Post #100 on the Transit Pass!

It is not news that economic downturns are particularly hard on transit, just like all government services.  At the moment that affordable government services and assistance are most needed is also the time when government can least afford to provide them.

The voters of New Jersey reap what they sow.  They dumped their CEO-governor Jon Corzine for the Republican challenger who promised the unattainable Holy Grail of New Jersey politics, lower property taxes.  Now in office, Chris Christie has dealt with New Jersey’s budget deficit by cutting services and refusing to raise taxes, on anyone.  Of course, when you don’t raise taxes you can still effectively tax many people by offering fewer governmental services.  Therefore, Joe Millionaire is barely affected by the situation but Jane Minimum-Wage is put into an even more difficult situation because suddenly day care, transit, health care, etc. are less available and more expensive.  Perhaps that is good politics for a Republican, but it is certainly bad governance.

Governor Chris Christie in February said he would cut the state’s $296 million annual subsidy for NJ Transit by 11 percent, or $33 million, to help close a $2.2 billion deficit in the state budget for the fiscal year ending June 30. Christie, 47, a Republican who took office in January on a pledge not to raise taxes, introduced a $29.3 billion budget last month that contains $10 billion in spending reductions.

Christie, in a March 17 interview, said “there’s no way to fix” NJ Transit’s budget woes without raising fares. The governor also said he supported increasing transit fees over putting tolls on free roads in New Jersey including Interstates 78, 80, 195 and 295.

Specifically, Christie has cut NJ Transit’s funding by 11%.  In response, NJ Transit has been forced to raise fares; increasing the cost of local bus and light rail travel by 10% and commuter bus and train travel by a hefty 25%.  I used NJ Transit’s commuter rail for a full year when I worked in New York.  At that time my 35-40 minute ride cost $198 for a monthly pass.  While most people in my hometown probably can absorb the 25% increase without too much difficulty.  However, along the same route are a number of towns with poorer towns, such as Paterson (median 2000 household income: $32,778) and Garfield (median 2000 household income: $42,748), where the residents will have much greater difficulty absorbing such a fare hike.

A monthly pass from Paterson to New York Penn Station is currently $166.  A 25% hike will bring that price to $207.50, or an extra $498 a year, and that does not even include the costs of a monthly pass for the bus or subway in New York City, given that most jobs are not within walking distance of Penn Station.  With the price of a subway pass included a person from Paterson could be required to spend $3,450 a year for transit.  That is simply outrageous when your household income is $32,778.

Governor Christie hasn’t lowered taxes, he has impaired the rights of people throughout the state to procure employment and provide effectively for their families.  For the sake of saving some very wealthy residents the pain of having to pay a a little more in income tax the lower class has been implicitly taxed by virtue of being poor.  Transit justice exists and this is not it.  Governor Christie lacks that sense of empathy that Obama has been smeared for.  He has prioritized the needs of suburban drivers over transit commuters, continuing our history of poor transit priorities.

In November a 40-year-old SEPTA passenger car broke down and burst into flames on the R5 route; a signal if ever there was one that the fleet of aging rail cars needs to be replaced.  Well, the plans have already been in the works and my friend Anthony Campisi (aka A-Ton) has reported on the story of the new replacement cars for PlanPhilly (video of the new cars can be seen on his story page).

As shipments of Silverliner V regional rail car shells make it here from Korea next month, it will mark SEPTA’s first major rail procurement in nearly 30 years.

SEPTA is hoping that the new cars will herald a better rider experience and help meet its growing ridership needs, adding about 4,200 additional seats to the current regional rail capacity.

But rail advocates worry that SEPTA’s decision to sell off the older cars for scrap could put it in a bind if the Silverliner Vs have any manufacturing problems.

The authority has purchased 120 Silverliner Vs to replace 73 older Silverliner II and III cars, some of which date back to the 1960s. They point to brake problems that the Acela Express cars have experienced, which forced Amtrak to take them out of service in 2002 and 2005, and the fact that SEPTA has gone such a long time without designing and procuring a new class of rail cars.

