Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Former Transportation Secretaries Admonish Congress: DO SOMETHING!

I don't suppose it will do any good, but the current Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and no less than eleven of his predecessors in that job, have sent a letter to Congressional leaders saying, in effect, "Stop your goddam partisan foolishness and do something about a comprehensive, long-term solution for funding the restoration of this country's transportation infrastructure." There's a long list of reasons to be upset with the current partisan paralysis in Washington, but that one's got to be close to the top.
The gasoline tax was supposed to fund construction and maintenance of our highway system, but Congress made a fundamental mistake when the tax was created: they set a specific amount for the tax -- x-number of cents per gallon -- rather than setting the tax as a certain percentage of whatever the retail price of gas happens to be. Generating additional money for the Highway Trust Fund thus became a matter of "raising taxes" and in the current anti-tax climate, that hasn't happened. 

As a result, in recent years, revenue from the gas tax has only been covering about half the cost of building and fixing roads. Now we've hit bottom, and it comes at a time when our transportation infrastructure is in dire straights from years of neglect. Roads and highways from coast to coast (and here in Hawaii, too) are inadequate and often maintenance and repairs have to be postponed.
But it's not just highways. Want to talk about bridges? Depending on whom you listen to, there are something like 60,000 bridges in this country that have been neglected for years and are potentially unsafe. This bridge outside of Minneapolis was really unsafe!

Then there's the new, but not-ready-for-primetime air traffic control system we've been hearing about for a number of years and which is badly needed. No money to implement it.

And, of course, there's Amtrak, scraping by on whatever federal support is left over after Republicans in Congress finish beating up the railroad's executives in various hearings. Our national passenger rail system is running equipment that's as much as 40 years old, and even so, there's not nearly enough to meet the demand. But -- sorry -- no money for adequate replacements.

We can only hope that Congress will sit up and notice that among these former secretaries of transportation are several knowledgeable, responsible and rational Republicans, as well as others who served under Republican presidents. All agree it's a crisis. And they have one, unified, simple non-partisan message for Congress: Suck it up and do your damn job!

Too much to hope for? Maybe. But here's my suggestion for a way out that will provide some political cover for the House Republicans: first, adequately fund our transportation infrastructure by raising revenue from new taxes and user fees. Next, take political credit for the improvements. And, finally,  blame Obama for the new taxes.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Few Semi-Odd Things About Hawaii.

Hawaii is a paradise in many ways, notwithstanding the occasional tropical storm or even an awful hurricane every twenty years of so. In particular, it's the people here who make it so endlessly different and interesting. Our governor, Neil Abercrombie, is fond of saying that our diversity doesn't divide is, it defines us. The fact is, everyone who lives here belongs to a racial minority. That, all by itself, is pretty interesting.
I'm not sure why, but that may also be one reason why Hawaii seems to attract more than its allotted share of both odd and interesting people. And grifters and drifters, too, although that was probably more the case before 5-hour jet flights and the internet made Hawaii seem a lot closer to the mainland. We've always had a lot of celebrities here, too … both full- and part-time residents like Oprah and Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, as well as those who come on vacation.

I'm not sure what it is, but most of the famous people who show up here are a lot more relaxed when it comes to mingling with the locals than they would be in a mainland city of comparable size. And we do tend to give them some extra space.

Jacqueline Kennedy was in Honolulu not more than three or four years after her husband was assassinated. Before she arrived, one of the local papers suggested in an editorial that it would be nice if we all just left her alone. She visited the local art museum when I was doing its public relations and remarked to the director that she thought Honolulu seemed to be a bit aloof … and was quite touched when she was told the real reason.

Another thing I can't really explain: local people are inclined to give their kids somewhat unusual names, probably to set them apart, because there are a lot of very common surnames. Some are funny and many are inventive, but it's going to be a long time before I come across one that tickled me more than the name I saw on a badge worn by a young woman at a check-out line a few weeks ago: ROCKSANNE.

Newcomers here can be awfully irritating sometimes. It's probably true that Hawaii attracts more than its fair share of wealthy people, but why is it that some of them think that because they're rich, they must therefore be smart? For instance, someone like the guy who made a pile in the stock market, buys a magazine and immediately starts telling experienced editors what to do … then blames them when the magazine folds.

And why is it that some people move to Hawaii from the mainland and immediately begin publicly criticizing how we do things? Here on Maui, the criticism is often about the 150-year-old practice of burning sugar cane fields before harvesting. Typically, it comes in the form of a letter-to-the-editor of the Maui News, overflowing with indignation and signed ...

John and Mary Smith
Kihei - Santa Barbara

Trying to impress us with the fact that they own two homes really doesn't work. We just write them off as a couple of typical "coast haoles" who are probably only here for a month or two every year and who will never ever understand what it is about Hawaii that is so special. So unique. So damn near perfect.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wali's Visit Is Almost Uneventful, But We Can't Forget Iniki.

