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Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide

» Developing common goals is more productive than forcing a merger of regional transportation agencies. An authority for Detroit comes closer.

If there’s anything Detroit needs most, it may be regional cooperation, where it finds itself distinctively behind the times. While some major cities like New York or San Francisco are large and wealthy enough to be able to close themselves off politically from the surroundings, Michigan’s largest metropolis benefits from neither of those characteristics, so it must find ways to make agreements with nearby municipalities.

Frequently mentioned is the idea of a regional transportation district, which would coordinate funding and spending activities at the metropolitan scale. A proposal for one is currently being considered in the Michigan legislature. But it’s not clear that the creation of such an agency will resolve some of the structural issues complicating politics in this metropolis.

The biggest problem is the metropolitan area’s racial and class disconnect: While the city is largely poor and black, surrounding areas in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne Counties (the city is a part of the latter), which are its nearest neighbors, are mostly middle class and white. These differences — perhaps the starkest inner city/suburban divide in the country — have resulted in opposing decision-making about issues of metropolitan concern, including land use, the environment, and of course transportation.

The existing public transportation system is particularly balkanized, with inner-city trips being provided by the city’s DOT and connections between downtown and the suburbs by an agency called SMART, originally formed in 1967. This has produced a number of operational and perceptual difficulties, certainly not aiding in matters. To make matters more confusing, the M-1 Rail streetcar line planned to run 3.4 miles from downtown to the New Center along Woodward Avenue is to be built by a private consortium.

Hoping to stave off the further decline of their region — Detroit is one of only six large metro areas (of 52 larger than one million) that actually lost population between 2000 and 2009 — local leaders have called for greater cooperation, notably in the form of a regional transportation district, which would have the power to collect revenues from multiple counties and then be able to spend those funds on upgraded roads and transit. Detroit politicians have noted with interest the success of cities like Los Angeles and Denver in promoting such agencies and the resulting growth in their respective transit systems.

The problem for Detroit is two-fold: one, such a regional transportation district is unlikely to pass through the Democratically-controlled Michigan House, let alone the Republican-held Senate, neither of which have been particularly enthusiastic about increasing local funding; two, neither the City of Detroit nor Oakland County is particularly enamored with the current proposal, the first because of its conviction that the tax should come before the agency, the second because of its criticism of labor protections included in the bill.

Editorial boards for several of the local newspapers have suggested that the region must move past local parochial concerns if it is to find a way to survive the upcoming decades, which are unlikely to be any less difficult for Michigan than has been the recent past. And indeed, everyone, from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing on down, seems to agree that regional cooperation is necessary, and that transit corridors in the city would eventually benefit the suburbs.

But the assumption that the creation of a five-member authority with control over the region’s transportation finances will solve problems ignores the vastly different needs and wants of the inhabitants of different parts of the region. It seems useless to move forward with such a transportation district without first establishing regional, coinciding goals. Otherwise, the transportation district — even outfitted with a large amount of money under its control — could collapse into an infighting monster, certainly not anyone’s ideal outcome.

At the moment, Detroit’s biggest stumbling block seems to be the choice between a variety of potential future transportation modes. While many of the suburban areas are campaigning for a 67-mile “golden triangle” bus rapid transit system, the city has focused its resources on an eight-mile long version of the Woodward streetcar line. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor, 40 miles to the west, continues to campaign for a commuter rail connection. None of these projects seems likely to be fully built out without the support of a new regional transit district and its new revenue source. But the expectation that all programs could be constructed using the funds — as a sort of grand compromise necessary to getting both suburban and urban leaders on board — also seems unrealistic (especially in a time when SMART is seeing serious fiscal difficulties). Someone will have to choose what to prioritize at some point.

The example of Charlotte, North Carolina is worth highlighting. Back in 1998, the city and the surrounding towns in Mecklenburg County joined together in a Metropolitan Transportation Commission designed to eventually allocate funds received from a new 1/2-cent sales tax. A series of rapid transit projects designed by the Commission were supposed to provide services to every town — it was a “let them all eat cake” situation. Like most areas, however, Charlotte has seen a vast decrease in collections over the past few months, and its expansion program has been massively cut, with even the full extension of the popular recently built light rail line likely to be delayed for years.

