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Yup, it’s that time of year, when the spring melt, road construction season, and income taxes conspire to unleash a perfect storm on our finances. And of those income taxes due tomorrow… Very little will go to even patching our national collection of potholes we call “infrastructure”.

Building roads, railroads, waterways, and even lowly pedestrian and bike trails can get damn expensive- even a simple repaving of a rural 2 lane can push a million $$$ a mile, a new urban light rail line or rebuilding an urban freeway can run $100,000,000 a mile. And a new urban freeway? Nobody even dares propose one anymore! And building and major rebuilding is the better funded part of our transportation infrastructure- 80% federal funded for major highways and 50% for transit. 

But the dark side of transportation funding is maintenance, and the fed’s funding disappears with the orange barrels when the shiny new road or rails are finished. Then it gets progressively ugly, as underfunded state and local governments have to absorb the increasing costs of potholes, cracks, storm damage, and just plain wear. To give you an example, my home state of Minnesota just announced this year’s projects, and even with over a billion dollars in spending we’re getting little new lane-miles… Almost all the funding is going to repaving cratered roads and fixing bridges before they collapse. For example, a 25 mile long segment of US 14 near me that looks to have been built in the 1940s will get repaved, one bridge repaired, and built up with fill on a drained lake bottom where it keeps flooding. No paved shoulders, no bike/pedestrian trail, no safety improvements like turn lanes and more gently graded embankments, and no money to permanently move the road out of the wetland where it never belonged to begin with.

And those income tax dollars you’re paying? On the federal side, almost none will go to transportation. In some states, a little seeps into transportation funding via programs like Local Government Aid, whereby the state shares some of it’s revenue to small towns like mine and we invest some of it back into our city streets. That’ll fund patching a few potholes, but no way could we afford even repaving without a property tax assessment! And some of the wealthier cities don’t get that funding at all, despite the fact that just the cities of Minneapolis and St.Paul have as many lane-miles of streets to maintain as Minnesota has Interstate lane-miles. In fact, the vast majority of roads receive no federal or state funding whatsoever.

About now a tea party denizen in the back row is loudly reminding us that he “pays taxes”… So let’s take a look at those taxes we pay that are pretty much dedicated to transportation infrastructure. Heck, even motorcyclists pay taxes, and here in Minnesota the bit over 6% sales tax you pay on a new $15,000 motorcycle will result in a $1000 or so donation to the state’ transportation trust fund. You’ll be dropping another $50 or so every year to renew your registration, over 20 year expected life of that motorcycle that’s another $1000 or so. YMMV, but the average motorcycle gets 40 MPG and gets ridden 2000 miles a year, consuming 50 gallons of gas. YMMV on this too, but the average state and federal gas tax is about 50 cents a gallon, so our motorcyclist is contributing another $500 for a total of $2500 over twenty years to ride 40,000 miles, about 6 cents a mile. Now I’ve searched high and low for the cost of the wear and tear a vehicle does to the roads, and  the best number I can find is around a nickel per mile per ton of weight. At not even a half ton of weight soaking wet, our motorcyclist is paying for three times the costs he imposes on our transportation infrastructure!

But sometimes it snows in Minnesota, so some of us need cars. So we buy a $30,000 car and drop $2000 of sales tax into the transportation trust fund, spend another $2000 licensing it for it’s 20 year life, and the average car gets around 20 MPG real world so after 20 years we’ve driven 200,000 miles and bought 10,000 gallons of gas making a further contribution of $5000, for a grand tax total of around $9000. But our average car weights 2 tons and wears the roads to the tune of a dime a mile, causing $20,000 in cost over it’s lifetime and paying not even half it’s road costs.

