The Year’s Top Transit News – State by State

» From sea to shining sea, it’s been a newsworthy year for transit in the United States.

As 2009 fades away, recall the biggest stories from each state, ranked by importance and seriousness. It’s hard not to notice the vast differences between regions and places in support for transit and intercity rail funding.

» Florida approves state funding for SunRail project, Tri-Rail commuter system, and high-speed rail. Seems likely to benefit from increased federal funding as a result. Related article on The Transport Politic: Florida Convenes Special Legislative Session for SunRail, Tri-Rail, and High-Speed Rail, 4 December 2009.
» Seattle’s new Central Link light rail line opens for service, the first in the region and the most expensive project of the year. Related article on The Transport Politic: Seattle’s Light Rail Opens, Redefining Life in the City, 20 July 2009.
» Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, playing off the support for transit expressed in Measure R, passed in November 2008, argues that the region should build “Subway to the Sea” in just ten years. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Villaraigosa Campaigns for Westside Subway’s Completion in Ten Years, 21 August 2009; Los Angeles Has Big Transit Ambitions, But Which Project Comes First?, 22 October 2009.
» Denver’s FasTracks project could be significantly delayed because of problems securing adequate tax revenue to pay for the program. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Denver FasTracks: New Sales Tax or Delayed Lines, 27 January 2009; Denver Region Comes Closer to Endorsing Sales Tax Increase for Transit, 13 March 2009; Denver FasTracks Problems Expose Complexities of Building Transit at the Regional Scale, 7 December 2009.
» Oklahoma City voters approve MAPS 3 proposal, with the eventual goal of implementing downtown streetcar line with the funds. (Link)
» Portland opens new light rail Green Line; too bad it’s positioned in the middle of a freeway. Related article on The Transport Politic: Portland’s New Light Rail Line is Welcome News, But It’s Not Routed as It Should Be, 11 September 2009.
» Local leaders, compelled by New Starts funding rules, pick less-than-desirable route for new rail line into Minneapolis. Related article on The Transport Politic: Southwest Minneapolis Transit Route Selection Process May Rule Out Light Rail to Uptown, 11 August 2009.
District of Columbia
» Washington, D.C.’s government moves forward with plans for a multi-line streetcar system that would span the city and fill gaps in the Metrorail system. Related article on The Transport Politic: Washington Promotes Massive New Streetcar Project, 28 October 2009.
» A year after opening, Phoenix light rail service celebrates ridership at levels 35% above initial estimates. (Link)
North Carolina
» State legislators agree to allow municipalities and counties to sponsor referendums on local transit tax increases. Related article on The Transport Politic: North Carolina State Senate Moves Ahead on Local Sales Taxes, 6 August 2009.
» New Orleans plans for a Desire Streetcar, and is later the setting for US DOT Secretary’s announcement of new federal inner-city corridor grants, implying Louisiana will get such funds. Related articles on The Transport Politic: New Orleans Rekindles Hopes of a Desire Streetcar, 26 May 2009; DOT to Award 280 Million in Inner-City Circulator Grants, 2 December 2009.
» Governor Martin O’Malley approves Baltimore’s Red Line and suburban Washington, D.C.’s Purple Line for light rail, rather than busways. Related article on The Transport Politic: Maryland Governor Supports Light Rail for Red and Purple Lines, 5 August 2009.
» Chicago advances transit extensions on the Red, Orange, and Yellow Lines, though it lacks money to pay for projects. Related article on The Transport Politic: Chicago Moves Forward with Three Rapid Transit Extensions, 13 August 2009.
» First section of Dallas’ well-planned Green Line light rail opens for service; it’s soon overloaded by huge crowd. Related article on The Transport Politic: First phase of New Green Line Expands Service to South Dallas, 13 September.
» City of Atlanta forms the Georgia Transit Connector group, whose explicit goal is to push for a streetcar system along Peachtree Street. Related article on The Transport Politic: Readying Atlanta for its Bright Future, 24 September 2009.
New Jersey
» State officials promote schemes to advance transit in both suburban Philadelphia and suburban New York City. Related articles on The Transport Politic: DRPA Announces Significant South Jersey Transit Proposals, 13 May 2009; Making Links in North Jersey, 14 May 2009.
» Legislators begin pushing for new transit lines to run across the state. New commuter rail would connect Waterbury and Hartford, New London and Norwich, Danbury and New Milford. Related article on The Transport Politic: Connecticut Opens Up to Transit Expansion, 1 March 2009.
» Governor Jim Doyle promotes new service on several of the state’s major rail routes, follows up by making a deal with Spanish company Talgo to buy several trains and establish a factory in Milwaukee. Related article on The Transport Politic: Wisconsin Offers Up Proposal for Rail Expansion, 23 March 2009.
» State decides to reorganize transportation funding, putting Massachusetts tollways and MBTA transit in the same division, improving revenue distribution and aiding public transport. Related article on The Transport Politic: Massachusetts Looking to New York for Clues on Funding Transport, 6 April 2009.
» Honolulu re-routes planned inner-city rail line to include stop at airport rather than Salt Lake in first phase of construction. Related article on The Transport Politic: Changes to Honolulu’s Rail Plan, 29 January 2009.
