Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority “To Establish Post Offices and Post Roads”.  Like most enumerated powers of the Constitution, this was not a suggestion to Congress, but a responsibility.  However, in the age of email, UPS, FedEx and DHL, both the monopoly and the seeming necessity of the post office have diminished.  USPS is now seeking to lay off as many as 120,000 workers and close 3,700 post office locations.

USPS, much like its private-public cousin Amtrak, is stuck in an uncomfortable position.  It is a public entity providing an essential service and monitored by the federal government in the process.  At the same time, it is largely expected to run as a for-profit corporation.  That seems to be a broken system, that leaves essential government-owned infrastructure both unable to keep up with private competitors, and underfunded to serve locations and needs that cannot be properly met on a for-profit model.

Despite the presence of email and other private delivery services, USPS still provides an essential service.  It links communities and the people within to the outside world, as well as providing critical jobs.  USPS is also a national and cultural icon, uniting a diverse nation together.  Given that the post office finds its roots in one of the rare enumerated powers of the US Constitution, subsidizing the USPS and spearheading its modernization is something the Tea Party would finally be right to scream about.

While I am not a logistics expert, USPS with its world’s largest civilian fleet of 218,684 vehicles, has a huge transportation problem, as much as anything else.  The Infrastructurist wisely suggested that USPS must modernize its vehicle fleet and emphasize fuel efficiency, ASAP.  I could not agree more.

I believe access to the post office is critical, especially for the poor and for the elderly.  One area where the postal service can save money long term is in fuel costs (especially as gasoline prices continue to climb).  With an enormous fleet of local delivery vehicles, frequently stopping and starting, and moving short distances, USPS is primed for an efficiency mandate.  By making a partial switch to electric vehicles they could also assist in energy modernization by fueling at night and helping to protect consistent energy production on the grid.  Hybrid cars are also key.  USPS could also think outside the box to save money on fuel.  In warmer communities some postal workers could offer delivery via rickshaw or bikes with trailers.

I am not personally familiar with the economics of delivery of the mail and particular services, so I am going to shoot from the hip now.  It seems to me that mail has been sorted into three categories lately: next day or 2 day, moderately fast, and where speed doesn’t matter as long as it gets there.  Perhaps USPS could offer more services like Media Mail that offer slower service at a lower price, and entice some ground shipments away from UPS and FedEx.  While doing so, it could utilize more efficient and cost effective transportation methods, such as freight rail.

Regardless of the solution, the federal government must own up to its constitutional responsibilities.  The Postal Service is critical to America and as such should not be a purely for-profit business.  Those parts that are profitable should be so, and the business should modernize.  However, Congress should subsidize USPS for offices and services, that while necessary for those served, cannot be justified economically.

With the announcement of the list price for the Chevy Volt ($41,000 before tax breaks), the time has never been better to constructively talk about the electric infrastructure that will fuel the Volt and the electric cars of the future.  The Volt joins other mass-produced electric models that are starting to hit the market, including the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla.

What makes the electric car so tantalizing is that it can run on clean energy, and be responsible for far fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles.  The electricity that we use to power electric cars could come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, or nuclear energy, and never make a substantial contribution to carbon emissions.  Even if the electricity comes from coil and gas power plants, it is still more environmentally friendly than combustion engines, because centrally-generated power is more efficient.

While the question of where we will fuel these cars is tantamount, the question all-too-often glossed over is how to best fuel these cars.  We can measure fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles only by miles per gallon.  However, the electric car’s efficiency can be measured not only by how many miles it travels per volt, but also how efficient it is at utilizing the electric grid from which it receives its charge.

The idea for a smart charge has been formally proposed on General Electric’s Ecomagination Challenge, which is a $200 million competition to find the best new ideas on how to create, connect, and use a better electric grid.

“Charging electric cars at night is cheaper and cleaner than during the day because energy demand is lower. But what if you drive more in a day than your battery’s range? Software anticipates when you need power based on your driving habits and manages recharging.”

I encourage all of my readers to both check out the ideas and vote for this particular one because it exemplifies the ideals of the Transit Pass (registration and voting will take approximately 1 minute total).

A number of products already allow consumers and property owners to observe their electricity and other utility usage.  However, while these products may help people and institutions lower usage, they do not help advance efficient use.  The proposed idea would allow car users to fuel their cars most efficiently.

