Categories
Beijing China Guangzhou Hong Kong Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros

» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.

Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.

Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming problems that infect that very core of the American planning apparatus—excessive reliance on consultants, acceptance of rapidly growing costs, failure to adapt to new technologies, compulsive regression to benefits for small groups over for the common interest—have encouraged this approach to understanding what is possible. And there are some cities (Los Angeles and Seattle come to mind most quickly) where these issues seem less acute.

But it is perhaps only in the act of comparison that the illness of American planning is made apparent. For in examining how one place acts in the context of another we can see whether the malignant cancer to which it has become resigned is, in fact, a factor of unavoidable shared inheritance, or if, rather, it is the consequence of its own poor choices that others have not made.

Evidence, indeed, suggests that there are choices when it comes to planning, that it is possible to have more, not less. I point to Chinese cities, which over the past ten years have acted to seize the reigns of transport planning through aggressive investment.

Having been reliant on bicycle transportation for much of the 20th century, Chinese cities were models of unmotorized mobility. But the country’s opening to capitalism in the 1990s brought massive motorization and the purchase of millions of automobiles. Millions of rural inhabitants streamed into urban cores. Many of the cities were woefully unprepared to respond to the sudden changes that ensued; until 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.

What has occurred since then, however, has truly altered the way people use transportation in Chinese cities, and the changes will keep on coming.

Metro construction in these cities has exploded, rising exponentially especially since 2008. A country largely bereft of metros in the 1990s now has more than 5,000 kilometers of metro lines, more than four times the U.S. figure, which has increased very slowly since the 1960s. 25 Chinese cities now have systems, and the number is rising every year.

Of the 12 largest metro networks in the world by length, seven are now in China. As of December 2017, Guangzhou’s metro passed New York’s Subway in length, and Beijing and Shanghai have by far the longest systems.

Some estimates suggest that Chinese cities will have more than 10,000 kilometers of metro lines by 2020. That’s in addition to the almost 1,000 kilometers of bus rapid transit, hundreds of kilometers of tramways, and massive commuter rail systems that have been built in cities around the country—not to mention the enormous high-speed rail network that has been constructed since 2007.

This investment in metro capacity has been met by a popular shift in how people get around. Current Chinese metro lines collectively carry about twice as many riders as the entire American public transportation network, buses, trains, and all.

The “riding habit”—the frequency of transit use per capita—has risen quickly in city after city. Guangzhou and Beijing now have greater use of their systems than any American city except for New York, with the average resident there taking 189 and 167 rides per year, respectively, compared to 230 per year in Gotham. Beijing and Shanghai systems now each carry more than ten million daily riders, the two highest figures in the world. And they have both doubled their ridership since 2010. It seems likely that the other cities following their path in line construction will eventually follow their lead in ridership, too.

Metro construction in China is largely the product of a massive central government investment. Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment.

The story of Chinese investment in metro systems might be chalked up to processes of urbanization that were familiar, too, to U.S. cities in the early 1900s. It is easy to forget that American residents of major cities were the most reliant on transit in the world at the time, and that before the Great Depression, efforts to build subways and elevated rapid transit were widespread (if ineffective).

Yet actions in Chinese cities today are examples of contemporary planning, not simply responses to a particular historical moment that all cities eventually go through. The unabashed commitment to investment in rapid transit in city after city through support from the national government is an effort that never had its equal in the U.S. The growth in metro systems is being conducted in response to, not before, the increase in automobile dependence. Line construction is being undertaken in parallel with massive creation of dense new neighborhoods, a legacy whose hysteresis will produce generations of transit riders.

While Chinese cities have frequently been poor models of urbanism—massive highways, malls, and tower-in-the-park apartment blocks have taken root in too many places—they appear to be at least minimally cognizant of the reality that a future of unlimited automobile growth is unsustainable. Unlike any American city, for example, cities from Harbin to Shanghai to Shenzhen have implemented caps on vehicle registration and are examining congestion fees. Thus the growth in metro construction is being implemented in line with restrictions on overuse of cars.

