Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An interesting discussion on Rail by Bus Advocates

The discussion began with a report from the Portland-based Mane Assoc for Sustainable Transportation as follows:
"Our {MaST} position on rail: Christian dropped the ball on this last month. We had a brief discussion of how hardline rail advocates have somewhat undermined the practical implementation of better rail service by alienating/ridiculing various leaders, and the need to present a more reasonable position. General agreement around stating these as priorities: Given limited resources, we need to focus on areas where they'll provide the greatest benefit to businesses, passengers, freight, and commuters. A million dollars spent on a rail line in Piscataquis County will not provide the same benefit as a million dollars spent in Auburn - Maine should be disciplined in focusing its limited resources where rail is most likely to succeed, in order to maximize our rail investments over time. We believe that those priorities should be, in no particular order: Secure reliable funding for our existing Downeaster service first. The immediate priority for capital improvements in Maine should be the trunk line between NH and Lewiston/Auburn - imrpoving service for freight as well as for passengers. Passenger rail stations must be well connected for pedestrians, transit users, and bicyclists. MDOT/AVCOG will sponsor a public hearing on Amtrak expansion to L/A on Sept. 8th. CLF will go and Christian might as well. We plan to present our ZOOM proposal as evidence that there's demand for transit between L/A and Portland. Hillary pointed out that Tony D. has been antagonistic to the idea of bus service. Important to point out that buses and rail are complimentary: Concord Coach and the Downeaster serve the same people in Portland/Boston, give travelers more options, and make both services more successful. If Amtrak goes to L/A 5 times a day, commuters will still want to have a bus service available in case a train doesn't fit their schedule.

Date: Mon, 30 Aug 2010 00:46:17 -0400
From: ghiggin2@earthlink.net
To: c.neal.milneil@gmail.com; hilary@theleague.com
CC: tdonovan@maine.rr.com; weissp@hotmail.com
Subject: Re: MAST Steering Meeting Friday

Christian and Hilary,

Since you're still copying me on MaST Steering Committee communications, some reactions to your last meeting's notes...

Yes, Tony Donovan is dogged about bypassing intercity bus and moving directly to commuter rail. Doggedness is necessary in order to overcome the powerful pavement construction lobby. That construction lobby will grant you some bus expansion because they perceive more pavement-based bus action as potentially construction-generating, whereas the highway construction lobby is hard-wired to fear and strongly resist serious funding-agency commitment to commuter rail as throwing a big monkey-wrench into their comfortable pavement expansion/maintenance paradigm.

That very powerful pavement lobby and their Portland-area funding conduit - PACTS - are willing to allow bus transit because it uses pavement, and unsustainable pavement maintenance/construction is mostly what Maine's transportation decision-making structure is all about. Furthermore, this transportation decision-making structure includes not just the construction and paving firms and the PACTS local government folks (in Greater Portland), it also includes consultants such as those who get another job by adding the L/A rail "study" to their expanding Portland North contract.

The pavement folks should especially like a bus alternative that adds bus transit to the emergency lanes of I-295. Don't look now, but with this I-295 bus-emergency-lane scenario those emergency lanes may need to be reconstructed with adequate foundation to handle regular bus traffic (as opposed to the original emergency-lane function of just supporting occasional stationary vehicles). The pavement guys will thus love the bus-on-295 proposal forthcoming from Portland North since it enables MDOT to tell the public - including MaST - that they are expanding mass transit while giving the construction industry another possible tear-and-rebuild job on 295.

Furthermore, by adding the "analysis" of Amtrak to Lewiston-Auburn, MDOT's consultants not only get another consulting gig, but MDOT also throws a token rail bone to rail advocates and to the Lewiston-Auburn folks who felt stiffed when Brunswick got the Downeaster.

If MDOT was seriously considering rail service to L/A, , they would first of all not just make the easy, knee-jerk response that passenger rail = AMTRAK. Instead they would make an open-minded examination of rail service that is appropriately scaled, scheduled and equipped for both Portland-L/A commuter and Boston travel needs. This may very well be smaller-equipment, scalable, modular commuter-rail cars with relatively more frequent service for commuters and with linkage to the Downeaster in Portland (or Yarmouth Junction) instead of analyzing only a full-scale AMTRAK train going to L/A with insufficient travel frequency for commuting needs and thus a preordained negative feasibility assessment (which would please the pavement lobby).

Secondly, If MDOT is seriously considering rail service to L/A, they should bring the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority (NNEPRA) fully into the study function because NNEPRA - per the Maine Legislature - "is directed to take all actions that are reasonably necessary to initiate, establish or reinstate regularly scheduled passenger rail service between points within this State and points within and outside this State. These actions may include, but are not limited to, the acquisition, holding, use, operation, repair, construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, modernization, rebuilding, relocation, maintenance and disposition of railroad lines, railway facilities, rolling stock, machinery and equipment, trackage rights, real and personal property of any kind and any rights in or related to that property." (Maine Revised Statutes Title 23, Chapter 621, Part 7 - Railroads, subchapter 1, Section 8003.) I.e., if serious passenger rail planning is to be undertaken, the Legislature has designated NNEPRA to do the job, but MDOT doesn't seem to be sufficiently serious in this Portland-L/A analysis to involve the State of Maine's passenger rail entity.

