High-Speed Rail Honolulu Light Rail London Los Angeles

CAHSR May Get Federal Funds; Honolulu LRT to be Re-routed; London Transit Plans Shrink

Now that the election’s over, we can start talking about some of the consequences. The most important event Tuesday night was the decision by California voters to approve a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail in that state, and the High-Speed Rail Authority there is already beginning work. Though construction won’t begin until 2010 at the earliest, the Authority has already been allocated $40 million for the completion of the environmental studies. But the main task of the agency will have to be finding the other $22 billion that will be necessary to complete the first link, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, with an extension to Anaheim. This money is expected to come from federal and private sources.

Some of the $1.5 billion recently allocated by Congress for rail projects will probably go to California. But Democrats have previously promised a lot more funding for high-speed rail, so we might see $10 billion from the legislature for this project if the infrastructure bill we discussed previously comes through. California’s line will be the first funded in the nation, especially because the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is from San Francisco, and the head of the Senate’s infrastructure committee is California’s Barbara Boxer. There will be money for this state’s system, probably allocated during the first few months of Obama’s campaign.

Private companies need to be attracted to contribute the other $12 billion necessary, and they’re likely to chip in for land surrounding proposed stations where public-private development will be encouraged. The real question is whether the current real estate downtown will negatively affect this project or whether these sources of money will look at the long-term of high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, the Bus Riders’ Union, always defending buses, sees this project as a “luxury train” and is likely to push for its derailment. Fortunately, the BRU, which we’ve discussed in the context of Los Angeles, has little influence statewide.

In Honolulu, the rail system that was approved on Tuesday is likely to be re-routed. Current plans are to have the 20-mile system leave downtown and head west through a section of the city called Salt Lake. This would mean that any airport service would come in another phase as a spur line. But it appears that the vote in favor of rail has changed the minds of some council people (a map showing the two routes is in the Honolulu Advertiser story), who now suggest that a line to the airport would be more valuable than one through Salt Lake.

There are benefits to both routings: whereas the Salt Lake line would serve more locals and a major mall, the Airport route would be better for tourists. Reelected Mayor Mufi Hannemann has in the past expressed his interest in the airport route, so we’ll see in the next few weeks what the council decides.

Meanwhile, in London, which, as we’ve discussed before, has a major transit system improvement plan, new Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson is scrapping a large number of projects meant to improve service in poor East London, which voted for him over former Labour Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone. Livingstone had a number of projects planned for the east side of the city, including tram extensions and the pedestrianization of several open spaces in the city’s center.

Johnson, however, sees those projects as unnecessary and instead wants to focus on the government’s Crossrail program, a regional rail through link with underground stations in the city center (much like Paris’ RER or Philadelphia’s CCCC). He also wants the continued improvement of London’s Underground with air conditioned trains. This is disappointing news for East London but keep in mind the city has an astonishing 39 Billion Pounds worth of transit projects that will be complted before 2018.

Elections Finance Light Rail Los Angeles Metro Rail

Change for L.A.! (if voters agree)

Los Angeles Transit Plans

Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country, and the county that includes it, with over ten million inhabitants, is larger than New York. And yet this growing metropolis is served by little more than a skeleton of a transit network, with two short metro lines, three light rail lines, three busways, and a decent rapid bus system. A relatively small percentage of the population lives within a half-mile distance of a transit stop, which is generally considered the longest walk people will take to get to a station. And huge sections of the city – including some of the city’s most densest, most culturally important, and most trafficked – are simply not served well enough. How did this come to be? What have L.A.’s transportation planners done in recent decades to try to solve the problem? And what will this year’s Measure R accomplish if voters approve it in just six days?

Los Angeles was once the center of the nation’s largest concentration of streetcar lines. The Pacific Electric “Red Cars” and the “Yellow Cars” traveled throughout the region, providing adequate – though certainly not fast service. Beginning in the 1940s, bus companies, using brand new General Motors buses, bought up the lines, tore out the tracks and overhead catenaries, and replaced them with bus lines. Some transit advocates are convinced that this was a conspiracy, designed to prevent L.A. from having good public transportation. But the truth is that the Red and Yellow Cars were bought openly by bus companies and the city government sat by passively as the streetcars were replaced by buses. People at the time genuinely thought that buses would provide better service than the streetcars, because they had fewer mechanical problems, held more passengers in a more modern environment, and could travel on L.A.’s freeways. People at several levels of government, as well as in the elements of the private sector that would profit saw a benefit to the implementation of bus service.

