Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Urban News Vol. 19

A lot in store for the blog this and next week. Tonight, the RRCDC hosts their final Reshaping Rochester lecture for 2008 as Walter Hood addresses landscape architecture. Look for a summary of this as well as a preview of the Rochester Landmark Society's Architecture for Lunch series in a post tomorrow. On Monday, I plan to bring the issue of city plans for Rochester's ancient subway infrastructure into the light for more scrutinization, highlighted by an invite to a citizen collaborative. Also next week some energy/environmental issues of note will be on the docket.

Today the blog sees its first (maybe second?) stories of national scope regarding the threats to Amtrak funding at the same time as we address regional transportation shortcomings across the country in a time of increased demand. I'm unlikely to make too many friends with my candid remarks on today's news, but the time to act is yesterday.

ABCNews 2 - Baltimore

Article Key Points:
  • Bill would authorize direct funding
  • Some money to a matching grant program to encourage state-level expansion of rail service
  • Bush administration threatens a veto, contends that Amtrak should be self-sufficient

Airline service as we're accustomed to it will be a thing of the past in 18-24 months and the federal executive administration suggests that we should play games with the rail mode. This is troubling on a number of fronts. First of all it implies that air travel and, even more absurdly, personal automobiling do not operate on massive subsidies. Road building has been the largest federal and state subsidy in the history of this country. Never once was it considered to make the gasoline tax reflect the full costs of a happy motoring utopia.

It may be even more troubling that this limited write up, if you can call it that, is the longest thing I could find about an issue that history may prove to be one of the most important in the annals of United States government action. To illustrate my point, I'll pull from a letter to James Howard Kunstler from an anonymous railroad workers which laments the reduction in passenger platforms from a peak of 26 during the railroad's heyday to a single passenger dropoff, blocked by an unmanned freight train at that.

"In reality, beyond what the 'news flash" talks about, I'm telling you the freight railroads have left only the bare minimum track density needed to accommodate the few intercity Amtrak trains still operating."

Jammed Transit Systems Running on Fumes
by Alex Johnson,

Article Key Points:

  • 10.3 billion trips taken in 2007 on public transportation, the most in 50 years
  • First quarter of 2008 saw an additional 3.3% increase
  • Baltimore led Light Rails with 16.8% Q1 increase
  • Seattle commuter rail usage jumped 27.9%
  • San Antonio saw biggest gains on buses at 10.6%
  • Washington D.C. buses too full to pick up passengers
  • Gasoline Tax revenue down
  • Ridership not making up for fuel price increases in all cases

Looking beyond the smarmy opening paragraph about transportation experts "getting their wish," this article presents some uncontestable numbers of which I happen to be very proud (the author's commute is likely miserable and distant). At the same time, it highlights an urgent need to reexamine not only the issue of capacity and economics, but also to reevaluate the preconceptions of city density vs. transportation mode.

An interesting tidbit gleaned from the interactive fact file embedded in the story states that Harrisburg, of all places, saw the second largest jump in commuter rail traffic behind Seattle. I'll show my ignorance in stating that I didn't know Harrisburg had commuter rail, and it appears to be under construction (meaning the ridership numbers are ostensibly from people using Amtrak from Lancaster and points in between?), but it still helps me to prove my point.

We can no longer dismiss lightrail as a viable option for mid-size to small American cities. Whether anyone wants to hear it or not, we aren't going to be doing a whole lot of personal transportation in the future (sorry alternative fuel advocates, I'm simply not convinced). Each regional planning board across the country should strongly consider a redensification plan along arterial bus routes or proposed rail systems to steer development going forward. I believe the sprawl model is finally (and thankfully) obsoleting itself.

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