Populist movements don't build themselves ...

... It doesn't matter what the "horse race" outcome of the campaign is, if we fight the campaign. Fighting it, we learn how to fight. Learning how to fight political battles, we become citizens again. Becoming citizens again, we reclaim the Republic that lies dormant beneath the bread and circuses of modern American society.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Train: Rapid Streetcars and Suburban Retrofit

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted to ProgressiveBlue, Docudharma, The Hillbilly Report and Agent Orange.

The people's choice award in the Re-Burbia "Rethinking Suburbia" design competition was the entry titled Urban Sprawl Repair Kit: Repairing The Urban Fabric.

But I want to adapt these ideas from the repair of the urban fabric to the original creation of a healthy suburban fabric. From further below:
After all, no matter how much one may love big cities - big cities have never been the be-all and end-all of settlement. Part of a healthy big city economy is a healthy network of relationships to a surrounding network of healthy smaller cities. And part of what makes them healthy is a healthy network of relationships to healthy small towns and villages.

And that is the foundation of the Suburban Town and Village design pattern, using the Rapid Streetcar as its transport infrastructure backbone: providing suburban Towns and Villages that work in their own right, replacing the two-dimensional movie-set facade of Town and Village life offered by most suburban sprawl communities.


The Urban Repair Kit shows thinking in line with the concept of "Retrofitting Suburbia" (or listen to Ellen Dunham-Jones speak at the annual CNU Illinois chapter meeting in Wheaton, IL on Friday, September 28th, 2007: mp3 #1 (overview), #2 (case studies: retrofitting in dying and thriving malls), #3 - and apologies for audio quality, direct your complaints to the Congress for New Urbanism).

Aaron M. Renn, "The Urbanophile" raised five points in his review of Retrofitting Suburbia:
  1. The strategic dilemma I outlined at the top. When there is always a shinier, newer version of the 'burbs to be had, the clock starts ticking on your town the minute the ribbon is cut at the grand opening.
  2. The problem of overdetermined form. That is, the buildings of the suburbs, unlike those of the old city, are built with such a rigid "form follows function" design paradigm that they are difficult and expensive to retrofit for other uses. This isn't only a problem for the suburbs, but it's a bigger problem there.
  3. The 20 year depreciation cycle. Buildings, especially commercial structures, are built on a 20 or so year business case. Once the building hits the end of that useful life, it can be safely abandoned, with any salvage value as gravy. Which brings us to,
  4. The accumulation of unfunded liabilities. Enormous infrastructure and redevelopment costs, the legacy costs of our traditional cities for example, are created whenever you build a new town, but those liabilities are not funded. What's more, the liabilities attach to the land, not the people, so when the bill comes due, people can just move out, leaving behind an impoverished, decaying husk. It's like being able to run up a huge credit card bill in somebody else's name, then skip town.
  5. The fact that the vast bulk of suburbs are shadow cities. Many of them take steps to explicitly keep out the types of people and businesses that would produce the economic conditions necessary to be a true city. This renders them highly vulnerable to obsolescence.

Now, to be fair to June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones, they are discussing the retrofit of the Suburban Form, and the suburban form has been a dominant development style in inner suburbs and what are now quite urbanized areas as well as in the outer suburban fringe and communities that remain very much stereotypical bedroom suburbs.

However, its pioneering in outer suburbia and the stereotypical bedroom communities that is my focus here. If we have a design pattern that can be established in outer suburbia, can be reproduced in outer suburbia, and offers the opportunity for ecologically sustainable settlement in outer suburbia - then the massive amount of capital investment in outer suburbia over the past thirty years no longer acts to lock us into an unsustainable economy.

In short, the current design pattern for outer suburbia acts like a Berlin Wall between where we are and where we need to go, and the hope is to find a reproducible design pattern that acts to open the existing locked gates in that wall and to build new open gates in.

The design pattern I am focusing on here is the Suburban Town and Village pattern built around a Rapid Streetcar corridor.

A Rapid Streetcar, at least as used here (and I'll note that its a loose term) is what is called a "tram-train" in Europe. In the European context, there is a languishing or abandoned streetcar system in a smaller regional city. It suffers in loss of patronage because of the move of much of its former professional commuters from the central city to the suburbs. Faced with a drive to a park and drive train station, then a transfer to a streetcar, then a walk to the office - quite often, they just stay in the car and drive to the office.

So the innovative solution was to revive the use of the smaller Streetcar network by making a Rapid Streetcar that can run from the streetcar line directly onto the regular rail corridor so that people can catch the Streetcar near to where they live, and take a single ride into the destination. This allows them to avoid the hassle of both peak hour traffic and of finding parking in town, and the revived streetcar line allows them to get around town, avoiding the traffic and parking hassles there as well.

Now, take the classical divided-use American Suburbia. There is a commercial district somewhere - suburban zoning demands it, since commercial property cannot be mixed indiscriminately into the dominant single residence per lot residential zone. That commercial district has a massive amount of "grayfield" allocated to parking. Indeed, by design, more parking is available than the total number of cars that will regularly visit the zone, because each commercial property must have enough parking for the peak parking demand time of day for the peak parking demand time of year.

Imposing that parking requirement on developers ensures that parking will be "free", which is to say that the cost of the parking is transferred by government fiat from the users of the parking to all customers of the businesses. And of course, the massive oversupply of parking ensures that commercial establishments are so widely separated that it is hard to access the
businesses except by car.

This is, of course, a gross economic inefficiency. The massive wasted space imposed extra costs are generated and imposed on the small minority of users that do not, in the circumstances often because they can not, drive. But that is not a cross-subsidy to the drivers, because the drivers shoulder the majority of the hidden cost of "free" parking. Since there is a massive oversupply in total available parking spaces, this system imposes extra costs on motorists while at the same time it creates additional costs that are imposed on non-motorists.

Mining that gross economic inefficiency is the key to the Suburban Town side of the Suburban Town and Country design pattern.

A streetcar line is laid out along a length of the commercial zone, which is redeveloped into a mixed used zone by infill grayfield development, adding mixed use office and residential buildings. It can focus on being walkable extending out from the Streetcar line. Parking is available at opposite ends of the Streetcar line, and of course use of the Streetcar is far along that part of the line.

Pooled parking means that one parking space can be used for visits to multiple stores, whether Big Boxes, new street level stores, or stores inside a conventional shopping mall - and one parking space can be used for different purposes. Freeing the parking space from the service of a single establishment by itself frees up parking.

Of course, its not possible to stop here. What has been done so far is recreating the conditions of the languishing and abandoned streetcar lines in small European cities. The streetcar line in this suburban context is simply too short and provide direct start-to-finish trips to too few people to justify its existence. And yet, without the modern, low floor Streetcar running largely unimpeded by traffic - the pooling of parking does not work.

Which is where the other side of the Rapid Streetcar line comes in. At the end of the one or two mile streetcar route, the streetcar does not turn around and head back the other way. It goes into a regular rail corridor (either existing or revived) and runs to the next Suburban Town - and eventually runs into the closest genuine urban area as an anchor to the line.

And along the corridor, stations are established. And around these stations is a zoning easement that allows the development of Suburban Villages. For example:
  • Within a half mile radius of the station
    • no height limit may be imposed below three stories;
    • no multiple-residence limits below four residences per lot may be imposed;
    • The front setback is reduced to the width of a broad sidewalk, which new development must provide;
    • The side setback is limited to transport easement
    • Parking requirements on new developments are scaled to average car ownership
      of residents

  • Within a quarter mile radius:
    • Ground floor commercial and professional property is permitted on any lot that retains residential property,
    • All parking requirements may be met with common pooled parking.

Note that this is all freedom to develop a walkable suburban village center. No change at all is mandated here, but station is only provided if mixed use, infill development in its vicinity is allowed.

Oh, and the Rapid Streetcar running as a local train does require the passenger to pay a fare. The intervals between the Streetcar sections through either the newly retrofitted Suburban Town Centers, as well as the centers of existing town, provides easily understood intervals for a simple zone based ticket structure. To encourage use of the Rapid Streetcar outside the peak commute period, when boarding between the morning commute and evening commute, or after the evening commute, a return ticket costs only 20% more than a regular one-way ticket.

So this is the design pattern: a stretch of Streetcar line running through the town center of a newly retrofitted "New Suburban Town" or an existing town center that pre-dated the rise of the surrounding suburbs. Between stretchs of Streetcar line, a local rail line connecting stations, each of which is the potential center for a Suburban Village Center.

Now to run this through the challenges raised by "The Urbanist".

