Cascadia Center makes argument for rail in Northwest

In a series of op-eds that appeared in The Everett Herald during the last two weekends, Cascadia Center director Bruce Agnew makes the argument for the role that rail has had (and can continue to have) in the Northwest. The first, “Let history be our guide,” describes how the region’s past success with rail can and should guide its future. The second article, “All aboard together,” focuses on how the region can partner — across jurisdictional and public-private lines — to ensure a future for rail.

Skepticism Greets US DOT’s Draft Transportation Bill

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Innovation Briefs, now
in their 20th year of publication, are published by Ken Orski. Cascadia
Prospectus reprints them with permission. The content of Innovation
Briefs does not necessarily represent the view of Cascadia Center of
Discovery Institute.

May 6, 2011

An undated— and possibly still unvetted by OMB—draft of US DOT’s legislative proposal for surface transportation reauthorization, the “Transportation Opportunities Act,” has been making the rounds in Washington for the past week. Its publication, however, has been largely ignored by the inside-the-Beltway transportation community. What would ordinarily be an eagerly awaited event and an  occasion to compliment the Department , has passed virtually unnoticed. Even the usual cheering squad of Administration-supportive advocacy groups such as Transportation for America, the Building America’s Future coalition and US PIRG has been muted in their approval.

The reason for this indifference is twofold. Partly, it’s because the DOT draft contains no surprises: it merely restates the proposals already revealed in the President’s FY 2012 Budget request. But more importantly, the draft has been ignored because it has been judged to lack political savvy and realism. Even the highly partisan liberal Streetsblog was obliged to pronounce the draft bill as irrelevant. Wrote Tanya Snyder, its Capitol Hill correspondent in a level-headed assessment, “…don’t expect it to be central to the debate in Congress. By refusing to adjust to a still-struggling economy, high gas prices, and a deficit-obsessed Congress, the president has rendered his own plan moot.”

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Discovery Institute president offers perspective on Canadian election

Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman’s assessment of the Canadian elections was published in Seattle-based Crosscut. In the article, Chapman, a thoughtful observer on just about every political election and issue that finds its way into the news cycle, calls the recent election results a “political transformation.” “…[V]oters quietly lurched both right and left simultaneously. They gave Conservatives their first majority government in a generation, yet also elevated the left wing New Democrats (a former fringe in Ottawa) to the stature of leader of the opposition. They also destroyed Quebec’s separatists as a national party and reduced the long dominant Liberal party to an electoral after-thought.” Chapman writes that Canada is, “for the first time in many years…dividing along the left-right Read More ›

High-speed rail casualty of budget battle

Photo source: CNN The last several months have seen President Obama’s high-speed rail plans up against the ropes. The wounds from ongoing criticism from rail skeptics were beginning to heal (somewhat) when last fall then newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio said they didn’t want federal money for rail. Florida’s decision to rescind money early this year only made things more challenging for the president and supporters (from both parties) who favor high-speed rail. The knock-out punch–for 2011, anyway–looks like it might’ve come during the recent budget debate on Capitol Hill. From CNN’s, “U.S. high-speed rail program hit by deep budget cuts.” President Barack Obama’s plan for a national high-speed rail network suffered a serious setback as a result Read More ›

Sustainable Freight Transportation in North America

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) has released its new report, “Destination Sustainability: Reducing Greehouse Gas Emissions from Freight Transportation in North America.” “Destination Sustainability” is the product of “expertise, and perspectives” of specialists in the field of transportation and is designed to serve as a template of “recommendations for actions” to ensure the “environmental sustainability of the North American transportation system.” The CEC is a NAFTA-chartered commission focused on the issue of sustainable freight transportation. Cascadia Center’s Bruce Agnew serves as the chair of the group.

A Requiem for “High-Speed Rail” ?An Editorial Point of View

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Thumbnail image for Ken-Orski-Headshot.pngInnovation Briefs, now
in their 20th year of publication, are published by Ken Orski. Cascadia
Prospectus reprints them with permission. The content of Innovation
Briefs does not necessarily represent the view of Cascadia Center of
Discovery Institute.

