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Friday, February 29, 2008

A terrible idea for Pittsburgh's Eastern Corridor - and some better alternatives

Last night on KDKA radio I heard of a proposal put forth by Pennsylvania turnpike commission CEO Joe Brimmeier that was downright ludicrous. Brimmeier recommend that the PA department of Transportation (the infamous PenDOT) build an elevated toll road above of the current park way east to alleviate the worst congestion in this the area - the parkway east's approach to the Squirrel Hill tunnel. Now, I have had some fantasies of my own for regional transit but this just tops the cake. I was surprised to see that the Post Gazette actually put this story on the front of their web page - as I felt this idea was not worthy enough to print.

After the tunnel, or chunnel, to nowhere (The north shore connector), we do not have room for any boondoggle transit projects - especially a highway on top of another highway which would do nothing to improve our region's air quality.

Before I even heard of this I was thought of another congestion alleviation option for the eastern corridor as I was driving from the North Shore over to East Liberty earlier that day. While looking at the Martin Luther King, Jr. East busway I noticed that there was not one vehicle on the busway - which means that there should be enough room for additional vehicle traffic. So why don't we utilize the east busway to alleviate some of the congestion at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and parkway east??? The busway already exists and is basically empty with the exceptions of the buses that utilize it throughout the day. The one concern I see them raising is that the busway is also utilized by emergency personal and also VIPs like the mayor (ha!) if they need to be evacuated from downtown.

My short term alternative is the following:

Use the existing busway as an express toll road for cars. Buses and cars would have to share the road but it would be much faster than the current alternatives. Also, there have been some studies underway to extend the busway from Swissvale out to Monroeville, which means a toll road would make a lot of sense. This would kill two birds with one stone - it would alleviate congestion and also raise funds for the port authority. Note to the Port Authority - people will pay tolls to not sit in traffic each and everyone morning and evening during their commute!

Now, a study to analyze the bus way and other eastern corridor transit options
was completed back in 2003, but unfortunately the people who should be making the decisions on the recommendations take forever to come up with a plan to implement the solutions. The recommendations coming out of that study are good ones - but with the exception of the 1st alternative I haven't heard of any action for the other options, which are the following:

Allegheny Valley Commuter Rail: Downtown Pittsburgh to Arnold

  • Commuter Rail service along the southern shore of the Allegheny River via the Allegheny Valley Railroad right-of-way
My comment: After years of studies and mulling of this project, a second feasible study is underway. Good grief - more studies and reports with little or nothing to show for it! My colleague at work said he would "definitely take a train" that would take him into downtown from his home in New Kensingtion and help him avoid the congestion on Route 28.

Norfolk Southern Commuter Rail:

  • Commuter Rail service along the Norfolk Southern right-of-way via East Pittsburgh, Irwin, etc., possible extension to Latrobe.
My comment: If we could pull off a commuter rail to downtown from all the way out to Greensburg I say go for it! The tracks are already there to the only question is the right of way from Norfolk Southern. This rail would be a much better option than any expressway and much cheaper than the high speed Maglev train that was proposed a long time ago.

SpineLine Light Rail/BRT: Downtown to Oakland and points East

  • Light Rail along city streets (underground or at-grade) to Oakland with extension along city streets to Wilkinsburg or along CSX right-of-way to Hazelwood and Homestead
  • Bus Rapid Transit on city streets
My comment: This is long over due and should have been implemented in the 90's had it not been killed by the county commissioners, who I fault for not having a vision for growing the region through world class transit infrastructure. Chris Briem has a SpineLine study over at his website.

East Busway Extension: Swissvale to East Pittsburgh or Monroeville

  • Extension of the East Busway along Norfolk Southern right-of-way to East Pittsburgh, with the possibility of using Tri-Boro or Mon-Fayette Expressway into Monroeville.
My Comment: My problem with just extending the busway to Monroeville and keeping it exclusively as a bus only expressway is that a lot of people do not like to ride buses. An ideal option would have been to turn it into a light railway but I guess that project did not make the cut. So, the busway as both a toll road and bus expressway makes a lot more sense since it could be implemented within months of this blog post - and within a few years extended out to Monroeville. In my opinion, right now with bus only transport the expressway is vastly underutilized.

