Monday, August 31, 2009

Be wary of the moose

Teton County, Wyoming officials are fighting one of the oldest battles in transportation. They don't want the state to widen a stretch of Highway 89/191 because they fear it will result in more vehicle collisions with wildlife.

Elk range in the area during the winter. The highway is not far from the Grand Teton National Park and is south of Yellowstone National Park, some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

I recall seeing a majestic moose in the Uinta Mountains, south of the Tetons, and it amazed me how big this creature was. His shoulders were easily higher than the top of my car and he must have sensed I was no threat because he glanced at me and then sauntered slowly into the brush.

I took my children snowmobiling in nearby Idaho and we took a drive to Grand Teton National Park where the children experimented with snowboarding and tubing.

We visited the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole where 5,000 elk winter. You can take a wagon ride through the elk herd and see these majestic animals up close and personal. My son even got to handle the reins for a while, an unusal experience for a Florida boy.

So whether it's black bears in Florida or elk in Wyoming, the ever expanding human population will continue to encroach on the natural environment and the habitat of animals who have been here for centuries.

There is no easy answer. Highway improvements save lives and boost the economy. Federal requirements mandate that impacts to natural resources be mitigated. However, the end result is often a compromise falling somewhere between what we should do and what we are required to do.

When all is said and done I hope we can preserve the majesty of those creatures and the habitat they occupy.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Public input and other dangers

I watched with interest in recent weeks when politicians held public hearings or workshops regarding the health care legislation which is being bandied about in Washington.

Some of the politicians, including the President, seemed genuinely surprised that people were vocally opposed to their plan and were more than willing to be rude and belligerent in voicing those opinions.

I recalled my days in Miami when I was moderating public meetings for the Florida Department of Transportation.

I quickly learned a few things: people who come out to public meetings usually do so because they are against the project and want to tell someone about it. Second, the pent up frustration with government in general is often manifest when the average citizen actually finds him or herself in front of a real life government official.

That government official, even if he is from the White House, represents all the agencies and government programs that have intruded into his life.

While moderating meetings in Miami I faced open hostility and what appeared to be deep-rooted disdain. I didn't take it personally. I would listen attentively and then thank the person for their input.

I think my lack of reaction to insults and threats made them even more frustrated.

I like what the Chicago Transportation Authority is doing. They installed a series of sidewalk chalkboards and are encouraging people to jot down their suggestions for improving CTA's system and service.

People seem to like the idea of having this chalkboard forum to make their suggestions.

Another thing I learned on the firing line in Miami: most people just want someone to listen to them and treat them with respect. Most realize they may not influence a major government project, but they do want the opportunity to try.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked with the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

If we could all be Norwegian

The United Nations issues an annual report listing the best places in the world to live. Iceland recently topped the rankings, displacing Norway, which held the honor for a number of years. Norway slipped to second.

The U.S., by the way, was down at 12th.

I visited the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Bergen many years ago on a post high school trip sponsored by the Reader's Digest Foreign Study League. For six weeks, our brave band of high-schoolers from Bell Gardens, California toured Europe, with stops in Madrid, London, Paris, Bergen, Oslo, Stockholm and Berlin.

What struck me about Oslo and Bergen was the lack of automobiles on the road. My research tells me that even today, many years later, Norwegian governments impose a 25 percent Value Added Tax to automobile purchases.

I believe the tax was even higher when I toured as a young man, keeping the number of vehicles to minimum.

The UN study looks at education, average earnings and other social measurements to determine what constitutes the best places to live. But from personal experience, there is something to be said for living in a place where vehicle ownership is discouraged.

I say that as one who was born and raised in Los Angeles, the automobile-loving city of the ever-present freeway. Cars rule in L.A. and alternate forms of transportation have only recently been given a second thought.

Iceland and Norway may be a bit on the cold side come winter, but traffic is not the problem many of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Clunker moment passes

The federal government's Cash for Clunkers program came to a halt this week after spending $3 billion to stimulate the economy. This comes on top of the other hundreds of billions of dollars that have been poured into banks, automakers, insurance companies and others in an attempt to kick start the U.S. economy.

I am not an economist, but even those who are still don't have a handle on all of this. I see so-called experts on the news shows shrugging their shoulders and saying things like, "we hope this will work."

One thing the economic collapse of 2009 has shown is that experts are woefully short on understanding what happened, what is happening now and what will happen next.

I have to chuckle when one of the interrogator/interviewers gets an administration official on camera and grills them about what will happen next and what impact the latest billion dollar solution will have on the economy.

I hear a lot of theories, a lot of plausible scenarios but no one seems to have a solid answer.

