Light Rail Metro Rail Sydney

Sydney Metro Project Wavers as Light Rail Expansion Gains Supporters

» The creation of a single line would produce an underused system for decades to come; extensions of the existing network may be a better option.

Few places in the world are as reliant on their commuter rail systems as Sydney; the Australian metropolis’ CityRail attracts more than one million daily passengers. The almost 1,300 miles of track the system includes provide for the transportation needs of most of the rail transit users in the city, though a light rail line that opened in 1997 and which now has 4.5 miles of service provides some connections to the Inner West parts of the city. A monorail loop links the light rail to Market Street, midway up the CBD peninsula.

A traditional metro system has long been considered for the city, not only to relieve congestion on the CityRail network downtown but also to expand access to neighborhoods that currently lack reliable transit access. In 2008, the New South Wales government moved ahead with what became a A$5.3 billion CBD metro project that would extend from Rozelle, west of downtown, under the bay, through the business district, and finally to Central Station, where it would meet CityRail and light rail services.

The project was supposed to begin construction this year, with a completion date of 2015. But strong opposition to the project from neighborhood groups and political forces have delayed the program significantly. Now the government has stopped property acquisitions and will make a final decision about whether to move ahead with the project by the end of February.

If the CBD Metro goes down, it will be a significant political loss for the Labor Party government of New South Wales and the defeat of one of the biggest transit programs in Sydney’s history. But there are other transit investment strategies that may yield better results.

Part of the problem with the CBD Metro plan was that it simply wasn’t ambitious enough: its short initial line would attract far too few people in itself to justify a massive investment in a fully-grade separated (and underground) rapid transit system. If it were incorporated in a funded city-wide plan with links south, north, and west, the investment might be justified, since it would undoubtedly attract hundreds of thousands of commuters.

Yet, the argument made by the provincial government, that the CBD Metro is a starting line and that other corridors, beginning with a West Metro, will follow, isn’t good enough, because there is no assurance of future funding or specific decisions about what routes lines would follow. Experience with the development of recent American subways proved that rapid transit systems work best when they’re conceived as part of a broader network. One only has to compare the highly frequented Washington Metro with Los Angeles’s significantly less-used Wilshire and North Hollywood subways, which terminate in a single line downtown. As rapid transit systems add lines, ridership increases even on existing corridors, since the number of potential destinations for people along each line expands exponentially.

To make matters worse, as initially conceived, the CBD Metro would require a large number of bus transfers at Rozelle and could cause serious congestion at Central Station where it would meet CityRail trains. It would also duplicate some light rail services, which would damage that system’s ability to operate effectively.

The Metro’s proponents say that CityRail’s operations downtown are overloaded and that the Metro would provide a convenient alternative, but the commuter rail authority suggests that additional capacity is not necessary. CityRail already offers Metro-like capacity and frequencies in the inner city; building another underground trunk line through the half-mile wide CBD may simply be too extravagant for Sydney’s needs.

Even when CityRail capacity does reach its limit, it seems clear that the best option would be to build another tunnel for CityRail, not for a brand new Metro service. This would reduce congestion on the commuter rail and open up more CBD destinations for suburban riders using existing lines, something that would not be possible with the Metro service, which would use different, non-compatible technology. There’s something to be said for working as much as possible with the system one already has rather than investing in an alternative that has no network connections and no ability to reinforce the existing offerings.

Some opponents of the CBD Metro have argued for the construction of the 11-station West Metro instead, arguing that a line between Central Station and Westmead, some 15 miles west, would do more to satisfy the transportation needs of areas far from existing rail lines. But this would make the situation at Central worse still, since commuters hoping to get to downtown workplaces would have to switch to CityRail to reach stations along its City Circle.

Abandoning the Metro and its extensions entirely might be a reasonable option. An extension of the light rail network directly into the CBD and to Rozelle along surface routes would allow many of Inner West neighborhoods a transfer-free connection to most of the office core — now the government is planning to study such an extension. Much cheaper light rail extensions to the south and west could be built to fill in the gaps between CityRail lines. A few choice extensions of the commuter rail could encourage suburban commuters to use transit.