Mon Valley Light Rail: Downtown Pittsburgh to McKeesport and Etna along the CSX right-of-way.

  • Light Rail service underground from Steel Plaza to Convention Center, along the Allegheny Valley Railroad right-of-way to 33rd Street and two branches from 33rd street along CSX right-of-way to Etna and to McKeesport via Oakland, Hazelwood and the northern/eastern shore of the Monongahela River.
My Comment: I'm not sure about this one - if the new north shore alternative for the Mon Fayette Expressway is ever completed then I don't see this project happening - although I would prefer this rail line as it would take more cars off the road.

It is time we start pushing some of these ideas forward rather than sit around and hope for these solutions to fall into place. Which options do you like? Do you have some additional ideas?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Minor Storms in Florida lead to "massive power outage"

Florida's highways resemble scenes from the movie "Live Free or Die Hard"

From CNN:

The outage struck shortly after 1 p.m. ET. A strong cold front and scattered thunderstorms moved through the region, including one that prompted a tornado warning for Fort Lauderdale, the National Weather Service reported.

If thunderstorms in Florida can wipe out power for millions of residents and businesses, what would happen if our electricity grid came under a terrorist attack? Isn't it scary that the US economy could get shut down in the blink of an eye if a few key targets were hit?

One of the reasons we have so many problems with our grid is that it has not kept up with the trends of other technologies, such as processing and computing power. Unlike computers today, which used to be centralized, power generation has failed to move towards a more distributed model. Some have put faith in huge batteries and generators for the solutions to our grid's woes, but to me thats not really a fix. My solution for this mess is very similar to something that was invented almost 100 years ago - detachment from the grid. Back in the early 20th century, famous inventor Thomas Edison's house actually ran on a gasoline generator that stored excess or unused electricity in a number of batteries for later use. Edison dubbed this invention the "Edison Twentieth Century Suburban Residence" and a report on it can be found in this 1912 New York Times edition. Unfortunately, sabotage ended Edison's dream of off grid power generation and storage, and also his campaign of electric vehicles against the internal combustion engine.

Today, there are options for homeowners who no longer wish to be slaves to our nation's electricity grid, which seems to be on its last legs. Companies like GridPoint offer appliances for both homes and businesses that work with renewable power sources such as solar and your connection to your utility to bring you a failsafe storage device for powering your home or business. Gridpoint's home storage solution won the endorsement by clean energy advocate and former CIA director James Woolsey, whom I met here in Pittsburgh last month. Mr. Woolsey, who is also an adviser to Gridpoint, told me he had recently purchased a system for his home in suburban DC and was very pleased with the decision as it holds promise to un-tethering all Americans from the grid. Almost 100 years after his invention of the off-grid residence, this would be an accomplishment would Mr. Edison, probably the earliest advocate of energy Independence, could be proud of.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Live Webcast of Acciona's Nevada Solar One plant dedication

Acciona's co's Nevada Solar One thermal solar plant went live during the summer of 2007. At 64 megawatts, it is the 3rd largest solar power plant in the world. Right now there is a live webcast of the dedication ceremony which will be followed by a press conference. You can watch it all here. One of the amazing feasts of this accomplishment is that it took only 16 months to complete the plant.

This event marks what I hope is the beginning of our movement towards large scale solar power projects, as Acciona has already announced that it is planning to open up a 200 MW plant out west, which the Spanish firm expects to be completed at some point in the year 2010.

Coincidentally (or not), earlier today the state of Arizona's largest public utility company, Arizona Public Service, announced plans to build an even larger solar thermal power plant about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. The price tag for the 240 MW plant is expect to be around one billion US dollars.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A pragmatic arguement for Nuclear Energy

I've been saying for some time now that the environmentalists need to seriously come to terms with Nuclear energy. If we want to stop global warming then we must stop building dirty burning coal plants. Since we do not have enough solar, wind, or hydroelectric capacity to meet our growing electricity demands our only option at this time is Nuclear energy.

