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“Only Fix Things After The Worst Has Happened”: The Conservative Case For Strengthening Amtrak

The Amtrak crash in Pennsylvania killed eight people and injured dozens more. It has sparked much hand-wringing in the media, though its death toll is surpassed every few hours on American highways.

Still, Republicans have not hesitated in their plan to sharply cut Amtrak subsidies, recently voting on legislation to do just that. One GOP congressman called Amtrak a “Soviet-style operation,” which presumably means he would prefer abolishing Amtrak altogether.

But Republicans, as the ostensible party of conservatism, have an obligation to consider the extant fact of Amtrak, which is a critical institution for millions of Americans. By supposed conservative principles, it is not appropriate to sacrifice the current needs of existing people in pursuit of an ideological utopia.

Michael Oakeshott famously described the conservative temperament as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [On Being Conservative]

It may be the case that slashing Amtrak’s subsidies or selling it to private companies would result in an overall improvement in service at some future point. (If you care to poke around, successful national rail is operated on all sorts of ownership grounds, from mostly private in Japan to state-owned in Sweden.)

But it is inarguably true that right now millions of Americans depend on Amtrak as it currently exists. It’s a tried, factual, actually existing institution that works well enough for the more than 30 million people who choose to take it every year. Indeed, ridership is actually up 50 percent since 2000. Most of that business is done in the Northeast Corridor, where the population is concentrated enough for true high-speed rail to be a reasonable proposition (someday).

However, it’s also an institution in need of help. As I’ve written before, Amtrak faces a slow-motion emergency regarding its two tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New York City to New Jersey. They’re over a century old, and due to flooding during Hurricane Sandy, will need a total overhaul at some point in the next several years.

Back in 2009, there was a capacity expansion planned that would have alleviated the pressure. That’s out of the question now, thanks to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who bogarted some of the money so he wouldn’t have to raise the gas tax.

A new tunnel under the Hudson is by far the most important potential piece of infrastructure in the nation. Four hundred thousand commuters go through the existing tunnels every weekday. If one were to shut down (or, God forbid, collapse), the total throughput would be cut by something like 75 percent, because the remaining tunnel would have to go both ways. A great many of those people simply would not be able to get to their jobs during rush hour.

Any looming disaster like this presents a choice. A crisis might be the opportune time for reform. But it is simply preposterous to imagine that a new tunnel could be built without substantial federal support. With a likely cost of $7-10 billion, it’s probably too expensive for private corporations to even finance in the first place. (Though it was a private train company that built the original tunnels, there are none remotely that big anymore.)

So my question for all the supposed conservatives out there champing at the bit to abolish Amtrak: What say you to the 400,000 daily New Jersey commuters, or the 30 million Amtrak customers generally? On Oakeshottian grounds, I’d say that conservatives are obligated to make some accommodation of those people, regardless of their ideology about markets.

It doesn’t seem very conservative, much less responsible, to simply procrastinate and only fix things after the worst has happened — which is what’s going to happen.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Conservatives, Infrastructure | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Next Amtrak Catastrophe”: This Is Still An Infrastructure Story

Maybe five or six years ago, I was reading a magazine article about The Beatles’ first trip to America in 1964, a topic on which I am something of an expert. As some of you will know, they did Ed Sullivan’s show and then took a train from New York to Washington DC, where they performed their first live U.S. concert (with a young Al Gore in attendance, fwiw).

I was reading along learning nothing new because I know all there is to know about all that until I came across a line that just staggered me. It wasn’t anything about the group; rather, it was a reference to their “two hour and 15 minute train trip.” Their what?! That trip today, as you know, is at best two hours and 40 minutes, but that is only for the “high-speed” Acela, and in truth that’s only theoretical. It’s usually more like two hours and 55 minutes. That is, if it gets there, as we might add after Tuesday night’s tragedy.

It seemed totally beyond belief that the train ride from New York to Washington could have been faster in 1964 than it was the year I was reading this article. But it was true: I was so floored by this that I called Amtrak and some rail experts I know to check, and it checked out. The reason: aging sections of track that trains have to slow down for.

Technology is supposed to go forward, not backward, especially here in the US of A. In the years since, American go-getters of various stripes have invented computers and smart phones and have seen to it that pizzas reach our doorstep in half an hour and perfected the chips that taste like melted cheese. But somehow, our trains, running in our nation’s most commercially important and rail-dependent corridor, are slower.

As I’m writing these words, we don’t yet know the reason for the Tuesday night derailment in North Philly. The preliminary informed conjecture points toward speed. It’s an area of the Northeast Corridor route that’s rated at 50 mph. If you know the route, you know why—it’s urban (just two or three miles north of the Philadelphia Zoo, which you can see out to the right on northbound trains), and it’s curvy. It seems the train was going well in excess of that speed.

