Part 1: What Did We Learn ?

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Central terminals are a key bottle-neck that restrict alternatives to the auto’s dominance of metropolitan transportation. The best investment to improve American commuter habits is to convert terminals into through-stations. The resulting through-networks will serve us well to accelerate alternatives. 

This served as premise of the five introductory articles posted in Autumn 2017. (See “Table of Contents” right column.) The fifth (Preview C) describes America’s most relevant progress; showing the improvements in stations in Philadelphia, Twin Cities and Denver. Success in these last two metros were preceded by reforming authority. The nation’s only recent and economically successful new line was possible because the Denver RTD also realigned public and private interests into a 3P service to its airport.

Strategies: Reform Authority. Realign Interests. If these two strategies are to help shape the next regime for commuting, they must resolve the bottle-necks: those legacy terminals that fail to convert and prevent through-networks from starting.

The worst bottle-necks are covered in the remaining five articles that explore the failures to make through-stations in LA, DC, Boston, Manhattan and Chicago.  These centers had no recent reform in their transit’s governance. Interests were not realigned. So, plans flopped. All coincided with stagnancy in commuter ridership (relative to population growth) and worsening roadways. (Link to a “Brief History” in the upper right column if you want a summary of these findings.)

Each terminal has long-term plans to be converted. Yet, obstacles to progress persist. Almost all update efforts get reduced to the superficial. As the largest example, Penn Station is building an expensive concourse. While its drawings are pretty, the new Penn will not have the wider platforms to handle the flow of higher capacity through-tracks. Building them later will be far more costly. Losing to funding priorities, Penn’s through-route will be postponed; despite the metro needing increased train capacity now to help alleviate the City’s decade-long subway crisis. Such delays are what poor governance does to transit and it emanates from legacy terminals.

While all five terminals need a through-route to grow their networks, agencies are not meeting that prerequisite.

As comparative evidence of American metros’ failure to prepare trains as a vital mode for the future, I scatter examples throughout this site on how most major European cities have through-routed. During its five decade terminal conversion, ridership on Europe’s commuter trains has grown significantly. National rails were reformed and, in turn, have experimented realigning with the private sector; most advanced in England. Proof is in the pudding once terminals are converted.

Reform Authority. Realign Interests.

A Summary of why Corridors are the proposed Transition 

I use this U.S. map to show our horse-and-buggy, state and county-based regimen is a misfit to make transport efficient in today. A metro’s multiple counties — and often multiple states — respond poorly to the subtleties of moving people and goods. Most seek more efficient corridors. As such, reorganizing to improve corridors accelerates alternatives.

The key to advancing trains is that states must delegate authority to a metro. Without an agreed-upon metropolitan government to delegate that authority, it goes to a transitional corridor body. It experiments with realigning public and private interests for an update which can include stations and operations. Proposing this change, the last five articles sketch how corridor-based authorities could help convert terminals, start through-networks and turn them over, eventually, to an enhanced metropolitan authority.

Corridors have a key benefit; they align with Value Capture. VC is a funding strategy; but rarely gets the job done because laws and agencies are not suited to making VC deals. But if we realign properties that prosper from trains with new laws and agencies that deliver, we increase their tax justifiably. Also, corridors can offer a believable deal to convince the public that changing commuting will benefit them. 

With the revolution in personal mobility improving the “first and last mile” to transit, a corridor-based authority is more likely to increase ridership than current agencies whose ridership is in decline. Worse is their record on congestion costs in which this study indicates an increase of 50% to $186 billion by 2030. Since 60% is direct costs of fuel and money, investing in corridor mobility raises the value of transit-oriented properties further.

To realign interests and create more competition, this corridor-based authority will shape the body of law and practice that makes it easier for the private sector to provide transport services. Of course to get private efficiencies, the corridor authority should not be bureaucratic and, instead, should sunset. It also should be an accountable advocate for a flexible transportation policy that delivers results. 

That’s the overview. Next is a summary of articles detailing these conclusions. Since many of you are new to this blog’s distribution list, I offer a quick overview of how this inquiry has evolved and matured.

“WST” started describing how stations evolve in “The 4Ms: From Marvels to Mistakes to Makeovers to Masters.” The first 3Ms describe American terminals and the 4th M (Masters) are the rule in Europe; stations that center high capacity through-networks. Pictured above celebrating its 100th, Grand Central remains a Marvel. But, it will not become a Master until regional authority gets reorganized rationally.