It goes downhill fast from here… That teabagger in the back looks like he’s gonna stroke out or have a coronary, so better give him some attention. He of course drives a big ol’ $40,000 new pickup that gets 10 MPG, cruising 30,000 miles a year between his exurban minimansion, the social security office, hospital, bank , and his fishin’ hole. it’s been mighty patriotic of him to contribute $2500 every 10 years in sales taxes because he’s wearin’ the damn things out so quick, and the $1500 a year he’s contributing in gas taxes helps mightily too, as well as the $3000 or so he’s paying to register it ’til it rolls into  the junkyard. That all adds up to a bit over $20,000 or 7 cents or so a mile. Problem is, he’s overloaded his big ol’ pickup to 4 tons at least, so it’s wearin’ and tearin’ up the roads to the tune of 20 cents a mile. Teabagger’s not takin’ this well, just a minute while we find the AED and call 911…

So much for the toy trucks, how’s ’bout the real big rigs? So let’s say one of my neighboring family farms has had a good year, so they invest $200,000 in a new tractor-trailer rig. That produces a 12% $24,000 federal excise tax contribution to the Fed’s Highway trust fund, and another $13,000 or so sales tax contribution to the state’s. On top of that they’re paying over $2000 a year in Federal Highway Use Tax and state registration, even with the discount the state gives them for farm use. And at 6 MPG, they’d be a big contributor via the fuel taxes, ‘cept they have 100 or so tillable acres in their section and the elevator’s only 10 miles away. So over the new rig’s life, it’ll contribute $37,000 in taxes before it rolls off the lot, and another $40,000 in registration fees over 20 years. But even with 200 bushel an acre corn, that thousand bushel trailer will only make 20 round trips to the elevator a year, and even with the odd trips to pickup inputs and shuttle tractors on the lowboy, they’ll be lucky to cover 6000 miles a year, burn 1000 gallons of diesel, and pay $600 in fuel taxes. Over 20 years their pride and joy of a rig will cover 120,000 miles and contribute around $90,000 to the maintenance of the main roads. And running empty on the way back from the elevator, it’ll weigh on average 30 tons and wear the roads to the tune of $1.50 a mile, or $180,000 over it’s lifetime, and contribute barely half that.

But compared to the trucking company that serves the packinghouse up the street from the elevator, our family farmers are model citizens. The big trucking company has hundreds of trucks, and they get big discounts and buys them in another state with no sales tax, so they contribute maybe $18,000 when they get a deeply discounted new truck for $150,000. They pay about the same $2000 annual registration as our family farmers, but they put two drivers in the rig and it never rests, covering 200,000 miles a year. In five years it’s pretty much worn out, having contributed $28,000 to the highway trust funds and $100,000 in fuel taxes, paying a mere 13 cents a mile for the wear and tear it’s caused. But it’s always loaded to the 40 ton legal limit as well as moving, causing $2 per mile in wear and tear in the roads. Over 5 years this always loaded and rollin’ tax scofflaw has cost us all the better part of a million dollars in subsidy to cover the huge gap between it’s measly tax payments and the wear and tear it wreaks upon the roads.

Meanwhile, the railroads are pretty much payin’ for their own tracks and way, and if the airlines manage to avoid bankruptcy for a while they’ll do likewise. The barges on our big rivers pretty much get a free ride, but the costs aren’t that huge and the Corps does some useful stuff like flood control and conservation with their sliver of the federal budget too. But big trucks runnin’ day and night… They’re living off the taxpayers, and making them pay their fair share would shift vast amounts of freight to greener modes like rail, saving precious fuel and reducing global warming.

And those walkers, bicyclists, and motorcyclists? Look out for them, they’re payin’ more than their share!



Hard to tell the story of an Airhead Tech Day(s) without pix, and I can’t find the cable to transfer photos from camera to computer… Hopefully I didn’t leave it in Naples! So here I wait ’til I get to the rare Motel 6 with free Wi-Fi to upload dozens of pix, and I’m missin’ a cable. If I did forget it, I’ll just have to fake it by transferring pix with a memory card.

I didn’t get to Tech Day til friday afternoon, so I missed the early stages of at least one transmission rebuild. But I did get to witness and photograph numerous carb balancings, a couple front fork servicings, carb rebuilds, and the resurrection of an airhead after 15 years sleep.  As always, our kitchen crew outdid themselves, and a good week’s dieting was laid to waste. The rain and bugs joined us, but we had no reported cases of malaria or drowning. And after having no less than a dozen bikes under repair at one time on friday, by sunday morn we’d wrapped everything up and headed home after a leisurely breakfast.

