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Atlanta

Atlanta Transit Expansion Comes Closer as Region Prepares for Tax Referendum

» Hopes for regional transit funding are lining up.

When it was originally proposed in 1965, MARTA was supposed to be the transit authority serving the entire Atlanta region, then splayed out over five counties. Yet the system required funding to be put in place, and when asked to devote some of their sales taxes to the cause, only people in Fulton and DeKalb Counties — the most central of the region — agreed to pony up. So the rail system that began operations in mid-1979 remains constrained to those counties’ borders. Lacking needed funds, the original system plan has yet to be completed.

That’s in spite of the fact that the ten closest-in Atlanta region counties now house more than 4.1 million people and have grown significantly over the past half century. Partially because of the failure to expand MARTA, the region’s transit mode share of work trips has declined disastrously from 16.8% in 1960 to 3.7% today. New transportation projects have been few and far between: Currently, the only transit program that has its funding secured in the Atlanta region is the short (and, from the standpoint of the region’s larger needs, modest) Georgia Transit Connector streetcar, which was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER grant last fall.

Fortunately, the area’s residents will be allowed to vote next year on an increase in local funding for transportation through a 1¢ sales tax, which would extend across the ten counties if it were approved by the population. The referendum, which is expected to raise up to $7 billion in additional resources over the next ten years, was made possible because of the passage of a Georgia state law in June 2010 largely pushed through by new Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

The flow of dollars holds great promise and could be instrumental in aiding the region develop its meager fixed-route public transportation network into something more convenient. Already, cities and counties across the region have submitted $24 billion in potential projects to be funded with the money, far more than could be distributed. (15% of dollars raised will be spent by constituent local governments, with 85% remaining allocated by the regional planning authority for projects determined by a regional “roundtable” group.) The final list of projects that would be funded by the tax will be determined in October.

Despite the clear need for improved transportation in the metropolitan region, though, there is no guarantee that county populations will approve the sales tax increase or that the projects chosen for funding will be appropriate in guiding the area’s growth.

The first problem is serious: The anti-government sentiment currently festering in the United States is likely to negatively affect proposals that would do a lot to expand the commuting options for one of the nation’s largest regions. Though transportation sales tax increase measures have fared well in cities from Charlotte to Los Angeles, whether they can pass in broad sections of the suburbs is a different matter. It seems almost inevitable that the citizens of Atlanta will vote in favor of the proposal, even though it will double their sales taxes dedicated to transport, but getting people to do the same in exurban sections of Gwinnett County will be much more difficult. It didn’t happen 40 years ago.

Second, even if the tax increase is passed, the projects funded will not necessarily contribute to positive change in this sprawling metropolis. Though MARTA has a number of transportation expansions under study, parts of the $7 billion will be distributed to roads projects as well. Outside of Atlanta proper, which contains just 10% of the larger region’s population, there is likely to be more support for highway infrastructure than bus or rail investments.

Some advocacy groups have already begun pushing to ensure that transit gets its “fair share” of funds, which they argue is 60% of the total, or $4.2 billion over ten years. That’s a big sum even for a region as large as this one, but it may also be too optimistic, especially if those making the list want the measure to pass in car-dominated outer sections of the area. The respective influence of these rival factors will be better understood once the list of projects to be funded is finalized later this year.

What seems likely are a serious of compromises, largely involving the extension of transit lines out into the suburbs, investments that return fewer transportation benefits than equivalent projects in the core but which could offer a motivation for voters and politicians from areas outside of Atlanta to support the tax increase. Bus rapid transit or heavy rail extensions from each of MARTA’s current termini have been proposed; these offerings would be heavy on cost but likely limited in spurring new construction around stations and encouraging car-free lifestyles. Their inclusion in the plan, however, may be necessary to acquire the necessary political support for the program over the next year or so.