It is also essential to point out that during the 1930s, the country’s other big metropolis, New York, was busy building the massive Independent Subway System, which produced new lines running on 6rh and 8th Avenues on Manhattan, as well as extensions to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. These subways provided markedly better service than either buses or streetcars. What was the “conspiracy” in L.A.? That no one in the government got it together enough to implement and build a new rapid transit system. If that had happened way back in the 1930s, L.A. would not have the traffic nightmare it has today.

In 1951, the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority was formed in order to consider a monorail line for the region; in 1954, it was authorized to begin planning for the whole region. By 1960, it proposed a 75-mile monorail plan, but this was immediately opposed by people who quite reasonably didn’t want elevated rail lines in their backyards (note: at the same time, New York City and Chicago were actively trying to replace their elevated lines with new subways). So the proposal was reduced to a subway between Santa Monica and downtown on Wilshire Blvd, and an at-grade line to El Monte. This route remained the backbone of L.A. transit plans for thirty more years.

The MTA was replaced by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1964, which was provided with taxation and eminent domain powers; the RTD immediately took over several failed bus lines and became the main operator of transit in the region. It was buoyed by the creation the same year of the Urban Mass Transit Administration by the Johnson Administration; the UMTA would provide funds directly to cities for transit expansion and modernization.

RTD recognized the potential for mass transit to reduce congestion, which had already begun to expand on the region’s highways. So in 1968, 1974, and 1976, it proposed massive metro-based plans that would provide huge transit systems to compete with New York for transit supremacy – by ’76, the plan was articulating a vision of 230 miles of metro. But in each year, voters, who were asked to tax themselves in order to pay for the network, rejected the projects in referendums. A combination of factors led to the programs’ failure: an increasing sense that L.A. was a different kind of city, where people got around by car; a growing anti-tax mentality in California as a whole; and a coalition of powerful business, newspaper; and nonprofit interests that campaigned repeatedly against the transit plans on the basis of their “high” cost. The constant assumption was that L.A. inhabitants simply “would not take” mass transit. This remains the basis for the most anti-transit arguments today.

Another fundamental problem with the 1968 plan (but which was admittedly improved in ’74 and ’76) was that the program was very much centered on downtown. Urban planners wanted the redevelopment of downtown L.A., and saw a metro system leading people there (rather than anywhere else) from all over the region as an essential component to their plan. So the 1968 plan proposed an initial plan of five lines, running to San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, El Monte, LAX, and Long Beach. (Download a PDF of this and the other plans discussed here.) Other, future extensions were envisioned but could not be financed by this tax. But downtown L.A. was assuming a decreasing importance in the metro region as a whole, especially since the 1940s, when mass transit was largely replaced with automobile commuting and as the Westside grew in power and wealth. So it makes sense that voters would see little reason to sponsor a project with so little consequence to their lives.

Nonetheless, RTD did manage to build the El Monte busway along a highway with federal grants, and in ’74, California Proposition 5 marked some highway funds for mass transit, providing more funding for the agency. Meanwhile, the state in 1976 formed a competing agency called the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, whose mission was also to develop transit plans for the region, but also work to improve roads. The competition between the two agencies probably made it more difficult to implement transit improvements, and led to some cognitive dissonance for the public: which agency was making the plans? Which plans were the right ones?

But the CTC was successful in 1980 when it proposed Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax, completely devoted to transportation and with 35% allocated to rail. The difference this time was several fold: it had become increasingly apparent that L.A. highway system wasn’t “working,” in that congestion was rampant; the businesses and newspapers that had opposed previous plans were now mostly silent; and the fact that most of the revenues went to roads probably felt like an acceptable compromise to most people. The plan presented to voters was vague, but envisioned an extensive system that would provide most areas of L.A. County with adequate access to transit – and it wasn’t downtown-centered. Using the new funding, the agencies began planning new lines, CTC developed what would become the Blue and Green light rail lines, running from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and running from El Segundo to Norwalk, intersecting in Compton. RTD began planning a metro subway under Wilshire, running to the Westside, the route that has always been the center of L.A.’s plans.