Tropical Storm Wali has come and gone. It rained off and on all day Saturday, then poured much of Sunday morning, the rain sometimes driven almost horizontally by strong gusts. Power went out in the wee hours and came back just as we were wondering when it would be necessary to fire up the portable generator tucked away in a corner of the garage.
 We don't get really severe storms -- tropical hurricanes -- very often, but they've been horrific when they do show up. The last really bad one, Hurricane Iniki (ee-NEE-kee), was passing well to the south of us back in September of 1992, when it suddenly made a 90-degree turn to the north, strengthened into a monster, and smacked head on into the island of Kauai.  
Winds were recorded at 160 miles-per-hour, but there's no doubt that gusts were higher than that. The head of the island's Public Works Department told me that the equivalent of 30-years-worth of trash was generated during the 90 minutes it took for Iniki to pass over the island.
Power was out almost everywhere for four weeks and much longer than that in many isolated areas. In the months that followed, something like 11,000 utility poles had to be replaced and, for almost a year, one could see telephone lines strung on palm trees and still in use. 
Some 14,000 homes were completely trashed and 40,000 other houses and buildings were damaged. 
One interesting result of that storm can be seen to this day: some of the locals were raising chickens for the illegal cock-fighting prevalent on that island and the high winds obliterated many hundreds of their chicken coops. The birds were blown everywhere, but  survived, and today there are wild chickens running loose everywhere on the island.
Another consequence of that storm was an extreme reluctance on the part of insurance companies to continue insuring private homes in Hawaii. When it came time to renew our homeowners' coverage, I was interviewed at length by someone at the Hartford's home office, eventually providing an answer that gave the company the excuse to refuse to continue our policy. Hurricane coverage is now excluded from most homeowners' policies here, but there are two companies offering supplementary hurricane coverage. Ka-ching, ka-ching!
Iniki was 22 years ago, but you don't forget an experience like that.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Arrogance, Thy Name is Little Yelllow Plane. And Thou Art Doomed.

There are no billboards in Hawaii. We have what must be by far the most restrictive sign law anywhere in the United States … maybe in the world. Simply stated, you cannot have a sign promoting your business anywhere but at your place of business or on your business vehicles, meaning delivery vans and trucks. The law limits the size of the signs at your place of business and there are no signs allowed above the first floor.

That law has been on the books since some time in the 1920s. Originally championed by The Outdoor Circle -- an organization that is to this very day mostly comprised of stern and determined women -- public officials continue to aggressively enforce the law to preserve the incredible natural beauty of this place. They'd better! We wouldn't have it any other way.
There are occasional challenges, invariably from someone just off the boat from the U.S. mainland where outdoor advertising is common. At the moment, authorities are trying to find a small yellow plane that's been flying back and forth over our beaches towing banners. The owner of the company -- the arrogant twit is from the mainland, of course -- claims our law is illegal. It isn't. He'll be fined; he will appeal; he will lose; and he will go back to Burbank or wherever he came from. As I said, the authorities here take our sign ordinance very seriously.

How seriously? Years ago, I ran the Office of Information and Complaint for the City of Honolulu. The wife of actor James MacArthur owned a shop in Kilohana Square, a small cluster of retail establishments tucked away and set back from one of our busier roads. Melanie called me to find out if they could put up an additional sign to help people find their shops. Rather than try to explain it over the phone, I asked the city employee most familiar with the sign ordinance if she would take a run out to Kilohana Square, meet with Melanie and the other shop owners, and explain the details of the sign ordinance so they would know what they could and could not do.

A few days later, Melanie called to say that the woman from the city had shown up and, not only did she decline to advise them about a new sign but, while she was there, she cited three of the shops for having illegal signs. Melanie then informed me that the Kilohana Square Merchants Association had concluded their meeting by voting 9-0 to approve a resolution "never again to ask Jim Loomis for help or advice." 

She was laughing when she told me. I think.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What Is the Truth? And How Do We Know It's the Truth?

I came across an interesting news item from the world of travel the other day. It comes from Scotland, where the owners of a bed-and-breakfast are going to court in an effort to uncover the real names of two people who trashed their establishment in "reviews" that appeared on the TripAdvisor web site. (Let me hasten to add that the photo below is simply to dress up this post and is most definitely NOT the B&B that is the subject of this discussion. In fact, truth be told, it's not even in Scotland.)
This is an interesting subject, however, and I've written about it here on at least one prior occasion: how do you know if you can trust a review you read on a travel web site? And not just the negative reviews; the problem goes both ways because you really have to assume that proprietors of hotels and restaurants plant phony rave reviews on TripAdvisor and other such web sites. Think about it: If you were the manager of a hotel, and a big bonus depended on hitting a goal of X-number room nights, wouldn't you try planting some reviews extolling to virtues of your hotel?  Yes … probably. So the problem for us travelers is figuring out which reviews to believe. 