The feats of Chinese infrastructure development are often dismissed by Western critics as the unrealizable actions of an authoritarian, illiberal country with no property rights, a poor citizenry, too-dense neighborhoods, and sheer government power. Its actions, then, are supposedly not meaningful for the deeply democratic American context.

Yet this is too much of a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening in China. While it is true that the country is authoritarian, land cannot simply “be taken” with no response from residents. Incomes have increased dramatically many of the larger cities, creating a middle class of individuals ready to contest projects they don’t like. Investment isn’t cheap; Chinese metros, while not as pricey as American ones, aren’t much cheaper to build than their European counterparts. And the residential areas that have been created around metro stations are intentionally dense, the product of a decision to be dense, not the product of poverty.

The difference between U.S. and Chinese approaches to planning for growth through transportation, then, really gets down to this question: are cities prepared to make the commitment to change, or not? American cities have largely abandoned the effort, hoping and praying that they may eventually wean people out of their cars through such under-supported devices as commuter incentives and tactical urbanism. Chinese cities, aided by massive central investment, are building a new society for themselves.

Data on Chinese metro expansion available here.

* Hong Kong has had extensive rail services throughout the twentieth century, and its metro, beginning in the 1970s, was quite popular, but it was a British protectorate until 1997.

Image at top: Guangzhou Metro, from Flickr user Enzo Jiang (cc).

Categories
Finance Infrastructure

A year into the Trump Presidency, federal transit support limps along

Minneapolis Southwest Corridor

» Despite efforts by the administration to eliminate support for new transit projects, they continue to be funded by Congress—and transit agencies are continuing to act as if they’ll see aid far into the future.

Last March, the Trump White House released its budget blueprint, a document designed to articulate the administration’s orientation toward the executive agencies. The blueprint took a radical stance toward the federal government’s involvement in transit: It proposed a wholesale elimination of the capital grant programs, which fund a portion of costs for rail and bus guideway projects around the country. It suggested doing away with the TIGER discretionary grant program, which is frequently used to fund small-scale bus rapid transit and streetcar routes, as well as transit stations.

The budget also offered no remedy for the upcoming depletion of revenues from the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since the early 1990s, thereby wildly decreasing its revenues over time.

The proposed cuts could have seriously undermined efforts by the nation’s cities to expand their transit networks. Transit agencies in places from Charlotte to San Diego, among many others, rely on Washington’s support to cover 30 to 60 percent of the capital costs of their major transit projects (through the New Starts program) and major line renovations (through the Core Capacity program). Los Angeles, for example, is funding 47.7 percent of its Regional Connector light rail subway with federal New Starts grants; 48.3 percent of the costs of Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project are borne by Washington.

Smaller cities have used the Small Starts program to fund 30 to 80 percent of their streetcar and bus rapid transit lines. A full list of projects currently on the list for future federal funding—but lacking a guarantee of Washington’s support—is below. This includes projects such as Albuquerque’s BRT, which has already been built on the assumption that the federal government would contribute funding. Yet it hasn’t yet.

A year into the administration, transit projects continue to be built around the country, and dozens more are planned. As I detail in this post, Congress has largely ignored the White House’s efforts to cut funding for transit projects. Moreover, transit agencies are acting as if grants will continue far into the future; they’re continuing to submit their projects for federal review.

But the threat remains that the administration will find ways to seriously undermine transit programs in the U.S. Indeed, Trump has yet to even submit a nominee to head the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA’s capital investment report suggested that “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” despite the government’s continued support for road projects, whose use is overwhelmingly local.

This stance has not yet affected many projects directly, but it does suggest that the government won’t go out of its way to make them happen. Last month the administration announced that it would pull out of an Obama-era deal to aid the funding of a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey that would carry both NJ Transit commuter and Amtrak intercity trains. A deputy administrator at the FTA dismissed the tunnel as “a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders.”

Congress ignores the president

The administration’s deep antipathy for transit projects has been largely dismissed as irrelevant by the Congress which, of course, ultimately determines how the federal government spends its money.

