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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Personal rapid transit: The future of public transportation, maybe


By David Roberts, January 2, 2015


Since writing about Seattle’s infrastructure fustercluck, I’ve been thinking a lot about transportation. It’s really a b*tch of a problem.

The internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle had its disadvantages from the very beginning, not only relative to public transportation but relative to other types of car. (There’s a fantastic chapter in Alexis Madrigal’s Powering the Dream about this history.) But its advantages — power, personalization, and modularity — mattered more. It could go farther than other cars; you could drive it wherever you wanted to go, whenever; and it was small enough to be within the reach of average citizens, who had little control over larger transportation projects.

The ICE car has arguably passed the point when its drawbacks — particulate pollution, traffic, sprawl, climate change — exceed its advantages, at least from a social-welfare perspective. But it is still firmly rooted in human life, almost everywhere, despite much-hyped efforts in some places to boost alternatives. (See, for instance, Curitiba, Brazil, celebrated for its Bus Rapid Transit system, where auto ownership is nonetheless high and rising.) Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are leveling off in the U.S. and in Europe, which have arguably reached auto saturation, but they are skyrocketing in China and other growing countries. Global automobile ownership is expected to rise and rise and rise. There’s nothing on the horizon that fundamentally displaces or marginalizes the personal vehicle.

Why is that? Well, tons of reasons. But a big one is that public transportation still cannot match the advantages of the car: power, personalization, and modularity. Inter-city trains and buses remain fairly slow and inconvenient. In terms of personalization, public transit routes are still limited, both in geography and in timing, and they face the notorious “last mile” problem, meaning that transit stations are often located too far from homes and businesses to represent a manageable walk. (One note: Cars rely on built infrastructure just like public transit. They are more convenient once roads have been built everywhere. But in most growing and wealthy countries, that’s already a fait accompli.) And, especially here in the U.S., public transportation systems, like all large construction projects, are large and expensive. They come in big chunks.

So what’s to be done? Ideally, we’d like a form of transportation that keeps the advantages of public transit — lower emissions, fewer roads, more walkable cities — but also matches the advantages of cars, in that it takes you where you want to go, when you want to go there, with a minimum of hiking and waiting.

Does such a thing exist? Advocates of “personal rapid transit” (PRT) say it does. PRT comes in many forms, but the basic idea is that there are fairly lightweight pods that hold a small number of people; they move over fairly lightweight tracks; and, crucially, they do not travel along prescribed routes, but rather can take passengers directly to their destination, with no stops along the way. There are currently four working PRT systems in the world, the oldest of which, weirdly, is in West Virginia.

You can learn more about PRT at the link above. The PRT system that’s really captured my fancy, mentioned by a commenter beneath my fustercluck post, is skyTran, a company that emerged out of the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. There are no operational skyTran systems yet, but a couple are in the works.

The benefits claimed by skyTran are almost too many too list.

First, the small, two-passenger pods travel via maglev technology, which means the bracket holding the pod is actually levitating over that little rail they’re hanging from. There’s no contact, no friction, and thus much less wear, repair, and replacement. Very little electric power is required to move them; the engineers claim that solar panels over the rails and stations could cover it. (So, aside from construction, no emissions.) Maglev also means high speeds are possible, well over 100 mph, though obviously speeds would be limited in urban areas.

 The network of pods would be computer-controlled, so travelers could use a smart-phone app to order one for a particular time and place. It will then whisk them directly to their destination station, with no stops. At the stations, pods move on to a side rail, so they don’t slow or stop other pods. When passengers have boarded, the pods reenter traffic seamlessly.

Perhaps the most important advantage is that the pods and rail are lightweight and modular. Rails can be built alongside existing rights-of-way, hung from poles not much bigger than telephone poles. The rail pieces snap together like Legos, so they can be built or repaired by low-skill technicians, quickly. And they are slim and light enough that they can be integrated with the city, even going through buildings.

The pods will have computers in them that can recognize a passenger’s skyTran card and cue up music, movies, or apps when they enter.

