Riding the Rails, Slowly but Surely

The road to high-speed rail has been a rocky one in many places. In the Northwest, purposeful efforts to slow down are proving successful – producing more riders at less cost. The goal is to increase the speed incrementally. Are there lessons to be learned? Governing magazine has the column.

Civic leaders still call their town the “Hub City,” a holdover from its role a century ago as a rail center for the movement of goods and people in all directions. A dozen passenger trains a day — half northbound, half southbound — still rumble through this western city of 16,000 that sits equidistant between Portland and Seattle.

They are run by the Washington state government-subsidized Amtrak Cascades passenger service, which has taken a deliberately incremental approach to developing the Cascadia corridor running from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, B.C.

Passenger rail service has been central to the corridor’s strategy and is reflected in a 15-year track record of increasing ridership (up 10 percent in the last year alone) and fares that cover nearly two-thirds of operating expenses. The strategy has marshaled local investment in infrastructure and forged partnerships with those who have an interest in the shared rail bed, including cities and towns along the corridor, Amtrak, the freight carrier Burlington Northern Santa Fe, federal funding agencies and regulators.

In the Northwest, passenger rail has purposely taken some of the speed out of high speed. Instead, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) measures its rail initiatives based on a three-part definition of convenience: reducing total trip time while boosting system efficiency and average speed. Scott Witt, former director of WSDOT’s State Rail and Marine Office, says a number of studies all indicate that sticking with faster (rather than fastest) rail would allow the region to realize 90 percent of the ridership and revenue targets at 50 percent of the cost of true high-speed rail, which can peak at 150 mph on Amtrak’s Acela service in the Northeast.

The lion’s share of the $781 million in federal passenger rail funding awarded to Washington is dedicated to raising the average speed by eliminating slow parts of the corridor with new bypasses and other upgrades.

This incremental approach to higher-speed rail has not isolated the service from the complexities of establishing a governance structure for the multistate, binational effort in which five governments must act in concert with one another. As part of that mix, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is transitioning from being a regulatory and safety organization to one responsible for project delivery, funding and management. Witt, whose career has been in project delivery, notes, “The FRA just has not seen this level of funding and complexity before.”

Still, he remains confident that the state will get there. “Our long-range vision is still to establish a dedicated high-speed track with trains running at up to 150 miles per hour,” says Witt, “but we’re laying the foundation to get there step-by-step.”

Worst Winter Olympic PR Scandals of All-Time

Think you have PR problems? At least you don’t have corrupt judges and a drunken skier on your hands.

Business Insider recently took a look at the worst Winter Olympics PR disasters of all time. Lowlights include the Harding/Kerrigan debacle, Denver refusing to host the games after being awarded them in the 1970s, and a couple are unfortunately from the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. A snippet:

NBC: The network that prevents you from watching the Olympics.

In the age of Twitter, 24/7 real-time online news coverage, and real-time everything, NBC still thinks it’s 1976, and that the best way to cover the Olympics is via tape delay.

Actually, that’s the worst way to cover the Olympics. For instance, by the time NBC got around to airing Bode Miller’s downhill run last night, everyone already knew that he came in third place.

For the record, despite my issues with NBC’s lack of live coverage, this has by far been the most enjoyable Olympiad for me. Discussing this with friends recently, we decided the Winter Olympics are so much fun because these are events we don’t see otherwise. While curling is enjoying unprecedented recognition, I’ve personally found a new love for downhill skiing, Snocross and even ice hockey. Most importantly, it’s been great to see Canada and its famously welcoming people garner some well-earned recognition for the nation’s gorgeous West Coast.

Two-Way Streets Profitable for City Merchants

So says Vancouver, Washington, at least.

Governing’s Alan Ehrenhalt has an interesting piece about how the city has used two-way streets to revitalize its downtown area. While many cities, including Indianapolis, have long taken the one-way street approach, he explains how two-ways may be more lucrative for downtown merchants:

Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver, Washington, has spent millions of dollars trying to revitalize its downtown, and especially the area around Main Street that used to be the primary commercial center. Just how much the city has spent isn’t easy to determine. But it’s been an ambitious program. Vancouver has totally refurbished a downtown park, subsidized condos and apartment buildings overlooking it and built a new downtown Hilton hotel.

Some of these investments have been successful, but they did next to nothing for Main Street itself. Through most of this decade, the street remained about as dreary as ever. Then, a year ago, the city council tried a new strategy. Rather than wait for the $14 million more in state and federal money it was planning to spend on projects on and around Main Street, it opted for something much simpler. It painted yellow lines in the middle of the road, took down some signs and put up others, and installed some new traffic lights. In other words, it took a one-way street and opened it up to two-way traffic.

The merchants on Main Street had high hopes for this change. But none of them were prepared for what actually happened following the changeover on November 16, 2008. In the midst of a severe recession, Main Street in Vancouver seemed to come back to life almost overnight.

Within a few weeks, the entire business community was celebrating. “We have twice as many people going by as they did before,” one of the employees at an antique store told a local reporter. The chairman of the Vancouver Downtown Association, Lee Coulthard, sounded more excited than almost anyone else. “It’s like, wow,” he exclaimed, “why did it take us so long to figure this out?”

A year later, the success of the project is even more apparent. Twice as many cars drive down Main Street every day, without traffic jams or serious congestion. The merchants are still happy. “One-way streets should not be allowed in prime downtown retail areas,” says Rebecca Ocken, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. “We’ve proven that.”

The debate over one-way versus two-way streets has been going on for more than half a century now in American cities, and it is far from resolved even yet. But the evidence seems to suggest that the two-way side is winning. A growing number of cities, including big ones such as Minneapolis, Louisville and Oklahoma City, have converted the traffic flow of major streets to two-way or laid out plans to do so. There has been virtually no movement in the other direction.

Canadian Think Tank Promotes School Choice Across the Globe

The Fraser Institute, a Vancouver, Canada-based think thank, recently launched the global School Choice Showcase. Found at schoolchains.org, the program acts as a year-round trade show illustrating innovation in school choice projects across the globe. 

"No other site like this exists in the world," explains James Lombardi, project design & development coordinator at the Fraser Institute. "We aim to connect parents, potential school operators, investors, and government officials with successful and already-replicated schools from around the world that want to expand and have proven that they can. Our hope is that they will expand even further — both in their own countries and around the world — to the benefit of students everywhere. And our ultimate goal is no less than improving education worldwide through choice."

Lombardi says the site currently profiles nearly 70 K-12 school chains from around the world that operate 36,000 individual school locations.

"Perhaps more importantly, these schools are successfully serving all kinds of students, specializing in mathematics, autism, inner-city youth, science, rural locations, recent immigrant students, vocational education, and much more," he notes.

The Fraser Institute also posted an animated YouTube video about the program: