Elections Finance Triangle NC

In North Carolina’s Triangle, the Passage of a Sales Tax Increase in Durham is Just the First Step

» A 30-year plan to bring increased bus service and three new rail lines to the Research Triangle gets off to a promising start with an election in Durham.

In 2000, North Carolina’s two largest metropolitan regions each planned big transit improvements, and each had received preliminary approval to do so from the Federal Transit Administration.The Triangle’s leaders wanted to build a diesel multiple unit-powered regional rail line connecting Durham and Raleigh while Charlotte’s elected officials planned an electric light rail line linking downtown with its southern suburbs.

Ten years later, Charlotte’s Blue Line has been up and running for almost four years, attracting higher than expected ridership. The Triangle’s efforts were flummoxed in November 2005 by an FTA ruling that the regional rail project was not cost effective, and the project was cancelled.

Yet the passage yesterday of a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transit in Durham County offers strong evidence that the region’s electorate is ready to invest in new public transportation options — the referendum passed with a large 60% majority in approval. Durham’s endorsement of the transit improvement program, like similar efforts in cities from Los Angeles to Denver, provides clear evidence that voters are willing and even excited to pay higher taxes in exchange for tangible improvements in transportation.* If in the U.S. Congress future funding for mobility remains tenuous at best, local level support for such policies is clear.

For the Triangle, this is the first step towards the completion of what will not only be a vast upgrade over current transit offerings in the region but also a significant improvement on the 2000 regional rail plan.

Triangle leaders have learned from Charlotte’s success. Realizing that the FTA would be unwilling to commit to a project without a stronger demonstration of local funding efforts, politicians pushed the North Carolina State Assembly to allow counties to submit sales tax increases to their voters, an option that had been reserved for Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County until 2009. Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax provided a quarter of the light rail line’s cost, while the Triangle’s 2000 plan could cover less than 10% of costs with local revenues, which came from a tax on rental cars and vehicle registrations.

Durham (population 270,000) is the first of the three Triangle core counties to put a transit sales tax referendum up to voters; Wake County (whose 900,000 population includes the cities of Raleigh and Cary) and Orange County (130,000 inhabitants, many of whom are in Chapel Hill) are likely to follow up next year now that the transit plan has received its first public backing. Each county will receive improvements roughly in proportion to the taxes locals pay; if one county’s voters reject the referendum, the other counties will keep their revenues and continue work on their own projects. (Update: Durham County Board members may have said they will not levy the tax unless Wake and or Orange County does as well.)

The implementation plan, developed by Triangle Transit the Triangle Regional Transit Program, will be implemented over the next thirty years as long as tax revenues come in as expected. It will offer big improvements in bus service soon and new rail links beginning a decade or so from now.**

Upgrading the region’s bus network is a top priority and is the ideal first step towards a big investment in fixed-guideway transit. Charlotte, which substantially increased bus services once its half-cent sales tax was approved in 1998, more than doubled its daily transit ridership over ten years, mostly thanks to bus riders (though the light rail project helped as well). Some of the $17.2 million in sales tax receipts Durham expects to collect annually beginning in April 2013 2012 will immediately go to 25,000 additional annual bus service hours, with another 25,000 new hours planned by 2015 2013. This represents a 28% increase over current service levels and it will allow 15-minute peak frequencies on several routes. Similar improvements are planned for Orange and Wake Counties if and when their voters approve their respective referenda. (The Town of Chapel Hill wants to use some of its future funds to pay for a bus rapid transit project along Martin Luther King Boulevard, its primary north-sout thoroughfare, by 2017.)

In the meantime, Durham and the rest of the region will continue their work on the long-term fixed-guideway rail projects that are the headliners here. In the 2000 plan, the whole point was the intercity link between Raleigh and Durham; in the past few years, Triangle planners decided to realign — and broaden — their focus. Not only would a commuter rail line running at limited frequencies be developed to connect the two big downtowns by 2018, but two light rail lines sharing parts of the same corridor will run from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Durham and from suburban Cary to northeast Raleigh, via that city’s downtown.

