Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

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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.”

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.