Airport Atlanta Dallas Light Rail Metro Rail Miami

Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami

» The failure of a local sales tax to produce revenues as expected should dampen excitement around the latest extension of Miami’s Metrorail system.

Last week, Georgia voters overwhelmingly denied the passage of the T-SPLOST referendum, which, among other things, would have provided $7.2 billion for transportation over the next ten years to the Atlanta region thanks to income from a 1¢ sales tax. About half of that funding would have gone to public transit operations and expansion; in the city of Atlanta itself, the program would have paid for the beginning of work on the Beltline transit corridor, a light rail line to Emory University, several BRT lines, and a MARTA heavy rail extension. Voters were clearly unconvinced of the value of the transportation investments, were motivated by anti-tax sentiment, and felt that the projects would not benefit them directly. The result may be decades of increasing traffic in the metropolitan area with few new alternatives.

Yet some voters also expressed another concern: That the proposed projects, despite their inclusion in the official list of priorities, would not actually be built. Their sentiments were not necessarily unreasonable. The $7.2 billion supposed to be generated by the tax was an estimate, and if the economy continues to underperform, it’s quite possible that the actual revenues collected could have been much lower. Moreover, the list of transportation priorities was itself based on project cost estimates, which, if you know anything about U.S. construction projects, are liable to increase wildly.

If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.

Nonetheless, the Airport extension, which will bring downtown Miami within a 15-minute trip of the airport, is an impressive addition to the city’s transit network. The terminus at the Miami Intermodal Center (MIC) is a beautiful feat of steel, concrete, and glass. By next year, the $2 billion MIC will allow for connections between Metrorail, Amtrak, Greyhound, rental cars, seven bus routes, and the region’s commuter Tri-Rail line. An automated people mover called MIA Mover already connects the complex to the terminals.

Miami’s Metrorail system, showing 2.4-mile extension to the airport and new Orange Line. Ridership in the southern part of the system is higher, so doubling service to the south is a reasonable decision. Source: Miami-Dade County. Read a critique of the new map from Cameron Booth.

The MIC station is expected to see 7,500 daily riders on Metrorail, a huge increase over the 66,000 daily riders currently recorded on the system’s 24.4 miles, according to APTA (up from about 45,000 a day in the late 1990s). Ridership on the system has been increasing relatively steadily since it opened in 1984, unsurprisingly considering the city’s growth during that period. Since 2000 population increase has been particularly quick, with the city now housing more than 408,000 people, a more than 10% increase over the past decade. Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s.

Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, was supposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016.

Several problems arose. The North Corridor, originally supposed to be the first project completed, repeatedly received poor ratings from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) thanks to low ridership estimates and poor management on the part of Miami-Dade transit. The FTA would have to contribute a significant portion of the project’s cost for it to be funded. At the same time, its projected price tag increased from $515 million to $1.63 billion. Similar problems plagued the East-West Corridor, of which the Airport Link was supposed to be the first phase. Indeed, the cost of this project doubled since initial estimates.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of the recession (which hurt Florida particularly badly) led to a decline in tax revenues. And the system, whose finances had been incorrectly tabulated in previous years, spent far more than expected on operating deficits and a new headquarters, leaving only the $400 million in local funding for the airport line.

By 2010, a partial expansion of bus service was basically entirely reversed, the other rail projects simply do not exist according to the Miami-Dade website, and the only improvements to the North Corridor have been in the form of an improved bus line.

Just as problematic, even when hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new transit capital, the system has had trouble providing the services that an effective public transportation network is supposed to offer. While Metrorail service has been increased slightly to provide for a distribution of 10-minute peak services on the two branches (the Orange Line to the airport and the Green Line to Palmetto, the other, older terminus), at nights and weekends, trains will leave the airport only every 30 minutes. Nobody should be expected to wait half an hour for a train at the airport when arriving on Saturday at midday. And fewer people will ride as a result. How could the funding for this essential purpose not be available?

It will be convenient for a large number of people to get easier access between Miami’s airport and its downtown without having to deal with traffic, and indeed, the city is one of many American cities prioritising airport rail links. Dallas has its own Orange Line light rail project currently under construction and planned to open in 2014* (Chicago coincidently also has an Orange Line to its Midway Airport). But how much value do these airport connections bring, anyhow?

As I have previously written, airport transit connections are promoted (and prioritised) by urban elites because they are frequent air travellers — and trips to the airport are often the only travel for which they can conceive personally using the transit system. But other investments, such as in the densest areas of the city, usually provide more benefit to the average inhabitant of a metropolitan region. Given Miami’s downtown-oriented growth, there is reason to suspect that new lines operating in the center city, rather than toward the periphery (as the north and east-west corridors would have) would have been more attractive to riders. In this vein, Branden Helms argues that airport stations rarely attract the patronage expected for them. Is Miami’s prediction of a 12% increase in its rail system ridership reasonable?

