Saturday, February 27, 2010

America's Idea Of High Speed Rail

HNTB is a well known, employee owned, architecture and engineering consulting firm specializing in sports venues but also working in road/bridges, aviation and light rail. They also prepare and distribute, on line, a publication called THINK, and in that preparation conduct many opinion surveys. One of their latest concerns High Speed Rail.
New America THINKS survey results from HNTB Corporation illustrate transit and passenger rail remain top of mind after the Obama administration’s $8 billion high-speed rail grant announcement last month.

Nearly nine in ten (88 percent) Americans are currently open to high-speed rail travel for long-distance travel within the United States. While this is a strong majority, that support is down slightly from the 94 percent America THINKS recorded in March 2009.
This is much higher than I thought it would be and if I were a pessimist, I would swear that these were rosy liberal government projections. Don't get me wrong, I have been pushing (and dreaming of) High Speed Rail since the '70s, unfortunately, the federal money that could have (or should have) been spent on it was mandated for highways.
While general interest may have slowed, there’s still a great deal of support for passenger rail enhancements overall. More than four in five (83 percent) Americans agree public transit and high-speed rail infrastructure should receive a larger share of federal funding than they do now.
I guess my next question would have to be, Does congress know this? Then I realize that Congress doesn't care. There are no lobbyists from major corporations beating down their doors, throwing cash at them for their votes. Major corporations, the big three automakers and the large energy companies all realize that their fortunes could turn on a decision to increase mass transit opportunities in America.

Our American automakers at one time made what appeared to be obscene profits but in recent years have lost billions. Our trucking industry, at one point appeared to be choking the life out of America's freight railroads. The large oil companies are still raking in huge profits due to the world's unquenchable thirst for oil despite a demonstrated decline in availability. Even if you don't suscribe to the concept of Peak Oil, it is becoming clear that the way that thing were were simply not sustainable.

The American airline industry is imploding from similar problems of sustainability. The terror threats have only exacerbated the continuing delays encountered by the traveling public. An aging air control system and declining on-time performance figures posted by the airlines are making some people think twice about flying as a travel option. With a possible lack of available fuel (or at least much more expensive fuel) and few viable alternatives, airlines may be a dying industry except for coast-to-coast or overseas flights.

This may coincide with another study requested by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in California about the effects of High Speed Rail on the Bay Area. SH&E, a Virginia-based aviation firm has concluded that the three Bay Area airport could see a loss of 6 million passengers by 2035. That assumes that the system would be operational by 2020 AND that the airline industry will still be operating.

It is well documented that in Europe(particularly Spain) and China that the bullet trains have seriously eroded the airline industry's clientele. In America, even Amtrak's Acela service- a limited medium speed service- from New York to Washington has garnered approximately 62% of the traveling public between those two cities.

Lexington, of course, has been left out of any consideration for High Speed Rail, medium speed rail, commuter rail, regional rail or any other mode of mass transit in, around, or beyond the limited bus service that we have.

I tell you, we are going to have to start really thinking locally and begin to do some of these things for ourselves. Congress will only do it for those corporations who offer leverage. The idea of "government of the people, by the people and for the people" began to die shortly after Abraham Lincoln declared that it "should not perish from this earth". If we want it back, then we will have to take it back.

I wish us luck.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More News About Railroads

Close on the heels of a bold move by billionaire Warren Buffet to acquire the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, comes the report that fellow billionaire Carl Icahn will also take a position in the re-emerging field of rail transportation. Icahn has merged his American Railcar Industries, Inc. with U.S. Railcar LLC with the intent of bringing back an American passenger train manufacturing industry.

The best part of this news is that Icahn is not just thinking about the emphasis on High Speed Rail set by the Obama administration but also the continuing surge in regional and commuter rail by communities around the country. This new joint venture will employ the existing American Railcar plant in Marmaduke, Arkansas to build medium speed, not high speed, passenger cars along with their current product, tank cars. It is also possible that the U.S Railcar Co. arm may build a facility near the Port Columbus International Airport outside Columbus, Ohio., the basic midpoint of the Cleveland to Cincinnati high speed route being pursued by the State of Ohio.

