Commuter Rail New York Social Justice

A Chance for Faster Commute Times in the Bronx

» New stations in the Bronx could significantly speed up travel times for people who spend too long getting to work every day. But there must be reasonable service frequencies offered at a reasonable price.

The Metro-North commuter railroad offers convenient service from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut and Upstate New York. Though all of its trains run through the Bronx, the population there rarely uses its services, because they are simply not designed for transit-reliant city dwellers. They stick to the bus and the subway, despite those modes being slower.

The opening of the East Side Access project at the end of this decade will direct certain Long Island Railroad trains to a new station under Grand Central, opening up capacity at Penn Station for Metro-North trains. This service change offers many opportunities for dramatically improving the commutes of thousands of people in the Bronx — if it is planned right. A potential new service along an existing Amtrak line is up for discussion this month.*

New York, of course, is hardly alone in needing to dramatically improve the use of its commuter rail lines. Cities from Boston to Chicago provide service on rail lines with few inner city stations, miserably low frequencies, and much too expensive fares. But because of Gotham’s huge size and the continued concentration of jobs in central Manhattan, opportunities for improvement there are greatest.

In the case of the Penn Station Access Study (PSAS), the benefits could be enormous.** The proposal is considering whether to invest in four new stations in the Bronx — at Co-op City (a 55,000-person community completed in 1971 and isolated from rail transit stations), Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point. Certain Metro-North New Haven Line trains, which currently run along the Metro-North Harlem Line into Grand Central, would be redirected onto what is now the Hell Gate Amtrak-only route from New Rochelle to Penn Station, along which the new stops would be built. This relatively cheap project would require little investment in the tracks, which are in reasonable condition and far under capacity.

Penn Station Access proposal for Metro-North, from MTA.

There is strong evidence for the value of improving connections between the Bronx and Manhattan. As the chart below shows, more than 10% of workers in the areas surrounding the stations planned for new service work in West Midtown, directly adjacent to Penn Station. Another 20% or so work in Downtown Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, and the Upper West Side, all of which would be easier to access through direct service to Penn Station.

Work destinations for residents of four proposed station areas
 Within 1/2 mile radius of proposed stationsWithin 1 mile radius of proposed stations
Total resident workers (within 50 top zip codes)36,226113,930
West Midtown3,81211,489
East Midtown2,5377,835
Downtown Manhattan3,52310,079
Downtown Brooklyn2,6127,939
Upper West Side1,1593,625
Long Island City4561,477
Elsewhere22,127 (61.1%)71,486 (62.7%)
Data: U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 2010

Moreover, those residents currently have very long travel times to get to their jobs in the city. New Yorkers already suffer from the longest commutes in the country, but residents of the Bronx and particularly Co-op City, which is far from any subway line, are particularly cut off. As the below chart shows, more than 36% of workers who live in Co-op City have commutes of more than an hour, and less than 30% have travel times to work of less than 30 minutes. Despite this fact, people continue to rely on transit for their daily travel, because commuting by car is too expensive and, in New York, just as slow.

Commuting by mode and travel times in the Northeast Bronx
 Co-op CityNearby AreasThe Bronx
Working Population14,9375,952
Transit Mode Share to Work51.8%37.3%58.3%
< 30 min commute28.8%43.0%31.9%
30-39 min commute15.7%16.4%16.7%
40-59 min commute19.1%16.7%19.9%
60-89 min commute22.2%18.7%23.5%
> 90 min commute14.2%5.2%8.0%
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

The clearest explanation for the slow travel times is that the two modes of transit available for Co-op City residents are not particularly quick. The express BxM7 bus runs from Co-op City to East Midtown in 52 minutes, but it is more expensive than subway service and does not provide direct access to the West Side of the island. The Bx26 bus connects Co-op City to the 2 train, which does run to West Midtown, but that trip takes 74 minutes at best, no picnic in the park. The proposed new Metro-North station would connect the neighborhood with Penn Station in just 27 minutes and be linked to a neighborhood bus circulator to ensure that everyone in the area has easy access to the stop.

