Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Transit City Back in Play

» Toronto’s regional transportation authority agrees to move forward with a plan for four new light rail routes. Despite opposition from the mayor.

Canada’s largest city may be experiencing the most intense public transportation-related psychodrama in North America. Five years after Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City proposal for a citywide network of light rail lines, two years after Ontario government agreed to fund half of them, and one year after a new mayor announced that “Transit City is Dead,” the project finally appears to be moving forward. A unanimous vote by Toronto regional transportation officials today clears the way for C$8.4 billion in new transit investments between now and 2020.

In the process, conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose antipathy towards alternative transportation modes verged on the truly anti-urban, has lost his influence. It’s an exciting step for a city that has wavered wildly on transportation issues over the past decade, but which is in true need of better public transit.

Before describing the process by which the city endorsed, then rejected, then came back to approving the Transit City plan, the full extent of the 75-kilometer system proposed for the city should be described. At the heart of the network is the Eglinton Crosstown project, which will run east-west 25 kilometers through the center of the city, offering an alternative to the over-capacity Bloor-Danforth Subway; about half of the alignment will be underground, with the other half above surface. Two other routes — along Finch and Sheppard Avenues — will bring surface light rail lines to suburban arterials. And the Scarborough RT, an automated transit service not unlike the Vancouver SkyTrain (though not automated), will be replaced and extended by a new elevated light rail line. Together, the projects will provide relief for a series of neighborhoods with lower densities than the center of the city.

Construction on the Eglinton project is already underway; the other lines will begin in 2014 and 2015, in time for a systemwide completion by 2020.

What Transit City is not is a project designed to serve the needs of downtown commuters, who will remain served primarily by the same two subway lines first constructed opened in the 1950s and 60s and an aging network of streetcars. Nor will it connect to the airport or along a number of north-south routes proposed in the initial Transit City plan (on the Don Mills, Jane, and Malvern corridors).

Yet the investment plan remains a very significant improvement for Toronto, which now can boast of the continent’s second-largest funded rail transit expansion plan by route miles (after Los Angeles).

In 2007, Mayor Miller took a wild step in announcing that he wanted to bring to fruition a network of eight new light rail corridors along 120 kilometers to serve parts of the city that did not — and like would not, due to density — get new subway service. The Transit City apellation was apt, since what the mayor was proposing was a reorientation of virtually all of the city’s neighborhoods towards new high-capacity rail corridors. It was a dramatic bet, since Mr. Miller did not have the funds to build any of it. By early 2009, though, he had convinced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to devote C$3 billion to the program, and by summer, all four of the lines that are in the current plans were funded. It was an arrangement only made possible because of considerable political entrepreneurship. Mr. Miller made transit expansion a serious matter by getting a big vision into the minds of the city’s population, and Mr. McGuinty, with the funds, was convinced to pay up. It’s a model other cities could learn from.

By early 2010, after Mr. Miller decided not to run for election, contenders for the mayor’s office began suggesting their opposition to Transit City, noting the fact that light rail would require surface construction* and the removal of car lanes (despite the ample space available on Toronto’s wide arterials). Rocco Rossi, once seen as a front-runner for the position, said he would put a moratorium on light rail project development were he to win. Rob Ford ran an aggressive campaign premised on attracting the support of city residents far from downtown (“suburbanites” in Toronto parlance) in which he proposed eliminating the city’s streetcars, relegating bikes to nature paths, and replacing the light rail plans with subways, which he claimed were more in sync with the city’s mentality. In other words, they were more in sync with the city’s drivers.

As we know, Mr. Ford won. He used his election as evidence that the city’s residents abhorred the idea of building more light rail and announced that he had canceled Transit City immediately. In March of last year, he signed an agreement with the Ontario government that eliminated the Finch light rail line (in favor of the mythical “better bus”), pushed the Eglinton Line fully underground, and promised to build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, rather than a surface light rail line as had been previously proposed. The problems were two-fold: The new transit lines would serve far fewer people than Mr. Miller’s proposal, at a higher cost; and there was no funding for the new Sheppard Subway because of the massive cost increase Mr. Ford subjected to the Eglinton Line because of his insistance that it be placed underground.

