Monday, May 17, 2010

Answering Hanging Rail Questions

By Dennis R. Lieb

My last post was quite a while ago and I missed at least one pertinent question in the reader comments from an anonymous poster. Below is the question and my response.

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 they aren't 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?

May 9, 2010 10:03 AM

This question leads into all kinds of areas and begs many other questions but lets clear up the basics. The Midwest HSR effort is probably going to be the prototype for areas that can accomplish high speed
networks: do it on a regional scale with interstate partnerships, partial self-funding through user taxes and Federal grant assistance. Once these are in place the linking up of regions into a national system follows naturally. A solely national undertaking of HSR is unrealistic and probably not desirable in any case. Many places within the northeast can not support the technical definition of HSR but we can surely recreate dependable, frequent service in the 75-90mph range, which was common here with steam locomotives in the 1920's.

PennDOT is charged with maintaining and managing the public transportation infrastructure for the state. How well they do it is debatable at least. Based on the complete waste of (stimulus?) funds to de-foliate the Rt 33 interchange of Rt 22 I'd say they have set a new standard of wasteful spending coupled with environmental degradation on an epic scale. Getting beyond that, they have nothing directly to do with the rail study. That was contracted for by public and semi-public entities in the Lehigh Valley.

PennDOT - like many state DOT's - started as a pure department of highways. Many states have progressively realized that their roles needed to change...Pa is not one of them. Today, Pa has no passenger rail department within it's structure...or if it has, it is a nascent effort with little PR. As for rail, those issues have been left to the big city efforts in Philly and Pittsburgh (and Amtrak).

PennDOT does not "own" the roads either. Roads are what are known as public goods. See definition here. Everyone owns them collectively but no one can restrict them for their own benefit to the detriment of others. The problem arises when the state decides it knows better what is best for local communities. And here is the crux of the problem pointed out by your question. The new paradigm in road design is called context-sensitive solutions. You can read about every little detail of CSS here but basically it places local community needs (pedestrian safety, local economic activity, environmental issues, historic preservation, scenic vistas) on par with if not superior to level of service issues (the number of cars that can pass a certain point in a given time). PennDOT pays lip service to CSS (and passenger rail) but won't walk the walk.

Traditional road design practice lead to things like counting street trees, bicyclists and pedestrians as "traffic obstructions" to be eliminated as has been the common practice for decades. Also road widening and straightening, which simply increases through-speeds at the expense of local residents and business. An example of CSS in Easton would be the redesign of Larry Holmes Drive from a high speed arterial highway to a finely detailed, low speed urban parkway. An example of typical PennDOT standards would be the current condition at the intersection of Larry Holmes Drive and South Third Street...this will soon have a CSS redesign as well. I'm meeting with the city on Wednesday to give my two cents. To sharpen the point a bit, the Larry Holmes re-do was accomplished by taking the road back from the state in order to achieve the goals we wished to achieve.

The question on the surface is how to modify state behavior. The deeper question becomes whether we really have the ability in Pa to govern ourselves locally. In everything from PennDOT decisions to the implimentation of the State Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) and the interference of corporate property rights with local economies and governance, we have a basic constitutional issue in Pa that can only be addressed through a full-scale, state constitutional convention. One written by the people - not the legislature. For those who think this is an over-reaction I give you the following:

Exhibit "A" - In a legal opinion by state attorney general Tom Corbett (Republican candidate for governor) dealing with a lawsuit in Packer Township over sewage sludge dumping, Corbett's office made the following statement...“there is no inalienable right to local self-government” Read about it here.

Exhibit "B" - In Cheltenham Township's attempt to place a Citizens Bill of Rights question on last November's ballot, County Commissioner Joe Hoefel (Democratic candidate for governor) first acting as a member of the board of elections, kept the question off the ballot until the courts overuled him and then started a scare campaign to deter the question from passing.

Remember statements and actions like these when you go to the polls this week.



Joanne said...

Always interesting and informative writing, thanks.

With everything that's happened over the past few years.. bailouts that will fall on the shoulders of future generations, job losses,etc., the more power we have at the local level the better off we'll be.

noel jones said...

Dennis--do you know where various candidates running for office stand on the passenger rail issue? If so, please list them here--thanks!

Dennis R. Lieb said... are very perceptive. Re-localization will be extremely important as the short-term band-aids of TARP and Recovery Act funding wear away. That was a huge reinvestment opportunity wasted on shovel-ready nonsense and smoke-n-mirrors financial bailouts. are the people I have spoken to personally who support rail and could be in position to facilitate it later:

John Callahan
Bill Wallace (Wallace met with me years ago - before he was a candidate and before there was a rail study initiative)
Bob Mensch
Bob Freeman