Friday, 23 December 2005

Big brother and your number plates

The UK has decided to keep records of virtually all vehicle movements in the country and retain the data for at least two years.

Steven Taylor, who pointed out the story, notes a transatlantic difference in attitudes:

Certainly, this underscores a key difference between European and American sensibilities: we are currently having a major debate over whether the NSA should ever listen in on the domestic end of an international phone call with a suspected al Qaeda operative, and the British are to keep records of where everyone is driving.

Of course, the NSA surveillance (which, admittedly, I have serious qualms about—indeed, even the FISA warrant process seems suspect, even though there is serious selection bias that plagues simplistic analysis of its statistics) is almost certainly considered by Europeans, including Britons, as yet more evidence of Bushitlerism.

Thursday, 20 October 2005

Porkbusters go down in flames

As they say, heh.

Or to put it another way, one man’s pork is another man’s necessary infrastructure project. After all, the good people of New Orleans could get along just dandy with a repaired 4-lane I-10 Lake Pontchartrain bridge for years to come (especially when you consider that the depopulation of the city is going to make a widened span unnecessary for the forseeable future, Mayor Nagin’s revitalization fantasies aside)... Katrina alone shouldn’t bump them to the head of the line for a fancy new 6-lane span. And, surely, a real “porkbuster” would favor letting the FHWA bureaucracy, not Congress, decide where the money would best be spent. Let’s see how many votes that Coburn amendment would get; my bet is pretty close to zero.

Incidentally, my lack of sympathy also goes for using emergency rebuilding funds to pay for decades-old wishlist items and “new urbanism” tripe on the Gulf Coast instead of sticking to the essentials.

Monday, 26 September 2005


Stephen Karlson has some thoughts on the viability of intercity rail travel in response to Jeff Harrell’s skepticism over further Amtrak funding. My two cents:

Outside the Northeast Corridor and a few regional operations, Amtrak is a classic example of GNDN. I know exactly one person who has ever ridden the City of New Orleans, despite having lived in two cities that are served by the route. The only advantage of Amtrak over auto travel is that you don’t have to drive… and that one is largely negated if there’s hassle at either endpoint, such as inconvenient modal transfers, long layovers, etc. The only advantages over Amtrak over flying is that (a) you don’t have to deal with getting from the airport to the central business district (assuming the CBD is your destination) and (b) the security hassles are significantly reduced (but by no means nonexistent). And, the only advantages of Amtrak over riding Greyhound are (a) reduced travel times and (b) marginally better comfort.

It seems to me, then, that viable passenger rail needs to be designed to complement other modes of transportation. That means, for starters, more intermodal connections like at BWI and MKE airports, and direct connections to local mass transit (that means, when I get off the train in Chicago, I shouldn’t have to walk several blocks to get on the L). That also means making it easy for people to rent cars at train stations… many general aviation airports (in addition to every commercial airport in the country) have car rental counters, but good luck trying to find one at most Amtrak stations. While you’re at it, include safe, secure, long-term parking lots.

Amtrak probably hasn’t helped its case in “flyover country”—particularly with Republican politicians—by only operating its flagship Acela Express service in the Northeast Corridor. If other parts of the rail system had been upgraded to a similarly high standard (notwithstanding the problems Acela has had), the political case for continued Amtrak subsidies would probably be much better, even if the economic case for building high-speed rail in other areas is weak-to-nonexistent—the existence of Southwest Airlines, for example, makes a Houston–Dallas rail link a sure money-loser, even though tens of thousands of people make that trip daily. Ironically, because of Amtrak’s brief flirtation with economic rationality, Amtrak has virtually no constituency other than its employees outside the NEC states.

Sunday, 26 June 2005

Inspect this

I love the smell of a 100% fee increase in the morning:

A change in state law that requires scrutiny of window tint as part of vehicle safety inspections has some businesses that perform the annual inspections reconsidering whether to offer them.