Last May, the Congress allocated funding for a full bevy of investments. Projects such as Minneapolis’ Southwest Corridor and Seattle’s Lynnwood Link light rail projects, recommended for no funding by the president, were allocated the first of what are likely to be years’ worth of grants to support. That said, those projects’ full-funding grant agreements, which guarantee multi-year support by the federal government, have yet to be signed by the FTA.

Other lines, such as Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit, were given large Small Starts grants despite the administration’s effort to halt that program altogether.

Even the TIGER program—which is discretionary in that it requires the Department of Transportation’s Secretary to make decisions about which projects to support—is moving ahead, despite considerable delays. After the Congress agreed to fund the program mid-year, the government provided a notice of funding availability in September, for which awards are anticipated soon.

Transit agencies plot a path forward with federal funds

If the intention of the administration’s proposal to eliminate federal support for transit was to encourage local and state governments to simply fund projects themselves, there is little evidence that they’ve taken that tack so far.

I asked representatives of transit agencies throughout the country to describe how they planned to move forward given the administration’s hostility to new funding. None suggested that they were changing their plans whatsoever.

Corinne Holliday of Phoenix’s Valley Metro, for example, noted that the agency and “its city partners remain confident that Tempe Streetcar and the South Central [light rail] Extension will be fully (federally) funded and we continue to move forward as such.” Representatives of Twin Cities Metro continue to plan on full federal support for the Southwest Corridor and Blue Line Extension light rail projects. Bryan Luellan of Indianapolis’ IndyGo noted that the agency had in fall 2017 submitted its Purple Line bus rapid transit line to federal review, and that it is planning to submit its Blue Line project soon.

Agency confidence—or at least their unwillingness to change plans—has meant that they have continued pressing ahead. Jose Ubaldo of Metro Los Angeles noted that the Trump budget and other executive actions “have not materially affected” the financing schedule of the third phase of the Purple Line subway extension, which has not yet received federal support. “Metro continues to work with FTA in the grant application process that would result in a grant agreement in 2018,” he said, “under the presumption the New Starts program is funded through a Congressional appropriation.”

Indeed, agencies seem to be assuming that the Congress will continue to be by their side. “The contingency plan in the event of no New Starts [funding] is to redouble our work with House and Senate appropriators,” Ubaldo said. Norm Mah of the City of Seattle noted that “despite the Trump administration’s lack of support for the FTA Capital Investment Grants program… Congress continues to demonstrate bipartisan support which is shown by a letter signed by [Washington] Senator Patty Murray and other congressional members.”

Not actually getting the funding, however, will make transit agencies incapable of moving forward. Kimberly Reason of Seattle’s Sound Transit—which is planning a massive light rail program—made the dynamics of the situation clear. “The elimination of federal funding assumed for Sound Transit projects poses a great risk to delivering these projects by their planned completion dates,” she said.

Steven Taubenkibel, an FTA spokesperson, emphasized that the agency was continuing to accept projects. “We continue to advance projects through the process, consistent with the statute,” he said. But he cautioned that those projects’ future funding is in no way ensured. “Project sponsors that do not yet have construction grant agreements acknowledge they are undertaking additional work at their own risk.”

What will 2018 bring?

Pressed by agencies, mayors, and other local officials, Congress may continue to fund transit projects with individual allocations. The FTA continues to maintain a list of projects it is willing to support—whether or not the administration is actually suggesting funding them—and Congress seems likely to continue to use that list to pick out which projects to fund.

If the agency continues to accept applications for project funding and Congress continues its allocations, transit agencies may be in the clear. It is worth remembering that the Bush Administration repeatedly proposed gutting support for transit investments, too, but those proposals went unheeded by a Congress representing jurisdictions all over the country with transit plans.

Taubenkibel also underlined that the White House is—at least if you believe what its officials say—interested in supporting transit projects. “The Administration’s upcoming Infrastructure Initiative,” he noted, “will provide a comprehensive proposal to accelerate project delivery, spur private sector innovation and investment, and ensure that the Government effectively invests Federal infrastructure funding.”

