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July 27, 2014

Paul Schell: Mayor, Innovator, Friend

paul schell.jpg

Paul Schell, a former Mayor of Seattle and civic innovator, died unexpectedly this morning from complications after heart surgery. Paul is remembered fondly at Discovery Institute as a founding Co-chairman of the Board in 1990 (with Tom Alberg) and served for several years in that capacity. He was my long time friend, his daughter Jamie a god-daughter.

Paul, born in Iowa in 1937, the son of a Lutheran pastor, went to Wartburg College (which has since honored him). He attended Columbia Law School in New York, where he met and married Pam. They moved to Seattle in 1967. A lawyer at the Perkins, Coie firm, and then in his own, Paul was active in Seattle's political reform movement of Seattle in the late 60s and early 70s. He chaired the Allied Arts organization at a key juncture in civic history--fighting for the Pike Place Market, historic preservation, neighborhood community groups and good urban design. He was part of the citizens group that combatted the erection of new freeways, such as the elevated Bay Freeway that would have walled off Lake Union.

I used to come to the Schells' house after church on a Sunday and one of Paul's favorite pastimes was driving around the city with Pam and me, pointing out where new buildings were going or where they should go. He saw the potential of the downtown's growth north to Lake Union long before others did. There surely has never been another local leader in Seattle as well-grounded, or as visionary, in city design.

Mayor Wes Uhlman made him the city's Director of Community Development, enabling Paul to give form and substance to ideas he had long promoted. He also gained practical experience with development issues and the operations of bureaucracy. After City service at this point he entered private development with Weyerhaueser support (the Cornerstone group) that had a major effect on the preservation and re-use of buildings along the Seattle waterfront.

In 1977 Paul ran and lost a spirited and principled race for Mayor, beaten by Charles Royer. He subsequently was elected to the Seattle Port Commission, where his service resulted in a number of improvements, including erection of the new International Conference Center, among other things. He was a long time exponent of better trade and cultural relations with our Northwest neighbors in Oregon and British Columbia and helped popularize the concept of "Cascadia". He encouraged and supported a project under that name at Discovery Institute that continues today.

Continue reading "Paul Schell: Mayor, Innovator, Friend" »

March 20, 2014

Satire Focus Shifts to New Special Interests

Prickley City Comic.gif

Public employee union leaders, politicized government bureaucrats and special interest cronies in the private sector who trade political influence for economic favors: these are the new power elites in America whose existence and scope finally are being recognized. They often invoke the poor, but do nothing much for them. In the case of teachers union leaders (in New York and Chicago, and even Washington State), they are beginning to become the objects of satire.

Here's another case: In Seattle, the Luddite City Council has just decided to restrict passenger car services like Uber that have attracted enthusiasm almost everywhere they are tried. Young techie Seattlites love them because they easy, reliable and quick--summoned by a mere cell phone call. These services also have the merit of moving more people out of their own cars, thus saving fuel and parking spaces, and often are used by people going out to parties as a responsible way to respond to the admonition not to drink and drive. Think about this. Seattle is a city where officials constantly have made private car driving more and more problematic. Yet when a brilliant technology comes along that allows car owners to leave their vehicles at home, the City retaliates!

The problem, of course, is that Seattle and other cities long ago established a taxi-cab monopoly for passenger pick-ups. The taxi technology and style is familiar, but now old fashioned--early 20th century. The people who own the cabs have to get pricey medallions, and understandably treat them as an exclusionary, non-competitive entitlement, the way, say, a medieval silversmith regarded his guild membership. The rise of free enterprise ended the stultifying effects of the medieval guilds, but the desire for monopoly persists as a predictable human ambition. The political power is with the taxi companies.

The Seattle City Council might have found a means to deregulate the taxi cabs over a period of time so that taxi owners were not suddenly and completely disadvantaged. Instead, the Council came down on the side of limiting the upstart competitors of the taxis. This is the Luddite solution, the reaction of people (to go back to the medieval example) who want to smash new technology rather than learn to live and thrive with it.

Greg Gottesman, a principal of Madrona Investment Co. in Seattle--who knows something about innovation--reacted to the City Council with a fine satire that has been reprinted repeatedly (so I am hardly the first). Meanwhile about 35,000 people have begun protesting the City Council's action.

Greg Gottesman's article follows.

Continue reading "Satire Focus Shifts to New Special Interests" »

January 14, 2014

Can You Beat Beets for De-Icing Roads?

Sugar Beet.JPG

David Hatch of Citiscope alerts us to a CBC story on alternatives communities are using for de-icing roads in winter. Sand clogs drains and can pile up in cities that have lots of snowfall each year. By March a place making repeated use of sand is a mess. Salt is better for a city like Seattle where the salty water runs down to an already salty sea. But salt also affects dry land vegetation adversely, and some think it can hurt pets who lick at it.

So inventive Americans and Canadians, among others, have devised alternative ways of coping with the slippery winter stuff--from molasses to beet juice to solar panels.

However, the question left hanging is, how much does all this cost?

Maryland and Washington are among the states employing molasses to get the salt they do use to adhere longer to road surfaces instead of running off into ditches and gutters. Since molasses is relatively abundant and biodegradable, it's a winner. But who knows how much it costs the taxpayers?


Continue reading "Can You Beat Beets for De-Icing Roads?" »

December 30, 2013

Seattle's Economy and Politics--and California's

south lake union cranes.jpg

Seattle is as politically liberal and quirky as any other big city on the West Coast, yet it remains more affordable than many and is succeeding in attracting new enterprises, especially in the tech field.

An article in shows that both office and home prices in the Seattle area are far below those in the San Francisco-San Jose area:

"Average listing prices in cities such as Los Gatos, San Francisco, Cupertino, Redwood City, San Mateo, and Sunnyvale are anywhere between $1.1 and $1.4 million. To illustrate what this means to a young entrepreneur or skilled technologist looking for a home, the median price to buy a 2-bedroom home in San Francisco would cost $880,000, whereas in Seattle it would cost $385,000." (Granted, we are talking starter homes by the definition of someone in, say, Omaha.)

Salaries in the Bay Area are higher than in Seattle, but taxes and most other living expenses more than make up the difference.

"The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that San Francisco County's median income is $99,400 and King County's median income is $85,600. However, $100,000 salary in San Francisco is comparable to living on roughly a $70,000 salary in Seattle, according to CNN's Cost of Living Calculator. Keeping these comparisons in mind, housing costs about 53% less in Seattle and groceries costs about 13% less. Utilities, transportation, and health care costs are roughly the same."

One of the seldom-mentioned advantages of the Seattle area is that its land development is less advanced than the Bay Area's, or even Los Angeles'; there is more room to grow. Seattle itself still has plenty of opportunities for new apartment houses and condos. For example, from the I-5 Freeway in central Seattle one can see upwards of ten cranes in or around the South Lake Union area where billionaire Paul Allen's Vulcan development company is active. The City also has lifted some height restrictions for residential units around the University of Washington and the Northgate shopping mall.

Continue reading "Seattle's Economy and Politics--and California's" »

October 26, 2013

Urban Farming's History is a P-Patch

A major player in the modern urban farming movement was enactment of the P-Patch program in Seattle in 1973. My former City Council colleague--and present Discovery Institute colleague--John R. Miller is hailed for his role in an article today in

Continue reading "Urban Farming's History is a P-Patch" »

August 31, 2013

Joining Bertha as She Bores into Seattle


It was a thrill this week for Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute, and me to join a handful of other interested citizens (organized by business leader Ray Aspiri) to tour the world's largest boring machine as it begins to chomp away underground in the south end of downtown Seattle's waterfront. Eventually big "Bertha" is to exit at the north end of downtown and to replace with a tunnel the elevated freeway--the Alaska Way Viaduct--that has blighted Seattle's waterfront since 1952. The result will be a long-sought facelift for Seattle's waterfront.

IMG_1676.JPGBertha, an inspired name picked by a school kids' competition that honors the female one-time Mayor of Seattle, Bertha Landes, is 300 feet long, about the length of a football field. Built in Japan, Bertha had just begun to grind into the soil last week when the billion dollar project was hit with a labor dispute between two unions. Technically the site was idle the day our little band stopped first at the "Milepost 31" information center at 211 First Avenue South in Pioneer Square, but people seemed pretty busy to us. IMG_1680.JPG First we examined the historic displays and a model of Bertha (see photo from my snappy cell phone), along with glossy renderings of what the waterfront may look like once liberated from the weight of the Viaduct (another photo). (Personally, I am anxious that the waterfront planners may have forgotten that it rains most months in Seattle, making the predominantly unsheltered outdoors environment they envision a bit optimistic.)

Continue reading "Joining Bertha as She Bores into Seattle" »

August 19, 2011

Lid Freeways in America's Urban Areas

The streams of freeways that now flow across the land were built for transporation purposes, and that's about it. Like so many good ideas, the "parkway" designs of mid-20th Century suburban New York were not widely copied. Put in the concrete, plant a few trees on the sidings and move on; that has been the common modern approach. It may be changing. Public pressure and better education for planners help.

Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center has urged freeway "lids"--green, active spaces atop freeways where the road cuts make them feasible--and especially in dense urban areas where land is expensive. The "Freeway Park" in downtown Seattle is over forty years old, but its design is still advanced. Fountains provide white noise to cover the traffic sounds. Flowers bloom in profusion, thanks to the wisdom of civic planner, Jim Ellis, who realized that a privately raised fund would be needed for such purposes; otherwise, the City Council would vote to remove the flower beds as soon as the City had a financial strain--which cities have just about every year.

Discovery urged freeway lids for all new construction, because that's when funds are most available as "mitigation" expenses. Some five years ago we urged that lids be used landside for the expansion of Route 520 that branches

Continue reading "Lid Freeways in America's Urban Areas" »

August 18, 2011

Seattle voters say "yes" to tunnel

Though one hesitates to say something in Seattle is ever actually finished, in the land of indecision, it appears that a decision has finally been made. With nearly 60 percent in favor, Seattle voters told their elected officials on Tuesday to move forward with a tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

As The Seattle Times reports, the defeat of the effort to recall the earlier decision to build the tunnel sets into motion the final bureaucratic and regulatory approvals that will move the project forward rapidly and allow "the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to tell its tunnel contractors by Sept. 1 to move into final design and construction."

