This is aviation: Where it is, where it’s been, where it’s going

You could probably see this entry coming. The writing was on the wall. After all, there have already been entries for automobiles and locomotives.

320px-HH-65C_Dolphin[1]As far as I’m concerned, aviation can be classified into two sub-groups: General and Specialized.

The first is commercial in nature; the second is aviation that is anything other than commercial. Nothing really complicated about that.

In my lifetime I’ve seen many different aviation-related developments. Probably the most remarkable of all is staffed space flight. And, even how that has developed over the years has been impressive.

When I was a child growing up in Baltimore, I can remember walking to an airport that wasn’t that far from my home – Rutherford Airport, if I recall correctly. It might have been a half-hour walk. I would go there on occasion to watch small single-engine planes fly in and out. It was something to do on a Saturday or Sunday, or weekday during summer when school was out.

Around the same time, our class at school went on a field-trip to the “big” airport, Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) – back then it went by a different name: Friendship Airport. There were all kinds of jet aircraft there. Our class got to walk through one courtesy of one of the airlines.

The first time I ever flew was when I was 12. I had a cold at the time, so the experience for me was probably mixed. On the other times that I’ve flown, some were better and others not so much. So, for me it has been a mixed bag. I even traveled on a propeller plane once. It was considered a regional flight.

What I know from my reading and researching is that in America, there are somewhere around 5,000 airports and roughly 50,000 scheduled daily commercial flights. Those are some pretty busy skies even without the non-scheduled air movements.

One of the more creative designs in my opinion was the Concorde or Supersonic Transport. Though I have never seen one, I’ve seen pictures in newspapers, magazines and books as well as the moving images broadcast on television and those featured in movies.

I know this sounds cliché, but in terms of aviation development, the sky’s the limit. And, to think, in America it all began with the Wright brothers, though, I know, there are some that dismiss that claim, or argue about where the original flight occurred – one or the other.

Meanwhile, in the specialized category are aircraft like airships or blimps; drones; gliders; hang-gliders; helicopters or choppers or whirlybirds; hot-air balloons; special-purpose airplanes like crop dusters; and rockets.

NASA's Helios unmanned aerial vehicle
NASA’s Helios unmanned aerial vehicle

As for what’s ahead, it is difficult to say what the future holds. There are experimental programs and those currently under development. Is commercial space flight in the cards? There are several of these projects in the works. And, the Solar Impulse – a plane that uses nothing more than the sun’s light to stay aloft in the air – well, it’s currently on an around-the-world flight. Its emissions are zero, zilch, non-existent.

Which begs the question: Will there ever be flying machines besides gliders and those experimental craft powered by sunlight that will be totally emissions-free? If this does one day – pardon the expression – “fly,” what a breakthrough that’ll be! At which point that’ll be even more impressive than the Supersonic Transport and perhaps the greatest thing since staffed flight itself – at least, to me, it will be.

383px-Apollo_13_liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HR[1]Top image: U.S. Coast Guard

Middle image: NASA

Bottom image: NASA’s Apollo Thirteen lunar mission liftoffNASA

Celebrating the railway: Transpo’s cleanest mode

It shouldn’t be any mystery that the main Air Quality Matters focus this month is transportation. That topic continues today with trains. Just in case you were not aware, National Transportation Week this year was May 11th to May 15th.

Train of thought

It is no secret that one of the world’s main air pollution contributors is the transportation sector. It is second only to energy.

DSCN4328 (255x340)“Among all sectors, the transport sector is the only one in which emissions are continuing to increase in spite of all the technological advances,” the International Union of Railways (UIC) declared in its High Speed Rail and Sustainability report in Nov. 2011. “Moreover, transport emissions, for instance in Europe, increased by 25% between 1990 and 2010. By contrast emissions from the industrial and energy sectors are falling.”1

Railways, by comparison, are among the cleanest transportation modes. Two percent of total global transport emissions are train-produced.2

What’s more, the train, by far, is the transport sector’s most efficient mode.

In “Proposed short-haul freight rail line linking Central, Southern California has potential,” I wrote: “Meanwhile, on page 2 of [The Altamont/San Joaquin Valley Corridor – Rail Sub-Program to the National Goods Movement Trade Corridor and Economics Stimulus Program for the San Joaquin Valley, Draft Version 2.5 – San Joaquin Valley National Agricultural Goods Movement Trade Corridor: Rail Program Concept Paper – October 2008] concept paper, presented is a graph which shows the energy intensities (in British Thermal Units per ton-mile) of freight modes (as of 2004) comparing Waterborne, Pipeline, Rail, and Heavy Duty Diesel Truck. The least energy intense is rail at 325 Btu/ton-mile while the most energy intense is heavy duty diesel truck at 3,163 Btu/ton-mile, making diesel truck-hauled freight the least energy efficient of the group.”

