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High Speed Dreams

 Acela_old_saybrook_ct_summer2011

 One of the evergreens for politicians are high speed trains.  They get dewy-eyed at the prospect of having high speed trains in their political districts.  For people who have been savvy enough to get elected and have the self-control which allows them to stay in office for long periods of time, politicians can be remarkably irrational when it comes to the subject of railroad transportation.  Especially high-speed trains.

Inevitably, their eyes turn toward the Northeast Corridor.  If they’re lucky, their constituents will send them on a 14-day junket to Europe to survey the passenger railroad situation there.  Like the Intercity Express:

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 And when they get back from Europe, they find themselves standing in front of their constituents, extolling the virtues of high-speed trains.  The high speed train is the Holy Grail of modern transportation, that object of exceeding value that must be had by all progressive peoples.  It has become a crusade, just as streetcars have become a crusade.  As just like the modern day streetcar, the real goals of these projects are concealed behind a veil of flowery words and empty promises.

So it is with Columbus, Georgia, which has plans:

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Of course, once the pretty words and pictures are peeled away, there’s still the ugly reality that these trains cost a lot of money.  They cost a lot of money to plan for, they cost a lot of money to buy the rights of way for the tracks, they cost a lot of money to build, they cost a lot of money to operate and, most importantly, they cost a lot of money over the long term to maintain.  Without continuous maintenance, these high speed trains cannot reliably operate.

Already, there have been studies, with civil engineers sitting about with yellow pads and pencils, pulling numbers out of thin air to justify the construction of these things.  Let’s look at the competition:

Automobile

The optimum in terms of transportation availability, the automobile has already won the war in terms of popularity.  Our entire transportation infrastructure revolves around the automobile.  Since much of the cost of that infrastructure is buried out of sight, it is impossible to factor in the actual costs of an individual trip to Columbus from Atlanta.  Using Mapquest, the trip on I-85 is about 126 miles, taking typically 1 hour and 40 minutes.  Except on Fridays on holiday weekends in the rain.  You are, modern soul that you are, driving a 2014 Toyota Prius, using about $10.00 worth of fuel.  (Interestingly, the way to play this is to make the trip having your fuel costs reimbursed by your employer at the current IRS rate, to the tune of about $60.00).  Of course, your mileage may vary.  And, no mention of wear and tear on the car or on the roads.  Nor a mention of the overhead costs such as insurance.

The Bus

Greyhound goes between Atlanta and Columbus, taking between 1 hour 50 minutes and 2 hours 15 minutes.  The one-way fare is around $33.00, less discounts.  Again, because the bus uses public rights of way which are supported by the taxpayers, it is not possible to calculate the actual costs of this trip per person.  But you have to believe that the costs for Greyhound are artificially low.

Flying

Until recently, for example, there were direct flights from Hartsfield to Macon which were heavily subsidized by the taxpayers.  Even then, the air carrier couldn’t make it work out, probably because more time was spent on the ground taxiing than actually flying.  In any case, a Delta subsidiary will get you to Columbus in about 42 – 48 minutes, gate to gate.  The fare is in a general range between $450.00 and $600.00.  As with the other forms of transit discussed so far, the actual costs are hidden from view, making cost benefit analysis difficult.

High Speed Train

The Columbus proposal shows three different options, with the least expensive having trains that operate at speed under 100 mph on existing rights of way.  You can refer to the costs of these plans in the feasibility study document.

What We Had

Just for fun, let’s go back 60 years, to the early 1950’s.  There was a passenger train called the Man O’ War, which ran between Columbus and Atlanta; center of the city to center of the city.

Central_of_Georgia_Railway_Man_O_War_1951

The train was operated by a private company, the Central of Georgia Railway.  This company paid taxes on its revenues, on its equipment and on its rights of way.  Prior to 1956, there were two trains between Columbus and Atlanta (typical running time 2 hours 50 minutes, with several stops) :

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The round-trip fare, in today’s dollars, was $31.62, or $15.81 one-way.  Of course, that would be different these days, since fuel costs, taxation and such would have grown considerably faster than the official rate of inflation.  But, there’s still a point to be made.

Popular tastes change.  People got tired of taking the streetcar when they could take their car instead.  So, the streetcars generally went away.  Popular tastes have changed back, with the streetcar becoming a sign of urban progress (and not so much as a sign of improved transportation).  We had it all and let it slip away.  And, we’re paying for it now.  While our elected leaders are dreaming of high speed trains, a more modest train with useful amenities such as Wi-Fi, conference rooms, light food and beverage service, which would be useful for those who travel between Columbus and Atlanta might be a real winner.  It won’t be as fast, but it will be just as useful at a much lower price.

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pisa

Well, with a title like that, I’m sure that a few of you are expecting me to swing for the fences about the new City of Brookhaven.  Sorry to disappoint, but it’s really too soon for that stuff, but it is not too soon to talk about something called “SeeClickFix“, a website that our new City utilizes.

The concept of SeeClickFix is good enough that the City has chosen it as a primary method for the citizens of the lovely City of Brookhaven to contact their public officials with issues such as potholes, missing stop signs and uncollected trash.

The premise is simple.  You log on (there’s an app of course), photograph the problem, with your phone picking up the GPS coordinates.  City officials read these reports every morning, notify the appropriate departments, post a notice that the complaint has been received and, when the problem has been fixed, post another comment stating that the work has been completed.