Indeed, finding ways to reinforce the existing networks of light rail and CityRail commuter lines could produce more benefits for Sydney’s inhabitants than the Metro project, whose high cost and limited scope will result in few riders for decades. With increased service in the CBD and new connections to underserved neighborhoods, on the other hand, existing offerings will become more attractive.

Image above: Sydney CBD Metro Alignment, from Sydney Metro

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail

High-Speed Rail Grants Announced; California, Florida, and Illinois Are Lucky Recipients

» Wisconsin, North Carolina, Washington, Ohio, and Michigan also getting big investments. But no corridor is fully funded for true high-speed service.

After months of speculation about which states will get funding from the Federal Railroad Administration to begin construction on new high-speed corridors, the news is in. As has been expected, California, Florida, and Illinois are the big winners, with more than one billion in spending proposed for each. But other states with less visible projects, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Washington will also get huge grants and begin offering relatively fast trains on their respective corridors within five years. The distribution of dollars is well thought-out and reasonable: it provides money to regions across the nation and prioritizes states that have made a commitment of their own to a fast train program.

President Obama and Vice President Biden will make the announcement today at an event in Tampa.

Despite the excitement, though, there is plenty of work that still needs to be done — and huge amounts of money that still needs to be spent — to get most of these projects up and running. Eight billion dollars of spending won’t be enough for even one true high-speed line.

California voters committed $10 billion in taxes to a high-speed line between San Francisco and Anaheim in November 2008, and their unrivaled effort has been justly rewarded, with a commitment of $2.25 billion to the project, about half of what the state applied for in August. These funds will go to environmental work and initial construction along corridors between San Francisco and San Jose; Los Angeles and Anaheim; Fresno and Bakersfield; and Merced and Fresno. The state rail authority has pledged an equal match, though it has not yet established exactly how much each corridor will receive.

Roughly one hundred million more would go to improvements on existing Amtrak corridors throughout the state, including a large expansion of San Jose’s Diridon Station and 110 mph trains on the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and Los Angeles.

With the largest project planned in the United States — the full corridor, with trains running at 220 mph speeds by 2020, will cost $42 billion — California has a lot of work yet to be done. With $2.5 billion more in high-speed funds allocated in the government’s fiscal year 2010 budget, it could reap further rewards, but it will be competing with the rest of the nation in its efforts to receive those expenditures as well. Washington will have to find significantly more money for high-speed rail to make the full San Francisco-Anaheim line a reality.

Florida, as has been hinted repeatedly by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, will get a large infusion of money as well: $1.25 billion. This is half of what the state requested, but it is clear that the federal government is convinced of this project’s merits. As a result, the state is likely to receive an additional $1.5 billion over the next few years to ensure that an 84-mile Tampa-Orlando line is up and running by 2014, connecting the cities in less than an hour at maximum speeds of 168 mph. The state government’s decision to invest several hundred million dollars in a commuter rail system for the Orlando area allowed Washington to argue that the state is making a full-fledged commitment to rail.

So is Illinois, with Governor Pat Quinn and the state legislature agreeing to spend $400 million on the proposed corridor between Chicago and St. Louis. With $1.133 billion, the state will be able to afford significant upgrades to the line on the way to 110 mph service, decreasing travel times from 5h30 to 4h00. Missouri will get some of those funds for upgraded and more reliable operations between St. Louis and Kansas City.

$823 million will go to new train service from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin and $244 million to an upgraded corridor to Detroit. Both will meet the St. Louis line in Chicago, which is poised to renew its claim to be America’s premier rail hub. After spending $47.5 million on new Talgo trainsets and working for the opening of a new manufacturing facility in Milwaukee, Governor Jim Doyle will get the new service he desires on the 80 miles of track between Milwaukee and the state capital at Madison.

