The National Corridors Initiative, Inc.
Destination:Freedom

A Weekly North American Transportation Update

For transportation advocates and professionals, journalists,
and elected or appointed officials at all levels of government

Publisher: James P. RePass      E-Zine Editor: Molly McKay
Foreign Editor: David Beale      Webmaster: Dennis Kirkpatrick
 

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September 7, 2010
Vol. 11 No. 37

Copyright © 2010
NCI Inc., All Rights Reserved
Our 11th Newsletter Year

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IN THIS EDITION...   In This Edition...

  News Items…
President Obama Goes On Offense With $50 Billion
   Infrastructure Plan
Types Of Payment Amtrak No Longer Accepts
  Across The Pond…
ICE-3 High Speed Train Will Go To London
Deadly Grade Crossing Gets Safety Upgrade
  Opinion…
Mega-Projects Suck Up Available Money As Other Projects
   Get Crowded Out
 
  Selected Rail Stocks…
  View From Europe…
And The Alternative Would Be?
  Editorial…
The Knife’s Edge Of Labor Day 2010
  Publication Notes …


NEWS OF THE WEEK... News Items...  

President Obama Goes On Offense
With $50 Billion Infrastructure Plan

By DF Staff

WASHINGTON, SEPT. 6 --- This morning President Barack Obama announced a $50 billion “comprehensive infrastructure plan to expand and renew our nation’s roads, railways and runways.”

Speaking in Milwaukee today in unveiling the plan, the President said that this proposal is among a set of “targeted initiatives” that the President will outline in Cleveland on September 8 “…to support our economic recovery and ensure long-term sustainable growth.”

The plan builds upon the infrastructure investments the President has already made through the Recovery Act, includes principles the President put forth during the campaign, and emphasizes American competitiveness and innovation.”

Washington insiders expect the minority-party GOP, whose effective if not titular leader Rush Limbaugh two years ago announced his hopes --- four days before the Inauguration --- that Obama would fail”, and which is seeking to take back control of both the House and Senate in this fall’s elections, to use procedural measures and Senate and House rules to obstruct any serious Congressional deliberations on what will undoubtedly be called “Stimulus II”.

If allowed to come to the floor of either house, the President has enough votes to ensure passage of the measures being proposed this week, but the Republican Party has effectively used arcane House and Senate rules, such as the “cloture” rule which requires 60 votes to end debate on any subject, to repeatedly block most Presidential programs and initiatives to boost the economy.

Nobel-prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been calling for the President to “think big” in infrastructure spending in order to fight what may well turn into a double-dip recession --- or a catastrophic second Depression, but many observers had thought the President would not do so. Likewise, many infrastructure advocacy groups, such as the National Corridors Initiative, have called for the President to greatly increase the size of the infrastructure-portion of the Stimulus Package. It now appears that he has.

The White House Press Office issued the following fact sheet on the President’s program:

WHITE HOUSE FACT SHEET:

Renewing and Expanding America’s Roads, Railways, and Runways

The President today laid out a bold vision for renewing and expanding our transportation infrastructure – in a plan that combines a long-term vision for the future with new investments.

A significant portion of the new investments would be front-loaded in the first year.

This plan would build on the investments we have already made under the Recovery Act, create jobs for American workers to strengthen our economy now, and increase our nation’s growth and productivity in the future. At the same time, the plan would reform the way America currently invests in transportation, changing our focus to enhancing competition, innovation, performance, and real analysis that gets taxpayers the best bang for the buck, while moving away from the earmarks and formula debates of the past. In prior years, transportation infrastructure was an issue that both parties worked on together, and the Administration hopes the same can be true now.

Some of the tangible accomplishments of the President’s plan over the next six years include:

  • ROADS: Rebuild 150,000 miles of roads – renewing our commitment to the backbone of our transportation system; 
  • RAILWAYS: Construct and maintain 4,000 miles of rail – enough to go coast-to-coast;
  • RUNWAYS: Rehabilitate or reconstruct 150 miles of runway – while putting in place a NextGen system that will reduce travel time and delays.

