Saturday, May 29, 2010

Oregon's other rail transit system

Quick question:  Other than Portland and its suburbs, what city in the state of Oregon has rail transit service, or something resembling it?  Amtrak doesn't count, obviously--nor do the various dinner trains to be found around the state.

The answer?

Astoria--the Astoria Riverfront Trolley.  

The Riverfront Trolley is single-vehicle operation which, as the name indicates, operates along a 2.6 mile stretch along the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon.  The trolley itself a 1913-vintage electric trolley (powered by a tow-along diesel generator) known as "Old 300".   The tracks--like many heritage railways--are an abandoned freight line.  And it's probably a stretch to refer to the Trolley as "transit".  It is a heritage railway, it runs infrequently (45 minute round trips, with service only during daylight hours), it isn't ADA compliant in the least, it's staffed by volunteers, and the conductor (the trolley has a separate conductor and motorman) doubles as a tour guide.   But:
  • Rides cost a dollar.  Two dollars gets you a day pass.  Most heritage or excursion railways, geared towards tourists, cost an arm and a leg.  (A single 1-2 zone pass on MAX, for comparison, costs more than $2--unless you're in the Free Rail Zone, at least). 
  • It runs seven days a week during the summer months.
  • The stop spacing (600m between stops) is decidedly transit-like.
  • Unlike most heritage railways, which only offer end-to-end or round-trip service, and are generally not useful as transit--the line has 8 scheduled stops (complete with modern, albeit simple, platforms), and even will accept hails from along the tracks. 
The Trolley gets 30,000 riders per year--a far cry from the 120,000 rides which MAX sees per day.  As it generally doesn't run in the winter months, it isn't a great option for the transit dependent (the Sunset Empire Transportation District, which operates bus service in Clatsop County, is probably a better choice).  But if you want to get around the Astoria waterfront, and don't want to drive, it's one way to go--and with cruise ships calling on Astoria, there are plenty of tourists who don't come with cars.  

(A bit of a disclaimer.  While I have no connection to the Astoria Riverfront Trolley, my godfather was a volunteer for them for several years.)


The line has an interesting history.  The trolley itself, acquired from the San Antonio Museum Association, was originally tasked with hauling passengers in the Alamo City, before being mothballed.  It has undergone several restorations, and at one point ran on the Willamette Shore trolley line (which runs along the Jefferson Branch), and later at the now-defunct Glenwood Trolley Park near Gales Creek.
In 1998, when the Glenwood Trolley Park ceased operations, the trolley was leased by the Astoria Riverfront Trolley Association.  A group of local volunteers then restored the trolley, and the trolley service started operation in 1999.  Two years later, a full-time maintenance facility was built, and in 2005 the ARTA purchased the trolley outright from the San Antonio Museum Association for US$50,000.

The tracks the trolley operates on were part of a line that originally ran between Portland and Seaside.  The line opened in 1898 as the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad, and was purchased by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (a predecessor to the Burlington Northern) in 1911.  Passenger service along the line continued until 1952.  The rail bridge across Young's Bay, and the line south to Seaside, were abandoned some time ago, but the rest of the line still exists.  The tracks the Astoria Trolley operates on have been disconnected from the rest of the branch (which is still an active freight line east of Astoria, operated by the Portland and Western) so the Trolley tracks are FRA-exempt.

Other interesting links:  
  • The trolley association's training manual for volunteers gives lots of interesting technical details on the trolley itself, the route, and its operation.
  • has a page dedicated to the trolley.
Pictures courtesy of the Astoria Riverfront Trolley Association.  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bus/rail and the funding crisis, part troix

Click the links for parts un and deux of this series.

I've been busy lately, and another full article will be coming soon.  But in the meantime, more material on the bus/rail debate (and in particular, on Peter Rogoff's controversial remarks last week).

  • The Urbanophile's take.
  • Jarrett quotes The Urbanophile
  • Yonah does a followup
  • TriMet announces its latest round of service cuts.  
  • Bojack bashes Milwaukie MAX.  While ordinarily, this wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, as Bogdanski is generally suspicious of big-ticket infrastructure projects, his commenters make a salient point:  The State of Oregon is contributing $250 million to the project, funds which--unlike the Federal match--are completely fungible.  Could TriMet make better use of the money?
And a few other items:
  • The Cascadia Corridor is getting nearly $600 million from the feds. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Things that should be automated

TriMet bus driver Al M, who runs several blogs concerning his chosen profession, today includes a new item--documenting getting written up for failure to consistently call stops on his route.  Al expresses some indignation at this, naturally--noting that bus drivers have lots of things to worry about, such as not running over people--and that this is one more distraction for the driver.

Of course, audible stop identifications are a Federal requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so TriMet can get in trouble if it isn't complying with the law.

But rather than burdening bus operators with this particular chore--this should be automated.

Of course, TriMet is a bit short on cash right now, and has been reducing service left and right.  Which is why a guerrilla solution may be called for.

We've got lots of cool apps for all the mobile phone platforms (and for various laptops and netbooks) to let you know when the bus is coming--why one which correlates position data from the GPS with route data, and produces audible stop announcements out the speaker?  Why isn't there, as they say, an App For That?

Al, or other bus drivers, can take it along (assuming they don't get canned for "using a phone while driving"), and have IT call out the stops over the bus's PA, so they can focus on driving the damn bus.  After all, automated stop announcements are common on rail transit--and train drivers generally don't have to worry about other issues such as fare collection, obnoxious passengers, or many of the perks which bus drivers get for free.
Of course, I don't expect any transit agency--risk averse as they are--from actually permitting this sort of thing as part of their operations--at least not unless officially blessed, tested, signed, sealed, and delivered.   Might call out the wrong stop and get them sued, or something like that--and when it's an automated gadget that fails, rather than a human operator, it makes it harder for the proverbial sh*t to roll downhill.

But still--this is the sort of problem that ought to be solved with technology.  And if an official solution is not in the cards, and bureaucracy gets in the way, perhaps a visit from Harry Tuttle is in order.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A transit hierarchy of needs

Note: Much of the material in this post was taken from comments which originally appeared in this thread at, Jarrett Walker's excellent transit blog.  It has been significantly edited for the current article.

One famous treatise in the field of psychology is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which arranges human needs in a hierarchy from basic survival needs (food, water) at the bottom, to more abstract sources of happiness (self-actualization and such) at the top. The paper was controversial when written, and is still controversial, but its influence on the field cannot be disputed.

