Bus Washington DC

Major Ambitions for Improved Transit in the Inner Suburbs North of Washington

» Montgomery County officials propose a 160-mile “RTV” system that they hope will revolutionize transportation patterns in the area.

Montgomery County, Maryland is one of the core counties of one of the nation’s most appealing metropolitan regions — the nation’s capital. Yet much of the county is relatively built out — mature, one might describe it — making the construction of any significant new transportation capacity, especially in terms of roadways, very difficult, if not impossible. The Intercounty Connector that opened last year is likely to be the last major road built in the area. But the demand for movement will continue to increase.

This is the challenge that has motivated the county’s Transit Task Force, appointed last year by County Executive Isiah Leggett. Earlier this month, the group released its proposal for a network of 160 miles of new bus rapid transit lines crisscrossing the county. The roughly $2 billion plan would offer dedicated lanes for RTVs — rapid transit vehicles — that planners hope will offer a shiny new face for transit in the region and attract a new group of choice riders onto buses operating at headways of 3 to 7 minutes at all times of the day. On many of the corridors, the transit system would be the “most cost effective way” to absorb excess traffic congestion, by moving it from cars into buses.

Montgomery County planners have insisted on the game-changing nature of what they are proposing, nothing that the vehicles to be used “will operate more like “light rail on rubber tires” than what is more typically referred to as “bus rapid transit“” — thus the name difference. Buses will have doors on both sides and be branded entirely different from the existing system.

As can be seen in the map below, the proposed interventions would radically change the face of the county by offering improved transit service to a whole network of east-west and north-south corridors, vastly augmenting the existing Metro and MARC lines there. Along its corridors, it would be the “best hope for creating vibrant, mixed-use communities” that will be denser, more walkable neighborhoods. If well designed and actually implemented, RTV’s sheer scale and the connectivity it offers could indeed offer a compelling reason for commuters to switch out of their private automobiles. It is an audacious proposal.

I spoke to Mark Winston, Chair of the County Executive’s Transit Task Force, and Tom Street, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer for the county, to better understand the motivations behind the RTV proposal.

We’re not looking at solving 25 discrete problems,” Winston argues. “We’re looking at this on a systemwide basis.” The plan suggests that the 160 miles of RTV lines be implemented in three phases, beginning with a $1.2 billion, 84-mile investment, and Winston believes that there is adequate political support to begin construction of at least four to five lines — not just one — within the next few years. Montgomery County planners have chosen to prioritize the concept of network development with the RTV plan, arguing that the project will only work if it is developed as a unified system. In this way, they are following other regions like the Twin Cities that recognize that the old method of studying transit lines corridor by corridor (e.g. the federal New Starts process) is opposed to the manner in which people actually use public transportation, as part of a network.

Winston emphasizes that “this is not a bus system” but rather a “new animal” that is designed to “change behavior” among riders who would otherwise be driving cars to and from work. As such, he argues, “if we produce a system that’s just a network of buses, this is not going to work.”

For Winston, this means that the county cannot “do a half-ass job” and “compromise the system.” In essence, he does not accept the idea that his grand vision for a RTV system could be narrowed down to a series of gussied-up shelters with only slightly faster buses. When I asked what features of the system were most important, Winston said, “We can afford to build a first class system here. the determination will be whether or not we choose to.” For him, the mode shift he wants to promote away from cars and towards transit can only occur if the system is built as best as is possible.

Street, on the other hand, was a bit more cautious, noting:

I think what is most important are dedicated guideways, and that’s what separates the RTVs from mixed traffic. I think it’s going to be actually critical to get the riders of choice to have a system that looks and feels different, but i think that criteria number one is not running in mixed traffic and you get that express feeling during periods of congestion.”

Indeed, the proposal as currently laid out puts a major emphasis on the separated lanes, prioritizing them over other features. In terms of image, that might make sense, since dedicated lanes show where buses are going and thus illustrate a sense of solidity and long-term development that is often said to be the strength of rail, not bus, lines. But it is not clear that dedicated lanes will be enough to spur on a major shift of people towards transit. Two ideas that might be more effective in doing so — right-of-way enforcement in RTV lanes through photographing violators and peak road pricing — are dismissed by the report as “preferable but not necessarily highly desirable.”