Continue reading "Seattle voters say "yes" to tunnel" »

February 17, 2011

Rail Beauty Contest: Florida Walks, Others Talk

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Concept for Tampa-Orlando station (Source: Florida High Speed Rail)

by Mike Wussow

Governor Rick Scott of Florida has turned down $2.4 billion in federal high-speed rail money. The money, part of President Obama's push for building high-speed passenger rail, was to be used for a line connecting Tampa and Orlando. In his prepared remarks, former business executive Scott said his concerns centered on "capital cost overruns," unrealistic "ridership and revenue projections," and a fear that his "state would have to return the $2.4 billion" if Florida couldn't afford to keep the project going.

As news of the announcement spread beyond the Sunshine State, others in the high-speed rail funding queue moved faster than the 250 mph Shanghai Maglev passenger train to announce they'd happily take the money Florida isn't using.

Continue reading "Rail Beauty Contest: Florida Walks, Others Talk" »

January 24, 2011

Jobs Alone Don't Justify Transportation Spending

by Mike Wussow

A conventional measurement used to assign value to transportation expenditures--job stimulus--is myopic and unsustainable according to analysts at the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). The president and members of Congress have called for rebuilding the country's sagging infrastructure, citing the jobs such projects will create. But on the eve of the State of the Union speech, a new report from the BPC suggests that transportation spending needs to be justified on more than temporary employment spikes created by construction projects. If there is a justification it is primarily on long-term economic benefits.

Continue reading "Jobs Alone Don't Justify Transportation Spending" »

January 3, 2011

Federal Transportation May Skid Off the Road

Proposals are under consideration to change the way transportation is funded nationally, and the consequences are not very promising for transportation, or, for that matter, the federal budget. The reforms put forward by Republicans Bud Schuster and Don Young, and enacted by a Republican Congress, a dozen years ago guaranteed transportation trust fund spending levels. The rules change proposed by the new House GOP leadership would allow the guaranteed level to be lowered by the Appropriations Committee, thereby essentially putting the Transportation Trust Fund budget--still funded mainly by transportation taxes--into the same pot as other general expenditures.

It is a poor idea, but more important, it seems like a bootless enterprise, and a potentially time consuming one. It would cost its Republican proponents some of the momentum they now enjoy. Opponents already are energized. Moreover, it is a big change that should be debated, not rushed through as a rules change, as apparently some intend. This is the very sort of thing that Republicans objected to when it came from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Beyond that:

1) Transportation is one of the core functions of government since the Founding. There is nothing fuzzy or vague about it. It is not social engineering, but real engineering. It is literally concrete. Transportation is a time honored role of government--harking back to post roads and canals--that, if anything, has been downgraded by all the new obligations that have supplanted it in the affections of the Left. Each decade it becomes a smaller part of the US Budget.

While there has been plenty of Tea Party opposition to certain transportation earmarks, such as the "bridge to nowhere," there has been no principled or practical opposition to transportation programs per se. Reform of how transportation projects are selected and undertaken would be helpful. For example, there should be more of a role for private finance and for achieving efficiencies through project operations that connect design, building and operate (DBO or DBM--design, build, maintain). It is also worthwhile to consider a requirement for more local matching money for road, bridge and rail projects that primarily benefit an intra-state region as opposed to a true inter-state constituency. But the rules change scheme is something else, a way to use transportation revenues to cover shortfalls in non-transportation programs.

2) Linking transportation spending to transportation revenue was the product of a reform several decades ago. There is a direct linkage now, unlike the various novel programs that have been added to government since the New Deal and the Great Society. Severing such a linkage between transportation tax revenue and transportation spending would destroy a valuable pay-as-you-go precedent and establish a dangerous new spending temptation for future Congresses. It also would decrease whatever predictability transportation planning has now.

3) Transportation infrastructure, as the recent winter storms have underscored, is in bad condition, unable to respond adequately to emergencies as mundane as snow and ice, let alone real man-made or natural disasters. If people can't move, nothing gets done, personal or corporate or communal. Why pick a time when a fragile economic recovery is underway to stymie transportation improvements? Infrastructure spending is one of the few government stimulus programs that actually stimulate anything.

4) You can be sure that the construction and union lobbies will be out in force against this change, as will Chambers of Commerce, municipalities and states. Public opinion is not likely to be directly mobilized at first because people are not even aware that transportation is threatened. But when they are, they probably will not approve of their transportation tax dollars being spent on other things.

So, politically speaking, even if somehow this change passes the House (with blood flowing copiously in the gutters), it will not be sustained in the Senate, and if it adopted there, it likely would face a Presidential veto.

So what's the point? The undoing of one reform to achieve another--and only to achieve it as a lost cause? We are not in our financial bind because of transportation spending, and sacrificing it will not help us get out of our bind.

October 15, 2010

Back on Track: Amtrak Service to Continue to Vancouver

This article is reposted from Cascadia Prospectus.

Passenger rail advocates from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., are praising the news that the Canadian federal government has agreed to pay the border fee costs needed to keep a second Amtrak Cascades train running between Seattle and Vancouver. Until late yesterday afternoon, it appeared that the second train, originally started as a pilot program in conjunction with the Winter Olympics, would be canceled.

Continue reading "Back on Track: Amtrak Service to Continue to Vancouver" »

September 22, 2010

No One Said It Would Be Easy: America's Bid for High-Speed Rail

HSR Corridors Map.png

This article is reposted from Cascadia Prospectus.

An article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, "High-Speed Rail Stalls," offers a candid assessment of the challenges of delivering on the promise of high-speed rail (HSR) in the United States.

Continue reading "No One Said It Would Be Easy: America's Bid for High-Speed Rail" »

Cascadia Continues Support for Second Train to Vancouver


Photo Source: Amtrak Cascades

This article is reposted from Cascadia Prospectus

There has been a setback to the prospects of a permanent second daily Amtrak Cascades service to Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian federal government has made the decision not to waive permanently a border fee for the second train, requiring the Washington State Department of Transportation to pay almost $550,000 annually for border clearance services.

Continue reading "Cascadia Continues Support for Second Train to Vancouver" »

September 14, 2010

Rail Reform a Victim of Politics

It is, shall we say, like watching a train wreck. In various places, such as Wisconsin, the federal passenger rail program has become a symbol for the wastefulness of the Obama Administration. Republican and Democratic candidates for US Senate and Governorare at sword points over the issue.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere Democrats apparently want high speed inter-city passenger rail even under the present arrangements and Republicans primarily want to stop wasteful spending. Losing out in this Hobson's choice (no new passenger rail service or government bloat) is an objective analysis that might show how passenger rail responsibly can and should have a comeback for inter-city service, especially over intermediate distances (over 75 miles, under 500). It's the option that has been ignored by the Democrats and all but ignored by Republicans-- reform.

Reform in this context starts with two principles: 1) public works, including rail projects, should be managed as DBOMs--projects where the same winning bidders design, build, operate and even maintain the infrastructure. This lowers costs and usually maximizes private sector investment. 2) Encourage private contractors to bid for service on existing routes as well as new ones. If the private sector can figure out how to make money on a route, why should taxpayers continue to fund Amtrak to run it?

Recently, a French company won a Virginia contest to take over rail traffic from Amtrak. That is nearly unprecedented. Meanwhile, Amtrak has made the remarkable decision to fire its government Inspector General. Clearly, organizational reform is needed, too.

If the Republicans win either house of Congress, they should finally push for passenger rail reform. But first they have to decide whether any infrastructure will have their support, especially any future for passenger rail.

August 26, 2010

Private Competition at Last in Passenger Rail

Amtrak not only has had a monopoly on passenger rail in America, it has abused the franchise. The problem now is so serious that many observers have grown skeptical about any realistic future for passenger rail in this country. But don't give up. It is legal now for private companies, in certain circumstances, to bid against Amtrak management, and that is beginning to happen. Don Phillips, in the new Trains magazine (I cannot find the link; sorry) has the story from Virginia.

An old-fashioned rail battle erupts in the nation's capital

Boardman admits he was asleep at the switch

By Don Phillips

The great railroad battles of the last 180 years have been etched into the American consciousness. High school and college students know the names: Gould, Rockefeller, Huntington, Brosnan. There was the first railroad battle, over whether the new Baltimore & Ohio or the C&O Canal would get through the narrow gap at Point of Rocks, Md. There were numerous bitter strikes, including the great Pullman strike and a nationwide railroad strike that began at the still-standing roundhouse at Martinsburg, W.Va., both in the 19th century.

Continue reading "Private Competition at Last in Passenger Rail" »

July 30, 2010

Gilder Laughs at Kessler Robots

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(Note: Andy Kessler, hedge fund billionaire, meteoric success in Silicon Valley and at AT&T Bell Labs and author of four non-fiction books, has a novel out now: Grumby, a tale of the future of robotic intelligence. Gilder just read it.)

by George Gilder

Steve Jobs recoils in panic, pushing madly forth
his inferior pods and paddles, ipups and ap-kits, Quicktunes and
iTimes, before giving in to his disgrumbyment.

Mark Zuckerburg wanders forlorn and friendless on Facebook, before finally
matriculating at Harvard's new Grumby school of transgendered robotics.

Meg Whitman lifts weights and flees to the muscle bound beaches and
bureaucracies of California politics, now entirely virtualized by Grumby.

Bob Metcalfe propounds an ethereal power law of Grumbynets.

Eric Schmidt gives in to Grumby's inevitable "hollowing out" of Google and
retreats to a solar paneled virtual world without CO2.

Bill Gates zunes out and merges his x-boxes and OSes with his other

Ray Kurzweil revs up all his curves and hails the new Kesslerian

Jeff Bezos gasps at a new kindled amazon of litry laughs and lambencies.
All bow humbly before the coming of Grumby.

Microcosm and telecosm converge in a vivacious and incandescent vamp of
literature and futurism.


June 1, 2010

Developing Scandal at Amtrak

I served on the Amtrak Reform Council ten years ago and was frustrated, ultimately, by the failure of the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress to press harder for changes to Amtrak that would have made that entity more transparent in its finances and more collaborative with the private sector. Democrats who were beholden to Amtrak unions resisted changes, and when the Obama Administration came to power it decided to put lots of money into passenger rail, but not to support the kind of structural change needed to create a new, more successful entity.

Continue reading "Developing Scandal at Amtrak" »

April 15, 2010

Tax Day Message: for Financial Sustainability, Save Money with Public/Private and Mixed Uses

The federal government, states and localities are overspending. Elites who think that the Tea Party people are out of touch are themselves out of touch. If there was steam behind the idea of more "Stimulus" bills a year or so ago, it is venting fast.

In this environment, advocates for public improvements in infrastructure such as transportation should be thinking along two lines. First, how do we involve the private sector and not just leave public works to the government? Competition, as the previous post shows, tends to save money.