Challenge One: The Lure of the Shiny and New

Challenge #1: The Newer Shinier suburb. Clearly, where the development itself is occuring is a "newer, shinier" suburb.

This is secondary part of the response, however. Consider the five mile band along either side of the Rapid Streetcar line. If two Streetcar zones are thirty miles apart, and the corridor stations are five to six miles apart, that is one Streetcar section and four Suburban Village easements in a 300 square mile area. A quarter mile both sides of a two mile Streetcar segment and four half-mile radius easements is about four square miles of infill development opportunities - only 1.3% of the total. In terms of residences, it may be more, especially in the Suburban Village Centers, but in any event under 5%.

However, two miles is not an imposed ride for even a casual transport cyclist going at low speed. A two mile "causal cycling" band around the streetcar line and a two mile radius around each suburban village is 70 square miles, 23% of the five mile wide band.

And of course, five miles is a short trip for an electric bike at 20mph or a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle at 30mph - so the Rapid Streetcar line and each commercial site along its length is within ease access of an electric bike or Neighborhood Electric Vehicle anywhere along the 5 mile wide band.

  • 1.3% walkable development
  • =23% cycleable suburbs
  • = 100% suburbs supporting inexpensive electric vehicles

Note here that there is no new technology required for the option of all-electric transport anywhere within reach of the Rapid Streetcar line - five miles is so far within the round trip radius of existing e-bikes and NEV's that the user would not even need to recharge each day. And if there is bike and NEV parking with debit/credit card activated recharge plugs, some users could find that they rarely need to recharge at home. For longer trips along the line, just take the streetcar.

This is new in a way that just one more suburb further out into outer suburbia cannot match. Its still suburban, of course - just done drive through the Suburban Town Center or Village Center, and you are driving through normal suburbia. Except normal suburbia with fewer cars on the road, because fewer people have to drive everywhere they go, and fewer people have to drive between different stops on the same trip.

But its suburbia that allows gasoline-free transport and offers the option of walkable districts surrounded (automatically) by a substantial cycle-able fringe. That's awfully shiny and new.

Challenge Two: Overdetermined Form

This shiny and new happens for the vast majority of property in the area as a result of "a changing vicinity". So those properties do not need to change in form. The initial infill development in the retrofitted Suburban Town Centers takes place primarily in existing grayfield parking lots. It is, then, only the Suburban Village Centers that are likely to experience substantial rebuild from the ground up redevelopment - and this redevelopment will occur incrementally over time.

Challenge Three: The 20 Year Development Cycle

Given commercial interest rates, value thirty years in the future offers such a small increment in present value that buildings are quite often not built to last that long.

For this design pattern, this is not a problem - its an opportunity. It ensures that after the first wave of grayfield development takes place in the Suburban Town Center, there is a steady supply of opportunities for additional infill development, as Big Boxes and enclosed malls reach the end of their planned lifespan. The availability of the Streetcar line permits denser redevelopment and the original upgrade to mixed-use zoning means that the denser redevelopment is not restricted to the floorspace required by the (now larger) number customers that can be channeled into the area, but build upon that while including residential development.

Challenge Four: Unfunded Liabilities

The core problem here, recall, is that "... the liabilities attach to the land, not the people, so when the bill comes due, people can just move out, leaving behind an impoverished, decaying husk. It's like being able to run up a huge credit card bill in somebody else's name, then skip town."

Mining existing economic inefficiencies to boost development means there is growth in value to help share this burden. And this is true even in the context of a stable economy rather than a growth economy. Rather than suffering through an ongoing decline in real property values, this provides the basis for experiencing an increase in real property values. And in the face of an increase in real property values, there are far more opportunities to find funding for presently unfunded liabilities.

Indeed, one of sources of the unfunded liabilities, and a major inefficiencies of sprawl development, is the cross-subsidy by more densely populated areas of new sprawl development that automatically follows charging a flat rate for utility hook-ups. Given the infill nature of the new development taking place in this design pattern, that can be reversed with the full support of infill developers by establishing a system of hook-up discounts for new developments that are more compact than the existing area average. Given cost-plus hook-up charges, this can largely eliminate the inefficient cross-subsidy.

Challenge Five: The Shadow City

The problem here is that: "the vast bulk of suburbs are shadow cities. Many of them take steps to explicitly keep out the types of people and businesses that would produce the economic conditions necessary to be a true city. This renders them highly vulnerable to obsolescence."

In this design pattern, the majority of the service area of the Rapid Streetcar line can, in fact, continue to act as a Shadow City. However, embedded within the service area is a small city. The small city is not in the familiar compact form, but is instead in network form. And of course, while the big city may be some distance away, it is also within walking distance, either directly via the Rapid Streetcar line, or via a transfer at the Intercity High Speed Rail corridor.

After all, no matter how much one may love big cities - big cities have never been the be-all and end-all of settlement. Part of a healthy big city economy is a healthy network of relationships to a surrounding network of healthy smaller cities. And part of what makes them healthy is a healthy network of relationships to healthy small towns and villages.

And that is the foundation of the Suburban Town and Village design pattern, using the Rapid Streetcar as its transport infrastructure backbone: providing suburban Towns and Villages that work in their own right, replacing the two-dimensional movie-set facade of Town and Village life offered by most suburban sprawl communities.

Of course, none of this contradicts the New Urbanism within the Urban environment. Because of its massive space inefficiencies, Suburban Form does not fit into the Urban environment, and where it has been imposed on the Urban Environment, it truly is necessary to repair the fabric.

Its just that Suburban Form does not actually work for sub-urban living either. We just have been able to pretend it does because we have had massive amounts of energy to throw at the inefficiencies. However, if we are regain our Energy Independence, we no longer have the luxury of pretending that the standard Suburban Forms actually function well for sub-urban living.

So in the end, the idea is to go into the sterile fields of astroturf planted with artificial silk trees, and start the process of growing real grass and real trees.

Proper Soil Conditions

This is a Seeds of Development strategy, and like any seed, these design patterns obviously require the proper soil conditions for, first, becoming established and, second, growing and reproducing.

Part of the soil conditions are already in place. There are a large number of commercial suburban areas that have been placed into stress by the over-saturation of the market for shopping malls, and businesses that might oppose such an innovation during normal times are far more likely to embrace it, if it appears to be an alternative to bankruptcy.

Another part of the soil conditions will require a Federal fight, but once we have won it, it can then play its part coast to coast.

In Europe, most bulk freight is carried by ship and canal barge, and passenger services are a much larger share of the work of national rail networks. Building a version of a Streetcar that is able to operate on a European rail network is a much more straightforward task than building a Streetcar that is able to operate alongside American coal trains.

The straightforward solution is, of course, "don't do that". We operate in the US with a myth of a single network standard for rail operations. Except the standard, oriented as it is to the needs of freight railroads focusing on massive bulk freight loads, is not in fact compatible with the needs of all rail users.

The answer here is to recognize the need for the kind of rail network and network regulation that we have, but also recognize that there is a substantial benefit for a wide range of potential rail users if they do not have to design against the risk of being rammed into by a coal train, and provide a second network standard - what I have normally called "Rapid Rail" as opposed to "Heavy Rail". Axle load limits would be lower, positive train control would be required, a 2.5% (1:40) gradient would be allowed instead of the Heavy Rail 1% (1:100) for less expensive and intrusive overpasses and underpasses.

A side-effect of the Rapid Rail network is that this is the design challenge that the European Rapid Streetcars have already met, so a Rapid Rail corridor could be shared by Rapid Streetcars, conventional express passenger rail, as well as medium freight, to take full advantage of the substantial transport capacity represented by a single rail line.

The third condition are the Suburban Village easements described above. These cannot be readily adopted at a Federal Level - but they can be adopted at a State level. After all, county and city zoning powers ultimately derive from State power in our Federal system. A state could create this easement for any rail corridor station that includes state funding. Indeed, a state could create this easement for any rail corridor station funded by any state or local tax or public fee.

And not only could, but has both strong public policy and public finance reasons for doing so. The public policy interest is simply that the benefit provided by a station is determined by the residents in its service area, and the by the range of destinations that it offers. So zoning restrictions in the local vicinity of a corridor station that restrict residential density and commercial and professional uses restrict the benefit of the station, and are therefore undermining the benefit/cost of the use of public funds.

What a zoning easement does in commercial terms is to create new value to the extent that it permits something that was not permitted before and which has more value per acre than what was permitted before. So a zoning easement can be associated with an incremental development levy for development that has recourse to the easement. This is a tax that existing property owners only ever pay if the easement increases the value of their property for development by more than the levy. So if the levy is tied to the increment in property value at the new development and property outside the easement zone, its always a capital gains tax on capital value created by easing the zoning restriction.

If the state share of the rail infrastructure is funded out of general revenue bonds, the capital levy can acquire the revenue bond, which can then be used to finance new capital works without requiring new bonds to be issued.

Which is to say, more ground breaking ceremonies and more ribbon cutting ceremonies from the same revenue bonds by capturing part of the increase in value created by the infrastructure.

Combine these three soil conditions - local developers itching for work and commercial establishments looking to stave off decline, the opportunity to run Rapid Streetcars from short sections of dedicated Streetcar line into shared rail infrastructure, and State zoning easements around corridor stations tied to developer levies within the easement zones - and that would put us in a position of looking to start planting.

Midnight Oil: Dead Heart (Unplugged)

We carry in our hearts the true country
And that cannot be stolen
We follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken

We don't need protection
Don't need your land
Keep your promise on where we stand
We will listen we'll understand

Mining companies, pastoral companies
Uranium companies
Collected companies
Got more right than people
Got more say than people

Friday, September 25, 2009

Celebrating the Fall of the American Empire

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Next American Revolution
crossposted at Docudharma, ProgressiveBlue, MyLeftWing, and Agent Orange

As people look back to the decade just past, and as we look ahead to the long, hard job ahead of us, many people describe the decade in many different ways - tumultuous, chaotics, catastrophic, liberating, tragic, joyous - but it seems that nothing recycles so easily as a phrase, and so the punditry online seem to have settled on The Roaring Teens.

But consider how it could have all gone so badly wrong, had the American Empire not collapsed. Whether you were thrilled or dismayed by the Roar in the Roaring Teens, consider what might have happened to our revived Republic had history taken a different turn in the aftermath of the Currency Collapse of 2011.

It is this perspective I wish to offer, since I can recall the New Year of 2010 arriving, and I feared much of what did in fact happen in 2011 - and yet because I did not see the possibility of the liberation of our nation from our self-imposed shackles of Empire, I did not for a minute imagine what the decade would bring.

The Currency Crisis

I recall people at the time writing about the risk that China would "unload" US Savings Bonds, as if China had bought the Savings Bonds as an investment. The reality was, of course, that they bought the bonds to keep the US$ expensive and the yuan cheap (well, to keep the renminbi cheap, in those days before full convertability).

The other reality, which was tracked by a different set of people with a different set of interests, was domestic Peak Coal for China. Late in the Do-Nothing Noughties, people heard promises from China that they would reduce carbon emissions and invest in carbon neutral technologies, but did not put two and two together: the speculation regarding peak domestic coal for China was very real, and was coming much faster than outsiders were allowed to understand.

And so, silently, stealthily, China shifted its "currency basket peg" away from the US$ and to the Euro and Yen and Pound Stirling and Swiss Franc and Australian Dollar. It was not entirely off the radar, but since they moved the peg itself to keep the yuan/US$ rate from moving very far, very fast, it was lost in the noise of the countless phony emergencies generated by the typical "news" infotainment of the Do-Nothing Noughties.

And it maybe that they would not have acted quite as they did, but the Federal Reserve controversy of the summer of 2011 broke out, starting as a gambit aiming for some advantage in some long forgotten policy fight over whether to do too little, too late, both, or nothing at all. And they were faced with the choice of whether to keep sliding their peg - and what they knew that would mean for domestic inflation, given their need for dramatically larger coal imports from the United States to tide them over as they kept ramping up their New Energy power sources.

And of course, with the limp US recovery from the recession barely over, compared to the strong European and Japanese recoveries, as far as maintaining their export surge, the Euro and the Yen were where it was at ... the US market didn't seem nearly as important as the possibility of buying cheap coal from Americans desperate to earn foreign exchange. It seemed very much as if the growth opportunities in the American market were behind China, not ahead.

And so, they stopped shifting their peg.

They, of course, had not been so short-sighted that they forgot their southern flank. Indeed, the currency basket peg had been developed by Singapore, and its spreading use across ASEAN in 2010 had seemed to be a technical issue, when it was not described as a "response to US pressure".

And while India was not "in on it", there were Indian officials who were watching their rival and sometime adversary more closely than many others, and had already started arguing the case for the switch. In the face of the dramatic fall of the US$ in the summer of 2011, India adopted a currency basket peg with an unspecified but clearly only token US$ component.

Five years before, the world had been roughly half floating and half pegged, and the pegs were mostly to the US$. By the fall of 2011, the world was half floating and half pegged to hidden baskets that very clearly had very few US$ in them.

As Jon Stewart asked, "Why do they call it floating when all we are doing is sinking?" - leading, lest we forget, to calls for his resignation and return to the Comedy Channel from the ever more strident and ever less relevant conservative movement.

What happened was not inevitable

This is not to refresh anyone's memory - all of this is quite familiar. It is to bring the events to the forefront and ask, what if we had clung to Empire in the face of this crisis?

It seems so obvious today. Our ability to afford what turned out to be over a thousand foreign bases had been eroding for decades. And now, with a dollar trading at €0.34, ¥46, £0.32, 0.40 Swiss Franc, A$0.57 - the costs were exploding.

(Actually, take a moment and reflect on that - ten years ago, most of those would have been quoted as how expansive or cheap they were in US$, not how expensive or cheap the US$ is in the hard currencies of the world.)

And so the wise heads of the two establishment parties put together an austerity budget that would allow the US to continue paying the exploding costs of these establishments - and the consensus cracked.

It started with a filibuster in the Senate by some faction pursuing some narrow partisan advantage, as was normal for the decades just past. And so it was bounced over to the House.

But Congressmen are skittish, and the new Congressmen on both sides of the aisle from the "kick the bums out" wave of 2010 were in no mood for a grim austerity budget. The radicalized right wing of 2010 entered another of their rages on "wasting our money protecting German wealth from the damn Russkies". A bloc of Democrats who had held on by the fingernails in 2010 based on an uptick in "Green Jobs" were not about to cut back on their lifeline.

The so-called "Progressives" of the day, a motley mix of progressives, social liberals, and moderate Wall Street Democrats, fractured in the Great Defense Budget fight (wasn't it LIVE-FREE? In those days, if the name sounded good, that was supposed to replace actual sound legislation). So did the smaller Populists. But the balance from both took up the war cry of the radical right wing fringe.

They hit on covering the budget black hole - under the arcane rules of the day - by withdrawing from Europe by May 8, 2015, the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe day. Some clever soul called it the "Seventy Year Itch for a Real Victory Parade", quickly shortened to "The Victory Parade Strategy", and by then the dam had broken.

The administration fought it, the Pentagon Establishment fought it, but first a wave of primaries were won on promises paid for by retreating from this or that piece of foreign soil, and then a wave of general election victories won, on both the right and the left, and there was nothing to do but to accommodate it. The new House would not fund the foreign bases, and there was no way to make them.

Why Did We Ever Fear a Currency Collapse?

What is important to recall, as we look back at this glorious throwing aside of the shackles of Empire, is that it could have all come undone. A disaster, another Lyon Bombing, except in LA, and it might have all come apart.

Instead, the second impact of the great Current Collapse was felt. Fewer foreign students came to the US hoping to win a US green card - but when foreign students compared US Universities to the cost of foreign study at British or German or French or even Australian Universities, they kept coming, and then started coming in larger numbers.

Most of the rest of the world was not seriously affected by the Currency Collapse - it was, indeed, a US Dollar Collapse. The Canadian Dollar and Mexican Peso suffered collateral damage, but most countries were largely unaffected.

And so US machine tool exports boomed - often to unexpected locales and in competition with Chinese rather than European or Japanese producers. Foreign film-makers came to California to film movies set in Berlin and Paris and London and Sydney - to save on production costs. Japanese and German industrial software firms set up offshore branches in Silicon Valley in California and the Information Corridor in Massachusetts.

The US slipped toward into a recession in 2011, but was pulled out again in 2012 by the export surge.

A critical part of the Victory Parade coalition had been from Great Lakes and Midwestern states battered by two decades of import-for-profits "globalization", clinging desperately to the slender reed of hope offered by so-called "Green Jobs". Those policies seemed like more too little, too late on their own. But they met the rising tide of US$ oil prices, the wave of Chinese take-overs of US coal companies aiming at shifting US coal to export markets, the export boom, and US production capacity started growing at headlong rates.

And that relentless growth in investment, of course, was a big part of the Roar in the Roaring Teens.

