Friday, December 28, 2007

This train's on the right track

In a holiday season so rushed that I felt like I was sitting in Han Solo’s seat as we went into warp drive, a quick trip over to Charlotte and back the other day was a blessed respite from the frantic pace and constant blur of the pre-Christmas sprint.
I did it the old-fashioned way, a rediscovered a forgotten pleasure: riding the rails on Train Nos. 73 and 74.
Here’s what it’s about: It’s pleasant. It’s comfortable. And it’s on time.
I can’t remember the last time I felt that way about airline travel. When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to fly on airplanes. It sounded glamourous and luxurious.
But long before 9/11 and the long lines and intrusive inspections and metal detectors, airline travel got old, got weary and got uncomfortable. You’ve got to arrive at the terminal way too early, stand in too many lines to be ordered around by people who have a hard job, and then sit for hours in a cramped airline seat in a crowded airplane with just enough room to squeeze in and out. These things make airline travel a chore at best, though most of us who need to get somewhere far away in a hurry are grateful that you usually can get from one side of the country to the other in a day’s travel that will merely wear you out and, if you’re lucky, give you your baggage back when you arrive.
But if you’re looking for a relaxed short trip and you’ve got business in Raleigh or Greensboro or Charlotte or several other stops along the way, you can’t beat the Piedmont’s east-west trains. The Piedmont’s one of two daily round-trip train sets that Amtrak operates between the state’s two largest cities. The Piedmont is a state DOT train operated by Amtrak under contract and for my money it’s a pleasure.
I boarded No. 73 at 7 a.m. the other day at Raleigh’s nicely redone station and settled into a comfortable seat with more legroom than you’ll find in first class or business class on any airline I’ve ridden. We pulled out precisely on time 5 minutes later and pulled into Charlotte three hours and nine minutes later – precisely on time. Along the way we made short stops in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis. The evening train, of course, follows the same route in reverse every day.
My return trip on No. 74 the following evening was also on time – from the instant we left Charlotte at 5:30 p.m. to the arrival in Raleigh a minute ahead of the 8:40 p.m. schedule. Total cost round trip: $48, approximately a third of what it would have cost the company in a mileage claim.
At three hours and 10 minutes, the elapsed time is beginning to compete with auto travel; one day the service will be closer to two hours.
The new stations along the way are a sight to see, especially those in Burlington and Kannapolis and the grandly refurbished depot in Greensboro. New housing being built near the station in Greensboro and nearby restaurants make it clear that the depot is part of a vibrant downtown revival.
The passenger cars are nicely done with plenty of electrical outlets to plug in a laptop or cell phone charger. There’s complimentary coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soft drinks and assorted snacks in the dining car, and spacious restrooms in each coach.
I know this sounds like ad copy. But a long time ago I worked for the Association of American Railroads and we heard nearly every week from people who longed for the good old days of gracious train travel, when a pleasant journey was as important as the arrival. The trip between Raleigh and Charlotte would be more gracious if there were hot food service, a bar car and a few other amenities.
But everyone I dealt with at the stations and on the train was pleasant and helpful – as if they were pleased to have customers travel with them and wanted them to return. There were no hassles. The train was pretty full but there were no long lines, no waiting to have your shoes inspected, no dehumanizing procedures to endure.
I read a book, made some notes for a column, talked to some nice folks and watched North Carolina’s backyards roll by. It was, I think, the calmest, sanest few hours I spent between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How many loops in Raleigh?

In the (urban) loop
Last month U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., wrote Gov. Mike Easley and N.C. Secretary of Transportation Lyndo Tippett to complain about delays in the completion of I-485 around Charlotte.
One of her Nov. 15 assertions puzzled staff at the N.C. Department of Transporation:
“And how many loops does Raleigh have now?” she asked. “Three?
“Why does Raleigh get three loops before Charlotte gets one? Last I looked, Charlotte was the largest city in the state. There seems to be no recognition of that fact in Raleigh,” she wrote.
She may have a good point about a lack of recognition of Charlotte in Raleigh, but I’ll be daggone if I can figure out where Raleigh has three urban loops. We’ve lived in the Cap City since 1977 and can count only a couple: I-440, which incorporated the existing U.S. 1 and U.S. 64 routes for much of the southwestern and northwestern arcs of that loop years ago. The other is I-540, very roughly half of which has been completed.
I asked Ernie Seneca, spokesman at DOT, about the three beltlines. “We’ve got 1.5,” he said.
I asked Andy Polk, Rep. Myrick's communications assistant. Here's what he sent via e-mail: "The three loops Rep. Myrick refers to is if you count Route 1, and the 440 and 540 outer belts. 440 and 540 are the most obvious ones..."
Evidently the belief in Myrick's office is that U.S. 1 is a loop. Take a look at a map of Raleigh's roads. You be the judge. Here's a link.
Tippett didn’t mention the three-loop assertion in Myrick’s letter when he wrote her back Nov. 21 (reprinted on Wednesday’s Observer editorial page. Here’s a link.)
Charlotte, he said, had gotten nearly $1 billion for urban loop funding, more than any other N.C. city, but he allowed that much more needs to be done. He added, “And there is no funding in the plan at all for the completion of the I-540 Outer Loop in the Raleigh area.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Readers fire back on environment

