Sunday, October 28, 2012

Thoughts On An Andy Barr Commercial

Some things that Andy Barr and the Republican Party need to know about the coal industry.

Daniel Sparks over at The Motley Fool has penned an excellent piece on the realities of the energy situation in America today. Starting with the harsh truth that the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking” is the leader in acquiring cheap energy from the earth. Much like the early auto builders created less and less demand for carriages and buggy whips, the natural gas producers are leaving coal as an energy source in declining demand.

The early auto industry quickly created new jobs which required different skill sets than the old buggy makers possessed and the local blacksmiths also learned something new or found themselves losing work. So too must the coal miners realize that there are other forces than government regulations affecting the demand for coal. Primarily, it looks to be the “free market” which so many cite as the drummer to whose beat we should be marching.

Put bluntly, natural gas is now half the price of Appalachian coal. It may have happened during the current presidential administration and it may have some effect on the goals of the EPA, but it clearly came about due to the market forces of business. Carbon emissions are down nearly 8% since 2006, partly due to less driving but mostly to less coal use for power generation. Natural gas is cleaner to burn as a fuel, it generates electricity with twice the efficiency, it is not as destructive to the environment to produce (some differ on this) and the safety records of the production fields don’t seem to match the coals industry records. Is it any wonder that coal production is declining?

Today, coal generates just 34% of our electricity, down from 50% just four years ago. In the future, that rate will go down. As President Obama said as he was campaigning, “You can build a coal fired generating plant if you want but…” and the real economic wizards have already realized that they WILL go bankrupt in doing so. So they have not built the coal fired plants. Converting from coal to gas has appeared to be the more economical way to go.

Daniel’s piece concern’s itself with the effect that this decline in coal has had on the railroad industry and how the individual railroads have adjusted to it. Sure, the hauling of coal is a high-margin business and any decline in volume will show up in the company’s bottom line, but the railroads are not whining about the loss of business or jobs. They seem to be rolling with flow and making do.

In Andy Barr’s case, the loss of coal jobs, in his district, or even the loss of rail jobs statewide would look to be minimal, in the worst case scenario. The possibility of more efficiently generated electricity, produced from locally drilled gas wells (yes, Eastern Kentucky is full of them) that may keep our utility rates low is a future hope, but the decline in coal demand is a reality of today.

Coal demand is not just down in Appalachia, the decline is occurring across the nation. The coal of the Powder River Basin, itself a threat to Appalachian coal due to sulfur content, has also seen a similar decline in mining. The problem for Barr and his coal mining supporters seems to stem from the long-term price contracts negotiated to protect the coal operators and not the miners themselves.

Indeed the drop in natural prices - roughly $12 per million BTUs in 2008 versus roughly $4 now - has some executives believing the situation will benefit not just particular companies and industries, but the economy as a whole.

Perhaps the Republicans and Barr in particular do not really understand the economy as a whole in the first place.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Millennials And Walking

Jeff Speck, author of The Walkable City, has pointed out that “64% of Millennials are now choosing where they want to live before finding a job, and 77% plan to live in urban areas.” He backs this statement up by reasoning that generally one in four teenagers are opting out of obtaining drivers licenses. I have heard many explanations as to why the decline in teenage driving, but I don’t feel that the reason is purely economic. The boomers moved to the suburbs because that is where their parents did not live. Could the Millennials be moving downtown for the same reasons?

Of course, for some, those planning to live in “urban areas” could mean simply living in the city proper and not remaining “down on the farm” but here in Lexington I believe that it is more about getting out of the suburban sprawl of our last 4 decades of development. Spending hours per day on school buses or being ferried about by parents seems to be growing old for a lot of young folks. Having a multitude of destinations within walking distance of their college campus’s and especially if there is a downtown nearby, is suddenly very appealing to them.

Millennials now want to be close to work, they don’t mind that entertainment is nearby their homes, along with other amenities and they don’t mind using public transit to get to those amenities beyond walking distance. Some of the things that they were introduced to in college are now desirable in their working life, just like the things that they were used to in their parent’s home are now necessary in the college dorm.

So, just what kind of a downtown will Lexington provide for our Millennials? In many parts of the country our inner cities are beginning to resemble the suburbs, and vice versa. Except for the downtown business district, our parking requirements and building setbacks look very much like the suburbs from which the Millennials are escaping. Some of our downtown streets are as wide and uninviting as the “boulevards” of their youth (you know, the ones that they were not supposed to cross). If it is so similar to what they left, then why would they want to stay?