The government has picked the Ohio 3C line, which will implement new service between Cincinnati and Cleveland, via Columbus, for $400 million, enough to get 79 mph trains operating there in two or three years, the first trains on the corridor since 1971. This new line has been supported by state government and will reinforce the state’s existing Amtrak network. Though the state wanted $1.53 billion for 110 mph service, it will have to wait.

On the other hand, a line through Fort Wayne in northern Indiana, proposed for a major upgrade on the way to Cleveland, will not be funded in this first phase. That’s an acceptable decision, since Ohio has pledged money to its service while Indiana has not.

North Carolina and Virginia will receive a $620 million grant to increase top speeds to 90 mph between Charlotte and Raleigh, via Durham and Greensboro. Between Richmond and Washington, the state of Virginia will build eleven miles of new track that will form the first segment of the region’s plans for 110 mph service. Both states have been active for more than a decade in funding their own services.

Washington and Oregon have grand plans for a 150 mph, fully separated corridor between their two largest cities, but the federal government’s $598 million grant will on provide enough money for a slight reduction in travel times, two new round trip trains, and better reliability. Service south to Eugene from Portland may see some improvement as well.

Notable for the lack of major proposed investment is the Northeast Region, which will only get $485 million in total from the stimulus’ high-speed rail funds. The Amtrak-operated Northeast Corridor has already been pegged for $706 million in upgrades, funded by a separate source of money.

As part of the stimulus funds, Vermont will get $50 million to reduce trip times to Burlington by 30 minutes within two years. Massachusetts will receive financing to reroute the Vermonter service north of Springfield. Maine will be able to reactivate the 30-mile train line between Portland and Brunswick. Connecticut will get money to build 11 miles of new track along its proposed New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line. New York, contrary to expectations, has not received a full-throated endorsement of its project to upgrade operations between Albany and Buffalo; it will only get limited funds ($151 million) for track upgrades. Several crossing improvements will further speed up trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, which are already the second-fastest in the country.

Iowa and Texas will get small grants to fund minor improvements for their systems. Texas’ huge T-Bone project has not received any funds, for two clear reasons: there is no political advantage in funding a project in a state unlikely to vote Democratic at the national level for the next decade at the least, and the state government has done nothing to fund the project independently — or even approve its exact route.

As a whole, these investments are genuinely exciting; they confirm the administration’s commitment to high-speed rail and they have rewarded states that have invested their own funds in the program. The DOT has chosen projects that are responsible first investments and which will improve rail-based mobility in the affected states. The Administration, despite President Obama’s pledge of a spending freeze, suggests that it’s still ready to provide $5 billion for high-speed rail over the next five years.

But that’s not enough. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) would extend 2010’s commitment of $2.5 billion annually until 2014, which would do more. But for projects like California’s to truly get off the ground without defunding everything else, there will have to be even more money available. The government is going to have to step up: today’s announcement is just a start.

