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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December 18, 2010
Vol. 11 No. 52

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

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

  News Items…
GOP Kills ‘Build America’ Bond Program That Put
   Tens Of Thousands Back To Work
  Commuter Lines…
Densely Populated Cambridge, MA Looks At Commuter Trains
   – At Grade
SunRail Back On Track After Amtrak Backs Down
  Selected Rail Stocks…
  Across The Pond…
Winter Scenes In Germany
 
  Commentary…
New Orleans: Five Years After Katrina The Big Easy Meets
   The Lil’ Easy
Virginia Rail Observations & Commentary
  Editorial…
Waiting For The Trickle Down, Once Again
  Webmaster Notes…
Happy Holidays To All
  Publication Notes …


NEWS OF THE WEEK... News Items...

GOP Kills ‘Build America’ Bond Program
That Put Tens Of Thousands Back To Work

By DF Staff And
From Reuters, The Washington Post Bloomberg
And The Infrastructurist

WASHINGTON --- When the municipal bond market froze in the wake of the world liquidity crisis brought on by the derivatives-fueled speculation hatched by America’s still largely-unregulated major banks, the Federal Government and the Obama Administration stepped in with the Build America Bonds program as part of the roughly $800-billion over-all Stimulus Bill, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

On December 31 that program, which created $185 billion in engineering and construction jobs in America’s cities, will be allowed to expire.

Last-ditch efforts by the Democratic leadership in the House to extend that provision of the bill failed, as Republicans refused to include a clause extending the BAB program in the bill that extends the Bush-era tax cuts for another two years.

What the Build America Bonds program did was to enable municipalities to again sell bonds into what had been a terror-stricken bond market with the Federal government essentially acting as a partner: the Federal Government, under BAB, rebated 35% of the interest costs of bonds, typically 15-year, issued by municipalities for infrastructure-oriented projects (roads, highways, transit, other) bonds.

With the loss of the Federal interest rate buy-down coming in less than two weeks, municipal bond interest rates are already rising, and are expected to rise more, which will effectively cut back on the ability of municipal governments to finance infrastructure construction projects. This is expected to lead directly to fewer constructions jobs, as the private sector, which has weathered the recession far better than ordinary Americans and is sitting on the largest pile of cash relative to costs since 1959, has sat by the sidelines waiting for what they regard as a more business-friendly Washington to emerge, which it will be with the next Congress, whose House will be controlled by Republicans.

Reuters reported: “With the end of BABs, the $2.8 trillion municipal bond market could see depressed prices and greater volatility. The bonds made up more than a quarter of all new municipal debt sold this year and have been largely attributed with restarting stalled municipal credit markets. New York City, for example, has issued $8.9 billion of BABs, saving about $50 million a year in interest costs.”

“We are still in a recovery period; it helped us access badly-needed capital, capital that we needed to reinvest in our infrastructure, and we certainly have benefited from the BAB program in New York City,” said New York City Comptroller John Liu was quoted as saying

Unemployment in the construction sector reached nearly 19 percent in November — the highest rate of any industry, according to an analysis of federal data released last week by the Associated General Contractors of America, the Washington Post and the Infrastructurist. While road workers were some of the earliest beneficiaries of the 2009 stimulus plan, the bulk of highway projects are coming to an end, writes the Washington Post: With the economy continuing to lag, private-sector work has all but disappeared, and many states have cut back on road work in an effort to plug gaping deficits.

By failing to prolong the Build America program, the new tax deal — a compromise that would extend income-tax cuts for the wealthy but also keep unemployment and payroll tax benefits — could exacerbate this state of affairs. The Build America program, which subsidizes local and state borrowing, has enabled many communities to finance infrastructure projects during tough times, and letting it expire “would just be another blow to the already embattled construction sector of the economy,” Janet Kavinoky, director of infrastructure and transportation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg.


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COMMUTER LINES... Commuter Lines...  

