official. We finally have a nominee for Secretary of Transportation. Unfortunately, the potential future leader of the nation's transportation program is a relative unknown in transportation circles. 

The nominee is Ray LaHood, a congressman from rural Southern Illinois. He has represented Illinois' 18th District since 1995 in the United States House of Representatives. Representative LaHood is a moderate Republican whose record on transportation seems to be neutral, although certainly more liberal than most Republicans. Unlike Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose sponsorship of transportation bills has dramatically improved the situation for transit, or James Oberstar, Congressman from Minnesota, whose support for bikes and transit is well known, Mr. LaHood has no transportation bills to his name. Other than the occasional break from the party to vote in support of Amtrak, LaHood hasn't focused on transportation. 

And I'm afraid Mr. LaHood's nomination does not bode well for America's transportation policy. By selecting someone with little transportation experience, Mr. Obama is indicating that he does not place much emphasis on the importance of transportation on his policy agenda. 

While I don't necessarily think that Mr. LaHood will have a negative impact on transportation policy, I don't think that he's the person who is going to bring change to Washington. I think it most likely that he will keep the status quo, at best--and right now, that is one of the last things we need in transport policy. 

As I've pointed out before, now is a pivotal moment for transportation in America. Among other things, we're up for reauthorization of the transportation bill in 2009. Additionally, transit ridership is higher than it's been for decades while VMT is dropping. The last thing we need right now is business as usual. I sincerely hope that Mr. LaHood will not bring that kind of leadership to DOT. 

Honestly, I am disappointed in Mr. Obama. He seems to be serious about energy independence and fighting climate change, but does not seem to see the transportation component of either of those goals as important. And while his platform called for transit-oriented planning, his policies seem to be headed toward the kind of road building of the sort catalyzed 5 decades of sprawl.

For now, I'm waiting to learn more about Ray LaHood. I truly hope that he will bring change to Washington, but I don't have too much hope anymore. With all Mr. Obama's talk of infrastructure spending, I'd hoped he was serious about rebuilding America. It seems I was mistaken.

Please make sure to see my other posts on the topic:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Building America, Building a Cabinet

In the month and a half since the Election, President Obama's cabinet has slowly been announced. For those of us into policy, it's an exciting time while the cabinet takes shape. Change is certainly in the air after 8 years in the hands of Republicans.

So far, most of the cabinet has been announced. Here's who's been chosen so far:
Chief of Staff: Rahm Emanuel
Sec. of State: Hillary Clinton
Sec. of Treasury: Timothy Geithner
Sec. of Defense: Robert Gates
Attorney General: Eric Holder Jr.
Sec. of Interior: Ken Salazar
Sec. of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack
Sec. of Commerce: Bill Richardson
Sec. of HHS: Tom Daschle
Sec. of HUD: Shaun Donovan
Sec. of Energy: Steven Chu
Sec. of Education: Arne Duncan
Sec. of Veterans Affairs: Eric Shinseki
Sec. of Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano
EPA Administrator: Lisa Jackson
Director of OMB: Peter Orszag
UN Ambassador: Susan Rice

Still left to be decided:
US Trade Rep.
Sec. of Labor
Sec. of Transportation

For an administration so intent on rebuilding America's infrastructure I find it slightly disingenuous to have Transportation left as one of the last two Departments without a Secretary. Granted, this is a transportation-type blog, and I know everyone has their own pet issue, but still I'm on pins and needles waiting to hear who will be leading DOT for the next 4 years.

Another thing that I find unnerving is that the Transportation Secretary is not going to be part of Obama's Environmental Team. The team, which Obama has picked to lead America into the new energy economy is certainly well-qualified, and Mr. Obama seems dedicated to working to stop climate change. According to his website, Change.gov:

"The future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy," President-elect Barack Obama said at a Chicago press conference today announcing the leaders who will guide his administration's policy on energy and environment. "The team that I have assembled here today is uniquely suited to meet the great challenges of this defining moment. They are leading experts and accomplished managers, and they are ready to reform government and help transform our economy so that our people are more prosperous, our nation is more secure, and our planet is protected."

The nominees include Dr. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy; Lisa Jackson, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator; Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change; and Heather Zichal, Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change.

President-elect Obama acknowledged that he is not the first leader to promise dramatic efforts on climate change and American energy independence--but "This time must be different," he said. "This is not a challenge for government alone - it is a challenge for all of us. The pursuit of a new energy economy requires a sustained, all-hands-on-deck effort because the foundation of our energy independence is right here, in America."

This is especially disturbing because of remarks that the President-Elect made last week, calling for "the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s." Now, Mr. Obama has not said that he's planning on building a new Interstate Highway System, but he has made reference to it. He has not made reference to transit since being elected--and we certainly need to invest in transit.

There's been a lot of talk of fixing it first--and that's a great policy. But there are projects other than highways waiting to be fixed. Transit systems across the country (and Amtrak, for that matter) have been underfunded for decades, and most have serious infrastructure issues. Here in Washington, Metro has billions in unfunded needs over the next decade, but I haven't heard of any stimulus headed our way.

But on the environment, Mr. Obama is correct about the all-hands-on-deck effort that is needed to solve the climate change puzzle. But, his plan is missing at least one key piece--alternative transportation. He's talked quite a lot about alternative fuels, but they will not solve the energy or climate problems alone.

According to Growing Cooler a report on the relationship between urban development and climate change, "Transportation accounts for a full third of CO2 emissions in the United States" (page 2). This report refers to the "Three-legged Stool" of Fuel Economy, Carbon Content of Fuel, and VMT. Any policy that fails to address all three legs of the stool will fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions far enough to reach targets. Because the Department of Energy projects that increases in VMT will outstrip improvements in fuel economy and carbon content, any emissions savings from those two legs will be outpaced by increases from the third leg, VMT.

It is readily apparent that we must take the first two steps (alternative fuels and fuel efficiency), but not everyone is sold on reducing VMT. Growing Cooler makes it clear that we must address how much we drive. And things are looking up. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that transit ridership across the country is way up, despite falling gas prices. But we're not doing enough. In every city in this country, transit is underfunded. In many places, even with high ridership, the economy is cutting into revenues. Atlanta's largest transit operator, MARTA, announced this week that major cuts are necessary, even in the face of an 11% increase in riders from last year.

President Obama must address this crisis, not only for transit operators, but from an urban design perspective. We must, as he promised in his platform, address livability and transit-oriented communities. His stimulus must go to cities, as advocated by Streetsblog, and it must go to transit agencies, as well as states and DOTs.

I worry about Mr. Obama's stimulus because roads are not the way to go. They should not be the future of American transportation policy, at least not the cornerstone. I'm not against funding for roads, and I understand that they will play a major role in American society for years to come. Fixing it first is certainly the best way to invest in roads, but Mr. Obama is calling for a major investment in our national infrastructure, on the scale of the Interstate System.