U.S. Invests in High-Speed Rail
(table is sortable)
StateAwards (millions $)Projects
California2344» $2.25 b - ROW, construction on CAHSR
» $51 m - Surfliner service improvements
» $23 m - Capitol service improvements
» $20 m - Train improvements
Florida1250» $1.25 b - 84 miles of new track between Tampa and Orlando
Illinois1236.3» $1.102 b - Improvements to Chicago-St. Louis line for 110 mph
» $133 m - Station and line enhancements along Chicago-Detroit line
» $1.3 m - Planning study
Wisconsin822» $810 m - New stations, implementation of PTC on 80 miles between Milwaukee and Madison
» $12 m - Minor enhancements between Milwaukee and Chicago
Washington590» $590 m - Bypass tracks, upgrades for Seattle-Portland line
North Carolina545» $520 m - Improvements to increase travel speeds to 90 mph on Raleigh-Charlotte line
» $25 m - Congestion mitigation between Raleigh and Richmond
Ohio400» $400 m - Upgrades for rail implementation along 3C corridor between Cleveland and Cincinnati
New York152» $148 m - Improved tracks between Albany and Buffalo
» $3 m - Three miles of new track on Albany-Montréal line
» $1 m - Planning study
Northeast Corridor112» $112 m - Engineering work on Balto dwtn tunnel; other work in RI, NJ, MD, and DC
Virginia75» $75 m - Third track along Richmond-DC line between Arkendale and Powell's Creek
Indiana71» $71 m - Minor rail improvements on Chicago-Detroit line
Massachusetts70» $70 m - Relocation of Vermonter service to more direct route
Vermont50.5» $50 m - Vermonter route improvements
» $500,000 - Planning study
Michigan40» $40 m - Renovations to stations at Troy and Battle Ck; New station in Dearborn
Connecticut40» $40 m - 11 miles of 2nd track between New Haven and Hartford
Maine35» $35 m - 35 miles of track restoration between Portland and Brunswick
Missouri31» $31 m - Improved grade crossings, bridges on line between St. Louis and Kansas City
Pennsylvania27» $26.2 m - Eliminates all grade crossings between Philadelphia and Harriburg
» $800,000 Planning study on extension of 110 mph service to Pittsburgh
Iowa18» $17 m - Four remotely controlled powered crossovers on BNSF Ottumwa subdivision
» $1 m - Planning study
Oregon8» $8 m - Improvements to Portland Union St, engineering on Portland-Eugene line
Texas4» $4 m - Signal timing improvements on Austin-Fort Worth line
Colorado1.4» $1.4 m - Planning study
West Virginia1» $1 m - Planning study
Georgia0.8» $800,000 - Planning study
Minnesota0.6» $600,000 - Planning study for rail improvements to Twin Cities
Delaware0.5» $500,000 - Planning study
Kansas0.3» $300,000 - Planning study
Alabama0.2» $200,000 - Planning study
New Mexico0.1» $100,000 - Planning study
Information from U.S. DOT here and here
Light Rail Triangle NC

North Carolina’s Triangle Questions How Best to Connect a Multipolar Region

» With several urban cores and a major research park at the center, how would fixed-guideway transit work?

North Carolina’s Triangle is known as one of the most economically vibrant areas of the country. Its cities are growing rapidly and their inhabitants, attracted by several prominent universities, are some of the smartest in the country. Decades of population expansion, however, haven’t been followed by serious efforts to concentrate growth around better transit. Indeed, the region is sprawling more than almost any other, with the vast majority of new housing growth in new low-density subdivisions on the margins of the area’s four biggest cities: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. Though downtowns have experienced significant regeneration over the past several years, the lack of efficient transit alternatives has handicapped hopes for further densification.

With more than one million inhabitants and increasing congestion on the area’s most-trafficked arteries, leaders have renewed their hopes of building a rail system that would connect neighborhoods designated for multi-story development. Recent decisions by the state that allow for local sales taxes and a willingness among municipal authorities to push for citizen referendums over the next few years may make such a network possible.

Yet, with several urban cores and the job-filled Research Triangle Park at the center of the region, politicians from a variety of interest groups will have a fight on their hands as they determine how to distribute a limited set of tax revenues. There is no overarching regional authority that runs the panoply of local bus systems today, nor a regional decision-making body. There are serious disagreements about where job growth should be centered. These obstacles will ensure that the implementation of a high-quality rapid transit system in the Triangle doesn’t come easily.

North Carolina leaders came close to moving forward with the construction of a diesel multiple unit line between downtown Durham and North Raleigh in 2004; at that time, the Triangle Transit Authority (now Triangle Transit) was leading the process, had developed an $860 million plan, and had acquired the majority of the right-of-way along the corridor. But in 2005, the Federal Transit Administration significantly altered its rule process for receiving New Starts grants, basically eliminating the plan from consideration and shutting it down. The lack of a strong local tax source was part of the problem, though so were lower-than-necessary ridership estimates.

