Why Does It Take 40 Years to Build a Railroad?

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Like most mainland Americans, I had no idea that Honolulu is building a 20-mile long elevated rail line to alleviate automobile traffic.

In a March 22 New York Times article, writer Adam Nagourney reports that the project is over budget, behind schedule, and unpopular with many Hawaiians, including some who initially supported it. “Railway Rises on Oahu,” reads the headline, “As Does Anger Over Cost.”

Voters approved a referendum to build the railway eight years ago after what the writer describes as a “40-year debate over the project.” Initially, the projected cost was $4.6 billion, but that number has swollen to $6.7 billion, forcing the city to extend an excise tax surcharge for five years in one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Completion of the rail line remains several years away; the first trains are now scheduled to run in 2021.

This is the most painful period for any transportation infrastructure project: after the commitment and the start of construction, but before anyone has realized any benefit. Think of the Big Dig in Boston, or, closer to home, the gradual replacement of the Union Street Bridge in Bangor. Messes often get worse before they get better.

A recent proposal calls for the construction of a roundabout at one entrance to the University of Maine. Traffic often builds up at that intersection in the morning and afternoon when school is in session. Imagine the annoyance it will be when it’s half done, as cars and buses and bicycles converge on a construction zone. When it’s finished it will be better than it is now, but there’s that period of pain.

I’m in favor of roundabouts and other road improvements, insofar as they make travel safer and more convenient for cyclists, pedestrians, and public transportation passengers. But I’m even more in favor of trains, because they remove people from road traffic, rather than just make it run more smoothly. There aren’t any passenger trains where I live, and that’s a pity.

People love trains. Yet when a rail project makes news, it’s usually because of problems: cost overruns, construction delays, local opposition. Maybe that’s why they take so long. If Hawaiians have debated about building a railway for 40 years, that means they had identified car traffic as a problem as far back as the 1970s. California has been talking about high-speed rail for at least as long. Governor Jerry Brown seems determined to make it happen; it may take as long to build as it did to argue about building it.

I’ve never been to Hawaii. I can’t pass judgment on the effectiveness of the railway versus the cost. But the Times article is accompanied by a photo of Honolulu traffic: a four-lane freeway backup that would do San Diego proud. Anything to get some of those people out of their cars would seem to be an improvement.

Maine doesn’t have that kind of car traffic – yet – though the summer bottlenecks along the coast and at the bottom of the turnpike can be trying. But if planners in Honolulu could see 40 years ago that their little stretch of paradise might soon be overrun with cars, the idea of restoring passenger rail service to Bangor and other parts of the state doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Living without a car for the past nine years has taught me, among other things, that patience is not only a virtue, but a necessity. In the short term, you sometimes have to wait for a bus. Or walk – because I can’t take a bus home after 5:45 pm. In the longer term, policy changes take time. Bangor bus passengers have been lobbying for later hours at least since I began using the system in 2007. We’re still waiting.

Infrastructure expansion seems to take longest of all. Still, incremental success stories abound. San Diego has expanded its trolley system since I lived there. Maine has added the DownEaster train and a tourist train to Rockland since I’ve been back. I’d love to see passenger train service return to Bangor. But it could take decades.

To use an Easter metaphor, we need to stop putting all our transportation eggs in one basket. We are living in the Late Automotive Age. Investing in alternatives to the car is ultimately worth it, even if the payoff may be years down the line.

And maybe by the time I make it to Hawaii, there will be a rail for me to ride.

 

 

 

 

 

 

California Can Teach Maine a Thing or Two About Cars

 

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Lisa and I went to San Diego for a week. We’re back in Maine. One day the high temperature in both places was identical: 54 degrees Fahrenheit. We walked; we drove; we rode the San Diego Trolley. We did not bicycle or take any buses, though we saw plenty of people doing plenty of both.

Yes, we drove, on the spaghetti-loop freeways and the winding mountain roads and the open desert highways I remember well from my years as a Californian. My son Rigel rented us a car. We drove up the coast to see my friend and writing colleague Mike Sirota (who gave me a nice salutation in his own blog last week). We drove across the big bridge to the beach at Coronado, and out to Fort Rosecrans Memorial Cemetery on Point Loma to visit Lisa’s great-grandparents.

We also rode the trolley, and walked downtown. For a city of its size, San Diego has a compact heart. We visited the new downtown baseball park and the even newer library. We drank a toast to the late Tony Gwynn, whose career with the Padres began the year before I arrived and ended two years after I left. We walked along the Embarcadero and past the train station. The trolley and city buses are both run by the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS); it’s easy to get from one to the other.

