Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Comments on the proposed MagLev project between Washington, DC and Baltimore

Image courtesy of Northeast Maglev.

Northeast Maglev is currently accepting comments on the proposed MagLev line connecting Washington, DC to Baltimore. The Japanese high-speed rail technology would enable people to travel between the two cities in just 15 minutes - far shorter than the current 40-minute travel time. Ultimately, this new HSR line would extend all the way up to New York City through Philadelphia, similar to (but much faster than) the Southern half of Amtrak's current rail line along the Northeast Corridor.

Here are the comments I've submitted in support of this project:
As a transportation policy writer, as an advocate for safe and sustainable transportation options, and as a frequent rider of regional rail in the Northeast Corridor, I am writing in support of the proposed SCMagLev project connecting Washington, DC to Baltimore. This new high-speed rail project will help commuters travel faster and more safely between the two cities, and as we have seen around the world, high-speed rail will have a net positive economic impact for the Northeast US.

Japan, which is developing the MagLev technology and is helping to fund the SCMaglev Project, is no stranger to high-speed rail. The first high-speed rail line in the world, Japan’s shinkansen system connects Japan’s major cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka. In the 50 years that the shinkansen has been operating, it has carried 10 billion people and yet has seen zero accident-related passenger deaths or injuries. That is an amazing safety record. What’s more, the average delay on the shinkansen is a mere 36 seconds, even in bad weather – which makes for an impressive on-time performance record, as well. Of course, the shinkansen does not operate on MagLev, but it is this legacy of safety and punctuality that gives me confidence in the newer technology.

High-speed rail also generates economic benefits, and we can see examples of these benefits in the countries that have adopted high-speed rail ahead of the United States. In the UK, 8,000 people were employed in the construction of a high-speed link between London and the Channel Tunnel. In Germany, towns that got a station on the Frankfurt-Cologne high-speed rail line experienced a 2.7 percent increase in overall economic activity compared with the rest of the region. In Japan, property values near shinkansen stations are 67 percent higher than property values further away.

The United States – and the DC-Baltimore area more specifically – could become a similar success story, but only if we make the investments necessary now to put us on that path. There is no question that MagLev, one of the very newest technologies in the high-speed rail landscape, will be of great upfront cost. But these costs will be shared between state funds, federal assistance, private investment, and Japanese business interests.

And the benefits are many. Shortening the trip between DC and Baltimore to a mere 15 minutes will connect two major cities like never before, making it easier for commuters to live in one city and work in the other. And with an intermediate station at BWI International Airport, people in our region could easily take the high-speed train to the airport – far faster than the current Amtrak line – and fly anywhere in the country or the world. This intermodality increases the benefit of MagLev to travelers manifold, allowing people to spend more time at their destination and less time in transit.

In one of the most heavily congested corridors in our country, MagLev will help take cars off the road as riding the train to work becomes a more feasible and comfortable option. This will help mitigate congestion on our roads, thereby reducing commute times even for those who choose to continue driving. This will also reduce air emissions from our transportation sector, which is the highest source of carbon emissions in our country – benefiting our region and beyond.

The DC-Baltimore link would only be the beginning: I understand that the ultimate vision is to have a MagLev line connecting DC all the way to New York City, through Philadelphia. This would be revolutionary. In the time it currently takes someone to take the train into New York City from Northern New Jersey or Southwest Connecticut – a trip millions of commuters make every day – someone could ride MagLev all the way from Philadelphia to NYC in the same amount of time. Minimizing travel times and maximizing commuter safety in this way by building such a MagLev line will revolutionize work and travel patterns along the Northeast Corridor.

And in our part of the country, the stakes could not be higher. The age of our infrastructure along the Northeast Corridor is showing: whether it’s derailments near Philadelphia, speed restrictions outside of Baltimore, or electricity outages in Connecticut, our current rail system is not adequately serving the needs of our population. We need to make our railways safe again, and we need to make them faster – and MagLev is the technology that will help us do that.

As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said after experiencing MagLev for himself in Japan, “There’s no question that this is the future of transportation.” MagLev can be our future in the United States as well, reducing travel times and emissions and improving safety. There will be upfront costs, and there will doubtlessly be opposition as there is for any large-scale infrastructure project, but our investment in this new, fast technology will be well worth it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

What Could Secretary Chao do for Maritime Infrastructure?