Leaders came together two years later to form a committee to resuscitate the plan and in 2008 produced a 25-year, $8.2 billion investment project that would include a light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill, a diesel multiple unit link between Durham and North Raleigh, express buses on the most congested roadways, and streetcar or bus circulators in the urban cores. At the same time, the North Carolina Railroad, which controls most of the right-of-way between Durham and Raleigh, began planning a one billion dollar commuter rail plan of its own that would extend from Greensboro to Goldsboro, duplicating most of the Triangle route with service at rush hours.

Meanwhile, in 2009, the state legislature approved a law that allows Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties — the core of the Triangle region — to increase sales taxes by 0.5% for transportation purposes, after a citizen referendum. This month’s announcement that the FTA would alter its New Start guidelines to incorporate livability and reduce their focus on cost-effectiveness, making the Triangle’s project again appropriate for federal funding, have added to the momentum.

With a renewed sense that a rail project is possible in the Triangle and an unprecedented opportunity to raise funds, local politicians are talking seriously about how to move forward. Despite the fact that the mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh are all pro-transit, they have divergent views about which corridors should be first put in service. The county commissioners of the three counties have their own priorities, as do the leaders of the region’s other cities.

If Triangle counties agree to hold a referendum on a sales tax for public transportation in November 2011, as now seems likely, they would be able to get the first lines in operation in about a decade — as long as the public agrees to the deal. Sales tax receipts would be distributed respectively by county, meaning that Wake County (with 870,000 inhabitants), which includes Raleigh and Cary, would get the majority of expenditures. Smaller Durham and Orange Counties (270,000 and 130,000 people, respectively) would be able to spend far less. The rejected earlier transit plan would have had no provisions of spending equity based on county population.

Wake County politicians have interpreted these rules to argue for investing first in a line between Northwest Cary and North Raleigh, through downtown Raleigh and the state capitol complex. They hope to build that 17-mile corridor, which would include nine stations, by 2019. Raleigh leaders have rejected the cheaper diesel multiple unit standard previously promoted and replaced it with light rail, which they consider a better technology.

Meanwhile, Durham and Orange Counties, which share a federally-designated metropolitan planning organization (Raleigh and Cary share another one), are holding discussions about a light rail line between downtown Durham and the University of North Carolina, via southwest Durham; this 15.8-mile project would open by 2023. Chapel Hill, closer to Durham both literally and politically (both are far further to the left than relatively conservative Raleigh), wants better commutes to Duke University and Durham’s 9th Street shopping area, as well as the rapidly improving downtown. South Durham, which has been the focus of rapid, spread-out growth and huge retail complexes, is left out of the picture, reasonably.

In other words, the Research Triangle Park may be excluded from initial investments, even though it is the region’s economic core and the source of its prosperity. Politicians in Raleigh and Chapel Hill argue that its suburban form would make transit there inefficient and poorly used, and they’re probably right. Durham leaders aren’t so sure, since they want a quick connection to Raleigh and most of the Park lies within Durham County borders. But it is true that there are probably more opportunities for redevelopment along the Durham-Chapel Hill line than along the Durham-Cary corridor.

The 16-mile connection between downtown Durham and Northwest Cary would come later — perhaps by 2025. This project would include an improved connection to RDU airport, though there would be no direct service. Ten years later, regional officials want to have lines spewing 9 miles southwest from Cary to Apex and 8 miles north from Raleigh to Wake Forest. Whether any of these lines could be implemented realistically considering the financial limitations of a 1/2-cent sales tax is unclear, especially since a major portion of revenues would go to expanded bus operations.

After all, Charlotte’s Mecklenberg County (population 900,000), which put a similar financing system in place in 1998, has only been able to build one 9.6-mile light rail line and won’t even begin construction on its second corridor until 2011 at the earliest.

