The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Readings between meetings

On my list today:

Back to meetings...

Duke killed public transit?

CityLab reports that my alma mater has doomed the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project in North Carolina:

DOLRT has consumed more than $130 million in public money. In 2011 and 2012, voters in Durham and Orange counties approved half-cent sales taxes to fund transportation improvements, including the light rail, to better connect major employers like UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. Central University, a VA hospital, and businesses in bustling downtown Durham. Construction of the estimated $2.7 billion project was to start next year; an application to the Federal Transit Administration was due this spring for federal funding of $1.25 billion. The state agreed to contribute $190 million.

But all this came to a screeching halt on February 27, when Duke University officials said they would not sign a cooperative agreement. (The project required 11 partners to ink cooperative agreements; only Duke, Norfolk Southern, and the North Carolina Railroad Company, which manages a major rail corridor, remain unsigned.) A week later, Duke declined a request to participate in a mediated negotiation with GoTriangle, the region’s transportation authority.

What happened?

In a letter to GoTriangle, Duke President Vincent Price and other officials cited issues with the light rail’s alignment along Erwin Road in Durham, which runs next to the university’s sprawling medical complex. Price expressed concerns that magnetic interference could hurt high-tech diagnostic and research equipment. Other issues included construction disruption that could affect a utility line, and vibrations from digging and placing the supports for an elevated track, and legal liability. In declining further talks, the Duke leaders said that the project’s route “poses significant and unacceptable risks to the safety of the nearly 1.5 million patients who receive care at our hospital and clinics each year, and the future viability of health care and research at Duke.”

That seems...unlikely. So what is Duke really complaining about? It's unclear. But that they brought this point up now and not in 2016 or even earlier seems intentional. And that's really crappy.

There has always been local government capture

I wanted to post this when it came out but life intervened. A couple weeks ago, New Republic reported on the sad tale of exurban town Elwood, Ill., and the "opportunity" they seized on with a giant intermodal freight terminal in 2002:

Fifteen years before Amazon’s HQ2 horserace, Elwood had won the retail lottery. “Nobody envisioned what we have out here,” said Jerry Heinrich, who sat on the board of the planning commission that first apportioned the land for development in the mid-1990s. “It was never anticipated that every major business entity would end up in the area.”

But this corporate valhalla turned out to be hell for the community, which suffered a concentrated dose of the indignities and disappointments of late capitalism in the 21st century. Instead of abundant full-time work, a regime of partial, precarious employment set in. Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store. Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt.

And that was before Big Tech rolled in. Just four years ago Amazon didn’t even have one facility in the region; now, with five fulfillment centers, it’s the county’s largest employer. Growth, once arithmetic, became exponential. Plans were made to build a new facility, this one bigger than the original Intermodal, with room for some 35 million additional square feet of industrial space.

It's astounding, but not surprising, that this would happen. And more than just a cautionary story about getting more than you bargained for, it should remind people that voting in local elections matters a lot.

The good and bad in Chicago this morning

Two good stories and a bad one.

First, a good story: Chicago now has more breweries than any other city in the US:

The metro region has surged past several longtime stalwarts to become home to more breweries than any other city in the nation — 167 — according to statistics published this week by the Brewers Association.

Behind it are the metro areas that for years Chicago beer drinkers could only envy: Denver (158), Seattle (153) and San Diego (150).

In fifth and sixth places are two other large cities whose brewing scenes have surged in recent years: Los Angeles (146) and New York (141).

Seems like I have some work to do over the next few months.

Now the bad story: Eddie Lampert can't save Sears. But we knew that:

If you believe Edward Lampert has finally figured out how to revive Sears, then you probably still believe in Santa Claus. The hedge fund mogul who oversaw the 125-year-old retailer’s long slide into bankruptcy is dangling the prospect of an 11th-hour buyout, casting his proposal as an altruistic effort to save the remaining 50,000 jobs at Sears.

My advice to those workers: Don’t expect a Christmas miracle.

First of all, there’s less to Lampert’s offer than initial appearances suggest. It’s been touted as a $4.6 billion bid to buy Sears out of bankruptcy, where it landed in October after losing $11 billion since 2011. But $1.8 billion of the offer would take the form of debt forgiveness by Lampert-affiliated entities, Sears’ largest lenders with about $2.6 billion in company debt. About $950 million would be cash, provided Lampert can find a lender willing to front the money. (As has been the pattern in recent years, Lampert isn’t putting more of his own cash into Sears.) Another $1 billion or so represents Sears liabilities to be assumed by a new company Lampert would form to acquire company assets including 500 stores, inventories, and the Kenmore and DieHard brands.

