Bishop: Our Love Hate Relationship With Amtrak
Thursday, January 19, 2017
The useful response last year and this year is: why on earth would we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to create an amusement park ride for the 10%? If this sounds a bit like Occupy Amtrak, it’s just our wonderment that not one RI politician is yet visibly opposed to this entire boondoggle.
When it comes to who we are subsidizing, Amtrak’s Madison Avenue consultants have provided a convenient measuring stick. In touting the advertising power of the Acela onboard magazine, Arrive, they brag about having the richest demographic reach of any northeast periodical with a median reader income of $186,500 - outpacing New York, Boston, Philadelphia and the Washingtonian.
Amtrak plays fast and loose with its accounting , pretending that the Acela is actually profitable to deflect criticism. But even Amtrak concedes they mean on operations not capital costs, i.e., the passengers don’t pay for the trains or the tracks! So we’re being asked to subsidize a $150 billion dollar upgrade (read a trillion) for an economically marginal executive limo service on rails.
High Speed is NOT an obvious rail priority
The elite urbanists who promote a European vision of sleek intercity rail transit are, of course, right about their own tastes – as we can see from Acela’s boasting about the rich college educated folks who read its magazine. They just mistake the comfort of average Americans with their cars and with affordable airfares in the deregulated market for longer trips.
There is some consumer sentiment for commuter rail in major metropolitan markets. Rhode Island mistook Wickford for such a place, but even that boondoggle does not erase the convenience, quality of life and congestion mitigation effects more broadly associated with commuter lines serving Boston and New York.
Ironically, intercity rail is essentially in competition with commuter rail with differing speeds and more stops clogging tracks and complicating operations. This effect is a major cost driver in the NEC Future EIS.
There is also competition between passenger and freight service. Indeed, the comparative criticism of Europe as passenger rail paradise and America as a passenger rail desert ignores the fact that the prevalence of freight rail is the inverse. Europe can’t put much of its freight on the rails because it moves more slowly and less predictably than the speeding passenger trains.
The NEC is not full of vast trainloads of mineral, fuel and agricultural commodities that regularly crisscross the American heartland, but has notable chokepoints between marine terminals and inland routes. Not only are these another major cost driver in the NEC Future EIS, but the false narrative of the Acela as some wunderkind to be duplicated elsewhere makes high speed rail on the NEC a potential threat to freight rail across the country. Amtrak is currently empowered to subordinate freight movement to its passenger operations nationwide.
A new administration, a new direction?
What will the Trump/Chao DOT think of the NEC Future? Trump surely appreciates that deals require facetime. Putting people together for commerce, culture and political logrolling along the DC-NYC-Boston axis is an important part of the economy for the region. And there is a cohort of younger hipsters (weren’t we all once) that isn’t insistent on going home to the suburbs at night but would think nothing of catching the Acela from Boston to see a show in NYC. But if this high speed service is critically desired by the financial, digital, research and creative services complex as a business tool and for the quality of life of their urban worker bees, these riders and their industries could pay for it. Trump’s idea for infrastructure is to partner with major beneficiaries and to leverage public capabilities with private investments.
It can’t be denied, as our state officials look on, that being on the road to somewhere else is really all we’ve got . We took ourselves off the ‘silk road’ for goods we had historically occupied when we spurned the opportunity to pioneer a major container port in Rhode Island. We used to be somewhere when we coupled our marine trade advantages with unparalleled industrial skills. Now our only claim to fame is being between Boston and New York. If there is to be a rail, our politicians want to be on it, as do those who represent the alternative, Hartford and Worcester. There was competition for this ‘privilege’ which we don’t seem to appreciate having won. Indeed, these track shifts were part and parcel of the alternative we begged Amtrak to choose.
Looking At It From A Business Stand Point.