A hierarchy for transit

A similar model can be applied to many other endeavors, including to transit. I was going to make one up :) (and did so anyway) but then discovered this paper written by researchers at the University of Florida, after surveying transit users. The "Hierarchy of Transit Needs" as documented in the paper, is a five-level pyramid, with the most basic needs at the bottom. The articulated needs (starting with the most basic) are as follows--all text is quoted from the paper.

  • Safety and security. Personal safety, safety for personal property, familiarity with route, mode, and destination.
  • Time. Trip efficiency, in-vehicle time, waiting time, transfers, walk time, trip chaining.
  • Societal acceptance. Acceptance. Personal and peer/society attitudes toward modes (for or against).
  • Cost. Best value. Fixed (vehicle, assurance) and variable (gas, care, tolls, parking).
  • Comfort and convenience. Better travel experience. Comfort. More reliability. Easy access.

The questionnaire given to survey participants consisted of a set of questions asking which mode of travel among two choices (each optimizing a given value) participants would choose.  The vehicle type was the same in each question--questions were of the sort "do you prefer the fast bus through the bad neighborhood, or the slow bus through the nice part of town?"  (That wasn't one of the questions; just an example to demonstrate the flavor).  One major issue with the paper is that the survey participants don't appear to be anything near a representative sampling of society.  Survey participants were recruited from a psychology class, a campus listserv, and a local church--and the demographic profile of the respondents was overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly students, and overwhelmingly childless.  (And geographically limited--the survey was conducted only in two locales; Gainesville, FL, and Savannah, GA--both Southern cities of a similar size to Eugene, OR).  Beyond that, I don't have any particular complaints about the methodology; though I'm not qualified to dive too much more deeply beyond the obviously-skewed sample.

My own musings

Prior to reading the paper, I had informally come up with my own list--which is based on my opinion and my opinion only, and has no scientific justification whatsoever.  But this is a blog, not a journal, so here goes anyway. :)

  • Access. Does the mode serve my current location and my destination, at all?  Right now, I can't take TriMet to get to Mount Hood (you could in the past); so TriMet is useless to me for that trip.
  • Safety and security. Pretty much the same as that presented in the paper. Is a user likely to get mugged, killed, or have his/her stuff stolen while making the trip?
  • Reliability. Can users depend on the service? If a Greyhound bus coming to a town is frequently two hours later (or one hour earlier) than its scheduled time, the service is too unreliable to be useful to any but the most desperate traveler; conversely, a Greyhound bus that arrives within ten minutes of its scheduled time is more useful; even if it only runs once per day.
  • Time and convenience. What Jarrett Walker calls "mobility"; what the paper calls "time". How far must one walk, how long must one wait, how long must one wait, and how often must one transfer? Is fare payment easy and convenient, or do riders need exact change everywhere they go? Is there sufficient information available, presented in a useful form, for users to make informed trip-planning decisions (including routing around delays or service disruptions, if necessary?)
  • Comfort. This refers to basic issues like ride quality, seating vs standing, are the seats too hard or too cramped, climate control. Can something useful be done while riding the bus or train (reading, working on computer)? Likewise, are the stations/platforms/stops comfortable?  A train may have plush seats but if it is frequently crushloaded, it is likely to be uncomfortable.
  • Cost. Cost to the user, obviously. (Externalized costs are another issue, of course; but many people are more than happy to externalize their costs). Pretty much the same as in the study. It is useful to distinguish three types of cost--incremental costs (what must one pay for an additional trip) vs access costs (what must one pay to have this mode available to them) vs system costs (what must one pay, as a member of society, to have this mode available to society?)
  • Amenities. Niceties which don't provide a direct mobility or comfort benefit, but which may make the trip more pleasant or productive--does the vehicle/platform/station have WiFi? Restrooms? Food and beverage service (whether it be a dining car, or a vending machine)? Nice art hanging on the walls?
  • Societal acceptance. Being a nerd, my (uninformed) gut instinct is to put this on the bottom; but some users simply won't use certain modes/routes/etc. due to various cultural prejudices. Dislike for busses among upper classes in much of North America is well-documented. Many transit services (chiefly long-distance services in the US) sell first-class tickets where, for a premium price, one can have nicer amenities, a comfier seat, and segregation from the riffraff--and don't think for a minute that the last isn't important. And bus segregation was an important concern for the US civil rights movement.

Obviously, my list is a bit more fine-grained than the one in the paper. The top of my list (the bottom of my pyramid) is an item (access) that appears to be considered a "given" in the paper. The big difference, as noted above, is the inversion of social issues and "comfort"; but as a self-proclaimed "nerd", I'm perhaps less sensitive to certain cultural attitudes and cues than are most people--or so I like to think.

A few things to note:

  • Safety is very important, particularly in the developed world.  System safety is generally a given in developed nations, where most safety concerns revolve around personal safety (i.e. not becoming victims of crime while using or waiting for the service).  The study paper noted this--many who claim to value safety expressed a preference for private automobiles, where they wouldn't encounter unsavory characters, despite the greater chances of being involved in an accident in a personal auto.  (Hence the infamous Chevy add to the right).  In other parts of the world, safety is often sacrificed for greater access and coverage--not a month goes by, it seems, without a report of a train wreck with multiple casualties (often in the dozens) in a developing nation.
  • Time is also very important, which to me is unsurprising.
  • I was a bit surprised that in the UF study, comfort rated low--given that many of the pro-rail arguments in the bus/rail debate center around comfort.  (Indeed, the original thread at humantransit centered around how bus driver skill can increase or decrease ride quality).  
  • One surprising thing was the low placement of cost--especially given that the sample was dominated by students, who are generally more sensitive to price than other segments of the population.  Income levels were not included in the demographic information published in the study report--though respondents were asked if they were presently employed on either a full-time or part-time basis.
  • Social acceptance placed high in the UF study, behind only safety and time--and ahead of cost.   
So, what does it all mean, anyway?
Ignoring any particular methodological issues with the UF study, it is worthwhile to ask:  Is this sort of model useful?  I would say yes, with the following caveats:
  • This sort of model is only useful as a first-order approximation--sufficient for abstract discussions of customer behavior; insufficient for planning purposes.  One issue with the "Maslow hierarchy" comparison--an issue acknowledged in the study report--is that it implies a stricter ordering of priorities than is probably manifest.  Customer behavior is doubtless too complicated to accurately describe with a bullet-ed list of values.
  • The UF study probably has limited use outside of the geographical area(s) in question.  It is doubtful whether it applies to larger nearby cities such as Jacksonville, let alone ethnically diverse areas like Miami or Atlanta--or any place outside of the South.  (And for this reason, any attempt to perform a study like this on a national level, to devise the views of an entire country in aggregate, are probably of limited use).  
  • The UF study also distills questions to their most abstract forms--values (safety, time) independent of any particular implementation.  Even with valid results for an area, one must consider what it all means in concrete terms.  In some parts of the world, for example, it is widely believed that busses are burdened with a stigma of poverty but rail is not--in other parts of the world, that is decidedly untrue.  
  • A transit agency or planning agency looking to improve or expand its service, would do well to perform more detailed market research than this--in particular, segmenting the marketplace even finer than a citywide or regional aggregate.  (Many transit agencies do this already, or plan to). 
With those caveats in mind, though, it is useful to keep in mind that the factors which drive passenger behavior (and which planners need to be aware of) are varied and complex.  A proposal which focuses on only one aspect of the hierarchy, even if at the upper levels, is probably going to not be successful.  While it is useful, for instance, to focus only on time-and-distance issues for a particular discussion; actual decision-making will have to be concerned with much more.  How much?  That depends on regional values, and is very much a political decision--not something that can be computed by rote.