It is true that government officials have repeatedly suggested they’d like to move forward with an infrastructure bill, which has sometimes been described as a one-trillion-dollar investment. In theory, new infrastructure funding could support new transit projects.

What we know about that proposal, however, suggests that it is unlikely to be supportive of the transit projects most cities want. The administration’s rhetoric about the plan suggests that it would emphasize selling or leasing assets to private entities (though the president himself is apparently not confident that public-private partnerships work in the first place), and fund projects that can “support themselves” through user fees, which means that it won’t do much for projects other than toll highways in dense urban areas.

Meanwhile, the Congress just passed a massive tax cut that will decrease federal revenues. It is hard to believe they’ll invest in an infrastructure program if it requires increasing taxes in an election year.

Image at top: West 21st Street Station, on Minneapolis’ Proposed Southwest Light Rail Corridor, from Metro Transit.

Categories
General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2018

» Despite significant hostility from the Trump Administration, cities are pushing ahead with major new transit projects nationwide. Here’s the annual roundup, with dozens of projects on the way with planned openings in 2018.

In 2018, 340 route miles of new fixed-guideway transit projects, representing a total investment of $13.2 billion, are expected to open for riders in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. An additional 366 miles of lines, costing a total of more than $75 billion to build, will be under construction in 2018 but are planned for opening in later years. The continent’s cities, then, continue to be active sites of expansion for relatively high-quality transit improvements.

Projects are described in more detail below. They’re also accessible on the updated Transit Explorer map and database, on which it’s possible to view project routes, stations, and details throughout North America.

This is the 10th year of my compilation of new transit projects here on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017.

A 2017 round-up

The first year of the transit-hostile Trump Administration was never going to be fun, but the fact that transit ridership declined throughout the U.S.—particularly on bus services—didn’t help. Competition from ride-hailing services, reductions in service provided, and low gas prices all conspired to encourage Americans to get into automobiles. That said, transit systems in Canada and Mexico did fine.

The Trump Administration’s budget officially cut off federal funding for new transit projects, but—as I’ll document in an upcoming post—cities kept on, and keep on, building.

Last year, a number of new projects opened. The extension of the Bay Area’s BART heavy rail system to Warm Springs, the creation of Denver’s new R light rail line, the building of Detroit’s new QLine streetcar, and the addition of Toronto’s Spadina Subway Extension stand out as particularly remarkable. High-quality bus rapid transit routes in Albuquerque, Eugene, Mississauga, and New York City also opened for riders.

2018, however, is expected to be a much more significant year in terms of transit line openings, as I detail below.

Above: Expected to open this year, among many other projects: BART to Berryessa heavy rail extension; Boston’s Silver Line Gateway BRT; Miami Central station; Ottawa’s Confederation Line light rail project; and St. Louis’ Loop Trolley streetcar.

Projects we can expect to open in 2018

One heavy rail extension, five new light rail lines, four streetcar lines, six commuter rail lines, 11 bus rapid transit lines, and two major station projects are expected to open next year.

Of these projects, the extension of the Bay Area BART heavy rail system to San Jose is the most expensive (it has rung up a more-than $2 billion price tag), but the line won’t serve any downtown, let alone any particularly dense residential areas. On the other hand, Ottawa’s Confederation Line, a light rail project that will replace a decades-old dedicated bus corridor, will provide direct access to the center of Canada’s capital; its planners project it will attract 240,000 daily riders.

The four streetcar projects expected to open—in El Paso, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis—will share many of the deficiencies that have frustrated recent streetcars across the U.S. Namely, they’ll run in lanes shared with automobiles, meaning they get stuck in traffic. Fortunately, as a share of overall expenditures on major new transit projects, streetcar projects represent less than two percent of the total.

On the other hand, bus rapid transit projects continue to improve. Boston’s Silver Line Gateway, which will bring frequent service to Chelsea, a suburban city north of Boston’s downtown, will have dedicated lanes and high-quality stations.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.

Heavy Rail

Light Rail

Streetcar

Commuter Rail

Bus Rapid Transit

Major rail stations

Above: Under construction this year, among many other projects: Boston’s Green Line light rail extension, Los Angeles’ Purple Line subway extensions, Montréal’s REM automated heavy rail project, Seattle’s East Link light rail line, and Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown light rail subway.

