Wednesday, April 7, 2010

WDIY Focuses on Passenger Rail: Thursday, April 8th, 6pm on FM 88.5

Tune in to 88.5 FM on Thursday night at 6pm to hear the latest 
on the possibility of passenger rail in the Lehigh Valley

Posted by: Noel Jones

Will we ever get passenger rail back in Easton? This is not a new concept coming from "newcomers," but an old concept and a reality that was stripped out of this city decades ago. Not only did Easton used to have passenger rail to New Jersey and New York, but the West Ward alone had seven trolleys that ran through this neighborhood at one time--all stripped out to prioritize cars and roads instead of trains and rails. 

I was talking to an engineering professor from Lafayette the other day that was explaining how we are near the "rolling over point" in the oil industry, in other words, we are approaching the point where it will cost more per gallon to pull oil from the earth than will be received in energy value by the end user.  When this happens, the price of oil and gas will skyrocket, crippling family budgets will oil heating bills and the price of gas for commuting to work. We must think ahead and demand that our elected officials at local, state and congressional levels prioritize the construction of passenger rail throughout the corridor from Philly and Harrisburg, through the Lehigh Valley to New York, and even down to D.C. It is not about high-speed rail, as explained before in Dennis Lieb's earlier post, but simply passenger rail of 80-100 mph without the interruption and prioritizing of freight trains. There is federal funding for this development, that could be creating hundreds of jobs in our area, but too many politicians close to the auto and oil industries continue to get in the way our receiving that funding. They want to keep repairing and expanding highways, keeping us dependent on cars and oil, instead of developing passenger rail.

On Thursday night, State Rep. Bob Freeman and RenewLV Co-Chair, Deanna Zosky, will be guests on WDIY to discuss the future of passenger rail in the Lehigh Valley and the obstacles we must overcome to make it a reality in time.  It is going to be very important to the revitalization of our area that in the primary election next month, we vote only for those who assertively advocate for passenger rail. I will be highlighting some of those candidates as we approach the election...for now, let's learn and share the info we come across.

If you listen to the radio program tomorrow night, please post your impressions here!


Dennis R. Lieb said...

On the Er/Ei issue...that is, units of energy ultimately recovered per energy invested: When sweet, light crude was discovered in Texas in the 1930's the ratio was 100 to one. It required an investment of one barrel of oil (at whatever cost back then) to extract 100 barrels of oil from the ground. A tidy profit; in fact oil was literally cheaper than water and new uses for the stuff had to be created to justify the amount of it being pumped.

In 1971 when the U.S. reached it's all time oil peak - since then we have recovered less every year - Er/Ei had dropped to about 30 to 1. Today it's around 3 to 1. It doesn't take a genious to figure out that when recovery rates hit 1 to 1 it is no longer economically practical to extract it. These are hard financial facts that those reactionaries, who espouse the typical oil company/arab state hating rhetoric don't like to hear.

Sure, I hate oil companies for all kinds of reasons too, but scapegoating them just makes people feel better about their own inabilities to face the reality that the cheap/plentiful oil era has ended (world peak in 2008 or so is pretty much a foregone conclusion though the oil companies aren't speaking publicly yet).

Of the big majors: Exxon/Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Conoco/Philips, there are none in the top ten of current oil reserves. Those are all nationalized oil companies from OPEC countries, Russia, Brazil, Mexico etc. Exxon is highest on the list at 16th and all the private majors put together represent about 10% of known reserves. It is no wonder these companies are not putting money in exploration and development but instead are buying back their own stock and increasing dividends.

What I'm trying to say is that we are screwed. Doesn't matter how much we like our cars, how far we are willing to commute or where we would most like to live. Circumstances dictate other arrangements.

Cars will soon become a much reduced presence in our lives. If we don't plan for the future the future will have a defacto plan waiting for us - history is merciless and doesn't care whether we make good decisions or not.

The upshot: we need mass transit, passenger rail, compact cities and towns, local economies and intact agricultural hinterlands - NOW. Lets get busy.


car free steve said...

Dennis R. Lieb:

Your math is excellent and helps frame the future: inevitable increases in energy costs as clearly outlined by our own U.S. Department of Energy in 2005 (See the Hirsch Report

I, too, believe that as energy costs increase we will see serious changes in transportation here in the U.S. and especially in the Lehigh Valley, where we have a higher percentage of people driving alone to work than almost anywhere in the world.

The data is clear from the $4 gallon gas spike in 2008 what happens as energy costs rise: driving mileage goes down, mass transit use goes up, as do walking, biking and telecommuting.