But in 1985, a methane gas explosion under a Ross Store in the midst of the Westside ignited peoples’ fears about the subway line. Would building transit on the Westside result in more explosions? Was L.A. made for subways? RTD, sensing extreme opposition to its plans, began building the subway through downtown, designed so it could run either down Wilshire or up to the San Fernando Valley, or both.

In 1990, voters faced another referendum – Proposition C, which would again provide some some of its half-cent tax revenues for transportation. Prop A was not providing nearly enough money for transportation improvements, but Prop C, which wouldn’t be completely devoted transit, wouldn’t either. So the vision people were expecting to be achieved with A and C revenues (C was passed successfully as well) was a fantasy. There simply was not enough money at the time to make the giant plan that was envisioned happen. This paved the ground for this year’s Measure R.

Even with massive cost overruns, especially on the downtown subway (Red Line), the three lines opened partially by 1995. In 1993, the competing agencies were merged by the state, making today’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which controlled the county’s roads, rails, and buses. This was ultimately a good move for the county, because it ensured a decrease in inter-agency competition and made the allocation of revenues possible. Also, the fact that a unified authority managed both roads and transit – but which has always had a pro-transit bent – meant that revenues could be expended in a more equitable way.

The subway’s route to North Hollywood was completed by 2000 and a new Gold light rail line to Pasadena was finished in 2003; meanwhile, the Harbor transitway was build in 1998 and the Orange line busway in San Fernando Valley opened in 2005.

On the way, however, Metro experienced a number of problems in its implementation plan. For one, the gas explosion and considerable opposition to mass transit on the Westside (the area that needed mass transit the most) convinced Congressman Henry Waxman, a powerful member of the House, to push through a bill that would prevent using federal funds for new L.A. subways. This was a major problem, because any serious transit expansion in L.A. would need money from Washington to be financed realistically. In 1998, voters passed a referendum that prevented the funding of any “new subway” in L.A. with Proposition A or C revenues. These two efforts effectively closed off the dream of the line down Wilshire Blvd.

Simultaneously, an organization called the Bus Riders’ Union (BRU), which was effectively an group of bus drivers – sued Metro with the argument that rail lines were discriminatory, because they sucked up too much money for improvements for a small percentage of the overall riding public. Their arguments made some sense: L.A. has over a million bus riders everyday, but only a few hundred thousand rail passengers. As a result, Metro was forced to significantly build up bus services, which resulted in the creation of the successful Metro Rapid system, which “speeds up” very slow buses to slow speeds. The investment in local bus service may have been a good idea, but ultimately it simply resulted in more people spending more time commuting. The buses clogged already clogged roads, and people on buses can never escape the ever-increasing traffic, because the rail system, lacking funds, couldn’t expand enough to provide a real alternative to road travel. So the BRU made a vision of rapid transit in L.A. impossible, even as it was campaigning for the “rights” of transit riders (note: the BRU now opposes Measure R). In interim, however, Metro did have the capacity to begin construction on a Gold Line extension to East L.A., which will open next year, and the Expo Line, a Light Rail line to Culver City.

The election of Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005 to the mayor’s seat changed the equation a bit. Running openly on behalf of a “Subway to the Sea” – that extension down Wilshire to Santa Monica that’s always been an element of transit plans – the mayor won over Westsiders who now saw that they might actually benefit from a better transit system. His victory also forced Metro to open look into the possibility of expanding down Wilshire once again, as he became the head of Metro’s board. When Metro investigated, it found no cause for concern – the methane gas “problem” wasn’t one. This year, Congressman Waxman, whose constituents had had a change of heart, removed the ban on federal funding for subways in L.A.

And this, after all, is where this year’s Measure R comes in. Though Metro has some money through Prop A and C to continue funding expansions, rising costs, as well as increased fuel costs, are making that kind of expansion increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, the Subway to the Sea, which is the main – but unsaid – point of Measure R, cannot be funded using those revenues because of the 1998 initiative.

So Measure R will impose another 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation, making L.A. the most transportation-taxed of any place in the country. The vast majority of these revenues will be devoted to rail expansion. And Measure R’s revenues will not prevent subway expansion, so they will go straight into the new subway, which under a new plan will be a two-part affair, with lines extending down both Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds from the existing Red (and Purple) lines. This project is expected to attract more than 300,000 people a day.