By summer 2011, it was clear that the “private partners” Mr. Ford wanted to pay for Sheppard Line were imaginary. The city was thus left with only the Eglinton Line and Scarborough Lines, 43 kilometers of new routes when it had once had 75 kilometers on the books. It was a waste of money and a disappointment for commuters.

These facts were impossible to ignore, and the city council rebelled. In January, Counselor Karen Stintz took charge, essentially dismissing Mr. Ford’s argument in favor of subways. In February and March, the council determined that Mr. Ford had acted without the council’s advice in dismissing Transit City and they returned their support to the previous plan, despite the Mayor’s vocal outrage. Metrolinx, the regional transportation body, released its study of the issue, agreeing with the council, and the body’s governing board action earlier today means that Transit City’s 75 kilometers, most of which will be surface-running light rail, will be built. The Sheppard Avenue line will open in 2018, four years after it was supposed to.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sage is not over, thanks to the obstreperous Mr. Ford, who is so devoted to the subway concept and the need to keep trains out of the street that he plans to make subways an election issue once again in the 2014 election, even though construction will have begun on several lines by that point. For the sake of Toronto’s near-term future, one hopes he doesn’t get the opportunity.

Oddly enough, the success of proponents of the light rail scheme in pulling together support for their project has encouraged others to note that the project’s shortcomings — notably its failure to mitigate the congestion on transit lines downtown — will remain struggles for this region after 2020. The redevelopment of Union Station and the improvement of GO commuter rail service, in addition to the demand from the new light rail lines, will overload the subway system. Thus the long sought-after Downtown Relief Line, which would double the Bloor-Danforth line downtown, has been brought up again by official and non-official sources. The paradox of investing in investing in new transit capacity is that more capacity brings more ridership. Yet that is a problem for another generation of leaders to solve.

Examining Toronto’s history, it is difficult to ignore referencing parallels to New Jersey, or Wisconsin, or Florida, where the entry of new conservative governors hostile to the idea of spending public funds on major new rail programs resulted in the cancellation of projects that would have cost those states very little in terms of actual expenditures had they been built. One hopes that, as in Toronto, the need to make rational investments in transportation will become clearer over time.

* This was a significant concern for residents of the city at the time due to the construction mess between 2006 and 2010 caused by the reconstruction of the St. Clair Streetcar to provide it dedicated lanes in its right of way.

Atlanta Finance

In an Atlanta Desperate for More Transit Options, New Rail Plans for Eastern Suburbs

» After considerable disagreement over the value of funding rail extensions to Southern DeKalb County, the MARTA transit agency board endorses the project — despite a lack of funding.

Solving regional disagreements in the Atlanta way, apparently, means making sure that anyone who makes a loud enough stink gets a piece of an expanding pie. Even if the pie isn’t expanding.

The Atlanta Region Commission (ARC) is already fighting to convince a skeptical electorate of the necessity of increasing the local sales tax to pay for transportation improvement projects — an issue that will be put before voters on July 31. The Transportation Investment Act (TIA) would raise the sales tax across regional counties by 1% over the course of 10 years. ARC’s announced list of priority investments would bring new rail and bus links throughout the region thanks to more than $8.5 billion expected to be raised (about half of which will go to roads projects). MARTA, the operator of urban bus services and the city’s metro rail line, would be the single greatest beneficiary of the funds thanks to line extensions and renovations of the existing network.

Yet, as previously described here, plans for new rail lines extending to Emory University, into the northern suburbs, and along streets through the center city, have been contested as inadequate by residents and political leaders in DeKalb County, just east of central Atlanta. Most bothered are residents of the southern section of the county, led by the local NAACP, who argue that they have been paying for the functioning of the system for years but never received the benefits of rail service.

ARC’s plans for fund distribution, as documented in the map above, would provide for the implementation of a rapid bus line along I-20 East from downtown Atlanta to this area, but South DeKalb inhabitants want something else in exchange for their votes: An extension of the MARTA heavy rail line from Indian Creek. DeKalb County’s residents must vote in favor of the referendum in large numbers in order for it to pass because of the probable strong resistance to the tax from residents of counties further from Atlanta, despite the fact that ARC’s priority list specifically includes funding for lines running in all directions into the suburbs.

