Monday, May 4, 2015

OK, by damn it; this reporter is a wuss.


We just got home from tonight’s town council meeting, which was still going on when we left at about 9:35.

Why?  Because tonight, we cried uncle; we just couldn’t take any more.  Or more correctly, we decided we wouldn’t take any more.  When we left, discussion among the council was still taking place on the first agenda item and the motion associated with it.  We could spend thousands of words going off on that, but why bother?

On top of that, the pre-arranged ‘protocol’ for conduct of public discussion associated with the motion appeared to get badly mangled in real time.  We spoke in the public comment session, and the 5 minute time limit usually associated with speaking during that agenda segment was applied with more of a hair trigger than we can ever recall.

Here is the statement we made:


Good evening; I'm Mr. Schaeffer from Crestview Lane. I'm a local blogger; some on the council call me Mr. Grumpy.

  • I'm an engineer by training, and early in my education, I was taught what was then called the “test of reasonableness.” We were using slide-rules back then, and if you know anything about them, you know you can get the right answer, or wildly wrong ones. So you learned to look at the problem you were solving and do a rough mental estimate of what the answer should be. You compared it to your calculated answer to see if it was reasonable by being in the same range. Most know if oranges are 79 cents each, and you're buying six, the total price shouldn't be under three dollars, and it shouldn't be over six dollars, even if you can't do the math in your head.

  • The same general concept applies in less precision oriented pursuits like discussions of public projects and proposals. In this domain, the 'test of reasonableness' is most often called the smell test, or the straight-faced test.

  • Such testing needs to be applied to what we hear from NNEPRA, their experts, and their advocates.

  • Let me give you some examples:

    • We're told there is strong demand for rail service to towns beyond Brunswick, yet bus service to those towns is only lightly used, but could be easily expanded if necessary.

    • Many times we've been told Amtrak diesels can't be completely shut down, and even if they could, they wouldn't, for fear of not starting, and excess wear and tear on the engines. Other times we're told sure, we can completely shut them down, but only inside a Layover facility. With the right equipment.

    • We're told the MLF will reduce train movements and grade crossings, yet the Environmental Assessment says there will be 20 train movements a day between the MLF and the station with expanded Brunswick service, not allowing for expansions beyond that.

    • We're told that NNEPRA has no interest in anything beyond the core Brunswick-Portland-Boston service, yet if you look at the Strategic Initiatives posted on their web page, they talk of expanding to other communities in Maine, other states, and Montreal.

    • As a matter of fact, chart number 34 used last week says there are NO PLANS to expand Amtrak Downeaster service beyond it's Brunswick-Boston route. Chart number 6, on the other hand, mentions constraints on 'future growth of the Downeaster or any feeder services.' Specific names for trains may be a common convention, but should not matter when counting trains.

    • They say their projects and initiatives must be based on a sustainable economic model, yet they operate at a 50% loss, and revenue from the Brunswick extension probably doesn't even cover fuel expenses, or other costs like taxi service back and forth to Portland.

    • They also say their projects and initiatives should feature demonstrably positive economic return and public benefit, yet whenever I've suggested testing that premise, all we get are grandiose projections done by consultants years ago, with a steadfast refusal to collect real data in the current local economy.

    • Meanwhile, Brunswick has a retail space vacancy factor five times greater than Portland, and Ms. Quinn and others rave that adding more service in Brunswick will allow one day trips south to see Red Sox games and enjoy other big city delights.

    • In other words, if you haven't figured out what I mean when I use the term “sucking sound,” it's time you do.

    • It's well known that the highest ridership depots on the Downeaster are in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but from what I know, those states don't provide any subsidy for the service, like Maine does.

    • It's been claimed over and over that unless the Brunswick MLF is built, service to Brunswick will have to be shut down, yet it continues to run without the facility. A former Chair of the Town Council took strong exception to this claim some years back when he spoke publicly on the subject. He suggested the Layover Facility is, instead, part of a 'too big to let die' strategy to ensure that Brunswick stays on the Downeaster route, whether it makes any sense or not, from any perspective.

    • We've been told for some time the Layover Facility belongs in Brunswick, because it's 'the end of the line.' Suddenly, it's become the 'head of the line.' Even though talk of service extension to Rockland, and perhaps other destinations, would obviously be via Brunswick.

