Plan B: Fix Chicago Union Station (CUS) So An O’Hare Express Runs Through To The Convention Center

Overview Of The Problem And Solution: A Rational Rearrangement To Make Regional Authority

I venerate stations as our greatest civic building. Yet, I avoid CUS. Studying it over my life, I now tell its story as the weak link in America’s evolving urban mobility.

Despite being the nation’s third largest station, CUS’ once-glorious concourse was wrecked in the 1960s and now survives in a congested basement; squashed by an office tower. I still get lost trying to follow the logic of this confusing concourse; and, I’m not alone. Major public dollars failed to fix this mistake. Today, Chicagoans face a repeat. So, I propose a way out. As with most American stations, CUS changes slowly… especially since one always wants better for the hometown.

For the lighter side of this analysis, look at my photo above from September 12, 2013. Two weeks later, this off-kilter clock had not been corrected. It simply needed someone to get on a ladder and rehang the clock with its 12-at-the-top. (Even someone as un-handy as me can do that.)

More important evidence is the clock’s 1991 date; marking the last renovation. Cost over-runs caused it to lose focus. We merely got an expensive facelift that tried to coverup a congested concourse. Above it, a constricted fast-food court causes passengers to pass through quickly and avoid the nostril-coating smell of frying fat; trapped by low ceilings and poor ventilation. Indoor air quality worsens as the train’s noxious diesel fumes get sucked, amazingly in reverse, from the platforms into the concourse by the powerful fans installed. With the 1991 money exhausted on these mistakes, agencies could not address core problems that bedevil CUS today; platforms and train sheds are dingy and decrepit… while the inefficiencies of a terminal suppress ridership.

Metra’s last sustained ridership growth relative to regional population ended in the late 1990s. It stressed CUS; revealing bad design. In a 2003 response, planners suggested ways to break this maze-like footprint. Their corrections could be built into the space above using air rights of the south concourse and, below, into tunnels. But lacking money and authority, those plans realistically have been shelved.

After 18 years of planning, little leads to this strategic option: a modern station suited to center the higher-capacity through-networks of our European competition. Today’s renovation plan (released in 2012) keeps the same early 20th Century terminal; unable to break government’s grip holding rails in an era long passed. In this article, I propose we start by briefly reviewing the Big Picture… so we can un-do why trains still terminate.

Two key benefits of effective metropolitan transportation policy are: stimulating new property tax revenue; and, efficient commuting. In an insolvent state such as Illinois, these goals are not achievable.

Proving this is the two decade struggle to update CUS and provide suitable train service to the airport. These two jobs fell, by default, to Chicago’s last two Mayors who made them priorities. Historians could well recognize the first Mayor as America’s best Big City mayor of his generation. The second Mayor probably will be his generation’s most effective operative; having steered the country from depression in 2009, among many feats. Despite superior leadership, the City failed to execute plans for CUS and O’Hare train service because Chicago, primarily, lacks authority kept by Illinois.

Solving this requires rearranging authority into a corridor prototype proposed here that achieves these four goals that most advocates accept… at least in their hearts and minds.

* Invest new taxes from the property owners who benefit most.

* Invent economic delivery methods using the private sector.

* Rebalance usage fees so commuters make economic decisions.

* Hold this new authority accountable.

The chronic lack of funding for CUS’ official Plan is a metaphor for the authority adjustments needed to deliver results. For example, indefinite delays in the task of converting unused luggage and mail platforms make it highly unlikely CUS will through-route before the 2030s (the 2012 Plan’s timeline.) Without a through-network, the CBD and other regional job centers will redevelop slower. In like vein, airport train service through CUS is the central piece of regional infrastructure that must be updated to the standard of global cities if Chicago is to compete in that game.

To achieve that, this article outlines a Plan B that tests a funding strategy for CUS. A detailed proposal will post in 2019. The intent is that by 2025, this Plan B can achieve CUS’ first through-route: the corridor from O’Hare Airport to CUS to the Convention Center at McCormick Place. For brevity, let’s label the corridor O/CUS/MP. Since this corridor is the most economically viable, it also serves as a prototype to convert others among the region’s twelve lines and, eventually, shape through-networks.

To capture property value and deliver improved transportation, Plan B proposes a Corridor Corporation. This CC uses state authority in exchange for Illinois not contributing its customary match. Key to this deal is property-owners near stations must fill the capital gap since they most benefit from the through-route.

This CC is the next step in 2016 legislation that enabled Transit Corridor TIFs in Chicago. A CC reweaves these and other threads realigning authority with delivery methods that exceed what today’s agencies can do. A CC can solidify tax and legal experts’ proposals to expand powers of Special Service Areas (Business Improvement Districts in most states) and Special Assessment Areas. These are particularly useful tools to involve suburbs in metropolitan projects. These changes also will be explored when detailing the CC’s proposal in 2019.

 

Plan B: A Sketch Of How Its Obstacles Can Be Overcome By Simple Solutions

To fulfill its ambition, Plan B will have to overcome three Obstacles. Each is listed briefly; followed by a Solution that suggests rearranging authority. Each Obstacle/Solution will be detailed in a separate posting during 2019. As final introduction to today’s post, it makes four points as Background to support my assertions and stimulate your feedback. Then, the post finishes by sketching the two concluding articles of this series on the importance of federal participation in rearranging regional authority.

 

Obstacle #1: Authority is misplaced.

The world’s 5th busiest passenger airport has the above Metra station as its sole commuter rail service. One of six that terminate at CUS, the O’Hare line gets a mere dozen weekday trains in each direction. Reflecting poor collaboration, Metra and CUS did not figure in the proposal selected to fulfill Mayor Emanuel’s 2011 election promise of an O’Hare/CBD service. Despite having unusual power of controlling the airports, Chicago’s Mayor cannot improve Chicagoland trains or their stations. Upgrading Metra’s O’Hare Transfer was not politically feasible despite eight years of hypotheticals about connecting trains and planes.

Nor does Metra have a major impact on the CUS update, despite Metra having 90% of passengers passing through. Preoccupied with its terrible fiscal problems, Illinois neglects the metro’s transportation. And having lost some legitimacy due to its imminent insolvency, Illinois instead needs to put the authority required for effective policy into a metropolitan body. Getting there starts at the Corridor and, specifically, the airport’s corridor to CUS and beyond.

 

O'Hare Crossrail station

Solution #1: Plan B tests re-aligning Illinois taxing authority with the properties that benefit from the through-route.

The rendering above of O’Hare’s six-story car rental facility is being built by the City of Chicago a mere 100 yards south of Metra’s sad O’Hare Transfer. Contrary to this common sense rendering, there will be no new train station for the facility. Recognizing this flaw, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association made this station its first step in its O’Hare Direct initiative; emphasizing its leverage for regional economic growth. The MWHSR originally commissioned this rendering for its Chicago Crossrail proposal that connects Chicago’s two largest job centers (O’Hare and the Loop) with the convention center. While having a progressive vision, the proposal lacks a political strategy.

Due next year, this website will detail its O/CUS/MP proposal for a Corridor Corporation, a hybrid public body to improve train service, generate adequate passenger revenue, capture the value created by the service and show the region what through-routes can do.

 

Obstacle #2: Illinois cannot tax enough to redevelop metropolitan transportation.

Let’s think of legitimate authority as having two Ts: Taxing and Techniques to deliver on promises. With voters suspicious that all new taxes will go to pay past bills or unnecessary cost over-runs, current agencies cannot justify a tax to close capital gaps.

Lacking sufficient authority, mayors hope for Value Capture. But, bond markets price VC revenue streams as inconsistent; further raising finance costs. Lacking either “T” in the deal with the public, advocates first need to redevelop a governing legitimacy using new public corporations; hence the proposal for a Corridor Corporation (CC). While a Corridor-like TIF was approved by Illinois for CUS, it needs redesign so the bond market will respect transit in today’s terrible fiscal climate. A CC has a better chance to establish the needed credibility. As part of the deal, property-owners will agree to be taxed sufficiently. “Under new management” so to speak, bond markets will reduce their charge for risk. Also, a CC creates more flexibility to develop PPP variants and manage them to get the job done for all parties.

