December schedule change will carry first fruits of #SEPTAWILM campaign

Back in July, Wilmington-based grad student David Curtis launched an online petition asking Delaware for increased SEPTA Regional Rail service to Wilmington. This week, we are seeing the first results of that show of public support with two new trains to Delaware each weekday. It’s a very promising start.

Curtis and I both estimated the total costs to be on the order of one million dollars per year. Even for a small state like Delaware, that is the DOT budget equivalent of the money sitting in your wallet. Delaware Transit Corporation CEO John Sisson misunderstood the petition as demanding that all Marcus Hook short-turns be extended to Wilmington, which would require a hefty up-front capital investment to clear a physical bottleneck, and his staff came up with the more exorbitant operating cost of $3.3 million per year, which this blog castigated him for in harsh terms. After Sisson met with Curtis in person, things got straightened out as to the actual direction of the petition (off-peak service where the track capacity exists, not peak service where it doesn’t), and apparently the staff at DTC went to work searching for stray funds in the budgetary couch cushions. And it seems they found some.

I reached out to David Curtis for his thoughts on the new changes. “There are currently five major gaps in the weekday service at Wilmington,” Curtis wrote back. “This December 14 service upgrade closes the latest weekday service gap.” In addition to the five current weekday gaps of 90 minutes or longer, Curtis also pointed to the very early end of service on both weekdays and weekends as problematic.

In addition to the headline rail improvements, there will be two new daily roundtrips of the DART Route 59 rail shuttle between Wilmington and Newark. One partially plugs the 3-hour gap westbound/5-hour gap eastbound in the afternoon between the existing midday run of the Route 59 and the evening rush, while the other is an evening run that creates a new “last arrival” time in Newark of 22:15, departing Suburban Station at 20:40. So Philadelphians employed across northern Delaware, as well as Delawareans working in Philadelphia, are now able to stay after work for dinner out and early-evening activities, whereas before it was a very risky gamble to stay after — unless, of course, you had driven to work that day. That kind of uncertainty pushes many people towards driving every day, if they can. Street life in Downtown Wilmington today is anemic, as office workers evacuate the city at the end of the working day, rather than patronize local businesses or entertainment venues, and far too much land is given over to parking cars. This vicious economic cycle has dragged Wilmington down for decades, and the rehabilitation of the city’s heart has only barely begun. As Curtis points out, “These [service] upgrades are great for ridership increases, but they also have tremendous economic development implications. Wilmington’s downtown and riverfront districts have already changed dramatically in recent years. Today, hundreds of additional residential units are under construction and more small businesses are popping up on and around Market Street.” More strongly linking Wilmington’s economy and Southeast Pennsylvania’s can only reinforce that trend.

As for how we can build on this good first step, “Delaware is in the midst of budget preparation for the upcoming fiscal year. The immediate goal is to receive additional funding [from the Delaware General Assembly] for DTC to continue upgrading this service in the upcoming fiscal year, which takes effect July 1. If you’ve been following the Delaware budget hearings, you know that money will be spread pretty thin.” To keep up the pressure on the General Assembly, Governor Jack Markell, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, and DTC CEO Sisson, Curtis and I both urge you, if you haven’t yet, to “go to www.septanow.com, sign the petition, and get others to sign it.” Curtis has revised his estimate of the cost of extending every off-peak and weekend train to Wilmington to just shy of $2 million per year, which is higher than our back-of-the-envelope math from July, but reflects more detailed information about the cost structure of Wilmington service, and a more conservative estimate of the cost recovery of more trains. The new trains will grow ridership across the entire schedule, so the net cost to Delaware (after the rebates it receives for ticket sales) should decrease over time. If the full funding is not immediately available next fiscal year, Curtis suggests the extension of three specific evening train pairs as intermediate steps: 235/9236, to extend Saturday service by two hours; 277/9264, to extend weekday service by one hour; and 279/9266, to extend weekday service one additional hour after that. Together, those three trains will cost Delaware an additional $440,000 annually to run, but the implications for both nightlife and swing-shift workers alike should not be underestimated.

