To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Friday, January 3, 2014

Urine detection system installed in Atlanta transit station elevator


December 19, 2013

See website for a video.

The city of Atlanta is looking to clean up the image, and the odor, of its transit system.
Many of its elevators have doubled as restrooms and smell like it. That's about to change with first-of-its-kind technology which catches "offenders" literally -- with their pants down.

"The smell hits you so bad. You hold your breath just to hurry up and get off the elevator," said Alicia Porter, a rider on a Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train.

MARTA elevators have a smelly reputation. To get to the train, you often have to ride in a urinal first.

"If you've ever been in a Porta Potty, that's what it smelled like before," said MARTA Director of Elevators/Escalators Tom Beebe.

Beebe is working to clean up the image and the odor of MARTA elevators by launching a pilot program in an elevator in one of the Midtown stations. They asked local media to not say which one.

There are 111 elevators in the system. Beebe said they were having problems here every day. But not anymore.

"If somebody was to urinate in here, there's going to be a splash factor. It would splash and it would sense," Beebe said.

It's a urine detection device, called UDD. If a person relieves her or himself , the sensors sound the alarm and the MARTA police will be there in seconds to catch the offender in the act. There is also better lighting and a camera catching all the action. The pilot program has been in place for a month, and that daily problem dropped to one incident, in which an arrest was made. Next month, MARTA will begin installing sensors in other elevators, with the goal to have them in all 111.

It's going to cost MARTA about $10,000 to outfit each elevator with the urine detection device. This week, they also reopened restrooms at four stations, so they hope that will help with the problem.

L.A. operator ordered to cease operations


December 30, 2013

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ordered Los Angeles-based passenger carrier John Andrew Ciego, which does business as “Its Good Promotion,” to immediately cease operations after finding the company was endangering the traveling public by failing to ensure the safety of its vehicles and drivers.

Investigators also found the carrier improperly allowed at least four other unsafe bus companies, previously shut down by FMCSA, to continue doing business using vehicles with the registration markings of “Its Good Promotion.”

On Dec. 1, 2013, a bus with the markings of “Its Good Promotion” was stopped for an inspection while crossing into the U.S. at the Otay Mesa, Calif., Port of Entry. The vehicle was found to be the subject of an FMCSA out-of-service order issued Nov. 15, 2013. Furthermore, inspectors discovered 17 serious safety defects, 14 of which individually required the vehicle to be immediately placed out-of-service as an imminent hazard to the public.

It was also revealed that the vehicle had attempted to cross the border earlier the same day in El Paso, Texas, but was refused entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents because of the previously issued FMCSA out-of-service order.

Employing innovative investigative techniques developed under the recent Operation Quick Strike crackdown, FMCSA investigators launched an intensified investigation of “Its Good Promotion” and found the company name and its USDOT number were being used by multiple motor carriers and commercial motor vehicle owners as a “shell cover name” to transport passengers between Mexico and the U.S. The four motor carriers that were attempting to appear as part of “Its Good Promotion” had been previously ordered by FMCSA to cease operations because of serious safety violations.

In addition to knowingly allowing other companies to improperly operate using “Its Good Promotion’s” federal authority, investigators found serious and widespread violations of multiple federal safety regulations, including:
  • Failure to monitor and ensure that drivers comply with controlled substances and alcohol use testing regulations.
  • Allowing a driver who tested positive for illegal drugs to continue transporting passengers.
  • Using drivers that did not possess valid U.S. commercial driver’s licenses or were not medically qualified to operate buses.
  • Not requiring drivers to turn in hours-of-service records and other required documentation such as driving itineraries or fuel receipts.
  • Failure to ensure vehicles were properly and regularly inspected, repaired and maintained.
The company subsequently failed to provide FMCSA safety investigators access to its commercial motor vehicles as required by an earlier federal order. Because of this, in combination with all evidentiary findings of the investigation, the operation of “Its Good Promotion,” including all of its vehicles, was declared an imminent hazard and ordered immediately shut down by FMCSA.

To view a copy of the imminent hazard out-of-service order, click here.

Caltrans Highlights Key Infrastructure Projects of 2013


By David Anderson, December 31, 2013

As 2013 comes to a close, Caltrans is highlighting a few transportation infrastructure projects completed this year to help improve mobility, safety and sustainability throughout California’s transportation system.

