Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Touring the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at the T? Now you can experience it for yourself - the MBTA is inviting customers to explore what it′s like to keep America′s First Transit System up and running — from maintaining vehicles, to trafficking subway cars during rush hour, to maintaining over a thousand miles of tracks — all in an effort to get you where you need to go every day.
Today, I participated in the pilot program of the "MBTA Opens Its Doors" which allows interested members of the public to join guided tours of T facilities. I selected the tour of the old Boston Engine Terminal, now known as the Commuter Rail Maintenance Facility. While clearly this is somewhat of a PR stunt, it was cool to see what goes on at the massive repair complex which is tucked away in an industrial area between Charlestown and Somerville.

About a dozen of us went on the tour. I took lots of photographs, as did several others. We saw several coaches having trucks repaired, locomotives being refurbished and refueled, a look inside the cab, and even got to watch up-close as a full trainset moved from its berth out to the yard.

Some of the locomotives were pretty beat up. The guide showed us several parts on the trucks which had to be replaced because they wore off too easily. 1028 had its windshields removed because the metal around them was rusting off. And many featured damage on the front -- apparently it is quite common for trains to hit small obstacles that haven't been properly cleared.

It was a lunch break while we toured so things were relatively quiet. According to the guide, every train comes through here every few days for refueling and maintenance. Even from the south side, which seems rather incredible because they must navigate the somewhat decrepit, largely single-track Grand Junction to get here (and back). He said they need 62 sets to provide a typical weekday service. That means they handle upwards of 30 trains per day. I asked about the winter, and he agreed that it could get really tough, "but that it will be better this year." We can only hope.

One curiosity I noticed was that in every room there was a digital display scrolling some informational text. That included the "on-time performance" of the north and south sides. The guide said that Davey had those installed in order to motivate the employees. In a limited sense, it measures the effectiveness of their work. I don't know if it really means anything to anyone, though, since there are so many other factors which come into play.

I hope the pilot was deemed a success and that other people will get a chance to visit. Thanks go out to the MBTA and MBCR staff who patiently waited for us and showed us around.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Constitution

The USS Constitution (Navy)
I visited the USS Constitution Museum over the weekend. It is a nice museum, with free entry. You are encouraged to provide a small donation instead. I encourage visitors to take the ferry from Long Wharf for a nice ride on the way. For $1.70 each way, and a few bucks in donation, you can spend a couple hours seeing exhibits about the Barbary War and the naval battles of the War of 1812. And of course, plenty about the USS Constitution itself.

One of the exhibits celebrated the 1925 restoration and subsequent three year tour that the ship made of the United States coast during the early 30s. There is a plaque listing the dates that the tour stopped at each city, starting around Boston, proceeding down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, up the West Coast and back. Apparently, it was very popular. One particular destination stood out. While being towed from the East Coast to the Panama Canal, the USS Constitution made a stop at Guantanamo Bay.

I do not know how the ship was received in 1932. It does not say. But since 2002, it has been the US Constitution that stops in Guantanamo Bay.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parking parking parking

I attended an interesting community presentation recently. A developer is looking to build another apartment building on a street in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, replacing an old disused factory site. The architect showed some renderings of the proposed building. I wasn't sure what to expect, but they actually looked pretty decent, considering. The amount of setback ranges from zero to a few feet. He explained that it was this way because of the other buildings on the street. Apparently the BRA likes this kind of consistency. While I am in favor of these kind of urban buildings that have little to no setback, I am a little concerned about the process that got to the good result. On the other hand, I have seen new construction go up with zero setback on streets which do have setbacks, so perhaps this isn't a big problem in practice.
Development site (image: Google).

The really contentious issue came about, as it always seems to, about parking spots. The developer is building one off-street parking spot per dwelling unit. Someone asked whether the parking spots were included in the cost of the apartment -- a seemingly innocuous question that I knew would lead to plenty more discussion as soon as the obvious answer was given -- "no". Estimates ranged from an additional $100 - $120 a month. A tad low, based on what I know of surrounding lots, but not unreasonable. The immediate concern raised was that this might drive residents to seek street parking permits and further crowd the already busy on-street parking spaces. Now personally, I think the developer is well within his right to charge for parking, but he opted to respond in an interesting fashion. He gave two answers (and I paraphrase):

  • "Standard response:" Parking isn't free to build, so I need to charge money for it. As it turns out for other apartment complexes on the street, about 40-50% of the residents don't own a car anyway. The building is very close to the Green Line and there will be bicycle parking too.
  • "Enlightened response" (a.k.a. contingency plan): We really want to work with the community on this and don't want it to become a problem in case we're wrong about the car ownership rates. Therefore we're willing to subsidize the usage of our own lots in order to entice residents into using them. There's a lot of advantages to them and they won't want to give it up when we charge full price eventually.
I agree with the first part, the second part not so much. But I can see where he's coming from and it seems to be an expedient approach that strikes a balance. Sadly, in our society, getting development done on private property is as much a political process as it is a construction one.