    • Last week, Ms. Quinn stated NNEPRA may have to build another Layover facility in Lewiston to accommodate expanded service in that direction.

    • Duplicity and speculation often seem the order of the day. Idle stop technology, they said, would need to be added to the entire Amtrak fleet recently, though a quick check proved that's not true.

    • I enjoy the writing of economist Thomas Sowell. One of his books is called a Conflict of Visions. In other works he talks about the Vision of the Anointed.

    • It occurs to me those terms might well apply in our current circumstances. We hear of 'visions' from those in positions of power, even when they conflict with themselves, and even worse, conflict with reality.

    • All in all, it seems to me the 'test of reasonableness' does not apply favorably to what we've been told in recent years. Changing answers and pronouncements to meet circumstances of the moment doesn't pass the straight-faced test. Reshaping words to match current situations and atmospherics doesn't invite confidence, or inspire trust.

    • In closing, I recently posted a humorous item where I imagined what I would do if I was Grand High Poohbah of Brunswick. No doubt it caused a run on smelling salts in local pharmacies. I said in the post that I would direct the council and key staff to take a tour of the Bouchard Drive neighborhood and residences, and to stand track-side as a Downeaster idled nearby, before arranging any visit with Ms. Quinn to the Portland Station.

    • My call on this was no joke; I staunchly believe you have an obligation to do so before submitting yourselves to a professionally orchestrated show at the transportation center. You need to know exactly what's at stake for town residents, who've been taking it on the chin for years, so a relatively few area residents can yield to the suction drawing them and their dollars to points south.


We didn’t get to voice the last paragraph, because the hook was out.  That aside, in retrospect, we want to emphasize that this passage from our words is the real takeaway.

All in all, it seems to me the 'test of reasonableness' does not apply favorably to what we've been told in recent years. Changing answers and pronouncements to meet circumstances of the moment doesn't pass the straight-faced test. Reshaping words to match current situations and atmospherics doesn't invite confidence, or inspire trust.

Indulge us for a moment, because we are about to indulge ourselves.  For the following reasons:

                     Image result for you want the truth

1)  Councilor John Perreault, before the discussion of the motion formally ensued, said something to the effect that “we’ve had all kinds of conflicting inputs, and all we want is the truth.”  We take some comfort from that, since it speaks to our ‘takeaway.’

2)  As we listened to the testimony of Patricia Quinn of NNEPRA, and her answers to related questions, before actual comments and discussion on the motion got underway, it seemed to us that things got more and more confusing, conflicting, and generally indicative of a lack of command of the subject area, and as we suggested in our ‘takeaway,’ a penchant for reshaping things to match atmospherics of the moment.

3)  In our post of yesterday,, we asserted the overarching concern from what the Brunswick Taxi issue reveals is the absolute goat rope of accountability in Downeaster service matters.  Pardon us if we say that was clearly reinforced in tonight’s discussion, but any number of times, references to “Amtrak policy,’ or “Amtrak protocols’ were put forward as an explanation for things.  In other words, we can’t do this or do that, because others have the say on this or that.  OK, at some level that’s rational and to be expected, but it still highlights the challenges associated with an undertaking that involves multiple government agencies at state and federal levels.  Where the incentives of private enterprise are completely absent.

We feel entirely justified, then, in our prior and current assertions.

As for leaving early?  Please be kind.

We’re only inhuman.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Poppycock,

    Just finished reading your latest post and wanted to tell you I got a kick out of it. I too am an engineer and I too go way back on a slide rule. Engineers like us learned to think for ourselves and let the slide rule do the heavy math. Whippersnappers coming out of school these days let computers do both their computing and their thinking.

    I've seen consultant reports that suggest you can take 400,000 train passengers a year out of a highway traffic stream of 100,000 vehicles per day, and reduce travel times, highway congestion, air pollution and foreign oil imports, all for a mere quarter of a billion dollars followed by subsidies of $8-10 million a year and paid for by people who would never ride the train.

    As you say, it fails the smell test. As Dr. Sowell might say, "It is a childish idea, when you stop and think about it -- but who stops and thinks these days?"

    Thanks for the trip down Nostalgia Lane and keep up the good work!