Solution #2: Plan B makes a deal with Illinois so this prototype CC has taxing authority over the land it improves, advocates for overall transportation policy, elects its Board in clean elections and, finally, sunsets.

To perform to promise, the CC for O/CUS/MP needs a New Deal that also holds Directors accountable. Clean elections are one proposal to be developed. Once this CC works, other line updates and through-runs are possible. To protect the public’s investment, the CC also needs advocacy powers to realign the economics of commuting. The strategy behind this proposed regimen follows the founding principle of no taxation without representation.

 

CUS old map

Obstacle #3: Amtrak owns CUS, yet has only 10% of station passengers.

Amtrak’s renovated concourse will connect to its same tracks that now run along the river and through, much as it does in the above map (still used at the station.)  These also are the least expensive tracks for a commuting through-run. Economics says the higher revenue generators (work commuters) should use that existing through-run for O/CUS/MP. Economics also says Amtrak’s concourse (specifically, parts of the three Boarding Lounges in this dated diagram) could be redeveloped for a second, shared through-run by moving Amtrak passengers to other parts of the complex. However, these economic options are not driving the current plan. So instead of getting a through-track for O/CUS/MP, taxpayers will spend billions tunneling two decades from now when everything costs more. In successful countries, the national rail directly helps grow regional rail.

Solution #3: Amtrak and Metra sell/lease assets so the CC makes O/CUS/MP.

Shifts in authority are likely to cause political and legal confusions by Amtrak and/or Metra. Hence, we also need a new federal role. The U.S. must facilitate station updates that take steps to regional rail. Federal performance measures should include through-corridors and encourage Illinois to decentralize authority; making it smoother to establish regional governance. While waiting for a helpful U.S. Executive, much can be done to propose corridor authorities. For both the Big Picture and some details for O/CUS/MP as the heart of Crossrail Chicago, please also reference the Union Station proposal and the O’Hare Direct initiative of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association.

 

The Case for Corridor Collaboration: These Four points make Plan B necessary and can boost each Obstacle’s Solution.

While each Solution will be detailed in the 2019 proposal, I’m hoping there is a quasi-consensus to move beyond existing agencies. To get anywhere, that “consensus” requires a case. I consider it made on these four underpinning points whose logic I summarize as one continuous (un-grammatical) sentence.

A) CUS’s chronic congestion requires

B) through-routing to increase system capacity which, in turn, requires Illinois to

C) experiment with corridor governance which, in turn, requires

D) a new deal between levels of government inspired by the intent to give commuters real options.

Or if you prefer, try this summary sentence….. A CUS through-route made with the intention of a through-network is the best cure for commuter rail’s chronic ailments.

 

CUS DOT 2012 rush hour

 

CUS 2012 Plan to fix luggage platform

Point A: CUS has chronic congestion.

These two photos of the morning crush are borrowed from the 2012 Master Plan to make this point: there is room in CUS to make a better station, just no money or authority. The unusable luggage platform in the foreground should be rebuilt to carry overflow passengers on both sides of each track and usher them up escalators to new exits provided by a new street level concourse. This makes it possible for more of the just-alighted passenger flow to divert from their next AM challenge, also pictured above: the existing escalator congestion from the mezzanine up to the sidewalk that passengers must squeeze through to get across the River.

While a passenger diversion to new street level concourse was proposed by the selected developer, it has been deferred. But even if this street level concourse gets back into the next plan, how long will relief last from this latest renovation? CUS’ combined platform, concourse and exit congestion are problems of integrating passenger flow; backup in one area causes backup elsewhere. Constricted by the office tower above, CUS will be expensive to fix and, most likely, will not yield desired efficiencies.

Good proof is the passenger flow improvements promised in the 1991 renovation; a re-engineering attempted by a star-chitect. By 1999, the rush hour crush looked too much like the above photos.

Why does congestion recur unsolved?  Consider CUS’ collapsed concourse as a damaged lung; capacity never comes back well. Whenever stressed (as it is 4 hours a day), the patient will have trouble breathing. The best way to manage this stress is to divert traffic and start the first through-route now… or at least that case is made in my 2019 article.

CUS south concourse air rights buildable

To address this chronic condition, there was promise. Amtrak owns air rights in my photo that looks over the south train shed. The selected developer was to rebuild these platforms and replace the shed roof with a street level commuter concourse. All paid for by the new high-rise above. This creates an option for over one-third of passengers to avoid CUS’ constricted maze.

However, public difficulties (delay costs and preservationists) caused this option to drop from the developer’s deal. The most effective building to release stress and allow passenger growth has been shelved.  To change this pattern of difficult public-private partnerships, consider how a CC with proper authority can help the developer build a concourse that allows ridership to grow again.

Recent planning is driven by Chicago’s DOT. To their credit, they did a good job delivering the 2012 Plan’s promise for redesigning CUS’ surrounding streets and building a bus terminal for a dedicated busway (the Loop Link) that connects CUS passengers to other terminals and key destinations. But, CDOT’s ability to deliver gets compromised once regional infrastructure like CUS needs an overhaul. Frankly, CDOT’s initiative is a default to the least powerful agency since Metra and Amtrak showed too little incentive. To be more blunt, it is not the Mayor’s job to cure CUS’ chronic condition. In fact when cities take control of their stations, they regret the cost and headaches. Ask Toronto about their two decade struggle with Union Station whose tracks are owned by other agencies.

My 2019 article will explore how a CC for O/CUS/MP actually can make deals more believable to the private sector and through-route Chicago’s two largest termini. These and other ideas to generate higher property values are suggested in Point D: Make No Little Plans. The exercise is worth it. Fixing the CUS choke-point is — dollar-for-dollar — our best investment in reducing road congestion.

If all this seems far-fetched to expect from a moribund Metra, maybe we should take some inspiration from what Paris achieved… way back when Jimmy Carter was President and our rails went on life support from the states.

 

RER for Chi-land CUS

Point B: Only through-routes significantly grow train commuting.

The benefits of through-routing can be best understood comparatively. Chicagoland and the Paris region have similar sized populations. As the 1970s ended and absent a federal policy, bankruptcies had reduced Chicago’s eight terminals to four and Illinois has neglected this asset since. Consistent with America’s multi-decade failure to find a cure for road congestion, Chicagoland’s Metra ridership has been practically flat since 1999; when adjusting for the region’s 14% growth.

Conversely resulting from France’s national policy, the RER regional rail today serves as the western world’s standard. By 1978, Paris converted four terminals into through-stations; connecting them mostly via center city tunnels. By the end of that century, the RER through-network’s ridership almost doubled. (See the fourth graph supplied by “Transport Politic.”) And while the Paris region’s population grew only 11% in the 21st Century, RER daily ridership has grown 65%… or almost six times faster.

Most global cities of western Europe have a half century head start on the U.S. in developing regional rail; assuming we learn to govern regional rail soon.  But, Chicagoland’s missed opportunity is actually worse because it had the world’s most robust collection of rail lines in the first half of the 20th Century. Not investing in this asset to solve our transportation and redevelopment challenges is a failure of the outdated agencies we keep. Now is the time to test alternatives that yield solutions for commuters and taxpayers alike.

Converting CUS into a through-station is a modest investment to keep Chicago in the global city game. The 2019 proposal will argue the CUS conversion will be regional government’s key contribution to fiscal and economic sustainability.

 

Kennedy-congested-and-empty-tracks-Labor-Day

Point C: Fixing authority is in Illinois’ best interests; so is a new deal. 

