France United Kingdom

The Latest from Never-Never-Land

Er, that would be… Europe, that magical place where infrastructure projects actually happen. Forgive me for the exaggeration, but I thought I’d bring this blog’s readers readers up-to-date on some mass transit improvements in the Old World that should make us over here in the ol’ U.S. of A. a bit jealous.

On the high speed rail front France, as we noted in an earlier post, has always been a strong competitor, with multiples lines running at speeds in excess of 300-kph (186-mph). This month, France’s National Assembly agreed to a major advancement of the high speed rail program with an environment-focused law called “Grenelle 1.” In the next twelve years, the Réseau Ferré de France (“Tracks of France;” the public owner of rail rights-of-way) will embark on a 2000-km (1250-m) effort to expand the high speed rail network. Planned lines will connect Tours and Bordeaux, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris and Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mans and Nantes, and Marseille and Nice. The already comprehensive network in the Gallic state will only get better.

The most interesting element of the law is that it will duplicate the existing Paris-Lyon line, already the best-used HSR line in the world outside of Japan. The current section, which opened in 1981, is at capacity, so the French will build a new line (through Clermont-Ferrand), that will allow a twenty-minute decrease in travel time on the corridor, to 1h40. This is the first example of two parallel HSR lines being built to serve the same markets, and demonstrates the powerful advantages and public approval of HSR technology.

France’s motivation may have been Spain, which is also building a giant network that will provide very fast travel speeds (350-kph; 218-mph) throughout the country and whose first very fast new line opened this year between Madrid and Barcelona. France’s new lines will be programmed for speeds of 360-kph (225-mph), speeds that the California High Speed Rail Authority is arguing can be achieved in the San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor. France’s adoption of the same estimated speed gives strong credence to California’s argument and implies that in fact these speeds can be achieved.

The French rail authority, SNCF, intends to decimate the airline industry in travel within France, and it has already done just that on several corridors. The agency points out that two-hour train trips take 90% of the market share; three-hour trips take 75%; and four-hour trips take 50%. If, as planned, the SNCF is able to push new-generation TGVs on the Paris-Toulouse corridor to 360-kph by the section’s 2014 opening, it will reduce travel time from 5h today to 3, meaning a large increase in market share for trains in the corridor. This surely won’t make Toulouse’s biggest employer, Airbus, very happy.

Meanwhile, in England, the Tory party, is proposing a massive ramping-up of that country’s rail system. The Tories, in opposition since 1997, are likely to win the next elections because of the massive unpopularity of the New Labour and its Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. A major element of this year’s Tory platform, which traditionally has been conservative, has been environmental protection. One of their main proposals is to scrap the idea for a third runway at London’s massively over-used Heathrow airport and use the money instead for an HSR line running from London’s St. Pancras Station up to Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. In the capital, trains would connect directly with the Eurostar network, which provides excellent connections to mainland Europe.

Labour, obsessed with the idea of expanding Heathrow, is likely to have trouble getting its way, with parties on the left and right opposed. Meanwhile, the British Airport Authority has stated repeatedly that it is in favor of both the rail link and airport expansion. Meanwhile, new Mayor of London Boris Johnson envisions replacing Heathrow entirely with a new airport built at sea, an idea that has come to fruition in Hong Kong.

But the Brits, undergoing a strong recession of their own, are unlikely to find the cash to pay for all of these projects. And with the Tories rising in power, it seems that HSR will be at the top of the list. Labour’s stubborn opposition to the idea that Englishmen will use trains like their neighbors in France and Germany denotes a fundamental misunderstanding. In every situation where HSR has been implemented, it has been greeted with success, reduced road and air travel, and fewer C02 emissions. To expect anything different in the U.K. is pure nonsense, and the Tories, who are admittedly all over the place when it comes to policy proposals seem to realize that. Expect faster travel within England in the next ten years.

In other news, Switzerland has opened a metro line in Lausanne, in the western (French-speaking) section of the country. This makes this town of only 125,000 by far the smallest city on earth with a true metro (the first line, M1, that opened in 1991 is more like a light rail line). M2, as it is called, runs on a 9 mile route that it serves in 18 minutes, connecting southern and northern “suburbs” with the town center and main train station. It cost 736 million Swiss Francs (about 630 million US$).