Apart from questions of whether Triangle politicians are being realistic in their ambitions — or whether the lines they’re proposing make much economic sense, considering the region’s sprawling nature, limited current bus use, and the weak attraction of the existing urban cores — is why politicians have made a concerted choice to ignore the multipolar identity of the Triangle and instead pretend that it is split into two separate regions. At their most basic, the current proposals would provide Raleigh a light rail line heading in from its western and northern suburbs, and Durham would get a light rail line to the southwest. The goal espoused by planners in the early 2000s of connecting the region’s two largest cities has been laid by the wayside, reserved for a second phase.

In some ways, this downtown-centric policy makes a lot of sense: transit works best when it is oriented towards a job-heavy center city, since it can compete with congested routes and save commuters the cost of downtown parking. But the Triangle is unique, lacking a clear core, with few of the dense in-town neighborhoods most likely to attract transit users and with a large number of jobs in the sprawling auto-oriented research park. As a result, the two lines proposed for initial service probably won’t get many riders, at least compared to peer systems around the country.

An approach aimed directed at combating the area’s multipolar form may have been more appropriate, starting with the Raleigh-Durham inter-city line as originally designed. The most heavily used roadway in the region is I-40 between Raleigh and South Durham; the county-centric proposals wouldn’t address this corridor at all.

Or — hard as it is to admit for this native of Durham — perhaps the Triangle is simply not ready for rail rapid transit. How will trains in any of the corridors mentioned here ever attract adequate use when the biggest core, Raleigh’s downtown, only has 40,000 jobs and just a few thousand residents? When will the trains ever get the kind of traffic that necessitates their higher capacity compared to buses? By comparison, Charlotte’s center city has more than 10,000 inhabitants and 80,000 jobs — and it’s relatively small from the perspective of transit-encouraging cores.

If implemented with rapid lanes on the freeways and dedicated rights-of-way in the downtowns, the region could probably get a whole lot more for its money with an upscale bus rapid transit service. Lines could run directly between Raleigh and Chapel Hill or between Durham and North Raleigh without the inconvenient and time-consuming detours that will limit potential traffic.

But I could be wrong. The region is clearly interested in spending its own funds on these transit projects. The cities do need some kind of structural device to organize and encourage dense development; bus rapid transit wouldn’t do that nearly as well as would light rail. These cities have been sprawling so much that only a radical investment may help them reverse course. Perhaps it’s time to take a chance.

Airport Washington DC

Dulles Airport Replaces Distinctive Mobile Lounge System with AeroTrain

» System marks airport’s advance into the 21st century, but the terminals aren’t necessarily ready.

When it opened in the early 1960s, Washington Dulles Airport was ahead of its time. Its soaring suspended concrete ceiling designed by Eero Saarinen marked a distinctive entry point for visitors arriving to the nation’s capital. Everything about the airport was constructed with the most modern ideas about air travel, including in terms of transportation to and from airplanes. Instead of having travelers descend steps from airplane doors and then walk into the building, the airport’s “mobile lounges” — buses designed to “mate” with airplanes — transported people directly from a dock on the side of the primary terminal to the airplane’s front stoop, where one could simply stroll into a jet.

Over time, the concept grew outmoded. As security measures increased and the number of commuters expanded, waiting around in the main terminal for the appropriate mobile lounge no longer worked as well, as crowding ensued. Eventually, there were too many jets, and Dulles built midfield concourses designed to handle dozens of jets at a time and allow direct walking transfers between flights. They also included jet bridges, whose direct connection to the terminal offered easier access and operations. The direct convenience initially offered by the lounges became a handicap as congestion on the tarmac between the shuttles and aircraft.

The response of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which runs the facility as well as Reagan National Airport, was to build an airport people mover. It opens for service today after seven years of construction. The 3.8-mile AeroTrain cost $1.5 billion and has four underground stations. Many of the airport’s users can now expect faster commutes between check-in desks and planes.

Dulles’ project has become the standard practice for large airports around the world. In opening its people mover along with a new terminal complex in 1971, Tampa became the first city to pioneer the approach. In recent years, cities as diverse as Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis have opened similar mini-trains, which take advantage of the captive audience at airports to move people about efficiently. They have significantly relieved congestion caused by shuttles between terminals at the airports where they’ve been implemented.