Nonetheless, the potential for great improvement in Atlanta area transit is exciting. The Beltline, which would ring the city’s core with a light rail route coordinated with transit-oriented development, is a role model for the rest of the country — and the city has appropriately argued that a large percentage of the funding go to that project. In addition, a connection between Lindbergh Center and Emory University, a project that (in a different form) was part of the original MARTA network plans, has been revived as a regional priority and could finally see the light of day.

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Atlanta Streetcar

For Now, Atlanta Opts to Promote Streetcar Starter Line Over Beltline

» Famed inner-city loop will have to wait on the sidelines as downtown streetcar competes for federal TIGER II funds.

Today is the deadline for applications to the second phase of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program, which provides multi-million dollar grants to transportation projects around the nation based on merit. Cities are likely to submit several billion dollars of proposed projects to compete for a $600 million pot. Unlike the first round, in which Tucson, Detroit, and Dallas received funding for their streetcar lines without having to allocate local funds, this time municipalities are required to contribute 20% of the estimated cost of the program.

Atlanta has chosen to submit a 2.6-mile streetcar line for consideration this time. Of total estimated costs of $72 million, the city hopes the federal government will chip in $52 million; the city and the downtown development district have each agreed to pay $10 million. The rail link will serve as an east-west connector right downtown between the Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, mostly along Edgewood and Auburn Avenues east of downtown. With significant local funding, more than 2,000 estimated daily riders, and the potential to encourage transit-oriented development around Georgia State University and the historic Sweet Auburn, this project is well positioned to win a grant from the U.S. DOT.

Atlanta’s previous application for the first round of TIGER grants, a $300 million proposal to bring streetcars from downtown to Arts Center along Peachtree Street, was rejected due to its duplication of the existing MARTA rapid transit route and its lack of a local funding commitment.

Like many cities applying for similar transportation funds from the federal government, Atlanta has had to prioritize. In this city’s case, though, that prioritization comes to the detriment of one of the nation’s most innovative projects: The Beltline. Unlike the proposed streetcar, which in most ways mirrors similar programs across the country, the Beltline advances a different way of thinking about how to build transportation.

Indeed, if the so-called Capital of the New South does not get money from the TIGER II program, it will be thanks to the decision to find U.S. dollars for the Beltline later rather than now. This project has for the past several years at least appeared to be the city’s transportation priority. What happened? Are city council members suffering from a case of attention deficit disorder?

The Beltline — a $2.8 billion, 22-mile trail/light rail line/development engine — appears to fit perfectly the guidelines of the TIGER program, which is supposed to support innovative thinking about transportation investments. Will Atlanta being doing anything different if it spends on a streetcar?

On the other hand, the Beltline really is different than anything else proposed in a U.S. city. Using a series of mostly abandoned freight rail corridors extending in a loop around the city center, the program would produce an elongated necklace of parks, trails, and recreation facilities. Running on roughly the same corridor would be a transit system, likely light rail, providing circumferential movement between the MARTA branch lines.

The Beltline organization agreed not to submit its demand for $13 million in trail elements to the TIGER program in order to improve the city’s chances of winning money for the streetcar.

From one perspective, this was an admirable decision, since the streetcar is closer to being shovel-ready than the Beltline transit element, whose mode choice has not even been made yet. Just as important, since the Beltline is a much larger project than the streetcar it may be able to qualify for the federal government’s New Start major transit capital projects program in the future, once more study of transportation mode alternatives has been completed.

But the U.S. DOT sponsored trail programs in the previous TIGER grants; if this is what can be done for the Beltline now, that’s worth something since it helps begin the necessary future flow of U.S. money into the program. Is it unfair to point out that Atlanta hasn’t exactly been at the cutting edge of public transportation over the past two decades, and that it may have trouble advancing two new rail programs simultaneously? That’s especially concerning considering the city’s plans to extend the streetcar up Peachtree Street. Which does the city value more: The groundbreaking Beltline or the like-so-many-other-cities streetcar?

