David Rodeback's Blog

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Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

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Saturday, February 21, 2009
FrontRunner: My First Ride

I'm riding FrontRunner today as a surrogate VIP, blogging occasionally along the way. There are also a couple of notes here about American Fork Mayor Heber Thompson's State of the City address, and a link to it at afcity.org, so you don't have to search for it.

10:21 AM

I'm blogging from the upper deck of a double-decker UTA Frontrunner train, which is about to depart Salt Lake Central for parts north. I'm a surrogate MFCC today, traveling with a number of American Fork City officials and others on a public relations junket hosted by UTA. The purpose is to acquaint local Utah county governments with the system, as it begins to move into Utah County. We had a pleasant, comfortable ride on a UTA express bus from American Fork's City Hall to Salt Lake City's intermodal hub, where one can board -- or transfer between -- FrontRunner, Greyhound, Amtrak, Trax, and UTA buses.

The onboard wifi is working nicely for both my laptop and my iPod Touch, and I've already done some actual work, with my laptop sitting on the narrow table in front of my seat. About half the seats are so equipped.

10:27 AM

We're leaving the station. They've already passed out bottled water and granola bars, explaining that this is not just VIP treatment; they also do this anytime the train is delayed more than about ten minutes.

The cars are comfortable and clean, and when the engineer tells us the next stop, the audio is quite clear. The day is nearly perfect for February: sunny, blue sky, mostly-white mountains, relatively warm, and only the slightest hint of the familiar civilizational brown tint in the air. I've ridden the Long Island Railway a few times, since my preferred airport for flying to Manhattan is Islip on Long Island. From there, it's a quick shuttle ride and a comfortable train ride into Penn Station. It costs about one-fourth as much as a cab from LaGuardia, and it's almost as fast.

Uh, back to Utah. Now they're passing out mints. Each train has a "host" who walks the cars helping people and -- sometimes -- passing out treats.

One of the first things to notice is the smooth, quiet ride, even at full speed, which is 79 mph. There's not the usual clackety-clack of trains, because the rail is continuous (an engineering story for another time, perhaps).

I'll sign off for a minute and post this.

10:48 AM

Inbound to Farmington we stopped briefly on a siding to let a southbound train pass at 79 mph, and we're back underway now. UTA has right-of-way for two tracks, but initially built and is using a single track for now, until demand requires and budgets allow a second track.

There's a sense in the western United States, especially, that traveling by car is the preferred way for free people (i.e. real Americans), and public transit is some kind of an unwelcome intrusion. Maybe it's all the time I spent in the East, but I don't share that attitude. I like public transit -- at least when it's well executed. I'm delighted to go to Chicago, New York, Washington, or Boston and be able to get around easily and inexpensively without renting a car.

Some folks complain about the cost of public transit, because in most cases government heavily subsidizes it with tax revenues, as is the case with UTA. What these folks forget is that government also spends an enormous amount money subsidizing . . . wait for it . . . car travel. It does so in several ways, including building and maintaining roads and bridges, signals, and parking.

12:06 PM

We're on regularly-scheduled trains today, escorted by a few UTA folks, who are veritable fountains of public transit knowledge and enthusiam. We got off at the Farmington station and talked with officials from Farmington, then boarded the next northbound train an hour later.

Lagoon -- an amusement park in Farmington, if you're new -- runs a shuttle between the park and the Farmington station, timed to minimize waiting for inbound and outbound passengers.

Right now, a UTA official a few seats away is pointing out the back yards of some residences along the track, noting that some folks obviously never expected their back yards to be viewed by the general public.

There have been some questions and answers about train noise affecting adjacent neighborhoods. The FrontRunner trains are much quieter than the Union Pacific trains which already run on adjacent tracks, so the noise level along the tracks will not change much. By the way, Union Pacific runs 35-40 trains through the corridor we're traveling in at the moment. In Utah County the number is about half that.

For those who wonder about such things, I note that one car in each train has a clean and spacious restroom.