Projects under construction in 2018… but opening later

A large share of the transit projects across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada won’t open this year, but they’re either already under construction or are scheduled to enter the construction process later this year.

Los Angeles and Seattle, whose voters passed very large funding packages for transit expansion in 2016, account for some of the most significant projects. In L.A., the Purple Line Subway is being extended west toward UCLA, through some of the densest neighborhoods on the west coast of the United States. Authorities there are also building a new light rail line on the Crenshaw corridor, which will connect to a new people mover for LAX Airport, and a new light rail subway through downtown called Regional Connector, which will allow trains to run directly from East L.A. to Santa Monica and from Long Beach to Pasadena, saving commuters time.

In Seattle, light rail extensions are underway in virtually every direction: East Link is connecting downtown to Bellevue, Northgate Link and Lynnwood Link will extend the system north, and Tacoma Link is lengthening the short line that currently runs through that city at the southern edge of the region.

Several other projects are noteworthy: Honolulu and Montréal are both investing in automated heavy rail projects. After years of delay, Boston is finally taking the first steps forward in its Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford. And a streetcar line with dedicated lanes—Seattle’s Center City Connector—will finally be added to the streets of a major American city.

The full list of projects under construction is below, and they’re all accessible on Transit Explorer using the icon.

Heavy Rail

Light Rail

Streetcar

Commuter Rail

Bus Rapid Transit

Updates: Jan 5, 13:20 EST: Added Tren Interurbano de Pasajeros Toluca-Valle de México. Jan 6, 15:40 EST: Added Raleigh Multi-Modal Transit Center. Jan 9, 10:30 EST: Added OC Streetcar. Jan 10, 9:30 EST: Added Redlands Passenger Rail Project. Jan 16, 10 EST: Added Minneapolis C Line and Orange Line BRT Projects.

Categories
Infrastructure Metro Rail New York Stations

The case of the missing platform doors

» Platform screen doors could save lives, reduce trash on the tracks, and improve the customer experience. Yet they’ve been repeatedly pushed back as a solution in cities like New York. At fault: A bureaucracy that isn’t able to plan for technological change and is unresponsive even to its own board members.

Charles Moerdler wants to make the New York City Subway better for its passengers, but he keeps getting blown off. His story is parochial in that it is relevant directly to New York, but it is also generalizable—representative in its own way of how American transit agencies respond to the availability of new technologies, even when those new technologies can save lives and improve operations.

Moerdler may be one of the most prominent, if unrecognized (perhaps even by himself), advocates of what are known as platform screen doors. These glass doors, which line the edge of train platforms and prevent people from jumping, falling, or being pushed onto the tracks, are installed on rapid transit systems all over the world. They are aligned with a train’s own doors and are designed to open when a train pulls up. They can play an important role in improving transit safety, in many cases literally saving lives, and they can prevent people from throwing trash onto the tracks, a typical cause of system-disrupting track fires.

Yet they’re also virtually non-existent on rapid transit systems in the U.S. Why is that?

I’ll return to Moerdler in a second, but suffice it to say that his advocacy has been repeatedly and condescendingly rebuffed—I document the instances below—by leadership at the agency that runs the Subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he is a board member. Partly as a consequence, like many other systems, the New York City Subway remains dangerously susceptible to people getting hit by trains and service disruptions. No progress, at least in the public eye, has been made on addressing this problem. This public bureaucracy seems incapable of adjusting to technological change.

Platform screen doors: A worldwide phenomenon for rapid transit, except in the U.S.

Platform screen doors may be familiar to anyone who has used an automated people mover at airports from Chicago O’Hare to New York JFK, and they have a number of benefits. They allow platforms to act as insulated rooms, physically stopping people from jumping or falling onto the tracks—a particular plus for blind people. They prevent people from trashing the tracks—a major cause of subway delays. They allow trains to enter stations at higher speeds, and they make it far more feasible to air condition those stops.