The President’s plan would accomplish this through:

  • An up-front investmentThe President will work with Congress to enact a new up-front investment in our nation’s infrastructure – an investment that would help jump-start additional job creation, while also laying the foundation for future growth. This initial investment would fund improvements in the nation’s surface transportation, as well as our airports and air traffic control system.
  • A vision for the futureThe President proposes to pair this with a long-term framework to reform and expand our nation’s investment in transportation infrastructure. Since the end of last year, when the last long-term surface transportation legislation expired, these investments have been continued on a temporary basis, even as the trust fund to finance them has fallen into insolvency. If we are to enjoy the benefits that come from a world-class transportation system, Congress must enact a long-term reauthorization that expands and reforms our infrastructure investments and returns the transportation trust fund to solvency. To jumpstart job creation, this long-run policy front-loads – through a $50 billion up-front investment – a significant share of the new infrastructure resources. As with other long-run policies, the Administration is committed to working with Congress to fully pay for the plan.

The long-term framework includes meaningful reforms:

  •   The establishment of an Infrastructure Bank to leverage federal dollars and focus on investments of national and regional significance that often fall through the cracks in the current siloed transportation programs;
  • The integration of high-speed rail on an equal footing into the surface transportation program to ensure a sustained and effective commitment to a national high speed rail system over the next generation;
  • Streamlining, modernizing, and prioritizing surface transportation investments, consolidating more than 100 different programs and focusing on using performance measurement and “race-to-the-top” style competitive pressures to drive investment toward better policy outcomes.
  • Expanding investments in areas like safety, environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, and livability – helping to build communities where people have choices about how to travel, including options that reduce oil consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and expand access to job opportunities and housing that’s affordable.

Specifically, the President proposes to make the initial up-front investment in the following areas:

  • Roads. The nation’s highways serve as the backbone of our transportation system. Many roads and bridges are in need of repair and expansion and many of the Americans who want to do this work face high unemployment right now. Our investments would be focused on modernizing the highway system’s critical assets while providing much-needed jobs.
  • Rail. Many parts of transit systems have been allowed to fall into a state of ill-repair. The President’s plan would help address this by making a major new investment in the nation’s bus and rail transit system. The Administration is also committed to expanding public transit systems and would dedicate significant new funding to the “New Starts” program – which supports locally planned, implemented, and operated major transit projects. In addition, the Administration is committed to building on its investments so far in high-speed rail – constructing a system that will increase convenience and productivity, while also reducing our nation’s dependence on oil and cutting down on pollution. The President’s plan would also invest in a long-overdue overhaul of Amtrak’s fleet.
  • Runways & NextGen. The Administration proposes to invest in our nation’s airports by improving their runways and other equipment and facilities. We also propose a robust investment in our effort to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system (NextGen). This investment will help both the FAA and airlines to install new technologies and, among other improvements, move from a national ground-based radar surveillance system to a more accurate satellite-based surveillance system – the backbone of a broader effort to reduce delays for passengers, increase fuel efficiency for carriers, and cut airport noise for those who live and work near airports.
  • Infrastructure Bank. The President proposes to fund a permanent infrastructure bank. This bank would leverage private and state and local capital to invest in projects that are most critical to our economic progress. This marks an important departure from the federal government’s traditional way of spending on infrastructure through earmarks and formula-based grants that are allocated more by geography and politics than demonstrated value. Instead, the Bank will base its investment decisions on clear analytical measures of performance, competing projects against each other to determine which will produce the greatest return for American taxpayers.


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Types Of Payment Amtrak
No Longer Accepts

From Amtrak

Money Orders and Travelers Checks will no longer be accepted as payment for Amtrak products or services. This new policy went into effect on September 1, 2010.

The following forms of payment are currently accepted by Amtrak:

Forms of payment not accepted by Amtrak include:

Thank you for traveling with Amtrak. We appreciate your patronage. For schedule and reservation information, visit Amtrak.com or call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).


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ACROSS THE POND... Across The Pond...  

By David Beale
NCI Foreign Affairs Editor

 

ICE-3 High Speed Train Will Go To London

Germany’s Deutsche Bahn To Visit British Capitol On The 19th October
With Its 320 Km/H Capable EMU High Speed Train.

Frankfurt– Deutsche Bahn – German Railways – gave a press statement last Wednesday (1st September) that one of its ICE-3 high speed electric multiple-unit (EMU) trains will travel to London via the Channel Tunnel on the 19th October on a route-proving trip. Although Deutsche Bahn (DBAG) has clear intentions to start scheduled high speed train services from Frankfurt to London via Cologne (Köln) and Brussels, a number of regulatory issues regarding use of trains, which do not completely conform to unique design standards and safety features of the Eurostar train sets, need to be resolved. A number of industry observers believe that DB will use a Class 407 ICE-3 train set in the trial run to London, as this is the newest version of the family with built-in enhanced fire protection features targeted for possible use in the Channel Tunnel, rather than an existing class 403 ICE-3 train set, which would need modifications and retrofits to match the enhanced fire protection features of the new class 407 series.