But It All Might Never Have Happened

But count the number of ways it could have failed to happen. Suppose that the Federal Reserve controversy was successfully hushed up and papered over, as the Great Bank Robbery of the Noughties was first papered over with a flood of liquidity, then turned into an economic crisis, then finally lost sight of in the relentless generation of new mini-emergencies from the adrenaline addicted infotainment media of the era.

Suppose that the Currency Collapse had not happened in the aftermath of a "kick the bums out" election, or suppose that the "kick the bums out" sentiment had not spilled out the way it did to hit Congressmen in both parties.

Suppose that the Progressives or Populists in the House had held together, and held together on the basis of support for the Austerity Budget, which would have thrown the US into a deep recession and, so close to the previous one, quite possibly a "Not Nearly So Great" Depression.

Suppose that the Lyon Bombing had happened in LA, or St. Louis.

And its not like the new media in 2011 played the positive role that it now remembers. The heady days of 2013 and 2014 cast a rosy glow back to 2011 - but in 2011 itself, the new media were "going ballistic", as we used to say. The sky was falling, it was the administrations fault, the Republicans fault, the Democrats fault, an evil plot by the Chinese, an evil plot by the Illuminati using the Chinese as their cover story.

Once the breakthrough was made, the new media played a useful role in the wave election of 2012, and once that election was won, an even more useful role in winning more useful than useless "peace dividends".

Indeed, I have encountered peace activists who blame the early flailing around of the New Media for the "lost opportunity of 2011".

The "Victory Parade", after all, primarily involved Eurasia. We left Japan, but not Australia. We left Europe, but our presence in southern Africa grew. Most Caribbean states would be hard pressed to pin point the fall of the American Empire, since it feels like no such thing in Jamaica or Trinidad. Even today, the Department of the Navy oversees the largest navy on the face of the globe,dominating the Caribbean, west and south Atlantic, the east and south Pacific. The Department of War oversees bases on four continents.

And of course, Climate Chaos presses us ever harder. Certainly, we seem better placed to address it than it ever seemed we would, especially following the nationalization of US coal mines, and the "Two Centuries of Coal" conservation strategy that followed.

But all but the most incurable optimist will now admit that "better placed than before" may well end up being barely good enough for many and simply not good enough at all for many as well.

Still, nearing retirement, I am above all things a Pragmatist with a Capital P. Compared to the total mess that we could have made of things - and the total mess we would have made of things, if we had continued down the course set in the Kamikaze Nineties and the Do-Nothing Noughties - we are in far better shape than we had any right to expect.

And so, reflect on what damage could have been done if, instead of bringing down the Empire - the Empire we could not call be name while it lasted - we had wasted the Teens on a hopeless effort to save it. If not in Depression we would be teetering toward it. If not at war, we would have been lurching toward it. If not in climate hell, we would have been slipping inexorably toward it.

So tonight, let us raise a glass of near-export quality sparkling wine, and give a rousing toast for the Fall of the American Empire.

Midnight Oil: Forgotten Years

Few of the sins of the father,
are visited upon the son
Hearts have been hard,
our hands have been clenched in a fist too long
Our sons will never be soldiers,
our daughters will never need guns
These are the years between
These are the years that were hard fought and won

Contracts torn at the edges,
old signatures stained with tears
Seasons of war and peace,
these should not be forgotten years
Still it aches like tetanus,
it reeks of politics
How many dreams remain?
this is a feeling too strong to contain

The hardest years, the darkest years,
the roarin years, the fallen years
These should not be forgotten years
The hardest years, the wildest years,
the desperate and divided years
We will remember, these should not be forgotten years

Our shoreline was never invaded,
our country was never in flames
This is the calm we breathe,
this is a feeling too strong to contain
Still it aches like tetanus, it reeks of politics
Signatures stained with tears,
who can remember
We've got to remember

The hardest...
Forsaking aching breaking years,
the time and tested heartbreak years
These should not be forgotten years
The blinded years, the binded years,
the desperate and divided years
These should not be forgotten years,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Train: Growing Green Transport

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence
crossposted to ProgressiveBlue, Docudharma, The Hillbilly Report and Daily Kos

On Thursday, djrekluse at the Daily Kos said:
Despite considerable tension and even aversion in green communities to the subject, we cannot talk about "going green" without making it a discussion about growth through various hierarchies of human development. Really, the subject of growth should come as second nature to "green" thinkers and communities—after all, a blade of grass must grow to two inches before it can grow to six; a tree must grow from acorn to sapling before it can someday become a mighty oak. In much the same way, our consciousness, our values, and our cultures must also move through several distinct stages of growth before we can even begin to even see the problem, let alone care enough to do anything about it.

In other words, "going green" really means "growing green," and represents the crux of almost all the global issues we presently face: it’s not a problem of human imagination, technological innovation, or even political will—it’s a problem of human growth

Consciousness, Culture, and Climate: Growing Green

This provides a frame for thinking about growing an energy independent transport system, and about the multiple ways that local, regional, and inter-regional rail systems can help in that growth.

djrekluse talks about the development of consciousness. Development, here, means the same as in genuine development economics - gaining new capacities - and not the same as in "property development", where as long as the market value of the property increases after interest, material costs and, often last and least, wages and salaries, its called "development" ... and whether capacities are created or destroyed in the process is of no real concern.

And I neither would, nor likely could, recapitulate djrekluse's discussion in terms of human consciousness. I am just going to steal their levels (the colors are taken from the colors of the rainbow):
  • Magic ("Magenta")
  • Power ("Red")
  • Mythic ("Amber")
  • Rational ("Orange")
  • Pluralistic ("Green")
  • Integral ("Teal/Turquoise")

And according to djrekluse, "... by recent estimates, nearly 70% of the world is at an "amber" mythic stage or lower." So if we want to get something done, we have to build a coalition across these levels.

But, what is it that we want to do?

A quintessentially rationalist question is, of course, what is the goal of all this. But if we climb up a level of consciousness, the question is, what is the range of goals we wish to serve - since above the capacity to find an answer to a question is the capacity to establish a setting within which a number of people can find the different answers to their different questions.

And if we climb up another level of consciousness, the question is, what system to we wish to live within? I would say a system where people have the opportunity to:
  • meet their Basic Needs of breathable air, drinkable water, edible food, functional clothing and shelter, and effective care when they are sick;
  • engage in productive work to contribute to the community;
  • have a voice in the governance of their community;
  • see their children have the same or better; and
  • grow as persons.

This is my vision of the "good economy". "The economy" is, of course, just a shorthand for the material support for social activity, and so it cannot be sensibly treated as an entirely independent black box inside society. So this is necessarily a particular vision of broader social goals - what support the economy ought to be providing. If your vision of the good economy is different, you'll have to make your own adjustments of this discussion to fit that vision.

Climate chaos, of course, threatens all of this. It will deny drinkable water and edible food to millions, disrupt economies to deny clothing, shelter and health care to millions, destroy the jobs and careers of millions, threatens to provide the conditions for a rise in authoritarian regimes, and it will continue to get worse for multiple generations.

But its not the only thing that threatens much of this. Peak Oil will have much the same effects, especially in today's high income nations that are so dependent on an energy-intensive technology, and especially in the United States which is the most resource intensive large economy in the world on a per-person basis.

Reactions to the coming Climate Chaos and to the coming slide down from Peak Oil can be in conflict or in coalition. In an energy dependent nation - and especially in an Energy Dependent nation that built its founding myths at a time when it was Energy Independent - they come into coalition in a strategy of pursuing Sustainable Energy Independence. Developing toward Sustainable Energy Independence - as people, as a technological society - is what I am calling Living Energy Independence.

And of course, we aren't all the way to a good economy now, and are mostly falling backwards. Opportunities to meet Basic Needs are available to most, but not all, and the opportunities have been shrinking rather than rising. Fewer have the opportunities to engage in productive work, have a voice in the community, or see our children have as good or better as we ourselves. Even if there was a magic wand that would make some of that CO2 go away and create new supplies of petroleum in the ground to replace what has been burnt, we would be heading the wrong way.

And those who have been gaining from the push away from a Good Economy are very effective at the tactics at preventing coalitions from being formed to pursue a Good Economy. They have the resources to find out the magic incantations to use for those engaged in Magical Thinking, they have their hands on many of the levers of Power, they have skilled professionals at both exploiting existing Myths and creating new Myths, they have skilled professionals for both working out the rational way to pursue their own interests as well as for working out how to disrupt the process of finding rational ways of pursuing rival Community interests. They are very effective coalition builders among the select few, and effective coalition busters in the wider Community.

