Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sometimes the NIMBY's are right...

English: The urban growth boundary edge at Bul...
English: The urban growth boundary edge at Bull Mountain in the Portland metropolitan area. Farmland in foreground, urban development in background. From Roy Rogers Road near Bull Mountain Road. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes it is just too easy to tune out NIMBY's as people who are too caught up in their own little world who have bought a house and expect nothing to change, and that anything they don't  approve of should not be allowed anywhere near their little piece of paradise.

However, there is times that NIMBY's  have a good point and one of those times is concerning higher density development. Now I am not talking about density done right, I am talking about density done wrong. A couple of years ago I mentioned a development near where I lived. It was a complex of condominiums that offered poor transit access and were designed that it was not easily accessed by pedestrians coming off the bus. Finally, it was not located near any retail stores so even for basics you have to get behind the wheel of a car to get.

Here is another example, recently in the comments on the Portland Transport blog that developers can get density incentives even if the project does not have easy transit access which is led to high density developments in areas with no or hard transit access. What is the purpose of having higher density if it will not have the benefit of transit access?

One solution to this would be modify the program so that it is a tiered system for incentives so that if locate on a high capacity transit line you get the highest incentives, basic transit service another level and the lowest to those farthest from transit access. In a perfect world you would not have any incentives for density outside transit corridors but you also have to face the political reality that you need to have the cooperation of all parties to get things done and the developers and other political elements would probably bulk a more restrict policy.

Another example of bad development is part of the problem above and that is high density developments in areas that should not have them. An example of this is here in Portland were several high density developments have been built in areas that are not designed for them such as out at the far end of the Urban Growth Boundary.

Spokane County is another example of areas that have allowed these kinds of developments. There has been several apartment complexes built in what is essentially rural areas that are on two lane roads with no access to services. Not only does this create traffic issues on these roads, it also makes it difficult for emergency services to reach them and should a disaster strikes, these rural located complexes will be in a world of hurt.

The priority of density should be where it makes the most sense and with the services to allow residents and workers at the high density developments to be able to avoid using a car whenever possible. This means near high capacity transit lines and major bus lines plus walking distance to grocery type shopping and other services.

So yes, sometimes the NIMBY's do get it right.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Its all about Selling...

Crime Train, Portland Creep, Empty Buses, 19th Century Technology, Anti-Car and so. For anyone who is an advocate of proper urban planning or effective transportation choices are well familiar with slogans like these, they are well used by opponents to paint a disparaging picture of transportation choices and planning.

The problem is these well financed campaigns are designed to one thing, to turn public point of view to their way of thinking. Some do it for the money while others do it for their ideology. The problem is that the other side is doing a heck of a good job of marketing their point of view and advocates of transportation and planning choices seem to fail.

Motivational Speaker Zig Ziglar has a saying that everything involves selling and that everyone is a salesperson whether they think that their job involves it or not. Advocates need to realize that they too need to work on their sales presentations whether it is to a city council, newspaper, blog or any other forum that they may find themselves talking to others.

Right now here in the Portland suburbs of Clackamas County their is a heated battle for county commissioners. Radio ads and billboards are being bought proclaiming that three candidates will stop "Portland Creep". They are using this term to demonize urban planning and transportation in the Portland area saying that the goal is to ruin the little perfection called Clackamas county. Now a large segment of Clackamas County is rural and the thought of additional density is to them is worse than

Smart Growth Opponants Run Against Portland's Pro-Urbanism Policies
"Portland Creep" and the Density Debate

While you can say all you want about how negative they are (yes they are) but what are they doing? They are effectively selling to certain segment of the population that sees the density of Portland as something that is very undesirable. While this group is well funded by conservative interest, they play on emotions and are good at making Portland sound bad. It will be interesting to see the elections results.

In Portland, the anti-MAX light rail forces have done an excellent job of demonizing MAX as the crime train. Now the east side MAX does have some issues but Gesham was a problem community before MAX even came along. But it has done the job, any time something happens anywhere near a MAX station the media always mention it is near a MAX station and the words "crime train" will show up in the comments within moments.

Another one you always hear no matter where you are is the argument rail is "19 century technology". The opponents have done such a good job of painting anything rail as outdated technology that "19th century technology" the first worlds out of months of many. You could go all day long on how the automobile is also 19th century and in some ways 18th century technology but it doesn't matter, rail is the outdated "19th century technology".

Another comparison is the Tea Party and Occupy. The Tea Party has done an excellent job of getting people to join their way of thinking because they are doing a better job of selling themselves. You do not have to agree with them but you have to respect the organization that has been created and instantly had a major effect on the 2010 election. Occupy meanwhile made lots of noise in October, made lots of enemies in many cities but has not become a major force. You don't have to like an organization to learn from what they do right.

Then again maybe if advocates would stop fighting among themselves, yes you are going to have disagreements after all we are all human but you must have a unified voice if you want to get your message across. Fortunately when it comes to public votes transit still wins a majority of the time, but that luck is going to run out without an organized voice that knows how to sell.

Friday, May 11, 2012

This Week at Amtrak

CP Rail Loco in Thunder Bay ON
CP Rail Loco in Thunder Bay ON (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Untied Rail Passenger Alliance 
This Week at Amtrak; Vol. 9 No. 5

A very heartfelt thanks to all who contributed to this issue.

From the Editors…

So you think you know a thing or two about the railroad business. Oh really?

The “invisible hand” versus “the art of the possible”

It is no secret that railroads, as investment opportunities, have regained a stature not seen since what has been labeled as “the gilded age.” With such attention, however, comes great responsibility. Since about the most recent turn of the century, there remain seven major railroads in North America: Union Pacific, BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. It is also no secret that the Canadian Pacific is perceived as the weakest of the seven. Although one of the smaller roads, it still boasts a market cap of $13.2 billion and an enterprise value of $17.7 billion.

For those of us with our boots on the ground, there have long been signs of increasing trouble at CP. Now the trouble is in the top office. In late October, 2011, Pershing Square Capital Management, an activist hedge fund based in New York City, announced it had acquired a 12.2 percent stake in CP. Between then and now, the stakes have only risen to a current 14.2 percent, and the relationship between Pershing Square and the CP board has become bloody.

Contrary to your statement in the letter that we “acknowledge” that we have no plan to improve Canadian Pacific’s operating performance, we do have a plan, and we have made that plan clear both in our initial meeting and in subsequent communications with you. Our plan is to transform Canadian Pacific from the worst performing railroad in North America into one of the best by effectuating a cultural and operational transformation of Canadian Pacific which begins with a new leader. – Excerpt from January 3, 2012 letter from Pershing Square’s William Ackman to CP chairman John Cleghorn

Pershing Square is now promoting to shareholders a slate of seven alternative directors as part of its CP turnaround strategy. Two of these are significant: Stephen Tobias and E. Hunter Harrison.

For most, these names may not ring a bell; but for railroaders, these men are superstars. Both of them are past recipients of the Railway Age Railroader of the Year award: Tobias, as Norfolk Southern Chief Operating Officer and later Vice Chairman; Harrison, as President and Chief Executive Officer of CP-rival Canadian National. Tobias was a lifelong employee of NS and its predecessors, starting in 1969 as a junior engineer. He worked his way through the ranks over the next four decades until being named Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer in 1998. He retired from NS in 2009. Harrison’s work history is not as straightforward. He started in1964 with the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, which later became part of the Burlington Northern. Later, he would be President of the Illinois Central which was acquired by Canadian National in 1998. He retired at the end of 2009 as CEO. It is anticipated that Harrison would reprise that role at CP if Pershing Square’s seven alternative directors are elected by the stockholders. One slight problem: That job is currently held by Fred Green.

The past six months have seen quite the flurry of activity at CP’s headquarters in Calgary, Alberta. Press releases, video streams of meetings and letters to stockholders have literally flowed unabated in preparation for the annual stockholders meeting set for May 17. A letter to the shareholders dated March 7, 2012 sets the company’s tone:

CP’s management team is aggressively and successfully executing on the Company’s Multi-Year Plan and has the full support of the Board of Directors. Your Board and management team firmly believe the CP’s string, established relationships with customers will continue to create significant value for shareholders. Strong and profitable customer relationships are essential to maintaining and expanding the volume growth that underpins CP’s Multi-Year Plan to increase earnings per share, drive down the railroad’s operating ratio and deliver greater shareholder value. The Board believes that Pershing Square’s demand that the Company replace its CEO, Fred Green, with Hunter Harrison would put at severe risk the significant forward momentum the Company is making on the Multi-Year plan.

Interestingly, CP developed and released its “Multi-Year Plan” in January; two months after Pershing Square had announced its investment.

It should be noted that none of what has transpired was at the behest of Washington or Ottawa. What we see at work has been described as “the invisible hand,” that is, when enough people believe the bottom line could be improved, something will be done.

Meanwhile, back in Washington…

Something that has been mentioned repeatedly by transportation advocates is the undying loyalty of the current presidential administration to “rail.” As evidence, they point to the administration’s mention of “High-Speed Rail” in a State of the Union speech. As we have covered here in the pages of This Week, the latest iteration of domestic “Fast Train Fever” is going the way of the previous cycles, with the last gasp — California’s HSR dreams — on life support, and the pulse slowly ebbing into silence. Rail was not mentioned in the latest State of the Union address of this past January. Perhaps the administration has given up hope on rail. If so that may explain its latest nomination:

President Obama has nominated former U.S. Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a trailblazing fixture in Los Angeles area politics, to the AMTRAK board of directors, the White House announced Thursday.

