June 2011 » Departments

We welcome your opinions. Please send comments via e-mail to bdrake@zweigwhite.com.

Viewing roads as public utilities
Our government is a wonderful entity; if you think they need more money, just send them a check. They will cash it, no questions asked.

Why is there a problem fixing our infrastructure? It was built when tax freedom day was in March; now it’s sometime in late May headed for June. With the government collecting almost double the taxes, you would think there would be plenty of money for infrastructure, unless it’s being squandered on less important items.

Public utility commissions (PUCs), like the [Environmental Protection Agency] and [California Air Resources Board], are boards made up of politically connected appointees who make their decisions based on political contributions to the appointing party. I should say here, I only have experience with California PUC.

Sure, they have public comment meetings, usually on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. — a very convenient time for the working public — but these are just dog-and-pony shows anyway. I have yet to see a PUC decide against a utility requesting rate increases. Our local water districts operate the same way. They sit and listen to the public comments, but do whatever they want anyway.

How intelligent is the California PUC? Not very. Prior to about 1955, the [Los Angeles] basin had a fantastic public transportation system commonly known as the Red Cars. From the hub in Los Angeles, you could travel to the north end of the San Fernando Valley, San Bernardino, and the beaches in Santa Monica, Newport, and Balboa. Currently, taxpayers are spending billions to replace this system. An 8-mile stretch from [Los Angeles] to Culver City, to open soon, is costing nearly $1 billion dollars.

So what happened in the early 1950s that the PUC allowed the Red Cars to be eliminated? The [Southern Pacific Railroad (SPRR)], which owns the railroad right of way, was making a lot more money hauling freight than hauling people. The SPRR went to the PUC and asked to eliminate the Red Cars. The PUC said, “No, you have riders.” So the SPRR quit cleaning the cars. In a couple of years, very few were riding the Red Cars so the SPRR went back to the PUC and showed this drastic decline in ridership. The PUC, without investigating why ridership dropped, said, “OK, you can eliminate the Red Cars.” I remember riding on the Red Cars during this period, literally walking on cigarette butts and the seats so dirty that touching them created a cloud of dust. So, I have to wonder how making roads a public utility will help.
W. Tom Foster, P.L.S.

Thank you for providing a forum for the innovative perspective in Pete Rahn’s Beyond Words editorial, “Viewing roads as public utilities could solve the funding impasse.” This is a unique systems solution to the transportation funding problems. As a former state secretary (West Virginia) and senior [U.S. Department of Transportation] official (George W. Bush administration), the utility label of the transportation system is the only accurate description for the 21st century U.S. transportation system. It is vital that the engineering community take a leadership role in finding answers to these questions. You may be certain that the opponents will fight hard to maintain the status quo.
Samuel G. Bonasso, P.E.

Focus on business
A quick note regarding [Mark Zweig’s] From the Publisher column in the March issue of CE News: I’m a professional land surveyor who has worked for firms that ranged in size from a 150-person design firm specializing in infill redevelopment in the Washington, D.C., market, to my current position running my own one-person surveying/consulting firm in suburban Maryland. In about the middle of my career, I turned to CE News for a certain level of business content that I found lacking in publications that specialize in the surveying/geomatics market. ... I’m encouraged to see that CE News intends to reinforce its focus on business content for, along with the profession of civil engineering, it serves a niche that isn’t filled in publications for ancillary professions as well. I look forward to continuing to find content in CE News that helps me advance my business.
James Fleming, L.S.

High-speed rail
Upon reading your commentary in CE News (“Fiscal prudence or petty politics,” March 2011), I was wondering why you were so skeptical of Florida’s governor for rejecting funding for high-speed rail (HSR)? If you presented facts (i.e., where did our government get money for funding this project or what percentage of the populace voted for the project to move forward), your commentary might have had some merit. Throwing comments in like, “even though the gas price continues to climb,” when our government is doing absolutely nothing about it was a cheap shot. Anyway, I vote the governor was exercising fiscal prudence.
Mark Viola

I completely agree with the Florida governor on the issue over whether or not to invest in HSR. While we engineers value infrastructure improvements, the questions over potential ridership and long-term costs remain troublesome. What about unintended consequences? Will HSR simply increase population reduction in our stressed large cities? Besides, how many large-scale pork projects have not experienced cost overruns? Government leaders must act responsibly with fiscal decisions.
Ted Gray

With all my respect, you made an incorrect analysis in CE News of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision of rejecting federal funding for design and construction of an unneeded high-speed rail line. Governor Scott is following the mandate of Florida voters [who] entrusted him to avoid leaving Florida taxpayers a legacy of financial distress. You are not a taxpayer in Florida; you are probably advocating for interest groups that do not have Florida taxpayers’ interest in their agenda.

I encourage you to visit West Palm Beach and ride the Tri-Rail from Mangonia Park to Miami. You will be glad to be one of [fewer] than 20 passengers in rush hour taking advantage of a Florida taxpayer subsided train service running empty. As a former resident of Massachusetts, I was dismayed [by] the fiscal irresponsibility of the U.S. government to subsidize ACELA since its ridership does not justify maintaining this service — it is not profitable and is losing taxpayers’ money.

Florida cannot imitate Europe’s public transit since the population is spread out in a vast geographic area and we lack the industrial/banking/services industries of Europe or the U.S. Northeast — we are not there yet! Before engineering companies start milking U.S. taxpayers with unrealistic transportation projects, educating the public about public transportation should be a priority and knowing more about population and industries. ... [The United States] is not there yet with high-speed trains and it is unfortunate that a few fiscally irresponsible states agreeing to this project are leaving a financial distressing legacy to the taxpayers of those states. I am very proud that Florida Governor Rick Scott is a business-savvy, fiscal conservative, responsible professional, who took into consideration the legacy to Florida taxpayers rather than being bullied by interest groups.
Digna Mejia

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