Photos courtesy of AP and AFP.

Since President-Elect Donald Trump announced his pick for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, last month, transportation experts and advocates are examining her history to determine what her priorities might be as Secretary and what programs she might help bolster - and which ones she might leave behind.

Of course, since Trump has talked a lot about the need to invest in our national infrastructure, much of the analysis thus far has concentrated on how she might help get a trillion-dollar infrastructure package passed through Congress. However, I want to write about how she might help maritime infrastructure in particular, given that she has served as deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration and as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission. While I was in graduate school, my capstone project involved recommending port performance metrics for the Maritime Administration (to help evaluate the efficacy of federal funding given to ports), so this is something that continues to interest me.

Housed within the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Maritime Administration "promotes the use of waterborne transportation and its seamless integration with other segments of the transportation system," including ports, rail links, and last-mile connectors (think of the highways and roads that lead into maritime ports). It runs a variety of programs that seek those ends, such as the StrongPorts program which provides expertise on port financing and infrastructure.

The Federal Maritime Commission, on the other hand, is more of a regulatory body, and as such works to "foster a fair, efficient and reliable international ocean transportation system and to protect the public from unfair and deceptive practices." The Commission monitors agreements among ocean common carriers and marine terminal operators to ensure the agreements don't result in substantial increases in transportation costs or reductions in services, and monitors carriers' rates, charges, and rules to ensure they are reasonable.

Port of New York and New Jersey.
Trump hasn't said much about maritime transportation in particular: he usually talks about highways and bridges, occasionally expanding his definition of infrastructure to include airports and rail, as well as non-transportation infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. So it isn't clear to me right now that a Trump infrastructure package would include funding for maritime infrastructure, but nor is it a foregone conclusion that it won't.

That's where Secretary Chao could come in. If she believes strongly in investing more in our nation's ports, she could work with Senate leaders to ensure that an infrastructure package includes funding specifically for maritime transportation.

The money would go to good use: ports support millions of jobs throughout the supply chain and can catalyze major economic development in their regions. Stronger ports help increase import and export opportunities for our nation's businesses - so when our ports improve their operations, our businesses can plan to expand theirs. And with the rise of mega-ships and ocean carrier alliances, our ports are more strained than ever, moving more cargo in shorter timeframes and smaller spaces.

Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo christens a new crane barge
funded in part by a federal TIGER grant.
Photo courtesy of the Providence Journal.
In spite of these needs, we don't currently have a long-term, dedicated funding stream for our nation's ports. Most frequently, federal financial assistance for port improvement comes through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. TIGER grants can go to all different kinds of transportation - and to date, only 11.6% of TIGER funding has gone to ports.

However, the U.S. DOT and Maritime Administration have started creating other opportunities for U.S. ports to get assistance. The Maritime Administration recently awarded nearly $5 million to six different Marine Highway projects spanning 17 states. Marine Highway projects are those that expand the use of navigable waterways to relieve landside congestion and provide other public benefits (such as reduced air emissions). Many of these projects are for container on barge services - those that move containerized freight via waterway thus taking them off our roads and highways to reduce congestion - but there's also money in there for a commuter ferry service between DC and Northern Virginia.

Secretary Chao could continue this trend of giving more federal funding to port and maritime infrastructure improvements. But does she want to? In her questionnaire to the Senate Commerce Committee, Chao wrote that "With or without a new infusion of funds, it is necessary to look at the existing processes for infrastructure development and find more efficient ways to address bottlenecks in planning and permitting." It isn't apparent yet whether this statement (particularly "with or without a new infusion of funds") is a general philosophy, or is meant to throw cold water on Trump's grand-scale infrastructure plans.

She also says that "given the nation's need to improve critical infrastructure, it is important to find ways to expedite the process of making repairs and building new constructions and decreasing the regulatory burdens when appropriate." This could, if she wants it to, apply to large port projects like dredging and river widening to help our ports accommodate those mega-ships.