But we cannot afford to build another Interstate System. America is still recovering from all the unintended consequences of the 1956 bill that started all of this superhighway business, and without the suburbs that Interstates facilitated, we wouldn't be having this climate crisis or this energy crisis.

From Growing Cooler, page 2:

The growth in driving is due in large part to urban development, or what some refer to as the built environment. Americans drive so much because we have given ourselves little alternative. For 60 years, we have built homes ever farther from workplaces, located schools far from the neighborhoods they serve, and isolated other destinations--such as shopping--from work and home.

To spend money on highways will only encourage these wasteful trends--what James Howard Kunstler calls the "largest misallocation of resources in history"--to continue. Subsidizing drivers encourages them to make economic decisions that cause sprawl and crowd roadways.

The federal government has never been involved in land use, and it shouldn't be now. But policies such as the Interstate System have supported auto-centric suburban development. As long have subsidies and regulations that favor suburbia over urban areas, they will be indirectly involved in increasing America's dependence on foreign oil and carbon output. While the 1950s might have called for that type of subsidy, the 2010s certainly don't. It's time to refocus America's energies on truly making a dent in the climate question--and revitalizing cities at the same time. Transportation policy is one key component of that kind of change.

Without a sustainable transportation policy, not only will Mr. Obama's climate/energy policies have a major gap, they will have a fatal flaw. It is imperative that he include the transportation secretary, whoever that might be, on his energy team. It is even more imperative that we refocus our transportation resources, whether in the stimulus or in the reauthorization, on other modes. Automotive transportation has been overfunded for years, and a more balanced formula is needed.

Transportation is only one part of a comprehensive investment in stopping climate change, but it is an essential part. I hope Mr. Obama realizes how important is. I also hope he has the political willpower to make sure that change is manifested in transportation policy. We cannot afford 6 more decades of sprawl to result from a ill-thought plan to address the economic downturn. Transit can also help the economy, and the economy will be much better off when compact development, centered on transit, allows Americans to live with a reduced dependence on the automobile, foreign oil, and with cleaner air to breathe.

Soon, we will hear Mr. Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation. Let's hope he or she is as dedicated to change as the President-elect's platform. And let's also hope that they're tough, because they will have one of the hardest jobs in Washington.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How Many Graduate Students Does It Take...

So we've all heard those lightbulb jokes, you know, "how many Californians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" 

This isn't one of those jokes.

The real question is: How many graduate students does it take to do an awesome studio project 
about the future of Lower Barracks Row?

Answer: 12.

And you can see them (us, I'm one of the 12) present the findings of the semester-long study this Thursday.

Here are the details:
Connect Barracks Row Final Presentation
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Blue Castle
770 M Street SE
(Corner of 8th and M SE)
7:30PM - 9:00PM

This location is easily accessible by Metro, via a 10 minute walk from Eastern Market (Blue/Orange lines) or a 15 minute walk from Navy Yard (Green line). 

Our studio project was the capstone course for our Master's program in Planning. We looked at the section of Barracks Row south of the Southeast Freeway, which has languished since the Freeway cut it off from Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s. With the redevelopment of the Riverfront District, around the Navy Yard Metro station, this area is in a prime location for redevelopment. How that occurs is up to the citizens of the District, and we are here to present scenarios based on public input received from the community.


If you can make it this Thursday, please try and come. The meeting is open to the public and represents the completion of our work. We're handing over our work to the community--it's your responsibility to take it from here. 

Monday, December 15, 2008

News Notables: 12/15/08

Sorry, still busy with final papers and such. But the end is near. Since I can't blog for you, make sure to check out these news notables.

Stimulus Funding Highways at the Expense of Transit?
I wrote a post on this topic last week, and it appears I'm not the only one who is fretting about this stimulus. Yesterday's Washington Post had an excellent article explaining why I'm worried. If you missed it, make sure to follow the link.

Got Transit? Fill 'er Up:
Matthew Yglesias has a great post up on the topic of demand management for transit. After all, it's more efficient when it's not running empty.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That...

I know that I usually focus on transportation and policy issues here at Track Twenty-Nine, but sometimes it's nice to get off on a siding and talk about other issues I find near and dear to my heart. And sometimes, I just read an article in the newspaper that calls out for reflection.

This post is the latter.

I still haven't seen the movie "Milk." I've been meaning to for a while. In fact, I was in San Francisco when it debuted at the Castro Theater, although I didn't find out about that until the following morning, in the Chronicle. But last week, my boyfriend and I went downtown to one of (only) two theatres in metropolitan Washington that is screening the film. The woman in front of us in line got the last two tickets.

So I still haven't seen it. This weekend, I'm going to get there an hour and a half early, since 45 minutes isn't apparently enough. We weren't the only people turned away, either. I think the movie theater could make some more money with additional screenings, but supply and demand isn't the subject of this post.

Kissing is.

Today's Washington Post ran with an article on that subject. It responds to the question that everyone in America, apparently, wants to know: what's it like to kiss a guy?

And the title of the article says it all: Why Can't A Kiss Just Be a Kiss?

James Franco has been fielding questions left and right about his on-screen kiss with Sean Penn in Milk. And after reading some of the questions, I agree with the writer. And I'm offended.

First off, I've never been a fan of Letterman. When I do watch late night television--and that's not often--I watch Leno. I always found Letterman to be in bad taste and quite uncomedic. I mean how desperate can you be for jokes when you have to resort to "will it float?" I'll make sure to steer clear from now on.

"I didn't want to screw it up," Franco told Letterman on "Late Show" last week.

"See, if it's me, I'm kind of hoping I do screw it up," Letterman shot back. "That's what you want, isn't it?"

"To screw it up?" Franco asked.

"I mean, do you really want to be good at kissing a guy?" Letterman said as his audience howled with delight.


Well, yes, Mr. Letterman. I suppose an actor playing the role of a gay man would actually want to be good at it--that's what it means to be a good actor, to be good at portraying something you aren't. And what's wrong with that? Is James Franco suddenly to be shunned because he didn't vomit afterwards?

Mr. Letterman might have been making light of the situation the only way he knows how, but his tasteless jokes suggest something more. They suggest that there's something to be horrified about for any straight actor handling this situation.

The article's author, Hank Stuever, makes this point very poignantly.

Underlying the questions (and the answers) is this notion that a gay kissing scene must be the worst Hollywood job hazard that a male actor could face, including stunt work, extreme weather or sitting through five hours of special-effects makeup every day. We live comfortably, if strangely, in a pseudo-Sapphic era in which seemingly every college woman with a MySpace page has kissed another girl for the camera; but for men who kiss men, it's still the final frontier.

