Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Who Will Build Roads If Not Government?   1 comment

An argument is often made that if you did away with government, you would have no roads, or very poorly maintained roads with expensive tolls because private industry wouldn’t take care of them. BS!

Image result for image of alaska marine highway

There is money to be made in moving stuff around, so roads (and other means of transportation) would still exist, just funded by the people who want and use them.

Consider Alaska, which has a unique transportation system because 80% of our communities are not accessible by road. Thus, the State of Alaska operates the Alaska Marine Highway System and Federal Highways treats it like a highway for funding purposes. The argument is made that, should the State of Alaska stop operating the AMHS, the communities that currently rely on it would have no access to the outside world. BS!

Image result for image of coastal transportation, incLast week, AMHS announced that the Tustumena was delayed at the Vigor Ketchikan Shipyard for two months. The Tustumena services the Aleutian Islands in the summer and takes a beating in heavy seas, which it is designed for. The delay was due to the discovery of additional extensive steel wastage in the engine room and necessary repairs. It is anticipated the Tustumena will return to service departing Homer at 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 18.

AMHS staff explored several options to fill the transportation void resulting from the Tustumena delay. Safety was the highest priority, so utilizing the Tustumena was not an option. The use of another AMHS vessel was not viable without the risk of a more widespread and disruptive service outage both in terms of passenger disruption and financial consequences for individuals and for the marine highway system.

The Alaska Marine Highway System announced today that Coastal Transportation, Inc. will assist AMHS customers impacted by the delay of the M/V Tustumena. Coastal Transportation, based in Seattle, will carry cargo on an “as able basis” from Homer and Kodiak, to Aleutian Islands destinations, at the same cost AMHS charges. Unfortunately, Coastal Transportation is prohibited (by law) from carrying passengers.

Image result for image of coastal transportation, inc

AMHS customers attempting to rebook their cargo with Coastal Transportation should let Coastal Transportation agents know they are displaced AMHS customers to ensure they receive the AMHS rate.

Coastal Transportation transports cargo to communities further out on the Aleutian Islands all the time. This isn’t a hardship or something special really. It’s just making a few extra stops along its route. Why doesn’t it stop in those communities now?

  • AMHS services those communities at a subsidized rate so there’s no profit in it.
  • Coastal Transportation is prohibited from transporting passengers.


The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities oversees 242 airports, 10 ferries serving 35 communities, more than 5,600 miles of highway and 731 public facilities throughout the state of Alaska. Coastal Transportation transports cargo to hundreds of coastal communities. Yutana Barge Lines transports cargo to hundreds of Yukon river villages. Outfitting their ships to provide for passengers (once the legal ban has been removed) would take time, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

Image result for image yutana barge linesSo tell me again why transportation would not be available if the AMHS ceased to exist?

Now transfer that to the roads and you see why it’s a silly argument. Roads will exist and be maintained so long as there is commercial value in connecting communities. The differences would be in quality and the quality would likely be improved. A business would not stand for owned-infrastructure (roads) that fall apart every five years when there is technology available (and in long-term current use in Scandinavian countries) to build highways that last decades.

I used to be a skeptic about needing government to build and maintain roads. It was one of those areas where I couldn’t whole-heartedly agree with my anarchist friends. But this press release, which wasn’t intended to have this effect, has opened my eyes. If a commercial enterprise can substitute for the AMHS for a while, it can replace it and do a better job.

Federal Devolution   Leave a comment

Reason Magazine suggests the solution to the collapsing Federal Highway Trust Fund is to “devolve” highway construction to the states.

I totally agree. I especially agree about states getting out from one-size-fits-all federal mandates. Alaska’s ice-challenged roads would benefit from adopting Scandinavian country highway construction techniques (which we have instituted on some state-roads, with good results) but we are not permitted to use these techniques because they do not meet federal standards.

I suspect other states would find the same experience if allowed to experiment.

Getting rid of the federal highway tax would allow states to increase their own highway taxes while being able to make the case for projects people in their states actually want and need rather than bridges to Ketchikan Alaska to Gravina Island. or the Big Dig.

It would also go a long way toward breaking the stranglehold Washington DC has on the states.

Posted October 6, 2015 by aurorawatcherak in Transportation

Tagged with , , , ,

Group starts ferry between Bering Sea islands – Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska News   Leave a comment

If government doesn’t do it … people might.

Group starts ferry between Bering Sea islands – Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Alaska News.

Ground Effect Vehicles: Adopting an Orphaned Technology   Leave a comment

Some technologies remain confined to niche markets while others break out to make a larger global impact.

via Ground Effect Vehicles: Adopting an Orphaned Technology.