Although Measure R will, again, because of construction cost increases, not actually fund everything its proponents claim, it will provide sufficient funding for at least some transit improvements. Other than the Subway to the Sea, it proposes to expand the currently-under-construction Expo line all the way to Santa Monica. It will push forward the Crenshaw transit corridor and create a transit connection between the Westide and San Fernando valley along the I-405 highway. It will connect the Gold line to the Blue and Expo lines by building a light rail connector downtown. It will expand the Gold line on its northern and southern ends. And it will finally connect the Green line directly to LAX airport.

What voters have in front of them is a significant plate of mass transit improvements that will finally allow for the implementation of plans going all the way back to 1968. If voters pass the referendum – a so-so chance because it requires a 2/3 majority – they will get an integrated system that will radically improve the ability of most people to get around L.A. People, desperate to get out of traffic, will take these trains.

Elections High-Speed Rail Light Rail

A Matter of Democracy

On November 4th, Americans in every state (and the District of Columbia!) will vote in the Presidential election. But in California, Hawaii, Washington (state), Missouri, and New Mexico, at least some voters will be able to have their say about something even more exciting – whether or not to invest in major transit improvements! Alright, alright, I degrees, transit referenda may not be as interesting or important as this Presidential election-of-elections. But as we’ve shown already on our This Fall page (which includes the list as well as helpful links to referendum supporters and opponents), there are 10 separate votes on November 4th that will shape transportation policy in the five states mentioned above. This post will provide a more detailed look into these  referendums.

The ten votes fall into three basic groups that we’ll describe separately:

1. The development of a high speed rail network

  • California High-Speed Rail, Proposition 1a

2. The development of new rail networks

  • Honolulu Mayor’s Vote and Rail Referendum
  • Kansas City Light Rail Referendum
  • West Sacramento Measures U and V
  • Sonoma-Marin Measure Q

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

  • Seattle Proposition 1
  • St. Louis Measure M
  • Los Angeles Measure R
  • Santa Clara Measure B
  • New Mexico Tax Initiatives

1. The development of a high speed rail network

California’s Proposition 1a will start the development of the biggest infrastructure project in the nation since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway program. The $10 billion bond that would be released upon the approval of voters of this referendum would allow for the commencement of a highly ambitious project that would bring the first true high speed rail to the shores of the Western Hemisphere (if Argentina doesn’t come first). The project’s first goal is to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the state-run California High-Speed Rail Authority argues would make for a 2h40 trip on a brand-new right-of-way running through San Jose, Fresno, and Bakersfield, among other cities. The newest of the high-speed trains – those that run up to 220-mph in commercial runs – would be used to connect these cities.

The project must be provided additional funds from the federal government if it is to be built, and private-sector partners are being considered for involvement as well. The entire system – 800 miles long and projected to cost $45 billion to construct in 2008 dollars – would include branches from Fresno to Sacramento, from Los Angeles to Irvine, and from Los Angeles to San Diego, but those sections are being delayed until the central section from L.A. to the Bay Area is completed. The argument is that this first, central element is essential because its route through the Central Valley, with few stations, would allow for trains to achieve their highest speeds and therefore legitimize the network as a whole.

California has been considering developing a high-speed rail network for years now – the state authority was founded in 1996. Increasing road and air congestion has made train development a more exciting possibility. But the primary cause for concern was and has always been the project’s enormous cost. Project proponents have rightly pointed out that highway and airport expansion would cost significantly more than the $45 billion being proposed here, but the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Governorship in 2003 put the project into peril. Though a “moderate,” the Republican saw the state’s ballooning, always-late budget as a major problem and immediately began looking for ways to cut it. The Authority was originally planning to release its bond in the 2004 election, but the Governor moved it to 2006, and then again to 2008, funding the Authority with only a few million dollars in the intervening years, allowing it to begin engineering work, but little else. But the Governor’s rhetoric in favor of climate protection (electric rail is far more efficient than either automobiles or airplanes) and his work with Michael Bloomberg and Ed Rendell on the infrastructure-promoting Building America’s Future campaign made it difficult for him to delay the project again. He allowed the bill to be put to the voters even though the proposed budget remains $3 billion in the red and he has allowed no other proposals for new programs. So high speed rail looks like it might just squeak through.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been controversy on the project development side, though. Though there’s virtual unanimity in the conclusion that the Bay Area-L.A. corridor is the top priority, the development of that line could have taken multiple forms. Between San Jose and San Francisco, the wealthy town of Menlo Park, which already sees dozens of Caltrain commuter trains go through every day, is strongly opposed to the project. And a long period was devoted to deciding which route to take between Fresno and San Francisco – two alignments, the Altamont and Pacheco passes, were considered, before the later was picked.