On to Chattanooga and the VW plant tour, where they don’t allow cameras anyway. This ain’t your father’s or even sister’s assembly plant, VW has raised the bar that far. It’s the only LEED awarded auto assembly plant in the world, with environmentally friendly design throughout. Some of this is fluff to earn the LEED rating, like 10 megawatts of solar cells and 6 inches of insualation instead of the standard 2… Heck, we’ve been putting 6 inches insulation in Minnesota houses since the 1980s. But LEED is a comprehensive measure of environmental friendliness, and VW earned their LEED rating in useful ways by cleaning and reusing a brownfield site, restoring natural wetlands, capturing and using rainwater, and eliminated waste and pollution in dozens of ways.

The scale is huge- nearly two million square feet inside the assembly halls and support buildings. Now in the past I’ve noted that buildings often become less productive when their size exceeds a mere hundred thousand square feet… But at over ten times that big, this plant still functions pretty well. One of the reasons really big buildings usually don’t work so well is because just moving stuff around in them becomes a big hassle, but this plant uses well located loading docks, conveyors, and creative layout to avoid the congestion of most megaplants.

On to the assembly lines… Or should I even call them assembly lines? The classic assembly plant has a fixed rate assembly line, and it takes an act of god or NHTSA to stop it. VW is different… They spent over $500 a square foot on this plant, and the lines are short ones with buffering capacity between them and they’re not afraid to use it. The plant is highly automated, with robots doing most of the boring jobs, leaving the humans to care for the robots and fixed their mistakes. Back in the bad old days of assembly plants a defective car was dragged all the way down the assembly line and out to the storage lot if it’d move under it’s on power, and “rectification” consisted of getting it running just well enough to barely make it onto the train or truck for delivery. At this plant, there are bodies on “rotisseries”, assemblies, and even whole completed cars being inspected and repaired or awaiting same all over the place. Same for a few robots that were down for maintenance, and VW doesn’t seem the least bit worried about this. This pursuit of perfection, production rates be damned, is reflected in the plants production stats… A mere 130,000 cars a year on two shifts, which works out to about 30 cars an hour. That’s half the line rate the big 3 shoot for, and VW’s patience and this billion dollar investment are reminders that they’re a better kind of car company.

Which may also explain why VW isn’t anti-union. Unlike the UAW represented plants where workers tend to stay ’til retirement, VW’s had some turnover at Chattanooga. This ain’t a job for the good old folks with a strong back and weak mind, there’s computers and test equipment and tool boxes everywhere. At VW’s $14 an hour starting pay, no doubt more than a few employees have applications in for $20 an hour union jobs. So while a union contract may bring higher costs for VW, it’ll bring a more skilled and stable workforce, and that ain’t a bad thing.

Off to bed for me, gotta hit the road at dawn and make it the last 500 miles home…





In a flat as sea level cypress forest thick with trees tall enough to require an overlength permit, you can hide some pretty big stuff. Even from the overpass crossing Alligator Alley we couldn’t see over that forest, which may explain how the Postal Service was able to hide it’s latest pride and joy there.

‘Twas getting near dawn when I awoke, and looked like the Postal Services 13th or so vice president was droning on. That’s the way the Postal Service works- for political reasons, the pay progression climbing up the ladder of the Postal Executive Service isn’t all that big, thus the executives try to make up for their lack of salary with perks and ceremony. Thus the Postal fleet roster includes dozens of limos, and there’s even an “Executive Training Center” complete with country club for their exclusive use. We were witnessing the ceremony part of the pay and perks package, with one Postal executive after another in diminishing order of status droning on about the glories of their turkey drones.

Bored but no longer able to sleep, I turned on my tablet and checked out the chatter at the Brown Cafe and 21st Century Postal Worker forums. Suffice to say, the threat to replace Carriers and UPS drivers with turkey drones was not received well, and there was talk of rooting the turkey’s guidance system and thus routing said turkeys. A threat not to be taken lightly, given that the computers guiding the turkey drones were developed during the first gulf war by techs who now program and repair the Postal Service’s computer driven mail sorting systems. Calmer heads repeated the old workshop mantra: Don’t bother sabotaging a system that’ll probably fail of it’s own accord… Could a bunch of grad students have disabled and replaced the turkey drone’s pea brain? The techs suspected that the Everglades State University grad students had programmed some low level functions of the turkey drones guidance systems, and their best efforts could easily be undone by anyone with root access… And who else would have root access than the Postal Service techs who programmed those same computers to guide cruise missiles to Baghdad  two decades ago? Meanwhile, UPS had visited the Miami federal courthouse too, and were now allowed back in the party. And our motley media? As the story took on a life of it’s own, the satellite trucks and anchors arrived. The Postal executives’ drone about turkey drones was finally interrupted by an ample breakfast buffet, and we we’re herded outside…