Unlike the regional rail plan, which would have had twelve stations spread across 28 miles of service — more like commuter rail than urban service — the two light rail lines will have a total of 38 stations along 35 miles of service, meaning most people along the route will be within walking distance of a stop. In addition, the light rail lines will run partially in the existing railroad right-of-way (as would have the regional rail plan) but also within street medians in some urban sections, such as the newly developed Erwin Road near Duke University Hospital and N.C. 54 in and around Chapel Hill’s new urbanist Meadowmont development. Street alignments are generally cheaper and more pedestrian accessible than their peers in independent rights-of-way.

Together, these projects would attract roughly 32,000 daily riders by 2035 at a cost of $3.5 billion, thus making it far easier and more reliable to get around these cities by transit.

Instead of rushing to complete the rail connections as soon as possible, the plan is designed to build up a reserve fund for capital costs and slowly pass through the FTA’s grant process. This is an appropriate response to unexpected changes in the economy and the delays that are likely to be encountered when dealing with Washington. Thus the 2025 completion dates for the light rail projects may seem far off but they are realistic.

In order to sponsor these projects, regional officials are counting on the passage of the sales tax referenda in each of the three Triangle counties. They will also use a $10 vehicle registration fee and rental car tax (both already in place), as well as 50% capital program support from Washington and 25% support from the State of North Carolina (roughly what Charlotte received for its light rail project). Collectively, the three counties would locally raise more than $2 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars by 2035 (Durham County, for instance, will collect about $730 million), enough to pay for the local share of all of these projects and the operations costs not only of the rail lines but also of the improved bus network.

Compared with the 2000 program, this is a far more comprehensive set of improvements that will do more to change the transit access of the typical resident of the area — especially since much of the funding is designed for bus service, which was ignored in the previous plan. Despite the fact that they will attract new riders into the transit system, the rail services as currently proposed are not perfect. One hopes that the long planning process will allow further refinements that ensure that the program is as cost-effective and traveler-oriented as possible.

The biggest trouble with the plan, like the previous one, is that it attempts to impose what is effectively radial transit on a multipolar region whose most prominent employment center is actually a series of isolated office blocks in the zone between Durham and Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park (RTP). Though RTP has been the region’s growth generator for decades, its radically suburban form makes it difficult to envision efficient transit there.

Meanwhile, there is relatively little commuting between Raleigh and Durham. The cities are too far apart to be true suburbs of one another; most people who work in Downtown Durham live in Durham County and most people who work in Downtown Raleigh live in Wake County. This means that the $650 million commuter rail line expected to pass through RTP and between Durham and Raleigh will have limited value — this was, after all, the problem with the 2000 regional rail proposal.

For the same reasons, the new focus on light rail connecting Chapel Hill to Durham and Wake County’s suburbs to Downtown Raleigh is much more reasonable. There has been significant growth in both residential and worker populations in downtown Durham and Raleigh since 2000, so there is both demand and interest in getting into these cities more easily. Connections to Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, which have a collective student body and staff of more than 100,000 (not including their medical centers), are likely to make the rail services quite popular, especially for people who live nearby but cannot afford parking in expensive university lots.

Nonetheless, the access provided to the respective downtowns is weak according to current plans. While Durham’s downtown will be within half a mile of two stops, no station will be directly next to the city center; in Raleigh, a lively debate this summer over the appropriate alignment for rail through downtown resulted in a compromise that puts some much of the business district a full mile away from the nearest station. Meanwhile, while the UNC Hospital is at the terminus of the proposed Durham-Chapel Hill light rail line, the main sections of the University and Chapel Hill’s downtown are both about a mile away. These could be fatal flaws in terms of attracting ridership.

Just as problematic is the choice of light rail for the Durham-to-Chapel Hill corridor. The alternatives analysis completed for the line suggests that a true bus rapid transit alternative with an independent guideway would actually attract more total riders at a far lower cost, with only slightly slower travel times. How is this possible, when studies have shown that more commuters will ride rail than bus when similar services are offered? Because the analysis included the possibility of interlining local bus routes onto the fixed-guideway for parts of their route (see map below from the study). This would effectively make travel faster and more reliable even for people whose origins and destinations are not directly along the fixed guideway line.

