Monthly Archives: April 2011

Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

Serving in an executive capacity in the public sector (or private sector, for that matter) is essentially about making choices that a majority will disagree with. Defunding schools for lack of adequate test scores will enrage parents while pleasing fiscal disciplinarians; the previous an unquiet majority and the latter a sometimes obfuscating din. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, known for his prodigious build as much as for his significant fiduciary and politicking talents, made what amounts to a typical executive decision: he funded —or rather re-funded as it was on fiscal life-support— one project while defunding another.

The now revived project of Xanadu, an homage to Coleridge’s palace of Kubla Khan or perhaps the more sinister palace of opulence of Welle’s Citizen Kane, is a 2.4 million square foot entertainment complex that includes an indoor ski slope, a skating rink, and an indoor water park. The project that was defunded? The ARC Tunnel, an infrastructure project (map below) that promised to connect New Jersey and Manhattan through a series of capital construction and improvement to stations and tracks throughout both states. The deal that Gov. Christie gave the new developers, who are renaming the complex “American Dream@Meadowlands” which I can only assume is an homage to the conflation of resurgent patriotism and Twitter, a charitable financial package outlined here:

The new developer, the Triple Five group, will invest more than $1 billion in the seven-year-old project. And Gov. Chris Christie has agreed to provide low-interest financing and to forgo most sales tax revenue for a period of time… The administration is offering a financing package of $180 million to $200 million, with the developer able to use most of the sales taxes they collect to repay the loan, rather than contributing the money to the state budget. (NYT, 4/28/11)

 Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

The decision is fair enough in the political sense; Gov. Christie decided to offer a private development company a sweetheart deal because it was taking over a project that had been orphaned by its previous developer who had already dumped more than $1 billion into it. Government investing in private industry is as old as organized government in general, but the timing of these two events is leaving many in the transportation world at odds with New Jersey government.

The ARC tunnels finances are significantly more involved than the project-formerly-known-as-Xanadu; projects put it somewhere between $9 billion and $13 billion, a number rivaled only by Boston’s fiscally disastrous but functionally  fantastic Big Dig Project. However, because of this project’s transformative potential the US Department of Transportation was offering nearly $4 billion in Federal grants, a record for an infrastructure project. That wasn’t the only funding that Gov. Christie was going to receive from the DOT either:

In addition, [Secretary of Transportation Ray] LaHood essentially offered to write Christie a blank check from his department’s Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program for a multi-billion-dollar loan to cover cost overruns and the $775 million Portal Bridge South leading into the new tunnel. (Link to story here)

The remaining $4 to $7 billion is nothing to be scoffed at of course, with Boston on the hook for Big Dig payments for the foreseeable future Gov. Christie was right to look hard at the fiscal realities of the faltering economy and diminishing tax receipts. Projections, even if taken with a grain of salt, throw considerable weight behind building the project however, for reasons ranging from increased home values for corridor residents to the creation of 44,000 new permanent jobs in the region. The ARC tunnel could have reduced commuting time considerably as well, and as Bostonians well know, the travel time between suburban home and downtown Boston pre-and-post-Dig are worth any cost overruns.

It seems almost inappropriate in a time of forced and severe austerity for millions of Americans that Gov. Christie has decided to fund what amounts to a temple to profound consumption and, just a year before, defunded a project that would have improved life and finances for millions. Though if people aren’t happy with the defunding of the ARC tunnel, they can always go skiing in Xanadu.

 Build This, Not That (NY/NJ)

Transit is Happening Somewhere (MN)

Contrary to popular belief, there is still a taste in Washington for writing checks and advancing infrastructure projects. Minnesota’s twin cities of St.Paul and Minneapolis received $478 million for a near $1 billion project that will lower travel times between the city centers to about 40 minutes in 2014. The near half-a-billion dollars is a record for Federally funded transportation projects in the Land of the Gophers and here are the geographically (too) specific details:

The Central Corridor line, which is about 12 percent complete, will run from downtown Minneapolis along Washington and University avenues to the Capitol before turning down Robert and Cedar streets in downtown St. Paul. Its easternmost stop will be on Fourth Street, in front of Ramsey County’s refurbished Union Depot.

