Sunday, April 25, 2010

Commuter rail in Ohio

It was actually tough for me to decide what to blog about. I have a lot of things on my mind that I'd like to sort out (blogging and writing in general is really good for that!), so I figured I better get the first one out before it gets any worse, i.e. I find more things to blog about! :)

One thing I've been wanting to blog about for some time is the concept of commuter rail here in Ohio. The state was successful in obtaining a grant a few months ago to develop what is known as the "3-C Corridor", basically a rail line connecting Ohio's largest cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus. Dayton would also be included in this rail line and it's part of a larger "Ohio Hub" project for the entire state. It's not that there are a shortage of railroads in Ohio, but in terms of passenger service, northeast Ohio is currently served by just 2 Amtrak lines: the Lakeshore Limited between Boston and Chicago via Cleveland and Elyria and the Capitol Limited between Washington, DC and Chicago via stations in Alliance, Cleveland, and Elyria. Southern Ohio is served basically by one Amtrak line, the Cardinal/Hoosier State line between Chicago and New York via Cincinnati. The problem with being in the middle of a line like that is trains arrive at inconvenient hours, like 2 AM. Hardly the best times to entice travelers to use the service. Even looking at the Amtrak website, the fares are less than air travel, but not as significantly less as I thought and it takes a lot longer than even driving.

Now, I'm not opposed to rail service or additional forms of public transportation; that's not the issue. My problem is spending money on something that will end up needing heavily subsidized to keep afloat because not enough people are riding it. I'd love to see a convenient train lines between Ohio's main cities. But in looking at the initial plans for 3-C, I'm having a hard time seeing how enough people are going to use it to keep it worthwhile. First is the speed. The trains are touted as reaching a top speed of 79 mph. Unfortunately, 79 is the top speed, not the average speed. Add in all the stops in between Cleveland and Columbus and suddenly the average speed drops to about 34 mph making the trip closer to between 3 and 4 hours. The speed limit on I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus is 65 mph for most of it, but for those of us who have driven on 71 or any Interstate highway, we know most people go above 65. By driving it takes about 2 to 2 and a half hours to get from Cleveland to Columbus depending on where in Cleveland and Columbus. From here in Kent it is about the same. If I were to take this train to Columbus from Kent, I'd have to drive the 45 minutes or more to the Cleveland station, park there (or get dropped off), go through security, then have a 3-4 hour trip to Columbus. Then once I get to Columbus, I have to wait for either a friend or rely on the city's public transit system. And ticket cost for the train hasn't even been factored in because I haven't seen any details on how much it will cost. Even with gas inching up again, it's hardly THAT expensive to drive to Columbus as it barely takes half a tank. A full tank of gas is around $40-$45 at the moment, I get to choose when I leave, when I stop, and when I come back, and it still takes significantly less time. Why would I want to take the train? Even to Cincinnati it wouldn't make sense in terms of time or cost. On top of this, in order for the larger Ohio Hub to be successful, the 3-C has to be successful in ridership. See a problem?

Now I can see people using this service, particularly people who don't have a car of their own (like college students) or people just looking to take a day trip who don't want to worry about finding parking (like to a big event such a baseball game or football game). And there will be people who take it because they want to or don't mind the extra time. Not everyone likes to drive! But will those be enough to keep an entire rail network going? I have a hard time believing they would.

While I was in Utah I had the chance to see and learn a little bit about Utah's newest transportation option, a commuter rail system known as FrontRunner. It currently stretches from Salt Lake City in the south to Ogden in the north and soon will be extended south to Provo. It's obviously on a much smaller scale than the 3-C Corridor would be as FrontRunner covers the Wasatch Front (Utah's major metro area) and 3-C would connect 4 major metro areas. Further, another difference is that FrontRunner was designed to help relieve traffic on I-15. Traffic in the Wasatch Front is very much north-south oriented (nature of mountains and valleys) and I-15 is the only major north-south highway, so it has to handle a lot of traffic. I-71 could be considered similar as the only major highway connecting the "3-C's", but 71 is 3 lanes almost the entire distance between Cleveland and Columbus and passes through large stretches of rural area; it is hardly congested the rate that I-15 is as 15 along the Wasatch Front passes through all urban or suburban areas. Even with the obvious differences in size of the systems and layout of surrounding infrastructure, there are still similarities that as Ohioans we should be aware of and learn from. First, ridership is nowhere near what the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) had hoped or promoted when lobbying for construction of FrontRunner. The biggest complaint I heard from my friends and family in Utah was the cost of tickets being too high. Put that together with the time (other complaint: no faster than taking the UTA buses and certainly slower than driving, even in rush hour) and it doesn't leave much enticement. Without a certain number of riders, the service ends up being a black hole of money. The goal should be a self-sustaining system or as close to one as possible.