It’s all very transparent, the big buzzword of today.  If you’re a politician, it’s important to work transparent into your political spiel, because it sounds so, well, open and above board.  It is now one of the most overworked words in our language, right behind awesome.

Suit yourself, but there are times when I would really not like hearing about some things.  And, SeeClickFix is starting to hedge into that territory.  Consider this scenario from the old days in some rural Southern town:

  • Back in the day down at the mayor’s office in City Hall, the staff would come in on Monday morning, refreshed from a relaxing weekend.  But there was a sense of impending dread in the air, because Monday morning also meant a ritual phone call from Miss Augusta Talmadge.  Miss Gussie was quite predictable, in a Southern kind of way, and after a long weekend of stewing about a local infrastructure issue, she was compelled to contact the mayor. Each and every Monday.  Miss Gussie’s Morning Wakeup Call was anticipated with cold enthusiasm.  The staff would draw straws, or pull seniority, as to who would receive the often lengthy telephone communication.  For example, she would be upset at her neighbor’s method of pruning his crape myrtles. (and, those out there who know the term crape murder know what I’m talking about).  After a few tortuous minutes, Miss Gussie would run out of steam and all would be right with the world until next Monday.

Now, of course, Miss Talmadge has a computer and a smartphone and uses SeeClickFix.  Where before, only a select few knew that Miss Gussie was the Town Crank, now everybody does.  That’s transparency.

While SeeClickFix has noble intentions, it also has a dark side where neighbors get into firefights over local issues.  It also has the prospect of trivializing things.  Consider this posted complaint from the northern end of the City of Brookhaven:

  • At sundown each night, giant cockroaches come streaming out of the sewer through the manhole cover in center of cul-de-sac.

Well, I could not resist responding with “Welcome to the southern United States.”  I can only imagine what will happen when this person goes to New Orleans some day, where the cockroaches have their own floats during Mardi Gras.

That said, SeeClickFix suffers from the same problem that pervades social media.  Everything becomes trivialized.  Things seem to inevitably wind down to Jerry Springer.

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But the more insidious part of SeeClickFix is that it establishes and reinforces the notion that only government can solve your problems.

In the early days of the campaign to form the City of Brookhaven, some political hay was made when an individual was going around and patching potholes that DeKalb County was supposed to be repairing.  The County was embarrassed, of course.  And the political point was made.

Now, when you have a problem, you just go to SeeClickFix.

 

Snowzilla 2014

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Atlanta is slowly coming back to life.  I’ve lived here since 1965, and I’ve seen my share of Atlanta in freezing weather.  And, I’ve had a child-like innocent attitude toward this sort of event, discussed here.  This time, however, things are different, and the reasons why are interesting.

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Whenever Atlanta freezes up like it did at the end of January, 2014, I always look back and remember that those days were extraordinary and unique.  It all comes down to where I was and who I was with.

History

  • The first storm that I remember was in 1973.  I had been visiting my parents in Athens and suddenly realized that I needed to get back home before the storm.  I crept into town that Sunday afternoon, headed toward my apartment in Buckhead.  There was a 1/2″ patina of ice on my car.  During the night, the electricity went off as thousands of ice covered limbs fell onto power lines.  I was relatively fortunate, since the power came back on a day later, but many parts of town were dark for a week, if not longer.  After that event, Georgia Power became more aggressive in maintaining power line rights of way.
  • In 1982, I was sitting in a bar on Irby Street in Buckhead drinking beer with a friend.  We looked out to see snow falling heavily; he headed home and I found myself making a choice as to where I would go.  I could go home to my little cottage in Brookhaven or I could go be with the woman that I loved.  By the time things had firmed up and I was granted permission to stay with her, the roads had become barely passable.  I ended up walking to Sandy Springs in the snow.  Nearby, I-285 was completely shut down, with cars parked all over the place.  I’m glad that I was with her, even though we had to walk to the local 7/11 to buy groceries as things dragged on.  I would eventually marry that lovely young woman.
  • By 1993, we were married and living in Brookhaven when another storm hit town.  We were without electricity for five days.  Fortunately, my wife treated it as a camping adventure, and we cozied up near the fireplace under blankets.  The family cats hung nearby, too.  The big discovery in that storm was that we still had hot water; I had assumed that because there was no electricity, there was no ignitor for the water heater.    Fortunately, the heater had a pilot light and we were able to warm up in the bathtub.

There have been other storms, and there have been some false alarms, too.  I remember there was the threat of bad weather in the early 1980’s; everybody left town and went home to prepare for the oncoming storm.  It never happened and there was some finger-pointing about it after the fact.  Employers and schools were embarrassed.

Through it all, there has been a sense of “Well, this stuff happens from time to time.” and that’s been it.  This time appears to be different.

Politics

Certainly, politics has something to do with it.  Governor Nathan Deal is running for reelection.  Like him or hate him, the first Deal administration has been remarkably quiet.  There have been a few dust ups along the way, but the Deal administration has generally cruised right along.  Of course, with an impending election, opponents are eager to drum up whatever campaign rhetoric is available.