The software would help car users to fuel their cars at times when energy demand is lowest (typically at certain times at night) as well as how to make the most of mid-day re-charges.  This would be a boon both to the consumer as well as our overall energy use and overtaxed grid.  By charging when overall electricity demand is lowest, it takes some pressure off the grid during the day and allows electric companies to generate kilowatts on a more consistent basis over time.

This is important not only to the individual electric car owner but also to institutional users such as car-sharing services like Zipcar and fleet owners who could implement electric vehicles such as the postal service and other delivery companies, police departments, taxi services, and other governmental entities.

Companies and drivers would benefit from the device as they could potentially re-charge at a a cheaper price if kilowatt usage is based on time and demand.  Likewise, utility providers benefit from insuring that their grid will not be swamped at the worst times of day.

Again, I encourage you all to vote for a great idea.  It is a small device that could have a big impact on the success of America’s utilization of electric vehicles, the diminishing demand for foreign oil, and a way of insuring that our fragile electric grid not only stays safe, but potentially improves.

Trinity Railway Express- Dallas, TX

Growing up outside of New York, the threats by Congress to do away with Amtrak in one way or another were always taken with serious alarm.  People in the metropolitan area understood the importance of Amtrak in terms of getting between Boston and Washington, D.C.  The area did not particularly care if no one rode Amtrak in Utah or Mississippi.  As I grew up I came to realize that conservatives hated Amtrak because passenger rail was somehow European (and hence effeminate) and weak because it was perceived to diminish the extreme masculinity of the American automobile.  After all, real Americans get themselves places, they do not depend on others to do it for them.  Of course we should all ignore the CEO’s and extremely rich with their chauffeurs and private jets.  The train made people seem less independent as they could not set their own individual course.

This is of course all hogwash.  Conservatives should be supporting transportation and infrastructure investment in droves.  Alex Kummant’s article at American Thinker on precisely this topic made me happy.  He makes several important points about the role of transportation in America’s economic success.  He also points out that the free market is not the best strategy for transportation planning.

The 250-year economic miracle of the United States has been enabled, in no small part, by the unparalleled transportation capability first found and then built on this continent. It began with the remarkable St. Lawrence Seaway and the harbor-rich East Coast, without which the coastal colony system and its robust trade would have developed very differently. This was followed by the western expansion powered first by the Ohio River system and then by the Mississippi and Missouri river systems. Technical development linked with geography (river banks and plains) then drove the railroad economy, followed by highway and air, always in the international vanguard. Today we falter, as we idle in traffic on the way to the local home building supply store, and have little or no transportation advantage over other nations and geographies.
In the passenger transportation world, conservatives have lost their way with the libertarian mantra of “let the free market work,” as though this absolves them of wrestling with the real details of real problems. Witness the chaos of the commercial airlines in the last 25 years, the 150-year boom-bust history of the railroads, and the gradual unwinding of major elements of the troubled British rail privatization.
He points out that “Few realize that on a per-passenger basis, Amtrak has had less capital input than auto transportation nationally.”  But he also issues a call to arms to conservatives that I welcome:
It is entirely appropriate for the federal government to create a detailed national passenger transportation plan and then to work with local, state, federal, and private sector entities to realize the proposed networks.
Conservatives should make this issue theirs. There are, no doubt, large political pitfalls with earmarks and bridges-to- nowhere, but that can always be an excuse to do nothing. The current approach of the right, basically ignoring the national competitiveness implications of transportation and the related energy issues, is an abdication of responsibility.
Conservatives have a critical role to play in any transportation discussion.  Conservatives have a huge stake in promoting business and the movement of goods, people and ideas that is necessary to keep the economy active.  Conservatives also depend on stability and transportation is critical to such stability.   This is why I’m so frustrated when Republicans like Senator John McCain seek to remove funding from public transit.  Fortunately McCain’s most recent efforts were defeated in the Senate.
Transportation is not a liberal folly not a conservative punching bag.  Transportation is essential for this country.  Roads are a critical part of that, but the nation needs forward-thinking transportation policies that are multi-modal, energy efficient, promote density and high public ridership and are efficient and cost-effective to operate.  These are not liberal or conservative values, they are American values.


