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

Milwaukee Streetcar

Milwaukee Officials Advancing Streetcar Project with Goal of Attracting More Federal Funds

» Twenty years after first receiving a federal appropriation to construct a rail transit system, Wisconsin’s biggest city may finally move forward.

Today, after decades of conflict over the future of transit for the City of Milwaukee, a public transportation study committee will vote on whether to advance plans for a two-mile streetcar project, bringing Wisconsin closer to its first modern streetcar system than ever before.

Congress awarded the city $289 million in 1991 to promote a new transit system for this city of 600,000 people, but thanks to infighting between local officials over whether to invest in rail or bus services, none of the money was spent on construction, and the federal aid was reduced to $91.5 million in 1999. And yet disagreements between Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and Mayor Tom Barrett continued, making any kind of progress impossible.

That’s why Congress stepped in last March, determining that the city would be allowed to spend 60% of its appropriation on rail and 40% on bus rapid transit, forcing the conflicting leaders into compromise. Thus the city established a local transit study group called Milwaukee Connector to consider what routes would be most appropriate for serving the city’s downtown. Today, that committee will get the first word on the recommended alignment and vote on its future implementation.

The two-mile initial route would cost $64.6 million — $9.7 million of which would come from locally sourced tax-increment financing and the rest from the federal aid — and extend from the newly renovated Milwaukee Intermodal Center to the Lower East Side neighborhood, via the downtown business district and City Hall. If the city receives an additional $25 million inner-city circulator grant from the federal Department of Transportation, the route could be extended to 3.6 miles, northeast along the Lake Michigan waterfront and northwest along the west side of the Milwaukee River. That grant, for which the city applied earlier this spring, could be released this summer.

The first phase is expected to attract 3,800 riders a day by 2015 and provide service every ten to fifteen minutes.

Future extensions could continue in all directions from downtown, with the city setting its sights particularly on a route that would head north to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. There are no obvious sources of funds for those extensions, which are not likely to be planned until construction has been completed on the first phase of the project.

Though the Milwaukee Connector group has the primary decision-making power on this project, it may also have to be approved by other local, state, and federal officials if construction is to begin as planned by next year. Daily operations could commence by 2013, coinciding with the planned opening of intercity rail services to the state capital in Madison. Talgo, the Spanish train manufacturer, plans to build trains in a factory in Milwaukee.

If the Madison-Milwaukee line and improved Milwaukee-Chicago services attract an increasing patronage, the streetcar system could play an important role in distributing passengers through downtown once they’ve arrived. The decision to extend the rail system’s routes from the Intermodal Station was a sound one.

The city has set itself a pretty strong foundation for future system growth with a well-routed initial streetcar corridor that would reach most of the downtown’s major destinations. That said, the first phase of the route will be too short to make a major dent in the commuting patterns of many of Milwaukee’s inhabitants; trains arriving every ten minutes along such a short route will have a hard time competing with pedestrians. Future lines into the relatively dense residential zones surrounding the center city on three sides may prove more productive in doing so.

Nevertheless, the fact that the city has been able to cobble together a proposal that meets the funding guidelines established by the existing federal appropriation suggests that Milwaukee is almost guaranteed to get streetcars within the next few years — quite an achievement for a city that has dragged its feet for decades.

Image above: Milwaukee Streetcar recommended alignment, from Milwaukee Connector

Intercity Rail Madison Milwaukee

Wisconsin Moves Ahead with Train Purchase Deal, Intent on Connecting Madison with Milwaukee

» Talgo will establish train manufacturing plant in Milwaukee. But state Republicans suggest they’ll oppose rail expansion if it gets in the way of highway spending.

Despite being a marginal player in the world high-speed rail market, Spanish train manufacturer Talgo is hoping to make a big push for orders in  North America. Thanks to a deal it signed with Wisconsin last year, it’s well on its way: The company has agreed to locate a new U.S. plant in Milwaukee, with plans to deliver 125 mph trains to the state for service to Madison by 2013.