As a young attorney in 1966, Burke made history when she became the first African American woman elected to the state Assembly. She was elected to Congress in 1972 and served until 1978. In 1979 she was appointed to a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors but lost her election bid the following year in a racially charged contest. In 1992, she won election to the board from a different district.
 – Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2012 

Before proceeding any further, let us be clear that we are not, in any way, minimizing Representative Burke’s long and distinguished record of accomplishments. She most definitely blazed trails, and when the doors would not open, she broke through them. That said, what does she know about railroads and their governance?

Currently, the seven members of the Amtrak board are: Thomas C. Carper (Chairman of the Board), Nancy A. Naples (Vice Chairman of the Board), Joseph H. Boardman (Amtrak President and CEO), Anthony R. Coscia, Bert DiClemente, Jeffrey R. Moreland, and Ray LaHood (U.S. Secretary of Transportation). Of these, only Mr. Moreland has a working history with a railroad. Starting in 1978, Mr. Moreland joined the Santa Fe Railway as Assistant General Attorney, in 1994 became Vice President for Law and General Counsel for Santa Fe’s parent company, and later retired with the same title from BNSF Railway.

It has been intimated that Amtrak has lacked a true operating foundation since 1993, when the legendary Graham Claytor retired. What did he bring to the table?

Graham Claytor had, first of all, had the stature on the Hill that we needed, but more importantly, he came out of a business environment. Even though he was a rail buff, which he was, he was a businessman, first and foremost, and that’s what we need at Amtrak. – Kathleen Gordon, Amtrak Senior Director, e-Commerce, retired, Amtrak: The First 40 Years 1971-2011, RK Publishing

Mr. Claytor never singled out one aspect of the corporation to blame for all of its faults. He knew the Northeast Corridor was a drain on finances, but accepted that fact as federal welfare to state-run operations. Under Claytor, Amtrak was a fairly well run “traditional” railroad focused on a national system. After his demise, however, the company morphed into a government agency with ferocious survival instincts. It became very NEC-centric, and continued that path by expanding its corridor service with state partners, particularly California.

Politics, “the art of the possible,” is not concerned with the bottom line, but rather short-term survivability. Politicians count on the short-term memories of their constituents to traverse the delicate tightrope walk that is their elected term in office. Railroading, on the other hand, is anything but a short term-enterprise. All railroads need long-term planning to succeed, and a core philosophy to be the thread that weaves those plans together. Since politics are by their very nature mercurial, anything beholden unto politics will be inefficient and unreliable. That pretty much explains Amtrak after 40 years.

There have been many attempts to recruit people with railroading (or at the very least, transportation) experience to the Amtrak board. Mr. Claytor was appointed Amtrak president in 1982, coming out of retirement. This was one year after Congress had altered Amtrak’s original board structure and governance, in which the four railroad common stockholders were represented on the Amtrak board and the common stock had voting rights. (The eviction of the railroad shareholders from the board and their disenfranchisement was of dubious constitutionality, but was never challenged.)

The pendulum was to swing in the other direction in 1997, when the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act ended the monopoly voting rights of the preferred stock, held only by the Department of Transportation, restoring the original voting status of the railroads’ (now including the corporate successor of Penn Central) common stock. Nevertheless, Amtrak has continued to ignore the common shareholders, in violation of District of Columbia corporate legal requirements.

The 1997 legislation also mandated a nonpartisan expert board of directors, using language parallel to the National Transportation Safety Board statute . All directors were to possess “technical qualification, professional standing, and demonstrated expertise in the fields of transportation or corporate or financial management,” and could not be “representatives of rail labor or rail management.” Sadly, these requirements were flouted by the initial board appointments by the Clinton Administration. The following regime would attempt to follow the rule of law only to feel the blowback from the usual sources:

Bush appointees to Amtrak board foreshadow breakup and privatization

President George Bush’s proposed nomination of three new members to Amtrak’s board of directors foreshadows the administration’s support for breaking up the national passenger rail system and selling off its most profitable parts to private industry.

Among the nominees is Louis S. Thompson, who retired earlier this year from the World Bank. Thompson began his career at the Transportation Department and played a role in creating Amtrak. At the World Bank, Thompson spearheaded successful efforts to privatize railroads in Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Romania; he also played a role in similar efforts to privatize railroads in China, India and Russia.