The above photo is from a traffic helicopter over an expressway that runs next to two Metra lines. Inefficiently used, this wide corridor captures the cause and cure of Chicagoland’s congestion.  Single occupant car commuting has persisted at 70% for two decades; unaffected by policy talk and inaction. Furthermore, trains are not a viable alternative when Metra’s unmet capital needs double each year from 2018 to 2020; calling into question its viability as an agency to reduce congestion.

Furthermore for city and suburbs alike, today’s revolution in micro-mobility for the first and last mile will be a missed opportunity to reduce congestion if we don’t make through-stations that increase capacity. Investing in them leads to RER-like through-networks that become high-capacity when integrated with other modes. This is the basis for regional rail that U.S. cities lack in the global competition for capital and talent. 

There is a credible chance to get regional rail if we experiment with metropolitan transportation authority; such as the proposed CC for O/CUS/MP.  This CC also lets Illinois off-the-hook for the matching grant responsibilities it now shirks.  Best yet, starting to test corridor authority costs Illinois nothing compared to its 20% capital obligation.

A fatal flaw governments are not resolving is how future obligations delay investing today. Restricting regional progress, states tend to grip too tightly their taxing authority. In Illinois, this led to three decades of dependence on Tax Increment Financing (TIFs); emerging now as speculative financing. Before a major recession makes insolvencies inescapable, TIF-like financing must be reformed. Corridor-based financing must be tried as an anti-dote.

Specifically, Chicago has yet to convince the bond market that TIF dependency can create stable revenue streams, particularly for transit. Without really trying to solve this weakness, Illinois legislated in 2016 four TIF corridors to update Chicago’s transit. One is for Union Station.  Changing the CUS TIF to be directed by a CC will help the update produce a revenue stream that satisfies the bond markets better. 

While key pieces of the funding puzzle threaten the CUS update, its immediate threat is its champion (Mayor Emanuel) will not run for a third term. But, he did propose this strategy at the event launching Chicagoland’s 2050 Plan: if Illinois does not pass a capital bill, then the metropolitan region should take matters in its own hands. To prototype that process using property values, the CC for the O/CUS/MP through-route is proposed.

2019 presents a unique opportunity to break this pattern by rearranging authority amongst our fragmented levels of government. Next year, there will be a new Mayor, a new Governor and a new Congress.  But those leadership changes will not result in the changes CUS needs, unless those three obstacles sketched above are addressed. I will detail that in my mid-2019 proposal.

 

better Rivers Edge from OTS to Pam Ting

Point D: “Make no little plans.”  Burnham’s clarion call again applies to CUS, the terminal his firm designed before World War One. It also applies to Chicagoland’s central corridor in the above photo. Since trains started declining in 1950, Chicagoland population nearly doubled. Today’s chronic congestion remains a regional drag, currently without executable cures.  Europe’s global metros prove regional rail is a cure. 

But, Americans cannot expect to reduce congestion appreciably until terminals like CUS are converted to through-stations and they, in turn, center higher-capacity networks. Faced with repeated failures to convert terminals in five major metros, the U.S. needs a strategy with a reasonable probability of success. Consider CUS a prototype.

Answering Burnham’s call to stir people’s soul, we will need to pitch the benefits of updating North America’s second most intense train corridor. As Chicagoland’s strategic lever against auto dependency and road congestion, this industrial-era rail corridor (above) runs 2.4 miles along the south branch of the Chicago River. For our discussion, this is about 1/3 complete before it can center a regional rail network. This corridor progresses to about 1/2 complete when it connects the two largest terminals; thus through-routing some of CUS’ six lines and three lines of the Ogilvie Transportation Center (OTC is just below the left-most circle above.)

 

Courtesy of The River Edge Ideas Lab, this photo summarizes this City-prompted project that invited six architect-planners to reimagine key crossings in this rail corridor along the south branch. Today’s strategic transit point is the left-most circle. Below it runs Amtrak’s through-track along the River that exchanges passengers at CUS two blocks away. (This through-track is shown clearly in this article’s third graphic, the aging diagram of CUS tracks and concourse.) Also near this left-most circle is the east pedestrian entrance of the OTC (below), probably the only point that can connect the two terminals anytime soon. 

If some body — like the proposed CC — had authority to lengthen CUS platforms two blocks to the north, passengers also could alight or embark from OTC. If Metra were to use that track, CUS and OTC could start to act as through-stations.

my screenshot of OTC entrance to CUS

In my photo above, I stand next to OTC’s east door. In this plaza, two elegant canopies could cover escalators down to the proposed through-platforms. Chicago’s two main terminals would connect and a through-network could start… cheaply. 

Too simple to be possible ?  Yes, because Amtrak owns the through-track.  We can surmise Amtrak will not share its through-route… despite the poor economics of having only 10% of CUS’ customers. (Metra’s 90% should be the station priority.)

‘De facto’,  Amtrak blocks the rail transformation that could be started by two inexpensive through-stations. Connecting the two stations is an efficient way to relieve peak hour stress in CUS; given that a concourse over the south shed is improbable. And even if it is built, CUS still is a terminal that limits progress.

Finally, any successful partnership with a developer must make them comfortable with their risks in delays caused by inefficient bureaucracies. Consider that a concourse/tower can take a decade to plan and build; when factoring in that we are now at the top of the real estate cycle. Ghosts of risk are posed by three recent failures. 

First, CUS is in similar situation to 2007 when developers and financing were lined up. Second, no one forgets how the O’Hare Express station contributed to the famous Block 37 developer bankruptcy because authorities were too disorganized to act in a timely manner.

The third example illustrates how poor aligned authority creates risk to taxpayers. Consider the missed opportunity of the old Post Office; now being converted into offices and a food court. As a destination, it has twelve tracks passing under it with potentially two more along the river. This food court now sits on the most economical site to build a concourse and reduce CUS congestion. Instead of the food court, the new CUS south concourse could remove half of CUS’ current stress. This would make it easy to convert part of CUS’ old concourse into through-tracks. Plus, the Blue Line stops near the old PO; partially solving CUS’ poor connection to heavy rail. Redeveloping the PO properly would so vastly improve efficiencies that it could, then, trigger through-runs.  Many reasons made the PO into a missed opportunity. But, the key reason is that no public body had the bonding and authority to take charge.

Any serious discussion of having the authority to fix CUS needs an end-around Amtrak. While Amtrak’s recent regional leaders found modest money for station updates, leadership is changing… as is ownership of Amtrak’s extensive railyards below. 

 

Amtrak yard from new PO to Ping Tam w: St Charles circled

The realigned authority of the proposed CC for O/CUS/MP also serves as prototype for redeveloping this train yard. (Its photo above also is courtesy of River Edge Ideas.)  Finishing the eastern end of Chicago’s central corridor is the circle above. It shows the rail bridge that would carry the O/CUS/MP trains to the convention halls.

Bottom line: converting this Amtrak-owned railyard is an opportunity to make a downtown that models more sustainable transportation. Vision aside, the practical challenge is for through-networks to produce enough revenue from property values to pay for a 21st Century system.  Early stages of yard redevelopment is afoot with Amtrak spinning off the corporate entity that owns the yard and the tracks and the still-developable air rights above the south concourse.  

In addition to answering many of the realignment questions, the 2019 proposal also suggests a suitable partner for this public asset. For that, our CC concept must get a new deal with Illinois; alluded to in Point #3.  2019 is a good year to start. 

 

Until this proposal is made, I refer you for background to Alan Mammoser’s informative article on Union Station’s history and short-term plans. Or you can refer to my original CUS article in “The Urbanophile” series five years ago. I regret it is still telling today about why we are not serving commuters and taxpayers.

 

Conclusion: Redeveloping CUS really is a chance for the region to start striking a New Deal for transportation with Illinois, commuters and taxpayers.  

CUS cannot be fixed properly by mis-aligned authorities. Worse, this will continue to raise costs and lengthen timelines. Supporting these assertions are the three obstacles outlined earlier in the article. Let’s overcome each with their respective solutions summarized below and to be detailed in the 2019 proposal. 