The metro runs much like Paris’ most recent line, the M14. It is automatic (no driver), runs on tires, and stations have guard doors that prevent people from falling (or jumping) on to the tracks. Though the opening day was marked with some problems, it says a lot that the Swiss were willing to invest so much money in a new transit line with a fully separated right-of-way (some in a tunnel) in such a small city. Clearly, the attitude that transit works and deserves funding predominates.

Elections High-Speed Rail Light Rail

A Matter of Democracy

On November 4th, Americans in every state (and the District of Columbia!) will vote in the Presidential election. But in California, Hawaii, Washington (state), Missouri, and New Mexico, at least some voters will be able to have their say about something even more exciting – whether or not to invest in major transit improvements! Alright, alright, I degrees, transit referenda may not be as interesting or important as this Presidential election-of-elections. But as we’ve shown already on our This Fall page (which includes the list as well as helpful links to referendum supporters and opponents), there are 10 separate votes on November 4th that will shape transportation policy in the five states mentioned above. This post will provide a more detailed look into these  referendums.

The ten votes fall into three basic groups that we’ll describe separately:

1. The development of a high speed rail network

  • California High-Speed Rail, Proposition 1a

2. The development of new rail networks

  • Honolulu Mayor’s Vote and Rail Referendum
  • Kansas City Light Rail Referendum
  • West Sacramento Measures U and V
  • Sonoma-Marin Measure Q

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

  • Seattle Proposition 1
  • St. Louis Measure M
  • Los Angeles Measure R
  • Santa Clara Measure B
  • New Mexico Tax Initiatives

1. The development of a high speed rail network

California’s Proposition 1a will start the development of the biggest infrastructure project in the nation since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway program. The $10 billion bond that would be released upon the approval of voters of this referendum would allow for the commencement of a highly ambitious project that would bring the first true high speed rail to the shores of the Western Hemisphere (if Argentina doesn’t come first). The project’s first goal is to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the state-run California High-Speed Rail Authority argues would make for a 2h40 trip on a brand-new right-of-way running through San Jose, Fresno, and Bakersfield, among other cities. The newest of the high-speed trains – those that run up to 220-mph in commercial runs – would be used to connect these cities.

The project must be provided additional funds from the federal government if it is to be built, and private-sector partners are being considered for involvement as well. The entire system – 800 miles long and projected to cost $45 billion to construct in 2008 dollars – would include branches from Fresno to Sacramento, from Los Angeles to Irvine, and from Los Angeles to San Diego, but those sections are being delayed until the central section from L.A. to the Bay Area is completed. The argument is that this first, central element is essential because its route through the Central Valley, with few stations, would allow for trains to achieve their highest speeds and therefore legitimize the network as a whole.

California has been considering developing a high-speed rail network for years now – the state authority was founded in 1996. Increasing road and air congestion has made train development a more exciting possibility. But the primary cause for concern was and has always been the project’s enormous cost. Project proponents have rightly pointed out that highway and airport expansion would cost significantly more than the $45 billion being proposed here, but the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Governorship in 2003 put the project into peril. Though a “moderate,” the Republican saw the state’s ballooning, always-late budget as a major problem and immediately began looking for ways to cut it. The Authority was originally planning to release its bond in the 2004 election, but the Governor moved it to 2006, and then again to 2008, funding the Authority with only a few million dollars in the intervening years, allowing it to begin engineering work, but little else. But the Governor’s rhetoric in favor of climate protection (electric rail is far more efficient than either automobiles or airplanes) and his work with Michael Bloomberg and Ed Rendell on the infrastructure-promoting Building America’s Future campaign made it difficult for him to delay the project again. He allowed the bill to be put to the voters even though the proposed budget remains $3 billion in the red and he has allowed no other proposals for new programs. So high speed rail looks like it might just squeak through.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been controversy on the project development side, though. Though there’s virtual unanimity in the conclusion that the Bay Area-L.A. corridor is the top priority, the development of that line could have taken multiple forms. Between San Jose and San Francisco, the wealthy town of Menlo Park, which already sees dozens of Caltrain commuter trains go through every day, is strongly opposed to the project. And a long period was devoted to deciding which route to take between Fresno and San Francisco – two alignments, the Altamont and Pacheco passes, were considered, before the later was picked.

