Category Archives: Social Issues

Texas High-Speed Rail Project Moves Forward

NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth via California Rail News

Texas Central, the Dallas company planning to build a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston, has reached a deal with a major global consortium to design and build the project.

An official announcement is expected within a matter of days

“We have a world-class design builder that has just signed on to come and build this for us,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central.
The 59 year-old Aguilar has been on the job at Texas Central since December. He brings decades of experience with huge infrastructure projects, including the Cantarell offshore natural gas field in Mexico, the London Underground and the world’s largest solar thermal energy plant in Ivanpah, Calif.

How Home Ownership Became The Engine Of America Inequality

New York Times Magazine via California Rail News

Almost a decade removed from the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008, the nation is facing one of the worst affordable-housing shortages in generations. The standard of “affordable” housing is that which costs roughly 30 percent or less of a family’s income. Because of rising housing costs and stagnant wages, slightly more than half of all poor renting families in the country spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs, and at least one in four spends more than 70 percent. Yet America’s national housing policy gives affluent homeowners large benefits; middle-class homeowners, smaller benefits; and most renters, who are disproportionately poor, nothing. It is difficult to think of another social policy that more successfully multiplies America’s inequality in such a sweeping fashion.

Southern California Metrolink Trains Now Allow Surfboards

US News & World Report via California Rail News

Catch a wave — after you catch a train.

Surfers can now bring their boards along when taking Southern California’s Metrolink train service to the beach.

The railroad said Thursday it has added surfboard storage to cars that previously were designated for bicycles.

Metrolink says every train on all lines will have a bike-and-board car, each with room for five surfboards

Students Ditch The Limo And Hop On Train To Get To The Prom

Los Angeles Times via California Rail

In  the run-up to prom, Golden Valley High School in Santa Clarita made its students a special offer. Whoever won a raffle would get to ride in a school-sponsored limo with their friends while the rest of the class took a Metrolink train.
It didn’t go as planned.
“It was hard just to sell the raffle tickets,” said Vincent Wheeler, an administrator at Golden Valley. “The students were like, ‘This is great, but, uh, we want to take the train.’”

Say what you will about Southern California’s car-obsessed culture, but for two high schools in L.A. County, public transportation was the vehicle of choice for that most American of rituals.

Two trains packed with glitzy commuters sporting corsages and boutonnieres departed for Union Station on Saturday evening. One carried more than 500 students from A.B. Miller High School in Fontana. Another ferried about 500 Golden Valley students who made their connection to the red line and traveled on to Madame Tussauds Hollywood.

BART fare cheaters drain up to $25 million a year

The transit agency’s Operations and Safety Committee, chaired by BART board Director Joel Keller, met Tuesday to discuss ways to prevent fare evaders from riding the system for free.
According to BART documents, the transit agency loses an estimated $15 to $25 million in revenue annually. BART estimates its fare evasion is rate is between 4 to 5 percent.
Funny how a few years ago, LA Metro installed gates at most rail transit stations and dumped the Self Service (selbstbedienung in German where it was invented) ticketing that works well all around the world. The plan behind installing the gates was to reduce the number of fare cheaters. In the process LA Metro “saved money” by reducing the number of ticket inspectors who also act as security on the trains. I guess people who want to avoid paying fares have no problems jumping over fare gates.

“Through a three-tiered strategy of enforcement, station hardening, and education, BART aims to raise the stakes for fare evaders, and assure our riders that we value their patronage and investment and foster the expectation that every rider pay their fair share.”

Some of ways fare evaders get into paid areas include following behind a paid BART passenger entering the fare gate, jumping over the glass barriers or fare gates, and entering through emergency exits.

SFBay via California Rail News

After 1OO+ Years, Private Industry Will Build Rail Infrastructure

The last time a private American company built rail infrastructure was more than 100 years ago. But this summer’s launch of Brightline service, connecting downtown Miami with Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, could propel private passenger rail forward.

The trio of southeast coastal-Florida cities, which comprise the destinations in the first phase of the $3 billion, 235-mile project, are well suited to testing a privately funded rail revival. “We have to challenge the monopoly of the car and adapt to changing trends of millennials,” says Brightline president Mike Reininger, referring to the dual desires of young adults to settle in cities and do without cars. Between 2000 and 2012, this demographic increased in population 24.7 percent around Brightline’s service corridor, 118 percent around Miami alone, while auto congestion in the area consistently ranked among the world’s worst traffic. Brightline uses the century-old Florida East Coast Railway corridor, on which its parent organization ships freight, although the right-of-way access still had to undergo extensive community review.

The company’s new investments should yield benefits for passengers and the wider public. Perhaps most significant, its Miami terminal links three different commuter lines while its groundfloor retail space stitches together four downtown neighborhoods, says Roger Duffy, design partner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York. The firm designed all three stations in association with Miami-based Zyscovich Architects.