Cash for Clunkers had to be a boon for the auto industry at a time the industry desperately needed a boost. But is it really the role of the federal government to pour tax monies into the private sector?

The auto industry, much like the airline industry, has behaved poorly in recent years. I don't know that it makes much sense to pour money into companies that are going to fail anyway. These government welfare programs only seem to delay the inevitable.

I acknowledge that much like the economists I see on the talk shows, I don't really understand what has happened, what is happening or what will happen next.

I can just shrug my shoulders and say, "I hope what they are doing will work."

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Discriminating Minds

I read with interest reports out of Idaho about the case of Pamela Lowe, the fired director of the Idaho Department of Transportation.

Lowe is seeking damages from the state, alleging improper termination and gender discrimination.

One of Lowe's complaints says that one board member stated, “no little girl would be able to run this department.”

The big issue, however, is that Lowe claims she was fired because she would not give in to pressure from political appointees to not cut contracts to certain campaign donors.

One report said that Lowe was terminated not because of her work at the agency, but because of her politics.

From an outsider's perspective, it appears that Lowe lost her job for two reasons. She refused to play ball with the politicos who wanted to make sure major campaign donors were encouraged to keep writing those checks.

Secondly, there were members of the board that governs Idaho DOT who were uncomfortable with a woman at the head of the agency.

Both of these reasons, of course, are bogus. It has become commonplace to find corruption in government. The headlines have become so common that we hardly notice. I was amazed at a recent scandal in New Jersey that even involved rabbis.

Now comes Pamela Lowe who loses her job at Idaho DOT not because of her job performance, but because she has the integrity to tell political appointees she will not cater to campaign donors.

The Idaho power elite should be ashamed. But they are not. I have been around this game long enough to know that people in power often have their own ethical standards and many hold on to discriminatory practices thought long abandoned.

Though it was, I believe, a secondary element in her firing, the fact that Pamela Lowe is a female should not have had one iota to do with how she was evaluated as a leader.

Discrimination against women and minorities is a stain on our culture. We would like to think we have moved past these archaic mentalities but the reality is we have not.

Discrimination is an ugly thing and whenever it rears its head, even in places like Idaho, more enlightened people should stand up and tell the power elite that it will not stand.

I do not expect to see it happen.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The love life of frogs

Traffic, and its associated by-products, have been blamed for many things: lack of productivity, diminished quality of life, stress levels and the fouling of the air we breathe.

However, a recent report out of Australia cites traffic for yet another offense: ruining the sex lives of frogs.

Apparently, male frogs court their potential mates with a hearty croak. The strength of a frog's croak gives his potential mates an indication of his vigor and worthiness as a companion. So, increased traffic noise is making it harder for the female frogs to hear the courting croak.

As a result of the audio interference, frog populations are down. The Australian researcher found that low-pitched croakers are at a disadvantage because they are directly competing with the sound of traffic and air conditioners.

The southern brown tree frog has adapted, raising its pitch to increase the croak coverage area.

A University of Sheffield ecologist said the research is plausible and could be evidence that urban habitats are affecting the behavior of animals. The ecologist cited studies that some birds have changed to night singing because their habitats had become too noisy during the day.

Perhaps traffic planners should consider noise walls for frogs. Patterned after the ones built to protect human neighborhoods from the sound of traffic, noise walls for frogs could be built much lower to the ground. And instead of the images of animals and plants used on the human versions, the frog noise walls could have little images of humans on them.

Somewhere on a pond, Kermit would be smiling.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dangerous distractions

Up front, let me acknowledge that I come from a different generation than those who follow each other with the various forms of social media that have emerged in recent years.

I don't Facebook, MySpace or Twitter, believing that some modicum of privacy should exist in one's life.

However, I realize that the rising generation is wired to the hilt and is enamored with technology that allows us to be active participants in each other's lives. I just think, as with many things, we are a culture of excess.

Take the fact that 14 states have outlawed texting while driving. Critics of the laws say that existing laws cover someone using their cell phone while driving and new legislation is not required.

A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found truck drivers were 23.2 times more likely to have an accident or near-accident when sending text messages on the road.

According to the study, text messaging had the longest duration of eyes off the road (4.6 seconds over a six-second interval). That equates to a driver traveling the length of a football field at 55 mph without looking at the roadway.

Experts will tell you that even talking on a cell phone is a dangerous enterprise and many cities, counties and states have outlawed the practice.

Last time I looked, text messaging requires one to operate a tiny keyboard. How can anyone accomplish that while driving? I have witnessed women applying makeup, people reading the newspaper, food and drink consumption and even some romantic behavior while driving our nation's highways.