There is a larger issue lurking in the background but it is left unsaid. Namely: why is street parking so contentious in the neighborhood? The city uses a residential parking permit system which is pretty strict. You cannot leave your car for any period of time in the residential areas without one. In order to get a sticker you must be registered in MA. Therefore, the city should know the home addresses of every sticker user, and hopefully they are also aware of how much curb real estate is available. When I lived in Pittsburgh, they were very particular about this. I noted that they kept track of how many people were expected to use a certain street for parking, and if they had a driveway available. I lived in one apartment building where the city refused to grant residents parking permits because the apartment complex had its own parking lot. They were a pain in the ass (for that and other reasons), but I suppose it did work. I don't know if the city of Boston does this, because I have not applied for parking here ever.

The problem is simple, really: you have a limited resource and many people competing for it. The natural way to solve this is with a free market pricing system. I propose that Boston figure out and charge market rates for its street parking. OK: politically that will never sell. People love parking socialism. However, if you don't charge market rates, then you have to impose permit caps. That was Pittsburgh's solution. Then parking permits are cheap -- until they run out -- in which case they become infinitely expensive. For some reason, people understand this when applied to bread, electronic gadgets, or even cars themselves. But they completely rebel against the market system when applied to street parking.
The Green Line is one block away. (source)

When asked whether he would prefer to trade parking spaces for additional dwelling units, there was a big chuckle all around, of course, and his partner stated that they were already below the BRA requirements. But if he were allowed to ignore those requirements, the response was a shrug, "it'll never happen" was the general gist. Still though, I think the developer understands that he is building in a well-served transit area and lots of people here walk and ride bikes. That is a good sign for the future, at least.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

About the VMT tax idea

Some have proposed a "Vehicle Miles Traveled" tax as a replacement for the gasoline tax. The idea is that as cars get more fuel efficient, they will pay less gas tax for road repair, but they still do the same road damage.
Should we require vehicle tracking? Or not? (source)

The problem with VMT is that in order to measure it, you need some sort of tracking device. The odometer is one possibility, and it already must be reported in various ways. But it is a fairly crude way to measure, and doesn't distinguish between different types of roads. For example, I have friends who race their street vehicles on private speedways. That would count against them, even though public funds are not paying for the repair of that road. The other tracking device proposed is a GPS unit of some sort. However, this raises all kinds of nasty questions about privacy.

Let's take a step back. What are we trying to pay for?

  1. Funding of road repair
  2. Mitigation of gasoline pollution
  3. Reduction of congestion (trading money for time)
  4. Paying some of the capital costs of roads

And some of our options for paying these costs?

  • The gasoline tax is pretty directly linked to issue (2). More gasoline used, more pollution emitted. There is a correspondence between gasoline used and road damage incurred, but it is somewhat shaky and complicated by the fact that there are many kinds of vehicles out there. Same for (4). It does not help with congestion except by possibly discouraging people from making wasteful trips.
  • A VMT tax would largely behave like a gasoline tax depending upon implementation, except that it could more fairly handle issue (1), and it might be possible to integrate congestion pricing, though that is not necessarily the case.
  • Paying for everything from the general funds would imply that income, sales and/or property taxes would have to rise to cover automobile-related expenses. You can do (1), (2), and (4) this way, but not (3) at all. The justification for this is that everybody benefits from cars, therefore everyone should pay extra taxes for them. I find this justification weak, and I'm pretty sure it would be a hard sell if it had to be made on the merits. On the other hand, this method has basically taken over a large portion of the costs of (1), (2) and (4), as general state and federal monies get poured into projects that are not able to be funded by the currently anemic gasoline tax.

My preferred solution is to bring the gasoline tax back into line with current costs. The federal gasoline tax hasn't been raised since 1993 and it is a flat 18.4 cents per gallon, not a percentage like most other taxes. This means it falls behind inflation every year. Additional state taxes are similar. It is well known that the current gasoline taxes do not even pay enough to cover the highway system, much less local roads.