The skyTran folks say they can build these systems cheap, entirely self-financed, without public subsidies (a ride is expected to cost less than a taxi). In June, they struck a deal with Israel Aerospace Industries to build a small, 400-500 meter demonstration loop on IAI’s campus in Tel Aviv, to be completed near the end of 2015. The company is also moving ahead with a 2.7-mile commuter line in Tel Aviv, which it estimates it can build for $50 million, possibly by 2016. Of course, Israel has been known to jump at grandiose transportation schemes that don’t pan out. Remember Better Place? But the company also says it has interest from cities in India, the U.S., and Europe.

Here’s the introductory video: (See vwebsite for the video).

Now, I’ve been doing this a while, so I know what comes next. Some math nerd or engineering jock or policy wonk will come along in comments and explain that I’m an idiot, that skyTran can’t work for some reason related to physics or economics or social science, some reason that’s obvious to everyone but an idiot like me.

Fine. Bring it! Go ahead, internet. Crush my latest dream. What’s the reason this can’t work?

Groundbreaking is Tuesday for high-speed rail


By Tim Sheehan, January 3, 2015

 Dan Richard, left, and Mike Rossi, right, participated in the press conference backing the the California High-Speed Rail system at the California State Railroad Museum Tuesday.

 Dan Richard, left, and Mike Rossi, right, participated in the press conference backing the the California High-Speed Rail system at the California State Railroad Museum Tuesday.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article5385486.html#storylink=cpy

The California High-Speed Rail Authority expects that millions among the traveling public will want to ride its sleek, 220-mph bullet trains between the Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin when the system starts running in the early 2020s.

But Tuesday’s ceremonial groundbreaking in Fresno for the controversial rail project — considered one of the largest public works efforts in California history — will be an invitation-only affair for about 1,200 dignitaries and guests. The festivities are set for noon at the northeast corner of Tulare and G streets, the site of a planned high-speed train station in downtown Fresno.

Among those scoring an invite is Gov. Jerry Brown, who will attend the event just a day after he is sworn in for a fourth term as part of a busy inauguration week.

The formalities represent a symbolic milestone for the rail authority, and one that comes more than two years after what was once targeted for the start of construction. California voters approved Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond act, in November 2008. In 2010, when the Federal Railroad Administration announced that the Obama administration was pledging more than $3 billion in federal stimulus and transportation money to California’s high-speed train project (to be matched with money from Prop. 1A), officials touted a schedule that called for construction to commence in September 2012.

The fall of 2012 came and went while the rail authority was seeking bids for companies to design and build the first construction segment of the statewide system, a 29-mile stretch from the northeast edge of Madera to the southern fringe of Fresno. A consortium of contractors, Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, submitted the low bid of about $1 billion in early 2013; a contract with the team was inked in August 2013.

The bidding process wasn’t the only thing that stalled the schedule. The rail authority and the state have been targeted by a smattering of lawsuits challenging various aspects of the project, from the adequacy of environmental analyses for the Madera-Fresno and Fresno-Bakersfield segments of the route to whether Prop. 1A bonds could be sold to finance construction, from challenges of a 2011 draft financing plan to whether the rail system in its current proposed incarnation will be able to fulfill Prop. 1A requirements for a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes or be able to operate only on its self-sustaining income without any public subsidy.

It has also taken longer than expected for the rail authority to acquire the property it needs and to string together enough parcels to accommodate major construction. Engineers with Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons began work on designing the route soon after their contract was signed in mid-2013. But it wasn’t until last July that subcontractors were able to begin clearing parcels and demolishing buildings along the route. As of mid-December, the rail authority owns 101 of the 525 pieces of property needed for the Madera-Fresno segment. It also needs 539 parcels for its second construction segment, about 65 miles from the south edge of Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line.

What hasn’t changed since the federal grants began flowing four years ago is a Sept. 30, 2017, deadline for substantial completion of the rail sections in the San Joaquin Valley. That’s the date by which the state rail authority must spend its federal money. The rail authority has about $6 billion — a combination of the federal funds and matching Prop. 1A money — available to build the backbone of its system from Merced to Bakersfield. That’s a little under 20% of the $31 billion that it’s expected to cost to build the first operational segment between Merced and Burbank by the early 2020s. It’s also less than 10% of the anticipated $68 billion cost to build the 520-mile Phase 1 system from San Francisco to Los Angeles by the late 2020s.