Does this mean Miami’s new Metrorail extension is a waste of funds? Not necessarily — especially considering Miami’s distinctive position as the “capital of the Caribbean” — attracting millions of visitors and business people each year through the airport. If the city’s growth continues to be based on its status in Latin America, the airport connection may be invaluable.

Miami, however, is a parable: Voters will not always receive that which they believe to have endorsed.

* The first segment of Dallas’ Orange Line opened last week as well, with new service provided between the existing Bachman Station and Irving Convention Center. Additional stops further north at North Lake College and Belt Line are expected to open in early December.

Image at top: New MIA Metrorail Station, from Miami-Dade County

Automobile Dallas Milwaukee

A Tollway in Dallas and the Absurdity of Building Duplicative Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Purposes of the Trinity Parkway are to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas Streetcar

Dallas, a Transit Builder if Not Pioneer, Moves Forward on Streetcar

» A 1.6-mile streetcar line would bring dubious benefits to this Texas city.

Not all transit expansion projects are created equal — let that be clear. Sure, expanding public transportation options in general usually contributes to the expanded mobility of urban residents. But governments, as we know all too well, have limited funds. So identifying the best possible investments for the money must be an essential part of political decision-making.

Which brings us to Dallas, which submitted plans this week for a 1.6-mile streetcar from the city’s downtown to the Oak Cliff neighborhood just southwest across the Trinity River. It could be the first rail line in the U.S. to feature streetcars that use battery propulsion instead of always having to rely on overhead catenary. The project was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant in February 2010 and it will be Texas’ first modern streetcar line if it opens as planned in 2013 (the existing McKinney Avenue Trolley, open since 1989 in Uptown and currently being extended, uses historic vehicles). Though it may generate construction jobs — one of the major goals of the federal funding program — the rail line will do next to nothing to improve the quality of public transportation in this, America’s ninth-largest city, still suffocated by its automobile dependency.

I will get to the point quickly: Though the $23 million the Dallas Oak Cliff streetcar will cost to construct is truly tiny compared to the investments other cities are making in light rail or subways, the characteristics of this project make one wonder if it is worth spending any money at all on it. There are plenty of projects around the country that could take advantage of these funds in a far more efficient, customer-focused manner.

The project violates almost all the basics of transit project delivery. Worst is its proposed single-track construction — there will not even be any bypass tracks included as far as I can tell (see update below: this issue has been partially resolved) — which will limit service to 20-minute maximum frequencies. From day one, the service will be limited to what in a standard transit system would be considered poor operations quality. And this is basically an impossible-to-resolve structural problem, since once construction has been completed, there will be little appetite for more of it in the same locale.

To put it another way, 20-minute frequencies mean ten minute average waiting times; combined with the seven minutes it will take trains to journey the 1.6 miles from origin to destination, this means that on average, walking will be just as fast as taking the train. And the lack of bypass tracks means that any future extensions would increase maximum frequencies even further. This is hardly convenient transit, and everyone seems to recognize that fact, considering service will end at 7 PM each day, with no weekend operations. An urban rail line with a service pattern that is less broad than that of a typical city bus should raise some serious questions.

If this project serves such an important travel market as to deserve the significant investment that is required to put tracks in the street, why are such pitiful operations planned?

Then there is the issue of stop placement. The line’s four proposed stops are already bordering on too many considering the short route distance. But confounding the matter is the fact that three of those stops are within a half-mile of one another in the Oak Cliff neighborhood; this means streetcar stops less than every 1,000 feet, slowing down service and increasing costs. Is the assumption that people simply will be unable to walk more than a few blocks to a station? If this were true, isn’t the whole point of the transit investment, premised on people walking from stops to their final destinations, kind of problematic?

Similarly, the two terminal stops fall short of the likely destinations of many of their users. On the Oak Cliff end, trains will stop two blocks short of the Methodist Hospital, landing instead across from a large parking garage. That’s friendly competition.

On the downtown Dallas side, trains will stop at Union Station, which is an acceptable terminus but not nearly as good as what was originally planned — line up Main Street, through the heart of the central business district (which would have increased the line’s price to $58 million). But the federal government’s willingness to contribute only a portion of funds and the city’s general ambivalence about spending any of its own money has interred that plan, at least for the moment. This produces a situation in which passengers living from Oak Cliff have an only indirect connection to the jobs center, which is several blocks away from Union Station.