Second, how do we combine public projects to share costs, thereby also saving money?


A good example is the proposal of Discovery's Cascadia Center to reuse a "dinner train" rail line in East King County (Seattle metro area) for passenger rail (a great savings over creating a new right of way), plus freight (private sector), plus hiking and biking recreation? There are funds for all these purposes separately, but not enough. There is also new interest among environmentalists in combatting water pollution of water by trapping pollutants in natural settings that will allow bio-decay to take place.

Continue reading "Tax Day Message: for Financial Sustainability, Save Money with Public/Private and Mixed Uses" »

April 14, 2010

Competition Brings Good Budget News

In recent years supporters of sound public works--infrastructure and the like-- became used to cost overruns, so it is something of a happy shock these days when bids for major projects come in under budget. In the case of a portion of the replacement for the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle, for example, the difference was huge--$114 million versus the state's estimate of $153 million.

So many public costs are squeezing taxpayers at all levels of government that we ought to pause to savor the occasional break. Of course, the recessionary economy is responsible for such good outcomes. But so, too, is a little thing often ignored in other areas of government: the benefits of competition.

February 28, 2010

From Philly to Seattle: America's Waterfronts are Urban Development Issue of Decade

Call it "On the Waterfront" Meets "Philadelphia Story." The remake of the famous harbor of Philadelphia is the major development issue of that big city today. Three thousand miles away, the impending replacement of the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle has opened the opportunity and necessity of redesigning the waterfront there. Many other cities have similar issues in front of them as industrial era usages in central locations are being replaced by new interests in recreation and tourism and less unsightly transportation.

In a recent visit to Seattle, Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to a Seattle citizen planning team how his group and the William Penn Foundation, backed by the City of Philadelphia and local media and civic groups, have redesigned the general plan for the riverfront along the Delaware River, a deteriorating area of old piers and warehouses and "big box stores".

Continue reading "From Philly to Seattle: America's Waterfronts are Urban Development Issue of Decade" »

December 10, 2009

Engineering Contest Sees Tunnels in Urban Future


An innovative deep-bore tunneling operation devised for Sound Transit in Seattle is one of five projects in competition for the Outstanding Civil Engineering Award of 2009, a contest conducted by the American Society of Civil Engineers. One of the Seattle project's competitors is another tunnel in California. All in all, tunnel technology is being revolutionized these days, with extensive implications for urban design as well as transportation.

All five nominated 2009 civil engineering projects are impressive and tend to renew one's confidence that technology can provide breakthroughs in human life comparable to the great feats of the past century. The successful Sound Transit project is also significant for the next deep-bore program in Seattle, a tunnel under the downtown to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct, a 60 year old elevated freeway alongside the harbor. Eventually, the waterfront tunnel project may offer a national model for cities that wish to recover surface land in high density urban areas for multiple uses--land now used for the single purpose of motor traffic. Tunnel technologies like those in Seattle also could help remove the reputation for waste acquired by the "Big Dig" project in Boston.

Here is what Erik Sofge of Popular Mechanics says about the already completed Sound Transit tunnel:

"Whether or not you're a believer in the universal benefits of public transit, this project deserves respect. To build a passenger rail station in the Beacon Hill area, south of downtown Seattle, contractors had to create the largest and deepest soft-ground sequential excavation method (SEM) tunnels in North America. SEM refers to the practice of digging a tunnel in sections, supporting each segment as you go. The pair of mile-long tunnels--part of a 14-mile light-rail project--were nearly twice the depth and diameter of previous such projects, running under a 352-feet-high hill. When initial test shafts found a surprisingly large amount of fine sand, engineers quickly rearranged the design and path of the tunnels, pioneering new construction techniques that should benefit future SEM projects in soft soils. The final result is inherently unassuming--the Beacon Hill station is 160 feet underground, accessible in 20 seconds by elevator--so the 642-ton, 330-feet-long earth-pressure-balancing tunnel-boring machine that dug the tunnels will have to stand testament to this nimble and literally ground-breaking project."

November 3, 2009

The Huge News on Energy: We Have Lots, Right Here

Three years ago this month Discovery Institute reported on massive new North American explorations of oil and gas--especially gas--that offered to transform the energy scene and the economies of the United State, Canada and Mexico. My colleague, Charles Ganske, and I described how these developments could liberate North America from dependence on overseas energy, with very positive effects on international relations.

Interstate pipelines (in the blue) and intrastate pipelines (red) blanket the country. Graph courtesy of the Energy Information Administration.

Last week in this space, and on Russia Blog, I commented on the recent article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Telegraph about the World Conference on Gas that took place in Buenos Aires and the growing optimism that natural gas is becoming so abundant as to blow away the pessimism about energy--and even about global warming, since the carbon effects of gas are far less than for oil or coal.

Today The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Daniel Yergin (author of the The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power) and Robert Ineson of IHS CERA--"America's Natural Gas Revolution"--detailing the way the new gas discoveries already are expanding America's ability to lean more on domestic natural gas.

Sometimes it takes a while for major news to break through into the mainstream media, especially, and perversely, if the developments reported are helpful to America's national interests. In this case, it also is a way to help meet concerns about climate change (regardless of one's opinions on the topic). It would help if our leaders would take note, and allow themselves to applaud. This is real "change we can believe in." It is happening now.

October 30, 2009

Quirky is the New Norm in Transportation's Future

Electric vehicles on display at "Beyond Oil" 2009. From left to right, the Ford Focus, RAV 4 and Tesla Roadster. Mike Wussow/Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute

If you walked by Microsoft's Executive Conference Center late last week and saw more than one dozen cars lined-up on display outside the main entrance, you could have been forgiven for thinking the future hadn't arrived. The electric vehicle display (which included cars, trucks, motorcycles, a van and bicycles) was part of Discovery Institute's annual conference about the convergence of transportation and technology. What was surprising for some conference attendees was that with the exception of a power outlet instead of a gas tank, many of the world's most advanced electric vehicles look so very, well, normal.

Bruce Agnew, director of Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center--the institute's transportation policy center--says things weren't always that way and technology and design have changed dramatically in the six years since the institute held its first "Trans Tech" conference. Back then, he told The Seattle Times in a front-page Sunday story about the conference, the "parking lot was full of funny-looking cars." But now, he says, electric cars have gone "from a quirky passion shared by some Northwest drivers to a mainstream interest." Among the all-electric cars on display at the conference were the sleek and speedy Tesla Roadster, the Ford Focus and Toyota's RAV4. (In addition to The Seattle Times, Seattle television stations King 5 and KIRO 7, along with KOMO 1000 radio, covered the conference. Links to coverage of the conference by Seattle's public affairs channel can be found on the event site.)

Continue reading "Quirky is the New Norm in Transportation's Future" »

August 3, 2009

High-Speed Rail: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Designated High-Speed Rail Corridors Source: Federal Railroad Administration

High-Speed Rail: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
BY Ray Chambers, Cascadia Center

Washington, D.C.--As big campaign ideas cross the Potomac River and seep into the halls of power, all that is sometimes left is a faint memory -- promises unkept (often unintentionally) that the political opposition can use in the next election. But sometimes, as is happening with the development of high-speed rail, the political stars align on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, making true progress possible.

The unfolding high-speed rail network looks like the real deal for several important reasons. First there is direct presidential involvement. The Interstate Highway Act of the 1950s was President Eisenhower's personal initiative and his highest transportation priority. Similarly, the High-Speed Rail (HSR) Corridor program is President Obama's personal initiative and his highest transportation priority. Never underestimate the momentum of a program personally sponsored by a president.

Second, there is strong bi-partisan support in Congress. In fact the single champion for building high-speed rail corridors by mixing a huge infusion of public finance with "European style" private partnerships and entrepreneurship is U.S. Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.), Ranking Republican on the U.S. House of Representative's Transportation Committee. Committee Chair Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) is the leading across-the-board promoter of bringing true high-speed rail to America. Representatives Oberstar and Mica have formed an alliance. With leadership by President Obama, I believe HSR will dominate the transportation agenda for the next decade. Third, there are no real alternatives. With growing traffic and congestion, the capacity of the highway system cannot be reasonably expanded. Through a variety of measures such as positive train control and infrastructure projects, the capacity on America's existing railroad grid can be expanded to an enormous degree. It will be expensive, but not compared to the alternative. In fact, there is no alternative.

Finally, the proof of the HSR pudding is to follow the money. I began to believe this last February when the U.S. House of Representatives provided no money for HSR and the U.S. Senate provided $2 billion in the stimulus package. The Conference made an unusual compromise to fund the program at $8 billion. That was the result of President Obama's personal intervention in the House-Senate Conference. Then the Obama budget proposed that the HSR Corridor program receive another $1 billion a year for the next five years--upping the kitty to $13 billion, as well as establishing a National Infrastructure Bank. All of this has made me a believer in the HSR initiative.

Continue reading "High-Speed Rail: An Idea Whose Time Has Come " »

July 21, 2009

Bring Back the Automobile Bumper


Alan Mulally of Ford hopes to revive the Taurus, the once-popular sedan whose franchise the company abused and ran into the ground some years back. But there is no sign that Mr. Mulally, or anyone else making vehicles for the middle class, is interested in bringing back the bumper. One might as well expect the return of running boards.

That is a shame, because the assumption that buyers want style and performance to the exclusion of all else may be an error. After all, American automakers for years downplayed the importance, of gas mileage. "Small cars, small profits," was the Detroit chant, as The Big Three slid from grace. Then reality sideswiped them, and--in the case of GM this year--ran over the taxpayers, too.

Similarly, Detroit and most foreign auto-makers --and even the producers of supposedly new "green" hybrids--also seem indifferent to such practical owner costs as detailing for dents and dings that the modern parking garage and reckless drivers (including the owners themselves) inflict on automobiles. Blemishes and gouges at some point demand automotive cosmetic surgery, and sometimes it seems you could get your face lifted for less than a full auto detailing. That is why serious bumpers are so helpful on cars. Same for side-strips.

A friend's old Volvo--driven by his son-in-law--was rear ended by another car recently. The offending vehicle, with its supposedly flexible plastic buffer, suffered what must have amounted to a couple of thousand dollars of damage, while the rubber-bumpered Volvo, my friend exclaimed, just bounced. You couldn't see any damage at all.

I myself drive an old Camry and it is overdue for another appointment with the detailer's art. Part of the problem is mine, I confess, and part is that of persons unknown who opened their car doors against mine too roughly or used the lurch-and-touch system of parallel parking. So, because of that problem, as well as a desire for still better gas mileage, I decided that maybe I am due for a new car at last. Just for fun, I rode in a friend's new Ford Fusion hybrid recently. It was a delight. Hooray for Detroit. I'm interested.