A common mistake is to assume that values, or their implementations, are global--this is a common phenomenon in bus/rail debates, where claims like "choice riders don't like busses" are frequently heard. 
And in some cases, it is probably desirable to disregard the stated values of some customers--particularly when those values include exclusion or segregation of other customers.  (A common manifestations of the "social acceptance" value is avoidance of persons or demographics considered inferior or suspect--which in all too many cases, means minorities or the poor). 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Five Questions about Milwaukie MAX

Next year, ground will be broken on the next extension to Portland's MAX system--a new light rail line running from Portland State University to Milwaukie. The line is scheduled to open in 2015. This will be the sixth major MAX project for the Portland metro area.  The line, as currently planned, will add over 7 miles of new tracks, including a new green bridge (serving MAX, busses, Portland Streetcar, emergency vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians) across the Willamette River, south of the Marquam Bridge, and 10 new stops (two on the west side, 8 on the east side of the river). TriMet projections indicate 27,000 new trips by the year 2030.

The project's Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) is due in the next few months--possibly as soon as this month (May).  While we wait for that, I have five questions about Milwaukie MAX.  Some of them are innocuous, some of them are loaded for bear:

(For those interested, an old discussion of this topic from two years ago is at

What color is it?  Orange, Yellow, Green--or something else?

The line is frequently referred to, in many informal circles, as the Orange Line--probably in part due to the planning map to the right (courtesy of TriMet) which shows the new line in orange.  Whether or not this is the actual proposed color of the line (indicating it's a distinct service from the four existing lines), or it ends up being an extension of the Yellow or Green lines (the latter seems like an unlikely scenario, but the former makes a lot of sense, given TriMet's longstanding desire to have a north-south trunk line), hasn't yet been announced.  It may well be undecided at this point.

My preference would be for the line to be a Yellow extension--while longer lines have reliability problems, an Oak Grove to Expo through line wouldn't be long enough to worry about--it would still pale in comparison to the present Blue Line.  Through-routing has numerous advantages, including increasing the number of places you can go without a transfer, and adding similar value to whatever line is extended south.

One other piece of evidence which suggests against an extended Yellow Line:  The table on page 95 of this document, listing the proposed traffic loads on the new Caruthers Bridge, suggests 8 trains at peak hour, which is twice what the Yellow currently runs.  Also, there's the little matter of the the PSU/Union shuttle, which may well be a placeholder for future Orange trains.  (One other possibility--it's a dual-colored line, with some Orange trains ending downtown, and Yellows continuing on to N. Portland).

Why does it cost so much money?

 Many of the numbers associated with the project sounds good.  Here's one that doesn't:  $1.4 billion.  That's how much the think is projected to cost.

Put your pinky to your mouth, draw breath through your teeth, and repeat that in your best Dr Evil voice:

"One point four BEEEELYUN dollars".

Or, about $200 million a mile.  $200 million was almost the cost of the entire initial MAX line from Portland to Gresham--of course, that was 1980s money.  More recently, British Columbia built the Canada Line extension to Vancouver's SkyTrain system--nearly 12 miles (20km) in total length, and entirely grade-separated (elevated in Richmond and near the airport, a subway in Vancouver itself)--the price tag of that was about CAN$2 billion.  Even at the current strength of the loonie (this morning, US$1 was about CAN$1.03), that's a much lower price per mile.  (Or kilometer).

Much of the Milwaukie line will be grade-separated, such as the stretch from Riverplace or thereabouts to the new bridge, and much of the route along the UPRR.  And some property acquisition will be needed in the OMSI area.  The Canada Line was criticized for being built on the cheap--in particular, the cut-and-cover construction techniques annoyed many.

But still--despite the fact that a lot of the money comes from Uncle Sam, it's still a pretty steep price tag; and one which will attract lots of opposition.

When will it reach Oregon City?

One of my main criticisms of the Milwaukie MAX project is the "Milwaukie" part.  Not that it goes there; but that it ends there (Oak Grove, more specifically).  The project, ultimately, needs to run the entire length of one of TriMet's most important transit corridors.

It needs to go to Oregon City.

I'm not complaining, too much. Half a line is better than none, and we don't live an a universe of unlimited funding.  Milwaukie is an important destination (Oak Grove, OTOH...)  The OR99E corridor currently has lots of busses running up and down it, and has sufficient volume for light rail. However, for the line to reach its true potential--it needs to reach Oregon City.

Unlike many of the other lines in the system, which have freeways in the vicinity, Milwaukie MAX is not competing with any freeway.  This is even more so south of Milwaukie, where OR99E (McLoughlin Boulevard) is an urban boulevard with tons of traffic lights slowing motorists down.  

There are quite a few valid reasons why a line only to Milwaukie (actually, to Oak Grove, an unincorporated community just south of Milwaukie) is a reasonable project. For one thing, money is an issue. For another thing, the route to Oregon City is undecided--for more discussion of this, see the next question. For a third, there's also the potential of a Clackamas-to-Tigard line in the future, crossing the river near Milwaukie or Lake Oswego, bisecting the Milwaukie line (or even forming part of its extension).

But if you drive down Main Street in Oregon City, past the courthouse and the elevator, there are still tracks embedded in the road (tracks which are occasionally used by trains switching in the Blue Heron paper mill), and other visible remnants of the old Portland Traction line that once tied Portland to Oregon City. Four separate bus lines depart Oregon City and head downtown. The #33 is one of TriMet's most frequently used lines, and were MAX to substantially reduce the amount of time it takes to ride downtown (currently, almost an hour), the value of the project to commuters would grow tremendously.