“From opening new tunnels and bridges to repairing structures damaged by catastrophic fire, Caltrans helped strengthen and preserve California’s great transportation infrastructure,” California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly said. “With this work and the emerging active transportation program, Caltrans will remain committed to safety, mobility and sustainability in our transportation system as it heads into the new year.”

Caltrans made nearly $2.5 billion of improvements to the state highway system through 542 completed contracts in 2013 while also awarding 433 major highway construction contracts with a value of more than $2.7 billion. Caltrans also continued to restore, upgrade and protect infrastructure statewide, including more than 88,000 miles of striping on state highways and 155,000 cubic yards of litter and debris removal.

“As 2013 comes to a close, Caltrans is highlighting a small sample of the hundreds of completed infrastructure projects that improved transportation for millions of Californians,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said. “In 2014, Caltrans will build on this momentum and continue delivering a safer, more mobile and sustainable transportation system for California.”
Thirteen of the notable 2013 transportation infrastructure projects in California, organized by region, included:

San Diego

» Otay Mesa East Port of Entry — Caltrans and its partners recently broke ground on the first of three segments of the $717 million Highway 11/Otay Mesa East Port of Entry (POE) Project. Once completed, the four-lane highway will connect about 2.5 miles from Highway 905 south to the proposed Otay Mesa East POE at the U.S.-Mexico border. The new freeway will reduce the frequent wait times for commercial trucks at the Otay Mesa POE and for vehicles at the San Ysidro POE.

Los Angeles

» Interstate 5/Highway 14 Carpool Connector — Caltrans broke ground on four major highway widening projects on Interstate 5 in 2013 as part of a $1.8 billion effort that will expand this crucial California commerce corridor from six to 10 lanes, including a carpool lane in each direction. The new I-5/Highway 14 carpool connector reduced travel time for Los Angeles area motorists who can now transition between I-5 and Highway 14 without leaving the carpool lane.
» Interstate 5/Highway 2 Tanker Fire Repair — Caltrans worked around the clock to shore up the tunnel at the Interstate 5/Highway 2 interchange in July after a tanker fire caused extensive damage to pavement, walls, support columns, drainage and lighting. Caltrans proceeded with $16.5 million worth of repairs and improvements to fix the damage and increase safety while improving visibility with bright paint and LED lights.

Inland Empire

» Colton Crossing Project — Caltrans and its partners delivered this rail improvement in Colton south of Interstate 10 eight months earlier than its scheduled 2014 completion and $109 million below the estimated $202 million cost. The concrete overpass speeds up cargo and cuts diesel emissions from waiting trains. The project will save $241 million in travel time and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34,000 tons of CO2 equivalent annually.

Northern California

» Interstate 80 Improvement from Auburn to Nevada — In October, Caltrans finished rebuilding 90 miles of Interstate 80 between Auburn and the Nevada state line. Infrastructure improvements also included rebuilding seven bridges, improving lighting and drainage, and adding new traffic monitoring systems. One of California’s critical economic arteries as well as one of the nation’s three continuous coast-to-coast highways, this interstate moves $4.7 million worth of commerce closer to its destination every hour.

» Highway 99 Elverta Road — In the Sacramento area, Caltrans and the County of Sacramento constructed a new interchange at Highway 99 and Elverta Road, which optimized traffic flow and safety for motorists by eliminating the last traffic signal along the 40-mile route between Yuba City and Sacramento.

» Rim Fire Repairs to Highway 120 — Caltrans employees worked around the clock to reopen Highway 120 into Yosemite National Park after the Rim Fire burned approximately 257,000 acres in late summer. In just 18 days, crews removed more than 1,800 damaged trees, repaired almost 800 guardrail posts and replaced numerous signs to reconnect visitors with this vital link to Yosemite National Park.

Central Valley

» Philip S. Raine Safety Roadside Rest Area — As part of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save taxpayer money, Caltrans received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification — the highest possible environmental rating — by the U.S. Green Building Council for the Philip S. Raine Roadside Rest Area on Highway 99 in Tulare County. The Raine facility, one of 233 buildings in California to achieve this milestone, is one hour south of Fresno near Tipton and serves more than four million visitors annually. Caltrans has previously earned LEED Gold certification for its Los Angeles office and LEED Silver certification for the district office in Marysville.