What Is To Be Done?” indirectly questions politicians’ promise that the value stations create can pay for their update. Only the best circumstances can fulfill this promise. So, “WST” asks “why?” In general, the answer is authority is too fragmented. We suggest Uncle Sam needs to help rearrange authority at all levels if stations are to help launch rail upgrades as officially planned. This short-hand summary proved useful analysis and is worth repeating: “Good Stations Have Good Real Estate Deals” (such as Grand Central) but “Better Stations Need Better Governance.”

Dis-organization is analyzed further. I name its condition “a Pecking Dis-order”  in the next chapter “What Is To Come.” I set a hypothesis for the series to test: American stations that improve do so because they started reforming how transit is governed. Our corollary; those that don’t improve as first planned, then must improve their governance that gummed-up the plans.

“Preview B” is this blog’s “Readers Digest” version analyzing how American policies keep stations from evolving. It looks briefly at the federal role and introduces the “social contract” to help regions develop commuting options.

“Preview C” looks more in-depth at three metros making progress because their region took small steps to change transit. (Denver, the Twin Cities and Philly.)

photos and research courtesy of Curbed Philadelphia

Why It Pays To Through-route. Philly is the only U.S. metro to convert its terminals. This helped transform its Center City. The progress this through-route investment buys is captured in the two photos above. The top photo in the 1950s has the Reading Terminal in the far left side and Pennsy’s Suburban Terminal as Philly started discussing how to connect the two. 

The color photo is 40 years later, about 12 years after the Connection had been made. Its success continues paying dividends by speeding up the next major redevelopment… around the Connection’s third station at 30th Street.

“Preview C” also discusses Denver, this decade’s most successful build-out. Most credit goes to its elected Regional Transit District. Their peak success is the airport-Union Station line; designed for the convenience of air travelers and exceeding ridership goals in its first two years. But unable to incentivize residents to commute, ridership lags in the RTD’s jurisdiction.  

Finally, we look at the Twin Cities. Its regional government experimented with different funding bodies that offer important lessons to other metros. The most recent lesson is its two urban counties kept their funding mechanism and are making quicker progress on their buildout; not burdened with the politics of suburban counties who pulled out of the funding body.


The run-through tracks (right purple) at LA’s Union Station (brown foreground) cannot afford to raise all ten tracks four feet to pass over U.S. 101; required, apparently, to accommodate truck heights. Or at least, that is my summary-surmise since there is official silence on which agency can, or will, trump the powerful trucking industry.

Because LA also struggles with declining train ridership, the chapter focuses on how California can devolve more authority. Specifically, how can the San Francisco – San Jose Corridor bring Caltrain to downtown SF as promised for their fancy new station.  Corridor reorganization offers two advantages. First, limited southern access to the SF peninsula means both highways can be tolled.  Second, Silicon Valley and the full Corridor is wedged between the Bay and the hills; creating great land values that can be exploited for Value Capture.  No agency has the power to mine that VC.

This chapter also shows how California’s evolution in devolving authority offers lessons to other multi-metro states such as Texas and Florida.

The next two chapters analyze the common problem of tunneling under downtowns to create high-capacity networks. At my last count, 15 of  Europe’s 17 major metros have converted most their terminals into through-stations…many using tunnels. Now largely complete, this capacity update has taken five decades. It was driven by reformed national authorities that, in turn, promote regional rail. 

Yet in this Century, American cities have only talked about the tunnels they know they must make. Here is our best chance to change that.

Who should help?   Worldwide, most capital districts have advanced transportation; usually structured by national authority. DC needs such a regime. This article looked to prototype federal power for Washington Union Station to serve as a proper through-station for a metropolitan system. If properly marshaled over a decade, this regional rail authority would reduce chronic peak stress on Metro. Yet without coherent authority, change is too slow. The impressive enthusiasm of the Station’s 2012 Plan faded. A superficial concourse update, the Plan’s Phase 1, was to be complete in 2017; it now looks like 2022. The Plan’s Phase 4 diagram (above) contains a circled “9,” the tunneled commuter through-run. Envisioned to start in the 2030s, its realistic start date is at least a decade later given the insufficient authority and funding. Since Metro’s recurring stress needs strategic help now, I sketched how a federal authority could start regional rail uniting the two fledgling suburban rail systems.