By not reaching the end of the Oregon Trail, the line really isn't finished.

How will it reach Oregon City, and where will it go when it eventually gets there?

Here, I'm asking the 35,000 foot corridor question--not looking for a specific alignment.  But on Metro's long range high-capacity transit map, two possible routes to Oregon city are indicated--an alignment through Oak Grove and Gladstone, roughly along the OR99E corridor, or an alignment from Milwaukie along the Lake Road/OR224 corridor to Clackamas, then following I-205 to Oregon City.  The decision to terminate the current project in Oak Grove suggests a 99E routing is more likely--this route would serve more established communities--albeit some rather low-density areas; as McLoughlin south of Milwaukie is a notorious sprawlevard.  A Clackamas routing passes through some green and brownfields, possibly giving more opportunities for TOD, but might negatively impact the existing Green Line.
One other possibility for reaching Oregon City that would be a bad idea, would be to simply extend the Green Line.  While doing so might not be entirely bad, as part of a larger system, it would stink for OC commuters trying to reach downtown, or vice versa--depending on where you were headed, the existing bus service would be faster.

The main important destinations in Oregon City are probably the downtown area (including the OC Transit Center), the OC Shopping Center, and Clackamas Community College (including the CCC Transit Center, where TriMet interchanges with Canby and South Clackamas transit districts.  CCC would be a fine anchor--but it's located at the top of the hill in Oregon City, getting MAX up there might be an interesting engineering problem.

Getting MAX into downtown OC, in particular the courthouse and elevator areas, would also be interesting, albeit for a different reason--there's only two blocks between the river and the bluff on which everything (OR99E, the UPRR mainline, and numerous buildings) are sandwhiched.

How effective will it be, given its location between OR 99E and the UPRR mainline?

View Larger Map
One other criticism of the line concerns its location.  For much of the length, the Milwaukie line lies between OR99E, and the UPRR tracks.  North of Holgate, the line passes through the Brooklyn neighborhood, which will probably generate an adequate number of trips.  South of that, the line is literally between the highway and the tracks.
When the Green Line opened, it received some criticism for it's freeway adjacent routing--chiefly on the grounds that having a freeway on one side of the tracks limited development opportunities.  Freeways are generally unattractive to live close to, and because the freeway is a barrier to pedestrian access--even if an overcrossing or undercrossing is provided.  Others in the transit community have defended freeway routing.  The Milwaukie Line, in the stretch between Milwaukie TC and Holgate, will essentially have two such barriers, one on each side of the line.  The stations along this stretch (Bybee and Tacoma Street) will be center-island stations accessed from overpasses; getting to and from the station requires use of stairs or an elevator.  Sounds pleasant?

Of course, this is the same essential configuration as the Blue/Red/Green line between Lloyd Center and Gateway.  That line is sandwiched between a freeway and a freight line, and accessed from above--yet it is a very successful part of the system.  Here, station spacing is wide, and MAX functions more like a metro than like a tram.  Perhaps similar success will be met on the Milwaukie line.
Or perhaps not.  The Lloyd/Gateway stretch passes through a rather dense part of inner Portland, with numerous overcrossings of the line (including many without stations), and development which comes very close to the trench containing the freeway and the tracks.  And, the section is a trunk of the MAX system, with the three lines branching out at Gateway. 

For the Milwaukie stretch, crossings of the tracks and highway are much rarer, the distances involved to reach development are much wider, and the development that exists is far less dense (including uses such as a golf course and a large public park).  Whether or not the line will attract riders from destinations such as Reed College or Westmoreland remains to be seen.  Also, rather than being a trunk in the system, the line as presently planned more resembles a branch--it would be as if the eastside MAX line ended at Gateway, rather than branching off there.


In a forthcoming post, I'll have five more questions about the project--if we're lucky, perhaps the EIS will be released for public scrutiny.

A Major Milestone

Today, dear readers, after a year of existence, and nearly forty articles, the Dead Horse Times reached a major milestone.

Our first spammer.  (Woohoo!)

Hawking auto parts, of all things.

(Don't look; it's already been deleted).

This calls for celebration, and a nice tall glass of beer tonight.

On the recent TriMet accident, and the grand jury's decision

One of the biggest topics in Portland transit circles the past month hasn't been TriMet budget cuts, or Neal McFarlane, or the CRC.  The story which has dominated the news is the tragic accident last May, when a TriMet bus turned (illegally) into a crowd of pedestrians at the intersection of NW Glisan and NW Broadway, killing two and seriously injuring a third.  I've mostly avoided commenting on the incident, waiting for the official investigation to complete.

And now, the investigation is complete.  A Multnomah County grand jury has declined to indict the driver, one Sandi Day, on charges of "criminally negligent homicide".  CNH is a felony offense which likely would have resulted in prison time for Ms. Day had she plead guilty or been convicted.  At this point, it is unlikely that Day will be spending any time in the big house.

However, she's not out of trouble, not in the slightest:  she has been charged with six traffic offenses--three of them misdemeanors (2 counts of "Careless driving resulting in the death of a vulnerable person", and one of "careless driving resulting in serious physical injury to a vunlerable person), and 3 infractions (failure to yield, illegal left turn, and careless driving resulting in an accident).  In addition, the DA's office pulled few punches in the report they released.   Al has a picture of the traffic ticket she ultimately received.  While none of these offenses carries a prison sentence, the three misdemeanors carry a potentially large fine--and a guilty plea or conviction would likely result in Day losing her Washington State Commercial drivers' license--and her job.

(Ms. Day lives in the state of Washington and is thus licensed there; a Washington CDL is valid for employment as a driver with TriMet.)

Varied opinions

In my opinion, which isn't terribly uninformed, the grand jury made the right call.  There is little question that Day was at fault in the accident, and that she broke the law.  The pedestrians were crossing NW Broadway with a walk signal, and the bus was making a left turn from the right-hand curb lane.  (Day had made an unscheduled stop to drop off a passenger, placing the bus out of the proper position to execute the left turn required of the route).  Rather than proceeding straight on Glisan and going around the block, she attempted the turn anyway--striking a crowd of pedestrians.

Much of the investigation focused on the position of the mirrors on the bus she was driving--did they obscure her view?  They most probably did, but drivers of commercial vehicles generally have a responsibility to "look behind" any visual obstructions.  The fact that she was turning across two lanes of parallel traffic may have also played a part--as executing that maneuver safely also requires she make sure she's not sideswiping any cars travelling westbound on Glisan to her left.