Densely Populated Cambridge, MA
Looks At Commuter Trains – At Grade

By DF Staff And From Internet Sources

CAMBRIDGE --- This densely-populated polyglot urban home of great universities like Harvard and MIT, a large immigrant population, computer and software innovators, and many biotech research and development companies, may also soon be the location of the first at-grade (i.e., traffic-blocking) commuter/passenger rail line opened in decades in the United States..

The ancient Grand Junction rail route, which today carries the occasional freight move and MBTA equipment positioning, is now looking at introducing commuter rail service, at street-level in neighborhoods where traffic jams are already the norm

The Grand Junction line originates in Allston, on the south side of that famous body of no-longer-so-Dirty Water, the Charles River, and continues on an at-grade level through the City of Cambridge to Somerville, Chelsea, and East Boston. On the way, it would provide access to Boston’s North Station, which has been an important goal of Massachusetts Lt. Governor and former Worcester Mayor Tim Murray, a strong transportation advocate.

This past week, at a meeting organized by Boston and Cambridge city councilors at the behest of a regional business and construction group called “A Better City” --- the renamed Artery Business Committee behind Boston’s fiscally controversial multi-billion-dollar “Big Dig” under-city tunnel --- the group is now proposing that the lightly used Grand Junction freight line be massively revived as a route for what supporters hope would be up to 25 commuter trains a day, through an urban environment that has not seen any regular rail traffic in a generation, and has grown far denser than it once was.

In a local story December 17 on the Grand Junction revival proposal, the Cambridge Day’s Marc Levy wrote:

“There was one very real and immediate concern emerging from two hours of talk Thursday about how Cambridge and Boston must work together to stay on top economically: A “Grand Junction” commuter rail line through Cambridge is all but certain, despite the howls of protest the plan draws from city officials and residents. The 8.6-mile, 150-year-old freight rail line is already being refurbished after years of neglect — getting it running between North Station and Worcester has been a priority for former Worcester mayor and current Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray — and some estimates say there will be 25 trains a day running on the line within a year.”

The Day continued, “In October, city councilors vowed to fight in favor of the city’s own plans. But their opposition may not mean much against the firepower seen at the Museum of Science for a “Joint Hearing on Economic Clusters & the Competitiveness of Our Region” that drew members of both cities’ councils, representatives of Boston Mayor Tom Menino, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, state business czar Greg Bialecki and British Consul General Dr. Phil Budden and a horde of speakers from area think tanks and business organizations.”

The Cambridge Day’s story can be found at:
http://www.cambridgeday.com/2010/12/17/commuter-rail-through-cambridge-seen-as-cost-of-regions-fight-for-jobs/


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SunRail Back On Track
After Amtrak Backs Down

From The Orlando Sentinel
Writer Dan Tracy

ORLANDO, FL DECEMBER 8 --- SunRail commuter service, which operates in Central Florida, will roll again in 2013 now that an agreement has been reached with Amtrak about an insurance issue, according to a story in the Orlando Sentinel by Dan Tracy.

Amtrak had opposed the $1.2 billion project because they wanted an ironclad insurance deal with SunRail. It’s not uncommon for railroads to balk at a deal because of liability fears. In this case, Amtrak backed down after they were given a pledge from rail officials and politicians to lobby the Florida Legislature into approving an insurance deal that would cover the national passenger carrier in case one of its trains collides with SunRail.

At an hour-long meeting in early December with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and U.S. Representative John Mica, R-Winter Park, Florida, Amtrak dropped its opposition to the project.

“I think with a change in the winds … it avoids a lot of heartburn,” Mica said.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman also attended the meeting, along with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D- Jacksonville, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and assorted state and federal officials.

For many months the project was at a stalemate because state legislators and officials would not give a guarantee, “particularly one concerning as contentious an issue as SunRail,” the article continues. It took three tries before the Legislature approved the project in a special session last year.