Doors can be installed at full heights, completely isolating the platform from the tracks, or they can be installed more cheaply at a lower height. They can be installed at all stations along a line, or just some of them. They can be added on lines that are automated, and on others that are not.

The doors aren’t free. Costs may vary from about €2.6 million per station for a project now underway in Paris to about $10 million per station, according to an estimate for Montréal.

The MTA suggests that platform doors could require platform edge reinforcement, electrical upgrades, and a new interface between trains and signals. So determining the relative importance of lives saved and reduced trash fires resulting from platform doors, compared to other potential investments, is needed for any system considering their implementation.

Clearly, many cities have decided they’re worth the cost. The below map illustrates all of the rapid transit systems around the world—excluding airport people movers—noting in yellow and green those systems with platform screen doors at at least some of their stations (click to expand).

As the map shows, none of the major rapid transit systems in the U.S. include such doors—not New York, but also not Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Washington. Only Las Vegas’ monorail, a tourist attraction, and Honolulu’s line, now under construction, include them.

In Europe and Asia, however, platform screen doors are quite common. They’ve been installed on new systems in cities as disparate as Bangkok, Chengdu, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Toulouse, and Turin. They’ve been added to existing lines in places from Beijing to London and Paris. And many cities are installing them now.

In South Korea, there have been particularly significant efforts to incorporate platform doors at existing stations. In Japan, the government has recommended their installation at every station with at least 100,000 daily commuters and identified a significant reduction in accidents following their addition. The doors are common on every rail system in China.

In other words, the doors are ubiquitous for new rapid transit lines in the wealthier parts of the world. Except for in the U.S.

Return to New York

One explanation for the difference may be the manner in which American transit agencies approach technological change. Which brings us back to Charles Moerdler.

Don’t feel bad for Chuck. He’s a partner in a major law firm. Despite being yelled at by the current MTA chair, Moerdler feels empowered in his job as an MTA board member.

Yet my examination of MTA board minutes suggests that he’s been given misleading answers to his queries about the possibilities of such doors at least eight times, by a panoply of different officials, over the past five years.

To rehash:

  • In March 2012, then-MTA President Tom Prendergast told Moerdler that platform doors were being considered for installation, and he said they could improve safety, comfort, and timeliness of trains. Then- and now-MTA chairman Joe Lhota said “we will look at” the doors, though he suggested “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
  • In January 2013, an MTA Senior Vice President said the agency was considering the possible use of platform door barriers and other mechanisms to check for intrusions on the track.
  • In May 2014, Moerdler generated discussion among board members about the potential for platform doors to address safety and operational issues, to no real response from MTA officials.
  • In June 2014, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco suggested that two initiatives, including intrusion detection and the feasibility of platform doors, “are ongoing.”
  • In November 2016, then-New York City Transit President Veronique Hakim “agreed to look into the feasibility of a pilot program for the installation of platform doors,” according to the minutes. Another board member noted that the agency needed a study to examine the issue.
  • In February 2017, Subways Senior Vice President Wynton Habersham said that the issue of platform doors “is currently under consideration, and agreed to get back to [board] Members with further information at a future date.” He agreed to produce a report on the cost and feasibility of platform doors in New York.
  • In March 2017, Habersham “agreed to consider the use of platform doors,” and the agency suggested a “comprehensive study” was being explored at that moment.
  • In September 2017, Moerdler was again promised by agency officials that platform doors were possible, and the idea had not been abandoned.

The MTA has never produced a comprehensive analysis of the potential for such doors, nor has it committed seriously to installing them. The way in which Moerdler has been treated is indicative of the agency’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies. For years, the agency has been responding to him as if the public is on the cusp of learning about the potential for platform doors, and yet responses over the years collectively indicate little progress.

