Archive for Transportation


The few, the proud, the “maintainers”

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After spending several post-college months riding trains around Europe, I took the train from New York to Washington, D.C. where I’d left my car with my sister. Compared to the silky ride of the Deutsche Bahn, this sucker was rocking, rumbling, and lurching all the way. Thought I was going to die.

The experience gave me a gut-level appreciation for well-maintained infrastructure and the unsung people who keep things working so smoothly one only notices when they don’t. “Hail the maintainers,” write Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell for Aeon. “Innovation,” they believe, is overvalued:

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Thom’s Road Still Tholls For Thee, NC

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Thom Tillis’ toll road deal on I-77 is still a headache for those he left behind when he went to Washington. From the Charlotte Observer:

Should it stay or should it go now? If it goes there will be trouble. If it stays it will be double.

The contract to build toll lanes on I-77 must have Charlotte’s City Council and the region’s transportation planning board feeling as tortured as the protagonist in that classic from The Clash.

The council is expected to vote Monday on the plan, and the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization would vote the following week. Unfortunately, the N.C. Department of Transportation and regional leaders have created such a deep morass that there is no good answer.

Cancelling the heads, we win, tails, you lose contract NC should not have signed will cost taxpayers a fortune. This cluster truck is the gift that keeps on giving. From last November 4:

Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and two town commissioners were booted from office in this week’s elections because of residents’ anger about the state’s plans to widen Interstate 77 with toll lanes, people on both sides agreed Wednesday.

Incumbent commissioner Danny Phillips, a toll opponent and the top vote-getter in the board race, said he believes the election “was a referendum on the toll issue.”

“The citizens wanted to have their voice heard, and they did it through the ballot box,” Phillips said. The incumbents who lost “got complacent and weren’t really listening to the citizens.”

Can’t say we didn’t warn you.

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Look! Up in the sky!

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Commercial drones. Those GoPro-equipped gadgets for hobbyists, news crews, professional photographers, and drunk, off-duty, intelligence employees. Maybe even for Amazon package deliveries. (In your fever dreams, maybe.) The FAA announced proposed rules governing their use on Sunday:

The U.S. aviation regulator proposed rules on Sunday for commercial drone flights that would lift some restrictions but would still bar activities such as the delivery of packages and inspection of pipelines that have been eyed by companies as a potentially breakthrough use of the technology.

The long-awaited draft rules from the Federal Aviation Administration would require unmanned aircraft pilots to obtain special pilot certificates, stay away from bystanders and fly only during the day. They limit flying speed to 100 miles per hour (160 kph) and the altitude to 500 feet (152 meters) above ground level.

Just a tentative toe in the water, a camel’s nose under the tent. But it’s an announcement that will send eager technophiles rushing to buy the latest in remote-control spy-ware, and encourage what NPR reported last night could be a $2 billion commercial drone sector. These rules also are meant to prepare the public for further expansion of the program and assuage privacy concerns, etc., etc.

Drone testing and approval has been in the pipeline since at least late 2013:

The FAA has already permitted approximately 300 “public organizations” to fly drones, said FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette in an interview with Common Dreams. This includes drones used by law enforcement and Customs and Border Enforcement for the purpose of aerial surveillance.

Duquette said she would not disclose the numbers of drones in U.S. airspace armed with military grade weapons or spying capabilities.

Excuse me? But worry not, officials said Sunday:

“Today’s proposed rule is the next step in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our nation’s airspace.” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a conference call with reporters. “We are doing everything that we can to safely integrate these aircraft while ensuring that America remains the leader in aviation safety and technology.”


“From entertainment, to energy, to agriculture there are a host of industries interested in using UAS to improve their business,” Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department said. “But for us at U.S. DOT the first threshold always is and must be keeping the American people safe as we move to integrate these new types of aircraft into our skies.”

Yes, but. Lest you think — as yesterday’s reports suggest — we’re just talking about hobbyists, Eyewitness News, or even the police flying plastic toys in commercial airspace, there’s a little more to it (from February 2012):

“We’re going to bring aircraft back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’re going to train in the [continental U.S.],” said Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of ranges, bases and airspace, and executive director of the Defense Department’s FAA policy board. “So the challenge is how to fly in nonsegregated airspace.”

The Pentagon too has been working with the FAA to open up U.S. airspace to its fleet of big-boy toys, nearly 7,500 combat drones (also from February 2012):

The vast majority of the military’s drones are small — similar to hobby aircraft. The FAA is working on proposed rules for integrating these drones, which are being eyed by law enforcement and private business to provide aerial surveillance. The FAA expects to release the proposal on small drones this spring.

But the Pentagon is concerned about flying hundreds of larger drones, including Global Hawks as well as MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, both made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. in Poway.