MDOT might be mentioning analysis of rail passenger service to Montreal in their L/A project publicity, but when Patricia Quinn of NNEPRA was asked recently about how soon rail service to Montreal might happen, she replied that it probably won't happen until after she stops dying her hair blond. Guess they're not real serious -- but some dogged effort might change that. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Patricia's roots.

This all makes MDOT's Portland-L/A passenger rail project look like a token effort -- thus a dogged response is justified.

So back to Tony's approach --
Pushing past the pavement lobby requires stubborn assertiveness and commitment to rail, not just playing by the desires of the decision-making establishment. MaST seems to be satisfied working within the slightly expanded comfort-zone of the current transportation paradigm with some bus plans that the pavement lobby can live with. On the other hand, mobilization of the public will be needed to dismantle the strait-jacket of pavement addiction. Doing that with the necessarily fast turnaround requires a dogged approach. Your bus plan may not be sufficiently bold and appropriate for future needs, and thus a distraction from where we need to go. Tony has little patience with that, and I'm in agreement with him.

If you want to do something quick and remain acceptable in the eyes of the pavement junkies, then continue with the bus idea with its non-sustainable pavement addiction. If the "S" in your acronym really means "sustainable", then be bold, risk pissing off the pavement lobby, and put existing rail corridors to work linking Portland with not just Lewiston-Auburn but also with the commuter traffic nodes along route 1 Falmouth-Yarmouth plus Yarmouth village and the Pineland Center. And get started now.

As for comparing the Portland north bus/train situation to the Portland-Boston situation -- bus and train co-exist to Boston because Portland-Boston is a bigger market draw than Portland-L/A, because the train cannot get to South Station in Boston whereas the bus can, and because Logan Airport is a big piece of Concord Trailways' Portland to Boston sustenance.

Rail offers a far better lifestyle for Greater Portland's future, but it needs a courageous push. Bus might give your organization an easier short-term feather of accomplishment in your hats. But the courageous push requires a dogged approach. So how about going after true sustainability and hopping on the train with us? It's gathering momentum. Don't let it leave without you...

Thanks for listening and seeking better trans with trains!

On Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 10:54 AM, Paul Weiss wrote:
Excellent insight and commentary. I am in complete agreement. Buses are a short term fix that helps the highway lobby while short changing our long term future. It puts us more dependent on a method of travel and urban sprawl that is completely unsustainable. It is hard to imagine an organization that touts itself as "green" and supports more pavement. These roadways are bankrupting cities and towns across the state and will be only costing more and more every year. Rail is much cheaper to maintain in the long term and less expensive to build if you consider the entire life cycle of highways (repaving every 7-10 year). Think of the enormous amounts of oil to pave every few years and all that oils eventually ends up in our rivers and lakes, and air. That is the same oil that leaked from a wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico. Imaging clean fast green electrified passenger rail?
Given proper funding, we could have commuter rail service set up with 6 stops within 1 years time. It is doable and would change forever the economies of the entire region and make it a much better place to live.
If we keep investing in roadways and highways, we will be squandering money for the "perceived" short term fix. In the mean time you will have lost forever the true high speed, "green" connectors of towns and cities in Southern Maine, the railways. This is why policy decision are so important. They will shape entire regions and economies for not only decades but centuries. If we continue down our path of highway building we will set up the entire region for a failure on a grand scale. Imagine the world with 6-10 dollar gasoline. How many buses and highways are going to be repaved at that price? This is not so far off.

Paul Weiss
Maine Rail Transit Coalition

In the next decade, the only place where Maine might have the money to expand highways is on the Maine Turnpike, which has its own dedicated and reliable source of funds (tolls). The Turnpike is Constitutionally prohibited from spending any of its toll revenues on rail, or on any infrastructure more than 5 miles away from the Turnpike (they've helped finance some connector roads any bypasses in the past, like Rand Road in Portland). But the Turnpike CAN spend toll revenue on bus services (like the ZOOM). Here's what we'd like to happen:
Get the Turnpike to fund more local and regional bus services connecting to and along the Turnpike corridor.
Thanks to 1), local bus services in Portland, Lewiston, and Biddeford, which are primarily funded from local property taxes, would have more farebox revenue and lower expenses, to free up $1-$2 million a year in unrestricted municipal funds.
A portion of those local property tax savings in those communities could then be re-allocated to supporting the Downeaster and commuter rail service.
So this is a way to get the Turnpike Authority - with its massive revenues - to INDIRECTLY fund better rail service, even though direct funding is prohibited in the constitution, to the tune of $1-$2 million a year. That's four times as much as the Turnpike currently spends on bus services. If you have a more realistic way to boost funding for new transit services, I would love to hear it. But based on our preliminary conversations with lawmakers and lobbyists, this has a very good chance of happening. We could potentially have commuter rail between Biddeford and Brunswick next year - but only if you get over your hangups over the possibility of having more buses on the roads as well.
You guys are free to protest this plan. But if you do, those Turnpike revenues will probably be shunted over to the state's road maintenance backlog instead of to buses, and then we'll be right back where we started, without any dedicated or long-term funding for rail services in Maine, and more money for roads. By saying "no" to buses and not offering a realistic plan of your own, you're saying "yes" to this bullshit status quo we're dealing with.
I'll reiterate that it all comes down to funding - the studies are irrelevant unless someone puts up the money. You guys are from a generation when state and federal governments were happy to spend trillions on expanding our infrastructure, but those days are over.