The California Precedent

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Like Eric @ PPB, I was underwhelmed by the NYT Magazine’s infrastructure issue, but that’s probably because I’m far, far deeper into the weeds on the subject than the average NYT reader. But I did think the article on California’s HSR project was a good primer, worth your time. I found this passage on the risks involved particularly interesting:

There aren’t really any recent examples of high-speed rail as a technical failure. Yet it is entirely plausible that the financial and political difficulties in California could keep other regions from trying to replicate its rail project. Disappointing ridership numbers, without question, could do the same.

California lacks many of the “feeder lines” that support high speed rail. Sure, there’s rapid transit in San Francisco and LA, but it’s nothing like what’s in DC, Boston, or New York. You get off the plane at midnight at LAX and at least you can rent a car. Get off the train in downtown LA and… crickets.

It stands to reason that, with LA getting religion on transit, the collapse of the housing bubble, and the price of gas sure to rise, that by the time the HSR line opens there will be more transit connections available. Certainly that’s the hope. But California will also have to create a train-centric culture that it doesn’t currently have. It would be a shame if we wrote off the whole country just because HSR didn’t work in one of the most car-centric states in the union.

Constantine, Phillips on Eastside Commuter Rail

Photo by Slack Action
Photo by Slack Action

As usual, Publicola gets a great scoop that will be very useful for transit fans trying to discern the difference between Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine:

Phillips said he disagreed with Constantine that the BNSF corridor shouldn’t be reserved for a potential Eastside rail corridor as well as for bike trails. Indeed, Constantine was the only candidate who said during the debate that he didn’t think the BNSF corridor was the right one for Eastside rail. Phillips also pointed out that Constantine actually voted for dual use.

I’ve been looking for something that would illuminate our STB endorsement process, but given the splits on this subject within our own staff, it just muddles the picture more.

I-90 Delays

Photo by Joshua Putnam
Photo by Joshua Putnam

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that Westbound traffic on I-90 is going to be diverted onto the center roadway from July 5 until July 20.  Obviously, traffic is going to be a nightmare.

Metro has released their plan for this period.  They’re putting extra buses in service to allow some hope of at least starting each run on time.  Here are the key paragraphs of Metro’s press release:

Reroutes – Because westbound traffic congestion is expected to be severe, Metro is planning to reroute all Seattle-bound service that travels westbound on I-90 from Snoqualmie, Sammamish, Issaquah Highlands, Issaquah and Eastgate. This will have little impact on bus boarding locations, except for one westbound stop.

Westbound buses that are headed for the I-90 floating bridge will be routed off of I-90 at 142nd Place Southeast at Eastgate and re-enter near Bellevue Way. This will divert buses around several anticipated I-90 choke points and give them a queue jump onto Mercer Island.

Routes 111 and 114 coming from the Renton Highlands will also avoid some portions of I-90. Mercer Island routes 202 and 205 will have a short reroute on the island to enter I-90.

All regular stops on all routes will be made except at the westbound Eastgate flyer stop above I-90.  Passengers who normally use this stop will now board northbound on 142nd Place near the back entrance to Bellevue College. Look for signs directing you to this location.

Remember also that on Friday, July 3 virtually everything is on a Sunday schedule.

Rail Safety Roundup

I think I misfired a bit by focusing on the bogus liability discussion and not on the broader safety issues John Niles was raising.  (By the way, Mike Lindblom did a great piece on this subject back in 2004.)  A few points and I’ll leave the subject — at least till the next accident.

  • We trade safety for convenience and cost all the time.  Holding Light Rail to a standard beyond all other modes of transportation doesn’t make any sense unless you’re trying to stop light rail.
  • Almost everyone agrees that, all else being equal, grade separated is better than not, for many, many reasons.  Some people really don’t like the visual impacts of elevated track, but that isn’t me.  The problem is that all else isn’t equal.  For various political and financial reasons grade separation simply wasn’t going to happen if this were to get built at all.  If you put basically no value on having rail in the region that’s a small price to pay, but for the rest of us that’s a big deal.
  • Running Light Rail down the street is not a daredevil stunt.  It’s done all the time in cities across the United States and around the world.  There’s likely to be an adjustment period, but after that people will get used to it.  There’s no reason to be an alarmist.
  • I went back and read John Niles’s report more carefully.  I think the technical core of his argument is that non-passenger injuries should have been included in the FTA safety analysis, and therefore that the project should have been rejected by the FTA.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I should point out that (a) it’s far from clear, from a legal standpoint, from the document that one should include external injuries; (b) I don’t see any reason to view the FTA criteria as particularly valid, in a metaphysical sense, given the way we treat other transportation modes; and (c) given that the money is already awarded and spent, the whole argument is irrelevant.
  • All that said, the reason we’ve been given that there isn’t a short, tasteful fence along the length of the surface segment is that emergency vehicles have to be able to make turns and U-turns over the tracks.  That’s a valid interest, but someone ought to do the analysis on whether that actually saves more lives than fencing the thing off except at designated crossings.