Rwt050125_2[1]Add to all this that railways are one of the safest, if not the safest, of the non-human-powered modes, surface transportation or otherwise, if this isn’t reason enough to celebrate the train and the railway just on that basis alone, then I don’t know what is.

There is one additional point worth mentioning. It was only recently that a magnetically levitated (MagLev) train in Japan set a world speed record reaching a velocity of 375 miles per hour. And, there is new information about a MagLev train that could be constructed between the Orlando International Airport and International Drive with service to the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. This would be a slower-speed version. These trains are, for all intents and purposes, pollution-free. So far, magnetically levitated trains are used exclusively to transport passengers.

A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany
A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany


  1. High Speed Rail and Sustainability, International Union of Railways, Nov. 2011, p. 15.
  2. Ibid, p. 15

The locomotive: Where it is, where it’s been, where it’s going

There are many besides myself who have a deep interest in the railway realm. If you think about locomotive development over the ages, there have been many types or classes. When you get right down to the basics, locomotives are nothing more than power plants; power plants on wheels, that is.

Really quickly, there are three main propulsion types: steam, electric and diesel.

TrainBefore speculating on what the future of the passenger and freight locomotive is, looking at its development history should prove helpful.

There are so many classifications of locomotives that naming them all, well, as I used to say in days of yesteryear, “let’s not and say we did” – it’s just an expression.

Locomotive design and development, in chronological terms, went from polluting to less polluting and non-polluting. Some of the more unusual designs bore names like “Porter” (a special applications type with smokeless boiler), “Tom Thumb” (and brethren equipped with vertical boilers) and “Turbo-train” (a gas turbine). The Porter would be a good example of a non-electric locomotive that was non-polluting. These locomotives contained boilers, but the water was heated external to the locomotive itself and then pumped into the locomotive’s boiler. When the water cooled enough, insufficient steam pressure rendered the locomotive incapable of performing its intended duties. Resupplying the boiler with water heated to a high enough temperature, and the locomotive was back in business.

320px-WilliamsDepot_WilliamsAZ[1]I think one of the more interesting ideas to surface was American Coal Enterprises’ No. 614 steam locomotive (Greenbriar). The locomotive was in the former employ of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and was later purchased by Ross Rowland who later introduced the idea of using superheated steam to power the locomotive. The intent of the superheated steam was to improve locomotive efficiency with the hope that such improved efficiency and performance would be an attractive marketing feature and the locomotive would sell, though that outcome never materialized. If I recall correctly, the fuel (coal) in a “slurry” form when under high, high heat, boiler water would become superhot thus creating the propulsion power needed. The burned coal during the superheating process resulted in the exhaust being cleaner. How much cleaner remains the question.

DSCN2812 (340x255)Another design, the diesel-electric, was revolutionary. It saw tremendous improvement over the years. The main stateside locomotive manufacturers were: ALCO, Baldwin, Fairbanks-Morse, General Electric, General Motors Corporation’s Electro-Motive Corp. which later became the Electro-Motive Division of GM, and Schenectady, among others. GM, meanwhile, sold its U.S. locomotive operations to Caterpillar, a Progress Rail subsidiary. There are a number of rebuilders and remanufacturers. Interestingly, in recent years and times past there have been hybrids. The most common example is a diesel-electric/electric. In this configuration, traction motors could be driven by either the locomotive’s diesel-electric engine or from an external electricity supply. These locomotives are also referred to as “dual-mode.”

There were others still that were tried. Exported here to the U.S. from Germany was a small order of Krauss-Maffei’s diesel-hydraulic locos. Two railroads tested out these products: The Denver & Rio Grande Western and Southern Pacific. The difference between these and standard diesel designs, was that in place of traction motors to drive wheels, a hydraulic transmission system was employed. Think of this in the same way you would an automobile. The power from the engine through the transmission system is what is responsible for the rotational energy to be produced. Also to enter this market here in the U.S. was the American Locomotive Company or ALCO, for short.

320px-Acela_Express_and_Metro-North_railcar[1]As for the electrics, there have just been so many. In the U.S., Joseph Henry, Thomas Davenport and Frank Sprague were the principal movers and shakers in this field. The first use of an electric locomotive in mainline operations was on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Baltimore, Maryland in 1895. The locomotive, not surprisingly, had a 1 as its assigned number. Electric locomotives have been on the scene for some 150 years. The units that have plied the rails are of every description imaginable, coming in myriad shapes and body styles (some even have dual cabs), and a wide assortment of colors, sizes and electrical power requirements. These are as well used on a wealth of railroads from coast-to-coast and from northern to southern border and are just as much at home in elevated, at grade and subway public transit and commuter applications as they are on main and high-speed lines.

