Bishop: Planes, Trains, Automobiles & Inside Baseball

Thursday, December 21, 2017


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Who knew that opposition to runways isn’t limited to the folks in Warwick who moved next to the airport without realizing it was there. The same phenomenon is playing out in Westerly where the current argument is over cutting trees but really, in a season where we are used to seeing things through the ghosts of the past, present and future, the argument in Westerly this week was about the present. The Westerly Airport is struggling to preserve its status quo, unlike Green that just completed a runway expansion for the future. 

One should never be cavalier where eminent domain is involved – even when exercised over airspace and tree trimming rather than for bulldozing houses, but these transportation functions are widely accepted as providing public goods that are at the root of the retention of this power by government. This doesn’t mean that the provision of every possible public good is good. These are proper areas for policy debate. Indeed several thoughtful independent voices suggested that the runway expansion at Green was unnecessary to support the modest twin engine jets that are projected to predominate traffic at the airport given the market size and trajectory of airline business.

I balance those assurances against my familiarity with landing on Chicago Midway’s 6600 ft. runways where you always hope that your pilot catches the 1st wire. Green’s 7200 ft was already noticeably better than that before the extension to 8700. If costs and consequences were disregarded you’d always rather have more runway than less – given that landings are really just controlled crashes.

Of course this is a government agency we are talking about, so their cost benefit work tends to come out in the direction of aggrandizing their mission -- kind of like the Pawtucket Foundation ‘study’ that miraculously determined that a Pawtucket Red Sox Stadium would pay for itself. However rigorous their economic models, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) has never been short of clumsy in dealing with the citizens who stand in the way of what it considers to be progress.

Trimming trees isn’t just at Christmas for Westerly Airport

The Westerly stand off that pitted a high-handed RIAC against nearby residents who would prefer to see operations curtailed came to a head as the Town Council was finally forced to take sides. While not believing that RIAC has been on its best footing in communicating and executing management of obstructions in runway approaches, the Council has no interest in seeing runways shortened, which RIAC threatened. Conversely, RIAC, which had been working with the town towards cooperation on an airport zoning overlay including foliage management measures even before that approach was memorialized in the 2011 statewide plan element for airports, no doubt saw the town as dragging its feet.

The greatest disappointment over the debate was that relatively little attention was directed to the airport’s future. RIAC tends to treat the lesser general aviation fields as poor stepchildren compared to Green. But Green itself was but a poor stepchild of Logan until it came into its own in an era of budget flying between lesser destinations. The current debate about the Westerly Airport’s present almost wholly missed the question of the future.

Westerly is currently seen as a niche airport serving solely the Block Island market with passenger travel. But New England Air has already notably expanded its business, not only flying passengers from Westerly to the Block with scheduled service, but also flying charter passengers from New York, New Jersey and New England to the island. Whether such a model could ever support scheduled service feeding through Westerly from such regional locations is a question in my mind -- and not just for reaching the Block, but for ocean vacations along the south shore; access to URI; even transfers to Green.

New England Air seems to have kept its powder dry, with the energy of its owner/operators devoted to running a business -- in the literal sense, the owner flies the planes. Nonetheless there was some sense of satisfaction for Westerly’s aviation businesses to have seen the Westerly Council vote 5-2 in favor of maintaining the status quo of the airports runways rather than see them shrink. Certainly the airline’s slow and steady growth model doesn’t suggest larger planes or much increased traffic at Westerly in the near term, but for me it begs the question if such things could be in the airport’s future.

Trump misses the boat . . . eer plane on Amtrak

And this speculation comes on the heels of Amtrak’s efforts to cut a few minutes off a west coast rail commute having lead to another disastrous passenger rail accident. There is inevitable, if inconsiderate, schadenfraude in recognizing that the national discourse on transit is off the rails, literally. For all the effort spent to promote billions in spending on high speed rail on the northeast corridor, where is the sober look into whether places like the Westerly Airport might, in the alternative, support far greater passenger traffic. It would take billions on billions more to reduce train accidents, notably through expensive automatic train control systems. But Trump missed the boat on the latest accident, saying ‘we have to fix our infrastructure’.

This was a brand new rail line. The question is whether rail infrastructure, with what are extravagant custom self driving features to override operator error will ever be competitive for moving passengers. It seems more likely that the market for regional air travel will continue to quietly supplant the nation’s nostalgia for rail, while reactionary politicians stamp and scream about how we haven’t spent enough on positive train control each time Amtrak sends another one off the rails – as if the massive existing subsidies for passenger rail are somehow inadequate or demand throwing good money after bad.