Certainly, Day needs to face some music.  But is criminally negligent homicide appropriate?  A relevant judicial opinion from a 1984 ruling is reproduced below (another hat tip to Al, who's a busy blogger...)

Criminally negligent homicide is defined at ORS 163.145. One commits this crime by causing the death of another “with criminal negligence,” which is in turn defined at ORS 161.085(10):
“’Criminal negligence’ or ‘criminally negligent,’ when used with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense, means that a person fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to beaware of it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”
The crime of “criminally negligent homicide” encompasses more than just cases in which death results from driving. It includes any case in which a defendant causes the death of another by behavior that is “criminally negligent.”
Under Oregon law, this mental state of “criminal negligence” requires more than inadvertence, inattentiveness, or, in driving cases, the added commission of traffic violations. The legislative commentary to the 1971 Criminal Code revision on the (then) new crime of criminally negligent homicide stated that the purpose in defining this crime was to include conduct by a defendant who is unaware of great risk “only because [she] is insensitive to the interests and claims of other persons in society.” (emphasis added).  This insensitivity to the safety and well-being of others must then produce a “gross deviation” from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use.
Historically, most vehicular homicides are charged as Manslaughter I or II because they involve intoxicated drivers who also speed, make unsafe passes, run stop signs or red lights, and engage in other aggravated, aggressive driving. Under Oregon case law, Criminally Negligent Homicide cases typically involve this same level of bad driving, but usually without intoxication. Indicted criminally negligent vehicular homicides are fairly rare since the level of bad driving required by this crime is usually accompanied by intoxication, which then elevates the conduct into the “reckless” category, resulting in a charge of manslaughter.
In Oregon, not every fatal vehicle accident can or should result in felony homicide or other criminal charges, even when caused by a driver committing traffic violation(s) and/or being inattentive. The law requires substantially more egregious conduct to charge a driver with a criminally negligent homicide, with its presumptive prison sentence and many other serious consequences. Drivers who are not charged criminally do not, however, escape the law’s punishment; they are held responsible by a civil lawsuit using the standard of ordinary or “civil” negligence. This lesser form of negligence is generally defined as a failure to use “reasonable care” when acting in a given situation. “Reasonable care” is “what a reasonable person of ordinary prudence would, or would not, do in the same or similar circumstances.” Wollston v. Wells, 297 Or 548 (1984).

Emphasis added by me.  The purpose of criminally negligent homicide (and manslaughter, an even more serious charge) isn't to punish people who have brain farts and kill someone--it's to punish people who engage in flagrantly careless behavior and kill someone.   Acts like reckless driving, drunk driving, racing, joyriding, "chicken", showing off, and other obviously dangerous actions, are what these charges are all about.   Not every vehicular death implies the commission of a felony offense--even when one party is clearly at fault, and even when that party has clearly broken the law.

The dissenting opinion

Not everybody agrees, of course.  As expected, many of the relatives of the deceased are unhappy with the decision; I won't pick on grieving families in this blog.  Longstanding Portland blogger Jack Bogdanski, a professor of tax law at Lewis and Clark, is another matter.  Bojack, as he's commonly known, is incensed--and seems to think that not only did Day deserve a felony rap, but implies that the reason she wasn't indicted is due to monkey business on the part of the DA's office.  According to Bojack:

The immunity that the Portland police appear to enjoy from effective prosecution by the county district attorney now seems to be extending itself to bus drivers
In the comments, Bogdanski asserted that the conduct of Ms. Day does fall under the ambit of criminally negligent homicide, even though the case quoted above suggests otherwise.  But the suggestion that the DA acted improperly in not securing an indictment (felony indictments can only come from grand juries, remember), is stunning.
A common allegation against the the Multnomah County DA's office is that it is unwilling to prosecute police officers involved in shootings, even when the officer's claim to justifiable deadly force is questionable; and many accuse prosecutors (here and elsewhere) of "sandbagging" grand juries in such incidents--of not bringing the strongest case to the panel--in order to avoid an indictment.  As grand jury proceedings are generally secret, nobody knows for sure.  There isn't any real evidence that DA's offices do this; but given the close nature of the relationship between cops and prosecutors, a definite conflict of interest exists... and cops seldom if ever get indicted.  So some room for suspicion probably exists with regard to police shootings.
But bus drivers?  Are you telling me that the DA's office would sandbag a high-profile case like this to protect a bus driver?  That doesn't make sense--unless you think there's some secret solidarity pact among public employees, at all levels of government and across all organizations thereof.   That theory is flat-out ridiculous, and I hope that's not what Bogdanski thinks is going on.  Besides--after not getting the indictment, the DA's office pretty much threw every misdemeanor that it could find at Sandi Day. 

This was a terrible, and tragic, accident.  Two people are dead; a third was badly wounded; and Sandi Day's career is probably ruined.  It feels highly improper to mention her woes in the same sentence as those of the victims, but there it is.  But a felony?  Not even close. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An update on the rail/bus argument

A few days back, we dealt with a bit of a rail/bus argument brewing in Portland--wherein many transit advocates are assuming an anti-rail posture, on the belief that continued focus on rail expansion was jeopardizing bus service.  Some held this simply to be unwise choice; others saw more sinister motives. 

This debate is hardly unique to Portland of course; though this blog likes to focus on Stumptown.  Many transit agencies are having all sorts of trouble with operating deficits; one county in Georgia has dropped bus service altogether.

Yesterday, FTA chairman Peter Rogoff wandered into the briar patch--and gave a speech at the Boston Fed, that will make rail critics all over the country happy.  In said speech, Chairman Rogoff blamed many of the financial woes of many transit agencies on overzealous rail expansion.  He called for a focus on repairing dilapidated transit systems (by this, he means bringing them into functional working order, not sparkling-new status), and also endorsed Bus Rapid Transit as a substitute for rail in many circumstances--the BRT systems he described at least have a dedicated ROW and signal pre-emption; rather than just being a fancier bus).

Yonah Freemark at was not amused, however--noting that part of the problem is the fact that the Federal Government generally refuses to satisfy operations at all.  Transit administrators who want their share of federal dollars will only get it if they build something shiny and new.  Operations are often seen as a local problem--in large part out of concern that the money will go to pay raises for transit workers, not for improved or expanded service.   If DC's funding priorities change, excellent.  However, the government has been essentially encouraging the construction of capital projects, by not funding anythine else.  (And one way to improve operational efficiencies is to build rail, assuming an appropriate corridor).