$300 million of federal money had been set aside but was not be available because of the stalemate in negotiations with Amtrak.

When Orlando Mayor Dyer reported that an agreement had been reached, he indicated that it had been important to have all the players together in a room.

“Getting to this point has been a long and difficult process,” Dyer said. “But it’s important to remember that securing these types of game-changing projects that create benefits for generations to come is rarely an easy task.”

Amtrak, which had been talking with Florida about its concerns since late 2007, had virtually halted work on SunRail by lodging an objection with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board.

Here’s the agreement that Amtrak wants and which officials and legislators have agreed to lobby for: SunRail will take care of its passengers and equipment in case of an accident on the shared tracks, regardless of blame, while Amtrak would cover its expenses.

This is the same deal the Legislature approved last year between SunRail and CSX, the Jacksonville freight company that intends to sell its tracks to the state for the commuter train at a total cost of $600 million, including improvements made to another rail line and a road.

Several state legislators have indicated that they will vote for the project: State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

“I think the Legislature has proven its willingness to move forward,” said Gardiner, who said he is confident lawmakers would vote for the project, although he would not say when. Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to convene again until March.

Now that the decision is made, Florida DOT can set up an escrow account to purchase the tracks upon which the train will run. FDOT is in charge of building the 61-mile system and operating it for the first seven years.

Once SunRail is up and running, all three train operations – Amtrak, CSX, and Sunrail - would share portions of the system. Construction could begin this spring.


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STOCKS...  Selected Rail Stocks...

Source: MarketWatch.com

   This
Week
Previous
Week
Canadian National (CNI)67.2366.82
Canadian Pacific (CP) 64.6564.19
CSX (CSX)63.6664.10
Genessee & Wyoming (GWR)51.4650.77
Kansas City Southern (KSU)48.0249.98
Norfolk Southern (NSC)62.6762.69
Providence & Worcester(PWX)14.5513.40
Union Pacific (UNP)91.1894.64


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

Winter Scenes In Germany

NCI Foreign Editor David Beale sends us a couple of images of
winter in Germany at the station a short walk from his home.

 

Regional Express (RE) train at Haste

Two Photos: David Beale

After yet another snow fall in northern Germany a Regional Express (RE) train from Braunschweig to Bielefeld leaves Haste, an outer suburban village in the Hannover area, heading west towards Stadthagen and Minden with a DB class 111 locomotive pushing from the rear on the 18th December 2010. Multiple snow and ice storms since late November have had minimal impact so far on heavy rail operations across Germany, however road and air travel has been severly affected by winter storms in the past several weeks, with travelers opting for trains over automobiles and airlines. Unfortunately many commuter and regional bus lines which feed into the regional train network all across Germany have been partially immobilized by the hazardous snow and ice accumulations on local roads and highways.

ICE-2 high speed train near Haste

An ICE-2 high speed train set out of the Rhine / Ruhr region of northwest Germany blasts through a winter storm on the 5th December 2010 just west of Haste heading towards Hannover and Berlin. The current series of winter storms in northern Europe has dramatically increased passenger volume and ridership on most intercity trains with the air traffic system and highway network suffering crippling delays from snow. The A2 highway (Autobahn), which roughly parallels the ICE train route from the Rhine / Ruhr region to Berlin, was shut-down on the 5th December in the Hannover area with a 24 km (15 mile) traffic jam for eight plus hours due to a series of truck and automobile accidents.

Happy Holidays to all! - DB


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COMMENTARY... Commentary...  

New Orleans: Five Years After Katrina

The Big Easy Meets The Lil’ Easy

Third In A Series

By David Peter Alan

 

Backwater Blues done told me to pack my things and go
Backwater Blues done told me to pack my things and go
‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no more.
--- Bessie Smith, Backwater Blues (1927).