#1: Realign authority based on the transit corridor so it makes the O/CUS/MP. This efficiently connects three key job centers with one through-route. 

#2: Redevelop a deal with the corridor’s taxpayers and Illinois in which this Corridor Corporation (CC) supplements revenue by better capturing increased property values.

#3: Give this CC the flexibility to partner with the private sector and the advocacy rights to reshape transportation policy.

 

 

12:18:18 WST map studied

Summary article: Sketch a U. S. policy so commuter rail evolves into regional rail

Rearranging the needed Illinois authorities into Chicagoland authorities will cost too much time… unless Uncle Sam helps. Similar to other states responsible for legacy systems, Illinois has talked about regional authority since it took over the bankrupt commuter services in the 1970s.  But at best, the state has shown no commitment.  

Potentially worsening the situation, U.S. help seems unlikely… unless the federal retreat from funding transit is made orderly. Uncle Sam’s retreat must be preceded by regional powers to fill the federal funding gap. In truth, this is the only way to invest federal funds to do more with less. Otherwise, the federal retreat is doing less with less… and at the wrong time.

Replacing part of Uncle Sam’s 80% with a rebalanced regional authority is a theme that recurs in this website.  Only federal policies will help the Chicago, Boston, LA and San Francisco metros make their long-planned through-runs. Multi-state metros particularly need a US-prompted rearranging of authority to solve the transportation problems between New Jersey and New York… and between Maryland and Virginia. 

By clarifying similar problems, the federal role in each region’s solutions can be proposed convincingly. 

Despite differences on how each metro relates to their states, metro similarities provide a working consensus for a federal policy to promote regional rail. The obvious example, New York’s metro (three wealthy states) and Chicagoland (one insolvent state) have the common problem of forcing commuters into basement stations that current regimes cannot fix properly. Both Penn Station and CUS won’t work well unless these terminals are converted and center through-networks.

Separated by only one street width, CUS and OTC could be easily through-routed. Similarly simple, Manhattan’s Penn and Grand Central could be through-routed via a mile-long tunnel; reducing stress on stressed-out subways. Creating two through-routes combines the four largest systems and totals 1.3 million daily commutes that could be improved. Plus, each system’s stagnant ridership numbers could start to grow. A simple win. Let’s prototype it.

Using federal levers to evolve regional rail also supports a recent political strategy. Bringing city and suburbs closer around transportation corridors supports the strategy used in the 2018 election that flipped suburban Congressional districts. As Democratic strategists reshape their party into a Metropolitan Party, they must deliver urban policies to get re-elected. (I reference as seminal Bruce Katz’ 2017 op-ed in “City Labs.”)   Federal investment guidelines that promote alternatives to single occupancy cars will help that political strategy cement a social contract.

In that context and starting in 2019, federal pressure to make trains a competitive alternative could emerge as the trigger to deliver metropolitan transportation policies.  In my forthcoming two-part article, Part 1 summarizes the similarities that legacy systems have. (That’s easy.)  Part 2 outlines the federal policy. (That, of course, is the hard part !)  Stay tuned and keep talking to each other.

 

Uncle Sam, courtesy the Printable Holiday

Clip art courtesy of ShareHolidays

Preview F: Penn Station And The Hudson Tunnels….. Are We Ready To Start Testing The 21st Century Standard For Regional Rail ?

simpler Hudson map

(Map courtesy of Hudson River Tunnels Project factsheet, Summer 2017)

The white dotted line is the first train tunnels under the Hudson River. They took just two years to plan. Construction started earnestly in 1905 using primitive methods. They were innovated and the world’s longest underwater tunnels were made by a determined Pennsylvania Railroad by 1910. They whisked thrilled customers on new electric trains into the world’s grandest station. They set the standard for the key transport mode for the first half of the 20th Century. It cemented New York as America’s premier Transit Metropolis.

Today, that epoch-making success has deteriorated, along with the tunnels, into a telling metaphor for our failures to govern transportation. If we are serious about replacing the tunnels, we have to replace the agencies that created today’s crisis. This preview sketches how preventing an emergency in America’s key train tunnel may well be the crisis we need to start transforming how every American metro manages its mobility in the new era.

A Quick History Of What Cities Get When No Body Is In Charge Of No Policy

If New York only builds a new tunnel and its connecting infrastructure (now known as the Gateway), the symptoms of system deterioration will repeat themselves somewhere else. The Port Authority has two other sets of tunnels over 100 years old.  Similarly aged are two sets on the East River. Manhattan is surrounded by connections reaching the end of their lives. Let’s see why so many replacements have been put off for so long; endangering so much.

In 1995, warnings that the Hudson Tunnels’ were reaching the end of life prompted plans for replacements. Fifteen years later the ARC project (Access to the Region’s Core) started construction and quickly was killed by New Jersey’s Governor under the pretext of not sharing cost overruns.

With borderline belligerence between neighboring states, federal intervention led by Obama’s Secretary of Transportation mediated a deal by 2015 that advanced the Gateway project (Above, the sagging orange dotted line are the replacement tunnels; but the Gateway includes 11 miles of rail infrastructure from Newark to Queens, centered by the Moynihan extension of Penn Station.) The recurring political dysfunction took a destructive turn when the current Executive reneged on the 2015 deal. This voided the Tunnels’ hoped-for 2026 completion.

Despite heightened anxiety over no body being likely to restore this vital artery, Congress’ response has been to try sneaking money into the Gateway to avoid the President’s veto.

This Bloomberg article highlights the grave economic consequences for the region and nation in what is appearing to emerge as a path to catastrophic self-inflicted wounds. The graphic below shows congestion’s negative multiplier of the most likely scenario of one tunnel failing.

RPA what happens when one Hudson Tunnel Fails
graphic courtesy of the Regional Plan Association (RPA)

Two decades of turf-fighting has turned a routine infrastructure replacement into an unacceptable high risk of emergency. (If you want a refresher on pre-Trump political dysfunction, spend 15 minutes reading the middle of this 2016 article.)

Remember, all this drama is for an aged tunnel that would have been replaced long ago if it carried autos.

A way out might emerge from my working cut-to-the-chase analysis: multi-state mis-governance caused this threat to the nation’s economic heart. If we learn from democracies with train policies, their regions modernize mobility far faster because the national rail has proper authority to aid commuter rail. With new U.S. policies using the force of federal law, neither Governors nor Presidents can capriciously void them repeatedly as with these Tunnels. Formed in the 1970s as a caretaker, Amtrak is weak and never reformed. This allows executive caprice to rule. Worse, it creates a void where progress is more difficult and costly than other global cities face since they have national policies that convey proper authority to national rails. And they have even reformed recently to improve efficiencies.

Our reality is that today’s increasing dysfunction is unlikely to be resolved before one tunnel fails and causes an emergency. The cure is for a national rail policy in which metro rail is promoted by the inter-city rail authority. At this moment, that seems like a ridiculous long haul. But…….

Two Trends Open Our Bold Strategy: Divisive Politics and Comprehensive Proposals

As recent as 18 months ago, it was just assumed the tunnels would be built by existing agencies. This is not a responsible assumption today. This became evident; prompted by two trends. Fortunately, both now make agency overhaul possible.

First, divisive politics have forced metros to reorder authority… if congestion and costs are to be reduced. The current Executive’s sabotage of a deal that took five precious years to negotiate should be seen for what it really did: preserve a regime in which state and federal policies restrict metros from using trains to stimulate growth and mobility alternatives. Note that the Gateway project already was a major retreat from the historic federal contribution of 75% capital. The Obama deal had only 50% federal capital. Trump merely wanted to reduce it further. Transcend Trump and we see Uncle Sam will not recapitalize transit to the required levels. More than ever, metros are on their own and must devise new methods.

Into that void must move the next Congress and the next Executive to start writing a new social contract with taxpayers and commuters in which metropolitan transportation is controlled democratically by the region… with the states and feds as lesser players and payers. I sketch this “new deal” later in this preview and, of course, will detail it in the chapter due in 2019.