Self driving does more for cars than trains

It hardly seems that progress in self-driving is going to favor trains. The whole point with trains is that you only need 1 driver for hundreds of people -- so the gain in efficiency from self driving capability will be much less for trains than for cars and trucks. And the coming widespread availability of these strategies will be another challenge to the market for passenger rail. If you can go in your own car and get work done on the way, why take the train? And self driving capabilities promise a degree of congestion relief as well. And then there are the folks who want to go beyond trains. Richard Branson recently took over as figurehead from Elon Musk for the Hyperloop project aimed at speed of sound ground travel. 

This future of autonomous vehicles and supersonic travel is, who knows, 20 or 30 or 50 years down the pike before full adoption. There is a window for interim strategies but there is a real question of whether we should be investing in infrastructure that would be stranded in such a world. Roads are with us to stay; railroads, that’s another question.

Getting [to] the Pawsox

At the other end of the state, the hidden problem in the wonderful life of the Pawsox Stadium proposal is it lacks attention to roads and parking – modes of reaching the game that are here to stay. Some milennials could Uber over, but most folks are still going to be wondering how to navigate the interstates in competition with rush hour commuters.

Proponents of the Stadium suggest that it somehow works fine now for 5 to 10 thousand folks to find there way into the Darlington neighborhood during the evening commute, so what’s to worry about. Of course this belies the sense that the team is looking for a more visible, connected and accessible site. But proximity to the highway can be a negative if you essentially arrive at the stadium with nowhere to go. The proposed stadium has virtually no parking and there is limited room for folks to queue off the highway as they try to figure where to go from there.

The Pawtucket plan, not wanting to beg the costs of investment in parking structures, suggests that people will park around downtown Pawtucket. As everyone knows, this is the ‘plan’ for the parent club. The difficulty of parking for the Boston Red Sox has become part and parcel of the experience of taking in the big league. Is that really a motif we can sell for the minor league?

Infrastructure Only

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This isn’t an argument that diehard fans can’t learn strategies for a new location, but the idea that the new stadium and its surrounds will attract new fans and keep people pouring in for events besides baseball begs the question of what circulation and parking looks like if the plan actually works.

Not only will the adequacy of highway exits and entrances come into play, but with southcoast Massachusetts as a significant market, the Pawsox effort would be a catalyst for the improvement of access directly to Pawtucket along Route 114 (fittingly, Pawtucket Ave.) directly from Route 195.  

So we’re left with the logical problem that if the state commits all conceivable revenue ostensibly related to the ballpark to support its development (which, in the Pawtucket Foundation study, is inexplicably supposed to extend to income tax from people who decide to live or work in Pawtucket years after the establishment of a new stadium), there is nothing left to pay for the infrastructure that such a development would require.

Massachusetts’ Governor Baker has been right to repeatedly say that the state should supply only infrastructure for such proposals. It is unclear how far he has waffled now that machinations are afoot in Worcester. One of the things that we must credit our own Governor Raimondo with is an expressed refusal to be in a bidding war with Worcester. One way around this seeming clash – since Baker has expressed the necessity to treat Massachusetts communities equally -- is to give more serious consideration to an alternative riverfront site identified in Attleboro on the Pawtucket line. 

Could states cooperate instead of compete?

It’s possible to envision that cooperative state efforts on the border could improve infrastructure including highway access and parking while coordinating strategies that refuse public investments in stadiums. The location isn’t that much further from downtown Pawtucket and offers a significant corridor of potential ancillary development running down Roosevelt Avenue to, you guessed it, the Slater Mill.

It might not seem as perfect to Pawtucket, but it is hardly right out. And if it portends states cooperating rather than competing, it could weaken the hand of the Pawsox to play one state off the other.  Of course Pawtucket believes in its current plan – to a fault. The critical contribution of state lawmakers is to identify those faults, including overly optimistic assumptions that serious infrastructure upgrades don’t go hand in glove with the notion of redeveloping Pawtucket to the extent envisioned.

One complication is that Attleboro is on the verge of having a new mayor for the first time in over a decade. But that hardly excuses the lack of discourse between these neighboring communities. You’d think that Don Grebian would be first in line to greet an incoming Democratic mayor in Attleboro and see if the cities could work together. Meanwhile Attleboro, in lame duck status, is vaguely aware of the fit between the Pawsox and this important site, but waiting for the phone to ring rather than dialing Don.

Why don’t your people call our people and we’ll do lunch?

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Brian Bishop is on the board of OSTPA and has spent 20 years of activism protecting property rights, fighting over regulation and perverse incentives in tax policy. 


Related Slideshow: GoLocal: Benchmark Poll, October 2017

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Sponsor: GoLocalProv

Sample: N=403

Rhode Island General Election Voters Margin of Error: +/- 4.9% at 95% Confidence Level

Interviewing Period: October 9-11, 2017

Mode: Landline (61%) and Mobile (39%)

Telephone Directed by: John Della Volpe, SocialSphere, Inc.