DBAG already has seven ICE-3 train sets which are configured to operate on French LGV high speed rail lines, and is taking delivery of fifteen more (D:F Vol. 11 No. 19), designated class 407, which will be configured to operate on French LGV rail lines as well, albeit somewhat different than the existing DBAG class 403 ICE-3 fleet. The Channel Tunnel and the HS1 high speed rail line from the Channel Tunnel to central London are built with 25 kVAC electrification and French TVM cab signaling / positive train control systems, standard continental European vertical and horizontal clearances (loading gauge) identical to French LGV high speed rail lines, thus leaving only paper / bureaucratic hurdles in the way of ICE-3 operation to and from London.

An ICE-3 Trainset

Photo: David Beale

London Bound? An ICE-3 navigates through the maze of track switches and web of overhead catenary as it leaves Düsseldorf’’s main station in June 2008

The major point of contention is the existing regulation in the Channel Tunnel, which requires that all passenger trains be of such a length that regardless where a train stops in the tunnel, one door of the train will be less than one car-length from an emergency exit door to the escape tunnel. The existing Eurostar train fleet, which consists of 14 and 18 car long (not including the power cars) train sets, fulfills this requirement. Eight-car long ICE-3 train sets do not meet this requirement. However a number of incidents in the Channel Tunnel over the past 15 years directly challenge the safety value or plausibility of this unique requirement. Many years of operational experience with 7-car long ICE-2 and 8-car long ICE-3 and ICE-T train sets in the numerous tunnels along Germany’s high speed rail lines, including some accidents and incidents within tunnels, has also shown no safety advantage of unusually long train sets in tunnel incidents. Abolition of this questionable regulation would not only clear the way for ICE-3 trains to use the Channel Tunnel, but also make route available to several TGV train set versions in operation with the French rail operator SNCF and joint-venture rail operator Thalys.

The test drive of an ICE-3 train set to London coincides with the next stage of EU open-access rules to take effect in January 2011, which will open up intercity and high speed train routes of existing incumbent rail operators (such as Eurostar in this case) to competition from any qualified train operator.


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Epilog…

 

Deadly Grade Crossing Gets Safety Upgrade

Resolution To The Tragic Story Reported In Destination: Freedom On June 25, 2007

Hohnhorst (Nenndorf Township), Germany – Construction work started during the past week on the grade crossing, where four members of a young family of five died when their car was T-boned by a commuter train back in June 2007 (D:F Vol. 8 No. 26), to install gate arms and additional warning lights. The grade crossing has operated with only flashing red lights but no gate arms for the past twenty years.

Investigators concluded that the driver, the mother of the family, either did not notice or ignored the flashing red lights when she drove over the tracks at the exact moment when a north-bound S-Bahn commuter train set passed through the crossing. The woman and her husband and two young sons died, despite a dramatic rescue operation staged by three different area fire departments and a medical evacuation helicopter just moments after the collision. Only the couple’s baby girl survived. No one in the passenger train was injured.


Photo. David Beale

Grade crossing construction – view of the grade crossing and construction in the village of Hohnhorst on the single-track “Deisterbahn” branch line from Haste to Weetzen (Ronnenberg Township).

Along with the grade crossing warning light and gate arms, the track signals along this section of track will be changed to an updated configuration, which is required for installation for the new grade crossing gate arms, the existing track signal light system is only compatible with the flashing-light-only variety of grade crossing warning devices. The new track signals show a green light to approaching trains only when the grade crossing is secured, i.e. all gate arms are extended across the road. The new signals and grade crossing warning devices should permit train speeds to be increased from 80 km/h to 100 or 120 km/h.


Photo: David Beale

Signaling a new approach to grade crossing safety – newly delivered signal mast assemblies await installation (lying horizontally to the left of the track) at the Hohnhorst grade crossing. The existing track signals on this section of the line are not compatible with automatically closing gate arms.

The total cost of the project is EUR 600 000 (approximately US $770 000) for the new crossing arms and warning lights along with the required new track signaling and related construction work. The costs will be split equally three ways and paid by Deutsche Bahn’s infrastructure subsidiary DB Netz, the State of Lower Saxony and the Schaumburg County street and highway department.


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OPINION... Opinion...  

