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

Part 2, Boston & Beyond: How Uncle Sam Can Help Metros Tunnel Like Never Before

WikiCommons, postcard of South Station

Courtesy of WikiCommons, this 1908 postcard of the seemingly immutable South Station also shows the Atlantic Elevated (running up the right side) that connected South and North Stations in a Bostonian roundabout way… until it was torn down in 1938.

In the 80 years since, Boston has talked about reconnecting these terminals. But all the talk has not improved the awkward and inefficient transfers that still inconvenience both today’s Amtrak customers and commuters of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. (MBTA is an agency of MassDOT; both controlled by the Governor.)

The consequences of not integrating the two central stations are many and show how badly transportation is governed… in even a good government state.

In the Big Picture, poor connections hamper train service to the three northern New England states (Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont); isolating them ‘de facto’ from transportation alternatives. A modern federal standard should require the efficiencies of through-service.

Of more immediate concern, MBTA commuter rail ridership peaked in 2006 at 141,000 weekday trips and has dropped about 10% … despite the region growing about 8%. With those numbers going in opposite directions instead of rising together, road congestion worsened. Couple that with urban transit at peak hours continuing to over-crowd. Transit is a less attractive option when it should be more of an alternative to counter the costs of car commuting.

Despite the state’s knowledge of all this, it seems powerless to stop this negative multiplier effect; in part because its policies are biased to cars. For example, it has built several tunnels to bring cars downtown; the last major one being the notorious Big Dig. Yet, a tunnel to unite two train systems into one network has been an obvious solution for decades. Under current law, Massachusetts is responsible for ignoring the obvious. New laws must rebalance authority so transportation progresses.

With persistence from former Governor Michael Dukakis, a civic coalition organized to support this new tunnel. Their case for how the tunnel can unify the system is made on their website. (Offering a comprehensive solution and using examples of game-changing tunnels made by America’s economic competitors, this website is a model for other civic groups seeking solutions.) Despite the economic and social benefits for this North-South Rail Link, the NSRL faces delays (mostly from the state), added costs and possible interference from MassDOT’s intent to use a nearby postal facility to expand South Station. In my view, NSRL is the strategic accelerant… perhaps a multiplier for train modernization in New England.

Yet, the state has not committed to modernizing its trains; whether it is hybrid electrification or even uniform boarding platforms. A solid modernization is proposed by Transit Matters’ excellent study Regional Rail for Metropolitan Boston. (Boston is the only metro I know of that has two civic groups producing high-quality transit proposals.) Read the report’s details. But, the key issue is that state dithering raises the price to taxpayers for all aspects of modernization.

Worse is how state dithering reduces revenue. MassDOT’s unclear policy dampened a decade of serious plans to build above Boston’s three main stations (South, North and Back Bay) using their air rights. Other significant property tax revenue (which could help fund the train tunnel) is lost because state support for a through-route is not reliable. Failing to modernize and unite the two systems suppresses property value growth near main stations because nearby buildings are less convenient for shoppers and employees. There is a similar suppression around the metro’s other larger stations.

Chapter 9 details how even a competent state DOT cannot make a tunnel a mere 1.6 miles long despite the multiple benefits of uniting the two systems, improving commuter options and unleashing transit’s support for property redevelopment. By keeping trains constrained within 19th Century terminals, trains cannot contribute to other social solutions; such as TOD land use patterns to help reduce Boston’s shortage of affordable housing.

While the region needs to innovate its governance, the related core obstacle of a new deal to modernize is the difficult dynamic created by Boston transit users. When their service goes bad, the colorful complaints have few rivals across the nation. When Massachusetts finally tries to improve service with a fare increase, complaints escalate. With no one liking the old deal, the cobbled condition of Boston transit resists real solutions.

However, we need to recognize that colorful complaints are really a reaction to too-tight state control of transit agencies. It is time for Massachusetts to loosen its grip.

To start resolving such a state of distrust, perhaps we actually can make something of Trump’s infrastructure proposal. Ideological and possibly designed to postpone solving commuter problems, Trump’s proposal would make states pay way more than they ever could. But, Trump really only accelerates a trend for much of this century. In laying bare the real decline in federal funding, Trump actually creates opportunities for overhauling how we govern transportation. Since Boston has such high land values and can afford the capital costs required of better transit, they should propose an alternative deal in which the metro pays for more but also gets the authority to modernize transit.

But no body wants to pay for transit under the current regime. So, consider offering taxpayers a new deal that goes something like this: if the metro were given taxing and usage fee authority to raise money and improve transportation, then Massachusetts would not have to pay the 70-80% as Trump proposed… or not even the 30% it probably pays today. In structuring this deal correctly, the state in theory could pay as little 0% eventually.

But for this to ever happen, the state must give up authority so the metro can solve problems. To do its job, the agency needs Uncle Sam’s authority and bonding to organize private partners.

In this new deal, there must be a believable promise to taxpayers that a rail tunnel connecting North and South Stations won’t end up ridiculously over-budget and poor quality …. as was Boston’s Big Dig (which, evidently, is still stuck in the civic craw.) In brief, a NSRL-like tunnel and other supporting train upgrades really need a civic campaign that promises a new deal selling the benefits of a true transit alternative to cars… and, more important, an agency that can deliver. Only then can Boston break its cycle of colorful complaint.

That deal is only believable from an elected, accountable regional agency. More of its details are developed in the chapter.

 

Uncle Sam, courtesy the Printable Holiday

clipart courtesy of The Printable Holiday

Moving U.S. Forward. The rationale for Uncle Sam helping the Boston and DC/Baltimore metros is clear: their through-tunnels are infrastructure of strategic federal importance. Better yet, these tunnels test methods to overcome two fundamental flaws in federal domestic policy.