I may, however, be asking an unfair question. Georgia is advancing rapidly towards approving a measure that would allow Atlantans to vote themselves a regional one-cent sales tax specifically designed to pay for transit expansion projects. Of the $5 billion that could be raised over the next ten years, up to 60% could be earmarked for transit. That would make building both the streetcar and the Beltline perfectly possible.

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Atlanta Charlotte Elections Houston Miami New York Seattle

Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision

» Third in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first considered governor’s races; the second reviewed ballot measures.

In six big cities across the country — Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, New York, and Seattle — transportation is playing a role in the mayoral race being decided today. With the economic crisis front and center, however, transit isn’t anyone’s biggest priority.

Mayor of Atlanta, GA

Update: Mary Norwood, with 46%, and Kasim Reed, with 36%, have moved on to a runoff on December 1st.

Atlanta’s dramatic growth over the past twenty years — it has increased in population from 394,000 in 1990 to an estimated 538,000 today — has brought with it a panoply of benefits, including increased density and better services. Much of the population increase has been due to an increase in the number of white people, who now make up 38% of the population, compared to 31% just nine years ago. Those changes are producing a vastly different political environment, one in which a white candidate may take office for the first time since 1973.

Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has served since 2001, was a relatively competent manager of the city’s finances and livability, pushing proposals like the Beltline and Peachtree Corridor streetcar. But during her time, the city has suffered from a spike in crime, coming in opposition to the experience of other major U.S. cities, which have seen steady declines. That issue is tops in today’s mayoral race, though transportation proposals are also getting their day in the sun.

Current polls put white candidate Mary Norwood, currently a city counselor, on top. She has been strident in her statements against crime, and she has convincingly pulled off a characterization of herself as an “outsider” — good for a city sick of eight years of the same person. But she is facing strong competition from State Senator Kasim Reed and City Council President Lisa Borders, as well as three other candidates. If no one person wins a majority of votes, there will be a runoff on December 1st.

In a series of candidate forums, the three front-runners have made their positions known on transit issues, and Ms. Norwood doesn’t seem as appealing as her poll numbers suggest. Unlike the other two candidates, Norwood lives in a huge house in an unwalkable part of the city, whereas Ms. Borders has a residence downtown. Mr. Reed is a frequent user of the city’s MARTA rapid transit network, while Ms. Norwood appears to use it simply to get to the airport.

On their websites, both Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed highlight their respective records on transportation, which Ms. Norwood fails to do. As a state senator, Mr. Reed has been pushing for a new revenue source for transit, something the state has to approve before the city can implement it. Ms. Borders, meanwhile, has suggested that she would continue the Franklin legacy of encouraging investment in the Beltline, though at the candidate forum, she admitted that “it’s not going to be soon” — a response that shows either a taste for the realistic or a lack of ambition, depending on one’s perspective.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates has made a strong claim to being the supporter of transit; while Ms. Norwood’s lackluster responses on the subject knock her down a few points, her opponents aren’t much better. No one’s proposing the sort of long-range plan Atlanta needs. Nor is it clear that any of the candidates understand how and why transit should be implemented. Disappointing for such a promising city.

Mayor of Charlotte, NC

Update: Anthony Foxx, with 51% of the vote, has won the mayor’s race in Charlotte; the first for Democrats in 22 years; Democrats also take huge majority on City Council

Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a name for himself as a Republican in favor of transit, has spent the last fourteen years in Charlotte’s City Hall, but he declined to run for reelection this year after loosing last year’s governor’s race to Democrat Beverly Perdue. Attempting to take his place are contenders Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, and John Lassiter, a Republican; both are currently city council members.

Though Charlotte once had some of the country’s biggest transit ambitions, with five separate rail lines planned, it was humbled by the financial crisis and the sudden decrease in sales tax revenue that hit virtually every municipality. The city is planning a streetcar to run through the downtown area and some of inner-city neighborhoods, and it has already put some tracks in place. Yet with no money on tap, the project is on hold — and that’s where the mayoral race became interesting.