A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany
A Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated train in Germany

Now, as for the locomotive’s future? Steam: It’s had its time, day and place. Diesel: It’s still evolving (the term “Tier 4” as it has to do with emissions suppression should become a much more familiar one). As is electric. In the future, other technologies may take the place of conventional ones, such as in employing the use of magnetic levitation, atmospheric propulsion, etc. It’s entirely possible, plausible there may not be locomotives as we know them.

It is right here that I wish to insert a passage from my book: “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow,” which seems quite fitting.

“To better help put things in perspective, looking at or in contemplating the future, there is a point I brought up in the Introduction that deserves repeating: how can we possibly know where we are and where we are headed if it is not known where we have been? Alternatively, knowing where we’ve been and where we are can provide clues as to the direction we want to go, although, this is by no means absolute. If enough hasn’t already been said about this, and as it relates, the direction land transportation might go is exactly what is being considered here.

“One might also do well to think about it in these terms: If a new generation in transportation technology can be deployed to move today’s masses effectively and efficiently, completely and conveniently, not to mention reliably and safely, regardless of speed and operating environment, something can definitely be said for just such a system. If this is indeed the case, then, for all intents and purposes, systems on this order will likely find a place. If that happens, there will surely be implications regarding the way in which tomorrow’s mobility needs will be met, whether this be in the near-term or distant future.”

We will just have to wait and see.

For freight hauling, meanwhile, most probably the locomotive will remain an active, integral and steadfast part.

Second to last photo: Connor Harris

Could changing school schedule improve air quality, benefit students?

For two consecutive winters (2013-’14 and 2014-’15) in the San Joaquin Valley, air quality has been quite problematic. In Nov. and Dec. 2013, and in Jan. 2014 and Jan. 2015, many were the number of days where fine particulate levels exceeded the federal PM 2.5 daily standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Fireplace_Burning[1]Meanwhile, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (air district) stresses that as much as 30 percent of all fine particulate matter daily in Valley air in winter, is on account of residential wood-burning activity. 1

Yet, at the same time, in the air district’s “Report to the Community – 2014-15 Edition,” on page 51 there is a pie chart for “Annual PM 2.5 Emissions” and the breakdown is as follows:

  • Agricultural Waste Burning and Forest Management – 19%
  • Cooking Including Charbroiling – 5%
  • Farming Operations – 19%
  • Fireplaces and Wood Stoves – 6%
  • Fugitive Windblown Dust – 10%
  • Heavy Duty Diesel Trucks – 4%
  • Other Mobile Sources – 10%
  • Other Sources – 19%
  • Road Dust – 19%

As it has to do with the number of fine particulate matter exceedances in the Valley, in “Valley top spot for fine particle pollution … again!” I wrote: “… from the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board’s ‘Air Quality and Meteorological Information (AQMIS2)’ page, 49 is the number of days the Valley exceeded the 24-hour federal PM 2.5 health standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air this winter (30 in Jan. and Feb. 2015 and 19 in Nov. and Dec. 2014), this compared with the South Coast Air Basin’s 25 (20 in Jan. and Feb. 2015 and 5 in Nov. and Dec. 2014). The number of times the Valley exceeded the federal PM 2.5 standard last year (Nov. 1, 2013 through Feb. 28, 2014) was 71.” The three months of the year where the greatest number of such exceedances appears to be occurring, are in Nov., Dec. and Jan.

Furthermore, between 1999-’00 and 2013-’14, season average PM 2.5 in micrograms per cubic meter ranged from a high of 44 in 1999-’00 to a low of 21 in 2012-’13. Average fine particulate matter in the Valley in 2013-’14, meanwhile, was 32 micrograms per cubic meter of air. For all years together during that 15-year span, average PM 2.5 is 30 micrograms per cubic meter of air.2

This time coincides with wood-burning prohibitions that go into effect in the Valley between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28. This past winter fine particulate matter levels reached as high as 144 micrograms per cubic meter of air on Nov. 7, 2014 in the city of Madera (this was more than four times the federal daily PM 2.5 health standard of 35 micrograms), and that was at 12 noon – a “ROAR” level of 5, incidentally. “ROAR,” according to the air district, stands for “Real-Time Outdoor Activity Risk.”

During winter, oftentimes the highest fine particulate matter concentrations are right around the noontime hour. In light of this would it behoove school district officials to create a school schedule taking into consideration these air quality conditions? For instance, school could be held from February to November.

Some might argue, however, that ozone levels are problematic during summer months. Though this may be the case, many agree that between ozone and fine particulate matter, the latter is by far the more unhealthful of the two pollutants.

Also, by adhering to this scheduling arrangement, summer school sessions would need to be rescheduled for winter.

There is no doubt something along these lines could work, but the main considerations are if student exposure level to fine particulate matter would be less, if summertime air quality would be appreciably worse, if the overall change would be more or less unhealthful for students and if air overall would improve as a result.