But local officials have recommended light rail, primarily because of its perceived transit-oriented development potential. This may be a short-sighted decision, since it denies the conclusion that overall transit ridership would be higher with an interlined system. But it also reflects the fact that the route includes several stations in greenfields (at Leigh Village and Gateway) that are poised for significant growth if developers heed the call. Would they do so with a BRT system?

One additional point: If the commuter rail project and light rail projects are completed, they should be developed jointly, not independently. The current proposal recommends four rail tracks in some sections of the Durham-to-Raleigh corridor to allow for two light rail tracks and two shared between the commuter rail line, Amtrak, and freight trains. The section of line between the Ninth Street and Alston Avenue Stations in Durham, for instance, would require the installation of two new light rail tracks and a new commuter rail track (there is currently only one track there). This is overkill considering the proposed train frequencies (maximum 10-minute headways) and will cost more than is necessary.

With the advent of positive train control, the physical separation into different corridors between light rail and freight trains will no longer be necessary. Were the Triangle granted a waiver from the current Federal Railroad Administration rules, it could use tram-train vehicles for its light rail routes and use the same tracks as the commuter rail, thus reducing the necessary expenditures in the shared portions of the line.

Despite these objections, the overall transit plan for the Triangle appears mostly well thought-through. The light rail routes would run through the densest sections of the area and would stop at most major destinations. For a quickly growing region with few public transportation options today, that’s great news.

Thanks to the efforts of Durham’s citizens yesterday, the plan is also actually fundable. Simply proposing a tax cannot be enough to have it approved, of course. Like other cities that have passed transit taxes, Durham benefited from the near-universal support from public officials and the creation of an active supporter group promoting a clear, exciting plan. Wake and Orange Counties will need similar efforts to make the full regional plan possible.***

Bottom image: Interlining BRT on Durham-Chapel Hill high capacity transit project, from Our Transit Future

Update, 11 November 2011: I was contacted by an official who noted that the tram-train idea would be impossible considering current rules of the North Carolina Railroad (a private company 100% owned by the state), which owns the track. The company has so far been unwilling to consider having light rail run along its tracks. Thus the issue here is not only the FRA but also the opinions of the host railroad.

* This is apparently not true in suburban Cleveland, where two separate efforts to maintain bus service were roundly defeated in votes yesterday. But it was true in Vancouver, Washington, where voters endorsed a sales tax for transit, and in Cincinnati, where an effort to block work on the streetcar was ignored.

** Though the rail system will be developed by Triangle Transit, a regional authority that operates intercity buses, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh each have their own bus services that at least for now will remain separate. These agencies will receive proportional tax funds to improve operations and will be expected to coordinate with the rail services once they are running.

*** Feel free to blame the length of this article on the fact that I am a native of Durham.

Elections Finance

With Few Funds Available, What are Transit Agencies to Do?

» The manifest lack of support for an increase in funding for transportation at the federal level means public transportation providers will have to adapt to survive.

This month’s federal budget negotiations have been incredibly disheartening for those of us who believe wholeheartedly in the advantages of popular social welfare provision in the broader sense; the ease with which members of both of America’s two major political parties have dispensed with the goal of widening the provision of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid suggests that the sense that government can do much to reduce inequalities in our society has been pushed far enough aside as to be ignored in the meeting rooms of even a president representing the so-called left.

The timing of these discussions — premised on GOP skepticism of government spending and Democratic fears of advocating raising taxes — comes not coincidentally just a week after House Republicans revealed their proposal for a six-year transportation budget. If it was not clear last week, it is now: The cuts being proposed would be devastating to the nation’s transit agencies, depriving them of much-needed funds for the purchase of new rolling stock and the maintenance and construction of necessary facilities. Even if this plan, which would diminish already too-limited transportation funds by a third, does not get implemented, the context of the debt negotiations suggests that something much better is unlikely to be had.