Whereas Mr. Foxx voted in favor of allocating funds for studying the streetcar’s alignment and conducting some preliminary engineering, Mr. Lassiter voted against those studies, arguing that it was a waste of money to plan for a project that would not get built. Mr. Foxx continues to uphold his vote, arguing that the research was necessary to evaluate what the city could or could not build.

All that said, Mr. Lassiter remains a supporter of light rail expansion, though it is unclear whether he would suggest implementing a new revenue source to pay for its construction. Mr. Foxx seems more clear in his unambiguous interest in such investments.

Mayor of Houston, TX

Update: Annise Parker, with 30.5%, and Gene Locke, with 25.9%, have moved on to the runoff December 12th.

Of all of the races today, Houston’s may be the one where voters have no real possibility of going wrong when it comes to transportation issues. All three of the front-runners, including City Controller Annise Parker, Former City Attorney Gene Locke, and City Planner/Architect Peter Brown, are seriously in favor of transit investment. This marks quite a shift for a city that for almost a decade was unable to receive any federal funding for new rail lines because of the intervention of Congressman Tom Delay (R).

Yet times have changed. The city’s citizenry sees current Mayor Bill White as having had a successful career at City Hall, and that’s especially true for his work on light rail, which has been moved forward dramatically in the last few months, with approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the construction of two new lines. Houston’s single rail line has the highest ridership per route mile of any such system in the country.

This consensus, which generally includes an acknowledgment that transportation only functions effectively when growth is appropriately planned around stations, suggests a promising next four years for this fast-growing city.

Mayor of Miami, FL

Update: Tomás Regalado, with 72% of the vote, cruises to easy win over Joe Sanchez.

With Mayor Manny Diaz being forced out of office after eight years because of term limits, Miami voters will choose between Joe Sanchez, a supporter of Mr. Diaz’s work, and Tomás Regalado, who has been a regular opponent of the current mayor’s philosophy on development.

Both candidates are members of the City Commission, and they’ve had very different voting records. Whereas Mr. Sanchez has come out wholeheartedly in favor of Mr. Diaz’s big development schemes, including a new tunnel to the port, a new baseball stadium, and a big condo building boom, Mr. Regalado has been a proponent of improving conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. That position, which has favored the majority of Miami residents who do not live in the areas affected by recent development trends, has given Mr. Regalado a serious lead in the polls. That probably means no major investments in transit over the next four years.

That’s because while Mr. Sanchez sees public transit as a core element of developing the future city, Mr. Regalado is more interested in fiscal austerity — despite the fact that Mr. Diaz, even with all his promotion of big new projects, shored up the city’s finances dramatically during his time in office. That stance means that Mr. Regalado will probably do little to improve the conditions of the city’s Metrorail network, which is already cashless.

Nor will Mr. Regalado stand firm in promoting more pedestrian-oriented spaces. In the vote on Miami 21, a strong decision about making the city a more walkable, livable place, he placed himself in the opposition. Mr. Sanchez was in favor. Mr. Regalado’s insistence that the city go “back to basics” ultimately means he won’t do much to help it improve.

Mayor of New York City, NY

Update: Defying all odds, Bill Thompson gets 46% of the vote, despite being outspent 14 to 1 and having been left for dead by basically the entire Democratic establishment. Michael Bloomberg, however, moves in for his third term as mayor.

New York may be the only city in the country where the Republican-endorsed candidate has a significantly more pro-transit platform than the Democrat. In many ways, that’s terrible, because Independent-former-but-maybe-still-Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg has basically bought himself the next four years, spending $35,000 an hour to do so throughout the campaign. All this after forcing the city council to alter its term limit rules to allow him to run for a third term. Democratic opponent Bill Thompson has had no chance.

Perhaps that’s why, despite his reasonable record as City Controller, Mr. Thompson has staked himself as the anti-Bloomberg on livability issues such as bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian plazas. While Mr. Bloomberg has given his chief of Transportation Janette Sadik-Kahn basically full reign in implementing an excellent streets reform project, Mr. Thompson has held rallies decrying BRT on some of the city’s most-trafficked corridors. Maybe he sees that as the only way to get votes. If so, it says something terrible about New York’s citizenry. If not, Mr. Thompson’s priorities are woefully misguided.

Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, for all his investment in nice streetscapes, has reduced the city’s commitment to sponsoring the state-run MTA, which runs the Subway system. His claims that he’ll invest in a new streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront seem exaggerated, especially when he can’t seem to get off his obsession with the less-than-useful extension of the 7 Subway into West Midtown.

It’s not a particularly good day for transportation advocates in America’s biggest transit city. Here’s to a better choice in four years…

Mayor of Seattle, WA

Update: In early results, Mike McGinn has a 910-vote lead over his opponent; with a large number of votes yet to be counted, the lead could switch hands. However, pro-transit Dow Constantine wins big over conservative Susan Hutchinson in the King County Executive race, with 57% of the vote.

In this runoff race, it’s quite clear who thinks what. In the first round, incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels found himself cornered from the left (environmentalist Mike McGinn) and from the right (businessman Joe Mallahan) and he dropped to last in a three-way race. If some transit proponents were disappointed — Mr. Nickels had staked his legacy on transportation investments — Mr. McGinn is attempting to pick up the mantle today, though with a spin.

Mr. McGinn’s primary campaign was mostly premised on his opposition to the construction of a full-bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the moribund Alaskan Way Viaduct, which sits on the waterfront. Unlike Mr. Nickels, who promoted the project, the candidate suggested simply replacing the Viaduct with a surface level road and using the remaining funds for better transit. Mr. Mallahan found himself rigorously opposed to that position; he’s made himself into the candidate of the drivers, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the Viaduct has become a bit of a non-issue in the meantime because of the fact that state financing has come through and the city has approved work, making its completion a virtual certainly. But there are still major transportation issues to be resolved in the Puget Sound. Will light rail run on I-90 or SR520? Will there be a streetcar network? Will there be a West Seattle line?

Mr. McGinn, a staunch defender of transit, is the right man for this job. Mr. Mallahan’s car-driving mentality won’t privilege the kind of long-term investments Seattle needs.

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Atlanta Light Rail Streetcar

Readying Atlanta for Its Bright Future

» Resurgent city plans major transit expansion in the form of streetcar and light rail lines, but will they serve its growing population well?

When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, it had the chance to project itself as the epitome of progress in the New South. But the city was sick. Despite massive growth in its suburbs, Atlanta had been losing population since 1970. The Games were marred by poorly planned transit service and a bombing that killed two people and injured 100 others. The year before, the city had been rated the most dangerous in the United States.

Atlanta rebuilt itself quickly into the capital of the South after it was destroyed during the Civil War by General William T. Sherman, who described it later: “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” The Atlanta of the early 20th century was dense and active, vibrating with business and public enterprise at the height of contemporary modernity. Now more than ever, the metropolis has the potential to be remade into the walkable and exciting city it once was. Its population reached 540,000 last year, a historic peak. Crime is down dramatically, and redevelopment has taken hold in neighborhoods from Buckhead to the West End. The city’s three skylines in downtown, midtown, and Buckhead are bursting with activity. But this growth needs to be put in order to create a livable city through the effective use of public transportation.

Last week, the city of Atlanta applied for $300 million in stimulus funds for the construction of a new streetcar in downtown and midtown. The U.S. Department of Transportation will make a decision on whether to allocate money for the project by February, and if it is approved, it could be complete by early 2012. The first phase of the Peachtree Corridor Streetcar would extend roughly three miles north-south on Peachtree and 1.5 miles east-west between downtown and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Sweet Auburn. The program is to be implemented by a group called Georgia Transit Connector, which expects 12,000 to 17,700 daily trips.