We Kentuckians should not let our chance to join the new rail revolution pass us by. Maybe when R. J. Corman get done refurbishing his railroad we can use his expertise to build our own regional rail connections.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A New Follower And The Local Growers

I want to welcome one of my latest followers John's Custom Meats, from down in Smiths Grove, Ky. I sure do wish that I was a bit closer to western Ky(or that they were a bit closer to Lexington) so that I could enjoy some of their product once in a while. I guess that I will have to make do with another Kentucky Proud supplier that I located on the net today. One that is closer to Lexington.

Better Beef is an outgrowth Lone Tree Cattle Co. LLC. of Paint Lick, Ky. with a local outlet in Berea. Finally, a local grass-fed, no hormone, grown, raised, finished and processed in Kentucky supply of reasonably priced meat. This is definitely a place that Mrs. Sweeper says that we will give a try. These people currently deliver to Lexington and say that they will soon add Louisville and Danville. Between our cowshare program, which supplies us with milk, eggs and cheese, a good local meat supply and the Good Foods Co-Op, we may be eating some of the best meals in the country.

I am going to have to add a Locavore/Slow Foods links list soon in order to keep up with all of this.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

TIGER, Stimulus and The Corman Group

The R. J. Corman Railroad Group, one of my favorite rail companies, is on the receiving end of some of the TIGER funds of the stimulus package. Funds that will rehabilitate some of the aging trackage that they lease from CSX, trackage that CSX let deteriorate as they lost freight market share to the trucking industry. Yes, it is the same trucking industry that has been propped up by the highway subsidies since the early '50s.

The funds will be used to rehabilitate roadbed and ties on the three short lines, the Central Kentucky line, the Bardstown line and the Memphis line. The amount of work will require approximately 100 additional positions and be spread from Winchester to Louisville and Bowling Green to Tennessee.

These rail infrastructure upgrades will allow more freight to be hauled at a cheaper cost in terms of our carbon footprint if not actual drayage fees. Such upgrades may also allow the possibility of regional passenger rail but I think that it is too soon to tell on that one. Some other recent upgrades, that did not involve federal dollars, included the tunnel expansion in Frankfort and several new sidings along the route to Louisville in anticipation of some type of increased rail movements and excursions.

If my hunch is right, this may not be the only contact that the Corman Group has with stimulus money. Another big award was for The National Gateway Rail Corridor on the CSX System in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio that totals $98 million. This project involves enlarging tunnels to allow containerized freight moving in double-stack trains to be able to shave off about 200 miles and up to a day’s transit time between the East Coast and the Midwest. Coincidentally, Corman has recently completed three good sized tunnels for the Norfolk-Southern Heartland Corridor project. The National Gateway Corridor also feeds several of Corman's short lines in Pennsylvania. It would only be logical for Corman to pick up some of this work.

How all of this ties into the plans of Warren Buffet and the BNSF or the CN expansion plans along the former Illinois Central corridor, I can only speculate but I would love to be proven right on some of my earlier hunches.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Problems With Walkability In An Auto-Centric Society

A blanket of new fallen snow can be a very beautiful thing, especially when it falls on a weekend and even better if a holiday weekend. It used to be that folks would sit inside and watch it fall, the kids would get outside and romp in it and then we would have to turn shoveling ourselves out of the drifts and clean up the sidewalks. That is how it used to be.

Now we ignore the beauty aspect of a snowfall and flip open the garage door, shovel off the driveway and hop in the car to be off on our merry way. In the auto-centric world of today, pedestrians are left out in the cold, slogging through snow and ice, then resorting to the street in order to get somewhere. This also applies in the most walkable part of cities.

Yesterday, as I crept along a snow/slush covered stretch of road, I had to avoid more than one pedestrian walking along the only clear path available - the street, and the snow was still falling. Today, with the wind whipping up the lighter icy flakes but no new snow really falling, the scene was the same and particularly near Chevy Chase and the Campus area. People were resorting to the bike lane on Euclid in our premier example of a walkable neighborhood.