Despite the downtown Fresno setting for Tuesday’s ceremony, the first major construction on the Madera-Fresno segment is anticipated to be at the eastern edge of Madera, where an elevated bridge will be built to span the Fresno River, Highway 145 and Raymond Road just west of the existing BNSF Railway freight tracks. Downtown Fresno is expected to be the site of some other early work, including relocation of utilities to make way for construction.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article5385486.html#storylink=cpy

The Week in Livable Streets Events


By Damien Newton, January 5, 2015

The New Year is started and that means “The Week in Livable Streets Events” is back. While we do our best to make this comprehensive, there’s always something we’re missing. Don’t be offended, just let us know! There’s some fun events on the calendar for this weekend and a potentially big meeting in Boyle Heights.
  • Today - Charles Hobbs will have a signing for his new book Hidden History of Transportation in Los Angeles at Vroman’s in Pasadena. This book is the result of years of research, and while in-progress was referred to in this 2010 blog post. Hobbs is a long-time activist on transit issues with a historical bent. For more information, check out this preview by Dana Gabbard.
  • Tuesday – Safe street advocates have been pushing for a better design for Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills for years, but with a final vote scheduled for the City Council tomorrow afternoon, things don’t look good. Better Bike offers a solution, a slightly wider Boulevard that could serve as Beverly Hills’ Greenway. You can read about the plan and the meeting, here.
  • Thursday – Developer Primestor will be presenting their plans for redeveloping Mariachi Plaza at the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee Meeting. Details on any changes to the plans haven’t been announced yet, but when they do we’ll have them. Get the meeting details off the BHNC webpage.
  • Satruday – Move L.A. and others host a forum on the future of South L.A. transportation. Panelists include SBLA Community Editor Sahra Sulaiman. Event is free, but advance registration requested. More details.
  • Saturday – Do you want a guided, 24-mile bike tour of some of Greater L.A.’s best art museums? Of course you do! Details.
  • Sunday – Do you want a guided, 12-mile foot tour of some of L.A.’s most iconic bridges? Of course you do! Details.
  • Next Monday - Development Agreements are one of the most powerful entitlement processes, providing more flexibility and more certainty to the applicant, the City, and the public about a proposed development project. They offer a wider array of potential on- and off-site amenities, infrastructure improvements, and community benefits than traditional use permits or other entitlements, and provide cohesive and enforceable details about timing and responsible parties for all aspects of the development once enacted. Learn how to bring Development Agreements to your community to help achieve your community’s goals. Get more details, here.

Can Seattle Stop Its Highway Tunnel Boondoggle Before It’s Too Late?


By Angie Schmitt, January 5, 2015

 Is it too late for Bertha? Photo: WsDOT
Seattle and the state of Washington have a window of opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad.

It’s been one year since the world’s largest tunnel boring machine, “Bertha,” got stuck 120 feet beneath Seattle. Before it broke down, the colossal machine had excavated just 1,000 feet of the two-mile tube that’s supposed to house a new, $3.1 billion underground highway to replace an aging elevated road called the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Bertha hasn’t budged an inch in the 12 months since. Meanwhile, the bad news keeps on piling up.

Right now, the state’s contractor is busy building a second tunnel down to the machine, so that parts can be removed, repaired, and replaced. In order to keep the second tunnel dry, construction crews have been draining the water table. This work has dangerously destabilized the very elevated highway the tunnel is supposed to replace, and one of the city’s historic neighborhoods — Pioneer Square — is actually sinking as well.

As David Roberts detailed in a recent Grist story, the project could impose billions of dollars in cost overruns on the public. Nobody is certain the machine can be fixed, or if it does get fixed, whether the same problem won’t occur again, farther down its path. In December, the deep-bore tunnel ran away with the voting for Streetsblog’s “Highway Boondoggle of the Year” award.

If there’s anything positive to emerge from the current mess, it’s that local advocates like Cary Moon, who warned against building the tunnel in the first place, are commanding attention again. Moon recently took to the pages of the local alt-weekly, the Stranger, to argue that in light of the tunnel project’s spectacular, slow-motion meltdown, the city should explore other options.

We reached out to her to learn more.

This is a pretty big disaster, it sounds like.

This project identified a lot of risks at the beginning of the process, but the political commitment to it was already high enough at that point that no one really paid that much attention, except for several of us.