This leaves the nation’s transit agencies in a treacherous bind, since local and state transportation funds have seen significant declines as well. Do they hold back on capital spending, hoping for better days sometime a few years from now? Or do they attempt to divert operations funds to capital, potentially threatening their ridership and certainly reducing service quality?

There is no easy answer to this question, but one almost inevitable fact is that transit agencies have four basic choices: Reduce service, increase fares, ask for new revenues, or attempt some combination of the aforementioned three. These are all bad options: The first will make public transportation less convenient for everyone who relies on it; the second will increase its cost; and the third will demand sacrifice from either taxpayers or other public services. With a flustered economy and limited likelihood of quick growth in the near future, however, these are what is available.

Service reductions are the simplest, but potentially most devastating, form of budget-balancing at a transit agency. Since most bus or rail routes are money-loosing — they require subsidies to operate — reducing the number of runs can save everyone money. This could mean eliminating certain routes or decreasing frequencies along the line. Indeed, reducing the number of riders can save money too, if the number of routes that can be eliminated because of lower ridership offsets any marginal loss in fare revenues.*

The problem with this approach is that it sets into play transit’s “death spiral;” fewer and fewer riders are attracted to the service as less convenient options are offered. Then, as there are fewer riders use transit, there is less need for services, resulting in more cutbacks. This situation can only be remediated with the significant and costly re-introduction of good services at an even more subsidized cost; and by then, full-scale use of a city’s transit system is difficult to re-establish.

But if transit systems play an essential role in the urban ecosystem — allowing density, providing environmentally friendly travel alternatives, reducing congestion, offering mobility and access for all — simply cutting back until “you can afford it” is not really an option. The reason we subsidize transit in the first place, after all, is that its societal benefits are more significant than the sum of the amount people are willing to pay in fares to ride it. Thus service cuts — unless performed carefully and only on the least-effective routes — can only play a minor role in an attempt to balance the budget.

The second option, increasing fares, is perhaps the most toxic of the options made available to transit users. Too many riders already think they are being overcharged for less-than-excellent travel options,** so convincing them that they should pay more for the same can be a difficult argument to win; a decline in ridership is likely to occur with any increase in fares.

One alternative is raising the fare not just to the level necessary to make up for the loss of other revenue but rather to a higher bar to pay for service improvements. If the typical user of the system understood the resulting improved frequencies and better routes, they might come to see the fare increase as not a problem but instead as providing a benefit. Starbucks gained traction in the beverage market despite its relatively high prices because consumers appreciated the better (or at least perception of better) coffee they could buy there.

That said, the significant low-income segment of transit riders means that an increase in costs to ride must also mean less mobility for the poorest segments of the population. In the midst of high unemployment and increasing poverty rates, in whose interest would such a policy change be advanced? If combined with reductions for those with limited incomes, though, a fare increase could be both publicly beneficial and economically progressive.

Then there is the final option: Increasing local funding to pay for transportation, a politically dangerous game. Few politicians relish increasing property and sales taxes — the two revenue sources most frequently used to fund local public spending. In many cities around the country, voters have been asked to approve more funding for transit projects, so you can’t just tell them that they must pay more now because of lower-than-expected revenues; more taxes must come with more promises of improvements, which voters may or may not perceive as likely to be fulfilled.

Among service reductions, fare cuts, or local tax increases, there are no good options; no matter what any city chooses as its preferred means to relieve its funding crisis, the next few years are likely to be difficult ones, full of diminished expectations and few improvements in service at transit agencies. With a dominant political atmosphere that prioritizes spending cuts over social services, what else is to be expected?

Update, 19 July: Many of the comments on this article have raised questions about the possibility of increasing efficiency and productivity as an alternative to fare increases or service cuts. To this regard, Alon Levy has an interesting post on the difference between short-term and long-term approaches to deficits in funding; Levy’s article points out that many of the solutions noted by commenters would be difficult if not impossible to implement in the short term.

* The fact that transit services often lose money poses a financial problem even in well-performing, high-ridership systems, where attracting new riders may be a good idea from a social, environmental, or political perspective, but not from an economic perspective, as the new fare revenues they bring in are not large enough to compensate for the cost of providing higher-frequency service or more routes.