Moreover, the line’s creators have chosen to design the connection between the streetcar and Dallas’ lengthy light rail network in such a way that not only makes it difficult for passengers to transfer between the two but also limits the opportunities for interoperability between them. At Union Station, where streetcars will terminate and light rail and commuter rail lines already exist, passengers will have to walk 500 feet to get from one service to the other (this is the one place on the line were short walking distances really matter!). This will make the prospect of transferring between services frustrating and slow, limiting users’ desire to take the streetcar rather than hop into their automobiles.

While the new streetcar will include a track connection to the light rail, that link has paradoxically been designed to eliminate any chance that the streetcar could one day act as an extension of said network. The connection, included to make it possible to maintain streetcars in the light rail shop, doubles-back on the passenger line away from downtown. The plan thus precludes the possibility of providing for a future in which streetcars could utilize the light rail tracks through the downtown to offer better service to the business district.* The possibility that this streetcar line could serve as a sort of tramway, with light rail-type operations in the street right-of-way, has been made difficult by this poor interlining with the light rail and the single tracking. The fact that streetcar and light rail lines are only marginally different and in fact can be made identical in terms of vehicles used appears to have passed over the designers of this project, ironically the operators of the city’s light rail system DART.

From the perspective of a government already light on funds, this Dallas streetcar project thus comes across as inept. Though it would serve a new part of the city, it would do so in a way that adds very little to existing transit options and that offers very little for service improvement in the future. Should this project be a priority for U.S. grant givers? Should Dallas, a city with troubled transit ridership, be focusing on a project that will do next-to-nothing to change those conditions?

No matter the limited benefits of the Dallas streetcar project, of course, it is fortunately not the norm in terms of recent capital projects at most — or at least many — American transit agencies. The streetcar project currently underway in Tucson, for instance, will manage to provide two-track service, reasonable frequencies, and direct service to major destinations in that city. Though this project will indeed be more expensive than its Texan cousin, it will offer far more in terms of transportation benefits and will attract a more significant patronage from day one. On the other hand, we can only hope that for the sake of ensuring appropriate use of limited government dollars, projects like Dallas’ should be curtailed.

*Those knowledgeable of Dallas’ light rail network might note that the downtown route, which runs along Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street, is already congested with trains at rush hour and therefore could not handle the addition of streetcars. But Dallas’ medium-term transit plan identifies a parallel downtown route called D2 that would resolve those issues and leave plenty of room for streetcar operations.

Update. 26 July: Turns out that, unbeknownst to me, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson managed to secure an additional $3 million in federal funds for the streetcar project last week. These funds will be used to build a passing track, which will allow for significantly improved service and allow trains to run more than every 20 minutes. This makes the project mildly passable — but the other issues raised in this post remain extremely problematic. And though the passing track will be useful, it will not be sufficient to allow for reasonable service on an expanded system.

Commuter Rail Dallas

North of Dallas, a New Commuter Rail Line that Never Makes it Downtown

» A train line adds to the Dallas region’s plethora of rail options.

There are many competing reasons to invest in new transportation capacity, the most compelling of which is often to expand mobility — that is, to increase the number of places an individual can get to within a certain period of time. The need to decrease travel times between major destinations is an essential question for transit, since its major competition, the private automobile, usually provides quicker, more convenient trips.

In cities with high levels of highway capacity per capita, the only transit mode that can compete relatively well in terms of mobility is commuter rail, as its limited stopping pattern and sometimes very high speeds allow it to move faster than even free-flow traffic in some cases. The value of commuter rail is of course disputed since its fast running times tend to encourage decentralization from the center city, but assuming one purpose of transit is to increase mobility, it can be quite productive.

That is, it can be productive if it’s designed to fulfill a real travel need.

Some recent commuter rail lines, like Minneapolis’ Northstar and Austin’s Capital Metrorail, have produced somewhat mediocre ridership because of their limited frequencies and inaccessible downtown termini. They both offer relatively fast transit times from the suburbs to the business core, but their inconvenient operating patterns and difficult-to-get-to stations diminish their value, which explains why few people ride them.

The nation’s newest commuter rail line may be even more questionable and raises significant questions about what its designers and planners were intending when they funded it.

Opening this week, the 21-mile Denton County A-Train connects the far northwestern suburbs of the Dallas region, including Medpark, Lewisville, and Hebron, with the Trinity Mills light rail station in Carrollton — a stop that is itself 38 minutes from the region’s central business district via the Dallas DART Green Line light rail, which opened for service late last year. The new $320 million project is expected to attract 4,000-5,000 passengers a day.