There's a whiff of discomfort of the Seinfeldian, "not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it" variety. It's a post-ironic, post-homophobic homophobia, the kind seen most weeks in "Saturday Night Live" sketches or in any Judd Apatow movie.


To put it in perspective for those of you who bat for the other team (after all that's how it appears from my dugout), the article entices the reader to think about how it must feel for those of us in the GLBT community:
"No one ever asks Neil Patrick Harris what it's like to play a straight guy who sleeps with lots of women" on the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," Scholibo says. "No one ever asks him how 'gross' it is to kiss a woman."

And from personal experience, it is gross. I don't know why. It just is. It always has been. But I don't expect my heterosexual readers to agree with me. And that's fine.

Perhaps the most mature of comments I've heard on the topic come from (heterosexual) "Brokeback Mountain" star Jake Gyllenhaal, who talks about his on-screen kisses in "Brokeback" by saying it's "like doing a love scene with a woman I'm not particularly attracted to."

Exactly. At least one good thing's come out of all this:

I can finally stop saying to Letterman, "I wish I knew how to quit you."

I assure you, that won't be a problem anymore.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dead Week/Disappointment

It's a busy time of the year for everyone, I suppose, and so the past few days have been light on blogging and blog reading for me. Next week is the last week of the semester at Maryland, meaning that my final classes are this week. When I was at Georgia Tech, we called the week prior to finals "Dead Week." It certainly will be dead for Track Twenty-Nine, although I'll try and get back to blogging more next week as my class obligations end.

But despite my lack of time this week, I want to express some frustration. I'm not the only one around to be doing so, either.

You see, on November 4, I stood in line in the cold and voted for change. While I waited with my neighbors and fellow disenfranchised citizens (in DC), I thought back to the first time I voted for Barack Obama, on a snowy day in March, during the Potomac Primary. It was cold then, too. But I felt that I was casting a ballot which would help to thaw America from the icy clutch of the Republicans. For 8 long years, they stood with the reigns of power, and created public policy in the transportation, energy, and urban policy areas which made me want to vomit.

So on November 4, I was out in the streets cheering when CNN called the election for Obama. It was raining, but we didn't care here in DC. Getting wet that cold November evening didn't matter. We had won! After 8 years of strife, victory was at hand. Change was in the air. In a matter of months, a new era would start in America--an era of growing environmental consciousness, of reinvestment in our cities, of policies for the people--instead of for corporate executives.

Now, I'm not so sure that I got what I voted for. To be certain, Mr. Obama has not yet taken office, and much is still unknown about his policies, but I am worried.

In a speech on Saturday, the President-Elect called for investment. But I did not hear a call for anything remotely like the Second System. Instead I heard a call that hearkens back to the Eisenhower Administration.
"We will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in
our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in
the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and
we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to
invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

Granted, Obama did not actually call for investment in the federal highway system. But he did use it as an example. Where are his calls for high speed rail? Where are his examples of the UMTA transit program of the 1970s that gave us BART, Metro, and MARTA? The program that gave us LRT in San Diego, in Pittsburgh, in San Francisco?

In a world where highway building has been the status-quo for over 5 decades, the lack of mention of transit does not bode well. For the last 7 years, Mr. Bush has called for Americans to reduce their dependence on foreign oil in each of his States of the Union. Not once did he ask Americans to try transit--nor did he do much to increase the supply of transit. Do we face another 4 years of the same?

Mr. Obama says that if communities don't invest in roads and bridges, they'll lose federal dollars. I fear that if they don't invest in transit, they'll lose their communities. But where are Mr. Obama's pledges of money to fund transit projects that are in design?

According to today's Washington Post, Maryland and Virginia have new hopes for road projects cancelled by the recent downturn. Excuse me? What about the major cuts to MARC service proposed by MTA? Shouldn't we be hoping for a stimulus that would at least keep transit service at today's levels, especially in the face of vast increases in ridership?

Just yesterday, the Post ran a story about transit ridership across the nation--it's up, way up. In heavy rail, LA leads the pack with a 14.1% increase over last year. Baltimore's light rail leads with an increase of 19.6%. The Railrunner in Albuquerque leads with a huge increase of 35.8%. For the Post's editorial board, the evidence is clear and convincing. They're calling for investment in transit. The Post rightly points out, that any fast-acting stimulus penalizes transit because of the hoops we've created for those projects to jump through. And while Obama might be the likeliest candidate to change that situation, he has so far shown no inclination to fund a transit stimulus.

Even though VMT is dropping and transit ridership is increasing, Mr. Obama wants to give states money to widen highways, like I-66 and I-95, but doesn't see fit to give a few federal dollars to stop the elmination of already-crowded commuter trains running alongide these corridors.

Indeed, with all this talk of infrastructure spending to rival the New Deal, why haven't we heard about his pick for Secretary of Transportation? If we're really going to invest in our transportation infrastructure like Eisenhower did, why isn't Mary Peters' replacement already drawing up plans?

I'm still holding out hope for a Transportation Secretary like Jim Oberstar or Earl Blumenauer, but with Obama's talk of highway spending, I'm afraid we'll get someone more like Robert Moses.

I haven't yet given up hope for change. But I also haven't heard much since November 4 to suggest that change is really coming, at least to transportation policy. And in this time of high ridership and demand for government infrastructure investment, that would be a shame. This is the chance of a generation to change the way our cities are structured--we cannot afford to squander that opportunity just to build more highways. Not if we have any hope for redesigning cities to survive into the 21st century--a century guaranteed not to be the century of cheap oil.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Subway for the Prairie

This post is the seventh in a series of posts I am writing about lessons planners could learn from Canada. My recent trip showed me North American cities that have done a better job of managing their urban fabric than is typical south of the 49th Parallel.

It has been quite a while since I last penned an entry for this series. I've been swamped with work and also have focused on other topics for Track Twenty-Nine. Anyway, in this episode, my journey across the continent has reached the capital of Alberta and the end of my trip on Via.

Edmonton is a medium-sized city on Canada's plains. With one light rail line, it was my first chance to ride rail transit since leaving Toronto, some 2000 miles eastward. When the system was opened in 1978, it was the first city in North America under 1 million in population to build a light rail system. The system is one of the first-generation of modern light rail systems.

Unlike many light rail systems, in Edmonton, a subway was constructed downtown to keep transit riders from being stuck in traffic. While the outer segments of the line operate like typical light rail lines in North America, with grade crossings, the central subway certainly saves time.

In Baltimore, the north-south light rail was constructed in a transit mall, but cross traffic often delays trains. The Red Line is a proposed east-west light rail line through central city Baltimore with a proposed subway section in downtown. This is certainly a more reasonable approach to light rail, one I hope isn't killed by the "cost-effectiveness" criteria of the FTA.

