Infrastructure Urbanism Washington DC

Expanding Downtown

» Debating growth limits in a downtown? Consider transportation.

Washington, D.C. is a lucky city: Its downtown has been filled up with new construction over the past few decades to such an extent that it has virtually no space for new office buildings. Some, like Matt Yglesias, have suggested that one way to resolve this problem would be to increase densities by ridding the city of its height limit, which in essence makes it impossible to build structures in the city that are over about 10 stories. Lydia Depillis, another local commenter, has argued that the municipality still has plenty of developable sites which, though they may not be directly downtown, still offer opportunities for more office space.

What would be the manifestations of these different approaches? How can we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of upzoning the center city for more office space? Is our goal to produce vital, walkable, and dense downtown districts, or simply to expand new construction there, no matter the use?

The missing ingredient in this discussion is transportation. When we discuss the demand in downtowns like Washington’s for more office space, we sometimes make an assumption that the transport network will be able to handle whatever is thrown at it. In fact, there is a direct relationship between a downtown’s growth and the transportation provided to it. In general, businesses want to locate their offices in places that are accessible and that provide the benefits of agglomeration, and this sometimes means downtown, but not always. If the trip to and from the center — by whatever mode — becomes too arduous, there are significant reasons to locate outside of it. How does this fact apply to a place like Washington?

Once a downtown — which I will define as a traditional single-use American CBD — reaches a certain size, once it provides employment for a certain number of people, it has three basic options:

  • One, it can do nothing to its transportation network, in which case the downtown has no capacity to absorb increasing growth. In these cases, residential uses become more important since the relative land values demanded for office space decrease (as it is harder for more people to enter into the downtown from elsewhere and there is more interest in walking to and from work). This is arguably what has happened to places like Chicago’s West and South Loop, where almost all recent development there has been in the form of residential towers despite the close proximity to the downtown core.
  • Two, it can expand or improve transportation through the highway network, in which case parking lots become increasingly valuable and may displace existing buildings. This was the choice cities like Houston took since 1950, sacrificing what had once been walkable neighborhoods for an automobile-dominated core.
  • Three, it can expand or improve transportation through the transit network (bus and/or rail), in which case higher densities become increasing valuable and taller buildings may replace shorter ones or parking lots. This has happened in Washington, D.C. since the construction of Metro beginning in the 1970s.

The discussion in Washington has hinged around the opposite side of the conversation, focusing on land use instead of transportation. The argument, asserted by people like Stephen Smith, suggests that the problem is that the government is exerting inappropriate control over densities by limiting heights and the result is that rents in the office core are increasing far higher than they would were there to be skyscrapers.

The problem is compounded by the fact that downtown Washington’s growth is limited, notes Ryan Avent, by the fact that outlying neighborhoods are stuck to one- or two-story buildings (and there is little push to challenge that condition), so the Paris approach, in which the entire city is made up of 6 to 10 story buildings, is not much of an alternative, either.

These arguments are compelling: mini-downtowns in the suburbs, such as along Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, can absorb some of the growth, but there is clearly strong demand for continued concentration in the center city.

Whether this is a long-term phenomenon, however, depends on the transportation provided into the downtown. Imagine that the height limits in Washington were lifted — or, at least, buildings twice as high could be built. In the short-term, this would surely produce the desired effects, allowing downtown to absorb more of the region’s job growth, reduce office rents, and aiding in the continued gentrification of the city as a whole.

In the longer-term, however, as the city’s downtown building stock is gradually replaced, the worker density in the center of the city would roughly double. Would this be sustainable?

If the city’s transportation network remains as it is, mostly relying on the existing Metro network and a functioning, if not great, bus system, this would cause significant problems. Here’s why: Much of the Metro system is already at capacity during peak hours. In essence, today’s transportation network is designed with a capacity roughly equivalent to what is generated under the current height limit.

Moreover, road expansion is simply not an option, not only because there is no room for new highways into downtown but also because, as already stated, a focus on roads-based transportation encourages downtowns to be transformed into automobile-based neighborhoods.

As the transit system becomes more congested, because of job expansion and a lack of transportation improvements, the cost of transportation into the core — in terms of time and money — will increase. This will reduce the appeal of locating offices downtown and encourage new construction to be residential rather than office-based. Is this desirable for Washington? Does the city want a mixed-use core or a office-based one?

The alternative is allowing an increase in zoning along with an improvement in the transportation network. This may seem obvious, but Washington has not yet committed the funds to an expansion of the Metro network or serious improvements to the bus corridors, putting in question the viability of a lifting of the height limits. The downtown’s growth must be approached by considering transportation and land use in complement with one another.

Image above: Downtown Washington, DC from Flickr user Ken Lund (cc)

Honolulu Metro Rail

Rapid Transit Closer to Realization as Honolulu’s Rail Project Breaks Ground

» $5.5 billion, automated rail corridor is expected to attract 100,000 daily riders once it is completed in 2019.

A week after the Federal Transit Administration recommended it for New Starts funding, Honolulu’s rapid transit project took a step forward today with a ceremonial groundbreaking. The massive scheme, which will extend 20 miles from downtown to East Kapolei once construction is finished in 2019, will radically redefine transport on Oahu, offering residents a true alternative to traffic-plagued surface streets and highways.

Honolulu and the surrounding municipalities — incorporated into Honolulu County — are hemmed in by a geography whose natural barriers make the tropical metropolis practically ideal for fixed-guideway transit like the system that is now being designed. With mountains to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, there is little room for the city to expand, so the only place it can go is up. The “Manhattanization” of downtown and nearby Waikiki over the past few decades is representative of this trend. And transit is a popular way to get around — The Bus, the local transit agency, carries 236,000 daily riders, and the city has a transit work commute share of more than 10%, which is the highest of any major city without rail in the United States and about the same as the City of Portland.

Honolulu is not enormous: The city (officially, the Census-designated place) has about 375,000 residents while the island as a whole has 900,000. But the deficit of space means there is no room for expanded roads infrastructure, and the lack of adequate public transit infrastructure operating in its own guideway poses a serious threat to the health of the region. Without better transportation, the city will not be able to densify further. Current decentralization trends, pushing habitation into previously untouched parts of the island, will be unstoppable.

Thus the likely commitment of the federal government to the rail project sometime in the next year or so is good news for Honolulu and Hawai’i as a whole, since the city serves as the state’s economic engine. Of $5.5 billion in construction costs to cover the 20 miles and 21 stations, Washington proposes to contribute $1.55 billion ($250 million in Fiscal Year 2012) — as long as the New Starts program continues to be funded. The city, which introduced a 1/2¢ sales tax in 2005, will cover the rest. Real construction activity will not begin for several more months.

The alignment, which roughly parallels the curve of the south Oahu coast, hits most of the major destinations in the metropolitan area, including downtown, the airport, and two institutions of higher learning (including one now being built). Especially when considering already high ridership along similar routes, the 2030 estimates of 116,300 daily riders do not seem impossible. And relatively short extensions west into Kapolei, northeast to the University of Hawaii-Manoa, southeast to Waikiki, and north into the Salt Lake neighborhood would make the line even more desirable if they are ever funded and built.

Despite the clear need for improved transportation systems in Honolulu, however, the project’s gestation has been difficult. Previous rail transit proposals were cancelled in 1981 and 1992 and a planned bus rapid transit line was abandoned in 2004. The arrival of Mufi Hannemann in the mayor’s office in early 2005, though, brought significant political support for a new rail line. The mayor pushed through the transit tax and won a hard-fought election against a rail opponent in 2008, as well as a voter endorsement of the project. A fight with Governor Linda Lingle, who argued that the project was too expensive to justify its costs, ensued.

Yet the recent election of Governor Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle, both of whom assumed office in 2010, represented a major step forward, as each have been solid defenders of the project. As construction moves forward, the city will benefit from this show of support from the municipal and state governments.

It is true that the project remains under debate on both aesthetic and land use grounds.

The elevated nature of the system has a number of advantages: It will allow trains to run much more quickly between the ends of the island (at almost 30 mph on average) than would be possible with an at-grade light rail corridor running through intersections, and it will offer automated trains, allowing high frequencies even off-peak (6 minute maximum) and lower labor costs because of the lack of train drivers.

Nonetheless, the elevated guideway will not be a particularly beautiful addition to the Hawai’i landscape, and in some places it could represent a barrier between the city and its waterfront. The alignment will require 20 residences and 66 businesses to be bulldozed. It is also expensive: A ground-level light rail line or a busway could probably be built for fewer funds. Yet neither would provide the kind of mobility benefits the automated rail line would.

Moreover, opponents of the project suggest that its appeal — fast transit times from downtown to the far west side of the island — will encourage sprawl in areas around the planned university and in Kapolei. Indeed, there are already proposals on the books for a giant project with thousands of homes that will shift patterns of house-building activity to this area. Is it worth paving over now-agricultural land for the purposes of building park-and-rides with the assumption that in the future these areas will become transit-oriented cities of their own?

But Doug Carlson, writing on his site, poses a different question: Does Honolulu have any choice? Given that the city will continue to increase in population, the number of automobiles running up and down its highways will only ramp-up as well. Assuming that growth is inevitable, the city might have no option but to promote new communities designed for commuting by public transit. In that case, this rail project seems completely justifiable.

Bay Area Metro Rail

New BART Station Brings Infill Thinking to the Bay Area

» A new stop at West Dublin/Pleasanton could attract new riders and transit-oriented development without requiring further line extensions.

With 104 miles of track and just 43 stations, the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system may have the most widely-spaced stopping pattern of almost any rapid transit system in the world. One wonders whether those huge inter-station distances reduce ridership by making it too difficult for people to get to and from stops by foot. Washington’s Metro, which was built in essentially the same period, has almost the same track length but twice as many stations — perhaps that is one of the primary reasons that it also has nearly twice as many daily riders?

Today, BART has taken a step forward to remediate the matter, opening a new stop at West Dublin/Pleasanton in the median of I-580, near the freeway’s junction with I-680. It is the first infill station — a stop constructed along an operating rail right-of-way — for the system and fills what had been a 10-mile gap between Castro Valley and Dublin/Pleasanton stations in the far southeast section of the region. The station cost $106 million to build and is expected to attract 4,300 daily users. $20 million of the construction funds were sponsored by Jones Lang Lasalle, a developer that plans 210 housing units, office space, and a hotel within walking distance.

The station was originally planned as a part of the Dublin/Pleasanton Extension, which opened in 1997, but implementation was delayed. The project also added 1,200 parking spaces for the large car-commuting population expected to use the stop. Reverse commuters, however, may also be expected to use the stop: It is within close distance of the Stoneridge Shopping Center and the Safeway Grocery Store headquarters.

Like Washington’s New York Avenue Station, which opened in 2004 — 28 years after the rail line on which it is located was constructed — the West Dublin/Pleasanton Station represents a new way of thinking about the right way to plan transit investments. Though BART continues to focus on suburban extensions — projects to Livermore, San Jose, and Antioch are either under construction or planned — it has plenty of room for infill stations.

These have a number of significant advantages over line extensions. For one, it costs less money to build a new station along an existing corridor than to extend the same line further out. In addition, by adding service to a neighborhood that has been overlooked by initial investments, the new station can encourage new transit-oriented projects in-town instead of encouraging further suburbanization. When done right, these sort of infill projects can bring welcome improvements for neighborhoods that suffer from a dearth of walkable urban areas — and they can be very popular, as has been proven by the new construction around the BART Fruitvale Station in East Oakland.

From an investment perspective, building infill stations could be an appropriate response to limited funding for new transit capital projects, especially since it appears private developers may be interested in helping to chip in for construction costs. There are good reasons to build new transit lines in dense sections of the Bay Area, but especially in the East Bay, there are plenty of opportunities for infill stations to fill the 2 or 3-mile gaps between stations. Though these would marginally slow down services from the far suburbs, they would more than make up for that loss by greatly increasing the number of people living in already developed areas within easy walking distance of rapid transit.

It is too bad, however, that apart from the West Dublin/Pleasanton Station, BART has no infill stations planned. Nor is it alone on this matter: Cities with extensive commuter rail and subway networks in the United States, including New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, have been more interested on extending their lines out into the suburbs than filling them in. One notable exception is Boston, where four new stations are planned to be added to the Fairmount line to add to the transit options for people living in underserved neighborhoods south of downtown.

Image above: BART’s new West Dublin/Pleasanton Station, from BART

Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando Tampa

Florida Governor Rick Scott Rejects Funding for Tampa-Orlando Intercity Rail Project

» Despite its capital costs being almost entirely covered by Washington and plenty of evidence that private investors want to move forward, project is off the tracks for now.

Just days after the White House revealed its ambitions for a $53 billion, six-year plan for an American high-speed rail network, the place where it was all supposed to begin now appears to be out of the running. Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) announced that he would refuse $2.4 billion in federal funds to build a rail line between Orlando and Tampa. The project’s construction would have required $280 million in state aid to be completed, but projections had indicated that the line would cover its own operating costs.

The Obama Administration has funded the project more than any other outside of California and hoped that the scheme, which would have opened in 2016 as the first line in a nationwide network, would serve as a model for the rest of the country. Numerous private corporations — including international conglomerates such as Siemens, Alstom, and JR East — have indicated that they would be willing to pick up the state’s tab and cover construction and operations risks, in exchange for the right to operate the trains.

Yet Mr. Scott has moved to squash the project nonetheless, acting before those companies were supposed to respond to the state high speed rail authority’s request for proposals. This is a shortsighted move that will only benefit others: The federal funding will be redistributed to projects in states such as California and Illinois.

Citing concerns that the project’s costs would spin out of control and that taxpayers would be burdened with operating subsidies, Mr. Scott argued that fiscal prudence gave him no choice. The Governor apparently has no trust in the private companies he claims to laud, failing to give them a chance to demonstrate their interest in the project. He apparently has no interest in offering his citizens the opportunity to pioneer a mode of transportation that has been repeatedly scuttled, in Florida and elsewhere, by the distinctively American ability to ignore the potential benefits of intercity rail.

Indeed, while the Governor’s decision may have been framed in a rhetoric of financial austerity, the hastiness of the announcement and its timing just after the unveiling of the President’s high-speed rail proposal indicates that intercity rail, more than ever, has become a tool for partisan disagreement. Republicans all over the country, inspired by the refusal of federal funds for rail systems by Governors in Ohio and Wisconsin, have rallied against almost every such project. The House GOP budget, which would gut the rail program — as well as transit capital projects — is only a continuation of this crusade.

What does this say about the state of American transportation? Is the status quo, in which the vast majority of Americans get around only by car for short to mid-range journeys, ramping up congestion and increasing environmental degradation, acceptable? Do we have any interest in developing a future vision for our cities or our society as a whole?

Image above: Florida High-Speed Rail route alignment, from Florida High-Speed Rail

Amtrak DOT Finance

Breaking Down the Department of Transportation’s Proposed 2012 Budget

» Department recommends funding for new transit projects in several American cities, but its primary priority in the short term is in getting existing infrastructure up to a state of good repair. Amtrak announces it plans to increase capacity on Acela trains.

Almost a year ago, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff took a controversial stand when he argued that the public sector was not doing enough to ensure the good repair of the nation’s oldest inner-city rail systems. He pointed out that cities from New York to Chicago needed to spend tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their transportation networks — rather than spend most of their funds on expansion.

The Department of Transportation has, at least to some extent, heeded his advice and made such funding a significant part of what the White House hopes will be a greatly expanded transportation budget for Fiscal Year 2012. Of the $22.2 billion President Obama requested for the FTA specifically, some $10.7 billion would be granted for the state of good repair initiative. For cities wondering how to rebuild their aging infrastructure, this could be good news.

New capital projects, however, were not left behind. The budget would contribute more than one billion more to the New Starts transit expansion program than in 2010. The DOT’s proposed budget identifies a number of rail and bus projects around the country that it hopes to fund over the next year (see below).

And the Federal Railroad Administration would receive a major boost to implement the national rail plan. Amtrak, which introduced its own budget, hopes to latch on to renewed interest in intercity rail; the national rail company asked for $2.22 billion in funds, some of which would be used to expand capacity on the existing Acela Express. Amtrak has also indicated that it has begun planning the first phase of its 220 mph replacement for the Northeast Corridor that it revealed last fall (see end of article).

Funding for most programs would increase temporarily under this plan, falling back to more typical levels by FY 2013. The Administration is hoping to use this year’s transportation budget as a sort of second stimulus, and the $50 billion in new funding would include some measures that replicate what was seen in the first stimulus. The National Infrastructure Investments program, for instance, would fund unique transportation programs with $2 billion worth of grants, much like the TIGER program did.

President’s Proposed Transportation Spending 2012-2017 (in billion $)
 FY 2010201220132014201520162017
» Formula Grants9.
» State of Good Repair10.
» Expansion2.
» Network Development2.
» System Preservation1.
DOT Surface Programs77.0107.176.582.288.894.9101.0

The Department of Transportation’s funding expansion is across the board, and it benefits highways (up 70% between 2010 and 2012) almost as much as transit (up 83%). So the White House is not exactly taking a stand against roads here. Moreover, like the rest of the budget revealed yesterday, the Administration’s input is only half of the equation: The House and Senate must pass any spending bill and there is a lot of skepticism on the Republican side of Capitol Hill about any sort of increase in public investment.

Nevertheless, the reforms announced by the Department of Transportation indicate how the Administration wants the Congress to move forward on a funding reauthorization bill, and the measures proposed make sense. The Highway Trust Fund would transform into the Transportation Trust Fund, providing new, specified accounts for highways, transit, high-speed rail, and an infrastructure bank (currently there are only highway and transit accounts). Transit agencies would be allowed to use some of their federal funding for operations, something that is not allowed under current federal guidelines. And the various grant-providing programs currently offered by Washington would be simplified. These would all be meaningful, useful improvements over the existing situation.

The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Program

Though the FTA typically reveals which transit expansion projects it is planning to fund in its annual New Starts Report, this year recommendations were included in the Department of Transportation’s budget request. Because of the size of that proposal, and the current lack of consensus in Congress about how — or whether — to spend so much on transportation, it is possible that the agency will not be able to follow through on all of its recommendations.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the table below, the agency has seven projects with Full Funding Grant Agreements ensuring federal funding; nine projects ready for construction and likely to receive Washington’s dollars; ten recommended projects that are further behind in planning; and four projects that may or may not advance this year.

Department of Transportation Proposed New Starts Spending 2012 (in million $)
CityProject ModeNew Starts StatusProposed Funding in FY 2012
New YorkLIRR East Side AccessCommuter railFull funding215
New York2nd Ave Phase 1Metro railFull funding197
DallasGreen/Orange LinesLight railFull funding86
Salt LakeMid JordanLight railFull funding79
Salt LakeFrontRunner SouthCommuter railFull funding52
WashingtonDulles Metro Phase 1Metro railFull funding96
SeattleUniversity LinkLight railFull funding110
SacramentoSouth Phase 2Light railPending50
San FranciscoCentral SubwayLight railPending200
DenverEast CorridorCommuter railPending300
HartfordHartford-New BritainBuswayPending45
OrlandoSunrail Phase 1Commuter railPending50
HonoluluTransitMetro railPending250
MinneapolisCentral CorridorLight railPending200
HoustonNorth CorridorLight railPending100
HoustonSoutheast CorridorLight railPending100
San JoseSilicon Valley BART Phase 1Metro railRecommended130
PortlandPortland-MilwaukieLight railRecommended200
Salt LakeDraperLight railRecommended114
PhoenixCentral MesaLight railRecommended38
FresnoBlackstone/Keys CanyonBRTRecommended18
OaklandEast BayBRTRecommended25
San FranciscoVan NessBRTRecommended30
JacksonvilleNorth CorridorBRTRecommended6
Grand RapidsSilver LineBRTRecommended13
El PasoMesa CorridorBRTRecommended14
SeattleRapidRide EBRTRecommended22
SeattleRapidRide FBRTRecommended16
Los AngelesRegional ConnectorLight railAmbiguous
Los AngelesWestside SubwayMetro railAmbiguous
CharlotteNortheast CorridorLight railAmbiguous
PortlandColumbia River CrossingLight railAmbiguous

Of the projects still pending federal approval, four — one in both Orlando and Sacramento, and two in Houston — have been at the top of the federal list for aid since at least 2009. But each has struggled in preparation for construction: Orlando fought with a freight railroad and now is in conflict with the state government; Sacramento struggled with underfunding of the existing transit system; and Houston signed an unfortunate contract with a rail car manufacturer in direct violation of the “Buy America” provision required under the law.

Other projects have long been in consideration, such as Honolulu’s first rail link, Minneapolis’ Central Corridor, and San Francisco’s Central Subway. Each is very likely to move forward this year with the federal government.


The national railway company released its own budget plan in coordination with the Obama Administration’s. The agency may be behind the times, however: Though it now operates outside of the direct influence of the Federal Railroad Administration, the White House indicated last week that Amtrak funding would now be considered when the Department of Transportation is evaluating how to distribute intercity rail appropriations. This could mean competitive bidding for the rights to operate trains on the corridors which the federal government pays to upgrade.

Nonetheless, Amtrak’s $2.22 billion request for subsidies is the most ambitious the agency has been in a decade. The company wants funds to expand the length of its Acela Express trains between Boston and Washington; it hopes to buy 40 cars and add two to each of the 20 trainsets by 2014, increasing the number of available seats by 130 per trip. Amtrak already has 70 electric locomotives and 130 single-deck passenger cars for regular service under construction, financed by the stimulus.

The agency argues that the all-time ridership records it set this year — 28.7 million trips — mean that it merits more public funding.

Intriguingly, Amtrak also revealed that it was considering the first segment of the true high-speed rail line it plans for the Northeast Corridor. Along with $50 million in planning funds it hopes to receive to begin studying the Northeast Gateway Project (a new tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan), Amtrak says it is now considering how it will begin implementing what it says would be the minimum operating segment of its high-speed project, a $7 billion new pair of tracks between Newark and Philadelphia that would reduce travel times from New York to Philadelphia from 1h05 to 50 minutes.

Image above: Seattle Rapid Ride BRT bus, which would see expansion under proposed New Starts policy, from Flickr user Atomic Taco (cc)