Residents near the proposed Morris Park, Parkchester, and Hunts Point stations would see similar benefits, though those stations are closer to existing subway stops and the residents suffer less from long travel times to work.

Alternatives for travel from the Bronx to Midtown Manhattan
RouteMinimum travel time to MidtownPeak Cost (with Monthly card and 40 trips)*Avg Weekday Frequencies (7-9 AM)Avg Weekday Frequencies (11 AM-3 PM)
BxM7 from Co-op City52 min (to 5 Av/51 St)$5.50 ($5.00)9/hour2/hour
Bx26 from Co-op City; (2) train74 min (to Penn Station)$2.25 ($2.60)7/hour5.25/hour
Metro-North from Fordham16-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)2/hour2/hour
Metro-North from Marble Hill19-23 min (to Grand Central)$7.50 ($4.45)3.5/hour1.25/hour
Proposed Metro-North from Co-op City27 min (to Penn Station)???
Data: MTA

Based on existing Metro-North service to the Bronx, however, there is reason to question how many people will take advantage of the Metro-North service to these new stations. As the chart above shows, Metro-North trips are considerably more expensive than subway or bus journeys, even over the same distance. In addition, commuter rail service is infrequent both at peak and off-peak times, meaning that customers have to rely on schedules, limiting the travel time benefits compared to slower bus or subway service.

It is therefore unsurprising that the mode share for commuter rail services is so low in three representative Bronx Census Tracts where subway and commuter rail service is offered, as shown in the chart below. With so few trains to actually take to work and such a high cost to do so, no one can justify taking Metro-North. If the new stations in the Bronx similarly run only twice an hour and cost twice as much as the subway, few will be able to take advantage of the time savings into Manhattan the trains will offer. This is a failure of the existing service, but one that we are capable of addressing.

We don’t yet know how much Metro-North is planning to charge for travel on its new service, but it will likely be similar to what is already being demanded of Bronx riders. And frequencies will also likely be limited to just two trains an hour or so. But those policies will seriously constrain the potential ridership at these stations; what’s the point of investing millions in new stops if they’re not used?

Travel Mode Share for Bronx Neighborhoods
Census TractMetro-NorthSubwayCar %Subway %Metro-North %Other % (mostly bus)
399.01FordhamFordham Rd (B/D)12.941.42.243.5
309Marble HillMarble Hill-225 St (1)
429.02Williams BridgeGun Hill Rd (2/5)20.842.80.036.4
Data: U.S. Census 2006-2010 American Community Survey

One could make the argument that people who live further from the center of a city should pay more to travel, as they are benefitting from cheaper housing costs. But in New York City, apartments are expensive everywhere, and most jobs are in the center of the city. The transportation system thus must provide reasonable cost service for everyone to get to work in Midtown or Downtown in a reasonable amount of time. Charging people double the price to take a faster trip or giving them a very slow but cheap alternative, represents a social injustice that relegates people with lower incomes to wasting their lives in transit.

The improvements in Metro-North service that would provide for increased frequencies in service would require more train cars, but directing existing subway passengers to Metro-North would relieve congestion on the subway, which would have positive spill-over effects. Lowering the fare to subway levels for in-city commuters would also require a significant subsidy, but there is no reason to think that a well-managed commuter rail system would cost any more to operate than the subway system if they’re both attracting many passengers.

A note: In public meetings (presentations for Co-op City and Morris Park), the MTA has argued that the primary beneficiaries of the new service will be Bronx residents who work in the suburbs and use the trains for reverse-peak travel. A 2002 study indicated that 82% of ridership from a proposed Co-op City stop would be for people living there but working in the northern suburbs. This fits with Metro-North’s existing rider profile, in which of the 13,200 daily boardings in the Bronx, 2/3 are outbound.

Yet the analysis of existing work patterns show that the vast majority of people living in proposed station areas in the Bronx work in New York City. Only 47 of more than 36,000 employees work in Stamford, supposedly a big destination, and Westchester County cities have employment from the Bronx zones maxing out in the hundreds, a pittance compared to central Manhattan employment. The likely explanation for the choices of today’s Bronx riders is the lack of alternative (there is no subway service out of the city); in other words, the existing performance is not worthy of imitation. If anything, we should be looking for ways to expand capacity along commuter rail lines to allow many more people to benefit from faster travel into work in Manhattan.