Starting July 1, the darkness of a vehicle’s window tint must be checked as part of vehicle inspection, and the inspection fee rises from $5 to $10. Legislators approved the change to protect law officers.

Just another year in the life of our state’s massively effective vehicle safety inspection program, which (in its entirety) ensures public safety by making sure our cars’ horns, lights, and blinkers work.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

TEA-21 renewal finally getting somewhere

Monday’s Washington Post reports that conference negotiators are finally getting somewhere on the renewal of the federal transportation authorization bill, which expired 21 months ago. The reason for the sudden burst of progress: members of Congress are sick and tired of wrangling over the bill:

“I just want to get it all over with,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said as final negotiations began Thursday.

At stake are around $290 billion in road, rail, and transit projects over the next six years (well, four years and three months, at this point). The same article also reports that the Senate may actually come up with a workable compromise on the energy bill. The stars must really be aligned this month or something…

Also on the roads beat, an interesting article on the trend toward building more toll roads recently appeared on Wired News. One such project is North Carolina’s proposed Triangle Parkway, an extension of the Durham Freeway south to the I-540 Western Wake Expressway through Research Triangle Park.

Friday, 27 May 2005

Armchair tourist

Surfing around via Technorati, I found this blog post with satellite photos of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge and a few other Memphis bridges.

Not entirely conincidentally, I started Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America on the flight back from Durham, and probably would have finished it if I hadn’t fallen asleep on the Baltimore-Jackson leg; what I didn’t realize, since I bought the book at least a year ago, but only now got around to reading it, is that the author is a future colleague. Small world and all that.

Sunday, 15 May 2005

Yay corruption

The City of Chicago managed to lose 16,800 tons of asphalt last summer, apparently due to theft by paving contractors or the companies contracted to haul the asphalt to job sites. The weird part is that asphalt really isn’t worth that much; according to the article, a ton can be had for around $10. (þ: Dean Jens)

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Every day is a winding road

Those of you who’ve done the U.S. 78 slog from Memphis to Birmingham and points beyond: it’s not going to be a lot better for at least another seven years, although you can look forward to most of the road being open in 2008:

Future Interstate 22 has a new name, but it may take a full decade to get the road completed—including at least three years just to perform drainage and dirt work in Birmingham.

“It could be as early as late 2011 or in 2012 when we could be finished,” said Tony Harris, the special assistant for the director for public affairs at ALDOT. “If there are any delays to funding or to construction, it could put us as late as 2015.”

This, mind you, was work that was supposed to be underway by now. At this rate, Mississippi might actually have their work on connecting U.S. 78 to some part—any part—of the Interstate system done by then.

Sunday, 17 April 2005


Both Stephen Karlson and Reihan Salam are less-than-impressed with Amtrak’s latest fiasco: the discovery that the Acela high-speed train’s brakes aren’t up to snuff. Quoth Salam:

Rather than purchase a proven Swedish high-speed train, the X2000 tilt-train, designed to accommodate older, not-quite-straight tracks like those found in the northeastern corridor (and unlike the very straight railtrack used by the TGV and other high-speed lines overseas), Amtrak decided to build an entirely new model at vastly greater expense that—get this—experienced serious mechanical failures from the very start. For the sake of building a much slower fitfully tilting version of the TGV, a non-tilting train, they built a train that, remarkably and at the most inconvenient moments, failed to tilt. Had they gone with the X2000, they would’ve had an excellent high-speed train in 1998. This is stupidity on a colossal scale.

It’s rather clear that the choice of the Bombardier design had more to do with the byzantine financial structure of the deal than technical merit. Not surprisingly, this decision has come back to bite Amtrak in the ass.

As this Boston Globe piece points out, this latest round of bad news did not come at a good time for Amtrak, with many in Congress already highly skeptical of passenger rail and President Bush pushing for rail service to be devolved to the states.

Monday, 21 March 2005


Michael Jennings has photos up at Samizdata from his recent trip to view the highly impressive Millau Viaduct in France.