One commentor at TTP pointed out another important factor:  Federally-funded projects generally have to be operated at a certain level of service, for a set number of years, as a condition of funding.  This is one reason, I suspect, that bus service in many places has borne the brunt of service cuts--were rails to be cut instead, the Feds would want their money back. 

While I'm not quite as annoyed by Rogoff's advice as Yonah--he certainly points out a disturbing trend that is obvious to many--the current policy of the Feds exacerbates the problems tremendously.  Much of these policies were inherited by the Obama Administration--and the prior administration seemed determined to make construction of quality transit as difficult as possible--but changes are needed.  Blaming transit admins for not doing their jobs--while in some cases true--is far from the whole story.  

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Brookings Demobase

The Brookings Institution recently released its long-awaited, gigantic report on the State of Metropolitan America.  Go check it out.  Also check out The Urbanophile's preliminary take on Brookings' findings, in particular their new classification of metros.  (Portland is part of the "New Heartland", along with other cities such as Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus OH, Nashville, and Richmond--and is the only West Coast city with that designation).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Portland, TriMet, and the Bus/Rail Debate

Out of all of the flamewars which transit advocates find themselves participating in, the bus/rail debate is probably the third most intense.  (#1, in case you were wondering, is debates with transit opponents; #2 seems to be the whole subject of Personal Rapid Transit).  There are many supporters of transit who seem to care passionately whether the wheels on whatever they ride to work, have tires or not.  In some cases, positions in this debate are constrained to a particular area or application--in other cases, though, universal claims about the complete and utter unsuitability of busses--or trains-- are advanced.

Needless to say, I consider the whole debate pointless--but not sufficiently pointless that I refuse to blog about it. :)  While there are certain technologies which have virtually no application in modern transit systems--there's no reason to consider horse-drawn hay wagons for a given line, for instance--bus and rail are both mature technologies with many examples of successful deployment around the world.  Categorical suggestions that one or the other is inappropriate for any situation, are hogwash.

In this corner, wearing the blue trunks...

 Advocates of rail are fond of touting it's advantages (some real, some dubious).  Among them--a more comfortable ride, less stigma of poverty in some quarters, much larger capacity, permanence of route, generally lower operating costs (especially with large passenger loads), attractiveness to developers, greater top speeds, and the possibility (given current technology) of driverless operation.  Bus advocates counter with their own advantages:  Much lower capital costs, much greater flexibility, more suitable for hilly terrain or cramped urban fabric, lower per-vehicle-hour operating costs (important for small loads), less association with gentrification, and the ability to maneuver around service disruptions which would stop trains--literally--in their tracks.  For the record, I agree with most of both lists--which is why I consider one-or-the-other positions to be absurd.

I only rehash the above here for reference.

Portland, for quite a while, has been largely been free of the nastier controversies found in other cities, where the bus/rail debate has been at the center of some rather acrimonious public debates.  (LA and the Bus Riders Union come to mind).  However, that seems to be changing in recent years, as the rapid expansion of the region's rail network, and the recent funding crisis at TriMet, seem to be producing an anti-rail backlash in town.

Peeling the Orange

Last week, GOP gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley announced his opposition to the proposed Milwaukie MAX extension, also known as the "Orange Line" (which may or may not be its route designation) which is nearing the end of its design phase--ground will be broken on the project next year, and its opening is planned for 2015.   The opposition of Alley--a conservative politician trying to win a Republican primary in the Tea Party era (as an aside:  The Oregon GOP has been dominated by "tea party" politics for the better part of a decade, which is why the Democrats have a hammerlock on state government)--is no surprise; the political right wing has been hostile to capital-intensive transit projects for a long time.  What is a surprise is the number of transit advocates questioning the project, or calling for its cancellation--and calling for the existing rail system to bear a larger share of budget cuts, in order to reduce the cuts to the bus system.

Admittedly, the optics on the current transit system are terrible.  TriMet has added three new rail lines to the MAX system in the past decade--and while the Red, Yellow, and Green lines have been successful, none have had the impact that the original eastside and the subsequent westside project have had.  The Portland Streetcar opened in 2001 and has been expanded several times, with the Eastside Loop project underway, and the Lake Oswego project in the works.  And WES is generally acknowledged as a disaster.  While these projects didn't directly result in the cancellation of non-redundant bus services--when the recession hit and both farebox revenue and payroll tax revenue sharply declined, services needed to be cut so TriMet could balance its books.  And the bus system took the largest hit.

The Ninety-FiveFourteen Theses

Many critics of the agency (who nonetheless support transit--the positions of transit opponents are excluded from this list as irrelevant) view TriMet (and Metro)'s past and future rail expansions as any one of the following: 
  1. A sign of fiscal management.  Objections here include specific funding practices (such as bonding operating revenue to pay for capital costs), to concerns that the agency is adding services which it lacks the ability to pay for.
  2. Evidence of excessive entanglement with development interests--sometimes to the point of allegations of corruption.
  3. An attempt at empire-building, self-aggrandizement, and/or resume-padding by public officials.
  4. An inappropriate focus on place-building and transit oriented development, rather than on providing existing neighborhoods with quality transit service.  
  5. A distraction from what activists believe ought to be TriMet's primary focus--social justice.
  6. A switch of transportation resources (and dollars) from the inner city, where land-use patterns support efficient transit, and many residents depend on quality service, to the suburbs--where everyone owns a car (or two or three) and the main users of transit are commuters looking to avoid congestion and downtown parking hassles.
  7. Poor urban design--freeway-adjacent light rail has long been the subject of criticism due to access issues.  (The Milwaukie Line, much it sandwiched between the UPRR mainline and OR99E, isn't easily accessible by pedestrians from either side).
  8. Poor network design.  Some TriMet critics believe that the region, rather than building light rail (and commuter rail, and streetcars) should instead be focusing on high-speed metro systems, such as Seattle is doing with Link.  Others take the opposite tack, calling for more locally-focused services rather than long lines reaching into the suburbs.
  9. An inappropriate focus on "choice riders", many of whom, it is believed, will ride rail but not the bus--viewing the latter as unsafe, or as a signifier of poverty.
  10. Too expensive.  Some critics think the region would be better served with Bus Rapid Transit (whatever that means), and suggest that BRT could provide similar levels of service at lower cost.
  11. An attempt to reduce the power of transit unions--or to bust them outright.
  12. A refusal to admit or correct mistakes, in order to avoid embarrassment on the part of transit officials.
  13. An attempt to gentrify additional parts of the city--to erect Pearl Districts (or similar) in places where existing, functional neighborhoods already exist.  Sometimes these objections are couched as claims that leaders want to "Eurofy" or "Starbucksize" Portland--to make it more cosmopolitan.
  14. Evidence of "railfandom"--a belief that planners and public officials are motivated to spend billions of dollars on rail infrastructure for little or no reason other than a love of or fascination with trains.
    Some of the above criticisms are patently specious, and many others require an assumption that the public officials in question are either incompetent or acting in bad faith.  Many of the objections are grounded in demographic issues such as social class.  In some cases, the objections may reduce to "don't cut my line--cut his"; a position which is easier to defend when it can be hidden behind other issues, such as mode.