Barring implementing something on this order, subscribing to the traditional school schedule and scheduling time away from school on occasions when both fine particulate matter and ozone are at their highest concentrations typically, could provide a reasonable alternative to the earlier mentioned suggestion.

In the final analysis, some may be inclined to want to leave things well enough alone. On the other hand, such a readjustment potentially could be advantageous.


  1. “2013-2014 Wood Burning Season Summary,” from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Governing Board, Apr. 17, 2014, p. 4.
  2. Ibid, p. 9


Fast-track transit expansion plan could bode well for San Diego

Growth in San Diego, as is true of growth in general, is inevitable. So growing responsibly is key.

A 20th or 21st century San Diego?

Located in coastal California’s southern-most portion, San Diego already has one of the most dynamic mass transit systems in all of America, of which the area should be especially proud. As a matter of fact, the city embraced light-rail transit early on when the San Diego Trolley was opened to the public in 1981. So, building on what is already in place seems a logical and sensible next step.

Downtown San Diego, California
Downtown San Diego, California

In the report, “The 50-10 Transit Plan: Quantifying the Benefits,” the Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNFF) stated decisively in its Apr. 16, 2015 “New Report Shows San Diego Urgently Needs Major Investment in Public Transit” press release, “As San Diego’s population grows, a new report finds that the region’s shifting demographics are driving an urgent need for major public transit investments and a halt to highway expansions. A move toward investments in transit would protect air quality, prevent suburban sprawl and support demographic and land use trends toward pedestrian-friendly communities.”

That’s a different tack, and provided it gains the needed traction, it would mean an accelerated time frame in regards to implementation.

Though, all hasn’t been smooth sailing. At issue, apparently, is an existing San Diego Association of Governments [SANDAG] long-range transportation plan.

“SANDAG’s existing plan front-loaded the expansion of freeways, which will lead to sprawl and reinforce the region’s dependence on cars,” the CNFF noted. “That plan’s heavy reliance on automobile transportation will also lead to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, even though state climate policy and science demand significant reductions in these pollutants.”

“The best way to address those traffic and pollution problems, the new report says, is with a plan that would implement 50 years of transit improvements in the urban core over the next decade. That would allow the San Diego region to create a comprehensive, integrated transit system that would support a shift to more compact, walkable communities,” the CNFF continued.

“Given recent legal challenges, SANDAG should consider reassessing its $200 billion long-range transportation plan for the region,” the organization reasoned.

‘50-10,’ ‘30/10’ comparisons

This brings to mind Los Angeles’ “30/10” transportation plan. But the two are different, it appears.

“The first difference is that 30/10 is an attempt to leverage a recently passed sales tax to build rail and rapid bus projects more quickly with help from the federal government,” Streetsblog LA’s Damien Newton insisted. “It doesn’t attempt to pit rail and highway projects.”

“Another difference has to do with the scope of what is being proposed. 50-10 is an attempt to change the entire regional plan, not just the transportation plan, for San Diego. As such, it calls for more mixed-use development, density, and investing in the urban core first. 30/10 calls for building transit as quickly as funds become available,” added Newton.

It is “outdated assumptions” that “are driving the San Diego Association of Governments … to prioritize highway projects that increase car use and air pollution. These assumptions buck established trends among younger Californians, who tend to drive less and are more inclined to live in compact urban areas than older generations,” the CNFF emphasized.

It’s all about choice

San Diego is not unlike the many American cities that have yet to jump aboard the smart-growth bandwagon or have done so but not in any significant way. Here are the choices: Hold fast to status-quo planning, policies and practices or follow a growth course that places far more emphasis on transit building and transit expansion than it does on building or expanding highways and roads. Not only might a departure from what has become the traditional approach be good for San Diego but for metro regions throughout California and the nation, especially if what is being sought is marked air-quality improvement.

For more on this matter, see: “To meet prescribed emissions-reduction targets, San Diego must get transportation plan right” here.

May is National Bike Month – all 31 days!!

Bicycling is not something I talk or write about that much. Though there’s an irony in this because it was not too many years back that several people assembled to discuss the prospect of launching a magazine, the content of which was to be all about the great outdoors. Meeting were myself (to serve as editor and article writer), a publisher, who would double as advertising manager, a photographer and one or two others filling in varying roles like production manager and maybe graphic designer. One of the topics to be covered, of course, was bicycling. In fact, I had one article already ready to go – not cycling related, but nevertheless.

Just one more brief point: As to why the magazine never took off, it was on account of our collectively not being able to give this the full attention it would have required. Each of us had had other jobs that just demanded too much of our time. Regardless, it brings back memories.