** Few mention the fact that transit fares in cities with excellent transit systems are very similar to those in places with miserable ones. Why does it cost a similar amount of money to ride the buses in Chicago, for example, where a high-frequency grid of lines and easy neighborhood access are provided, as in Springfield, Illinois, where few routes and long waiting times are the rule?

China Commuter Rail Elections Florida High-Speed Rail Orlando

In China’s High-Speed Successes, a Glimpse of American Difficulties

» With political figures failing to account for the long-term interests of their constituents, the U.S. continues down its confused path.

The opening of the new $32.5 billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link this week marked a significant milestone in the world effort to improve intercity rail systems. Though the development of fast train networks in China has not been without its failings, the connection of the nation’s two largest metropolitan regions — the tenth and nineteenth-largest in the world — is a human achievement of almost unparalleled proportions, especially since it was completed a year earlier than originally planned and just three years after construction began. It comes as the Chinese government celebrates its 90th anniversary.

With ninety daily trains traveling the 819-mile link at average speeds of up to 165 mph, the corridor will likely soon become the most-used high-speed intercity rail connection in the world. Because of safety concerns, the quickest journey between travel endpoints will take 4h48, more than the four hours originally proposed. But that will still be more than twice as fast as the existing trip by train and about as quick as the air trip when including check-in times and the journey to and from the airport. So from the perspective of intercity mobility, the rail link will be a huge improvement. The fact that trains stop in the major cities of Tianjin, Jinan, Xuzhou, Bengu, and Nanjing (among many others) — and that they free up capacity on the older line for freight use — only improves matters.

China is in a stage of its economic progress that makes great works such as this high-speed system more feasible than similar works in more developed countries like the United States. While the comparison between the Beijing-Shanghai link and the New York-Chicago connection is hard not to make — each would serve resident populations of about sixty million along corridors of roughly 1,000 miles — their respective political contexts differentiate them to such a degree that makes them almost impossible to compare.

Some Americans may dismiss the Chinese achievement, suggesting that the system’s construction by a single-party government with authoritarian tendencies makes it in itself suspect. One of the great things about the American political system is that it attempts to respond to the demands of the citizenry. The defeat of several Democratic governors in last fall’s elections reflected on some degree of disenchantment with the Democratic Party in general, but in three cases — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin — the GOP’s open opposition to intercity rail projects there clearly played a role in convincing voters, who evidently agreed with the anti-rail sentiment, to throw out Democrats. In some ways, it is a reflection on a successful democracy that the rail projects in those places were cancelled, whatever their technical merit.

Yet the completion of China’s longest high-speed line should raise questions in the minds of Americans about whether our particular political and economic system is most fit to compete in a rapidly changing global economy.

The United States, celebrating its own 235th anniversary, has in many ways yet to escape the doldrums of the recession. But unlike China, whose government moved forward quickly to invest in its economy in response to investor insecurity, the U.S. has been characterized by a pile-up of political figures grounding their schizophrenic decision-making in paranoia over the role of government and a general distaste for definitive action on anything.

This week’s endorsement of the Central Florida SunRail commuter train project by Governor Rick Scott (R) was a reflection of American democracy at its worse. Having complained of budget deficits and scorned off federal intercity rail funds for a fast train to link Tampa and Orlando that would have likely cost the state no money, Mr. Scott has given his go-ahead to a project whose primary beneficiary will be CSX, the freight rail operator, and whose costs to the state will run up the tab into the hundreds of millions of dollars — with few public benefits. The SunRail service will operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every two hours during the middle of the day, at least at the beginning of operations. Future operations improvements lack funding.

The commuter line’s first phase was approved by the Federal Transit Administration in 2009 for New Starts funding because of years of influential lobbying by similarly debt-obsessed Congressman John Mica (R) despite considerable objections from the U.S. government over its cost effectiveness; it was arguably the most expensive per rider of any project approved that year. The project will serve an estimated 4,300 riders a day at a final cost of $1.2 billion, $432 million of which will be handed directly over to CSX for the purchase of its line.* This amounts to a state subsidy for a private corporation, in direct contrast to the high-speed rail line, which was attracting offers of hundreds of millions of dollars from private groups that saw operating profits on the horizon.