* Also under discussion is the re-routing of some Metro-North Hudson Line trains along Manhattan’s Empire Corridor, a new service that would include the construction of two new Manhattan stations, one at 125th Street, and the other at 60th.

** The less likely improvement of Long Island Railroad service in southeast Queens could produce even more travel time savings for riders, but that is on no one’s agenda at the moment, unfortunately.

Image at top: Proposed Co-op City Station, from MTA

Boston Commuter Rail Light Rail

Facing Funding Shortfalls and Protest, Better Rail for Boston Region is Delayed

» Opportunities for rerouting commuter rail via the Grand Junction in Cambridge are criticized by community members who fear increases in pollution. Meanwhile, the long-planned Green Line extension in Somerville is threatened by budget limitations.

Just northwest of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville are some of the nation’s exemplar cities when it comes to promoting transportation alternatives. In Somerville, 48% of the population rides transit, walks, or bikes to work; in Cambridge, 57% do. The explanation likely comes down to a strong commitment to livable streets in both cities, a large student population, high residential densities, community activism against limited-access highways, and big concentrations of jobs both in the traditional office center of Downtown Boston but also in the walkable Kendall Square-MIT and Harvard Square areas, both along the Red Line rapid transit corridor.

Yet, with the exception of the Red Line — extended north of Harvard Square in the early 1980s — reliable transit access in the two cities is limited. Buses crisscross the area, but they are stuck in traffic at all periods of the day due to the lack of reserved lanes. Commuter rail lines that extend through the area only stop once, at the Porter Square Red Line station. These limitations have strained the Red Line, which now suffers from overcrowding at peak hours, and limited the potential for growth. In addition, partially because of the penury of transit stations around which to build up, the Boston region is one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.

For years, plans for transit access improvements, clearly merited considering the area’s demographics and potential, have been under development by the Boston-area transit agency, MBTA. A circumferential bus rapid transit line, the Urban Ring, would have allowed commuters from Cambridge and Somerville to get to Boston’s jobs-heavy Longwood Medical Area or Logan Airport without passing through congested downtown — but it was put on indefinite hold last year due to a funding shortfall. Now, an extension of the Green Line light rail line into Somerville is threatened by similar concerns. And the reactivation of the Grand Junction commuter rail corridor through Cambridge has been put off by community resistance.

The Green Line extension is one of the most promising transit projects in the country. It is expected to carry about 45,000 daily riders along its four-mile, two-pronged route, with termini in Somerville’s active Union Square neighborhood and Tufts University, just across the Somerville city line in Medford (see map below of the green dotted line), following two existing commuter rail corridors in a fully separated right-of-way. The state has previously said it plans to begin construction at the end of next year, with the opening of the first stations planned for 2016. The program is expensive — about $1 billion for its completion.

The Grand Junction, meanwhile, is a lightly used railroad that runs from Boston University, across the Charles River, through Cambridge, to the existing commuter rail corridors in East Cambridge; it is the only link between the commuter rail corridors emanating from Boston’s North and South Stations, which are on opposite sides of downtown. The Grand Junction, purchased from CSX in 2010, runs through the Cambridgeport, Kendall Square, and Area IV neighborhoods of Cambridge and past MIT, as seen below dotted in purple. The plan developed by MassDOT — abandoned for now — would have routed some commuter trains from Worcester to North Station along this route in order to provide better access to Kendall and decrease congestion at South Station, which is expected to see increasing use due to higher ridership on the commuter rail network and plans for expanded Amtrak Northeast Corridor operations, which end there.

Neighbors of the Grand Junction have opposed the commuter rail rerouting project from the beginning, suggesting that it would increase air pollution due to diesel emissions from the heavy, long, unelectrified trains. State Representative Tim Toomey, in concert with many of his neighbors, hailed MassDOT’s announcement last week that it would cancel the program.