Now, the city and its suburban partners are stuck in a rut. The city’s priority is an inner-city streetcar, whereas towns to the north want a commuter rail line. Because of the make-up of the regional Commission, those latter interests will inherently win out — because they represent a majority of the votes on the board, and because if they don’t support the transit system’s advancement, they could simply pull out altogether, leaving the center city in an impossible situation with inadequate funds to get anything done. A similar situation is plaguing recession-hit Dallas as well, which has had to compromise a downtown light rail route in favor of one heading towards the suburban city of Irving.

The existence of the regional transit district in itself, in other words, cannot ensure regional agreement about how to proceed with investments when there is a limited budget. Though Charlotte and Dallas have indeed been able to construct major new transit projects over the past decade, their advancement was largely due to a growing economy that made projects throughout the region possible. Adjusting to new fiscal realities won’t be easy for any of these cities; their transit authorities are not guaranteed to stay intact once certain areas of the region are denied funding for their desperately wanted new projects.

Thus, instead of rushing into an inter-municipal compact, Detroit might want to focus on first developing solutions that appeal to everyone involved. Everyone should agree on the same priority list — with funds to be spent in a clear order, if and when money is available. Establishing such a compromise may be an intractable quest, but so may be creating a functional regional commission during tough economic times.

Image above: Downtown Detroit Rosa Parks Transit Center, from Flickr user Buddahbless


Weekend Links

» This week’s big news. Open thread in the comments.

Follow my Twitter account (@ttpolitic) to get news in real time.

On The Transport Politic:


  • Los Angeles is building one of the nation’s large rail rapid transit systems today, but it has had a variety of ideas for solving its congestion problems over the years. In 1954, it put together a proposal for a series of downtown bus tunnels. Suffice it to say, the concept didn’t go very far.

(Unrealistic?) Plans:

  • Nashville pulls together a proposal to spend $5 billion on transit expansion over the next few decades. It plans to invest in a series of dedicated rail and bus lines.
  • North Carolina hopes to extend its intercity rail network from the state capital at Raleigh to the Atlantic coast at Wilmington.
  • Baton Rouge and New Orleans hope to link up via new rail services, despite complete opposition from Governor Bobby Jindal.

Good ideas might win out after all:

  • Caltrain becomes the first operator in the country to receive authorization from the Federal Railroad Administration to run lightweight electric multiple units on a corridor shared with diesel trains, writes Robert Cruickshank at the California High-Speed Rail Blog. It’s a major coup for the Bay Area and commuter rail systems in general, which may save on vehicle purchasing and corridor construction costs.
  • The District of Columbia approves funding for streetcars, thanks to an intense social media campaign run by people like David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. This just a day after the program’s future was up in the air.
  • Elana Schor reports at Streetsblog that eight Democratic Senators have announced their support for up to two billion dollars in emergency operations funds for desperate transit operators.

Adapting to change:

Image above: Potential Caltrain electric multiple unit vehicle, from Caltrain


There’s More to Life than Transit Expansion

Cities in the United States are almost universally lacking in adequate transit provision, both in terms of capacity and services provided. These limitations are at least partially to blame for the limited use of public transportation by Americans and inform the primary focus of this website, the expansion of bus and rail networks from coast to coast.

It is from this perspective that I disagreed so adamantly last week with Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, who has argued that transit systems must prioritize ensuring adequate support for existing services while cutting down on major extension plans for rapid transit. Despite the great costs involved, our transportation infrastructure is so weak that we have no choice but to invest in both expanded operations and the construction of new lines — in most cities. The federal government has a responsibility to play a major role on both those fronts.

Yet my previous discussion — and most of what I write here — are unfortunately remiss in their general indifference to the needs of communities too small, too sprawling, too un-urban to ever benefit seriously from the new transit systems I extoll weekly.

I want to make clear as I write this that that neglect is primarily a consequence of the focus of this website on dense inner cities. But I am troubled by the feeling that my writing is giving off the incorrect impression that I either do not recognize the existence of places outside of urban cores or that I simply do not care to think of ways to approach their problems.

On the contrary.

While I have no intention of reframing The Transport Politic entirely towards addressing the transportation dilemmas faced by the inhabitants of suburban and rural communities, I pledge to make more of an effort to incorporate them seriously in my thinking and writing on the issues discussed here. There are, after all, far more people in the United States living outside of center cities than in them.

This means a greater recognition of the fact that transit cannot provide universal mobility any time soon, and that automobiles will continue to provide an important role in connecting disparate populations. This means a renewed focus on the neighborhood as the essential building block in constructing a more livable city. This means an intense examination of where transit works and where its usefulness falls apart.