And they are effective system builders, provided "effective" is defined in terms of the interests of the Corporate Elite rather than the interests of the Broader Community. When we see a system decaying - a school system, a regulatory system, a transport system - and privately elected Corporate Governments have a hand in it, the working assumption is that they are not interested in seeing the system thrive. Of course, from not having an interest in seeing Community Systems thrive, they may well lack the capacity to build Thriving Community Systems.

Good Transport

Passenger and Freight Transport systems are one part of the Good Economy that touches on all levels. It is not unique in this - information systems are a similar example. So, no, I am not focusing on Good Transport because it is sufficient for a Good Economy, but because it is necessary for a Good Economy. We have a wide range of things we have to do to have a Good Economy - but we cannot build the systems we have to have in abstract sweeping terms. To get into the nitty gritty, its necessary to talk about something in particular.

So we have to have Good Transport to have a Good Economy.

Good Transport should:
  • Bring things to people and bring people to places needed to meet Basic Needs;
  • provide opportunities to perform useful work for the Community;
  • allow people Choice in means of transport and Voice in the options available; and
  • be sustainable to allow as good or better to be provided to our children.

I do not include a dot point on opportunities for personal growth, since in my view, if it does the above, then it will be supporting opportunities for personal growth.

In light of Climate Chaos and Peak Oil, Good Transport must be built as Sustainably Energy Independent transport. If it is unsustainable, it will conflict with meeting Basic Needs, and it will put opportunities to work for the community now in conflict with providing as good or better to our children.

And of course, if it is not Energy Independent, it is not genuinely sustainable. Climate Chaos is a global problem. If our "green" transport requires us to import energy from elsewhere, when we are blessed with roughly twice the world average biocapacity per person, then it is not really "green". Our standard of living and the technology that it rests upon must be compatible with large numbers of other nations joining us, or else it is not a platform for global cooperation.

Energy Independence also reaches out beyond those pursuing a sustainable society. It also points to core national myths in the United States, many of them forged in the aftermath of bloody conflict - the fight for Independence, the Civil War, the rise of US to the wealthiest nation in the world and the rise of the Great American Middle Class to the center of US Society and Economy in the Great Depression and World War II.

Corporate Elites tap into these myths when their interests dictate opposition to a Sustainable Economy. But we cannot be distracted by guilt by association: they tap into these myths because these are the myths that are there. On the ground of Energy Independence, they may have material advantages, but we have the inside track. A United States dependent on outside resources and raising and maintaining a professional imperial military to try to guarantee our access to those resources - that simply does not fit the myth. The myth is personal independence, and that is in turn rooted in national independence.

Now, it is quite obviously a myth that American dependence on Automobiles provides personal independence. The automobile is, of course, a long enough chain of shackles for an entire chain gang. People are tied to the job to pay for it, the insurance and title and the gas that ties them to the world market for crude oil. They are tied up in traffic and limited to going where there is place to park. They live in residential communities that are tied to access roads to both earn and then fetch their daily bread.

But its a powerful myth, which establishes an important target for designing Good Transport: sustainable energy independent transport shouldn't be crappy. People must be able to believe they made an independent choice to take 21st century transport instead of 20th century transport. And people must believe others will believe it.

The ride itself should offer amenities, the trip must be from where some people wish to start to where they wish to go, the schedule must offer sufficient frequency so that some people are saying, "this is how I go where I want to go when I want to go there", rather than, "how in the hell do I go where I want to go when I want to go there?"

At the same time, we are looking to grow a Good Transport system. This is why there are "some people" rather than "all people" above. First, today's transport system does not offer all of that to all people - whenever we are providing material support to social activity, we run into the fact that resources used for one purpose are not available to another. So a Good Transport system will be one that is good enough, often enough, that people see the shortfalls as problems to be fixed within the system, rather than the transport system itself being the problem.

Second, we will have to grow our society around the sustainable transport that is possible. We simply cannot impose legal restrictions forcing people to live in suburbs that can only be traversed by cars, if we can afford neither the gas into the cars nor the CO2 coming out the other side. So as we make sustainable energy independent transport available to more people, Peak Oil combined with whatever policies we might adopt to reduce the severity of climate chaos will be pushing more and more people to put themselves into a position to use that transport.

So, Why Trains?

Why trains? First is the simple facts of energy efficiency. According to Strickland's computations (NB. I currently have trouble with this link), describing fuel efficiency in terms of gallons per hundred passenger miles (gphpm), and converting electricity to gallon-equivalents, typical fuel efficiencies are:
  • 0.17 gphpm, Rail
  • 0.43 gphpm, Trolleybus
  • 1.28 gphpm, Diesel bus
  • 1.33 gphpm, scooter / light motorcycle
  • 1.39 gphpm, Toyota Prius
  • 4.76 gphpm, Ford Explorer

So we score a massive win if we get someone out of a Ford Explorer and into a hybrid sedan, light motorcycle or scooter, or diesel bus. But for Energy Independence, cutting fuel consumption by 2/3 is the average we have to hit today, while at the same time cutting all other uses of petroleum by 2/3 as well.

In local transport, it is the electric trolley bus and local rail that saves much more than 2/3, meaning that getting some share of trips into that transport gets us a larger share of the way to Energy Independence.

And that is just the direct energy savings. Rail also provides far more transport capacity per "lane mile". The more people depend on car transport, the harder it is to build Living Energy Independent shelter, because the roads and parking lots push buildings apart. The more people rely on rail transport, the easier it is to build Living Energy Independent shelter.

Third, as noted in Sunday Train: 21st Century Steel Interstate, the energy efficiencies apply to freight as well as passenger transport. Combining the energy efficiency savings of rail with the energy efficiency savings of electric transport, an electric long haul Rapid Freight system can easily save over nine tenths of the energy presently used for long-haul freight transport.

And remember that we are trying to grow good transport. For many types of rail systems, its entirely possible to improve an existing rail corridor now, and launch services now, using diesel locomotives, and then upgrade the system to use electric locomotives after the overhead catenary has been installed. Both steps represent progress toward Good Transport, so at the same time that corridor is being electrified, a new corridor can be improved to take the existing diesel trains. Each time the strategy is repeated, the share of electric rail trips rises.

Many high frequency corridors will be upgraded to EMU trains with the electric engines distributed throughout the trains. Still, all we need to convert the locomotive hauled trains to electricity is an electric locomotive. So no matter where we reach the limit of that strategy, we never end up "throwing away" perfectly good passenger cars.

But Only Using Trains Is Impossible

None of the above implies or suggests a rail-only transport system. "One size fits all" can never be truly energy efficient, so Living Energy Independence requires abandoning "one size fits all".

So we must abandon Auto-Dependent transport, but that does not mean abandoning the automobile. There will still be large numbers of transport tasks that to move one or a few people along infrequently used routes or for unscheduled trips. So while a Good Transport system will have no need for the Interstate Expressway Highway system, we will still need small vehicles for city streets and country highways. The cars might be electric rather than gas powered. Some might be specialized for "last mile", home to station and station to home trips rather than going everywhere. And a larger share of cars might be shared among a much larger group of people in a neighborhood or town center rather than sitting parked 95% of the time waiting on a single person.

But there will still be something we recognize as a car. We had carriages serving a similar role before the age of fossil fuels, and the initial rise of rail in the Age of Coal led to a growth in their use, not a decline. And while there may be an increased reliance in horse drawn transport in some rural areas, we cannot build our urban transport systems on the miserable conditions that so many horses suffered under in 19th century cities. So electric or internal combustion or some mix of the two, we will continue to use horseless carriages.

And one of the common tasks for cars in a Good Transport system will be to get to the train and get from the train to where someone needs to go. Indeed, with a sufficient number of shared cars at the major destination stations, for many people, the private automobile will only really need to be able to get to the local station or stop. But just as the Oak Tree must first become an Oak Sapling, first we reach the point where substantial numbers of people are independent of cars for substantial numbers of trips. When double digit percentages of people can do most of their regular trips to work, grocery store, school and social gatherings without requiring a horseless carriage, the niche has been established within which broad shared use can grow. Witness New York and Cabs.

The most energy efficient vehicle in the world is of course the bicycle. It is the only form of transport more energy efficient than walking. And a train service is one of the transport cyclists best friends. Once our bike is equipped for quick trips to the grocery store (if you have a family, an Xtracycle extension or bike trailer might be needed) and we can either commute by bike or pedal-and-ride, we are set for local trips. What we need is a way to turn a trip longer than we can make on our bike into a couple of local trips. And the train is perfect for that.