Those of us who are realists and are against global warming recognize two key things in regards to Nuclear energy. First and foremost, we must address the issue of nuclear waste storage. Shipping spent fuel across the country to a mountain facility in Nevada is a disaster waiting to happen. Secondly, Nuclear power is safer than coal fired power plants. More people have died over time from the emissions of coal plants than they have from nuclear plants. This is documented going all the way back to the 19th century. To this very day, people in China are dying from black soot because of the poor regulations in the rural areas of that nation.

Famed cleantech investor, Carnegie Mellon Alum, and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla agrees with me, and made my case for me in an interview he did with Earth2Tech a few weeks back. Here is an excerpt related to the Nuclear debate:

Earth2Tech: You’re well known for having big macro views as to how these things have to change. What do you think is the single biggest failure of American environmental policy that we could actually do something about?

Vinod Khosla: For every nuclear plant that environmentalists avoided, they ended up causing two coal plants to be built. That’s the history of the last 20 years. Most new power plants in this country are coal, because the environmentalists opposed nuclear. When you ask someone like the NRDC, ‘Do you prefer nuclear or coal?’ They’ll say ‘We prefer nuclear to coal, but we don’t want either.’ It doesn’t work that way; we need power.

They’d like to see wind and solar photovoltaics. Well, it doesn’t work if it’s 40 cents a kilowatt hour, and it doesn’t work if you have to tell PG&E’s customers: ‘We’ll ship you power when the wind’s blowing and the sun’s shining, but otherwise, you gotta miss your favorite soap opera or NFL game.’ That’s just the reality, so you have to be pragmatic about this. What is the most cost-effective way to do it?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Buying a hybrid isn't enough

It is easy being green - but in the grand scheme of things simply going green by recycling or purchasing a hybrid vehicle is not going to do much to offset climate change. That is the message I got when I read Michael Maniates Washington Post article from this past November. Maniates, a professor of political and environmental science at nearby Allegheny College, states that we need change on a massive scale if we want to have a real impact on saving the planet. He says that all of the marketing of books and shows about how easy it is going green is doing disservice to the movement . I totally 100% agree with him. Listen - I want to do my part in reducing my carbon footprint - and I have already begun doing so, but in the end me taking public transit to work is not going to make a difference when our entire society and communities are centered around automobile transportation.

Big changes have to happen in cities and suburbs throughout America and it is going to take changes from the top down to move our culture away from gasoline powered automobiles towards mass transit and alternative forms of transportation like biking and.......and walking. Yes, walking can be a form of transportation too! With smarter design and emphasis on new urban and sustainable development people can live, work, and play all within walking distance. I get all crazy eyed when I hear of people who just have to drive their car a quarter of a mile to a grocery store or those who won't take the light rail because the nearest station is a half mile away from their office building. To them I say this: "It is time for us to wake up and stop being fat lazy Americans!!!!"

He concludes:

The time for easy is over. We're grown-ups who understand the necessity of hard work and difficult choices. We're ready for frank talk about how we best confront -- in ways rewarding, confusing, creative and hard -- the planetary emergency before us.

If we can send a man to the moon, can't we quit our dependency on foreign oil?? If we don't need foreign oil then we shouldn't have to get involved in middle east conflicts like the Iraq War, do you not agree? If we have billions to spend on new transportation infrastructure - like more light rail, commuter trains, and even high speed rail - instead of spending it on the war we will have enough infrastructure work to generate a sustainable boom in our economy and also freedom from being at the mercy of the airlines - who also guzzle up gallons and gallons of oil, once the rails are completed. Also, as a result of using more mass transit, we would spend less time in our cars and more time walking, which will make us healthier and happier. If we all have to walk more, we'll lose weight and we will live longer, resulting in a lower price tag for universal health care , much lower than what they've initially calculated.

Isn't it something that these big issues - energy independence, transportation, health care - are all interrelated? I now walk at least one mile per day when I get to take the light rail into work. The estimate is probably closer to one and a half to two miles if you include walking on my lunch hour and walking to and from my car in the massive lot by the rail station. My wife recently said she noticed that I was losing weight. I have not been going to the gym, and I sit behind a desk at my job pretty much all day. I am losing weight because I no longer drive my car into work 5 days a week.