This in a country where even the head of the supposedly progressive party claims, just like the Republican opposition, that the best way to soothe the country’s economic woes is to reduce government spending. And meanwhile, expensive projects with only a minor impact on mobility or accessibility somehow make their way forward. Ideological consistency appears not to be an American strongpoint.

Americans cannot raise their hands in dispair, brushing off the successes of Chinese dictatorship as simply the consequence of a lack of democracy. The U.S. political system’s failures to adapt to contemporary needs are no fault of democratic practice.

Indeed, China was not alone in moving forward with fast train systems last week. The French railroads authority approved the first phase of the Sud Europe Atlantique high-speed line, which will run 190 miles from Tours to Bordeaux and decrease travel times from Paris to Bordeaux from three hours to 2h05 in 2017. The program is the largest public-private partnership ever signed in Europe and will cost a total of $11.3 billion, half of which will be covered by a group of private firms expected to pay off their initial capital expenses with fifty years of operating profits. In case the point was not clear, France is a perfectly democratic place; the project underwent ten years of studies before being approved for funding, including a significant round of public forums on the scheme. The program was approved by a succession of political leaders who were elected to their posts.

Thus it is not democracy in itself that makes it difficult to envision projects similar to the Beijing-Shanghai line being completed in the U.S., but rather our particular brand of democracy. Its short political term lengths, reliance on two center to center-right political parties, overwhelming involvement of lobbying groups in the legislative process, strong state governance, and weak local and state revenue production capabilities too often result in indecision, half-hearted solutions, and reckless governing logic that focuses on short-term wins more than long-term considerations. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the Chinese governance system, where most decisions are factored into a multi-decade conception for the country’s future by state master planners who seem to know what they’re doing. Do we?

What is the appropriate response to this problem? We can speculate away, but what is obvious is that American political support for specific investments in projects such as commuter trains or high-speed rail lines is haphazard at best and dangerously wasteful at worst. This is no way to run a country.

* The funds will allow SunRail to use the corridor during the day, but CSX will still be able to run freight trains on the corridor at night, potentially making maintenance of the line more difficult. This includes a completely out of proportion $200 million insurance policy that the state is paying to CSX to use the tracks. In addition, the funds provide tens millions of dollars to CSX to upgrade an adjacent line.

Image above: Shanghai Hongqiao station, from Flickr user triplefivechina (cc)

Chicago Elections

Rahm Emanuel and the Power of Municipal Entrepreneurship

» Taking the realm of America’s third-largest city after 22 years under Richard Daley could produce big changes for local transportation.

Despite its burgeoning downtown, Chicago has big problems. The city lost 200,000 people between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Vast tracts of the south and west sides of the city sit vacant. Job growth in the metropolitan area is slower than in most other regions of the country. The city faces a $75 million budget deficit just over the next few months.

Thus the swearing-in this week of the city’s first new mayor in 22 years, Rahm Emanuel, cannot come at a better time. In order to gain ground over the next few decades, Chicago has to do a better job keeping its existing residents and attracting new jobs. The mayoral election in February was a landslide for Mr. Emanuel, which means he has the political momentum to pursue change for this great city after decades under Richard Daley’s leadership — but will the new mayor be able to do so? Or will the city stagnate?

Transportation is only one of a myriad of concerns that must be addressed in Chicago, but Mr. Emanuel has made it one of the foci of his transition plan — and initial signs indicate that his goals are appropriate: Incrementally improving the transit network and remaking the streets so that they better address the needs of all modes of transport. The choice of Gabe Klein, of Washington, D.C. bike share and streetcar fame, to lead the city’s transportation department, implies that the new mayor understands the value of improving local non-automotive mobility systems.

In a cash-poor municipality whose transit system requires $7 billion in renovations now, it is not surprising that new rail transit lines appear to have been sidelined — at least for now. In the short-term, this may be the right approach. The city cannot afford to maintain what is has, so investing in new capital programs may be inappropriate. But whether Mr. Emanuel’s brand of local modesty is right for Chicago in the long-term is worth evaluating. Does this city need to play it safe, or become ambitious?

