Train to nowhere – On Cortes

Sources forward to me the following article which Dan Walters writes in the Sacramento Bee

California may build train to nowhere : “”

A few days before this month’s election, the federal government announced that California would receive an additional $715 million for its high-speed rail project, contingent on the money being spent quickly on a segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

Why? You’d have to be terminally naive not to believe that the splashy announcement, made personally by an Obama administration official in Fresno, was to help an embattled local congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, stave off a very stiff Republican challenge.

Costa, a longtime bullet train advocate, did, in fact, eke out a narrow re-election win. And last week, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) announced plans to spend that money and some other federal and state funds, $4.3 billion in all, to build a 54-mile segment from Madera to Corcoran.
It was instructive on two fronts. It illustrated the pork barrel aspects of the scheme, with financing, routes and station sites dependent more on political pull than objective criteria. It also underscored the eagerness of bullet train boosters to turn dirt, thereby creating a moral commitment to complete the project despite its deficiencies.

This is an interesting act of Hubris on the part of the CAHSRA. If the entire line were to be funded with 100% certainty in short order, it would not matter which segment were built first, as they would all ultimately get built.

But 100% certainty is certainly lacking in this case, the funding stars are hardly aligned (much less the right-of-way acquired or the lawsuits settled). The risk is that this line will indeed be a line to approximately nowhere from nowhere. It will be great for the Fresno exurbanites living in Corcoran, Hanford, or Selma, or perhaps the dozens of tourists seeking to go to the Italian Swiss Colony outside of Madera.

Like Cortés who scuttled his ships to eliminate any idea of retreat, the authority is burning the public’s money on a useless segment. (Unfortunately for the Aztecs, Cortés succeeded, others who unsuccessfully applied the same strategy are generally unmentioned in the history books). Presumably this is to help ensure further lines are built. (You have to build the rest to get anything useful). In contrast, a more rational strategy (one hesitates to use an unqualified “rational”) would be to build the lines out of Los Angeles or San Francisco, which would have fallback use as commuter rail lines. No one (who earned their own money from anything more complicated than a lottery ticket or rewriting a dying relative’s will and who retains their faculties) spending their own money would do something so arrogant or risky. Historically, privately built railroads always built the best segments first (those leading into or out of major cities or connecting mines with ports, or other sources of supply and demand), and then extended their systems treelike to connect more and more markets, eventually interconnecting. This is the natural order of emergent infrastructure systems, and ensures viability at the first and all subsequent stages. By forgoing the mostly rational strategy, the CHSRA, playing with OPM (Other People’s Money) seeks to leverage future money from politicians who don’t want an albatross-like white elephant around their necks.
If all infrastructure that were begun were ultimately finished, this would be fine, but history is rife with half-finished and abandoned projects, begun with fanfare, sealed with ignominy. A few are below.

Remembering when the Henry George Club ran Pittsburgh

Nullspace (Chris Briem), a Pittsburgh-based urban economics blog discusses value capture and land value tax in Remembering when the Henry George Club ran Pittsburgh.
At the end he writes

Alas.. all that and the truth is even more complicated. If you really parse it, Henry George may be having a revival of sorts right here in Pennsylvania. When you really deconstruct the tax-math-accounting of it, a lot of TIF’s and tax incentives are really a tiered tax by other means, though some Georgists react a bit badly to the analogy. We can debate TIF implementation, here and elsewhere, another day. That and things like the Pittsburgh tax abatement program (modeled a bit loosely on Philadelphia’s groundbreaking tax abatement program) are effectively Georgian in intent, if not name.

A Short History of Intersection

Urbangram has A Short History of Intersection

“The Egyptian symbol for ‘city’, Richard Sennett points out in Conscience of the Eye (p. 46), consisted of a cross bounded by a circle, providing one of the earliest signs of the urban; intersection and enclosure — grid and boundary — come together in this hieroglyph. The notion of the urban as an intersection offers an insight into one of the longest-running themes in urbanism – centrality. Whilst Egyptians made a point of right-angled street intersections, the Roman grid plan (Hippodamus) was designed to explicitly generate centers at different scales, with the earliest phase of settlement locating itself at the intersection of two prominent axial streets, the cardo and the decumanus. To this day cores, hubs, and centers form ever-present concepts in urban discourse; all relate or allude to a set of slippery spatial phenomena we call ‘centrality’.”

Read the rest

Traffic signal pre-emption failure.

At the intersection of Harvard and Washington Avenue, adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, there is a safety problem with traffic signal pre-emption, described below. I reported this to the University of Minnesota Transportation and Parking, whom I am sure dutifully passed this up the line. However, I looked online to figure out who to report to directly, it is not obvious.