But I am annoyed, too. The people at Ford (and elsewhere, of course) still must believe their marketing reports showing that buyers don't much care about protection against scratches and fender benders. The Fusion still does not do much to protect against such indignities.

Surely sophisticated marketers must realize that you have to dig deep sometimes to uncover people's real sentiments. Not every priority opens up to the marketing questionnaire--as truly intuitive politicians, by the way, know in their sales field.

For years, for example, we were told that all people cared about in airplane travel was ticket price. Surveys proved it. So seats squeezed tighter and tighter, didn't they? Legroom decreased. Meal service deteriorated and then disappeared. But making passengers increasingly miserable on their cheap ticket flights somehow didn't conduce to making them want to fly more. Some did fly more often (grandmothers on pleasure trips to see the kids), but others were turned off and now make a point of flying less (e.g., business people with discretion over their schedules).

I know how it is, because I answered an airline customer survey a few years ago in which I, too, marked ticket price as my highest priority. That was because I thought that if I didn't the airline company commissioning the survey would use the results to raise fares. Foolish me (and foolish others like me)! The company did keep the nominal fare costs low, but then started jamming me and others into intolerably close quarters and more often canceling flights on transparently flimsy grounds ("flight crew availability") when "low passenger load" was the real trouble.

Might not something similar be going on in auto marketing? Just because the public doesn't answer questionnaires in a way that puts a premium on controlling cost of maintenance of the vehicle's appearance doesn't mean the public is indifferent to the issue and is completely seduced by a car's shapely--but vulnerable--body. Maybe one time, maybe twice, but not forever. Not when money becomes scarce.

Like dating, looks do matter, but eventually wise people want more!

We are in a deep recession, carmakers. Value matters. If you won't make sensible cars that sensible people can afford to operate without constant maintenance and repairs, I'll just keep avoiding making a new commitment. And I don't think I'm unique.

But, by the way, you can make strong, bouncy bumpers that also are attractive. BMW does on some models. How about making the effort?

July 10, 2009

Bipartisan Transportation Report Calls for Dramatic Shift in U.S. Transportation Policy


How America moves its people and goods in an efficient, effective, and in a secure and environmentally friendly way, will have at least as great of an effect as any other major policy decisions that the current Administration and Congress make. But, woefully, transportation isn't really the stuff of eye-catching headlines and cocktail party chatter. That might be why, except among a small group of policy wonks, one of the most comprehensive calls for a new way of doing transportation business went largely unnoticed when it was released one month ago in Washington, D.C.

On June 9, the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center released, "Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy," which calls for dramatic shifts in the formulation of federal transportation policy, including, for the first time, linking funding to performance. (Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center will co-host an event in Seattle in August with the Bipartisan Policy Center, INRIX and local governments to unveil the report here in the Northwest.)

The Bipartisan Policy Center was founded in 2007 by a group of former U.S. Senate Majority Leaders -- Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. Former U.S. Senator and Discovery Institute board member, Slade Gorton, sits on the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Transportation Policy Project and helped draft the report, which begins:

National transportation policy has lost direction and a clear sense of purpose, threatening substantial costs to our collective prosperity, security, environment, and quality of life. We are recommending bold and comprehensive reform founded on a relatively simple proposition: U.S. transportation policy needs to be more performance-driven, more directly linked to a set of clearly articulated goals, and more accountable for results.

The report turns conventional transportation planning on its head through its recommendation of matching goals to measurements (or metrics), the lack of which, according to the report, has been a system with "an emphasis on revenue sharing and process, rather than results." The report's authors, which outline five goals for federal transportation planners (economic growth; national connectivity; metropolitan accessibility; energy security and environmental protection; and, safety) say "a performance-driven approach and introducing accountability will challenge entrenched interests and require government institutions at all levels to change longstanding practices and ways of doing business."

As with most federal behemoths, transportation programs at the federal level have, to put it kindly, grown unwieldy since the last major overhaul of the system 50 years ago. The Bipartisan Policy Center's report recommends streamlining the divergent roles through an ambitious reorganization, "from approximately 108 programs to six."

Although funding for the current highway bill is set to expire at the end of this fiscal year (September 30), with health care, climate change and other issues on the national docket, the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C., is that there won't be a major overhaul of transportation this year. As of right now, Congress will likely pass an 18-month extension of the current transportation programs.

Congress' stacked agenda might be bad news for those who want to see immediate reforms, but it might be good news for the eventual implementation of many of the ideas presented in the report,"Performance Driven: A New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy."

By their own admission, the authors themselves say they don't "underestimate the difficulty of implementing this agenda" or the challenges the country faces. "We are equally convinced," they write in the executive summary of the report, "that the effort to bring about fundamental changes in U.S. transportation in fact necessary...." For anyone concerned about traveling from point A to point B (and that includes all of us in most of our personal and professional interchanges), lets hope that the Administration and Congress finds the time to review and implement at least some of the report's forward-looking recommendations--sooner rather than later.

July 6, 2009

Another Canadian-U.S. Success

Portland's Union Station

Always make time to celebrate your victories; when it comes to mourning, your defeats will make time for themselves.

One victory to celebrate tonight is the announcement that the Canadian government has okayed a "second train" between Portland/Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. We at Discovery Institute (home to the Cascadia Center) have long promoted passenger rail nationally, and especially the re-connection of the U.S. and Canada on the West Coast. The "first train" came between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. came some years ago. Now the second is opening in time for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler/Blackcomb resort.

Passenger rail is not the solution to clogged freeways and the long delays at airports. But it is part of the solution. That is widely recognized in transportation circles, but it is a particularly dicey idea to forward when one is dealing with foreign governments. Amtrak, to its credit, has been positive all the way on the line up to Vancouver. In contrast, the Conservative government in Ottawa was slow to take on the issue--some bureaucrats wanted to charge Amtrak for Customs processing--but it did come around at last. Congratulations to them.

This is one more sign of the renewed cross-border friendship Cascadia Center has promoted tirelessly for nearly 17 years now. It's nice to have The Seattle Times make mention.

June 2, 2009

For Whom the Highway Tolls


The country needs a general upgrade of infrastructure. Billions are now available through the stimulus bill, but still not enough. The emphasis on "shovel-ready" projects in the stimulus package, though understandable as a recession-fighter, is unhelpful when the need is for serious long term planning.

One way to pay for highway improvements and related activities is tolling. Aubrey Cohen writes about it in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

May 27, 2009

High Speed Passenger Rail--How Soon?


A three day conference sponsored by Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center began last night high atop the Columbia Tower Club in Seattle at a dinner to honor the mayor of Vancouver, B.C., Gregor Robertson. "His Worship"--a young man, actually, of easy-going sincerity--is part of the team of state and local leaders promoting high speed passenger rail on the West Coast.

The group took the Amtrak "Cascades" trip down to Oregon this morning--a beautiful trip, by the way--and were met by Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Congressman Peter DeFazio, among a host of luminaries. There was excellent media coverage and near-universal enthusiasm for increasing the number of trains from Seattle to Portland and from Seattle up to Vancouver, B.C. (scene of the forthcoming 2010 Winter Olympics). As current tracks are improved and a third track is laid on the Seattle to Portland route, the idea is to increase speeds from the maximum allowed now (79 miles per hour) to 110 or so.

But just improving the tracks and providing more sidings that permit freight trains to let passenger trains pass them will greatly reduce time and congestion.

Passenger rail is a real option for East Coast travelers and for some folks in Chicagoland and, these days, in Southern California. But, as Discovery Sr. Fellow Ray Chambers explains, the dream of a modern national system is still far off.

Ask yourself, what percentage of inter-city traffic should we expect trains to carry nationally? Got a reasonable number in your mind? Then consider that it is less than ONE percent now. There is every reason to make passenger rail a real choice. It has transportation benefits. Environmental benefits. And national security value.

Washington and Oregon are among the most forward-looking states in terms of public backing for passenger rail and the Spanish train company, Talgo, has been an excellent partner for the past decade. Once really good service is available, chances are good that other areas will catch the fever.

May 21, 2009

Don't Want to be Undiplomatic, but Wake Up, Ottawa!

British Columbia, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics

Thanks to pressure on the U.S. side of the border with Canada, Amtrak is ready to launch a second train per day to Vancouver, B.C. from Seattle. That represents a big commitment of time and money. It is especially topical now that Canada is getting ready to host the winter Olympics next year.

But the Canadian national government seems to be holding things up because it doesn't want to pay for the added costs of clearing passengers through customs. If there is no way to get the passengers to pay a nominal fee ($15 is about what is required to cover the bill), then surely the Canadian feds should step in and pay.

Why? Because trade and tourism are good business bets for Canada and the U.S. is always the biggest provider of same. If the U.S. government is willing to help boost this traffic, most of which will help the Canadians, surely our friends in Ottawa should be willing to assist. In the long run, there should be three, four, many trains up and down the West Coast--from Vancouver to Los Angeles or San Diego.

All these people clamoring for a "Green Future". How about committing to energy savings right now in this modest way?

Cascadia Center of Discovery has a good commentary here by Mike Wussow. Cascadia has a major conference on rail transportation coming up next week, by the way.

May 12, 2009

It's Done: With Pen to Paper, Gregoire Gives Seattle a Tunnel


Reposted From Cascadia Prospectus
SEATTLE-Most days it's the marine life that causes the most stir at the Seattle Aquarium. But on this sunny afternoon, an attraction of a different sort was the center of attention. As cars and trucks drove by outside the aquarium on the earthquake-prone Alaskan Way Viaduct, inside the fate of the aging structure was being sealed. Surrounded by supporters, Washington's Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law the bill that commits the State of Washington to tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a deep-bored tunnel.

"This wasn't an easy process," said Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels as he welcomed a crowd of several hundred to the bill signing ceremony, "but it is done, it is done, it is done!" Truer words have rarely been spoken.

Click below to read the extended post.

Continue reading "It's Done: With Pen to Paper, Gregoire Gives Seattle a Tunnel" »

April 25, 2009

Jubilation! Technology, Persistence, Progress Triumph in Seattle


The old complaint that nothing ever gets decided anymore in process-strangled cities may have been answered at last. What cut the Gordian knot on the problem of Seattle's famous waterfront--presently blighted by a sixty year old, unsafe elevated freeway (State Route 99, the Alaska Way Viaduct)--was the discovery of new technologies in deep bore tunneling. These technologies now make a tunnel, the most attractive option, one of the most affordable, too. Following that discovery, a remarkably successful coalition of business and labor, community leaders and environmentalists was convened, with close interaction among previously skeptical political leaders at municipal, county and state levels. The outcome of a remarkable planning and advocacy effort was ratified, in effect, by the Washington State Legislature this week (the final vote came late yesterday) and now goes to Gov. Christine Gregoire for her signature. Some $2.5 billion is involved. So , too, are the economic viability, transportation efficiency and livability of one of America's great urban hubs.

