I decided to flee town for a week of vacation because I didn’t believe much would be happening in early July, especially with Independence Day falling on a Wednesday. And — surprise!! — I was only 110 percent wrong. Whoopsydoodle.
I knew in advance I would miss the Orange Line Extension’s debut, which was scheduled after I had already planned my vacation. That was strike one.
Second, after two-plus years of partisan bickering, Congress surprisingly (read: amazingly/unbelievably) got its act together enough to pass a two-year transportation spending bill including provisions of the America Fast Forward program advocated by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Metro Board of Directors. Strike two.
Third, the Federal Transit Administration finished its lengthy review of the Regional Connector’s final environmental study and issued a “record of decision,” the bureaucratic term that means not only are the commas in the right place, the project is now also eligible to receive federal dollars. Strike three.
Fourth, the State Legislature voted to sell enough bonds to allow for construction of the first segment of the state’s high-speed rail project, a vote that was — not surprisingly — squeaky close. That one was like falling down the dugout stairs after striking out.
So let’s take a look at some of these issues….
ORANGE LINE EXTENSION: As I’ve written before, grand openings are nice but I’m not sure they tell transit-folk much about the way the project will ultimately be worked into the fabric of everyday life.
With that in mind, I’m curious to hear your initial impressions of the line and how it’s working (hopefully) or not working for you. Comment please — whether you’re using the bus or parallel bike lane.
CONGRESS ACTS!: I think the passage of a two-year federal transpo bill was decidedly mixed news. Yes, it’s great that the bill greatly expands the TIFIA loan program for transit projects — a key part of America Fast Forward and a big victory for Metro and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
But in recent times federal multi-year bills have usually gone at least four years. Congress approved six-year bills in both 1991 and 1997 and a four-year bill in 2005, which beginning in 2009 was extended nine times while Congress bickered over the two-year bill burped forth last week.
It’s hardly a secret that the problem this time around was that Republicans in the House of Representatives insisted on funding cuts to some bike and pedestrian programs and unpopular/unrelated provisions such as approval of the Keystone oil pipeline. Even with bipartisan support for a bill in the Senate, the House had leverage to sit until they got some of the things they wanted.
As anyone who reads this blog or other transportation blogs knows, two years is a blip of time in transpo-land, where it takes many years to plan and build projects. Two years is definitely not a long-term approach. The new bill really just pushes the next big fight over federal transportation policy past this year’s presidential election to the midterm elections in 2014, which should be quite contentious no matter who is ordering late-night custom sandwiches in the White House (a huge benefit of the job, IMO).
In other words, it could be quite some time until we have any kind of long-term vision for transportation policy in a nation that has long celebrated its mobility, whether it be by foot, horse, canal, steamboat, railroad, highway or bicycle. It also means that the November elections to control Congress take on added importance for those who care about transpo issues.
As for Mssrs. Romney and Obama, I’m probably like many of you: It’s hard to pay attention to a campaign that has seemingly been underway forever, is basically one big pile of rhetoric and still has nearly four long months to go. Despite the number of microphones and notebooks put before both men, neither have said much about their vision for America’s cities or transportation. Nor is anyone in the Fourth Estate really forcing them to talk about it.
Both presidential candidates say they want to put people to work. They just don’t want to talk about how people will get to those jobs. Disappointing, but par for the course in Content Free America.
PITY THE FRENCH!: A story in the Times earlier this week basically sided with SNCF, the French railway operator hoping to land some work planning the California bullet train. Of course, SNCF wasn’t going to work for free — this was a business opportunity, not an altruistic endeavor.
The gist of the story is that SNCF at some point had proposed a route between Los Angeles and San Francisco that would follow the 5 freeway, which runs along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley. Such a route would likely be less expensive to build than the one that has been adopted that instead runs from L.A. to the Antelope Valley and then over/under Tehachapi Pass to run along the eastern side of the Valley, more or less following the 99 freeway.
If you’ve ever driven the 5 and 99 freeways through the Valley and managed to stay awake, you may have noticed a difference between the two roads: almost no one lives near the 5 (the last In-N-Out is at the Kettleman City exit, a long ways from anywhere), whereas the 99 runs through very populated cities such as Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno and Merced.
These are not small cities. Bakersfield has about 347,000 people and Fresno about 510,000 and that’s not counting the entire metro areas. Those people are taxpayers who are helping pay for the train and it basically makes no sense to skip these towns if the idea is to connect the state’s population centers. Why build the train if it just benefits San Francisco and L.A.?
Robert Cruickshank at the California High Speed Rail blog has a thorough take-down of the Times article, which managed to get a lot of traction around the state from other media that depend on reading newspapers for their content.
It’s certainly fair game for journalists to make clear all the proposals that have been on the table — and all those contractors that sought work and taxpayer dollars for their work.
But the tone of the Times’ article intimates that something wrong or crooked occurred when, in fact, it may be just the opposite: common sense prevailed and the train was routed through cities.
REGIONAL CONNECTOR: Make no mistake, the fate of the Regional Connector is somewhat tied to high-speed rail, with the Connector budgeted to receive more than $100 million from the high-speed rail bonds.