The terminal is noteworthy visually as well. “The architectural expression is in the base structure,” says Duffy, who adds that visible V-bracing and multimodal connections at the smaller Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach stations unify the three. Rockwell Group was responsible for Brightline’s colorful branding, including exterior train graphics and car interiors.

The project’s second phase, which is slated to open with the completion of the Intermodal Terminal Facility at Orlando International Airport in 2018, will connect coastal South Florida to that city.

Real Welfare Cadillacs Have 18 Wheels

Truck freight movement gets a subsidy of between $57 and $128 billion annually in the form of uncompensated social costs, over and above what trucks pay in taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

If trucking companies paid the full costs associated with moving truck freight, we’d have less road damage and congestion, fewer crashes, and more funding to pay for the transportation system.

What with all the speculation about a possible trillion dollar spending package for infrastructure, we’ve been hearing a lot about about crumbling bridges, structurally deficient roads, and the need for more highway capacity.

It’s clear that our transportation finance system is broken. To make up the deficit, politicians frequently call for increased user fees – through increased taxes on gasoline, vehicle miles traveled, or even bikes. All the while, one of the biggest users of the transportation network – the trucking industry – has been rolling down the highway fueled by billions in federal subsidies.

A 2015 report from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that truck freight causes more than $58 to $129 billion annually in damages and social costs in the form of wear and tear on the roads, crashes, congestion and pollution – an amount well above and beyond what trucking companies currently pay in taxes.

CBO doesn’t report that headline number, instead computing that the external social costs of truck freight on a “cents per ton mile basis” range between 2.62 and 5.86 cents per ton mile. For the average heavy truck, they estimate that the cost works out to about 21 to 46 cents per mile travelled.

Unfortunately, trucking companies don’t pay these costs. They are passed along to the rest of us in the form of damaged roads, crash costs, increased congestion and air pollution. Because they don’t pay the costs of these negative externalities, the firms that send goods by truck don’t have to consider them when deciding how and where to ship goods. This translates into a huge subsidy for the trucking industry of of between 21 and 46 cents per mile.

For comparison, CBO looked at the social costs associated with moving freight by rail. Railroads have much lower social costs, for two reasons: first, rail transport is much more energy efficient and less polluting per ton mile of travel; second, because railroads are built and maintained by their private owners, most of the cost of wear and tear is borne by private users, not the public. Railroad freight does produce social costs associated with pollution and crashes, but the social costs of moving freight by rail are about one-seventh that for truck movements: about 0.5 to 0.8 cents per ton mile, compared to 2.52 to 5.86 per ton mile for trucks.

There’s a clear lesson here: It may seem like we have a shortage of infrastructure, or lack the funding to pay for the transportation system, but the fact that truck freight is so heavily subsidized means that there’s a lot more demand (and congestion) on the the roads that there would be if trucks actually paid their way. On top of that, there’d be a lot more money to cover the cost of the system we already have.

So the next time someone laments the sad state of the road system, or wonders why we can’t afford more investment, you might want to point out some 18-wheelers who are now getting a one heck of a free ride, at everyone’s expense.

View the full report: “Pricing Freight Transport to Account for External Costs: Working Paper 2015-03“

The Greatest Show On Earth DIES. What a Terrible Event!

After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.

Good Bye to a big part of America. No more Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus Combined Shows

The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.

“There isn’t any one thing,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”

The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.

Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.

The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.

By midcentury, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.

“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks — such as providing a traveling school for performers’ children— are throwbacks to another era. “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you’ve got all these things working against it.”

The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment — a tiger act — clocking in at 12 minutes.

“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he said.

Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company’s chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.

Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a “dramatic drop” in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they didn’t want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.

The Felds say their existing animals — lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas — will go to suitable homes. Juliette Feld says the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.

Some 500 people perform and work on both touring shows. A handful will be placed in positions with the company’s other, profitable shows — it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things — but most will be out of a job. Juliette Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour rail car (the circus travels by train), the company will also help with housing relocation.

Kenneth Feld became visibly emotional while discussing the decision with a reporter. He said over the next four months, fans will be able to say goodbye at the remaining shows.

In recent years, Ringling Bros. tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app. It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters. But it seemingly was no match for Pokemon Go and a generation of kids who desire familiar brands and YouTube celebrities.

“We tried all these different things to see what would work, and supported it with a lot of funding as well, and we weren’t successful in finding the solution,” said Kenneth Feld.

You can still find us on the Web: https://penneyandkc.wordpress.com/circus-trains/

Uber Can’t Replace Transit — Here Are 3 Reasons Why

Transit projects from Detroit to Nashville are running up against a new argument from opponents. The latest line from anti-transit types is that ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft are going to make fixed-route bus or rail service obsolete.

It doesn’t hold up if you’ve given some thought to the huge amount of space cars consume compared to buses or trains. But many people don’t spend their days thinking about the spatial efficiency of transit.