But these controversies are relatively minor compared to the massive public works project that will begin if this referendum passes. California, though it has big expenses ahead (in a form I ranted against in another post), is likely to produce a successful project if it follows through on its goal of 220-mph trains and a fully separated right-of-way. As has been pointed out, California’s situation closely mirrors that of Spain, which is in the process of developing a massive high speed rail system whose initial routes have been wildly popular.

(Important note: about $1 billion of the bond is to be devoted to improvement of local rail services that will connect to the high-speed project.)

Read more about the project at the excellent California High Speed Rail Blog.

2. The development of new rail networks

Honolulu is more than just a tourist center. It’s a bustling, dense city with most of Hawaii’s population, all concentrated along a twenty-mile strip on the south edge of Oahu. Since the 1970s, a rail system has been considered to handle the increasing levels of congestion along the city’s major highways, which have no room to expand because of the proliferation of high rises and natural features like dormant volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean. Mayor Frank Fasi proposed the “HART” system and had virtually guaranteed funding from the Federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA; precursor to the FTA), but facing the new economics of the Reagan Administration, his successor Eileen Anderson decided to pull out, citing an unwillingness to look for local matching funds for the project. By the mid-1980s, Mayor Fasi was back in office and got pretty far in his proposal to build a new multi-billion dollar subway through downtown Honolulu, but limited government funds, the destruction of the UMTA made the project impossible to implement.

But with the revival of New Starts funding for major transit investments from the FTA at the conclusion of the Clinton Administration, Honolulu again began thinking about building a rail system. Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who became mayor in 2005, immediately began promoting rail. This year, after prolonged debate on the City Council over whether to implement a BRT system instead, the Council endorsed the project, and it’s well on its way to acheiving New Starts funding, because of high expected ridership. The automated 20-mile light rail line will be elevated, running from the University of Hawaii (Manoa), through downtown Honolulu, and west past the airport and Pearl Harbor (an extension to Waikiki Beach is planned as well) It will probably operate similarly to Vancouver’s Sky Train.

In order for it to be completed, however, the public must endorse the plan in the light rail vote on November 4th. A recent poll gives a slight lead to the proponents, but you never know. Mayor Hannemann must also be able to win his simultaneous reelection bid. He faces Ann Kobayashi, who favors a poorly developed BRT plan, and he’s likely to win based on polling.

Another city that has been planning for years for a rail project is Kansas City, which has fallen far behind its eastern competitor, St. Louis, which also has a referendum this year on transit. In 2001, voters in the city were offered a project to build a major line but opponents successfully portrayed the project as too expensive and likely to attract too few riders. But in 2006, local rail supporter Clay Chastain organized a referendum on his 27-mile plan for the city (which would require electric light rail trains without overhead catenaries, such as in Bordeaux, France), and he won an endorsement from the public at the polls – but there was no money to back up his idea. After his success, Chastain went as far to argue that the system should in fact be a subway, way too expensive for a city the size of Kansas City.

But the City Council finally agreed on a plan for a $1 billion 14-mile North-South light rail starter plan that will provide the backbone for further lines going east and west out of the city. This year’s election is over whether the city should implement a 3/8-cent sales tax to sponsor the construction of the system. A recent poll shows increasing (but not yet majority) support for the tax, so we’ll have to see what happens on November 4th.

This page on the Kansas City Star’s website provides a nice overview of what’s happened over the past year.

The other two systems being considered for transit line creation are in Northern California, and though neither are in cities with current service, both would connect with major transit systems. In West Sacramento, a small city just adjacent to the state capital, a new streetcar line would run along the city’s waterfront and then connect with the big city’s large light rail system. Voters are being asked in Measure V to extend the existence of what is today a 1/4-cent transit sales tax – this would be eliminated otherwise. Measure U asks whether voters agree with the creation of the streetcar system. Though the route has not yet been finalized, it would make the connection between the neighboring cities more simple and encourage the development of what are now abandoned industrial brownfields. Politicians in West Sacramento see this as a good way to encourage densification of their city.

In Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco, a commuter rail plan is being put in front of voters in the form of a 1/4-cent sales tax increase. It, like all California sales tax increases, requires a 2/3 majority in order to pass. This diesel-multiple-unit service, nicknamed SMART, would travel from Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the south on a $450 million upgrade of 70 miles of track; an estimated 5,300 people a day will use the service starting in 2013. A ferry at Larkspur would connect riders to San Francisco and the BART metro system. This sales tax increase was also in the ballot in 2006, when it received 65% of the vote, just 1% less than it needed in order to be implemented… so look for this as a likely passage in a transit-friendly year.

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

The five final plans provide extensions to existing networks, and we won’t discuss them in as much detail as the others above, though we’ll have special features on Los Angeles to describe that city’s particular insanities and on BART to describe its oft-delayed extensions later this week.

Seattle hasn’t yet completed the first stage of its new “Link” light rail system, which is a 15.5-mile central line between downtown and the airport. The system is expected to be so popular that the agency is already underway on the engineering of a second phase, which will connect downtown to the University of Washington, and which is likely to attract one hundred thousand riders a day. The plan being offered to voters this fall is more of the same, and voters, at least in recent surveys, seem to be excited by the prospect, even though they haven’t tried the light rail under construction yet! If passed, the sales tax increase would fund 36 more miles of light rail, going south, north, and east of the central section currently under construction, as well as the possibility for more inner-city streetcar lines (other than the S.L.U.T.). It would also bring a lot more bus service and significant increases in commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle. Interestingly, a similar Proposition 1 in 2007 failed at the polls because of opposition from environmental groups that didn’t want more money for roads, so this year’s proposition includes no money for roads. Only in Seattle does support grow when you decrease provisions for highway funding.

St. Louis, whose 46-mile light rail system first opened in 1993, has been successful in attracting riders, with an average of 70,000 passengers a day. This year’s Proposition M will work to significantly expand the popular system, which has been slightly blemished this year by random attacks on passengers (we’ll see if that changes anything at the polls). The measure will ensure the continued funding of the system, which otherwise will face budget cuts, and also some expansion.

New Mexico’s measure, which will affect voters in two counties, will continue the development of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, a commuter rail system that currently serves the suburbs of Albuquerque but which will be extended to Santa Fe starting in December. The service is not well-used, but an extension between the state’s two biggest cities might make a difference. That said, the vote occurs before the extension opens…

As I already pointed out, we’ll discuss Los Angeles County’s Measure R and Santa Clara County’s Measure B in posts later this week. Both will add a 1/2-cent sales tax to finance significant transit expansions. L.A.’s will mean the implementation of several new rail and busway corridors, including the forever-promised “Subway to the Sea” (in other words, to Santa Monica). Santa Clara’s measure will extend BART from Warm Springs (East Bay) to San Jose and Santa Clara, allowing people to take either BART or Caltrain from San Francisco to San Jose, choosing which side of the bay they’d like to travel on. Again, we’ll talk about these measures, too complicated to discuss here, independently.


Short-Term Thinking

There’s been a lot of spilled ink recently about the deals a few transit agencies made with American International Group (AIG). It appears that operators in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well as 30 others, sold their fleets to the insurance group in order to make a quick buck. The systems then proceeded to make deals to lease back their own equipment – trainsets and buses – from the company. These deals are indicative of the kinds of decisions being made today by transit systems – all short-term thinking, no considerations of long-term investment.

The deal made sense for Washington’s Metro, which sold 600 rail cars – that’s right, 80-100 trainsets – in 16 different deals, worth $1.6 billion. San Francisco made several hundred millions of dollars worth of deals, and Los Angeles benefited from its own $1 billion investment. At the time, these deals made sense. The transit agencies – chronically in need of cash – could basically “get back” the money they had spent on the vehicles and then spend just a small part of their budget each year on vehicle leasing. Many automobile consumers basically make the same choice in choosing to lease rather than buy their cars.