It’s also easy to fall back into California-isms, even after twelve years away, like calling Interstates 5 and 8 “the five,” and “the eight.” It’s easy to re-learn California driving maneuvers like merging across four lanes. And it’s easy to make a quick comparison of the trolley beside the freeway, carrying a few dozen passengers, and the freeway, carrying hundreds of thousands.

But every little bit helps, doesn’t it? The spaghetti loops were there when I moved out in 1983, but the Green Line wasn’t. New trolley and bus routes are springing up faster than new freeways. Farther north, California’s once and now-again governor, Jerry Brown, is moving forward with construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, something that’s been talked about for at least 30 years. My son jokes that it will take 100 years to build, but I say it’s progress.

I was glad to discover that I can still get around in San Diego without using a map (or a GPS). I found myself remembering freeway exits and neighborhood shortcuts and places to avoid at rush hour. But I also remembered hills I’d bicycled up, bus routes I’d ridden, beer stores within walking distance of places I’d lived. I used alternative transportation, even back then.

I didn’t miss California traffic. My son often plans his day around peak times on the freeway. Sometimes he’ll take the trolley to work or into town, but he doesn’t have the patience for the city bus system.

Transportation is complicated. It’s hard to design, let alone commit to, a public transportation system that will entice significant numbers of people away from their cars. But it’s gratifying to see small things being done, especially in California, the heart of the car culture. Small things. Not a revolution, but small things.

Were I to live in San Diego now, I wouldn’t own a car. They’re cheap enough to rent, and most of the time you can get by just fine without one. The same is true in Bangor, by the way – as I’ve discovered over the past nine years.

Moreover, a typical week in San Diego does not consist of trips to the desert and the zoo and all the other stuff we did. To squeeze all that in requires a car. We walked, a lot, every day. But the fastest way to get from one walking area to another across the spread-out city is the freeway system.

The surface streets, though, have become much more friendly to bicyclists. Signs remind drivers that cyclists can use the full lane. Painted bicycle lanes have proliferated. Metal bike racks in the shape of bicycles dot the sidewalks. We saw cyclists everywhere we went, from the beaches to the desert. We watched a young man roll his bicycle onto the trolley, seamlessly transitioning from one non-car mode of transportation to another

That’s what I’d do, I thought, if I lived here again. But that’s not what I did when I visited. Nonetheless, the improvements were gratifying, and the traffic didn’t seem so bad. By the end of the week I was starting to get used to it. I knew then it was time to go home.

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A Normal Life Without a Car

 

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I left San Diego in 1999, with two kids, a dog, a cat, an Aerostar van and a U-Haul trailer filled with our worldly possessions. I pointed the van east and never looked back. After 16 years in California, I moved back to Maine, where I grew up. I’ve been gone from San Diego now for as long as I lived there.

This week, I took a stroll around my old neighborhood.

“Normal Heights is a walking neighborhood,” I wrote in a parting piece published in San Diego Magazine. “I suppose that’s what I like best about it.”

It still is. When I returned to visit San Diego this week, I took my girlfriend on a short walking tour. We walked along Adams Avenue, the main drag, and over by the park and the elementary school my kids attended. We walked past my old house and out to the bluff overlooking Mission Valley. We stopped into the Normal Heights Community Center, where once upon a time I edited a small community newspaper called the Adams Avenue Post.

The newspaper is long gone, but the Adams Avenue Business Association is still headquartered there. After a few moments of hesitation, the man behind the desk and I recognized each other. It was Scott Kessler, the AABA’s executive director, with whom I had worked closely on the newspaper, the annual Adams Avenue Street Fair, and other local projects. Scott is once again directing the AABA after a ten-year hiatus to pursue other interests.

We had a bittersweet conversation about people who have died or moved away. But then he said, “The Avenue looks good, doesn’t it?”

It does. The façade rebate program that Scott shepherded when I lived there has paid dividends. New bicycle racks have sprung up, along with well-delineated bike lanes. When I interviewed Scott for the San Diego Magazine piece, he told me that rehabilitating a deteriorated urban neighborhood can take as long as thirty years. I’ve been away for more than half that time, and the improvements are evident.

Normal Heights prepared me for the life I now enjoy in Bangor. I rented a house three blocks north of Adams Avenue and two blocks south of the edge of the bluff overlooking Mission Valley. I walked to my job and bicycled or bused to my classes at San Diego State University. The grocery store was within walking distance, too, and I developed the habit of what my son calls “European shopping” – buying smaller amounts of supplies on more frequent trips to the store.

I did have a car back then, but on many days it sat in the driveway. We used it to go to the beach, or up into the mountains or out to the desert, but much of our lives were conducted on foot. The kids walked to school, and the number 11 bus took me right to San Diego State on the rare days when the weather was too bad to bicycle.