Trains will continue without passengers into a Lowertown operations and maintenance facility at the end of Fourth Street, next to a site envisioned by St. Paul officials as a future St. Paul Saints ballpark. (Via Pioneer Press)

I’ve never been to Minneapolis or St. Paul so I don’t know how exactly these maps will look but I do like the plucky Minnesota Twins and the friend that brought this topic to my attention, Joe Mielenhausen, hails from the North Star state. Here’s a map to put it into relatively perspective courtesy of the Metropolitan Council, Minnesota/St.Paul’s metropolitan planning organization:

mn map Transit is Happening Somewhere (MN)I’ve usually written these pieces under the guidance of fiscal restraint when it comes to high-octane infrastructure projects, not because I don’t think that transformative transportation projects are a bad idea but because I think that improving what we have is a cheaper and, in some cases, more effective alternative. That being said I like this idea coming out of the Cold Country for some reason. Schematically, it’s reminiscent of BART which unites two neighbor cities (though Oakland gets the short end of the stick) via heavy rail. The project is also an elegant fiscal construction, funded by a combination of Federal grants (as mentioned above), a quarter-cent sales tax increases on several counties (those being affected positively by the rail line), and state funding matches.

The level of cooperation and fiduciary responsibility is a good sign that there is still a desire for better transportation among average Americans and transit is becoming a higher priority for more and more urban dwellers. Minnesota, in all its magnanimous glory, has made a move towards transit and it’s a move in the right direction. Go Twins (cities).

Dirge or Nascent Fugue for High Speed Rail?

A few weeks ago the venerable Ken Orski, editor-in-chief of a widely circulated transportation industry newsletter pragmatically dubbed “Innovation Briefs” and a transportation veteran, published a trio of eulogies. The first of the series, written by Mr. Orski himself, is calm, a stab at objectivism that succeeds because of the political climate we find ourselves immersed in today. Mr. Orski is no fan of the Obama administration’s high speed rail plan, which he fairly asks the Presiden to label “a program of incremental improvements to the existing rail infrastructure” rather than “a bold and revolutionary program of building a continent-wide high-speed rail network.”

Mr. Orski considers President Obama’s rhetoric on the subject purely “quixotic” —which of course it is— but within Mr. Orski’s ostensibly innocuous request for plain language regarding passenger rail is a phalanx of private interests, not least of all comes from a Roosevelt-era enemy: freight rail. If President Obama’s plan for high speed were to become a success —and in many other eras it would have— then those “incremental improvements” to passenger rail services (and by proxy freight rail as both roll on one track) have a chance to reverse the prioritization of freight over passenger. In fact, Mr. Orski discusses this topic in one of his previous newsletters “The End of the Line”:

Shared-track operation has raised many questions in the minds of the intended host freight railroad companies. Railroad executives are concerned about safety and operational difficulties of running higher speed passenger trains on a common track with slower freight trains and they are determined to protect track capacity for future expansion of freight operations. Their first obligation, they assert, is to protect the interests of their customers and stockholders.

What Mr. Orski posits is neither incorrect nor unfair: a corporation, and freight rail is one of those most American of corporations, has a responsibility to its shareholders and there is no doubt that improvement to current rail systems would increase pressure on those operators. Freight is, quite literally, the backbone of this country’s past industrial heyday. The issue here is Chomsky-esque: are we putting profit over people? and is high speed rail really so plausible an idea that that moral question even comes into play?

The promotion of what is essentially a private interest v. public service debate has been a lonely realm for Mr. Orski to operate in as much of the debate has been co-opted by fervent devotees of transformative and exorbitantly expensive nationwide high speed rail and debt hawks who consider the funding of such a project during these times irresponsible at best. Industry is a talented possum though, and their work often goes on way above the sub-basement rattling of punditry. While Mr. Orski is too talented and experienced to “cheer” for either side there doesn’t seem to be a need for him to express what is already dogma: industry always lobbies.

