Friday, September 25, 2015

Transportation News Round-Up: September 25, 2015

Getty Images
There's been a lot of news this week in transportation policy, from federal permitting to high-speed rail to maritime transportation and ports. Here are some of my favorite reads from the week:

The Hill: Feds move to accelerate permitting for transportation projects
The Obama Administration is currently working on improving the speed of permitting and environmental reviews for transportation infrastructure projects. This is both to get important projects going faster, but also to try to push Congress towards passing a long-term, fully-funded surface transportation bill, which has been elusive to the legislature for years. It will be an interesting balancing act between getting good projects up and running quickly, while still ensuring that their environmental impacts are minimized.

VentureBeat: Here’s what IoT will do for transportation
This glimpse-of-the-future piece explores just some of the many possibilities in the realm of transportation if we embrace the Internet of Things. Such benefits of connectedness between our vehicles and infrastructure include cars that identify open parking spaces, driverless vehicles that can turn into mobile meeting spaces, and infrastructure that alerts drivers to traffic or accidents so that people can avoid that route. As Congress continues debating a long-term surface transportation authorization bill, it's important to think about what lies ahead if we make the necessary investments today.

Baltimore Sun: Maglev venture opening Baltimore office
Northeast Maglev, the company interested in creating a high-speed maglev line connecting DC to NYC, opened up a Baltimore office this past week, bringing the DC-Baltimore leg one (small) step closer to a reality. This project is still in the very early stages of development but could end up playing a large role in updating the Northeast corridor's lagging transportation system. Click here for my blog post on the topic.

Transportation Infrastructure News Daily: PortMiami ready to handle new class of mega ships 
PortMiami recently completed deep-dredging and on-dock intermodal rail projects to accommodate the rise of mega-ships calling to port. I did a research project a few months ago on port performance, and one of the biggest challenges facing our nation's ports is their ability to handle the rise of ocean carrier alliances and the giant megaships bringing unprecedented volume of cargo into the port at one time. Linked to that is the issue of funding, as a dedicated federal funding stream specifically for ports doesn't (yet) exist. Ports are an engine of our economy, and a lot of jobs depend on well-functioning ports, so their ability to adapt to this challenge will be important.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is Maglev the path forward for high-speed rail in the Northeast?

The proposed Northeast Maglev line.
High-speed rail in the Northeast US seems to be gaining momentum, as Northeast Maglev has opened an office in Baltimore, Maryland in the hopes of building a Maglev line from DC to Baltimore - and later on to New York City. Maglev, which has been tested to high acclaim for years in Japan, is a magnetic technology that would allow trains to run far faster than any train currently operating in the US, as well as every high-speed rail (HSR) line currently under construction here.

I recently posted a comparison between California's and Texas' HSR projects, using a series of key characteristics related to costs and implementation challenges. For continuity's sake, I've done the same below with the proposed DC-Baltimore line. Though it is still in the very early stages of development, we can nevertheless begin exploring the project's merits and potential obstacles.

Northeast Maglev says the train would run up to 311 mph, making for a 15-minute ride between DC and Baltimore.

Around 40 miles, though the exact length depends on the alignment.

Total Projected Cost
$10 billion for the DC-Baltimore leg

Cost per mile
$250 million - significantly more than California's and Texas' $85 million and $50 million respective per-mile price tags.

Public Funding
The State of Maryland is currently applying for a $28 million federal grant to study the feasibility of the DC-Baltimore line. In terms of the actual construction cost, the Japanese government and Central Japan Railway have agreed to pay for half of it (in the hopes that the line's success will bring them more US business), and supporters expect the federal government to pay for the rest of it, with Maryland off the hook for any of the money. I'm not sure how realistic this is based on the current Congress' hostility towards HSR. California has had to find room in the state budget for its own HSR project, including dedicating cap-and-trade revenues.

Private Funding
While Northeast Maglev's plans don't include private funding for the initial DC-Baltimore line, they may have to find some if the federal government doesn't chip in as much as it's expected to. Either way, they're assuming it won't be too hard to find investors for the later Baltimore-New York extension, as the complete DC-NY line would connect several centers of commerce and a lot of people stand to benefit from a faster ride between major cities.