If state Republicans gain power, however, the state’s rail efforts could be short-lived.

Under the leadership of outgoing Democratic Governor Jim Doyle, the Badger State has been one of the country’s leaders in developing improved rail service. The Governor announced last March that he would move forward with a plan to expand services between Chicago and Milwaukee,and reopen the passenger link to Madison. Future services could be offered to Green Bay. Later in 2009, Mr. Doyle signed a deal with Talgo to buy two 14-car trains for train operations, in exchange for that company’s commitment to locate a new plant within the state.

Wisconsin’s investment was rewarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January, which announced $810 million for the Madison-Milwaukee line, enough to have 79 mph trains operating along the 85-mile line within three years. The corridor would be upgraded to 110 mph by 2015.

Talgo announced this week that it would build its plant in a former automotive facility in Milwaukee, eventually creating about 75 jobs there. The State of Oregon revealed today that it would buy two additional 125 mph 13-car trains for its Eugene-Vancouver services, bringing total Talgo orders to about $85 million from the Wisconsin plant, a significant first step for the ambitious Spanish concern. As of now, the plant will build only Series VIII trainsets, which are fully compliant with Federal Railroad Administration rules and operate using diesel propulsion. This train is not what would be considered a truly high-speed train in other countries.

Yet as an initial response to a desire for increasing rail services, the deal seems like a good one for Wisconsin. Not only will it get new trains, but it will also get manufacturing jobs, which it has been losing for decades.

With Democratic majorities in both the State Assembly and Senate, lawmakers approved the deal with the federal government last month along partisan lines. The GOP suggested that Wisconsin shouldn’t be saddled with the operating costs of the new corridor, which would start at around $7.5 million a year. This line of reasoning is similar to that expressed by Ohio Republicans, who similarly claim to be willing to reject federal funds for improved rail service if the state is asked to subsidize operations costs.

Republican gubernatorial candidate front-runner Scott Walker is taking a hard line against the Milwaukee-Madison project, claiming that he would shut down the corridor “if it takes money away from new-and-improved roads.” Another candidate, Mark Neumann, is also critical of the program, arguing that tax cuts would be a better use of public funds and that “if high speed rail were economically sound it would already have been built by the private sector.”

Democratic candidate Tom Barrett, the Mayor of Milwaukee, is a big supporter of the project as he claims it would serve as an economic stimulus for the troubled state. He also has made the quite legitimate claim that Wisconsin will have already spent $57 million on preliminary construction activity by the time the next governor is sworn in — it doesn’t make much since to pull out once so much money has already been invested.

Both Republicans are currently leading Mr. Barrett in polls in advance of the November election.

One could argue about the specific merits of the Milwaukee-Madison service, but the considerable success of Amtrak’s Hiawatha Service between Chicago and Milwaukee — it has the third highest ridership per mile of U.S. intercity rail routes after the Northeast Regional and Capitol Corridor lines — suggests that Wisconsin’s population is well prepared for improved rail operations.

Just as in Ohio, Republican objections in Wisconsin are difficult to take seriously, because they’re incoherent. Why is it problematic for the government to sponsor rail construction when highways aren’t built by the private sector either? Why should roads always be prioritized in state spending, when trains are used by thousands of people each day too? More importantly, why is it that the first serious investment in passenger rail service Wisconsin has seen in decades is immediately greeted with skepticism, while road spending continues apace in the state, at more than $2 billion a year?

Nonetheless, Wisconsin’s rail investments are likely to move forward — the public has demonstrated clear support for the mode over the years, and there have been plenty of Republicans in the state, including former Governor Tommy Thompson, who have been serious proponents of new train services. But the increasingly hysterical GOP fear of investing in transportation projects that aren’t automobile-oriented may come to pose a mounting obstacle, in Wisconsin and beyond.