The property owners in Lexington are responsible for the clearing of the sidewalks abutting their property of all obstacles, and that usually means snow and ice. It is the neighborly thing to do. For people in an auto-centric society, neighborliness goes only so far as the bumpers and fenders of our autos.

In the center of downtown, sidewalks have been cleared for the most part although the road crews continue to mound snow directly in the crosswalk, so as to make people climb over a pile to cross the street.

The problems really mount as you move out from downtown. The area in front of Goodwin Square had a path cleared from the steps from the plaza all the way to the street. the rest of the sidewalk on either side has not been touched. If one were to try to use this, there is nowhere to go once you reach the street and nowhere for an auto to stop to let passengers in or out. The church and the Woodlands beyond it were clear as was the funeral home opposite, but the drive in restaurant and office buildings next door were not. Oddly enough the office building was cleared from the front door to the sidewalk but no further.

The part of town that surprises me most is the Ashland Park area. This is the quintessential home of the "Old Money" in the 40502 zip code. Hardly any sidewalks in this area have been cleared as of this afternoon and these folks can afford to have it contracted out if they can't do it themselves. I believe that most of the driveways have had some work done on them. Coach Cal's house is one of the few with the sidewalks done and not the driveway (they stopped just shy of the edge of the property).

Public properties outside of downtown are also not immune to auto-centric thinking. The sidewalks around Woodland Park and others have not been cleared, the schools have had the parking lots plowed yet the sidewalks are not touched and the students have not been in class all week. If the City and other public entities won't comply with the rules it would be hard for them to cite the typical homeowner for their failure to do so.

Our solution could be as simple as returning to a more neighborly mindset where we think more about fellow pedestrians and less about other drivers.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thoughts For A Friday Afternoon

“A commonly quoted statistic from the Small Business Administration (SBA) is that 65% of all new jobs are created by small businesses” so says an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. It also gives the general definition of a small business as “any business employing 500 people or fewer.” Although I wonder if that includes subsidiaries of large multi-nationals whose start-up costs are covered while an entrepreneur’s are not.

The author goes on to reveal that “99.7% of all companies in America meet the SBA's definition of small business”, again, what portion of that are the multi-national subsidiaries mentioned earlier.

His logical conclusion was that “the remaining 0.3% of American companies—big business—create 35% of all new jobs in this country”. We have now run the gamut from any business (regardless of any financial connections) through all companies in the nation to only American companies. Not just apples and oranges, but sliced and diced fruit.

It appears from this that any job creation bill from Congress should focus on our big businesses, those with the ability to properly accomplish this task. After all the SBA says that 56% of all start-ups fail in the first few years.

The current Senate jobs bill, which Sen. Reid says he wants to simplify over this next weekend, is estimated to cost $52 billion and the House version from December was $155 billion. The Senate bill relies on tax breaks and construction projects while the House’s one was construction and state aid packages. That is a lot of our money but it pales in comparison to the funds already held by big business.

Bloomberg is reporting that “A majority of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index increased cash to a combined $1.18 trillion while simultaneously reducing spending, keeping a jobs recovery on hold.” These are S&P’s, not the Blue Chip, big boys. 256 of these companies added about 4 times the House bill’s cost to their cash reserves in the past year. Does the Senate need to give more incentives when they have socked away nearly the National Debt?

Where did these companies get this money? Why we gave it to them. We the consumer and we the government. We gave it to them for products sold and for services rendered, since every business need to make some profit. That works out to about $1,600 per person that we gave them last year alone and just over $3,800 in all. $1,600 is just under double my Federal Income withholding for last year. And this is not the big guys. This is also money that is NOT going for job creation.

This is money that is not going for investment in alternative energy exploration (a job creator), or high speed rail, or re-localization of agriculture, or recreating our ability make things for ourselves, all good job creators. This money is also not just setting around doing nothing, it has become the plaything of our financial institutions and we saw what they did with such playthings in the past years.

Job creation is not something that the Federal government should pay for.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Still Support Art In Motion

I attended the fund raiser for Art in Motion last Thursday night, along with Mrs. Sweeper, as it afforded me the opportunity meet some of the people that I have posted about for a while. Or so I thought.