I like to think that I can spot the legitimate reviews. They're not polished and often there are one or two almost inconsequential criticisms in the mix … a faucet dripped in the bathroom or there was no one at the front desk when you checked in, but everything else was perfect. Of course, why would we think someone writing a fake review wouldn't think to write it that way!

In the case of the Scottish B&B owners, they want to get the names of the people who said ugly things about their establishment so they can sue them.  And that's understandable. But TripAdvisor is refusing to reveal the names of the two reviewers in order to protect the privacy of the two individuals, not to mention the probability of inhibiting honest negative reviews in the future.

At any rate, this thorny issue is going to land in court and we can all bet that a lot of people in the travel industry will be extremely interested in the outcome. I'll report it here, assuming I spot it when the verdict is announced.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

There's a Movement Building … With Steel Wheels On Steel Rails!

Several interesting items relating to passenger rail have been in the news in just the past couple of days and these three are just the most recent indication that there is a groundswell of renewed demand for train service occurring in many parts of the country.
First, during a visit to Raton, New Mexico, Amtrak's president, Joe Boardman (above), delighted residents by stating unequivocally that he's committed to keeping the Southwest Chief operating on its current route through 2015 and beyond. A 600-mile stretch of track through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico has deteriorated and no one wants to shell out $200 million over the next ten years to fix it. That has raised fears that the Chief would switch routes and bypass those areas or, worst case scenario, simply stop operating altogether. Boardman's comments were reassuring, but supporters of the train would be ill advised to relax.

Next comes news that the enlightened State of Massachusetts is going to spend almost $50 million to buy and upgrade 37 miles of  track through the Berkshire Mountains in the western part of that state. The idea is to vastly improve rail travel to New York City from the Pittsfield area by running trains south to Great Barrington and on down through Hartford and New Haven. Yes, indeed … If you build it, they will come!

And finally, there's the Minnesota DOT that also thinks people will come if a high-speed line is built linking Minneapolis with Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic.  Anyone who has been to the Mayo facilities will immediately understand the potential value of extending rail there. The place is huge, with literally thousands of patients going in and out every day. The state people are serious and are currently working with the Federal Railroad Administration on an Environmental Impact Statement.

These are not isolated incidents … but all three are wonderful and current examples of a simple fact that the anti-Amtrak people in Congress and in the libertarian "think tanks" don't understand: Americans want more trains!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

There Are Poor Decisions…and Bad Decisions…and Terrible Decisions.

We all know there's an element in Congress that would be perfectly happy if Amtrak were to stop running tomorrow. In the meantime, they continue to bring relentless pressure on Amtrak for more and more cost cutting in order to reduce the amount of annual subsidy our national passenger rail system needs to continue limping along.

Regulars here know the basic facts: Amtrak has been getting about $1.4 billion a year … a pathetic amount that is a minuscule fraction of one percent of the federal budget. 
 Still Amtrak continues to be harassed by people like Congressman John Mica, who think Amtrak shouldn't be losing money on its food service and, to make his point, alerts the media, then runs down to the tracks and waves a Big Mac at passing Amtrak trains. 

I think all this badgering has driven a number of key Amtrak executives over the edge. Want an example? I thought you'd never ask!

A friend of mine from boarding school days who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, decided to take a long-distance train ride with his wife and apparently my book and this blog played a small role in that decision. Their itinerary included traveling from Los Angeles to Oakland on the Coast Starlight, and connecting there with the California Zephyr for the ride back to Denver.

Upon boarding the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles, they settled into their seats on the left side of the train, following the advice in my book, because that's where the wonderful ocean views are for the first five hours or so. Here's what he said in an email to me after they got home:
"When we got on the train, the car seemed quite dark. Once underway, there appeared to be a mesh over the window … Only about 50 percent of the available light was getting through the window and the view was blurred.When we go off the train [in Oakland], we saw that our car looked for all the world like a rolling billboard ... The wrap-around advertising is evidently a perforated vinyl sheet with the message printed on the outside, and it covers the windows of the train!" 

And now, permit me to quote verbatim from the page on Amtrak's website that talks about the Coast Starlight:

"Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular of all train routes, the Coast Starlight links the greatest cities on the West Coast. The scenery along the Coast Starlight route is unsurpassed."
But on May 25th, if you happened to be sitting in the next-to-last Superliner coach of Amtrak train 14's consist, your view of all that unsurpassed scenery was obscured so Amtrak could earn a few bucks and be able to tell people in Congress like John Mica that everything possible is being done to reduce the need for federal subsidies.
That's really dumb, isn't it! First, because two people were giving Amtrak a try and came away feeling that Amtrak doesn't give a damn about them. And second, because John Mica only cares about pandering to his uninformed constituents and really doesn't give a damn about Amtrak.
I have no idea what Amtrak was paid for that wrap-around ad, but it wasn't nearly enough.