Thursday, October 23, 2014

Time for some homework, students!

All right, class, take your seats, please.  It’s time to go over your assignments for the next few days, which means you can work on things over the weekend.

We have for you a number of reading assignments, each of which should broaden your grasp of the complexities of modern day civic life, and perhaps furnish a few laughs as well.

Let’s start with this one:

In it, you’ll find straightforward thoughts like this:

1. Transportation spending can stimulate economic development only if it generates new travel that didn’t exist before. Transportation projects that merely persuade people to change from one mode to another or one corridor to another might influence where economic development takes place, but will not (our edit) produce any net additional development.

If you’re adventurous, with a thirst for knowledge, you’ll find links to various other sources that should grab your interest.

Now how about this one, about “understanding planner speak:” 

We found it to be a bundle of laughs, perfectly attuned to the unique personality of our funny bone; so much so, we wonder if it wasn’t written by a long lost cousin.  While it clearly stems from a long term discussion taking place in Portland Left, the sentiments are widely relevant.  Like these:

Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality Fund:  a federal fund of $1 billion per year used to increase congestion and reduce air quality.
Mass Transit:  transportation that doesn't go when or where you need it, is useless for shopping, often requires standing in the rain, and is much slower than driving yourself.

Besides, if you engage in a little reflection, you may well conclude that Portland Left tries to insert itself in Cape Brunswick affairs now and again.


Moving on, let’s take this one:

It provides a little hard data from the Phoenix area, something most members of the governing elite class despise.  Be sure to read the comments following the brief material content, including this:

There is a good explanation for this.  Because light rail is so much more expensive, the cost per rider for the entire transit system has skyrocketed.  With budgets unable to be increased this fast (and with fares covering only a tiny percentage of rail costs), the system must cut back somewhere.  Since rail can't really be cut back, bus routes are cut.


Now just one more item:

While published in 1998, we submit that the enduring realities of urban myth promulgation render the material entirely valid.  On the other hand, now that we brush the sand from our eyes, we remember that NNEPRA was created in 1995. so the report was written after the operator of the Downeaster was established, by law. 

From this item:

Public transit plays an important role in providing mobility to those without access to automobiles as well as those who prefer not to drive. Unfortunately, America’s public transit policies suffer from numerous myths that are harmful to both transit and to American cities. This report discusses ten of the most dangerous and widely believed transit myths:

The Subsidy Myth:
Transportation subsidies are unfairly biased towards autos and highways, so we must increase transit funding to provide balanced transportation.

The Reality:
At least since 1975, transit subsidies have been tens to hundreds of times greater than highway subsidies. Moreover, a quarter of the transit subsidies have been paid directly by auto drivers.

Sound transit policy requires that policymakers understand the reality behind these myths. Funds available for transit will always be limited. It is therefore incumbent on policymakers to invest these limited funds in ways that produce the greatest value for the taxpayer’ dollars.

Read that last line, and ask yourself if anyone can say, with a straight face, that policymakers are doing just that.   Oh, and you can read the full report here, complete with detailed graphics, etc.


While we’re at it, we’ll remind you that the creation of NNEPRA and it’s Downeaster operation never, ever had anything to do with “value for taxpayer’ dollars.”  NNEPRA was created by legislative edict, and not one aspect of what it is directed to do has anything to do with tradeoffs, economic rationale, or anything else of the sort.

It’s only charge is making passenger rail happen, and figuring out how to pay for it as they go along.

Because there’s no way to make it pay.

But they sure know how to make you pay, even though you don’t realize it.

One more thing; why not take a look here as well:

You’ll find these words of introduction:

Rail Disasters 2005 (2.5MB) examines two decades worth of ridership data in nearly every U.S. urban area with rail transit and finds that ridership has declined or stagnated in nearly two out of three of them. Ridership or passenger miles travel have kept up with driving in only three out of twenty-three rail urban areas.

By contrast, the report identifies numerous urban areas with bus-only transit whose transit ridership has grown far faster than driving, including Austin, Las Vegas, and Raleigh-Durham. Based on this and other information, the report concludes that cities and regions that want to boost transit ridership are better off improving their bus systems than building expensive rail lines.

None of this matters, though, when you’re all about loving the choo-choo, and expect others to pay for your obsession.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Chance checks in to give us an Enterprise update…


Well wouldn’t you just know it.

Sometimes our friend Chance taps us on the shoulder and passes along a good suggestion.

In this case, it has to do with the outlook for continued Enterprise presence at the “Visitors Center” at Brunswick’s Maine Street Station.

Or as we sometimes call it, the Departure Center.

Departure Shirley applies in this case.  Since the info we passed along to you in our related post earlier today was a few weeks old, we thought it appropriate to check for updates on the details.


The operation consists of an actual Enterprise staffer ‘manning’ the desk at so called ‘busy times.’  Or should we say ‘personing’ the desk for incoming Downeasters, ready to assist the throngs of arriving passengers in spreading their tourist dollars around.