Second trend…. Proposals to overhaul transportation agencies are emerging from New York’s civic groups. Since this will have more of a lasting impact than the Trump catalyst, the chapter will spend considerable space analyzing proposals. Here is some context for why a bold strategy for metros to rebalance authority may have an opening.

Four years ago when posting my Penn Station piece in Aaron Renn’s “The Urbanophile,” my series had concluded that proper updating of central stations required reforming transit agencies. But, I was on the fringe. Later that year, the Eno Center (transportation’s established trainer and think tank) collaborated with the upstart Transit Center to publish “Getting To The Route Of It.”  Subtitled “The Role of Governance In Regional Transit, ”  the study analyzed six of the largest U.S. metros; looking hardest at New York, but the study also was critical of my metropolis, Chicagoland.

That study changed the discussion so today’s crisis can be productive. Over the last three years, the damage to the Tunnels became more widely known. Precipitous decline — including New York’s 2017 transit summer in hell — pushed the civic establishment into calling for agency overhaul. But, New York civic leaders need time to work through proposals with the political powers-that-be. Do they have time? Nor will foresight grace decisions made during an emergency triggered by closing one tunnel for repairs.

T-Rex cover

Progress At Thinking Thru Through-Routes Still Cannot Integrate Systems

New York’s Vision is epoch-making again, at least by U.S. standards. New York’s civic leaders know they must overhaul agencies and this shows best in the RPA’s “4th Regional Plan.” Its wholistic approach to urban challenges focuses on reinvesting in its key asset, transit. For that, the “ 4th Plan” proposes four institutional changes for transportation: convert the Port Authority into an investment bank; rationalize road tolls; combine the three commuter rails into a regional network, called T-Rex; and form a public benefit corporation to update subways economically.

Supporting this “4th Plan,” RPA just published an 86-page booklet detailing its T-Rex proposal (cover is above). It is comprehensive and candid. Criticisms can be made of it. (Let’s understate the antagonism and say that New Yorkers, justifiably, have famously profound relationships with transit… but I found this series of articles by Alon Levy to inform best.)  Through the early haze, we should recognize RPA is pioneering the technical work to make its metro’s trains competitive with other global centers.

But, New York’s political reality must change before serious hope can be mustered that the T-Rex Plan actually will improve commuting. For that cause, it also helps to remind ourselves that other global centers achieve this by conveying sufficient authority to agencies. By that key standard, T-Rex’s politics look pre-historic… or at least pre-New Deal. Only one of the booklet’s 86 pages discusses funding and governance. While that page suggests contemporary techniques (value capture, 3Ps, user fees), these will have minimal application as long as authority is held by byzantine bureaucracies.

The T-Rex booklet is a consensus tool so discussions lead to reforms. But the road to sufficient reform is not passable given this metro’s institutional politics require both state governments to agree. Then, both must prioritize transit. (This is more unlikely given other statewide priorities and, currently, very limited discretionary spending. Plus, New Jersey is closer to insolvency.)

The only positive to promote overhaul is the extraordinary cost of transit. States should be glad to give that cost and headaches to a true metropolitan authority. But despite this common sense, the bears still clutch their honey-pot. Who will pry it away?

As for my current situational summary….. The states of New Jersey and New York no longer should be higher authorities; based on their poor performance and the need for future accountability to the region’s taxpayers. As powerful as New York’s civic movement is, only federal leverage for the Tunnels sets in motion the required overhaul of state-controlled agencies.

Cistine Chapel, Adam and God

History Lesson: Only two higher authorities can make a way out of no way.

First, God must grace Manhattan with enough time to replace the Tunnels. Even if Providence (or luck) intervenes, this fact remains: Man’s agencies have created extraordinary and unnecessary risks… and they will do so again. Specifically, the East River tunnels are also at the end of their lives. And so is most infrastructure surrounding Manhattan; making a moat of the nation’s central business district.

The second higher authority is Uncle Sam. Constitutionally obligated to promote commerce between states, NY/NJ’s chances in Congress improve by stretching this assistance to all metros. Emergency action for the Gateway starts setting the legal frame for regional transportation by applying the prototype appropriately along the NEC’s metros and extending that to solve the Midwest’s multi-state mess around Chicago.

If Plan A was the 2015 Obama Administration hand-shake that was so vulnerable to sabotage, Plan B declares the Hudson crossing a vital piece of national infrastructure for the NEC and the nation’s commercial center. To protect both, an Emergency Task Force (ETF) using federal authority manages the crossing’s update. This ETF also is charged with prototyping modern regional rail by tying together these three goals outlined here and detailed in the fuller study.

1. Build new tunnels, fix the old ones and update the remaining Gateway infrastructure; making sure Penn Station updates can evolve efficiently into a through-station serving a through-network. (Of the many Penn proposals, a practical summary runs from pages 22 to 25 of RPA’s 2017 comprehensive booklet “Crossing The Hudson.”)

2. Take the next step. Prevent a similar emergency across the East River by structuring investments that maximize capacity of a through-network. So the ETF’s job is to help organize a tri-state transportation agency whose Board has clean elections. The Board has routine accountability for taxes and user fees.

3. Utilize private sector partnerships to get the most value for passengers and taxpayers alike.

screenshot152

Transportation’s New Deal: Legal and political arguments sketched and stretched.

Let’s paint a Big Picture: we are in the process of shaping a new order for transit. Cited by me early in the Introduction as a framework for this website’s strategy, the premise of “The Metropolitan Revolution” is upheld in case studies of “The New Localism.” (Brookings Institution Press released both books three years apart and both share Bruce Katz as co-author.) This sequel looks closer at how we transfer power from states and the feds to localities and metros. The book implies a corollary realignment in which we redefine each level’s role and, thus, smooth-out difficult transfers. “The New Localism” acknowledges that transportation infrastructure is a laggard in the realignment already taking place in other public services.

To evolve transportation into the new order, ARC and the Gateway are central to understanding the new federal role. ARC mostly was three regional agencies hoping to solve problems. With federal power as a bit player, the ARC could not withstand its 2010 capital crisis. Learning there must be a higher authority to make it through a crisis, the feds led the Gateway. Despite Trump’s sabotage, Amtrak is the funding channel that keeps the Gateway alive.

But to prevent the catastrophe of one tunnel closing, the federal role gets redefined further with a takeover of the Tunnel (again, justified as infrastructure of national importance) and includes the entire Gateway project. To prevent future calamities, the federal task force then assists in forming a representative metropolitan government.

The theory of a metro/local revolution sounds like it might work for transportation except for this: New York and every metro must contend with this historic joke, “all you have to do is get an Act Of Congress.” This has been a bad joke for probably all of this Century. But fortunately for metro transportation, the joke has been replaced by the reality of today’s crunch time.

When tunnel-failure is in the hands of God, Man’s misplaced authority has reached its tipping point. The game-changing conclusion is that states should not restrict metros from governing their transportation. An authority realignment strategy is equally simple: instead of letting Congress retreat from funding responsibilities, it first must agree to re-allign metro transportation so it can be more self-sufficient. We should expect lawmakers to start as early as 2019…no matter who is in the White House… or how un-civil Washington has become.

With a recent record that invites intervention, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is an interstate compact authorized by a federal Charter in 1921. The PA coordinates the Gateway Development Corporation responsible for the Tunnels, Penn Station and infrastructure along an eleven mile route. Congress should revoke this part of the PA’s Charter, setup an Emergency Task Force (ETF) and also remake laws so the ETF can innovate public-private partnerships and apply those efficiencies. Specifically, let’s also test how the ETF can avoid unnecessary red-tape and stabilize funding to complete the project before a tunnel has to be closed.

