Finance Pittsburgh Social Justice

The Economic Crisis Rolls on in Cities like Pittsburgh

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

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

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

Before cuts After cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intercity Rail Ohio Pittsburgh

Ohio Hub Advances as Passenger Rail Connections to Toledo and Pittsburgh Studied

» Governor Ted Strickland’s push to connect state via intercity rail is likely to go beyond initial Cincinnati-to-Cleveland corridor.

Following through on a years-long promise to include fourth-city Toledo in the next phase of rail investment in Ohio, the administration of Governor Ted Strickland has announced the awarding to an engineering firm an $8 million study of future intercity routes that would connect the Lake Erie city to the rest of the Buckeye State. A line into Pittsburgh is also up for evaluation.

Because of its geographic position between the Chicago-based Midwest rail network and that of the East Coast focused in New York, Ohio could serve as an essential link in a national rail network if the state makes the right investments.

In January, Ohio received $400 million from the federal government to implement intercity rail service on the 256-mile 3C rail line between Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton — the state’s four largest metropolitan areas. According to current plans, initial 79 mph operations would begin in 2012 on an improved freight corridor, bringing trains to the state’s capital in Columbus for the first time since 1977. The 3C project does not qualify as high-speed rail under anyone’s definition, especially considering its 6h30 estimated travel time, but future investments could increase speeds to 110 mph. The FRA is expected to approve the first direct grants for the state sometime in the next few weeks.

The 3C corridor, however, is not the be-all and end-all, since it lacks connections to Toledo, Akron, and Canton, three other large metropolitan areas. In addition, it does not provide for direct links either to Pittsburgh (and the East Coast network) or Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis, three major Midwest cities. Thus the newly announced study, which builds upon the larger Ohio Hub proposal, illustrated above and studied repeatedly over the past decade.

Consultant AECOM will specifically consider potential upgrades for the 3C route, plus new 110 mph links between Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland; Cleveland and Pittsburgh; and Toledo and Columbus.

The new study is the long-expected next step for Ohio, but it comes at a fortunate time for Governor Strickland, a Democrat who is running for reelection in a tightly contested race against Republican John Kasich. Depending on the timing of the study’s results, Strickland may be able to claim that his administration aims to spread rail throughout the state; Toledo was especially frustrated by the fact that it wasn’t included in the state’s initial priorities. Though the Ohio Hub’s current plan suggests that the next major investment in the state will be connection between Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit (arguably the more important link from a national perspective), other sources suggest that the new study may prioritize a capital-centric line between Columbus and Toledo.

But Ohio is not steps away from a massive rail network. The 3C corridor has been subject to relentless criticism from state Republicans, who claim that it is a boondoggle since operations would require an annual state subsidy and train running times between termini in Cincinnati and Cleveland would be a full two hours longer than typical car travel. Republican Kasich has been no major supporter of rail (and has posted an anti-rail editorial from another source on his site), so if he were to win the election, the federal government’s $400 million grant and the 3C line in general could be abandoned, leaving any rail improvements considered in the new study by the wayside.

Nonetheless, assuming Strickland remains in the Governor’s office (no sure thing), rail service along 3C will begin as expected. All of the major connections considered in the Ohio Hub plan seem worthy of eventual use as part of the national rail network, especially those that eventually lead to major cities outside of the state, like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Ohio is relatively dense and many of its cities, despite losing population in the last few decades, have strong urban cores (or at least the potential to restore them).

Moreover, Ohio’s position as the connection point between the Midwest and East Coast rail networks cannot be passed over; any trains between Chicago and the East Coast would have to pass through the state. As part of what is truly a national imperative to improve intercity rail service, the state has an obligation to restore its system. The 3C plan, followed by the investments to be proposed by AECOM’s study, are the right ways to begin.

Image above: Ohio Hub potential corridors, from Ohio DOT

Finance Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Philadelphia May Accept Money to Privatize Station Naming; Pittsburgh Considers Similar Move

» SEPTA board votes Thursday on plan to rename station on behalf of AT&T in exchange for $3 million. Is the public interest being sacrificed?