Work that isn't my day job

I just finished preparing my invited presentation for the NAFTA symposium this coming weekend at the University of Memphis. I have absolutely no clue how my presentation on the Interstate 69 corridor will be received among such papers as “Intersecting Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Environment: Looking at NAFTA through a Gendered Lens” and “NAFTA and the Legal Consciousness of Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers.” Hopefully all will go well.

Anyway, here’s the PDF version of the presentation in all its glory. It’s nothing particularly spectacular, and if you’ve read it’s nothing new, but it gets the job done.

Friday, 4 March 2005

Round and round we go

Continuing my roundabout theme, today’s Clarion-Ledger reports on construction of a roundabout on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford as part of the North-South Parkway (a.k.a. Gertrude Ford Boulevard) project.

Monday, 21 February 2005

Book review: Free Flight

Well, I’m massively behind on the 50 Book Challenge, but I did finish reading the copy of James Fallows’ Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Air Travel that I threw in for $6 with an order for “work” books. As Robert mentioned last month, it’s a pretty interesting look at some of the new innovations in small planes (or “general aviation”). The book slightly suffers from being dated—in particular, I think there’s a good chapter that needs to be added on the last two years of the Eclipse 500 saga.

It’s also not entirely clear how Fallows sees “air taxis” fitting in the larger aviation system; he talks a lot about the threat they pose to what most transportation folks call “legacy carriers” (e.g. American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways) but not so much about how the air taxis would affect the regional jet networks associated with the legacy carriers or the “no-frills” carriers like Southwest and airTran. I suspect that, by further drying up the pool of high-revenue customers that the legacy carriers depend on to stay in business, the “hub and spoke” system will fall apart and two classes of travel will emerge in the aviation hinterlands of flyover country: on-demand “air taxi” travel for the rich (or those who can convince their company that an extra $200 in airfare is worth saving a night in the hotel) and increased once-a-day point-to-point travel to popular destinations. Of course, like any other predictions, these may be completely wrong.

Nonetheless, it’s a very interesting book and I recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in general aviation.

Tuesday, 15 February 2005

One man's outsourcing is another's insourcing

Via the AP: Rolls-Royce announces plans for Mississippi engine-testing plant:

BAY ST. LOUIS — Airplane engine maker Rolls-Royce said today it had selected a site in Mississippi to replace its outdoor engine-testing facility in central England.

Rolls-Royce PLC announced in 2001 that it planned to close the facility in Hucknall, 120 miles north of London, once it found a new location. The firm said today it had chosen NASA‘s John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis — its first partnership deal with the space agency.

“This move highlights our growing commitment to the U.S.,” James M. Guyette, president and CEO, Rolls-Royce North America, said in a statement. “As a global company with nearly 100 years of operations in this country, we are pleased to be able to conduct this important work on these shores.”

Among the engines to be tested at the Stennis site are the Rolls-Royce engines for both the Airbus A380 “Superjumbo” and Boeing 787 (formerly 7E7) Dreamliner.

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Google Maps

Sunday, 30 January 2005

CL traffic beat continues

Today’s Clarion-Ledger helpfully explains why seven intersections in Jackson have been torn up for the past month while a contractor futzes around with installing new traffic signals.

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Going around in circles

Today’s Clarion-Ledger features the newspaper’s latest attempt to help Jackson-area readers figure out how to drive through roundabouts. Somehow I don’t expect this effort to succeed where others have failed.

Monday, 24 January 2005

Don Quixote, MDOT edition

This is almost becoming a recurring joke:

Route: I-55

Impact: medium

On I-55 north 2.5 miles north of Pearl Street, the left lane will be closed to replace posts from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today. The ramp leaving Woodrow Wilson to go north on I-55 will be closed.

This marks the third time in four months that MDOT has replaced these stupid things, which are intended to stop traffic coming from eastbound Woodrow Wilson Drive cutting across three lanes of traffic to exit at eastbound Lakeland Drive (Hwy 25). I applaud the sentiment, but it’s increasingly clear to me (although apparently not our esteemed Department of Transportation) that something more substantial than plastic posts are needed here.