This story is of national significance because of how it happened and what it portends for the "intelligent design" (I couldn't resist that phrase) of America's transportation systems in urban areas. It also shows the value of think tanks--in this case, the Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute--as outside, independent voices for research and advocacy. Without Cascadia, as Friday's article from The Daily Journal of Commerce shows below, it wouldn't have been possible for tunneling experts to be assembled last fall to question the pessimistic numbers presented by the Department of Transportation that made a tunnel option seem unfeasible. Sometimes, it takes an outsider with only relatively modest resources to cause the insiders to think again.


Continue reading "Jubilation! Technology, Persistence, Progress Triumph in Seattle" »

March 5, 2009

Passenger Rail: If You Want to Invest in Infrastructure, This is the Place, Mr. President


You don't have to be a rail expert or even a student of transportation to know that wholesale reform of America's so-called passenger rail system is years overdue. The popular face of that system--the pseudo public-private entity that is Amtrak--now is approaching four decades of mismanagement and poor performance. Although ridership has been on the upswing for most of the last several years (it's down now in part because of the economy), its growth trend still compares unfavorably with other transportation modes, especially airlines. Amtrak carries about 25 million passengers each year, not much more than the 21 million it did at the close of its first decade in 1979. On the other hand, during the same time period, airlines grew their numbers nearly five-fold, from 170 million passengers to close to 800 million.

The politics of rail is complicated, convoluted and not very pleasant. Into a political stew, it mixes entrenched freight and passenger interests, powerful committee chairmen in Congress and labor interests. Add side orders of inexact dictates and expectations from the beginning of Amtrak's charter in 1971, congressional infighting, and competition from air and road vehicle travel. Even the heartiest soul might get a case of heartburn. It's no wonder that America can't pull itself away from the dysfunctional rail table to create a real system that works to ease the nation's overall travel strains, reduces pollution and oil dependency and is moderately sustainable.

Enter President Barack Obama, the first president in decades whom rail advocates think actually cares about the issue enough to do something about it. (His decision to ride into Washington for his inaugural on a train from Philadelphia was quaint political theater, but it actually pointed out something more. One reason he probably didn't ride with his family all the way from Chicago is because the rail system is too slow and the connections too unreliable.)

Mr. Obama supposedly knows about all this. So, too, does Vice President Biden, who has been riding the rails as a high profile commuter--from Wilmington to Washington--for decades.

On the campaign trail, President Obama spoke of investing in infrastructure, including rail. Using his gift for rhetoric, he made believers of rail advocates. And last month, as part of the $787 billion economic recovery package, $8 billion was put toward high-speed and intercity passenger rail. There are a few more billion slated for subsequent years. And in his 2010 budget proposal, President Obama has penciled in another $5 billion. Even in Washington and even amidst the biggest collective bailout this country has ever seen, that seems like real money.

But it is not all that much, really. The transportation elements in the stimulus bill are far less than states and localities expected, and it is doubtful whether there is enough there for rail--yet--to bring about a thriving passenger rail system in our lifetime. It would behoove the Administration to try to do a little reprogramming now to get this project on track.

It is precisely because of the tough economic situation that--maybe the first and last time--a modern American president has the opportunity to recreate a national passenger rail system. But to create a real system--one that connects the entire country and its municipalities, not just a handful of corridors pocketed in several continental corners--requires thinking much differently about how to invest in the "green" change the president says he believes in. Ironically, it is on such an initiative that he would be able to get some of the bi-partisan support he always talks about.

Rail advocates are probably not going to pressure him about this, however. They have gotten into the habit of thinking small. They spend years advocating simply for an additional line in one corridor or another, when they are not trying to stop further reductions in service. You can't really blame them--that's what they've known.

And what is now known of President Obama's plan for rail money seems to enable that mentality by focusing on a few corridors in the country. By its design, that process doesn't elevate discourse on national rail to a "national" challenge. It Balkanizes it instead.

But instead of thinking in terms of corridors that benefit only those regions savvy enough to scrounge for the money, President Obama should use the presidency and create a new approach and a new system.

That system should be dramatically ambitious, seeking to make a true increase in the amount of passenger trips that proceed by rail. In terms of development, it should draw lessons from the European model, especially the lesson that state-owned railroads cost too much and can't keep up with the marketplace in carrying passengers and freight.

Because of inefficiencies in its state-owned systems, the European Union in the early 1990s set in motion a radical restructuring, separating infrastructure from operations, separating the passenger business from the freight business, and introducing competition to bring the private sector's initiative, efficiency and bottom-line discipline costly rail operations. The results have been impressive and positive. Great Britain, for example, reorganized its national monopoly, British Rail, into a successful hybrid public-private rail operations that even labor unions favor. Government support now goes mostly into improvements in infrastructure managed by a not-for-profit government-chartered corporation.

The point? To change America's system will require a radical restructuring, a new perspective, and political leadership unafraid of traditionally entrenched rail interests, of which there are plenty. (A larger program ultimately will bring them around.)

I regret to say too that it'll require greater government investment up front. Except for national defense and foreign policy, I tend to look suspiciously at the federal government throwing money at problems; we live in the United States of America--not the United State of America. But another exception is transportation. A real national passenger and intercity rail system is like the interstate highway system, a valid public purpose. It will require a national perspective and federal money strategically invested not just regionally along certain corridors but nationally. It requires what the president's current strategy doesn't yet provide.

The President still has a chance on this. He can set into action a transportation improvement long overdue, and one that helps address congestion, environmental concerns, business and commerce. Let's hope that the economic challenges creating this opportunity never come again. If the President wants a transportation legacy, this could be it. Politics or not, it could be a change we could all believe in.

January 13, 2009

Nation May Pay Attention to Seattle's Waterfront Decision


State and local executives have opted for a deep bored tunnel slightly upland from Seattle's waterfront as a replacement for the crumbling, earthquake-threatened elevated freeway, the Alaska Way Viaduct. It will carry through-traffic on Route 99 that runs the length of the West Coast not far from the newer Interstate 5, while a waterfront boulevard will handle the downtown Seattle traffic. (Matt Rosenberg of the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute rounds up the remarkably large number of stories here.)

There is still much controversy ahead, but this is a big step and should help mobilize federal support. For 16 years the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute has promoted a tunnel replacement for the Alaska Way Viaduct as part of an over-all transportation program for the region.

But crucial in building support for the current hybrid tunnel/surface proposal was the leadership shown in the past year by a large committee of transportation, waterfront and environmental stakeholders--from the Chamber of Commerce to organized labor to Allied Arts.

It also has been persuasive to elected leaders that outside transportation experts have been able to demonstrate the technological strides that tunneling has made in the past decade or so and the cost reductions that this progress entails.

Seattle is famous for endless "process" politics, but it is just possible that the great bulk of the populace will insist on getting this truly enlightened plan enacted. The rest of the country--especially those cities with aging elevated freeways that are under-utilizing valuable urban space--may follow developments in Seattle with keen interest.

December 19, 2008

LaHood an Encouraging Obama Appointment


President-Elect Obama's selection of Rep. Ray LaHood (R-IL) to be his Secretary of Transportation is a true case of political bi-partisanship and a hopeful sign that progress can be made on a number of key infrastructure issues.

The DOT often does not attract much attention, but the prospect of major infrastructure improvements in 2009 as a favored way to use economic stimulus funds means that the sometimes sleepy Transportation department may be coming awake.

Since the days of the Erie Canal and the early post roads, transportation not only has been seen as a legitimate government issue, but also a federal one (as well as state and local). Sadly, however, transportation hasn't had much of a constituency lately. Maybe that will change now.

LaHood's district is in one of the few regions (central Illinois) that enjoys good passenger rail service so it is understandable that he has been a strong backer of Amtrak and a skeptic of privatization of passenger rail. Nonetheless, he is the kind of practical person who will want to review carefully the proposals of the recent Amtrak Reform Council studies that gained wide support for joint public/private partnerships in expanding passenger rail service in America. Real Amtrak reform would assure broad GOP support and the prospect of much more extensive passenger rail would assure Democratic enthusiasm in the heavily rail-dependent Northeast Corridor. Businesses will appreciate an alternative to planes for middle distance trips and environmentalists will cheer the green benefits of rail over nearly any other transportation option for either people or goods. Labor would need to address out of date rules and unwarranted costs. If necessary, the present union members could receive grandfather benefits. But surely union leaders could be persuaded--by a Democratic president--that sustainable passenger rail expansion would be substantial membership increases for the affected unions.

Rep. LaHood reputedly has good relations with Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the new Obama Chief of Staff, and is known to support the Chicago bid for the Olympic Games. Winning those games will require restructuring of the outmoded rail yards and services, a massive public works program that LaHood presumably--at DOT--could help enable. (Don't knock a little home state favoritism in the White House; it happens with almost every new president.)

Regardless, it would be a huge win-win strategy for an Obama Administration to make a commitment to an expanded passenger rail system at this time. With track improvements and new equipment and timetables, it is possible to revitalize passenger rail in only a few years.

How odd that neither Presidential candidate made an issue of passenger rail in the recent campaign. Still, this wouldn't be the first time for a president to govern with innovations that he didn't campaign on.

DOT, meanwhile, also can be home to other bi-partisan and green initiatives, including the plug-in hybrid car that Senator Obama has supported in Congress.

Maybe Secretary-designate LaHood also would be willing to take on a subject that is not so much an opportunity as it is a headache: the declining quality of air service in America.

Then there is the highway program. It would be a huge step forward if the DOT would start to show publicly its support for urban freeway tunnels to help reclaim the space lost to broad, single purpose highways in the 50s and 60s. Discovery Institute just happens to have a favorite pilot project available on the Seattle waterfront where the Alaska Way Viaduct has to be replaced.

Once again, appointment of a Republican Congressman to head DOT could turn out to be an inspired choice for a president wanting to get things done within a bi-partisan consensus.

December 13, 2008

Planners Lay Two Eggs on Seattle Waterfront

Nobody anywhere in the developed world seems to be erecting elevated freeways in urban downtown areas, but that is one of the two choices now presented to the supposedly progressive city of Seattle. The other is a head in the sand choice of tearing down the current decrepit Alaskan Way Viaduct and letting the streets and transit handle the huge traffic load.