Moreover, while the report highlights dedicated lanes for the vehicles, Winston notes that “in a community like this, one answer does not fit everything.” In the case of the RTV report, that seems to mean that there will be many cases where vehicles will actually run in mixed-traffic lanes by design because of “capacity constraints” or in a single, reversible median lane for both directions of the service. While the county claims to have big goals for its transit network, these adaptations do not appear to be for the benefit of making the transit system as effective as possible but rather for the maintenance of the claims on certain roads by car drivers.

Just as revealing is the RTV committee’s treatment of the Corridor Cities Transitway, which is a proposed BRT project that would be incorporated into the RTV system if the latter is implemented. Claiming that the expenses the state of Maryland is currently estimating for the project are too high, the Task Force suggests significantly decreasing its costs… by eliminating many grade separations over major roads that would make this project as fast for riders as possible. The changes suggested would put buses in mixed traffic for some segments and increase round trip travel times massively, from 62.1 minutes to 70.4 minutes.

The primary explanation for the need for these changes is that the project as currently designed — at $545 million for a nine-mile segment — is too expensive. And indeed, perhaps it is unreasonably high. But whereas the state expects to pay about $60 million a mile for that full-scale rapid transit line, RTV proponents are suggesting that their project would cost only about $1.8 billion in total, or a bit over $11 million a mile (not including financing, which could admittedly double the cost). While the Task Force’s recommendation that the system be built using an integrated design-build-operate contract will likely save some money, it is hard to see how the improvements it is proposing will ever work out to be as novel as the Corridor Cities Transitway as currently designed, simply because there will not be enough funds in the county’s coffers to make full investments possible.

Nonetheless, the RTV Task Force has not been shy when it comes to identifying potential funds for the project and has instead noted that district taxes on property located with a 1/2-mile of route alignments, direct county funding, and private sector contributions could all be used to pay for the project, with no federal aid. These are realistic sources of funding that could be implemented relatively easily — in combination with significant county bonding — to pay for a large percentage of the lines discussed here. But political support beyond just the study phase will be necessary to begin discussing such an increase on local taxes, especially when it becomes apparent that the cost of a system like this could expand prodigiously.

Update, 31 May: A planner from Montgomery County emails to note that my use of “planner” in the above article does not refer to the county’s planners, but rather the members of the Transit Task Force. Noted. The Planning Department will deliver a recommended master plan to the council in early 2013, with project planning only beginning after approval.

Image above: Montgomery County RTV System Full Build-Out Map, from Montgomery County

Automobile Dallas Milwaukee

A Tollway in Dallas and the Absurdity of Building Duplicative Infrastructure

» Even as Dallas finishes work on a new light rail line, plans for a new highway along a parallel corridor advance.

This summer, Dallas’ Orange Line will be extended five stations northwest of downtown. The light rail service will expand what is already the United States’ longest such network and improve connections between central Dallas, the suburb of Irving, and — in 2014 — Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Yet billions of dollars in new construction have barely increased transit use; just 4.2% of the city’s commuters use public transportation to get to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If there is one city that proves that simply building transit does not attract people to transit, this is it.

Investments in Dallas’ road infrastructure might provide some explanation for the situation. An astonishing seven grade-separated highways extend radially out from the city center in all directions.* This is a city designed for the automobile.

At least some of the city’s residents apparently have not had enough of those roads. Early this month, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlins announced his support for a new toll road along the Trinity River whose alignment would not only parallel existing highways and the Orange Line, but it would significantly reduce the value of a new park proposed for the area. If public funds can be found to cover at least part of its $1.4 to $1.8 billion cost, the project appears likely to be built over the next decade.