Yet Dulles’ method will leave many of the airport’s users in a state of utter disorientation — and do little to reduce travel times for whole segments of the terminals. The fact that the AeroTrain was clearly designed for a more flight-obsessed era doesn’t help matters much, either, since its provisions for future stations will delay current passengers. It demonstrates some of the limits of an expensive fixed-guideway system even in a controlled airport environment.

Part of Dulles’ problem cannot be solved easily with any transit system. With two midfield concourses, both around 4,000 feet long end-to-end, the airport has a difficult arrangement. By comparison, the midfield concourse of Terminal 1 at Chicago’s O’Hare International is only 1,600 feet long. Dulles could have outfitted itself with people movers running the length of its terminal, something that has been implemented in Detroit, but that would be difficult to accomplish with antiquated terminal buildings. As a result, the AeroTrain simply travels between set points, one on each end of the the first concourse (A and B gates) and one on one end of the second concourse (C gates). Because of limitations in available funds, there will be no AeroTrain access to the other end of the second concourse (D gates), which will continue to welcome mobile lounges, as will international arrivals.

As a result, the AeroTrain, which will offer 29 Mitsubishi Crystal Mover rubber-tired vehicles running every two minutes at peak times, won’t help customers attempting to get from one end of a terminal to another. A huge percentage of customers will continue to have long walks to their gates; the linear nature of an airport terminal contrasts severely with the point-centric orientation of a transit system such as AeroTrain. Other airports hoping to implement similar should aim to limit the length of terminals — an airport station can only be convenient for people who feel comfortable walking to gates with heavy bags.

Even more difficult is the fact that the station designed for C gates is located five hundred feet away from the building itself, accessible only via an underground moving walkway. That’s because AeroTrain was built with Dulles’ future expansion in mind, which would theoretically involve the tearing down of C and D gates (which were supposed to be temporary when first built) and the construction of three new midfield concourses and a new south terminal. If that complex were ever built, it the AeroTrain would be expanded into a 10-mile loop with 10 stations.

The problem for Dulles’ planners is that there is no money for those new facilities, and growth in air traffic has slowed tremendously since the project was first conceived. If high-speed rail proponents get their way, it will slow even more — a trend that should force the airport authority to reevaluate whether it needs to plan for any expansion at all. In that case, the station for the C Gates probably should have been built directly adjacent, rather than several hundred feet away. In this case, there is clearly a downside to thinking too far ahead.

Nonetheless, in some ways Dulles will become a better airport as a result of this large investment. The main terminal AeroTrain station has four underground levels (pictured above) and is as long as the whole building. It is built in a way that prevents conflict between arriving and departing passengers by having them exit vehicles on opposite sides. Meanwhile, security facilities, which have cluttered the historic Saarinen structure, will be moved into newly expanded space underground, not only improving passenger experience, but facilitating movement to the transit system and eventually to gates.

The opening of the AeroTrain coincides with the construction of the Dulles Metro project, which will extend Metrorail service from East Falls Church to the airport and then Loudoun County by 2016. MWAA is also in charge of that program, and it has probably learned some valuable experience about building a major transit system from the construction of AeroTrain.

Image above: Dulles Airport AeroTrain Station, from Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

Finance President

A Spending Freeze

» President Obama’s appeal to fiscal conservatives is likely to result in little substantial change, but it’s exactly the wrong message.

On Wednesday, President Obama will give his State of the Union address to the Congress, and next Monday he will release his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011. Late yesterday, staff aids leaked the news that the speech would include a pledge to veto any budget that didn’t freeze non-defense and non-security discretionary spending at $447 billion. The freeze would be set for three years, followed by spending increases limited by inflation. The goal would be to reduce federal spending by around $250 billion over ten years.

Discretionary spending does not affect mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, which are financed through other funds.