If Secretary Chao doesn’t simply fire all the planners looking to waste hundreds of billions on high speed rail, will she at least look at the competitive model of The Apprentice? I’m sure her boss could get her the DVD. Why not put all the possible routes back on the table and chart the service along the route whose representatives put together a plan that poses the least cost, the most efficiency and safety, the least opposition, the most shovel ready capacity and the most private investment? Our politicians from southeastern Connecticut and southwestern Rhode Island should be digging in to figure out how to make this work, not lying in front of the bulldozers (assuming, since not one has spoken up, they won’t do the smarter thing and oppose the high speed boondoggle rail altogether).
Although public investment in high speed rail is unjustified, the Amtrak plan is actually a fairly thoughtful approach if you were going to run a railroad. The proposal plans to eliminate two of the sharpest bends between New York and Boston, one that snakes along the New London waterfront and the other that rounds the hills between Burdickville and Kenyon, at the nexus of Chariho. This isn’t just a question of cutting a few minutes off the trip, but is a question of safety -- as anyone who has followed the standing headline “train goes off curve” is aware.
It is complicated by hills and swamps, which are why the Charlestown curves exist to begin with. And tunnel design isn’t as simple when dealing with the air pressure generated by speeding trains. But, as with many infrastructure projects, engineering is not the chief impediment. Environmental and NIMBY obstructionism remain the reason that south coast Massachusetts is not served by commuter rail. The costs larded on to this extension by green groups and towns, many of which already have MBTA service, proved too much for even Massachusetts. This has left Fall River and New Bedford as the poor stepchildren of the Boston economy, a place to toss a little litter on your way to the Cape. And in Rhode Island, we wasted $40 million for an unused parking garage because the locals didn’t want surface parking on the Wickford side of the tracks. It is government’s job to weigh these issues – but not to be paralyzed or bankrupted by them.
In Connecticut ,which would experience a more noticeable change, Amtrak cleverly proposes a Route 95 alignment, paralleling what is already a major transportation route dividing communities while serving them. This could be accomplished without so major an effect on Old Saybrook by joining 95 west of town. As Amtrak has said, their lines on the map are representative, not precise. If Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut want to be on the road to somewhere, it is the responsibility of our politicians not simply to object, but to see how this might be facilitated.
If We're Spending The Money, Let’s Look At The Best Option.
Careful planning with those most aware of local circumstances could alleviate some of the concern – indeed that should have been the ambit of a meeting yesterday between town officials and congressional staff in Providence, instead of solidarity in opposition. All but ignored are important potential benefits of moving the rail line inland. If anything, the Amtrak proposal does not go far enough in taking regional lines with it to its new alignment. This would greatly improve shore access and provide for public amenities and development. The current tracks also hamper marine traffic. And the proposed alignment actually preserves a New London station within 1/3 mile of ferry docks, almost as close as at present.
The Westerly route has posed some consternation as the tracks would rejoin the existing railbed by briefly crossing well fields that provide town water at a perpendicular for perhaps 1/10th of a mile. Even forgetting that this is a straight stretch with little potential for derailment, what lasting environmental spills are posed by an accident of an electrically powered train? If regional service – and the long off restoration of commuter service to Westerly -- were to be powered by diesels those lines could be swung south of the well field into the existing Westerly station.
And if other commuter stations are eventually desired they could be easily accessed from the highway, and provide parking outside the tightly clustered villages where the old lines run. With a little tweaking there is much to like here, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to our political leaders.
The response to the NEC Future EIS has been far too positive on the idea of spending vast sums on high speed rail and far too negative on the plan itself, ignoring the extent of accommodation Amtrak has already expended and lacking a sense of commitment to address speed and safety goals while balancing parochial interests.
Related Slideshow: Power List - Business
Kevin Tracy and Oliver Bennett— There are deals and there are BIG DEALS. In Rhode Island, with all of the changing players and banking relationships, one reality is pretty much the same. If you have a big deal that needs sophisticated financing, the community banks may not be able to handle it.