Last week, MARTA seemed to make an effort to realize the rail project. The agency’s board approved continuing the advancement of two projects — a light rail line along the Clifton Corridor in west DeKalb and a $2 billion, two-pronged strategy for serving South DeKalb. The latter would include both the 12.8-mile I-20 East rapid bus line previously discussed and a 12-mile rail extension along I-285 and I-20 to the Mall at Stonecrest, with four other new stations as requested by South DeKalb groups. The projects would, like most American transit capital programs, require federal funding.

But they would also need a source of funds above and beyond those being distributed by TIA, raising questions about whether MARTA’s move is designed primarily to give voters in South DeKalb the sense that rail is planned for their area, rather than actually offering funding for it. In order to construct this rail extension, an additional $800 million in local funding is required beyond that being raised by TIA. No one seems to be clear about how this money would be raised.

It is also worth questioning the value of extending rail to South DeKalb County. The area is, like much of metropolitan Atlanta, automobile dependent and lacking in significant density. The alignment of the rail corridor in the median of interstate highways seems unlikely to produce any significant transit-oriented development. The BRT project, which would rely on HOV and HOT lanes to transport people between the area and downtown Atlanta, would not be much better from any of these perspectives, but at least it would be more economical. A total of 28,700 daily riders are expected to use the two services ($70,000 per rider), at the very high end for similar new transit capital projects.

Serving a denser section of the region is the Clifton Corridor, which will bring 8.8 miles of light rail between the existing Lindbergh Center and Avondale Stations, via 10 to 13 new stations, including at Emory University and the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control. Its $1.1 billion cost (also rather high) would be enough to connect the stations in 26 minutes, about 8 minutes less than is possible today on the MARTA rail system with a transfer at Five Points. Service to this area of DeKalb County has been a priority for MARTA since the agency’s first plan was developed more than 40 years ago. Though the use of heavy rail connected to the remainder of the MARTA system was considered, the lack of adequate right-of-way makes a through-running connection between Lindbergh and Avondale impossible with fully grade-separated rail. So light rail has been the focus.

The first phase of the corridor, from Lindbergh to the CDC headquarters near Emory Campus, can be paid for fully through TIA funding, but the rest of the line will require federal aid.

A significant portion of the Clifton Corridor would be built in a subway, as documented below in a map distributed by MARTA. This results from two factors: One, (wealthy) homeowners in several of the areas through which the line would pass would likely legally contest a surface line that would require significant use of eminent domain in residential neighborhoods; two, CSX (the freight railway) owns the track right-of-way that the corridor parallels and MARTA has been loath to consider negotiating with the company, likely because of CSX’s hostility to passenger rail projects in other parts of the country.

Fortunately, other sections of the line would be built in the median of arterials, a construction method that would deliver most of the benefits at a far lower cost.

The focus on projects for DeKalb County here should not imply that the City of Atlanta itself has been ignored in the proposed funding allocation. Indeed, TIA would fund a significant expansion of the city’s diminutive streetcar project, which is currently under construction. The streetcar line would be expanded both east and west to meet the first stages of the Beltline project, which is a proposed combined transit and park system along existing freight railway rights-of-way that would encircle central Atlanta. A new crosstown corridor on North Avenue would connect Georgia Tech directly to Midtown. Though the full Beltline would not be funded through TIA, these first stages serve the city’s densest neighborhoods in which people are most likely to take advantage of transit. Later phases may be sponsored by the revenues from the tax increment financing district that is funding other elements of the project.

The projects being promoted in the Atlanta region are thus a mixed bag in terms of necessity and cost effectiveness. None, however, will be implemented without the passage of the sales tax increase later this year. Will voters from South DeKalb be convinced by MARTA’s move?

Map above of Clifton Corridor: From MARTA


In New Census Data, An Improved Outlook For Core Counties

» A review of twenty one metropolitan areas shows that most are seeing an increasing percentage of their population growth — or a decreasing percentage of their loss — in their core counties.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual population estimates for counties as of July 2011. These data provide significant insight into changing population trends in the United States, and the results offer considerable support for the argument that the country’s growth is moving back into its cities, at least to some degree.