April 12, 2012

In the interest of maintaining some balance and perspective on what the Administration proudly calls “President Obama’s bold vision for a national high-speed rail network” we have tried to offer our readers a range of different points of view. It is in this spirit that we present below two commentaries. The first contribution is by Matt Dellinger, author of the highly praised book, “Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway” and a frequent contributor on transportation topics to the progressive website, Transportation Nation. The second contribution is by Ron Utt, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose analyses of transportation policy have been a longstanding feature of that Foundation’s work.

Along with our two commentators, we do not question the merits of intercity rail transportation— an integral and essential part of this nation’s economy, culture and history over the past century and a half. Readers of Steven Ambrose’s history of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, can only marvel at the indomitable spirit and entrepreneurial energy that drove the creation of the continental rail network. Rail transportation has been intimately woven into the social and economic fabric of this nation ever since. Nor do we forget the huge contribution that private railroad companies have made, and continue to make, to maintaining and growing the nation’s rail network. By investing billions of private dollars, they have made the US freight rail system the envy of the world. Lastly, we believe that intercity passenger rail service is essential in densely populated heavily traveled corridors, in particular in the Northeast Corridor, where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that will threaten its continued growth and productivity. In sum, we are not mindless opponents of rail transportation.

Rather, along with Messrs. Dellinger and Utt, and many other responsible observers inside and outside the railroad community (including notably, Michael Ward, Chief Executive Officer of CSX, the nation’s third largest freight railroad), we take issue with the Obama Administration’s lofty but misleading rhetoric of “high-speed rail.” Instead of representing its initiative for what it really is —a program of incremental improvements to the existing rail infrastructure— the Administration has tried to create the impression that it has embarked on a bold and revolutionary program of building a continent-wide high-speed rail network— a legacy reminiscent of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Program.

As Dellinger and Utt point out, the recently announced spate of awards will hardly lead to bullet trains speeding from coast-to-coast at 250 mph. These grants, along with most of the earlier awards, will support engineering and planning studies, incremental upgrades in the facilities of freight railroads and modest improvements in existing passenger rail service. For example, the latest list includes a study to replace Amtrak’s Baltimore Tunnel; development of Missouri’s and West Virginia’s state rail plans; final design of the New Jersey Portal Bridge; and modest corridor improvements in Amtrak service in Connecticut, New York and Washington State.

The above-mentioned $300 million worth of awards was announced on April 8, just a few hours before agreement was reached on a short-term continuing resolution that would cut $1.5 billion in unobligated HSR money. It also preceded by three days the release of a GAO report criticizing the lack of transparency in the Administration’s HSR grant selection process (GAO-11-283). Citing the GAO findings, Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee blasted the Administration in a strongly worded press release. “In the name of high-speed rail, the Administration has squandered limited resources on dozens of slow-speed rail projects across the country,” Mica said. “I cannot imagine a worse beginning to a U.S. high-speed rail effort. …It is critical that there be transparency for why these projects were selected in the first place and why any future projects will be selected.”

Had the objective and the selection criteria of the $10 billion program been stated candidly from the outset as an effort to modestly upgrade existing intercity passenger rail services, the White House would have spared itself this criticism and the attendant ridicule of “ObamaRail” and “the Railroad to Nowhere.” As it is, the Administration dug itself into an even deeper hole with a quixotic and hardly credible pledge of “making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years.” A promise that was made without any hint as to how this ambitious plan would be paid for, and against a background of the House Republicans’ announced intention to totally eliminate federal support for high-speed rail beginning next year. Without further congressional appropriations, the President’s dogged pursuit of the $53 billion high-speed rail initiative will simply collapse. (Late news: the final continuing resolution announced on April 12 zeroes out funding for high-speed rail in FY 2011 and rescinds $400 million from the FY 2010 HSR funding.)