And last week Congress approved legislation that requires the FAA to have a plan to integrate drones of all kinds into national airspace on a wide scale by 2015.

The Department of Homeland Security announced its intention to double its fleet of Predators in late 2012. If Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Atomics have their way, there could be 30,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
in U.S. airspace by 2020.

Maybe like me, you first remember the phrase “unmanned aerial vehicles” from George W. Bush’s scaremongering, Cincinnati speech about Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and WMDs in October 2002. Back then, we were supposed to soil ourselves and go to war over the prospect of military UAVs in our skies. Ah, but we were young and foolish then.

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a Predator!

(h/t Barry Summers)

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Thom’s way or no highway

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Besides his woman problem, North Carolina GOP Senate nominee Thom Tillis has a toll problem. And a base problem.

Interstate 77 in Tillis’ district badly needs widening. But Thom and his ALEC buddies insist on installing High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes over objections from his party, local Republican lawmakers, and a conservative think tank in Raleigh. His local tea party calls the I-77 project Thom’s Tholl Road.

The GOP is expert at exploiting wedge issues to divide and conquer opponents. But here the wedge is intraparty. There is a split among the GOP’s right-wing populists, its libertarian ideologues, and it’s ALEC-friendly, crony corporatists. It seems HOT lanes have become a flash point. Free-marketeer libertarians consider that when government (We the People) provides any product or service on a not-for-profit basis, it’s another big-government crime against capitalism; they favor anything that gets government out of the way of private profit. Grassroots fiscal conservatives see schemes such as HOT lanes — contracted to foreign conglomerates, funded with federal loans, and with private profit margins backstopped with state tax dollars — as yet another example of crony capitalism screwing taxpayers. It is. And it’s just what the Koch brothers’ privateers want more of.

So how big a wedge is this? Behold the Weekly Standard from April, critiquing at length a 75-year, single-bidder HOT lanes concession in Virginia:

The arrangement is every capitalist’s dream: free land, developed with taxpayer money, for privatized profits and socialized losses.

Of course, in the Weekly Standard’s fever dream it’s not rent-seeking corporatists ramrodding privatization of America’s highways, but progressive ideologues (and libertarians) bent on discouraging a middle-class lifestyle they find “distasteful.”

Thom Tillis himself did not address the HOT lane issue at an appearance before a group of business leaders in Asheville Friday morning (timestamp 1:00:00). But as party activists and business-minded constituents have before, several times on Friday questioners asked state candidates about highway funding and the possibility of seeing of “dynamic tolling” on I-77 and I-26. These aren’t progressives and libertarians. They are Thom Tillis’ base voters. And they are uneasy.

Hard to tell, but when even conservative are worried about the impact ALEC’s designs might have for their small businesses, tolls just might be a sleeper issue for Republicans that so far the press has missed.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Paul Krugman’s observations on the impact of urban sprawl reminded me of “Automania 2000,” the 1963 John Halas animated short the 1963 John Halas animated short I watched at Furman Univerity as part of the first Earth Day observance in 1970. (I was still in high school.) Krugman’s column on sprawl is sparked by a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Led by economists at Berkeley and Harvard, the study finds an inverse relationship between increased sprawl and decreased social mobility. Eventually, the jobs are literally out of reach. Opportunities are simply too far across town for too many families.

And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

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An America In Retreat?

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Aerial photo of the California Aqueduct at the Interstate 205 crossing. Credit: Ian Kluft, Wikimedia Commons.

Has America – and the American Dream itself – gone into retreat? Once the largest, most prosperous in the world, the American middle class is faltering, crumbling like our nation’s schools and bridges.

Flag-pin-wearing, American exceptionalists tell crowds this is the greatest nation on Earth, and then repeat “we’re broke.” They hope to dismantle safety net programs, telling Americans working harder than ever – at jobs and looking for jobs – that they don’t have enough “skin in the game.” Wake up and smell the austerity. America can no longer afford Americans.

Some of us remember a time when America’s dreams were boundless.

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Affordable Housing

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David Forbes has an interesting article in today’s Mountain Xpress regarding a proposed apartment building on Chestnut St. and the underlying issues at work in getting it approved. Many are aware that Asheville has effectively stopped growing geographically. With the loss of annexation, Asheville boundaries will remain fixed for the foreseeable future unless the General Assembly chooses to arbitrarily deannex areas that are now in the city. In order to have revenues keep pace with the ever-rising cost of providing services, we’ll have to grow within our borders. This means more businesses and denser housing in the city. Both require attention to traffic loads and other livability issues.