The location was Natasha’s Bistro and Bar on the Esplanade, time, from 5:30 till 10:00, a great chance for us to meet and greet other AiM supporters. Maybe even exchange some ideas. We arrived at about 6, just enough to not be the first in the door but still have some time the entertainment for the evening.

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. By 6 o’clock the opening band was rocking the joint, and I mean rocking it. We heard them from the corner of Main St. There was no time for casual conversation with others, no introductions, no quiet time for mingling. Take your money at the door, hustle you to a table and we were on our own.

The band, Positive Movement, was playing some modern jazz or blues which the Mrs. and I enjoy on a regular basis during the summer, but this was just a bit too loud for the occasion. I couldn’t hear the waitress or my wife so we reverted to the primitive form of texting, passing notes to each other across the table.

Relatives of the band members or members of the main band, Water with Vera Soules, took up positions right in front of the stage and took snapshots and video of the performance while others kept to the periphery and ordered dinner.

We watched the slide show of a variety of art stops from around the world and marveled at the creativity of them. We watched the slide show of the sculptor of the Third St Artstop as he described how he did it. We heard reference to the major participants of the existing structures, but none of them were introduced. I felt a little bit lost.

Dinner over, and the slide shows behind us, little was left to keep us there, as apparently was the case with a majority of the others in the room, so we left. Two members of the MPO staff and the table with the EOP people had all left. I saw nobody from Lextran that I knew and I now know just one more person with Art in Motion.

Don’t think for a moment that this diminishes my enthusiasm for the Art in Motion program or for art stops in general. I will continue to post about them and continue to support their construction. I even anticipate being at a fundraiser in the near future, which I hear will be at Buster’s, and I am told that it will be more along the lines of what I expected last week.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Can We Get Started Sometime Soon?

Some Americans are so impatient. Nothing can come soon enough for them. We now have a federal administration which is keen on the advancement of mass transit and high speed rail and now we can't wait for such a system to arrive in all the small towns across the country. Lexington is one of those cities.

Lexington and Kentucky have not been in the forefront of innovation or execution of transportation by any stretch of the imagination. We have had to wait our turn for the latest thing to come down the pike.

Lexington was not the first city in Kentucky to have rail travel. This is probably due to the lack of population that would require such transportation and the lack of funds necessary to maintain a railroad. Many other cities were connected by rail before Lexington finally got in on the act. We are in similar shape today in relation to high speed rail and, by most accounts, even any type of regional rail. Mass transit is beneath most of the supposed well to do in Lexington, whether it be bus or rail.

The local proponents of mass transit, currently ours is a less than stellar bus system, can only dream of light rail and/or a regional commuter system. There are just not enough riders interested in such a scheme. Those of us who would propose such an idea are considered a radical fringe by some and crazy by others. Yet there are a growing number of us, right here in Lexington.

Like I said, we now have an administration unlike any that we have seen in the past 20 years. A Transportation Secretary who is trying to expand Amtrak and not kill it. A President who is not nominating board members that wish to shut down the only passenger rail left in America. A Vice President who actually regularly rides mass transit, when possible(and not to a photo op). We have a Senatorial Candidate with a regional rail plan. We even have a Federal commitment of funding for more transit projects over the next several years.

So why is all the national focus on High Speed Rail? Why are there calls for stylish terminal facilities to enhance the riders experience. Shouldn't America get to a brisk walk before we learn to run. We are starting to act like the socialite who dresses in the fanciest warm-up gear, just so that they can be seen being chauffeured to and from the gym without actually working out. Kentucky just needs to get going on pushing some sort of passenger rail.

I have touted Dr. Mongiardo's rail plan here before and I had hoped that he would come and explain it further. I now am told that he did come to Lexington, to a conference of Transportation professionals, back in January. I wish that he had made his presentation to a general audience rather than to an assembly which appears to most of us as being drug toward the future instead of leading the charge. I think that he would have found a much more receptive crowd to his plan, from people who want to use it instead of make a career off of it, from people who want to get somewhere on it instead of get rich off of it.

I don't want to sound impatient, but I do want to get started. Just some sort of a start.