So we contacted local officials, only to find out the Enterprise operation at the Station will be shutting down in a month or so.  Apparently, business has not been sufficient to continue the service, even though Downeaster ridership continues to ‘exceed expectations,’ and ‘economic stimulus’ to local businesses has been worthy of letters to the Governor.  None of which contained any objective data.


You know how it goes; data and objectivity are for the nay-sayers; those without a dream, without a vision.

We have lots of dreams and visions, thank you, before you decide to toss us in the dust bin of “community pride.’  We just like them to have some grounding in reality, with an occasional topping of transparency and accountability.

Is there no one else who shares our dreams and our visions?  Have the Ostriches really taken control of honest discourse?

Downeaster Economic Stimulus: a data point


As you’re probably aware, we have an Enterprise Rent-a-car operation here in Brunswick, on outer Pleasant Street.  They have a ‘car rental desk’ at the Maine Street Station Visitors Center.  As shown in the graphic above, one of their discriminators is that they will pick you up, instead of making you find a way to their location to pick up a car.  This would seem a perfect approach for Brunswick, especially compared to more traditional airport locations where a bustling bevy of shuttles operate to take you to the various agencies on site.

A few weeks ago, on a whim, we decided to stop in at the office on Pleasant Street.  I asked a friendly soul, who looked to be in charge, a simple question.  “In an average week, how many cars would you say you rent to folks arriving at Maine Street Station?”

His first reaction was a look that said ‘are you sure you really want to know,’ followed by a pause as he searched for the right words, and finally he said “not many.”

I looked at him and asked “you mean 2 or 3?”

He paused again, and thoughtfully answered “maybe.”

We’re constantly being told how successful the Downeaster is; how ridership is exceeding expectations and continues to “grow;” and how much of an economic boon the service is to our community.  Not only that, but that people are clamoring for more trains in and out of Brunswick.

In a recent article, NNEPRA cited 33,000 passengers arriving/departing at Brunswick in the most recent fiscal year.

We’ll leave it to you to figure out what all those ‘passengers’ are doing when they get to Brunswick.  If we assume half of the 33,000 live in this area and are going elsewhere to enjoy themselves, we come up with 317 non-resident arriving passengers per week, on average.

If “maybe” only 2 or 3 rent a car, the other 315 or so are doing what?  And getting there how?  And spending what when they get there?

Oh well.  Pondering such questions is becoming increasingly non-productive.  We should remember to re-read the glowing endorsement letters from the BDA and Freeport civic organizations.  Looking for objective, hard data can be so counter-cultural.  Not to mention politically incorrect.

We’re beginning to believe there are more Ostriches in Cape Brunswick than we’ve been saying for the last five years or so.  It appears they all gather at an in-town beach location where there’s plenty of sand for digging in.

Which really says a lot, doesn’t it?


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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Maine Press Association “Annual Awards;” Self-esteem, adult journalism variety


This morning, as we chowed down on our Breakfast Sandwich at the Big Top Deli on Maine Street, we browsed through the Portland Sunday paper, in which we learned that:

Press Herald/Telegram sweeps Maine journalism awards

Back in the old days when we subscribed to and read The Ostrich, we used to marvel at how many annual awards this humble little example of journalism regularly won in the annual competition.  We knew that Maine doesn’t have all that many newspapers.  We also knew that for purposes of the awards, they are separated into weeklies and dailies.


Still, the skeptic and cynic inside us surmised that so many awards were given out annually to so few competitors that virtually no still breathing print outlet would go without an award.  We also discovered somewhere over the years that the awards were not given as a result of objective review of the year’s journalistic product in toto, but in stead, like the Oscars, are given to the “best XYZ of the year” from among the nominations submitted.  (Actually, in the case before us, to the top three among the nominations.)

As we’ve clearly stated in the past, ‘best of the year’ is a relative assessment, not an absolute.  Some years, movies produced are better or worse overall than other years.  Yet, there will always be a “Best Movie of the Year,” even if it isn’t half as good as the winner two years ago.  These are not awards of excellence; they are awards of relative ranking.


If these awards only recognized true excellence, some years there would be none in a given category, and other years there would be four or five in the same category.

Enough already; let’s cut to the chase.  We decided to look into the rest of the story.

So we headed to the Maine Press Association web page:

As you will see, the MPA has 7 dailies as members, and 22 weeklies.  Note as well that The Forecaster and the Coastal Journal, two weeklies distributed and widely read in our area, are not listed as members.  We suppose that’s a matter of their choice.

We found the link to the awards for 2013:

While we may have miscounted by a few, our quick tally of the listings came up with 398 total awards.  Handing out nearly 400 awards to a total of 29 members means that on a pure pro-rata basis, each could expect to win nearly 14 awards.


Our conclusion?  Suspicions confirmed.  They give out so many awards that EVERYONE is a winner; some more than others, but EVERYONE wins.  Unless, that is, your efforts are so abysmally incompetent and unworthy that you’re probably already out of business.  Or you simply choose, like The Forecaster, not to join the association.