Since 1996 when former Associate Editor Maria Henson and I put together the Observer’s first environmental assessment outlining the state’s top 10 environmental challenges, readers have had two reactions. Some loved it. Some hated it.
Here’s a sampling of reader responses to this year’s assessment:

“Thanks for your column on NC environment today. I’m a property owner at Lake James and am obviously concerned by how the Catawba chain has held up during this drought.
“I’ve also made a couple of trips to/from Raleigh this fall and noticed that the Yadkin River/Lake High Rock at both Hwy. 49 and I 85 is so full that it is almost spilling its banks. I’ve never noticed it so high. Have you heard anything about why the Yadkin has stayed so full or know anyone I can talk to about it? My guess is that there are fewer restrictions on the amount of water that has to be spilled downstream relative to the Catawba.”
Here’s another:
“How can you say that buying a huge liability[Chimney Rock] is good for NC. And taking people off their bus and putting them on a rail system is a success. That is insulting to people’s intelligent.
“Jack, I’m sure you are a well-paid intelligent person. Would you built a house with no water. Well, [pun] that what your paper who supports the baseball park and Nasc ar Museun.
“We were warned over 25 years ago that Daylight Saving Time would ruin our schools. Were are you articles on this.”
And another:
“I guess if you measure the McCrory Cats line’s opening days as being successfull I would guess you are using your own newspapers headlines as the basis for drawing that conclusion. Factor out the number of riders that actually paid for the two way ride on a daily basis and I doubt seriously that any mass of humanity served by the Cats light rail line would hardly put a wrinkle in the state sheets on the number of commuters choosing to slog it out on the interstates. Trains are great as long as everything is centrally located but unfortunately Charlotte is a spread out city and what would serve a hand full of the citizens needs hardly is worth it for all the citizens like good and adequate highways.
“I would hope that eventually everyone will ride the trains, or take the bes or travel on toll roads so the rest of us can have the Interstates to ourselves.”
And another:
“The time has come the ’Walrus said to speak of many things". Let’s discuss water.
“We have been depending on the ground water and the local aquifers for centuries and depend on the same amount of rainfall each year to satisfy an expanding population. The result is that water is more difficult to find and treat and more expensive to use.
“The Governor of Georgia had the right idea in looking to the Heavens for more water but he just approached it in the wrong way. God has already given us the intellect to get water from the Heavens not by a miracle but by the Mirage. Other nations who have already reached the point of desperation with the lack of water have turned to a small American company in Hondo,Texas to help out. Its not the total answer but it does make drinking water from the humidity in the Air and reduces their dependence on the ground or sea water for all their needs. Its simple, cheap and requires minimal maintenance to produce any where from 20 gallons a day for a residence or office to 1500 gallons a day for bigger users. They can also be assembled in pairs to make thousands of more gallons where needed for agriculture or industry.
“For coastal or lakeside communities they can be placed on barges offshore and pipe thousands of gallons each day to whole communities. The amount of water in the air is limitless and its easier and cheaper to clean than using desalination or reverse osmosis.
“For areas where there is water available but not in a desirable condition to drink, they make a Vortex system that treats well or ground water without chemicals and uses the energy of the water itself to turn it into good drinking or agricultural water. The system was devised by the Greeks in 2000 BC to clean their water.
“Both of these devices use very little energy and do not leave us with other contaminants to dispose of after use.
“The use of Mirage units in offices,schools and even hospitals could reduce the demand placed on our present water supplies while providing a cheap very desirable product that everyone needs.
“A recent article in the State Port Pilot, Dec 5,2007 shows one at use in a home in Bolivia, NC.
“The Military has asked for 2 demo units for use on tactical vehicles in the field which will produce 12 gallons a day for the crew in what has been described by the Contractor,BAE Systems, as a "camel’ that can be milked for water wherever the troops are.
“The Preface to the Mirage brochure was written by Prof. Hilary Inyang, of UNC Charlotte who holds the Duke Energy Chair and is involved with energy and water usage on an International level.
“The water is above us and there for the taking provided by the good Lord for us all.
“We dont have to steal each others rivers and watersheds we just need to reach up and take what we need.
“A retired soldier who appreciates the ready availability of drinking water.”
And another:
“Excellent overview. I hope people pay attention.
“The part about the rise of ocean waters since 1585 is most important if it only reminds people the ocean levels have changed in the past and will continue to change. Our problem, the problem of the human race, is that we have built structures so close to the water. Will we ever learn?
“The one of southeast drought is related. Whether the developers care to accept it or not, our water supplies are limited. The Catawba and other southeast rivers are not large streams. Again the problem is related to the growth of population dependent upon a resource which changes and has not concern for the number of humans who live close by.
“I find the piece about the pine plantations replacing the oak forests of personal import. I bought a small (100 acre) tree farm in Gaston County 2 years ago. We had the NC Forest Service assist in replanting. I wanted a mixed group. Some parts in Loblolly, some in mixed oaks, some in long leaf. The forestry agent almost insisted on loblolly, and it turns out the state assistance programs only apply to pine plantings.
“I suggest you and your fellow editors look at the problem in totality. It is the issue of growth as the economic model which we understand. We do not understand how to deal with no growth. Neither do those involved in the development industries wish to go there. Builders, lenders and all the associated industries are run by people who are getting relatively richer on development. To ask them to stop or slow down is to take away their ability to become richer.
“The subprime issue is a case in point. Those who suffer are the ones left behind. The water issue will be next.
“After this drought has passed, we will forget about it and move on. (man is good about forgetting the lessons of the past) Growth will continue apace, supported wholeheartedly by the various chambers, and sooner or later a drought will occur which, because of increased demand, will cause more problems than a wailing and gnashing of teeth.
“It will be an interesting time, which reminds me of a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