So, speed, you say; well that’s probably just human error, so at least I won’t have to listen to the liberals bellyache about infrastructure. Sorry to disappoint, but this is still an infrastructure story. Here’s why.

There’s this thing in the train game called PTC—Positive Train Control. Basically, it would allow for a modernized version of what happened back in the original The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, when an override switch stopped that Number 6 barreling toward doom in lower Manhattan. It would break track into sections, establish safe speeds for each, and use broadband connectivity in a way that would permit a train’s computers to override the conductor if the train is exceeding the safe speed and slam on the brakes.

Amtrak is installing PTC on the Northeast Corridor, and in fairness to Congress, it has mandated that Amtrak do so and provided funding to do it, although not as quickly as Amtrak has requested. Right now PTC is installed only on three short-ish sections of the Northeast Corridor—for example, from Perryville, Maryland to Wilmington. If this incident had happened there, the derailment presumably would not have happened.

Congress is constantly shorting Amtrak, and especially the Northeast Corridor, even though the Northeast Corridor makes all the money ($500 million a year, roughly). See, it works like this. It’s the same old story of the red states—you know, where they hate government—getting largesse from the blue states.

There are three categories of Amtrak routes. The first is the Northeast Corridor routes, which bring in all the dough. The second are certain intrastate routes—Albany to Buffalo, say, or Harrisburg to Pittsburgh; for these, the states have to make up any operating deficits, so by law these have to break even. Third are the long-haul interstate routes out West. These are huge money losers, and a lot of the routes should just be cut, probably, but the Republicans running Congress won’t allow that, even as they keep wanting to slash Amtrak funding overall. Rather incredibly, the House Appropriations committee stood firm on approving a $260 million cut (nearly 20 percent) to Amtrak from the previous year on Wednesday—literally the day after the tragedy, strictly along party lines. Amtrak asked for about $2 billion for next year. It may end up getting as little as $1.14 billion.

So down the road, here’s what’s going to happen. Right now, there are two tunnels under the Hudson River that carry all the passenger train traffic back and forth between New York and New Jersey. They’re a hundred years old. During Hurricane Sandy, they were flooded with salt water, which experts say sped up their deterioration. They might have to be taken out of service in seven to 10 years.

They will be taken out of service one at a time of course. But imagine what a reduction from two tunnels to one would do to service. The delays would be unbearable. Think about when one lane is closed on a two-lane highway. It doesn’t merely double your travel time during peak hours. It can triple it. So imagine boarding a train at Penn Station at 6 pm, moving 50 feet, and sitting there for 40 minutes before the tunnel is clear.

Two new tunnels are needed, and given the time that’s involved in design and environmental review and so on, seven years is just around the corner. The cost is $7 billion. That’s not chump change, but it’s a fraction of the cost of Marco Rubio’s aggressively stupid tax cuts. And even if Hillary Clinton and not Rubio is the president, two new tunnels are still going to be awfully hard to come by, although by God that all-important route across northern Montana is going to stay open—and with we Northeasterners paying for it.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, May 14, 2015

May 16, 2015 Posted by | Amtrak, Congress, Infrastructure | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“All Aboard, Suckers”: Florida Taxpayers About To Be Railroaded

Here’s a really clever idea:

Let’s run express passenger trains 16 times round-trip every day between downtown Miami and the Orlando airport. That’s right, the airport.

Except the trains won’t go straight there, but will stop first in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, then head up the seaboard to Cocoa and hang a hard left 40 miles west across the middle of the state.

Oh, and the trip will take at least three hours one way.

Leaving aside the fact that you can inexpensively drive from downtown Miami to the Orlando airport in about the same time (or fly commercially in only 42 minutes), the project grandly known as All Aboard Florida raises other elementary questions.

Like, “Why?”

As it waddles down the tracks, this turkey enjoys the robust blessing of the Republican-led Legislature and Governor Rick Scott, who said the following to a reporter last month:

“It’s all funding that will be provided by somebody other than the state. It’s a private company.”

Scott’s either clueless or lying. All Aboard Florida is a future train wreck for taxpayers. With the possible exception of the Hogwarts Express, passenger rail services almost always lose money and end up subsidized by government.

All Aboard Florida already has applied for $1.6 billion in federal loans and plans to rent space at a new terminal at the Orlando International Airport, for which state lawmakers recently appropriated $213 million.

That’s just the beginning. According to the Scripps/Tribune Capitol Bureau, the company also wants the state to pay $44 million to connect its lines with Tri-Rail, the daily commuter link serving South Florida.