» Cincinnati streetcar boosters win large at the November polls with rejection of anti-rail referendum and keep booster Mayor Mark Mallory in office. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Cincinnati’s Riverfront Transit Center Attracts Criticism, 7 July 2009; Ballot Measures Force Commuters to Evaluate Transit Projects First Hand, 3 November 2009.
» Politicians in Kansas City abandon hopes for light rail, adopting commuter rail plan instead. Organizer Clay Chastain shoots back with new light rail plan. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Kansas City Abandons Light Rail, 17 February 2009; Kansas City up for LRT Referendum Again, 24 April 2009; Kansas City Envision 150-Mile Regional Commuter Rail System, 13 October 2009.
» Hopes for Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles high-speed rail advanced as Department of Transportation designates the corridor as “official,” after major controversy about special earmarks for maglev train. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Mr. Obama’s Address to Congress Avoids Transportation Issues, But Mr. Jindal’s Reaction Repeats GOP Vegas-HSR Lie, 25 February 2009; U.S. DOT to Designate Las Vegas-Southern California as HSR corridor, 2 July 2009.
New York
» Politicians from Albany and Washington, D.C. pledge support for state high-speed project, with emphasis on Albany-Buffalo corridor. Related articles on The Transport Politic: New York Planners Zoom Ahead with HSR Plans, 5 March 2009; Governor Paterson Announces Ambitious New York Rail Push, 9 March 2009.
» Philadelphia politicians selects alignment for new waterfront streetcar route. Related articles on The Transport Politic: Transit for a Future Philadelphia, 8 April 2009; Philadelphia Selects Waterfront Transit Alignment, 27 October 2009.
» Salt Lake City advances plans for downtown streetcars to connect to light rail service. (Link)
» State agrees to sponsor more trains on two Amtrak corridors. Related article on The Transport Politic: Virginia Expands Rail Service, With an Option for More, 3 April 2009.
» City of Boise holds serious discussions on potential implementation of streetcar system. (Link)
» State discusses potential for high-speed rail, with ultimate goal of connecting Little Rock to Dallas via Texarkana. (Link)
» Michigan legislators fooled into believing the out-of-this-world ideas of hydrogen-maglev-solar train supporters for Detroit-Lansing corridor, who claim that the completely infeasible project would be profitable! Related articles on The Transport Politic: Insanity Rears Its Ugly Head in Michigan, 17 March 2009; Hearing Today on Hydrogen-Solar-Maglev Supertrain for Michigan, 15 June 2009.
» Anchorage receives $6 million in ARRA grants for new buses and vans, despite former Governor Sarah Palin’s adament hatred of federal spending. (Link)
» Loss of federal grants mean Indianapolis-area express bus service is canceled. (Link)
» Democratic Candidate for US Senate Daniel Mongiardo argues that he would push for major transit investment if he won election — a surprise for a rail-less state. Related article on The Transport Politic: Rail Becomes an Election Issue in Kentucky: Could it Become Important in Other Statewide Campaigns?, 14 December 2009.
» State DOT unveils rail plan, with plans to improve train service between Boston and Portland and extend operations to Brunswick. (Link)
» Birmingham, which collects $9 million for transit capital improvements, may have to delay spending because of collection problems. (Link)
Rhode Island
» The future of Providence could be defined by streetcars being planned by the city. (Link)
» Nashville’s Music City Star practically out of money for operations, but survives because of stimulus funds. (Link)
» State submits grant request for millions of dollars from federal stimulus to improve rail system. (Link)
» State transit agencies get $10 million to improve service thanks to federal stimulus act. (Link)
New Mexico
» Colorado, New Mexico argue for high-speed connection between Denver and El Paso, passing through Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Related article on The Transport Politic: Southwest States Angle for New High-Speed Link, 10 July 2009.
» State’s moderate Republicans push for transit-oriented development and rail improvements. (Link)
» Support grows to reconnect Amtrak Sunset Limited service between Orlando and New Orleans. (Link)
» Amtrak studies revival of North Coast Hiawatha route, which would run through Helena and Billings. Related article on The Transport Politic: PRIIA-Mandated Amtrak Studies Promote New Long-Distance Corridor Service, 19 October 2009.
» Des Moines evaluates potential for downtown light rail. (Link)
» State applies for funds to reestablish rail service on the state’s western corridor between Rutland and Burlington. (Link)
New Hampshire
» State participates with surrounding states to promote plan for Northeast rail improvements. (Link)
North Dakota
» Legislature considers how to attract funding for high-speed service. (Link)
» Amtrak considers running a new Chicago-Seattle route through southern Wyoming, including Cheyenne. Related article on The Transport Politic: PRIIA-Mandated Amtrak Studies Promote New Long-Distance Corridor Service, 19 October 2009.
West Virginia
» State would receive up to $18 million for transit in House’s jobs stimulus. (Link)
South Carolina
» North Carolina and Georgia consider high-speed rail between Charlotte and Atlanta, but South Carolina, through which the service would run, abstains from discussions. (Link)
South Dakota
» State admits it has no plans for high-speed rail, because it doesn’t have enough density to support it. (Link)
Finance France High-Speed Rail