» Highway 99 Madera Rehabilitation — Among the 26 Proposition 1B projects in the Highway 99 Corridor Program, this was Caltrans’ first to use of the “design build” project delivery method that combined design and construction into one contract. Opened on time and on budget, the $37 million project was funded entirely by Proposition 1B and benefits 65,000 commuters, tourists and truckers daily in this critical corridor.

Central Coast

» Highway 1 Pitkins Curve Bridge and Rockshed Project — In December, a $39 million a permanent slide repair project on Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast in Monterey County was completed to install a bridge and rock shed at Pitkins curve, one of the toughest highway maintenance challenges along California’s central coast. Extensive landslides had occurred on the route, often severing travel on the highway for weeks at a time.

Bay Area

» Devil’s Slide Tunnels Construction — In March, Caltrans opened the first new highway tunnels in California in nearly 50 years when it cut the ribbon on the Tom Lantos Tunnels, popularly known as the Devil’s Slide Project, which are now the longest tunnels in California. The $439 million project features two 4,200-foot-long tunnels, 32 jet-powered fans for ventilation and 10 fireproof shelters between the tunnels to protect the public.

» San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — In September, Caltrans opened the new San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which is designed to withstand the strongest earthquake estimated by seismologists to occur over a 1,500-year period. The new span also includes a bike and pedestrian path that will be extended onto Treasure Island after the old eastern span is removed.

 » Fourth Bore of the Caldecott Tunnel — In November, Caltrans opened the new fourth bore of the world-class Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24, providing two dedicated tunnels in each direction to aid more than 160,000 commuters daily and ending the 50-year-old process of manually reversing the flow of traffic twice per day along the middle bore. The fourth bore has been designated as a regional lifeline structure and is designed to reopen to emergency traffic within 72 hours of a major earthquake.

In addition to these regional achievements, Caltrans reported a decade-high 84 percent pavement health rating in 2013, out of the 50,000 lane miles it maintains. While Caltrans typically receives just 17 percent of the funding needed to keep pavement in good condition, one-time contributions from the voter-approved 2006 Proposition 1B transportation bond and the 2009 Recovery Act made more projects possible.

Caltrans also sold nearly $22 million worth of excess property originally acquired for transportation projects, which was more than $4 million higher than the properties’ estimated market value.

This year, Caltrans also furthered its goal of building a more sustainable transportation system. During the 2012-13 fiscal year, ridership rose to a record 5.6 million passengers on three intercity passenger rail lines funded by the state, and over the past 10 years ticket revenues from the three lines have skyrocketed from $44 million to $102 million. Caltrans also released the California State Rail Plan, which lays out a long-term vision for freight and passenger rail.

In 2014, Caltrans will build on this momentum by implementing the new Active Transportation Program to fund human-powered transportation projects and programs. The new program is the nation’s largest state commitment to bicycling, walking and other active transportation.

Click here for a comprehensive overview of activities undertaken by Caltrans statewide to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse


By Katharine Trendacosta, January 1, 2014


 What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse


Designer Chui Chih designed this plant-based breathing apparatus, inspired by the idea that humanity will soon have to adapt to a crowded, urban world with bad air quality. Her vision is showcased in some truly stunning photos.

What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse1
The design/"survival kit" is part of the project Chiu Chih calls "voyage on the planet." Inspired by the ideas of the world's constant state of flux and humanity's uncertain future, the designer imagined one piece of equipment future humans would have to create to survive. While the design may not actually provide you with enough oxygen in a truly oxygen-free environment, it's more about simplicity. And the beautiful image of this single green plant, preserved in a case, and carried through a world lacking others. 

What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse
Front and back:
What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse
What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse
And here's a clean look at the apparatus made:
What you'll wear after the pollution apocalypse

A big reason Beijing is polluted: The average car goes 7.5 miles per hour


By Gwynn Guilford, January 3, 2014

China simply can’t get people off the roads.

Especially in Beijing: Despite issuing a third-fewer new car license plates, car-obsessed residents have already figured out how to dodge the limits, as we recently detailed. It’s gotten so bad that, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Beijing’s average travel speed is only 7.5 miles per hour (12.1 kilometers per hour): 

That means someone running just under an eight-minute mile could get where they’re going faster than a car in Beijing. Of course, that’s a big health gamble, given Beijing’s notorious air pollution, which is thought largely to come from smog-pumping power plants, factories and steel furnaces.