Indeed, even if there is no place to store the bike on the train for the trip, we can get a folding bike and bolsa bag to sling it over our shoulder and bring it along anyway. And when going to walkable destinations, all that is required is secure bike parking at the origin station.

Regular city buses, as noted above, are on their own not much more energy efficient than current auto technology. However, when they leverage existing rail services, they can provide the first and last few miles of substantially longer trips, so when they make it possible or more convenient for larger numbers of people to use a train service, that is a substantial benefit.

And buses do not sit parked 95% of the time. We can far better afford the material cost of investing in more energy efficient battery-supported internal combustion and internal combustion-supported electric vehicles when that material is providing transport for 75% of each day rather than 5%.

Finally, the most successful bus routes can be provided with overhead catenary and upgraded to trolley buses, providing the investment in a specific route that supports development based upon the availability of that route.

So there is no notion here that cars and bikes and buses are all going to be replaced by trains. Trains will provide the backbone of the system because they can move large numbers of people with high energy, space, and material efficiency. But that system will create a wide range of transport niches, into which will grow a wide range of transport choices.

Wait A Minute: Isn't the Sunday Train about High Speed Rail?

Just as "one size fits all" does not work for mode of transport, it does not work for transport task. Local transport, regional transport, and inter-regional transport all have their distinctive requirements, and efficiency requires designing to meet those requirements.

When we get to specific routes and specific train technology, there are various local light rail and heavy rail options for local transport, various light rail and heavy rail options for regional transport, and various classes of conventional and higher speed rail services for inter-regional transport. There are various ways to share or segregate passenger and freight rail infrastructure.

Each type of rail system can act as the backbone of a transport system with a wide range of complementary services of other types. They each share similar advantages in energy, space and material efficiency when moving relatively larger numbers of people (and goods) from point A to point B. They each share similar advantages in reduced time lost for a stop so better ability to connect points A and B, B and C, and C and D while also connecting points A and D.

But there are also distinctive challenges for each type of task, distinctive problems to solve, distinctive institutional barriers to overcome. So it would be silly to try to design a rail service that provides trunk service between major metropolitan areas, transport connecting local areas within major metropolitan areas, transport within local areas within major metropolitan areas, transport into and out of smaller regional cities, transport connecting smaller regional cities with their hinterlands and each other and and local transport within smaller cities and in the countryside.

Yet there are some people who have built their myths of rail (both positive and negative) around some specific type of train serving some specific type of transport task, either well or poorly, and so when someone says "train", they pigeonhole it into some specific transport task.

Higher Speed Rail can be a useful tool in developing people's consciousness, because of the occasional need for a specific inter-regional journey by a relatively large number of people contained in that area.

But if we take the steps to reduce the severity of the economic crises we face in the next two generations, the majority of passenger miles by train will be on a wide variety of type of conventional rail, not on Higher Speed Rail.

Indeed, if it was necessary to choose between local transport efficiency with rail and complementary transport services, and Higher Speed Rail, its hard to see why Higher Speed Rail would win. Indeed, the propaganda against Higher Speed Rail, financed in part by the Petroleum Industry, includes precisely this false choice.

However, there is no such need. Well chosen Higher Speed Rail routes can generate operating surpluses. So there is no reason for Higher Speed Rail to fight with local public transport or with conventional inter-urban rail for operating subsidies.

On the side of the farebox, filling a seat for thirty miles to leave it empty for three hundred is not appealing to a Higher Speed Rail operator, so the fare structure will always be focused on inter-regional transport. And since a cross-platform transfer is the most convenient of all train transfer, a well designed Higher Speed Rail system will generate more new local rail trips than it diverts with express service between neighboring stations.

And most critically, the passenger capacity of a pair of express urban tracks is substantially greater than the capacity of an eight lane lane Expressway. So where an Expressway destroys a Boulevard, the rail versions can fit comfortably together in less space than either. Passing into and out of the station shared with the Higher Speed Rail, Higher Speed Rail, regional rail, and local rail can all share common infrastructure. And that material efficiency means that well designed improvements for Higher Speed Rail can also improve regional and local rail services.

So, yes, the above all applies to Higher Speed Rail, and also to Regional Rail, and also to Local Rail. They all have their own parts to play in the pursuit of a Good Transport system for a Good Economy.

Plus, when talking addressing people at the Magic, Power and Myth levels of consciousness for transport (and of course, each of us are at different stages for different areas of discourse), the Higher Speed Trains are real cool, seem very powerful, and America-By-God really ought to be able to get our trains to run that fast if we try. That's why, no matter how much sense it makes to roll out 110mph and 125mph as rapidly as possible, it really does make sense to set out to build two or three Express HSR corridors as soon as practicable.

Midnight Oil: My Country video

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Putting the Vicious Health Insurance Dogs on a Leash

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Next American Revolution

From one of my comments in buhddydarma's most excellent diary:
I'd liken it to a vicious dog behind a fence. Given access to the fence, he will worry it and try to dig under it, or hang out by the gate and eventually get out. Like a group of corporation with massive profits locked behind a regulatory wall, who will eventually find a way to get a loophole put into the wall.

Tie the dog up in the yard so he can't get at the fence, the combination is more effective than either alone.

A robust public option works like the leash tying the dog up. The corporate insurance companies cannot squeeze too much harder than the public choice without losing market share, so it will be much harder for them to organize to break the regulations in the health care exchanges.


Don't get confused by the "five percenters". This was President Obama trying to mollify the Republicans and also make the extremists look ... like extremists.

But in the preliminary CBO analysis of HR3200, which is where the 5 percent seems to come from, this really is a rhetorical trick designed to make a robust public choice sound less effective than it would be. And if we lose sight of how effective a robust public choice could be, we will not fight hard enough to (1) get it in the bill and (2) kill phony substitutes.

Through to 2019, HR 3200 is scored as adding 11m through Medicaid (since I'm blogging in genteel poverty, I'm one of those), 2m through employer provided insurance, and 30m through the exchanges, with 6m switching (comparing 2019 projection w/out to 2019 projection with) from non-employer provided health care primarily into the exchanges, for a net increase in 37m.

Everyone in the health insurance exchange benefits from the public choice - even those with private insurance. So that is 30m beneficiaries, which is:
  • 100% of those in the public exchanges
  • 80% of the increase in coverage
  • 60% of citizens and documented migrants w/out coverage
  • 50% of all people residing in the US w/out coverage

And, yes, 10% of those projected to have insurance after the reform. But the majority of the gap between the percentages in that list and "10% comes from including those people projected to continue to receive employer-based health insurance.

Their stake in the reform is supposed to be reforms that protect what they already have.

Don't get lost in CBO projections

Of course, this is all simply CBO projections. Don't forgot what you know about how our politics and economy really works when wading through the CBO numbers.

And so that brings us right back to the vicious dog model of corporate health insurance. If there are corporate insurance only health exchanges, we all know full well that we will be fighting ongoing battles over corporate health insurance companies trying to open the health insurance exchanges to precisely those people where the public subsidy is more lucrative to their bottom line than employer-provided health insurance.

And if we win some, we will surely lose some.

And so the CBO projection will, of course, fall far short of the entries into the health insurance exchanges and it will be far more than 30m suffering directly because there is no robust public choice in the health insurance exchanges.

Who would a progressive deny this protection to?

Of course, one reason for using percents is that using millions make it seem a bit brutal to say, "a mere 30 million will suffer if we lose the fight on the public option, so lets throw those poor losers to the hounds".

The candy store paupers lie to the share holders
They're crossing their fingers they pay the truth makers
The balance sheet is breaking up the sky
So I'm caught at the junction still waiting for medicine
The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine
Hope the crumbs in my pocket can keep me for another night
And if the blue sky mining company won't come to my rescue
If the sugar refining company won't save me
Who's gonna save me?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Train: The Charleston WV Hub

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

The Appalachian Hub Part 2: The Charleston WV Hub

The increasingly infamous Appalachian Development Highway program started out with the goal of supporting the potential for genuine economic development in Appalachia by improving transport links into and within the region.

And yet, with the decentralized, state-based system for planning 110mph, 125mph and 220mph High Speed Rail systems, there is the threat that the very problem that the Appalachian Development Highway system was established to address will be re-created as we modernize our regional passenger transport backbones from asphalt to steel.

An Appalachian Hub project would aim to drag these laudable goals into the 21st Century by filling the gaping hole in Eastern US planning for High Speed Rail systems. "Would", since this is an exploration of what such a system might look like if West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee joined this planning process - not a report on ongoing, formal projects such as the Midwest Hub or Ohio Hub.