    However, some of the criticisms--in particular, those addressing the overall competence of TriMet management over the past decade--are entirely legitimate, however, and TriMet needs to do a better job of addressing them publicly.

    How should TriMet respond?
     How TriMet should respond to all of this is an interesting question.  One temptation is to bury head in sand--to assume that the recession will end soon, that the jobs and riders and payroll taxes will all come back to pre-2008 levels, and that the service cuts can be unwound, and everyone will be happy.  However, there are two dangers with this approach:
    • Jobs may not come back:  While the stock market has recovered since it crashed in the fall of 2008, unemployment remains at recessionary levels, and it is expected that many jobs lost during the recession will not return.  Many companies around the country took advantage of the lulls in demand to restructure--resulting in many jobs moving overseas.  Those jobs have come back, just not in the United States.  This has been a particular problem in the Portland area, which has over the years become more of a branch-office town.  It may end up being the case that reduced levels of funding are a long-term condition, not a temporary one.
    • Population growth may stop, or even reverse:  Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Portland metro area's population has grown steadily--first due to the high-tech boom of the 90s, then the arrival of the "creative class" in the aughts.  A common response to high inflation, however, is ex-migration, as many rust belt cities (most famously, Detroit) are experiencing--which may result in more infrastructure than we need to support the population, but infrastructure which must be maintained and operated nonetheless.  Land use changes designed to increase density (which help improve transit outcomes) only work if the population is increasing--in a shrinking city, more desperate measures are frequently needed.  Portland doesn't seem to be in a population decline--yet--but people can be jobless for only so long before they start seeking work in other cities.
    My suggestions for TriMet (and Metro) are here.  (See also my advice for TriMet's incoming director):

    1. First and foremost, acknowledge the possibility of continued economic malaise, and population shrinkage, in planning--and do so publicly.  Many of the planning documents released by Metro and others assume a continually-growing population, and a need for expanded infrastructure to serve these new arrivals.  But if they don't come, will you still build it?
    2. Open the first envelope.  Since TriMet has a new director, he has a bit more leeway to change course than did his predecessor--and to acknowledge, publicly, that mistakes were made.  Since Neil McFarlane is an insider, this only goes so far--but he can say and do things that would be much more difficult for Fred Hansen.
    3. Make a better public case as to why it cut the services that it did.  Cutting MAX service is actually--in many circumstances--a poor choice; as MAX enjoys greater operational efficiencies than do bus lines--but a good number of people seem to think the service is a boondoggle.  In the case of those things (such as WES) which really are boondoggle, suggestion #2 is important:  It's easier to make the case that "we have to operate this line because we promised the Feds we would, as a condition of funding" if you are no longer in the position of trying to defend it as a viable service.  
    4. Shift capital focus to improving operating efficiencies.  Look for places where you can, by adding bus lanes or signal priority or other investments, reduce the number of busses needed to operate a given service at a given headway.  Upgrade the ticketing infrastructure.  Consider making Ruby Junction Yards and the 17th Avenue barns bi-modal facilities, in order to reduce deadheading of both eastsid busses and trains.  
    5. Show public support for the bus system--beyond issuing press releases proclaiming such.  Make it a point for TriMet administrators to use the system which they run--all modes.  Don't act like the transit director in Chicago who was forced to admit he hadn't used the system he directs in a long time. 
    6. Clearly state what the agency's priorities are, and act accordingly.  Social justice?  Comprehensive transit?  Environmental outcomes?  Land use?  Well-paying jobs for transit workers?  Economic development outcomes?  If TriMet's top priorities don't include the first two, then its customers are not its passengers, which puts the agency in a difficult position.
    The bottom line, I think, is that TriMet and Metro both are facing a credibility gap.  In the past decade, the mode split between bus and rail has shifted dramatically towards rail.  I don't consider this a problem, per se--TriMet should be concerned with running a transit system, and what vehicles it uses for what routes ought to be a design detail.  But when it's the bus that takes you everywhere you need to go, and you see those busses being cut--it's not hard to develop an anti-rail position as a result.  Much of the present anti-rail backlash is evidence that TriMet hasn't done enough to convince its riders that a) it knows what it is doing, or b) it has the interests of riders at heart.  If TriMet can convince riders of these things, then it is less likely to earn their wrath when it looks to expand.

      Thursday, May 13, 2010

      The Jefferson Street Line

      Later, I will (most likely) write an article on one of the Portland region's more controversial future rail projects, the Portland/Lake Oswego Transit Project.  Technically, it is incorrect to call this a "rail" project.  One of the options under consideration involves enhanced bus service rather than rail of any sort; in addition, a multipurpose trail is also part of the project definition (and a complicating factor given the terrain).  No final determination has been made, though a decision is expected later this year, when the DEIS is due for completion and selection of the "Locally Preferred Alternative" is made.

      This post, however, will instead examine the existing rail route which is at the heart of the matter; the so-called "Jefferson Street" line which runs along the Willamette between SW Portland and Lake Oswego:

      Early history:

      The line opened in 1887 as the Portland and Willamette Valley Railroad, for the purpose of providing passenger service between Portland and Oswego (as Lake Oswego was then known).  Originally a narrow-gauge steam-powered line, the line was later purchased by Southern Pacific, converted to standard gauge, and electrified in 1914, forming part of the SP's Red Electric interurban service.

      The original routing of the Red Electric lines (there were two of them) ran from Union Station down 4th Avenue; at Jefferson Street the lines split.  The westside line ran down present-day Barbur Boulevard, turned west at Hillsdale (running along what is now Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway), and then through Beaverton, Aloha, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Yamhill, McMinnville, and south towards Corvallis.  Other than a short stretch between along OR47 between McMinnville and Gaston, where the ROW was abandoned and the tracks pulled up, most of the line past Beaverton still exists and is in service.