But there was a fundamental problem with these deals: they relied on AIG to stay afloat. Unfortunately, along with the rest of the U.S. economy, AIG went broke last month. Even with the influx of cash provided by the Treasury’s bailout plan, there is less investor confidence in AIG’s assets. Now, under an original signing clause  based on AIG’s credit ratings (which dropped from AAA to A-), banks that had invested in AIG can now demand money from the agencies in the tune of $400 million from Metro, for instance. It is likely that Congress, which was all too willing to help the dying banks, will find a way to ensure that transit agencies won’t be stuck in this unfair situation – they’ve asked Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke to intervene on behalf of the systems.

And that’s good. We shouldn’t ask transit agencies to shoulder the blame for the poor management and insane excesses of a private corporation. In these heady days of transit ridership – the highest levels since World War II – systems have other things to worry about. High fuel costs have encouraged drivers to get off the road in vast numbers. And even as the price of petrol has declined, people are still taking transit. Meanwhile, other expenses, such as health care costs, continue to rise. And local and federal funding, already dropping, is completely falling through with the decrease in tax revenues expected during this upcoming recession.

But – and I hate to say it – the fact that transit agencies got into these deals in the first place bothers me. Yes, it’s true, there’s always a need for money on hand, and AIG certainly came through on that side of the bargain, propping up the budgets of these agencies in the years when they committed to the deals. But these deals were like crack – providing immediate benefit but soon after loosing all value and requiring their users to invest more to get the same benefits.

The thing is, transit agencies aren’t car buyers. Whereas people have an incentive to lease cars, because they may keep the vehicles for only a couple of years before moving on to the next one, transit agencies will keep their trains for 30-50 years before they move on. Leasing doesn’t make sense when you’re talking about such long time periods. The consequences is that while budgets may look better today (an amusing notion, considering the delicate nature of transit agency budgets), they will have to continue leasing these vehicles for many more years, eventually paying much more than the single purchase price of the vehicles would have meant. This is poor thinking, based only on short-term goals and with no true consideration of long-term consequences.

And in fact, transit agencies have been taking more and more advantage of deals that produce these terrifying consequences. Like the U.S. budget, ever-increasing expenses are being covered by loans and bonds – and those bonds are eventually going to have to be paid off – with sizable interest. For these public agencies, relying on taxpayer funds, this isn’t a good thing, because it means a future of huge debt payments for services provided years before.

Maybe that future has already arrived. In this year’s budget, Chicago’s CTA will devote more than $100 million to paying off its “pension obligation” debt service. The transit agency couldn’t afford to pay its employees pensions from its regular budget because of its limited revenues, so it released private-market bonds to make up the difference. In the fiscal year 2007 budget, LA’s Metro spent 11.5% ($312 million) of its total budget on similar back-payments, and this percentage doesn’t even include debt service on the agency’s building projects, which require far more debt. New York’s MTA, by far the nation’s biggest transit agency, spent an astounding $1.7 billion on similar expenses in 2007 – this is equivalent to almost half of the agency’s total $4 billion revenue from fare boxes.

Transit agencies, then, are like crack addicts, addicted to the quick benefits of loans, leases, and other poorly considered deals. Much of this reliance is due of course to the underfunded nature of the agencies, but the situation is only going to get worse as all these debts have to be paid back.

In order to solve this problem, we should have a moratorium on taking out loans to pay for operating expenses. Transit agencies should stop this ridiculous process of selling off their vehicles, simply to lease them back. Finally, we – the taxpayer public – need to agree to give more money to the agencies so that these loans don’t seem so appealing in the future.

High-Speed Rail Infrastructure

Fast Forward

Comparing the TGV to United States Rail Corridors

The development of high speed rail, beginning in the 1950s and 60s in Japan and France, radically altered the way developed countries could plot out their transportation futures. Already developing their nuclear power plants, and neither with any native oil resources, each country saw the advantages of electricity-based transportation. As a result, neither automobiles nor airplanes, both oil-based, would work. So both embarked upon the world-changing quest that has been made manifest in the success of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) (beginning in 1981) and Shinkansen (beginning in 1964). In both Japan and France, the equation for traveling distances less than 500 miles was suddenly altered as it became quicker, more economical, and more convenient to travel by train than by any other mode.