Dexter Lawn, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
Dexter Lawn, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Melding memories and biking together, meanwhile, in the ’70s while I was attending college at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo (SLO), for a lot of people, townsfolk and students alike, biking was pretty popular. As a matter of fact, throughout the campus it was all one could do to not notice both the many bike racks and bikes being ridden. During the time I attended, as it turns out the bicycle provided my primary means of transportation as I did not then own a car. So, it was that or walk.

There were those times that I felt adventurous and energetic, on weekends, when I could be found peddle-pushing my way to Morro Bay and back again along California Highway 1 – a round-trip distance of 24 hilly miles or so. Or, if I was more ambitious, I would take the “back way”: Los Osos Valley Road to Los Osos or venture past into the Montana de Oro area before heading into Morro Bay proper from there.

There wasn’t a time I can remember on any of these bicycle outings where the air wasn’t pristine which, the rides, as good as they were already, were made even better. The countless times during downhill descents with streams of tears just pouring from my eyes countervailed by all the huffing and puffing in tackling the uphill climbs, oh, do I remember these well. Do I ever!

That the San Luis Obispo area is an absolute bicycler’s paradise certainly didn’t hurt. If anything, such heightened a person’s motivation to want to bike more. In fact, the trek along Highway 1 north to the highway 46/1 junction just past the town of Harmony, couldn’t be beat, being treated to captivating Pacific Ocean views between there and Morro Strand. If I decided I wanted to continue on, where Highways 46 and 1 join, by turning right, ahead of me would be a long, arduous summit climb, followed by a roller-coaster-like up and down, my rolling across hill and dale until El Paso de Robles or Paso Robles, for short, was reached – a good 30 miles north of SLO by way of Highway 101.

From there, the southbound journey more or less followed Highway 101 – known more familiarly as the Ventura Freeway and El Camino Real or the Kings Highway – on frontage roads which took me past places with names like Templeton, Atascadero and Santa Margarita, before being directed onto the 101 freeway in the presence of speeding car and truck traffic no less, my having to carefully navigate the long, steep and sweeping descent of Cuesta Grade (you can imagine), and ending right back where I started – SLO.

One ride that outdid the aforementioned was the century (100-mile ride) I rode that both started and finished in Santa Maria, located to SLO’s south by about 30 miles. The group I was with wheeled past fields and fields of colorful flowers (the most I have ever seen in one place) near the town of Lompoc. Not being able to remember the routing, today for me that ride is but a blur.

Not to digress too much, but what I remember prior to the ride was, for the 15 of us that went, we breakfasted at a restaurant in town. The waitress waiting our table took all of our orders one at a time. For us all, each order was the same: “coffee.” I was thinking as I am sure were the others that the waitress waiting our table was somewhat bewildered, perhaps even dumbfounded by the orders placed. Had she known beforehand that we were all about to pedal 100 miles and did not want to ride with our stomachs full, she probably would have understood. Interesting, the information our brains retain.

That notwithstanding, I find it quite rewarding how occasions like National Bike Month, can be all it takes to trigger these fond recollections of my bicycling past. The one regret is that I did not preserve these times on film. Despite this, I get all nostalgic just by their very mention.

National Bike Month: May – the one month of the year to celebrate the bicycle and riding!

MUTCD_W11-1.svg[2]Upper image above: Gregg Erickson

Transportation Week a perfect time to review issues, work together to overcome challenges

It’s May 11th, the official start to National Transportation Week. I’m not going to lie by telling you all is hunky-dory regarding the condition that America’s transportation infrastructure is in. There is much that needs improving. The main sticking point, however, is funding: To make necessary improvements possible money has to come from somewhere. I explore some of the issues transportation infrastructure is facing and offer what I believe are reasonable solutions to help bring infrastructure improvement about as well as to get some pressing transportation problems solved.

A grossly inadequate funding allocation

On this 11th day of May, still no Congressional approval of even an extension of the current transportation funding allocation; on May 31st, MAP-21 (or the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act) is due to expire. MAP-21 is a 2012 bill that authorized over multiple years funding for transportation. Compounding the issue, allocated roadway, bridge and transit Highway Trust Fund monies, as I’ve learned, are expected to dry up soon thereafter. The Highway Trust Fund is a federal investment of approximately $50 billion annually.

As for a long-term transportation funding package getting approved by May’s last day, one can always hope. Approval, meanwhile, of a long-term transportation funding allocation is long overdue and so, so desperately needed to help bring this country’s infrastructure up to snuff. Considering May 11th to May 15th is National Transportation Week 2015, that makes the entire situation all the more relevant.

And, along the way, proposed have been eliminating funding outright, increases in the gasoline tax, a mileage-based fee, expanding the use of tolling; take your pick.

Meanwhile, time, money, fuel wasted  

A friend pointed out how in a solo-occupant vehicle with, say, 250 horses under the hood, much horsepower is wasted. Now, compared to a (electric) locomotive with say 5,000 horsepower pulling five passenger rail coaches each with 80 occupants for a total of 400 passengers, this breaks down to 12.5 horsepower per passenger which makes this method of moving people so much more efficient – 20 times more efficient than the automobile, in fact; that is, if the mathematical method I employed is correct.