GOP congressman: Tax hike needed for roads, bridges   Leave a comment

Jim RenacciHere it goes!

GOP congressman: Tax hike needed for roads, bridges.

Does it ever occur to these politicians that drivers, who are the ones who pay the gas tax, would be more willing to pay that tax if the money actually went to highways and roads instead of commuter rail, bike paths and busses?

Really, I’m not unwilling to pay a gas tax, but when I see most of the money going to other transportation modals that the users of are subsidized for, I object and I’m going to continue objecting until that is fixed.

Congress, if you want to build these other alternative transportation systems, that’s fine, but fund them through taxes on those users, not with taxes on drivers who are sitting in gridlock on crappy roads wondering if the bridge is going to fall down.

Of course, you aren’t going to do that. You’re going to raise income taxes on all Americans, which is at least fair … or would be if 46% of the nation’s workers paid actual income tax.

Why Not Privatize Roads?   Leave a comment

You got to love when President Obama’s teleprompter tells us that he wants to attract “private capital” to an array of new spending proposals including billions for highways, bridges and other projects. Most business folks I know wouldn’t go anywhere near a plan to have federal planners spend their money. That sounds a lot like taxation and they already pay enough of those involuntarily.

It is true that America’s transportation facilities need to be continually repaired and rebuilt, but Washington DC does not need to be involved in decisions about when and where these projects are needed.

NEWS FLASH for the Obama Administration!

There’s a global trend outside the United States to partially or fully privatize infrastructure, which attracts private capital while ensuring it goes toward high-return projects. Infrastructure companies raise private funds, construct new bridges and highway lanes, and charge drivers directly for their use.

What? B-b-but, you said you believe roads should be owned by the people! Yes, I said that and I still believe that, but …

Historically, infrastructure in America was frequently provided by the private sector. In the 19th century, more than 2000 turnpike companies built thousands of miles of toll roads. The great majority of America’s vast railroad system was built without federal subsidies and most urban rail and bus services were originally private.

American highways and bridges need repair, but so does the way government approaches the job.

The 20th-century takeover of private infrastructure by governments in the U.S. and abroad pushed up costs and reduced innovation. Go ahead, look it up. I’m not lying to you! Fortunately, some governments have started to reverse course. Hundreds of billions of dollars of railways, highways, seaports, airports and other assets have been partly or fully privatized in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, but not in the United States. Partial privatization through public-private partnerships has become a major source of infrastructure investment in Canada and Australia, among other countries. Such partnerships improve on traditional government contracting by shifting elements of funding, management, maintenance, operations and financial risks to private businesses.

With public-private partnerships and full privatization, investment is less likely to flow to uneconomical projects that are chosen for political or ideological reasons. Private infrastructure is also more likely than government projects to be completed on-time and on-budget.

Some U.S. states have moved ahead with private infrastructure. Several projects in Virginia illustrate the possibilities:

  • The Capital Beltway. Private companies built and are now operating toll lanes along 14 miles of Interstate 495. They used debt and equity to finance about $1.5 billion of the project’s $2 billion cost. The lanes opened on-time and on-budget in 2012. Public lanes remain available for those drivers who prefer not to pay a toll and accept the extra commute time involved.
  • The Midtown Tunnel. Private firms are currently building, and will operate, a three-mile tolled tunnel under the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Portsmouth. Private debt and equity are covering most of the project’s $2.1 billion cost.
  • The Dulles Greenway. This privately owned toll highway in Northern Virginia was completed in the 1990s with $350 million of private debt and equity, and without government aid.
  • The Jordan Bridge. Private firms fully financed and constructed a $142 million highway bridge over the Elizabeth River between Chesapeake and Portsmouth. The cost of this handsome and soaring structure—which opened in 2012—will be paid back (and then some) by toll revenues over time.

Privatization isn’t only for highways and bridges. U.S. airports and seaports are generally owned by governments, but many foreign airports, including London’s Heathrow, and seaports are partly or fully private, including those in Singapore and Hong Kong, which are rated second and third best in the world by the World Economic Forum.

Then there is air-traffic control, which in America has long been poorly managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, with frequent delays and cost overruns on technology-upgrade projects. Canada privatized its air-traffic control system in 1996.

President Obama’s teleprompter is correct that America needs top-notch infrastructure to compete in the global economy. And, I’ve said I think transportation infrastructure needs some public involvement since we all use it.  It would be a mistake to turn roads over solely to private enterprises because freedom of movement is a necessity in a free society. The solution to the cost overruns and inefficiency of the Federal Highways Administration is to devolve federal infrastructure activities to the states, then allow them to unleash entrepreneurs, innovation and market forces.

