National News

A day after crash, a vote to cut Amtrak funding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

Ride an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., to New York, and you’ll notice a lot of clickety clacking.  It’s not a smooth ride. In fact, Amtrak says it has a $52 billion maintenance backlog on its Northeast Corridor.

But Congress won't help much with that.

“There was a lot of hand wringing, where they said, 'We all know this is inadequate, but there’s nothing much we can do,' ” says Sean Jeans-Gail, a spokesman for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, who attended the House Appropriations Committee hearing on Amtrak funding today. The committee members said their hands were tied by spending caps.

So, is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor safe?

“I would characterize it as safe," says Joseph Sussman, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT.  “But there’s also the question of what quality of service is offered.”

For instance, trains are late if they have to slow down to go over rough track. Sussman would like to see not just track maintenance, but more sections of track good enough for high-speed rail.  If you wanted to run high-speed trains along the whole Northeast Corridor, you’d have to spend billions.

“You’d need to invest in it from one end to the other," says Mark Burton, a professor of transportation and economics at the University of Tennessee. "There would almost certainly be no section of track that was unaffected. ”

The entire proposed 2016 budget for Amtrak in today’s House bill?  Just over $1 billion, which is $262 million less than this year.



California drought threatens even oldest water rights

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

California's first come, first served, water-rights system is about to be tested.

State water regulators are expected to issue curtailment orders to the most privileged water users in California – those with so-called senior water rights, claimed before the state established a permitting process in 1914. 

Those lucky enough to be grandfathered in, including corporations, farms and irrigation districts, usually don’t have much to worry about when it comes to water. They’ve been last in line for cuts in dry years, but the drought is starting to chip away at those historic privileges, says Stanford Law School’s Barton “Buzz” Thompson.

“California’s drought has now gone on for a long enough period of time, and it’s bad enough, that it looks like we might actually shut off our senior water rights holders," Thompson says.

Some rural irrigation districts with senior rights may sue over the expected water cutbacks. Jeanne Zolezzi, a Stockton attorney who represents several irrigation districts with senior water rights, says she doesn’t believe the State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to shut them off. If regulators demand a curtailment, she insists, they need to hold a hearing and provide evidence of harm rather than simply issuing an order. 


Most Amtrak long-distance routes are unprofitable

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

It's still up in the air how long Amtrak's going to be out of business — or, at best, running reduced service on that Northeast Corridor. 

But here's a quick hint as to how important that New York-to-Washington run is for the company: Amtrak made $286 million there last year.

All its other long-distance routes? They lost the railroad service more than $600 million (PDF).

Facebook and the need for speed

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

As we are all well aware, there is a great deal of critical information out on the Internet that we must see.  And we must see it AT ONCE.

Up until now, when hapless users of Facebook’s mobile app come across a link or listicle that strikes their fancy, they have had to endure the debilitating process of clicking on said link and waiting – up to several seconds – for that page to open.  Adding insult to injury, some users have had to resort to exiting the Facebook app and opening the link in a different browser, depriving themselves of precious seconds that could be used to stare endlessly into the eyes of a baby sloth. 

 “You really only have about three seconds for a web page to load fully before a person’s gone,” says Sean Work, director of inbound marketing at KISSMetrics, a firm that tracks customer data online for subscription-based websites like Netflix and Hulu.  “For certain businesses it has a profound effect on their bottom line.”

This is one of the drivers behind the deal that Facebook has struck with nine major publishers, including the New York Times and BuzzFeed.  The deal lets Facebook host and publish content from these publishers on its own servers, and display them quickly – very quickly – within its mobile app. 

In Facebook’s case, if someone gives up on an article or leaves Facebook’s app to view it, Facebook misses out on important data.

The important information for advertisers and for Facebook to produce more clickable content is “How long you spent on the article, did you read half of it and go away from it? Did you watch any of the multimedia or the videos?” says Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst at EMarketer. If that content is hosted on Facebook servers, “it makes it possible for people to stay in that happy little Facebook universe that Facebook has built,” Williamson says.

So ultimately, getting content in front of people faster keeps people in front of Facebook longer.  

My First Job: Wienermobile Driver

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

Some first jobs are exactly what you'd think they'd be: fry-cook at a fast food chain, sales associate somewhere, maybe a telemarketer.

But not all of them.

Natasha Best worked as a "Hot-Dogger," driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile across the Midwest and giving away whistles.

"We would park somewhere, and we would just get inundated; people wanting to see the inside of it," Best says. "But then I would even have people come up to me and ask me for my autograph or ask to take a photo with me.  They just loved it." 

Hear Best's full story, including how difficult the Wienermobile was to drive, in the audio player above.

Despite insurance, some Americans still struggle with medical debt

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-05-13 13:00

At the Yakima County courthouse in Washington, presiding District Court Judge Kevin Roy walks past a rattling dot-matrix printer and long rows of color-coded folders to a shelf of files awaiting his signature.

“If I was to pull this file,” Roy says, taking one from the shelf. “Yep, Memorial Physicians, PLLC. That’s not just by luck.”

Not luck, because most of these files are for medical debt. The Affordable Care Act has expanded coverage to more than 10 million Americans who were previously without health insurance and provided subsidies to millions more. But it hasn’t changed much for those who have fallen behind in paying for healthcare.

Roy spends a big chunk of his workday signing judgments against people who owe money to hospitals and medical providers. “It’s like the tide coming in every week," he says.

Medical debt affects one of every four Americans and accounts for more than half of all bankruptcies.

At age 60, Scott Cliett says he’s in debt for the first time in his life. Chronic pancreatitis has forced him to stop working, and regularly sends him to the emergency room for a week at a time. He now has free health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, but he’s still struggling to pay off old debt. Missing a single $25 installment landed Cliett in court.

“The Judge did allow me to speak, but the fact that I admitted I do owe them money pretty much cut everything else off,” Cliett says, reflecting on his day in court. “‘You know, I’m sympathetic to your plight, but I have to follow the letter of the law. You owe them money, so therefore I’m granting the judgment.’”

Most of Cliett’s bills were forgiven through the hospital’s charity care program. But he’s barely made a dent in the remainder, like a $4,000 ambulance ride.

 “Let’s see, $4,000 divided by twenty five dollars,” he says. “My grandkids will probably still be working on it when I’m gone.”

Overall, gaps in coverage like Cliett’s are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of people with medical debt have insurance the whole time those costs are piling up. But the bills insurance doesn’t cover can be devastating on their own.

That’s one reason Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, who teaches health policy at City University of New York, says health insurance is often a "defective product."

“People buy it in good faith to try and get medical care and make sure their bills are paid, and then when they get an expensive or prolonged illness, the health insurance doesn’t work,” she says.

Woolhandler says Obamacare has definitely helped. She says even with Obamacare, many policies still have high out-of-pocket costs.

Karen Pollitz, who co-authored a recent study on medical debt for the Kaiser Family Foundation, says, “We see a lot of plans, still, that have 2, 3, 4, 5,000, $6,000 deductibles. That’s still way more than most Americans have on hand.”