The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark
yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
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Make the effort, and commuter rail can be as effective as rapid transit

» Thanks to political initiative and the need to serve a growing region, Toronto’s GO Transit is increasingly making its commuter rail services not so commuter-oriented.

In North America, “commuter rail” has come to mean something very specific: Large, heavy trains operating almost entirely at peak, providing services to downtown in the morning and away from it at night along corridors that extend into the suburbs. It’s a definition that makes sense for a world where regions are structured with one central business district whose workers live in the suburbs and work nine-to-five jobs on weekdays.

Of course, that’s not the world we live in. Of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, only two have a majority of their jobs located within three miles of their downtown, and most suburban workers don’t work in city centers. A sizable share of the population doesn’t work a “normal” workweek.

Yet most commuter rail providers continue to operate as

Continue reading Make the effort, and commuter rail can be as effective as rapid transit »

How broadly applicable is the All Aboard Florida development strategy?

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» Coupling real estate investment with the construction of new transit lines is the future, but the conditions need to be right.

Public development and ownership of the transportation system in the United States provided some broad, important social benefits that would not have been possible had our governments left it in the hands of the private sector. The downfall of the public transit and rail industries between the 1930s and 1970s throughout the country (itself partly a consequence of government investment in roads) was due to the fact that those services were no longer profitable. Government intervention through takeover of bankrupt lines kept those services operating and ensured the continuing existence of what is truly an essential public service in our major metropolitan areas.

Yet with the governments takeover of transit services, our regions lost a powerful skill that private transportation providers a century ago used well: Connecting new development with transit investments. The history of

Continue reading How broadly applicable is the All Aboard Florida development strategy? »

The value of fast transit

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» We have failed to come to terms with the fact that the transit we’re building is too slow.

Residents of the Twin Cities greeted the opening of the new Green Line light rail link last month with joy and excitement, finally able to take advantage of a train connection between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The 11-mile rail line runs through a relatively densely populated area, serves two business districts, and travels through the heart of a university.

It’s also alarmingly slow. Green Line trains are taking up to an hour to complete their journeys, and even optimistic schedules released by the local transit agency put running times at 48 minutes, or less than 14 mph on average.

Of course, the Twin Cities are hardly alone in their predicament. Recent transit lines elsewhere in the country feature similarly leisurely travel times. The new Houston North Line, for example, is averaging 17 mph.

Continue reading The value of fast transit »

An Interview with Secretary Foxx

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» Foxx reiterates the Obama Administration’s demand for more transportation funding, but fails to commit to a new funding source outside of business tax reform. He also is non-committal on reforms to the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules for commuter rail systems.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat with Anthony Foxx, who became the U.S. Secretary of Transportation last year and was previously mayor of Charlotte. I wrote an article on the interview’s major focus points on the website of my employer, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. The transcript of the full interview is posted at the bottom of this post.

In addition to the conclusions I noted on MPC’s site (and please read those; they are relevant to the discussion here), I want to note a few points about the interview that reflect my personal sense of the administration’s progress on moving forward with a new transportation bill.

It was evident in Secretary Foxx’s responses that he remains committed to the Obama Administration’s push to increase funding for transportation. Of course, the Obama Administration has been promoting increased funding for transportation since 2009, beginning with the stimulus (which roughly doubled federal expenditures for transportation for a short period), and continuing with a number of proposals over the years, each of which promoted the idea of a huge infusion of funds for transportation but which ultimately produced little change. From that perspective, Secretary Foxx’s determination to pass a new four-year, $302 billion program for infrastructure (a plan that would increase expenditures by roughly 50%) seems rather unlikely to result in much of anything.

This is particularly true in light of Senator Barbara Boxer’s proposal to simply extend the funding levels provided for in MAP-21, which themselves were little changed from the previous level of spending. At the heart of the problem, as we all know, is that the transportation user fee model (premised on fuel tax revenues) has collapsed and no one is willing to do much of anything about it. It’s not Secretary Foxx’s fault, but the Obama Administration’s decision to propose funding transportation by using “business tax reform,” which is essentially premised on one-time repatriation of foreign assets, is a half-empty call for change, neither likely to pass Congress nor a long-term solution. I’m skeptical. It’s not that the Administration has done anything terribly wrong, but there certainly has not been much courage coming out of the White House on this issue.

No one with particularly significant power is willing to simply say, “I will increase the gas tax,” or “I will institute a vehicle-miles traveled fee.” It’s not an easy demand, certainly, but it is a necessary one if we want to move forward with more funding for our road and transit systems.

In this context, it is frustrating to watch Secretary Foxx, like Secretary Ray LaHood before him, extol the values of high-speed rail (I confess I hold them dear as well), without making any progress in actually paying for it. Foxx pointed to Florida and Texas as models of interest in high-speed rail even in relatively conservative states — a fair point — but he failed to note that those states are hoping that the private sector will chip in for most or all of the cost of those lines. Certainly conservatives will support transportation investments that are fully paid for by someone else, but what happens when the Florida or Texas projects require public subsidy? Will they face the same resistance as has California’s heavily contested project has?

On the other hand, what other options does the Administration have in the face of a recalcitrant House of Representatives?

Nevertheless, Secretary Foxx’s answers about the Department of Transportation’s willingness to expand the possibility of local funding options were positive. States and cities should be able to toll their local highways if they so desire, but right now they’re stymied by federal regulations that make tolling impossible on most Interstate highways. His willingness to consider Transportation for America’s new policy proposal that would encourage local and state competition in awarding transportation funding is potentially exciting.

In addition, where the executive branch of the federal government may have an easier time producing positive results is in the implementation of regulatory changes within agencies of the Department of Transportation. One issue that has been of particular concern to those interested in improving American rail service has been the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) rules about train weight and strength, which effectively make lighter, more efficient European and Asian trains impossible in the U.S. Stephen Smith noted last year in Next City that the FRA was considering changes to these rules by 2015, when positive train control (PTC) is supposed to be implemented.

Secretary Foxx, however, was far less direct on the issue than this change would imply, noting that “Whether that issue or how that issue comes up in the context of that is still an open question, but we’ll take a look at any issues put out there.” It’s hard to know based on that whether the Department of Transportation or the Obama Administration in general will take these issues seriously in the coming months, but the issue is important, and we can only hope they’ll notice.

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Full interview transcript follows below Continue reading An Interview with Secretary Foxx

Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City?

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» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.

One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.

A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”

Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the

Continue reading Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City? »