One of our neighbors, an all-politics all-the-time sort, had this to say:

I was just told by a friend that her son saw our Governor, Nathan Deal at the Varsity at lunchtime yesterday right as the snow was starting. He even took a picture of him. I guess a chili cheese slaw dog and a frosted orange took precedence over Georgian’s lives.

We can only speculate as to what she would have had to say if she had gone into the Varsity’s men’s room.  And, now that things are over, opponents are looking for anything that will stick.  I don’t remember previous governors getting this kind of flak; usually the Atlanta mayors get hit with it.

What is different this time is that popular expectations have changed.  We’ve been going through a five-year cycle of significantly increased governmental presence in our lives.  We are being told that government will be there to solve our every problem, and that only government has the tools to make such changes.  It was inevitable that popular expectations would rise as the government’s presence in our lives also rose.  Now you hear people asking “Why wasn’t the National Guard called out sooner?”  This on the second day of the storm.

Social Media

In spite of the constant drumbeats of anger over the traffic situation, there were some distinct bright spots.  Facebook proved to be an extremely useful tool, especially when someone set up a page that helped people find shelter:

enhanced-20286-1391019806-29All those little white markers  indicate someone who is willing to give shelter to strangers in this emergency.  Likewise, others reached out to strangers stuck on the highways:

enhanced-buzz-30973-1391023549-8More about those kind souls, here.  Home Depot and local grocery stores let people sleep inside where it was warm.  Not exactly the best, but at least acceptable.  Chick-fil-a reportedly gave out food to those stuck in place.  This sort of stuff is Atlanta at its best.  And, there was dry humor:

Stay off Johnson Ferry.  Seriously.

Stay off Johnson Ferry. Seriously.

Social media has not only been the font of information for people affected by the storm, it has also been the source of discussion.  Some it has been very good:

Lisa Engle I think no matter the call made, right / wrong, pockets of people will find “fault” and reason to highlight how it “should” be done different. After 25(ish?) in “the system”, I’ve seen that there is always controversy about the choices made. Julie – The call made a few weeks ago was bc of the buses not having the fuel “supplement” for the diesel to deal w/ the cold.. (from what I’ve been told)…wasn’t a “kids in the cold” issue…more a “can’t have kids stranded bc our buses won’t run” issue. Personally, I think the call to cancel would’ve been best in hindsight, but sure as that happened the snow would’ve arrived at 6:PM instead and the system would be made to look like idiots who caused parents trouble w/ childcare. Moving on…

There already has been major discussion online and in the newspapers.  This includes an article titled “Why the South Fell Apart”.  There is sure to be a lot more, including this blog item.  Yet, there is one other matter that has not been discussed…….

The Trucks

As I opined on Facebook:

At the mere mention of ice and snow, when everybody is racing to the store to buy bread and milk, that is the time to officially embargo all tractor trucks from passing through Atlanta. The city trucks are given enough time to get home, and then they too stay put until the storm has passed. Almost every scene in the year’s debacle includes shots of tractor/trailer rigs folded up, blocking lanes of traffic.

The presence of tractor trailer trucks significantly made matters worse.  A couple samples:

3223154_G 3223220_GAtlanta is a major transportation crossroads, and the tractor trailer traffic is significant in this town.  If you don’t believe me, go over to I-75 near Cumberland and count the number of trucks passing by in the span of five minutes.  Certainly, these trucks should be kept off the highways and away from Atlanta until the weather clears.  The truckers are sure to blame the auto drivers, and they’re probably right.  But it doesn’t sound so good to hear them complaining about the cars when nobody’s moving.

Long term, the truck situation in Atlanta needs resolution, regardless of the weather.  Looking to Europe, there are certain highways that are so congested that the tractor trailer trucks are hauled past the congested areas by train:

ger_bls_re485nr005_weilamrhein_2007_1_LIt’s called a “Rolling Highway“.  And it’s worth a look.

The Trains

Those who read these pages regularly know that I am a train enthusiast.  No apologies from me on that score, for I know that steel wheel on steel rail has some inherent advantages, both with fuel economy and system reliability.  For while MARTA buses were not able to run, the heavy rail portion of the system operated reliably, even with a fire at Five Points station.  My nearby Norfolk Southern line to Washington kept operating in its same reliable fashion through the storm.  It’s hard to improve on that.

Aftermath

There is sure to be a lot of discussion about this, but one thing keeps coming back to me.  Atlanta gets one of these storms every other year, with pretty much the same outcome every time. Fox News is saying that we only have perhaps a hundred sand / plow trucks, while Chicago has four times that many, if not more. Is it necessary for us to have hundreds of sand trucks for an event that happens every other year?

Be as the reed in the wind; bend but do not break.

I’m sorry for those who got stranded, and I know that we can do better, but this all needs a grain pf practical judgement. This is not Duluth, Minnesota. And, we’re lucky that it is only snow on the ground, no ice in the trees. Which means that the electricity is still on, so we still have heat and can watch Fox tell us how bad things are.

And, when the next storm threatens and the DoT starts spreading salt and sand on the roads, who will be the first person to complain about its affects upon the environment?

151572326Atlanta, Traffic

Everybody talks about Atlanta’s traffic problem, but nobody seems to be able to do very much about it.  The premise of this blog item is “What happens if you offer something so attractive that they willingly choose?”  That is to say, people are often forced to choose something and people resent being forced.  In recent years, commuting has become a forced choice.  Allow me now to discuss what if?