The last two years have been extremely difficult for virtually every American transit agency — they’ve been slaughtered by declining tax revenue and been forced to both decrease services and increase fares, despite a general uptick in the market of people interested in riding public transportation. This lack of funds — and a realization that Washington is not riding in on a white horse — has led agencies to do things many wouldn’t have considered appropriate just a few years back, just to make a quick buck.

In Philadelphia, that may mean the renaming of the Broad Street Subway’s Pattison Avenue terminus to the AT&T Station by August if the SEPTA regional transit board agrees to the deal in a session later this week. Pattison Avenue is adjacent to the city’s major sports stadiums, which themselves are frequently subject to re-namings based on changes in sponsorship. The five-year deal would net the cash-starved agency $3 million and include the corporate name on maps and signs throughout the large rail and bus system; this deal could be the first among many. Pittsburgh’s Port Authority, currently building a light rail link to the stadium district called the North Shore Connector, is considering whether it should follow a similar strategy and seek out sponsors for its infrastructure projects.

Should the name of a business be ingrained onto the transit map of any city? Is there a point where the public sphere must be separated once and for all from the private world?

Philadelphia is not the first American city to make this move. New York’s MTA agreed to affix the name “Barclays Center” to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue station for $200,000 annually last year, but that agreement does not remove the current name, it just lengthens it. Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor bus rapid transit line was renamed the Health Line after the local Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, though that project was a brand-new service. And Detroit’s planned streetcar will include stations whose names will be sold to sponsors.

But Philadelphia’s decision could be going further because not only does it remove the current name entirely from maps, but it does so to existing stations that have retained their current names for decades. Even worse, the names have no relevance to the areas they serve — it’s not like AT&T has a major facility at Pattison Station. The whole situation raises the frightening prospect in the near future that, instead of riding the Broad Street Subway from City Hall to Pattison, people will take the Coca-Cola Trolley from Pizza Hut to AT&T. Moreover, five years later, considering the current rate of changes in corporate names and sponsorships, all of those names may have to be modified!

There are two fundamental problems with the idea that station names can be sold to the highest bidder: One, doing so challenges a fundamental element of transit service provision, that it is a public service; and two, that the names provide an important connection between the line-based geography of transit systems and the street or neighborhood-based geography of the city around stations.

Transit agencies today already find ways to pull private dollars into the system through advertising revenue, so it would be unreasonable to argue that American bus or rail operations are idealistic models of public services unaffected by the negative and intrusive aspects of the capitalist environment around them. But there are limits: Taxpayers foot the majority of the bill for most transit systems, so they shouldn’t have to be overwhelmed by ads providing only minimal additional revenues.

What may most infuriating about the sale of station naming rights is just how cheap they are relative to transit agency size. SEPTA’s annual budgets are over one billion dollars each, so the sale of a station name will do almost nothing to relieve the fiscal problems the organization faces. It seems unfair to change the name of a station to that of a business when most money comes from the public treasury; decisions should as a result be based in the public interest, not in that of a corporation, even if it gives some money to the agency. A compromise might be New York’s solution of adding the corporate name to the end of the existing name.

But Philadelphia’s approach — simply axing the current title — will remove the sense that the station’s name in some way denotes the urban geography of the place it serves. Most rail transit stations are named after streets (New York’s Subway exemplifies this), and for people who live in walkable city centers, that’s incredibly important, since it allows instant information about where trains and buses are when they stop. The name AT&T Station provides absolutely no information to anyone about where in the city it is.

Similarly, with neighborhood-based naming, such as used by Washington’s Metro, the station becomes the core of the community and becomes a meeting point for people coming from different parts of the city. Can you imagine people discussing whether to meet up in AT&T or Pizza Hut — and meaning the station areas, not the stores? It seems likely that transit agencies will be forced to add supplemental information on all signs to indicate just where each corporate station is located.

Removing the geography-based name and replacing it with a corporate name virtually ensures that either infrequent commuters are fated to be completely lost in a transit system with completely irrelevant station names (especially if it’s underground), or that maps and signage are threatened with being overwhelmed with multiple layers of information, some important, some not, an end product that certainly won’t add ease getting around either.

My major concern for Philadelphia and cities considering similar name sell-offs — the more wide-scale, the more problematic — is that they are sacrificing the ability of transit riders to find their way around the city. That seems to be a bad compromise in favor of a small amount of extra cash.

