Preview C: Stations That Improve Had Some Improvements In Regional Politics

Summary of 3 Sections. If a central station has improved its connectivity and capacity, it usually tracks back to the region improving its governance. Briefly, here is the story of three stations that improved because the metro sought to progress beyond the bankrupt lines they inherited.

  • 1. While Philadelphia’s three Center City stations (the nation’s only through-route) resulted more from municipal moxie, the region’s transit agency (SEPTA) moved out of caretaker mode in the early-1980s, made a few changes and was key to one of America’s most successful downtown redevelopments for older cities. Today, the region’s sub-centers can benefit from this key infrastructure if it is reorganized.
  • 2. One of the Twin Cities has a new central station; the other beautifully restored its station. Since the 1970s, the governor-appointed Metropolitan Council served as MPO and transit operator. But, it became distrusted. So voters created county-appointed Boards to invest a new sales tax to fund the transit build-out. That change seems to have run its course and regional reforms are needed to advance transit.
  • 3. Denver’s elected Regional Transit District (RTD) led a successful redevelopment of a historic station, an amazing urban repurposing of its train yard and a build-out of four new commuter lines. While the recession of 2009 nearly ended these plans, the RTD saved them by organizing some model PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships.)

Each story is detailed a bit in its respective mini-chapter below of 515, 496 and 712 words. In early 2018, each will have a lengthy article detailing further how the central station reflects the region’s governance and how each still can be improved.

 

Philly CCCC

The author took this east-west photo of the Center City model at Philadelphia’s Center for Architecture. The foreground begins the through-tunnel running under the main street. The SEPTA bi-color “S” approximates underground Jefferson Station, then midway is Suburban (also an “S”), then across the river is the 30th Street Station.

1) Philadelphia: Grow Your Assets From Good To Great

As the nation’s only commuter through-route, Philly figures prominently in November’s nutshell post of this “book.”  Another reason is SEPTA runs probably the nation’s best suburban system and is the major factor in Center City’s success. (But, I mention its colonial-era bones are amazingly well-suited for redevelopment in the sustainable era.)

Completed in 1983, the Center City Commuter Connection (CCCC) is a mere 1/2 mile four-track tunnel that converted a 19th Century terminal into a through-station. This connected to Suburban Station and created the possibility of the nation’s first through-network; similar to those benefitting almost all major metros in Europe.

Arising from Suburban’s underground  platforms you can see the 1930s east-west track  crossing the bridge to the monumental 30th Street Station that terminates Center City’s main street. Since it already is a dual direction through-station (made by Amtrak’s north-south NEC), 30th Street will become the nation’s most effective large hub after the planned update resolves its connectivity problems.

For your background, the first article and scorecard of “The Urbanophile” series posted in September 2013 focusses on the CCCC. Since then, little has changed for trains. Then as now, SEPTA only uses its through-route at about half its potential peak capacity. Primarily used to bring suburbanites downtown, trains should instead be used to help build sub-regional centers and their TOD. For example, a very small percent of passengers use CCCC advantageously for non-Center City destinations.

My take-away from this link is SEPTA — without power or funds to design a modern system — resigned itself to the pre-CCCC pattern of radial lines terminating downtown … as designed for the late 19th Century by the Reading and Pennsylvania railroads.

SEPTA’s obstacles to 21st Century rail standards are many: inadequate regional authority, an unconcerned state, a train union that resists progress and chronic fiscal crises that have piled-up almost two decades of deferred maintenance.

But, Philly offers us an important lesson. Symbolically, CCCC connects at City Hall and was made possible by Mayor Rizzo’s political will. Long-term mayoral focus paid off as CCCC played a key role in one of America’s most successful downtown revitalizations. But relative to Philly’s high poverty rates in many neighborhoods, the next focus of political will should help trains redevelop sub-centers.

This chapter suggests how redeveloping 30th Street Station and its surrounds into an extension of Center City can lead to policies that transport people to other redeveloped sub-centers. More important, this chapter suggests how Center City needs Manhattan’s advantage of more easily levying higher bridge and tunnel fares to pay for maintenance. These and other car usage fees also increase train use and revenue.

Probably posted in March 2018, this chapter concludes with the website’s theme: the authority SEPTA lacks is common to other multi-state major Metros on the Northeast Corridor. Before they can change commuting patterns significantly, NEC metros also will benefit if their states devolve parts of transportation authority. Uncle Sam must encourage this while also setting a federal standard for funding regional trains that makes through-networks. This is explored further in Preview D for Chapters 4, 5 and 6.

 

Twins Stadium

The author’s photo of the light rail hub as a destination spot and Target Field. A minimal commuter rail station is on the other side of this light rail hub overpass.

2) Twin Cities: Counties Pick Low-Hanging Fruit, But What Grows Ridership?

In two decades, Minneapolis budded into a transit metropolis. Key is the above hub that repurposed an old warehouse district and rebuilt it into a mixed use neighborhood, an entertainment district that includes Target Field (where the Twins play) and the multi-purpose indoor Target Center. Supporting all this is transit and car infrastructure.

Continuing this display of nearly picture-perfect planning, a revitalized downtown is two stops away via light rail. So with sufficient evidence, The Metropolitan Council, the seven county planner and transit operator, boasts that the transit build-out has attracted private investment for TODs around the Target complex, in both downtowns and, increasingly, at other light rail stations.

Their transit network grew mostly after a new deal with taxpayers. Distrust with the governor-appointed Metro Council resulted in five counties forming the County Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) whose job was to invest a 2008 sales tax for transit.