Ever since the airlines gained some political muscle, the Postal Service has been barred by law from owning airplanes and forced to pay said airlines to fly mail. Subtly positioned to block the rising sun for most of the morning was the Postal Service’s revenge, Airship Eagle. Now my fellow gearheads may have noticed renewed interest in blimps of late, no doubt fueled by the air cargo industry’s lack of rail competitive payload and fuel economy. As the TV cameras jockeyed for position in the pre dawn light, the Postmaster General prattled on about the new Postal blimp’s advantages while the blimp levitated slightly so the turkey drones could pick up and deliver packages. Looking closely, I noted that the turkey drones still did what all birds, well, do. And when they were within range, any quick movement would bring the expected avian defensive responses.

So with all the major networks live at dawn, the Postmaster General, surrounded by hundreds of turkey drones, was backlit by the rising sun just below the Airship Eagle blimp. Sensing an opportunity and maybe a board seat at UPS or FDX in his future, the PMG wouldn’t quit talking as the sun rose behind him. As the sun rose, the TV crews shut off their floodlights, just as the rising sun created a shadow over the assembled turkey drones surrounding the Postmaster General. Then turkey pandomenium ensued, with hundreds of turkeys flying full speed, right on top of the Postmaster General!

Looks like the PMG will survive after a thorough cleaning and a round of vaccinations. The Postal Inspectors weren’t taking it so lightly though, and I’ve never seen so many of them in one place. I gotta run…






Finally got the rest of our Ural mounted entourage through the gate, apparently the guard noticed something in Russian on the 2nd hack and held up the whole parade… Yup, the cold war is still going strong here in the Everglades, while the War on Drugs has been suspended due to lack of interest. Then a bigger distraction appeared, in the form of big ol’ UPS and FDX trucks at the gate. ‘Bout then our 2nd Ural’s riders noticed a lack of reflection in the spotless front bumper of the UPS Mack, and realized their tail lights were out. Once again, a Ural “undocumented feature” came through in the clinch, and while the guard was dealing with the big trucks, our 2nd Ural quietly rolled through the gate. Turns out their was a bigger drama playing out, with the Postal Service taking advantage of Miami’s 24 hour federal courts to get an order 86ing UPS and FDX from the party, arguing that the new technology (“Drones, the Next Step”) was developed by the military and thus federal intellectual property, and being a fed agency, they got first shot at it. So while the UPS and FDX drivers and guard were figuring out how to back up their doubles rigs from the gate and turn them around, the rest of our Ural contingent was ignored as they dutifully stopped at the gate, got no response, and proceeded down Everglades Boulevard to meet us.

So just what the heck was at the end of Everglades Alley? We cruised for miles on the new concrete, finally turning at the sign for the “Everglades State University Poultry Research Facility”. From a distance it looked like a typical midwest turkey barn, long and low. But the typical slope to allow drainage of you know what was missing, and as we drew closer we found the “barn” as tall as an aircraft hanger. Inside, we wished we’d skipped our late meal, so sumptious was the spread. Eventually a series of increasingly unkept profs from Everglades State took the stage and told their spiel…

The official version is that Everglades State University has long been involved in research involving adapting turkeys to the Everglades tropical climate, remote controls for the remote infrastructure of the Everglades, and brain controlled artificial limbs. Thus was hybridized the “Everglades turkey”, as the bird was given back the ability to fly so it could stay cool in the Everglades tropical climate. Might explain the strangely well behaved wild(?) turkeys I saw the other day, and the lack of deer and other typical Everglades wildlife. OK, so they got a big turkey that can fly… The next prof detailed Everglades University’s VA funded research into thought activated artificial limbs, and how the turkeys and other research animals were used to test them. While he was speaking I googled the turkey research project, and found it was, strangely, funded by DOD rather than USDA.  The next prof detailed Everglades State’s drone research, admitting that they’d hit the wall in drone development, and found themselves copying nature’s own designs because they worked better than their own. 

