Thursday, April 29, 2010

Easton's Transit Future?

By Dennis Lieb
I attended the City Council working meeting on Tuesday night and listened to Planning Director Becky Bradley's evaluation of the recently released Lehigh Valley Rail Study. It was quite heartening to hear what she had to say since I had prepared public comments on my own reactions to the study and had not anticipated how closely the city's position and mine would mesh. I was going to link a short article on the meeting from the Express Times here but their pathetic website's navigation is so crappy it's impossible to find a two-day old local instead I'll paraphrase what happened...

Last week's RenewLV hosted presentation in Bethlehem was so stilted towards buses by the consultant's report and so devoid of enthusiasm for rail, except by those experts from other parts of the country who have already seen it work in person, that it amounted to a waste of the public time. Ms. Bradley reiterated these points, presented our own demographics showing current ridership of 2000 to 3100 in contrast to the consultant's projected figures of 800 riders and brought a series of related development topics to the table that were virtually ignored by the report. The E-T story also mentioned the report's bias towards buses when we were paying them for a rail study and the comment by the consultant that we could save money on rail by bypassing Easton completely...good luck with that. The mayor basically said that we have tried being a team player by cooperating with the two counties, LVEDC and the other Lehigh Valley cities. The mayor was being respectful but I have no political qualms in saying say that we have few friends in PennDOT, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission's Director or the private bus companies. If this is the way its going to be then we will do what's best for Easton first.

There seems to be a trend developing over the past few months that I attribute to a lack of seriousness about our future transportation options at all levels of Pennsylvania government. A link to an article in
The Transport Politic about Pennsylvania's recently released State Rail Plan can be read here or copy and paste this link:

This plan is not, by the way, the regional plan worked out with Wallace, Roberts and Todd by Paul Marin before he moved to Spain.

After reading this, it becomes obvious that we will need to intensively localize our efforts - maybe down to the city level - if we are to get anything done with rail in the Lehigh Valley. Bringing a line to Easton first makes sense in many ways and once it's here, further expansion west becomes the obvious choice. There is a rail working group forming. I will be one of the members and we will be looking to incrementally increase it's size in the near future. Below are my exact comments to council from Tuesday night:

Brief Notes on Next Steps

I was somewhat disappointed in the Lehigh Valley study for both its stilted content and it's mood. As one example; their stated objectives in the report listed all the travel modes they wish to integrate yet somehow they managed to leave out the words passenger rail all together. So, how can we move forward from that document to something positive? The book Waiting on a Train by James McCommons, came out in late 2008, McCommons rode all the commuter and long haul passenger routes of Amtrak and the other major regional networks across the nation. Everything we need to know and everyone we need to talk to about running successful passenger rail systems is in this book.

Its sad we even need to justify rail with "studies" at this point while countries like France, Spain, England and even China are already doing what should be obvious to Americans by now. And, everywhere it is being done in this country it has exceeded expectations for both ridership and economic return on investment.

These initiatives are working best in places where local/regional partnerships have sprung up with Amtrak and/or the regional freight carriers and these local/regional - and in some cases state entities - have spent their own money to invest in rail before federal funds were ever requested. Today there are new federal sources such as Tiger grants that go directly to the municipal entities for their projects and bypass state DOT's all together. In the case of PennDOT - an organization currently without a passenger rail department - that's not such a bad idea.

These are my five suggestions for our next steps:

1) Form a grass roots coalition with all the real stakeholders, including the public and the Raritan Valley Rail Coalition in NJ as well as local, state and federal elected officials who will support this effort. We need this alliance - perhaps with a catchy name - to drive the process forward.

2) Pick the current study apart with a fine tooth comb and find all the biases, inconsistencies and mis-statements of fact as they describe local conditions.

3) Evaluate our own best case scenario for rail, including details of route options, train set configurations, rider amenities, service frequency and ridership based on local data...even if this is just using Easton as a starting point for extension of service.

4) Seek out the national experts who know how to build these projects from the ground up, including those who have already done it in the Pacific Northwest, California, the Upper Midwest and North Carolina. All of them are named and interviewed in McCommons book. Meet with them in person if possible but at least via phone and email and pay them if necessary.

