A Catastrophe In The Making

President Trump has indicated that trying to get Congress to pass a bill to fund meaningful restoration of America’s infrastructure is one of the top priorities of his second year in office, and political pundits say there may just be a bipartisan consensus to do just that.

It’s long overdue.

penn-stationIf you don’t think the nation’s infrastructure needs immediate attention, read this Bloomberg article on the condition of the tunnels leading into Penn Station, one of the country’s busiest rail junctions.  It’s terrifying, because it indicates that one of these days the crumbling, 107-year-old tunnels — that’s right, 107 years old! — could give, causing the Hudson River to flood the tunnels and the station itself.  It’s hard to imagine what the toll of such an event would be.  And anyone who has been through Penn Station recently will tell you that the place is an overcrowded, smelly, appalling dump.  I went through the station recently, and I’ll never use it again.  When Candidate Trump was talking about the nation’s Third World infrastructure, he was talking about our airports, but he just as easily could have included Penn Station.

Penn Station isn’t alone.  In every major city, you could identify bridges, highways, and tunnels that are in desperate need of attention.  So, will our state and local governments actually tackle this infrastructure challenge?  And, if we do, will we do it in a way that makes sense, rather than having legislation that becomes a Christmas tree, with every Congressman and Senator and state representative insisting that their pet projects get funded in the name of infrastructure reform, so that the big problems — like Penn Station — end up getting deferred while other, less pressing construction projects like Boston’s “Big Dig” are funded to the tune of billions of dollars.  According to the article linked above, the Trump Administration has backed away from an Obama Administration commitment to fund half the cost of a new tunnel, with New Jersey and New York funding the remainder.  It’s not clear whether the Trump Administration thought it was a bad deal for the federal government and New York and New Jersey should foot more of the bill, or whether it concluded that a new tunnel isn’t the best approach from an environmental, traffic management, or resource allocation standpoint, or whether it found some other perceived problem with the plans.  Whatever the reason, nothing is happening.

In the meantime, Penn Station and its tunnels continue to deteriorate, thousands of Amtrak customers whose train trips are subsidized by taxpayers flood into the station, and a harrowing disaster looms right around the corner.  And the crucial question remains:  if we can’t take care of the basics like our infrastructure, can we really be said to have a responsible government?  And why are we spending money on things like “Click It or Ticket” ad campaigns instead?  As a country, we need to get our priorities in order.

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Advantage, Columbus

Look, I’m a big fan of the Big Apple.  New York City offers so much, and is one of the handful of special American cities that has a unique feel and spirit all its own.  Normally, I wouldn’t even compare Columbus to Gotham, because it’s just not fair.

But now I’ve finally found something where Columbus has the advantage:  Columbus is not steeling itself for the “Summer of Agony” in 2017.  New York City, in contrast, is.

03amtrak-master768It’s supposed to be the “Summer of Agony” in Manhattan because there’s going to be a partial shutdown of Penn Station, one of the principal transportation hubs for NYC commuters, to allow for repairs because the station’s tracks are falling apart.  (In fact, two recent Amtrak derailments are blamed on the crappy quality of the Penn Station tracks.)  The partial closure of Penn Station means that thousands of people who get to their jobs via rail to Penn Station are going to have to ditch their long-standing commuting patterns and find an alternative way to get to work.  And in New York City, there just aren’t that many other options that aren’t already operating at peak, or close to peak, capacity.

So what are people who commute from Connecticut or New Jersey or Westchester County into the City supposed to do in the meantime?  Some people are trying to get temporary housing in Manhattan, and some employers are offering work-at-home options.  But here’s an idea — why not forget the New York City scene altogether and move to Columbus?  It’s cheap, it’s friendly . . . and you’re not going to find much agony here.  In fact, if you shop around, you might just find a place that allows you to take a brisk, refreshing, stress-free 20-minute walk to work.

Sure, Gothamites might scoff at the idea of leaving their land of towering skyscrapers and 24-hour delis for a place out here in “flyover country.”  That’s fine and perfectly understandable . . . for now.  Let’s see how they feel about it after living through the “Summer of Agony.”  A few months of soul-rending, teeth-grinding stress during a two-hour commute might just change a few minds.

All Aboard The Acela Express

IMG_1839On Thursday I needed to get from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Rather than taking a plane, I decided to try the Amtrak Acela Express.

I’ve never taken a train trip in the United States. I’ve ridden trains in Europe, but there is no American passenger train station in Columbus. I figured it was about time I tried an Amtrak train. After all, as an American taxpayer, I’ve been subsidizing Amtrak for decades. The Acela Express is supposed to be one of the few Amtrak routes where ticket revenue actually covers is operating costs (some people dispute this), although capital costs of the route remain subsidized by the federal government. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to see what my tax dollars have produced?

IMG_1842I liked taking the train, and I’d take it again. The Acela Express leaves from Union Station in D.C., has stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Newark, then arrives in Penn Station about 2 hours and 50 minutes after you’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Total travel time is about what you’d have by air, factoring in the time needed to get to the airport and go through security, and you end up in the middle of Manhattan rather than at LaGuardia. The cost of my first-class Acela ticket was about the same as the cost of a flight, too.

The first-class car was clean and spacious, and the train was sold out. Most of the first-class passengers were taking advantage of the free wireless that was afforded and the free beverages; my traveling companion and I each had a glass of decent red wine. Our car was quiet and spacious. The train rocks a bit, but you can stretch your legs and walk to the cafe car if you want, or just watch the scenery roll by. As an added bonus, I saw a U.S. Senator on the trip — New Jersey’s Bob Menendez.

A New York attorney I know said the Acela Express advertises itself as the “civilized” travel alternative. That’s not inaccurate. Thanks, fellow taxpayers, for a pleasant journey!