Okay, so, suppose the same 250 horsepower car contains 4 occupants. That works out to 62.5 horsepower per person. An improvement, but the train is still more efficient.

Why I think the comparison is important is because passenger train use in this country is less (in 2014, 10.8 billion trips were taken on public transportation although that includes rail as well as non-rail modes) compared to automobile use (last year over 3 trillion vehicle travel miles were logged, this achieved from among a base of roughly 253 million vehicles composed of cars, light- and heavy-duty trucks). Coupled with annual congestion/gridlock and delay on account of that wasting, yes, wasting an estimated $101 billion worth of time and fuel, yearly, talk about a “what’s wrong with this picture?” moment!

With the relationship of motor vehicle trips to trips taken using public transit being approximately 95 to 5, the scales are obviously tipped in favor of roadway travel. Would more Americans changing their travel patterns thus creating a more level playing field, result in better or greater or improved transportation efficiencies overall? I think so.

For America’s transportation infrastructure are better days ahead?

So, here’s the rub. With an increasing population, the number of vehicle travel miles on the rise, and with public transit use seeing its highest ridership since 1957, to expect conditions regarding American transportation infrastructure – much of it the worse for wear by the way – to appreciably improve anytime soon without being given a serious infusion of cash over an extended period of time, is asking a bit much.

As for worn infrastructure that’s seen far better days, not all is a lost cause. The varying states of repair dictate what remedy is in order. In some instances deterioration is so extensive the infrastructure in question can no longer be saved or is worth saving. And, in even rarer cases, failures have resulted in out-and-out catastrophe. Again, it all comes down to funding.

So, what are the kinds of fixes that can be implemented to improve if not correct the deficit situation?

First, there is tolling. This is one way road-repair revenue can be raised. The difference between this method and using tax revenue to pay for work is that in the former the people who pay tolls are the people who use the roads. In the latter case, all who pay taxes are contributors, regardless of whether a user of the roadway infrastructure in question or not.

There is no law that I’m aware of that says the tax on gasoline can’t be raised. However, it may be difficult to get agreement to even go this route and, if agreement is reached, agreeing on what amount the increase of the tax should be, well, there is the possibility that that could complicate matters even more. Meanwhile, zero-emissions vehicles would be exempt and that has some crying foul. Another issue people can’t seem to agree on has to do with what amount of raised capital goes to roadways and what amount gets designated for railways/transit.

Okay, what about creating a vehicle miles traveled or VMT fee? The amount of driving determines what a driver’s contribution would be. A rate would have to be set.

On the transit side, employers could encourage employees to ride transit. Or they could provide workers with in-house transit services.

The obvious benefit of using public transportation is that the more people using such, the less wear-and-tear-roadway impact there is. And, the less roadway wear-and-tear, the farther maintenance dollars can go.

Besides that benefit, reduced roadway usage means lower air pollution impact as a result of fewer miles driven. In addition, associated with transit systems is pedestrian and bicycling activity, otherwise known as active transportation modes, not to mention the land around transit stations is typically built up, and that built environment can include in it office, retail, residential components and sometimes entertainment/sports venues as well.

Will Congress finalize a funding bill to put transportation on a proper course once more? I ask: Is there a better time than National Transportation Week to work toward and accomplish that end? I think not.


Department of corrections: It was originally stated that the Highway Trust Fund was due to expire on May 31st. The article has thus been revised to now include the corrected text.

Effect of drought may lead to more Valley air pollution from ag sources

This seems like the Catch-22. The granddaddy of all paradoxes.

I’ll explain.

320px-BurningOffFieldsInTheEveningInSouthGeorgia[1]Due to the prolonged drought, San Joaquin Valley, California, fruit and nut growers are feeling the pressure. There are many instances where the lack of water has necessitated orchard removal. With water being much more scarce, many a Valley grower has resorted to deeper and deeper well-drilling in order to stay afloat. Those who either cannot afford to or haven’t yet had this done (if they have the means), are, figuratively speaking, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place, no doubt hard-pressed to dispose of their orchard wood-waste in a more eco-friendly manner as opposed to burning it in an open field.

Biomass incineration – considered one of the more environmentally friendly ways of handling such wood-waste – is in decline in the Valley. According to information in The Fresno Bee, closed recently have been three biomass plants between Bakersfield and Stockton. Last year in western Fresno County, a facility in Mendota went offline.

With state natural gas production picking up steam, as it were, it is apparently getting more and more difficult for biomass and co-generation facilities to remain relevant in today’s energy-producing market.

Meanwhile, supplying most of the fuel is the grower, with other sources supplying lesser amounts. In return, payment is received for any and all accepted waste-material supplied.