Badly neglected is the option of a deep bored tunnel for through traffic combined with a gracious waterfront boulevard for local traffic. New technologies make a tunnel financially attractive. Building a structure that will have twice the life span of an elevated freeway and produce far more project-influenced tax revenue in a revitalized harbor front also speak to the financial advantages of deep bored tunnels to carry cars and trucks.

The Hobson's Choice from the planners was not at all well-received by the large stakeholders group that has been following the subject and it is very possible that that this week's "decision" will come undone. Then reason--and vision--will prevail. Other parts of the world may wind up admiring our choices, after all., the Northwest online news organization, runs an article by yours truly today on the whole affair.

November 23, 2008

Infrastructure and the Coming Stimulus Bill

Here is my take on the opportunity ahead to use the stimulus bill in Congress (and local matching money) to promote short term economic growth and long-needed infrastructure improvements. I am not arguing for a stimulus bill, only that since one is coming, we might as well make it produce short term benefits in service of long term transportation and other infrastructure purposes.

October 11, 2008

Expedite AMERICAN Spending on Infrastructure

The Conservative government in Canada is expediting already committed public spending on infrastructure as a way to help the struggling economy.

Why isn't the Bush Administration doing the same? And if it is doing so, why isn't it saying so?

July 22, 2008

Another Missing Campaign Issue--Passenger Rail

The government has no business trying to set gasoline prices or chasing phantom speculators. It does have a business trying to run a railroad. It is called Amtrak.

Yet neither party nor presidential candidate has made Amtrak reform and expansion of passenger rail in this country a major campaign issue. This despite the energy "crisis". This despite the frustration of urban dwellers nation-wide who find it hard to get to work or to fly to nearby cities in a timely fashion.

There are bills in both houses of Congress that address the subject, but they are not getting adequate attention.

Amtrak has real problems and needs to be reformed: a combination of privatizing aspects of the service, while backing government funds to match state efforts and for improved track and hardware as part of a transition to a bigger, more robust system.

Even as is, inter-city ridership is up in most parts of the country. Here is an AP story from Illinois where the number of trains is relatively plentiful (it is part of my old stomping grounds--from once upon a time) and where train travel is relatively painless.

Amtrak's Midwest ridership continues to rise

July 18, 2008
GALESBURG, Ill. - If there is any good news about $4 per gallon gasoline, The Galesburg Register-Mail says, it is that ridership on Midwest Amtrak trains is booming and that U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, (D-Ill.), is working with Amtrak's CEO to set up a summit to discuss the future of the state's passenger service.

Eight Amtrak trains stop in Galesburg daily and Durbin wants to ensure there is enough rail capacity to handle ridership on Illinois' state-subsidized routes, including the Illinois Zephyr and The Carl Sandburg, which make four combined stops there each day while traveling between Chicago and Quincy.

According to the newspaper, during a meeting earlier this week, Durbin and Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant agreed to gather rail experts and advocates to discuss Amtrak's future in Illinois. Durbin and Kummant also agreed a plan was needed to deal with Amtrak's severe shortage of passenger cars in Illinois and around the country.

Ridership on the Illinois Zephyr and The Carl Sandburg routes was up 41.4 percent in fiscal 2007, compared to fiscal 2006. Ridership on Illinois state-subsidized routes increased another 180,823 passengers during the first two-thirds of fiscal year 2008, to a total of 670,605.

Durbin asked Kummant to allocate five more passenger cars to Illinois to add capacity to those routes, as well as ones between Chicago and St. Louis and Chicago and Carbondale. Kummant has agreed to have cars rehabilitated and ready for immediate use on those routes by the end of this year.

November 7, 2007

Oiling the Slippery Slope to Recession: The Result of Delaying the Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle

The Chevrolet Volt

Republicans are doing a lot right--holding firm in Iraq, taking the war to the terrorists, fighting tax increases, finally halting the big federal spending spree--but they are failing to heed an obvious issue that would resonate strongly with the public and address an urgent need. The Administration and the Republican candidates for president seem to be tone-deaf on the technology that will diminish America's oil addiction, the plug-in hybrid car. This one development can do more to reduce our dependence on foreign oil than anything else that is even close to available. It also will help prevent the country's slide into long term economic stagnation.

Democrats haven't done any better on this issue, until now. They are wising up, however.

Today the market dropped 360 points and oil shot up briefly to $98 a barrel. The United States has a housing credit crunch that is clearly hurting our economy, but the dollar is getting battered more seriously because we cannot pay our oil bills. We are now in a vicious cycle, where the falling dollar means higher oil prices in this country, and that means a weakening economy and further drops in the dollar.

Why is the "Loonie", Canada's dollar, so strong against the U.S. dollar today? After all, Canada's economy is linked tightly to ours and Canadians certainly aren't more productive than Americans. Our Discovery Senior Fellow Steve Marshall points out the answer: Canada is producing all the oil it needs and has plenty left over to export. It makes money on oil.

Russians, for the same reason, are hugely prosperous these days (relative to their past): they have oil. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are booming like the good old days. And we are paying for it. Hundreds of billions of dollars are moving from here to there. We also are indirectly propping up the Chavez dictatorship in Venezuela. Even though Chavez' socialism is grotesquely inefficient, El Jefe still gets more money out of what oil does get produced.

Expansion in China and India are identified in some quarters as the reason for the oil squeeze here. But that is only indirectly responsible for our plight. The reason we are in such bad shape on oil is that we are using too much of it relative to what we produce. The fastest way to reduce the usage is to conserve and the way to do that without great pain is to introduce plug in hybrid vehicles ("PHEVs"). These cars not only will enjoy the savings of standard hybrids, but also will be able to use non-peak electric power to greatly reduce effective use of gas.

GM is a few months away from testable PHEVs. Toyota, the pioneer in hybrids, has stalled, it seems, and won't have a vehicle ready for about another year. GM apparently has access to a faster battery developer for the car that is to be called the "Volt". It could be tested in the spring and made available, if pushed, a year from now.

Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center has been the leading think tank promoting PHEVs for years now. We have held three national conferences on the topic, featuring our own people and such outside experts as James Woolsey, the former CIA Director. Last year at this time we pleaded with the White House to take the public political lead on this issue, but the subject evidently was not a high priority.

In December '06 we suggested that the President use his State of the Union address in January to announce that the Administration would place an order for 100,000 PHEVs for its federal fleet purchases as soon as the products were available. That would have helped stimulate the market and assure early production. Instead, the day after a State of the Union address that barely mentioned the issue the President issued a throw-away Executive Order that indicated a desire to consider PHEVs at such time as they might become available. That was a mere token gesture deservedly ignored by the media. Absent was a sense of urgency and recognition that PHEVs might relate seriously to a worsening fuel problem in America, not to mention the growing political stir about air pollution and global warming.

Why the failure to grasp this issue? Was the Administration afraid that Toyota, a foreign company, would wind up with the Federal contract if the fleet purchase pledge was made too soon? Did they want to give Detroit time to catch up? If any of that is true, it is a nice display of nationalism that comes at the price of America's overall economic health. Or was the White House policy bureaucracy just too sluggish to move efficiently on an issue like this? President Bush should have been the leader on PHEVs. He didn't even need Congressional co-operation to move ahead. But, for all his other accomplishements, he not a leader on this at all.

Meanwhile, a bi-partisan field of Senators and a couple of House members did speak out, including Rep. Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat, who has written a book on the topic, Apollo's Fire, Rep. Dave Reichert, Senators Sam Brownback of Kansas, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Norman Colman of Minnesota, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Barack Obama of Illinois. Several have been smart enough to engage the help of experts such as Woolsey. Brownback, who should have been courageous and shrewd enough to make this a prominent campaign issue in his GOP presidential bid, dropped the subject and let his leadership role wither. Maybe he thought that ethanol was a better horse to ride. If so, a lot of good that did him; he's now a former candidate.

But now comes Hillary Clinton, stealing Obama's issue (he claims), but who cares? The rest of the energy program she announced on Monday is greatly flawed. But again, on this part of it, if she takes the lead, she leads. She is taking up an issue the Republican field is missing. Hillary has the platform to make this a national priority issue at last.

October 11, 2007

Seattle's New "Green" Taxis

Like any big city, Seattle has a diverse fleet of yellow, orange, and every color in between, taxi cabs. If you've taken a taxi in Seattle in the past month, you may have noticed something different about the car that picked you up...

Continue reading this post at Cascadia Prospectus.


June 19, 2007

Why People Can't Agree

The following appears in the Summer 2007 Discovery Institute Views, our semi-annual newsletter for members.

You have been reading about Discovery Institute fellows on the front pages in recent weeks, as well as in op-ed articles, interviews and Internet blogs. In a few cases we have struck a chord across ideological lines, as with our Cascadia Center's promotion of plug-in hybrid autos. As a way to substantially lower dependence on foreign oil (or any oil), reduce air pollution and improve our economy, it has bi-partisan appeal. Whether you believe that human beings are primarily responsible for global warming, or not, you can agree on win-win strategies for energy conservation.

Interestingly, in happy cases like the plug-in hybrid car, the follow-on questions that have to do with process -- how do we achieve this policy we all support? -- are less contentious than they are for other public issues. Perhaps that is because the search for practical answers is one that simply doesn't raise peoples' temperatures. Rather, it's the clash of values that excites passions.

The Discovery mission has always been to "Make a positive vision of the future practical." The difficulties come these days with the vision, not with the practical solutions.

Continue reading "Why People Can't Agree" »

April 27, 2007

The Public Overwhelmingly Support Plug-in Hybrid Cars

A new N.Y. Times/CBS poll on global warming issues shows several interesting numbers, but none so overwhelming as the public support for forcing an increase in fuel efficient cars (92 percent to 6 percent). We here are less interested in forcing the woebegone auto industry to produce such cars as enabling them to do so by using the power of government's regular large purchases of vehicles to provide a sure market and spur large scale production. Almost nothing would work as fast as plug-in hybrid cars ("PHEVs") to lower America's dependence on overseas oil, lower air pollution (regardless of your take on global warming) and save money in the long term. To get costs down, Detroit needs large scale purchases.

So why is the federal government moving so slow?

Discovery's Cascadia Center holds a national conference at the Microsoft Headquarters Conference Center in Redmond, Washington on May 7.

April 13, 2007

Is Ethanol a Cop-out?

The Economist thinks so. We at Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center think ethanol is worth developing, but that the real savings are to be had in plug in hybrids to conserve fuel and (I would add) nuclear power to produce alternative energy that plug-ins, among others, can employ. Yet these options are not getting the attention and support being paid to ethanol. Neither branch of the federal government is fully engaged yet on either plug-ins or on nuclear.