We’ll conclude this flight of foolishness by making an award of our own.  The envelope, please!


And the Four Backside Award goes to the Maine Press Association for making awards so numerous and so granular as to render their value essentially meaningless.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Especially when you consider that the recipients’ efforts are nearly meaningless, particularly in view of the classic principles of what used to be called journalism

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Brunswick Downeaster ‘sold out’ story line: truth, fiction, or worse?


For some time now, those who carefully monitor such things have reported that something like 90% of the Amtrak Downeaster trains leaving from and arriving in Brunswick are less than 15% full.

This does not sit well with those who define the success of the service strictly in terms of ‘ridership,’ which they report in a variety of convoluted ways so as to discourage parsing and analysis.  We recently reflected on the subject here:

We made these comments:

So we have a question or two to pose.

First, if we purchase a round trip ticket between Brunswick and Portland, but don’t use it, do we he have an effect on ridership totals?

Second, if we do use it, how do we affect ridership totals?  Do we represent an increase of two in total ridership: one for the trip from Brunswick to Portland, and one for the trip back to Brunswick?  Or do we represent an increase of four: one departing Brunswick, one arriving Portland, one departing Portland, and one arriving Brunswick?

We hope, of course, that we don’t represent an increase of six total, the four just mentioned, plus a rider at the Freeport station in each direction.

We have no doubt that the system and NNEPRA are highly motivated to maximize the ridership totals, and their ‘growth.’  But until the same rigor and discipline is applied to ridership figures certified accounting methods required of financial reporting, we simply can’t be sure.

Especially since there is virtually no public disclosure of PRECISELY how ridership information is collected and reported.


The issue of nearly empty trains in Brunswick does not provide good ‘optics’ for backing-up the much trumpeted success of the Downeaster.  So in response, we get the rationalization of NNEPRA’s ED, Patricia Quinn, which in itself is an admission that reports of slim ridership into  and out of Brunswick are accurate.

For example, we find this in a recent Portland Press Herald article:

“The popularity of the train in the southern end of the route makes it hard to fill the train in Brunswick,” according to NNEPRA’s Executive Director. “That’s because many trains sell out farther down the line. So a prospective customer who wants to board in Brunswick and travel to Boston may not be able to reserve a seat because all the available seats for that train are reserved by passengers who will board farther down the line.”


There’s a reason why we call ourselves “The Other Side.”  You know us; we’re a skeptic and a cynic with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.  So we decided to do what we often do; look into things on our own, as any good correspondent could, should, and would.

In this case, we decided to look into the availability of seats on future trains from Brunswick to Boston; and the same from Boston to Brunswick.  We went to the Amtrak ticket portal via the NNEPRA web site, to check the availability of 8 adult seats in each direction.

For purposes of this exercise, we set our search parameters for the dates of Sunday, October 19th, and every day after that until the end of the month – Friday, October 31st.  Here’s what we found.

Southbound Trains - Brunswick to Boston:

This data was compiled at roughly noon today.  Both the early and late departures from Brunswick to Boston had the requested 8 seats available, and at a variety of fare levels.  The ‘mid-morning’ hybrid run, which begins with a bus to Portland, and continues with a train, had the 8 requested seats available on weekend days, and was a cancelled connection on weekdays, in all likelihood because of track repair operations. 

The through trains (early and late) are 3 1/2 hour trips.  The hybrid bus/train run, when it operates, is closer to 5 hours.

So on the basis of that information, we’re raising the Brunswick Sausage flag on claims that the trains leave Brunswick sparsely patronized because ‘seats are sold out further down the line.’

Northbound Trains - Boston to Brunswick:

Later today, in the 5 pm hour, we checked on the availability of 8 adult seats, again for each day from tomorrow, the 19th, through the end of the month.  The early departure from Boston has the requested 8 seats available at a variety of fares on weekends, but is cancelled on weekdays, again, presumably because of track repair work.  The late departure has the 8 requested seats available each and every day, at multiple fare levels.

Here again, there are ‘hybrid runs,’ leaving at the same time as the early run, and varying as to connections.  On weekends, the requested 8 seats are available at multiple fare levels, while on weekdays, one of the connections, which is redundant to the through train departure, has 8 seats available at multiple fares. while the other connecting option, at 5 hours total, is cancelled.


So it appears, at least based on our limited case study, that the notion of no seats available due to sold out trains downstream is, to put it charitably, a fantasy.  Propaganda, marketing hype, excuse making, what have you.


Some might think of the claims from the Downeaster and TrainRiders Northeast as lies, but we won’t go so far as to say that.  Instead, we’ll think of it as another example of how government agencies, and their lobbyists, do their level best to make sure you ‘don’t worry, be happy.’


Add some razzle dazzle production values, distracting moves, flashy duds, and carefully arranged pompadours, and before you know it, you’ll have the groupies and fans screaming for more and calling for the smelling salts to overcome the vapors.

If that’s not enough to explain things, you can always go with more traditional explanations.


And now they want to add New York City to the equation?  Will we never get to rest?