I don’t know many people who are pro-sprawl, but if we can’t locate affordable housing in the city of Asheville, then we’re going to chew into the open space outside the city, increase commuter traffic on our thoroughfares, increase air pollution in our environment, and deny citizens the opportunity to work their way into the middle class. If we focus on concentrating people of similar income levels then we risk further social stratification that makes cities unhealthy.

I understand and am sensitive to aesthetic concerns, but there is an affordable housing crisis in Asheville that can not be ignored. Mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhoods are going to be a part of our smart-growth future. What we have to do is ensure that density and livability go hand-in-hand. That future invites us all to embrace the fact that we rise and fall together and that hardworking people need places in the city to live. Excerpts from Forbes’ article:

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Monday Readaround

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Screenshot 2013-04-29 at 8.18.08 AMKudos to the doggedly determined Tom Burnet, who’s been pushing for an improvement to Beecham’s Curve for going on ten years. The weird 90-degree on Haywood Road has been a confunction for as long as anyone can remember, and it’ll soon be home to a great little traffic light. Without Burnet’s efforts, NCDOT wouldn’t have had a plan ready to go.

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx will be appointed by President Obama to be the next US Secretary of Transportation. I’m guessing this’ll change the way the NC General Assembly approaches seizing Charlotte’s airport. If all goes well, it may affect the way our own airport situation unfolds. Due to shoddy bill drafting, the transfer of the asset from Asheville to an independent authority is held up by the Federal Aviation Administration. Some would like to blame Asheville for “foot dragging”, but the fault lies in a poorly written piece of legislation. Secretary Foxx might want to have a look at it.

Speaking of transportation, that guy who’s been holding out on selling land to connect French Broad River Park with Carrier Park has finally struck a deal with the city. This is an important connection, and it brings us one step closer to the multimodal transportation network we need in order to provide affordable transportation options as well as economic development. Y’all know the Swamp Rabbit Trail down in Greenville? “A scholarly study in 2012 estimated that more than 350,000 people annually used the trail and that area businesses increased their sales from 30 to 85%”.

As we await Art Pope’s tax plan for North Carolina, keep this in mind: “Families with moderate and low incomes pay more sales and property taxes, as a share of their incomes, than higher-income families because they spend a higher proportion of their earnings on taxable goods and housing.  Thus, increased sales and property taxes would shift a larger share of the responsibility for paying for schools, health care, and other services onto those with relatively less ability to afford it.”

Massive rollback of environmental regulations is in the pipeline for North Carolina.

We’re also moving toward the end of public education as we know it, with your tax dollars funding the shift.

“Senate Bill 337 and a parallel bill in the House would strip the State Board of Education of its responsibility for overseeing charter schools and set up an 11-member governing board mostly of charter school advocates appointed by the governor and the legislature.”


Since the board would not be bound by conflict of interest laws, members would include profit-making charter school operators who would then be in a position to shape policies favoring their own private economic interests, including the blocking of applications from potential competitors.

The legislation would allow charters to hire fewer teachers with professional credentials – scoffing at the concept of teacher professionalism that has been a point of pride among successful charter schools. It would further jeopardize the status of teachers who, thanks to the Republican legislature, are already staring at the loss of tenure, shorter contracts and fewer teaching assistants.

In addition to disenfranchising college students, the elderly, and minorities, the NCGOP’s voter suppression efforts will also smack NC’s transgendered citizens in the face: “Some transgender citizens might present poll workers with IDs that do not match their current gender, and poll workers could decide that the ID does not pass muster. Those citizens would not have their votes counted.”

North Carolina’s Big Government Conservatives.


Sunday Evening Music

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Strive Not To Drive This Week

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Beginning today and going through Friday, people across the city are choosing to drive less and try different ways of moving from Point A to Point B.

Asheville Transit rolls out its new routes and schedules. You can find yours at – includes fancy Google Map that tells you the route designation, times of arrival, estimated time of travel, and what it would cost for you to drive your car there. Don’t forget you can put your bike on the front of the bus if you’d like to use both modes. It’s really easy. Here’s an instructional video. You can ride the bus for the next three weeks for free. F-R-E-E.

You can check out our newest Greenway sections along Reed Creek on your bicycle. Or head downtown to see the fancy green striped bike lanes. Please follow all traffic rules, wear a helmet, and be visible at night! Riding a bike around Asheville is an incredible way to relate to your city, not to mention the fact that it’ll give you nice legs. Here’s a map with bike routes (it’s a big .pdf).

We’ve got more sidewalks than ever in Asheville, so take a stroll.

If none of the above are options for you, then organize a car pool.

Grab your skateboard, segway, roller blades, unicycle, or jetpack and do something different this week in regard to your transportation habits.

Lastly, be aware that this is a week when there are some less experienced cyclists out there. If you are driving, show extra caution and patience to the bikes. Thanks to everyone who’s participating!