Fast Forward, Modernize NYC Transit

With Governor Cuomo Declaring A Transit Emergency, Commuter Rail Should Follow Suit … Before It Is Too Late… And Too Costly

Avoiding the Tunnel’s crisis-to-emergency has a helpful analogy. Governor Cuomo put the MTA under a state of emergency in July 2017. The response has been sweeping, at least judging intent in the “Plan To Modernize New York City Transit” (cover above) released in May 2018. To adapt these actions to the PA, both governors must declare an emergency for the Tunnels. But, the realignment to a metro government that is required to modernize regional rail must be pushed by Congress. Let’s consider coining that campaign as “Modernizing By Metro-izing.”

Regardless …… Lawmaking is the lever. Let’s think of this as a formula explored in the forthcoming chapter: Congress’ deal is it provides less capital, but metros get more clout.

Despite the imminent Hudson emergency, we must prepare for challenges. Legal challenges, of course, can be preempted partially by effective political arguments.

The primary popular lever is “no taxation without representation.” Taxes are essential to any ambitious re-build of infrastructure. The key factor in Denver’s impressive build-out is its transit district has an elected board. Revisit the end of my preview on how mid-sized metros changed and adapt that success to New York’s tri-state metro. A modernization managed by an elected Board whose campaigns are non-partisan and actually discuss clearly how tax dollars are invested.  Ask the taxpayers who have to fund the deferred costs of bringing our systems to a “state of good repair.”  That starts a good Deal.

The second political level argues taxpayers at all levels must receive value. Since the federal government is already lending most the money for the two states’ contribution to the new tunnels, then Congress also needs to protect federal taxpayers so they get their money back. And the best way to insure that Uncle Sam gets his money back is to encourage a metropolitan government that can adjust taxes and user fees much more effectively than states can whose priorities are to feed existing programs. Setting up a metropolitan government with powers to deliver economically should be the corollary to the U.S. lending more money.

The protecting-the-taxpayer lever is supported by news stories of runaway costs, probably the easiest-understood need for agency overhaul. Yet, a federal ETF also needs to reinvent how to maximize return to taxpayers and private partners. While the RPA’s “4th Plan” proposes solutions, U.S. criteria for financing is more likely to persuade states to realign power.

Both political levers make it possible for emergency powers to plan a through-network that is turned over to a new metropolitan body. But the stretch is necessary since the NEC uses the same pieces of infrastructure as commuter trains.

For example, my literature review analyzing the Gateway’s Moynihan Station concludes most independent observers do not think this is a good use of taxes. Moynihan/Penn remains a terminal when a through-station is the best investment to expand capacity. So, new federal lending standards must establish metro governance that modernizes outdated terminals.

To stretch from emergency to sustained progress, Congress must empower a metro’s public to hold new agencies accountable. Consider overhauling Metropolitan Planning Organizations, creatures of the feds intended to spend taxes effectively within a regional plan. New York’s tri-state MPO collapsed in 1982 and the U.S. made scant effort to enforce its intent. Now, it can.

Other enabling legislation could be considered within Amtrak reform (Amtrak owns the Tunnels and Penn Station.) While today’s bitter debates reduce our chances of effective solutions, let’s hold up the model of the German national railroad as the enabler of regional rail modernization.

The policy entry point to seize control of the Gateway and get it rebuilt is still unclear. Yet intent is clear: the U.S. simply cannot reduce its capital funding and leave regions powerless to raise cash. The new deal’s policy principle is that U.S. empowers regions to solve their problems.

Other policy threads can be woven to broaden this deal’s coalition. Trains are underutilized to stimulate redevelopment equitably (a section in RPA’s “4th Plan”.) Regional authority can use trains to correct disparities between Manhattan and the former industrial and underutilized lands of Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. Trains tie these disparities into a whole in the T-Rex (map below.) Follow its new through-route tunnel from Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal through Wall Street and Mid-town and on to still-struggling Newark. Trains connecting Wall Street to poor neighborhoods is a metaphor and tool for those who want to highlight equitable redevelopment as part of the metropolitan new deal.

RPA T-Rex, Required Investments, p48

 

Conclusion and Prelude: Organize Regional Authority To Tunnel and Through-Route

If the Tunnels crisis uses federal authority to help civic leaders remake their legal and political framework in New York, then other American metros have a better chance to find their particular path to reorder power and modernize into regional rail.

While RPA’s proposals are getting to the root, they have not really asked states to share more power with the metro. To a large degree, that is Uncle Sam’s job. In reducing the reign of ineffective state bureaucracies, the U.S. also can mitigate how states failed to resolve city-suburb tensions. Captive to suburbs, state rail agencies did not modernize.

Totaled up, U.S. intervention is the force that stimulates rebalancing transportation’s formula for taxation, representation, accountability and, finally, modernization.

Let’s think of Uncle Sam’s intervention as the liberation of the New York metro’s residents who — trapped by their state governments — had become inured to the condition of their transit. Indeed a majority of NYC residents use transit daily (see the first table of 15 largest U.S. cities.)

On a percentage basis (and playfully to shift to rivalries), NYC has over twice as many passengers as my city, The Second City. While still backward by European standards, Chicago recently updated its “L” (heavy rail) at a rate far faster than far-richer New York. And Chicago did this despite Illinois being broke, endlessly corrupted and even having a constitutional bias against Chicago. On a relative basis as the globe’s center, Manhattan has few true excuses for how its agency neglect brought transit so far below the standard of global cities.

On the other hand, Chicagoland has better excuses: having the one broken state of Illinois has caused more rail deterioration than trying to coordinate three states. Minimizing Illinois control is the key element in the preview of Chicago Union Station (CUS); due to be posted in late June. Below is CUS’ Quiz question. (The Quiz is the most entertaining part of this site.) Take the Quiz and click on any fantasy rendering to read the Answers, short write-ups for why each central station is restricted by its states, including Manhattan’s Penn.

Quiz CUS

The 4Ms: Evolving From Marvels to Mix-ups to Make-overs to Masters

A Manhattan Marvel, Penn Station just before the long good-bye.
(A
lfred Eisenstadt,1944)

Central stations are storehouses for a nation’s great moments.

Stations also say much about the quality of our daily civic life.

Unique as a building-type, stations make a wide range of civic statements that go beyond merely the quality and efficiency of how we transport people.

Built in the first-third of the 20th Century, America’s central stations did much more than welcome inter-city travelers. Supporting the first half of the 20th Century’s most dramatic moments, station usage peaked during the war effort that saved democracy from fascism. Stations were common meeting grounds that forged “The Greatest Generation.”

Stations also played a role as key infrastructure.  The same companies that built stations also built nearby freight depots. Those companies trains took raw resources scattered across a vast continent and integrated them into an economic powerhouse. Stations supported key transfer points that reshaped industries and built them into history’s dominant economy.

Using the same corridors in the mid-20th Century, trains initially contributed to the sprawling of metropolises. But as train service declined, the central stations that served suburbanites’ daily train commutes fell into disuse. Except for New York’s Grand Central, stations were rarely updated well.

Station decline ended early in the 21st Century as they again became a focus of  civic energy; usually driven by the mayor.  But, progress is frustrated. Eight of the ten largest U.S. regional train operators are fumbling to update their central stations. Most suffer decade-long delays due to lack of authority, ridiculous cost over-runs due to incompetence or corruption, inadequate funding due to short-term governance and the major strategic mistake of spending money without starting to convert terminals into centers for high-capacity through-networks; a process Europe’s global cities started five decades ago and have almost finished.

Serving as pivot points to support how previous generations grew a continent into the world’s greatest industrial power, today’s central stations offer us a different opportunity to shape a new future, possibly a comprehensively sustainable one. Today’s civic focus on updating central stations implicitly tries to tap this opportunity. By understanding today’s frustrations and, specifically, how mobility modes should converge on the central station, fixing stations properly serves as a microcosm for how sustainable metropolitan transportation can emerge.