But sending a text? What message could possibly be important enough to send while driving?

Our technology now allows us to surf the web on our mobile devices and stay in constant communication with those around us.

Now if only our common sense could keep pace with our technology.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The domino effect

News that Virginia is delaying a major HOT Lanes project in the Washington D.C. market is a further sign that the financial collapse that has crippled the housing, banking and automotive industries is having an effect on the transportation industry.

Not only are state governments cutting budgets and people, major investment groups are rethinking sinking billions of dollars into projects.

The Virginia HOT Lanes project is a Public Private Partnership, or P3, which many in the industry have seen as a savior for the underfunded. Under a P3, private investment groups, many from outside the U.S., have ponied up construction dollars when local, state and federal funding could not be found.

A new toll project would be built now, when the need exists, and the private sector investors would get a return on their money over time. John Beck, an expert on P3s, says the private investors have been willing to stretch the timeline and wait for the return on their investments for 30, 40 and even 75 years in some cases.

Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine and Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer made the announcement to delay the project but I have to wonder that the private consortium funding and building the project, Fluor-Transurban, was the partner raising the red flag.

Under the P3, it is Fluor-Transurban that is taking the investment risk and has to maneuver the bond markets.

If the current financial market continues to scare off investors the transportation infrastructure dilemma we face in the U.S. will only worsen. P3s have been seen as a viable alternative to state and federal funding and if they diminish many critical projects will be shelved.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

History and the Brickell Bridge

In the utter chaos that frequently occurs in downtown Miami, adventurous travelers can find a gem on U.S. 1 as it passes over the Miami River. The Brickell Avenue Bridge features original sculpture work by Cuban-American artist Manuel Carbonell.

Carbonell's artwork features a tower in bas-relief and panels along the sides of the bridge that commemorate the Tequesta Indians, who first settled along the banks of the Miami River and were discovered by European settlers in the 1500s. By the 1800s, the Tequesta had dwindled to only a few members.

The centerpiece of Carbonell's series of sculptures is the Warrior, Mother and Child that sits atop the tower. Included in the tower itself are depictions of native flora and fauna, wildlife and other images that depict the history of the first known settlement in the area.

In addition to the natural wonders of the Miami River, the artist also paid tribute to some of Florida's most influential pioneers, including railroad man Henry Flagler, citrus grower Julia Tuttle and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas, defender of the Florida Everglades.

I had the honor of meeting the artist when the project was being developed and visiting him in Pietrasanta, Italy when the casting of the pieces took place. Carbonell went to Pietrasanta because the craftsmen in that tiny coastal town are considered to be the finest in the world.

Not too far from Pietrasanta is the town of Carrara, where some of the finest marble is quarried. Michelangelo's David was carved from Carrara marble.

I have a great memory of watching this artwork come to life. I remember the heat in the smelting room where the bronze figures were cast. I remember talking to the artist as he explained his vision of the project: the tower rising to the sky and the images he would create, honoring the past and a tribe of Indians now long forgotten.

Should you find yourself in downtown Miami with a few minutes to spare, find someplace to park and walk up to the bridge. It will be a rewarding journey into the past.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Stranded on the tarmac

Last week's stranding of 47 passengers on a Continental flight rerouted to Rochester, Minnesota was another in a long list of critical errors by the airline industry in mistreating passengers.

The flight arrived in Rochester at about midnight and the passengers were kept on the small plane for six hours, having to deal with the discomfort of limited lavatories, no food and the up close and personal hygiene experience with fellow passengers.

Strandings of passengers on airplanes is becoming more common. According to the airlines, 855 domestic flights were delayed on the tarmac at least three hours between October 2008 and June of 2009.

New York legislators passed legislation giving passengers some protection but a U.S. appeals court struck down that law, ruling that state could not legislate airlines.

Current legislation in Congress would address passenger rights but lawmakers are skittish about including a time limit.

Existing federal law gives the pilots and the airlines authority to make the call on taking a plane back to the terminal. In the Rochester case, airline officials said gate crews were not available to deplane the passengers.

Having recently flown from the East Coast to Los Angeles, St. Louis and Salt Lake, I can tell you that airline travel is no fun. Fewer flights means cramped cabins, limited refreshment choices and frequent delays. That comes on top of being hit with fees for checking your bags. Of course you can avoid those charges by cramming your carry-on bags into the crowded overhead bins.

Throw in the joy of security lines and the flying experience has become tedious and exhausting.

I can only imagine what a tarmac delay in excess of three hours would add to the overall experience.

There was a time when air travel was a refreshing experience. Passengers felt somewhat pampered and treated special.