The first is a federal failure to prototype. There are too many examples of Congress passing laws and requiring all cities to follow them before we even have results to know if it is a good law that the next generation can afford. Pick your example of policy: public housing, interstate radials encouraging sprawl and segregation of uses. All created multi-decade mistakes; avoidable if policy had been prototyped so consequences could be known and adapted for.

The second policy failure is when Congress dumps responsibilities on states and they are the wrong size to solve local problems. With the feds wiggling out of their traditional 80% capital costs and Trump whittling the wiggle radically further, states — increasingly insolvent — have their largest incentive in history to right-size transportation authority to metros. This evolution needs a bump from U.S. law and funding incentives. This includes structuring a new deal of accountability to local taxpayers and commuters who will pay the new costs.

In a more specific vein, the multi-state metros such as DC and New York City have a stronger rationale for the force of federal law; particularly after the U.S. starts declaring these key stations, their tracks and tunnels to be “infrastructure of immediate national significance.”

Focussing federal power should end the repeated false starts and different levels of government sabotaging something as fundamental as replacing the Hudson Tunnel that connects the world’s largest financial center to the rest of the country. This initial federal rationale also includes national security: such as modernizing and protecting the tunnel that runs through the Capitol grounds to Virginia.

In our toxic and irrational politics, we will need to mollify advocates of states rights currently ruling the roost. But what shapes a deal over the next decade is to let states off the hook for funding the impossible burden proposed in the Trump plans.

Since the 1980s, the federal trend of sticking states with obligations they cannot afford nor solve is a lose-lose for everyone. With many states in imminent insolvency, we have a chance to restructure transportation so each metro can raise the funds it needs to solve its congestion.

Uncle Sam reducing his share of funding (the carrot.) In return, an effective deal must give the force of enough federal law (the stick) so each metro can raise missing capital and to modernize the service for commuters so taxpayers get value and private operators at least come out whole. For that, a metro agency must increase operating revenue by rebalancing the economic choices between cars and transit.

This Preview just outlined the differences in solutions for Boston, Baltimore and DC. Details in their chapters use Uncle Sam to smooth the required power transfer from states to metros. The New York metro has similar problems, but needs its own Preview to explain its slightly more complicated deal… which includes using the President’s Bully Pulpit to achieve progress.

Transport Politic, NY trains integrated, 09

Late April’s Preview: The Politics of Drawing Lines. The map above is a collaboration synthesized by two top American experts in regional rail. In 2009, Alon Levy wrote two articles for “The Transport Politic.” This schematic brings synergy to three separate rail systems. Consider this as New York’s multiplier for train modernization. Despite current law forbidding such economic logic, drawing two simple through-routes, theoretically, helps prepare Big Apple trains for the 21st Century. Pivotal.

One through-route tunnels from Grand Central Terminal to Penn Station (10 blocks.) Its capacity-building potential has been well-known for this century.

The second line connects Atlantic Terminal and Hoboken with a stop at the Fulton subway hub in the financial district. (Admittedly, this inter-modal multiplier is longer, a six mile tunnel.) But, NYC must relieve peak hour stress on its aged subway. Through-routed commuter trains remain the most effective solution to this metro’s particular geographic — and political — transportation challenges.

Those who run the metro’s tri-state byzantine transit agencies never got the above memo, or independent expert thinking or even the drawing. Or at least, they never considered these solutions seriously; particularly since there were tensions (typically derived from national ambitions) between the Governors to whom these Authorities owe their jobs. Nor in the nine years since the lines were drawn could these divergent Boards start integrating three large systems. While this misalignment of authorities prevents efficient solutions, even current service is threatened increasingly by crisis.

That crisis now looms close with Trump’s intent to block the update of the Hudson Tunnels by reducing the USDOT’s 50% contribution. This 50% was a deal made by a previous Congress and Administration. Already stressed at 25% each, New York and New Jersey must think outside the box that policy has trapped them.

In this context of dysfunction and broken deals, the NYC Preview (due to post in late April) explores how this mega-metro can restructure its affairs so politicians do not sink, yet, a fourth plan in sixteen years to replace these Tunnels. Protecting the nation’s financial center from a transportation catastrophe must start now. Even if USDOT were to honor their 50% commitment (and the courts probably will force this), the Tunnels would not be replaced until 2026 at the earliest. Since there were three Nor’easters this past March, each one that hits the Hudson increases the chances this new tunnel would not be completed before the aged 1908 inheritance becomes unusable.

Uncle Sam will come to the rescue; but not with a moneybag to fill the gap. Rather, we must evolve a federal intent to shape 21st Century metropolitan policy of which transportation is key.

 

The Final Preview: Overcoming The Weak State. Chicagoland is blessed: it doesn’t even need a tunnel to connect its two adjacent terminals to start developing a higher capacity commuter through-network. Amtrak already through-runs on the edge of the Chicago River. Its two tracks merely need to be doubled and shared with commuters.

But such blessed simplicity is also damned by Illinois being flat-broke and piling-up two decades of deferred maintenance; including rail-cars built in the 1970s. Far worse, ten commuter lines are not electrified; ignoring global standards. Such neglect, not surprisingly, diffuses the key goal of using trains as an economic multiplier. Chicagoland labors inefficiently while new taxes go to pay past bills instead of investing in the future. Damned.

As salvation, this metro may be the most ripe for a new deal with its solitary state. This chapter proposes a deal that Illinois cannot refuse; given its debilitating chronic fiscal mismanagement.

 

Concluding Moving Forward. These last two previews will describe the nation’s two worst stations and why they only can be updated to a global standard if Uncle Sam is a true partner in re-delegating state transportation authority to the metropolis. For these and most legacy systems, it is at the metro level where policy can develop the land use subtleties required to reduce road congestion and household mobility costs. These are two key rationales for government moving us toward more sustainable transportation policies. Let’s get the prototypes right.

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.