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MARTA Heavy Rail System - 2013

MARTA Heavy Rail System – 2013

In looking at the MARTA system map above, you will note that virtually all of the heavy rail system is within the limits of I-285.  There are possible explanations for this, such as here.  Regardless, the original concept of the MARTA system was regional in nature:

MARTA as originally conceived

MARTA as originally conceived

You will note the little arrows pointing outward from the center of Atlanta.  Atlanta wants to be the center of the world, but that is an opinion which is not shared by all.  And the mere mention of MARTA to those outside of I-285 often produces a visceral negative reaction.  Simply put, those outside of I-285 view MARTA as representing everything that is wrong.  And MARTA represents a path for bringing what is wrong into their communities.  So they resist being forced to accept this state of affairs.

Not that MARTA hasn’t helped things along by allowing the system to become hostile to its customers, but that is not a permanent condition.  There are indications that the new General Manager, Keith Parker, is taking steps to remedy this problem.  One example is a new “Ride with Respect” campaign to make the transit environment friendlier.  Another example is a new smart phone app that gives you not only schedule information but also real-time locations of trains and buses.  While this app may not have come from MARTA, the Authority has been willing to share its data, a turning point for them.  It’s going to take a while for this to soak in, and Fulton and DeKalb counties will benefit, but the problem of negative perceptions outside of I-285 will remain.

Wrong Direction

To me, the problem is that we have been thinking about this in the wrong direction.  Rather than having a system map which shows arrows going outward from Atlanta, we should actually have a system map which also has arrows pointing inward to Atlanta.  That is, rather than MARTA reaching out into the Atlanta region, the MARTA heavy rail system really should become a conduit for the region to reach Atlanta’s assets.  I’ll spare you the breathless Chamber of Commerce invective; we’re not talking about making Atlanta into the largest Stuckey’s in the world.  We’re talking about facilitating the region’s ability to conduct business.  We’re talking first about the Airport.  Then maybe the State Capitol, Georgia State and Georgia Tech.  Use your imagination.

What I’m suggesting is that the heavy rail system of tracks currently operated as “MARTA” should be opened up to rail vehicles from around the region.  Since the MARTA tunnels are designed for a certain size electrically powered train, any train traveling on MARTA tracks would have to fit within its standards.  At the same time, this approach allows different parts of the Atlanta region to customize their rail vehicles to meet their specific needs.

An Example

Consider a train leaving the airport, headed toward Doraville.  Externally, it looks like a MARTA train but is decorated in a different livery.  It could be up to eight cars long, and operates from electric power supplied by the third rail of the system.  Yet, this train has major differences from a MARTA train.  It is more like a conventional railroad passenger car, with coach seats and doors at the ends of the cars.  Each car has retention tank toilet facilities.  There might even be special cars with a conference room, a small lounge area that serves beverages and snacks.  This train makes only a few selected stops; say at Fort McPherson, Five Points, Peachtree Center, Arts Center, Lindbergh Center, then Doraville.

Arriving at the Doraville station, the train continues to the current end of track.  At that point, it couples to a conventional diesel-powered locomotive and disconnects from the MARTA third rail.  From there, this train continues on the Norfolk Southern tracks, making stops at Norcross, Pleasant Hill, Buford, Flowery Branch, Mundy Mill Road and finally Gainesville.

The costs for starting this service would be lower than for constructing a conventional transit right of way.  Since the Norfolk Southern right of way that this train would operate on already has passenger train service in the form of Amtrak, upgrading the railroad to accommodate commuter service would be less expensive.  While the Standard Gauge used by most railroads in North America is 4′ 8 1/2″, MARTA is supposedly 4′ 8 1/4“, but this is within the margin of error for railroad operations.

All of this is proven railroad technology, it is solely a matter of design and funding.  And the popularity of the idea.

Connection Points

In addition to the current end-of-track points for the different MARTA heavy rail lines, the MARTA system also has several expansion points which were incorporated at the time of initial construction.  They are located near Arts Center, East Point and Edgewood / Candler Park Stations.  The point near Edgewood / Candler Park Station could provide access to CSX tracks which lead to Tucker, Lawrenceville, Winder and Athens.  The point near the East Point Station, could provide access to NS tracks that lead eventually to Macon (this would be the vaunted commuter train to “Lovejoy, Georgia” that keeps rearing its head).

The MARTA Green Line could be extended to Cobb County, running down the middle of South Cobb Drive.  In this case, the “train” could be a self-propelled diesel railcar that also has electrical third rail shoes for operating on the MARTA right of way. The Green Line could also provide access to NS tracks that continue westward toward Birmingham; as with the Gainesville train, this trackage is also rated for passenger service.

Political Will

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of the recent TSPLOST referendum for the Atlanta region was that the transportation projects identified for funding by the tax were a melange of dribs and drabs.  There was no coherent plan, no larger vision.  In many cases, people were voting on projects for places that they did not know existed.  The voters recognized this and voted the tax down accordingly.  We keep looking for long-term solutions to our regional transit problem.  Perhaps this idea will get the political juices flowing toward a solution that is acceptable to the region.

