Here we go again . . .

July 8, 2016

This recent Times Union story shows the persistence of unrealistic, grandiose thinking in relation to our local Amtrak station. The proposal to study spending $20 – $30 million, and who knows how much time, building an aerial tramway to transport a few hundred people a day across the Hudson, in all likelihood at significant public expense, is another example of the thinking that got us the present bloated, cavernous station that leaks money and water, and whose large outdoor clocks never tell the same time. Here’s something to try first, if there’s really a need for an alternative to the existing taxicab service most railroad passengers use (there is):

Realign the two bus routes that serve the station so they both stop at the same place on East St. for trips in each direction. Coordinate bus schedules with train schedules. Have a covered walkway from the station exit to the bus stop. Sell one way or round trip bus passes at the railroad ticket windows or at nearby kiosks. Have “Amtrak connect” schedules printed up that show when busses leave the station for popular downtown destinations and when they return, with a large map on the back showing the locations of bus stops and downtown landmarks.

If the above does not work, thousands, not tens of millions, will have been wasted. Then you can say “I told you so,” and try the gondola.

My favorite scandal just won’t quit

February 24, 2014

Where shall it be?

November 7, 2013

Now that a casino is coming to the Capital District, where shall it be located?  The present favorite appears to be the Saratoga racino, but I wouldn’t put it there if it were up to me.  Here are the siting criteria I’d employ:

1.  It should be as close as possible to major population centers of the area, but not too close, and located a little bit out of the way, so that people don’t usually pass it on their way to and from work, shopping and other regular errands. It should have plenty of on-site parking.  Look to the Casino de Montreal for an appropriate location in an urban area.

2.  It should be accessible by public transit, both to limit its environmental and traffic generating impact, and so that the service jobs it provides will be accessible to the urban residents who need them and who may not own their own cars.

3.  It should be located in an area with as much existing infrastructure as possible, and it should not be built in an undeveloped area where it will gobble up open space.

4. It should be located in an area where it is wanted by the local population and where it will not adversely impact existing local business.

I propose the Port of Rensselaer, which meets all the above criteria.  Rensselaer County, unlike Saratoga and Albany counties, voted for Proposal 1, indicating it would welcome a casino.  Rensselaer is centrally located, near Amtrak and Megabus, and is served by CDTA.  It can use the increased property tax revenues a casino would bring, and the Port location would impact few local residents and businesses,  Its central location and existing road structure would minimize the traffic and environmental impacts caused by travel to the casino.  Shuttles between the rail station and the casino could help make it an attractive destination for gamblers from the New York City area, and existing CDTA routes could be slightly modified to make casino jobs accessible to Albany, Troy and Rensselaer residents who rely on public transit.  If the City or County owns a parcel in the port area that could be developed and placed back on the tax rolls, so much the better.

The existing racino in Saratoga does have the basic infrastructure in place and, as an existing gambling venue, is less likely to attract local opposition, especially given the area’s historical acceptance of all sorts of gambling.  However, taking the path of least resistance would forgo a tremendous opportunity to provide jobs where the people who need them most, and where potential customers from the largest population center in the State, could actually get to them, to give a struggling city a chance to get back on its feet, and to minimize the environmental impact of a venue to which many people will travel by automobile.

Another LIRR disability scam update

July 3, 2013

Looks like 600 scammers will be giving up (and back) their federal disability pensions, according to this recent New York Times report and this AP report from the Times Union.

Low-interest car loans for low income workers

May 29, 2013

A piece on this Morning’s Today show highlighted a program that helps low-income workers obtain car loans at reasonable interest rates.  The piece highlighted a single mother who worked at a call center and had a commute that required two train trips and a bus ride each way, totaling some two hours.   By obtaining an affordable car, she was able to significantly reduce her commute and avoid the steep charges she regularly incurred when late for picking up her daughter from day care.

I have no doubt that this program helped this individual, at least for the short run, but did it help her in the best way, both for her and for society?  As the web site piece points out, the root of the problem is the location of jobs for low-income workers, which have become less accessible for those who do not have access to an automobile.

By providing a car, at a monthly cost that approximates what the recipient was spending on transit, it appears the program has solved the problem.  But this type of program, if it becomes very popular, could be the victim of its own success.  The additional traffic it generates could increase commute times to those rivaling the time transit trips consume.  I don’t recall whether the story mentioned that recipients were counseled about the need for saving regularly to cover the cost of major repairs, which have a habit of coming up unexpectedly and which, if not budgeted for, could put the driver back on public transportation, while remaining liable for the monthly car payment.  Also, further reductions in transit use caused by this type of program (much of it “reverse commuting,” which is the cheapest type of transit service to provide) will further the downward spiral of reduced service and increased fares that we may all regret after we no longer are able to drive.