With Competition in High-Speed Operation, Who Wins?

» France will be a battleground for intercity rail travel beginning in 2012. Whether the country’s citizens will benefit is up for debate.

Last week, Le Figaro reported that Veolia Environnement will be working with Italy’s Trenitalia national rail company to compete on French high-speed rail routes beginning in 2012. The ramifications of the move are significant: it will open up existing lines to multiple operators, producing consumer choice currently not available because of a decades-old monopoly on intercity operations by French national rail corporation SNCF. This competition is mandated by European Union law, which is intended to reduce transportation costs by opening up services to multiple operators.

But even if some routes see lower fares, the overall effect on the rail system is less positive. Competition on the most valuable routes seems likely to reduce investment on less profitable segments. In the meantime, operators, interested in increasing revenues, will be predisposed to angle services towards more wealthy passengers — meaning fewer travel opportunities for people across the economic spectrum.

The new competition from Veolia and Trenitalia isn’t surprising: both have been considering entering the French market for the past year. Veolia was in discussions with Air France about operating a train service, and Trenitalia is already planning two trains a day between Paris and Milan and Paris and Genoa next summer; some of these trains will also stop in France’s second and third largest metropolitan areas, Lyon and Marseille.

Together, the companies hope to take on Eurostar on the Paris to London corridor, Thalys on the Brussels to Paris Corridor, and DB German Railways on the Paris to Frankfurt international corridors. The market is currently only open to travel in which 50% of both volume and turnover is by passengers traveling between multiple countries as France won’t open its domestic market for a few more years. But Veolia clearly has its sights on the more lucrative and more trafficked travel between destinations within the country, and its chosen routes will allow it to sell tickets for trips between Paris and Lyon, Paris and Lille, and Paris and Strasbourg, three of SNCF’s largest ridership generators.

In other words, Veolia and Trenitalia are going straight for the French rail company’s throat. SNCF is reciprocating by competing directly with Trenitalia on Italian domestic routes with its 20% investment in NTV, which will offer high-speed service there starting in 2011.

Veolia may be able to offer lower prices because SNCF’s employees are well-compensated for their work; those driving for and working on the private company’s trains are likely to receive 30% lower benefits. SNCF claims that its arsenal of hundreds of TGV trains, tens of thousands of employees, and good reputation will be too much for even an industrial mammoth like Veolia, which is the world’s largest provider of outsourced public services. Yet that company’s recent merger with Transdev, a major transit operator, makes it a transport monolith; together, the companies operate the light rail systems in Barcelona, Madrid, Sydney, Dublin; the metros in Seoul, Genoa, and Porto; commuter rail in Miami, Boston, and northwest Germany; and bus rapid transit in Las Vegas and Bogota — among others.* This will be a battle of titans.