The transportation components of the transition plan, which is the best sign yet of where this mayor hopes to take his city, can be divided into two themes: One, the improvement and expansion of the Red Line, and two, the retaking of the city’s streets from the dominance of cars.

The first project — the Red Line renovation and extension — is a necessity: The northern sections of the corridor (shared with the Purple Line) are a century old and the Chicago Transit Authority has already presented a number of alternatives that would relieve the problem. Also on tap is the extension of the corridor south to 130th Street, designed to improve the commuting times for people who live in the city’s Far South Side, whose residents are transit-dependent but poorly served. The combined cost: Somewhere between $3 and $6 billion.

Other far less expensive improvements mentioned by Mr. Emanuel’s transition plan include a bus rapid transit corridor for Western or Ashland Avenues that could include dedicated lanes within 3 years (already being planned by the CTA); an attempt to reform the city’s zoning code to encourage transit-oriented development around stations; and the implementation of a citywide bike share system and the expansion of the bike lane network. The latter initiative would expand lanes by 25 miles a year (versus 8 today) and prioritize protected lanes. The first two miles of those, the document states, would be selected arrive in the mayor’s first 100 days. (See Steven Vance’s post on where those might be most effective.)

The overall message is that of a politician who sees the value in improving the way the city’s streets work for all their users. For Mr. Emanuel, the implementation of reserved lanes for cyclists and buses can be done incredibly cheaply but to great benefit for the quality of life of Chicago’s denizens, more than 30% of whom rely on walking or transit to get to work and a quarter of whom have no car available to their households at all. With wide streets everywhere in the city, bus rapid transit is a particularly relevant and easy-to-implement improvement for Chicago transit.

The costs of the Red Line expansion are in themselves beyond the city’s current means — especially considering that President Obama’s budget for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have included billions for renovations just like this one, is likely to go down in defeat. This suggests that Mr. Emanuel will have to either get more funds from the state or raise local revenues if he is to follow-through on his campaign promise to act on the matter.

Should Mr. Emanuel, then, aim higher? Faced with the need to raise taxes anyway, should he be looking to imitate Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who transformed his personal ambition to build a one subway under Wilshire Avenue into a multi-pronged strategy to rethink all of L.A. County for transit through the construction of a dozen new lines — with a dedicated sales tax to boot?

Chicago certainly has room for improvement: Travel between neighborhoods, rather than to downtown, is difficult, and the Circle Line rapid transit corridor could be an investment-worthy piece of infrastructure. But its development has been sidelined due to a lack of funds. Meanwhile, the integration of CTA with the Metra suburban-oriented commuter rail system (the two currently have different fare structures and few interchange points) could be a boon to ridership if the Metra network evolved into a regional rail system that provided frequent access to the city’s citizenry.

But either effort would need a cheerleader. Will Mayor Emanuel step up?

Unfortunately, hopes such as those may be sidelined by a different, less pressing concern: The ever-present push to connect Chicago O’Hare Airport to the downtown Loop with a dedicated high-speed rail line. Recently revived by Mayor Daley, it is the pet project of the Loop’s business interests — but it will serve few of the city’s many transit-dependent residents and it will do little to ameliorate the problems of everyday life on Chicago streets.

Image above: Chicago’s Green Line, from Flickr user John Picken (cc)

Elections Urbanism

Understanding the Republican Party’s Reluctance to Invest in Transit Infrastructure

» Conservatives in Congress threaten to shut down funding for transit construction projects and investments in intercity rail. One doesn’t have to look far to see why these programs aren’t priorities for them.

Late last week, a group of more than 165 of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives, the Republican Study Committee, released a report that detailed an agenda to reduce federal spending by $2.5 trillion over ten years. Spurred on by increasing public concern about the mounting national debt, the group argues that the only choice is to make huge, painful cuts in government programs. With the House now in the hands of the Republican Party, these suggestions are likely to be seriously considered.