Only three short years ago, playing the Tea Party scrooge, Scott killed a proposed high-speed train project between Orlando and Tampa. In rejecting about $2 billion in federal funds, the governor asserted that Florida taxpayers would have ended up paying to operate the rail service once it was finished. He was right.

Now he’s yodeling a different tune, perhaps because his latest chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, formerly worked for one of the companies connected to All Aboard Florida. (When a reporter asked Scott if he’d talked to Hollingsworth about the project, he didn’t answer.)

Meanwhile, all along the proposed route, opposition is erupting. Here was the front-page headline in the July 13 Indian River Press Journal: ALL AGAINST ALL ABOARD.

Officials in Stuart, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and other communities are rightly worried about the impact of adding 32 trains every day on the Florida East Coast tracks that All Aboard Florida plans to use.

The frequent stoppage of traffic at rail crossings is a major concern, especially because it will impede police, firefighters and other emergency responders. For residents and businesses near the track, the train noise and vibrations will be a recurring headache.

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari believes it could hurt local property values. And where the trains will cross busy waterways like the St. Lucie River, many say the repeated lowering of the railroad bridges will restrict boat travel and hurt the marine trades.

All Aboard Florida insists that its trains will be moving so fast that boaters and motorists won’t be inconvenienced for long periods, and it has promised to upgrade the road crossings to make them safer.

Few of the many critics seem reassured. Municipalities and counties fear they’ll be stuck with funding new infrastructure, just for the privilege of watching shiny locomotives whiz past all day long.

The whole project is anchored on the dubious notion that millions of people can’t wait to hop a train from Miami to the Orlando airport (via Cocoa). Although All Aboard Florida has sued to keep secret its ridership surveys, its website sunnily predicts that three out of four passengers will be tourists.

Tourists who are what … afraid to fly? Too scared to drive?

Talk about a narrow market.

And while it’s always beneficial to reduce the number of cars on the highway, this particular experiment can’t possibly break even. The only money will be made in the beginning with real-estate deals, by well-connected contractors working on new stations, modernizing the rails and laying 40 miles of fresh track between Brevard County and the land of Disney.

At this point, the momentum for All Aboard is all political, and only the rising outcry can derail it. Scott, who’s up for re-election, recently asked the Federal Railroad Administration to extend to 75 days the public-comment period that will follow the agency’s upcoming environmental impact study.

If the trains ever start running, spewing red ink with every toot of their horns, don’t be surprised if the state steps in to bail out the project, or asks the feds to do it.

Either way, we’ll get stung with the bill somewhere down the line.

All aboard, suckers.

 

By: Carl Hiaasen, Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, July 22, 2014

July 22, 2014 Posted by | Florida, Infrastructure, Rick Scott | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gov Rick Scott: When Bad Governors Try Bad Ideas

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) came up with an idea he considered pretty clever. First, he told Floridians that people on welfare were more likely to be drug addicts. What did Scott base this on? Nothing in particular — he seemed to just make it up — but Scott was quite fond of the argument.

Second, the governor approved a policy based on his faulty assumptions: those who apply for welfare benefits will have to pass a state-mandated drug test. How’s that working out? Not well.

Since the state began testing welfare applicants for drugs in July, about 2 percent have tested positive, preliminary data shows.

Ninety-six percent proved to be drug free — leaving the state on the hook to reimburse the cost of their tests.

As part of the Scott administration policy, those applying for benefits have to pay a $30 out-of-pocket fee to pay for the drug test. If they pass, Florida reimburses them.

And while the state saves some money by not making benefits available to those 2% who fail the test, Florida is forced to reimburse everyone else, plus pay for staff and administrative costs for the drug-testing program, plus pay the legal fees associated with the likely court challenge.

This really wasn’t a great idea.

I’d also note for context that Rick Scott’s drug-testing policy is limited to low-income Floridians needing temporary aid. It doesn’t, in other words, apply to everyone seeking public funding — only the poor, who the governor assumes are probably drug-addicts.

And speaking of the nation’s worst governor, remember the $2.4 billion Florida was set to receive for high-speed rail? The project that enjoyed bipartisan support and was going to create tens of thousands of jobs? With Scott rejecting the funding, the money has now been officially reallocated for rail upgrades in the Northeast, high-speed rail in the Midwest, and related projects in California.

Florida’s unemployment rate is only 10.7%. It’s not like the state needed the boost.

 

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, August 26, 2011

August 27, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Democracy, Economy, Elections, Equal Rights, GOP, Gov Rick Scott, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Public, Republicans, Right Wing, State Legislatures, States, Teaparty, Unemployment, Wealthy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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