5) Get the key questions assembled and presented directly to those who can answer them, including Amtrak, Norfolk Southern, the Federal Railroad Administration, etc.

At the end of the Bush administration, a group was formed called the National Surface Transportation Policy and Funding Commission. Mary Peters, then the Sec. of Transportation, decided beforehand that passenger rail would not be part of the discussion. This is the same woman who said on national TV that bicycles were not a form of transportation.

Frank Busalacci was Wisconsin's Sec. of Transportation, a republican and commission member. He decided to ignore that bias by forming his own rail working group outside of the commission. He held public hearings, gathered data and came up with a fifty page document. The heavily republican weighted commission adopted his plan as part of their final report in spite of "no" votes by Peters and her allies. That report suggested an increase in the federal gas tax for transit funding and spending an initial $8 billion per year on rail. No coincidence then that last year's stimulus funding included $8 billion for high speed rail or that the money went to those regions mentioned earlier that have already planned and invested locally in there systems.

I am currently part of a small rail working group with Becky Bradley, Brian Gish and Chot Elliott and offer my services to the city to continue this process along the lines I've just outlined.

Thank you for your attention.



Cathy said...

Thanks Dennis.

This recent report is quite suspect. 800 people? Who paid for this study? I suspect that it is corrupt and if public money was involved it should be investigated.

Anonymous said...

What is the background of Bruce Davis that he is in this position - can anyone tell me?

Sandra Walters Weiss said...

Cathy you are a genius and I am not joking.Dennis,excellent Thank you! And enough said..... If it were up to me,well it isn't or we would ride the rails!

Express-Times staff said...

The report you were looking for on was not published in The Express-Times. That's why you couldn't find it.

David Caines said...

I'm going to use a word here that no one likes and that is Gentrification. Without the train and other improvements, it won't happen, and the city will never truly improve. I'm sick that they are thinking about bypassing us. It's disgusting. But honestly as long as Easton is willing to host more than it's fair share of low income housing folks without too much of a fuss, it makes some sense. No one else wants these people and by bypassing us other areas can have some relative certainty that they will stay here, and not end up where they live.
We may well have to raise a real stink over this issue. I guess we'll wait and see. The bus commute isn't too bad, but the rail would remake this city.
Thank you as always Denis for following this issue. Let's hope for a positive outcome.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Express-Times Staff...I will double check my facts on where I read the piece. The interesting follow-up would be why a story DIDN'T appear in the E-T if I am wrong...and I'm sorry but the website sucks. I'm sure that component of the news operation is handled by some dumbass corporate moron outside of Easton.

Anon@12:11...Bruce Davis is a Lehigh Valley lawyer who has been hired as a mouthpiece by a coaltion of 1960's era thinkers in the business community who believe we will be living in the 21st century the same way we did in the mid-20th.

This means continuous spending on highway expansion to facilitate more bigbox stores, regional warehousing, exurban home building, etc. and keeping certain other vested interests like the concrete and asphalt lobby, auto and tire lobby, PennDOT employees, etc. in business as long as possible.

The fact is that Davis can get an audience or an op-ed page seemingly whenever he needs it. Political connections trump public opinion unless we are willing to shove the crap he spews back down his own throat. I do it on every possible occassion.

He thinks that he can show up at meetings and give his scare speech..."we have no money for rail, no funding mechanism, state is broke, ridership doesn't support it, it took 30 years to build Rt78 and finish Rt33." Then he gives us all the metaphorical pat on the head with his dismissive, condescending rhetoric like: "Don't give up though, because you know, if you keep fighting you'll get 20 or 30 years."

Well, thanks Bruce for spending 30 years to build a 2 mile stretch of Rt33 that succeeded in destoying another 100 acres of close-in farm land so we could get to 78 two minutes faster and cover the surrounding landscape in more one-story buildings and surface parking. I'm sure you'll go down in history for it.


Anonymous said...

Bruce Davis is a lawyer hired by a coalition of persons in the business community. Who paid for the study?

noel jones said...

I was very happy that at the resident meeting with Bob Freeman the other night regarding pension reform, he also offered to meet with residents regarding passenger rail. Dennis, can we set this up?

