A new chapter in Amtrak history is written as the first of 70 new Siemens electric locomotives entered service along the Northeast Corridor. The event featured a plethora of media representatives and one particular Amtrak fan: US Vice-President Joe Biden, who traveled on the Northeast Corridor during his years as a US Senator. The new locomotives will replace older vehicles as they enter revenue service in the coming weeks, with full delivery set for 2015.
In an attempt to thin out local port traffic throughout the workday, the Harbor Trucking Association proposed opening terminals 24 hours a day instead of the constrained schedules in place. Currently, terminals are open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., five days a week. Operating the terminals around the clock would dissuade trucks from blocking access roads at particular times, according to the HTA. However, terminal operators shot down the proposal citing the prohibitive expense of 24-hour operations and the perceived overabundance of trucks already accessing the terminals. Failing that, increased cargo traffic would be necessary to make such operations viable. Considering recent news revealing a drop in exports, 24-hour operations may not happen for a good while.
Dial-A-Ride services have proven indispensable for providing transport to seniors and the disabled where regular bus service is not feasible. For one group of seniors in Bell Gardens, however, the local Dial-A-Ride service provides a way to socialize while they run errands. Here, the mostly-female riders chat about various topics that stay confined to the inside of the bus, which may sometimes rub on new riders the wrong way. For these women, however, riding with their comadreson the bus forms a healthier alternative to staying home alone, an all too common occurrence with most seniors.
In other news, the LA Times editorialized its discontent at San Francisco charging fees for private companies to shuttle their employees using public bus stops. An op-ed from the same paper warned that rail transit alone will not transform LA and that policies should foster transit-oriented development, job creation and destinations around rail stations. Finally, the behemoth Big Boy locomotive has left the Pomona Fairplex and will start its trek to Wyoming for restoration by Union Pacific Railroad, with its first stop near Colton.
A federal bill that would encourage transportation agencies to hire local contractors garnered the blessing of the LA Times editorial board. Pasadena officials contemplate placing a road diet and enhancing pedestrian amenities on the part of Colorado Boulevard that runs through Old Town. Union Station operators have opted to ease their restrictions on transients using the station. Finally, don’t become alarmed, but self-driving cars are already cruising around the Bay Area, albeit as part of a demonstration.
As the Highway Trust Fund nears a very real, potentially disastrous fiscal cliff, the discussion of how to raise revenues to invest in a system that leads to real economic development and enhances the country’s global economic competitiveness is beginning to pick up steam. Even though the conversations have begun the majority of Congress still appears to believe that Congress will go running off the cliff with the Trust Fund before getting down to work fixing it. And even while admitting it needs to be fixed there are still many in the House that believe public transit should be kicked out on the street to fend for itself. This view is increasingly at odds with the realities of metropolitan regions throughout the country.
A robust transit network is increasingly seen as critical for long-term competitiveness and economic growth in metropolitan regions throughout the country regardless of political affiliation. Nashville, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, and Denver are just a few metro regions that are joining the transit race in an attempt to cement their ability to compete for the best and brightest young professionals. To support these metros and others in their transit expansion plans a strong federal partner is needed which will require increased revenue to stabilize the Trust Fund. To provide sufficient transit funding, repair roads and bridges, and provide real transportation choices significant revenue increases will be needed. Transportation for America, a national advocacy group focused on transportation and economic development, estimates that it will require an additional $30 billion annually in revenue to address these needs. Ideas for accomplishing this include indexing the gas tax to inflation, a simple increase in the gas tax, an oil severance tax, or a combination of these. One thing is clear, however: This is an issue of political will in Congress and not a technical issue of how to do it.
In other transportation news, LA Curbed mulls whether Metro should pursue creating an entirely new sales tax for transportation or extending the existing Measure R sales tax. In Mexico City, the citizenry is up in arms over a 2-peso increase in transit fares that was started without their consultation. (A previous survey on the issue showed that passengers would support an increase so long as discernible improvements to the transit network were made.) Also, the Federal Transit Administration is calling for better safety regulations that would protect rail workers, in response to the death of two such workers along BART tracks in Walnut Creek.
Finally, take a look at what our resident “Criswell” predicts for transit in 2014.
The Atlantic Cities reviewed the most notable improvements in urban living within the largest cities of the nation (and Vancouver, BC) during 2013. Our very own CicLAvia was selected as the single most distinguished initiative to enhance city life in the Los Angeles region. Other cities were commended for policy changes that similarly benefitted its citizens, most notably improved bike policies in Chicago and San Francisco, and more sidewalks in Portland. The Atlanta Streetcar, currently under construction, was the lone transit project that made the list.
Meanwhile, the Transport Politic provides an interactive map showcasing the numerous transit projects that will either open or continue construction in 2014. However, blogger Yonah Freemark notes that the prices of these otherwise beneficial projects are skyrocketing at an alarming rate. The rail projects surveyed for this map have an average cost of $1.1 billion a mile, according to Freemark. This will prove problematic now that the federal government will have less money to fund transit projects through the New Starts, Small Starts and TIGER programs thanks to an ongoing budget freeze. Agencies must emphasize cost containment in order to remain competitive for federal funding, Freemark warns.
A fire that consumed a train carrying crude oil through North Dakota forced the evacuation of a nearby town, though no injuries have been reported. The incident marked the fourth in 2013 within North America that involved the transport of hazardous crude oil. The federal government, at the behest of private railroads, is working to reform safety standards for crude-carrying rail cars.
In other news, gas prices continue to climb in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, reaching an average of $3.681 per gallon by Monday. An LA transplant laments his increased use of the automobile despite readily available transit alternatives, but promises to change his tune in the new year. Finally, construction jobs in both counties are also increasing in number.
A boom in oil production across the upper Midwest is seriously affecting rail travel through that part of the country. The Amtrak Empire Builder, which transports rural residents between Seattle/Portland and Chicago, is bearing the brunt of the disruptions caused by the uptick in freight traffic. BNSF, which operates the railway shared by Amtrak and freight trains, is adding as much capacity as possible, but its efforts are not coming fast enough. As a result, Amtrak was forced to cancel select Empire Builder runs while other trains faced delays of as much as 5 hours. To maintain some sort of service, Amtrak has run stub service from Seattle/Portland to Spokane and from Minneapolis to Chicago. Even so, many of these now-cancelled runs have previously sold out. With no parallel Amtrak service available and train equipment in short supply, the problems facing the Empire Builder is endemic to a passenger rail network that remains vulnerable due to a lack of alternatives despite high demand.