House targets Wright but didn't eye Black

House Speaker Joe Hackney’s announcement Tuesday afternoon that the Legislative Ethics Committee and the House will move swiftly to consider expelling Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, made some folks wonder: Why would the House move against Wright when it never took action against former Speaker Jim Black, now serving time in federal prison?
The News & Observer reported that Joe Sinsheimer, whose digging into public records and complaints to authorities led to Black’s prison sentence for taking payoffs and to a Wake County grand jury indictment of Wright earlier this week, said that’s a problem. “They are going to have to live with that hypocrisy,” he told the paper. “But I don’t think the [answer] is to go back and do two wrongs.”
Wright was a key lieutenant to Black, and one of the most powerful African American members in the House. He now stands accused of making off with $350,000 in campaign contributions, loans and donations intended for a foundation he ran.
The obvious question is whether there’s a different standard of treatment for a white speaker versus a black legislator who both were accused of felonies. The House didn’t any take action against Black while his charges were pending. Was it race?
In the South you can never totally discount that. But in this case, it’s more likely that House Democrats didn’t move against Black not just because he was their leader and in a position of power, but also because so many members were in his debt. Black had personally helped raise a lot of money for Democratic legislators’ campaigns, and many of them owed their seats, their political success and their own share of power to Jim Black.
There’s no such allegiance to Thomas Wright.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Candidate Orr on illegal immigrants

A recent column about illegal immigrants brought this note from Republican Bob Orr, the former Supreme Court associate justice who is running for the GOP nomination for governor. I meant to post his words last week. Orr opposes allowing illegal immigrants to enroll in higher ed here at any tuition rate, but he also notes that Congress has contributed to this problem by refusing to address the status of the children of illegal immigrants and resolve the problem by outlining how they could apply for citizenship.
Here’s what Orr had to say:
“While I don’t think it’s right to allow illegals into the system (no different that allowing a driver’s license or the right to vote) the ultimate answer has to be left up to Congress. It serves no useful public purpose to let these kids go to community college or do anything else and have them subject to arrest and deportation at any moment. Congress needs to address the status of young people brought to this country illegally but who have graduated from our public high schools. It makes sense to allow them to jump to the front of the citizenship line but only Congress can make that decision.

