Forest Service, R.I.P.

Jack Ward Thomas, the 13th chief of the Forest Service, died the other day, and with him went a lot of the traditions of the Forest Service, both good and bad. Thomas was a top-notch researcher with an expertise in elk and other large mammals, and as a Forest Service wildlife biologist he published some of the most important research showing that timber harvesting wasn’t always compatible with game habitat. Unfortunately, his appointment as head of the Forest Service was an example of the Peter Principle, as it put him in the middle of a highly charged political environment that he wasn’t trained to deal with.

I first met Jack when we were both doing research in Northeastern Oregon forests, and I have a few fond memories of him. However, I can’t say I knew him well enough to write a eulogy for him. Instead, I’d like to eulogize the era of the Forest Service that he represented.

The Forest History Society says Thomas was the first person since 1910 to be made chief as a political appointment. I don’t think that’s quite true: in 1933, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Rex Tugwell named his friend, Ferdinand Silcox, chief even though Silcox hadn’t worked for the agency in 16 years. The seven chiefs between Silcox and Thomas, however, all had worked their way up the ranks of the agency, having spent time in local, regional, and Washington, DC, offices of either the research or national forest branches of the agency. Most of them remained chief until they were ready to retire, as no president between Taft and Clinton ever tried to replace a chief with someone of their own liking.

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Taking the A Line

Denver opened its rail line to the airport a few weeks ago, but it seems to have been rushed into operation. The Antiplanner took the train to Union Station on Wednesday and back on Thursday and fortunately allowed plenty of time because it was not very reliable.

The train is formally known as the University of Colorado A-Line, which is deceptive because it doesn’t actually go to the University of Colorado. Instead, the university paid $5 million for naming rights, which seems a strange thing for a public institution to do.

But then, deception is the name of the game for RTD’s new train. When I was on the airport subway to the terminal I heard a recorded announcement by Denver’s mayor, Michael Hancock, inviting people to take the A Line, which he said took “about 35 minutes to get to Union Station.” I happened to know that the train was scheduled to take 38 minutes, and mathematically, 38 is closer to “about 40” than “about 35.”

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A Questionable Change in Data

According to page 57 the European Union publication, Panorama of Transport, 43 percent of American freight is shipped by rail and 30 percent goes by truck. This makes the American rail freight system the envy of the world, as just 10 percent of European freight goes by rail, with 46 percent going by truck, and just 4 percent of Japanese freight goes by rail, with 60 percent going by truck.

The EU got its U.S. data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ annual National Transportation Statistics report. However, if you look at the most recent edition of table 1-50: U.S. ton-miles of freight in that report, you won’t find those numbers at all. Instead (using 2006 data), something like 42 percent of freight goes by truck while only 32 percent goes by rail. That’s still a greater share of freight going by rail than in Europe or Japan, but a reversal in dominance between rail and trucks.

Yet the Panorama of Transport didn’t get it wrong. I have the corresponding table from the 2008 edition of National Transportation Statistics, and the numbers for 2006 in that table agree with those used by the EU. So what happened to change the numbers?

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner will be in Littleton, Colorado tonight talking about housing issues. The event is open to the public and starts at 7 pm at the South Fellowship Church, 6560 South Broadway. If you are in the Denver area, I hope to see you there.

In the meantime, interesting news from Sacramento: the regional transit district is considering shutting down one of its light-rail lines for lack of ridership. As the Antiplanner noted two months ago, the agency has lost more than 26 percent of its transit riders in the past six years and has raised fares by 10 percent to make up for the lost revenue.

The light-rail line that it is considering shutting down is only 1.1 miles long–so it is more like a streetcar line–and it attracts just 400 riders per day. Despite this poor record, Sacramento still wants to build a 3.3-mile streetcar line.

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The Monster That Devoured Denver

The train that saved Denver? Give me a break! Politico‘s Colin Woodard claims that the effects of new rail transit lines on Denver “have been measurable and surprising.” In fact, his article is all hype with hardly a touch of reality.