Central stations are a micro-message of the macro-message articulated in “The Metropolitan Revolution”: cities serve as our key economic engines. Today’s central stations should welcome the information economy’s employees to their central business district. Station quality directly impacts how they get transported to other regional centers. Central stations help reshape sprawling metropolitan areas into more compact ones with fewer choke points.

The above book from The Brookings Institution reinforces my generalized takeaway after studying stations intensely for several years: we must transfer the required transportation and taxing authorities from state government and refashion them to make mobility better for each metropolis.

If a city can update well its central station and surrounds, it contributes a symbol to define its metropolitan revolution because transportation is one of the most obvious regional services. As transportation gets rebalanced at the metro level, the region will control a key asset for redeveloping their land and tax base for the sustainable era.

Trains and their stations are a primary theatre for cities and their suburbs to collaborate better. Station updates can accelerate your city’s transformation from automobile dominance to a more fiscally-balanced and economy-supportive mix of modes. But before this writing project describes how each of these stations can help achieve those benefits, let me state the project’s chief conclusion: we ultimately must govern transportation better and use trains as a coordinated tool to redevelop cities and suburban centers.

I just packed a lot into one civic building… and a writing project. But this challenge of rebuilding stations — the places were journeys begin — will play an important role in stimulating America’s psyche of opportunity to redevelop cities for the new era.

The first stage of this inquiry into central stations revealed too many clues that transportation is governed poorly. These clues bop around in the eight articles I posted through 2014 on “The Urbanophile.”  (Thanks to Aaron Renn, you can still link to the series; since it made the cut when he winnowed his blog’s archives.) This series tested the emergent policy abstraction called “sustainability” by applying it to central stations. That link shows how I categorized stations according to four steps toward sustainability.

As each station’s performance was reported and scored, it became obvious to me that updating problematic stations was unlikely unless 20th Century agencies also evolved from separate monopolies into an integrated system of mobility’s modes. To understand this mutual evolution better, the Inquiry’s second stage — that this essay introduces — modifies the framework into what I call the 4Ms. To start exploring each, I repeat them from this Introduction’s title: “From Marvels to Mix-ups to Make-overs to Masters.”

In analyzing these stations that center America’s major commuter lines, the obstacle to improving stations was transportation’s authority was too weak and outdated agencies were flailing and failing us. Failure’s most obvious evidence is the repeating attempts to update two of our three most important stations, Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago’s Union. Not only do these two hell-holes dehumanize travel for employees in the nation’s two most important commercial centers, but agency efforts always postpone the obvious need to through-route. Through-stations are already the 21st Century standard. Through-routing improves the efficiency of transit and, consequently, redevelopment more than any single public investment. Yet those benefits are blocked by the agencies that control central stations.

In transportation’s Big Picture, today’s caricature of governance will continue haunting us with dysfunction and debt. To reshape government (a Herculean challenge), we need a symbol signaling that change is possible. This project proposes updating stations as a first step in making metropolitan transportation networks in which services mesh. Because station updates are usually made more difficult by either a lack of authority or it being in the wrong agencies, stations at least serve as our target that illustrates the Big Picture.

Most of North America’s 29 metropolises operating commuter rails have made some effort to update their stations. The few that have updated their stations well usually have innovated their governance and, often, have earned sufficient taxpayer support. So the correlation between correct updates and reform seems strong. But this inquiry’s findings are that most large American cities cannot overcome antiquated transit agencies… unless taxpayers fund and monitor an agency of change.

Upon recognizing my project must deal more forthrightly with political obstacles, the postings stopped during 2015 while I thought through a more likely strategy. Responding to America’s reality, this project’s next stage (this website) will propose sweeping changes in transportation’s governance and funding. This also requires a new deal for commuters and taxpayers who must invest in stations that center transit in the emerging metropolitan regime.

This website proposes a new synthesis after its analysis of what works and what does not. Let’s start with the good stuff: when we knew how to build great, functional civic spaces.

Author’s photo during her 100th birth year of the Grand Dame and workhorse, 2013.

How Marvels Work. The main concourse of Grand Central Terminal (above) set a high, majestic standard for the many other cities who built — and aspire to build — beautiful stations that say “Welcome.”   One source boasts that GCT has over 22 million visitors a year; making it one of the most visited attractions in the world. Many come to gaze into the ceiling’s constellations; as if to marvel at the awe of Creation.

Back on our planet, remember that GCT was a real estate deal. It still is; which largely explains why it continues to succeed.  This Marvel also sets a standard for how terminals function. A Marvel of how engineering and human behavior mix, GCT also is huge. It has 67 tracks with wide platforms that handle packed trains well on two underground levels. GCT then gives passengers many options to flow efficiently (and gracefully by New York standards) into six subway lines or rise to the main concourse and its constellation; inspiring travelers to gird Midtown’s streets and arrive at their final destinations.

While none are as large or majestic as GCT, other central stations work like Marvels. Philadelphia’s three Center City stations connect via through-route (a key Master ingredient.) That same reason can help a mid-sized station in a struggling town, Newark’s Penn Station, punch well above its weight. These American Marvels were built in the 20th Century’s first three decades, supported by the profits of real estate deals.

A more common collaboration were deals worked out between competing rail companies. Called “union stations,” they usually consolidated passenger terminals next to rail yards shared with freight at the edge of the central business district. Messier than the quality Marvels above, Union Stations still collectively shaped the public purpose of making centers that enhanced mobility.

But, the glory decades faded fast. The second half of the Century saw rails and their deals decline as the auto and airplane captivated America’s mind, decentralized mobility, and sucked in huge taxpayer subsidies that de-stabilized transportation in ways that we do not seem to know how to correct today… even where rails made towns such as Chicago.

Reflecting consensus, this photo from Chicago’s 2012 Master Plan for Union Station shows how workers and taxpayers feel squeezed in the concourse. Not fixed in the 1991 renovation, todays attempts again are frustrated by disjointed governance.

Why Mix-ups Matter. My city’s largest central station takes commuters doing the right thing and punishes them by squeezing them through a hell-hole. I call it “the CUS-ed Experience.”  It starts when de-boarding into a 90 year old trainshed with ridiculously uneven pavement, narrow platforms, ongoing complaints of diesel exhaust and the increasingly frequent surprise of concrete falling from the shed’s roof.

The photo above continues the CUS experience in the passage from the concourse out to the street where the confused melee continues, crosses congested bridges and does not calm for usually a few blocks. Overall, the CUS experience reflects an inability for agencies to work together and, basically, respect passengers and taxpayers. In 1991 when CUS’ had a fast-growing commuter service and Illinois had money, this peak congestion might have been solved if an agency-in-charge understood the cramped concourse was because a skyscraper squished the concourse. (This created the Mix-up.) But instead of proper authority doing the right thing, political expediency insisted on pouring substantial renovation money into a rat-hole that, 25 years later, is a busier rat-hole.

This poster child for dysfunction in transportation’s governance is owned by Amtrak. CUS’ owner has only 10% of CUS’ daily passengers. The 90% commuters are Metra passengers; an agency supposedly supervised by Illinois but, de facto, has its authority decentralized by the region’s 240+ suburbs. This weakens the agency so much that it cannot contribute to correcting CUS, where six of Metra’s eleven lines terminate.

With the powers-that-be unmoved, the agency with the least authority and money now leads a new renovation. Chicago’s Department of Transportation has conducted plans for two decades; but, its good intentions lack funding and undermines its leadership.

One key difference between Marvels and Mix-ups appears in the “Connections” sheet of each station’s scorecard that you can find towards the beginning of each “Urbanophile” article. Mix-ups result from poor cooperation between agencies and providers. GCT, our 100 year old Marvel of efficiency, has subways on all four sides. CUS, our Mixed-up poster child, has the nearest stop of the Chicago Transit Authority three blocks away. (New Yorkers, it’s Ok to laugh.) But know that this hyper-dysfunction results from weak and/or misplaced authority… and those problems are reported in a dozen station’s scorecards. Indicative of a nationwide flaw, consider further Mix-up examples.