Bank of America may have abandoned the Superman Building, but they are still in Rhode Island and still doing big deals. Kevin Tracy, the former Brown golfer and Oliver Bennett — long ago Fleet Bank trainees — are now the guys you bring in for a $50 million deal. The more things change - the more they stay the same.
John Hazen White, Jr. — White has taken Taco to new levels as he has made a series of strategic acquisitions to bolster the Rhode Island manufacturing company into a global firm.
He continues to be a leader in American manufacturing investing in worker retention and employee training.
Behind the scenes, White is a combination of an adviser and moral compass to many in Rhode Island. Despite taking a lower profile than his Lookout RI days, White is still a force pushing for ethics reform.
Joe Paolino — Once the young Mayor who took over in the 1980s when Buddy Cianci was forced to resign (the first time), now the leading corporate voice in Providence if not Rhode Island.
While others complain at lunches at the Hope Club and University Club about the plight of the Capital City, Paolino has rolled up his sleeves and taken on issues like panhandling and homelessness.
With a real estate empire that includes much of downtown, some of the top properties in Newport and Hasbro’s campus in Pawtucket to name a few, Paolino has close ties to Governor Gina Raimondo and even closer ties to the Clintons - could a federal appointment be in the works in 2017?
Steve Kirby — No one dominates commercial real estate in Rhode Island like Kirby does on Aquidneck Island. His red “Kirby Commercial” signs are literally everywhere across the island and in Newport proper -- they are more frequent than street signs.
Want to open a clothing store in Newport? Go see Steve Kirby. Looking to launch a startup tech firm? Call Kirby. Developed cool technology and want to start producing for the Navy? Email Kirby.
Kirby maybe the most influential in business on Aquidniick Island. (PS He will tell you which bankers to talk to).
George Nee — President of the AFL-CIO, Nee is one of the most influential players in business in Rhode Island.
He is Vice Chair of the Convention Center Authority Board, on the Commerce Corp board, the most influential voice for labor at the State House, and involved one way or another in just about every negotiation on constructing public buildings or issuing a tax stabilization agreement in Providence.
For the most part his public persona has been more muted recently, but that has not impacted his private influence. If it happens in Rhode Island, Nee has probably touched it.
Sally Lapides — If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today and saw the number of Residential Properties’ real estate signs on the East Side he would call it a monopoly and want to break up the company. Lapides not only dominates one of the most affluent sections of Rhode Island, but she also delves into the arts, education and politics.
When you sell the wealthiest and most influential their homes, you make a lot of friends.
Lapides is a force in residential real estate and it will be interesting to see what she does next.
Helena Foulkes — Two of the biggest decisions CVS ever made were the brain children of Foulkes. The Extracare card and the removal of tobacco from its stores were both influenced by Foulkes.
She has emerged as a national power in business and makes all the business lists for top women, but make no mistake - she is wildly influential in Rhode Island.
She is close to Raimondo and she may decide to jump into political waters in the future - or may decide if she can snag the CEO spot at CVS.
Visionary or Free Rider
Buff Chace — One of downtown Providence's biggest real estate magnates is a lightning rod in the Capital City. Widely considered to be one of the prime catalysts of Downcity's resurgence, Chace's accumulation of properties on Westminster Street is straight out of a Monopoly playbook.
His recent acquisition of the ProJo building has further solidified his dominance, which has not been without intense scrutiny, given his ability to continually secure -- and extend -- tax stabilization agreements at a time when the city's dire financial straits are close to reaching a head.
Wealthy, influential, and active in the community, Chace has chaired the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy and has been a member of the Executive Committee of the Providence Foundation, and is a director emeritus for GrowSmart RI and a trustee emeritus of Trinity Repertory Theatre.
Richard Baccari — One of the biggest real estate developers in New England. For decades he has been a major player in Providence, Rhode Island and the northeast.
During that span, he has been the driving and innovative force behind some of the region's most significant residential and commercial development endeavors.
See a Stop and Shop development and Baccari probably built it. Has fought back business challenges and much more.
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