Preview B, The Readers’ Digest version: How Stations That Improve Tell Us How To Improve Networks (And How Stations That Are Not Improving, Don’t)

The U.S. stands alone… but, no longer as a beacon for transportation.

As one of the best tools to cope with urban congestion, commuter train modernization is accelerating worldwide… except in the U.S.  As the key infrastructure showcasing its industrial might in this century, China’s inter-city trains soon will rival Japan’s. Curiously, Japan’s commuter rail remains the world leader for five decades because the rail companies frequently owned the land around the stations. This synergy is what the U.S. has lost and restricts our urban redevelopment.

By modernizing policy, Europe largely has modernized its regional mobility. Their decades-proven formula starts by updating stations into destinations or malls, converts terminals into through-stations, redevelops nearby buildings and, as ridership grows, improving frequency and the quality of trainsets. Showing healthy transportation economics, most of these countries subsidize the car less and charge it higher user fees than the U.S.

Attention to policy pays off. For example, this assertive pattern modernized Paris regional trains so much that they have 712% more passengers than similar-sized Chicagoland, the U.S. rail center and annual contender for America’s largest commuter system… but whose ridership growth is stagnant relative to population growth.

Explanation?  Starting in 1969 and finishing by 1982, Paris’ system tunneled under four of its six terminals, converting them into through-stations while making seven new stations. All these assets were combined into one regional network that served to re-generate the inner-city and reduce stresses on the subway and surface streets.

As contrast, Chicago in 1984 started talking about connecting two terminals. Since then, we’ve spent lots renovating terminals, but built zero new inner-city stations. While lacking the authority of law, a 2010 consensus Plan at least made a top regional priority of converting two adjacent terminals into through-stations. While Europeans know they can do this, no Chicagoans I know honestly believe there are funds for this game- changing tunnel … despite it being short and offering a high return on public investment.

Paris achieved in 13 years what Chicagoland officials only could talk about for 33. And what is the cost of talk? A Paris-quality train modernization is required for Chicagoland to compete in the global era. Only now, those mobility efficiencies will require the metro to invest at least twice as much in real dollars as Paris did.

While Chicagoland’s backwardness may seem extreme, it describes the U.S. pattern of almost no progress. Progress is prevented  by governments we keep supporting. But, they no longer support us. The longer we wait to fix our trains, the more expensive the fix. Trains remain our leading technological antidote to regional car congestion.

We start with the positives. Americans are good at redeveloping property near stations. Chicago, Boston, DC, San Francisco and Manhattan’s Westside are all improving real estate within walking distance of their central terminals. Many are magnificent buildings that help shape desirable urban settings. All these talents need to be applied to redevelop sub-regional centers.

However if we analyze why those talents spread too slowly, we can accelerate sub-center regeneration. Progress in urban real estate is rarely served by transit adequate enough for smart growth. Improving transit is secondary and, typically, gets sacrificed from plans. Agencies often neglect to improve — and probably cannot improve adequately — their transit networks. Central terminals remain so. Capacity does not keep pace with growth. Car congestion in the downtown — and the roads leading there — persists.

So to advance this essay, let’s cut-to-the-chase and ask this question. Since their purpose is to serve as a transportation hub, why can’t American terminals convert to the 21st Century standard of a through-station?

You know the answer: Mayors control land use and do so to gain their cities short-term revenue by improving buildings near stations. Yet, urban mayors cannot modernize train networks to increase capacity and, thus, cannot redevelop network sub-centers or their potential long-term tax revenue. And why can Europe? Because one agency typically has superior authority; guiding other agencies to work in synergy.

Thus trains, one of our best technologies to decrease highway and subway congestion is under-utilized. Also lost is a key tool to increase value in the network’s sub-centers.

How to utilize trains better is a theme of “What Stations Teach.” To organize this nutshell, Preview B has a first grouping that includes the transit start-ups of the Twin Cities, Denver, San Jose and LA. All impressively are improving real estate around their station. But with too little transit at the end of the 20th Century, these cities struggle to improve transit service enough to get commuters out of their cars.

The key question revolves around economic incentives: how can a region invest new capital smarter so its trains gain enough market share to reduce car congestion?

More and more advocates argue this answer: if transit were funded more by car usage fees and, thus, leveled the subsidy playing field, then commuters would take transit. Our charge: rebalance the economic incentives.

Intuitively, many also know this sustainable transportation “formula” has the same strategic solution: move toward a regional governance that increases transit effectiveness by increasing usage fees until congestion is tolerable.

This discussion now involves the above hopeful image. Compared to other plans, The 30th Street Station Plan will become more fact than fiction. The reason is simple:

Philly’s 30th Street is one of about ten dual through-stations in the western world and the only one in North America. Hence, global capital will flock to invest in its surrounding real estate. (Dual through-stations have north-south and east-west through-routes.)

While it will have real estate success, 30th Street teaches us key factors in improving regional transportation.

In The Big Picture, clear majorities of American urban dwellers want car congestion reduced. Yet, Philly’s 26% who take transit to work has hovered around that for two Census. Why? Well… Philly’s metro has not changed how it uses trains to get its taxpayers to work. Without an increase in regional authority, the 30th Street “Plan” is mostly likely to bring far more cars to what is now an extension of Philly’s Center City.

So… even America’s only through-station will not reduce congestion because the Philly metro lacks proper authority to develop economic incentives to reduce car usage.

So goes the story with stations in the next five chapters. Similar to 30th Street, they had under-utilized rail yards and rebuilt them as mixed use developments that extend the urban core. And all have a marginal reduction in road congestion because a big city mayor cannot make the most effective changes in overall transportation policy.

Daily road congestion is our best strategic case for metropolitan government. (Stormwater is the emergency case.) Excessive traffic wastes more time and money than any daily household item when considering that cars depreciate quickly. Most citizens fuming-in-traffic intuitively know this failure of self-government. But, poorly presented solutions are either too long-term (sprawl takes decades to reverse) or seem like a sacrifice (use the car less.)