Burb Ball

Atlanta Braves Announce Plans to Move to New Stadium

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Shortly after the above headline appeared, my good friend and fellow baseball viewer Gary Rowe sent me an email saying:  “Surely, the Brookhaven Bear has something to say about the team leaving the city.

Well, the short answer is that, no, I don’t have anything to say about the change of venue.

Simply put, in light of today’s current events, where the fabric of our society is being rent asunder for political advantage, the act of moving a mere baseball stadium 12 miles seems remarkably trivial.

Of course, the long answer is that is what this blog item is about.  The real fact of the matter is that while I once cared about major league baseball, I do not do so today.  The break occurred during the 1994/1995 Strike.  It was at that point that I realized that neither the players, nor the owners, cared the least whit about those whose paid admissions helped make all of their game possible.  Baseball, always a matter of numbers, had thrown a key constituency over the side.  And I was part of it.  Simply, baseball would never be the same for me after that moment.

Prior to that, baseball had been an interesting pastime for me.  I saw my first professional baseball game at the age of seven, in Brownsville, Texas between two farm teams.  Baseball is unique unto itself; just ask George Carlin.  His monologue on baseball really nails it.  Baseball is ethereal, quirky, odd.  Which, of course, makes it remarkably appealing.  Consider that the late Bart Giamatti gave up being President of Yale University to become the seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball.  Given the choice, who wouldn’t?  “Let’s see here; attend yet another boring faculty meeting where all the faculty think that they can do my job better than I can.”  Or…. “I get to be the head kid at the ball park, sitting there eating hot dogs and looking grand.”  Smart choice.

Baseball had ingrained itself into our society.  On Saturday afternoons, it was the TV, Dad, me, Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese.  And Falstaff Beer.  It was rightly called the national pastime.  Either you liked baseball or you didn’t.  What was boring to some was “languid”, “deliberate” or “nuanced”.  But whatever else it was, baseball was always there for me.  And I count on a large number of colorful stories about baseball, which we will save for another day.

No, after the 1994 Strike, things were not the same for me.  The fact that the Braves then won the World Series after everybody went back to work was a small consolation for the loss of something wonderful.  The loss of the warm fuzzies of being at the ball yard and feeling that your presence actually mattered.

Blue Monday

What is truly remarkable about the move to a new stadium in Cobb County is that fact that it was a very well kept secret.  Literally nobody knew except for a few select participants.  Of course, the impact of the announcement was well tempered by the fact that a lot of people are worried sick about their health insurance.  It was a perfect time to announce something controversial.  Nobody paid attention.  But there also is the sense that more than a few people had their suspicions since there had been extended discussions in the months prior.  And not that there hadn’t been a few hints.

Transportation

Both Atlanta baseball stadiums have not been transit friendly.  At this writing, I’m not clear who benefited directly, but whoever it was made a lot of money from the parking concessions, and did everything to discourage rapid transit service.  It was never easy to get to the stadium on public transit:

  • When it was time to build a new stadium, it was built even further from the E/W MARTA line.
  • For quite a while, if you wanted to take public transit to the stadium, the powers that be made patrons walk through Underground from Five Points Station to the buses to the stadium.  And again on the return trip.
  • For a period of time MARTA dropped all service to stadium.
  • Last summer, during the negotiations with the Braves organization, the City of Atlanta came up with a high-pie-in-the-sky scheme to build a Mag-Lev train from Georgia State Station to the MIDDLE of the parking lot; not from Georgia State to the stadium, but to the parking lot.

If the Mag-Lev scheme sounds familiar, consider that the MARTA “Civic Center” station is three blocks from the actual Civic Center, which I blogged about earlier.  When confronted with the unpleasant reality of no-transit connection for a facility, the City always seems to come up with something unrealistic.  This time it was a very expensive solution, at a time when two cheaper people movers are already operating in the City.  And, this expensive solution did not offer a fully complete connection between MARTA and Turner Field.  Yeah, that’ll really encourage public transit ridership.

No, there has always been an orientation toward automobile access over public transit in Atlanta, and not just to the baseball stadium.  At least the Falcons got it right, but I’m sure that was by accident.  Regardless, Atlanta’s understanding about public transit still needs training wheels.  We’re just not accustomed to being a big city with big regional transit needs.  The recent TSPLOST vote results are proof of that.  We’ve got a long way to go in this department.  While we may not understand public transit, we certainly do understand traffic.

As said before, whoever benefited from the parking concession revenues also had a powerful reason to stifle any rapid transit activity to Turner Field.  And, in a related story, WXIA’s Doug Richards has started looking into the neighborhood’s use of allocated funds raised by the parking concession at Turner Field.

Stuck in Traffic

As could be expected when the announcement of the Braves’ move to suburban Cobb County became public, there was a rush to the keyboards by experts throughout our great republic.  The Huffington Post was not exception.  In a heated blog, “award-winning political journalist” Will Bunch went to town.  And, as is the case with heated invective, it’s easy to overrun the facts.  Consider:

  • There’s the fact that the Braves are leaving a ballpark served by mass transit for one that would be located at one of the most traffic-congested intersections (I-75 and I-285) in America, pumping tons of unnecessary carbon pollution into the air.

