A brief summary of my remarks to the NEC FUTURE hearing

I wasn’t expecting to speak at Monday night’s hearing on the NEC FUTURE Draft EIS, mostly because I failed to do my homework and realize that they would be accepting spoken testimony.  So I winged it, with some hastily jotted notes.  Here are the highlights of that extemporaneous speech, heavily revised and extended, as best as I can reconstruct it. The best criticism of the NEC Future proposals is and remains Alon Levy’s “When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire“, which you should read if you have any interest in the subject.  Summaries of the presentation and hearing as a whole have been written by (in publication order): Jason Laughlin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sandy Smith of Philadelphia Magazine, and Jim Saksa of PlanPhilly.

 

My name is Michael Noda, and I am a writer on transportation topics.  I am also an advisor to The 5th Square Political Action Committee, but my views tonight are my own.

My main motivation in speaking tonight is to see a better NEC with the ability to serve many more passengers over both commuter and intercity distances.  That’s why the proposals that have come out of the NEC FUTURE EIS process are so disappointing.  They aren’t coherent about delivering either performance or capacity upgrade value for the money.  In fact the $290 billion price tag for Alternative 3 (“Transform”) is so far divorced from reality that it calls the entire process into question.  Alon Levy suggests that performance upgrades equivalent to Alternative 3 can be had for less than $15 billion in capital upgrades.  I’m far more of a cynic, and think it would cost three times as much as Mr. Levy thinks it will.  So instead of achieving radical transformation of the Northeastern economy at 95% cost savings, I think it can only be done at 85% cost savings.  That is still an incredibly damning indictment of the process to date.

Some of that cost bloat comes from the high costs associated with American public-sector construction.  Far more comes from scope bloat and the inclusion of entirely unnecessary so-called “improvements” that add billions of dollars in cost, for negligible benefit.  The proposed tunnel down 12th Street here in Philadelphia, to serve a new deep-cavern station under Market East, included in Alt 3 (“Transform”), has been widely mocked and derided, and rightly so.  The economic center of gravity of this city today is at or very near 30th Street Station, and splitting future Amtrak service between two downtown stations is not an improvement for any riders, even the ones with origins or destinations immediately adjacent to 12th and Market.  The most optimistic cost estimate of that tunnel could provide gold-plated versions of necessary rail infrastructure upgrades, throughout the Greater Philadelphia area.

But the terrible and wasteful ideas aren’t confined to Alt 3.  Alt 2 (“Grow”) includes an inexplicably perennial proposal to detour the NEC to the Philadelphia International Airport.  That might be a good idea for American Airlines.  If they agree, they should get out their checkbooks and pay for it.  The Airport detour has no transit value. Not enough people are in the market to ride Amtrak to catch a flight out of PHL.  Even if we build it, they won’t come.  The large cities on either side of us have three airports each, and have a combined better selection of flights than we do.  And the airports nearest us, BWI and Newark Liberty, already have excellent connections to the NEC.  Again, maybe there is particular benefit to American Airlines and its passengers, but looking after their interests is not the remit of either Amtrak or the Federal Railroad Administration.

In sum, the project alternatives are wonderful proposals in the Land of Infinite Money, and if the FRA is willing to tell me how to get there, I will emigrate at the first opportunity.  But in the meantime, we live here, where our resources are finite, and determined (in this context) by our political masters.

Of much more interest to Philadelphians, and much higher return on public investment, is the prospect of improvements to interlockings and curves along the NEC that would allow for more and faster trains through the existing plant.  In this area, the biggest problem areas are at: Frankford Junction, site of the Amtrak 188 derailment last year; Zoo Junction immediately north of 30th Street Station; and PHIL interlocking, where SEPTA’s Airport Line joins the NEC, and inbound SEPTA Wilmington Line trains cross over the NEC at-grade.  The straightening of curves to 4000 meter minimum radius, the installation of high-speed turnouts to replace switches designed by the Pennsylvania Railroad for far slower trains, and other such improvements will shave significant time from the journeys of suburban and intercity passengers alike.  This process should be done with closer attention and respect paid to the surrounding landscape; the FRA’s Alt 2 seems to show a straightening of the curve of the NEC between Zoo Junction and the Schuylkill River, which is laudable except that the area inside that curve is also known as the Philadelphia Zoo, and to say that that land is not available for any at-grade or elevated option is to put it very mildly.  As well, the construction of additional flyover ramps at these locations will greatly increase the amount of concurrent traffic the NEC can handle, by allowing simultaneous intercity and suburban movements where today those trains conflict and must stop and wait for each other; this would be especially valuable on suburban rail routes like the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line and the NJT Atlantic City Line, which suffer from low ridership as a result of their abysmally low frequency.  All of these are very unsexy fixes that will not result in ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities, but they will improve the NEC to true High Speed Rail standards within a realistic budget.  And even in Alt 1 (“Maintain”), the alternative mainly focused on such bottleneck improvement projects, there is little attention paid.