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Are you registered to vote at this address?

Yes: 100%

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When it comes to voting, do you consider yourself to be affiliated with the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Moderate, or Unaffiliated with a major party?

Unaffiliated: 49%

Democrat: 32%

Republican: 15%

Moderate: .4%

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Next year, in November of 2018, there will be a statewide general election for Governor and many other state offices. How likely is it that you will vote in this election?

Will you definitely be voting, will you probably be voting, are you 50-50...

Definitely be voting: 78%

Probably be voting: 13%

50-50: 9%

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In general, would you say things in Rhode Island are headed in the right direction or are they off on the wrong track?

Right track: 39%

Wrong track: 45%

Mixed: 10%

Don't know/Refused: .6%

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What would you say is the number one problem facing Rhode Island that you would like the Governor to address?

Jobs and economy:  21%

Education: 12%

Taxes: 12%

Roads: 12%

State budget: 9%

Corruption/Public integrity: .8%

Healthcare: 3%

Governor: 3%

Homelessness: 2%

Immigration: 2%

Other: 7%

Don’t know: .9%

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Over the past three years or so, would you say the economy in Rhode Island has improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 35%

Changed for the worse: 16%

Not changed at all: 43%

Don't know/Refused: 5%

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Over the same time, has your family's financial situation improved, gotten worse, or not changed at all?

Changed for the better: 26%

Changed for the worse: 19%

Not changed at all: 54%

Don't know/Refused: 1%

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Recently, a proposal has been made to permit the issuance of $81 million in bonds by the State to build a new stadium for the Pawtucket Red Sox. If there was an election today on this issue, would you vote to approve or reject issuing $81 million in financing supported moral obligation bonds to build the stadium?

Net: Approve: 28%

Definitely approve: 15%

Probably approve: 14%

Net: Reject: 67%

Probably reject: 19%

Definitely reject: 48%

Don't know: 4%

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Could you please tell me your age?

18-24: 7%

25-34: 15%

35-44: 15%

45-54: 20%

55-64: 17%

65+: 25%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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What was the last grade you completed in school?

0-11: 2%

High school grad: 16%

Technical/Vocational school: 1%

Some college: 23%

College grad: 34%

Graduate degree: 24%

Don't know/refused: 1%

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The next question is about the total income of YOUR HOUSEHOLD for the PAST 12 MONTHS. Please include your income PLUS the income of all members living in your household (including cohabiting partners and armed forces members living at home).

$50,000 or less: 27%

More $50,000 but less than $75,000: 13%

More $75,000 but less than $100,000: 13%

More $100,000 but less than $150,000: 17%

$150,000 or more: 13%

Don't know/refused: 17%

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What particular ethnic group or nationality - such as English, French, Italian, Irish, Latino, Jewish, African American, and so forth - do you consider yourself a part of or feel closest to?

American/None: 21%

English: 13%

Italian: 13%

Irish: 12%

Black or African American: 6%

Latino/Hispanic: 6%

French: 6%

Portuguese: 3%

Jewish: 3%

German: 1%

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Would you say that Donald Trump has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as President?

Excellent: 13%
Good: 12%
Fair: 14%
Poor: 57%
Never heard of:  0%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Jack Reed has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 22%
Good: 29%
Fair: 23%
Poor: 15%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 6%

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Would you say that Sheldon Whitehouse has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a United States Senator?

Excellent: 17%
Good: 22%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 28%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate: 7%

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Would you say that David Cicilline has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 9%
Good: 29%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 27%
Never heard of: 6%
Cannot rate:  8%

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Would you say that James Langevin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as a Member of Congress?

Excellent: 7%
Good: 30%
Fair: 20%
Poor: 18%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 11%

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Would you say that Gina Raimondo has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Governor?

Excellent: 6%
Good: 28%
Fair: 30%
Poor: 31%
Never heard of: 1%
Cannot rate: 3%

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Would you say that Daniel McKee has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Lieutenant Governor?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 16%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 8%
Never heard of: 26%
Cannot rate: 25%

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Would you say that Peter Kilmartin has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Attorney General?

Excellent: 3%
Good: 20%
Fair: 28%
Poor: 17%
Never heard of: 13%
Cannot rate: 19%

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Would you say that Seth Magaziner has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as General Treasurer?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 18%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 13%
Never heard of: 21%
Cannot rate: 21%

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Would you say that Nellie Gorbea has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Secretary of State?

Excellent: 5%
Good: 21%
Fair: 21%
Poor: 10%
Never heard of: 20%
Cannot rate: 23%

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Would you say that Jorge Elorza has done an excellent good, fair or poor job as Mayor of Providence?

Excellent: 4%
Good: 24%
Fair: 24%
Poor: 22%
Never heard of: 9%
Cannot rate: 15%


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