But these controversies are relatively minor compared to the massive public works project that will begin if this referendum passes. California, though it has big expenses ahead (in a form I ranted against in another post), is likely to produce a successful project if it follows through on its goal of 220-mph trains and a fully separated right-of-way. As has been pointed out, California’s situation closely mirrors that of Spain, which is in the process of developing a massive high speed rail system whose initial routes have been wildly popular.

(Important note: about $1 billion of the bond is to be devoted to improvement of local rail services that will connect to the high-speed project.)

Read more about the project at the excellent California High Speed Rail Blog.

2. The development of new rail networks

Honolulu is more than just a tourist center. It’s a bustling, dense city with most of Hawaii’s population, all concentrated along a twenty-mile strip on the south edge of Oahu. Since the 1970s, a rail system has been considered to handle the increasing levels of congestion along the city’s major highways, which have no room to expand because of the proliferation of high rises and natural features like dormant volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean. Mayor Frank Fasi proposed the “HART” system and had virtually guaranteed funding from the Federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA; precursor to the FTA), but facing the new economics of the Reagan Administration, his successor Eileen Anderson decided to pull out, citing an unwillingness to look for local matching funds for the project. By the mid-1980s, Mayor Fasi was back in office and got pretty far in his proposal to build a new multi-billion dollar subway through downtown Honolulu, but limited government funds, the destruction of the UMTA made the project impossible to implement.

But with the revival of New Starts funding for major transit investments from the FTA at the conclusion of the Clinton Administration, Honolulu again began thinking about building a rail system. Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who became mayor in 2005, immediately began promoting rail. This year, after prolonged debate on the City Council over whether to implement a BRT system instead, the Council endorsed the project, and it’s well on its way to acheiving New Starts funding, because of high expected ridership. The automated 20-mile light rail line will be elevated, running from the University of Hawaii (Manoa), through downtown Honolulu, and west past the airport and Pearl Harbor (an extension to Waikiki Beach is planned as well) It will probably operate similarly to Vancouver’s Sky Train.

In order for it to be completed, however, the public must endorse the plan in the light rail vote on November 4th. A recent poll gives a slight lead to the proponents, but you never know. Mayor Hannemann must also be able to win his simultaneous reelection bid. He faces Ann Kobayashi, who favors a poorly developed BRT plan, and he’s likely to win based on polling.

Another city that has been planning for years for a rail project is Kansas City, which has fallen far behind its eastern competitor, St. Louis, which also has a referendum this year on transit. In 2001, voters in the city were offered a project to build a major line but opponents successfully portrayed the project as too expensive and likely to attract too few riders. But in 2006, local rail supporter Clay Chastain organized a referendum on his 27-mile plan for the city (which would require electric light rail trains without overhead catenaries, such as in Bordeaux, France), and he won an endorsement from the public at the polls – but there was no money to back up his idea. After his success, Chastain went as far to argue that the system should in fact be a subway, way too expensive for a city the size of Kansas City.

But the City Council finally agreed on a plan for a $1 billion 14-mile North-South light rail starter plan that will provide the backbone for further lines going east and west out of the city. This year’s election is over whether the city should implement a 3/8-cent sales tax to sponsor the construction of the system. A recent poll shows increasing (but not yet majority) support for the tax, so we’ll have to see what happens on November 4th.

This page on the Kansas City Star’s website provides a nice overview of what’s happened over the past year.

The other two systems being considered for transit line creation are in Northern California, and though neither are in cities with current service, both would connect with major transit systems. In West Sacramento, a small city just adjacent to the state capital, a new streetcar line would run along the city’s waterfront and then connect with the big city’s large light rail system. Voters are being asked in Measure V to extend the existence of what is today a 1/4-cent transit sales tax – this would be eliminated otherwise. Measure U asks whether voters agree with the creation of the streetcar system. Though the route has not yet been finalized, it would make the connection between the neighboring cities more simple and encourage the development of what are now abandoned industrial brownfields. Politicians in West Sacramento see this as a good way to encourage densification of their city.

In Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco, a commuter rail plan is being put in front of voters in the form of a 1/4-cent sales tax increase. It, like all California sales tax increases, requires a 2/3 majority in order to pass. This diesel-multiple-unit service, nicknamed SMART, would travel from Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the south on a $450 million upgrade of 70 miles of track; an estimated 5,300 people a day will use the service starting in 2013. A ferry at Larkspur would connect riders to San Francisco and the BART metro system. This sales tax increase was also in the ballot in 2006, when it received 65% of the vote, just 1% less than it needed in order to be implemented… so look for this as a likely passage in a transit-friendly year.

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

The five final plans provide extensions to existing networks, and we won’t discuss them in as much detail as the others above, though we’ll have special features on Los Angeles to describe that city’s particular insanities and on BART to describe its oft-delayed extensions later this week.

Seattle hasn’t yet completed the first stage of its new “Link” light rail system, which is a 15.5-mile central line between downtown and the airport. The system is expected to be so popular that the agency is already underway on the engineering of a second phase, which will connect downtown to the University of Washington, and which is likely to attract one hundred thousand riders a day. The plan being offered to voters this fall is more of the same, and voters, at least in recent surveys, seem to be excited by the prospect, even though they haven’t tried the light rail under construction yet! If passed, the sales tax increase would fund 36 more miles of light rail, going south, north, and east of the central section currently under construction, as well as the possibility for more inner-city streetcar lines (other than the S.L.U.T.). It would also bring a lot more bus service and significant increases in commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle. Interestingly, a similar Proposition 1 in 2007 failed at the polls because of opposition from environmental groups that didn’t want more money for roads, so this year’s proposition includes no money for roads. Only in Seattle does support grow when you decrease provisions for highway funding.

St. Louis, whose 46-mile light rail system first opened in 1993, has been successful in attracting riders, with an average of 70,000 passengers a day. This year’s Proposition M will work to significantly expand the popular system, which has been slightly blemished this year by random attacks on passengers (we’ll see if that changes anything at the polls). The measure will ensure the continued funding of the system, which otherwise will face budget cuts, and also some expansion.

New Mexico’s measure, which will affect voters in two counties, will continue the development of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, a commuter rail system that currently serves the suburbs of Albuquerque but which will be extended to Santa Fe starting in December. The service is not well-used, but an extension between the state’s two biggest cities might make a difference. That said, the vote occurs before the extension opens…

As I already pointed out, we’ll discuss Los Angeles County’s Measure R and Santa Clara County’s Measure B in posts later this week. Both will add a 1/2-cent sales tax to finance significant transit expansions. L.A.’s will mean the implementation of several new rail and busway corridors, including the forever-promised “Subway to the Sea” (in other words, to Santa Monica). Santa Clara’s measure will extend BART from Warm Springs (East Bay) to San Jose and Santa Clara, allowing people to take either BART or Caltrain from San Francisco to San Jose, choosing which side of the bay they’d like to travel on. Again, we’ll talk about these measures, too complicated to discuss here, independently.

Commuter Rail Infrastructure Light Rail Metro Rail

Priority Number 1

As of this year, there are ten cities that provide more than 100,000 rides a day on their rapid transit, light rail, and commuter rail lines. The renewal and strengthening of these lines, which represent the backbone of America’s transit infrastructure, must be the first transportation priority of the next Presidential Administration. Here is the simple rationale: these systems have been chronically underfunded and together represent the vast majority of the nation’s fixed-route transit riders. About half of these systems are crumbling, having been built a century or more ago; the other half, built since the 1960s, need to be renewed and strengthened if they’re going to be able to last another century themselves.

These are the two groups of transit systems:

1. Systems built in the first decades of the 20th century:

  • New York’s MTA, PATH, and NJT (metro and CR) – 9.2 million weekday rides
  • Chicago’s L and Metra (metro and CR) – 1 million weekday rides
  • Boston’s MBTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 900,000 weekday rides
  • Philadelphia’s SEPTA (metro, LRT, and CR) – 500,000 weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s Muni (LRT) – 150,000 weekday rides

2. Systems built starting during the Great Society:

  • Washington’s Metro (metro) – 1 million weekday rides
  • San Francisco’s BART (metro) – 400,000 weekday rides
  • Los Angeles’ Metro (metro and LRT) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Atlanta’s MARTA (metro) – 300,000 weekday rides
  • Portland’s MAX (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides
  • San Diego’s Trolley (LRT) – 100,000 weekday rides

All five systems in the first list have been provided billions of dollars in upgrades in the past few decades. Chicago’s L, which until last year lacked enough funding to provide even basic service, has been working feverishly to reduce its number of “slow zones,” which hamper train speeds. The federal government has provided enough money to make the goal achievable. Philadelphia is in the process of upgrading its Market Street Elevated. New York City invests more than $2 billion a year to spruce up its gigantic system of tunnels, elevateds, and commuter rails.