SNCF’s position in France, then, is under threat. Veolia’s choice to compete on the company’s major intercity routes is not surprising: they’re where the money is. SNCF brings in 85% of its passenger fare revenues from its TGV division, effectively subsidizing many of its local commuter and slower intercity services with high-speed operations. Meanwhile, the rising fees being charged for track use — a result of conflicting interests between the infrastructure owner and the rail operators —  could make the situation worse by reducing profits on the high-speed lines.

If SNCF is forced to lower prices on its most profitable routes, it will see decreasing revenues and potentially be forced to scale back services on the lines it operates at no profit. On the other hand, if SNCF decides to attempt to increase profit, it could actually increase fares and improve service quality, with the intention of expanding its wealthy and business clientele.

Either way, the lives of France’s citizens aren’t likely to be materially improved by what isn’t going to be pure competition but instead something more closely resembling a fight between an oligarchy of mega-operators. One of two outcomes is predictable: service will be compromised on less valuable lines as ticket prices decrease slightly on the heaviest traveled corridors even as employee compensation is reduced, or fares will increase and high-speed trains will become a commodity for members of the upper half of the income spectrum alone, as it already is in countries like Germany.

Though France’s situation might seem irrelevant from the North American standpoint — it, after all, has been operating high-speed trains for almost thirty years while neither the U.S. nor Canada have a true fast rail system — the involvement of private interests in transportation investment is clearly an issue in similar U.S. projects. California’s planned high-speed system, which will transport passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2h40 by 2020, will be primarily funded through government spending, but the State High-Speed Authority expects to attract several billions of dollars in private financing to pay for the project’s costs.

In the California Authority’s most recent report, it argued that fares should be set at around 83% of equivalent air fares, after arguing in previous years that fares set at 50% would also be an option. The latter choice would produce a slightly lower annual yield, despite the fact that it would attract almost 20 million more annual passengers by 2034 compared to the more expensive option. In order to interest private involvement in the process, the Authority seems to be choosing to prioritize profits over increased mobility. That’s because a private company’s interest, of course, is to maximize profits, not necessarily to be an engine for social improvement. The State of California, on the other hand, has — or should have — a different mission.

But the rail system wouldn’t necessarily be built without the private funds; neither the federal or state government is flush with cash at the moment, so increased public funds wouldn’t be simple to assemble.

This quandary, then, is similar to that faced by the French and European rail systems — opening what had been a public enterprise to the private market may increase investment (and even perhaps improve some services), but the consequence seems likely to be an increase in social inequalities by reducing access to transportation for the less wealthy and for those who don’t live in the most populous regions.

The correct answers to these questions is subjective, coming down to what ideology is expressed by decision-makers. Transportation can be conducted in such a manner that encourages profit creation, or it can focus on expandeding transportation provision to everyone. Which route will we pick?

When SNCF opened its first TGV high-speed line between Paris and Lyon in 1981, its marketing campaign used the motto Le progrès ne vaut que s’il est partagé par tous (Progress is worthless unless it’s shared by all), a slogan that seems quite pertinent in all matters of transportation investment. And indeed, the company has fulfilled that objective in many ways, offering fast trains at low prices for everyone throughout its history and systematically providing deep discounts to the young, the old, and those with large families.

Will it be able to do the same in a system where competition is encouraged? Or will it be forced to sacrifice the goals of mass transport for the benefit of bigger profits?

* As part of the merger, French operations will be transferred to Paris Métro operator RATP.
Airport London Personal Rapid Transit United Kingdom

Are London Heathrow’s ULTra Pods the Future of Transit?

» Successful implementation at huge U.K. airport could mean more interest in PRT elsewhere.

Proponents of personal rapid transit systems have frequently promoted themselves as opponents of traditional public transportation. Unlike expensive metro or light rail systems, they claimed, their PRT lines would be cheaper to construct, more convenient for passengers, and more attractive for users. Now that a new line is readying for opening in the United Kingdom, the technology may attain new prominence.

Over the years, most attempts at implementing PRT have failed due to a lack of interest from investors — and as a result of deceptive, dishonest campaigns by “pod people” who simply promise too much.

