Finance High-Speed Rail

A Note on the Future of American Transportation

» Objections to the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail initiative are indicative of a broader distaste for any public transportation spending.

The glee expressed by the commentariat — most conservative, though some to the left — over the decaying support for investing in the nation’s intercity rail system has been a telling indication of the degree to which too many Americans are willing to gloss over the demands of this growing country.

Convinced both that it would be too expensive to construct anything we do not already have and that the United States is so hewn to its automobile-oriented, mid-century landscape that it cannot change, this perspective appears to be gaining currency. To ill effect.

Though the conversation being had on the future of American transportation has been framed in terms of high-speed rail, a mode that has captured the minds of some and raised fury in others, the truth is that the ideological war being waged against increased investment in infrastructure applies to all modes of transportation. The crusade against government spending extends universally — and that means bike paths, light rail, and highways.

Yesterday’s Economist story on the nation’s transportation problems notes some of the most serious problems facing the world’s biggest economy: Infrastructure spending that is less than half of that in Europe and a third of that in China in terms of GDP; far too few funds dedicated to the maintenance of existing infrastructure; very low gas prices compared to just about everywhere else. Considering the lack of investment, the results are unsurprising: Very high traffic fatality rates and some of the longest commute times in the developed world. Not to mention our continued dependence on the congestion-causing, sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating private automobile.

Since 1990, the U.S. has added 60 million inhabitants, equivalent to the population of France. And yet our inflation-adjusted federal spending on transportation has declined, not just per capita but overall. The fuel tax has remained at 18.4¢ per gallon on gasoline in real dollars since 1993. 18.4¢ in 1993 is worth 27¢ today, which means that we have effectively reduced our annual buying power for roads, transit, and intercity rail by about 30% over the past 18 years. With gas prices rising and no political incentive to increase taxes, we will reduce our buying power even more over the next decade.

Are we out of our minds?

For those who want to remedy these issues, the political atmosphere in Washington is toxic: There is simply no real leadership on increasing public investment. As if compelled to express themselves through theatrics, members of the House and Senate — on both sides of the aisle — are now threatening to vote against raising the American debt ceiling because they think we should “do something” about the deficit. Doing something for them, of course, means reducing government expenditures, whether in the form of aid to the poor or, in this case, transportation.

In transportation, we are shying away from major new projects like high-speed rail because they do not fit in with contemporary American commuting trends — forgetting the fact that the U.S. car reliance is a constructed one. We spent massively to create the highway network, and the result is that it is now the backbone of most Americans’ daily commutes. There was nothing natural about that process, and no reason to think that it cannot be reversed if we thought differently about our transportation system development. We are adding population at such a quick rate that we could encourage different commuting trends if we want to, but only if we invest the resources to do so.

Much of the recent conversation has been about increasing funds for transportation by “leveraging” private-sector funding through an infrastructure bank or public-private partnerships, usually in the form of toll roads. While these are realistic ways to increase investment, they can not be expected to keep up with the demand of Americans for more accessibility — especially if we have any interest in encouraging the sustainable growth of our cities.

Private sector actors will invest in new highways on greenfields because they can be assured that they can pay off initial construction costs through tolls. These projects, however, have the enormously problematic effect of increasing sprawl and decentralization by improving accessibility to places at the far extents of our metropolitan areas. In the long term, allowing such projects to dominate the nation’s infrastructure investments means a giveaway to developers of exurban communities. Should that be a national priority?

It is possible to collect funds by tolling urban roadways or selling those assets to private investors. Yet, as proven by the experience in New York, introducing charges on existing free roads is not a policy that can be implemented easily. Even if it were, in most places collected revenues by a private road corporation would only go to the upkeep of the affected roads and into the pockets of shareholders, not to a region’s broader transportation network.

Moreover, though it may sound appealing to simply sell off infrastructure assets to private corporations and tell them to take responsibility for charging customers for their use of the system, doing so would fail to absorb the negative externalities resulting from congestion, pollution, and second-order effects like suburban sprawl and income inequality. Transit systems, which operate at a loss because they offer social remedies to each of those problems, would have no hope surviving in such a system.

Indeed, the government must play the key role in developing the transportation system. Only the public sector, with the ability to take out loans at low interest rates, can make investments that are designed with the society’s long-term interest in mind. Only the government can accept losses in part of the transportation system because it recognizes that those losses represent gains to the society in other ways. To expect the private sector to fill those shoes would be absurd.