Though the streetcar project would be the first major transit expansion within Atlanta city limits since the Bankhead Station on the MARTA Proctor Creek Branch opened in 1992, the city has a number of other plans under active consideration. Most prominent is the Beltline, which would bring light rail to 22 miles of (mostly) inactive railroads ringing the city’s core. The $2.8 billion project has the strong support of current Mayor Shirley Franklin and most of the city’s other politicians. Its primary objectives would be to leverage brownfields adjacent to the improved line for new development (including 5,600 units of affordable housing) by improving public transportation, building 30 miles of trails, and creating 1,200 acres of new green space. It is one of the most innovative plans for using transit as a redevelopment tool in the country.

That’s not it, of course: MARTA has studied a number of proposals including a new bus rapid transit line on I-20, a light rail corridor along Clifton Road, and several suburban expansions of the existing heavy rail lines. The recent Connect Atlanta plan plans for a city with a population of 800,000 by 2030 with densities in the city core of 12,000 people per square mile compared to 3,500 today. It recommends a 5-mile east-west line on the north side of the city, the covering of freeway interchanges downtown, and the better connection of roads to make a more efficient street grid.

These ideas, however, do not do enough to take advantage of the city’s existing resources.

Atlanta Future Transit Map

The north-south segment of the proposed streetcar, the project city officials have pushed forward as their top priority, is the most problematic, because it duplicates existing service on MARTA’s main north-south line between Five Points and Arts Center. Its three miles of stops would be just two blocks away from MARTA’s closely spaced stations, which are only about half a mile apart in this part of the city. While the streetcar would encourage growth on the already dense Peachtree Street corridor, it should not be the first new transit line for Atlanta.

Indeed, a streetcar line running north from Arts Center station to Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station along Peachtree Street and Road would have the advantage of providing public transportation to currently under-served neighborhoods and increasing connectivity along MARTA’s existing routes. This has been mentioned as a second phase of the first streetcar line. Such a line would run through the heart of rapidly expanding Buckhead, both north and south of the existing MARTA station, and reinforce plans to remake the neighborhood into a walkable place. It would connect to Piedmont Hospital where it could link with future Beltline service, and it would provide direct service to the Amtrak station north of Arts Center. This seven-mile line could extend Buckhead’s growth south and east and push Midtown to the north, allowing for the replacement of several downtrodden strip centers along the street.

Although the east-west streetcar line proposed by city officials would improve connectivity among Atlanta’s top tourist areas, its 1.5-mile length makes it too short to be of much use. Indeed, what if it were extended north to serve the intown communities west of the Downtown Connector highway? A four-mile extension would bring the streetcar north on Luckie Street past Coca-Cola headquarters, along Tech Parkway through the center of Georgia Tech, and north on Northside Drive, where there a number vacant properties waiting for new use. Most importantly, though, this line would return east on 16th or 17th Streets to Arts Center, passing through Atlantic Station, one of the country’s largest urban development projects.

Connected, these proposals would create a 12.5-mile streetcar that would provide a valuable transit expansion in the inner city, acting as a counterpart to both the Beltline and existing MARTA lines. A Peachtree line between midtown and downtown could come later.

But these plans will need adequate funding. As Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood put it last week during a visit to Atlanta, “There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important.” When Georgia decides to bring mass transit to the front burner, and when the city finds itself willing to devote more tax funds to transportation improvements, the city’s potential as a modern, livable city will be reached once again.

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Atlanta DOT

DOT Expands Funding For Studies on U.S. Maglev Corridors

United States Maglev Projects and Funding

» Projects in Georgia, Pennsylvania get millions; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Baltimore still waiting to hear.

One clear demonstration of the United States’ lack of coherent national transportation policy objectives is its approach to funding magnetic levitation train projects. Rather than making a decision about what to fund, the Congress occasionally appropriates a relatively small pot of money, then the DOT distributes cash for planning studies. Nothing ever gets off the ground.

That, at least, is how it has worked since 1999, when the DOT first awarded $12 million in planning funds to seven proposed projects in California, Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. By 2001, the agency announced it would pick either a line between Baltimore and Washington or one connecting Pittsburgh and its suburbs for almost $1 billion in construction dollars, eventually deciding on the latter. By 2005, however, all funds had been cut off by an uncommitted congress, despite the fact that $62 million had already been distributed; meanwhile, states and municipalities had contributed virtually nothing to the projects. Maglev seemed dead.