Hence, the best way to explain how to reorganize transportation authority is to analyze the continuing frustrations to modernize the connectivity and capacity of central stations. Terminals are our brick-and-mortar microcosms to redo the pieces of daily transportation so we unclog roads and raise household savings.

These microcosms help us put the pieces back together. A proper through-station is the engineer’s prototype to test greater capacity. It also is the reformers’ example of how to change backward commuting behavior. As a multi-benefit response to the increasingly posed equity equation, trains save households money and redevelop sub-centers.

As we build momentum to break out of transportation’s late 20th Century spider-web, the most hopeful lessons in evolving metropolitan policy come from our modest successes in station updates. Where those systems converge, we create mode synergy that spreads. From the coming six chapters, this Preview cites some central station positives and also details how to modernize each system so it also redevelops sub-regional TOD.

 

The Nutshell Version Of The 6 Chapters On Stations That Are Changing… And How They Can Help Us Right-size Transportation Authority From States To Metros

For those who only have time for the double-short version, here are how the next six chapters illustrate the problems and solutions to evolve metropolitan transportation.

1) Philadelphia Center City through-stations were made mostly by municipal moxie. Center City redeveloped robustly near those three stations whose location is obvious in the above photo. Conversely obvious, sub-regional centers have benefited little from rails; despite there being 147 other stations. Ridership is only 10% above 1970s levels during bankruptcy. Pennsylvania’s legislature has been increasingly hostile to Philly utilizing its train tools. Lesson: the benefits of a through-system don’t grow unless the state allows the system to modernize and redevelop sub-regional centers.

2) The Twin Cities represent American metros’ most common pattern. This county-based transit build-out is analyzed to see how they and others can evolve. Having harvested the low-hanging fruit of a new network and two central stations, Twin Cities transit has clear growth limits (particularly for trains) under the current multi-county, legislative-meddled, governor-appointed regional council. Lesson: metro governance needs broader authority created by more democracy.

3) The antidote is obvious in Denver’s elected Regional Transportation District. The RTD produced the nation’s best transit progress recently. But one decade ago, it was stuck in a fiscal crisis that would have killed the promise of trains. So this Board, accountable to taxpayers, innovated and opened four commuter lines. The airport line exceeded goals in its first year; pleasing passengers and private partners. They rapidly are transforming around Union Station and a few suburban stops. Lesson: more democracy yields transportation progress, prosperity and property tax revenue.

 

SPUR map shows BART

4) SF’s failure to bring trains downtown proves only metro authority can improve trains significantly. While the San Francisco Bay Area (above) has our best transit west of Manhattan, Caltrain failed to achieve this regional priority of connecting downtown SF to the Silicon Valley. SF also represents the nation’s fumbling trend to fund transit by collecting from landowners who benefit most (called Value Capture or VC.) SF offers a cautionary tale to every city that VC cannot replace significant public capital unless this new tax is legitimized by effective, re-structured agencies.

5) Making VC work for SF is part of a new deal for the Caltrain Corridor. While suburban TOD has grown and San Jose’s Google campus could be a breakthrough, the real opportunity is to reorganize the Corridor’s transportation so it is as intelligent as the industries it serves. To avoid the county-based resistance, this proposal is corridor-based and encourages PPPs to redevelop the corridor and grow ridership.

6) The LA region struggles to use rails to reduce car congestion. While California’s devolution of authority happens faster in its north, LA has great potential to use trains as a mobility alternative in America’s most sprawled metropolis. This requires getting past the region’s Edifice Complex for central stations and resetting transportation economics so commuters use cars less. This chapter proposes California’s further devolution and gives multi-metro states — such as Texas and Florida — a hopeful prototype.

To conclude these six chapters, transportation authority can rebalance from states to metros. By analogy, we have precedent for states creating authority at lower levels. When rapid industrialization required giving municipalities authority to segregate uses, 1926 documents show this emanated from Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and spread quickly as a ‘de facto’ federal policy. While this was consensus for the 20th Century, our unintended consequences today of segregated uses is they add to unnecessary congestion. Until mixed uses start to become a suburban norm (which will take many decades), trains can relieve road-stress in the short-term and accelerate mixed-use suburban centers in the mid-term. And all this gets sped-up if federal policy helps devolve state power to shape an elected metropolitan body politic for transportation as a test to solve these entrenched problems. The NEC is ripe for that test.

 

How Stations That Are Not Changing Can Be Used To Help Rearrange Authority Within States And Between States (Chapters 7 to 12)

Updating Uncle Sam’s funding incentives could give sufficient guidance so legacy trains are modernized for this era. Federal grants could be contingent on transferring state authority to an elected metropolitan council which, in turn, can tax to pay for the huge backlog for a “state of good repair” and, then, real improvements.

To create leverage against state resistance, Uncle Sam also needs to prevent states from interfering with national priorities. His role as interstate coordinator emerges in Chapters 7 to 11 with a more detailed proposal in Chapter 12. (For your reading convenience, this proposal first is summarized in Preview E which focuses on solving the common problems of Amtrak and commuter legacy rails.)

Particularly important in today’s policy discussions are the “privatization” of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (its map above.) Covered in Chapters 7 to 10, the NEC’s key stations also center major commuter lines. Integrating both services in those stations realistically has become an equal national necessity. As public assets, these stations must be invested in as part of the NEC’s privatization deal. Preview E and chapters 7 to 10 will suggest how both can take place concurrently. (Inside note: This “privatization” proposal is unlikely to be good policy for the public or private interests unless this new policy also levels the subsidy playing field by charging higher intercity car tolls and flight fees.)