This blog has leaned towards Mr. Orski’s arguments in fiduciary considerations. High speed rail as it stands now is too expensive, impractical, and too expensive to be considered a pragmatic and timely alternative to personal automobile use and commercial airlines for reasons outlined here and here. Money, as it happens, isn’t the only consideration, though, and even a self-styled —and somewhat reluctant— realist like myself can find issues with purely economic arguments against infrastructure development. High speed rail is unfortunately not a money maker, but the argument against it shouldn’t stop at the bank vault door, just as President Eisenhower’s highways didn’t begin there.

Cool Concepts | Variable Tolling

Let me start off by saying that variable is one of those subjects that only a small subset of the population finds remotely interesting in all its glorious esotericism. Traffic engineers, planners, DOT officials, and a few different private sector entities have turned to variable tolling for different reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a new idea in a sector where new ideas are often scoffed at, examined, and begrudgingly applied (not always in that order).

Charging people to use roads is as old as people building roads because, and sometimes people forget this, roads take money to build (even the Romans knew that and they built those ridiculous cobblestone boulevards). Variable tolling is slightly different and all the details in their economic splendor is explained by the eminent bloggers at Freakonomics here. Put simply —since many are reticent to waste time on one blog, let alone two— these are tolls that change prices based on complicated algorithms that analyze how many cars are on the road at a given time during the day; more in the mornings and evenings, less during midday and overnight. I the graceful equation traffic engineers could have been replaced by the relatively ingenious combination of a pair of eyes and a surveillance camera, but , alas, Occam threw the razor out long ago.

91 express lanes toll road sign 1 night Cool Concepts | Variable Tolling

91 Express Lane Tolling Sign (Copyright 91 Express Lanes)

California has started to install the system along several of their more exasperated highways, due mostly to CalTrans endless supply of ingenuity and graciousness as well as the beneficent actions of several privately held expressways. San Diego is the first “city” to move towards variable tolling within their urban boundaries when they split part of the local Interstate into the plebeian highway and bourgeois “express” lane. These express lanes that charge a driver a toll in order to bypass traffic —”Lexus lanes”, double taxation, whatever moniker is in vogue currently—  and are operated on a simple premise: if a driver needs to get somewhere in a hurry, a job say, or perhaps an appointment? then the driver can pay for an improved service (bold!).

The spontaneous counterargument to this concept is obvious: we pay a gas tax so that these roads can be made available and so that we can use them without restriction. Unrestricted access is exactly why it takes 2 hours to move 15 miles in Los Angeles, and why American’s lose billions in lost production during morning commutes every year, though attitudes towards that idling time may be more mixed than is generally, not to mention understandably, thought. Tolls, in their current incarnation, aren’t meant to control traffic, they’re meant to pay back the usually ridiculously high construction costs of actually building a bridge or tunnel generally in the form of concessionary contracts.

In that sense the only fate that variable tolling and tolling “classic” share is their common fiduciary thread, not to mention their moniker and associated lexicon. The disparate applications —traffic control and responsible bookkeeping, respectively— are why the various attacks aren’t warranted, and are usually not undertaken by those with the somehow awe-inspiring skill of understanding 2 things at once.

Variable tolling is a at its heart a simple-minded tool; a quotidian lever in the most basic sense. If you want to get faster —pick up Jason at soccer practice, make sure you see Susie’s first softball game— you can pay, and if you’d like to waste away in traffic (or embrace the solitude, we’re blessed to be able to see one thing two ways) then the choice, in that most libertarian of cliches, is yours. To pilfer a line from the gay marriage movement: if you’re against variable toll lanes, then don’t use them.

Bikes for the Rest of Us

Boston is set to move one step closer to Amsterdam (no this article isn’t about the recent state Supreme Court decision) by launching a fledgling bike-sharing program set to open this summer (bike sharing began, but has faltered, in Amsterdam, however 40% of the population use bikes as their primary mode of transportation). Eric Moskowitz from the Globe runs down the details:

Boston officials said the system, to be called Hubway, will open in July with 600 bicycles and 61 stations in the city, though they envision growing in a few years to as many as 5,000 bikes at more than 300 kiosks, from Brookline to Somerville.