That’s because of a deal struck in 2008: the $9.95-billion in high-speed rail bonds included $950 million for projects that help improve access to the bullet train. In Southern California, the Connector is one of those projects because it would tie together the Blue, Gold and Expo lines in downtown L.A., making it easier for many Metro passengers to reach Union Station, which will serve the high-speed train.
The Connector has an estimated cost of $1.3 billion but is only due to receive $160 million from Measure R. The reason: at the time that Measure R was approved by voters, the Connector was still in the planning stage and the decision had yet to be made to make it a fully underground line in downtown, thereby increasing its cost.
As a result, the Connector needs every last cent it can get from a variety of sources. The federal New Starts program will be the largest pot of money, but the high-speed rail money is critical to the Connector and a big reason to cheer the Legislature’s decision to spend some of the high-speed rail money.
TRIPLE BUS RACKS: I’ve been the recipient of more than a few complaints from Metro customers that the double bike racks on Metro buses are often filled, resulting in cyclists having to wait for the next bus to come along. If you’re a cyclist and trying to use transit, it’s more than a little annoying — especially when putting a triple-rack on a bus doesn’t seem quite as daunting as, say, sending people to Mars.
On that note, here’s a letter from a member of the Assembly to Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition. Without editorializing, let’s just say the letter demonstrates that getting anything done in the Legislature is not exactly easy.
CAN BEND, OREGON, TEACH LOS ANGELES COUNTY ANYTHING?: I spent last week in Bend, Oregon, the outdoorsy hub along the Deschutes River in central Oregon. It’s completely unfair, of course, to compare a city of 81,000 or so to Los Angeles County but here are a few observations:
•The city has arguably over-invested in parks for a city its size. The Deschutes River runs through town and is lined with parks, including Drake Park in downtown — which I think may be one of the loveliest urban parks I’ve seen in the United States.
Bend has about 2,375 acres (or 3.7 square miles) of parks or open space, which works out to 29 acres or so per 1,000 people. That’s more than many western cities and, of course, contributes greatly to the quality of life in Bend — and is perhaps a big reason for the town’s considerable growth in the past decade.
Parks don’t really generate revenue or pay for themselves. In this sense, the same can be said about transit in most parts of the U.S. — it’s a subsidized enterprise. But transit, like parks, increases the quality of life of a region and I think does impact the local economy even when it’s hard to demonstrates.
•Bend loves its traffic circles. While most major intersections in the city still have traditional stop lights, many intersections involving two-lane roads (i.e. one lane in both directions) have roundabouts.
And they’re great and appear to be working. I didn’t drive much after arriving in town, but I rarely had to come to a full stop at a traffic circle. And the traffic circles sure beat four-way stop signs that I find plastered around Pasadena, even in places where roundabouts have been built. If you want to burn a lot of gasoline, build a four-way stop intersection in a place it’s not needed, people.
That said, the traffic circles in Bend were a little trickier on a bike, my preferred transit mode in Bend (the town is rife with bike lanes along with parks). With cars entering the circle from four directions, a cyclist needs a head on a swivel.
•Even in a bike-friendly town, getting people out of their cars is difficult. How so? In compact, bike-lanes-are-everywhere Bend, about 74 percent of workers drive alone to work. That’s compared to 70 percent in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
I suspect there’s a few issues at play here. One is that Bend has real winters with cold and snow. Another is that while Bend has managed to preserve its downtown as a vibrant place, most of the city’s big chain stores and offices aren’t in downtown. The stores, for example, are located on one of those yucky auto-centric commercial strips that plague cities across modern America.
The other big issue, which is the same issue everywhere: people can afford cars, find them convenient and fuel remains inexpensive enough to purchase.
•Speaking of bike lanes, the town built one along a freeway-like section of U.S. 97 going through town and then put a sidewalk along the freeway. The bike lane, unbelievably, requires cyclists to cross both on- and off-ramps, which makes it perhaps the WORST DESIGNED BIKE LANE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, IMO. By comparison, the sidewalk just seemed plain cruel.
On a related note, on the drive home I couldn’t help but notice signs along Interstate 5 south of Mt. Shasta indicating that drivers should share the road with cyclists — even in portions where the road had hardly any shoulder (including bridges over the Sacramento River). What the what? This is in a section of the 5 that descends steadily and often steeply between Mt. Shasta and Shasta Lake but it turns out that bikes are allowed on portions of the 5 in which there are no alternate routes available.
Look, I understand the intention here. I’m a cyclist. But there are places in this world in which I firmly believe motorists and cyclists have no business co-mingling for the sake of everyone’s safety. And Interstate 5 south of Mt. Shasta is one of them.
•BEND’S BREWERIES: One final note. The microbrew industry set up shop in the Pacific Northwest long ago and in particular Portland. It has since spread to Bend, something the town has encouraged as a way to create attractions (most of the breweries are attached to restaurants) and jobs via a local industry.
And it’s great, especially because most of the brewpubs are easily walkable and the food is terrific. If you like beer, here are a few recommendations: Mike-Saw-Sasquatch Ale at 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Twilight Summer Ale or White Chainbreaker IPA at Deschutes Brewery, Ruby Ale at McEnamins (it’s heavy on raspberries but good) and High Desert Hefeweizen at Bend Brewing Co., which I would gladly serve my hockey team if I could get it here; lighter beer goes down and stays down better when dehydrated after hard-fought no-checking lower-division adult games. Go Puckalolos!