Oh, and Lampert also wants releases from claims related to his pre-bankruptcy transactions with Sears. Other creditors have commissioned an investigation into whether Lampert, Sears’ controlling shareholder since 2005 and CEO from 2013 until October’s Chapter 11 filing, gave himself favorable treatment in such deals as the spinoff of Lands End and the sale of Sears real estate to a newly formed company where he has a controlling stake.

And finally, another good story: the CTA will start modernizing the stretch of the El that goes by my neighborhood this fall, completing it just in time for the renovation of the Uptown Theater. Should all of this come together, it means I bought my apartment at exactly the right time:

The Red and Purple Line project will rebuild stations, bridges and track along a century-old corridor between Lawrence and Bryn Mawr avenues on the Red Line, the agency’s busiest line, CTA officials said. The construction also will include a controversial bypass that will take Brown Line trains above Red and Purple Line trains north of the busy Belmont station, CTA officials said.

Construction is expected to start in the fall of 2019, with the entire project to be completed in 2025, CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase said.

Chase said that by the end of 2019, the CTA expects to start advance work to prepare for later phases of the project. This work will include building temporary stations to replace the Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr stations, which will be rebuilt. The CTA also will do track work to prepare for further repairs. Exact timing for the work will depend on the contractor.

Chase said the bypass work will start in 2020. The agency will start building new stations from Lawrence to Bryn Mawr in about two or three years, she said.

That will make a huge difference in Uptown, where the 110-year-old El stations look like they're about to collapse on themselves.

Take my money!

CityLab just alerted me to a card game that I am going to order as soon as I finish this post:

The nail-biting drama of rush-hour congestion, shuttle bus transfers, and airport mix-ups—now in a deck of cards: It’s LOOP: The Elevated Card Game, developed by Chicago merchandiser Transit Tees. The game draws on the relatable pleasures and perils of using the Windy City’s elevated rapid-transit network, the venerable L; it’s a love letter to the joys of public transit, as well as an opportunity to mocking its abundant annoyances.

The gameplay is similar to UNO or Crazy Eights, but instead of matching numbers, suites, or colors, players match the L line or station. For example, if the top of the pile is a Brown Line card for the Washington/Wells station, you can play any other Brown Line, or another Washington/Wells card (as if you’re transferring lines in real life). The object of the game is to get rid of all of your cards first. The player who most recently used public transportation gets to deal.

Yah, total Daily Parker bait. There seems to be a lot of that lately.

This is why my reading list occupies two whole bookshelves

CityLab describes new Daily Parker bait:

When a new rail or bus line gets built in the United States, its mere opening is often cause for celebration among transit advocates. That’s understandable, given the funding gaps and political opposition that often stymie projects.

But not all trains are bound for glory, and it’s often not hard to see why. In the new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit (Island Press, $40), Christof Spieler, a Houston-based transit planner, advocate, and former METRO board member, takes stock of the state of American transit with a tough-love approach. In nearly 250 pages of full-color maps, charts, and encyclopedia-style entries, Spieler profiles the 47 American metropolitan regions that have rail or bus rapid transit to show what works, what doesn’t, and why.

But a dunk-fest this is not. Spieler highlights several examples of cities that are often commonly described as transit failures, but where the data tells another story. “Though Los Angeles’ first rail system was gone by 1963, it left a city that is still friendly to transit,” he writes of the iconically car-oriented city. And who knew that Buffalo, New York, and Fort Collins, Colorado, have transit systems to admire? The former may have the shortest and most oddly configured light-rail system in the country, but as it turns out, “Metro Rail outperforms most of the light-rail lines in the United States,” Spieler writes. (It’s also laden with glorious public art, as CityLab’s Mark Byrnes recently noted.) And Fort Collins has top-quality BRT for its size.

So, do I waive the rule against buying more books until half of this shelf is empty? Or do I hold fast and get this book when it goes paperback in a year or two?

Why American transit systems suck

Anyone who has traveled from the US to Canada or Europe notices quickly that their transit systems simply work better. Londoners may moan about the Tube, but one can get from any part of Greater London to any other at almost any time of day using trains or buses.

Writing for Citylab, Jonathan English explains why and how the rest of the world got it right and we got it so very wrong:

[T]o briefly summarize: Transit everywhere suffered serious declines in the postwar years, the cost of cars dropped and new expressways linked cities and fast-growing suburbs. That article pointed to a key problem: The limited transit service available in most American cities means that demand will never materialize—not without some fundamental changes.

Many, though not all, major cities in the U.S. have a number of rail lines radiating out of their centers. Most of them are only used by freight or a few commuter train trips a day. It’s a huge, untapped resource. There’s no reason why those railway lines can’t be turned into what are effectively subway lines—high-capacity routes that allow people to get across the city quickly—without the immense cost of tunneling. In Europe, what we usually call “commuter rail” operates frequently, all day, and cost the same fare as other local transit. That’s the difference between regional rail and commuter rail. A transit system with service that is only useful to 9-to-5 commuters to downtown will never be a useful one for most people.