Let’s start with same basic “measurable” numbers. In 1990, before Denver built its first light-rail line, the decennial census found that 4.74 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. By 2014, the region had four light-rail lines, and the American Community Survey found that the percentage of commuters taking transit to work was all the way up to 4.76 percent.

Yes, that’s a measurable 0.02 percent increase in transit’s share of commuting. If it is a surprise, it is only that it wasn’t a decrease.

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The West Isn’t Disappearing

“The West is disappearing,” claims a new report by the Center for American Progress. They should rename themselves the “Center for Alarming Americans,” as the report is pure hokum.

Based on data from 2001 and 2011, the report found that the West “loses” 432 square miles of land per year, or about an acre every two-and-one-half minutes. This sounds so alarming that the San Jose Mercury-News reported that California is “losing most land to development.” “Most” means “more than half,” but by any definition, far less than half of California has been developed.

The eleven contiguous western states have a total of 1,173,990 square miles of land. At 432 square miles per year, it would take 2,718 years to develop them all. Since half of the land is federal forests, parks, and rangelands that will never receive more than a modest amount of development, there doesn’t seem to be much to worry about.

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Memo to Foxx: Put Money Where It Works

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx came to Portland the other day and said cities needed to find “moonshots” to fund their transportation programs. He criticized Congress for passing a $302 billion, five-year transportation bill last year because it “locks in a sustained period of underinvestment.”

If by “moonshots” Foxx means a magic formula for fixing congestion and other transportation problems, then Portland is the wrong place to look. The Portland area has already spent well over $4 billion on a light-rail system, yet as of 2014 light rail carried only 1 percent of the region’s motorized passenger travel and no freight. Update: Meanwhile, the last shipping company that delivered containers to the Port of Portland has quit because the city and the port have put being “green” above freight mobility. Despite this, the region’s leaders now want to spend $2 billion more on another 11-mile line.

It would be great if we could build all the light rail, high-speed rail, bike paths, highways, and dirigibles that anyone would ever want to use. But some people don’t want to accept that we live in a world of scarce resources, and to be successful at anything we have to use those resources as effectively as possible.

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Back in the Air Again

The Antiplanner is at a conference in Montana for the rest of this week. In the meantime, take a look at this op ed about bus-rapid transit in the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

In addition, a letter to the editor in the Washington Post by the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Alan Pisarski, confirms a point made by the Antiplanner yesterday: Washington Metro’s problem is inefficiency and waste, not a shortage of tax dollars.

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DC Metro Rail: Is More Money the Answer?

Remember how the Washington Metro Rail system shut down for an entire weekday on March 16 so the agency could inspect all of the rail insulators, and replace any that were worn out? This was supposed to be needed to prevent fires such as the one whose smoke killed a passenger in 2015.

It didn’t work. On May 5, passengers at the Federal Center Southwest station were treated to a huge fireball of sparks when another insulator caught fire. Moreover, says the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Metro officials responded poorly to the fire, continuing to run trains on that track until a second fire started several hours later.

On May 6–coincidentally, the day after the latest fire–Metro announced its maintenance plan that calls for shutting down some segments for as long as seven days and single-tracking many more lines for weeks at a time, which will slow service on those routes. That’s not good enough for the FTA, which ordered the agency to rearrange the schedule to work on lines that the feds think are at the highest risk sooner than Metro planned.

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Streetcar Boondoggles

“The Dallas streetcar project is another great example of how the Recovery Act is creating jobs and providing accessible transportation,” said then-Secretary of Immobility Ray LaHood in 2011 when he funded the project. Now that it’s been open for about a year, how many people are riding it? About 150 to 300 per day.

This is just one in a series of dramatic failures documented by the transit-friendly Streetsblog. After Atlanta began charging fares for its streetcar, ridership fell below 1,000 per day. Salt Lake’s streetcar carries a few more than that, but only about a third of the original projections. Tucson’s is supposed to be more successful, carrying 4,000 per day, but most of them are students who get major discounts.

Meanwhile, the cost of the Cincinnati streetcar has gone up from $102 million to $148 million. It won’t be completed until September, so there’s still time for more cost overruns.

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