But I do not believe we can expand these options fast enough to handle the load. To bridge the gap, I believe we will see a huge increase in car pooling. What do we have an awful lot of in this country and particularly in our region? Empty car seats traveling around.

We also have some nifty software and social media programs that have made car pooling much easier and more efficient. What we lack is the incentive to track our trips and share our vehicles. That incentive will be provided by the increase in energy costs.

We could accelerate and prepare for higher energy costs through deliberate government incentives and social attitude changes towards car pooling, but I don't see that happening. Higher gas prices changed our habits and attitudes quickly, but when gas prices came back down, old habits resurfaced, especially in the Lehigh Valley.

Another thing we will have a lot of after energy costs increase is extra cars. Car sharing is another way that many countries have coped with higher energy costs. Unfortunately in this country we have chosen to hide the true costs of driving because of our "love affair" with the automobile.

People who belong to car cooperatives, who lease the vehicle they need only for the time they need it, drive much less, and pay a great deal less for transportation.

Again, all we lack for car sharing to proliferate is the incentive to plan better and the flexibility to "share." And, again, this incentive will be provided by higher costs to drive.

So as we wait for our investment in high speed trains, walking, bicycling and other more efficient forms of transportation to catch up with the rest of the world, car pooling and car sharing will serve to buffer what is expected to be a turbulent ride.

Steve Schmitt

noel jones said...

Great show today--Steve, thanks for posting, and for being a guest on the show to advocate for rail and smart growth. It's terrific that you've made your way without a car since the 80s--I did the same until I moved to Easton a few years ago--lived about 9 months before finally getting a used Subaru to get around in the Lehigh Valley...

Bob Freeman was great on the show today--he wasn't allowing any excuses by those trying to claim that passenger rail isn't viable in the Valley. He mentioned that 14% of all workers in the Valley work in New Jersey and New York, and that that comes out to thousands who would be able to take the train as an option to the stress of 78 each morning...

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Steve...Thanks for your comments. I didn't get to hear the WDIY broadcast because of work but I'm sure you guys did a great job. You hit on two great ideas - car pooling/ride sharing and car sharing. In DC, where HOV lanes proliferate, there is a phenomena called slug lines.

(Definition from the website, Slugging is a term used to describe a unique form of commuting found in the Washington, DC area. It has thousands of vehicles at its disposal, moves thousands of commuters daily, and the best part, it’s FREE! Not only is it free, but it gets people to and from work faster than the typical bus, metro, or train. It's unique because it is not a government sponsored commuter program, but one created out of ingenuity from local citizens to solve commuter problems.)

Simply put, solo drivers who want to use the HOV lanes have devised partnerships with non-drivers to share rides so that the needs of both parties are met. They meet at appropriate commuter origins and destinations and have created an intricate, ad hoc systems to facilitate their commutes.

The car sharing phenomenon also started in the Arlington County suburbs of DC. ZipCar and FlexCAr were the first two companies to offer it but ZipCar has bought out the other franchise and is the main player today. The county originally offered to subsidize the car sharing program so that there was an incentive for the companies to invest in a program there. The subsidies were never required as the program made money from day one.

Each car-share vehicle on the street potentially eliminates 80 commuter vehicles from the road each day. It reduces vehicle miles traveled by members by 40% annually and takes huge pressure off of the parking supply while promoting compact living and transit oriented development.

See Arlington County, VA website: for details and case study. These programs are the future and we should be embracing them asap.

Noel...Bob's comments on rail ridership could have included an equal percentage of people who live in NJ and work here. I researched this at least five or six years ago and the raw numbers were over 20,000 daily reverse commutes then...more now. I'd say the 14% figure could be doubled with confidence.


noel jones said...

My listening to the program was interrupted here and there, so he may have said that--and if I heard correctly, it sounds like this study is claiming that only 800 people from the Valley would take the train? If I heard that right, that's a crazy number, and one would have to wonder what the interests of those funding the study were.

Dennis R. Lieb said...


It's not an issue so much of who funded the study as it is who guided the research of the consultants and supplied the "data". If certain factions of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission had their way this project would be scuttled right off the bat.

After reading the draft I could see certain party's hands all over the rhetoric. It can't be entirely blamed on the consultants that they were led astray by local bias - they would naturally tend to think we would want to help them and not supply red herrings.

This is why Easton needs to suply it's own demographics and GIS studies for our portion of this we don't allow vested interests to the west to foul up the works for our future.