National coverage of the data release focused on the fact that the data showed a significant drop in residents moving to exurban counties at the edge of metropolitan areas. The massive creation of housing at the far reaches of regions appears to have slowed to a trickle, and even the movement of the population from Northeastern and Midwest metropolitan areas to Southern and Western areas has decreased. The fastest-growing counties by numeric population change between April 2010 (when Census 2010 was completed) and July 2011 were counties that contain large central cities — Harris, Los Angeles, Maricopa, New York City (if the five boroughs are combined), and Miami-Dade.

Of 21 metropolitan areas reviewed (chosen based on their size and presence of a central city), just five saw decreases in the population of their core counties between 2010 and 2011 (Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Detroit), while two of those also saw declines for the metropolitan area as a whole (Cleveland and Detroit). Many cities that have historically had declining populations, including Philadelphia and Washington, grew quite strongly over the  year-long period.

But most important was the change in growth dynamic within each of the metropolitan areas (MSAs). 14 of 21 central counties experienced an increasing percentage of their respective region’s growth compared with the period from 2000 to 2010. This means that new growth in most regions studied was more concentrated in the central county than it had been in the 2000s. For example, whereas just 3.8% of the Washington region’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 occurred in the District of Columbia itself, 13.4% of the same region’s growth between 2010 and 2011 occurred in the central city. Most extreme, perhaps, was the situation in Cook County (the central county for the Chicago region), which took in 51.3% of the region’s population growth between 2010 and 2011, while the county had declined significantly in population between 2000 and 2010.

Three of the central counties reviewed saw declines in population but as a percentage of the region’s growth, those decreases were lower than those seen in the 2000 to 2010 period, indicating improved conditions there (Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati).

The exceptions were St. Louis and Detroit, whose central counties continued to shrink faster than the surrounding metropolitan areas, and Los Angeles and Boston, whose central counties continue to grow but not as fast compared to their respective regions as they did in the 2000s.

Changes in U.S. County Population, 2000-2010 and 2010-2011 (21 metropolitan areas)
StateMSACentral County(ies)Central County # Pop Change '10-'11% of '00-'10 MSA Pop Change in Central County% of '10-'11 MSA Pop Change in Central CountyCentral County as % of MSA Pop (2010)Center City as a % of County Pop (2010)
TexasDallas-Fort WorthDallas + Tarrant8865142.3%57.3%65.6%42.1%
CaliforniaLos AngelesLos Angeles7045164.6%60.8%76.5%38.6%
New YorkNew YorkNew York City (5 counties)6977729.1%58.7%43.3%100.0%
GeorgiaAtlantaFulton + DeKalb3701612.8%41.0%30.6%26.0%
LouisianaNew OrleansOrleans*16911(-)94.7%72.5%29.4%100.0%
District of ColumbiaWashingtonDistrict of Columbia162733.8%13.4%10.8%100.0%
CaliforniaSan FranciscoSan Francisco759113.5%13.6%18.6%100.0%
MissouriSt. LouisSt. Louis City-1225-25.3%-27.5%11.4%100.0%
MarylandBaltimoreBaltimore City-1468-19.2%-1.6%22.9%100.0%
Above in sixth column, blue numbers means central county(ies) with an increasing share of the total regional population; red numbers mean central county(ies) with a declining share of the total regional population. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

These data reinforce statistical and anecdotal evidence from cities around the country about growth patterns. The 2010 Census demonstrated that in cities across the country, downtowns experienced dramatic growth in the 2000s, even in cities that suffered from overall population losses. With county-level data now available for the period from 2010 to 2011, it appears that that growth has extended throughout many of those surrounding cities — or at least been strong enough to dilute the effects of losses elsewhere.

In addition, the apartment market, which is heavily concentrated in central cities, is experiencing record vacancies and rising prices, demonstrating increasing demand for that housing product. In the Puget Sound region, for example, three-quarters of apartments are being built in the City of Seattle and half are being constructed in or near downtown.