Then a much snazzier dressed prof took the stage, introduced himself as the president of Everglades State, and droned on… “The synthesis began at a late night grad assistant’s spring break party in Everglades City. Researchers from the poultry, artificial limb, and drone programs were BSing, and then the synergistic moment came”… “Why don’t we use the turkeys to test the artificial limb computers?” By the time the programs’ funding ran out, they had a turkey that could fly for miles and deliver all but the heaviest parcels with the precision of a cruise missile, which probably explains where it’s guidance system came from.

‘Bout then a bunch of Postal Inspectors slipped into the room… Sorry, guys and gals, but you’re not very stealth. In the midst of that distraction, we heard flapping above and the view above was full of… Turkeys. With precision they dropped a letter in each of our laps, and personally addressed at that. The turkeys withdrew, and the Postmaster General took the stage… “This is  the future of the Postal Service!”, he declared. He prattled on…”For centuries we have been saddled with overpaid and prone to retire on pension carriers, now that age is over… Behold, the Eagle Delivery Drone!”

OK, I will concede that the turkey is remotely related to the eagle. The PM prattled onward… “And unlike carriers and their vans, the Eagle Delivery Drone is paid in cheap feed and it’s emissions are totally organic. And when they can’t perform their duties anymore, the packing houses pay us to retire them. As the PM continued his endless oration, we noticed that our chairs reclined, and grab some well deserved sleep… 


And ain’t no night darker than a clear moonless night in the Everglades!

Got an e-mail that the presser had been moved up a bit, so we’re startin’ out early just in case they move the schedule up again. “We” has become a small fleet of Ural ‘hacks, as word got around the greater Everglades Ural social media of our exploits. So well fed and stone cold sober (at our age, we need all the help we can get), we’re heading off on the not so short ride to the far south end of Everglades Boulevard South. Now the direct route would be eastbound on Alligator Alley from Naples and hang a right at the tight exit for Everglades Boulevard, but you’re only allowed to do that if your a VIP like the ready mix truck drivers making continual deliveries to the huge pump station they’re building that’s supposed to flood this chunk of the ‘glades and turn it back into it’s natural swamp self.

So we head north then east, the road narrowing from 6 to 4 and now 2 lanes as the traffic disappears. Stop by the last stop light at the last gas station to top up, unusually busy for this late at night out here. Good thing we’d already eaten, ’cause both the Cuban sandwich shop and the Subway were pretty well cleaned out. Finally we turn south on Everglades Boulevard, past the last streetlight and into the darkness. As the road drops from ten feet above sea level downward, the lights get fewer and fewer. But what’s that noise overhead… Is that a jet? But the drug smugglers usually flew in from the south…

After miles of flatness, the road rises for the overpass over Alligator Alley. We stop for a moment at what is the highest spot for miles, watching the traffic perpendicular to us, the freeway so straight and sea level flat that one can see for miles. Just then we hear the rush of another southbound jet overhead, and not even a moment later the jet emerges from the darkness as they switch on the portable daylight at weedtop level. Now Everglades Boulevard can handle a DC-3, and served as an impromptu airstrip for the abandoned Golden Gate Estates real estate scam in the 60s and later for drug smugglers. But since when did they get equipped for instrument landings?

Not even a mile south of Alligator Alley is a 4 way stop, and Everglades Boulevard from here south to who knows where is closed for construction… Even got a gate and guard just to make sure you don’t sneak around the barricades. We start to take a right as directed by the detour signs, when the guard waves us over to the gate. Show him the invite, he complements us on our “nice BMW”, and he opens the gate with an admonishment to “Y’ll hurry up, gonna have another plane landing in a couple minutes”! But the road is a rough, heavy machinery beaten one. But what’s this ahead…brand new concrete, and wide enough to darn near land an An-225! Seems like there may be a bit more than a swamp restoration project going on here…

Just noticed that the Urals behind us haven’t been through the gate yet… Maybe the current Russian unrest has chilled relations with anything remotely Russian a bit, even a beyond obsolete hack’d BMW clone. So we’ve cut the lights and ducked down one of the hundreds of side roads in this abandoned development…