Public Opinion
Some in Baltimore have opposed earlier incarnations of a high-speed rail line due to concerns that people would be displaced from their homes to make room for the tracks. But this new plan includes burying two-thirds of the Maglev line underground, thus eliminating much of the need to acquire private land. I've yet to see any polling on the new plan, but I imagine commuters will support it.

Political Support
Several elected officials in Maryland support the plan, including Governor Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Hogan is particularly excited about the project, having had an eye-opening experience in Japan similar to California Governor Jerry Brown's back in the 60's when Japan's HSR first opened. Hogan just took office recently, so he may still be in office for several years to continue supporting the project whenever possible. Notably, Hogan is a Republican, which may give him some credibility with the Republican Congress as Maryland seeks federal funding.

Land acquisition
As stated above, the underground design of the DC-Baltimore leg means it is far less likely the project will become bogged down in the courts over cases of eminent domain. But while eminent domain can delay the project and drive up costs, so too can the extensive drilling required to bury most of the rail line.

Environmental clearance
Northeast Maglev has yet to start the environmental clearance process. The company is still working on getting the state and federal approval necessary to operate a rail line in Maryland, after which it can begin drafting an environmental impact statement. Said statement would cement the route and costs, giving us a better idea of how much land acquisition and public funding will be necessary.

Other concerns
Importantly, because Maglev uses a different infrastructure from traditional trains, the DC-Baltimore line wouldn't connect directly to other trains, such as Amtrak, for those who want to continue North to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. In fact, the Baltimore terminal wouldn't even be at Penn Station or Camden Station, so while that may not affect daily commuters, it looks like long-distance travelers (like your blogger) would have to get off at BWI Airport if they need to switch to Amtrak.

Ticket prices will also be a concern, especially for those who would need to buy tickets for both Maglev and Amtrak. Northeast Maglev says tickets for DC-New York will be competitive with air travel or first-class Acela tickets, which are quite expensive. I haven't seen anything on how much a DC-Baltimore ticket would be.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Transportation News Round-Up: September 18, 2015

Photo from RunwayGirlNetwork.

It's been a busy week in the world of transportation policy. Below are some articles I think are worth reading on a variety of subjects under the transportation umbrella:

The Hill: Railroads years behind schedule on automating trains
Most major railroads are years behind schedule implementing Positive Train Control (PTC), the train automation system that might have prevented Amtrak's May derailment and others like it. It's a critical rail safety issue, but some want the deadline pushed back.

NBC/Reuters: China to Help Build Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles High-Speed Railway
A high-speed rail system linking Las Vegas to Los Angeles takes a step closer to becoming reality as China's largest train maker signs a deal to help build a railway linking the two cities. Trains would travel 150mph on the 230 stretch of track, shortening travel time from four hours to just over one. I'll be interested in seeing whether service will connect easily to California's own HSR system, currently being constructed between LA and San Francisco

Runway Girl Network: What airlines can learn from Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains
Here's an interesting article that goes in-depth into what makes Japan's bullet trains the envy of the world - and what best practices can be brought into the aviation industry. This includes multi-door boarding to increase efficiency, regional food offerings, and the availability of power outlets for riders. I'd be interested in seeing which of these tips could be brought to US rail lines.

Equipment World: USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology
The US Department of Transportation is investing in the future of transportation by funding pilot projects in three jurisdictions to test vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. If successful, this technology could greatly improve traffic safety and the efficient flow of people and goods.

WestportNow: Marpe: CDOT Report Finds Cribari Bridge ‘Severely Deficient’In local news, an important and historic bridge in my hometown has been identified as "severely deficient" and must be rehabilitated or replaced - and quickly. This could present an interesting case study to those interested in infrastructure repair, as the necessity of replacing the bridge is counter-weighted by the bridge's historic nature and cultural value, and the fact that it's narrow enough to control what types of traffic can travel through the surrounding neighborhood. It will be interesting to see what decisions are made based on these tradeoffs.
USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology - See more at:
USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology - See more at:
USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology - See more at:
USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology - See more at:
USDOT announces $42 million for next-gen connected vehicles and infrastructure technology - See more at:
And for the very academic among us, here's a report identifying environmental performance measures that state DOT's can integrate into their performance management program to ensure environmental factors are taken into consideration. The report recommends performance metrics in five categories - air quality, energy and climate, materials recycling, stormwater, and wildlife and ecosystems - and includes a spreadsheet for state agencies interested in implementing its recommendations.