Mega-Projects Suck Up Available Money
As Other Projects Get Crowded Out

By David Peter Alan

Transit is in trouble everywhere. Fares keep going up while the level of service keeps going down. No doubt, you have read about it in this column and elsewhere. Yet, some transit managers adhere to old plans to build huge mega-projects, rather than face the new economic and political reality that the money to build on that scale is no longer available, if it ever was.

New Jersey provides a case in point. New Jersey Transit still makes the highly questionable claim that it can afford to build a proposed deep-cavern rail terminal twenty stories below 34th street in Manhattan as part of “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC). Instead, the Moynihan/Penn Station First alternative would build a vastly improved facility providing connectivity between rail lines that the proposed deep-cavern could never deliver. This is the original ARC plan which not only accomplishes the need for true Access to the Region’s Core, but also would save three billion badly-needed dollars in the process. Rail advocates in the Garden State and elsewhere in the region and the nation continue to fight for the Moynihan/Penn alternative.

NJT had previously claimed that no money from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) would be needed for the ARC project, which is slated to include a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, the proposed deep-cavern terminal and two new bridges to replace the existing Portal Bridge. Yet, the latest budget approved in Trenton shows that $147 million of the $600 million transit appropriation from the TTF is earmarked for just those projects. Even if NJT managers had originally intended to avoid using TTF funds for the project so other projects could be funded, they cannot meet that goal now.

The TTF itself is not doing well. It is nearly broke, and all income will go to debt service, beginning next July 1st. Governor Chris Christie says that he will unveil a plan for keeping the TTF going without raising highway tolls or user fees on motor fuels (the third lowest in the nation; the last increase was in 1988). None of us in the local advocacy community can fathom how he could do that without massive borrowing; the same sort of borrowing that helped get former Governor Jon Corzine voted out of office.

What could the $3 billion in savings from scrapping the deep-cavern terminal and instead enhancing a Moynihan/Penn Station complex deliver for transit riders in the Garden State? Plenty. NJT has a number of projects in the pipeline: Lackawanna Cutoff service to Scranton, service to inland Ocean County (“MOM” or “MO”; depending on whom you ask), Northern Branch Light Rail, West Trenton and several others. In short, that money could provide an expanded commuter rail and light rail network that the public needs and will not get if all of the money goes into the proposed deep-cavern.

Not much is happening on any of these projects except talk. In South Jersey, far from the site of the proposed line between New Jersey and Manhattan, a light rail project is also stalled because NJT does not even have enough money to pay for its share of the environmental preparation, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Delaware River Port Authority would provide most of the funding for the proposed line between Camden and Glassboro (home of Rowen University and a “summit” meeting of heads of state in the 1970s), but NJT claims that it cannot even afford its share of the cost of preliminary work.

It is time for transit managers and politicians to stop kidding themselves and the public about grandiose mega-projects that they claim are affordable, when there is clearly insufficient money available to build them. New Jersey can save billions of dollars that can be put toward the other projects, which would expand the rail network available to New Jersey’s transit riders. These are the very projects that would be crowded out of the picture if the proposed deep-cavern project is started, even if the money were to run out before the mega-project could be completed.

New Jersey is not alone in this situation. New York’s deep-cavern for East Side Access for the Long Island Rail Road is also facing financial difficulties, and the Federal Transit Administration is cracking down on the wasteful practices at New York’s MTA. Meanwhile, the Second Avenue Subway will probably not reach downtown Manhattan, even though it was originally planned to do so in the 1920s. Maintenance for the subways and commuter railroads is also deferred, as money for small projects is diverted to the mega-project that crowds out the projects that are smaller, but vital to keeping the system going and eventually expanding it.

Political and managerial support for mega-projects that crowd out smaller and more necessary projects can have disastrous consequences for transit generally, because it sends a signal to the public that managers waste money while skimping on service to their constituents, the riders. In these hard times, a backlash against rail is forming, and it could be powerful. Republican candidates for Governor in Ohio and Wisconsin are campaigning strongly against plans to build the 3-C Corridor and a line between Milwaukee and Madison, respectively; even though both projects have received funding from the Federal Railroad Administration under the High-Speed Rail program.

It is time for politicians and transit managers to face reality. Money is scarce, and everybody knows it. Some, but far from all, members of the general public know that their regions need more trains and more transit. Others in the general public believe that any spending on rail and transit is wasteful, because the money should go, they believe, to maintaining and expanding highways. Support for wasteful mega-projects, when there is a less-expensive alternative, stirs up anti-transit rhetoric and action.

If individuals, families and small businesses must spend their limited money wisely, the public should expect transit managers and politicians to do the same. Excessive spending on some projects discredits other projects that would deliver good value. The consequence of waste can and will be disaster.

