Monday, September 24, 2007

CalTrain CEMOF (Maintenance Facility) Open House

From a CalTrain press release:

Caltrain Set to Open New $140M Maintenance Facility

Caltrain will officially open its new Centralized Equipment Maintenance & Operations Facility on Saturday, Sept. 29. After nearly three years of construction, this $140 million facility will finally provide Caltrain with its first-ever “home” for maintenance and operations.

The new facility will accommodate critical activities, including inspections, maintenance, repairs, train washing and storage. CEMOF will consolidate Caltrain's existing maintenance facilities and provide the capacity to complete certain maintenance that had to be contracted out until now. The change is particularly welcome for employees, who have had to work outside in all kinds of weather with few amenities, often crawling on the ground to do repairs.

The CEMOF grand opening will be open to the public and include a community open house as well. Attendees will park at the nearby San Jose Diridon Caltrain Station and be brought to the CEMOF site on a special train that will depart the station at 10 a.m. Diridon station is located at 65 Cahill St. Attendees who cannot arrive in time for the train ride can take a special SamTrans shuttle that will depart from the Diridon station for the CEMOF location every 15 minutes from 10:15 a.m. until 12:15 p.m.

The event will begin with a short program at 10:30 a.m., including comments from local, state and federal officials, including Amtrak President Alexander Kummant. Immediately afterward, attendees may tour the facility and get an explanation of the types of maintenance and repairs that will take place at CEMOF.

The special train will return to Diridon station at 12:30 p.m., however attendees are welcome to leave before or after that time via the shuttles, which will run back to the train station until 1 p.m.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Cars Aren't Really Transportation

A counterpoint to statements of US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who blamed the Minneapolis bridge collapse on frivolous use of gas tax funds to pay for bike paths instead of road repair, when bicycling "is not really transportation anyway".

Now to be fair, cars are partly about transportation. Some cars are pretty much just functional ways from getting you from point A to point B. For example, I used to drive one of these:

It was actually a lot of fun.

Now if you're driving something like this to work,

That's about more than transportation--it's about one ton of transportation (a Festiva weighs 1800 lbs) and two and a half (a suburban weights 7000) of vanity, conspicuous consumption, and self-aggrandizement.

It's been pointed out before that America could be fuel-self-sufficient if everyone drove reasonable sized cars. Less discussed, but just as true, is the fact that larger cars exacerbate conjestion--it's not just that they take up more roadway themselves, but cause drivers leave more pavement unoccupied, because you just can't see around those things. And, obviously, a heavier vehicle wears out bridges and aslphalt that much faster.

So, if we're going to talk seriously about spending transportation funds purely on transportation, let's acknowledge that commuting in any car bigger than a compact is a matter of luxury, not transportation--and subsidizing it (by charging nothing for using as much road space as you feel like filling) is a ridiculous was of our taxes.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Streetcars, Light Rail, and Sensible Engineering: Making a Left Turn at Albuquerque

It is becoming more and more apparent that much of what is constructed as "light rail" is, in fact, just very over-engineered streetcar lines--or conversely, that "modern streetcars" are light rail built sensibly.

Take a look, for example, at the complex overhead on a piece of the VTA's Tasman West line:

You would think this was built for bullet trains, but I doubt the VTA's trains ever run much more than 40 MPH here.

This sort of construction may be merited in other, faster parts of the VTA system, particularly the southern stretches, where faster speeds are possible. Speed may justify fancy overhead, heavier cars (for safety) and the consequently heavier and more expensive track construction these cars need (even in the parts of the system where they putter or crawl along). Certainly, there are light rail systems in other regions, such as San Diego's and the LA Blue Line, which really haul ass and clearly needed to be built like real railroads.

VTA trains are positively zippy compared to the Muni's, which outside of the subway operate in classic trolley car fashion, with all its charms (you guys know I'm a foamer, right? Read my other blog!) and failings--including the new T line, which even when it's bugs are eventually (someday?) worked out, will still just basically be a streetcar line (with the advantage of running a reserved median), built for $100 million per mile, but not hitting speeds much faster than "modern streetcar" lines that other cities, like Portland, have built for a quarter of that cost.

But we're the wonderful Bay Area, right? And entitled to world-class transit, whatever it costs? AARRGH!!!

Meanwhile, other cities, less convinced of their own entitlement to fabulousness, or perhaps where local politics requires a clearer ROI on transit investment (i.e., underpeforming boondoggles will get you voted out of office), have figured out how to get things built much cheaper than we do, and this is starting to make streetcar/light-rail systems practical for much smaller cities. One is Albuquerque, which is designing a streetcar system to be built with funds left over from other projects (!).