Perhaps the MTA does, in fact, have something forthcoming. And the fact is that there has been repeated evidence that the MTA is at least minimally interested in investing in such technologies. In 2007, agency officials suggested that the Second Avenue Subway could include such doors. Board members designated $2.4 million in funds for platform doors in the 2010-to-2014 capital plan; this expenditure was delayed and supposed to be completed in December 2016 (it wasn’t). The agency complained about the difficulty of implementation in early 2013, noting that door installation would be costly, have to respond to varying train lengths, door placements, and differences in station designs. In February 2016, the MTA suggested it would put platform doors at the L train’s 6th Avenue station. By November last year, the agency noted that the S shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central might be a better option.*

All along, people kept getting hurt and, in some cases, dying. Just last year 102 people were accidentally hit by trains at stations, and another 51 allegedly or definitely attempted suicide by jumping in front of trains.

The agency’s response to Moerdler isn’t just evidence of an embarrassingly inappropriate relationship with board members. It’s also a disappointment for riders.

To be fair, I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the challenges the MTA would face if it were to attempt the installation of platform screen doors. The doors generally require several basic features to work: Trains that stop in the almost-exact same place every time; level and even platforms; and train doors that are always located in the same place.**

Stopping trains in the same place each time they arrive at stations typically requires advanced signaling, a feature that New York’s Subway is notoriously lacking. Level platforms require renovations. Train doors being located in the same place is difficult to achieve with a mixed fleet of trains featuring doors in different locations. Achieving any of these features would not be simple, and it would require MTA dedicate new funds to be accomplished.

Yet there are MTA services that are already practically ready for the installation of such doors. The L train has advanced, CBTC signaling that is similar to automation and can guarantee reliable stopping. It also has a train fleet whose doors are all located in the same place. Once the 7 train’s CBTC renovation is completed, it too will have those two features. So, interestingly, does the Q train’s just-opened portion under Second Avenue in Manhattan. The first two feature congested platforms where the dangers of falling in front of a train are real. And all three need to keep the tracks clear of trash to maintain appropriate operations.

But, at least as of now, the MTA has no plans to add platform doors to any of the lines. One explanation may be that the agency wants to hold off for a future in which it changes the location of train doors.

Promoting technological change

It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do. While they could use more funds in many cases, the biggest agencies work with billions of dollars of capital and operating funds, more than most agencies in Europe or Asia. While they’re public sector bureaucracies, so is virtually every other transit agency in the world. While agency leadership keeps changing, many staff members have remained there for years. While boards aren’t particularly responsive from a democratic perspective, neither are the heads of transit agencies in most other countries—and, even if they were, it’s hard to believe that issues like platform screen doors will ever rise to the top of issues relating to popular protest.

The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.

It is also undoubtedly true that the fact that platform doors can, for now, only be installed at some stations, on some lines, poses a political challenge to doing it anywhere. Yet that hasn’t prevented the improvement of service in some places over others. And in the places where it is possible, the primary problem is a lack of foresight and coordination. If, when the MTA had begun renovations on the L or the 7, it had committed to platform doors, it could have simply incorporated their installation into the overall renovation plan, as have other cities. Including them now wouldn’t represent such a struggle. Comprehensive planning about multiple elements of a project clearly is not the agency’s high point.

There are reasons for hope, however. About two years ago, I wrote about the complete failure of American transit agencies to purchase open-gangway trains, which increase capacity by allowing people to walk between cars—a failure that could not be attributable to technology or cost and that was degrading customer service. Agencies offered surface-level, unreasonable excuses for their approach.

But in January 2016 (surely not just, if at all, as a consequence of my article), the MTA announced it would purchase an open-gangway train, and a portion of a prototype has been built.

It will take decades for the full fleet to be converted, but the decision signals that there is a willingness, somewhere deep in the heart of American transit bureaucracy, for change.

* Philadelphia, among other cities, has also considered platform doors.

** There are some inventive approaches to handling situations with doors in different locations using ropes, but these seem unlikely to be feasible in a rapid-transit context.

Categories
DOT Finance Infrastructure President U.S. Government

Trump’s budget hits transit hard

» In spite of previous statements in favor of a major infrastructure bill and support for transit, Donald Trump’s budget proposal would decimate the federal government’s commitment to aiding cities build new transit lines.

Any hope that Donald Trump would prioritize investment in transit infrastructure died on Wednesday night.