But though government research groups recently downplayed traffic’s impact on air quality, the two are certainly linked. Stop-and-start traffic means alternating between braking and accelerating. That burns more gas, spewing more toxic fumes into the air. The “golden zone” for efficient fuel use is 45-65 miles per hour. In the most extreme gridlock in major US cities, the lowest speed is 20 mph (see file) on an arterial street, and 35 mph on a freeway, according to a recent study in Environmental Health.

China’s car-produced pollution is undoubtedly expensive. The EH study found that premature death caused by traffic congestion will cost the US at least $13 billion in 2020 and $17 billion by 2030, in 2007 dollars. And that toll is clearly higher in cities like Los Angeles, where cars are de rigeur. LA incurred more than $3 billion in pollution-related mortality costs in 2010—much greater than Boston’s $125-or-so million, even accounting for the fact that LA’s population is nearly three times bigger:

"Evaluation of the public health impacts of traffic congestion: a health risk assessment," Levy et al.
How does China compare? Its cities now have about 200 cars per kilometer—the same traffic density as LA (paywall).

There are a few things China can do to fix this. Slashing emissions per vehicle is a crucial factor in bringing down mortality costs. That’s something Beijing has made progress on—it introduced strict new emissions rules in early 2013—though the city’s proximity to less environmentally-forward provinces is likely to severely dampen the impact.

Investing in public transportation should help too, especially in smaller cities. However, even in a city as developed as Beijing, building more roads is even more urgent. Here’s how Beijing compares with other major cities:

Aecom Global Cities Institute
A combination of these measures might work. A study by Georgia Institute of Technology’s Yang Jiawen found that China’s urban transportation patterns differ dramatically from those in the US. Instead of auto use increasing in suburban areas, in China, it’susually around a city’s center—concentrated in high-income areas (pdf, p.67).
That helps explain why car sales are surging, even as air pollution-angst has exploded as well. In fact, sales of cars with bigger, more polluting engines boomed in cities mulling license-plate lotteries like that adopted in Beijing, as the WSJ reports. There’s only so much the government can do if its citizens ignore their own role in befouling the air.

What’s blocking Bertha: a long steel pipe


By Mike Lindblom, January 3, 2014

 A buried steel pipe is mostly to blame for stopping the giant tunnel-boring machine Bertha, which has been stuck since Dec. 6 along the Seattle waterfront near South Main Street.

 The long pipe was an 8-inch diameter, 115-foot-long “well casing,” used to measure groundwater during studies in 2002 on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, project officials said.
Matt Preedy, the deputy project administrator for the state Department of Transportation, said he had no estimates about how much time and money it will take to remove the rest of the pipe, and to repair damaged cutting tools on the face of the machine.

Nor does the team have a strategy yet for how removal should take place. One possible method is to send tunnel-trained divers to work near the cutter face, under extreme pressures that are exerted by groundwater.

The well site was listed in reference materials provided to bidders as part of the contract specifications, DOT says. “I don’t want people to say WSDOT didn’t know where its own pipe was, because it did,” said DOT spokesman Lars Erickson. However, Chris Dixon, project director for contractor group Seattle Tunnel Partners, said the builders presumed there would be no pipe in the way, because casings are customarily removed after use.

A fragment of steel pipe pokes between spokes of Bertha’s cutting face, in this photo from Thursday’s inspection.

Dixon said the tunnel-machine crew first noticed metal pieces in Bertha’s conveyor system in early December  — when Bertha’s rotation actually shoved a segment of pipe through the surface, prompting crews to remove a 55-foot-long piece. However, the machine kept grinding forward just fine, Dixon said, leading STP to have what he called “a false sense of security” that things would be OK. But then on Friday night, Dec. 6, the cutting face rotated without catching soil. The team later found unusual damage to cutting teeth, and then on Thursday night an inspection found a pipe fragment jutting through spaces between spokes of the cutter.