Happy reading!

Friday, September 11, 2015

With High-Speed Rail, California and Texas Face Similar Challenges

California and Texas seem poised to become the first states in the nation to complete high-speed rail (HSR) projects. The two projects seem vastly different at first - one implemented by a public authority using state and federal funding, the other a private enterprise of one-quarter the length. But the two states face similar challenges, particularly regarding land acquisition and political opposition to the projects. Issues of environmental clearance also threaten to delay construction.

Below is a run-down of key characteristics of the two projects for comparative purposes - including the speed of the train, the length of the system, the total projected cost and cost-per-mile, public and private funding, public opinion and political support, land acquisition, and environmental clearance.

California: 220 mph

Texas: 200 mph

California: 800 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco

Texas: 240 miles from Houston to Dallas

Total projected cost
California: $68 billion

Texas: $12 billion

Cost per mile
California: $85 million

Texas: $50 million

Public funding
So far, California has relied exclusively on public funding for the $30-billion initial operating section (IOS). The 2008 ballot initiative allowed for up to $9 billion in the sale of bonds (it's currently put $2.7 billion towards the IOS), matched with $2.25 billion in federal funding under the Recovery Act. The state was later awarded an additional $1.6 billion reappropriated from other states, such as Ohio, which refused money for its own high-speed rail projects. However, with the current Congress quite hostile towards high-speed rail and generally unable to get its act together on transportation funding, it is likely California will not see any more federal funding for the project.

The state will also allocate between $500 million and $1 billion in cap-and-trade revenues each year toward the project.

According to its 2014 Business Plan, it still needs about $20 billion in yet-uncommitted funds for the IOS.

Texas Central Partners, the for-profit company spearheading the HSR project, has pledged not to use any public funding.

Private funding
Private funding has been elusive for California's HSR project thus far. Given the $20 billion it still needs to raise for the IOS, it's increasingly important that the California High-Speed Rail Authority woo private investors. During a research project earlier this year, I spoke with someone at CHSRA who seemed confident that the cap-and-trade funding mechanism makes them an attractive candidate for private funding, and that they will be able to get private loans they can pay back once the IOS is operational.

As stated above, Texas Central Partners has pledged to rely exclusively on private funding. So far, it has raised $75 million, on-target with its fundraising efforts but a drop in the bucket compared to the total $12 billion price-tag.

Public opinion
California voters narrowly passed the ballot measure with 52.7% of the vote, and public opinion has remained about the same since then: 53% of California residents support the project according to recent polling, while 42% oppose it (those numbers are virtually flipped for "Likely Voters"). The project remains a deeply divisive issue in the state.

I'm not able to find any polling on high-speed rail in Texas; I suspect that some polling will become available shortly, now that the route/alignment has been narrowed down. But given the fact that public funding won't be solicited for the project, how important will public opinion be to the projects success or failure?

Political support 
Governor Jerry Brown has been one of the project's most fervent supporters, having advocated for HSR in California since the 1970's. But Brown is term-limited, and it remains to be seen whether California's next governor will continue supporting the project. Gavin Newsom, for instance, has signaled that he would rather spend the money on other things.

The state legislature is generally supportive of the project, having passed legislation to place the bond sale initiative on the ballot back in 2008, and the cap-and-trade revenue allocation more recently. But there is vocal opposition in the legislature, as well - much of it from Republicans who think the project is too costly and from representatives of districts whose constituents are being displaced by eminent domain - and as the project drags on into the 2020's, that opposition may become stronger.

Texas is in an interesting position: because the project doesn't require public funding, that removes a particularly salient argument against HSR. Indeed, Governor Greg Abbott has largely avoided taking a position on the project, only stating that he wants taxpayer dollars and private property rights respected. 

The state legislature is deeply divided on HSR: a rider that would have killed the project by prohibiting the state Department of Transportation from spending any money on the project (including coordinating or overseeing construction) was removed from the budget this Spring, but many lawmakers, particularly those representing the rural communities between Houston and Dallas, remain opposed to the project.

Texas, then, doesn't have the public champion for HSR that California has in Jerry Brown, but without the necessity of public funding, it may not need one.