It seems that Mr. Bunch has not noticed the fact that traffic is equally backed up at the nearby junction of I-75 / I-85 and I-20; my carbon load is just as big as yours.  Likewise, Mr. Bunch’s belief that Turner Field is “served by mass transit” misses the mark by almost a mile.  Perhaps he considers that limousine that picked him up at the hotel and rendered him to Turner Field is “mass transit”.

Regardless of the heated prose, I don’t believe that we’re in the position to declare the Cobb County site as being a new source of unnecessary carbon pollution.  And, given the three year time-frame before the move, it is always possible that infrastructure improvements will be made to the area, although it already has a nice street structure that helps alleviate traffic jams.

Of course, there will probably not be rail-transit in the area in my lifetime, but I’m over being sore about it.  You can’t change some people’s minds, so I’m willing to wait until an attractive and popular solution becomes available.  You can’t change the course of 60 years worth of transit destruction. Things will be rebuilt in their own time.

(As an aside, Cobb County did earlier consider rail transit, but rejected it.  The proposed line would have run on an East / West route, with a track gauge that was different from MARTA’s standard gauge rails, making it impossible to connect to the “regional” MARTA system.  Talk about being stubborn).

What the Other Teams Are Doing

An interesting blog item points out that most other baseball teams are moving closer to their city centers.

ku-xlarge

We can only speculate as to why this is happening in Atlanta.  I’ll take a guess.

The Neighborhood

Certainly part of the motivation for the move is due to the condition of the neighborhood surrounding Turner Field.  It’s not pretty, literally.  Across the street from the stadium, along the right outfield side, is a boarded up apartment house.  Down the street is a liquor store with bars on the windows.  Further east on Georgia Avenue are more boarded-up buildings. Across Hank Aaron Drive are the remnants of another misguided project, Fanplex, a $3 million waste of taxpayer money.  There are three “economy” hotels for the convenience of Turner Field visitors, along with a barbecue restaurant along the third-base line side of the park.  In short, this is what visitors to Atlanta see when they go to a ball game.  It’s sad, in a Detroit-kind of way.  And you have to wonder if this is the best that Atlanta can do.

If I were an executive of a business that had a multimillion dollar payroll operating in a multimillion dollar facility and I looked out of my office window and saw the neighborhood, I’d start thinking about moving, too.  And, there’s the haunting fact that Atlanta has had almost fifty years to address this problem.

A Matter of Numbers

One of the interesting facts about the Braves’ move is that, concurrently, there was a public policy issue discussion about taxpayer support of the new Falcons stadium.  Inevitably, these discussions seem to gravitate toward the cost / benefit analysis of a massive expenditure by government.  Preposterous dollar amounts are bandied about concerning the economic effects of having people coming to sporting events.  It’s along the lines of “3.4 people come to Atlanta from outside of town, spending $2,756.43 each per day on lodging, food, drink and tchotchkes“; all for the greater economic benefit of the City.  The whole thing is very nebulous, very much in the manner of Viet Nam body counts.  I’m sure that those who draw up these numbers will snort and harrumph, but, let’s face it, it is all just an educated guess.

So, in that vein, let’s compare Braves to Falcons.  Just ballparking here, but the Braves had 81 home games in 2012, with a grand attendance of 2,420,171.  You can look it up.  In contrast, the Falcons had 8 home games, with an attendance of 560,773.  Assuming that baseball fans and football fans typically spend the same amount of money, baseball would seem to be a better generator of cash for the local economy.  And, of course, the teams’ performance will affect those numbers, too.  Makes you wonder how Chicago does it with the Cubs.  But, then again, they need two teams just to keep things going.

Sports Teams / Welfare Queens

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the fact that sport teams are remarkably willing to get someone else to pay for their business expenses, all in the interest in helping the local economy.  There, I’ve said it.

Hometown Advantage

Given the apparent disparity between attendance figures, and the related economic effects upon the local economy, it would seem that keeping the Braves was a better deal than keeping the Falcons.  But, there’s another deciding factor.  Arthur Blank, lead owner of the Atlanta Falcons is local-boy-done-good.  He’s all ours.  The Braves are owned by Liberty Media, a cable company operating out of Denver.  It’s hard to get attached to them.

Quick, Everybody Look Busy

When the news of the Braves’ departure hit the media, the Mayor’s office was quick to gloss things over.  “Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed promises enormous middle-class development at Turner Field“.  Note that this new development will be “enormous“.  Also, note that when there’s nobody else left to help, the middle-class is always there to fill in.  The focus groups tell you so.  And, not everybody in government attended the meeting for the new middle-class development.

Broken Hearts

I have a number of business relationships in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I love the town and the Brewers play decent ball.  I also had a business relationship with the late Dorothy Daugherty, who worked for one of my vendors.  I liked Dorothy greatly, and she helped me with my business career on several occasions.  Whenever I was in Milwaukee, I always made a point of taking her out to lunch.  I always bought and we would always talk about what was happening in our industry and about the people that were a fascinating part of the business.

We also talked about other things.  She knew that I was from Atlanta, and when I brought up the subject of the Braves one day, she became quiet.  And, after a minute, she slowly said: “A lot of people’s’ hearts were broken the day they left Milwaukee.”

Which tells you just how far baseball has come in the intervening 50 years.  To be sure, there are those who are upset about the Braves leaving downtown Atlanta, but I’m not one of them.  It’s just a business decision made by a corporation in response to a political problem that was solved by another political group.  There’s no heart or soul involved.