As much as I believe I have a responsibility as someone who dissects transportation issues day in and day out to better recognize the varying needs of the broader population, however, I am equally convinced that other members of the mobility field must do the same. The heavily auto-oriented interests of state departments of transportation, AASHTO, and other industry lobbies generally intent on simply magnifying the existing status quo are collectively failing to imagine different and better ways for our society to move about.

Those who call for continued massive investment in automobile lanes simply because that’s how people get about today are refusing to recognize the possibility of an alternative future. Those who do so are ignoring the massive and negative social consequences of the dependence on private vehicles that we just can’t kick.

Their continued obsession with highway expansion may be addressing more directly the mobility needs of suburbanites today than are my repeated calls for better buses and rail, but that roads focus will do nothing to improve the nation’s environmental sustainability or aid in its distribution of the movement of as broad a segment of the population as possible. These overarching goals — applicable to all Americans — cannot be ejected out the tailpipe in favor of some populist sentiment in favor of car infrastructure.

The fact of the matter is that we ought to strive to be a multi-modal society and we should be multi-modal people. We must fulfill our collective transportation needs in the most appropriate ways in each situation, at a pace that avoids unnecessary dogmatism.

Bikes Paris

Paris Unveils Four-Year Cycling Plan With Aim to Reinforce Velib’ Bike Share

» Two major axes will service 65 “biking neighborhoods” throughout the city. Dedicated bike lanes will increase from 273 miles today to 435 miles by 2014.

If Velib’ has changed the face of Paris by providing it the largest bike sharing system in the world with 1,800 stations and more than 20,000 bikes, there’s still plenty of work to be done in the French capital. After nine years of slow but steady improvements originating from an environmentally minded city hall, Paris is about to hit the accelerator pedal.

The new plan, to be presented in early June to the city council, where it is virtually guaranteed passage, will increase the number of bike lanes within this 40.7 square mile city from 273 miles today (most built since 2001) to 435 miles in 2014. Two major axes — one running east-west from the Bois de Vincennes to the Bois de Boulogne and the other north-south, will be designed for heavy traffic. One thousand new bike parking spaces will be added to the city’s streets every year, and bike boxes, allowing cyclists to get priority treatment at intersections, will be painted in across the city. Connections to the suburbs will be reinforced through the reconstruction of ten city “gates.” And starting this July, 65 neighborhoods, making up about half the city’s land area, will be converted to prioritize biking, with two-way travel allowed even on streets reserved for one-way car traffic.

By 2020, most of the city’s major streets will have dedicated bike lanes and the network will begin to extend out into the near suburbs.

Paris’ project, led by Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, is not revolutionary in concept — most of what is being done has been done in parts of the city before — but rather in scale. The sheer size of the city’s investments, which will bring bike infrastructure within feet of all of the city’s residents, is likely to continue the increase in the mode share of alternative transportation.

And the city is developing a social strategy to encourage cycling even more. A “maison du vélo” will welcome inhabitants who have questions specifically about getting around by bike; kids in elementary school will be exposed to cycling in tours and classes; the city’s employees will be encouraged to make their trips by bike, with 400 vehicles already dedicated for the purpose; and a new Villes Velib’ cooperative will encourage a dialogue between Paris and its suburban peers in an attempt to integrate the region by bike.

Paris’ Sunday street program, which has already resulted in the closing of several neighborhoods to motorized traffic on Sundays and holidays, is planned to be generalized throughout the “biking neighborhoods,” where maximum travel speeds of 19 mph will be enforced. Parks, some of which had been closed to cyclists, are now all open to bike travel.

There is no guaranteed way to increase the number of people using bicycles and other low-impact transportation modes in a city. But the wholehearted embrace of the mode through a dedicated plan for infrastructure that prioritizes bicycles, funded and guaranteed by a focused city council, is sure to encourage it. Now that American cities have begun to follow Paris with similar bike sharing programs, we need to see similar initiatives here.

Image above: Paris Bike Plan, from Ville de Paris

Charlotte Light Rail

Charlotte’s Northeast Corridor Light Rail Line Underfunded, Likely to be Shortened

» Extension of the city’s successful first rail transit line, now years behind schedule, is to be further delayed.

