You’re out of your element! This Leninist is not the issue.

Good morning, and for those who are observing it, may you have an easy Shutdown. Out-of-town tourists who were really counting on seeing Valley Forge and Independence Hall might want to stop in at attractions that aren’t National Parks, which is most everything that isn’t either on 5th Street or a Revolutionary Battlefield. Since I happen to be blogging hungry, I’ll put in a good word for Reading Terminal Market; all of the attractions along Ben Franklin Parkway should be open today as well.

As State and Local Authorities, transit services will be running normally today. (As of 3:00a, I have already gotten an inbound referral from a search engine user asking “will septa still run now that government is shut down”. It’s not a silly question.) Amtrak is technically a corporation that merely happens to have the Federal government as the owner of all its preferred stock, so it will also be operating normally. At some point in an extended shutdown scenario, the inability of the Federal Government to write checks will become a problem, but by the time it does, I assure you that we will be so far down that rabbit hole, that any reduction in train and bus service will be the least of our worries.

Congress Hall, 6th and Chestnut Streets.  Image by tim eschaton on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA
Even when Congress met here, it was pretty awful. It does occasionally find novel ways of sucking, though.

In completely non-Shutdown related news, Richard Florida reports in the Atlantic Cities that there is basically no correlation between population growth and economic growth in American metropolitan areas:

Taken together, these top ten leaders in productivity growth averaged population growth of 0.88 percent per year, beneath the metro average of around 1 percent per year. These metros were able to substantially increase their productivity without substantially growing their populations. Boulder, for example, which has been lauded as a center for innovation and start-up companies, was able to substantially increase its productivity while seeing its population decline.

As these maps and tables indicate, population and productivity growth are very different animals. Not a single metro overlaps the two top ten lists. The high population growth metros were mainly in the Sunbelt, while the high productivity growth metros are a combination of knowledge-based regions and energy-belt metros.

Matt Yglesias, blogging at Slate, is alarmed:

Florida’s takeaway from this is basically just that this debunks the notion of “booming” cities in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt. The fast-growing cities aren’t really the cities that are prospering, and “population growth, in fact, creates a troubling fake illusion of prosperity” rather than laying the foundations for real income growth.

I would put my point of emphasis on the other side of it. If you want to understand the long-term prospects for prosperity and growth in the United States, the fact that we aren’t seeing population growth in the cities where we’re seeing productivity growth is a disaster. It’s of course fine for people to move to Memphis, Tenn., or Houston when all things considered they decide they want to move to Memphis or Houston. But one of the main “things considered” that makes Memphis and Houston look more attractive than Boston or Seattle is that houses are much cheaper in Memphis and Houston. If there were nothing Boston and Seattle could do to increase their ability to add population, that would just be one of those things in life. But there’s plenty that Boston and Seattle (recalling, again, that we’re talking metro areas here, so “Boston” includes Somerville and Newton and Wellesley and so forth) could do to reduce the cost of housing—they could upzone. They could let three-deckers be replaced by tall apartment buildings, and they could let single-family detached homes be replaced by rowhouses. Not that the whole metro area would become apartment towers in either case, but somewhat more of both would.

The basic issue is that in the modern economy most people work providing face-to-face services to other people. So access to a prosperous local market is key to economic opportunity. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of getting a piece of fertile land to farm. And right now we’re not giving enough people that opportunity.

This starts as basically a restatement of the Strong Towns manifesto, identifying the traditionally laid-out streets of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle as generators of value, and the sprawl development of the Sunbelt as a Ponzi Scheme. So much, so familiar.

Of course, here in Philadelphia, we have in relative abundance what these highly productive cities lack: developable land close in to the urban core. We don’t necessarily need to upzone (although in some places, like along Broad Street, I think we should) in order to give many more people access to economic opportunity. Our bloated cost of construction keeps rents and purchase prices high, but we don’t see the runaway unaffordability that’s chasing the middle class out of Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn, and San Francisco. The task in Philadelphia has to be maintaining and expanding the zone where new middle-class residents can comfortably build their lives. That means 1) fixing the public schools, 2) building more new housing, and 3) improving transit access to Center City from the neighborhoods.

Zone 1: Girard to Federal, river to river, plus Penn, Drexel, and Temple.  Zone 2: South of Lehigh, east of 52nd.
Philadelphia’s bikeshare map: the new hotness.

While the litany of despair form the schools is rightly demoralizing, I take great hope from the ambitious geographic scope laid out for the 2014-15 rollout of the city’s new bikeshare program, whose map I include above. Bikeshare is by far the cheapest and most cost-effective investment available in mobility today, and can pull a lot of pressure off of crowded buses in Greater Center City. The decision to spread the system all the way north to Lehigh Ave by 2015, an ambitious service territory for a fledgling system, serves two purposes. It makes the system available to current residents of neighborhoods beyond Greater Center City, who are, if anything, even more in need of bikeshare as inexpensive transit. And it lays out a marker for newcomers and the developers who want to build for them, saying “we’re going to do whatever we can to expand the desirable area of this city to be as inclusive, geographically and demographically, as we can”. In a city that’s still, in many ways, struggling for its own soul, that’s a big commitment. We’ll see if, and how, it sticks.