The state’s own studies suggested that the new train services, including a $30 million upgrade at Kendall Square, would do little to improve ridership; only about 300 new riders would be expected to use them. And the line’s six street grade crossings would have posed a significant problem, especially at Massachusetts Avenue, along which a huge percentage of the automobile traffic between Boston and Cambridge travels. And yet the Urban Ring, which would have partially run along the same corridor, was expected to attract 184,000 daily riders, many of them in Cambridge. What gives?

Fundamentally, the problem with the current commuter rail plans for the Grand Junction was that they would have provided infrequent, limited-stop service in an area of the region that demands frequent operations with many stops. Connecting Boston University with MIT and North Station without running through downtown remains a good idea. And neighborhood groups might get on board if the plan is adapted to include stops in Cambridgeport and Area IV, two neighborhoods with only minimal connections to the existing network. This project deserves to be resurrected using low pollution diesel multiple unit trains, electric light rail vehicle, or BRT on its ridership merits alone. Fortunately, MassDOT left the project’s development open as a future possibility.

Community opposition, on the other hand, is certainly not a problem for the Green Line extension, which has nearly universal support from Somerville residents and politicians, who are excited about the opportunity for better and faster connections throughout the city and into downtown. But funding this huge infrastructure program is the bigger concern. Following a lawsuit over the Big Dig project (which interred a highway through central Boston), the state agreed as a form of air pollution mitigation to fund a number of major transit projects, including the Green Line extension. But the costs of the project were forced on the already debt-ridden MBTA; no alternative funding plan has yet been developed.

Though the state is required by legal settlement to improve transit into Somerville, the fate of the Green Line remains up in the air; earlier this year, there were rumors that its completion might be delayed until 2018 or later. U.S. Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville sounded the alarm last week, suggesting that the state should limit its ambitions to reflect funding realities, especially while pro-transit Democratic Governor Deval Patrick remains in office. Mr. Capuano’s proposal would be to build the extension only to Union Square and Washington Street, failing altogether to address connectivity deeper into Somerville. New stations would be built on the commuter rail line to make up for the loss of light rail access.

Yet this proposal would fail to provide the all-day frequent service rapid transit lines offer the rest of the Boston region. And it would force those using the line to transfer at North Station, preventing them direct access to other destinations in downtown Boston as well as further out to Northeastern University, Boston University, the Longwood Medical Area, and Brookline. Using heavy diesel trains rather than electrified light rail vehicles — just as in the Grand Junction case — would likely increase air emissions in the area, defeating the mitigation aspect of the project altogether. Replacing the Green Line with commuter service operating less frequently would doubtless attract far fewer riders.

Like in many metropolitan areas, funding for transport in Boston and its close-in suburbs is always tight. The exciting opportunity to improve on the fantastic transportation use patterns already present in Cambridge and Somerville, however, should encourage local leaders and politicians to fight for new revenue sources. And in the process, they should argue for the refinement of existing transit plans to better serve communities along their routes.

Image at top: Very short freight train running along the Grand Junction near Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, from Flickr user SignalPAD (cc)

Charlotte Commuter Rail Finance

Innovative Financing Points the Way Ahead for a Rail Project in Charlotte

» In addition to transit-oriented development, Charlotte’s planners envision a system that appeals to freight users.

In the case of Charlotte, necessity may be the mother of invention.

Lacking sufficient revenues to construct the planned Red Line commuter railroad designed to connect Center City Charlotte with its northern suburbs, planners working for local transit agency CATS have developed a unique vision for its financing.

The $452 million upgrade of the existing Norfolk Southern O Line would allow a significant expansion of capacity not only for passenger trains, but also for freight trains running on the same tracks. In doing so, this agency’s planners are suggesting that the sometimes rivalry between the two types of transportation should really be approached hand-in-hand, especially for a project whose primary right-of-way extends far beyond dense urban neighborhoods that characterize the zones around most successful transit links. Perhaps for the first time so directly, transit-oriented development is proposed to be joined by “freight-oriented development.”