David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, which has consistently supported the Moynihan/Penn Station First Alternative and opposed the proposed deep-cavern terminal. Many other rail advocates and advocacy organizations have taken a similar stand.


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STOCKS...  Selected Rail Stocks...

Source: MarketWatch.com

   This
Week
Previous
Week
Canadian National (CNI)64.6261.82
Canadian Pacific (CP) 62.2159.38
CSX (CSX)53.67 49.79
Genessee & Wyoming (GWR)42.6339.52
Kansas City Southern (KSU)37.1633.77
Norfolk Southern (NSC)57.9154.55
Providence & Worcester(PWX)12.5912.40
Union Pacific (UNP)78.8073.69


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VIEW FROM EUROPE... View From Europe...  

And The Alternative Would Be?

By David Beale, NCI Foreign Affairs Editor

Apparently It’s The Silly Season Again In The USA
Rail And Transit Projects In The Cross Hairs Of The New Right

Wunstorf , Germany – One thing that technology here in the dawn of the 21st century enables, one can get news, sports, entertainment and other media from anywhere in the world in almost real time, even from home, even when home is thousands of miles away. Here in Germany the large Turkish immigrant community has had its satellite dishes aimed for a couple of decades already at several TV satellites that provide a full spectrum of Turkish radio and TV channels, its like never having left home. Where I work, several US citizen customer representatives of American firms who have long term business with my employer have figured out how to configure their Apple iPhones to receive American TV channels in real time. They can plug their iPhones into a digital flat screen TV and watch various American TV programs live, including various pro-sports games such as NFL football and Major League baseball.

I have not gone that far, my satellite TV receiver is aimed at Astra 3, the same service all of my German neighbors have, and the vast majority of channels are from Germany, Austria or Switzerland, with a few channels from neighboring countries such as Holland, France and Poland. The only two American-based networks on that service, which are not premium-pay channels, are CNN International and CNBC Europe. But that is more than enough to get hints of what is going on back in the USA. Of course the website of any US based local newspaper and TV station is just a few keystrokes away on my computer. As are the likes of Fox News, New York Times, MSNBC and every other news media outlet with a website. Just two decades ago, it was unthinkable to get such detailed and instant news and commentary from the USA from so far away. So it is rather plain to me that the mid-term elections in the USA are entering the final laps around the mainstream news media’s 24-hour news cycles.

I noticed that in two state governors races, the GOP candidates have decided that rail transit, especially proposed high speed rail projects in Ohio and Wisconsin, should be used as campaign footballs to demonstrate how committed they are to cutting government spending. In Ohio, former Wall Street high-roller (Lehman Brothers) and ex-Congressman John Kasich falsely accuses the proposed 3 C passenger rail project of being able to go no faster than 39 mph and says he will kill it if elected to Governor. In Wisconsin GOP candidate Scott Walker makes the laughable claim that an $810 million project to build a fast train line between Milwaukee and Madison will create only 55 jobs.

Neither candidate offers an alternative other than do nothing. That is the alternative – do nothing. Accept the status quo. Hope and pray that Detroit and Japanese automakers and Big Oil will solve the country’s on-going transportation nightmare and foreign oil dependency. Wish that somebody, anybody, (i.e. the Federal Government that the New Right loves to hate) will magically cough up all the millions and billions needed to repair and overhaul their state’s massive, expansive but crumbling interstate highway networks, but not even think about building rail transit and trains - heaven forbid!! It could be that trains work in those strange foreign socialist places like Europe, Japan, Asia, New York City and Chicago, but they just will not work here in real America! We’re different!

This argument has been around a long time. I heard it myself in the greater Cincinnati area back in the late 1980s, when I first became active in this subject. At the time civic planners wanted to build a light rail system in the region with focus on a line which followed a north-south route from the northern Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash through downtown and to the international airport in nearby Hebron, Kentucky, thus paralleling the massively overloaded I-75 and I-71 freeways.

“Communist Plot!” screamed an elderly gentleman at one of the hearings nearly 20 years ago. “This is a socialist scheme to take our right to drive a car away!”, he exclaimed to me, when I asked why it he thought it was a communist plot. I explained that I heard no one in the planning of this relatively modest project to build a single light rail line of wanting to take peoples cars away from them. “Oh yes they do, this is just the first step.” There was really no arguing with the gentlemen and perhaps two or three dozen other anti-rail and transit activists in the room of about 250 attendees. Their mind was made up. Trains = Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro. Automobiles and highways = Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Adams.