This type of authority also could help Baltimore’s still-struggling downtown get a central through-station. Bringing the NEC and two MARC lines through downtown requires a multi-mile tunnel.

Boston is more straight-forward. The overall effect of terminal conversion for the metro is best captured in the graphic. The left diagram shows how today’s limited train options terminate into uneasy transfers to Boston’s already over-burdened transit. On the right, we see how enriched commute options emerge by connecting the two termini with the North-South Rail Link proposal. Plans include adding a new CBD station.  While the project seems to have lost momentum due to lack of state agency collaboration, their website still is a model for any metro needing to organize citizens around connecting their main stations.

MassDot has lost legitimacy in connecting the two stations; having been the laggard a decade ago when the U.S. pushed this project. Having caused much more future expense, Mass DOT now should delegate authority to the region so it can borrow and generate revenue or tax. As part of the deal to rationalize governance, all needed state authority should be delegated to modernize the system into regional rail. Excellent proposals recently were made by Transit Matters. While a corridor-based transition strategy might help the politics of creating a true metro authority, I did not propose one for Boston as a different structure might be more useful to get this state to embrace the future and delegate as needed.

Map courtesy of Hudson River Tunnels Project factsheet.

It’s all bigger here. How far American trains have fallen, how ridiculous the Pecking Disorder has become and how far public and private interests have been misaligned and the consequences of this neglect are all most dramatically seen in the inability to add a new Hudson Tunnel to replace the one made 112 years ago without one public dollar. Severe authority dysfunction creates a potential threat several times more catastrophic than the collapsed PATH station after 9/11.  And, today’s threat is self-imposed.

With that as backdrop, this article proposes declaring a federal emergency that remakes the Hudson Tunnels properly; but also by preparing for a true regional rail that makes Penn a through-station for passengers to travel from NJ to Long Island. Since NJT trains are stored in Sunnyside Yard; a smart authority just adds passengers.

Like the DC Corridor, the Hudson-to-Long Island federal authority should make decisions with state agencies, or independent of them if needed to get the job done on-time and under-budget.  My article only outlined this seamless regional rail system tunneled under three bodies of water. But since it tunnels under America’s most valuable real estate, the potential is high for Value Capture and corridor-based financing. Because the Hudson Tunnels situation is getting dire, this Corridor probably will be the first detailed proposal of 2019.

photo above, courtesy of River Edge Ideas Lab.

Through-Corridor for America’s rail center. The next article analyzed Chicagoland. It proposed making an at-grade through-run from O’Hare Airport, connect the two main terminals and then take passengers to the convention center. That corridor-based proposal can serve as prototype for a more comprehensive solution by creating another main station between the old PO and the southern end of the currently-owned Amtrak yard which is ripe for redevelopment and Value Capture. The Second City’s main rail corridor (three miles long above) could maintain its status as America’s second busiest once it through-routes.


Concluding With Good News: It’s Possible To Build A New Deal

To repeat the summary in this article’s cover email: while there is no Deal for Alternatives to single-occupant cars, trains can help construct a new Deal for mid-to-long commutes. (You can even make this part of a “New Green Deal,” if you want.)

Each metro’s dysfunctional authority for transportation (what I called today’s “Pecking Disorder”) and their inefficiencies (misaligned interests) can be corrected by a new social contract. Many of this website’s proposed remedies are corridor-based and can inspire a new public confidence that will entrust new tax money… enough to evolve high-efficiency networks.

This simplification can overcome mis-alignments caused by transit’s monopoly and the car’s oligopoly… if there is a transfer of power from the state to the metro. These last five chapters increasingly found existing laws that can be pushed or brushed up. This started when I noticed how California is delegating more to its metros; so my “Caltrain Corridor” proposal seemed within bounds. In my state, Illinois just allowed Chicago to create transit corridor TIFs, including one for Union Station; so there is precedent for the corridor proposal and it just needs logical extension. 

A different set of laws will extend federal authority to rebuild Manhattan’s Tunnels as a through-network and integrate suburban DC systems. This requires a new politics which, hopefully, the new Congress seems to be birthing. 

While corridor alignments of authority and taxes are a way through the impasse, corridor officials require new forms of accountability if they are to succeed in their tasks; which include evolving to metropolitan based agencies.  

In concluding, it is worth the reminder of how other nations — our economic competitors — progressed by investing in through-routes. 