Charlotte’s ambitious transit plans — once scheduled to include five rapid transit lines radiating from downtown — have been significantly scaled back by the economic downturn, which hit this financial hub especially hard. Sales tax revenues have fallen far below initial expectations, delaying the completion of anything other than the initial Blue Line light rail corridor, which opened in 2007 between downtown and the southern suburbs. While the northeastern extension of the Blue Line and a short version of the downtown streetcar will move forward thanks to federal funding guarantees, the Red Line’s ridership forecasts of about 4,000 to 5,000 a day were not sufficient to meet relatively tough guidelines from Washington.

The Red Line’s 25 miles of new service, though, will be made possible thanks to a combination of state contributions (25% of the cost), local sales taxes already collected by CATS (25%), and value capture (50%), which would come in two forms. A tax-increment financing (TIF) district around stations would allow increases in property values in the area to be directed toward paying back the cost of the project. This would be done with no increase in the property tax rate but rather through a redirection of increases towards the project.

Similarly, a special assessment district is being considered to pay for the service. Unlike TIFs, these districts* would require property owners to agree to pay a marginal increase in their property taxes to be devoted directly to the Red Line.

The new “Unified Benefit District” that would be affected by these value capture mechanisms would take advantage of both the significant population growth expected north of Charlotte over the next few years and encourage freight-oriented development — which would together make the project financeable. The plan would include significant space to locate new development around stations — indeed, 10,000 housing units are either already under construction or planned. Certain developments would be built in collaboration with CATS.

More intriguingly, businesses that require rail freight access would be encouraged to locate between stations. They would be able to connect their own tracks directly to the main rail line. The argument made by the project’s planners is that the area along the line’s right-of-way includes plenty of space for infill industrial space. Why not take advantage of the increase in rail capacity?

As the map below demonstrates, it does seem logical to encourage walkable residential and office space around stops and freight-based industrial space between the stations.

Transit services, taking a total of 40 minutes, would be provided every half-hour at peak and every hour off-peak. The improvements planned for the corridor would therefore make it possible to run more freight trains at off-peak hours without disrupting the primary travel needs of riders. Operations will have to be coordinated, but with positive train control and other safety measures in place, it is hard to see what would prevent this project from adapting to the needs of both passengers and freight.

Ten stations, several of which will be within Charlotte city limits but others of which will serve suburban towns including Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, and Mooresville, will be connected by 2017 if construction begins as planned in 2014. In order to make that possible, however, each of these municipalities — in addition to Mecklenburg and Iredell Counties — will have to get on board with the tax plan. That will not necessarily be an easy task, at least considering debates in recent years over the relative importance of different transit projects in the Charlotte region. Commissioners of Iredell County, significantly, have been less than thrilled at the idea of sacrificing tax dollars to aid CATS.

In addition, the special tax districts that will be necessary to complete the line will require at least half of affected property owners, controlling two-third of land value, to agree to the deal. It is not altogether evident that there is universal agreement on the need to improve access for passenger and freight railroads in the metropolitan area. Will they agree that the benefits of the new rail line are worth the increased taxes they are being asked to contribute to construct the project?

Nonetheless, these plans point to a potentially groundbreaking financing deal that could reshape the way commuter rail lines are built throughout the United States. Running along a corridor that is not particularly dense, it would likely be too costly and inefficient to provide very frequent passenger trains between stops. Yet connecting Charlotte to its northern suburbs, allowing the central city to expand its core and promoting dense downtown districts in the outlying town, is in the region’s interest.

Freight rail transport is more ecologically friendly than its truck-based competitor, but there is not enough capital in industrial activities in the Charlotte area alone to invest hundreds of millions in new tracks.

By combining the Red Line project’s public transport mission with that of encouraging economic development in industrial activities, the project becomes more realistic. Half a billion dollars in track improvements will go not only to passengers but also to freight. Incentives for new development will go not only to residential but also to warehousing. Those represent an exciting pooling of resources towards mutually beneficial goals.

* Similar to those often used in downtowns as Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs.

Image above: Red Line corridor map, from CATS

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)

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)