The nomenclature used for the system, “Hubway”, is apparently a play off Boston’s nickname “the Hub”, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who agreed with the title superficially or substantively. I’ve never heard someone refer to this city as the Hub and it seems akin to those whimsically annoying fruit-associated nicknames given to insubstantial cities by well-meaning, and definitelyinsecure, journalists. What is Boston the “Hub” of, exactly? New England I assume, but being named the Hub of a generally suburban landscape is too much like being the capital of California: it had to happen somewhere. That’s beside the point though.

While small and rather expensive ($6 million for 600 bikes and 61 stations, Moskowitz writes) Boston needs some bright spots on its transportation ledger, especially among disgruntled students who, along with toursits, will most likely make up the dominating demographic of bike-sharers. There is also an urban planning spin to all this cycling talk as Mayor Menino has brought “expertise” (I don’t use the term disparagingly, it’s just that I’m not sure such experience is actually “expertise” in the spirit of the word) in the crossroads of urbanism and bicycles into the fold in one Nicole Freedman. Again, Eric Moskowitz:

[Mayor] Menino has had his sights set on bike sharing since he launched a major bicycling initiative in 2007, hiring urban planner and former Olympic cyclist Nicole Freedman with a mission to end Boston’s perennial ranking among the world’s least bike-friendly cities, a distinction attributed to the city’s cramped and twisting streets and aggressive drivers.

“The news [from France] was that this is one of the ways to transform your city into a world-class bicycling city,’’ said Freedman, hired just as Paris was opening its Velib network.

Bicycling city is a new term to me and I’m not sure that I particularly like it. Unless drivers in Massachusetts have signficantly improved their boorish driving habits since I was last outside, cyclists will always be  a wary species. I am all for following the lead of Amsterdam, Budapest, and Prague (and New York, sort of) in creating pedestrian-only blocks that would allow for (civil) bicycle use simply because I think it makes those parts of the city immune to road rage and auto-peacocking (though it does increase the chances of the now rare cycle-peacocking, popular in certain sections of Allston and the Boston University campus) but that doesn’t seem likely to happen, so what is all the clammer over making Boston a “world-class bicycling city”? Make it a metropolitan city first, then the bicycles, ridden by their oh-so-metropolitan masters will soon follow.

Oh I forgot to say, I’m glad bike-sharing is coming to Boston.

Pheidippides, Kenyans, and Heartbreak Hill

The myth of Marathon and Pheidippides has migrated from one continent to the other and landed decidedly on the Horn of Africa. Kenyans and Ethiopians have dominated marathons in London, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and, most recently, Boston. The marathon run today was the fastest ever —though the strong tailwind disqualified the record— coming in at just over 2 hours, with several others coming in minutes afterwards (including American Ryan Hall) which means that the fastest runners were averaging just over 4:30 a mile.

The concentration of talented athletes tends to come from a conflation of cultural and environmental avenues. Kenya, while not Nepalese in altitude, is still coated with modestly elevated areas outside of the Southwest of the country. Marathoners born, raised, and trained in high altitude (many American runners only cover 1 or 2 of those criteria) have an obvious respiratory advantage; the amazing stress put on a marathoner’s lungs is presumably muted.

Running is as much a mental game as physical though, and like the baseball wellspring of San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic, marathoners in Kenya have benefitted from idolization and emulation. Greatness, and by proxy success, is an effective training tool. For Kenya, and specifically the Southwest corner of the sprawling green country named Nandi, Kip Keino provided a worth idol to look to. A Kalenjin tribesman —Kalenjin are a minority tribe in Kenya but make up a significantly disproportionate percentage of great runners— and former policeman, did to running what women like Mia Hamm did for young American soccer players: instant galvanization.