1. Uber and Lyft hog too much space

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a city gives up on transit service because officials think Uber and Lyft can take care of things from now on. Imagine what happens next: Everyone who rides the LA Metro Bus system suddenly crowds onto the 405 in an Uber, every passenger on New York’s L train has to hail a ride over the Williamsburg Bridge. The result would be total gridlock.

Uber and Lyft have some advantages in certain contexts. But car services can’t overcome urban geometry.

2. Even lightly-used transit beats heavily-used ride-hailing services

Not every bus is packed, but even a mostly-empty bus can use streets more efficiently than Ubercars. A bus carrying about 10 passengers per service hour is generally considered to be “low-performing,” TransitCenter points out. But that still beats the pants off ride-hail services.

“For an Uber or Lyft driver to serve ten people per hour,” writes TransitCenter, “it would mean the driver is picking up a new passenger every six minutes, physically impossible in American cities.”

3. Demand for transit peaks at different times than demand for taxis

If you look at when Uber and Lyft are most popular, it’s during the night, when transit runs less often. Meanwhile, transit is at its fullest during the a.m. and p.m. rush. Not many people use Uber and Lyft for regular commuting.

Transit and ride-hailing services can complement each other — especially at times or in places where transit is weaker. But don’t be taken in by anyone predicting the end of transit — buses and trains aren’t going anywhere.

Elon Musk’s idea for fixing traffic suffers from one fundamental problem

Elon Musk — the restless billionaire behind Tesla, SpaceX, and SolarCity — was stuck in annoying traffic and mused that one solution would be to drill more tunnels. All he’d need, really, is a giant machine…

Everyone’s trying to figure out whether Musk is genuinely serious about starting a brand-new tunnel-boring company or not. Who knows! But tunnels are fun to think about, so why not pretend he is serious and think through how this might actually work….

One obvious hitch to Musk’s scheme is that some cities are already trying to dig new tunnels to accommodate traffic — and it’s far from easy! There’s a lot of existing infrastructure buried in the ground beneath cities, from water mains to electrical cables. And the tunnels themselves often need to be reinforced. That makes tunneling slow, difficult, and expensive work.

Seattle is a cautionary tale here: Since 2013, the city has employed a massive 57-foot-diameter boring machine named Big Bertha to drill a 2-mile highway tunnel beneath the downtown area. Yet six months after work began, Big Bertha broke down after overheating. Drilling finally resumed in late 2015 — but then had to stop again after a sinkhole opened up near construction. Perhaps Musk can improve on Big Bertha. But that brings us to an even deeper problem with his idea. Building more tunnels is just not a good way to alleviate traffic congestion. In fact, it would likely do the opposite.

The “fundamental rule” of traffic: building new roads just makes people drive more
In January 2016, during SpaceX’s Hyperloop pod design competition, Musk explained why he thought tunnels could help alleviate traffic:

It’s a really simple and obvious idea and I wish more people would do it: build more tunnels. Tunnels are great. It’s just a hole in the ground, it’s not that hard. But if you have tunnels in cities you would massively alleviate congestion and you could have tunnels at all different levels — you could probably have 30 layers of tunnels and completely fix the congestion problem in high-density cities. So I strongly recommend tunnels.

Except economists and traffic experts have been studying this issue for a long time and they’ve found the exact opposite. When cities add new roads to a congested area, it usually doesn’t alleviate congestion. Instead, it just induces more traffic, as people take advantage of the added road space to drive more.

Granted, there can still be good reasons for fast-growing cities to build new roads. They just shouldn’t necessarily expect traffic jams to disappear as a result. Los Angeles got a firsthand glimpse of this after widening its I-405 freeway, a project that cost $1 billion. “The data shows that traffic is moving slightly slower now on 405 than before the widening,”

So what does help alleviate congestion? If cities really want to erase traffic jams, many transportation economists would instead recommend that they charge people to use roads when they’re crowded — a policy known as congestion pricing that has popped up in places like London, Singapore, and Stockholm.

Early research suggests that pricing really does cut down on traffic, as people decide to move their commutes to non-peak hours, shift to mass transit, or cut down on trips overall. It’s arguably even more effective if cities use the funds to provide alternative transportation options.

The downside is that congestion charging tends to be rather unpopular, since people don’t like it when they suddenly have to pay for something that used to be free. (It’s the same reason why checked-baggage fees on airplanes have incurred such a backlash.) So urban planners tend to favor building new roads and widening existing roads — or, in Musk’s case, new tunnels — even if the research suggests again and again that it doesn’t cut down on congestion.

Now, that doesn’t mean a tunneling machine would be useless! Remember, Musk also has plans to start colonizing Mars within a decade. And humans living on Mars would probably want to spend most of their time underground to avoid the higher levels of solar radiation that hits the planet.