Now the only way to get that feeling is to book first class and pay exorbitant fares for the star treatment.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can Florida fast trains get back up to speed?

High speed trains have the same effect on most of us that high-end sports cars do -- we envy those who have them and want one for our own.

Over the past decade I have been involved in two efforts to bring high speed rail to Florida: the Florida Overland Express (FOX) project and the Global Rail Consortium (GRC) bid to become the state's HSR operator.

FOX came the closest to reality. Sen. Bob Graham obtained $4B in federal money only to see the project quashed when Jeb Bush took office.

Florida has seen a constitutional amendment in favor of HSR passed and then rescinded by the voters.

Now comes the checkbook-toting Obama administration with an $8B war chest and plans to kick start high speed rail in the U.S.. Florida requested $2.53B to build an Orlando to Tampa link. The feds will announce the winners in October.

When all the dust settles it will come down to an old familiar theme -- political will. Will the Florida Legislature commit to funding high speed rail when the state, like most others, is facing a financial crisis?

During the FOX and GRC efforts I got into the numbers. Independent international experts in ridership forecasting confirmed that there would be enough riders to make the system a good investment for the state in the long term. After so many years, the state would own the rail line and the private sector would try to recoup its investment from ridership and real estate investments at the stations. At least that was the scenario.

Real estate investments at the stations might have been dicey given today's real estate market. However, I am convinced the ridership would have been there. Traveling between Miami, Orlando and Tampa isn't getting any easier.

European and Asian markets have proved the viability of high speed rail for the short hops with airlines concentrating on the longer hauls.

Ultimately, that's been the downfall for high speed rail. Trips between Miami, Orlando and Tampa are a lucrative market for some airlines and they have spent money in Tallahassee and Washington to keep HSR from ever happening.

Hopefully, the current stimulus money will help HSR get on track. Florida needs every bit of transportation infrastructure it can muster.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Our electric future

Recent reports by General Motors and Nissan about their electric vehicles, Volt and Leaf, underscore the urgency required by U.S. governments to prepare for an alternative transportation funding system.

Existing fuel tax collections, in excess of $100 billion per year, provide an estimated 60 percent of the revenue for highways with registration fees, truck taxes and tolls providing the rest.

In 2006, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) issued a report on alternative transportation funding and estimated we have a 15-year window for the existing system to remain viable. After that, emerging technologies, reduced fuel consumption and new energy or environmental regulations could upset the apple cart.

Tolling, according to TRB, will play a major role in funding future highway projects. However, all roads will not be toll roads.

The most promising scenario offered by the TRB committee is the idea of mileage-based fees. Under this scenario, all vehicles would be assessed a user fee based on mileage and what roads used.

A mileage based system could be used to fund all highways, not just expressways. Technology developed for electronic toll collection could be adapted for a more general application.

Such a paradigm shift would require a national effort coordinated with local, state and federal agencies. That fact alone makes the 15-year window look challenging at best.

Perhaps the perfect storm for such a change is upon us. Existing highway funding systems are failing. Transportation agencies are cutting work programs, services and people. Auto makers, those left standing, are restructuring how they will do business in the future. Governments at all levels are rethinking how they will fund anything in the future.

General Motors and Nissan, and all the others, are ready. Those hundreds of miles to an amp vehicles are coming. Will the governments charged with providing highway infrastructure in this new electric world be ready?

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Florida Again

In early 2008, I left Florida after 24 years in the state to re-start my career in transportation public relations. My consulting firm, DFA Communications, was feeling the effects of the downturn in the economy and I decided I would leave the consulting world and get back into government work.

I was hired by the Virginia Department of Transportation as one of two assistant directors of public affairs. Unfortunately, the downturn in the economy followed me to Virginia and in less than a year I was part of the first wave of job cuts that are still underway.

After trying for several months to find new work in Virginia, I decided to come back home to Florida and re-start the process. Back in 2003 I launched Florida Transportation Monthly magazine which continues today as Florida Transportation Magazine under new ownership.

The slow death of newspapers in the United States and the strong presence of the Internet helped me decide to go electronic this time around.

This blog, starting today, August 12, 2009, will be devoted to the transportation industry. I plan to write about trends and projects, people and all of the aspects of the transportation industry.

Much like Florida Transportation Monthly, I intend this blog to be somewhere transportation professionals will turn to read about things that are happening in their industry. Transportation is such a high-profile, quality of life topic that often gets overlooked by the more traditional media. Though I have to admit I'm not sure what media can be considered traditional any more?

I hope this daily journey will be of interest to readers. Time will tell.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation.