Part 1: What Did We Learn ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reform Authority. Realign Interests.

A Summary of why Corridors are the proposed Transition 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photos and research courtesy of Curbed Philadelphia

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map courtesy of Hudson River Tunnels Project factsheet.

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

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

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

photo above, courtesy of River Edge Ideas Lab.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

courtesy of Slide Player

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s add it all up. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

Philly CCCC

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

1) Philadelphia: Grow Your Assets From Good To Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Twins Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Denver Infill

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

3) Denver Union Station: Why Elections Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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