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Among the results, 59 percent of respondents believed the transportation system is "outdated, unreliable and inefficient;".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?

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