Little by little, countries all over the world followed suit, building high speed rail lines fit for trains moving at speeds more than 150 miles per hour. – Germany, Belguim, Spain, Italy, South Korea, China, England, Taiwan. Today, there are high speed rail lines under construction or soon to be built in Argentina, Russia, Austria, South Africa, Turkey, Israel, Portugal, and Morocco. The implication is obvious: with the exception of the United States, all wealthy, developed countries have come to recognize the value and benefits of high speed rail.

The U.S. has not always been behind on the development of faster railways. Back in 1969, Penn Central introduced the Metroliner, which sped from New York to Washington in three hours, quite fast for the time. But the bankrupcy of Penn Central, which was in itself a last minute merger between the Pennsylvania Railroad and New York Central attempting stave off their own financial problems, meant that high-speed rail development in America had little support. Simply enough, the government’s decision to step in with the creation of Amtrak solved one problem: the railways would remain open, albeit with limited service. Compare the services provided around the U.S. with those offered in France in the image above (click on image to expand, PDF here). The difference is remarkable, especially when considering how much shorter travel times would be in the U.S. were trains to move at TGV speeds (a chart detailing the differences is below). But in the intervening years, though Congress has provided enough funds for daily operation, subsidizing the entity on the order of $1 billion a year, but it never stepped in to consider radical enhancements to Amtrak’s funding. In fact, service around the nation remains remarkably slow.

That is, with the exception of the Acela Express. In 1976, just after the 1971 creation of Amtrak, the federal government took control of the Northeast Corridor (the tracks running from Washington to Boston), and commenced the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project. This project lasted until 1998 and cost $4 billion dollars; it resulted in the upgrading of significant number of stations as well as improvements on the tracks themselves, with the goal of speeding up service. It also, importantly, electrified the tracks between New Haven and Boston, which had until then required diesel locomotives. This in itself was a significant improvement for New York-Boston service because until 1998, electric trains from New York had to change to diesel locomotives in Connecticut – a time-consuming operation – the opposite was true going the other way.

Amtrak’s goal was to take advantage of the improvements along the line to introduce its own high-speed train that would finally provide the United States with a TGV-like service. Between 1994 and 2000, Amtrak worked with Bombardier to develop a TGV-like trainset that would be able to tilt (like the Italian Pendolino) in order to operate smoothly on the old, curvy tracks of the Northeast Corridor. And indeed, when the Acela Express began service, it did, in fact, provide high levels of interior comfort and lounges at stations for first class customers. The problem was that it wasn’t any faster than the Metroliner it replaced. Embarassingly, Bombardier built the trains 4 inches too wide. This tiny error – which has yet to be corrected – makes it impossible for the Acela to tilt on the vast majority of its journey, making the design of the train basically worthless.

Also, high-speed trains necessitate weighted catenaries to handle the immense amount of power being pressed against them as trains speed below, and only the new section east of New Haven has these. In order to achieve high speed throughout the corridor, the catenaries above tracks from Washington to New Haven would have to be upgraded, an expensive operation. The train does travel at its 150-mph top speed (nothing compared to 220-mph service now offered in Spain and China), but only for 18 miles in Rhode Island and Massachusettes, as widely noted. In much of Connecticut west of New Haven, it travels at a miserable 60-mph or less. But with new, slightly skinnier trainsets and upgraded catenaries, Amtrak could reduce travel time significantly – this is a must for future service in the Northeast.

So the federal intervention on behalf of the national railroad was a failed one. But all is not lost on high speed. As has already been pointed out, Amtrak doesn’t have to do that much to upgrade the Northeast Corridor to higher speeds. And the service is already popular: it accounted for 50% of travel (air and rail) between Boston and New York at the end of 2007, and much more between Washington and New York. This market share would increase even with incremental decreases in travel time. But Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant has argued that 200-mph service on the Northeast Corridor is simply unlikely because no one is willing to provide the billions of dollars required to build new tracks and a new right-of-way that would be required to envision speeds that high. That may be true. But Florida Representative John Mica, who sees Amtrak as “Soviet-style” rail transport because it is a “government monopoly,” has introduced a solution: a declaration of willingness to accept private bids for new service between Washington and New York in less than two hours. Considering that every other high speed rail system in the world has been initiated through government investment, such private bids seem unlikely.