Certainly, the biggest mobility advantages belong to Japan and South Korea. But since American culture, its social contracts and laws are so different, the analogy is not helpful and is rarely used in this series.

Most comparisons were drawn from how Europe invested to convert its terminals into through-networks. As motivation to adapt these lessons to U.S. politics and circumstances, let’s remind ourselves of their benefits.

Western Europe’s through-routes help grow regional service, redevelop around stations and strengthen regional productivity. To achieve these benefits attributed to regional rail, Europe reformed its agencies and balanced policies more evenly between trains and cars. One of the best examples of this strategy was how ridership doubled from 1977 when the Paris region completed its core through-route until the end of the 20th Century. The investment continued to pay dividends in the 21st Century when ridership grew another 65% while population has grown only 14%.  (See Transport Politic, 4th graph.) 

Comparisons of policy goals may also provide motivation.  In the Paris and London through-routes, a key goal was to reduce stress on their subways caused by rail terminals. (Hint: New York and Boston.) The Milan and Madrid through-routes transformed mid-20th Century sub-centers into 21st Century centers (Hint: Los Angeles.) And Berlin S-Bahn trains intentionally helped re-unite citizens in the post-Cold War era. (Hint: Chicago citizens have proposed using trains to help heal its racial divide.)

While proving the technical feasibility and economic value of through-routing, European analogies will break down when thrown into the cauldron of U.S. politics.  Primarily, Europeans have strong national rails. Also, standards set by European Union Directives must be followed which include decentralizing national rail into subsidiaries. Overall, European policies are integrated and also promote regional rail. Recently, some policies even encourage competition. Authorities rebalanced. Interests realigned for the future.


Preview of Part 2: Commonwealth Progress and Better Lessons for U.S.  

Masthead for Toronto Union website promoting this destination for the downtown and region

A few British Commonwealth nations have a mid-20th Century Deal similar to the American Dream of owning a suburban home with cars as the dominant mobility mode. Yet recent successes in Australia’s three major cities and Toronto gives the U.S. clues to advance trains as an alternative.

Toronto is equal in population and geography to Chicago. Both Union Stations in the 1980s had a bleak future. Toronto’s remake as an urban destination and hub for a RER-like (Paris) high-frequency service makes it the only North American station triumph since the 1983 completion of Philly’s Center City Connection.

Part 2 looks at how Toronto’s Metrolinx agency functions with state (provincial) authority. While its ridership grew 11% in the last four years, Toronto’s trains passed Chicagoland’s per capita. As Toronto’s RER-like service begins attracting riders even faster, ridership in the Second City stagnates further.

Part 2 also draws lessons from Australia’s three major cities. They give me hope that new deals for transportation are possible. Consider this graph showing Australia’s per capita mileage (gray line) leveled off at 9,000 during the 38 year period until 2008 while its GDP grew by 47%. (Source, OECD Goodwin 2012b.)  

(I also detect a topic for our future discussion of U.S. household transportation costs. Does the blue line show how Americans spend their wealth buying depreciating assets by driving their cars about 40% more ?)

Part 2 also briefly explores Aussie and Canadian attitudes and policies that encourage mobility alternatives. This article from “CityLabs” on Canada is about public services, but is good backgrounder for both countries. From my travels and study, I’ve formulated a “Commonwealth Deal-Maker” that suggests how the U.S. may get a few clues for its transformation. I summarize three key factors.

1) States/provinces actually serve the city and metro. While most U.S. states have contentious relations with urban areas, provinces/states have only one large city and its politics invests in its urban money-maker. Practical.

2) Land Use control around stations is kept by the states. While working with communities collaboratively, the state ultimately chooses which stations will be the metro’s sub-centers who, generally, have superior TOD to the U.S. (But, let’s see how BART’s new powers work.) 

3) Good Government speeds up a new social contract for transportation. Derived from Canada’s principles of “Peace, Order and Good Government,” Australia shares the same motto and founding notion that taxpayers pay to get a service.  Isn’t that what a social contract is supposed to do ? 

courtesy of Slide Player

Part 3: So how do we get success in the land of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”?

Drawing on U.S. history to know what worked when major infrastructure last got built, consider the debate over Uncle Sam’s control over the gas tax during the 1930s. In the “position“ represented in the cartoon below, Uncle Sam was siphoning off too much gas tax, some 21% by the numbers offered. Yet, it worked out. The eventual Interstate Highway System was the marvel of the century. 