In my opinion, so far they are seeking out the more interesting streets, those which are vastly different from the sometimes broad, treeless landscapes of the typical subdivision where they played as kids. I think that they are discovering the wonders of the neighborhoods like the one that I grew up in. Streets with older trees, which lead to interesting destinations just a few short blocks away and not more of the same as far as the child's eye can see.

Sadly, even these areas succumb to the ravages of the neglect of those who really should know better. Those which are caught in time may be salvaged, but too often they too will endure the expedient redevelopment tactic of rebuilding in the suburban style. Maintaining an older neighborhood, like those which we are considering, tend to be a bit more on the pricey side initially. Never mind that the eventual property value increase can add to the charm and desirability.

I know that we, as a society, cannot prevent the redevelopment of the areas around the downtown core, not if we want to continue to grow our city. Just like we cannot perpetuate the expansion of low density sprawl into the remaining fertile fields, we also cannot wipe out the still viable parts of our community while replacing it with suburban “blah”. I don't believe that it occurred that way in the historical cities of our Eastern seaboard or the European cities which attract numerous visitors yearly. (Hint: they don't go there for the horses either).

So, just what kind of a downtown will Lexington provide for our Millennials? Will it be a large scale, coordinated (government directed) effort of “top down” which many equate to the cold war style of the past. In the words of Rocket J. Squirrel, when asked by Bullwinkle about a rabbit and a hat, “That trick never works”. Will we see some sort of grass roots “real” urbanism, be it new or otherwise, played out a la the W. Short St. renaissance of late? The Rupp Arena Arts district is a perfect place to start, but we may need to look at uses other than our “dining and bars” or “destination venue” methods which we have already tried. Enabling and allowing an organic development to flourish may be the better solution.

It is not just our downtown which needs to be made over. It is not just the Millennials which need to have comfortable urban surroundings in which they can thrive. Our other residents may also desire the urban like look and feel of city living. Currently, that does not seem to be the case, but when the alternative is just a denser flavor of the stale suburban development model it is no wonder that neighborhoods rebel against the proposals put forward. For years I have heard the retorts that people won't buy it, but I have also seen the angry rejections of the mediocre solutions which the developers offer.

We have long known of the health befits to be gained from living in walkable neighborhoods and it is becoming clear that the health problems of our youth may stem from our overuse of the automobile, possibly exacerbated by our choice of dwelling location and lifestyle/diet. Studies have shown that asthma rates drop when people live in areas with fewer vehicle miles traveled, driving is now the primary cause of air pollution and fewer people die from auto crashes when they drive fewer miles.

For the Millennials which do end up living outside of downtown, what kind of city will we create for them? It may be clear that they do not want to live in the cul-de-sac maze of their youth, but can the subdivisions be re-purposed to suit the new lifestyles. Only time will tell.

Speck does point out that there are four primary steps to making your city a “walkable” city:
  • Create a reason to walk.
  • Create that walk to be a safe walk (real and perceived).
  • Make walks comfortable (space and orientation).
  • Design interesting walks.
The methods to implement these four steps are different for the suburban area versus the downtown but the end goal should be the same, to create an environment in which folks desire to walk. For so long now, I think that we have tried harder to eliminate the need to walk than we have to build a desirable environment, be it walkable or not.

As Speck tells us, and other sites confirm, the Millennials are looking for a city before they will begin looking for a job. The small steps taken (and proposed) in our downtown development, good though they be, will not be enough to win the battle by themselves. It is now time to plan for who we wish to live in Lexington and not just the folks who already do.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Another Traffic Rant?

I guess that it is about time for my semi-annual traffic rant. It has been about six months since the last discussion on our propensity to want one thing and do another, especially when it comes to transportation matters. 

In that time the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has conducted a national poll on transportation. Well, what timing.

This bipartisan team of pollsters held a the telephone survey, calling 800 Americans (yeah, a very small number, but it matches some other similar surveys) and found that most of them believed that the nation's current transportation system is in need of major change. I have long thought that the current model and mode share is skewed and possibly broken. A large majority of them said that what we need is more transportation options. Not more transportation, but more options.

The poll results show that Americans would prefer new transportation options and that includes rail, instead of additional highways. Granted, that does not mean that they all want some sort of passenger rail, though many are edging in that direction. It could mean that they want more freight rail and toget the big trucks off of the road. That could bring back the thrill of the open road that you see in all of the car commercials, but may be considered a “war on trucking” by the trucking industry. Some of the folks that I hear complaining seem to feel that a solution to the country's traffic congestion problems, is getting everyone else off the road.