The news this month that Atlanta and Pittsburgh have received more planning funds — $14 million for the former and $28 million for the latter — and that other projects funded back in 1999 may once again get appropriations in the coming days seems like a continuation of this destructive cycle. If so, these dollars are nothing more than a waste of money, because there is little chance that funds for actual construction will ever appear. Yet the Congress devoted $90 million maglev two years ago, knowing that actually getting big-budget funds for the projects’ completion from Washington would be almost impossible. Nor has there ever been a concerted effort by either Congress or the Department of Transportation to show why maglev projects should be funded at all.

What’s saddest about this seemingly mindless distribution of money is that it comes just before the U.S. will announce the first appropriations from its $8 billion high-speed rail program — including to projects that might compete directly with sections of the proposed maglev lines. What is it then? If the federal government is going to be spending money on new rail lines, it should at least come to a conclusion about which specific project it wants to fund, rather than wasting money on competing ones.

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines, so improvements in one location will only affect commuters in that area. A Baltimore-Washington maglev project does not help commuters between Washington and Philadelphia, unless they are willing to transfer in Baltimore; on the other hand, speeding up the existing tracks between the first two cities would be quite effective for reducing travel times for everyone in the corridor.

A recent study of a proposed maglev line between LAX Airport and Ontario Airport, via downtown Los Angeles, demonstrated very few advantages of a potential magnetic line over a traditional one — it would be only about 10% faster, would attract only 10% more customers, but would cost an eye-popping 60% more to build. Worse, the maglev corridor would have no direct connections with the planned (and partially funded!) California High-Speed Rail project. Considering that the DOT still has $45 million to devote to maglev projects west of the Mississippi, it seems likely that this Los Angeles maglev — competing with an underdeveloped Gulf Coast project and a connection between Las Vegas and California, a political third rail — will get at least several million in funds this year for further studies, no matter the project’s benefits.

The two projects approved for funding last week aren’t any better. The Pittsburgh line would run between its airport, the city center, and the small suburban towns of Monroeville and Greensburg, a 54-mile route that would take 35 minutes to traverse. The corridor in Georgia would connect Atlanta and Chattanooga, with the ultimate goal of extending the line to Chicago, according to conservative Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN), who is a major project proponent. Why are these lines the priorities for U.S. maglev funding? The answer appears to be the fact that the projects being proposed in the U.S. are so weak in general that the DOT’s $90 million just has to be distributed… somewhere.

The DOT should not waste millions of dollars on planning studies for projects that have been under consideration for a decade unless there is a reliable possibility that their construction will ever be funded. You wouldn’t fund a study to consider an underwater sea-city, because it’s obvious that the government would never pay for it to be built. The Congress has never committed wholeheartedly to maglev; even support for traditional high-speed rail may be more precarious than its supporters may assume. But the lack of a long-term engagement with maglev is probably a good thing, since the mode generally makes little sense as an alternative. Nonetheless, it is too bad that Congressional priorities seem more focused on making a statement in favor of a project than in actually seeing it through.

Update, 17 September:

The federal government has awarded $45 million in planning studies to the Las Vegas-Anaheim maglev proposal. This is a surprise considering how politically volatile the project has been in the past and comes despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood have come out against the maglev proposal, in favor of the alternative traditional high-speed rail Desert Xpress project. The choice of the Vegas line reaffirms the argument made above, that is, that the federal government is simply throwing money around. We all know that no one is going to commit to actually building the Las Vegas maglev line. The administration is giving away talking points to Republicans…

Update, 21 September:

To add to the general confusion over the selection of Las Vegas for maglev funds, the Federal Railroad Administration is now denying that it has made an award or decision for the project, according to the Review Journal. On the other hand, those interviewed in the article still think it will get the money this week nonetheless.