His administration’s budget blueprint, a rough outline of what changes he’d like to see in the federal government’s discretionary spending programs, recommends a 13 percent decline in the budget of the Department of Transportation. Much of that $2.4 billion annual reduction would come from slashing investment in transit.

The blueprint would kill new grants by the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program. It would eliminate the popular TIGER grant program, which has supported bus rapid transit, streetcar, station, and pedestrian facilities around the country over the past few years. It would also terminate federal support for long-distance Amtrak lines, cutting service to much of the South and West.

At least based on the initial information provided, the budget would keep “formula” funds for transit in place. These support transit agency purchases of new buses and trains, and can be used for state of good repair, but not expansions.

The limitations on the Capital Investment Grant program will be extremely painful for cities and transit agencies that have pinned their hopes on investing in new rail and bus lines. This program supports what are known as New Starts, Small Starts, and Core Capacity grants, all of which provide matching dollars to fund projects such as light rail lines in Minneapolis and Seattle, subways in Los Angeles and New York, renovations of existing elevated lines in Chicago, and bus rapid transit lines in Fresno and Oakland.

Though projects that currently have what is known as a Full Funding Grant Agreement from the federal government would retain support, all others that are planned but haven’t yet signed that agreement would be cut off from federal support according to the proposal.

This change could lead to the cancellation of transit projects all around the country, from Caltrain’s electrification program, to Durham, North Carolina’s light rail line, to New York’s Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, to Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit. A full list of the projects that would be immediately affected is below.

Ironically, as a candidate, Donald Trump said “we have to spend money on mass transit… we have to spend a lot of money.” He repeatedly noted his admiration for transit in China and seemed to suggest interest in building subways and high-speed rail. Yet his budget blueprint promises nothing of the sort.

Some hope that the budget blueprint will be followed up by his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which Trump has claimed would fund transportation improvements. Yet not only is that proposal unlikely to happen, even if passed the way it is structured it would likely do very little for transit agencies, since it would require projects to be profitable, a condition very little transit can meet.

The net effect of the budget—going beyond just the Department of Transportation—is a massive slashing of support for cities, even as support for suburbs is maintained. While new transit projects would be eliminated from federal funding, the highway formula funds, which support new highway construction, would be retained. The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects grant program, which primarily goes to expanding federal roads, would be continued at $900 million a year.

Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs supporting low-income neighborhoods and families, including Community Development Block Grants, HOME, and Choice Neighborhoods, would be eliminated entirely. Killing these programs would immediately create holes in city budgets, increase homelessness, and reduce their ability to provide social services. At the same time, programs benefiting wealthy homeowners, such as the mortgage interest tax deduction, would be preserved. The Administration, of course, is also planning to propose massively regressive tax reductions.

That sucking sound you hear is the Trump Administration throwing the economic weight of the government toward wealthy suburbs and individuals and away from cities and the poor.* This is social engineering by the feds—just for the benefit of people who don’t need help.

Of course, the president’s blueprint is just a concept. Further details will be released in the coming weeks and, more importantly, Congress will ultimately make any final decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t. President Obama, notably, proposed budgets virtually every year that would increase support for transit investment. Yet these budgets were largely ignored by a Congress that had set its own priorities.

Though controlled by the Republican Party, there are reasons to believe that the budget the national legislature eventually passes won’t be as austerity-driven toward transit investment as this proposal is. It’s hard to envision legislators—especially senators—being willing to tell their constituents that their long-planned transit projects will simply get no federal support. Will Arizona’s Republican representatives really be okay with cutting federal support for projects in Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Tempe? Will Florida’s GOP representatives support elimination of support for projects in Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Orlando, and St. Petersburg? I’m skeptical.

Nevertheless, the threat is real. The U.S. House came close to defunding federal support transit entirely half a decade ago, and it may attempt to do so again. With little hope in the immediate term for an infrastructure bill of any sort, there are only dark skies ahead for our cities and their transit agencies.

* Rural areas, it should be noted, wouldn’t be helped much by this budget either.

Image at top: Caltrain’s proposed electrification program.