About six years later at a similar hearing in Phoenix about the proposed light rail system there (now reality), the shouting and accusations of Communist Plot and Socialist Scheme regarding the light rail transit were quite similar as in Cincinnati. The Phoenix metro area was suffocating under a brown cloud of automobile and truck exhaust every summer, all summer, and despite pouring billions of dollars into new freeways all over the Valley of the Sun, the region’s commuter traffic continued to move slower and slower as suburban sprawl grew unchecked.

S-Bahn train / tram in the Heilbronn area of southwestern Germany in May 2009

Photo: David Beale

Communist Plot or All American Invention? An S-Bahn train / tram in the Heilbronn area of southwestern Germany in May 2009. The local trains in this part of Germany use a mode of operation that originated in the USA with the dawn of the electric Interurban railways in the late 19th century. This train runs on the conventional heavy rail lines with 15 kVAC power outside the city center at speed of up to 120 km/h (75 mph). In the city center it runs on tracks in the city streets (like a trolley) with 700 VDC power from trolley wires installed above the city streets. Interurban trains in late 19th and early 20th century America also ran along city street trolley tracks but then ran on dedicated right-of-ways beyond the town or city center.

One of the favorite arguments used against light rail in Phoenix was that, due to its relatively modest size and capital budget, the initial system would not noticeably relive traffic jams (to do that would mean a rail transit system six or seven times larger than what was proposed and has recently been built). Too small to succeed or too big to afford – no in-between. In other words, we don’t accept a partial solution and we are not going to accept or pay for the full solution. Again, the alternative offered to light rail was do nothing, accept the status quo, buy a couple of more buses and hope the insane traffic would get magically better when the evil Arizona state government and even more evil US federal government drop a couple of more billion of someone else’s tax dollars on our freeway network.

It seems that the old cry of “Communist Plot” of anti-rail groups has slowly subsided and been replaced with the new anti-rail transit cry “Government Waste!” There is a genuine issue of government budget deficits and reason for concern if they are not reduced. Those of us who advocate for rail transit should be fully aware of this aspect and also share concern about where the ballooning federal deficit is leading to. The primary reason to build rail lines and high speed trains is to move people (and goods) from point A to point B in a quick, timely, energy efficient, cost effective and environmentally friendly manner, something which America’s interstate highway system and airports are increasingly no longer able to do. The goal of these rail projects is not to employ people. Obviously these projects will directly generate jobs, many good-paying jobs for middle-class workers involved in the planning, construction and operation of these rail lines, but it would be a mistake to make this the primary reason to upgrade existing rail lines and create new ones. Commerce, society and industry need a robust transportation network including highly efficient and fast rail transit. Those are where the bulk of jobs will come from, commerce, industry, tourism and education that benefits directly from fast and efficient rail transit. This is the strength rail transit has.

A Heilbronn Region S-Bahn train now in “urban mode” in the center of the city of Helbronn in May 2009

Photo: David Beale

A Heilbronn Region S-Bahn train now in “urban mode” in the center of the city of Helbronn in May 2009 running on street car tracks mounted directly in the city streets. These dual-mode urban light rail / suburban heavy rail trains directly inspired by American interurban trains of a century ago are becoming increasingly popular in a number of European cities, most recently in Paris.

The tendency to just build more of the same freeway lanes and airport runways does not work in most urban areas anymore. The examples of this failed transportation policy to simply build more of the same highways are too numerous to check off, but Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Miami of the 1960s through the 1990s all come to mind. Ironically all of these cities have decided to build rail transit in recent years, after decades of having an orgy of highway construction that did little more than generate even more traffic jams over ever larger areas.

The real budget buster for America over the past five decades has been a monolithic reliance on automobiles, trucks and highways for nearly all ground transportation, with many hundreds of billions of dollars spent far beyond the revenues collected from the lowest vehicle fuel taxes and licensing fees in the western world. When one considers that the USA has fought at least one, and perhaps two wars in the past two decades to ensure a continued supply of foreign oil to America’s thirsty fleet of several hundred million cars and trucks, then the costs of subsidizing automobiles and highways runs easily into the trillion dollar range in just 20 years. One would think that a trillion dollar tax payer subsidy for anything would become the immediate target of attack by the TEA Party and its allies in the New Right. But for some reason I am not hearing much out of either group in recent weeks and months about this astonishing tax dollar give-away.