Incidentally, another time-saving approach that Edmonton took was to make all stations high platform boarding. Without the stairs typical of earlier light rail systems (including Baltimore), passengers find it easier to board and alight.
I think Edmonton's approach demonstrates a foresight in transit planning which will benefit the system for years to come. Even though the system is still relatively small, the subway will make core capacity less of an issue as it expands. Costing less should not be the primary criterion for a good transit project, even though it seems to have been for many years in the United States.



Perhaps with an Obama stimulus package, we can build more of this sort of high quality transit investment.

Other modern light rail systems with downtown subways/stations:
  • Buffalo
  • Cleveland
  • Los Angeles
  • Pittsburgh
  • Saint Louis
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle (under const.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

This is the newest installment in my series "Profiles in Transit." In this series, I reflect on transit systems around the country that I've ridden, focusing on unique elements.

I was in the Bay Area in October, and had the pleasure of riding Caltrain during my trip. Caltrain is one of the best commuter/regional rail services in the country, in my opinion. Service is fast and efficient, and very popular. Frequencies are high and transit oriented densities can be seen all along the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. Additionally, Caltrain has ambitious plans for expansion and service optimization.

The Basics:
Caltrain is a one-line commuter/regional rail system operating along the San Francisco Peninsula. The service is funded by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board and operated under contract to Amtrak. The line was constructed in 1863, and was operated by Southern Pacific from 1870-1980. After 1980, the California Department of Transportation began subsidizing the service, and it became 'Caltrain' in 1985.


The 77 mile line includes 29 regular stops, 1 football only stop, and 2 weekend only stops. Service on weekdays operates approximately every 30 minutes, with additional service provided during rush periods. Most service operates over the segment of track between San Francisco and San Jose-Tamien Station, with additional service provided south to Gilroy during peak times.
Service is operated in one of three patterns: Local, Limited, and Baby Bullet. Not all trains make the same stops, even within the same category, with the exception of local trains, which make all stops. Limited stop trains tend to have a northern local/southern limited or northern limited/southern local pattern. Baby Bullet trains make 5 stops from San Jose Diridon to San Francisco, taking approximately 57 minutes--a savings of approximately 33 minutes over slower trains.



Other rail transit connections are available at multiple points along the line:
  • San Francisco Caltrain: Muni Metro light rail
  • Milbrae: BART heavy rail
  • Mountain View: VTA light rail
  • San Jose Diridon: VTA light rail, ACE commuter rail, Amtrak Capitol Corridor
  • San Jose Tamien: VTA light rail
My Visit:
I took two trips on Caltrain:

Segments Ridden
  • Limited Stop train, Millbrae-SJ Diridon
  • Baby Bullet, Mountain View-SF Caltrain
Stations Visited
  • Millbrae
  • San Jose Diridon
  • Mountain View
  • San Francisco Caltrain (4th & King)
Notables:
One of the things I found most profound about the service was the amount of transit oriented development along the line. In town centers all along the line, there are walkable communities with housing, retail, and offices mere steps from the platforms. To some degree, this has occurred because these communities grew up next to commuter services. But the cities along the line have also focused growth around the service, and it seems to be working.


Another thing I was surprised by was the ridership. Perhaps it's a function of the above paragraph or maybe it's because service is so frequent, but the trains I was on were very crowded.

Bikes: Trains have significant accommodations for cyclists, allowing up to 32 bikes per train. Bikes are kept in a designated car in racks. To make room for additional bikes, communities along the line have installed bike lockers at stations and a bike station as been created at the San Francisco Caltrain station.

Frequencies are very high. With trains every 30 minutes, even off-peak, the service is reliable and easy to use. It means that frequencies off-peak are a little less than half of the frequencies for an individual BART line (they operate every 12 minutes, even at rush hour, translating to every 3 minutes or so downtown).

I was also impressed with Caltrain's vision for the future. While in many areas, commuter rail services exist at the behest of freight railroads and as remnants of former systems that are focused just on getting by. Caltrain's Baby Bullet is a perfect example. With the installation of passing tracks, purchase of new rollingstock, and creation of a central control system, Caltrain significantly improved service and laid groundwork for future improvements. Future plans include electrification and a tunnel to San Francisco's Transbay Terminal.

I was very impressed with Caltrain. I think it offers a lot of good lessons for other commuter/regional rail operators in the US. If any of you have a chance, I highly advise you to take the time to ride Caltrain.

Thoughts? Reflections?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

News Notables: 12/2/08

I hope everyone's holiday was safe and happy. It was a quiet week here at Track Twenty-Nine, but I'm working to keep the posts flowing. In the meantime, here are some news items you might be interested in checking out:

Gas Prices Fall, Transit Riders Increase: This is indeed good news from the Washington Post. Here in the DC area, Metro ridership has increased 5% over last October, while MARC and VRE have seen 7.5% and 12% increases over the same period, respectively. And the increases are not confined to Washington alone. Dallas, Texas and Orange County, California are among areas seeing increases in ridership.

Washington Prepares for Inauguration Strains: The New York Times reports on the struggle here in the District to prepare for the major crowds expected for President Obama's inauguration. The $15 million allocated by the Federal Government for all federal activities in 2009 won't even begin to cover the inauguration. They also report that 18 trains on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor are booked into Washington for the inauguration.

Freakonomics Looks at the Gas Tax: Check out this engaging post on the New York Times Blog. It explores a lot of the issues surrounding the gas tax and why we might need to consider raising it.

The Crumbling Past: Look through the lens at the decaying remains of Central Michigan Station. This wonderful photo essay explores a place where time seems to have stopped--some post-apocalyptic world where America's great train stations have been forgotten. Too bad it's true. At least Detroit still has the building. Atlanta, for instance, lost both the Terminus and Central Station. 

Jackets Destroy Bulldogs 45-42: While this isn't exactly a transit-related headline, it's worth noting. This Thanksgiving weekend upset between the hedges at Athens put Georgia Tech on top. And despite being the highest-ranked ACC team (in the BCS) at #15, we won't be going to the championship. Still, I wouldn't trade that for a victory over Georgia. How 'bout them dawgs, eh?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

News Notables: 11/25/08

I've noticed a few newsworthy items recently. I thought I'd pass along some links.

Metro advises patrons to walk--if you live within 2 miles of the Capitol. Expecting large crowds, perhaps up to 1 million riders by noon on January 20th, WMATA officials are encouraging urban riders who can to walk to the Mall. It is likely that even if you go to a Metro station near your home, trains coming in from the 'burbs will be pretty full already.

Who will be the newest Navy Yard Metro commuter? The Washington Post discusses the prospects for the next Secretary of Transportation. And there certainly are hurdles. From Reauthorization to an empty Trust Fund, our nation's crumbling infrastructure needs a big advocate from USDOT.