What we need is a war-time sense of urgency. Oh, I just remembered, there IS a war on and it does have serious energy implications, doesn't it? So what does it take to make the decision-movers move?

March 22, 2007

Amtrak Deal To Help Cascadia (Pacific Northwest) Travel

Tom Till is Co-Director for Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center, a hub for policy development and leadership on transportation and energy issues.

In early March, the Province of British Columbia announced a $4.5 million project grant that will add another daily round trip to operate between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., by fall of next year. It will also enable same day rail travel between Portland, Ore. and Vancouver. An op-ed on the issue that I wrote with my colleague and fellow Co-Director, Bruce Agnew, can be found here.

Largely unknown in the rest of the country, but vitally important for the Pacific Northwest, this service will not only aid business and commerce but will do even more for one of the prime drivers of the region's economy -- tourism. Just look at these numbers:

  • The Amtrak Cascades service, of which this second train will be a part, began in 1994. As of 2005, that service had achieved a 330 percent increase in riders.
  • In 1999, a study based on an estimated 47,000 riders going to Vancouver, B.C., reported that the service brought $11 million into the province's economy. A second train would likely increase the number of inbound riders to 90,000, with a commensurate increase in benefits.

That the numbers are impressive should not be a surprise. Canada is a strategic partner in so many ways. As reported by the U.S. State Department, the world's longest peaceful border supports a daily flow of $1.4 billion in bilateral trade between the U.S. and Canada. That's real money. Those are real lives.

There is still much work to be done in our region, including resolving the contentious "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" requiring passports or "pass cards" for Canadian-US travel (our op-ed points out many others). But, this additional Amtrak Cascades service to British Columbia is an important step in the right direction.

January 24, 2007

My Socks Were Not Knocked Off--But...

We had high hopes when Al Hubbard, the President's economic adviser, predicted that the energy section of the State of the Union address would "knock your socks off." Well, it didn't live up to that description, did it? Noting pre-speech leaks yesterday (see below) I predicted that "polite applause" would be the proper reaction, nothing more.

However, this morning the White House followed up with an Executive Order--which was the kind of action we have been suggesting--and the EO does, after all, direct the Federal Government to "Reduce Oil Consumption in Fleet Vehicles. The President...has directed Federal agencies to purchase plug-in hybrid vehicles when commercially available."

There are also directives related to making use of alternative energy and renewable power. But our emphasis in the energy issue has been plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) because the technology is already close to production quality. Ford has a car, the Edge, that the company had touring around the Capitol yesterday. GM has the Volt, though it's still in the mock-up stage; that is, the thing can't run yet.

The Ford Edge

Ford apparently spent $2 million to build the Edge. That is not surprising. It must have cost a pretty penny to custom-make the first television, after all. To get the Ford or GM product from the custom built stage to assembly line production--and in the process lower prices for consumers--will take many and varied inputs. Among them is the prospect of certain customers. That's where the government comes in.

We note that the Executive Order does not direct the federal agencies to offer the car manufacturers government purchase of a certain number, only "to purchase plug-in hybrid vehicles when commercially available." That leaves a pretty big loophole. How much more impressive it would have been to say, we will buy the first 50,000 plug-in hybrids as soon as they become available. (The federal government purchases about 100,000 non-defense vehicles a year, so this would be a reasonable, but strong promise.) Anyhow, specificity would have been more impressive.

Can the White House start getting specific now with the GSA and the Postal Service? Could it also dispatch representatives to the various state capitals and city halls recommending that they make comparable state and local purchase commitments? Shouldn't the state of Michigan be first in line? Imagine the prospect of various combined levels of government pledging purchases that would fully justify Detroit's going into plug-in hybrid production as early as a year from now.

Despite these reservations, my applause for the energy program--as measured by one of the Frank Luntz applause meters that someone was probably using on test audiences last night--is registering more enthusiasm the more I learn about the President's intentions.

January 23, 2007

I Probably Will Have my Socks on After the Speech Tonight

I know a little about what is likely to be in the president's State of the Union (SOTU) address and, for what it is worth, I suspect the speech will be well received as principled, yet responsive to the supposed "bipartisan" atmosphere of a Democratic-controlled Congress. I personally expect to be pleased, but I don't expect that the energy portion of the speech will live up to economic adviser Al Hubbard's prediction that it will "knock your socks off." Not my socks, anyhow.

Energy is a subject we have covered extensively at Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center in recent years. (See today's Seattle Times op-ed by Steve Marshall, who is a new senior fellow of the Cascadia Center, as well as retiring president of the Seattle Municipal League, and Bruce Agnew, chairman of the Cascadia Center.) If the president's speech acknowledges the need to reduce dependence on gasoline and recommends a number of options for doing so, we at Discovery will all applaud politely. One of those options is the plug-in hybrid vehicle, using batteries to extend gas mileage several-fold. More polite applause. After all, plug-in electric hybrids (PHEVs) can sharply cut U.S. and world gasoline usage and lower air pollution world wide, and that can start to happen within in as little as a year, and then accelerate. Our national security situation starts to improve the moment we let it be known that we are going to stop subsidizing international opponents such as Iran and Chavez' Venezuela.

But here's our concern. The U.S. Government is really past the time that pointing to the promise of plug-in hybrids is an adequate response to the opportunity available. Research money is fine, but we need action. Unlike other technologies that require several years to implement, plug-in hybrid technology is far enough along that the U.S. Government could jump start it with the expedient of an Executive Order (EO). No Congressional action is needed. The EO would direct the General Services Administration and the Postal Service to provide a purchase promise for some share of the 100,000 or so vehicles the federal government buys each year--providing specs that dictate acceptable plug-in hybrid technology. The purchase order for the federal fleet could be matched manifold by state and local governments that wanted to join in doing something dramatic and immediate to cut hydrocarbon emissions.

Such an order would give Detroit assurance that auto and truck manufacturers could start production of PHEVs very soon, perhaps even by the end of 2007. We believe that they are certainly close enough to needed improvements in lithium ion batteries to move into production before President Bush's term ends. So, if the domestic auto industry indeed is awake to the opportunity--and recent announcements by General Motors and Ford suggest it is--then this represents a huge chance for it to recover its American and world market. If, after a year, Detroit can't meet the U.S. Government specs, let someone else try--say, in Japan. Helping struggling U.S auto manufacturers is a nice byproduct of what we suggest, but the main idea is to get the next generation of cars to use less fuel, and soon.

Unfortunately, I don't expect PHEVs to receive a priority in the President's speech comparable to its importance. (I hope I am pleasantly surprised.) Perhaps the institutionally cautious hand of OMB is holding back the president's staff on this issue. Regardless, unless more imaginative minds can prevail in coming weeks, efforts to gain speed on this issue will depend on Congress. We have seen serious interest so far from--among others--Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Sen. Joe Lieberman Independent D-CT), and Evan Bayh (D-IN), and, in the House, Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA).

To fellow conservatives who suggest that the government should just let the free market lead in this field, I would point out that reducing gasoline dependence is a national security and economic independence issue. Further, we are not suggesting some new subsidy program, only targeted use of the government's existing purchasing power to make a desirable transportation transition. The whole federal fleet need not be enlisted, either, just enough to goose Detroit into faster action. Once Detroit is fully engaged, the private sector market will respond.

And, to repeat, the president can make this happen himself. He and his aides should consider that PHEVs are likely to be his most propitious energy choice, the one he can most likely bring to fruition during what's left of his term of office. Pursue the others, of course, but step up the pace on PHEVs.

Be bolder, Mr. President.

December 31, 2006

Woolsey Gains Traction on Hybrid Cars

Discovery's Cascadia project has promoted plug in hybrid cars for the past year and we hope we are making some headway with the Bush Administration. We know that there is interest in Congress, especially from Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, now co-chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger, has been an ally through this whole effort and spoke at last spring's Discovery conference on the subject (as did Sen. Brownback). His article, "Gentlemen, Start Your Plug-Ins," is found in the Weekend issue of The Wall Street Journal.

What is the connection between this subject and "the present danger" in world affairs? Simple: our current thralldom to unreliable or dictatorial or even malevolent oil-rich regimes overseas. As Woolsey points out, plug-ins could cut our gasoline consumption by half in the coming decade, especially when linked to new biofuel production. I will be very disappointed if the President fails to move on this priority in coming days. The best way to drain the swamp of terrorism is to take away their funding sources. As Woolsey has pointed out elsewhere, Americans now wind up financing both sides of the war on terrorism, one directly (ours), the other indirectly (theirs).

December 27, 2006

Ways to Survive a Natural Disaster--the Seattle Wake Up Call

The Seattle Times today runs a column by David Klinghoffer and me that spells out some ideas for dealing with storms like the one that slowed Seattle down recently and left a million and a half people--including colleagues of ours--without power, some for more than a week. Even today I am hearing of needless financial losses by businesses that had no generators to back-up the regular power supply. Vast supermarkets on the East Side of Lake Washington (Seattle suburbs) closed for want of electricity and not only suffered the lack of normal income, but had to destroy perishable goods. Filling stations, restaurants, even doctors' offices closed. For such businesses the financial loss alone was probably more than what it would have cost to have a couple of big generators available. We will have such storms and other disasters in the future, so will the private and public sectors use the recent event as a wake up call?

Mind you, when we talk about decentralization we are not suggesting that the power grid should be taken apart; far from it. The central grid is a wonder of engineering, capable of supplying power from strong areas to weakened ones as needed. Rather, by decentralization we mean that local, neighborhood and even private back-up systems--redundancy--should be available for those rare but traumatic times when a regional system breaks down. Let's see some imaginative innovation from private and public sources now.

For a new example, on this blog we have urged the adoption of plug-in hybrid cars as a way to conserve fossil fuels. My colleagues in the Cascadia project of Discovery Institute suggest that the plug-in hybrid car batteries could, in a pinch, be used to supplement a home's electric supply after a power outage. I don't know for how long, or how successfully, but it is worth investigating.

Indeed, I hope that one outcome of the Seattle storm will be to wake up state legislatures and city councils in Washington State and around the country this winter and spring. New laws and regulations should be considered, not to add further to the paperwork load already required of builders and businesses, but to substitute for it. For example, a colleague in Woodinville, WA, north of Seattle, was without power for eight days but kept warm because he had "old fashioned" gas heat appliances that worked--with a struck match applied to the pilot light--when the electricity failed. Newer systems operate under a code "reform" that is designed to prevent home accidents by preventing such over-rides. Thousands of people with the new "reformed" systems therefore sat in the cold and dark in my colleague's neighborhood! Surely, as our article says, it should be possible to come up with safe, alternative ways to over-ride gas and oil systems that rely on periodic electric stimulus.