Running is a patient and deliberate game, more so than golf which takes on a recreational tinge in non-professional settings, and thus doesn’t garner much attention outside of dedicated acolytes and, every four years, the summer Olympics. Americans also don’t have the sort of running stars that Kenya does. Most of the great American runners —Alberto Salazar, Steve Prefontaine, and the 28-year old Ryan Hall— are cult figures, immortalized by signature facial hair or nostalgia-minded, promotional shoes. Running is a way to keep in shape in the States, stripped of its practicality as a way to move faster it becomes what a sidewalk is to a treadmill.

However, Marathoning (the addition of the gerund, while creating a non-word, is an important nod to the small but fervent marathon subculture) for marathoners is demi-spiritual. 26.2, oddly arbitrary in that Royal measurement sort of way, becomes auspicious for the experienced and daunting for the novice. Marathons are an odd transcendence of plain travel (today it was Hopkinton to Boylston Street) because of the constant mental anguish that marathoners endure (Haruki Murakami, the Japanese fiction writer, former pack-a-day smoker, and current marathon (and ultra-marathon) competitor, discusses the importance of the mantra that all marathoners use to keep themselves sane during the hours of monotony in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The only distance that matters to the marathoner is between their steps.

Why write about running on a blog about transportation? There was a distinct flash of perseverance in the air today in Boston. The weather, a Mediterranean 60 degrees signaling the beginning of another sweltering urban New England Summer prefaced with a gentle Spring, proved a fitting backdrop to victory for the near 30,000 marathoners; Pheidippides could not be blamed for smiling.

Cars and Trains

High speed rail is getting well-deserved attention in the mainstream news, conservative and liberal outlets, even fledgling blogs. If transportation could ever be riveting enough to have a vogue topic —fixed-gear bikes, the Prius, dirigibles—  then high speed rail is ahead of schedule; the rails aren’t even there yet. There’s a tinge envy within the high speed rail crowd as well because it’s something we don’t have yet: the Japanese, Chinese, Germans, Spaniards, and Taiwanese all have their various incarnations of the bullet train, but we aren’t there yet. It’s somewhat of an American trait. We look to other nations (usually ones we see a little of ourselves in) and want what they do well while skirting what they do poorly. High speed rail is universal healthcare without the white coats.

There is something distinctly un-American about complacency. “We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present” Thomas Edison said, his genius of invention firmly lodged on his tongue. Edison, though not directly quoted or credited by many in the high speed rail lobby, could be a mascot of sorts for many of the people who see this as the next great leap for movement.

We’ve discussed it here before: America and high speed rail aren’t meant to be without public investment on the scale of hundreds of billions of dollars. All but the most idealistic understand that the taste for that kind of investment in a one-dimensional product without significant economic impact (it’s environmental impact, on the other hand, is unquestionably positive) is severely lacking.

Complacency does not have to mean stagnation though. Originally complacentem was a term of self-aggrandizement, an American trait if ever there was one. Pride isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to infrastructure; we —until recently with the meteoric rise of Chinese highway and rail construction— have completed projects unparalleled in the post-industrial world. Our highways, though admittedly in tremendous disrepair, span thousands of miles and have saved producers trillions of dollars since their initial construction. The ancillary effects of a highway system are too varied to go into in depth here (creation of new economic centers and the destruction of others, increased visitation to national parks, etc.) but they can’t be understated.

This is not to say that we can’t improve upon our current standing through reinvestment in already apparent physical capital. We don’t need to build another Interstate system but we do need to fill in the cracks in the pavement. I hope, for the sake of the environment and my travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, that we can eventually find a way to make high speed rail work whether it’s through technical or logistical breakthroughs. Right now, it’s nothing more than windmills moving at 230 MPH away from us while we’re trudging along on broken asphalt.

A and B

Sometimes transportation gets boring, even here at Radials. In the end it’s about one thing, getting from Point A to Point B or to paraphrase —and de-jargon— words of T.R. Laskhmanan: transportation is about providing the happiness of a faraway place in the shortest time possible. It’s time for a break from that.