Fares need to be low enough that people can afford to take transit. New York City will soon join other cities like Tucson and Ann Arbor in having discounted fares for low-income people. That is important to make transit accessible to everyone. But fair fares isn’t just about keeping fares low. It’s also about eliminating arbitrary inequities. People shouldn’t have to pay a transfer penalty or a double fare just because they switch from bus to rail, transfer between agencies, or travel across the city limits. A transfer is an inconvenience—you shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.

Fares should be set for the convenience of riders, not government agencies. A trip of a similar distance should have a similar fare, regardless of whether it’s on a bus or train, or if you have to cross city limits. Commuter rail shouldn’t be a “premium service” that only suburban professionals can afford.This is the kind of unfairness that infuriates people and drives them away from transit.

Chicago, by the way, has contemplated a regional farecard system for decades. Maybe someday...

Hot times in the New York subway

The New York City subway, with its passive air exchange system and tunnels too small for active ventilation or air conditioning, have gotten excessively hot this summer:

On Thursday, temperatures inside at least one of the busiest stations reached 40°C—nearly 11°C warmer than the high in Central Park.

The Regional Plan Association, an urban planning think tank for the greater metropolitan area, took a thermometer around the system’s 16 busiest stations, plus a few more for good measure, and shared the data with CityLab. A platform at Union Square Station had the 40°C reading at 1 p.m., which was the hottest they found, although Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall and Columbus Circle weren’t far off at 39°C and 38½°C, at around 10 and 11 a.m., respectively. Twelve out of the 16 busiest stops boiled at or over the 32°C mark in the late morning and early afternoon.

One might think that subway stations would offer crisp respite to sweaty New Yorkers, being underground and all. But you’d be wrong. Heat doesn’t only “rise”—it just diffuses to cooler areas, which can include below-ground spaces. Plus, only a few of the city’s 472 stations are equipped with air conditioning; most rely on a passive ventilation system better known for their Marilyn Monroe moments above ground. This system was built in the days before AC, and the MTA says it’s not possible to squeeze the station-cooling machinery that other metro systems have inside New York’s narrow tunnels. Meanwhile, the units that cool passengers inside cars actually shed heat into the stations as trains pass through.

That onboard air-conditioning can fail, too. The MTA has also seen a rising number of complaints about overheated cars in recent years. In today’s issue of Signal Problems, his indispensable newsletter focused on subway accountability, the journalist Aaron Gordon reports that “about two percent of all subway cars in service on any given day might not have working A/C,” according to the MTA. That means at least 100 cars are roasting passengers on any given day this summer.

This problem also bedevils the London Underground.

Meanwhile, here in Chicago, we're having our 73rd day this year above 27°C, just 10 short of the record. Given the normal number of temperatures that warm between now and October, I think we'll probably set a new one.

And the sunlight here looks eerily orange and hazy today, because of climate change-driven wildfires out west.

Welcome to the future.

The TSA finally talks frankly about security

Bruce Schneier says that the TSA's thoughts about security at smaller airports are exactly the conversation they should be having:

Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes -- 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.

To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group's report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It's nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It's not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year.

We don't know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency's willingness to explore changes in the screening process.

There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don't have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.

And just think, it's only taken 15 years and $45 billion to get here...

Boring Company will bore Chicago

Elon Musk's Boring Co. has gotten approval to start work on a high-speed underground connection between O'Hare and downtown Chicago:

The promised project: A closed-loop pair of tunnels from Block 37 in the central Loop to the airport that would whisk passengers to their flights in 12 minutes, using autonomous pod-like vehicles, or electric skates, that would depart as frequently as every 30 seconds and carry up to 16 passengers and their luggage.

If all goes as it should, [Deputy Mayor Robert] Rivkin said, construction work could begin next year with actual service in operation around 2022.

The Chicago project generally would use already existing "electric skate" technology, though it would link them together in a form and length that is unique to this country. The direct connection via a dedicated tunnel would allow those vehicles to accelerate to over 100 miles per hour, according to the city and Boring, slashing the time on the 27 km O'Hare run. And the project would-use the long mothballed CTA "superstation" under Block 37 as a terminal, with the end point located near the CTA's Blue Line terminus close to O'Hare terminals but outside of the airport's security perimeter.

I really, really hope the project succeeds. It will be nice to get from O'Hare to downtown that quickly, though I doubt the $25 fare will last long. For comparison to other under-20-minute express trains, the Heathrow Express costs $29 while the Schiphol Fyra (to Amsterdam) only costs $6.25. If you want to take an hour, the El costs $5 and the Tube $4.10 (off-peak).