Image above: A Philadelphia SEPTA commuter train near Paoli Station, from Flickr user jpmueller99

Finance Infrastructure Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Calls Special Session to Resolve Transportation Funding Crisis

» After losing bid to install tolls along Interstate 80, state looks to other solutions to impending transportation funding gap. An opportunity to rethink the state role in transport.

Today, Pennsylvania state legislators will meet to fill a massive $472 million gap in the transportation budget — almost ten percent of the overall $6.1 billion in road and transit spending planned for this year. Governor Ed Rendell called the session after his plan to toll Interstate 80 fell apart due to a federal law that makes it illegal to use revenues gained from a Washington-funded road on something else. The I-80 tolls would have generated up to $950 million in annual revenue once the infrastructure was put into place by 2011 as originally planned.

The need to assemble a special legislative session comes at a terrible time for the state. Pennsylvania’s road and transit systems need $3 billion more a year, a 50% increase, just to remain in a state of good repair — and that estimate includes only $500 million for transit, arguably not enough. Meanwhile, the state’s ambitions for improved intercity rail services and better local transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh need billions more to be implemented.

Pennsylvania has a number of potential funding options from which to choose: Easiest would be raising its already relatively high 32.3¢/gallon fuel tax. A 10¢/gallon increase would raise an estimated $620 million a year. But other possibilities include tolling state-funded roads, encouraging public-private partnerships, establishing local option sales taxes (currently mostly forbidden in the state), and introducing a vehicle-miles traveled fee (VMT). Wanting to avoid hurting too much of an already weak economy, the state is likely to select some combination of these options.

With inadequate federal aid, Pennsylvania’s situation is likely to become more and more familiar for states throughout the country, all of which are having trouble maintaining planned expenditures because of a decline in tax revenues. But the need to raise revenues locally opens up a number of opportunities that are denied by relying on Washington to fund transportation.

Conservatives frequently make the argument that federal fuel taxes should simply be reassigned to states based on the source of those funds because locals “know better” than Washington when it comes to choosing how to spend the money.

I’m no proponent of lessened federal involvement in choosing how those funds are spent; immediately reapportioning national funds to the states would inevitably mean fewer funds for transit just about everywhere because most state legislatures are dominated by rural factions. And state DOTs are too frequently highway-oriented to take seriously their claims that they would treat all modes equally.

Yet with a need to find increasing revenues to maintain roads and transit in usable condition, states may have no choice but to increase their local funding commitment above and beyond the federal contribution. Pennsylvania’s special session demonstrates that there is a desire on the part of states to make that happen — they’re not going to simply let their infrastructure resources fall apart.

This requires states and their leaders to take a bigger political role in setting transportation priorities. If states raise their own revenues, they will be able to choose how funds are spent, and it’s up to the legislatures and governors to make those decisions. The specter of even more power for state DOTs should encourage advocates of transportation alternatives to push for increased spending on transit, bike lanes, and pedestrian resources at the state capital, not just in Washington.

This is not an impossible dream; since the Bush Administration, the federal DOT has altered its vision of transportation priorities dramatically — it’s quite clear that the Obama Administration is making a point to emphasize livable communities and alternative forms of transport, a complete turnaround from former Secretary Mary Peters’ road obsession. This kind of change did not come randomly but after years of lobbying from advocates and the resulting decision of the mainline Democratic Party to place itself on the side of those who want alternatives to private automobiles. We need to see similar transformations at the state level, and when we do, there will be nothing to fear from getting the states more involved in raising revenue and spending on transportation.

A funding crisis may thus encourage everyone to think differently about the role states play in choosing what to fund. There is no requirement that states prioritize highway spending. But cities and metropolitan regions need to demonstrate their importance in every state’s economy and show how alternative transportation is an important player in ensuring the viability of those places.

The dream of some livable city advocates that states be “abolished” is immature and completely unrealistic. State DOTs will continue to play the predominant role in determining how transportation spending is distributed in the United States, so we might as well work to get them on our side.