But these systems are hardly in states of good repair. Any visitor to subway stations in each of the five cities will see huge maintenance problems. In New York City, the program to renew the system that began in the mid-80s has a long way to go; Lee Sander, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s CEO, recently admitted that only about 100 of the city’s more than 400 stations are in acceptable condition. Earlier this year, a teenager in Brooklyn fell onto the tracks when the ancient wooden edge of the platform literally fell apart at his feet; these are not acceptable conditions. Because of new funding shortfalls, however, even New York’s slow transformation team will be significantly slowed in coming years. Both Chicago and Philadelphia’s metro systems are relatively lightly used compared to those cities’ overall populations and densities (both are larger than Washington, D.C. but achieve far lower ridership), arguably because the service they provide is of such poor quality. Chicago’s Bid for the 2016 Olympics will likely have trouble competing with other world cities because of the failures of the L.

Why has this happened? Why are early-20th century mass transit systems in the United States in so desperate need of repair? Because they simply have not been provided adequate funding to produce the massive transformation that is required for them to provide the quality of service and livability that we should expect of modern transportation systems.

These systems are old, of course, but their age does not have to doom them to permanent obsolescence. In fact, by looking abroad at what other old systems have done, we can learn a thing or two. Take Paris’ one-hundred-year-old Metro, for example. Beginning in 1999, the subway authority began a comprehensive remaking of the system, with the goal of renovating more than 200 stations; by 2002, one hundred stations were done. The work continues today, with stations being renovated on three-month timetables in which they’re taken out of service to complete the work quickly and effectively. Today, there are six stations closed and undergoing renovation. The results are spectacular: ancient stations look virtually brand new. Across the Channel in London (a 2.5 hour ride away on the HSR Eurostar), Transport for London is in the process of renovating all of its stations in a ten-year plan, a process that will also include significantly increasing capacity in heavily used stations. A look at London’s Transforming the Tube plan (pdf) is worthwhile.

So the age of our oldest and most-used systems is no excuse. We have the ability to reverse course and rebuild the stations and infrastructure of our subways, and the millions of riders in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco deserve higher levels of service. Productive and efficient cities demand good public transportation, and we would never accept the degrading and embarrassing conditions we see in these systems in our households – or even in our airports. We must develop a multi-billion-dollar funding plan for government investment that recognizes the value of these systems and acts quickly to ensure their continued usefulness. This should be the first transportation priority of the incoming President. If not, these networks will fall further into disrepair, reaching a point where descending into the subways means loosing all self-respect.

The second group of high-ridership transit networks has understandably far fewer problems than the first because of their relative youth – the first segment of San Francisco’s BART opened in 1972; Washington’s Metro began operation in 1976. But these systems, now more than thirty years old, are starting to show their age. As a 2005 Washington Post article pointed out, Metro has been attempting to upgrade its escalators, trains, and tracks for the 21st century (albeit with some mismanagement) as ridership climbs. As these train systems get older and more frequented, they will need significant upgrades. Those improvements should begin now to prevent the kind of systematic decline that has occurred along the lines of the first set of transit networks mentioned here.

Other cities – notably Miami, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City – have made significant investments in their transit infrastructure in recent years. The federal government should continue to invest in the expansion of their networks, and the transport politic will invest plenty of time in the future discussing how that might be done. But their current demand is significantly lower than that of the nation’s largest transit systems: our primary focus must be improving the conditions in the nation’s largest and oldest train networks.

This initial push for increased infrastructure investment has been pushed by groups such as Transportation for America and Building America’s Future, both of which recognize the importance of upgrading our existing systems. In the context of the current economic recession, likely lower tax returns will result in a decrease in transit funding nationwide based on current spending priorities. Yet transit investment – a long-term, sustainable project – can provide a needed increase in jobs and would act as a Keynesian response to the financial crisis. We must put out a strong appeal for a massive investment in existing transit networks – that’s what we desperately need to push our cities and their transportation networks into the future.