Unlike peer systems almost everywhere else in the county, the A-Train does not provide direct access downtown. Rather, it offers connectivity between suburban destinations, with the possibility of a transfer downtown via DART light rail at North Carrollton. The whole route, including the 8-minute connection? About 80 minutes. Compare that to the express bus service between Denton and Dallas that was offered until now, which could make the link in about one hour.

The now-longer ride will not provide much convenience for people who make the daily commute, and in terms of speed itself it is a downgrade from the old service (though of course the train offers more station stops). To make matters worse, the service is only offered during morning and evening rush hours, with a very occasional bus route filling in the gaps during the midday. While there is currently congestion on the highways between Dallas and its northwestern suburbs, the state is about to begin a $4.4 billion expansion of I-35 East, which follows a route similar to the train. This construction project may increase transit ridership in the short term as people look for an alternative, but its reopening is likely to spur a significant decrease in the advantage of taking the train, especially since it is significantly slower than the express buses it replaced.

Could there have been a feasible alternative? One option could have been extending the DART Green Line (already the nation’s longest light rail route) further north, but this would have come at an incredible cost; the construction expenditures required to install a pair of dedicated tracks and the catenary required for light rail would be far higher than that needed for infrequent and diesel-powered commuter rail operating on tracks shared with the freight railroads, as is the A-Train.

Another possibility could have been extending the commuter rail line all the way into downtown Dallas along a mostly single-tracked freight line. But this would have been difficult to justify, as it would require upgrades to a track almost directly adjacent to the Green Line.

Then there is the third option, which arguably would have been the most effective: Allowing A-Trains to run express along Green Line tracks. Using tram-train equipment now increasingly common in Europe, the commuter trains could use occasional bypass tracks to make their trip around light rail trains stopped at stations. This is effectively what occurs in Lyon, France, where the Rhônexpress airport train shares a portion of its tracks with the T3 tramway. Not stopping at the majority of the T3 stations allows the airport train to save five minutes compared to a 25-minute trip on the tram.*

Unfortunately, this compromise approach never had the chance to come into being. The fact that Denton County is not a sales tax-paying member of DART (but rather operates its own agency, DCTA) poses a major obstacle; why would DART make an effort to incorporate services by another entity into its plans if the two did not cooperate? This project may come to be interpreted as yet another failure of American metropolitan areas to act regionally.

Similarly, the Federal Railroad Administration’s rules on the sharing of tracks between freight and lighter passenger trains make it almost impossible to foresee the A-Train simply continuing along Green Line tracks as an occasional service from downtown Dallas, even though the trains purchased to be added to the A-Train fleet next year would be able to do so technically.** Even without bypass tracks, the ability to avoid the transfer at Trinity Mills would save commuters at least eight minutes. But this would require true cooperation between Denton County and DART. The A-Train is planned to have a connection into the proposed Cotton Belt rail line that will run somewhat circumferentially around the region, but that project has yet to be funded.

The fact that the A-Train never reaches downtown, however, could be interpreted as a positive feature of the system, reflecting on the area’s dispersed living patterns. In a highly suburbanized metropolitan area like Dallas, this may make sense; after all, shouldn’t a city attempt to adapt its transportation offerings to the living patterns of its citizens? And indeed, estimates of the train’s ridership suggest that the majority of its users will be reverse commuters, taking the trip into the suburbs in the morning and and back towards the city at night. Denton and the surrounding towns host a number of universities and medical centers that attract thousands of daily commuters heading out from Dallas County.

Even so, the point remains: If the goal of the A-Train is to encourage mobility — and mobility means speed — the system could have been designed in a way that ensured that those reverse commutes were more effectively quickened.

Whatever the relative benefits of the line, though, perhaps the greatest success of the project’s backers was getting it funded in the first place through the creation of a 1/2-cent sales tax in 2002, approved by the electorate by a wide margin, and the redirection of road tolls, which covered 80% of the cost (no federal dollars were involved to speed up the process).

Denton County is no progressive place; its voters supported McCain over Obama by a 62% to 37% margin in 2008. But for residents of these suburban areas, the promise of a train — in whatever form — was enough to merit their contribution through taxation. One hopes similar networks, which clearly benefit from popular support, can be better designed to satisfy the needs of more people in the future.

* On the shared portion from Gare Part Dieu to Meyzieu.

** The A-Train is currently running with older trains borrowed from the Trinity Railroad Express, which runs from Dallas to Fort Worth.