The New Right such as John Kasich and Scott Walker expect rail transit to be government budget neutral, while the nation’s highway road network continue to stay on their half-century long tax-payer subsidized free ride. That is fantasy. As long as the road and highway network get multiple billions of direct tax subsidies every year, then an alternative transportation system such as rail will also require similar tax subsidies to be viable. But these gentlemen offer no alternative, just the same old failed transportation policy the USA has followed for the last several decades.

The alternative would be for these gentlemen to back up their words with actions, and force the highway network to get off of its generous tax handouts. Of course that would mean charging highways tolls nationwide and tripling the current vehicle fuel taxes in order to begin the end of tax-payer subsidized highways. It is time for our political leaders to stop pretending that they are going to erase our huge budget deficits and public debt by canceling a couple of rail transit projects that don’t fit their outdated vision of public infrastructure – that is about as effective as trying to fend off a raging bull with a fly swatter. You may be able to kill a few of the flies on the bull’s back but you are still going to wind up with some imprints of horns and hooves all over your body. The alternative to this silly political posturing in places such as Ohio and Wisconsin is to face reality and recognize the leading country of the western world is loosing the race in the transportation infrastructure sector.


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EDITORIAL... Editorial...

 

The Knife’s Edge Of Labor Day 2010

 

One full decade into the Twenty-First Century finds us in a very different America from that of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers a century ago.

One hundred years ago, although still in the process of recovering from the terrible Civil War of a generation before, this country was on the verge of an economic explosion driven primarily by the decision, taken during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln, but not enacted until 1869, to build the Transcontinental Railroad.

We look back on such things with a sense of nostalgia now, but at the time, the building of that railroad, and the thousands of miles of other railroads, was a radically transformational technological event, no less important in its day than was the invention and then widespread adoption of silicon-based semi-conductors has been in our own.

The Transcontinental Railroad, and the many brother and sister railroads built out over the next generation, was the kind of event that changes a society not gradually but by orders of magnitude: suddenly, in 1869, you could travel from coast to coast in a few days, instead of the months in a Conestoga wagon required before. And, because time is indeed money, the cost of shipping goods from point A to point B didn’t just plummet; it enabled many types of commerce to begin their very existence in America. By 1910, the American giant was about to emerge, and emerge it did.

It did so despite, not because of, the monopolistic practices of the rail, oil, and coal barons of the late 19th and early 20th century, and that was for a very specific reason: we had a President, Theodore Roosevelt, who not only understood economics, but was willing to use the Presidency and its famous “Bully Pulpit” to force Congress to enact laws to break up the giant corporate trusts, with their interlocking boards of directors, who while building up the sinews and muscles of American commerce did their best to keep its economic benefits all to themselves.

They were stopped, because we had a President who knew how to lead and had the courage to do so, and also because the working men and women of America began to fight back against the industrial practices that routinely killed and maimed so many of the workers whose actual blood and sweat built this country.

A hundred years later, America is not on the verge of an economic explosion. It is on the knife’s edge of a double-dip Great Recession, or worse, a Decline and Fall that grows more likely with every minute, and will certainly come to pass unless and until this President steps in to take back control of the financial system that was once regulated, starting during the Depression of the 1930’s, especially to prohibit and stop the dangerous combination of commercial banking with investment banking and security sales --- the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, in particular, and to vastly increase the size and scope of the infrastructure system stimulus programs, such as high intercity passenger and freight rail.

The banking system that worked so well has now been swept away by the de-regulatory fury of the past generation --- Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, with assurances by the banking lobby that we no longer needed such a crude mechanism to protect against speculative abuse and financial self-dealing.

This lie, as it turned out to be, was accepted and even encouraged by politicians of both parties who, increasingly in need of large sums money to pay for ever-more-expensive political campaigns, spend much of their time at fund-raising events, and less and less time doing the job they were elected to do. As a consequence they have become as a group far less expert in the fields they are assigned, through the Congressional committee system, to cover, and more and more dependent upon staffers who in many cases come from the very industries Congress is supposed to oversee, or even worse, after a few years as Congressional staffers, know they can leave to become highly-paid lobbyists for those self-same industries. It is a built-in conflict.

Indeed, many Congressmen also leave office and then sign on to work for the highest bidder, returning to the Hill with the stature of a former Congressman or Senator to lobby their old colleagues, but on the payroll of a private industry whose goals and interests are very often at odds with the public interest. The Wall Street collapse of 2008-and onward, in which we include the collapsed housing bubble created by those same Wall Street firms, is of course the prime example of why Glass-Steagall was needed in the first place, and why it is needed again, and more.