I am optimistic this project will reach fruition, given New Mexico's track record getting their Rail Runner Commuter Train up and running in a mere three years from proposal to first run, which must be some kind of a record.

There are plenty of smaller cities in California that might do well to look at streetcars. Santa Cruz has studied transit uses for an existing railway right of way, but has balked at the price for light rail, estimated at something in the $300 millions as of the the early '90s--admittedly an awful lot of money for a metro region with less than 100,000 people. But perhaps this project, out of reach at "light rail" prices, might be feasable if recast as a "streetcar".

I wrote about some of these issues in this earlier post. Here is a recent (and good) post on the subject (with lots of links) in The Overhead Wire, and here's a very thorough article in LightRailNow. If Bay Area transit were only run by the online transit blogosphere, how much better our lives would be!

Friday, September 14, 2007

You Might be able to Drive Faster, Maybe

In the middle of the night, ignoring all stopsigns.

I noticed my tires were squishy, reinflated them, and noticed I'm riding a lot faster. So I decided to see if I could beat my personal best commute time. Here's how it worked out this morning:

9:20 Leave home, in SW Redwood City
9:33 Arrive at Menlo Park CalTrain (3 miles from home)
9:35 Board Train 332, SB Bullet
9:46 Arrive, Mountain View (7 miles from MP)
9:48 At office (3 blocks away)

According to Google Maps, this trip is 13.3 miles, and takes 20 mins by car--but I assure you, it takes longer when you (and everybody else) are trying to get to work. Total time for my intermodal commute is 28 mins--which is pretty much the same as the actual time it takes to drive here, in my experience.

Yellow Pages Train

Varying opinions were voiced on the platform about this train:

I kinda like it. Anyway, variety is good. I'm just glad they didn't paint over the engineer's window.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Bus Ride is Worth Paying For

The San Francisco Board of Supes has been discussing the idea of free transit (again). The reasoning seems to be (seriously) that the Muni does such a poor job of collecting fares, that it might as well just give up. Extending this line of reasoning, we could suggest that since Muni busses and trains are usually late, and sometimes don't show up at all, it should stop running them altogether.

Since nobody's proposing a source of funds to replace the fares that the Muni does, sometimes, actually collect, this whole fare-free transit idea should pretty much be regarded as so much talk, which is no more likely to lead to a change in policy than the Supes' periodic resolutions censuring the president. Still, if they're going to talk about fare-free transit (and they do, about once a year) it's worth pointing out some of the reasons why this is a terrible idea.

  • It's not going to boost ridership. It's not like people drive cars in the City because the Muni is too expensive, for crissakes!
  • It will turn Muni vehicles into moving homeless shelters.
  • Most seriously, it changes public transit from a service which riders pay to use into a welfare project.
    • Which takes away riders' right to complain about the service.
    • Not to mention dignity.
    • And it dooms transit from ever being taken seriously by the general public.
  • Dependency on farebox revenue, even if there are other sources of funds, forces transit agencies to think in healthy, business-like ways: about improving efficiency and attracting users.

As I've said before: I'm happy to pay the full cost of my CalTrain rides if I can be excused from paying taxes for freeways.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Does Muni Need a New Control Center?

There's no denying that Muni's current control center, which dates to the mid-70's opening of the Muni Metro subway, is a museum piece:

From an SF Chronicle Article

They would like to replace all this with up-to-date equipment. The estimated price tag is $120 million, which seems a bit steep to me. For comparison, that's enough for a whole fleet of LRV's (they go for about $2-3 million), one mile of streetcar tracks at San Francisco prices (or 6 miles they way the build it in Portland--see my earlier post on streetcar engineering here), or a heck of a lot of busses.

Up-to-date does not necessarilly mean top-dollar. Certainly, if one were motivated, something could be put together with off-the-shelf equipment for far less than that.

Muni has a lot of problems, but what it needs most of all is competent and honest management. A state-of-the-art control center will not help address the fact that, due to equipment breakdowns and understaffing, many runs never even leave the barn! Put the right people in charge, and they'll run the system well with walkie talkies and notepads--and then we can start talking about what technology can help them do their jobs more efficiently.

Friday, September 07, 2007

More Reading Around the Blogosphere

The N-Judah Chronicles blogs commuting life on the often dissed but somehow endearing SF Muni--which still as much of an adventure as I remember from my youth.

MetroRiderLA led me to Militant Angeleno, online journal of a bike and subway riding LA citizen. Read it, find out a few nice things about LA, and a vision of urban evolution. Rage on, brother!

Fighting Back Against Transit Cuts

A Sacramento Bee Article reports that California Transit Association has filed a suit to block the recently-passed state budget's transfer of $1.3 billion of gas tax revenue from transit to general funds (see my earlier post, a toned-down version of which was printed in the Mountain View Voice).