During times when there is greater demand for biomass-generated electricity, there is need for an increased fuel supply. On the other hand, when conditions change as they appear to have done in the way that they have, the need for fuel is obviously less. It is this second scenario that is currently playing out and a turn of events – or, if you prefer, change in fortunes – such as this, in my opinion can in no way be good for the grower concern.

One other factor in this equation is that with the closed facilities, a smaller number of Valley-based biomass operations remain and without adding extra capacity, it may be difficult for them to take in more biomass fuel above and beyond what they’re already receiving. For waste that cannot be accommodated, suppliers will have to look for alternative means with which to have it disposed of. That could mean sending the refuse to landfills or burning it in open fields as was common practice in times past. If the material winds up in a landfill, bets are on that coupled to this will be added pollution in the form of methane entering the air, all stemming from wood-waste decomposition and, if burned, well, that part is pretty much self-explanatory.

As if this paradoxical situation weren’t enough. Add to this that California’s mid-section has the nation’s worst air quality, a fact echoed on Apr. 29th by the American Lung Association in its most recent “State of the Air” report for 2015, the association’s 16th.

Like in 2014, this year’s report names cities in California’s Central Valley as the nation’s worst polluting for 24-hour and annual fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and daily ozone (O3) emissions.

The San Joaquin Valley, incidentally, consists of eight counties. Whether in the north Valley or south, air quality has a lot to be desired. Even so, there is a bright side. Consensus seems to be that the quality of Valley air has improved some.

640px-California's_Central_ValleyBeing that 80 percent of all open-field burning of agricultural waste is now illegal, this, no doubt, has allowed for air improvement, at least, in part, anyway. For this we have California Senate Bill 705 to thank. There is more on this in the Air Quality Matters post: “Garbage disposal: Rubbish not just for burning and dumping anymore.”

Now, a new campaign in the form of state Assembly Bill 590, aims to designate funds from California’s cap-and-trade regime as a means to help remaining state biomass facilities to continue to operate. This is my understanding of the bill’s intent, anyway. Some may wonder whether allocating cap-and-trade auction proceeds to keep biomass operations running is wise, especially when disposing of the waste in more environmentally sound and viable ways exist.

For example, uprooted orchard trees can either be chipped in a wood chipper or shredded via a shredder; the chipped or shredded material can be returned to the soil in place of it being landfilled or field-burned. In the former application, the wood will decompose and, as it does, soils become enriched with no harmful pollutants being introduced into the air.

But how practical a solution is this?

In “Up In Smoke,” in the May 2003 Nut Grower Magazine issue, I presented viable ways of disposing of ag waste.

In a section sub-headed “Orchard Chipping and Shredding” I wrote:

“Stanislaus County [University of California Cooperative Extension] Farm Advisor Roger Duncan and now-retired Merced County Farm Advisor Lonnie Hendricks presented their findings related to chipping and shredding in Nut Grower Magazine back in November 2001. Their article Turning an Orchard Into a ‘No Burn’ Zone looked at studies that were undertaken to determine the efficiency of chipping and shredding. One of the conclusions Duncan and Hendricks reached was that each pass with a tractor and shredder costs approximately $10 per acre compared to approximately $7 per acre to push brush out and burn it. They concluded chipping and shredding was initially more expensive, but the added benefit of turning the shredded material into reusable compost and returning the organic matter to the soil would produce a ‘long-term agronomic value.’”1

For those growers owning neither chippers nor shredders, contracting companies are available for hire that do this sort of work.

As the drought lingers and no revenue is being generated from land taken out of production, will growers take the air into consideration by opting for the most environmentally sound method going in dealing with removal of trees from the orchard – chipping and shredding with compost being added to the soil; take a more air-unfriendly approach by transporting waste to landfills or to biomass plants (provided sufficient capacity exists to accept it); or push trees into piles and set ablaze? What will it be? Will it be a case of all three?

During such difficult times the choices made may not always be easy ones. Understanding this and in dealing with the situation, hopefully, a doable, workable solution that can be mutually agreed upon by those concerned can be found. Of course, the one that damages air the least would be preferable. Hence the Catch-22.


  1. Alan Kandel, “Up In Smoke,” Nut Grower Magazine, a Western Agricultural Publishing Company publication, May 2003, p. 6.

Fifty years in the making: American high-speed rail

There is no question the battle to bring a high-speed-train system to American shores has been long-fought. It’s a conflict that’s been going on 50 years now.

320px-FLV_California_train[1]The movement officially began with President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the High-Speed Ground Transportation Act of 1965 on Sept. 30th. Half a century later, California high-speed rail is making certain headway. It is joined by efforts in Texas (the Texas Central Railway) and in Minnesota (Zip Rail), all three of which continue to face uphill climbs.