There's still a lot to learn about Secretary-designate Elaine Chao and what her priorities would be as Secretary of Transportation. We'll likely learn more when the Senate Commerce Committee holds its hearing on her nomination - and until then, we can only speculate. But based on her history as someone who held several high-ranking jobs within the maritime transportation space, I think it's likely she's aware of the unique challenges our nation's ports are facing and recognizes that federal investment for these major drivers of economic development could help meet those challenges.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Five Coolest Things in the FRA's Plan for the Northeast Corridor

Click here to read the report.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has released its vision for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) through the Environmental Impact Statement. This statement, which is required to determine the potential environmental impacts of large infrastructure projects, presents the agency's Preferred Alternative for improvements to make on the rail system in the Northeastern U.S. The FRA unveiled its recommendations on a new website, NECFuture.com. Anchoring the site is a brief electronic report, "Our Future on Track: Highlights of the Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement."

Particularly for someone like me, who rides the Northeast rails fairly regularly, there's a lot of interesting stuff in this report. The FRA writes that its recommendations would "grow the role of rail in the Northeast, providing the capacity to dramatically increase the number of trains and improve the railroad's performance." Here are the five coolest aspects of the FRA's recommendations for the NEC:

1. More trains

The FRA estimates that all of the improvements outlined in the Preferred Alternative would provide the capacity for up to five times as many intercity trains as today, including multiple trains per hour. Right now, it looks like Amtrak runs about one Acela Express and one Northeast Regional train each hour; I'm guessing these improvements would enable Amtrak to double that amount if it wanted to.

A map of FRA's Preferred Alternative (click to expand).
It would also double the capacity for regional rail trains during peak hours. They give the example that for the Hudson River Crossing, the current 21 trains per hour could double to 42 thanks to two new tunnel tracks being constructed. That's good news for New Jersey commuters: more trains means fewer passengers crowded into each train.

They would also build two new tracks in the tunnels that cross the East River, which would help relieve train congestion for commuters coming in from Long Island.

As someone who grew up in Connecticut riding Metro North into the city, I'm curious as to how Connecticut commuters will benefit from the Preferred Alternative. It looks like there are chokepoint relief projects in downstate New York and just West of New Haven, as well as a new track segment being constructed around the Stamford area.

2. More stations

Philadelphia International Airport
More stations means more connectivity. That's important for a transportation system. It's why the DC metro has a stop at Union Station, and it's why the Acela stops at BWI and New York-Penn Station. Ideally, you want people to be able to get from the plane to the train, from the subway to the bus, or whatever their inter-modal connections are as quickly and easily as possible. These inter-modal connectors are what enable people to leave their cars behind: they can take the bus to the train station, the train to the airport, and then the airport to their destination.

With that in mind, FRA is recommending a new train station (presumably for Amtrak, which is the intercity rail for the Northeast) at Philadelphia International Airport. It also plans to integrate direct service on the proposed Hartford/Springfield Line into the NEC, so that passengers can travel seamlessly from Springfield to Washington, DC without having to transfer at New Haven.

3. Faster travel

This is the most important thing for many of us: we want our train trips to be faster. The Preferred Alternative would reduce travel times noticeably, allowing us to get from DC to NYC in as little as 2 hours and 10 minutes (35 minutes faster) and from NYC to Boston in as little as 2 hours and 45 minutes (45 minutes faster).

Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel
The FRA recommends a number of projects to allow for faster travel times. One of these projects is a replacement of the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel. The current tunnel, built in the 1870's, has a sharp curve that requires trains to drop speeds to 30 mph. Replacing it will keep trains moving faster, letting you get to your destination earlier.

The Preferred Alternative also calls for a new track segment to replace the sharp curve just outside of Philadelphia that was responsible for the fatal derailment in May 2015. This is a matter of safety, but it will also let trains maintain higher speeds without putting anyone in danger, again shortening travel times.

4. Greater convenience

In addition to all the construction, the Preferred Alternative would implement a number of logistical changes that would make it easier for people to ride the rails. I mentioned the importance of interconnectivity in our transportation system: it's also important that people be able to navigate those connections with ease.

Stamford Transportation Center
The FRA calls for coordinated schedules and ticketing to allow for more seamless travel. Coordinated train arrivals will help people get to their final destination more quickly, since it prevents people from having to wait a long time at a transportation hub waiting for their next train. If you've ever traveled through the Stamford Transportation Center, you might have seen some trains standing at the station: those are trains from the New Canaan branch, and they're waiting for a train from Grand Central to arrive at Stamford so commuters can get off one train and onto another.