Choosing between the several april 1st PR invites I’ve been gifted with was easy- theres a blizzard in the Dakotas and the Everglades State University, UPS, FDX, and USPS pressers are all in the same Everglades “neighborhood”, looks to be at the far south end of Everglades Boulevard South, around the 128xx block. Last time I was down that way Everglades Boulevard was closed just south of Alligator Alley, even had a gate and guard at the detour sign. Normally I’d be a bit suspect, but I checked out Everglades State and they’re a genuine university, with research specialties in drones, poultry, and VA funded research into brain/artifical limb interfaces. And if that presser bombs, there’s three more within shotgun range… What’s not to like?

Gotta run now and get a nap, the pressers are in the early am, suppose they want some sunrise in the swamp visuals. I found a couple Ural riders up for the adventure, so I should be able to live blog from the hack… See you from the Everglades in a few hours!



ImageI’ll confess- I didn’t even attend. Heck, the North Florida Airheads Tech Days next weekend sounds like a more enjoyable stopover on my migration north, and there’s a blizzard watch out for my place in Minnesota monday night, so no rush to get home. And the pictured Walmart greenwashing PR exercise not so cleverly disguised as a truck? ‘Twas at Louisville, and just from the PR it’s clearly fluff. Fluff, as in being powered by a gas turbine driving a generator and charging batteries that power this fluff, series hybrid style. And remember the gas turbine cars and trucks, that were abandoned back in the 70s because they were such gas hogs? In other words, a supersized Prius with the most inefficient engine possible. But heck, Walmart got to look kool…

Otherwise, there was little new… IIRC, not a single new model introduction. Navistar reminded us they’re still alive if not kicking, Volvo and their Mack brand showed the same old stuff with some new PR pitches (free tattoos of the new Mack logo, no waiting!), Daimler announced adding Western Star production at an east coast plant, and Paccar showed off the DAF cabovers wearing KW and Peterbuilt badges that replace the 80s “truck of the year” Leyland T45. Even the powertrain and trailer suppliers didn’t have much new, just a few revised axles and such.

But in a heavy truck industry that’s depleted to four manufacturers with seven brands, there’s no need to develop much new in this near monopoly. Especially when the North American market is almost the last refuge of the conventional cab truck, the rest of the world preferring cabovers. In fact, there are only five manufacturers of conventional cab heavy trucks left, and a couple of them are just pasting a hood on their world market cabover to muddle through the ‘merican market. And while Mack loyalists lament Mack’s morphing into a Volvo with a bulldog hood ornament, with Mack sales being but a tenth of Volvo’s total, it’s hard to keep the old dog alive. Two thirds of the worlds heavy trucks are sold in Asia today, and those are all cabover markets… Mack’s opportunity there was a couple decades ago, and they missed it.

And it’s a shrinking little conventional cab market we have here in North America too. Time was when trucking companies ran trucks 24 hours a day, putting 750,000 miles on in 5 years and trading for new. With the railroads taking over the long hauls, it takes twice as long to put on that many miles so they buy half as many new trucks. Even the industry’s most reliable customers in the “vocational” markets like utilities and such are less reliable buyers, as a lot of them have taken a hard look at what there trucks really need to carry and downsized to smaller trucks from Ford, Fiat/Ram, and even GM. So no surprise that while U.S. big truck sales used to run around 300,000 a year, they’ll be lucky to top 200,000 a year these days. 200,000 vehicles a year is about what the car/light truck manufacturers demand to justify a single model, and the big truck building biz here splits that volume among 4 manufacturers and a bakers dozen or so models… So no surprise we’re not seeing a lot of new models!

Enough lament… Looks like I’m suddenly popular with the PR departments and I’ve got a bunch of invites to April 1st new product announcements. Let’s see… UPS, Chicago-Milwaukee Corporation, Electric Boat Company, Walmart, Harley, Twin City Lines, and the Everglades State University Experimental Farm?

Was playing on the other day to see how bad Florida rates are. They ain’t bad at all… punched in my $20k a year income and found several plans for less than $100 a month. So y’ll got no excuse not to get health care insurance in case stupid happens… As it always will!