      The eastside line turned east at Jefferson (hence the name "Jefferson Branch"), headed down towards (Lake) Oswego along the Willamette River, then turned west towards Durham, Tualatin, Sherwood, Newberg, and Dundee--the two lines rejoined at St. Joseph's Wye, near McMinnville.  Other than the downtown segments, all of the eastside branch is still in service.  The Portland-Oswego stretch was (and still is) single-tracked with one siding of note.  In 1921, a dangerous trestle around Elk Rock was replaced with the quarter-mile Elk Rock Tunnel, which is still in use.

      Abandonment of passenger service:

      In the 1920s, the expansion of the road network, and the resultant competition from bus service and private automobiles, reduced demand for passenger rail service--as a result, SP discontinued the Red Electric service in 1929, and eventually de-electrified all the routes in question.  The downtown streetcar lines along 4th would not long after be dismantled.  In order to keep freight trains out of downtown streets, the SP had in 1910 built the Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge, connecting the Jefferson line at Oswego with the SP mainline at Willsburg Junction north of Milwaukie.  With the passenger trains gone and the northern connection to the rest of the rail network severed (leaving the northern terminus of the line near what is now Riverplace) the Jefferson line soon became a little-used spur.  Several industrial customers along the waterfront in SW Portland still needed rail service, so the line remained in operation for another 50 years, but in in 1983, SP discontinued freight service and filed for abandonment.

      One year later, the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed to permit the line's abandonment, but a group of local governments, recognizing the possibility of the line for future transit service (the eastside MAX line was about to begin construction at the time), petitioned to buy the line instead; the sale was completed in 1988.  One year earlier, a historic trolley service begin operation.

      The purchase of the line, and its use for trolley service, was not without acrimony.  After the freight trains stopped running in 1983, one nearby homeowner, whose driveway was bisected by the line, paved over the tracks--a court injunction was required to get the pavement removed.

      Historic trolley service

      After the acquisition of the line was completed, historic trolley service resumed in 1990, has has continued, more or less, since then.  Several further changes have been made to the line, with an extension into downtown Lake Oswego (alongside the existing freight rails) added in the early 1990s, and the northern terminus moving north into Riverplace, and then back south to the present Bancroft Street terminus (the ROW north of Bancroft is now used by the Portland Streetcar).  Today, the service is known as the Willamette Shore Trolley, and is operated by the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society

      The present use of the line for historic trolley service, and future uses for transit, are not without controversy.  Many neighbors along the line (despite much of the housing being newer than the rails) would like to see the line abandoned, and object to the trolley service--viewing it as (among other things) an invasion of privacy.  At one point, the WST website  touted close-up views of luxurious Portland and Lake Oswego homes as an attraction of the line; such language has since been removed.



      Wednesday, May 5, 2010

      The Real Truth About President Obama

      Much attention has been given in the media to the so-called "birther" movement, who allege--for various reasons, many of the contradictory, many others contrary to established law--that President Obama isn't eligible to be President, due to alleged foreign birth or other supposed defects on his citizenship pedigree.

      A few on the political right wing of the US take this stuff seriously (as does a significant fraction of the US public, though far from a majority)--most of the rest of us though consider it whacky.  (And racist to boot).  And I suspect that rather than be offended by some of the more ridiculous (and transparently bigoted) notions peddled by World Nut Daily and other birther publications, President Obama actually enjoys all of this--it makes the opposition (even those who consider birther conspiracies to be nonsense) look like fools.

      Plus, the birther conspiracies obscure The Truth.

      (Cue timpanist:  Dum-Dum-Dummmmm!)

      [Louder, Maestro.]


      [Thank you.]

      You see, ladies and gentlemen--and please read this quickly before my computer is vaporized, all electronic records of my existence are deleted, and all memory of me is erased from the brain cells of everyone I ever met--the birthers, in truth, have a point.

      Except President Obama wasn't born in Africa.  No, he was instead born in--Alpha Centauri.

      That's right--the President is an Extra-Terrestrial.
      And no, not this kind:

      THIS kind:
      All won't be revealed, of course, until November 2012.  Here's how it will go down:

      Late in the evening of November 6, 2012; after the polls close on the West Coast and all the networks call the election for GOP nominee Sarah Palin (you thought it would be someone else?), Obama will stand in front of the cameras in the Oval Office for his concession speech.  Only he won't concede--at that time, he will unzip his human suit, reveal his True Reptilian Form, and announce the imminent destruction of our puny planet.  There won't be any Will Smith or Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg (did I just say that) or friendly harmless-to-us-but-deadly-to-aliens bacteria or Slim Whitman music to save us from doom--we'll be toast.  The Mayans will have gotten the date right; just not the means.

      And poor Sarah Palin--elected to assist God in bringing about the Apocalypse (as if He needs any help), her fingers only inches (and eleven weeks) away from The Button--won't get the chance.  In the darkest and deepest possible of ironies, her dreams of a starring role in the End of the World will be swept aside by a giant green lizard from outer space.

      Now you know.

      Two things to admire about the UK elections

      Tomorrow (May 6th) is election day in the UK, and many are predicting that the Labour Party, after dominating UK politics for more than a decade, will suffer a crushing defeat at the polls.  The Party is highly unpopular, PM Gordon Brown is widely viewed as an insufferable twit, and Labour may well drop to third (behind the Tories and the Lib Dems).  Or not--it is possible, due to how voters are divided among districts--for Labour to managed to win, but the pundits are betting that Labour is out.

      While I won't comment in general about the UK political system--I'm entirely an outsider--there's two things about how the election is being conducted that I admire.

      • Short election cycles.  Due to the possibility of snap elections (or of a government failing on a no-confidence vote, which hasn't happened since 1979), elections in the UK don't always occur at regular intervals.  Elections have to be called no later than five years apart, but can be called sooner.  The result of this is the campaign/election cycle is far shorter--measured in weeks, not months.  In the US, it seems, political campaigns are permanent--especially in the House, where members stand for election every two years, and for the Presidency--where the presumptive GOP field is busily running for the nomination all while denying they are running for anything.
      • A very short interregnum.  Obama was elected in November 2008, then inaugurated two and a half months later.  If Brown loses the election, he is expected to vacate No. 10 Downing Street the next day.  Presumptive winner David Cameron will be invited by the Queen to form a government the next day.  No transition teams, no lame duck period, no last-minute pardons or mischievous rulemaking, no practical jokes left by disgruntled staffers.  While a longer interregnum is useful in cases the election results are in dispute (see 2000), it doesn't serve much of a purpose in the usual case where there is a clear winner and loser.