Kilian Martin is indicative of the newly emerging brand of hip skaters. Skateboard culture was, until recently, a refuge of, well, skateboarders, but it’s slowly becoming a more blurred subculture. Skating is now as popular with 20-somethings in skinny jeans and designer cardigans on retro-sized decks as it is with the kids clad in loose jeans and oversized Etnies shoes. But Martin is something completely different. Young, Spanish, and brutally handsome, he is looked to as a style patriarch —he was profiled in the ultra-hip Man About Town style magazine— and as this generation’s skater icon.

Creativity, though, is what sets the young man apart. He understands that the gap between A and B can be stretched and compressed —as does his consummately talented director/editor Brett Novak— and that makes transportation just a little less boring on a day like today.

Tower in the Stars

Co-Op City is a good northern boundary for New York City. It’s the first set of real skyscrapers you see driving on Interstate 95 south from New England; they’re sort of a concrete and steel set of Cairn stones leftover from a different age of architecture and urban planning. Most people see the grouping of “+” sign shaped buildings for what they are: an odd post-apocalyptic moonscape of apartment blocks, the type of place Kurt Russell or Jean Claude Van Dam would be trying to escape from in an early 1990’s action movie. Urban planners and, for completely different reasons, artists usually see Le Corbusier.

The French architect, planner, and artist has been the subject of several excellent full-length biographies and studies so I won’t attempt to add the bibliography here, but there’s a certain merit to explaining his most influential legacy: the Radiant City. Le Corbusier imagined the ideal city as a set of lawn darts. Babel-like towers would house thousands of urban dwellers in one area and they would commute —typically via underground trains and highways— to another set of towers where offices and administrative facilities were housed. Everything else would be a fantastic emerald green.*

Co-Op City, along with Government Housing Projects in Chicago, Baltimore, and other parts of New York, is viewed as a condemnation of the entire theory; proof that bigger isn’t better when it comes to urban planning. Large scale theories are not immune to ironies though, and often the critics of house projects look towards what they know best rather than think about the people who actually live in those buildings. Housing Projects are also known by a general non de guerre: affordable housing. The innocuous phrase is simply a euphemism for housing for the poor.

Poverty, at least in this country, begets poverty (his blog has covered the issue of decentralization before albeit in a roundabout way). Poor people do not emigrate to urban areas for the possibility of a better life as they do in India and China; in the U.S. the poor are often already there, mired in low-wage, low-growth “careers”, disproportionately affected by crime, drugs, and unemployment. The slums of Mumbai and Detroit have very little in common; the tide in India, no matter how uneven, still raises all boats. In the U.S. the tide has receded, leaving Greenwich and Lake Forest afloat.v

The emergence of the Radiant city style housing projects in American is a geographical canard. People living in the projects aren’t poor because they live in the projects; they were poor when they got there. But urban planners usually see it the other way around because that’s the overwhelmingly visual proof and it is distinctly visceral. The truth is, while Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities are not practical in theory or in application they aren’t the why, they’re only the where.

vLe Corbusier’s ideas are flawed to be sure (however the vogue of sustainable living has inadvertently led to the reemergence of vertical living, something Le Corbusier championed) but his ideas were never meant to be applied to anything more than urban theory. He was first an artist, more Gehry than Olmsted, and had never visited American soil before his ideas were adopted sight unseen. He was also a shameless self-promoter and was wont to endorse his ideas where there was very little rationale for application. The Radiant City was geared towards the Parlor crowds of Paris when Le Corbusier was working; terrifying to the cultural bastions of vie Parisen (especially his vision of Paris’s future) and fascinating to the industrial minimalists of the day.

* The concepts runs against the grain of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose life’s work was a crusade against the top-down pursuit of Le Corbusier’s Radiant cities. An untrained urban planner, though as a journalist she was a keener observer than theorist, she considered Boston’s North End and New York’s Greenwich Village —her own home— the organic, and superior, foil to Le Corbusier’s ultimately geometric plan. I mention Jacobs very briefly here because I plan on making her the subject of a much more lengthy study in modern urban theory.