If you are a property owner interested in having the convenience and foot traffic of a bikeshare station at your address, you have until Monday to register your interest with the City.


The math of SB1: Pick up your damn phone

OK, this post is now 48 hours overdue, but mostly because I have no idea what is going on with Majority Leader Turzai’s sudden move to bring the SB1 transportation funding bill to the floor of the House. And as far as I can tell, nobody who knows is talking.

But here’s what I do know: SB1 is projected to bring in an additional $2.5B/year in transportation revenue, which works out to about $400M/year to SEPTA. In a comment on another message board, I ran the numbers:

$400M/year is $4B over ten years, which is the doomsday plan horizon.

From Jeff Knueppel’s presentation slides on unfunded capital needs to the SEPTA board:

Bridges and tunnels round to $1.3B
Power is another $0.6B
Shops are another $0.3B
Track is another $0.7B

That gets us to $2.9B. We still haven’t bought vehicles.

Current budgeting for replacement LRVs is $1.0B and the Silverliner VIs are $1.4B. One of those is more urgent and fits in the budget presented. Goodbye, Silverliner VIs.

That leaves $100M over 10 years for overruns, rounding errors, business cycle risk, PTC-style federal mandates, and Everything Else. If that money actually exists, you might be able to split that 50/50 between a new electric loco fleet, and overhauls of the [coaches], which means you can keep the push-pulls running and providing meager but adequate service on your four-line Regional Rail system, but you still lose the other nine lines when the Silverliner IVs retire.

Oh, right, and there are no improvements, no expansions.

Anybody want to check my math here?

There’s been rumors that Democrats in the House are going wobbly on SB1 because they expect Turzai to pull a fast one, or because they think they can get a better deal done in 2015. SEPTA cannot wait for 2015. If you are calling your state Rep, do so regardless of their party affiliation, and insist that half a loaf now is better than no loaf for eighteen months.

It’s go time. Start calling and e-mailing your PA State Reps. Right now. If you don’t know who your State Rep is or how to contact them, that’s what this link is for. Time to move.

Weekend Update

Happy weekend! Pennsylvania’s SB1 Transportation funding bill may be back from the dead; I’ll have more by tomorrow morning, or you can look in on the Pittsburgh Comet or Keystone Politics for the fast update, or if you’ve forgotten what SB1 actually does, there’s the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from June.

Meanwhile, we have a big weekend of construction and disruption around the weekend to look forward to. Here’s the roundup:

  • Lansdale/Doylestown is bustituting between Lansdale and Doylestown for catenary work. Shuttle bus schedule here. This is second of seven planned work weekends.
  • Media/Elwyn is a hot mess. On Saturday:
    • Trains will be operating on the outbound track only between 49th Street and Secane (inclusive), and will be operating on altered schedules, until 6:00pm. Evening service will be unaffected.
    • Inbound trains (before 6:00p) will run between 9 and 14 minutes later. Outbound trains (before 6:00p) will run between 21 and 14 minutes earlier. Consult SEPTA’s schedules for exact times.
    • Train #7303, the first outbound departure Saturday morning, is cancelled.

    On Sunday:

    • Due to emergency repairs to the Crum Creek Viaduct, instead of replicating the Saturday changes as planned, Sunday will instead feature bustitution west of Morton Station.
    • Inbound shuttle buses from Elwyn will run bewteen 25 and 13 minutes earlier than normal schedule, and inbound trains will leave Morton 5 minutes early before resuming normal schedules at Secane.
    • Outbound trains will arrive at Morton 5 minutes later than normal, and shuttle buses will leave 5 minutes after that. Outbound shuttle buses will run between 14 and 25 minutes later than scheduled times.
    • The repairs to Crum Creek Viaduct are spot repairs intended to forestall immediate closure of the bridge, and will not affect the scheduled 2015 closure of that bridge in the absence of subsequent major investment.
  • Chestnut Hill East, which runs through with Media/Elwyn on weekends, is getting follow-on disruption. On Saturday, inbound trains will run 21 minutes earlier, and outbound trains will run 14 minutes later, until about 6:30pm.
  • SEPTA City Bus routes 7, 39, and 54 will return to their newly-reconstructed homes at 33rd and Dauphin Loop at 5:00a Sunday morning. This will conclude the 13-month reconstruction process for that facility.
  • SEPTA City Bus routes 39, 47, 54, 56, 57, 60, and 89 will be detoured for the Puerto Rican Day Parade on Sunday. This map gives the best summary of all the extensive changes.
  • Atlantic City Line will be bustituted between Philadelphia and Cherry Hill on Saturday, 7:00am to 3:00pm, for an emergency preparedness drill in Pennsauken. Tellingly, the shuttle bus operation is not expected to take any more time than is scheduled between Cherry Hill and 30th Street.
  • Trackwork on PATCO is resulting in adjusted schedules, but no closures, on Saturday and Sunday.
  • Eight NJT 400-series Bus Routes are disrupted by street repair in Camden near Walter Rand until Tuesday.
  • Amtrak service on the Northeast Corridor is thoroughly boned by ConEd’s mishap restricting electrical power to Metro North in Westchester County. Trains originating and terminating in New York ought to be unaffected, but trains running through the affected area to/from Boston will see either delays or cancellations. Acela Express service is not running between New York and Boston until at least Monday, maybe later; Northeast Regional service is being towed through the affected areas by diesel locomotives. We expect to hear more on Sunday, but the prognosis from ConEd has been grim.