This is transportation planning at its worst. Public dollars are being spent on two separate transportation projects that offer similar benefits and serve the same corridors. The advantages of the investments made in rail — namely, the ability to avoid congestion — are being marginalized by the construction of a huge new road that will, at least for a few years (until the congestion returns), make choosing the train a poor choice. At the cost of billions and in the name of congestion relief, transit’s role is being minimized. And the result is that all this investment will again produce low ridership.

Unlike most American cities, Dallas has room for a new highway, or rather, “room” that doesn’t require the bulldozing of dozens of homes to make way for a multi-lane corridor. The space comes in the form of the 2000-foot wide Trinity River park, which extends on a northwest-to-southeast diagonal through the center city.

Since the late 1990s, local leaders have been pushing for a new, 8.5-mile toll road along the alignment from U.S. 175 to Interstate 35E to counter the congestion along existing center city roads. In 2007, a referendum to stop the project before it could be built lost by a 53-47 vote. Part of the appeal was the fact that the project would include major improvements for the river basin, including the creation of new parks, sports fields, and two lakes. All in the shadow of the highway.

The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) conducted a series of public meetings on the project this month. NTTA manages a number of other toll roads in the region. Despite needing more than $1 billion in public and private funds to build the road, Jim Schutze’s comment in the Dallas Observer last week seems apt since the mayor has signed on to the project:

“The dearly held belief of many road opponents that the thing can’t be built because the money isn’t there is a false hope. If the concept stays on the boards and the political endorsements continue to flow in, the money will be found.”

Meanwhile, the arguments presented by the NTTA at the public hearings in favor of the road’s construction are almost comical:

“The Purposes of the Trinity Parkway are to:

• Improve mobility, manage congestion, increase safety, and accommodate future travel demands
• Minimize the physical, biological, and socioeconomic effects on the human environment
• Provide compatibility with local development plans
• Provide enhancements of modal interrelationships”

The problem is that the road’s construction will likely do little of the sort in the long run. First, while the construction of a new highway will result in gridlock relief on existing roads for a few years, there is ample evidence that increasing road capacity simply results in more drivers taking advantage of the roads. The congestion will return. Second, it is unclear how building a highway in the midst of a river basin will “minimize” impacts on the environment, even if the road includes windmills in its medians. Third, the project would be compatible with local development plans… if Dallas wanted to improve access to its suburbs by building a road that bypasses downtown.

Finally, how a major highway will allow for “modal interrelationships” is completely unclear. There are no plans for BRT or any sort of improved transit program to accompany the road.

To what degree will Dallas’ choice affect the patterns of transportation and land use in the region? The mayor has argued that the road is crucial to the city’s future growth. But what growth will the tollway encourage?

An examination of population change between 2000 and 2010 in the maps below provide an interesting comparison between Dallas (on the left) and Milwaukee (on the right). Both saw little overall population change in the previous decade (Dallas’ population increased by 0.8%, while Milwaukee’s declined by 0.4%), but downtown both grew quite significantly. As shown below, both cities saw significant population growth, while areas outside of the core lost population.

Above: Population change between 2000 and 2010 in Dallas (left) and Milwaukee (right), at the same scale. Each city’s downtown is indicated with a yellow circle. Green areas saw population growth (the darkest green indicates >25%); red areas saw population loss (the darkest red indicates <-25%).

Milwaukee demolished a downtown freeway in 2002. Despite having no urban rail transport infrastructure, its transit commute share is twice that of Dallas (8.5%). The decisions its leaders have made about how to invest in new transportation capacity have clearly provided benefits to the downtown core even as the economy of the rest of the city continues to struggle. Dallas’ decision over whether to build a new highway downtown could profoundly affect whether its center city moves in Milwaukee’s direction or away from it.

With a new road, Dallas will be encouraging more commuters to drive through the city, and decades of evidence — forgive me for repeating this truism — have demonstrated that designing around the automobile limits the ability of cities to develop effectively. Highways, by encouraging car use, make the walking, transit-oriented city impossible. The growth that Dallas has seen in its central areas could be ephemeral with the wrong decisions made.

Transportation planning is about the choice between transit and roads, but it is also about whether to invest at all. Dallas has spent billions of dollars on a rail rapid transit network, but it has simultaneously undermined it with the construction and maintenance of huge road capacity. What is the point of investing in the former when the latter makes it unviable?