Space-Age Transit for the Silicon Valley: The measure to extend BART from Warm Springs (near Fremont) to San Jose narrowly passed on November 4, but we're just finding out about it now. After counting absentee and provisional ballots, it seems the transit tax achieved the requisite 66.67% needed to pass. The extension will be 16 miles in length and will charge a 1/8 cent sales tax to fund construction and operations. The tax will only be collected if federal funding is obtained. The line will open in 2018.

West Virginians speak out against MARC Cuts: Apparently, MTA is considering a proposal to terminate all MARC service at Brunswick, Maryland. Riders from the West Virginia Panhandle aren't too happy, either. This would eliminate service to Harpers Ferry, Duffields, and Martinsburg, WV. An interesting aside, West Virginia does not seem to subsidize the service, something I was not aware of.

Got a transit headline? Send it to me: matt.tracktwentynine@gmail.com

Saturday, November 22, 2008

MTA Light Rail Service Improves

Last week, I reported on MTA's Light Rail disruptions up in Baltimore. Service will be much improved starting Sunday, November 23 2008. The Penn-Camden Shuttle will still not operate, and many trains will only be one car long, but service to Hunt Valley has been restored.

Trains will operate every 15 minutes between Hunt Valley and Linthicum and every 30 minutes on the branches to BWI and Cromwell/Glen Burnie.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Understanding the Blue Line Reroute

Metro's growth in ridership has never been pain free, but overcrowding on the Orange Line is reaching absurd levels. WMATA has already lengthened many trains to 8 cars, which is the length of the platforms. A shortage of rollingstock and power substation issues are preventing more trains from being lengthened, but even so, the day is coming when nothing can be done but add trains.

This unfortunately, can only happen at the expense of the Blue Line.

Metro trains can operate 90 seconds apart, but require 135 seconds of separation at locations where switches must be realigned between trains. In this case, the bottleneck is the "Rosslyn Portal," the area of tunnel just west of Rosslyn Station, where the Blue and Orange Lines diverge.
Planners at WMATA have gotten a little extra capacity out of the system by running two consecutive Orange Line trains followed by one Blue Line train. This way, the switches don't need to be realigned as much--and that saves 45 seconds. This is possible because for every 2 Blue trains, WMATA runs 3 Orange trains. Still, the throughput is limited.
Since pictures are worth more than words, I'll just demonstrate by referring to the diagram below. *If you don't understand something, leave a comment, and I'll try to address it.*

Based on the 135 second headway, WMATA can run 5 trains through a given segment of track every 12 minutes. Each the diagrams below represents a 12 minute interval during rush hour. Each of the lines on the diagram represents a train in each direction. Therefore, a trackway with two lines (like between Navy Yard and Anacostia) represents a headway of 6 minutes--12/2.

The first diagram represents WMATA's current service pattern during rush hours.

*In the first version of my maps, I erroneously showed the Yellow Line going all the way to Fort Totten. During rush periods, the Yellow Line terminates at Mount Vernon Square. The corrected map is below.


The chief limitation for the Orange Line, as you can see here is the 4 minute headway on the Vienna-Rosslyn segment. Adding one train would reduce headways to 3 minutes and would add a capacity of 1000-1400 passengers for every 12 minute period. Any additional capacity is sorely needed, but the segment of track between Rosslyn and Stadium Armory is essentially at capacity.

Hence the so-called "Blue Line Split." Under this proposal, approximately every other Blue Line train leaving Franconia-Springfield would follow the Yellow Line across the Potomac, and up to Greenbelt. While this would shave about 8 minutes off of a trip between Franconia and L'Enfant, it would decrease the frequency of trains running directly to Rosslyn, Farragut, and Metro Center from Franconia. According to Metro reports, however, trips from the Alexandria/southern Fairfax stations to Farragut and Metro Center have been decreasing (by about 4%) while trips to the east side of Downtown (L'Enfant, Gallery Place) have been increasing (by 11%).

Here's what WMATA is proposing:

*In the first version of my maps, I erroneously showed the Yellow Line going all the way to Fort Totten. During rush periods, the Yellow Line terminates at Mount Vernon Square. The corrected map is below.


Under this scenario, all stations maintain their current headways or increase them except for Arlington Cemetery. To offset the Blue Line trains to Greenbelt on the east side of the system, the new Orange Line train that will be running in place of the Blue Line train will also run to Largo.

While the Blue Line via Rosslyn is certainly less patronized, there could still be potential for overcrowding. This could be alleviated by making sure that all Blues via Rosslyn are 8 cars (which hold about 400 more passengers than a 6-car train).

Still, some are understandably upset. But there is a greater good to think about. All they need to do is get to the Metro station 6 minutes earlier, and they'll get to work 6 minutes earlier. There is no trip time impact to Blue Line trains operating via Rosslyn. Of course, that's assuming that normal operations are underway. Since the Blue Line Split will increase efficiency and reliability at the Rosslyn Portal, riders via Rosslyn on both Blue and Orange Lines will experience fewer delays, and therefore an increased trip time on average (not considering wait times).

To analyze the travel time cost to riders, I created an additional schematic (I've spent several hours this week working on this post--that's what having a cold is good for). The schematic on the left side of the diagram shows the current travel times. Assuming someone wanted to leave Franconia-Springfield at 7:30, they would take train "A." Were they to miss that train, the next one (B) would leave 6 minutes later at 7:36. Since trains take the same routing, B would arrive at each destination 6 minutes after A. Passengers wishing to travel to L'Enfant would save 5 minutes by transferring to the Yellow Line at King Street or Pentagon.

On the right side of the diagram, I've shown projected travel times (based on current station-station travel times) with the Blue Line Split. Since approximately every other Blue train at rush hour would follow the Yellow Line, I've assumed that train A would be the re-routed train. It has the same departure time from Franconia as train A does under the current travel time scenario.

Passengers traveling to L'Enfant now save 9 minutes over the one-seat ride, and 5 minutes over the transfer-to-Yellow ride. Passengers traveling to Farragut West and Metro Center would still get to work quicker by waiting 6 additional minutes at Franconia for train B, but they would only be saving 3 minutes over train A. But their trip is not actually longer, just their wait. Since trains (even Metro trains) run on schedules--and remember, this rerouting will help on-time performance--the riders in question can just show up at Franconia (in the AM) or Farragut (in the PM) 6 minutes earlier or later and get to work in the same time.

The only people inconvenienced by this plan are people traveling to Arlington Cemetery during rush hours. Most of them are tourists, and can use their additional 6 minutes of waiting to puzzle over the Metro map or stand at the top of an escalator.

Therefore, I judge the direct cost to Franconia->Farragut riders as 6 minutes each way. Some will not like this. They are already complaining to Dr. Gridlock and Metro, but the time savings for everyone else in the system is quite appreciable.