Land acquisition
Land acquisition is one of the greatest obstacles facing the project. As of January 2015, the state had acquired only 23% of the 1,332 parcels of land necessary to complete the IOS. There are dozens of eminent domain cases currently lingering in the courts, many having to do with the fact that the land being condemned is farmland whose owners argue they are losing not only land, but profits for which they should be compensated. These cases are thus delaying the project but also driving up costs.


Texas Central Partners has narrowed its alignment down to somewhere in the "Utility Corridor," which runs along a swath of power lines on public land. However, in order to maintain top speeds, it may have to cut through "prime farm and ranch land green fields," which would require eminent domain to acquire any privately held land. As California has seen, this land acquisition can run up costs, hurt public opinion, and delay construction.

Environmental clearance
Environmental clearance has been a sticking point for the California project, which has been sold as being more environmentally friendly than current transportation options. In November 2013, the Sacramento County Superior Court postponed the release of public funding because the project didn't have the necessary environmental clearance - but in July 2014, the Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and freed up the funding. The state more recently settled a pair of lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), but with five other environmental cases still lingering in the courts, the project may continue to see delays as additional clearance may become necessary. (Currently, the project has federal clearance, but not clearance under CEQA, which is part of what's at issue here.)
The Federal Railroad Administration is currently preparing the environmental impact statement, after which there will be opportunity for public comment and revision. That process is expected to take 18 to 24 months; there's no indication yet that anything in the statement will derail the project, but it's still early on in the process so we will have to see what gets revealed.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Seoul Metropolitan Subway: a Model for American Systems

I spent a few weeks this summer in South Korea, and naturally I had to check out their public transportation. During my travels, I rode the Seoul Metropolitan Subway five or six times, and I was quite impressed with its cleanliness, brightness, and efficiency. Compared to DC's dreary, dimly-lit stations, interminable weekend track work, and even the occasional avoidable disaster, Seoul's subway system was something like a dream come true. And when you throw in Seoul's wifi, cell service, and climate control, it really earns its reputation as one of the best subway systems in the world.

Naturally, as a transit-enthused tourist, I took a lot of photos while I was in the station and on the train. One thing I hadn't experienced before was doorless subway trains; for those of us used to hearing WMATA conductors asking us to "spread out and use all doors," it seems like a luxury to be able to spread out with ease once on the train, as there are no heavy doors to push through while the train is moving.

The doors to get on the trains themselves were quite wide; in fact, they were so large that people could enter and exit the train at the same time, which I imagine would greatly increase efficiency so long as everyone follows the arrows on the platform:

Throughout the system, I was greatly impressed by the sheer volume of information available to commuters and tourists alike. Maps show the location of your station within the surrounding neighborhood, as well as within the larger city, so that you can determine the best route to take to get where you're going. There are also maps of the stations themselves, with signs pointing you in the direction of the nearest exit and - something WMATA is missing - the important sites closest to each exit so that even out-of-towners know exactly where to go.

My favorite thing was the televisions at stations showing you where in the system the next train was (see along the bottom of the screen), so you could actually watch it approaching your station. This would be particularly useful during WMATA's track work weekends, when the times on the boards are not always correct and sometimes not posted at all.

There are also televisions onboard the trains so that you can both hear and see which station is coming up (those Korean words are, if I remember correctly, the name of the next station); light-up arrows beside the televisions point in the direction of the opening doors. The televisions also play a lot of advertisements, which is one way the system can bring in additional revenue without increasing rider fares.


To be sure, Seoul Metropolitan Subway isn't without its own problems: a collision in 2014 injured about 150 people, which was particularly upsetting given the recency of the Sewol ferry disaster and led to concerns about the system's emergency preparedness. And there are minor issues as well: during one transfer, I had to exit the station and re-enter at another point, which meant having to pay a double-fare (I wonder if this would have been the case if I had a T-money Card, their version of SmarTrip). WMATA has addressed issues like this with such creative solutions as Farragut Crossing, which gives riders 30 minutes to leave Farragut West or Farragut North stations and walk to the other.

No subway system is perfect; each one can be improved in one way or another. But my experience on Seoul Metropolitan Subway, however brief, led me to believe that there's a lot going right with that system, and certainly some ideas that could be brought to DC Metro and other American subway systems to improve information sharing and efficiency.