* For comparison, Chicago has six grade-separated highways radiating from its downtown; Philadelphia five; Boston five; and San Francisco three.

Note: A previous version of this post identified downtown Dallas incorrectly. The post has been corrected to reflect that fact.

Image at top: Trinity River “Park” with highway, from NTTA; maps below from Social Explorer

Finance Pittsburgh Social Justice

The Economic Crisis Rolls on in Cities like Pittsburgh

» The U.S. economy may be improving in some ways, but transit services across the country continue to reel, thanks to lower-than-expected tax revenues.

The board of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, serving the Pittsburgh metropolitan region, announced last week that it would have to cut services by 35% by September 2 — the largest cut ever for the agency — if it is not provided an increase in state aid. The agency expects that it will have to increase fares and lay off 500 workers. This comes a year month after the agency reduced services by 15%.

The service cuts planned would be, suffice it to say, devastating. As the maps below illustrate, the Port Authority’s austerity plans would eliminate almost half of the region’s routes. This is in a city where, according to the U.S. Census, more than 25% of households have no vehicle available and almost 20% of workers use transit to get to work — figures that are far higher than the national average or even that of the vast majority of American center cities.

Before cuts After cuts

Pittsburgh, of course, is far from alone. From Boston — where a 23% fare increase and service cuts were approved a month ago — to Athens, Georgia — where night bus service is expected to be fully eliminated — American cities continue to cut their transit offerings. Friday’s U.S. national jobs report, which showed about 20,000 fewer people working in transit operations in April compared to a year ago (a 5% decline), only reinforced the fact that when it comes to transit service, cuts are the rule of the game.

What a paradox: These cutbacks are enforced even as fuel prices continue to rise and the demand for public transportation seems likely only to increase. Local revenues simply cannot keep up with demand.

At least part of the problem is the reliance on local and state revenues to subsidize operations costs for bus and rail services in cities across the country. Whereas the federal government was willing to cover more than half of the costs of a $523 million light rail expansion to Pittsburgh’s North Shore — opened in March — it can do nothing to cover the agency’s $64 million operating deficit expected for next year because of Congressionally imposed rules about what Washington can and cannot pay for.

The counterintuitive result is that cities that are doing well economically are able to pay for improved transit services whereas those with many economic problems — the ones where transit is often needed most — are left to cut operations dramatically. Thus regional inequities are reinforced.

One argument suggests that if the federal government continues to absolve itself of responsibility for providing for mobility of people across the country, public services like transportation will continue to be cut even if there is an important demand for them — and even if investing in them improves the economy in the long-run. Europe’s current economic crisis, which stems in part from a shared economic zone with differentiated tax rates, divergent social service provisions, and a demand that national governments enforce close-to-balanced budgets, has produced an environment in which downscaling of government investment is the norm, no matter the cost.

Is the situation in the U.S. so different? 49 of 50 states, unlike the federal government, have some form of balanced budget rule; cities are almost never able to operate in the red. Meanwhile, competition between states and cities encourages them to lower their tax rates, making the provision of public services all the more difficult. Only Washington is able to borrow during recessions, and thus it must play the role of providing the back-up for public services like transit agencies that are left behind by declining local revenues. Yet current law makes that impossible. The result is reduction in provision despite an increase in need.

An important report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last year, however, suggests that states do have more of an ability to invest in public service provision than they are typically assumed to have. Evidence shows that states that have increased taxes have not seen excessive outmigration but rather increased government revenues.

What can we take from this? Cities and states like Pittsburgh that are facing massive cuts in public services should absolutely call on Washington to increase its provision of aid to local governments, especially through operations support. But absent that — and in this day and age we cannot count on the Congress for much — raising local and state taxes is a serious option. It takes guts for public officials to promote tax increases, but we need to keep the trains and buses running.

Image at top: Pittsburgh busway and light rail, from Flickr user Erik Weber (cc); maps below from Port Authority of Allegheny County