New Orleans has flooded before. In 1927, the Mississippi River overflowed from just south of St. Louis, downriver to New Orleans. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless and had to crowd onto the levees. A sizable number left the South to try their luck in Northern industrial cities. Blues singer Bessie Smith recorded her account of the flood, Backwater Blues, with pianist James P. Johnson in one of the best-known blues records of all time. A haunting video on YouTube uses this record as accompaniment for a series of images showing flooded New Orleans in 1927 and 2005.

Katrina brought far more devastation to New Orleans than the Great Flood of 1927. Still, “Katrina was both a curse and a blessing for the city” said Justin T. Augustine III, Chief Executive Officer for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and Vice-President of Veolia Transportation. Veolia is the contract operator of the streetcars and buses in the Crescent City.

Today, the streetcars run everywhere they ran before Katrina. The French Quarter, Garden District and other neighborhoods where the streetcars roll show little evidence of the destruction of August, 2005. Tourists continue to flock to the “Big Easy” to taste the local foods, listen to the music, and take in the other experiences that only New Orleans has to offer.

Not all neighborhoods have fared so well. Lakeview, Gentilly, East New Orleans and the infamous Lower Ninth Ward remain devastated, and recovery in those places has proceeded at a slow pace. According to Augustine, only about 1000 households are functioning in the Lower Ninth, where there were 27,000 before the storm.

Civic leaders and transit managers faced a difficult situation. If former residents were to be encouraged to return to their homes, or new potential residents were to be induced to move into these neighborhoods, they needed to function again. This meant utilities, municipal services, stores and, very importantly, transit.

These communities no longer had sufficient population to support conventional bus service. Overall, the RTA today runs significantly less bus service than it did before the storm, and its ridership is only 40% of pre-Katrina levels. Still, the residents of the devastated neighborhoods needed some transit connection to the rest of the city.

Augustine and his management team developed an innovative solution and called it the “Lil’ Easy.” The service consists of neighborhood circulators, run with 14-passenger vans; the kind that many transit authorities and government agencies use for paratransit service for disabled persons. In operation, the service combines features of scheduled service with other features of demand-response transportation. The latter type of operations is normally associated with “senior shuttles” operated by counties or municipalities, or special transportation for disabled persons who cannot use regular transit.

Lil Easy Shuttle Bus

Photo: RTA

The Lil’ Easy Bus

Lil’ Easy is a neighborhood circulator that connects major transfer points with “flexible bus stops” (the term used by RTA) in low-population neighborhoods like Lakeview and Gentilly. Vans run every hour from 5:00 a.m. To 10:00 p.m., with Sunday service beginning at 6:00. In between these transfer points, the route is customized, according to where customers want to go. Riders transferring from another bus or the Canal St. Streetcar at one of these major points are dropped at the stop nearest their destinations. Riders who wish to get on at a stop within the neighborhood must call at least 60 minutes prior to their intended trip, so the next bus (or a later bus, if the rider reserves further in advance) can stop at the desired location and take the rider to a stop on the route, or a transfer point for another route. With this demand-response feature, the Lil’ Easy operates more like a local “dial-a-ride” than like scheduled fixed-route service.

Routes are currently operating in the Lakeview and Gentilly neighborhoods and the Lower Ninth Ward. The Lakeview route has 43 flexible stops, the Gentilly route has 52 and the route in the Lower Ninth has 24. With that many stops, everyone in the neighborhoods served by the Lil’ Easy can walk two or three blocks to the nearest stop.

Transit managers expected riders to use the circulator mostly for short trips: for work or church, or to the food store. The Lil’ Easy serves the University of New Orleans, where both the Gentilly and Lakeview routes intersect with scheduled RTA buses. The Gentilly route also connects with Jefferson Parish (JeT) buses. All routes allow transfer to scheduled services, which allows customers to reach any destination within the RTA system.

The fare is the same as regular streetcar and bus routes, $1.25 with a transfer for an additional 25¢. Senior/disabled fare is 40¢, with free transfers. Multi-ride passes, including monthly and day passes, are also good on the Lil’ Easy. Although the vehicles accommodate two wheelchairs, the service is separate from the paratransit service designed for disabled riders.