Just weeks before the opening of their first light rail line in November 2007, Charlotte’s voters affirmed their commitment to the city’s transit expansion, voting by a large margin to continue the collection of a dedicated half-cent sales tax first approved in 1998. Their endorsement of the city’s public transportation was founded on the sense that Charlotte’s growth needed to be reconfigured around walkability and transit use. One place everyone in this New South city did not want to imitate was Atlanta, whose unchecked sprawl is not particularly appealing.

The 10-mile South light rail line, from Center City to I-485 via the South End, has seen ridership shoot far above initial expectations. And the city’s bus system has seen ridership double since 2000, from 34,000 daily riders to 77,000.

CATS, the city’s transit system, laid out a plan in 2006 (furthering a proposal from 1998) to extend the reach of the rapid transit network with five new lines radiating from downtown in the form of light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and streetcars. Most promising was the 11-mile Northeast line, which would extend the existing light rail corridor by 2013 from downtown past the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to I-485 and attract almost 20,000 riders a day by 2030.

Yet the effects of the recession have been particularly difficult for Charlotte, which endured not only the loss of tax revenues common in every American city, but which also had its primary employer, Wachovia Bank, get bought up by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo. By early 2009, it was clear that the ambitions behind the plans just three years before were way out of reach — the Northeast Corridor, now the only project advancing much at all, would be delayed to 2019. A streetcar line planned for downtown would have to be sponsored by the city if it were to be built.

Now that the effects of the poor economy have settled in, the future of the city’s transit network is in doubt: The Northeast corridor’s full reach could be shrunk to just four or five miles in face of declining funds, with the rest delayed virtually indefinitely.

The biggest problem is that Charlotte’s tax revenues haven’t kept up with expectations. CATS will receive $60 million in returns this year, about the same as was collected five years ago. Much like Dallas and Denver, the city estimated large increases in revenue when it planned the construction of its transit network, but it now has hardly enough to maintain its bus system.

At a cost of $1.14 billion, the Northeast corridor would be more than twice as expensive as the city’s first light rail line, far too much for CATS to afford even though it is planning to contribute only a quarter of the project’s construction costs, with the federal government likely to make a commitment for half and the State of North Carolina pitching in 25%. When originally discussed, the project was supposed to cost $741 million. Thus the announcement that the program’s length will be substantially cut to a $350-400 million segment from Center City to Sugar Creek Road, just four miles northeast of downtown.

For the sake of the system’s ridership potential, this could cause major difficulties. Unlike the South corridor, which ran through a wealthy area that was already undergoing densification, the first few miles of the Northeast line don’t reach much, with the exception of the still-small NoDa arts district in the environs of 36th Street. The big ridership generator — the university north of town — would be left for a future phase.

The city’s planners note that the Sugar Creek station would be the first on the Northeast line with a park and ride, so commuters coming in from the northern suburbs could park there before heading into downtown. The South corridor has seen significant ridership at its southernmost I-485 station, where virtually all users come by car. Yet that stop is located directly adjacent to an interstate highway, not true of the planned Sugar Creek station; how many drivers will go out of their way to park their car and then travel by train just four miles into downtown? Only when the line extends all the way to the northern limits of the city, at the other side of the circumferential I-485 road, will the Northeast corridor be able to attract a significant number of people who are driving.

Nonetheless, there’s not much else that Charlotte can do. With few funds for network expansion, it may be useful to invest in a short extension of the existing line if that’s all the city can afford. For the long-term, however, this region may need to find a new source of transportation funds if it wants to get anything big done.

Update, 26 May: Olaf Kinard, CATS Director of Marketing and Communications wrote me with the following comment:

“CATS has not announced nor has any plans to phase in the Northeast Corridor.  If you are referencing your story on The Charlotte Observer article, they took liberties with a hypothetical questions they posed about the technical ability of where the closest stop would be in which the line could open up.  CATS did not announce any change in our plans to build out the entire Northeast line to the end of the line.  You also mentioned that CATS had estimated large increases in sales tax which is the cause of a funding issues.  This is not the case.  Financial projections of future sales tax revenues were based on average rates of increases.  The issue that all transit systems and businesses are faced with is that the recession caused a significant drop in the revenues and thus a new base from which to grow from.  CATS is currently pulling in sales tax revenue at a level equivalent to the 2004/ 2005 annual level.  Projecting that new base out 10 years at a conservative rate of increase of approximately 3% creates a $350 million difference from the 2006 projects during the same time.  This issue is caused by the new lower based caused by the recession not the cost of the projects.”

Image above: Charlotte Northeast Corridor Rail map, from CATS