Among the possessions packed into the U-Haul were several boxes of vinyl albums, many of them purchased at Nickelodeon Records, a used record store, run by Ruth Bible and Betsy Scarborough, tucked into an Adams Avenue storefront. When I lived in Normal Heights I amassed my second record collection. The first had been liquidated long ago. But I hauled the second one across the country, and have continued to add to it since.

The store is still there, amid many new and old businesses along the Avenue. I pulled a Warren Zevon album from the bargain box near the front of the store, and remarked that I used to shop here years ago. The two women looked at me a moment, and then one of them said, “Didn’t you have a dog? And two little kids? You used to sit out on the pavement and sift through the fifty-cent records.” I couldn’t believe they’d recognized me after all this time. Of course I bought a few albums. They’re shipping them to Maine so I don’t have to take them on the airplane.

Despite the improvements, Ruth and Betsy reported that Adams Avenue retains its funkiness. Though it’s no longer officially “blighted,” Normal Heights will never be entirely gentrified, and that’s a good thing.

It felt like a visit to a life that could have been. “I could stay if I wanted to,” I wrote in that 1999 magazine piece. “Someday, perhaps, I will find a place where I will truly immerse myself in a community and shed my fear of sinking roots. If it was going to happen anywhere in San Diego, it would have happened in Normal Heights.”

Do Maine’s Democratic Caucuses Discourage Non-Drivers?

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The Maine Democratic Party will hold caucuses this Sunday, March 6. Bangor’s Democrats will gather at Bangor High School, on outer Broadway, on a day the public buses aren’t running.

Both the location and the date discourage those of us who don’t own cars from participating. How this may skew the vote remains to be seen.

I’ll get there, though, because I have a favor to return. Let me explain.

In 1992, I was living in southern California, a single father with two young children, working two low-paying jobs and taking classes part-time at San Diego State. I was just barely scraping by in the Reagan-Bush trickle-down economy. Many months I had to come up with a song and dance for the landlord about why the rent was late, and when I was likely to get caught up. Health insurance? Forget it. I got my kids on Medi-Cal, the state program for low-income children, but any of my own medical needs came out of my pocket. I didn’t see a dentist for years. When the car broke down, I walked and used public transportation until I could afford the garage bill.

I did qualify for the Earned Income Credit, which meant that I got a refund check of around $300 from the IRS in the spring. It helped, but not much. It was usually gone by the first of the following month when I paid bills.

In 1992, a whole bunch of Democrats were jockeying to run against the incumbent, George H.W. Bush. My candidate was Jerry Brown, the once and future governor of California. I didn’t know much about Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor. But he was a fresh face and I liked his smart, politically savvy wife, and he seemed like a more hopeful choice than either Bush the First or H. Ross Perot.

So I did my civic duty and cast my vote, not expecting much. Presidential politics, for all its sound and fury, affects me mostly in the abstract. The Bangor City Council has more impact on my day-to-day life than the presidency. (Case in point: Obama’s stimulus bought a few new Community Connector buses, but local government sets the routes and schedules.) I’m not a good political activist. The process of politics leaves me cold. Life goes on, with all its ups and downs, no matter who sits in the White House.

Bill Clinton proved to be the exception.

When things were at their darkest, when I faced the real prospect of being evicted from the tiny two-bedroom house I shared with my children, when my two crappy jobs couldn’t keep me afloat and I couldn’t find another one, Bill Clinton saved my bacon. I filed my tax return for my pathetic little income, expecting to receive my pathetic little refund of around three hundred bucks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I now qualified for a refund of just under $3,000.

With little fanfare, Clinton had pushed through an expansion of the Earned Income Credit, established under President Gerald Ford in 1975 and updated under Ronald Reagan in 1986. The credit provides tax relief to low-income working parents.

It meant the world to me. Over the next few years, that small amount of extra income made the difference between destitution and merely living on a tight budget. One year I used it to buy a car. Another year I used it to travel Back East to see my family, including my dying grandfather. I laid the groundwork for returning to Maine, finishing my education, and finding better-paying work. I now send the IRS a check at tax time, and have the luxury of grumbling about it.

I have seen a lot of presidents come and go. I’ve liked some more than others. But Bill Clinton is the only one of them whose policies had a direct and positive effect on my life. I’ll never forget it.

And that’s how you stimulate an economy – not by giving more money to people who already have it. Every business at which I spent a portion of my tax refund benefitted. Multiply me by millions of other struggling parents, and you can see why the economy boomed under Bill Clinton’s stewardship. And I can understand why people loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt and hung his picture in their living rooms. They felt that he helped them personally, at a time of great need.

A change in the tax code may seem like a prosaic thing. It doesn’t have the romantic cachet of “Yes We Can” or “Feel the Bern.” But it made a real, lasting difference in my life, and the least I can do is be grateful.

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