Image above: Pennsylvania’s Interstate 80, from Flickr user dougtone (cc)

Commuter Rail High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail Philadelphia Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Releases State Rail Plan, Promotes Increased Investment in Intercity Systems

» A state rail plan does not mean Pennsylvanian will move forward with a specific project. A lack of ambition, or a reflection of few funds?

The U.S. government’s unwillingness to commit to prioritizing certain rail corridors and its fear of moving beyond empty rhetoric to describe the country’s future rail system are frustrating reactions to the sometimes paralyzing federal system. But intercity rail advocates should take some comfort in the fact that certain states are taking advantage of their governing responsibilities to promote projects and develop detailed long-term proposals. The investment made by states like California, Illinois, and Wisconsin in specific new lines is one indication of this take-the-first-step strategy; so are the proliferation of state-level rail plans.

Several states have assembled long-term reports that indicate how spending would be distributed over the years; Virginia’s 2025 proposal, for instance, highlights what could be accomplished with $10 billion in funding. It doesn’t identify a source for that money, but at least it takes the important step of making a case for how and where investments should be made.

Pennsylvania’s new passenger and freight rail plan, released last week, doesn’t go as far: though it suggests expanded train service along a number of corridors by 2035, it doesn’t pinpoint specific solutions nor establish a sum it considers vital for rail transportation’s future. In absence of adequate federal funding and in the context of a miserable recession, is this as far as the state should go? Or is Pennsylvania simply making a list and hoping it suffices as a plan?

The Keystone State put together similar plans in 2001, 2003, and 2007. The state has the fifth-largest rail system in the country.

The state will need more planning in the future. This study recommends a series of passenger and freight lines for future service, but suggests that each will have to undergo a feasibility study, then a service development plan, then finally be submitted for federal review and funding before improvements are implemented. Especially in the context of the failure Governor Ed Rendell’s plan to toll I-80 for transportation purposes, better rail service is held off for the long-term. No one’s talking about two-hour high-speed rail service between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, no matter the merits.

The passenger routes identified for improvements include the currently active Keystone Corridor between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; the Capitol Corridor between Washington and Pittsburgh; the Northeast Corridor; and the Buffalo-Cleveland Corridor. It also promotes for reactivation New York-Scranton Service and a line through the Lehigh Valley.

States the plan quite plainly: “It is recognized that there are severe funding constraints that significantly impact and make achieving the passenger rail—as described by the high-speed rail, core, and extended passenger rail networks—in this report by 2035 a virtual impossibility.”

Nonetheless, the study does emphasize areas of potential investment for all lines: it would take all corridors up to good repair and eliminate at-grade crossings. For freight, it would ensure the possibility of double-stacked, extra-heavy trains, which cannot run on many of the state’s trackage.

For the Keystone Corridor, the report is a bit more specific. The state completed a $145 million renovation project in 2006 that increased top speeds along the line to 110 mph and significantly reduced travel time between Philadelphia and Harrisburg. That program has resulted in a 74% increase in ridership as well as a decrease in per-passenger subsidy, serving as a model for other states making modest investments in their existing rail lines. The 2035 study would increase top speeds along the line to 125 mph by closing all grade crossings and allow trains to make the link between Pennsylvania’s largest city and its capital in 1h15, twenty minutes faster than possible today. The state requested more than $400 million in funds for these improvements under the stimulus’ high-speed rail package but received only $26 million.

That would keep Pittsburgh seven hours from Philadelphia by rail, despite being only 300 miles away. The two metropolitan areas together house more than eight million inhabitants.

The approach promoted by this plan is well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing. While it takes the “reasonable” tact — there’s no money, so how can the state endorse any major improvement? — in doing so, it cuts off any possibility of encouraging the public or legislature to act on anything other than the status quo.

By sketching out only the vaguest of potential improvements to existing rail lines, the state is implicitly setting the bar exceedingly low. Why not start with a big vision and work down from there? What would be the negative consequences there — letting down the taxpayer? All this plan does is imply that there’s nothing exciting to be done, giving the impression that better train operations aren’t really that feasible.

But Pennsylvania does have serious potential for improved rail services. Someone just needs to point that out.

Image above: Pennsylvania Priority Passenger Rail Corridors Map, from Pennsylvania State Rail Plan