The second nominee is Robert Crandall, who retired from the chairmanship of American Airlines parent company AMR in 1998. Since then, Crandall has served on several boards, including Halliburton, the company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. The last nominee is Floyd Hall, a long-time Republican fundraiser and former executive of companies such as Singer Sewing Machine Co., the Grand Union Co. grocery chain and KMart.
 – Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen quoting the World Socialist Web Site, Published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), 30 September 2003

Subsequently, all the actual appointees were virtually devoid of any of the listed qualifications, and consisted mainly of elected officials, lobbyists, and others of similar background.

The pendulum was to swing yet again in 2008, with the enactment of the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act (PRIIA). The 1997 board statute was completely repealed, and replaced with a new, larger (nine- versus seven-member) board structure, with language openly inviting the appointment of politicians and the politically connected. The following are listed in PRIIA as alternative and independent qualifications for board membership: “general business and financial experience, experience or qualifications in transportation, freight and passenger rail transportation, travel, hospitality, cruise line, or passenger air transportation businesses, or representatives of employees or users of passenger rail transportation or a State government.” PRIIA also made the Amtrak board avowedly partisan, with a formula usually applied to multi-member federal agencies: “Not more than 5 individuals appointed…may be members of the same political party.” (“Balanced representation” of “major geographic regions served by Amtrak” is a recommended, but not required, consideration.) The ensuing appointments have been predictable.

One by one, each potential expert appointee has not passed political muster for one reason or another. Ultimately the jobs go to those who will not make anyone uncomfortable within the company, including, above all, the NEC orientation of Amtrak. Thus, it again appears that the status quo is not endangered. How will this all end? The words of Mr. Claytor from two decades ago now seem prophetic:

“Not everybody knows, and it does not always come through in the press, that the basic statute provides that Amtrak is not to be a government agency and is to be operated as a for-profit, privately owned railroad corporation. If it weren’t for that, a lot of us wouldn‘t be here, because I don’t‘ think that it is possible to run a railroad as a government agency and not have it be a disaster.” – Interview with Graham Claytor, Trains magazine, June 1991

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Frequency Vs. Coverage

If we lived in a perfect world, a transit agency would not only be able to provide both an extensive network of core bus routes running frequently and a network of lines that is able to blanket the area with coverage.

However, few transit agencies have the resources to provide both and  with as budgets continue to be squeezed and the future of federal funding in doubt, transit agencies are having to squeeze where ever they can. The question that transit agencies and the citizens it serves has to answer do we provide the best service possible to the busiest routes or do they provide the most coverage possible?

People waiting for a bus 
Here are some pro's and con's to each service. Like previous pro and con postings, I will only point out some important pros and cons to each and if you have one that you think should also be considered be sure to throw it out in the comments.

First lets do the pros and cons of coverage:


The one major pro with a coverage network is that most people should be able to access a bus route both at home and to work. Until the 90's many transit systems focused on coverage to ensure that they could serve the maximum number of people possible. Even if you lived in far flung suburbs so long as you lived in the transit area you would have service.


The biggest con is that if you are providing service to far flung areas of the system, the chances are you can only provide mediocre service. Everyone may have service but the busiest routes will not have the resources to have the amount of frequency that is demanded which will lower ridership potential.

A second con is that your bus routes will perform poorly overall. While some routes will have good ridership their ridership will be hampered by the lack of enough frequency while you run routes to areas with limited to no ridership potential.

This leads to a third con and that is the empty bus syndrome. People who already have a bent against transit will see lots of buses running around empty and will guess that they all run empty so "no body rides transit". Of course these people would say it anyway but you are just giving them some added ammunition.

Transit Center in Miami. 
Now lets look at a service network:


The biggest pro is that routes that have the most potential will have the best service. You focus your resources on routes that are winners. By creating a network of frequent service lines you create market synergies because a customer knows that if they miss one bus the next one will not be far away.

The second positive is that performance of the overall network will be better because you will be concentrating your resources where your ridership potential is the highest. Your resources are being concentrated where they will get the most use.


The major con is that there is some people who will lose bus service and of course they will not be happy. Even a route that has week ridership will have people screaming up a storm if you try to cut the route. For those who want to use transit service it can limit the choices you have in housing.

Beaverton Transit Center, Beaverton, Oregon Trimet Route 57 is a frequent service line along TV-Highway from Beaverton to Forest Grove. 
When Seattle first started working on a major revamp of bus service for September the numbers were telling. 4000 riders would be affected by routes being cut. Now I am not saying that these people don't count. However, it was point out that the routes that were going to see increase service with the modifications served about 50 times that number or more.

Sadly some needed decisions in Seattle were put off in order to keep everyone happy and ironically some of the people who complained will have less service (the current service) than they would have if the changes had taken effect.

It would be wonderful if we had the best of both worlds, were we could provide extremely frequent service to the busiest areas of the network and good coverage across the service area. Hopefully the day will come when both types of services can be provided.