Transportation policy is prominent on the group’s list, no matter President Obama’s call for investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, expected to be put forward in tonight’s state of the union address. Not only would all funding for Amtrak be cut, representing about $1.5 billion a year, but the Obama Administration’s nascent high-speed rail program would be stopped in its tracks. A $150 million commitment to Washington’s Metro system would evaporate. Even more dramatically, the New Starts program, which funds new rail and bus capital projects at a cost of $2 billion a year, would simply disappear. In other words, the Republican group suggests that all national government aid for the construction of new rail or bus lines, intercity and intra-city, be eliminated.

These cuts are extreme, and they’re not likely to make it to the President’s desk, not only because of the Democratic Party’s continued control over the Senate but also because some powerful Republicans in the House remain committed to supporting public transportation and rail programs. But how can we explain the open hostility of so many members of the GOP to any federal spending at all for non-automobile transportation? Why does a transfer of power from the Democratic Party to the Republicans engender such political problems for urban transit?

We can find clues in considering the districts from which members of the House of Representatives of each party are elected.

As shown in the chart above (in Log scale), there was a relatively strong positive correlation between density of congressional districts and the vote share of the Democratic candidate in the 2010 elections. Of densest quartile of districts with a race between a Democrat and a Republican — 105 of them, with a density of 1,935 people per square miles or more — the Democratic candidate won 89. Of the quartile of districts with the lowest densities — 98 people per square mile and below — Democratic candidates only won 23 races. As the chart below demonstrates (in regular scale), this pattern is most obvious in the nation’s big cities, where Democratic Party vote shares are huge when densities are very high.

This pattern is not a coincidence. The Democratic Party holds most of its power in the nation’s cities, whereas the GOP retains greater strength in the exurbs and rural areas. The two parties generally fight it out over the suburbs. In essence, the base of the two parties is becoming increasingly split in spatial terms: The Democrats’ most vocal constituents live in cities, whereas the Republicans’ power brokers would never agree to what some frame as a nightmare of tenements and light rail.

What does this mean? When there is a change in political power in Washington, the differences on transportation policy and other urban issues between the parties reveal themselves as very stark. Republicans in the House of Representatives know that very few of their constituents would benefit directly from increased spending on transit, for instance, so they propose gutting the nation’s commitment to new public transportation lines when they enter office. Starting two years ago, Democrats pushed the opposite agenda, devoting billions to urban-level projects that would have been impossible under the Bush Administration.

Highway funding, on the other hand, has remained relatively stable throughout, and that’s no surprise, either: The middle 50% of congressional districts, representing about half of the American population, features populations that live in neighborhoods of low to moderate densities, fully reliant on cars to get around. It is only in the densest sections of the country that transit (or affordable housing, for instance) is even an issue — which is why it appears to be mostly of concern to the Democratic Party. Republicans in the House for the most part do not have to answer to voters who are interested in improved public transportation.

This situation, of course, should be of significant concern to those who would advocate for better transit. To put matters simply, few House Republicans have any electoral reason to promote such projects, and thus, for the most part they don’t. But that produces a self-reinforcing loop; noting the lack of GOP support for urban needs, city voters push further towards the Democrats. And sensing that the Democratic Party is a collection of urbanites, those from elsewhere push away. It’s hard to know how to reverse this problem.

Many Republicans, of course, represent urban areas at various levels of government. No Democrat, for instance, has won the race for New York’s mayoralty since 1989. And the Senate is a wholly different ballgame, since most states have a variety of habitation types. As Bruce McFarling wrote this week, there are plenty of reasons for Republicans even in places of moderate density to support such investments as intercity rail.

But the peculiar dynamics of U.S. House members’ relatively small constituent groups, in combination with the predilection of state legislatures to produce gerrymandered districts designed specifically to ensure the reelection of incumbents, has resulted in a situation in which there is only one Republican-controlled congressional district with a population density of over 7,000 people per square mile. And that’s in Staten Island, hardly a bastion of urbanism. With such little representation for urban issues in today’s House leadership, real advances on transport issues seem likely to have to wait.