Even with the rebirth of modern rail systems over the past few decades in the United States, PRT continues to be brought up as an environmentally friendly solution for urban transport, allowing passengers virtually instant access to vehicles, stop-free commutes, and direct access to many destinations. In other words, it theoretically can solve many of the deficiencies of regular transit, which requires waiting for trains or buses to arrive, multiple stops along a route, and a walk or drive to and from stations. Yet only in 1975, at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown, has a system that allows such on-demand travel by automated train been constructed.

Next spring, London’s Heathrow Airport will take a step forward to advance the PRT concept with the implementation of a new network connecting its Terminal 5 and associated parking areas. The ULTra (Urban Light Transit) system is being developed by Bristol, England Wales-based Advanced Transport Systems and will initially travel between three stations along a three-mile track using 21 four-passenger vehicles. The mini-cars, which travel at speeds of up to 25 mph and which use lasers for guidance along the 7 foot-wide pavement, have tires and are autonomous, meaning they more closely replicate the experience of automobiles than trains. They’re battery driven and use energy at the equivalent of 200 mpg.

Vehicles are designed to bypass stations, allowing non-stop travel. Customers will pick their destination by pressing a button on a touch screen before departing. Empty vehicles will be available at all times at stops for passengers needing to get between the car parks and the airport terminals, or vice-verse.

The system didn’t come cheaply — at $41 million, the private airport owner that paid for the line and some of the technology’s development is making a big bet that it hopes to eventually expand throughout the airport and into the surrounding areas with 400 pods at a cost of $330 million. That is, if this first test goes well.

If the claimed $7-15 million costs per mile (without rights-of-way) are to be believed, this PRT is cheaper than normal transit, but not much. Per passenger, its costs may actually be higher, since it is only expected to handle about 500,000 annual passengers, an average of less than 2,000 a day.

Nevertheless, the system holds promise: its use of batteries installed in each vehicle rather than an electrified third rail or catenary makes the corridor easier to maintain and cheaper to build — an advantage that will soon be replicated in the implementation of similar technology on tramways. The use of electricity rather than diesel motors (as in the existing buses used by passengers) will eliminate local-source pollutants and decrease noise levels. The elimination of human drivers will improve travel times by 60% and reduce operating costs by 40% — if initial estimates prove accurate. Passengers will get direct and instant access between parking lots and the terminal; plus, they’ll eventually be offered similar service to surrounding office buildings and hotels.

Unlike the cities in which PRT lines are usually proposed, this airport environment provides a sealed-off, protected setting in which to experiment with this model for a new form of transportation. The ULTra project seems highly likely to operate problem-free here, but what is the appeal elsewhere?

Abu Dhabi is planning a new city called Masdar that will not allow cars and instead rely on PRT lines to connect people from one place to another; San Jose is planning a people mover between its airport and surrounding transit stations and neighborhoods; other American cities like Mountain View and Ithaca are “studying” the idea, though there are no definite plans there. Companies such as SkyCab and Vectus are planning their own rival PRT technologies to spread around the world, and unlike some previous PRT pushers, they seem truthful in what they expect to provide (in other words, they don’t claim that initial capital costs will be paid back with fare revenue).

For airports and new cities, PRT could supplement other mass transit systems rather effectively and encourage people to live car-free lifestyles by providing them destination-to-destination service with minimal walking to and from stations. In newly built environments, PRT could be constructed cheaply and it could be installed in such a way that does not disrupt its surroundings. Proponents use this fact as evidence for the universal applicability of PRT, claiming that it should replace transit systems since it would allow for the phase out of cars, but their arguments are weakened by the realities of the way cities work.

PRT cannot replace light and metro rail systems, as its capacity is far lower. Along major routes at peak periods, systems that are capable of carrying hundreds of people per train every two minutes are necessary, and PRT will never allow that kind of operation.

Similarly, if a PRT vehicle sounds awfully like an automated car, the analogy isn’t far off: indeed, the idea that people would be able to travel by themselves from one place to another is simply an advanced version of the car sharing systems now being implemented in places like Paris. Most major cities have serious transportation needs along heavily traveled lines, and PRT will not be able to do much there, since the lines would be completely overloaded and therefore unusable if implemented in very dense cities like New York or San Francisco.