They treated us like we were gadflies instead of pointing out honestly and clearly what was probably going to happen. It’s frustrating because all this was known then but no one was listening.

What I keep wondering about is, potentially what are the long-term impacts on Seattle, financially? Are people talking about that? Does anyone have a good sense of how big and long-lasting of a problem this is going to be?

Nobody has any good numbers or anything but I think everyone is worried about it. I think this is how mega-projects spin out of control. When you run into a problem and instead of stopping to consider your options, you just keep spending whatever you need to be spending to keep going. And [the state's contractor] Seattle Tunnel Partners would like to see that happen. They just want to keep going and spend money and get paid later. But I think all of us at the city, county and state level need to stop and think about the impact of that and consider alternatives.

Ignore sunk costs for a minute, you have to think about what are your options from here forward: what can you afford and what’s the right thing to do long-term? That’s what we need to be doing now.

Can you give me an overview of the politics of the situation? Who has their hand on the wheel in all of this?

That is such a good question. I’ll give you my opinion but it’s complicated. So, the city’s mayor, the King County Executive and the governor who cut this deal in 2009, none of them are in office anymore. So the new mayor and the new King County Executive and the new governor all inherited it. At this point, nobody’s stepping up and saying ‘I believe in this project, I’m going to see it through to the end.’ They’re all just sort of watching, which is good because that means they’re probably questioning what’s going on.

It would be awesome if the governor and the mayor and the county executive got together and decided, ‘Okay, when are we gonna pull the plug on this project? Let’s stay together on what Plan B is.’ That would be ideal, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening.

I think the people that are driving this project right now are unfortunately the head of WsDOT, Lynn Peterson, working with the contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners. And the people who are questioning it openly are people in the media, people in advocacy positions, some city council members and nobody else is publicly questioning it.

Meanwhile the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an important corridor to downtown that the tunnel was planned to replace, is sinking.

So after [last year's] earthquake, it sunk some. And then when they started the tunneling operation, it sunk a little more. After the earthquake, they said it can sink six inches before we have to worry. It basically sank five inches over the last eight years. But then in the last two weeks after Thanksgiving, it sank another inch.

So we’re over the six-inch limit, but now they’re saying, ‘Well, it’s more complicated than that.’
There’s this document right now that has all these new limits about how much it can sink and whether it’s a linear or lateral differential – all these new kind of more precise limits on what’s allowed to happen. But they’re right on the edge of they might have to close it for public safety.

Have they talked about what they’re going to do if that happens? 

Well, for 10 years we all thought they were going to close it. But now WsDOT’s saying, ‘Well, we don’t really want to close it so we’ll figure out how to reinforce the structure.’ WsDOT’s really motivated to not have to close the viaduct, so they’ll spend the money fixing it if they can.

But that would only be a temporary fix?

Yeah. They know that they can’t make the highway last much longer, but they could prop it up for a couple more years is what they’re thinking.

I think there’s a point where the city will say, ‘We don’t trust you anymore. We think the thing should be closed.’

Could you outline what you think the city should be doing to prepare for the worst. 

I think the city has to convince the state, if they have to stop the project, they have to do this Plan B. They have to be together on this because some of the funding is going to have to come from the state.

How much money is left?

There’s probably some money left, let’s say it’s $100 million or $500 million or I hope not zero. I hope there’s something left.

You could do a lot of transit capital improvements and transit service hours with that money. I think that’s the most important thing.

So they could get started on your Plan B tomorrow, basically?

They may have to add more buses, but buying more buses is faster than building a highway. We have this not-quite [bus rapid transit] system, they could basically add some capital improvements to get more dedicated bus lanes and bus priority lanes in other places and basically make that transit service a lot more reliable and fast.

The other part of the solution is we have a fantastic new vision for the downtown waterfront when the viaduct is taken down and as part of that plan, which is at waterfrontseattle.org, there’s a four-lane urban street along the waterfront that’s already designed and engineered and almost shovel ready. If the viaduct had to be closed next week, we could tear it down pretty quickly and rebuild that surface street according to design and engineering that’s already done. It might take a year-plus to do that but the design work’s already done on that.

Editor’s Note: In early studies comparing the “deep-bore tunnel” plan to alternatives, the surface street and expanded transit scenario Moon is describing was found to just as effectively manage traffic.