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.

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