Again, I take no particular joy in making these criticisms.  My call for efficiency is is rooted in a desire for abundance, that is, for an NEC that can live up to its potential as a High Speed Rail connection between the cities of the Northeast.  But the only realistic way to achieve that goal — a goal I do believe the FRA genuinely shares — is to guard vigilantly agains unnecessary scope bloat and excessive unit costs.  An attentive agency ought to have realized that a price tag that is twice as much per kilometer as maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya, for inferior service, was a red flag that its process was broken, and taken steps to correct itself before releasing the Draft EIS to the public.  That opportunity may have passed, but it is not too late for the FRA to correct its course.  I sincerely hope that it does so.

Thank you for your time.

Advertisements

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.”

Wednesday Roundup

Things that are happening that I haven’t been able to catch up on yet:

  • If you live or work in West Philly, your trolleys have been diverting to 40th/Market since Friday night, and will continue doing so for the rest of this week, next week, and the weekend after that. Why? SEPTA Media Relations explains what is going on in the trolley tunnel:
  • The SEPTA Night Owl Subway trial has been extended from Labor Day to November 2nd, to see if the spectacular ridership numbers stay high enough to make rail service a permanent feature of our Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Friend of the Blog David Curtis is meeting with the arithmetically-challenged CEO of Dart First State, John Sisson, to discuss the petition Curtis spearheaded to make SEPTA service in the First State not resemble a giant middle finger.
  • Rep. Chaka Fattah wants to rename 30th Street Station after his mentor, Bill Gray. It would be a better tribute to Rep. Gray if he had something named for him that had a snowball’s chance in hell of actually associating with his name; every Philadelphian I’ve talked to has said that they intend to refer to the station as 30th Street in perpetuity, regardless of what Congress thinks. Meanwhile, Bennett Levin eviscerates the idea on the merits, or lack thereof.

Somebody get John Sisson a calculator and show him how to use it

In remarks to Jake Blumgart writing for Next City, John Sisson, CEO of the Delaware Transit Corporation, says as part of the first official response to the #SEPTAWILM petition that doubling service will result in quintupling costs. That is an extraordinary claim, and nobody should take it at face value until they provide extraordinary evidence, including a complete breakdown of those numbers, before and after.

I’m not saying he’s lying. I’m saying that getting the $751,300/year figure of their current contract with SEPTA was like pulling teeth, and included no details. So there’s an airtight case that DTC is too opaque for a government agency, and a building, prima facie case that somebody there doesn’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Meanwhile, you should sign the ‪#‎SEPTAWILM‬ petition if you haven’t yet.

Sign the Petition: Unsuck SEPTA Wilmington service

On the subject of Better Living through Higher Frequency: Friend of the Blog David Curtis has posted a Change.org petition calling on DelDOT and SEPTA to attack the low-hanging fruit of SEPTA’s Wilmington/Newark Line, and extend all off-peak and weekend Marcus Hook trains to Wilmington. This comes after the bewildering success of the petition to reinstate overnight Subway and El service, which has now led to >50% increases in overnight ridership on the two nights a week the trains run.

As I may have mentioned, repeatedly, at every opportunity, the two-hour Wilmington headways are the bane of my household’s existence. They are also dirt-cheap to fix; I looked over David’s cost estimates and agree that the marginal cost to DelDOT should come in on the low side of the $350K-1M range of estimates, and very probably less than the $751,000/year they already pay to SEPTA, for twice today’s service. By any standards of transportation spending, that is pocket change, even for a small constituency like Delaware.

