Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rail Transit: Are we Creating New Life or Resuscitating a Dinosaur? (part 1 of 2)

The title is paraphrasing a 1983 paper title by Dr. Joseph Schofer, Associate Dean, College of Engineering, Northwestern University. I think it is a more appropriate title than the biased question "Has Mass Transit Finally Arrived?" posed in the NationalJournal.com's transportation expert panel discussion.

Of course the majority of the 23 commentators answer that the time for transit has come (as it did in all previous oil/global economy crises.) We know that the results were poor from most of those deployments. But learning from history is not a priority in modern society.

If you have about an hour, do read the original text which includes a handful of well thought out positions and concerns.
If not, here are some highlights from each commentator. This part provides excerpts from the first 11 commentators.

1. Eric Britton, Managing Director, New Mobility Partnerships
"Before rushing out to pour many billions of dollars into mass transit, we will do well to recognize that as a phrase, it is a relic of another day, another way of thinking about cities. And indeed another way of thinking about people (mass?).

Here is what we can counsel with confidence to the incoming Obama team about "mass transit" and its appropriate role for the critical 2009-2012 period.

If you have it already in place, your main challenge is to get a lot better at using what you have in a cost-effective manner.

If you do not have it, forget about using scarce taxpayer dollars to build yourself a new one from scratch, because there are far better ways of getting the job done."

2. Nancy LeaMond, AARP's executive vice president of social impact
"To leave their cars behind, boomers will require the same level of convenience as they have had in their car-centered world.

A coordinated strategy of public transportation, paratransit, coordinated human services transportation, transit-oriented development, and “complete streets” sidewalk networks accessible to transit, can yield a multitude of benefits for people of all ages.

...making stops and vehicles more accessible and user friendly, helping newcomers understand how and where to access schedules and their closest transit with easy to use information, training drivers to understand and pleasantly accommodate the limitations of aging and in some areas offering neighborhood circulators or door-to-door service to grocery stores or shopping malls."

3. Robin Chase, CEO, GoLoco, Meadow Networks
"If we think back to Katrina, the lack of alternatives for people without cars to evacuate the New Orleans proved disastrous. Some policy experts claimed that the solution was to make sure the poor and carless had access to cars. A few weeks later, another hurricane demanded that Houston evacuate. The highways were backed up and people sat motionless in their cars for hours. Today, as I write this note, a huge snow storm is bearing down on Boston. Planes are canceled and roads will be dangerous. My homeward-bound college age son is stuck in Washington DC.

My point is not that we should build trains and transit to accommodate one-day freak storms, just as I do not advocate building parking lots to accommodate Black Friday shopping demand. But real diversity and redundancy in transportation systems is mandatory. This nation needs to accommodate the transportation needs of people of all incomes, of all ages, of all development densities. The last 50 years of supporting one mode -- cars -- to exclusion of others, has not served us well. It is time to right the balance."

Somebody needs to tell her that a few days after hurricane Ike hit Houston, all systems were up and running except for its rail that took two and a half weeks.

4. Michael A. Replogle, Transportation Director, Environmental Defense Fund
"Established rail systems need to be revitalized. But pouring money into poorly conceived transit projects will not make transit a viable alternative for the majority of Americans living in auto-dependent suburban areas.

The most cost-effective way to expand high performance mass rapid transit is Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. ... And BRT can be used like rail to anchor transit-oriented development. ... A big advantage of BRT is that the bus can go anywhere. The same bus can operate in mixed traffic where there is no congestion, enter a busway in a congested area, and then leave the busway again.

Performance-based transportation investment plans should be required as a condition for funding, including operational plans for both highways and public transportation."

5. Bill Graves, President and CEO, American Trucking Association
"Although mass transit performs many important uses, particularly for certain niche communities in large urban areas, it cannot replace our nation’s need for good highways. While mass transit effectively moves people, infrastructure investment is critical to the safe and efficient movement of freight."

6. Judith Bergquist, Associate Director of Rural Programs in the Denver office of the Colorado Center for Community Development
"Sometimes we look past some simple and very viable alternatives to multi – modal transit for bigger glitzy solutions: We should look at road and bus systems that could effectively be started today and get buses to run every 10 minutes from suburb to suburb and suburb to work centers and downtowns. We need the buses to run often with lots of quick stops to increase this ridership before other transit is even in place. We will lose the cars because there will be ease of access."

7. Paul Yarossi, President, HNTB Holdings Ltd.
"Public transit supporters definitely have the clout to influence the next transportation bill. In no way will this effort to fund more public transit projects replace the much needed investment in maintaining and expanding our national highway system."

Solid advice for worsening the already huge budget deficits (to the benefit of mega contractors.)

8. Christopher B. Leinberger, Real estate developer, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Professor and Director of the University of Michigan graduate real estate program
"Why rail transit? Middle class Americans like it far better than bus transit. In addition, real estate developers and investors have increased confidence in it since rail transit implies permanence; it is easy to change a bus route but not so with fixed rail. The combination of middle class preference and the permanence of rail transit have resulted in far more real estate development being sparked around rail stations than bus stops."

Great paragraph but there is little proof that any of this is true. Most US cities developed quite well in the complete absence of rail.

9. Emil H. Frankel, Director of Transportation Policy, Bipartisan Policy Center
"How can transportation best serve national goals and purposes like economic growth, environmental and energy sustainability, national connectivity, metropolitan accessibility, and safety?

Before we allocate funding - whether to give transit or highways more money - let’s ensure that we have a performance-based approach that can help us identify and prioritize programs that achieve national goals."

10. Frank Busalacchi, Secretary, Wisconsin Department of Transportation
"The current transit programs send much of the funding to mass transit systems in our largest metropolitan areas. Our metropolitan areas rely on mass transit to provide a needed mobility option for those who don’t want to use their cars or don’t have cars to use. However, in many parts of the country bus fleets are old, far beyond the time frame in which they should have been replaced."

11. Tim Kaine, Governor, Commonwealth of Virginia
"Transit and rail investments are expensive up front and even more so when operation and maintenance costs are factored in over time. These long term financial commitments only make sense if there are different land use patterns to take advantage of the transit and rail investments.

Increased funding should not come at the expense of other modes, particularly given the dire need to repair and replace our existing bridges across the country."


A few common themes emerge from these diverse opinions:
  • Need to maintain what infrastructure we have and expand it.
  • Look into buses, BRT and other affordable solutions first.
  • Performance-based decision making and accountability for infrastructure projects.
The latter means that a systematic way is used to look at urban transportation problems and address the issues in a cost-effective away.

This is the opposite of what occurred in Honolulu where a politician was elected in 2004 and made rail the number one priority: Total top-down dictum. The lack of accountability is obvious in that there is no accounting of $107 million spent on rail studies and the shameless use of taxpayer money to defame those opposing the system and produce an avalanche of TV, radio, newspaper and home-mailed ads and fliers.

Stay tuned for the second half and the conclusion.

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