MTA Genius Transit Challenge logoThe winners are announced and the reviews are in for the MTA Genius Transit Challenge, a state-funded prize intended to spur innovation in the increasingly troubled NYC subways. Even at the time of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s initial announcement, the prize was mocked as trite symbolism not especially relevant to the system’s short-term needs. Once the winners were known, the judgment of non-government experts like Alon Levy and Benjamin Kabak was little kinder. I have no reason to quarrel with the judgment of the Internet’s top transit commentators, and yet I feel that the Governor’s initiative still contains the kernel of an idea worth pursuing as an economic-development initiative, if not the most-direct path to improvement of subway operations.

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Word came recently, via one of those catch-up obituaries in The New York Times, of the passing of Bob Allen, who had been the chairman and CEO of AT&T during a time of merciless transition in the telecom industry during the 1980s and 1990s.

I have a reminiscence to offer, not as a criticism of Allen, who by all accounts was a decent man and strove mightily to reinvent AT&T in the wake of the forced 1984 divestiture of the regional operating companies, but to underline an example of “innovator’s dilemma” with which I had direct experience.

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A 220 mph High Speed Rail Preliminary Feasibility Study — prepared for the State of llinllinois Department of Transportation by the University of Illinois in collaboration with three private-sector engineering firms — cites in its introduction Gov. Quinn’s “vision to more closely connect the University of Illinois to Chicago” as the animating idea behind an interest in the southbound O’Hare-Chicago-Champaign1 route as a priority for further study, evaluation, and development.

Whether this idea is a serious stab at improving university/industry linkages to a fairly remote campus or only a political stunt is hard to tell. I can find no further reference to the matter in Gov. Quinn’s public speeches or on the website of the University of Illinois system trustees. Regardless, it was a deliberate choice: Gov. Quinn already backs a well advanced project to serve Chicago-to-St. Louis with 110 mph service via Springfield, and there are several other credible possibilities in the envisioned Midwest High Speed Rail network, such as Chicago-to-Minneapolis.

But the idea of connecting the state’s principal city to the state’s own flagship research university at true high-speed (which is to say >155 mph, by all standards except those prevailing in the U.S.) apparently held enough appeal to warrant separate study. Under the vision for operation at maximum speed of 220 mph, rail travel time from Chicago to Champaign would drop from 2:10 on Amtrak currently to just 45 minutes via HSR.

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  1. and thence onward to either St. Louis or Indianapolis []