Though they influence it, political leaders react to the demands of their constituents; if popular sentiment were clearly oriented towards increased government investment in transportation, there would be political effort extended towards it. Can we criticize the lack of public interest in the subject? After all, we have spent the last decade yelling back-and-back across the aisle over proposed projects, calling every scheme a “boondoggle” no matter its individual merits. And despite going on a road binge for the past sixty years, congestion is worse than ever in most metropolitan regions. The suburban dream of shopping malls and single-family homes continues to exist for many, but it has degraded into abandonment and foreclosure for too many others. So why spend on more?

Those in favor of increased infrastructure investments must make a stronger argument demonstrating why investments today can result in more positive effects in the future. From my perspective, redefining transportation policy with an emphasis on efforts to improve our cities through densification and the choice of alternatives to the automobile will represent an important and realistic effort to improve the country’s transport system. Yet that cannot occur without serious support from public sector actors who appear to have left the country.

Light Rail Minneapolis

A Step Ahead for Light Rail in the Twin Cities

» The Central Corridor will connect two downtowns, a rare feat for a rail system in the U.S. Peaking should be less of a problem here.

The Twin Cities pioneered a model for regional decision-making with the formation of the Metropolitan Council in 1967, creating one of the country’s only truly empowered elected regional bodies. Though the group invested in transportation improvements throughout the area, focusing specifically on connecting a network of express buses into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was only in 2004 that the area opened its first light rail corridor, the Hiawatha Line.

Connecting central Minneapolis with the airport and the Mall of America in a suburb to the south, that project proved to be far more popular with riders than originally expected, with more people using it on a daily basis just two years after opening than had been predicted for 2020.

Yet the real challenge for the Twin Cities was connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul into a unified unit. With downtowns just a dozen miles apart, the two towns merge together, but transit riders have never been able to take full advantage of this proximity, nor the presence of the University of Minnesota campus just between the two. With federal approval yesterday of a Full Funding Grant Agreement to pay 50% of its costs, however, the Central Corridor light rail line‘s completion is guaranteed, and that will mean frequent, relatively fast, and reliable connections between the cities in just three years.

With a central business district at both ends of the line and a huge university at the center (more than 50,000 students), the Central Corridor route offers a number of advantages that most new rail lines constructed in the United States do not: Peak service demand in both directions. A typical suburb-to-central city line acquires most of its ridership from work trips — from the suburbs to the downtown in the mornings, and from the downtown to the suburbs in the afternoons. If there is enough demand to run 10 trains per hour in one direction, however, the transit agency generally has to run (and pay for) 10 trains per hour in the other direction just to keep up — even if there’s only enough demand for 5. This means too many vehicles running mostly empty in the opposite direction from peak.

In Minneapolis, for example, there are relatively few people riding the Hiawatha line from the southern suburbs towards downtown during the afternoon peak, yet services in both directions see seven trains per hour during the 4-to-5 PM peak hour. Though this is less of a problem at other points in the day when the loads are more evenly distributed, this situation during the peak hours costs the transit agency millions of dollars a year in operating too many trains for the number of passengers who want to ride.

Here, on the other hand, though downtown Minneapolis (146,5000 jobs) will be the most significant destination, it will not overwhelm the other terminus at St. Paul, which has a significant business district of its own (47,500 jobs) and of course the state capitol. This design decision — to plan the Central Corridor with a major destination at each of its termini — will reduce the problem of peak-period inefficiencies and ensure that the operator is able to attract a sufficient number of riders on all of its trains, increasing the average passenger count per vehicle in use.

The 11-mile project will cost a total of $957 million and result in a radical restructuring of the areas through which it runs, including the two downtowns, the University, St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and the state capitol complex. The installation of a reserved right-of-way for the light rail, the elimination of several hundred street parking spaces, the construction of 18 stations, and the guarantee of on-time transit services between the two cities every 7.5 minutes will be enough to attract more than 40,000 riders (of which 6,000 will be new to transit) by 2030, according to current estimates.

At first glance, the line’s importance may seem overstated: Compared to the existing Route 94 bus that provides express service every five to ten minutes at rush hour between the two downtowns, the light rail line will be significantly slower, taking 40 minutes to complete the journey compared to 26-30 for the bus line. Yet that bus does not provide local service since it is confined to the I-94 freeway for most of its length. The Route 16 bus, which follows the same route as the Central Corridor along University and Washington Avenues, can in typical traffic take an hour or more to complete its trip. In essence, the light rail line will replace both routes (though not the 94 at rush hours) and split the difference in terms of travel times.

For the average user in the corridor (even those who currently take express buses), that is likely to mean a reduction in trip times overall, since more people will be within walking distance of the stations positioned half a mile apart and better connections will be offered to perpendicular north-south bus services. And Metro Transit, which has planned and will run the line, has made an effort to prevent the trains from being slowed down by the hurdles of being placed in an active street right-of-way.

Unlike in Austin, whose new plan for rail service involves running trains in shared automobile lanes throughout the downtown, the Twin Cities will get a dedicated transitway down the street median, guaranteeing running times and preventing problems that could result from being stuck in car congestion.

The construction of the project was by no means certain; though it has been the Twin Cities’ top transit priority for decades, the cost of building the line was significant and the potential opposition from neighbors strong. Former Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty (now likely running for president) attempted to veto state funding for the project in 2008, an effort that was overruled by the Democrats in the State Assembly. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio both expressed concerns that the line would disrupt their work and tried to move the corridor away from the job centers in which they are located, moves that were fortunately rebuked by Metro Transit.

More significantly, neighborhood groups complained that the planned reduction of parallel parking spaces from 1,150 along University Avenue to 175 was simply too much to bear. Planners responded by pointing out that 15,300 off-street parking spaces were available within one block of the line and then offered a million dollars to shore up support for affected small businesses.

In addition, three new stops were added along University Avenue — a decision that will cost trains a few minutes along the route between the two downtowns but one that will likely raise ridership by ensuring that everyone along the corridor is within roughly a 1/4 mile walk of a station. The lack of easily accessible parking will be relieved by the constant presence of a close light rail stop, a deal that should be recognized as a fair compromise to emulate in other cities considering light rail service in the street.

The most exciting aspect of this project, though, remains the connection between two downtowns that it will provide: If the Twin Cities can ensure that passenger counts heading in both directions are sufficient to guarantee high average vehicle occupancy and less of a peaking problem, Metro Transit will be able to operate an efficient line with fewer operating expenditures per passenger overall.

Image above: A light rail train at Minneapolis’ Target Field Station, from Flickr user Jerry Huddleston (cc)

Austin Light Rail Streetcar

Austin Contemplates Urban Rail, but Skepticism is in the Air

» A year after the opening of a commuter rail line to the city’s northern suburbs, Austin dedicates funding to planning a light rail line that focuses on the inner city.

In 2000, Austin came within 2,000 votes of approving a $2 billion, 52-mile light rail system that would have run through the city and its suburbs along east-west and north-south corridors. The first stage, estimates suggested, would attract more than 30,000 daily riders and serve the city’s most prominent destinations, including downtown and the University of Texas.

The failure of that referendum, however, forced those plans to be abandoned. Local transit proponents replaced it with the much less ambitious 32-mile Capital MetroRail, which opened in 2010 for a cost of about $100 million. Like many similar commuter rail lines built over the past few years, MetroRail’s limited frequencies and poor downtown connectivity have limited ridership to less than 1,000 boardings a day on average in the nation’s 14th-biggest city of 800,000 inhabitants. A bus rapid transit line is also in the works in a similar right-of-way as the 2000 light rail line, though that project is likely to be less-than-rapid, since it will have no dedicated lanes.

Now the city’s back with a new project — a 16.5-mile plan that would cost $1.3 billion to construct. It has been in development at least since fall 2009. But for some local writers, the city’s plans could be yet another disappointment for the capital of the Lone Star State. Their biggest concern: Half of the project’s tracks would operate in the road right-of-way, alongside automobiles. Though the project is still being planned, it would be submitted to voters in the City of Austin in November 2012, according to current plans by Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Municipal residents approved the 2000 project, though their suburban counterparts did not.

Because of its street-running nature, the light rail line would be a pseudo streetcar, a rail corridor with reserved lanes only along the outside stretches that connect to the new airport to the south and to a redevelopment of the old Mueller Airport northeast of the state capitol complex. Downtown, trains would get stuck in traffic like everyone else.

This has infuriated local transit advocates like Chris Bradford, who writes at Austin Contrarian. Mr. Bradford argues that streetcars may actually increase congestion and provide inadequate incentive for people to take the train instead of driving. Indeed, especially for trips across the city — not ending downtown — light rail that gets stuck behind traffic lights will be uncompetitive when people can drive on freeways and avoid downtown traffic altogether. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a line that would hardly improve speeds over existing buses?

The alternative, however, isn’t nearly as simple to implement as critics of this new project seem to be implying.

In theory, it wouldn’t cost much more to provide reserved lanes for the light rail on the 4- and 6-lane streets along which it would run. All that would be required would be a few curbs that prevented cars from entering the train’s right-of-way.

The problem, unfortunately, is that removing lanes from car traffic and dedicating them to transit is never an easy proposition. In Los Angeles, for instance, the proposed Crenshaw light rail line is facing criticism from neighborhood advocates who argue that a surface-level project would destroy the local business community. Their suggestion: Spending hundreds of millions more on an entirely underground alignment.

Car drivers, who of course predominate in a city like Austin, see dedicating lanes to transit in the middle of downtown as an affront to their rights to mobility. Whether or not their argument is persuasive, a politician cannot simply dismiss their concerns as irrelevant. That could cost a mayor an election.

The city has been discussing this project or one like it for years, so much so that those who are developing the Mueller Airport have actually included a corridor for the future rail line in their site plans. The new airport is eager to provide its customers direct transit service to and from downtown. And a rail service that actually serves the University of Texas and the busiest areas of the center city — not true of the existing MetroRail — would be quite appealing.

Austin’s response to these difficulties has been been transforming its “light rail” program into a streetcar project, which will require a more limited investment than a subway and which would stimulate less opposition than a more typical light rail line. In terms of increasing the number of people using transit for their daily trips, this will guarantee fewer riders and ensure that those who are using the system get a lower quality of service.

Are these political compromises worth it just to get a rail project rolling? If Austin proposes to fund the line in a vote next year, should transit proponents support it or oppose it?

Image above: Downtown Austin, from Flickr user Jorge Michel (cc)

Commuter Rail Urbanism

The Failure of Regionalism

» Suburban-oriented commuter rail projects may be cheap to construct, but they usually have limited effects on metropolitan travel.

The construction of new commuter rail lines in the United States has been a peculiar trend in an age of job sprawl and changing work habits. Though the largest American transit capital investments in terms of money spent have been in light and metro rail projects, commuter rail corridors — defined loosely as diesel trains running largely at peak hours between cities and their suburbs — continue to attract local interest. Over the past few years, Austin, Minneapolis, Nashville, and Salt Lake City, among other regions, have contributed millions of dollars to their construction.

The results have in general not been impressive. As Jeff Wood catalogued last week on The Overhead Wire, these investments have yielded very limited ridership — especially on a per-mile basis.

Nevertheless, cities to continue to make plans to focus their spending on them: Kansas City announced in 2009 that it was considering a 150-mile commuter network; late last year, Indianapolis suggested its primary rail investment would be in a commuter line to its northeast suburbs.

In a country in which planners have increasingly come to emphasize long-range decision-making at the regional scale, the recourse to commuter rail over other projects seems reasonable. With most local transportation taxes being collected via metropolitan units, rather than municipal ones, it is important to show that spending is being distributed not only in the central city but also at the edge. Because everyone wants rail and there is often inadequate money to pay for a full-scale light or metro rail project, cheaper commuter rail is seen as a reasonable first investment that, it is argued, will eventually lead to more support for more transit when “people” “see” how good the new line is.

If I may paraphrase and condense Jeff Wood’s argument*, however, the political difficulty with spending limited funds on commuter rail rather than other transit projects can be summarized as follows:

  1. The limited investments made in commuter rail produce a system with low frequencies because of single tracks in many places and competition with freight railroads.
  2. Low ridership results from generally bad service, which means few voters take advantage (and see the advantage) of rail service.
  3. Little voter understanding of the importance of rail systems increases opposition to future projects and even adequate funding of the regular transit system, since too few people, even in proximity of the commuter rail lines, come to understand why that spending might be beneficial.

But the problem with commuter rail is more significant than that. These investments do not meet much of a demand in many of the cities in which they are implemented — primarily because of their reliance on a peak-hour suburb-to-downtown professional clientele.

Except in the older cities (which have legacy commuter rail systems for the most part), the downtown job base has been falling off as a percentage of the metropolitan area’s total employment for decades. The rise of non-traditional working patterns that rely on Third Places and home offices mean fewer people need to get into central business districts for the same amount of work to be done. In most places, the center city simply isn’t a big enough attraction to require shuttling people to it from distant locales via big, heavy diesel trains running a few times a day. Indeed, in many cities, that work could probably be better done with a few express buses. Moreover, the suburbs lack the density (or, because of restrictive zoning, even the possibility of future density) to make those areas true destinations in themselves.

In regions with metropolitan governance schemes, though, the appeal of commuter rail is hard to dismiss: It provides the suburbs appealing rail service, and politicians need suburban support if, say, they want to enact tax increases to pay for better transportation. The construction of those suburban lines, however, has too little of an effect to truly convince suburban voters of the appeal of transit, so, as Jeff Wood wrote, those peoplehave little motivation to spend more on transit in the future. This is not a virtuous cycle.

If decision-making about how to spend a set amount of transportation funds is being made at the regional scale, leaders need to have a good idea of the kind of urbanism they’re looking for. If they want a jobs-heavy downtown core to which people from all around the area commute in, commuter rail might be a good idea. But that kind of job concentration is only possible when suburban employment is disincentivized or banned. Are any of the regions thinking about building commuter rail doing anything of the sort?

From the perspective of a central city mayor or city councilperson, focusing on their city’s transportation needs alone may be more productive, since urban-scale transit lines like metro rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit offer connections between a variety of destinations within the densest areas of the region — and they attract many more users in the process than do commuter rail lines. It is true that transit use even within central cities is also heavily dependent on the strength of downtown employment, but even a weak core, like strong ones, is more likely to attract riders from the surrounding neighborhoods than from far-out suburbs. We should be planning our public transportation systems accordingly. Can regions perform that type of planning?

* Note that I’m less convinced by Jeff Wood’s third argument that commuter rail lines are “too easy” to build. Most transit projects, of whatever scale, require a fight to be constructed. Just because a city or region is able to move forward with an expensive light rail project now does not mean they will be able to do do easily again five years from now.

Image above: A Salt Lake City FrontRunner train, pictured between two light rail cars, from Flickr user Russell (cc)

Finance President

After a Compromise, Where Does the Public Sector Head?

» President Obama’s stand on his vision for the U.S. budget, in opposition to that of the House Republicans, suggests he will argue for a public role in the civic discourse. But his efforts may not be solid enough.

The transportation industry — and specifically mass transit — has over the past few decades been one of the primary domains of public sector intervention, both in the United States and abroad. With the demands of a modern citizenry requiring investments in improved mobility, governments have made ensuring the well-being of their roads, railways, and airports one of their primary raisons d’être after measures designed to guarantee social welfare and national defense.

For that reason, transportation is an intensely political issue: Choosing where and how to invest in getting people from one place to another requires agreement from politicians. Any move forward on funding new infrastructure requires leadership.

In some ways, the United States stands at a crossroads. The right is making increasingly firm its conviction that the government’s role in society must be limited — even if that means reducing spending on things people like a lot, such as highways. And the left, whatever remains of it at the edge of a Democratic Party humbled in last year’s elections, has been largely marginalized. Where does that put political leadership?

After the President’s agreement with House Republicans last week, Mr. Obama’s speech may have appeared as a ringing defense of the importance of the public sector. He argued to the American people that the country could not abandon itself. “I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs. We’ll invest in medical research and clean energy technology. We’ll invest in new roads and airports and broadband access. We will invest in education and job training. We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.”

And indeed, in comparison to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) vision for the nation’s budget, the President’s own ideas come across as downright radical. On discretionary spending — which, if anyone needs reminding — includes transportation, Mr. Ryan would cut $1 trillion more than would Mr. Obama over the next ten years. Mr Obama is right to label Mr. Ryan’s “vision” as one “that says if our roads crumble and bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.” Because that is what a 55.6% drop in transportation spending would do.

In fact, President Obama positioned himself to the center-right last week, suggesting just as President Clinton did fifteen years before that the government’s constrained role is to “do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves… [and provide] some basic measure of security.” Out of date were two years of promises of public sector innovation and an effort to reverse thirty years of rising inequality. In were modesty and fiscal restraint.

Mr. Obama recommends cutting $600 billion in all on discretionary funding. That is not progressive in a country whose population continues to grow quickly and whose infrastructure cannot keep up with its current, let alone future, needs.

Which brings us back to the question of leadership. In a democracy like that of the United States, the future of the country is determined by the will of its political actors. If an individual or a group or a movement can convince the populace populous or the voters of the importance of their goal, they can make a change, or at least promote it. Those who do not will be irrelevant when it comes to making decisions about public policy.

America doesn’t need bipartisan agreement in favor of some policy objective: Compromises like those are either so weak as to be meaningless or simply further solidifications of the status quo. Rather, America needs politicians who push.

Mr. Obama campaigned on reforming the health care system, and — in spite of the insane machinations required to make it happen — managed to pass a law that advanced many of his initial goals. Based on his recent statements, the President understands of the importance of investing in the nation’s mobility systems. He knows that if we want to maintain access to mobility to a wide range of the population, the public sector must continue to play the defining role. But he has not yet made a strong enough case to the public, which is one of the reasons Republicans have been so willing to campaign against his proposals in favor of high-speed rail and livable communities. He has not done a good enough job explaining why these things must be funded.

Perhaps he will do so throughout the 2012 campaign. Or perhaps the country will have to wait for someone else.