I go to MnDOT’s page which says:

Question: I know of a traffic signal that has indications out or appears to be malfunctioning. Who do I contact?

Answer: First, you need to know which government agency owns and operates the traffic signal (city, county or MN/DOT). Generally, if a state highway has an approach to the traffic signal, then MN/DOT is likely to operate the signal. If no state highway is present, only county or city roads approach the signal, then the county in which the signal is located is likely to operate the signal. If no state highway or county road is present at the signal, only city streets approach the signal, then it is likely that the city in which the signal is located will operate the signal. Once the operation and ownership of the signal is determined, you can contact the agencies [sic] Traffic Engineering/Public Works department. Click here

Now if you “Click Here”, you would expect to see who owns which signals. E.g., one would hope to see a map, I could click on the intersection in question, and it would tell me who owned the signal. The best I get is a list of counties and cities. Well even if I know which county and city I am in, (and I do, but I suspect most U of Mn students are only vaguely aware of the existence of Hennepin County) I still don’t know who owns the signal, and the links are just to the county and city websites, not the traffic engineering groups. I think Washington Avenue is a city rather than county road, though the Washington Avenue bridge is a county facility. My next step is calling 311, so I hope that gets through (my confidence level is low).

Now the problem:

The design of a traffic signal pre-emption for emergency vehicles is supposed to save emergency vehicles time, by turning a red light green, subject to constraints. Typical verbiage is

• A green light is not guaranteed. Emergency vehicle drivers need to use caution not to over-rely on the system and need to be prepared to stop if provision of the preemption phase is delayed (i.e., awaiting time out of an in-progress pedestrian phase). Emergency vehicle preemption operation and limitations must be a part of initial and recurring emergency vehicle driver training.

Similarly New Jersey requires

If pre-emption is approved, a timing sequence needs to be developed that provides adequate time to allow for safe egress of the fire/rescue vehicles. Care should be taken to ensure that all timing plans have a sufficient guaranteed minimum green time to the main street to avoid the display of a “flash” green. All vehicular and pedestrian clearances times must be guaranteed.

The problem is that the in-progress pedestrian phase at this location is not in fact given time to clear. I was walking NB on the sidewalk adjacent to Harvard Ave. at the intersection with Washington (Thursday, Nov 18 about 12:30). The pedestrian phase gave me a walking man indicator. I and others began to cross. The phase should be at least 12 seconds (4 lanes at 12 ft each, at a human walking speed of 3 ft. per second). It normally is. However speeding along Washington Ave EB is an emergency vehicle with lights and siren blaring. The light immediately (say about 2 seconds into the ped phase) changes from green to red (red to green on Washington). The pedestrians have now been stranded, since unlike vehicles, they cannot clear the intersection in 2 seconds. So I and others are now on a pedestrian crosswalk, which we entered legally with the light, while cars on Washington think they have a green light, and being cars driven by drivers, and being treated like idiots, behaving like idiots proceed to go, trusting the traffic light rather than observing conditions around them (like the mass of pedestrians in the crosswalk). Even if the pedestrian were there illegally, the car would not be legally allowed to hit them.

Were this the only problem at this intersection, I would just assume I missed something. In fact this is the second problem I have observed and reported in just over a week. On Nov. 10 just before 1:30 I observed that the light was mishandling pre-emption, in this case I think it was transit pre-emption. Basically the pedestrian phase (on the north side of Washington) went from “hand” to “flash” and then back to “hand”, as a bus was coming through (hence my thought it is related to signal pre-emption, buses pre-empting the gap-out or max-out condition). The queue on Harvard was quite long, and the pedestrians were backed up at the signal (I pushed the actuator several times, but it didn’t seem to come through).

Chance of Dying From Airport Backscatter Radiation About the Same as Chance of Getting Killed by Terrorists

H/T Daring Fireball, from MSNBC Chance of Dying From Airport Backscatter Radiation About the Same as Chance of Getting Killed by Terrorists

“Peter Rez, a physics professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, did his own calculations and found the exposure to be about one-fiftieth to one-hundredth the amount of a standard chest X-ray. He calculated the risk of getting cancer from a single scan at about 1 in 30 million, “which puts it somewhat less than being killed by being struck by lightning in any one year,” he told me.

While the risk of getting a fatal cancer from the screening is minuscule, it’s about equal to the probability that an airplane will get blown up by a terrorist, he added. “So my view is there is not a case to be made for deploying them to prevent such a low probability event.””