Dennis R. Lieb said...


The study costs were split three ways between the two counties and the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp (LVEDC). The problem from the outset was two-fold.

First, it was done by the same group that worked on the NJ study, which I have read and find wanting in many areas. The Raritan Valley Rail Coalition (a NJ rail advocay group) feels the same way and was insulted at being ignored by NJTransit and other official entities when that plan was released.

Second, the consultant was insulated from contact with many stakeholders and heavily influenced by opinions and previously collected data by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC) and their Director Mike Kaiser; a long time rail opponent.

Just in case you think I'm biasing my position against the study due to my rail preference, when the draft was completed no one in Easton - from the Planning Director (who sits on the LVPC Transportation Committee) to the mayor - were informed it was finished or forwarded a copy or even invited to the preliminary meeting to discuss it's results. There was even some talk that any rail plan going forward might bypass Easton altogether.

We will be working on this issue in detail in the coming months and when a proper time for wider public involvement is appropriate we will use all possible avenues to disseminate the invitation to participate substantively.


Anonymous said...

Dennis, thanks for that answer but to be clear the question is: was this study funded with public funds? If it was then there is need to ask if public's interests were duly served. Or did private interests, or union interests, or political interests corrupt the process through their influence on those charged with conducting the study thereby causing an outcome biased towards their interests. You have said that even those who had a place at the table were not given equal access to discussion and review. If this was funded with public money then that is a problem.

noel jones said...

I believe Northampton County put up
$75K in matching funds--not sure about the rest--Dennis?

DRL said...


I agree with your take on it. I'm a level of magnitude removed from direct participation so I can't answer confidently on the public access issue. My gut says it was more of a closed silo process. I'm thinking that being a private bus company honcho or PennDOT official (aka highway repaving lobbyist) with a seat at the table has some incremental value above and beyond you or I writing a letter to the editor.

On the funding; the LVEDC money comes from a variety of sources, including grants they apply for and (I think) local hotel tax revenue, obviously paid mostly by visitors...nothing better really than extracting cash from people who don't live here. In any event, "we" all eventually paid for it depending on how you want to define "we".


If memory serves, each county did $75k and LVEDC did $100k.


GreenTea said...

So much has been learned and continues to be re the school board and the EASD tax hike and pensions etc. There may need to be a similar public education as to who are the lobbying parties with respect to this rail issue.

Dumb question: who is PennDot? Why is that name "Penndot" when said aloud always a big silencer - everybody seems intimidated - why? Who are they? How are they funded? Are they appointed people? If so by who?

Its seems we are having a reawakening of what is democracy. Its a good time to be looking at all of these entities and asking what are they and who do they serve? Sorry the Popes and Priests of Penndot were not on the syllabus when I went to High School. Therefore the question. I guess for alot of us as long as things were tolerable we didnt have to take the time to examine what is going on. But traffic on our roads is now intolerable. Its actually insane. It time for accountability - who are they, how to they get their positions, how are they funded?

noel jones said...

GreenTea--in answer to your question, PennDOT is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which is a state department and therefore funded by our state taxes. They are supposed to be truly a "Department of Transportation" but often seem like the "Department of Highways and Gas-Fueled Vehicles."

You are right, that the recent uproar over the proposed 11.85% school district tax hike brought a lot of residents (including myself) to get involved in school board meetings and independent research, and now the public seems a little more versed on how a complicated problem like our school district's budget came about. And if just as many residents were engaged in learning just as much about the possibilities and obstacles around passenger rail, we would probably see it progress more quickly--political will is a powerful thing, once a community has enough critical mass gathered around a goal.

Anonymous said...

Why does Penndot own the roads and streets if they are paid for by our tax dollars? Why do they always have to be begged to okay something a town wants to do? What is their level of participation in the rail issue? There seems to be an unhealthy concentration of power here and its clearly trying to control the issue on behalf of its cronies.

If they are a state department can we petition Rendell to check into why why aren't they doing their job? Why they are lying about how many people would use rail?

Recent study of issue in the Midwest showed oodles of financial benefits including having midwest high speed hook up to east coast NYC etc. How does that work for midwest and not for the Lehigh Valley?