Truth about American Bridges   Leave a comment

In a grim sort of way, it’s rather entertaining to watch the hysteria over the bridge collapse on the Skagit River. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure it was an exciting 30 seconds for those who were on the bridge as it fell and there were some minor injuries. I just think the Huffington Post’s hyperbolic lead about the “tragedy” was a bit – well, hyperbolic. CNN was a little bit more circumspect – saying we should NOT be worried about bridge failures, but we should be wary.

I work with civil engineers now and, although I am not a bridge expert, some of them are. Might as well learn about it while I’m there.

Bridges, like all mechanical devices, require repair and replacement from time to time. This used to be understood in our country, but has been lost in the “yikes, the sky is falling” era. Huffington Post is apoplectic hearing that our infrastructure only gets a C+ from the American Society of Engineers.

REALITY: That’s a passing grade and as the Alaska State Department of Transportation explained in numerous news articles over the weekend, it’s also a moving target.

Bridges are inspected every two years, or more often if they are nearing the end of their lifespan. In most cases, the problems a bridge might develop are discovered by inspectors a long time before a failure could occur. A bridge that is “in need of repair” is not an imminent danger of failure. Of course, the term “failure” conjures up the image of the cars riding the bridge into the Skagit River, but failure is a technical term that does not necessarily mean anything close to that catastrophic. A failure could be that the paving needs resurfacing.  Do potholes seem scary to you?

Terms like “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” sound alarming, but in reality it just means that the bridge no longer meets current design specifications. That doesn’t mean the bridge is an imminent danger of collapse. It simply means that, compared to new bridges, it’s not designed as well as it could be.

For a comparison, consider a modern car with fuel injection, emissions control and anti-lock brake. Now think about a car manufactured in 1959 – four-barrel carburetor, no emissions control and drum brakes. Is that car dangerous to have on the road or is it just different from the cars that are being manufactured today? It is functionally obsolete, but plenty safe to drive.

In the past 20 years, the percentage of structurally deficient bridges has been halved. The remaining bridges requiring upgrade or replacement are not classified as unsafe because they aren’t. Major bridge failures, such as collapses, are rare. There was one in Minnesota in 2007 that was a result of a newer design flaw. It was not at all a maintenance or age issue. The Queen Isabella Causeway collapse in 2001 was caused by four loaded barges crashing into one of the support columns. Not a design or maintenance issue, but an outside circumstance. The Skagit River collapse was caused by an oversized semi-truck hitting one of the support members. The BBC is one of the few sources to actually cover this angle as well as it deserves. The bridge took a significant external hit that triggered the collapse. Yes, a brand new bridge would have a redundancy to prevent a collapse, but it might have other, unforeseen structural issues that the older bridge didn’t have. The fact is that, while the bridge was of an obsolete design, it was safe for the normal traffic it received. The truck and its pilot car caused the collapse.

I admit to a bit of nervousness about writing that because someone will take it to the extreme and want to outlaw semi-trucks or some like nonsense. Moderation is the key in this. Oversized loads are supposed to know the route they’re taking and be in constant contact with their pilot car to avoid unforeseen circumstances. Apparently, in this case, there was a failure of one or both of those safety features that interacted with the bridge. Had it not taken the hit, the bridge might have continued doing its job for decades to come with occasional maintenance.

I’m sure I’ll get some arguments about this, but the trucking company should have to pay for the repairs of the bridge. It’s highly unlikely that any company carries enough insurance to cover the replacement of an Interstate highway bridge, but they should have to make up what it will cost us for the premature replacement of this bridge because they caused the collapse.

I’m also going to argue a point here – CNN’s article makes it seem that President Obama has been asking for upgrades on all the bridges that are “functionally obsolete”, but just hasn’t been able to convince Congress to pony up the funds. Point Number 1 is that with the ban on earmarking, Congress has been forced to hand monies over to the US Department of Transportation to use any way it sees fit and those funds have not been used to upgrade bridges. Why? I don’t know. Maybe President Obama would like to tell us the REAL answer to that.

Point Number Two is also that it is not surprising Congress is unwilling to give the USDOT more money since it is not using the money it already receives where it seems to be needed. The country is out of money. It’s time for us to recognize that we cannot afford Ferraris and need to either repair the old Chevy or buy a new Ford. The administrative state needs to learn to do its job at a level of funding the country can afford. The American people also do not want the federal gasoline tax raised. The American taxpayer is already strapped to the ground with taxes and the very real inflationary prices of food, fuel and electricity. Most of us are unwilling to pay for an increase in the federal gasoline tax because we see it wasted on projects like the Big Dig and we’re unwilling to agree to an increase in our state gasoline taxes so long as the federal tax remains so high.