Act 44: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

To open the series on replacing Act 44, I feel I should put my cards on the table as to what my political goals are, as framing for readers. I am keeping liberal/conservative, Republican/Democratic politics out of this as much as I can, because I feel that they mostly contribute noise and bias versus signal, but they might creep in from time to time. My apologies in advance.

The topline summary is that this post is exactly what it says on the tin: I don’t want your money. I live in the city of Philadelphia, and if you live in the suburbs, or Pittsburgh, or Williamsport, I have no designs on taking your money to pay for any of the vital infrastructure that supports me and my ability to live in this city. If this sounds too good to be true, it might be; all (or rather, “all”) I ask is that I not have to pay for infrastructure where you live, unless I visit your neck of the woods and pay it in user fees.

I take this stance in large part because my choice to live here is more than a simple accident of convenience. I live in a city because I believe that cities, and especially large, dense cities like Philadelphia, are engines of growth and wealth creation for their inhabitants, and I’m willing to stake quite a lot on that proposition. I believe that my choice for where to live is an implicit bet that I can have a better quality of life here than anywhere else, for the same financial outlay, and that over time, despite the half-century of systematic sabotage, the normal order of wealth accumulating in cities will reassert itself. I recognize that these beliefs put me at odds with the median voter across Central and Northern PA, who see my city, and often all cities, as a vast poverty sink and welfare trough. I say let’s run the experiment out and see who wins out.

I think the vast majority of money that is collected by government in a jurisdiction for the purposes of building infrastructure should be spent in that jurisdiction. This is not a hard and fast ethical judgement; it’s a prudential judgement based on where American politics is today.

Too much of our political budgetary process has become a game of beggar thy neighbor. Every legislator who isn’t completely brain dead is looking to bring the most possible dollars (i.e. a disproportionate share of the whole) to their constituents. Thanks to the bizarre, unhealthy, incestuous, and byzantine cultures of our legislatures, both state and federal, this ends in one of two ways. Case One is that there’s a general consensus to just vote in favor of everybody’s wish list, with some kind of variably effective control algorithm to keep the big number at the end from reaching aleph-null, usually doing a poor job. Case Two, which we’ve seen in the U.S. House of Representatives since the 2010 election, is that a large minority bloc of self-styled “reformers”, have defected from the previous consensus to prevent the usual logrolling consensus, usually at the cost of all normal governance being brought to a screeching halt. We have never seen what happens when Case Two persists for an extended period of time, in America; we may be about to find out. Philadelphia is not particularly well-positioned to come out well in any event. However, there is a third way: if we set the amount to be spent at equal or very nearly equal to the amount collected from the dedicated stream, and prevent ourselves from deviating from that plan, we can remove the incentive to grab what can be grabbed, as well as the incentive to burn everything down in a fit of ideological pique, just to keep things in check. The number is what the number is, and it falls on the government of the day to set priorities within that framework. Continue reading Act 44: Part 0: I DO NOT WANT your filthy money

SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but it’s been six and a half years since the last of former SEPTA GM Faye Moore’s “doomsday plans”, an annual exercise in political hostage-taking with the goal of obtaining more stable funding for SEPTA. The proposed cuts were severe and carefully targeted to inflame the most politically active communities, like the Airport Line (business travellers), the Chestnut Hill West Line (affluent city-dwellers in West Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill), and all weekend service (anybody who does things on weekends), while also having just as much cover as financially necessary to provide negotiating leverage. Eventually, the political brinksmanship worked, and SEPTA traded a fare hike on its riders every three years for Act 44, Ed Rendell’s deal with the Republican Legislature for the support of transit systems across all 67 counties of the Commonwealth, funded by the PA Turnpike Commission.