12:22 PM

We're just pulling into Ogden. My traveling companion is the boy formerly known as Vito, my ten-year-old, Italian communist son. He is enjoying the ride and the fact that I'm letting him use the onboard wifi to play on my iPod Touch. We're getting off long enough to grab box lunches UTA has brought in from Apple Spice Junction. We're taking the same train back to Salt Lake City in about 45 minutes, so Vito wants to eat on the train.

12:52 PM

Thumbs up on the Apple Spice Junction lunches, from an excellent sandwich to an essentially perfect chocolate chip cookie. The day is still gorgeous, too.

Shall we talk American Fork politics for a moment?

Mayor Thompson gave his (first) annual State of the City address the other evening at a City Council meeting. I didn't know in advance that he was doing it, or I might have gone to hear it. It's a good idea; I've been hoping he would adopt the practice, as mayors in some other nearby communities have done. I heard that the speech will be posted at the City's Web site -- which is newly redesigned; you should take a peak -- but I haven't found it there yet. So all I have is word-of-mouth and this article in the very last edition of the American Fork Citizen (which after Thursday has officially disappeared into the Daily Herald).

Uh, check that. I just found the speech in PDF format at the City site. It wasn't easy to find, but it's there. I'll read it now . . .

1:11 PM

The train quite literally is leaving the station, and we are en route from Ogden to Salt Lake City. I'm still reading Mayor Thompson's State of the City speech.

One point in the speech puzzles me: He says that in order to cultivate a reputation as a business-friendly city, we need to update our impact fees. Here's the thing: A major reason for complaints about our impact fees is that they have been updated more recently than neighboring cities' fees, to reflect the current costs of extending infrastructure. This makes them higher than their counterpart fees in some other municipalities, which have not updated their fees recently -- and where, therefore, to the extent that fees are inadequate, the taxpayers are subsidizing development. Developers might like that, but taxpayers in those cities wouldn't much like it if they knew.

1:20 PM

We're sitting at the Roy station for about a minute. There are two shovels stuck in the ground here; they are between eight and ten feet tall. The official explanation (sorry, no picture) is that they are art, but there is some speculation among passengers that they were left behind by giants who helped build the station. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, in politics, the bigger your shovel is, the better.

Back to the speech. (Oops. The speech and the shovel are an unfortunate juxtaposition, aren't they? I didn't intend the shovels to be a comment on the speech.)

1:32 PM

If you read the speech, be sure to look at the attachments, too, including a summary of American Fork City's fiscal picture.

Overall, it's not a masterpiece of beautiful writing, but it's quite readable. It's also well worth reading, if you live or work in American Fork and wonder what the Mayor is thinking.

By this time next year, either we'll have a new mayor, or Mayor Thompson will be in the first months of a second term. Either way, I suggest the following for next year's speech: Publicize it. Make it an event. Find an auditorium with more seats than the City Council chamber, and make an opportunity for an hour or so after the speech -- some sort of  reception -- for City residents to mingle with the Mayor and City Council. Put streaming audio and video of the speech on the Web site.

Meanwhile, it would help to make the text of this year's speech easier to find at the Web site -- perhaps a link from the Mayor's page, or even on the home page.

1:45 PM

I work with some people who live in Clearfield and Ogden and work in downtown Salt Lake City. They used to commute to and from work by car, which was even less fun then than it is now that the Legacy Highway has taken about 30 percent of I-15 traffic at peak hours. They are now devoted riders of FrontRunner.

By the way, today's round trip, had we bought tickets, would cost $10.00. UTA is lowering some fares in April, due to decreased fuel costs, but I don't know whether FrontRunner fares are included.

We'll be back in Salt Lake City shortly, so I'd better post this. I'll be back later today with some further notes.

2:45 PM

The wifi on the express bus back to American Fork -- this is a special run, unlike the train -- is working very well. Unfortunately, I'm within a couple of minutes of running out of battery power on my laptop. Such is life.

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