Talk about a need for "intelligent design"! Our forefathers in the bad old days a hundred years ago suffered with wood stoves and clunky coal furnaces that required the periodic cleaning of heavy cinders and polluted the atmosphere. But at least they survived any winter storm sent their way!

December 4, 2006

False Hope and Real Prospects for Passenger Rail

Amtrak's annual report on the ridership of its intercity passenger rail services that was ballyhooed on the front page of USA Today revealed more than maybe the paper realized. On November 29th USA Today reported, "Tighter airport security and higher gas prices appear to be boosting Amtrak ridership in the Northeast, the South, and the Midwest."

The article notes, "The greatest growth rates occurred among the 23 short-distance routes where states contribute money to Amtrak and dictate routes." It might also have indicated that where the states have money invested, they do their best to make sure the service is worthwhile, which the ridership increases demonstrate. In unconscious illustration of that theme, the story cites the percentage increases in ridership on eleven specific Amtrak train services, all but two of which are state-supported routes. In contrast to the significant percentage ridership increases cited for specific trains or services, the story's mention of Amtrak's overall ridership increase of only 1.1 percent seemed weak at best. This hardly justifies the "Amtrak ridership up in USA" headline for the story.

USA Today also notes the 1.3 percent drop in ridership on long-distance routes, which Amtrak attributes mostly to "less than acceptable on-time performance." That is a decline of about 50,000 riders, to 3,731,256 for the year, all attributable to two long-distance trains.

The story mentions only one actual ridership number, the total of 2,668,174 riders carried by Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Acela/Metroliner service between Washington, D.C. and Boston, MA. That number masks the fact that, overall, Northeast Corridor ridership fell by 1.6 percent in 2006. The additional 215,272 Acela/Metroliner riders were more than offset by the decline of 360,613 in Amtrak's ridership on its "Regional" Northeast Corridor services (and a ridership decline of 9,500 "special train" passengers). The net ridership loss for the NEC in 2006 was 154,901 riders in what is acknowledged to be Amtrak's premium market.

The story cites an airline analyst, who explains why this happened. One Robert Mann says airlines drove passengers from air to rail in short-haul markets "by reducing the number of seats available for shorter trips and raising the 'walk-up price' of tickets on their shuttles." Translation: NEC air shuttle fares were much higher than Acela/Metroliner fares.

This drove air passengers to Amtrak's premium services, accounting for the 8.8 percent increase in Acela/Metroliner passengers, and permitting fare increases that bore a whopping 18.8 percent revenue increase for the year. Even more interestingly, Amtrak succeeded in boosting NEC revenues for Regional Services by 7.5 percent, despite the 5 percent decline in Regional Service riders. The article missed all of this.

By the way, NEC Regional Service, even with its 2006 decline, still carries more than two and a half times the number of annual riders that Acela/Metroliner service carries. Altogether, Amtrak lost 155,000 NEC riders in 2006, but raised its NEC revenues by more than $80 million. This is a hopeful sign that Amtrak is beginning to understand that it is indeed a commercial business.

In all of these instances, however, the article completely fails to provide any sense of perspective on the role that Amtrak, or its various regional and national services, play in the transportation system, or how many passengers they carry, or how much they lose or make. A review of Amtrak's press release on 2006 ridership and its 2007 legislative request (PDF) will provide a wealth of insight.

A look at the airlines also lends perspective to Amtrak's performance. In 2005, the most recent year for which the Department of Transportation has complete figures, the airlines carried 745.7 million passengers, 33.1 million, or 4.6 percent, more than they did in 2004. Note that the 2005 increase in airline traffic was about one-third larger than Amtrak's entire 2006 patronage.

In this context, and over the long term, Amtrak's series of annual ridership "improvements" amount to a lump of coal in an old-fashioned boiler. Amtrak's fewer than 25 million passengers in 2006 are only a handful more than the 21 million it carried in 1979. In the meantime, the airlines have grown from about 170 million riders in 1979 to more than 745 million in 2005. U.S. population has increased during that period by the better part of a 100 million people, or 50 percent.

These results support the February 2003 recommendations of the Amtrak Reform Council, a bipartisan independent federal commission. ARC recommended that states be required to fund the operating losses of the Northeast Corridor and other short-distance corridor trains in exchange for a federal-state funding program for capital investments in track and equipment. For the long-distance trains, the federal government would continue to cover the operating losses, but would apply economic criteria to allocate funds to the trains with the best performance. With long-distance trains accounting for 15 percent of Amtrak's total ridership, 27 percent of the revenues from train operations, and 43 percent of the train operating costs, it is clear that finding sound economic investments among the long-distance trains is a task that grows more difficult.

Tom Till is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

November 3, 2006

Energy Independence and Hybrid Cars: the Missing Issue of 2006

Earlier I pointed out the relative failure, until this week anyhow, to emphasize the economy as an issue in the Congressional elections. America's hope to assimilate the already resident immigrants, to find jobs for well-educated and the poorly-educated youth alike and to protect American interests in the world all benefit from the kind of expansion we have enjoyed the past three years. Imagine what a mess we would be in without it. (Thank you, George W. Bush, thank you tax cuts of 2003.)

Understandably, the media would rather talk about Iraq and scandals. The economic boom doesn't fit the current pessimistic news theme.

But at least there have been extensive efforts by the White House to talk about the issue. The same cannot be said about energy independence--an issue that somehow has been swallowed up whole. For three decades--since the OPEC oil crisis of the 70s--American leaders have talked about the need to rely more on ourselves for energy production and less, particularly, on oil imported from the Middle East. In the 70s governments at all levels were motivated to find ways to conserve on energy and political candidates vied to propose new programs and ideas. Some were daft and counterproductive (price controls and rationing, for example) and others worked (for instance, insulation for old as well as new houses).

Meanwhile, the environmental movement backed measures such as catalytic converters to improve air quality that, ultimately, gained bi-partisan support. Young people today probably don't remember Los Angeles when it was sunk in perpetual smog or when tree planting (to eat CO2) was not a particularly popular cause.

But here we are at the end of the 2006 election cycle and there has been a relative dearth of interesting, let alone passionate, debate on energy alternatives, conservation and new energy sources and energy independence. James R. Schlesinger, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Energy (from 1977-79) even warned people recently not to expect energy independence as a possibility anytime soon, citing "less dependence" as a more reasonable goal.

Al Gorians are making rather wild assertions about global warming--both as to the extent of it and the extent of human responsibility for it--but this deeply ideological debate seems to excite people without leading to much resolution. Have you noticed that the global warming fight is all about analysis and not about serious proposals for action?

Now that Campaign 2006 is all over but the shouting--and the day-after-the-election lawsuits, no doubt--maybe the country can put the politics of energy aside for a while and look at the policy issues of energy.

Is it not possible for liberals and conservatives to come together on programs that liberate us from Middle Eastern coercion, offer consumers and businesses abundant energy supply, promote conservation and clean air, and lower costs? It is not unrealistic to do so.

Discovery Institute is working hard on several elements of energy development and conservation. Personally, I would like to see how close the U.S. really can come to energy independence, after all. Maybe the U.S. alone cannot become energy independent, but there is reason to think that North America (the U.S., Canada and Mexico) could do so.

Think of all the innovative people working of aspects of biofuel, oil shale in Alberta and oil tar sands exploration and extraction in Colorado and Utah. Then there is off shore oil. The new Jack Field wells in the Gulf of Mexico that were announced in early September could almost double proven U.S. oil proven reserves. That promising development should have received far more notice than it did.

Things are looking up in Mexico, where the bureaucratic hand of the government slowed exploration and production for decades, but where new finds have been announced by the Fox government and the new conservative P.A.N. government of Felipe Calderon has shown indications of wanting to use oil to stimulate stronger economic growth. (Is not a more prosperous Mexico capable of employing its own people plainly in our interest, too?)

Notice that I have not even mentioned Alaska and ANWR. The Democrats have succeeded in stymieing ANWR development, but there are still offshore possibilities that might encounter less opposition.

Meanwhile, we must review the fascinating parade of alternative energy sources and the growing discussion of nuclear power, the latter abandoned as a polite subject for twenty or more years.

Our secondary, but important, aim in the whole energy development field should be to share the technologies we develop in the U.S. with developing countries such as China and India that otherwise are on course in the next half dozen years to require more energy and cause more pollution than we realistically can offset by our own efforts. If we can help them to conserve, too, we can spare all of us the problems that otherwise bode likely to destabilize the peace of the world.

Since this is a blog and not a position paper, I just want to note one particular idea that we think can make a huge difference to all the good purposes mentioned above, especially conservation: plug in hybrid cars. We are mystified that this did not become a big issue in the election campaign. Here we have Detroit laying off people, Al Gore selling the concept of a climate Apocalypse to Tony Blair, the Iranians threatening to overturn the world's oil market in case we try to stop their nuclear weapons program, Hugo Chavez becoming the South American Castro on the earning of oil profits and American commuters watching the price of gas this past spring and summer careen to new heights, only to drop lately and temporarily, and the nation experiencing record high trade deficits because we are now importing over 60 percent of our oil.

Despite all that, hardly anyone noticed when N.Y. Gov. Pataki announced plans to convert 600 cars in the New York State car fleet to plug in hybrids as an example of what may lie ahead. Nor was there any fanfare in mid-October, when President Bush said, "We envision a day in which light and powerful batteries become available in the world marketplace so that you can drive the first 40 miles on electricity, on batteries. In other words, it will be a technology that will meet consumer demand and at the same time meet a national need, which is less consumption of gasoline. These are called plug-in hybrids."

Plug in hybrids use non-peak grid electricity--as easy to access as an electric cord in your garage--to recharge batteries that increase gas mileage several fold. Soon, indeed, it will be possible to use plug in hybrids that don't require standard gasoline at all. Costs are coming down fast, and reliability is going up.

What is needed right now is some leadership in Washington to push hard. It hasn't happened yet, but the President at least is alert to the issue. Now let's see if he and the new Congress will move the idea ahead. We assert that it should be a high national priority to come up with new oil and other energy sources, including renewable energies. But right now we can make a huge difference in a short period--in even one year or so--by lowering gasoline consumption through plug-in hybrid technology.

If we also share that technology with the developing world, it is hard to think of another way that would contribute more to their prosperity and to the health of the environment we ultimately all experience together.

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