In each remaining station’s chapter, our goal is to expand the policy discussion and remind Congress that commuters are the primary passengers in the same stations the NEC uses. And whether or not Congress permits the deal to privatize NEC operations, commuters still need a new deal so multi-state metros can reorganize trains and use them properly to move the nation forward for the coming era.

7) DC Union Station can send this message: dysfunction does not reign. To reorganize this multi-state metro and utilize one of the best methods to reduce stress on its subway, this chapter proposes a Capital Region Transportation Authority. CRTA’s focus is strategic investments. One connects Maryland’s commuter system to Virginia’s by converting DCUS into a through-station.

8) Baltimore’s Penn Station does not serve this struggling downtown; but it can get service. By extending the CRTA, our proposal gives Baltimore and the NEC what they need: a passenger tunnel downtown that also fixes the NEC bottle-neck. This CRTA extension also becomes a modular prototype to extend the CRTA south to Richmond and, in this season of hope, re-unite the nation’s two halves !

9) Boston suffers Big Dig-phobia. Uncle Sam should help dig the tunnel to convert Boston terminals into through-stations and make New England’s true transit hub. Massachusetts apparently lacks the political authority for a multi-decade integration of the commuter network.

10) NYC’s “new” Penn Station is a terminal and will do little to increase capacity. Dysfunction imposed by state agencies not only has hugely endangered the region’s economy with probable tunnel failure, the failure to convert Penn to a through-station also causes Grand Central Terminal’s capacity to be underutilized. Thus, our proposal uses Uncle Sam to do what advocates have talked about for decades; but, have not got government to respond. Congress should help set up a regional authority to make two tunnels through Manhattan proposed by advocates. First, the new Gateway should be extended to Grand Central and, then, to Jamaica. Second, Atlantic Terminal should be connected to downtown Brooklyn, then lower Manhattan/Fulton and on to Newark. This will relieve stress on Manhattan’s congested subways and network several sub-regional centers.

 

11) My native Chicagoland gets the most radical proposal. Because its state is broke, discredited, endlessly corrupted and has breached so badly the social contract, this requires a federal takeover of metropolitan trains that, then, sets up an authority called TRIB, the Taxpayers Regional Investment Board. One of TRIB’s jobs will connect three of the above terminals with twelve lines into one network that increases train capacity, reduces Chicagoland’s persistent car congestion, redevelops lagging sections of Cook County, connects the region’s six airports and, generally, modernizes commuter service to the point that the nation’s freight rail center can truly say that it knows how to treat its taxpayers and passengers better than cattle.

Because Illinois has too long assumed its taxpayers are willingly pliant, its recurring fiscal emergencies are really the result of a latent tax strike. To end that strike, the legislature will have to make the TRIB an elected authority.

 

12) What is Uncle Sam’s Big Picture? Try this analogy. Possibly The Union’s greatest feel-good moment after the Civil War and lasting into the 20th Century was Uncle Sam’s stimulant that laid transcontinental rails (see commemorative stamp below.) This served us hugely well through the 1940s and, then, declined precipitously in the auto age.

As we seek efficient ways to move people through a metro, today’s rail stimulant will use trains to help re-organize regional mobility. But, our regime of 50 state DOTs interferes with national progress. Sustainable mobility will always fall short if metros cannot employ its public or private sector to run trains to reduce congestion. As part of a reconstructed American Deal, mobility also needs to help families grow savings since many increasingly can no longer afford multiple cars and large lot homes. Within our nation’s principles, we can meld entrepreneurial solutions so trains redevelop TOD, help diversify mobility alternatives and reverse economic decline in too many households.

But to achieve these ambitious goals and shape elected metropolitan agencies that can evolve sustainable transportation, Uncle Sam must help rearrange the “pecking” order (see October post) of agricultural era governments and minimize interference by states and their surrogate counties. Uncle Sam’s first steps are MPO reform and performance-based capital funding; both talked about, but barely starting. Next steps are detailed in #12.

Furthermore, #12 suggests how the constitutional commerce clause can help shape multi-state authorities for the metros along the NEC. And if that works, then adapt those authorities to remake Chicagoland’s radiant lines into a network of sub-centers.

Odd, isn’t it… that the 19th Century technology that wove states into a national economic unit can now be used to rationalize metros into units for the global economy.

What Is To Come ? : A 4-Part Preview

Overview, map of counties

 

Introduction to the Preview of the 12 Chapters of “What Stations Teach”

We have a pecking dis-order.

Lacking modern federal standards, commuter trains are unlikely to reduce congestion caused by single occupant cars. Further blocking commuters from their desire to waste less time in traffic, most of our fifty states have not delegated transportation and taxing authority to the most effective level. With states poorly suited to solve metro problems and failing to delegate effective regional authority, train service and congestion worsens.

Instead of adjusting authority for the future, most states still delegate transportation to 3,042 counties (pictured above, a level of government designed for when horses were the primary transportation helping Americans settle just-platted farmland). Yet today, 81% of Americans live in urban areas. While most transit subsidy comes from a county-wide sales tax, people increasingly know the properties that benefit most are those near transit and, to be fair, should pay more. This sales tax misfit multiplies when considering that under 2% of counties have 10% of residents regularly using transit to get to work. The other 90% pay for transit they may never use.

Thus, transit is “for other people.” This deeply ingrained attitude in the American mind makes it a low-priority service. In an era of chronic fiscal un-sustainability, transit loses. Since trains serve mostly suburban areas, they lose even more at perennial budget crunch-time. They also lose their best redevelopment tool.

This is a lousy deal for almost everyone.

Compounding these poor politics, a legal mismatch traps transit in its muddle. States and counties, in turn, expect 19,429 municipalities (most with true authority over only their streets) to take increasing responsibility for central stations… despite being regional infrastructure and, in several cases, having national significance. Hence after several decades of talk about updating Manhattan’s Penn Station, it may get a new concourse by 2025; but it still will be a terminal… and not the more efficient, higher-capacity through-station standard most European regions have converted to.