Forecasts of Central Corridor LRT Boardings

I assigned a group project in CE3201, Introduction to Transportation Engineering to predict boardings at the proposed Central Corridor LRT stations. Each group had one station, and was free to develop a methodology (after having learned about travel demand models). The predictions (in the final column) can be compared with official forecasts. I promised dinner to whichever group was closest to the actual boardings after the line opens (but they must claim it). The forecasts were widely varying in methodology and quality (the same can be said for some official forecasts in general, though the consistency of official forecasts here is much greater of course).

Station Peak hours Off-Peak hours Total Daily Student
Downtown Minneapolis Ballpark
Station
250 150 400
Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue 2,430 1,270 3,700
Nicollet Mall 4,820 2,170 6,990
Government Plaza 740 310 1,050
Downtown East / Metrodome 2,710 1,410 4,120
West Bank Station 910 290 1,200 439
East Bank Station 4,180 2,500 6,680 2,204
Stadium Village Station 710 260 970 1800
29th Avenue Station 670 280 950 477
Westgate Station 750 390 1,140 4038
Raymond Avenue Station 840 410 1,250 845
Fairview Avenue Station 1,300 600 1,900 38
Snelling Avenue Station 1,500 1,430 2,930 664
Hamline Ave 827
Lexington Parkway Station 540 390 930 945
Dale Street Station 420 290 710
Rice Street Station 780 420 1,200
Capitol East Station 250 140 390
10th Street Station 1,080 780 1,860
4th and Cedar Streets Station 820 380 1,200
Union Depot Station 1,210 910 2,120
Total Daily Boardings 26,910 14,780 41,690
Official Weekday Boardings
From FEIS. Chapter 6 (Transportation), page 6-9:
http://www.metrocouncil.org/transportation/ccorridor/FEIS/FEISChapter6.pdf

Scientists propose one-way trips to Mars to jump-start new era of humans in space

Scientists propose one-way trips to Mars to jump-start new era of humans in space

By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS , Associated Press
Last update: November 15, 2010 – 9:01 AM

PULLMAN, Wash. – Invoking the spirit of “Star Trek” in a scholarly article entitled “To Boldly Go,” two scientists contend human travel to Mars could happen much more quickly and cheaply if the missions are made one-way. They argue that it would be little different from early settlers to North America, who left Europe with little expectation of return.

“humans must begin colonizing another planet as a hedge against a catastrophe on Earth.”

Finally some clear thinking on space exploration. The point isn’t science (which is wonderful, but not cost effective, we can do better science with the resources), or exploration for the sake of exploration (which is wonderful, but really should be done with private money), but one of risk aversion in case we or someone (Vogons) or something else (giant meteorites, solar flares, etc.) screws up the earth.

Northstar rail line’s birthday wish: more riders

From the Pioneer PressNorthstar rail line’s birthday wish: more riders

“As the Northstar Commuter Rail line nears its first birthday, ridership has fallen below expectations.

A week after it was announced that plans to expand the rail line to St. Cloud have been shelved, officials released numbers showing ridership is about 5 percent below projections. Officials blame the economy and expect the gap to widen.

For the first nine months of 2010, about 560,000 people rode the Northstar line, said Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. That figure is below the expected 590,000 riders.

Throughout the summer, the Northstar was used by Twins fans attending sold-out games at Target Field. But now that the baseball season is over, officials expect overall ridership for the year to fall about 20 percent below the original projection of 890,000 riders, to 715,000.

“We have always considered commuter rail a long-term investment meant to attract jobs and complement our region’s quality of life,” Felix Schmiesing, a Sherburne County commissioner and member of the Northstar Corridor Development Authority, said last week when it was announced thathat the expansion plans were put on hold.

The NCDA said last Friday that it will not apply for federal funds to extend the 40-mile line, which currently runs from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake. The agency said the decision was made because the projected ridership of such an expansion did not meet the Federal Transit Authority’s “strict standards.””

Notably also Jim Oberstar lost his seat in Congress just before the agency made its decision. Somehow the article failed to note this.

“Despite the ridership shortfall, expenses for the commuter line will be within the 2010 budget of $16.8 million. Gibbons attributes this to the effective management of costs as well as distance-based fares.

Metro Transit expects Northstar’s ridership next year to be about 750,000″

$16.8 million for 715,000 riders is $23.50 per rider. Note that most trips are two-way, so this is $47.00 per person. The fare on Northstar is $7.00 weekday from Big Lake and decreasing on distance and on the weekend, or roundtrip is worst case $14, assuming no other subsidies, passes, etc. So the subsidy per day per person is at least $33, which is even worse than I imagined.

Somehow the article failed to note this as well.