Some have also contended that this scenario will cause confusion. Staff at WMATA have proposed dubbing the reroute, which would only occur during rush hours, the Brown Line. David over at Greater Greater Washington disagrees. He thinks dubbing it the Yellow Line makes the most sense, and I agree. For simplicity's sake, on the diagram showing the re-route, I have colored it light blue.

This proposal becomes even more essential (and probably assured) once the Silver Line to Dulles comes on line. With trains from Tysons and Loudoun County sharing tracks with the Orange Line between East Falls Church and Stadium-Armory, service will need to be reduced at WFC, Dunn Loring, and Vienna (see below).

These cuts would be less if the Blue Line had a separated subway along M Street, as WMATA is now proposing. Funding for this massive project has not been identified, but in my opinion is more likely under an Obama Presidency.

I also think that the Silver Line will eventually need it's own tunnel downtown. After all, as popular as the Orange Line is currently, the Silver Line will serve much more popular destinations. There's not much at Vienna, while the four stations in Tysons will be in the largest job center in the entire state of Virginia. Additionally, Silver trains will run much further into the suburbs than Orange Line trains--so they might be more popular with commuters. At the same time, I don't see the popularity of Vienna's parking garages dropping off.

*In the first version of my maps, I erroneously showed the Yellow Line going all the way to Fort Totten. During rush periods, the Yellow Line terminates at Mount Vernon Square. The corrected map is below.


Anyone have any thoughts? Questions?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Metro Plans for 1.6 Million(!) Riders Jan. 20

Yes, you did read that headline correctly. As reported earlier on Track Twenty-Nine, Metro expects to move 1.6 million riders on rail & bus for Barack Obama's inauguration. They just released their plans for the day. I'll outline them below.


But first, don't forget to vote in my poll. Do you think Metro is being overly optimistic? Tell us what you think by voting.


Metro's Plans
View the Press Release here.

Hours:
  • Metro will be open from 4am 1/20 until 2am 1/21
  • Continuous Rush Hour service will be operated from 4am-7pm 1/20

Service

  • Archives Station [GR/YL] will be CLOSED all day 1/20
  • Smithsonain Station [BL/OR] will have it's northern entrance (Nat'l Mall) CLOSED all day 1/20
  • Many escalators will be turned off due to crowding
  • Passengers should expect major delays in boarding immediately after the event
  • Wait times could be around 30 minutes (T29 projects higher wait times, based on 7/4/08)

Parking:

  • Parking will be free all day on 1/20
  • Metro expects all 59,000 spaces to be filled on 1/20
*I'll update you on MARC and VRE Service when information becomes available. Stay tuned.

T-29 Projection/*New Poll*

Track Twenty-Nine is ready to make a projection:

January 20, 2009 will be Metro's highest ridership day ever.

*Don't forget to vote in my new poll*

With gas prices soaring over the summer, Metro flirted with the highest ridership date several times, finally surpassing the date of Ronald Reagan's state funeral this year on July 11. That day, free slurpies (j/k) drew 854,638 trips on Metrorail.

Before this summer, the highest ridership date had been set by mourners at the Reagan Funeral. On that date, June 9, 2004, 850,636 rides were taken. This date is currently the second-highest.

Of the top 10 highest ridership days of all time, 8 occurred during 2008. (#2 was in 2004, #9 in April of 07). But the inauuration is coming soon, and it promises to be one for the ages.

According to DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, the District is expecting between 3 and 5 million visitors to see Barack Obama's swearing in and the inaugural parade. This is unprecedented. So far, the most popular inauguration was Lyndon Johnson's in 1964, when 1.2 million citizens came out to watch. If Fenty is correct, we could see 3 times as many people this go 'round.

And the region is bracing. WTOP reports that Metro is having an all-hands-on-deck day, with every piece of available equipment ready to move passengers through the city.

Based on my experience, Fenty's projections are not unreasonable. Everyone I know has fielded calls from people looking for a place to stay. (Sorry dear readers, I'm already putting up 4 people, so I can't help you out). Even CNN commentator Donna Brazile has written about this phenomenon. People are coming with tickets or without, and hotel rooms in metropolitan Washington are booked. Yes--all of them. I hear that Baltimore and Richmond are already filling up, too.

Some are cashing in on the opportunity, and I don't blame them. But friends come first, so I'm putting my guests up for free. And I'm going down to the Mall with them to be a part of history. You know, even if I can't hear President Obama take the oath, I think it'll be worth it. I can always watch the rerun on C-SPAN when I get home.

I've put up a new poll. What do you think? Will WMATA surpass ridership records?

The prior poll asked about your plans for the Inauguration. Here are
the results:
  • 41% of you live in Washington and are being swamped by calls for floor
    space.
  • 37% of you are staying warm, and watching on CNN.
  • 12% of you are charging exorbitant rates for a room.
  • 4% of you are begging for places to stay.
  • 4% of you want to know what the inauguration is.

**Update:
After writing this, but before submitting it, I recieved a press release from WMATA. They have already announced their plans for the Inauguration, and will run continuous *rush hour* service from 4am-7pm on January 20th. The system will be open from 4am-2am on that date.

The Post is now reporting that WMATA expects 1.6 million rail riders on January 20th. This would *double* the current ridership record.

***Update to the Update (2:30pm, 11/20):
The Post has corrected their story to reflect that the 1.6 million is for both rail and bus. On an average day, WMATA moves about 1.2 million customers on rail and bus (around 800,000 on rail).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Next Stop: River City

This is the second post in my series "Profiles in Transit." This series looks at transit systems around the country that I've ridden and reflects on them.

As with my first post in this series, I was able to visit Sacramento while attending the Railvolution Conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago. I mainly went to Sacramento to ride their light rail system, but I did take time to visit some other things in the city. If you ever find yourself in the River City, make sure to visit the California State Railroad Museum. It's very well done.

Sacramento is a medium-sized city, and while I was there for only a few hours, it looks like it could use some work. Old Sacramento was nice, with frontier-style buildings along the river acting as a tourist attraction. After going through a pedestrian tunnel under a freeway, I found myself on the edge of a large shopping mall. This retail center has colonized several city blocks (with bridges over streets and such). On the edges, it turns a blank wall to the surrounding streets and buildings. I was very unimpressed.

Soon I arrived at a light rail stop, and hopped on. The Sacramento RT (Regional Transit) operates 37 miles of light rail on two lines. There are 45 stations in the system, which radiates out from downtown Sacramento to the Northeast, East, and South. The first segment of the system opened in 1987. With close to 50,000 average daily boardings, the Sacramento RT is the 10th busiest light rail system in the United States.

The high ridership is especially noteworthy because in my opinion, the Sacramento Light Rail was done on the cheap. That's not a bad thing. It demonstrates that we can get more bang for our buck.