To shape the new century’s commuting alternative, Uncle Sam’s role still is key. In fact, I have little hope today’s legacy systems can be brought into the 21st Century unless federal laws empower regions to improve their learning curve and reduce their cost curve and, of course, the U.S. provides financing support.

Replace “gas tax” with “Uncle Sam facilitating Value Capture schemes” and we could have one of transportation’s essential 21st Century cash cows. Much depends on how we rearrange authority so interests work together again. While federal policy may lack nuance to solve specific region’s problems, the U.S. can and should do more to structure an alternative regime that rebalances authority so metros can realign interests to create more reliable alternatives to the car. 

And let’s not forget that legislative sensation starting the 116th Congress, the New Green Deal. It needs some policy meat on its bones. Know that legacy systems serve 25 of the 43 Districts flipped in 2018 by the Democrats.

So, let’s add it all up. 

What is the deal so American metros can use legacy systems to get more commuters off the roads and get people to 21st Century sub-centers ?

Answer that and we start making America’s Pecking Dis-order past tense. 


Preview E (Part 1): How Uncle Sam Can Help Tunnel Like Never Before

DCUS Akridge Dev, view west down H St

Rendering courtesy of Akridge Development, owner of air rights over the 1909 platforms. The green roofs compose DC’s proposed mini-city, Burnham Place. As fantastic as it looks, it cannot be built. First, the platforms below must be updated. But, there is no funding nor the political will to update to a global standard, despite the Capitol sitting one block away.

 

Washington DC, Baltimore and Boston have central stations that need a simple tunnel before trains can benefit each metro’s commuters as they should. While each metro talks about such a tunnel, none can dig one.

Why ?

Intuitively, we know why. Our trains and terminals operate much as when they entered bankruptcy in mid-century: under-invested, restrictive agencies, uneconomic transportation policies that support autos at the expense of developing alternatives for commuters.

After a quick analysis of how authority is in the wrong hands and often takes the wrong steps, this Preview proposes rearranging how we govern commuter trains so they stimulate growth around each central station and their network’s secondary stations so communities reap the benefits of transit more.

In the Big Picture solution, elected officials (and the people they appoint to transit agencies) might complete tunnels if they were held accountable to achieve a through-routed standard similar, let’s say, to that which benefits Europe. To create this needed discipline, this Preview of three chapters outlines a metropolitan body specialized to solve each region’s transportation problems; judiciously borrowing some tools from their partner, Uncle Sam.

Why is a metro authority necessary? The general answer is metro transportation rarely gets rationalized well by states; unless they are delegating that authority. (The previous Preview on California outlines the best progress.) In this century, the feds and some states are funding smaller shares of projects. We have just seen this trend’s big jump with Trump’s intent to make states fund shares they cannot afford. Clearer now than in 2017, authority must be rearranged if trains are even to keep the passengers they have. Real growth is unlikely.

The metropolis is the rational place for rearranged transportation authority if we expect trains to serve the public better and give an edge to economic growth. Outlined in this Preview, these three metros represent Uncle Sam’s best opportunity to help trains stimulate alternatives to auto commuting.

Symbols matter. For many reasons, the place to test and expand a metro regime is DC’s Union Station. (Hence, the station of the future is referred to as DCUS and the chapter will explain the strategy behind the abbreviation.) Instead of terminating two differing state systems as now, DCUS will center a redesigned network that serves one metro… much as the DC beltway was designed to rationalize vehicle traffic. Making the most of train assets also is pivotal to rationalizing the region and, indeed, making the Beltway work better.

But in today’s real world, the leverage of a productive asset won’t evolve because the station is broke. Despite having one of America’s most successful malls, Washington Union Station lacks funds for updates and, pitifully, stands hat-in-hand on the doorstep of an indifferent Congress and, now, a capricious Executive.

Congress is so negligent in delegating authority that the station’s concourse has devolved into a chronic peak hour congestion. More pressing for the region’s inner network, Metro is one of the nation’s most-stressed heavy rail systems. Expanding train service helps prevent Metro’s precipitous recent decline from recurring. Frequent through-service is a proven strategy to relieve the subways of Europe’s capitals, first Paris then Berlin and, recently, London.