The law seems to be pretty unambiguous:

According to the lawsuit, the shift violates a string of constitutional amendments approved by voters. Proposition 116, which voters passed in 1990, established the Public Transportation Account funded by motor fuel sales tax. The state was directed to use the money "only for transportation planning and mass transportation purposes," and subsequent propositions reinforced the account.

The Legislative Analyst's Office had warned that parts of the accounting move were legally unworkable.

As a side point, I notice that this Bee article repeats a statement I've seen many times in the press, which is just plain not true:

The account, which is partly funded by the sales tax on diesel fuel and gasoline, has been flush with cash because of high gas prices.

The California gas tax is a straight 18¢ per gallon, not a percentage of sales price, as this graphic from the state energy department makes clear:

So if gas tax revenues are increasing, it's got nothing to do with the cost of gas, just that people are using more of it--indicating an increased demand for transportation, which can reasonably imply an increased need for transit. This is more a technical point than a political one, but c'mon, get your facts right!

Watch out for the Yakuza

Our friendly CalTrain conductor this morning (he says he's been working it 22 years, and has a big SP belt buckle to prove it) related an interesting incident from last week.

Several passengers, in different cars, made complaints about harassment from each other, which no-one else had seen. One was Black, one Italian, and one Russian. Of course as long as they were riding in different cars now, it didn't much matter. The Black guy got off the (southbound) train in San Carlos, and as he headed down the ramp, our conductor noticed, from the departing train, the Russian following after at a brisk pace--even though he'd had a ticket good for the whole trip down to San Jose.

I suggested that the only logical conclusion was that the Russian Mafia was making a hit.

Our conductor had reached the same conclusion himself, and called over the ticket inspector to prove that someone agreed.

Well, if we're not going to get WiFi on the train, we're going to have to make up our own entertainment!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

I Half-Agree with Wendell Cox

"Notorious" anti-planning and anti-transit crusader Wendell Cox has written an interesting article, appearing in the Orange County Register, predicting that, despite most predictions, California's population will grow slowly in coming decades, noting that growth has stalled or even reversed in the last decade.

His makes points that I agree with:

What is going on? Try housing affordability. In the three large coastal metropolitan areas, median home prices have exploded to more than 10 times median household incomes. Historically, this "median multiple" has been 3.0 or less and remains so in many parts of the United States. People have moved inland to take advantage of lower housing costs. But now housing costs are escalating substantially inland and, not surprisingly, growth has slowed.


In fact, California has brought the housing affordability crisis and the resultant slower growth on itself. California's strict and bureaucratic land-use regulation has driven the price of developable land through the roof.


California may be pricing itself out of the future. Given the choice between a rental unit 20 miles from the coast in San Diego and a 3,000-square-foot house on a third of an acre in the suburbs of Kansas City or Indianapolis, it is not surprising that places like the latter are now domestic migration winners.

As readers of my frequent rants against stupid NIMBYs will likely guess, I find much to agree with here. Adamant opposition to denser housing by California cities' current residents, and the simple fact that the only land left open for new sprawl is a hundred miles or so from employment centers, has produced a housing availability/affordability crisis (which I've tried to quantify in this post).

So why can I only half-agree with Wendell Cox? You would not know if from this article, but Mr Cox is known among pro-transit circles as an anti-transit, anti-smart-growth crusader, funded (unsurprisingly) by groups associated with the highway building business. And while he may portray himself as a type of less-government/less-spending conservative, like many conservatives, he's pretty selective in what spending and what regulation he criticizes. He apparently sees no contradiction between opposing subsidies for transit while lobbying for handouts for highways. And whatever merits there may be to his criticisms of growth limits in this article, he is most vocal, in fact relentless, in attacking "smart growh" regulations such as Portland's--rather than the zoning that actually produces scarcity of housing, that which enforces low-density sprawl, and prohibits the kind of efficient land use that can boost the supply of housing units.

Years ago, I came across a libertarian website which advocated ending subsidies for all forms of transportation. They pointed out, correctly, that a century ago, public transit was a profitable business, until publicly funded highways undercut it--and advocated privatizing of roadways, turning all freeways into toll roads. At least the argument is logical and honest. These days, conservatives/libertarians only believe in "small government" as a club to beat programs they dislike, rather than a principle.

I am intrigued by the idea that transit ridership might actually grow in a less regulated, less subsidized environment. Planning has been used so much for exclusion--basically, cities are zoned to keep "too many" people from moving in--that I've become wary of it, even when it has better intentions. And I cannot deny that public subsidies for transit have produced wasteful overengineering, intattention to cheap and simple solutions, and all too often a diregard for the needs of passengers than no private enterprise could get away with showing its customers. And given that car commuting is only marginally bearable with constant and massive infusions for cash, it's tempting to speculate that if we just stopped spending money on transportation at all, we'd have instant gridlock so severe that public transit would turn profitable overnight.