Today’s SEPTA schedules are well-optimized if you are a Delawarean working in Philadelphia, or if you are a Pennsylvanian working a 9:00-5:00, Monday-Friday, job in Wilmington. If you work in Wilmington and your hours are 8:00-4:00, or 10:00-6:00, or 4:00-11:00, or anything involving weekends? Or if, God forbid, you might want to stay in Downtown Wilmington or Center City Philadelphia after work and do something fun? Today, DelDOT’s message to you is “Fsck You, Drive.” Which might go a very long ways to explain why most New Philadelphians have no interest in even visiting Wilmington, much less living there. If Wilmington wants to be the city its leaders are clearly trying to make it, as opposed to a more upscale version of Camden, then all of its good options start with fixing the woefully unuseful connection to Pennsylvania. And in turn, Philadelphia has strong incentives to connect to a rare concentration of rail-accessible suburban jobs.

And yes, more SEPTA Wilmington service means more Claymont service, which will lead to more time together for me and my wife, and less time spent by either of us driving a car, so I have deeply personal reasons to want this petition to come to fruition.

SIGN THE PETITION TO UNSUCK WILMINGTON HERE. DO IT. DO IT NOW.

A bicyclist’s guide to Delaware Carmageddon

As the I-495 bridge closure passes its third day with not even a hint from DelDOT that they are considering expanding transit service, Reddit user /u/wild-tangent has created an excellent overview of bike facilities in Northern New Castle County, especially those that interface with SEPTA Regional Rail stations. Check it out. If you use Reddit Enhancement Suite, you can view the map images inline, which helps a lot in reading comprehension.

Be aware that there is some misinformation in the section on transit: SEPTA passes and tickets are sold at Wilmington and Newark train stations.

Carmageddon Delaware: I-495 bridge to be closed “for weeks”.

DelDOT officials have confirmed what many suspected when Interstate 495 was closed late Monday after an inspection: shifting support pillars have left the Christina River Bridge unsafe to drive on, and the bridge will remain closed indefinitely until major repairs are complete.

That means Interstate 495, the main highway link between Southeast Pennsylvania and points south, will remain severed at its closest approach to Downtown Wilmington. From the hours-long delays today, this has all the trappings of an ongoing traffic disaster in Northern New Castle County, and beyond.

The remaining main roads in and around Wilmington, especially I-95 through Downtown, simply do not have the capacity to deal with the load that they were called on to deal with today. Drivers need to start making plans now for the summer, that do not involve those roads. And transportation officials need to help them.

The easiest thing for local traffic is for as many people as possible to switch modes away from driving. Delawareans have a poor relationship with their statewide transit operator, with many regarding the bus only as a last resort of those too poor to have any other choice. This needs to change, quickly. While SEPTA’s Regional Rail service to Wilmington and Newark is parallel to the affected highways and will do a lot of heavy lifting, the train schedule is still sparse and irregular. Anyone with a schedule that is not a traditional 9-5 may find the extra frequencies of DART bus service more convenient. Still, for those who can use it, i.e. those with driving commutes along I-95 and I-495, and destinations in Newark, Wilmington, Philadelphia, or lower Delaware County, the train is going to be a very attractive proposition. Hopefully SEPTA can shake the weeds for an extra Silverliner or two for Newark service.

For those taking the train from Churchman’s Crossing, be aware that, if the parking lot fills up, there is additional parking available at Delaware Park Casino. You can take selected runs of the DART #5 bus one stop to Churchman’s Crossing Station. (The #5 also goes to Rodney Square, but it crowds uncomfortably under normal circumstances.) Park-and-ride is also available at the nearby DART hub at Christiana Mall.

For those taking the train from Claymont, be aware that, if the main lot off Myrtle Ave and the secondary parking area on Governor Printz Blvd Extension both fill up, there is ample unrestricted curb parking on the residential streets in the neighborhood bounded by Governor Printz Extension, Governor Printz, Philadelphia Pike, and Manor Ave. If you have to avail yourself of that option, please be a good neighbor to the people who live there, and leave rights of way and sightlines open, and keep noise pollution as close to zero as possible.

Those commuting to Wilmington or Newark from Delaware County may want to use SEPTA’s most underrated park-and-ride asset, Springfield Mall, and connect to the Wilmington/Newark line at Chester via the 109, or park on an upper level (5+) of the garage at Harrah’s Philadelphia and ride the 37 or 113 to the train station. There is no parking directly at Chester T.C., nor would this blog recommend parking there if there were.

If anyone needs personalized Delaware commute advice, I will be in the comments of this post and happy to assist.