A modern tunnel machine can chew through dirt and concrete, but not steel. Even fiberglass rods caused a snag that delayed work several days this summer. Steel could become tangled in the spokes of the rotary cutting head, and in a conveyor screw that pushes dirt from the cutter face onto a belt that moves out the rear of the machine. Dixon said Friday that “we don’t know” yet whether any moving parts are jammed.

Downtown Seattle contains some of the most frequently poked and studied ground on earth, which makes the blockage all the more confounding. Five-foot diameter holes were drilled alongside the tunnel path to install concrete pilings that protect the old viaduct; the contractors have used ground-penetrating radar; and geotechnical experts drilled test holes, which didn’t hit this particular object.

For the last four weeks, DOT didn’t mention the pipe during several news interviews and press conferences. Asked about this, Preedy said Friday that initially, the project’s expert review team thought the pipe was a secondary issue, and that a giant boulder seemed more likely. At 60 feet down, the top of Bertha is in glacial soil, beneath the extent of fill soils and debris that early Seattle settlers dumped near Elliott Bay.

The $1.44 billion tunnel construction, from Sodo to South Lake Union, is about three months behind schedule. But Bertha in November was advancing as fast as 50 feet a day, prompting Preedy to say it’s possible to regain time after the steel is removed.


Lots of poking but no answers on what’s blocking 99 tunnel drill

A half-dozen probes have not hit any huge object in front of Bertha, adding to the mystery of what’s blocking the stalled Highway 99 tunnel machine.


 By Mike Lindblom, December 30, 2013

Wells were installed earlier this month to pump groundwater away from tunnel-boring machine Bertha, so workers could look around the cutting face for obstructions Thursday.<br/>

Wells were installed earlier this month to pump groundwater away from tunnel-boring machine Bertha, so workers could look around the cutting face for obstructions Thursday.

Workers have poked the soil in six locations in front of the stranded tunneling machine Bertha, but their probes haven’t bumped into any huge obstructions yet, a senior engineer said Monday.

Those results increase the mystery over what might be blocking the world’s biggest tunnel machine. Project leaders initially speculated that an unusually wide boulder, deposited by ancient glaciers, might be in the way.

Progress on the Highway 99 tube has stalled since Dec. 6, when the rotary cutting blades of the 54.3-foot-diameter drill spun without scouring much sediment between Pioneer Square and Elliott Bay.

The probe holes are being drilled 110 feet deep and spaced five feet apart, from east to west. A hole-digging rig was out Monday morning to take another poke, and more test holes will be drilled Tuesday.

“We’re not hitting anything unexpected,” said Dave Sowers, tunnel-engineering manager for the state Department of Transportation. If a school-bus-size boulder were there, he said, the probes should strike it.

Meanwhile, contractor team Seattle Tunnel Partners intends to send workers into Bertha’s flooded front end Thursday to inspect for the blockage through gaps in the cutting head, Sowers said. Many crew members were gone on holiday, so contractors chose to wait for their return before starting the inspection, he said.

The tunnel team hopes to remove enough groundwater so the inspection can be done at normal air pressure. Ten wells have been installed around the buried machine to extract the silty water that permeates this stretch of the route.

Bertha’s cutting head, and a 5-foot-wide chamber where excavated soil enters a conveyor system, are flooded with roughly 90,000 gallons of water and mud.

The goal is to lower the water table enough so the top half of the cutter is exposed for a clear view, Sowers said. The cutter then can be rotated so that the other half can be viewed. “You’ll be able to see whether spokes are clogged,” he said.

The soil contains enough groundwater to create hyperbaric pressure, similar to working deep in the ocean. Tunnel-trained divers eventually may be needed to hammer or blast away a boulder, Sowers said.

Chris Dixon, project manager for Seattle Tunnel Partners, has said the team notified Ballard Marine Construction to have divers available in January.

The white-colored well tops protrude a few feet above the surface, clamped to thick hoses alongside the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Silty water is dumped into a green holding tank, where sediments can settle out. The remaining water is released into the city stormwater system.

The four-lane tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union is supposed to open for traffic by the end of 2015, a timeline Sowers said is still possible.

Officials say it’s too early to know whether the stoppage will lead to overruns on the $1.44 billion construction budget, or how big those might be.

While Bertha is stalled, the builders are trying to gain time on other tasks. About 20 blades are being replaced, by workers who reach them by crawling within the hollow spokes of the cutter. Temporary concrete rings and steel frames, used by Bertha to make its initial push, need to be removed from the launch pit in Sodo.