Still uncomfirmed, but sounds like US DOT ain’t gonna fund the fought over passenger rail line I just wrote about. Of 15 applicants, this was one of two not funded. This probably sets back the project at least a year until the next round of funding.

Ahh, railroad buildin’ was so much easier in the “good ol’ days”… The Empire Builder looked at the profit potential of various routes, picked some cities or places that weren’t even cities yet to connect, and turned loose the surveyors and builders. A year or two later we had a railroad, and if your town got bypassed, you just moved your town to where the railroad went. Really. How times have changed… We’re in the umpteenth year of the Minneapolis area light rail project known as the Southwest Light Rail Line, cleverly disguised as a continuing soap opera. Here’s a map:


Yea, I know, this should be simple.

First, a backgrounder: Most of the route, from Shady Oak Station to downtown, follows the right of way of an old Minneapolis & St.Louis rail line that was abandoned three decades ago. Thinking ahead, Hennepin County bought the right of way and laid down a bike trail as a temporary use while they sought funding to build a light rail line. Then MNDot cut off Twin Cities & Western’s connection to most of the rest of the railroad world when they upgraded MN 55 to near freeway status a few miles east, so a bit over a mile of track was reinstalled in the right of way as a temporary measure between where West Lake Station will go and the BNSF line near planned Penn Station. In the meantime, a bunch of pricy townhouses and such sprouted along those reinstalled tracks.

Come the 21st century and prospects for funding improved, so planning began. After months of public hearings and such where everyone and their brother was given opportunity to offer their opinion, the planners and engineers looked at all the options and picked the best, which you see on the map above. As expected, it’s a compromise, that tries to deliver the most good transit to the most people. And some folks went away mad, especially some residents of a southwest Minneapolis upmarket neighborhood referred to a “Yuptown.” They demanded that the tracks and trains go right through their neighborhood, but the engineers said building through that populated and congested ‘hood was a financial deal breaker.

So it’s been over 3 years since the route was finalized, and they oughta be layin’ tracks and buyin’ trains by now. But seems like every group involved- the several cities, even Twin Cities & Western’s joke of a railroad, has veto power. So St.Louis Park, where the TC&W trains were going to be rerouted to by installing a couple short simple connecting tracks, has vetoed that. Seeing a free upgrade to their dilapidated tracks, TC&W has demanded a fancy flyover that will allow their trains to take those turnouts to BNSF at speeds their aged (Cat repowered GP20s) locomotives could only dream of. The Metropolitan Council, lead agency on the line, then considered letting TC&W stay on their temporary connection for another century or so… But the right of way is kind of narrow there, and a freight track, two light rail paths, and the aforementioned bike trail will never fit between the aforementioned pricy townhouses. So the ever politically astute Met Council suggests putting the light rail tracks through a tunnel, with the bike trail and TC&W tracks atop, at an increased cost of a mere hundred million or so. Problem is, the trackbed don’t look to be even ten feet above two neighboring lakes, and the floor of a tunnel tall enough to fit light rail will be at least twenty feet down. Minneapolis, already smarting from a built below lake level building basement that was dumping millions of gallons of water from it’s leaking basement into one of those lakes, seems ready to veto that. And remember those bicyclists? Shoulda never built them a trail… Despite parallel parklands with plenty of places to reroute, the cyclists refuse to give up their not all that scenic trail. And the Uptown yuppies? They’re using these multiple disputes to try to reroute the tracks back through their ‘hood, if not derail the whole project. Greedy they be, too… They’re slated to get streetcar lines down the same 29th Street and Nicollet Avenue routes they wanted light rail on!

Now a few parties have tried to lend some sanity to this madness- For example, the United Transportation Union proposed an alternate route that would have satisfied TC&W’s objections, but of course, TC&W objected to that… Maybe if we promised to reinstall the signalling system they ripped out, turning their tracks into “dark territory”, too? I and a few other local writers have suggested that TC&W use the light rail tracks at night when Light Rail don’t run, but I imagine the Met Council don’t want to share tracks with those dirty freight trains, and TC&W don’t wanna associate with “nonsense” like Light Rail.

So with what seems like a half dozen parties ready with their veto stamps, seems like Southwest Light Rail ain’t goin’ nowhere. James J. Hill, you wanna come down and get our railroad built? 




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