Another bill seems more likely to produce real results: Massachusettes’ John Kerry and Georgia’s Johnny Isakson’s high speed rail bill, which has not yet been introduced, but which is likely to pass under the probable Democratic government next year. This bill would give billions of dollars in bonds to improvements to the intercity rail system, and there’s one project likely to get the bulk of funds starting next year, California’s High Speed Rail Project. We won’t get into the depths of this project now, but suffice it to say that it’s a $40 billion affair that proposes to move trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2h20. Its fate depends on a favorable vote from voters this fall.

There are other major projects we’ll talk about soon as well, including Midwest High Speed Rail (pushing out from Chicago), Florida High Speed Rail, the Texas T-Bone Corridor, Southeast High Speed Rail, a connection between New York and Montreal, and the maglev projects proposed between Baltimore and Washington, in Pittsburgh, between Chattanooga and Atlanta, and between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All of these projects have at least some value, and in the Obama Administration, we’ll be talking a lot about them. Quite an exciting a future we have for high speed rail in the United States! And what a lot of catching up we have to do!

The table below demonstrates how much travel time would be saved if select Amtrak routes were converted to HSR technology (this table corresponds to the image above).

Potential travel time
Corridor Existing travel time Based on TGV Current proposals
Los Angeles-Sacramento 13h45 3h10* 2h20 (C)
Los Angeles-San Francisco 11h15 3h10* 2h40 (C)
Charlotte-Atlanta 5h30 2h20+
Chicago-Detroit 5h30 2h20+
Chicago-St. Louis 5h20 2h20+
Washington-Raleigh 5h50 2h^ 4h (S)
Kansas City-St. Louis 5h30 2h^
New York-Boston 3h40 2h^
New York-Washington 2h45 2h^ 2h (X)
Chicago-Indianapolis 5h 1h30~
Atlanta-Birmingham 4h 1h”
Raleigh-Charlotte 3h15 1h” 2h50 (S)
New York-Albany 3h 1h” 2h (N)
Cleveland-Pittsburgh 2h45 1h”
Los Angeles-San Diego 2h45 1h” 1h20 (C)
Philadelphia-Harrisburg 1h45 45m`
Chicago-Milwaukee 1h30 45m`

* – As exemplified by the Paris-Marseille corridor, which is of similar length
+ – Paris-Strasbourg corridor
^ – Paris-Lyon corridor
~ – Lyon-Marseille corridor
” – Paris-Tours corridor
` – Paris-Reims corridor

(C) – From California High Speed Rail
(S) – From Southeast High Speed Rail
(X) – From Congressman John Mica’s Plan for the New York-Washington Corridor
(N) – From New York High Speed Rail Task Force

Commuter Rail Infrastructure Light Rail Metro Rail

Priority Number 1

As of this year, there are ten cities that provide more than 100,000 rides a day on their rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail lines. The renewal and strengthening of these lines, which represent the backbone of America’s transit infrastructure, must be the first transportation priority of the next Presidential Administration. Here is the simple rationale: these systems have been chronically underfunded and together represent the vast majority of the nation’s fixed-route transit riders. About half of these systems are crumbling, having been built a century or more ago; the other half, built since the 1960s, need to be renewed and strengthened if they’re going to be able to last another century themselves.

These are the two groups of transit systems:

1. Systems built in the first decades of the 20th century:

  • New York’s MTA, PATH, and NJT (metro and CR) – 9.2 million weekday rides
  • Chicago’s L and Metra (metro and CR) – 1 million weekday rides
  • Boston’s MBTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 900,000 weekday rides
  • Philadelphia’s SEPTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 500,000 weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s Muni (LRT) – 150,000 weekday rides

2. Systems built starting during the Great Society:

  • Washington’s Metro (metro) – 1 million weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s BART (metro) – 400,000 weekday rides
  • Los Angeles’ Metro (metro and LRT) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Atlanta’s MARTA (metro) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Portland’s MAX (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides
  • San Diego’s Trolley (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides

All five systems in the first list have been provided billions of dollars in upgrades in the past few decades. Chicago’s L, which until last year lacked enough funding to provide even basic service, has been working feverishly to reduce its number of “slow zones,” which hamper train speeds. The federal government has provided enough money to make the goal achievable. Philadelphia is in the process of upgrading its Market Street Elevated. New York City invests more than $2 billion a year to spruce up its gigantic system of tunnels, elevateds, and commuter rails.