Anyway, I say that it seems to have been done on the cheap for a few reasons. First off, at least downtown, the LRVs do not get their own lane. They travel in the left lane of traffic, in a similar configuration to the Portland Streetcar. This is one of the corners they probably shouldn't have cut. But some more innocuous cost reductions can be seen at stations. At one station, 12th& I, the northbound track is in its own lane, and passengers board from the eastern sidewalk. But southbound trains are in the left lane of traffic. Passengers board from the northbound trackway. I assume that RT has some kind of hold out rule to keep northbound trains out of the station while southbound trains are boarding.

A similar issue I faced, occurred when I was on my way back to the Amtrak Station. When I got off the LRT at 7th & K, I exited directly into the middle of an intersection. Sacramento RT runs 4 car trains, and these trains are longer than the downtown blocks, so when I exited the last car, I was standing in front of a row of cars (they were held by a traffic signal). It was just a little unnerving, but I suppose that it's the only way to increase capacity. One of the things I'd heard about Portland was that their LRT can't run trains longer than 2 cars because of the short blocks. But if Trimet follows RT's example, they could still board passengers while blocking cross traffic.

Another cost-saving measure is that parts of the LRT were built on already-constructed but canceled freeway bridges and abutments. That just seems practical. Plus, what's a better way to heal a city scarred by freeways than to replace the freeways with transit.

Segments Ridden:
Archives Plaza-Swanston

Stations Visited:
Archives Plaza,
8th & O,
7th & Capitol,
8th & Capitol,
7th & K,
Swanston.

Thoughts on the Sacramento LRT?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Texas Tea

Lately, oil prices have been falling like a rock. Gas, too, has been dropping. As of November 17, the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded was down to just $2.07. I can still remember when I had a learner's permit, you could get it for $0.79.

I was under the impression that most Americans understood that the recent price drop was due to a reduction in demand, but I've heard some comments in the last week which have liberated me of that opinion. The truth of the matter is that because the economy is in the toilet, people are driving less. Once the economy recovers, we'll have the same supply issues as before. This is no time to stop our efforts at reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Still, reduced gas prices seem to have at least partially contributed to the defeat of transit ballot measures in Saint Louis and Kansas City on election day. The oil crisis is not over, it's just on hold because of the recession.

And that fact needs to be communicated to the American consumer. Right now, most are not in a position to make major structural changes in their lives. They're not going to go out and buy a new car, and they're not going to move further out into the suburbs. But they are liable to stop supporting transit-friendly and walkable community-centered policies if they think that life will go back to normal as soon as the economy improves.

I posit, however, that this is not a time like the early 1980s. In the 1980s, after high oil prices, Americans were treated to two decades of cheap energy, and they sprawled more and more. We need to realize that there aren't going to be two decades of cheap oil henceforth.

Even if oil stays cheaper than it was this summer for a while, it is going to trend upward in price. Failing to restructure our society for expensive energy only makes us even more vulnerable to the next oil shock.

While oil prices did not cause this recession, they certainly didn't help the situation. But it isn't oil that's the culprit. It would be nice to blame OPEC or China's (formerly) fast- growing economy, but the blame really lies at the feet of our lawmakers here in Washington.

By continuing to endorse sprawling development, by continuing to fund roads at a much higher rate than other modes, and by failing to tell the American people what they need to hear, the government has failed to prepare our economy for oil shocks like the one of Summer 2008. Now that the economy is tottering on the edge of recession, it makes it harder to create the necessary structural change. Certainly a New Deal type of program could create green infrastructure, and perhaps that sort of legislation will be in the works under the new administration, but this crisis in policy is something that has been in the making since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, America hit the snooze alarm after the first oil crisis in 1973, and failed to heed the wakeup call again in 1979. We allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of energy security by the gas prices of the mid-1980s. We cannot afford to let that happen now.

While oil prices are currently about 1/3 of what they were in July, they won't stay this low forever. Oil closed at $54.95 on Monday 11/17. I remember the first time it climbed above $50 in my lifetime. I was a sophomore in college at the time. I thought it would be temporary, but shortly thereafter it passed $60. I was hopeful that it would mean major change in this country, both politically and geographically.

Since that date, back in March 2005, oil has not dropped below $50.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't want oil prices to hurt Americans, but I saw no other way of affecting settlement patterns. Americans respond to economic incentives, as was indicated by the shocks of 2008. Transit ridership was higher in many places than it's been in decades and national VMT dropped for the first time since 1979. Suddenly, in the face of the mortgage and housing crises, we discovered that houses near transit retain their value better.

Americans value mobility, and were beginning to realize that the car was not the only way to get around--in fact, with high gas prices, being isolated in a car-dependent suburb was suddenly not as popular as it once was.

Of course a spike is bad. A gradual increase in oil prices would give Americans a chance to adjust, but a spike on the order of what happened this summer occurs too fast to allow adaptation.

Anyway, one of President-elect Obama's most long-lasting legacies could be a reduction of America's dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise). But it will take a huge effort to change the way Americans think about energy. Carter tried and failed. However, if anyone has the ability, I think it's Obama.

Good luck, Mr. President-elect.

Monday, November 17, 2008

GM to US: 'Spare some change buddy?'

In these troubled times, there has been quite a lot of talk of bailouts. With $700 billion already in the pipe to save creditors, or bankers, or real estate (whoever it is this week) the federal government has committed a lot of resources to getting the country back on its feet.

As well it should. After all, even President Bush, who has a penchant for being out to lunch when it comes to policy, has pointed out that without decisive action on the part of governments, the world economy could sink below the level of the Great Depression.

Mr. Bush's sudden uptick in government check-writing led some TV pundits to label him as America's first socialist president. Nothing could be further from the truth. He's not a socialist; just a (really) big-spender. Socialists are usually in favor of supporting people, not companies. That's a typical Republican strategy.

So is the $700 billion going to homeowners? The unemployed? Infrastructure projects? No. It's going to banks. And the bankers and insurance agents get to go to spas with the proceeds.

Of course, from a policy standpoint, there are a multitude of reasons for the bank bailout. There are certainly reasons not to bailout corporations--and the interesting policy question addresses the balance between these sides of the debate. But let's not argue about the bailout. That's water under the bridge.

But there are new people seeking handouts these days. It appears that General Motors is the proverbial beggar in sheep's clothing hanging around the Capitol steps. That's right, in an era of high gas prices, the manufacturer of the Hummer is asking for help because it can't seem to foist these cars off on consumers. This isn't a new quagmire for Detroit.

In the 1970s, with gas lines stretching around the block, GM was making cars the size of small tugboats. By the turn of the century, they'd graduated to marketing cars based on the idea that in an accident, they'd flatten anything else on the road. And a few years ago, when gas prices were starting to inch upwards, they introduced the H3 as a smaller version of their suburban assault vehicle.