And, by the way, the Macy’s holiday tree this year will be a fake one standing in the parking lot of Lenox Square.

burbball

Fly Me to the Moon

International Space Station

International Space Station

Just when you think that our Congress cannot come up with any new ideas, these resourceful individuals deliver yet again.  This time, we have a proposal to establish a national park on the moon to protect the Apollo program landing sites.  To be sure, it is not clear if this is a truly visionary act or just another example of the disconnect between our Federal government and reality.  Consider H.R. 2617, otherwise known as the “Apollo Lunar Landing Legacy Act.  We have Members of Congress Donna Edwards (D) MD and Eddie Berenice Johnson (D) TX to thank for this interesting legislation.

Of course, if we are to establish such a park on the moon, we will need to have staff and structures present to hand out brochures and such.  And, before that, we will need to divide the moon up into defined pieces of property so that the limits of the park can be established.  There will need to be compliance officers, and RFP’s and countless other job creating positions to support such an endeavor.  There will be signage, and an advertising campaign.

Before my Republican readers start chortling about how out of touch the Democrat party is, you need to remember that their own Newt Gingrich (R) proposed making the 51st State out of the first moon colony.  You can run with this idea.  Once there are enough people present on the moon, they will need representation.  It will be too soon for the dead to vote, but it is just a matter of time.  Who knows what political issues will be raised on the moon?  Talk amongst yourselves.

Once cooler heads start consideration of such a project in the cool light of morning, there is the minor detail of the Outer Space Treaty, which pretty much puts the kibosh on developing moon real estate.  Not that a little matter of a treaty stopped the current version of our democracy.  There is even a field of space law, to address the developing issues of our time.

But you can kind of see their point.  Go ahead and put a national park on the moon and can a Stuckey’s across the road from the park be far behind?  And, if they go ahead and set up property development on the moon, it will be like the Oklahoma Land Rush in space suits.

Oklahoma Land Rush

Oklahoma Land Rush

Before you laugh this one off, consider that NASA has a hard time getting funding, the last space shuttle flight has been and gone and our Federal government can’t even declare National Peach Week without an argument.  And, once they agree on the proclamation of National Peach Week, they don’t have any money to fund it.  Laugh all you want, but it’s a sad state of affairs that we can’t control our spending so that when something truly important comes along, there’s no money to fund it.

If, on the other hand, you turn it over to private capital, they’ll find a way to do it as long as there’s the possibility of recovering their investment and making a profit.  Of course, these days, that’s such an old-fashioned idea; just go ahead and legislate the return on “investment” that shows up regardless of success or failure.  Crony capitalism at its best.

All kidding aside, it does point to an interesting state of mind that is developing amongst those who have actually been to outer space.  Consider that outer space does have a smell.  No, you can’t lift your space helmet visor and take a whiff, but when you get back into the ship and the atmosphere equalizes, there’s an odd smell of burnt metal and fried steak.

Likewise, it’s not all work on the International Space Station.  Obviously, you don’t get up there unless you can contribute, but that only consumes a certain amount of time.  There’s time to sleep also, but after all that, there’s more.  You can’t step outside for a smoke, but you can sit at the window and watch our world pass you by.  From their view from on high, they see the lights of our cities, the bursts of lighting from thunder storms, the vivid blue of our oceans and the clouds of weather and of pollution.  It’s a view that we don’t get down here, and photographs don’t really do it justice.

When the astronauts return to our mortal coil, they are forever changed by the experience.  Some have sought solace in religion, while others have sought the comfort of the precision of science.  Regardless of the outlets which they have chosen, they also have an understanding that our world is finite and our limits clearly defined.  There’s just a thin envelope of atmosphere between our gorgeous world and the vacuum of space.  And as we get drawn into the politics of distraction and envy, we forget the miracle of our world.

Midnight Sun Restaurant

Midnight Sun Restaurant

It has been said that “A restaurant is a fragile thing”, and I believe it.  It’s such a simple premise on such a complicated topic.  You have a room with tables and chairs, a kitchen and an “Open” sign, and from there it gets interesting.  The restaurant has to have good food, at least at the beginning, but at some point, a restaurant takes on a life uniquely its own.  People become loyal customers, celebrations take place there and a restaurant becomes unique.  And restaurants come and they go.

As you drive up Peachtree north from Five Points, there are ghosts of restaurants all along the way.  These were places of memory and human emotion, happy times and a few sad ones, but all that revolved around a table and chairs, places set for the human drama.  There was the Top of Peachtree (one of the tallest buildings in town), then Leb’s (that did not integrate in the 1960’s) and Herrin’s (which did), The Midnight Sun (in the Peachtree Center complex), Dale’s Cellar, Fan & Bill’s, Johnny Reb’s, A Taste of New Orleans, Mammy’s Shanty, The Coach & Six, Clarence Foster’s, John Escoe’s, Abruzzi, Hart’s, The Feedmill, the soon-to-be-gone Dante’s Down The Hatch, and Bluepointe.  There were Camellia Gardens, House of Eng, The Abbey, Arigatoh, Bobby & June’s, Robinson’s Tropical Gardens, Snack & Shop, Harold’s Sandwich Shop, The Granary.  Every major street you follow has ghosts of restaurants past.