Finally, a study released last week by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that all these people moving into American cities are doing so in part for transportation reasons. Per capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in the United States in 2004 (and in fact, total vehicle miles peaked in 2007), showing that people are traveling less by private automobile. The report documented that the decline between 2000 and 2010 was especially steep among young people, who are moving quite dramatically towards bike, transit, and walking modes. The share of 14- to 34-year-olds with no drivers licence increased from 21% in 2000 to 26% in 2010. These young people are moving away from cars for both economic and non-economic reasons — the high price of gas is of course an issue, but so is the instant communication made possible through advanced mobile phones, for instance. These changes in transportation preferences support the notion that central cities are coming back.

It is hard to know to what degree these trends are reflective of a still-recovering economy. High gas prices, mass foreclosures, and difficulty acquiring loans certainly are likely to encourage people to stay put, decreasing what is called domestic migration, or movement from one U.S. city to another. The nation’s largest cities, which generally have high rates of domestic out-migration, are mostly reliant on international immigration to grow. So if the economic situation improves, the trends affected U.S. demographics between 2010 and 2011 may no longer apply.

Nevertheless, high gas prices appear to be a fact of the future, and the growth of downtowns, which occurred in the 2000s despite the mostly good economic conditions, both indicate that more popular cities may be a future fact of life. Even so, there is still work to be done: In only about half of the metropolitan areas did growth in the core counties as a percentage of regional growth match or rise above the existing population of those core counties as a percentage of the region’s population. In places like Dallas and Houston, for example, high growth rates in the core counties were not large enough compared to those counties’ share of existing population, meaning that effectively population continues to be distributed on the whole outside of the core. This was less true in cities like New York, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia, where the core county absorbed a higher percentage of regional growth than their existing population.

It should be noted that changes in populations of core counties do not always directly correspond with the performance of core cities — which is why I have included the rightmost column in the table above, showing the percentage of the core county’s population that lives in the central city (as of 2010). In some cases, county borders correspond directly with those of the central city (as in the case of New York City, New Orleans, and Baltimore, among others). In other cases, the central city is a relatively small percentage of the county population (as in the case of Miami, Atlanta, and Cleveland). Thus, while these data allow us to examine population dynamics of certain cities directly, it is inconclusive for others. Nevertheless, it is likely that the demographic situation experienced in core counties is similar to that seen in core cities. (And indeed, the trends recorded here appear to be just as valid for counties that are 100% central cities as those whose populations are primarily outside of the central city.)

The Census Bureau will release data for 2011 on central cities and neighborhood areas later in the year.

I should also say that the Census Bureau has previously released annual population estimates that diverge dramatically from the official decennial Census figures used for Congressional redistricting, which were last released for 2010 and which will next be counted for 2020. In 2009, for instance, the Bureau announced that Chicago’s population had declined by 44,000 since 2000; in 2010, it said the city had lost almost 200,000 in the previous ten years. Similarly, in 2009, the Bureau claimed that Atlanta had a population of 540,921; a year later, the city’s population had magically shrunk to 420,003. So we need to remember that these estimates are estimates.

 * Both Cleveland and Detroit had both their central counties and MSAs lose population in both periods studied, and New Orleans had population loss for both central county and MSA in the 2000-2010 period. Thus, for example, Cleveland’s -86.0% from 2010 to 2011 was a relative improvement over -160.6% from 2000 to 2010, since this means that Cuyahoga County accounted for more than the region’s total loss of population in the earlier period but less than the total from 2010 to 2011 — which means population loss is spreading from the core county to the suburbs. St. Louis, Baltimore, and Cincinnati core counties all saw population loss in both periods while their respective regions grew, though each lost less as a percentage in the more recent period.

Chicago Congress Finance Infrastructure

If Washington Can’t Commit, Chicago is Ready to Go It Alone

» Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces billions for infrastructure upgrades. 

Though the details are not yet in full view, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to spend $7.2 billion over the next three years on infrastructure upgrades represents a truly significant advance in the field of municipal investment in the United States. It’s a unified plan to spend public and private funds on improved transit, parks, water, and educational facilities.

What a contrast to the U.S. Congress, an allusion to which I can hardly overlook in this context. Last week, House and Senate officials pushed forward an extension of the existing surface transportation legislation — the ninth such extension since SAFETEA-LU, the previous law, originally was supposed to expire in 2009.