Monday, December 10, 2007

BASH: When birds, airplanes collide

From a reader:
“jack: i am a regular reader of your columns. i appreciate your fairness, objectivity and knowledge of your subjects. having spent 5 years, more or less, in state government i really appreciate your views. however i question your accuracy concerning jet operations of practice carrier landings in eastern n.c.-especially at night. i flew with the navy from 1955 to 1970. my original tour was in a night fighter squadron based at alameda and deployed in the western pacific aboard uss ticonderga and uss bennington. night landings are more difficult than day but not much more on a clear night when you can see the horizon. on an overcast night literally you can’t see your hand in front of your face. following my release from active duty i flew appx 10 years from navy norfolk with almost all my time in the a-4 skyhawk attack aircraft. most of our practice targets were in eastern n.c. our primary mission was strafing, rockets, bombs, napalm and special weapons [atomic bombs] ! deliveries. bird strikes are a major problem on missions which require a high speed, low altitude flight. i was very fortunate never to have had a strike, but i had numerous near misses. at speeds of less than appx 350 mph your sound travels in front of you and birds [and people] can hear you coming. birds take evasive actions. at speeds of appx 350+ mph, nothing hears you. in my 15 years with the navy i never even heard of a strike by a plane in a landing pattern. our landing speeds are generally less than 150 mph. i hope we haven’t won the battle but lost the war on this issue. having flown intensively both in the east and in the west, i really don’t know why we have planes in the east. the weather out west is far superior. targets in the desert are much easier to obtain. there is much less commercial traffic. the navy has a great facility in fallon, nv and the marines in yuma,az. the gvmnt could save a lot of money by transferring all air force, navy and marine tactical ! jets to the west coast. lets not force them to do it. sincerely (a reader)”
Betts replies:
Thanks for your note. Regarding the possibility of bird-aircraft collisions, the military has a program whose acronym is telling: BASH (for Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazards). Here what military experts in this area have had to say to the Observer in recent years about the proposed OLF:
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Short, who devised the military’s Bird-Aircraft Strike Hazards (BASH) program, said, “In 25 years of dealing with military BASH issues, I cannot recall a worse place to situate an airfield for jet training. Aircraft at the proposed OLF would suffer from continual and dangerous hazards to safe operations due to the huge waterfowl populations” that use the refuge each winter
Another expert hired by the Navy wrote that a collision wasn’t a matter of if, but when – “and how severe it will be when it occurs.”
“It’s assured, they definitely will collide,” Maj. Ronald Merritt told The Observer’s Bruce Henderson. “It’s not if, it’s when. The question is how many pilots do we have to kill before we abandon this problem?”

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Easley, Dole, Burr: New best friends

For the past five years, the best friend environmentalists had in the fight to stop a proposed Navy jet landing field near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife refuge was not an elected official. He was a conservative federal judge, a Republican who once worked for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. When he was appointed to office it would have been hard to guess he’d be thought of as the one high-ranking official who would stop the Navy in its tracks.
But U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle did what residents of Washington and Beaufort counties, environmental advocates, hunters and conservationists wanted other leading public officials to do: He listened, he read the record and he questioned whether the Navy had done its required homework, as federal law demands, before concluding that it would cause no environmental hard to put a jet aircraft practice landing field next door to one of the most important migratory waterfowl refuges on the East Coast.
Judge Boyle challenged the Navy's proposal relatively early, as did a number of local officials such as Plymouth Mayor Brian Roth and Washington County Commissioner Hood Richardson, and state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare. Judge Boyle’s ruling forced the Navy to take another look, and the Navy is considering other sites in North Carolina and Virginia now.
But it was not until the past year that the state’s ranking politicians came to oppose the outlying landing field outright. First Gov. Mike Easley, then U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, who had had reservations about the project for several years, expressed their opposition to putting it near the refuge. The governor and the senators bickered a time or two recently, but they also moved closer to the same position and evidently realized they ought to be standing together.
Now they're new best friends. This week produced something that residents of Washington and Beaufort counties have been dreaming of for years: a clear, concise statement of opposition against putting the landing field anywhere that residents don’t want it, plus a suggestion that if residents do agree to accept it, the Navy should offer additional economic incentives. And by the way, they asked, does the Navy really need that landing field?
These three assertions constituted the heart of a letter to the Navy signed by Dole, Burr and Easley, a prime example of bipartisan cooperation that will surely brighten the mood of many who have worked so long to persuade the Navy that its first choice for a site was not a good one. You can read a copy of the letter on Sen. Dole’s Web site by clicking here.