Bridge repair and maintenance should be our first priority and then, with careful planning, truly dangerous bridges should be financed through the sale of tax-payer-approved bonds. Yes, the voters should be allowed to vote on whether or not to mortgage their homes and businesses to pay for replacing bridges. I think we’d quickly find out that a lot of bridges just needed some repairs.

Common-Sense Train Solutions   Leave a comment

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) suggested the United States should take “baby steps” toward privatization of rail service in Amtrak’s northeast corridor.

Shuster said he will not push for complete Amtrak privatization, like his predecessor, Rep. John Mica (R-Pa.), but he would look for opportunities to introduce private companies to the northeast, which is Amtrak’s most profitable corridor.

“We’re not at the point where we’re going to have two competing companies on the line on the northeast corridor,” Shuster said. “[There are] baby steps we have to take to bring the private sector into the operations of it, whether it’s operating the equipment, whether it’s operating the personnel on the train that sell the tickets … there’s lot different ways to do it to bring the private sector in.” The private sector is interested in operating rail service in densely populated areas of the U.S. like the northeast.

“If you look what’s happening in Europe today, the EU has mandated that on every passenger rail, there has to be competition,” he said. “So our friends in Europe have figured out the magic of competition and what it can do to improve all different types of industries.”

Congressional lawmakers are expected to consider a Passenger Rail Investment and Act (PRIIA), which is the bill that traditionally authorizes Amtrak’s funding. Amtrak usually receives about $1 billion annually in subsidies from the federal government. It would take time to disengage from such a huge budget, but it’s entirely possible to do so, if Congress will plan long term for it.

In an era of shrinking budgets and the reality of the federal debt, the only real solution for Amtrak’s survival is privatization and the Northeast Corridor is a good starting point because it is profitable. Private operators, who could negotiate on wages and other costs, would be free to serve those routes that attract the most passengers rather than the ones that are backed by the most political muscle.

Privatizing Amtrak doesn’t mean an end to all long-distance passenger trains either, though it probably means an end to some. And, I am not necessarily opposed to government owning the tracks and even the trains themselves, though I believe the trains should be leased to the operating companies and track access provided by competitive bid. Limited government does not mean no government and a case can be made for public ownership of the tracks.

As a lover of trains, I personally wouldn’t object to my passenger car being linked to freight cars for a long distance route cross-country. Freight would make the trip affordable and profitable at the same time. I would enjoy the stops along the way, similar to the stops the Alaska Marine Highway makes going through the Inside Passage. Private railroads would be more likely to develop innovations that will attract new riders – like reinstituting sleeper cars so passengers can enjoy the slower pace of the freight train. Amtrak’s California trains are some of the poorest performers in the Amtrak system. Daily long-distance trains in the West could probably be replaced by weekly and/or seasonal cruise trains.

When Canada stopped running trains from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary, a private company called the Rocky Mountaineer entered the market with cruise trains and now offers four different routes. Such cruise trains typically operate only about once a week and are aimed at completely different markets from Amtrak.

And, that may well be the point. People in the Midwest and West like their cars and the independence that comes with it. They are unlikely to commute via train, but they may be willing to vacation by riding the rails. Amtrak can’t do it affordably, but Holland America might.

An Example of How Success Becomes A “Crisis”   Leave a comment

The administrative state is having trouble with change. It can’t accept that it might not be needed. An example is Caltrain, the Bay Area’s nearly 150-year-old commuter railroad.

It’s thriving … in a way. Trains are carrying record crowds, packed to capacity in the morning and evening commutes, and generating unprecedented revenues. Ridership has increased 11% in each of the last three years. Trains provide an average of 47,062 rides each weekday on 92 trains. Some trains regularly operate at 130% of capacity. People actually have to stand.

“We’re almost on the verge of being overwhelmed,” Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said. “We could not have anticipated this kind of growth.”

Caltrain is considering buying more railcars to expand service. They can’t add more trains to the commute period, so they’re promoting trains just before and after that peak period and perhaps adding cars to the most-crowded trains.

“We’re worried that if it gets too crowded, we could start losing customers,” Simon said.

Along with the extra riders, Caltrain is also seeing higher-than-anticipated revenues from fares. This year, Simon said, the agency expects to collect about $6 million more than budgeted. The railroad’s budget for the 2014 budget year, which starts July 1, is not only balanced but shows a 7% increase over the current spending plan.

Caltrain depends on voluntary funding from other transit agencies – and those agencies don’t have money to spare.