The lesson is that transportation options need to offer something that is an advantage over other options available. Flying, for instance, offers major savings in time. Driving offers more individual choices and preferences in terms of where to go and when. Unless rail can be faster than driving but cheaper than air, there will be little reason for most people to use it. People use subway and bus systems in large cities because it is cheaper and faster than trying to drive on congested roads and paying for parking. Blame it on the car companies all you want, but most Americans value being able to go where they want when they want and not worrying about set schedules. That's why we own cars and commute to work or school. True, we do conform to schedules when we travel by air, but again, the convenience of saving several hours of travel time versus going by car or rail is the incentive to give up that personal freedom. Even then, many still choose to drive long distances. Here in Ohio, I'd be much more excited if actual high-speed rail were being developed right away between the major cities, even more so if it had an option of taking your car with you and had plans for more tie-ins with those cities not along the main route. Supporters claim high speed is where 3-C is headed, but if it isn't successful initially, the plan really is nothing but an empty hope and another waste of money. This letter to the editor in the Akron Beacon Journal was something I found looking for more information and it pretty much sums up how I feel and a lot of the points I made here!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Live from Syracuse!

In case you're wondering, I'm in Syracuse, Utah, not Syracuse, New York, though the Utah Syracuse IS named after the New York Syracuse! Syracuse, Utah is located right along the Great Salt Lake between Ogden and Salt Lake City. It's one of many suburbs that are hard to differentiate between along the Wasatch Front, which stretches basically from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south. Syracuse is a nice quiet place, at least this part of it, though it's definitely a study in urban sprawl, as is much of this area. But I am enjoying my time here!

I was last in Utah exactly 3 years ago right after I finished my last semester of classes at BYU-Idaho. We were done April 6 and I think I came down here that evening and left April 7 thinking I would be back in the Fall for student teaching. Well, as it turned out, instead of student teaching at Bennion Junior High School in Taylorsville, I transferred back to Kent State, finished my bachelor's there and went on to get my Master of Arts in Teaching degree there too.

I decided shortly after Christmas to come out here when Becky, David, and Nate were in Kent. It's amazing what a baby will make you want to do! I very much enjoy being an uncle and though my subbing job isn't exactly allowing me to be wealthy, it is at least giving me some means to do a few things I want to do. If I hadn't been in the Akron After-School program, I would've come here last week during Kent and Maplewood's Spring Break, but as it fell, Akron Public School's Spring Break was this week that just ended, so the last week of After-School was during the Spring Breaks of the schools I sub in and then of course I had a meeting April 5 to get paid! :) That translated to being here this week and despite missing potential work in Ohio, things have worked out pretty well here I'd say, especially with the weather!

Of course the best thing for me has been spending time with Becky, David, of my first--and so far only--nephew Nate. We've had a lot of fun already just hanging out, but also going to Hogle Zoo and Temple Square in Salt Lake. We went to Hogle Zoo on Wednesday and spent much of the day there. For the most part Nate enjoyed himself, but by the end he was pretty exhausted as you may have imagined. The weather was nice and the Zoo wasn't TOO crowded, though I was surprised to see so many kids there. Apparently it's Spring Break for the Davis County schools (which is where Syracuse is...county just north of Salt Lake), plus there were a lot of very young kids, many as young as or younger than Nate. About the only thing to bother Nate was the short ride through the tunnel on the small train they have in the Zoo. We weren't even in the tunnel 10 seconds, but that was enough to startle him despite my best efforts. We also made it to Temple Square Friday mostly to get some pictures and visit with my friends Lindsey and Dan Fairbanks. I came to find later in the day that a few friends from my ward in Ohio were there as well at the same time! I can't believe we were so close to seeing them. I wonder if we did and I didn't even notice. Congratulations Brian and Laura Ebie on getting sealed! It was nice to see Lindsey and Dan again and meet their daughter Olivia! I also enjoyed going to church with Becky, David, and Nate today even though NO ONE in their ward said a word to was like I was invisible (but that's nothing new out here unfortunately). I held Nate all through Sacrament meeting and he fell asleep on me. I loved every minute of it! :)

It's also been refreshing to see several friends I haven't seen in 3 years. Not only seeing them has been fun but also just hanging out with them and catching up. So many of my friends are scattered around the country; I don't get many chances to visit. It seems even rarer that my friends visit me in Kent so this has been a wonderful change of scenery and breath of fresh air. I had visited my friend Michelle in Toledo just before coming out here, so I've been able to see a lot of friends in the past 2 weeks and I love it! I've already visited with my friend Kjersti twice which included a fun evening at a mystery theater production where I won a $20 gift certificate. Kjersti and I were only in Collegiate Singers at BYU-Idaho for one semester but we've been friends ever since! It was SO much fun seeing her again. We seem to understand one another quite well as single adults and as teachers! I also visited the Miles and Fisher families (some of my favorite people). Daniel Miles was one of my best missionary companions waaaaay back in 2003 in Alamogordo and I've gotten to know the rest of his family very well. I always enjoy seeing them! One of those funny moments I will ALWAYS remember was Daniel's little three year-old niece Audrey Fisher was reading my blog book I had brought over to show her Mom (Kadie Fisher is Daniel's sister). Of course there are some pictures, but not a lot. So she's looking it over and tells me "this is boring as pants on fire!" She said it several times among other things all three kids said. I wish I had gotten a picture with her, but she was taking a nap when I left. The other two kids--Isaac and Ashley-- were just as cool as I remember them three years ago.

Overall it's just been nice to be around people I love, feel appreciated and wanted, and just have a change of scenery and get out of the same old routines I was stuck in at home. It's been a nice change of pace to say the least, plus being the cool uncle is a lot of fun! :)