As though on cue, an op-ed in Friday’s Wilmington News Journal from a civil engineer shows us what the most likely alternative is to additional transit. According to J. Michael Riemann, Delaware needs to keep feeding the same roadbuilding addiction that’s gotten it into a massive fiscal hole and maintenance backlog. “DelDOT will need to come up with an additional $130 million each year for the next six years to cover the $780 million dollar shortfall (capital funds [i.e. road expansion] of $600 [million] + state of good repair [of $180 million]).” Compared to that, $2 million for hourly train service is an incredible bargain, and will save DelDOT much more than it costs, starting on Day 1. And that’s not just saving the state incredibly unnecessary new roads and road widening, but also allows it to put its roads on diets, and reduce the number of lane-miles it has to plow, salt, and repair, year in and year out. More rail service can pay for itself, only considering the expense side of the ledger. New roads don’t create value, but new rail service will anchor new investment and create new wealth in Downtown Wilmington. Curtis’s conclusion, which I wholeheartedly endorse: “Wilmington’s growth will always be limited if its transportation options are also limited. Delaware can’t afford for that to happen.”

Posted in DART First State, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Wilmington/Newark Line | Leave a comment

How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

Posted in Legacy Infrastructure, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Threats to Life and Safety | 1 Comment

Whose roads? Our roads! An introduction to American highway blockade

As the country recoiled Monday night from the injustice of the non-indictment in Ferguson, something genuinely new happened. At first, here in Philadelphia, it was like any other of the sickeningly familiar outpourings of grief and anger that have motivated people into the streets before, with a large mass of people starting at City Hall and parading through the major streets of Center City: Broad, Market, South, Arch.

But then, as the marchers reached Old City, the protestors advanced onto an on-ramp to I-95, forcing Philadelphia Police to throw up a barricade at the top of the ramp. There is a large tangle of ramps in that area connecting local streets to I-95, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so there were plenty of access points, but the PPD successfully managed to keep the protestors off the highway mainlines. This in contrast to what happened simultaneously in St. Louis, where protesters shut down I-44; New York, where marchers shut down the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Triboro bridges; Seattle, where demonstrators shut down I-5; and Los Angeles, where I-10 and CA-110 were both shut down.

By the time dusk fell over America Tuesday night, the practice of invading or attempting to invade limited-access highways, had spread to protests in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Providence, Portland, and San Diego, to list the ones I could find news stories about in three minutes of Googling.

Blocking highways is a rarity in the arsenal of political protest in the United States, although it is more common in countries like France, and has played a critical part in the Occupy Central protests this year in Hong Kong. The experience from abroad shows that highway blockades are very effective at getting attention and achieving change. And now that it’s suddenly a nationwide phenomenon here, people are trying to wrap their heads around what it means.

The first thing to say is to reiterate a point Stephen J. Smith made on Twitter Tuesday night: “Reminder to urbanists watching highways being shut down: sometimes it’s not about you.” Nothing that follows should diminish the fact that the protests of the last two nights have been primarily about systemic racism, excessive force by police, and a judicial system rigged (with the consent of STL County voters) to make sure that Officer Darrell Wilson and those like him escape accountability for their actions. Those are important things, and it’s critical to not lose sight of them.

But sometimes, it’s about more than one thing, and there has to be a strong suspicion that this has become such a widespread tactic because of the resonances it holds with the particular case. Michael Brown was on foot, Officer Wilson was in a patrol car, and their initial encounter was a conflict over the extent to which the street is a public space. While walkable cities are certainly not immune to racism or high-handed policing, the particular sins of the Ferguson Police after the shooting seem alien to anyone whose mental model of bad, racist police comes from the NYPD, or even the LAPD. Charles Marohn’s article from August, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, points out that Ferguson is a town that is architected around the car, in a way that is guaranteed to immiserate its residents and turn its government against them. And in general, the message that things need to change seems to be more urgently directed at suburban drivers than urbanites, and the easiest way for urban residents to get that message in front of their faces is when they’re in their cars. The highway, unlike their homes in driving-only suburbs, is accessible.

The backlash has already started, at least if the comment section cesspools of local newspapers and TV stations are any indication, but backlash strongly implies that the strength of the protestors’ distress is coming through. In one incident, a driver in Minneapolis plowed through a crowd (on local streets), and there are already calls for that particular act of terrorism to be repeated. The thesis being presented, is that the ability of car traffic to flow freely is more important than any exercise of the freedoms of speech or assembly. (This is a related fallacy to the Ferguson PD’s assertion that, much as a shark must keep swimming to survive, the First Amendment stops working for anyone standing still.) I don’t know whether it’s my American identity or my humanity that recoils more at this sort of bullshit, but I do know that it should be strenuously fought, until a clear consensus has been established that this kind of thinking is immoral and vile. You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently we aren’t there yet as a society.