So when this week, Moore’s successor Joe Casey came out with his own “doomsday plan”, one that eliminated nine entire Regional Rail Lines, truncated two more, and eliminated all trolley service across city and suburb alike, and generally made Faye Moore’s threats look like a dinner party invitation, there was a strong feeling of deja vu among SEPTA watchers and veteran riders, and the reaction was muted grumbling punctuated by occasional howls of outrage. After all, with Act 44 broken by the failure to toll I-80, isn’t this just going back to the hostage-taking days of yore?

SEPTA today and projected 2023
SEPTA’s Rail network, before and after starvation

No. This plan is far, far more terrifying than any SEPTA has come up with before. Because after careful examination, I can only come to the conclusion that there was no political agenda at all in the formulation of this plan. This Doomsday Plan is a dispassionate listing of things that are going to fail that SEPTA does not have the money to replace.
Continue reading SEPTA’s capital doomsday plan looks like blackmail. It’s not, and that’s terrifying.

NHSL Bridgeport Viaduct closes tonight for at least four months: what you should know

The Bridgeport Viaduct, which carries the Norristown High Speed Line over the Schuylkill River between its namesake borough and Norristown Transportation Center, is in bad shape. Bad enough that SEPTA announced last December that it does not believe it will be safe to ride over after this summer, unless repairs are started pronto. Unfortunately, the capital funding crisis has meant, among other things, that basic maintenance like fixing the bridge has been put off for years, until now when it’s critical. Fortunately, SEPTA was able to scare up just enough money to do a temporary fix to this critical link in the regional network. It’s not really enough, but it will do for now, until the deadlock breaks in Harrisburg.

Starting tomorrow (Monday, 8 July), the NHSL will not serve Norristown. Shuttle buses will be provided. Mondays through Fridays, the NHSL will go as far as Bridgeport, and shuttle buses will run between Bridgeport and NTC. Weekends, NHSL trains will terminate at Hughes Park. Since Hughes Park is not an ADA accessible station, the shuttle buses will instead run from Gulph Mills, and stop at DeKalb and Bridgeport stations on their way to NTC.

The fix being done now is replacing the ties installed in 1985 and at the end of their service life, plus some band-aids applied to structural elements. It will not cure the entire litany of structural problems of the 101-year-old bridge, but it will allow service to reopen this year. NHSL service over the viaduct does not have a fixed reopening date, but it is expected to happen in November. That’s better than we expected in December, when we thought “temporarily suspended” might mean for Norristown what it meant for West Chester, Newtown, and Bethlehem. But we need to keep leaning on legislators in Harrisburg to fund SEPTA sufficiently that we aren’t repeating this dance in three years, either here at the Schuylkill on the NHSL, or at Crum Creek on the Media/Elwyn Line, which SEPTA has indicated is the most endangered bridge in the system after Bridgeport. Our predecessors skimped on prevention; now we need many pounds of cure.

NewsWorks throws the lede down a mine shaft in story about speeding

I have to say, when it comes to consistently high-quality local news, WHYY’s NewsWorks is the reigning king of the mountain. That’s why they sit in the Philadelphia section of the blogroll, over on the right column of this page. But even they sometimes make an odd editorial choice, and the one in last week’s article in their ongoing series on speeding was rather mind-boggling.

Here is the 35th graf of the story:

[Philadelphia Police Traffic Division Sgt. William] Stermel said that since his lieutenant reached out to request their [State Police] assistance — by law, State Police are the only law-enforcement entity permitted to use radar — cooperation between the agencies has been optimal and that “people have been slowing down” since there are few places to hide marked units along those roadways [Kelly, Lincoln and MLK Drives].

Wait, what was that?

by law, State Police are the only law-enforcement entity permitted to use radar


OK, maybe this is my New Philadelphianism showing through, but around where I grew up, every postage-stamp jurisdiction with the funds to hire an officer and buy a Crown Vic for her to drive, would then send her out with a radar gun, ticketing whatever leadfoot drivers happened to chance across their boundaries. Restricting the radar guns to the State Highway Patrol might have caused the locals to raise their banners in rebellion. And well they should have; in addition to the revenue generated (because speed laws are the only laws more commonly broken than either marijuana prohibition or buying hooch in Delaware), speed enforcement does provide a safety benefit to the public that can be measured in lives. Lives of drivers, lives of passengers, and lives of other users of the road.

Radar and LiDAR are now mature technologies, and it makes no sense to restrict them to the hands of the State Police. If you’re worried about uniformity across the state, then create a state certification program for the officers who would use them. But radar and LiDAR guns are lifesaving devices that need to be gotten into the hands of our local police officers as soon as possible.

And Brian Hickey and NewsWorks could stand to bang this drum a little louder than the 35th graf. They did much better than that in the first report they did on the subject in September, but not everyone has a long memory, and clearly nobody in Harrisburg has put two and two together yet on the need to take this up. I would rather not wait, while more people die, for this problem to be fixed.