Among the results, 59 percent of respondents believed the transportation system is "outdated, unreliable and inefficient;". I must say that this has me puzzled. Is it the roadway system, the cars themselves or the method in which we propel them? Are we at that time when they feel we should have the so called “cars of the future”?

Fifty eight percent of them said they would use transit more often, except that it is woefully inconvenient and not available in many places. In Lexington, we failed to maintain the system we had or ignored the prospect of expanding in a thoughtful manner, until the expense of adequately providing appropriate service is out of reach. A similar amount, 59 percent, just want more transportation options than currently available.

And most surprisingly, an astonishingly high 64 percent, nearly two thirds of all respondents, believe their community would benefit from an expanded and improved rail and/or bus system. Where have these people been for the last decade? Why do we have to have polls to find out where they are?  Where are they at the actual ballot box?

The survey shows that Americans want to drive less, and "want to shake up the status-quo mindset when it comes to relieving the traffic congestion they say they deal with all too frequently," stated the pollsters' report. 

If they could spend less time driving, how would commuters spend their extra minutes?

21 percent said they would spend more time with their family;
20 percent would cook, garden or work around the house;
13 percent would take up a hobby;
11 percent would exercise;
9 percent would get more sleep;
4 percent would volunteer; and
3 percent would work more.

Given the average commute time here in Central Kentucky, I have to wonder if our answers would be different.

Then again, if we did not feel that we had to live such a far distance from our places of employment, the commute times would be much more manageable and “getting through town” would be a thing of the past. More on this in a later post.

Another topic of much discussion has been the one-way/two-way streets downtown. 

When family and friends, who know where I work, ask about it it is always on whether it is really proceeding or not. My fellow bloggers and forum members seem to be quite adamant about making their feelings, on getting through town quickly, well known. I point out that the key word in their argument is “through” town and if others wanted to rush through their neighborhoods, the cry for speed bumps and stop signs would ring from the mountain tops.

The question also arises about where the traffic is going to “go”, when a lane or so of our currently one-way streets is reversed. Since the conversion is to be done in street pairs, the simple answer is; half of it will be on the other street. The traffic is going to “go” to the same place that it went when they closed Rose St at the Medical Center or when they took Euclid Ave from four lanes to two and a turn lane. It will “go” to the same place it “went” when they reacquired street space for pedestrians in Times Square in downtown Manhattan. It will probably “go” to some of those other options which I spoke of above.

My last transportation topic, one not so much seen here in Lexington, is the growing investment and usage of the nation's freight railroads. Several of the major Class 1 rail companies are now making their quarterly reports.

The Union Pacific is reporting that business is good. Despite a decline in coal volumes (Hey, it is not just in Kentucky, you guys) and significantly weaker steel and scrap metal markets, the railroad generated its best-ever financial results on total. The southern Powder River Basin coal tonnage dropped by 13 percent to 44.7 million primarily because of low natural gas prices and high utility stockpiles, so total coal traffic fell 12 percent. If it were not for China taking all that we can ship over to them, the totals would be even smaller. On the other hand, crude oil business jumped 300 percent. 

Railroad officials, though not sounding optimistic, say that they “will play the hand the economy deals us”and “The fourth quarter will look much like the third”. Still that would give the railroad record earnings and a sub-70 operating ratio. A first in the railroad's history.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad is having a similarly good year. They continue shipping millions of barrels of crude oil from the prolific Bakken oil play, and will, even if the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is built. BNSF’s oil shipments out of the Bakken have grown exponentially, from 1.3 million barrels in 2008 to 90 million barrels in 2012. They have invested billions of dollars in new locomotives, tank cars and track improvements to ship oil. Last month BNSF announced that it would spend $1.1 billion on locomotives, freight cars and related equipment. Somehow, this has escaped the notice of both Presidential candidates.

On a personal note, I don't like the Keystone XL pipeline and not for environmental reasons alone. The Canadian company constructing the pipeline cannot or will not give assurances that all of the oil will be refined or used in the U.S. Recently, a number of Louisiana pipelines running between ports and the refineries now are pumping away from the refineries and U.S. exports of refined petroleum products hit an all time high last year. Who is to say that Canada will not be exporting their tar sand oil by way of Louisiana?