The circulators made their debut on June 16, 2009. Augustine said that the Lakeview community originally fought against the service when it was proposed, but residents now identify all of the Lil’ Easy routes as a part of their communities. Augustine mentioned a trip in the Lower Ninth Ward that would have taken 240 minutes (four hours) on fixed-route services, but only takes 15 minutes on the Lil’ Easy.

The circulators were conceived as a means to keep transit going in devastated neighborhoods until regular fixed-route service could come back. Now that the communities have accepted the service, it could be running for a long time. It could also be applied to other cities and suburban areas that are not densely-populated, but where residents can benefit from access to fixed route buses or rail transit. The same concept could be used to provide access to fixed-route transit from any areas where the population is insufficient to support conventional service. It could be used in suburban areas, between different commuter rail lines, to provide access to those lines. It could also provide a means to expand “suburban jitney” services to connect with commuter rail, like the ones in New Jersey.

The Lil’ Easy is unique in this country, although it is patterned after some “Easy Bus” operations that Veolia operates in Europe. It fills a specific transit need, and its concept can be applied to other places. To paraphrase RTA CEO Augustine, the curse that was Katrina inspired a blessing for the City of New Orleans; the Big Easy has met the Lil’ Easy.

Many transit systems in this country are cutting service, and a number of planned “new starts” will not be built. That is not happening in New Orleans. Instead, transit managers are planning to add more streetcar lines and the process of obtaining approvals and funding is underway. The last article in this series will focus on this effort, as we begin the New Year.


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Virginia Rail Observations & Commentary

By Richard L. Beadles

Bigger Trucks; Smaller Autos

Another recent drive on I-81 in Virginia has stirred my mind to thinking about the renewed effort of proponents of bigger, longer, heavier trucks. It is a never-ending campaign by certain trucking companies and some large freight shippers to seek an increase in permitted truck weights, up to100, 000 pounds, a 25% increase over the current federal limit. The irony here is that motorists are being encouraged to drive smaller, lighter cars. One fifty-ton truck might equal thirty medium-sized autos. On top of that, we cannot find the money to adequately maintain the roads and bridges we now have.

Make no mistake about it, North America moves by truck. That’s a fact. So, none of the following is delusional in that regard. Moreover, the private U. S. rail industry has forfeited much of the market to trucking, yet the most promising future growth segment of freight rail relies heavily upon trucking to originate and deliver the so-called intermodal cargo, often over very long distances. So we are all in this together.

Nevertheless, the rail industry’s trade group, the Association of American Railroads, has – not surprisingly -- come out strongly against the proposed increase in truck weights, fearing the loss of a substantial amount of existing rail freight business. The AAR does not specifically identify business segments at risk of diversion to highway. It is probably not so much their “intermodal;” more likely it would come from some of rail’s otherwise “captive” customers, who now cannot afford to ship by highway. This would hit the rails where it really hurts, by eroding their current strong competitive position, otherwise known as pricing power.

Work now underway by VDOT to expand the capacity of I-81 in Virginia, euphemistically called “truck climbing lanes,” reminds the passing motorist of the huge public cost of accommodating trucks, a cost not shared by the freight-haulers in proportion to their impact. Study after study confirms this, but there has not, to our knowledge, been a proportionate increase in truck taxes in Virginia for fifty years.

What could be done? Using available technology to compute weight-distance user charges, we ought to consider allowing the trucking interests to operate highway rigs that are as large, as heavy, and as long as they wish, subject only to bridge load limitations, provided they pay user fees that are fully allocated, and fully reflect, their direct and indirect user costs. That would include right-of-way acquisition costs, design, construction, maintenance, policing, emergency management, and eventual replacements costs. While such radical action could increase the volume of truck tonnage, it might also divert some other truck cargo to private rail freight lines, generating for them revenue and income sufficient, one would hope, to access private capital markets and increase freight rail capacity and service. Moreover, the surviving motorists might be spared some part of the inevitable future gas tax increase. Oh, Santa, are you listening? Happy Holidays to all!