But these systems are hardly in states of good repair. Any visitor to subway stations in each of the five cities will see huge maintenance problems. In New York City, the program to renew the system that began in the mid-80s has a long way to go; Lee Sander, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s CEO, recently admitted that only about 100 of the city’s more than 400 stations are in acceptable condition. Earlier this year, a teenager in Brooklyn fell onto the tracks when the ancient wooden edge of the platform literally fell apart at his feet; these are not acceptable conditions. Because of new funding shortfalls, however, even New York’s slow transformation team will be significantly slowed in coming years. Both Chicago and Philadelphia’s metro systems are relatively lightly used compared to those cities’ overall populations and densities (both are larger than Washington, D.C. but achieve far lower ridership), arguably because the service they provide is of such poor quality. Chicago’s Bid for the 2016 Olympics will likely have trouble competing with other world cities because of the failures of the L.

Why has this happened? Why are early-20th century mass transit systems in the United States in so desperate need of repair? Because they simply have not been provided adequate funding to produce the massive transformation that is required for them to provide the quality of service and livability that we should expect of modern transportation systems.

These systems are old, of course, but their age does not have to doom them to permanent obsolescence. In fact, by looking abroad at what other old systems have done, we can learn a thing or two. Take Paris’ one-hundred-year-old Metro, for example. Beginning in 1999, the subway authority began a comprehensive remaking of the system, with the goal of renovating more than 200 stations; by 2002, one hundred stations were done. The work continues today, with stations being renovated on three-month timetables in which they’re taken out of service to complete the work quickly and effectively. Today, there are six stations closed and undergoing renovation. The results are spectacular: ancient stations look virtually brand new. Across the Channel in London (a 2.5 hour ride away on the HSR Eurostar), Transport for London is in the process of renovating all of its stations in a ten-year plan, a process that will also include significantly increasing capacity in heavily used stations. A look at London’s Transforming the Tube plan (pdf) is worthwhile.

So the age of our oldest and most-used systems is no excuse. We have the ability to reverse course and rebuild the stations and infrastructure of our subways, and the millions of riders in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco deserve higher levels of service. Productive and efficient cities demand good public transportation, and we would never accept the degrading and embarrassing conditions we see in these systems in our households – or even in our airports. We must develop a multi-billion-dollar funding plan for government investment that recognizes the value of these systems and acts quickly to ensure their continued usefulness. This should be the first transportation priority of the incoming President. If not, these networks will fall further into disrepair, reaching a point where descending into the subways means loosing all self-respect.

The second group of high-ridership transit networks has understandably far fewer problems than the first because of their relative youth – the first segment of San Francisco’s BART opened in 1972; Washington’s Metro began operation in 1976. But these systems, now more than thirty years old, are starting to show their age. As a 2005 Washington Post article pointed out, Metro has been attempting to upgrade its escalators, trains, and tracks for the 21st century (albeit with some mismanagement) as ridership climbs. As these train systems get older and more frequented, they will need significant upgrades. Those improvements should begin now to prevent the kind of systematic decline that has occurred along the lines of the first set of transit networks mentioned here.

Other cities – notably Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City – have made significant investments in their transit infrastructure in recent years. The federal government should continue to invest in the expansion of their networks, and the transport politic will invest plenty of time in the future discussing how that might be done. But their current demand is significantly lower than that of the nation’s largest transit systems: our primary focus must be improving the conditions in the nation’s largest and oldest train networks.

This initial push for increased infrastructure investment has been pushed by groups such as Transportation for America and Building America’s Future, both of which recognize the importance of upgrading our existing systems. In the context of the current economic recession, likely lower tax returns will result in a decrease in transit funding nationwide based on current spending priorities. Yet transit investment – a long-term, sustainable project – can provide a needed increase in jobs and would act as a Keynesian response to the financial crisis. We must put out a strong appeal for a massive investment in existing transit networks – that’s what we desperately need to push our cities and their transportation networks into the future.