So, going forward, what should aspiring blockaders keep in mind? A few things, starting with the fact that it is a hazardous action, even before considering those who would deliberately ram you. All of the successful incursions I’ve read about have also involved a handful of arrests. It’s more effective to set up a preliminary blockade with vehicles first, and then move pedestrians into the empty zone in front. A moving blockade, where a line of cars across all lanes slow down to 20 mph or so, might be more achievable at times like rush hour, but requires more in the way of pre-planning and co-ordination. And lastly, it’s not necessary to actually reach the road; if you simply force the police to close the road, or all of the ramps to local streets in the inner core, in order to contain your credible threat of incursion, that’s as good as blocking it yourself. I’m sure other tactical suggestions will surface in comments.

As I wrote on Twitter Monday night, this is a new reality in America, and I’m sure that, as a society, like with all new things, we will deal with its arrival very badly. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and even if we were inclined to put it back in, which we shouldn’t be, we couldn’t.

Posted in Politics, Service Disruptions, Threats to Life and Safety | 2 Comments

The TWU deal resolves nothing, and that’s fine

When in doubt, punt.

The two year contract signed by TWU Local 234 and SEPTA at 11:00 last night is a truce, not a peace treaty. It includes a 5% raise over the two years of the contract term, which is higher than what management was offering and lower than what the union was demanding, but does not resolve any of the pension or benefits issues that were at the heart of TWU’s rhetorical justification for strike threats.

It doesn’t matter. TWU got as much as it could, and got the ability to come back in 18 months (contracts like this are backdated to the expiration of the previous contract, so this one runs to April 2016), with a presumptively better political environment to try another time. That is a good ending.

TWU 234’s rank and file will be voting on ratification of the contract sometime next week, so it’s not over, but unless Willie Brown has an unexpected (and futile) rebellion from his members, the drama should be done with.

Posted in SEPTA, Service Disruptions | Leave a comment

Strike Warning cancelled: DEAL IMMINENT

The Inquirer’s Paul Nussbaum is currently tweeting photos of elected officials and SEPTA executives congregating in advance of what appears to be an imminent announcement of a contract agreement. More as it comes over series the tubes.

Posted in Harrisburg, Philadelphia City Council, SEPTA, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment

SEPTA/TWU Strike Kremlinology

The steady drip, drip, drip of signs and portents leaking out of this week’s round of negotiations between SEPTA and its biggest union have finally ended in a press conference that fills me with despair for entirely non-strike-related reasons.

The key bit is this: There will not be a strike next Monday. Election Day on Tuesday will go undisrupted. The earliest plausible date for a walkout is Monday, November 10th. And it is increasingly unclear whether we will actually go through a strike at all.

All day today, various Democratic officials were letting it be known that they had talked to TWU 234 and asked the union to keep talking through Election Day. If lower-ranking officials were making those calls, you know that Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady was working the phones hard, whether directly or indirectly. In any event, while we may never be privy to the exact details, we do know that it worked. In fact anonymous TWU sources being quoted in the media have begun waving giant flags that the union wants tensions cooled down, at least for now.

The parade of political posturing climaxed at the evening press conference, where State Senator (and a likely next Mayor of Philadelphia) Anthony Williams, who announced progress in the negotiations would mean at least a week’s reprieve, described the deal as “85% done”. That, of course, is a meaningless statement, which is in stiff competition with itself as to whether it is more abusive of mathematics or the English language. And it’s not the first time we’ve heard the charm offensive either: a deal was described as “close” not long after the contracts expired in April.

But even if the new rhetorical tone is more about allowing workers to save face even while they remain on the job, than it is about an agreement being imminent, I’ll still take it. There is no upside for anyone to allow the vitriolic brinksmanship that marked last Sunday’s strike authorization vote to continue. And TWU is still in a weak position.

Posted in Harrisburg, Philadelphia City Council, SEPTA, Service Disruptions | Leave a comment

City Branch Transit: the Transit Equity Express

Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.

Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.

But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.

The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:

Route 48 through Fairmount

WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS

Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.

Route 32 map section

Route 32 is only slightly better.

Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.

I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.

But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.

Posted in Legacy Infrastructure, SEPTA | 10 Comments