Recently, CTIB dissolved as a Joint Powers Board. Two counties composed by the Twin Cities and inner suburbs are moving forward with fewer restraints. They have increased their sales tax to continue the build-out. With CTIB’s other three counties in a muddle, events support the “WST” theme that county-based agencies do not satisfy taxpayers that live further from transit and that property-based revenue helps strike a better deal.

Other signs indicate the CTIB could not step-up to a sustainable strategy. The newest light rail line is unexpectedly slow in connecting the Minneapolis hub to the restored St. Paul Union Depot. (While St. Paul’s downtown also has revitalized, its improvements are less impressive and its transit use has grown slower than its Twin.) With the light rail network’s build-out completed, ridership grew… but now seems stable relative to the metro’s growth. The only commuter rail line stayed under 3,000 daily riders for its first decade. (A consensus is the line does not extend to the major sub-regional center of St. Cloud because its rural county did not join the CTIB.)

This chapter argues that while the Twin Cities competently laid track, current agencies cannot deliver an economic alternative to the car. Often suffering dysfunction caused by an otherwise rural state running more interference than is healthy, the Twin Cities are at a pivot point about how restructuring governance can take transit to the next level.

This chapter proposes moving authority away from appointed officials and county-based councils, which includes rail authorities. Instead, elect a Board to head an authority that also gets advocacy powers for overall transportation policy (gasoline taxes, leveling the subsidy field and redeveloping greater TOD as transit’s new tax base.)

Such ideas are further developed in the chapters covering the innovations being tested in Denver and the Bay Area.

 

Denver Infill

Photo courtesy of Denver Infill. Visit their blog entry to see how this nearly vacant train yard transformed from 4 years ago into the mini-city above.

3) Denver Union Station: Why Elections Matter

By the standards of mid-sized and large American cities, Denver’s transit transformation has no rivals… certainly for speed and completeness and likely regional complement by its growing Transit Oriented Development. Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) has two strategic innovations: its elected Board and PPPs. Both help explain its rapid ascent as a transit metropolis that aspiring metros should consider.

First, the RTD’s Public Private Partnerships worked as well as could be hoped for. They leveraged public money to attract sufficient private borrowings to restart the build-out. PPP efficiencies also sped-up the remake of Denver Union Station into a destination, its surroundings into a successful mixed use neighborhood and a dedicated line to the airport into a success that shines compared to the troubled efforts of far larger metros.

Using public capital generated from a 2004 sales tax initiative (called FasTracks), the RTD started construction of its rail networks.  But, huge cost-over-runs emerged. Worsened by reduced sales tax revenue from the 2008 recession, FasTracks faced stoppage and would lose credibility with taxpayers. So with elections holding representatives accountable, RTD structured PPPs to resume the build-out. An added public benefit was private partners held to budgets noticeably better than the RTD had when it managed construction.

Denver is widely regarded as turning its derelict station into a model transportation hub. Capping this consensus in 2015, Denver Union Station (DUS) received the prestigious Global Award for Excellence from The Urban Land Institute. ULI’s Award noted how well DUS, RTD and resulting PPPs were converting 22 acres of rail-yards and an under-utilized warehouse district into a mixed-use extension of the downtown.

While enthusiastic in its boosterism, Denver Infill’s website is worth a look to see how the central station’s surroundings and the metro’s sub-regional TOD are being stimulated. The “instant urbanity” encouraged by Denver’s trains make it the most likely (by far) to get the nod for Amazon’s 2nd HQ, so far the competition of this Century.

During 2017, Denver’s four light rail lines were joined by DUS’ third commuter line. The looming 2008 failure has been turned into a network; all guided by RTD’s elected Board. While it is too soon to tell if enough metro taxpayers will get out of their cars and take advantage of transit by becoming regular passengers, this chapter speculates that RTD’s next strategic innovation is to advocate for complete transportation policies.

On the finance side, it also is too soon to tell if the RTD’s performance is good enough to change the bond market’s lack of trust in tax increment and Value Capture deals. While still needing to test transit’s help to moderate future real estate slow-downs, Denver is, for now, a boom-town once again. But if the RTD can lead Denver through the 2008 real estate depression, it probably has the metro-moxie to work through future recessions.

All of which makes me pine for an answer: “How do they do that?”

I add this question because some of Denver’s success defies logical explanation. If electing a transit Board actually turns them into risk-takers and problem-solvers, why do legislative elections continue to produce such terrible results nationwide?

Part of the answer is Colorado is known as a “good government” state that delivers results. For the metro’s RTD, voters apparently elected clean politicians who used campaigns to discuss transportation issues instead of legislators using campaigns as opportunities for wanton character assassination. Carrying problem-solving into office, RTD’s Board “thought outside the box” to deliver an alternative network.

As agencies nationwide fumble to develop alternative delivery methods and PPPs, the RTD’s unprecedented performance lends credence to the emerging maxim: “when private capital is involved, better decisions are made with public funds.”  To extend that maxim, other states should establish metro agencies with clean elections that reinforce a new deal with taxpayers and deliver 21st Century networks.

Preview For Multi-Metros. Besides being Colorado’s economic engine, Denver also is its Capitol. Thus, the RTD’s authority to innovate could be monitored closely. But, multi-metro states have a different dynamic and need a different model for devolving state authority. For that, we next analyze how metropolitan transit is evolving in California. Because major stations are struggling for their new life in the Bay Area and LA regions, Preview D looks at how California can devolve authority faster… with possible applications in more multi-metro states such as Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.

 

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