In their place, new places have cropped up, sometimes in the same space as an earlier restaurant, but the scene is the same.  It’s usually a family that takes that vacant space and turns it into something real; chain restaurants have no soul.  Eventually, the place develops into an institution and you have a success story.  The place takes on a life of its own, with regular waiters, regular customers, regular menu items.  Of course, to some this is boring, but for others, such as myself, it is comfort, that the world is in its proper place and all is well.

Circumstances being what they are, you may not get there very frequently, and by doing so you miss that slow subtle changes that every restaurant has to make to stay alive.  And that is what this blog item is about, for last night we visited a place of great sentiment and memory and it was a disappointment.

Somewhere on Peachtree, between that late-Abruzzi and the late-Hart’s is an Italian restaurant that I have always held in great esteem.  The place opened up in the late 1970’s, located in the basement of an apartment building.  It’s an odd location to begin with, but there’s not another restaurant for at least a mile in any direction.  In fact, the location is almost worthy of being a destination since those driving by on Peachtree would never know what is downstairs.  By itself, this gives this restaurant a certain cachet, the sense of being a hidden jewel.  Which it is.

For so many years, a visit to this restaurant was a visit to the grand old-school sensibilities, where gentlemen wore coats and ties, the ladies were dressed up to be out with their men.  The service was flexible, able to adapt to the fusty bank president or to the younger entrepreneur who just wasn’t all that serious.  Regardless of their backgrounds, the diner knew that they would be treated with respect and that they were there to enjoy great food.  It was a stable place in an uncertain world.  As you left your car at the front door, you entered an apartment building in a high end Atlanta neighborhood.  You were literally in peoples’ homes and as you got off the elevator, you opened a glass paned door, walked down a hallway lined with deep red velvet and entered an exclusive world.

All of that is still there today, but my recent visit again confirmed that a restaurant is indeed a fragile thing.  To be sure, this restaurant is faced with an uncertain future because its basic customer demographic is getting older.  The fusty bank president has retired to the Highlands and his buddies that are still in town are dying off as the natural cycle of life.  The young entrepreneur has either moved to Vail or went bankrupt in the last economic cycle.  Fortunately, I still have money and I still get a craving for this hidden place; not just the food, but the whole cannoli of cozy dedicated service with a deep wine list attached.

It was not quite that way this night.  My friends and I were there to celebrate two birthdays and things started off well enough.  After initial drinks, however, it became apparent that we were located in Siberia.  Every restaurant has one of those undesirable places (euphemistically called “The Ponderosa” or “The South Forty’) , usually near the kitchen or behind a concrete column.  As it turns out, this restaurant’s bad table is almost right in the center of the restaurant.  Who knew?  But it soon became evident where we were when we constantly had to seek out our waiter, something which I had never experienced at this place, ever before.  It was sad.

Overall, the food was good, which helped save the day.  I wasn’t quite so sure about the bottle of Tuscan wine that I ordered, but given the general tenor of the evening, I was not about to send it back.  But as we waited yet again for the return of our waiter, I found myself looking around.  As it turned out, our isolated table also gave me a view of the entire restaurant, which proved to be an interesting thing.

On one side of the restaurant were the old bull elephants and their brides, those who had carried this restaurant for decades.  They were dressed in business-like beige summer coats.  The wives were in muted shades of blue and yellow.  And there was lots of gray hair.  That side of the room was dim and gray.  A single teenaged girl sat with her parents and their friends, looking awkward.  The dim light of that part of the room made them appear almost as visions in the mists, gray shadows of something greater.

To my other side, however, was a brighter scene, literally.  While the elderly side of the restaurant was dim, the area around the bar was brightly lit with the warm shade of light that only incandescent light can produce.  Young people sat around the bar with other young people.  There was bright young conversation and it appeared that many of these young people were friends of the restaurant’s new managers.  Lots of hugs as more young people slowly drifted into the restaurant.  Meanwhile, as 10:00 PM approached, the gray side slowly emptied out as bedtime approached.

What would have normally been a two-hour meal had dragged out into a three-hour affair.  Under normal circumstances, I would have been pleased that we had been able to take that much time there, but that was not the case this evening.  It made me wistful, wishing for the many times that we had there earlier.  And had me wondering about how much of this experience was due to the fact that I’m part of a dying demographic, one that this restaurant now seems eager to push into the past.

It’s all over the place.  There are stores that will not wait on older people, doctors that are reluctant to treat an older patient, not because they’re old but because it’s more gratifying to treat a younger person who will get longer benefit.  I refuse to get paranoid about this stuff; old age just sort of snuck up on me.  One day, you’re looking in the mirror and there it is.  I’m still the same irreverent soul that I have always been.  And, in many ways, I’m at the top of my game.

No, I’m not mad at the restaurant for an off night.  Every restaurant is entitled to have one every now and then.  No, it’s more that I found myself looking at the cycles of life.  On one side, there were those who had made a success of life off to one side in the mists, having a quiet dinner at a favorite place with close friends.  While on the other side there are other younger ones with their lives full ahead of them gathered around the brightly colored bar.

The drive back to Brookhaven was uneventful and nothing felt better than coming into our home.  I’ll make at least one return visit to this restaurant to make sure that it was just an odd evening but with restaurants, as in all life, things come and things go.