But, help from trains has two obstacles. First, plans for a new concourse and platforms are un-funded. Second, the need to rebuild them first prevents the fantastic mini-city (rendered above) from being built and providing revenue via value capture.

Discussed in the DC chapter, stewards of public dollars also should update and expand the through-tracks to Virginia. A new through-route invests in a triple benefit of reducing concourse congestion, Metro stress and the region’s peak road traffic. Plus, it bolsters Homeland Security. Through-routing is not discussed seriously by agencies comprising the station’s Board.

For contrast, Paris achieved this innovation in the 1970s. Its trains grew into the region’s key alternative to the car, stimulated other options and focussed redevelopment around transit. Paris could do this because one body had authority. Berlin and London proved this again. It is a recipe for progress… and should be in the U.S.

The DC proposal can be adapted along the NEC. Let’s see at the next major stop.

Good States Struggle. To highlight how misaligned transit authority is, Maryland has one of the best DOTs. Yet, it cannot make a central station in downtown Baltimore. Contrary to common sense, Amtrak invested for three decades in rebuilding a station almost two miles from the heart of downtown. This also perpetuated the station’s approach; a tunnel opened in 1873 and the NEC’s second worst bottleneck. Both could be resolved with a central station downtown … if an agency was effective enough to dig a new tunnel through the downtown.

Smart States Struggle. Even the state with the brightest people cannot link its two terminals. Three governors have advocated a tunnel between Boston’s North Station and South Station. Despite trains being the best mode to relieve cobbled-together urban transit groaning under peak hour stress, MassDOT still killed a tunnel proposal a decade ago that even the USDOT wanted to study.

Overview Over. For the balance of this Part 1 (today) and all of Part 2 (tomorrow), I outline the case to rearrange authority so it works for these metros. To overcome chronic false starts in these three and other legacy cities, the federal government must partner with metropolitan agencies before they can modernize. A constitutional key is the federal authority to encourage inter-state commerce and apply it to multi-state metros. This power proves its legitimacy when it converts legacy terminals into through-networks which, in turn, stimulates commuting alternatives that generate more revenue and support regional redevelopment.

The policy proposals for these three metros contained in their respective three chapters will be posted in the Fall 2018. So, comment please now on their outlines. Thanks.

 

DCUS, capitol

Preview of Chapter 7 on DC Union Station: How A Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) Can Symbolize Dysfunction Does Not Reign

My 2014 photo above has a gauze-like image from scaffolds installed so masons could fix the dome’s cracks.  Metaphorical to me, some cracks represent how Congress avoids policies that will help diverse metros develop their commuting alternatives.

For example, serious cracks in transportation policy help explain why Union Station is broke. Contrasting to its 1990s success as an asset that stimulated one of urban America’s great renewal stories, Union Station never figured out how to finance its future. So despite its 2012 Master Plan being published with great hopes, it remains unfunded and congestion worsens.

Making the Station’s problems permanent, Trump’s plan pushes even more responsibility on fiscally unstable states. Since neither Virginia nor Maryland will adopt Washington’s Union Station, America’s best chance for transportation progress is an orphan. For those wanting reliable funding that advances transportation policy by decentralizing authority, the time is now and the place is DC.

Anyone hoping to lure the private sector into the hugely unprofitable business of moving commuters had better invent an authority to change entrenched commuting habits. For prospective private operators soon will learn they cannot succeed unless they work with an inventive agency that has the public’s support.

Will the region’s taxpayers step-up ? Only if new agencies are based on a new deal. Consider DCUS (the through-station) as the nation’s prototype.

First, let us briefly unravel how authority got misplaced. This chapter offers the cautionary tale from the 1980s deal that converted Union Station’s concourse into a hugely profitable mall. While saving the station from destruction, that deal shorted transit’s interest; given that mall deal set aside no money to update today’s inferior concourse. I also argue the station’s air rights were sold cheap; losing leverage to negotiate a win-win value capture scheme.

(If you want a quick backgrounder on the station’s history that must be overcome so DCUS can emerge, see the #1 question/station in the WST Quiz… It is about how today’s train station fantasies remain just that unless we govern them well. Take the Quiz, if you haven’t.)