— For the inexcusable dysfunction between wealthy states, look no further than Manhattan’s Penn Station that serves some of the nation’s highest property values and centers America’s other major transit hell-hole.

— For quintessential dysfunction within one of our most competent states, Boston’s north and south central stations remain disconnected because Massachusetts has a debilitating fear of tunneling; institutionalized by the disastrous Big Dig for cars.

— And then, consider Maryland. Despite having probably the best state DOT, Baltimore’s central station does not serve the downtown. Curiously, the only serious proposal to correct this comes from a private venture seeking to build a high speed line from Baltimore’s downtown to the nation’s capital.

Detailed in forthcoming chapters, Mix-ups support the conclusion that even competent state DOTs are bad fits for metropolitan station solutions; primarily because they need real estate deals intent on building mixed-use centers and enhancing mobility, something road-building agencies have too few skills for.

“The Urbanophile” articles and scorecards analyzing stations help expose transit Mix-ups. They, most often, are caused because agencies lack the authority and/or motivation to coordinate all the players. Without a Daddy, agency sibling rivalries prevail and passengers — and taxpayers — get worse service than they paid for.

Bottomline: With no agency enforcing operational efficiency, they lose taxpayers’ trust and thus lose the critical source of capital to upgrade stations and transit.

Separated from station-building success by a century devoted to autos, cities with large suburban train systems have failed to prepare their stations to center metropolitan transportation. Worse, probably none will… if we depend on current agencies.

Compare today’s failures to history’s most economically dominant nation in which 114 union stations were built by the collaboration between private inter-city rails in the first three decades of the 20th Century. Back then, train commuting was small and inter-city passenger rail had marginal profitability. Yet private companies — most of whom were big players in real estate — made great stations. Let’s admire one of the last major station’s built using that economic model and interpret it for the nation’s potential today.

My blurry photo coveys how the exquisite waiting room of LA’s Union Station represents the unclear transition from Hollywood’s glorification of the auto as part of the American Dream to LAUS serving as symbol of the challenges facing the nascent Transit Metropolis.

What Separates Mix-ups From Make-Overs?
Answer: Taxpayer Trust… And Capital.

While Mix-ups teach us that we should reorganize the business of moving people, Make-overs, at least, have a better chance of eventually centering improved transportation. This site’s Overview “What Is To Be Done” reinforces this.

It is still too early to judge how LAUS serves as a center for LA’s transit Renaissance. Yet, this station made such a clear civic statement in the 1930s about LA’s intent to become a great city that LAUS was never allowed to slip into the Mix-up category… or be demolished as so many stations were. Still, LAUS has challenges. In the LA chapter, I explain why plans for LAUS are likely to produce a good Make-over and offers a hopeful example to most emerging Sunbelt commuter systems.

The owner of LAUS, The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (branded as Metro), is the dominant transit agency for 10 million people. While California law enables counties with more authority, Metro’s true power derives from how it is building a new social contract for transit. We see this particularly in 2016 when it positioned itself to win 67% on the November ballot; required to renew the one cent sales tax passed almost 25 years ago and increased by another 1/2 cent now.

As an example of its sophisticated marketing and steady positioning, view any of Metro’s press conferences or videos and you will see a steady stream of politicians and Metro appointees essentially, say: “You gave us money and we delivered a new transit line.” Compare this to how Chicago’s politicians lost credibility decades ago and New York’s ridiculous cost-overruns dampen claims to serve the public. But in LA, the political theatre works much better; in part because it is sincere.

However staged, sincerity shows in this mural installed as LA got its first sales tax that launched its transit Renaissance in the mid-1990s. This mural in LAUS’ East Portal connects bus passengers to the train track concourse, the light rail and subway stations, and, then, into the vintage Union Station; unifying transit systems. Beyond mere functionality, LAUS and its mural reinforces that Metro wants everyone to know their transit options matter.

Bigger Picture still… stations and transit remind us of our social contract through the commonplace commute. The same train that helps a million dollar trader get home also helps the immigrant janitor get to work in a suburban office building; both are motivated by America’s myths. Of the ten largest U.S. metropolitan areas, LA might be advancing the fastest this notion of a new social contract for transportation.

Knowing that trust with tax-shy taxpayers is long-term, Make-overs must deliver consistently to become Masters and center Masterful networks. Taxpayers have too many good reasons to be skeptical of politicians’ promises. (Indeed, I am still looking for a major American station update that stayed even remotely close to a reasonable budget and timeline.)

What Separates Make-Overs From Masters?
Answer: Reformed transportation governance

Revealing a worsening pattern of how station updates were unnecessarily expensive and/or ineffective by the agencies responsible, my series in “The Urbanophile” caused me to think through the project’s next steps. That same month, a think-tank and training institute for transit agencies, The Eno Center, published its study of six metro areas (above). Co-authored with The Transit Center, their pivotal study helped me see more clearly how stations could evolve. I soon formulated my 4Ms evolution for central stations.

As governance improves, Mastery emerges which, in turn, earns more public trust which, in turn, yields enough of their capital to update systems for the Sustainable Century. Masters are not yet found in North America (although I am most hopeful of Toronto.) Routinely, Masters are found in Europe. In this project’s last phase, we will see what their stations teach us about preparing trains and their agencies for the future.

Masters invest taxes so transit gives current and next generations the quality of life and economic benefits promised by taking those taxes. Europe enjoys that social contract. America does not; living in this moment, addicted to cars.

If you look closely, stations reveal our deals are weak. Of America’s Make-over stations, most merely made-up for the neglect of previous decades. As a higher stage of evolution, Master stations perform functions well. They use through-routes to increase ridership and, thus, relieve subway and street congestion. Their agencies coordinate to redevelop central station surrounds more compactly… along with sub-regional stations along that through-route. Europe delivers a quality alternative to the car.

This project’s final phase will try to keep foreign analogies tight to U.S. metros. I plan to start with a review of Toronto’s Union Station and the remarkable growth of GO Transit. Gleaning lessons, other chapters will review Paris, London, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. Most their stations are Masters. Per capita passenger miles also tell the story: citizens in the 15 nations in the European Union use the train 10 times more than the U.S.  To better understand how we narrow the gap, also planned is a chapter that labors under the working title of:  “The EU Teaches Uncle Sam: Directives Work Better Than Interstate Compacts Or Federal Regulations.”  This chapter reminds us that solutions are redeveloped sustainably at the metro level, but that accelerated change is facilitated at the federated level by sharing what works best.

Where Do We Go From Here… And Who Will Care?

The 20th Century routines for transport are re-balancing itself from the auto to more shared modes. Rails will continue to grow because they have superior efficiencies in moving people. Trains are the long-term link in the spectrum of how shared modes reduce transportation costs and road congestion.

Whether or not we leave the next generation with masterful transit largely depends on how we evolve America’s 29 metropolitan train systems and what we teach one another about how transportation works sustainably. In visually concrete ways, stations are key to how trains sync with other modes.

As for the political deal that convinces Americans to use their cars less…  Well, that deal has odds better than they appear. Know that the U.S. metros reviewed in forthcoming chapters total over 61 million that can benefit from better central stations. For stations not analyzed, add another 29 million.  Then add in 31 million more from the 24 regional rail wannabee metros who actively are planning or building a rail line. Total this up and some 121 million Americans have varying agreements about making trains into a regional service. This 38% of the nation will benefit if through-routed stations center trains whose purpose is to help redevelop metro areas.

This constituency deserves more than aged stations. Central stations should center systems that leverage transit’s environmental, economic and fiscal benefits. When stations show such Mastery, they reinforce the social contract with America’s taxpayers that their investment was well spent today and tomorrow.

We need to think through a deal good enough to breed ventures to solve challenges so our times are made great. For that, let’s first metaphorically give a clutching hug to the next generation. We owe it to them to improve the advantage that was passed on to us.

Photo credit: pinterest.com/deborahrode