Image above: Talgo Series VIII Train, from Talgo

High-Speed Rail Milwaukee

Wisconsin Offers Up Proposal for Rail Expansion

» Governor Jim Doyle proposes using stimulus money for Madison-to-Milwaukee line.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Wisconsin is to apply for $519 million in stimulus funds for the Milwaukee-Madison tin-hsr program, which will reactivate an abandoned freight line between the state’s biggest cities. Wisconsin joins the list of states gearing up for a part of the $8 billion in high-speed rail money that Congress approved last month. New York will ask for funds for a third track between Albany and Buffalo, Illinois is pushing improvements for the line between Chicago and St. Louis, Washington will work to improve the Cascades corridor between Portland and Seattle, and California will of course be angling for a huge percentage of the money for its already partially-funded Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line.

Wisconsin’s first priority will be connecting its two biggest cities, which currently lacks any kind of rail link. Trains running at up to 110 mph would run along the corridor in 1h07 six times a day, round trip. Meanwhile, the current Hiawatha Amtrak service between Chicago and Milwaukee would ramp up to ten trains a day from the seven currently offered.

Governor Jim Doyle (D) also suggested that the state would be pushing forward quickly with other corridors as soon as it could secure funding. The Chicago-to-Milwaukee line would be sped up to 110 mph for a cost of $419 million and provide an astonishing 17 round trips daily; a new corridor between Milwaukee and Green Bay would be activated at a cost of $421 million, with 7 trains daily; and a line from Madison to St. Paul, Minnesota would be constructed and upgraded for a cost of $456 million (in Wisconsin alone), for six trains daily.

This last corridor is one of the more important in the nation since it would connect with the Twin Cities, whose metro population is more than three million. Travel between Chicago and that area could expand significantly with faster trip times. But Minnesota, under a Republican governor, has been less active in pushing for rail improvements and as a result most of the planning for improvements has been on the Wisconsin side. That said, citizen and business groups in Rochester, Minnesota, a city of 85,000 in the southeast section of the state, are pushing to reroute current Amtrak services through their city on the way to St. Paul. Such a connection would require the construction of new track and acquisition of right-of-way, so it’s unclear whether the state will be able to develop a viable funding solution to that problem, or whether Minnesota will invest in rail at all.

But the news from Wisconsin is great news on all fronts – the state has developed a long-term vision for rail services there and has prioritized a corridor for federal stimulus investment. For a small state like Wisconsin, which already has good rail ridership and could see large increases with service improvements, $519 million seems a reasonable sum for which to demand from Washington. We’ll see in June what Secretary LaHood thinks.

Bus Milwaukee Streetcar

Milwaukee Wins Support for Streetcar Proposal – But Also Buses

» Compromise between feuding political forces resolved by U.S. Congress.

I wrote in early February that Milwaukee was studying how to improve its transit options with the Milwaukee Connector study, which would survey public support for a variety of public transportation improvements, including streetcar and bus rapid transit lines. The conflict over which transportation mode to pick had raised a significant dispute between Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who advocated bus rapid transit, and Mayor Tom Barrett, who wanted streetcars. The city has $91 million in reserves from the federal government, whittled away from a $289 million grant first awarded back in 1991, which it can take advantage of whenever it’s ready.

Now, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl (D) and Representative David Obey (D), who is also the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, inserted a provision in the omnibus bill requiring 60% of the $91 million in funds to go to the city for a rail system and 40% to go to the county for buses. The newspaper framed the spending plan as a defeat for Mr. Walker, because his level of jurisdiction will get less money and the streetcar that he opposed will be built. But the insistance of the congressmen that money be distributed all around and for both types of transit seems like a fair compromise for an issue that has been in question for 17 years.

Unfortunately, the release of the $91 million will not solve all of the funding issues for the city’s transit system: it won’t be enough to allow for the full implementation of the 3-mile streetcar loop, whose final route has yet to be set. It also won’t be enough to assure the greater bus rapid transit network that Mr. Walker had proposed. As a result, local transit advocates will continue their support of a new source of revenue for transit in Milwaukee, which will likely include a half-cent sales tax, that notoriously unreliable funding mechanism. The state legislature will have to act to get such funding put into effect.