Mr. Obama has no direct control over the budget; final decisions about the funding of federal agencies are made after months of negotiations between the two houses of Congress. As a result, the President’s proposals are unlikely to see the light, since Democrats on the left will balk at the idea of cuts in departmental financing and Republicans have proven themselves unwilling to compromise on almost anything.

But the message the President is planning to send on Wednesday with his proposed spending freeze — a policy close to that advocated by John McCain during the campaign — makes very clear the kind of government he wants to lead; one can’t help but note a similarity with President Clinton’s 1996 announcement that “the era of big government is over.” Mr. Obama seems willing to compromise the political ideals he may have held at the beginning of his Presidency and replace them with an appeal for conservative support. Any hope for an American political realignment following the 2008 election has been firmly put to rest here.

For those who would suggest that the U.S. has done too little to support its flailing economy, specifically through major investments in infrastructure, the President’s statements will be a major let-down. His, and his party’s, unwillingness to force through tax increases for the purposes of financing important social legislation this year foreshadowed this new move. If the best this “progressive” president can do is call for a spending freeze in the middle of a recession — exactly the opposite policy from what economists suggest creates jobs — what can be expected from the conservatives who will inevitably follow him?

In the short term, what’s most depressing about Mr. Obama’s efforts to regain financial accountability — the U.S. debt is exploding as I write — is that even if the Congress does agree to budget cuts, they will likely be aimed towards policies that affect the most vulnerable. The House and the Senate have had decades to lower Washington’s commitment to expensive and wasteful spending on things like agriculture subsidies, but, if anything, politicians on both sides of the aisle have only worked to increase them. Mr. Obama may suggest reasonable reductions, but the Congress will pick programs that have little electoral support, and that usually means aid for the poor. The Senate is likely to reject a non-partisan deficit task force this week, solidifying the sense that elected officials are likely to work for projects that “objectively” might be considered wasteful.

It is possible that the Administration chooses to increase funding for the DOT in this budget, with corresponding cuts elsewhere; we’ll have to wait for the budget release on Monday to find out more.

The negative effects of Mr. Obama’s spending freeze on the transportation sector may not be immediately apparent, but they will be important nonetheless. As the chart at the top of this piece shows, total U.S. discretionary spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has been decreasing basically uniformly since the 1960s. Spending on non-defense programs peaked at around 5.5% of GDP in the late 1970s and now represents around 3.5% of the economy. The consequences of this long-term reduction in financing social and infrastructure programs is obvious: increasing economic inequality and huge deficits in the maintenance and upgrade of transportation and other public utilities.

In other words, the spending freeze solidifies the current problems with the government: it does nothing to reduce massive defense and security expenditures and it makes no attempt to tackle the much larger financial problems related to “mandatory” spending on commitments like Medicare. It’s a blatant attempt to calm populist fears of too much government, while doing nothing to actually address the structural issues relating to long-term financial obligations to social programs. Meanwhile, the agencies that are to be sacrificed, including likely the Department of Transportation, contribute little to the deficit and, even better, are best suited to creating jobs — exactly the policy for which the Administration is claiming to be working.

Investments in projects like new transit or high-speed rail can be efficient in creating jobs and reorienting the society towards a sustainable lifestyle — but they require large government allocations. The President must demonstrate confidence in the ability of these programs to be effective, but his “spending freeze” will encourage the idea that federal spending is wasteful. How can transportation advocates push for more financing of such projects when Mr. Obama is solidifying their opponents’ claims that they are pork?

This announcement makes it difficult to believe the Administration is going to take adequate steps towards developing new revenue sources for the transportation program. Over the past year, it has proven itself increasingly susceptible to compromising its initial aims by diluting policy objectives to the benefit of conservatives — despite the fact that Democrats hold major majorities in Washington and Republicans are simply not interested in working with the President.

Update: Note Paul Krugman’s post this morning.

Image above: Discretionary spending as a percentage of gross domestic product since 1962, from Congressional Budget Office, with minor edits.