The problem, suffice it to say, is not cowardice or nonsense political wheeling-dealing, but rather relatively minor — but painfully partisan — differences in perspective on the national transportation system. Over in the House, Republicans have campaigned for no increase in spending on mobility infrastructure (under the guise of fiscal moderation, with the goal of remaining within the constraints imposed by revenues provided by the Highway Trust Fund). Transit and other alternative mobility programs have been put under threat. In the Senate, Democrats promoted (and passed) a small increase in overall funding through a diversion of money from general (non-gas tax) revenues.

Now the Congress has given itself an extra ninety days to pick up the slack and somehow pull together a bipartisan transportation bill in the middle of campaign season in a presidential election year. The task is practically herculean.

In that sense, comparing Mr. Emanuel’s progress with the non-action out of Washington is unfair — Chicago’s strong mayoralty, which has almost direct control over public transportation, education, and the parks, allows swifter, more direct action than is possible in the heavily contested national legislature. And perhaps unlike in the federal government, there is basically universal support at the local level for the idea that the public infrastructure must be improved upon.

Emanuel’s plan, which has been dubbed “Building a New Chicago,” would guarantee investments in significant upgrades across the city. Some of the announcement is a media device — much of the spending would have occurred announcement or not — but much of it is being financed through “reforms, efficiencies, cuts in central offices, direct user fees, and… the Chicago Infrastructure Trust,” according to the mayor’s office. This is not, in other words, the same-old, same-old.

The city must be able to show that it can save significantly by improving the delivery of its existing services. One example, for instance, is in the creation of bus rapid transit services on Jeffrey Boulevard and in the Loop, both of which are part of the plan, and each of which would improve the daily experience of transit users even as they reduce operations costs for the Chicago Transit Authority. Similar improvements, such as a $225 million retrofit program, would save money in the long term by reducing energy consumption.

Other projects, such as the completion of the Bloomingdale Trail (the Chicago equivalent of New York’s High Line), the upgrading of many of the city’s parks, the update of the water system, the improvement of many schools, and the renovation of 100 El rapid transit stations, would be funded as well. Though the exact method by which they would be financed has not yet been established, it seems evident that some mix of user fees and private spending will be on hand. The latter will be made possible through the Infrastructure Trust, which Mayor Emanuel announced a month ago. The Trust would use debt and equity investment to leverage private investment for infrastructure. It could be an innovative mechanism to speed repairs to the city’s public environment.

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Richard Daley, Mr. Emanuel has produced a plan that would not result in the privatization of infrastructure. Mr. Daley’s 2008 parking meter deal notoriously lost the city billions of dollars, even as it deprived the city of control over much of its street space. The Trust would allow for private profit-making without handing over full control — a reasonable compromise.

Mr. Emanuel’s interest in investing in infrastructure is a logical extension of the arguments he has made since he was sworn in to office about 11 months ago. His administration, like that of most other cities, has been troubled by the decline in tax revenues resulting from the nation’s extended economic difficulty. He has had to balance budgets through difficult moves like school closings.

Yet unlike leaders of other cities, Emanuel has not yet made the push for increases in taxes to pay for infrastructure, unlike, say, Los Angeles. In some ways, this represents a strategic move; rather than assume that voters are ready to contribute more to a not-perfect system, there has been an effort here to live within the city’s existing means. If this can be done without imposing too much austerity on public services, it will raise confidence in the local government’s ability to perform adequately.

Chicago’s decision to fund its projects in such a manner is something that most cities could likely emulate with few negative political results. They just have to be more willing to experiment with creative financing and efficiencies.

In the years ahead, though, even a $7.2 billion investment will be inadequate to resolve some of the city’s most significant transportation needs, such as the renovation of northern section of the Red and Purple Lines and the extension of the Red Line south to 130th Street (each of which Mr. Emanuel has announced his intention to pursue) — not to mention more long-term efforts to extend the Orange Line, build a new downtown subway tunnel, and create a citywide BRT network. If those projects are ever going to make it into construction, Washington will need to step up its game, as even cities like Chicago need federal support for the biggest investments.

Image above: Bloomingdale Trail, from Flickr user vespar avenue (cc)