In addition, PRT’s proponents ignore the fact that their calls for dense networks of lines and stations would duplicate the already existing road system and degrade the urban landscape with elevated structures. This is no effective already to urban sprawl, since direct access to PRT stations every few blocks would undoubtedly encourage the sort of spread-out environments that have blighted American cities for decades. For those that don’t care about that problem, a cheaper alternative might be to wait a decade or so for more advanced automobiles that can negotiate existing streets without drivers. Stations wouldn’t be needed for such a system — people could simply call an automated service, and a robotized car would arrive in front of the house. This is no less a fantasy than the installation of hundreds of miles of PRT tracks above city streets.

This experiment at Heathrow Airport, then, will test some of the basic arguments of PRT advocates and probably verify many of their claims about the system’s effectiveness, but it won’t provide a solution to the deeper problems with the idea.

Note to readers: Discussions of PRT frequently produce angry debate. There’s nothing wrong with spirited interchange, but let’s try to restrain ourselves from personal insults. They are not acceptable here and will be deleted. Image above: ULTra in action at Heathrow, from Advanced Transport Systems Ltd

Finance Social Justice

Taking Away When Needs Are Greatest

» California Governor proposes cutting state support for transit to balance the budget.

The most stormy period of the recession may have passed us by, but states and cities continue to face the devastating consequences of the millions of jobs lost over the past two years. Unlike the national government, which is able to maintain a budgetary deficit, lower-level governments in the U.S. federal system have a legal requirement to produce a balanced budget each year — a difficult task to fulfill when raising taxes is political suicide even as citizens expect a minimum standard of minimum public service.

As falling tax returns have become standard, that’s bad news. It’s especially troubling for transit systems in California, which may face a collective $1 billion cut in support if Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his way on the state’s next budget.

California’s legislators faced down a massive budget deficit earlier this year, closing a gap of $43 billion in February and $26 billion more in July only by cutting aid to schools, health care institutions, and prisons. For next year, it has another $21 billion for which to account, and there are fewer and fewer places from which to skim the fat.

The Governor is expected to argue that the state’s commitment to mass transit ought to be one such casualty when he announces his proposed budget early next year. His plan would transfer about $1 billion in annual funds currently devoted to public transportation operations to other essential services, basically leaving local transit agencies to fully sponsor their own services. The gap would have an immediately destructive effect: Los Angeles’ Metro transit agency, for instance, has come to rely on $50-100 million in yearly state appropriations. This is compared to the system’s roughly $3.8 billion budget for FY 2010; in other words, this is no minor loss, and the same principle applies to the state’s other bus and train networks.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has been fighting to reduce funding for transit agencies for years, despite his claims to be a “green” politician at the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference. Since 2007, he has led the state legislature in redistributing transit money towards other programs, though that effort was declared unlawful by the State Supreme Court in June, leading to the repayment of $3 billion in missing tax revenues to needy transit systems.

Another such transfer would be similarly against the law, so the Governor has invented what his staff sees as a novel policy to get around the issue: get rid of the source of the problem. Mr. Schwarzenegger would simply eliminate 5¢ of the state’s sales tax currently pointed towards transit programs and replace it with a new excise tax of an equal sum designed to go to the general fund. Protections for highway spending, of course, would remain entirely in place. The Governor plans to ask Washington for aid, but no support has yet materialized. Offshore oil digging is an additional element of the plan.

Whether the Governor will get his way in his last year of office is up for question — particularly since he currently has a 27% approval rating. Yet the legislature will have to find spending cuts somewhere, since the assembly’s Democratic majority isn’t large enough to vote for increased taxes that would be necessary to prevent any service reductions. California’s constitution makes it very difficult for the legislature to agree to new sources of revenue.

The proposal would strike at the heart of the state’s transit systems after a difficult year. Generally poor economic conditions resulted in an overall decline in ridership nationwide of 3.8% in the first nine months of the year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. That statistic will not improve if transit agencies continue to make service cuts as a result of fewer revenues — before the state cuts spending any further. Already planned for next year: AC Transit in Oakland will reduce operations by 8%, San Francisco’s Muni will increase fares, San Jose VTA will delay the purchase of dozens of buses, and San Diego will cut more than half its services on Sundays. This is no easy time for the state to reduce aid.

Last Christmas, I wrote of the need to use transit as a tool to encourage social justice, and I maintain that public transportation must fulfill a role beyond that of simply increasing “mobility.” Reducing public transportation service is an outrageous idea when driving is simply too expensive for a large percentage of the population, as the environmental consequences of carbon emissions mount, when the lives of our cities demand alternatives to the automobile.