By shipping the oil by rail, multiple local destinations and refineries for U.S. consumption could be more likely. To me, that translate into more U.S. jobs and should be encouraged, yet from the candidates and even the administration officials, we hear nothing.

Does anybody else have something to add?

Monday, October 8, 2012

93% Say A Plan Does Not Exist

Did you know that there is a company with a specialty in infrastructure strategy and product development on a global scale? No, they are not located in Lexington nor are they planning to move here, but the fact that they exist encourages me. That means that someone is looking out for the built environment of the facilities that connect us or enable us to connect with others.

CG/LA Infrastructure, Inc., which has been around for 25 years and is considered by some to be an industry leader, has just released their latest survey on infrastructure priorities in America. The survey questions were asked of high level executives from all regions and disciplines of the building industry. So, were their conclusions surprising to most folks? Maybe not.

93% believe that the US has no overall infrastructure plan. Wow, that is not news to just about everybody.

Why is it that when we have such huge systems as the Interstate Highways, the national power grid, massive pipeline connections for both oil and natural gas, multi-state water supply lines for our larger cities and even our renewed and growing freight rail network, there is NO overall plan to coordinate them? Do the systems not compliment each other as a whole?

Without a plan there seems to be “…potential for disaster at every turn." as one executive put it. As we have seen in California in the last few weeks, just a small number of minor inconveniences to the petroleum refining system have caused huge headaches for motorists of that state and for many others. A small “glitch” in one system can be magnified through the interdependence of other systems.

57% of respondents encourage public-private partnerships as an important action which can be taken to solve our present situation. 47% favor increasing the gas tax, which has not increased since 1993 and now buys about half of what it did then in infrastructure improvements. (Very politically unpopular) 44% mention the creation of a national infrastructure bank which in this political landscape of gridlock, both in Washington and around the country, may be extremely difficult to do.

In terms of highest or above-average priority for infrastructure investment, it should surprise no one that 79% list our nation’s bridges as needing repair. There is a growing list of sub-standard bridges right here in Fayette County and Central Kentucky. Transportation for America has a map which shows some of the worst. Water and waste-water systems are also high on this list. Our own experience with the EPA Consent Decree stands in the bright spotlight as evidence of this national need. We are not alone in neglecting things which we cannot see yet rely upon so much on a daily basis.

Two-thirds of the respondents mentioned highways as needing more funding, and perhaps they do, but we are already spending massive amounts on soon to be out-dated or obsolete highway projects. If we were to limit our thinking to just this element, could it be that in our desires for high gas mileage and the thrill of driving the open road has left us with clogged roadways and no way of funding improvements? I wonder if those who are able to afford the high mileage auto and live the furthest form their work are the same ones demanding more and better highways.

And how do you think that they felt as to the satisfaction with federal government's role in infrastructure development? 93.5% think that federal government's handling of infrastructure is a job which needs improvement (an understatement?) or just plain poor (abysmal may be a better assessment). Just what is it that we want the federal government to do? Is it government’s job to identify the shortcomings in infrastructure and repair them or should they guide the planning phase of facilities repair? Either way this seems to smack of “big brother” control or influence which our fiercely independent residents would balk at when it comes time to pay the tab. I can hear some of my friends now crying out that private industry can do it cheaper and better than government and yet private industry does not do it because the return on investment is not there.

Shorter approval processes and enabling legislation to allow private sector investment were cited as actions which could be taken to aid the necessary repairs and expansion work. I could assume that faster approval times will indicate a much more lax regulatory environment in which the private sector may reap higher profits yet result in a familiar product. The electric grid and the oil/gas pipelines which need the repair are presently in private hands, are they not. Many of them do not have the best track records in safety and environmental concerns, which may be the way that we got into this shape in the first place.

Government, and especially the Federal government, cannot be solely blamed for the pipeline leaks or the refinery fires and outages. The rail industry, despite its governmental regulations, is again growing and expanding, in major part with private dollars and an improving safety record. The electric grid, as robust as it may seem, is still a delicate lacework which is very much vulnerable to the whims of nature and the evil intentions of terrorists both foreign and domestic.

Remember still that this survey was of the high level executives who are concerned with major elements of life as they know it. What about the portion of citizens who are less than privileged and barely above the government's guidelines of poverty or those who are directly in poverty. What infrastructure is required for them to live a better life and how much do these “high level”executives concern themselves with the systems designed strictly for them?