This current Congress labored mightily to rein in the banking industry, and people like Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the acerbic, brilliant and public-spirited Chair of the House Banking Committee, and his Senatorial counterpart Chris Dodd of Connecticut, did their best to craft a law that would do so.

But it was not enough. So many Congressmen and Senators of both parties are in the direct or indirect pay of the banking industry, through its massive lobbying effort, and through the intertwined relationships between Congressional staffers and the industries they come from, or go to, that the toughest reforms in the new law were simply gutted. We have been left with a banking industry still largely out of control, and willing to spend millions if not billions to stay that way --- this, after a bailout from ordinary American taxpayers that will take generations to pay off.

Some Congressmen and Senators will say that we paint with too broad a brush, and that many members of Congress are decent men and women who came to Washington to do their best. And they will be right, because after 21 years of dealing with both sides of the aisle in Washington, this organization knows very well how dedicated and honest so many of our politicians actually are, despite the common news media coverage of the creature known as the “politician”.

But the system isn’t breaking. It is broken. Right now, between 7-9 million Americans are facing imminent foreclosure, even though the President introduced a mortgage modification program, President Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Plan (HAMP), that makes the banks whole even as they are allowed to reduce both the principal amounts, and mortgage interest rates, to levels (2%) that those facing foreclosure might afford. Working men and women across America are looking at a future that will mean life in the streets, or living out of their cars, unless the banks respond to this program. Banks whose mortgages were bought by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae --- and that is the bulk of the mortgages in America --- are in fact mandated by HAMP to participate.

But they have not. Without exception, the banks --- who are, remember, made whole by HAMP, and therefore bear no real risk --- have set up unbelievably complicated application processes that discourage almost anyone who is not a Certified Public Accountant from applying. Worse, they give contradictory information to applicants who call them, lose documents that have been submitted, or take so long to appoint a bank employee to begin the actual loan modification negotiations with the homeowner that documents already submitted “age out” and have to be re-submitted all over again --- and all this is demanded of people, many of whom are trying to keep their sanity, let alone their homes.

One bank, which will remain nameless here, although we suspect you will soon read about it in the New York Times, even has an internal software/data entry problem that makes it all too easy for the over-worked, and young bank staffers to not only fail to execute a homeowner’s request to have a negotiator appointed --- which is essential --- but to erase the typed-in request by accident when they push the “enter” button on their keyboard. This bank’s management knows about this problem and has done nothing to correct it, and yet this data entry glitch literally wipes out the homeowner’s request, with all the negative consequences that delay entails in such situations. Many people, of course, give up all hope at that point.

It is a bleak Labor Day for many Americans, and the White House is of course trying to put the best face on it. But that is just not enough. We know that this President understands infrastructure, and how the return of a decent American rail system, both passenger and freight, will help rebuild our city-centers, and thus our democracy. But we will never get there, indeed what little has been done so far will go to waste, if we allow millions of Americans lose their homes.

We stand now in the shadow of cataclysm, and the Congress, as a body, has been paralyzed by the system that feeds it, despite some truly noble exceptions such as Barney Frank, and seems unlikely to act any more than it already has.

Mr. President, we hope you reach within yourself and find your inner Teddy Roosevelt, and, by Executive Order, stop these completely unnecessary foreclosures in their tracks until the banks begin negotiating with homeowners and modifying mortgages, in good faith. If you do not, we are to create millions and millions of angry people. Some will be Tea Party, whose anger is justified but whose solutions are those of simpletons like Glenn Beck --- and they will vote back into power the very same people that caused this disaster in the first place.

But some will be far more dangerous than Tea Party people. They will be the first true American fascists in three generations, and they will be armed. It has been attributed to several people, but here is our version of that famous warning:

“When fascism comes to America, it will come marching down Main Street, wrapped in the American flag, proud in its righteousness, and with a laser-like focus on the will to power, as an end in itself.” In our view, the music has started, and is growing louder.

On or about the day the United States Constitution we live under was first adopted in 1787, a woman approached delegate Benjamin Franklin on the streets of Philadelphia, and asked, “Mr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?”

His response: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

It is Labor Day, and that would be a good time to take back our republic from the people who have been stealing it, piece by piece. Your infrastructure stimulus program has taken a first start, but vastly more is needed to restore American competitiveness.

Act, Mr. President. Act. Build Infrastructure. And if preventing a foreclosure-holocaust requires it, then nationalize the banks, even temporarily, to stop them in their tracks. Take the fight to the people, Mr. President, and don’t back down.


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