Thursday, 20 January 2005

Putting the "bus" in Airbus

Stephen Karlson and Stephen Bainbridge are not looking forward to their inaugural Airbus A380 flights; quoth Bainbridge:

Now for the really bad news. You’ll only check in with 500 other passengers if the plane is configured with large first and business class sections. A discounter could cram over 840 coach passengers into the [expeltive deleted] thing if it wanted! Can you imagine the wait to get off it? Or to get your luggage at baggage claim.

Thankfully, those of us in flyover country won’t be seeing these behemoths at Jackson-Evers International Airport anytime soon.

Friday, 14 January 2005

The begining of the A380 and the end of the DC-9

This week’s Economist looks at the public introduction of Airbus’ new A380 super-jumbo and the efforts of rival Boeing to come up with a different strategy based on its 7E7 Dreamliner. My gut feeling is that Airbus is banking on the continued success of legacy-style long-haul “hub-and-spoke” travel, which makes sense in developing markets, while Boeing is expecting the 7E7 to succeed in the transatlantic market between smaller destinations.

Meanwhile, the European Union and United States have agreed to keep the subsidies dispute outside the WTO process, at least for the time being. And, in other Boeing news, the airline is ending production of the Boeing 717, the latest (and last) incarnation of the DC-9/MD-80 series of aircraft; Stephen Karlson has some brief thoughts on the matter.

Update (from RKP):A quick expansion on Chris's point: if you want to read about the emergence of air taxis and point-to-point air travel, I highly recommend Free Flight by James Fallows. I'm not an aviation enthusiast, but just a guy that spent WAY too many hours on airplanes for a few years. The possibility of being able to fly out of an airport near the house with minimal fuss, and in an Eclipse 500 jet, has a lot of appeal.

Monday, 3 January 2005

Another career option missed

If I’d had any sense after 9/11, I would have gone into business producing portable concrete Jersey barriers; you can’t pass almost any federal government building, even such unlikely terror targets as national guard armories and Corps of Engineers buildings, that doesn’t have a few dozen of the things around it.

Wednesday, 22 December 2004


Michael Jennings has further thoughts on the Millau Viaduct and bridge design more generally, in response to this thread at Brian Micklethwait’s Culture Blog.

Cable-stayed designs are definitely in vogue on this side of the Atlantic; recent examples include the asymmetric Leonard Zakim bridge built as part of the “Big Dig” in Boston, the William H. Natcher Bridge over the Ohio River; closer to home, there’s the I-310 Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge crossing the Mississippi River just west of New Orleans, and in the future there’s the Greenville Bridge under construction on U.S. 82 and the proposed Charles W. Dean Great River Bridge on future I-69 and U.S. 278, both crossing the Mississippi River between Arkansas and Mississippi.

(I previously mentioned the viaduct here.)

Saturday, 18 December 2004

Big doings in Texas

On Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission announced a private contract to build a 316-mile toll road parallel to the congested I-35 corridor. Spanish toll road builder and operator Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte will pay the $6 billion construction cost and an additional $1.2 billion in concession fees to the state of Texas for improvements to other highways; in exchange, Cintra will collect tolls on the route for 50 years.

In North America, Cintra is one of the investment partners in the 407 ETR bypass of Toronto and recently made an agreement to operate the Chicago Skyway toll road (a section of I-90 connecting downtown Chicago to the Indiana Toll Road) for the next 99 years. TxDOT has an overview of the statewide Trans Texas Corridor plan; more details on this particular project are here and here if you can read Spanish.

Thursday, 16 December 2004

A new wonder

Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata has a post on the Millau Viaduct, the final link in the Paris-Barcelona autoroute, which opens today in southern France. More information on this long cable-stayed span—which cost €394 million ($530 million) for a 2.5 km (1.6 mile) span—is available here.

Wednesday, 15 September 2004

It's like England, but in the Deep South

The local roundabout fetish is spreading