The Story So Far

The Appalachian Hub Pt. 1 presented the problem of the gaping hole in the middle of Eastern US planning to build Emerging High Speed Rail systems - the tilt-train systems that allow us to quickly roll-out higher speed passenger rail by using existing rail corridors.

This process also provides the improved rail access to urban centers required by Express High Speed Rail systems as well as increasing the potential ridership of Express High Speed Rail system by acting as a passenger recruiter.

Two trunks of the network were Atlanta / Chattanooga / Nashville / Louisville / Indianapolis and Memphis / Nashville / Chattanooga / Knoxville / Tri-Cities / Roanoke and points northeast.

The 21st Century Steel Interstate examined the proposed I-81 "trial" Steel Interstate system, for electrified Rapid Freight Rail and Regional High Speed Rail from Harriburg, PA to Knoxville, TN along the Shenandoah River Valley alignment.

Modifying the original trunks to fit this existing proposal results in one trunk that completes the circle around Appalachia and one that cuts through Appalachia running from the Northeast toward the Southwest. Also shown is the existing conventional rail Amtrak route from DC to Chicago via Charleston, WV.

The Problem of Coal

Today's focus is West Virginia, and zooming into West Virginia reveals one of the central challenges facing the Appalachian Hub project. A dominant market for rail transport in West Virginia is coal - and so, unlike the industrial and interurban electric Rights of Way established in places like Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, a large number of rail lines in West Virginia do not run through - they run to the coal mine, which is the original railhead, and then stop.

Indeed, in hilly and mountainous terrain, this allows a certain kind of "cheating" on the rail line, where empty rail cars are going uphill while full rail cars are going downhill ... which is much less work than the other way around.

The result is that often you have rail lines that are not all that far apart, on a straight line path, but one rail line connects to the north (the lines that run up through Weston in the map), the other rail lines connects to the south (the lines that run through Buckhannon in the map), and they do not connect.

And of course, once a project shifts from increasing the capacity of an existing rail line in an existing right of way to establishing a new right of way through hilly and mountainous terrain - the costs of the project will certainly explode.

However, as described long ago in Route Matrix Revolutions (Daily Kos, 7 April, 2007), a rail service has a striking competitive advantage over other common carrier services, and especially over air services, in terms of the low time cost of stopping the train to pick up and drop off passengers. The time penalty is the most dramatic for a plane, but even for a regional bus, leaving the Interstate to find its way to an urban bus station imposes far more time penalty than a train stopping at a station.

So Stage One is upgrading the route that already exists through West Virginia. The first step is to upgrade the capacity of the existing Amtrak route through West Virginia, to allow on-time passenger services - which includes a capability to catch up when experiencing a delay, rather than one delay creating another creating another, as so often happened in 2007 and 2008 when oil price shocks were increasing demand for rail freight.

The second step is to upgrade the speed of the existing Amtrak route, first by operating tilt-trains under the current 79mph maximum speed limit, and then by raising the maximum speed limit to 110mph.

This then supports an increase in frequency.

And that is the combination - reliable schedules, faster trip speeds, and more frequent service - that lays the foundation for establishing a route matrix with Charleston, WV, as its hub.

Going the Easy Way

Stage Two is a service from Charleston to the West, collecting westbound passengers from the existing (but more reliable, faster, and more frequent) DC/Chicago service and collecting eastbound passengers. Further west, the alignment crosses existing planned 110mph Higher Speed routes, ending in Saint Louis (Note that while I have traced out an existing rail right of way, it is not shown in the schematic).

Now, we won't be worrying about "all those empty seats" from passengers transferring at Charleston, WV for the westbound service that originates there, since the higher speed NYC/DC/WV/IN/Chicago service will be able to recruit passengers in Charleston for Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago, and of course will be able to recruit in Cincinnati to fill seats toward Chicago from the Ohio Hub's Triple C line.

Going the Hard Way

Now, with Charleston established as a Hub, the third stage cuts across Appalachia the hard way.

There is an obvious hole in the coverage of the Ohio Hub which is, by no coincidence, precisely in the heart of the Appalachian counties of Ohio. The Pittsburgh/Columbus alignment is actually two alignments, with a corridor originating in Zanesville and running through Newark to double the frequency of services from Licking County into Franklin County.

Stage Three offers to fill this hole by extending that corridor down to Athens, Ohio, and then on to Charleston, WV, to share the NYC/DC/WV/IN/Chicago corridor and then cross to Roanake, terminating at Greensboro on the Southeast Express Corridor. Note that the route appears more irregular since the pictured route more closely follows existing rights of way - and that this is definitely terrain where operating a conventional passenger service rather than a tilt-train would be a mistake even if a maximum speed limit of 79mph or 90mph is applied.

With this route addition, Charleston, WV acts even more strongly as a hub. The Columbus/WV/Greensboro train would be scheduled to arrive in advance of the Chicago/WV/DC train at Charleston, and depart after it. The role of "local and express" would be reversed at Roanoke, where the Columbus/WV/Greensboro train would connect with Richmond and Bristol VA with the proposed TransDominion Express.

One of the primary reasons for placing this in Stage three is that it is a major potential beneficiary of network economies at connections to services that do not yet exist, at Columbus OH, at Charleston WV, at Roanoke VA, and at Greensboro NC.

Leaving WV to connect WV

There is one last link in the Charleston Hub segment of the Appalachia Hub - and it is neither a High Speed Rail corridor nor does it pass through Charleston, WV. Yet it relies on the Route Matrix to connect the capital of WV to much of the north of the state.

The "Mountaineer" connects Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Fairmont, and Morgantown to Columbus via Athens and Pittsburgh via Uniontown. With the Columbus/Greenboro line, a passenger can transfer at Athens between Charleston and points to the Southeast and West Virginia towns along the Mountaineer. Note that this corridor looks even squigglier, in large part because the process of lining it up along existing rail rights of way (for estimating route-miles for a later essay) is almost complete - but also because the terrain means that most through rail corridors run along fairly narrow river valleys.

So, that's the Charleston WV Hub

I hope that it clearer why I have been calling this hypothetical system "The Appalachian Hub" rather than "The Appalachian Express Corridor". In order to gain full benefit from Route Matrix effects, and also because of the tyranny of geography, the system is not based along a single trunk backbone, nor as a single centralized hub and spoke "wheel", but rather as a decentralized hub and link network. So it is a "hub" based system, but based on hubs strategically placed through the Appalachian region.

Of course, until the problem of funding is sorted out, its rather like a road train going nowhere ...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Robust Public Choice Made Simple

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Next American Revolution
crossposted from The Hillbilly Report

\From some online dictionary somewhere:
Robustness is the quality of being able to withstand stresses, pressures, or changes in procedure or circumstance

So: (1) Public Choice

"No Taxation without Representation". Every single person facing an individual mandate must be provided with the choice of a publicly administered plan. Otherwise the government is forcing the citizen to pay without the elected representatives of the citizen controlling the spending.

You want to put a trigger on the public option. Fine, except the exact same trigger applies to the individual mandate.

You want to restrict access to the public option to some smaller group? Fine, except the same restriction applies to the individual mandate.

The system is not politically legitimate if it requires payment to for-profit commercial corporations.

(2) Robust

It cannot be lumbered down with any restrictions not faced by private insurers.

State by state public options? Really? You are really prepared to restrict the corporations to firms with no commercial activity across state lines? If they are free standing state by state public options, it has to be state by state for profit corporations. Oh, not allowing UHC into the exchanges defeats the purpose of lining private pockets at the public expense? Yeah, kind of thought so.

The hard question is how to accomplish it. It would seem that it is necessary for the House Bill to include language that specifically states that the public choice does not face any restrictions not faced by commercial corporations with plans in the exchange, and explicit language that nobody can be subject to a mandate unless they have access to the public choice.

With that language in there, a conference report stripping it out would require a provision doing the dirty work. That provision could be struck by the House when the conferees report.

That is, a conference report included the laundry list of amendments to each sides bill to make them the same bill, and while no new amendments can be offered, AFAIU, a chamber has the right to strike a provision.

That might result in a second conference, but so be it: it seems highly likely that the Senate conferees will not believe that the House progressive caucus will really, truly stand up for what were, after all, the very first "progressive" principles in our history as a nation-state - until they, in fact, do so.

Midnight Oil "Dreamworld" video

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Axelrod: Government by Consent of the Corporation

crossposted to The Hillbilly Report, ProgressiveBlue, Docudharma, MyLeftWing, and Daily Kos at about 1pm EDT.