The 20th Century’s twenty-five or so years that we lost to the competition in the European Community have added another twenty-five years in this Century.

America’s pecking dis-order underlays the ten metros analyzed on this website and explains why trains transport taxpayers no differently than half a century ago. Central stations are the venue to understand this. They also are one of the most convenient synergies between environmental and fiscal sustainability. The Force is with stations.

If we want trains as a regional service to reduce congestion and transportation costs, we start by re-organizing government so it can modernize central stations. Since more train commuters will use a station that works better, these changes make it more likely the rest of the system can modernize. The modern central station comes first. Without that, today’s pecking dis-order will continue frustrating the good intentions of most mayors and civic leaders… as it has for most of this century.

So…let’s make every station update as part of converting today’s lousy deal into one that almost everyone wants.

The Strategic Perspective And Solutions Proposed In “What Stations Teach”

Transit’s misplaced authority fits the historical framework proposed in how stations evolved (recall the first 3Ms, Marvels, Mix-ups, Make-overs).  As the 21st Century progresses, the 4th M (Masters of transportation) will emerge… but only if regional policies sync the benefits of transit with the people and properties that benefit most.

In the second chapter, we explored the key issues in improving central stations and network effectiveness. That Overview explains how regional governance and good real estate deals are two keys that must work together. While most central station real estate is improving because mayors marshall land use authority, rail service still worsens and, eventually, limits redevelopment downtown and in sub-regional centers.

In this third posting, I introduce how the Big Picture evolution needs to develop specific strategies to prepare for the very difficult process of rearranging authority so regional transportation gets governed well.

Following this Introduction, two more Preview posts summarize each station’s stymied condition as a result of its region’s mis-governance. (If you can’t wait for November, see the right hand column’s Table of Contents.)

Common problems and their four strategies are summarized below. I also cite the station mostly likely to solve this problem so we make governance work.

  • To improve commuter trains as regional assets, the key is converting terminals to through-stations. This maximizes passenger through-put and helps redevelop regional and sub-regional centers around stops that participate; thus increasing fares and tax revenues. Philadelphia is America’s only through-route. But, it does not maximize the asset. A comprehensive regional authority is proposed to help Philly and, we hope, other rail networks become a tool to generate more property revenue.
  • To make Value Capture work as a long-term source to pay bonds, stabilizing transit’s revenue must come from the region’s TODs and not just a county-wide sales tax. San Francisco is the biggest attempt to gather VC from land with multiple owners. But it failed to bring trains downtown; causing many VC deals to fall short. We propose a strategy that can finish the downtown train station as a regional asset.
  • To control costs using alternative delivery methods, Boards must be held accountable. In 2009 and facing elections in which they appeared to have broken their promise of new commuter lines centered on Union Station, Board members of Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) set up a new private scheme to share the benefits of transit and to control costs.
  • To compensate for state negligence in funding and supervision of this vital public service, Uncle Sam must help regions reorganize transportation governance. Regional authority, frankly, is needed to through-route the two stations most desperate for it: New York’s Penn and Chicago’s Union. Starting by strengthening MPOs’ planning, federal funding and standards ultimately must transfer commuting authority to a regionally elected Board. This transfer of power to taxpayers is proposed in the culminating chapter exploring steps that federal policy must take.

How Metros Are Ending Our Pecking Dis-order… And How Uncle Sam Should Help

The Preview of Where Stations Improve. To make it easier, political evolution needs a portfolio of proof positives showing how change works. Our portfolio for commuter trains starts with the three Philadelphia Center City through-stations made in 1983. Produced mostly by municipal moxie, this lesson from the nation’s only through-route is it helped redevelop Center City well. But, other parts of the region largely has not utilized this. Sub-regional centers benefit more only if trains are governed as a metropolitan asset.

Following Philly, our second chapter contrasts the successful transit build-out in the Twin Cities with its limits imposed by a county-based, state-controlled, governor-appointed regional council. An antidote is obvious in the next chapter where Denver’s elected RTD has produced the nation’s best transit progress in the past decade.

If authority has two-sides of the same coin of the realm (regulatory law and tax law), the next two chapters address the nation’s fumbled trend to fund transit by collecting from landowners who benefit most. San Francisco’s failure to bring trains downtown indicates further that only metropolitan authority can improve train service significantly. Essentially, a new deal is proposed to involve SF’s southern suburbs and San Jose.

While California’s devolution of authority makes this possible in the north, LA still struggles to use rails to reduce road congestion. The proposal for LA to accelerate California’s devolution also gives other multi-metro states — such as Texas and Florida — a hopeful prototype.

The Preview of Where Stations Don’t Improve. In all the above chapters, a modern federal standard for investing tax dollars will certainly help metros minimize how much they repeat similar mistakes. But, federal authority also must help organize metropolitan authority. The best place to start is in the Federal District and its poor coordination with suburbs in two states, particularly as they converge on Union Station. Our proposal here for using Uncle Sam to establish the District’s metropolitan governance. Then, this can be used more easily in cities such as Baltimore and Boston whose state DOTs, while better than most, still cannot build what both cities need; downtown tunneled through-routes.

Finally, there is the crisis of America’s biggest and most poorly integrated systems. The New York region and Chicagoland operate the nation’s four largest systems and serve over 1.45 million taxpayers daily in which nearly 50% go through 4 central terminals. Compare only these two regions’ commuters to the 1.72 million who take domestic flights daily from the nation’s 5,194 airports. Compare this to how fully funded airports are by the federal government and its high standard.

Clearly, even a modest federal rail standard would have a significant impact. Even modest federal help in reorganizing authority between states (particularly New York and New Jersey) and within them (particularly Illinois) would have a significant impact in correcting our busiest and worst stations.

After all eleven chapters on metros are posted and you have critiqued their proposals, all these issues are brought together in a summary chapter that details a proactive role for Uncle Sam, as The Daddy, who makes sure that commuters doing-the-right-thing get rewarded with better service.

The new deal for 21st Century metropolitan transportation gets forged long-term within the timeless principles of American politics that were applied in Uncle Sam’s other major mid-century intervention: the standardization of federal roads using the gasoline tax.

Uncle Sam and highways cartoon, Deal: & Daddy

These road policies that accompanied the New Deal were, in the 1950s, expanded and institutionalized in the Interstate system. The naysayers arguing the “states rights” position were proven wrong. Uncle Sam served to set the standard and organized the gas tax and, thus, helped every level of government build what was the greatest infrastructure network of the 20th Century.

This website’s goal is to suggest how the principles that worked, then, can be updated to solve the issues posed in the cartoon above. Always, states will suspect Uncle Sam of taking money. So, our focus is to demonstrate how modern metropolitan authority can solve problems of transporting taxpayers to work. To achieve this, we redefine Uncle Sam’s job as providing some venture capital and, equally important, the knowledge of what works so every region that wants to improve its trains can do so cost-effectively.

The next generation of policy will detail Uncle Sam’s role in promoting sustainable surface transportation. While federal funding might shrink more, that shirk of federal responsibility must be compensated with metros receiving proper taxing authority — derived mostly from states and counties — so that regional rail can be modernized enough to compete with cars.

Most of these chapters that post in 2018 will help us see how an effective rearrangement of authority stimulates solutions; including alternative delivery.

To reiterate future postings … November’s installment begins that long track of rearranging authority by previewing our portfolio of progress… and pitfalls.

  • Philadelphia is America’s only through-route, but still needs to maximize it.
  • The Twin Cities have a county-based build-out, but trains barely change habits.
  • Denver’s region-based build-out has a better chance.
  • With a more complete transportation authority,  the Bay Area may be the first to make Value Capture work as a sub-regional tool.
  • And, Los Angeles may be the first sprawling metropolis to figure out a new deal so enough commuters use transit.

While states giving proper authority to metros is a principle that will produce the above progress, Uncle Sam still must guide it. The third and final Preview (posts in December) summarizes the four remaining metros in the NEC (DC, Baltimore, New York and Boston) and the western-most legacy systems of Chicagoland.

Uncle Sam’s role is fundamental in reshaping 20th Century transportation habits. In fact, there is little hope for those legacy systems being brought into the 21st Century without new federal laws that empower regions and improve their learning curve while reducing their cost curve.

Like the 20th Century’s gas tax, Value Capture schemes may mature into transportation’s 21st Century cash cow. It all depends on whether we rearrange our governments to work together to serve us as the U.S.

It is time to make America’s pecking dis-order past tense.

Overview: What Is To Be Done ?

Good Stations Have Good Real Estate Deals,
Better Stations Need Better Governance

The Introduction’s 4M framework (immediate previous post) helps us understand how a station can evolve and better connect to mobility’s ever-changing modes. Introducing the second ingredient, my photo of Grand Central Terminal during GCT’s 100th anniversary celebration should remind us that a station also succeeds — or fails — based on how its real estate evolves. As the archetypal 20th Century Marvel, GCT also is one of America’s most enduring real estate deals.

Before World War One, GCT’s far-sighted owners created a formula that, amazingly, will serve other American cities in the 21st Century. Their formula did so much more than lay track. They also built GCT’s surroundings into a mini-city, protected real estate values by tunneling under Mid-town to reduce street congestion, and electrified their engines. All by 1920. (And all things we do poorly today.)

What the public knows about GCT is it is a superior civic space, among the world’s great attractions with over 22 million visitors in 2014 (admittedly, a boastful competition.)

But however the visitor numbers get worked, they are mere icing on GCT’s economic cake which has maintained the best property values compared to the world’s stations for all of the 20th Century.  So well constructed was GCT’s deal that the station continues to stay in private hands… despite the mid-century demise of passenger rail which caused the economic failure of almost all stations nationwide.

How can seeming perfection be improved ?  Despite centering some of the most valuable real estate in Midtown, we note that GCT still will not be a Master in the sustainable era until it through-routes tracks connecting New York’s northern suburbs to Penn Station and across the Hudson.  While only slightly more than a mile, such a tunnel is highly improbable; given the tri-state area’s antiquated transportation governance.

Why government prevents the New York region from having this short tunnel is, at first, a mystery. Why do our governments bar regions from all the social and economic benefits of through-routing?

While we should ask ourselves, we also should ask GCT’s owners. Their motives are the same as the ones that built the railroads that terminate there. GCT’s owners want trains to terminate there so passengers work in surrounding buildings. For if trains instead go through to buildings near Penn Station or even struggling Newark, then passengers can work there and those buildings become more valuable than GCT’s mini-city. Knowing the politically powerful, GCT’s owners have incentive to keep trains terminating there… despite all other global cities having through-stations.

Improving America’s bottom-lines, one through-station at a time

While GCT’s surroundings have lasting value, most American central stations are surrounded by freight yards that are being repurposed too slowly. Their owners (usually Amtrak or another public agency) lack incentive and skills to organize partners to repurpose a vestigial rail yard. So, these yards continue to drag down the station’s redevelopment and, thus, discourage train commuting; still the most efficient technology to move people within a region.

While many early 20th Century stations were built as Marvels, most devolved into Mix-ups as autos became dominant and private rails failed. While some stations are transitioning now into a Makeover stage (Denver and LA Union stations are prime examples), this incurs unnecessary cost to the public because we labor under agencies that lack incentive or authority to solve the challenges ahead.