Image above: Light rail in Dallas, from Flickr user Retail Mania (cc)

Commuter Rail Dallas Finance Metro Rail Toronto

Sinking Dreams of a Privately-Funded Subway in Toronto

» Mayor Rob Ford’s claim that he can build new subway with little public financing looks increasingly unlikely. But value capture remains one of many funding devices that should be considered seriously by transit agencies.

Last fall’s mayoral election in Toronto was a watershed moment for Canada’s largest city; in electing conservative Rob Ford to the top post, the public essentially rejected the approach that had been taken by former Mayor David Miller. For transportation, the change was particularly dramatic. Whereas Mr. Miller had advocated a network of surface-running light rail lines called Transit City, Mr. Ford lambasted this approach as a “war on cars” and declared that the only public transportation projects he would pursue would be in subways.

In March, in an agreement with the Ontario provincial government, he got what he wanted. The planned surface line on Eglinton would be replaced with a subway sponsored by the Province. The light rail line on Finch West would be put off to a later date, as would an extension of the Scarborough RT. And the Sheppard East light rail line — then already under construction — would be substituted by an extension of the Sheppard Subway, to be funded by the city.

That project now appears fiscally impossible.

The Mayor, pursuant to his electoral promises, said that the Sheppard Subway could be done with the commitment of no new city funds; rather, he claimed, private investors interested in development rights around stations would produce an increase in area property values. The city would be able to sell off enough station-area land and collect a large enough amount of new taxes to be able to pay for the project. The idea was that Toronto, like Hong Kong, would be able to build better transit through private development.

This week, the wildly optimistic proposal fell apart. Gordon Chong, the man appointed by Mr. Ford to head up Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., the group meant to pioneer this public-private partnership, said that even with significant upzoning around stations, the private sector would be able to contribute a maximum of only 40% of the line’s C$4.2 billion estimated costs. And in a city where neighborhood groups have fought hard to prevent such zoning changes in the past, the prospect of 30-to-40 story towers in the backyards of single-family homes was not likely to be easily accepted by local residents — so that 40% was probably a high estimate.

Though federal funds could aid a bit, lacking provincial aid, the rest of the line’s costs would have to be paid for by other funding devices, such as road tolls, according to Mr. Chong. Mr. Ford, who made his campaign work on the basis of his predecessor’s supposed hated of cars, rejected the idea hastily.

While Toronto appeared in early 2010 to have four transit lines ready to go, it now is down to just one and a half — the Eglinton Corridor and the replacement of the Scarborough RT. Unless Mr. Ford makes a quick turnaround on the use of municipal funds for his Sheppard Subway (or provincial or national governments fly in for the rescue), the project will be dead in the water.

In some ways, that’s a pity: The financing scheme being considered — using value capture on surrounding properties to fund the project’s completion — is a reasonable one that should be used much more frequently in cities funding new transit lines. That is, to pay for a portion of total costs, since for now most cities will not be able to raise the kinds of funds from property development that Hong Kong has. Fortunately, its adoption by cities in the U.S. and abroad appears to be gathering steam.

In Paris, the just-approved 125-mile metro network will be partially financed through the sale of land around stations. And in North Texas, the development of a new 68-mile commuter rail line called the Cotton Belt is moving forward thanks to a tax-increment financing district that is being proposed for neighborhoods around stops.

In a talk at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Madison today, Mike Krusee of the Partnership for Livable Communities suggested that this new route between Fort Worth and Northern Dallas County could cover about $380 million of its $1.54 billion in total construction costs — and all of its operations costs — through value capture in the towns through which the line would run. In short, increases in property tax collections over a few decades would be used to subsidize the creation and maintenance of the new transit offering. Though the proposal has yet to be adopted (and the remaining $1.16 billion in construction costs has yet to be found), it demonstrates the potential of integrating private investment into what is otherwise a public project.

Most American transit system capital programs are financed purely through federal and state grants and municipal sales tax income.

It is indicative that in the first request for proposals for constructing the Cotton Belt, investors in Dallas apparently hoped that the private sector would be able to step in and pay for the whole project, said Mr. Krusee. Facing revenue shortfalls, the metropolitan area had abandoned full government financing for the program. Of course, just as in Toronto, that was not possible: 55 replies from companies provided no solution to the overall lack of funds. Only since Mr. Krusee’s Partnership proposed the value capture system have private developers become seriously interested in working to raise funds to pay for construction. Major transit-oriented developments are apparently planned around many of the stations.

Increasingly, transit systems across the country looking for expansion opportunities may have no choice but to look for similar deals: Agree to use tax revenues from property value increases on transportation corridors to the area, and development will follow. No such deals could mean fewer new transit lines in the future.

Image above: Subway station at Sheppard-Yonge, from Flickr user Kenny Louie (cc)