There is no shortage of dissenting voices. There are the naysayers, detractors, those critical of and standing opposed to forward progress on the fast-track front, some going so far as to completely write American high-speed rail off – in rants and tirades, in books, letters to newspaper editors, and other media vehicles proclaiming such will never amount to anything more than a vision or dream.

One in particular stands out in the crowd: Mark Reutter’s “How America Led, and Lost, the High-Speed Rail Race.”

Reutter writes: “How did America get to where it is today, a country with the slowest and most threadbare intercity passenger rail service of any advanced nation?

“Not so very long ago, we were not in this humiliating position. In fact, we operated trains that amazed and impressed the rest of the world. These trains were called streamliners, and their very names – Silver Meteor, Flying Yankee, Rocky Mountain Rocket, Denver Zephyr – connoted speed and luxury. In the period between 1935 and 1950, the 10 fastest scheduled passenger trains in the world were all U.S. streamliners.”

While Reutter may have been one to bemoan that once enviable position, others chose to do differently, choosing instead to fix their sights on the railroad ahead.

That the United States is where it is today in the high-speed-rail-progress sense is no accident. An unwavering resolve on the part of a cohesive network of brave and determined souls plus the powers that be is what can be credited; a strategic alliance, voices united, and which, through hard toil and tireless effort, the result is this country being on the cusp of embarking on the journey that is high-speed rail, American style – a pivotal place to be sure.

And, not to be forgotten are the efforts predating ours. A chorus of nations including China, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Spain, Taiwan and others built bona fide high-speed train systems, a combined achievement spanning five decades’ time. America, in this regard, has no doubt gotten where it has because of the progress that collectively, these high-speed “railblazers” made.

America’s high-speed rail program has come such a long ways, even if it has taken this long a time and another one-and-a-half-decades-more pass before the first passengers board U.S. high-speed trains. The time element seems inconsequential knowing that domestically, trains traveling in excess of 200 mph will one day roll.

When this happens, rest assured emissions from reduced motor vehicle and airplane travel will be substantially less with America joining the legions of nations across the globe that have climbed aboard the high-speed-train bandwagon having but one more effective way of moving comfortably, conveniently, economically, efficiently (energy efficiently or otherwise), frequently, practically, reliably, safely, and perhaps above all, speedily about.

It’s high time America make (high-speed) tracks, too.

Permitting of south Valley oil operation prompts lawsuit – an update

A Taft, California-based oil unloading and storage facility appears to now be in the hot seat regarding the way the crude oil terminal in question’s expansion was approved.

I first covered this story back on Feb. 17th (this year).

A quick review:

“Community and environmental groups filed suit … over the expansion—orchestrated mostly in secret—of a crude oil operation in Kern County that could lead to a 1,000 percent increase in the amount of crude imported by rail into California each year,” reported Earthjustice in the “Groups Sue to Stop Daily 100-Car Train Deliveries of Toxic Crude Oil to Bakersfield Terminal: Coalition sues over illegal permitting of major crude-by-rail project in Central Valley,” press release.

Bakersfield Crude Terminal
Bakersfield Crude Terminal

“In addition to dramatically increasing the risk to communities along the rail route, facilities such as the Bakersfield Crude Terminal are major sources of volatile organic compound emissions—a precursor to ozone air pollution. Breathing ozone is hazardous to respiratory health, and the San Joaquin Valley is one of two air basins in the United States designated ‘extreme nonattainment’ for federal ozone standards. The degraded state of the San Joaquin Valley’s air results in more than a thousand premature deaths each year, and one in six Valley children is diagnosed with asthma,” Earthjustice in its Jan. 29, 2015 release further remarked.

Now, an update

Now, in a May 4, 2015 Earthjustice press release, the organization announced:

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited the Bakersfield Crude Terminal for 10 violations of the Clean Air Act, declaring the California crude-by-rail facility a major air pollution source that should have been subjected to rigorous environmental review during the permitting process. The federal agency found that the terminal’s permit is invalid and that the facility lacks required pollution controls and emissions offsets, and that it is in violation of the Clean Air Act’s public notice and environmental review requirements.”

More specifically, “A public records request revealed communications between San Joaquin Valley Air District officials and the project manager for the terminal that included advice from the officials about how the project could avoid public noticing and pollution controls,” Earthjustice further explained in the release. “The Air District approved the massive expansion in a piece-meal permitting process that allowed one of the largest crude oil operations in California to expand largely out of public scrutiny.”

What happens now?

My understanding of additional information brought out in the May 4, 2015 Earthjustice release in question is that the imposition of fines levied against the terminal cannot be ruled out – such are certainly within the realm of possibility. It is also entirely possible that an appropriate and thorough permitting review process could still be required.

There is more on the matter here.

Image above: Elizabeth Forsyth, Earthjustice