It seems to me a better answer to this problem would be to encourage the relocation of either employers or employees.  If an apartment comparable to what the person in this story had was available for the same rent within reasonable commuting (or, better yet, walking) distance, paying for the move would be a one-shot solution that would not have the negative effects on society outlined above.  It would not solve the wider problem, though, of access by low income people to appropriate jobs, and could limit this person’s access to other job opportunities that might pay her more than her present job.

Moving employers back downtown, or to other areas well-served by transit, would be in their own best interest.  Having employees easily access their jobs would reduce absenteeism, tardiness and stress, and would better use and support existing transit and road infrastructures.  Unfortunately, those who make business location decisions often shortsightedly exercise that power to maximize their own convenience, rather than that of their entire work force.

While the low-interest car loan program undoubtedly has short-term benefits for those who can drive, I question whether it is the best global, long-term solution to the lack of accessibility of jobs for low income workers.

Footnote:  The person featured in the Today show story may not have been the most sympathetic to viewers.  By her own admission, her situation was caused in part by poor financial choices, and many comments on the web article  noted that she had enough money to pay for a very fancy smart phone, nail tips and hair treatments,  which could have been used to pay for a car without a subsidy.  On the other hand, financial education is part of the loan program, and the individual portrayed clearly wanted to work and improve her and her child’s situation.  Unfortunately, those types of observations open up the whole “deserving poor” debate which is not relevant to the main topic of the story.

It’s not over yet

May 24, 2013

More fallout from the stunning LIRR pension fraud mess.


Railroad parking

January 24, 2013

The CDTA has announced it is considering raising parking rates (to match those at the airport and Empire Plaza) to provide additional funds for station maintenance.  Public comments were invited.  Here’s mine:

I just read in the Times Union that CDTA is seeking to raise parking rates to generate more revenue to keep the white elephant patched up. In other words, you are asking the public to pay more for the poor design, construction and oversight of this facility. Maybe you should instead start thinking about how to seal off some of its vast unrented spaces to save on heat and other costs before giving your patrons another excuse – as if Amtrak’s high prices and third world service aren’t reason enough – to forgo using public transportation and therefore the rail station and the few businesses inside.

The regular users of the station I know all wax nostalgiacally over the good old days of free parking (the only semi-valid reason for having our rail station anywhere but downtown Albany) and wish the present boondoggle had never been foisted upon them.

Although it probably is too late for anyone to stop this “gift” to our city from hemorraghing cash, maybe CDTA should think about getting out of the station management business and redirect all its efforts to its main mission of providing frequent and reliable bus service, a task that easily could employ all your energy and resources.

Thank you for considering public comments on this issue.

Third World New York?

September 14, 2012

A cyclist breaks a wheel on a potholed street in a major city near the State’s capital.

A lawyer goes to the State Library to conduct legal research, only to find that several of the treatises he consulted had not been updated for several years, rendering them virtually useless.  The other public access law library in Albany is open only three days a week.

A person living in a city, two miles from the Capitol,wants to go to downtown Albany by public transit.  She will have to walk a half mile to the nearest bus stop, and even during rush hour, she may wait up to half an hour for a bus.  It may be quicker to walk, except in the winter, when the walkways on the bridges over the railroad tracks are not cleared and become icy.

Compared to what I saw in Sweden this summer, our public sphere is definitely third world.  I  think we have a right to demand — and government has an obligation to provide — basic services of decent quality.  If it can’t, we need to find out why and correct the problem, and it may not be as simple as throwing more money at it.

Even the relatively affluent cannot escape bad roads, traffic delays and, in some cases, poor public schools.  While some of the Republicans’ ideas have some validity, I absolutely disagree with their disagreement with the Obama and Warren observations that no one’s success is due to solely to his or her own efforts.  We all benefit from public services.  Why such an affluent country puts up with such poor services is beyond me.

Another one bites the dust

August 15, 2012

This New York Times story shows the LIRR pension scandal is far from over.


August 4, 2012

I recently visited Charleston, SC for a professional conference. Although I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city, I very much liked what I saw. Although Charleston had a nice waterfront, an aquarium, museums and lots of high end restaurants, its big draw is its historic residential district. I was told that the city has a strong historic preservation code, and I saw for myself an active Historic Charleston Foundation, which ran two great shops, from which purchases were free of sales tax due to their not-for-profit status. The city also had a residential permit parking system, necessary to attract owner-occupants to older areas.

It is clear to me that Albany’s historic neighborhoods, if upgraded to the level of those in Charleston, also could drive the economic engine of tourism. People like seeing block after block of old houses if the district has maintained its integrity and is safe and near hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. Could Albany emulate Charleston and achieve some measure of success as a tourist destination because if its historic residential areas? The success of local house and garden tours suggests it may be worth a try.

Incidentally, in the second trip department, I had some spare time my last day, and opted to save about $35 by taking a city bus from the tourist district to the airport. The service was direct, in the sense that it did not require changing buses, but the route was meandering and slow. However, I got to see some non-tourist areas of the city in air conditioned comfort.