However, for fairness sake, the gasoline tax should not be the only mechanism. The fact is, trucks damage roads far more than private cars. In fact, analysis has shown that axle weight raised to the 4th power is approximately proportional to road damage. That means a fully loaded tractor semi will do 1000 times the damage of a fully loaded passenger van. Trucks, and to some extent buses, are getting a free ride on the nation's interstate highway system and local roads. There are only a few states which attempt to recover those costs, and most fall short. It needs to be done at a federal level and consistent nationwide.
Heavy vehicles damage roads. (source)

Trucks and buses are commercial vehicles: businesses want to know where their vehicles go. There are already many limitations on where they can travel, as well. Therefore GPS-based tracking is already used by many commercial vehicles. Measuring VMT for trucks and buses should be fairly uncontroversial, unlike personal automobiles. The usage of these heavy vehicles is also much more significant towards causing road damage than that of small cars. The external costs of private vehicle usage can continue to be recovered through a percentage-based gasoline tax, which stays up to date, which also has a side benefit of encouraging people to buy automobiles with fuel-efficient engines.

That leaves issue number (3), how to address congestion in cities. Currently, most people pay for congestion by sitting in their car and fuming at traffic. I would prefer seeing a system where you pay a market price for using a roadway, and that price would be set at a rate which keeps traffic flowing smoothly. Therefore, you effectively save time by spending money.  The first argument most people make against congestion pricing is that it is unfair to poor or middle class households. However, that is a weak argument because of two things: (a) lower income folks value their time just as much as anyone else, and (b) you can offset those costs using tax credits or other programs that help the truly needy.
The high cost of free roads. (source)

The fact of the matter is, we already have a solution for moving large amounts of people around cities without causing congestion: it's called public transportation. However, mass transit has high fixed costs and low marginal revenue, so it cannot effectively compete with government subsidized roads. If roads were priced according to their true costs, then mass transit would be a lot healthier in this country, and possibly even profitable for cities to operate (as it is in Hong Kong). Congestion pricing can be enacted at a local level and without massive government intrusion into cars. It is a free market solution to a resource scarcity problem.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why Republicans hate trains

It's a well known fact that most Republicans proclaim a loathing for passenger trains. On the other hand, it may just be spiteful propaganda directed blindly against whatever the Democrats happen to support, and not a deeply held belief. After all, railroads were once considered the backbones of capitalism, operated by gilded age robber barons and glorified by iconic writers such as Ayn Rand.
New York Central's 20th Century Limited locomotive.

Since those times, it has proven nearly impossible to run a profitable private passenger railroad, in competition with government subsidized automobile roads. The dearth of private railroads in this country could certainly turn off a principled conservative. But something doesn't quite add up about that explanation. If that were the only objection, then such bitter vitriol would not be used. Instead we would see an article written about the benefits of privatization and of cutting highway subsidies.

My speculation is that what we are witnessing is actually the petulant response to one sad fact: the twentieth century decline of the American railroad. Once, long ago, American inventors such as Frank J. SpragueThomas Edison, among others, helped pioneer the electric railroad technologies that we still use today. Today, we do not even have the expertise to build, provision and operate a true high speed passenger line, but must import it from Asian or European countries (or reinvent it, badly).

The sting of this slap in the face of American ingenuity must hurt so badly that Republicans like George Will are simply unable to handle it. Instead they lash out with ridiculous lines like this one:
[The] real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
According to this rather strange remark, the selection of steel wheels over rubber wheels is tantamount to killing freedom! To dig into it a little further, he is implying that fixed guideway vehicles are less "individualistic" than free-roaming rubber tired cars. At a highly superficial level, this is correct: trains run on tracks. But trying to derive any further conclusion just leads to nonsense. By Will's reasoning, the usage of buses, airplanes and ferry-boats is also "diminishing individualism" because these vehicles also follow fixed routes -- despite having no rail. Of course these systems have not led to the downfall of our way of life, nor do they hurt anyone's freedom of choice to ride or not.
High-speed rail. Not Invented Here. (source)

Further analysis of his remarks is likely a waste of time. They're not rational, and are rooted in an emotional backlash against the decline of the American railroad. For some people, the response might be a positive or optimistic determination: we can do better. But for George Will and Republicans like him, they would rather denigrate and tear down the enterprise itself. After all, why become proficient in something that you have deemed worthless?

It reminds me of the behavior of certain sports fans, who when confronted with the unsuccessful end to their favorite team's season, turn and say: Why care about them anyway?