Excuse me? The H3--a more fuel efficient Hummer? The whole reason people bought Hummers was to show your neighbors that you didn't care about trivial things like gas prices and saving the environment. Doesn't a (more) fuel efficient mini-tank defeat the purpose?

Anyway, now it looks like up on the Hill, conservatives and liberals alike are leaning toward a GM bailout. Because corporate Darwinism is apparently not enough. A company which has over time proven itself unable to adapt to building anything other than the largest cars on the road deserves life support in the eyes of Congress.

And it's certainly understandable as to why. After all, GM employs over 250,000 people and is a major employer for Michigan. Were the company to go under, it would deal a devastating blow to the economy. But a blank check certainly doesn't seem to be the right way to go. If the past is any indication, they'll use the government money to finance the construction of something that takes even more money to fill up.

But besides the obvious tilt toward financing our auto- and oil-addicted society, the whole premise of corporate bailout rankles me. After all, for the past several decades conservatives have derided programs like Workfare as socialism. Bailouts stemming from corporate malfeasance, however, is treated as good policy.

And GM certainly has a history of malfeasance. Beyond poor decision-making in terms of car models, they were also convicted in a conspiracy to dismantle transit networks across the United States. Harvey Wasserman over at Common Dreams thinks that GM should be forced to rebuild what they destroyed as a condition of being bailed out. That's not such a bad idea.

Perhaps it's time for the transit industry to get a serious infrastructure program. What if 2009 was for transit what 1956 was for highways?

In this time of change, dare we dream big? I think so.

MTA Light Rail Disruptions

Track Twenty-Nine does not typically cover Baltimore, but our friends further up the bay are having some major transit issues that I think warrant a post.

This weekend, MTA Maryland, the agency which runs Baltimore's transit system announced that due to emergency maintenance on their light rail vehicles, major service cuts would be going into effect immediately. These cuts are temporary, but MTA has not yet announced a timetable for renewal of services.

As of November 15, all light rail services north of North Avenue are canceled. A shuttle bus will take passengers to all stops north of North Avenue. Additionally, no service will be provided on the Penn-Camden Shuttle. Buses will take passengers between Penn Station and Mount Royal/U of B Station. On the rest of the light rail system, one-car trains will be in operation, with the potential for serious overcrowding.


Apparently the cause of these disruptions is damage to the wheels of MTA's LRVs caused by "Slippery Rail Season." This season is recognized by many transit agencies, including WMATA, as the time of the year when falling leaves get ground to mush on the tracks. This causes rails to be slippery and reduces traction and braking power to trains. According to MTA, their LRVs are more prone than other systems to be damaged by slippery rail season.

MTA reports that staff are working overtime to resolve the problem. While this is reassuring, I wonder what is being done to keep this problem from being manifested again next year.

If you're up in Baltimore, hang in there, hopefully service will be restored shortly.

*The Metro Subway is unaffected by these problems.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

This is a new series I've started for the blog profiling transit systems I've ridden and found interesting.

When I was out west at Railvolution a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ride down to San Jose and spend a few hours there. I have to say I was impressed. I was expecting a car-oriented suburban landscape of office parks, but found that the city has a nice core downtown.

The city has a light rail system which operates along 42 miles of track with 62 stations. The system first opened in 1987, and has been upgraded and expanded since. It is operated by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, VTA. The LRVs currently used on the system are low-floor. They replaced the original fleet of high-floor LRVs in 2003. Platforms are presently being brought up to allow for level boarding.


Portions of the system still are single-track, but most of the system is double-tracked. Still, I found frequencies somewhat lacking. I had to wait almost 30 minutes for a train at Diridon Station. Ridership seemed to be decent considering the context. Approximately 37,000 people board the system every day, putting it in 14th place for American light rail ridership.

Notables:
In my opinion, the San Jose Light Rail offers a few notable practices.

Downtown, the line operates in a pedestrian mall-type environment on parallel one-way streets. The picture at top illustrates this. Here, the rails are embedded in a linear-plaza setting, and between trains people walk and bike along the tracks. With street trees planted only feet away from the sides of the vehicles, the catenary wire is almost invisible. (See UMD, it can be done!)


Additionally, ample space for bikes is provided on board. I've ridden many light rail systems, but nowhere can I remember seeing quite so much space allocated for cyclists. This system is definitely bike-friendly, and I found that interesting, because I never imagined San Jose to be a great bike city. Apparently, however, the two-wheeled mode is popular in the Silicon Valley.

Unfortunately, I only had enough time to ride a small portion of the system. I wish I'd had more time to explore, but I suppose I'll be back in the Bay Area eventually.

Segments Ridden:
San Jose Diridon - St. James,
Lick Mill - Mountain View

Stations Visited:
San Jose Diridon,
San Fernando,
Convention Center,
Paseo de San Antonio,
Santa Clara,
St. James,
Lick Mill,
Mountain View

I'm interested in your opinions on this new segment. So comment with the following questions in mind:

1. What other information would you like to see in the segment "Profiles in Transit?"
2. What thoughts do you have on VTA Light Rail?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Day in the Newseum


A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of taking a trip to the Newseum. Located near the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, the facility is a huge, modern building dedicated to memorializing and exploring the free (and the not-so-free) press.

I've lived in Washington for over a year, and visited many of its museums, but the Newseum is by far my favorite. I'll go so far as to endorse it: If you're in Washington and have time for only one museum, visit the Newseum. But make sure to have plenty of time, the place is vast and is absolutely filled with interesting exhibits.

Of course, the focus of the Newseum is not just the history of the news. Indeed, the museum shows the importance of the media in today's times. From Climate Change to Saturday Night Live, there are plenty of exhibits dealing with the present. And while Stephen Colbert derides the museum as the Newsoleum because he says that it's a place where visitors can see the history of the old, dead news, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The open, airy design of the structure allows for many large exhibits, including a newscopter and part of the transmission antenna from the World Trade Center. I think that the antenna is the centerpiece of the most eerie of the exhibits: it's surrounded by the front pages of all the newspapers reporting the September 11th tragedy. From the Atlanta Journal's "OUTRAGE" to the San Francisco Examiner's "BASTARDS!", this mosaic of sadness and pain is a moving display.

And most breathtaking of all is their terrace. Called the best view of the Capitol anywhere in DC, the outdoor rooftop observation deck is six stories above Pennsylvania Avenue and only 5 blocks from the grand centerpiece of L'Enfant's city. This view alone is worth the admission fee, but the exhibits are a nice byproduct, too.

So, from the 6 segments of the Berlin Wall (including guard tower) on the ground floor to the gallery of today's front pages on the top, this museum is one of the finest gems in Washington. Make sure not to miss it if you find yourself in our nation's captial.