The new cars are designed and built by Hyundai Rotem in Korea.  The new cars will continue SEPTA’s current regional rail seating configuration of rows of three-seats across from rows of two-seats. However, I’m personally more excited to see the double deck passenger cars arriving for the MBTA and SCRRA.  As a former loyal NJ Transit rider I’m a huge fan of the double deck cars, especially when they are set up with only two seats per row, as they end the awkwardness of the middle-seat conundrum; i.e. whether to sit there and when to ask to sit in the middle seat.

However, the cars are outfitted with new aesthetic lines inside and some nifty communications systems designed by Info-Vision Technology.  The front destination indicators in bright lights and color-coordinated series will be a welcome departure from the old plastic signs that slid into the front and side of the current rail cars.

In typical SEPTA fashion there are fears about just how well the cars will perform and whether all the old cars should immediately be phased out:

Though the CAC has not issued an official recommendation to SEPTA about the Silverliners, some members pointed out that Hyundai Rotem, the company that is manufacturing the Silverliners in a joint venture with Sojitz Corp., has never handled a rail project like this one before.

The Rotem venture was given the worst technical rating by SEPTA of all the bidders for the Silverliner V contract.
Because SEPTA doesn’t have the yard capacity to store the older Silverliners, Mitchell suggested they lease storage space from a railroad.

Though freight railroads do this quite often, Bob Parker, president and CEO of the East Penn Railroad, an area short-line railroad, said that his company has never stored passenger cars before. He said that doing that is “a different sort of animal” and that it would present different liability concerns.

All-in-all, it is very exciting for Philadelphia and SEPTA, let’s hope there are no fires on the new coaches.

BNSF System Map

The biggest railroad news in a while occurred yesterday when it was announced that Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway were purchasing BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe).  Buffett agreed to purchase the 77.4% of the company that he did not already own for $26 billion.

BNSF, which is a relatively new railroad as an entity, is actually a combination of many older railroads including the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe.  The railroad covers 32,000 miles of track, 6,700 locomotives and 220,000 freight cars.  The company’s biggest clients are coal and agricultural product shippers.

That begs the question of why Buffett made the investment.  Is he betting on trains, coal, industrial agriculture, or all of the above?  Streetsblog’s Elana Schor takes a swing at that question:

That environmental rationale for Buffett’s deal struck some in Washington as dubious. Frank O’Donnell, president of the green group Clean Air Watch, wrote on his website that the BNSF deal was “the biggest climate story of the day,” bigger even than the political maneuverings of the Senate environment committee:

This is a $34 billion dollar bet that coal will remain the centerpiece of American energy policy in the future. Buffett clearly believes that coal use will remain strong – and possibly grow. So he is putting his money on a vision of America with no effective climate policy at all – or at least one that doesn’t slow coal growth.

BNSF’s reliance on coal is indisputable; the black stuff has accounted for nearly half of its tonnage this year, and MarketWatch estimates that 10 percent of U.S. electricity comes from coal hauled by the railroad.

As coal-hauling railroads go, however, BNSF has made an attempt to distinguish itself on the energy efficiency end. The railroad is developing an emissions-free hydrogen-powered locomotive, and in May started to test-run a group of GE locomotives that cuts emissions by 40 percent over previous, dirtier models.

My take (and part of Elana’s) is this purchase is a good thing.  I personally don’t care if Buffett is invested in coal – because it is admittedly not going anywhere any time soon – because Buffett will be invested in transportation and rail infrastructure.  He will be invested in making the rail infrastructure solid, having working trains and hopefully growing the network.

Passenger transportation gets the most news coverage, but freight transportation is equally important.  The effect of truck freight transportation on roads and the environment is well documented.  Moving more of our freight to rails is good for everyone, including driver safety and those living close to highways.

Moreover, maintaining high quality rail corridors is also good for passenger rail as Amtrak and many public transit commuter rail systems already run on freight-owned rails.  Expanding networks is good for the future of commuter and inter-city rail too.

Good for Buffett in seeing that America’s transportation future lies on the tracks, not on its asphalt roads.

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