California’s predicament is no easy one: it could maintain state financing for transit, but it would have to reduce spending somewhere else, probably just as important. The state’s politicians have a responsibility to their constituents: to be courageous enough to fight for increased taxes to pay for the vital needs of their communities. That may require altering the constitution, or it may necessitate convincing a few Republicans of the need to augment revenues. Either way, something must be done; a cutback in services is no way to celebrate the new year.

Congress Detroit DOT Finance

Congress Approves M1 Involvement in Detroit Light Rail

» Public-private partnerships could bring big benefits to the Motor City. But they might be sending the wrong message about governmental responsibility.

If Detroit has yet to receive the kind of huge public investment that may well be necessary to save it, it hasn’t been entirely forgotten by its natives. Over the past year, a group of individuals and corporations have donated tens of millions of dollars towards the creation of an entity that would construct a new rail line down the city’s primary corridor, Woodward Avenue. Their example of direct private involvement in a transit project for a non-profit purpose is unique, and the U.S. Congress has authorized what may be a first-in-the-nation approach. Is it the right one?

Detroit, as has been discussed over and over, has been losing population for decades and its industrial base has been disappearing for years. The city’s leaders have been notoriously poor at responding to its problems; most relevant to this website, they rejected several hundred million dollars in the 1970s for a full-scale rail system, ultimately building only a one-way loop around the city center called the People Mover — a depressing failure.

The group of private and non-profit investors, calling themselves M1 Rail, are attempting to use spending on a 3.4-mile light rail line down Woodward to revive the city’s spirits and potentially its economy. This corridor runs diagonally out from the center of the city and has always been considered the top priority for transit investment in Detroit. The group’s $125 million project would extend from downtown’s Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard and include 12 stops, meaning one every quarter-mile. This proposal, now almost fully funded, seems on the brink of reaching the construction stage. Using federal funds, the city would eventually extend the line to a total of eight miles at a cost of $425 million.

Incapable of paying a 40% share in the project’s cost, the minimum local (or state) commitment to a New Starts rail project, Detroit officials asked their representatives in Congress to count the M1 spending as part of the local share. That way, the city would be able to qualify for a full 60% aid from Washington as long as it were able to cobble together the missing ten percent.

In the recent spending bill, Detroit got its way.  By allowing the private money to be considered part of the local match under the Federal Transit Administration’s guidelines, Detroit’s chance of extending this project further than just what is planned by M1 rises exponentially.

This sets an interesting precedent: private companies, in this case working with a non-profit motivation, can attract federal funding for an extension of their project. Will this legislation affect other cities? What happens when a private company involved is profit-motivated?

These questions may be premature, since unless the FTA alters its quite controversial cost-effectiveness guidelines, Detroit may not be able to win those New Start project dollars upon which it has staked the future of its public transportation system. Compared to other planned lines around the country, Detroit’s project is likely to attract fewer users (being surrounded by the city’s half-vacant landscape) and be just as slow as existing bus service (with so many stations).

Still, if the project goes through, with a private group taking the first step and the public coming in for a second act, Detroit may be teaching other cities a new trick — and potentially putting itself and others in danger.

If, instead of keeping its money to itself, the M1 group had simply donated the $125 million it plans on raising to the City of Detroit for the purposes of building this line, no Congressional action would have been necessary; this money, under public control, would have been considered the local match automatically. But it is apparent that those working with M1 do not trust the municipal government, and perhaps that is a justifiable position considering Detroit’s track record. As a result, the first stage of the project will be built by M1 and then operated by the group, with city involvement only on the second stage.

In Detroit’s circumstances, this seems like an acceptable compromise, especially considering that those who have donated to the project clearly don’t expect to be making money on it.

But if the government allows such funds to serve as the local match in the future in other cities, the situation could be quite different. What happens if the investors on the first stage of the line stand to reap a large monetary gain (read: real estate related in the case of most cities) from the construction of the second stage? Can there be guarantees that the initial project’s operations will be maintained over an extended timeline? Would the federal government be put in a compromising situation in such a case? Shouldn’t cities be the decision-makers when it comes to transportation investments, and if so, is there any role for private groups at all?

Detroit, in other words, has a situation that seems pretty cut-and-dry — the federal government should clearly count the M1 funds towards the local match. It’s what happens elsewhere that could be problematic.