David Axelrod made the case for insisting on the public option if there is an individual mandate to buy from health insurance exchanges, on the Rachel Maddow show last night (segment page). Of course, he thought he was making a different case:
And there is an incentive for the insurance industry to go along and not try to fight these, and that is that there is going to be a larger insurance market, and they have to make that calculation, but we are prepared to do it easy or do it hard, we want to make it work for consumers.

One reading of Axelrod is:
"M'lords, the peasants are getting restive, and if you want to avoid a revolt or other crisis - say, a majority of the House of Representatives elected without being beholden to your largesses - you have to make concessions. However, make the calculation - in some versions of this reform, because of the greater number of peasants you will be taxing in your domains, you will be better off."

Now, make the calculation. There is a given set of restrictions on the insurance companies. There are, however:
  • Subsidies to the purchase of insurance to those presently priced out of the market
  • "Pay or play" provisions to penalize firms that do not offer comprehensive health insurance
  • Individual Mandates to penalize individuals that do not obtain health insurance

Even without an individual mandate, the system can set to "expand the market" by directing the "pay" side of "pay or play" into the individual's account at the health insurance exchange, up to, say, the Social Security payroll income tax threshold, after which it the balance goes to fund Medicaid.

And as Ezra Klein has noted, there are expected savings in the medical system as part of the reforms that the CBO will not include - that the CBO will not "score" - because in the view of the CBO they are not certain enough. And the CBO does this all the time - they famously massively overstate the cost of cap and trade air pollution control systems, for example. But there is an approach that can bring these savings onto the table:
Health policy experts David Cutler and Judy Feder, however, have an innovative proposal for making them count. In a paper for the Center for American Progress, they argue for the implementation of "failsafe" policies — crude, surefire interventions — that will kick in if the expected savings don't manifest. Limiting the growth of Medicare payments, for instance. Increasing the excise tax on insurers. Moving the public plan towards Medicare rates.

You can think of a dozen with little trouble. But if you kept them looming behind the curtain — the Oddjob to your Goldfinger — in the event that the expected modernization savings didn't manifest, it would make the anticipated savings visible to CBO, and free up money for affordability

The question, then, is, what is the basic deal being pursued? A system to benefit the individual citizen, with accommodations to "legitimate interests" of commercial corporations - or a system to benefit the commercial corporations, with accommodations to "legitimate interests" of individual citizens?

Is the "health care crisis" that 100,000 people a year are dying preventable deaths, or that the health care and health insurance cost explosion is interfering with other corporations in their pursuit of profit?

Is this a government that derives its legitimacy from consent of the governed citizen, or consent of the governed corporation?

Fighting Back Against Our Taxation By Corporations

At one time, this government was founded on a principle of No Taxation without Representation. And, yes, those taxed and not represented outnumbered those taxed and represented, initially - but we made progress on that. We reached the point where the largest single cause of taxation without representation was the taxed not bothering to show up to vote.

But, no matter how the CBO scores it, a premium paid to purchase a health insurance policy that the government coerces us to buy, is simply a different form of taxation. And if there is no publicly administered plan in that exchange, that is a tax directed to the private government of a corporation, governed under the formal principle of one dollar, one vote, and often governed in fact by a class of senior executives, both in the management of the firm, and in the network of interlocking directorates managing strategic policy for the industry.

Now, some progressive make the simplest possible argument: no public option, no bill. But I do not. I have seen this song and dance long enough to know that if it comes down to no public option, no bill - enough "progressive" Congressmen will cave to allow passage.

However, there is a more powerful and still simple argument that can be made: No Public Option Means No Individual Mandate.

   No Captive Markets

And a powerful argument to be made to, and by, Progressive Congressmen, because the individual mandate is likely to be the single most unpopular element of the bill, and is at the same time the very strongest point for Republicans to craft a reactionary populism ... and it is the strongest point because it would be a reactionary populism based on a kernel of truth, which is that Government by Consent of the Corporation is not seen as legitimate government outside the corporate elite.

They Do Not Even Try To Hide What They Are Doing

Clearly, last night, the script was written. A public option will be included in the House bill. It will not be included in the Senate bill. It will be killed in Conference. The argument will be made - indeed, the talking points by Axelrod gives us the entire argument that will be made - that the resulting bill will be better than nothing.

So, what to do? Well, just like the tea party warm-ups to the August Town Hall Heat Wave, we know what is coming. What say, unlike the tea party warm-ups to the August Town Hall Heat Wave, we get ready for it this time.

We know precisely what we need to do at that point: strike the individual mandate provisions, and leave the rest of the conference report intact. The House, after all, can do that. Double blue dog dare the "Blue Dog" Senators to stand up on the Floor of the Senate arguing in favor of the individual mandate, arguing for corporate taxation without representation.

After all, the individual mandate is "just one part of the bill" - its not worth losing everything else that is in the bill just to get the individual mandate through.

Bring the worm infested core of this rotten political system into full public view on the floor of the Senate, and see whether they blink.

Because of the Progressive Caucus of the House starts to exercise the true weight of their numbers, they can pass health care reform again next year, and make the Senate run on that issue - in 2010, in 2012, in 2014 if necessary.

A member of the Progressive Caucus who stands up to the Insurance Corporations and says "No" to an individual mandate to buy corporate insurance is in a safe seat. The main "risk" will be "losing" them to the House if they pursue a move into the Senate to take the fight into enemy territory.

Which means that this can be an issue that every single Senator in the US Senate will have to face, no matter when they are scheduled to run.

Unless they take it off the table by passing a bill that respects the rule:
  • No Public Choice = No Citizen Mandate

The corporations view us as their playing field:
    We need to teach them to try to level us at their peril.

The following is the context of the above quote, where Axelrod lays out the script (not an official transcript and I am not a trained stenographer, so apologies for any glitches)
... His point was this, though. If we can pass a bill that brings long awaited insurance reforms to people who need them - most people in the country have insurance, this would help them greatly - and help those who don't have insurance today get it at a price they can afford, and also reduce the overall cost of the system, that would be a historic achievement, and that is our goal, that is what we are pointing to, and we ought not make one individual element of that so important that it dwarfs that greater goal.

Maddow: I think that part of the reason that progressives have imbued the idea of the public option with so much importance is because of the fear that there will be a mandate without serious reform, that attempts to regulate the insurance industry won't be effective. And when the President moves from his position in the campaign, which was that he was against individual mandates, to being for individual mandates now, there is concern that regulation of the insurance industry won't make insurance less junky, less resented, as it is now, and we'll all be forced to buy something that isn't very good, that will just pad the insurance companies pockets. Is there sequencing there? Is there a guarantee that the reforms work before individuals are forced to buy coverage?

Well, uh, there, uh, no individual's going to be forced to buy coverage, in the sense that there's going to be a hardship exemption, if they don't want to buy coverage. It's also a fact that when people don't have coverage and get sick, its a burden to the rest of us, so what he said is that everybody has to take responsibility.

But our goal is to make sure that the insurance system works better for everybody, people who have it and people who don't have it and will have it, and we believe these insurance reforms can and will work, and I think there's a broad consensus that they can and will work, but Rachel, we, uh, this whole system is going to be phased in over a period of time, and obviously if things are not working for consumers, we're going to make adjustments. The whole goal here is to bring security and stability to people - and they don't have it today, they can be dumped if they get sick, that happens all the time, if they have a pre-existing condition they don't get insurance, that's a standard policy in the insurance industry, out of pocket costs, you know the largest single cause of bankruptcy are health related issues, if you cap out of pocket costs, you can stop that. And there is an incentive for the insurance industry to go along and not try to fight these, and that is that there is going to be a larger insurance market, and they have to make that calculation, but we are prepared to do it easy or do it hard, we want to make it work for consumers.

Enough of the Warm-Up Act ...

Enough of the warm-up act, now for the headliners.

Midnight Oil: Blue Sky Mine video clip

My gut is wrenched out it is crunched up and broken
A life that is led is no more than a token
Who'll strike the flint upon the stone and tell me why
If I yell out at night there's a reply of bruised silence
The screen is no comfort I can't speak my sentence
They blew the lights at heaven's gate and I don't know why

But if I work all day at the blue sky mine
(There'll be food on the table tonight)
Still I walk up and down on the blue sky mine
(There'll be pay in your pocket tonight)

The candy store paupers lie to the share holders
They're crossing their fingers they pay the truth makers
The balance sheet is breaking up the sky
So I'm caught at the junction still waiting for medicine
The sweat of my brow keeps on feeding the engine
Hope the crumbs in my pocket can keep me for another night
And if the blue sky mining company won't come to my rescue
If the sugar refining company won't save me
Who's gonna save me?