Central stations surrounded by rail-yards are among America’s least exploited redevelopment opportunities. The largest is in my hometown.  Chicago’s Union Station (CUS) has a large railyard (also owned by Amtrak) that should become an obvious extension of the Central Business District. Not discussed is a related opportunity for redeveloping the region. Updating CUS and its rail-yard could start through-routing nine of Chicagoland’s twelve radial lines; all concentrated in that three mile central corridor. But, shaping this 21st Century network requires creating an advocate. This is sketched in the Chicago chapter.

Through-routes are the key Big Picture strategy for trains and, more important, transportation’s role in urban redevelopment. This website accepts the growing evidence that America’s dependence on the automobile now hurts a household’s ability to grow net wealth. Agencies perpetuate this subtraction.

So, this Overview and this website asks those in authority to know this: until transportation governance evolves and rebalances cars and their alternatives, the economic benefits of through-routing will not be available to Americans. Without proper through-stations, household transportation costs will continue to grow faster than inflation and metropolitan redevelopment will be hampered and real estate values (and property taxes) around stations will be suppressed.

If any phase of any official plan does not take strategic steps to through-route any station analyzed by this website, then tax dollars will not be invested as well as they should be. This is primarily so because a through-station has a multiplier effect to increase passengers for all the other modes that converge. Better yet, a central through-station helps improve land values surrounding every station in the through-network. Compare this with 20th century terminals with their relatively weaker multiplier on real estate because terminals at capacity now limit transit growth.

Who is the Daddy?

So the broader policy question before us is this: How do private sector capital and public authority get re-aligned to invest in through-stations that improve all modes so they, in turn, accelerate the redevelopment of surrounds and regional centers ?

To answer this, let’s view America as having a dysfunctional family of modes that, to be productive, must be put together in-sync. This then poses the colloquial question: Who is the Daddy?  Who is in charge?  Who gives taxpayers value? The final chapter of these twelve (see Table of Contents in right column) details those answers.

American metros need a new deal for transportation. The under-funded and under-authorized caretakers of bankrupt assets have been neglected by state DOTs whose primary business is roads. So, who will help every metro explore a new regimen of Public Private Partnerships so that they might serve the emerging greater goods of environmental balance, economic growth and fiscal sustainability ?

Fortunately, this triple bottom-line can be partially achieved if encouraged by new federal guidelines. Yet, each metro also requires its particular deal to develop their specific through-routing multiplier. This two-level, national-metro authority re-alignment has occurred generally in most of Europe’s global cities and helps explain why they entered the era for more sustainable transportation so far ahead of America’s global cities.

Why So Many Summaries ?

Repetition and reiteration. The goal of “What Stations Teach”  is to fashion national guidelines that support many large metros. The reasons are clear: each region cannot reinvent the wheel; nor is Uncle Sam helpful if regions are forced outside their political comfort zone.  So, reiteration is this website’s job: analyze, synthesize solutions, critique them and do it again…. until we get it right. Here are the initial summaries “WST uses as steps in this iterative process.

First step, take the Quiz of six stations and read each’s synopsis. (This also is how you subscribe to “WST and start giving feedback.)

Second, The 4Ms Introduction sets a framework for evolving stations so they better center commuter rail. The Overview you just read suggests a context in which successful updates maximize land values only if they master regional politics.

Third step and released October 12, there will be working summaries of the forthcoming twelve chapters. Most chapters have a pretty good draft; thus allowing us to weave together trends and share solutions nationwide.

Fourth, chapters then are released monthly. For each, your job is to pick apart the details. (The two stations with really big problems probably will be released every two months toward the end of this phase of the research project.)

And if all that is not enough to get commuter rail on track in the U.S., then we start drawing detailed lessons from the global cities of Europe sometime in 2019.

To prepare for the October 12 posting of working summaries for each chapter, let’s briefly preview the Table of Contents on the right.

Starting with the positives, we view Philly as a legacy exemplar and America’s only through-route. Two more chapters analyze how governance innovations add to transit growth in mid-sized metros of the Twin Cities and Denver.

Then, we get a glimpse into the future by proposing how further devolving of state authority can help the San Francisco Bay Area and LA County work through their obstacles to improving train service. California’s success should give ideas to other multi-metro states such as Florida, Texas and, hopefully, Ohio.

Then, three chapters address the systemic problems that require a federal policy to govern properly shared-state train corridors within metros. “WST offers innovative proposals to govern train service for the DC region, Baltimore and the tri-state New York metro. All require their regions to reorganize authority with the aid and leverage of Uncle Sam.

Two remaining chapters cover the extremes of metro relations with the state. Being the state capital, Boston has a healthy relationship with a wealthy state and should have a relatively easy time through-routing its two terminals into a network. (Thus speaks the optimist in me.)  At the other extreme, Chicago’s solutions are held captive by an insolvent and dysfunctional state that, frankly, will require radical reforms if regional train service is to progress. (Thus speaks the citizen of Chicago.)

Synthesizing all the above chapter highlights, the October 12th post lastly sketches Uncle Sam’s role in re-aligning private capital, state authority and public investment to facilitate each metro’s deal so each sticks longterm and, thereby, helps each metro prosper.

It will not be easy to adapt federalism to transportation’s new era. But, American cities have no choice. Other global centers have advanced train technology and converted terminals to through-networks. We have lost what America mastered in the first half of the 20th Century when it became great.

Fortunately, we are closer than we might think to catching our global competitors. But, that starts with learning from our mistakes and preventing them.

Let’s start that on October 12, 2017.

 

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 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 more abstract role as key infrastructure.  Trains took raw resources scattered across a vast continent and integrated them into an economic powerhouse. Stations supported America’s ascendance as key transfer points that reshaped industries and built them into history’s dominant economy.

In the second half of the 20th Century, this wealth manifested as sprawling metropolises. While some central stations served suburbanites’ daily train commute, most fell into disuse. Except for New York’s Grand Central, stations were not updated well.

Station decline ended in the 21st Century, 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, and inadequate funding due to short-term governance.

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