There are more subtle ways to move in this direction. We could make drivers pay for more of the real cost of car commuting, such as by raising the tax on gas. Ultimately, maybe transit could be less subsidized too. Hell, I'd happily pay for the full cost of my CalTrain rides (CalTrain's farebox recovery ratio is about 40%, so my $60 monthly pass would be $150) if I could be excused from having to pay for freeways I barely use. Cities could also be planned more by incentives than decree. Let developers build, more or less, what they want or need to--but make them pay for whatever burdens it places on the community (as I advocated in my manifesto), for examply by taxing them per parking space.

Returning to Mr. Cox's article--he is correct to remind us of the links between development, population, and economic growht, and to point out that the status quo is destroying California's future. Simply put: NIMBY's opposition to new housing drives away residents, and ultimately business. Calfornia and especially the Bay Area must grow or wither--and the only way to grow is as cities--denser and mobilized by transit more than cars.

Can't Get Enough Transit Blogging?

Blogger Pantograph Trolleypole has created a City Transit Blog Aggregator, where you see new posts from dozens of transit blogs daily, all in one convenient place.

Mr. Trolleypole's own blog, The Overhead Wire, is a good read too.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fareboxes can Blue-Screen?

Everything's got a damn computer in it these days.

Computer Error Disables Fareboxes
$200,000 Lost Because Many Passengers Got Free Rides

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A computer glitch knocked out Metrobus's system for collecting fares yesterday, resulting in a loss of about $200,000 as many passengers rode for free during the first half of the day, officials said.

By afternoon, engineers had made a temporary repair that allowed fareboxes to work, Metrobus operations chief Milo Victoria said.

Victoria said the problem was caused when two internal computer systems failed to communicate properly. "We're still trying to figure out why it went down, but we think part of the hard drive got corrupted," he said.

Metrobuses are equipped with a system that automatically tracks their location. That system is connected to a farebox system, which works only when a bus driver is logged on.

But about 3:45 a.m. yesterday, the computer system for the fareboxes crashed because of an outage in the locator server. The crash automatically triggered electronic messages logging drivers off the system and taking the fareboxes out of service, Victoria said.

About two-thirds of the 1,200 buses on the road during the first part of the day were affected, he said.

By early afternoon, engineers and computer technicians were able to electronically disconnect the two systems at all but one of the 10 bus divisions "so they don't talk to each other and so bus operators can log on," Victoria said.

Additional supervisors were dispatched to the streets to monitor buses. The bus operations control center now must rely on radio communication with drivers to track their location.

This is the second time in several months that Metrobus fareboxes have not functioned properly. In the spring, a different type of problem prevented drivers from logging on, officials said.

Be dubious if someone tells you some new gizmo is going to save you money. I'm a firm believer in the KISS principle...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Save Safe Routes to School

As much as I like to talk about trains and bikes, the real "alternative transportation mode" (or really the original mode of getting about to which all others are alternatives) which we should be fighting for is walking.

This is a winnable fight--even the most car-bound, transit hostile among us have a vague idea that it would be nice to walk around a bit more. Encouraging pedestrianism and walkable communities is probably our last, best, hope for preventing mankind from evolving into helpless entities, incapable of surviving in the natural world, perpetually bound to wheeled mechanical shells, like daleks.

Where better to encourage walking than with kids, who, since they can't drive anyway, are relatively liberated by walking, compared to the total lack of control they have in cars. The exercise won't kill them, either.

Our state government has a Safe Routes to School program, which funds improvements to neighborhood streets to make walking to school more viable for more children. The state has been funding $24 million worth of these improvements per year, for the last seven years. According to studies by CalTrans, this program has actually produced results in terms of decreasing numbers of kids hit by cars on the way to school, and increase walking and biking to school. Unfortunately, this program has been another victim of our latest state budget. That's right, folks, we can spend $10 billion (b) on new freeways, but can't scrape together $24 million (m) to keep kids from getting run over.

The Transportation and Land Use Coalition has put out a call to action to save this program, which I wholeheartedly second.

We need you to call Senator Perata’s office and Senator Torlakson’s office to ask that the funding be restored on the Senate Floor. This is urgent, otherwise there will be no additional funding for Safe Routes to School after the call for projects that will take place later this year. Please make these phone calls ASAP or California will set a horrible national precedent.

  • Call Senator Don Perata (President Pro Tem) at his Capitol office - (916) 651-4009
  • Call Senator Tom Torlakson (Senate Appropriations Chairman) at his Capitol office - (916) 651-4007

See also the National Safe Routes to School Partnership.