A Note on the Future of American Transportation

» Objections to the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail initiative are indicative of a broader distaste for any public transportation spending.

The glee expressed by the commentariat — most conservative, though some to the left — over the decaying support for investing in the nation’s intercity rail system has been a telling indication of the degree to which too many Americans are willing to gloss over the demands of this growing country.

Convinced both that it would be too expensive to construct anything we do not already have and that the United States is so hewn to its automobile-oriented, mid-century landscape that it cannot change, this perspective appears to be gaining currency. To ill effect.

Though the conversation being had on the future of American transportation has been framed in terms of high-speed rail, a mode that has captured the minds of some and raised fury in others, the truth is that the ideological

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A Step Ahead for Light Rail in the Twin Cities

Hiawatha Line

» The Central Corridor will connect two downtowns, a rare feat for a rail system in the U.S. Peaking should be less of a problem here.

The Twin Cities pioneered a model for regional decision-making with the formation of the Metropolitan Council in 1967, creating one of the country’s only truly empowered elected regional bodies. Though the group invested in transportation improvements throughout the area, focusing specifically on connecting a network of express buses into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was only in 2004 that the area opened its first light rail corridor, the Hiawatha Line.

Connecting central Minneapolis with the airport and the Mall of America in a suburb to the south, that project proved to be far more popular with riders than originally expected, with more people using it on a daily basis just two years after opening than had been predicted for 2020.

Yet the real challenge for the

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Austin Contemplates Urban Rail, but Skepticism is in the Air

Downtown Austin

» A year after the opening of a commuter rail line to the city’s northern suburbs, Austin dedicates funding to planning a light rail line that focuses on the inner city.

In 2000, Austin came within 2,000 votes of approving a $2 billion, 52-mile light rail system that would have run through the city and its suburbs along east-west and north-south corridors. The first stage, estimates suggested, would attract more than 30,000 daily riders and serve the city’s most prominent destinations, including downtown and the University of Texas.

The failure of that referendum, however, forced those plans to be abandoned. Local transit proponents replaced it with the much less ambitious 32-mile Capital MetroRail, which opened in 2010 for a cost of about $100 million. Like many similar commuter rail lines built over the past few years, MetroRail’s limited frequencies and poor downtown connectivity have limited ridership to less than

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The Failure of Regionalism

Salt Lake Rail

» Suburban-oriented commuter rail projects may be cheap to construct, but they usually have limited effects on metropolitan travel.

The construction of new commuter rail lines in the United States has been a peculiar trend in an age of job sprawl and changing work habits. Though the largest American transit capital investments in terms of money spent have been in light and metro rail projects, commuter rail corridors — defined loosely as diesel trains running largely at peak hours between cities and their suburbs — continue to attract local interest. Over the past few years, Austin, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City, among other regions, have contributed millions of dollars to their construction.

The results have in general not been impressive. As Jeff Wood catalogued last week on The Overhead Wire, these investments have yielded very limited ridership — especially on a per-mile basis.

Nevertheless, cities to continue

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After a Compromise, Where Does the Public Sector Head?

» President Obama’s stand on his vision for the U.S. budget, in opposition to that of the House Republicans, suggests he will argue for a public role in the civic discourse. But his efforts may not be solid enough.

The transportation industry — and specifically mass transit — has over the past few decades been one of the primary domains of public sector intervention, both in the United States and abroad. With the demands of a modern citizenry requiring investments in improved mobility, governments have made ensuring the well-being of their roads, railways, and airports one of their primary raisons d’être after measures designed to guarantee social welfare and national defense.

For that reason, transportation is an intensely political issue: Choosing where and how to invest in getting people from one place to another requires agreement from politicians. Any move forward on funding new infrastructure requires leadership.

In some ways, the United States stands

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The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

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