Alhambra's Monster Truck Rose Parade 2014 Float

 By Peggy Drouet, January 3, 2014

Some people think that the City of Alhambra's Pasadena Rose Parade Monster Truck float was inappropriate, considering that if the 710 Freeway is extended under Alhambra and Pasadena via an almost 5-mile-long tunnel the result will be a huge increase of monster trucks (big rigs) coming into Pasadena, polluting Pasadena's and other cities' air and further clogging the already clogged 210 and 134 freeways. Watching that float coming down Orange Grove Boulevard (where I was sitting on a curb), one of the streets that will be adversely impacted by people not wanting to pay a toll to use the tunnel and also by the closing of the exits onto the present 710 North section that take people easily from Pasadena Avenue onto the 210 and 134, felt like the Monster Truck was showing us that it was ready to mow down Pasadena and all who objected to the 710 extension. It was also the only parade float that showed monster animals and not kindly, cute ones.

The blurb for the Alhambra Monster Truck float read: "It would be a child's dream come true to have a monster truck with a real monster aboard." Really?

The theme of the 2014 Rose Parade was "Dreams Come True." I wish that a city or organization had entered a float depicting a "dream come true" for an extensive public transportation system for the Los Angeles area. Well, maybe next year!

My photos of the Monster Truck:

Joe Cano's Photo Essay and Comments on the Monster Truck posted on Facebook, January 2, 2013:

My favorite float in the The Rose Parade 2013

 Alhambra entered a monster truck float. It scared many people. It sent women screaming & children crying as well as some sensitive guys. I am trying to decide which picture I like better.




North Dakota blast prompts review of oil train safety http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-oil-train-20140103,0,2009502.story#ixzz2pMI3m9z4

A massive explosion after a derailment brings the first broad federal examination of the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, a practice that has grown widespread in recent years.


 By Ralph Vartabedian, January 2, 2014

Safety of oil cars to be reviewed

Officials examine the wreckage from the crash of a train hauling crude oil near Casselton, N.D. (National Transportation Safety Board / January 1, 2014)

 A federal safety alert Thursday warned that crude oil flowing out of new fields in North Dakota may be more flammable than expected, a caution that comes several days after a train carrying about 3.5 million gallons of the same oil crashed in the state and set off a massive explosion.

The accident on the BNSF Railway, the fourth such explosion in North America involving crude oil trains, has fed mounting concerns over public safety as the rail industry sharply increases the use of rail to transport surging crude production in North Dakota, Texas and Colorado.

Following the latest derailment and crash, which forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 residents from the town of Casselton, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched the nation's first broad examination of the safety of moving petroleum by rail.

Trains carrying oil have multiplied across the country as environmental concerns and political maneuvering have delayed approval of a major new pipeline to transport oil to Gulf Coast refineries. The issue may be most crucial for cities in the West, which were often founded and developed by railroads so that main lines go directly through the centers of today's urban areas.

Crude oil shipments by rail have shot up 25-fold in the last several years as producers rush oil from newly developing shale fields to market. California alone has seen a fourfold increase over the last year, with current shipments of about 200,000 barrels a month.

Refinery operators this summer unveiled a plan to build a rail loading facility in San Luis Obispo County, which could send 100-car oil trains through the densely populated portions of Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

The exponential growth and several accidents in the last half year, including one in Quebec that killed 47 residents in July, has prompted the NTSB to examine potential safety hazards, said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member who is one of those overseeing the investigation. Sumwalt said that the agency should have started the review after a similar crash in Alabama in November, but that it was now focused on finding ways to reduce risks.

"It has certainly raised our attention and we want to make sure that people living in communities surrounded by railroad traffic are safe," he said.

Former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said a comprehensive review of national policy on carrying crude was long overdue.

"It appears this is going to be in our nation's communities for the next decade," Hall said. "With this kind of transportation of hazardous material, there are a whole lot of issues that come to mind, not the least of which is terrorism. You are creating a movable bomb from community to community."

The string of rail accidents raises issues similar to those that came out of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, which prompted the National Research Council to conduct a broad public policy review, said USC safety expert Najmedin Meshkati. Such a review should have started "on the day after the Quebec accident," he said.

The safety alert issued Thursday by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration warned that oil from North Dakota's Bakken shale fields "may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude." The agency said it would conduct new testing to determine the gas content, corrosivity, toxicity and flammability of the Bakken crude. The agency, which also regulates tank car safety, said it issued the alert to remind railroads that they are required to properly label the crude, based on three levels of volatility. The North Dakota shipment was already listed as the most volatile.

In the accident this week near Casselton, on a cloudy day with the temperature below zero, an eastbound train with 105 tank cars full of crude from the Bakken oil fields slammed into a westbound grain train that had derailed less than a minute earlier.

The grain train derailed while it was crossing over a switch at 28 mph. Sumwalt said investigators had found a broken axle from the grain train, though they were trying to determine whether it caused the accident.

A single car from the grain train ended up on the eastbound tracks and was struck by the oil train traveling about 42 mph. The two locomotives pulling the oil train were destroyed.

The accident occurred about a mile west of the town, which has a population of about 2,500.

Elsewhere in the country, "you have rail going through densely populated areas, and that is inherently risky," said Brigham McCown, former chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"The oil is going to get to market any way it can. I favor pipelines. They are buried, out of the way, safer and cheaper," he said.

Pipeline construction, however, has been sharply opposed by environmental groups. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada that would serve the Bakken fields has been tied up in a lengthy review by the U.S. State Department. Environmental activists believe that by blocking the pipeline they can restrict the development of the tar-sands oil fields in Alberta.

Sumwalt said the NTSB would be searching for ways to improve safety, but one of the most obvious possibilities would be for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to adopt an earlier NTSB recommendation for more resilient tank cars. The safety administration began considering strengthening its rules after the deadly accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The accident this week did not result in any deaths or injuries, but it has heightened awareness of the danger.

Bill Keppen, a former Burlington Northern safety expert who is now an independent consultant, said one of the most important things for the federal government to address is human error, which accounts for about 44% of rail accidents. Keppen said he would expect the railroad industry to strongly oppose any attempt to reduce speeds of trains carrying hazardous materials. Railroads are free to set their own speed limits.

"Velocity is directly proportional to earnings and profits," Keppen said. "A small change in speed can translate to millions of dollars of profit a year."

Railroads do not currently have special requirements for training crews carrying hazardous materials, including crude oil.

Level the Commuter Playing Field By Reducing the Tax Break for Parking


By Angie Schmitt, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year, transit riders! Congress has a special present: Some of you will be getting a tax increase this year.

Some transit riders will get a tax hike this year. Image: ##http://watchdog.org/81498/ohio-bill-increases-penalties-for-assaulting-transit-workers/## Ohio Watchdog##
Some transit riders will get a tax hike this year.

Legislation that puts tax subsidies for transit commuters on equal footing with car commuters has been allowed to expire by Congress. That means people who drive to work can deduct up to $250 in parking expenses each month from their taxable income. But for transit riders, the new limit is $130.
Last year the two were equal at $245, thanks to some shrewd last-minute maneuvering by lawmakers in New York and Massachusetts. This year, no such luck, straphangers. Drivers, on the other hand, get a little bump up.

Many observers — from outlets including Time and the New Jersey Star-Ledger — have pointed out that this is obviously backward policy. And they’re absolutely right: It’s a bad idea to provide an additional financial incentive to commute by car, which has so many negative consequences for society, from air pollution to increased congestion.

Common sense dictates that at the very least, there should be equity between the tax incentives for transit commuters and car commuters. While the path of least political resistance seems to be to raise the maximum transit benefit again, the fact is that most American transit commuters (though definitely not all) would not be affected by that.

Congress should instead achieve commuter tax benefit parity by reducing the incentive for parking so that it’s equal to the transit tax break, especially since deficit reduction is purportedly a high priority on Capitol Hill.

How is the national interest at all served by a tax break for parking? It’s hard to imagine there are many workers for whom this incentive is essential to afford access to a job. The parking tax benefit is more like a popular but unnecessary perk, enabling car commuters to claim as much as $3,000 tax-free income each year. Meanwhile, we’re slashing food stamp benefits. As a simple matter of social policy, anyone car commuting to a $250 per month parking spot probably doesn’t need a handout.