So what’s the problem? Why the fear of the 2015 budget year? Unlike most of the 27 other transit agencies in the Bay Area, Caltrain lacks a dedicated source of funding such as a property tax, parcel tax or sales tax.

Instead, the commuter railroad relies on voluntary funding from the transit agencies in the three counties it serves: San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. And like most transit agencies, Muni, SamTrans and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority have their own problems, leaving them unable or unwilling to give more money to Caltrain.

Caltrain Zone MapIn 2011, with all three agencies reducing their contributions, Caltrain warned that it would have to slash service, running trains only during weekday commuter periods and curtailing trains to Gilroy, which I gather is a long haul away from the metropolitan area. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning and financing agency, helped craft a bailout deal with a variety of one-time funds, including deferred bus and train replacements in San Mateo County and an overdue payment from Santa Clara County for the purchase of the railroad right of way.

This bought Caltrain time to come up with a stable funding source. They polled voters in the three counties and found support, but not enough to expect a tax measure to pass. Now the agency is looking at a San Mateo County general services tax, cap-and-trade money from the State of California, or legislation that would lower the threshold for passing tax measures.

Electrification plans, now fully funded with $700 million from the high-speed rail bond, will help cut costs and increase capacity, but Caltrain says it’s too little too late.

“We recognize that a lot of people will think we’re crying wolf,” he said. “But the problems are real. It’s going to take a concerted effort by a lot of people to get it done.”

Can I suggest the obvious?

Why not increase train fares to cover the shortfall? Two-way day passes from San Francisco to Gilroy (about 158 miles round-trip or 3160 miles a month) are only $28.00 (18 cents a mile) or $338.00 a month (9 cents a mile). The day pass is probably affordable, but the monthly pass is subsidizing the rider by quite a bit.

This is something a private entity would figure out without being told, but the administrative state can’t see a solution that doesn’t involve raising taxes on people who often times don’t ride the train.

It’s Not All Roses   Leave a comment

Amtrak is suffering from success in its Northeast Corridor, but is still losing hugely on its long distance trains. Some advocates say Congress should fund Amtrak through a multi-year expert-driven trust fund. With respect to the experts, Congress should not cede control of the taxpayers’ property to transportation experts. Instead, they should look at the situation realistically.

When it comes to profitability, one of Amtrak’s main three services is not like the others. While routes in the Northeast Corridor make a decent profit and individual state corridors just about break even, long-distance routes that traverse thousands of interstate miles and often connect remote areas suffer an indecent loss. Rep. Bill Shuster, chair of the House Transportation committee, suggested it was time to cut these routes loose.

“We’ve tried to impose this on the nation and it doesn’t seem to be working. We talk about rural areas — I come from a rural area, and 98 percent of the people have cars, people aren’t clamoring to get on trains and travel the United States. They have other modes to do it.”

I have a confession to make – I love trains. I would gladly give up the convenience of a car while on vacation to ride the rails. But, I agree with Shuster because his response to the situation is logical. Amtrak’s long-distance routes lose, on average, $111 per rider, while the Northeast Corridor makes $20 a head, and state routes lose about $11. The state routes could be fixed with some fare adjustments. Long-distance trains did carry about 4.75 million riders in 2012 (which is an increase, btw), but they cost more than a billion dollars to operate, and stood more than $500 million in the red.

The article posted makes a three-way argument for not dumping the routes.

Ridership on those long-distance routes is increasing and the class as a whole had its best ridership in two decades in 2012. The Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio) jumped 13% and the Empire Builder (Chicago to Seattle and Portland) rose nearly 16%. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association and the National Association of Railroad Passengers are calling for service upgrades (longer trains and more frequency), infrastructure improvements (track and station design changes to reduce travel time), and new equipment (a fleet more suitable to overnight rides), concluding that “lack of service, not lack of demand, is what limits usage.”

System map

The advocacy group argues that these trains run in a region where intercity air and bus service is decreasing and that long-distance trains offer a service that’s fundamentally distinct from air travel. They also complain that government should pick the winners and losers:

Goals like “operational self-sufficiency,” “profit” or “minimize federal operating support” are neither reasonable nor sound public policy objectives. Their effect is to block improvements needed to modernize the nation’s intercity passenger train system and rejuvenate our increasingly expensive and dysfunctional transportation system. The driving purpose should be to harvest the public benefits that trains produce for the communities they serve and for the nation as a whole.

Social reasoning, while making folks sound compassionate, should carry less weight than finances when federal subsidies are involved. Boardman himself made a fiscal case for keeping money-losing long-distance trains in service. Once you cut back on long-distance service, it becomes prohibitively expensive to add it in again because freight trains that use the extra track room place a premium on it. Which brings me to the third phase of this analysis.

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