SkyTran Seattle2 - new head final

My friend Greg Moran, who knows a thing or two about infrastructure,  sent me this fascinating link to SkyTran.  The developers of SkyTran describe the product thus:

SkyTran is the Auto 2.0 or Auto2 – not just auto-mobile but auto-matic. This new-generation vehicle holds two passengers and weighs just 200 pounds empty. It moves on lightweight “guideways” one-foot wide and 20-30 feet above the ground, riding on magnetic levitation (“maglev”) coils inside the guideway instead of wheels. Because vehicles floating on a magnetic field can switch on and off the guideway easily, there will be stations every few blocks – or several per block in busy areas – little platforms 10′ above the sidewalk or attached to the side of buildings.

GreenTech Media provides a great illustration of what such a system might look like as well:

For a mental picture, think of a magnetic levitation (maglev) trains cross-bred with that thing that shuffles around shirts in a dry cleaner.

The first lines would be along heavy-duty transportation corridors, i.e., delivering passengers from central downtown stations to the airport, or inside the redesigned city of the future. Over time, the lines could be extended to individual homes with parallel tracks for exits. The cable required to propel the vehicle and hold them in the air is only about 18 inches wide and two feet wide, said John Cole, Unimodal’s COO.

“You could install it on standard utility poles. It would require the same gauge [of pole] that would hold up a traffic light,” he said.

(more…)

Professor Glaeser published part 2 of his economic analysis of the viability of high speed rail in the Economix blog on the New York Times.  I am not going to dispute any of Glaeer’s math, as I am not an economist, I am a law student.  If any of the readers of the Transit Pass have commentary on Glaeser’s analysis, please feel free to contribute.

I have a problem with many of Glaeser’s choices, starting with his choice to begin his analysis based on a high speed rail link between Houston and Dallas.  If you look at my post from yesterday, with the radical cartography map, you’ll see that neither Houston nor Dallas has exceptional public transit systems, especially in terms of downtown rail systems.  As Glaeser points out:

How many riders will take high-speed rail between Houston and Dallas? Amtrak gets about 11 million customers in the Northeast Corridor, which has four large consolidated metropolitan areas together totaling 44 million people. If that four-to-one ratio held in Texas, then the high-speed rail link could expect three million riders, and more to come as Texas grows.

But as President Obama has said one of the appeals of high-speed rail is “walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.” That’s bad news for Texas. In Dallas less than 5 percent of the population takes public transportation to work, and more than 60 percent of all jobs are more than 10 miles from the city center. For these reasons, driving will continue to be extremely attractive for travelers who want to save parking fees and need cars once they arrive. I’ll go with 1.5 million trips a year (even including future growth), which would make the new rail line about as popular as all airplane flights between the two cities are today.

Why hasn’t Glaeser started out by analyzing a California high speed path or improved high speed rail in the Northeast, or even with Chicago as a hub, where public transportation is a priority?  All I can think is he is out to make a point in a dishonest way, covering it over with numbers.

Moreover, Glaeser oddly ignores the value of energy efficiency, especially in light of the news that our oil is running out (H/T Infrastructurist).  One of the great values of rail is that it moves large number of passengers not only quickly, but in an energy efficient way that does not necessarily depend on fossil fuels.  Given that the cost (forget about the economic harm of burning fossil fuels) of jet fuel and gasoline is bound to go up, Glaeser significantly undercuts the utility rail (high speed or not).  Rail, as he points out, is not a short term investment, and the efficiency and value of it is bound to go up over decades and centuries, especially as we learn to rely on renewable electricity.  (I know that Glaeser promises to bring up environment and congestion in later posts, but his decision to show inefficiencies first makes him seem like a hack).

However, my biggest problem is that Glaeser makes any means of transportation of people as something that should be profitable.  I am all for self-sustaining rail transit, but this country has never sought to make transportation self-sustainable.  The hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent on roads and airports are not even close to reimbursed by gas taxes and tolls.  Rather, we must swallow hard and realize that just as we invested in roads that were costly but likely to get more expensive and less efficient in time we need expensive new means of transportation.  I agree with Glaeser though that we should optimize the costs and place high speed rail where it will be best used and least costly (first at least).

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