But commuter financial incentives do affect how we get around. Multiple studies have proven that leveling the playing field between different modes of commuting leads people to drive less and choose other ways to get to work.

Today, it’s the very cities with high land values like Boston and Chicago — places where parking rates reach $250 a month or higher — that most need to reduce congestion and cut the number of cars flowing into the city. Using federal tax policy to subsidize parking in a city like Boston leads people to consume more parking and, in turn, space that could be put to more productive use. But monthly costs for most transit commuters in these cities don’t come close to $250. While commuter rail and express bus passengers might get something out of the higher tax benefit, the vast majority of train and bus commuters won’t.

It won’t be politically popular, but lowering the parking benefit is the smarter way to achieve commuter benefit parity.

As a compromise, there’s a bill with bipartisan support on the table that would create a $220 maximum monthly tax-deductible benefit for parking and transit (and include bike-share as a form of transit). Unfortunately, so far, Congress seems to be less interested in sound policy than in keeping a broken system of incentives. To convince them to take action, sign on here.

The Scientific Odds That Using a Cell Phone Will Make You a Bad Driver


By Emily Badger, January 3, 2013

 The Scientific Odds That Using a Cell Phone Will Make You a Bad Driver

Common sense suggests that any activity that pulls your eyes away the road will impair your ability to see what's coming from the driver's seat. If you're looking up a phone number in your smart phone, you can't look at the car in front of you. If you're peering down into the fast food bag wedged between your legs, you're probably not simultaneously scoping out your rear-view mirror.

So it probably won't surprise you to learn that even people who are experienced drivers are more likely to crash while dialing a cell phone. Here, though, are some awfully specific risk ratios: An experienced driver doing this is about two-and-a-half times more likely to get in a crash or have a near-miss than if they weren't fumbling with a phone at all. And the crash risk for novice drivers goes up more than eight-fold. Just reaching for a phone makes a novice driver seven times more likely to have a crash or close call.

These figures come from a new study just published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The results are particularly fascinating for how the researchers came up with them: The study recruited 42 freshly minted drivers in southwestern Virginia, and 109 more seasoned drivers in the Washington, D.C., area, who had, on average, 20 years of experience driving. The researchers outfitted their cars with a host of devices: GPS systems, sensors, cameras pointing toward the driver and outward at the road. All of this technology then continuously recorded what happened next, over a full year for the novices and 18 months for the other drivers.

"What’s remarkable about it is it allows you to objectively identify risks for a cash," says Bruce Simons-Morton, one of the co-authors and an investigator with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "That's because virtually every crash or near miss is associated with an elevated gravitational force."

This occurs when a car suddenly stops or swerves. And these moments can be detected by an accelerometer placed in the car. Over the course of the study, these people got into 685 crashes or near misses (167 of them among the youngsters).

Thanks to all the technology, scientists have objective data about such risky events (a car suddenly swerved), the driver's culpability (the forward-facing camera records what the driver sees), and the activity that may have led to it (the in-cab camera can capture burritos mid-bite or teenagers diving for an iPhone).

The young drivers, who were recruited within three weeks of earning their driver's license, turn out to be tripped up by all kinds of "secondary" activities in the driver's seat. They're three times more likely to get in a crash when they're eating, and four times more likely when they're looking at roadside objects. They're eight times more likely to get into trouble when reaching for an object other than a cell phone.

Experienced drivers, on the other hand, were only handicapped by one activity: dialing a phone. Talking on it or reaching for it didn't hamper them. Talking by itself also didn't drive up the risk for the younger drivers, as many people suspect. This may be because talking requires some cognitive demand, Simons-Morton says, but it doesn't take our eyes off the road. And all of the activities that increased risk in this study did just that.

The findings suggest, among other things, that those of us who've been driving for a while are pretty good at multitasking.

Simons-Morton puts it a little differently: "I think what it means is that when you’re inexperienced, you’re not very good at multitasking, and you’re not very good at determining when, under what driving conditions, to engage in these tasks."

Previous research also suggests that experienced drivers simply have a harder time taking their eyes off the road (which is a good thing).

"Some cognitive psychologists say there is no such thing as dividing one's attention," Simons-Morton says. "You’re either attending this or you're attending that. But it is the case that experienced drivers tend to be uncomfortable when their eyes are off the road, and they tend to look back."