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EDITORIAL... Editorial...  

Waiting For The Trickle Down, Once Again

Back to the 1980’s we go.

When last we tuned in, America was still waiting for that appropriately named Lagger curve to show up, and for the trickle down, promised from the massive tax cuts aimed at the wealthiest Americans, to kick in.

Instead, we got the recession of 1989-92, when George Bush I was dumped for Bill Clinton, and we went back to a fully Democratic Administration for a couple of years --- until 1994, when Newt Gingrich mounted a brilliant “Contract With America” campaign to discredit traditional Democratic policies and programs, and re-install the GOP in the House.

President Clinton rose to this political challenge just as brilliantly, responding by “triangulating,” i.e., working as closely with the Congressional and Senate GOP leaders as he had with his previously in-power Democrats.

America responded to the wildly prosperous Clinton era --- fueled by a DOT-com boom and the widespread use of homes as ATM machines ---by tossing out the Democrats yet again (although as we all know the Democratic Party nominee Al Gore got 2 million more popular votes than his opponent. Our presidential electoral system is skewed to limit the power of the people by granting, in addition to one electoral vote for every state’s Congressman, one also for every state’s U.S. Senators.

For example, if you live in Massachusetts, which has 12 electoral votes (10 Congressmen + 2 Senators) and a population of 6,349,097, each elector represents 529,091 persons.

If you live in Wyoming, which has 493,782 residents, and 3 electoral votes, each elector represents 164,594 persons. That means that when a voter pulls the lever to vote for President in Wyoming, your vote carries three times the weight of the voter who does the same thing in Massachusetts. When electors cast their vote in the Electoral College for President, it is winner take all, state by state. Multiply that effect over a single election where the Red and the Blue are ever more sharply divided, and unless you get a cross-party anomaly like Barack Obama (personally popular still in 2010, even while his party gets hammered) you will get a Red President every time.

That and Al Gore are all water over the Electoral College dam, of course, but the fact is the course of history would have been far different if “one man (or woman) truly equals one vote,” is ever applied to the vote of the electoral college. Years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this voting procedure regarding apportionment for Congressional and state legislative elections.

The bottom line: we have minority rule in America, wherein a hard-core of one party can trump the votes of the majority party, either in the Electoral College, as happened with George Bush and Al Gore in 2000, or in the U.S. Senate, where the 60-vote cloture rule enabled the Republican Party to block much of Barrack Obama’s agenda ever since the special election that installed Republican Scott Brown in the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat in January 2010, despite having, for the first two years of his term, an overwhelming Democratic majority in the Senate, and control of the House as well.

The voters in their wisdom decided to pull the plug on the House Democrats in November 2010, just as they did to Republicans in 2006 and 2008, and for similar reasons: anger that nothing is getting done, and frustration at waiting for the promised Trickle Down to come true and it is 30 years, and counting, while our infrastructure crumbles, and our middle class is eviscerated and the rest of the word is building up theirs.

How long can this go on? When we look back, we are going to understand that the 2010 elections were just a warm up to the rage that is coming. We just don’t yet know which direction that rage will take --- and neither do either of the two major parties.


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WEBMASTER NOTES... Webmaster Notes...  

Happy Holidays To All

The December 20th edition of Destination: Freedom will be our last edition for calendar 2010. At this time of the year the staff at NCI takes a much-needed and most-welcome holiday break. With the exception of major breaking news that may generate an extra edition – one never knows – our next regular edition will be issued on January 10, 2011.

From all of us, to all of you, we wish you a Joyous Holiday Season and Happy New Year!

- DMK


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END NOTES...  Publication Notes...

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