As Matt Dellinger pointedly concluded, “If High-Speed Rail ever happens, future Americans might not remember the President who circulated the maps and funded the studies. They’ll remember the President who figured out how to pay for it all.”

Kenneth Orski?


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The High Price of Vomit on Washington State Ferries

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Photo source: WSDOT

In a state fighting for its financial life (like most of its brethren), one might hope that seemingly reasonable attempts to tighten the spigot would be met with healthy appreciation. But here on the Northwest edge of the United States this week, one state senator’s idea for cutting a few dollars from the ferry service budget has caused some ferry workers’ stomachs to turn.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a democrat who represents Camano Island, caught the ire of union workers this week because she doesn’t think state workers should be paid extra (double, in fact) to clean-up passenger-provided bodily fluids that find their way to the boat deck. She wants to do away with the state’s so-called “vomit clause.”

has an extensive (and expensive) ferry system, and Haugen has been
looking for ways to trim its budget. But the “vomit clause,” she told the
Everett Herald “…really stuck in my craw.” More Haugen:

certainly don’t give overtime to some prison guard who cleans up after
an inmate or someone working in a mental institution or even someone who
worked caring for a person at their home and had to do an unpleasant

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pays Visit, Awards Grant to Portland

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood made his way to Portland, Ore., today to participate in the groundbreaking for a project in the city’s South Waterfront district. The country’s transportation chief brought with him a $23 million federal grant to help with the project. The grant (a TIGER grant — Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) is designed to “spur a national competition for innovative, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional transportation projects.” The funds are specifically for the SW Moody Avenue project and will, according to LaHood’s blog, Fast Lane, “help generate economic activity by reconstructing a critical corridor.” Read what Secretary LaHood has to say about it.

The Look and Feel of the New Congress

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Ken-Orski-Headshot.pngInnovation Briefs, now in their 20th year of publication, are published by Ken Orski. Cascadia Prospectus reprints them with permission. The content of Innovation Briefs does not necessarily represent the view of Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute.

March 11, 2011

This year’s annual legislative conference of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA) took place against a background of unprecedented uncertainties concerning the future of the federal-aid transportation program. With Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood unable to explain to a skeptical Senate Budget Committee how the Administration would fund its ambitious $556 billion six-year transportation program, and with Congress bent on reducing the federal budget deficit and cutting discretionary spending, the assembled audience was reduced to speculating how to “do more with less.” Easing restrictions on tolling, encouraging public-private partnerships, expanding federal credit instruments, improving project delivery and cost-benefit analysis were some of the suggested means of leveraging and supplementing reduced federal dollars. Admittedly, these could only partly compensate for impending cuts in federal funding.

As in the past, the IBTTA meeting drew an impressive roster of speakers including transportation journalists, congressional staff members, toll agency executives and policy analysts. Luncheon speakers included Secretary Ray LaHood and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who delivered a spirited plea for more investment in infrastructure. “The next highway bill must clear the way for more expansive use of public-private partnerships and lift the prohibition on tolling interstate highways,” Rendell said.

One of the highlights of the conference was a concluding panel discussion involving some leading transportation policy analysts. The panel was asked to speculate about the future of the transportation policy agenda. Predictably, members of the panel split between advocates of a strong federal role and more generous funding for transportation, and those who felt that the federal presence in transportation should be curtailed and focused on infrastructure of national importance. No surprises there.

An earlier session, titled “The Look and Feel of the New Congress,” focused on the congressional outlook for transportation legislation. The panel, moderated by former Member of Congress from Michigan, Bob Carr, included Jennifer Hall, Counsel, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Alex Herrgott, Minority Staff Member, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; Peter Loughlin, President of Loughlin Enterprises and formerly with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; and your editor, Ken Orski. My prepared remarks can be found below.

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The high-speed rail beauty contest: Florida walks, others talk

Concept view of Tampa-Orlando HSR station (Source: Florida High Speed Rail) 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 Read More ›