Coordinated ticketing will also be helpful, allowing travelers to buy a single ticket that takes them through their entire trip, rather than having to buy individual tickets for each line. MTA recently launched an eTix app that allows people to buy tickets through the app instead of at stations or on the train; this could serve as a model for the entire NEC.

5. Greater resiliency

This isn't on people's minds as often, but resiliency will continue to be important as severe weather events become more frequent. The Northeast was devastated by Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and these storms served to highlight the importance of investing in the resiliency of our infrastructure.

The FRA says it will use the opportunity to build new infrastructure to locate and design that infrastructure in ways that will minimize the potential impacts from floods or extreme heat. new infrastructure provides opportunity to locate and design infrastructure to minimize risks to impacts from floods and extreme heat. This includes adding redundant tracks to provide alternative routing during flooding or other track-closing situations, and upgrading existing tracks to make them more resilient. They also propose electrifying the new Hartford/Springfield line, thus reducing the system's dependence on fuel from foreign sources.

What's next

Now that the EIS has been released, we're in a mandated 30-day waiting period, after which FRA will identify a Selected Alternative in the Record of Decision: this essentially means the agency will settle on a final proposal, which might be exactly the same as the Preferred Alternative proposed in the EIS. It next turns it attention to preparing a Service Development Plan, which will spell out the process for implementing that Selected Alternative. This includes identifying a first phase of projects to address the NEC's most critical needs.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

This Week in Transportation: December 17, 2016


Photo courtesy of Reuters
This week in transportation, outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx talked about the prospects for an infrastructure bill, the federal government proposed new rules for vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and the Federal Railroad Administration released a proposal for faster Northeast Corridor service. Here are the week's most important and interesting transportation stories from the past week:

Trump White House may face tough road with infrastructure plan: Foxx
Bloomberg BNA reports, "Outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he hasn’t spoken with his potential replacement, Elaine Chao, about policy issues. But he acknowledged she may face obstacles trying to usher President-elect Donald Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress. 'I consider myself very lucky to have come in here in a time when there wasn’t as much bipartisanship as we’ve seen in previous eras to successfully push for a transportation bill. That was not an easy feat,' he told reporters at a pen and pad. 'We’ll see what they’re able to do. The next Congress, the next White House will have an entirely different dynamic than the one that I walked into. And I wish them luck.'"

Infrastructure strategy touted by Trump has produced uneven results
Scott Rodd analyzes the Trump infrastructure proposal's reliance on public-private partnerships (P3), writing "Turning to private investors to finance public works isn’t free money. Investors expect to be paid back and earn a profit on their investment. Tolls often enable investors to generate revenue and keep projects as close to revenue-neutral as possible. But critics point out the perils of P3s relying too heavily on tolls and other user fees to generate revenue. Many private investors, for example, push for noncompete clauses that limit or ban the development and maintenance of surrounding projects."

Government to require cars be able to talk to each other
The New York Times reports, "All new cars and light trucks would be able to talk wirelessly with each other, with traffic lights and with other roadway infrastructure under a rule the Transportation Department proposed Tuesday... The proposal calls for 50 percent of new vehicles to have the technology within two years after a final rule is issued, and 100 percent of vehicles with four years. It would still take years or even decades after that for the full potential of V2V to be realized. That's because V2V can prevent collisions only among vehicles equipped with the technology."

Faster rail service is coming to America-slowly
CityLab gives a roundup of high-speed rail projects making progress despite a lack of financial support from the federal government. Laura Bliss writes, "Despite having long been left for dead, those sorts of rail improvements and connections are coming to life in the U.S.—corridor by corridor, at varying velocities. In the absence of much dedicated federal funding, private investments are paying the freight in some cases; others are getting state funding. If Trump wants to create jobs with splashy infrastructure upgrades, giving these existing high-speed rail projects a cash injection might be a good bet."

Feds propose and Amtrak stop at the Philly Airport and greatly speeding up regional service
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports, "A new plan for railroad service on the East Coast includes an Amtrak stop at Philadelphia International Airport and improvements that could help the region’s railroads run faster and more reliably. The NEC Future project, announced Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration, would also straighten the Frankford Curve, north of 30th Street Station, where an Amtrak train derailed in May 2015, killing eight people. A trip from Philadelphia to Washington would take an hour and 20 minutes, 20 minutes less than today. Getting to New York City would take 55 minutes, 15 fewer than now."

Courtesy of the FRA.

Happy reading, and happy weekend!