There was a passing reference to multi-modal systems as associated with freight rail, but no mention of public transportation either locally, regionally or nationally. Should there be a 'potential disaster at any turn' as we have seen predicted above, what back-up (or possibly redundant) system will be available to aid in restoring normalcy? The disruption of oil/gas flow can upset just about all of the Interstate travel and the airlines could not mobilize enough to compensate and travel by rail would be non-existent even though it is the most efficient of the three. The destruction of a few major air control centers will hobble the airline industry, more-so internationally than cross-country, with resultant slowdowns of service.

On the local level, a robust public transportation system would save more than enough fuel to weather an extended slow down. Regional rail systems could suffice for the lack of highway and truck capacity for some freight deliveries. Regional and local farming should sustain the populace until new systems can be put in place. An ultra reliable water supply will prove extremely valuable.

93% of the survey respondents believe that the US has no overall infrastructure plan. I know that we have no real local plan. We have a response plan which may work for he short term, but a plan to rebuild our systems should something happen disastrously or they wear out incrementally, I do not believe exists.

I do believe that one should be developed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncover Another Downtown Stream

I have been spending some time researching the origins of local street names and some of them are really fascinating. Some are fairly simple to deduce while others have a hidden back story and some have no apparent rhyme or reason. One of those in the Ashland Park area is Ridgeway Road.

I am aware that a majority of the Ashland Park subdivision is within the Town Branch watershed, along with the early portion of Chevy Chase and the shopping center. At first I wondered if Ridgeway was placed along this high ground atop the ridge (if you could really call it that). That honor goes to Chinoe Rd, although the actual high points is east of that, which is two intersections east of Ridgeway.

This ridge and the direction of water flow from it brought to mind another question that has been vexing me for some time. The natural westward flow from the Chinoe/Fontaine intersection is toward the Ashland Estate house and through the present day Slashes Road median. On the original concept drawings for the subdivision development, Slashes and the natural water feature's intersection with the Tates Creek Road (now called High St.) are shown as a design element of an entry to the residential area.

The stream, at this point, still carries a substantial amount of water since there are two large diameter storm drainage pipes and culverts built into the foundation of the Chevy Chase Plaza to handle it. Does it match the flow of Town Branch is a good question, but they are both underground.

If this stream was at the surface, it would flow through the parking lot of the Town & Country apartments, under South Ashland Ave and behind the Kroger store before roughly paralleling Euclid Ave. It would bisect the blocks of Marquis, Park and Oldham Avenues, pass under Woodland Ave, follow the rear lot lines of Rose Lane and enter the University campus.

Before the University of Kentucky acquired the present campus, the property was a city park and fairgrounds, with many pathways and a water feature – a stream. The stream would pass between what is now the Singletary Center and the Fine Arts building, pick up inflow from Maxwell Springs, under a portion of the original Stoll Field, the student center and South Limestone. The parking structure, the Donaldson building, the stream generating plant and some of the Reynolds building property are all in the path of this waterway

On the west side of South Broadway, it appears that the stream has long been put into a pipe underground as it does not show up on the Sanborn fire insurance maps of 1907. Could this waterway have been covered over before Town Branch? I doubt it, but the 1886 Sanborn map does show a surfaced Town Branch as does the 1890 version.

A large, double box culvert runs under Davis Bottom and the present Southend Park, just showing enough of it to make a pavement for Byars Ave (off McKinley St), then through the Irishtown area around the Driscoll St passing of the railroad track. It finally empties into the Town Branch where the Norfolk-Southern crosses both Manchester St. and the Corman tracks.

I have never seen a name for this waterway. Some maps just call it a “drainage ditch” and many of the early Lexington maps do not recognize it at all. The 1912 map drawn by J. T. Slade is probably the only one which depicts the total stream length.

It has just as much history associated with it as Town Branch, short of having a town plat based upon its path for a short section. It has been impounded on several occasions for uses both social and commercial, as many a baptism took place in the pond behind the steam mill on Bolivar and more than one college boy took his girl out for a boating beside Buell Armory.

I also wonder how the kids in the neighborhoods from Ashland Park to the University would had enjoyed a surface stream to play in (Probably as much as the ponds of Clifton Heights). Would the neighborhood streets south of Euclid be cul-de-sacs if they had left the stream alone?

With all of the talk about re-surfacing the Town Branch and a call for designs, I would not even suggest a similar treatment here, I just thought that I would “uncover” another downtown stream.