Showing its sincerity, Trump’s proposal ignores the obvious solution to reconstruct governance so regions can solve these transportation problems that states have neglected for decades. A first experiment to craft regional transportation policies starts with the federal District. This “CityLab” article contains a good summary of DC’s gridlock caused by underinvestment in Metro, the region’s increasing population and congestion and the lack of a political body to act on these inter-related problems. The station’s aged caretaker (Amtrak) is no shape to redevelop tracks and platforms so DCUS can center a through-network. If a new agency can run through-tracks, the mini-city vision (rendered at the top of this Preview) can become reality.

While Amtrak and the USDOT lack regional nuance, they still can channel federal authority to metros. For that, the DC chapter in “What Stations Teach” will propose a prototype. A Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) could update the platforms/concourse, help make the Burnham Place mini-city into a success and even make an electric through-route to Virginia. CRTA would be a symbol to the nation that these problems, typical of our larger commuter systems, can be solved by rearranging regional transportation so the metro’s citizens have the incentive to fund and change habits.

Lost in America’s ideological civil war, we forget Uncle Sam’s purpose is to make sure everything works together to provide the best public service at the best value to taxpayers. Today, that includes new metropolitan agencies that can attract private capital. So that common metro mistakes can be best resolved (and most central stations fit that description), a federal rationale emerges to share solutions and adapt them to a region’s specific needs.

That rationale gets expanded further in Baltimore where Amtrak’s 8th largest station is almost two miles from its downtown.

 

Baltimore Penn, courtesy of WikiCommons

Courtesy of WikiCommons, this photo looks north past Baltimore Penn Station; showing its isolation.

Chapter 8 Preview on Baltimore: Amtrak’s Mistake And Uncle Sam’s Opportunity To Expand the Capitol Region Transportation Authority

As a clue to the problem, Amtrak is making its fourth attempt to convert two floors of Baltimore Penn Station (BPS) into a hotel. Three earlier attempts failed, partly, for the obvious obstacle that BPS is inconvenient to downtown. Nor will an agency correct Amtrak’s mistake made two decades ago when it abandoned downtown Camden Station and, instead, invested in the off-central BPS. If you think I overstate, consider a more balanced view of Penn’s positioning.

Nothing can ever change that Penn Station sits two miles from downtown nor that Camden Station could be a superior transit hub; serving several large downtown office buildings, nearby Harborplace, several other tourist attractions, the Convention Center, many large hotels, two medical centers and two athletic stadiums… all of which bring tourist money into a city that desperately needs more. Yet, Amtrak persists to invest in BPS; despite only really serving two nearby educational institutions that do not attract much outside money.

While pedestrians are often the largest source of passengers entering central stations, BPS is borderline hostile. It is wedged between its tracks and surface lot on the north while a highway divides it from its south. Compounding isolation, eastern and western streets are wide, one-way and fast-moving. Besides three educational and cultural institutions, the half-mile ped-shed to BPS mostly has residential neighborhoods, on average, struggling to stabilize.

A true custodian of public assets — or a supervisor of private operators — should find money to tunnel so trains they serve downtown redevelopment. A pressing incentive to resolve this should be the 113 year-old tunnels that emerge on both sides of BPS. They constitute the NEC’s second worst bottleneck and are shared by freight and a commuter line, MARC. After two decades of studies, Amtrak’s preferred route for the new tunnel is within two blocks of the old.

In earlier studies, a tunnel to downtown was suggested by consultants as an alternative. It was eliminated. Further illustrating Amtrak’s inability to make progress, a private proposal for a DC-Baltimore high-speed line connects to Camden Station; avoiding BPS as a non-direct route that does not serve downtown passengers.

Maryland has one of the better state DOTs. But with secondary powers incapable of creating a downtown hub and the required tunnels, MDOT, in my opinion, should advocate for a metro agency with federal powers to do the heavy lifting. How that gets organized so close to DC is discussed in this chapter. But as preview, the case is stronger for Congress to form a regional prototype using federal authority that can be extended to Baltimore. (Baltimore and DC are about to become the third largest metropolitan Combined Statistical Area, passing Chicagoland which has twelve commuter lines. Hence, a DC metro needs to use their five lines much better.)

So Baltimore realistically could be included in the Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) which eventually also should include northern Virginia’s commuter line so that DCUS through-tracks create a unified network. Not only would this reduce Metro’s stress, but it would show America that multi-state dysfunction does not reign in the new metropolitan regime.

A further adaptation based on the lessons of the CRTA can take place at the other end of the NEC in Boston where its talking for two decades has yet to produce a unifying tunnel.