This got me thinking - what if we were paid to take mass transit into work, or what if mass transit, like the light rail system I use, is free? Assuming there would be enough capacity for such a move (there isn't here in Pittsburgh), the results of this experiment would, I assume, shock a lot of people. A project like this would take a massive federal subsidy since fare revenues could not be used to fund the system's operations - but there could be alternative revenue streams to make up for it. How about print and video advertising in the rail cars and stations to offset the loss of fare revenues? I think this works since free rides would equal more riders and more eyeballs for the ads. What do you think about this idea?

Bike the vote

Bike riders and fans of alternative transportation out West are rallying behind Senator Barack Obama's position on their issue:

“As president, Barack Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account. Obama will build upon his efforts in the Senate to ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks, and he will also re-commit federal resources to public mass transportation projects across the country. Building more livable and sustainable communities will not only reduce the amount of time individuals spent commuting, but will also have significant benefits to air quality, public health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

While their numbers are not huge, it is significant that they recognized Senator Obama's commitment to making funding for bikes paths and alternative forms of commuting a priority for his administration's transportation program, especially after Bush's Transportation Secretary said last summer that bikes and their infrastructure should not be part of federal transportation funding.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What do we do with our "overabundance" of water?

As I walked over the Roberto Clemente Bridge on my way to work this morning, I took a few minutes to take in the scene of the rising Allegheny River and thought: Atlanta Georgia would love to have our problem. While the Atlanta metropolitan area has to enforce very strict laws on restricting the watering of one's lawn during the day time, here in Pittsburgh we have too much water, so much water we don't know what to do with it.

The constant rising and falling of the temperatures during the last few winters here has led to flooding and other problems with our aging sewage and drainage infrastructure. For this reason, quality, not quantity, of the water is our region's chief concern. With that said, water quality is an issue that has been studied, reported, and debated around here, and has even led to fines levied against the region's sanitary authority. I want to bring up the subject of what to do with our "overabundance" of water, because nobody seems to be talking about that.

If drastic measures are not taken to move from dirty to clean energy, if coal plants in our region and around the world continue emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, temperatures will continue to rise and will eventually put parts of the city of Pittsburgh under water. What are we going to do about all of our water? Do we just sit here and wait for the next generation do deal with it? Is there anything we can do?

We don't have a lot of oil, wind, sun, or other resources here in Pittsburgh, so beyond human capital at least the only natural resource that we could leverage to help us build up the regional economy is water (yes, we have plenty of coal too).

The three possibilities that we need to figure out are:

  1. How to turn our vast amounts of water from our rivers into hydroelectric power, enough power to run the city
  2. Can we transport the excess water to places that need it? If this is feasible, how do we do it? Pipeline? Rail? Can we sell our excess water to regions like Atlanta? How about sending it to places that do not have safe drinking water - maybe Africa?
  3. Market the region's abundance of water as a key differentiator when compared to other regions, like an Atlanta. As water shortages throughout the US increase, Pittsburgh would have a huge advantage.
Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I'm not alone. Several times over the course of the past year I have heard former Allegheny County Executive James Roddey mention that water is a strategic asset to the region and that we need to find ways to capitalize on it. He's right - we do have a unique opportunity. So now what do we do about it?

Note: Yesterday afternoon I received an email from Mr. Roddey himself. Here is what he had to say in response to this post:
Start with doing everything we can to clean up our rivers. Next, we need to consolidate our many separate water authorities into one regional supplier. We then need a plan to provide an adequate water supply to the five county metro area of Pittsburgh. Then…………we market our significant, potable water advantage over the rest of the US!! Forget about sending water to areas such as Atlanta, etc. It’s far too expensive by today’s standards. (Maybe not so in 10 or 15 years.)
[we can then say] “Locate your company in a place where you can be assured of a reliable source of fresh water and a place where your employees don’t have to water their lawns on alternate days.”