Cover letter to Part 1: What Have We Learned?

Dear Fellow Advocate for Regional Rail:

Let’s talk strategy for the next leg of the journey. 

While these emails often serve as an Executive Summary for a long article, I send this email as my condensed answer to “Now that we understand better our common problem, what do we do next?” 

Given the obstacles to regional rail, a brainstorm will help. So, let me set the stage perfectly. Let’s sit and talk in the waiting room of the Art Moderne masterwork, Los Angeles Union Station. LAUS also captures our challenge: this 80 year old station operates as a low-capacity terminal in a region chronically desperate for solutions to road congestion… and transit ridership is stagnant. It also helps that LA is also a more convivial place to talk than, say, Chicago in winter.

(Separately, I noticed unusual hits on this site’s “About” page. Presuming some may still find me as a mystery man, I updated “About” mostly at its end; adding my partial bio.) 

Forward, here’s the winning strategy I propose: through-route LAUS and every other major terminal by rebalancing authority and realigning interests. 

“Easier said than done,” says your skeptic. “Besides, how do politicians give up power?”, you ask.

Well, my quick answer is: we’ve tried everything else and barely got anywhere. Every major metro’s plan to through-route has failed, often multiple times. There is no escaping the conclusion that current agencies cannot through-route. Thus, trains lose the lynchpin they need to compete for commuters in the 21st Century. This perpetuates an oligopoly for the single occupant commute.

In synthesizing my 18 articles on America’s major stations (both here and “The Urbanophile” series), my proposal emerges as fundamental: the politics of regional rail must first be reorganized and its benefits re-articulated constantly if trains are to reduce road congestion and commuting costs. As I wove this conclusion tighter in the last two years, the strategy’s affirmation is still the successful conversion of terminals in Europe and the British Commonwealth. This coincides with their rising ridership… and our stagnation.

Put bluntly, American metros have no deal to provide an alternative to the car. Without a deal (a social contract), trains don’t get the investment they need to provide a better public service. Stuck with its too-small constituency losing budget battles, legacy systems and their maintenance get deferred, as they have, for two decades.

Even where citizens invested in successful build-outs as in LA’s transit renaissance, highways are still too congested. On LA’s regional Metrolink, ridership is declining. Yet, trains are the best alternative to connect this multi-centered metro. But they cannot get their pivotal investment; an LAUS through-route that passes over Highway 101… 250 yards from where we sit. 

So before you get up to see what I’m talking about (or look at your in-box’s next email), here is the common condition we must solve: Governments currently will not fund viable alternatives to car commuting. Flat ridership for trains is reflected in this larger transportation failure: In 2000, 75% of Americans commuted alone in their cars. And after two decades of effort, it is 76%. 

My analysis boils down to two problems; simplified below as #1 (Unbalanced Authority) and #2 (Dis-interested Delivery.) 

Related, they come together in one solution: a deal for regional rail; initially organized in one corridor to test how authority can be rearranged to deliver a competitive service and, then, to improve this in other corridors so a true governance of transportation for a region can emerge.

Problem #1 (Unbalanced Authority): We have a Pecking Dis-order for transportation.

The 2,931 counties above add to the Dis-order. Most have a DOT that operates under state transportation authority that functioned well to settle farmland. But on occupied land, people commute in corridors. They congest and need subtle regulation to de-congest.

Most state DOTs — such as mine in Illinois — focus on road-building and fail to delegate sufficient authority to manage transit; in part codifying tensions between cities and suburbs. The state in which we sit, California, has delegated better authority to its metros.

Our Dis-order also comes from other levels. Amtrak owns the two worst commuter stations (Manhattan’s Penn and Chicago Union Station.) Uncle Sam has disciplined, well-funded policies to improve car and plane travel. It has none for regional rail.

While the U.S. can help, this Dis-order has not been sorted out because the states have no Deal for alternatives to the car. States need our help to craft that Deal. This works better if Uncle Sam helps rebalance authority.

How does the U.S. do that?

Problem #2 (Inefficient Delivery): Pecking Dis-order perpetuates old policies.

Above is my first image after alighting at Union Station on 11/11/14. It was my first return in 20 years, after living in DC for eight in the previous century. The aura around the Capitol Dome is scaffolding; needed so masons could fix its cracks. This metaphor can help us get through metropolitan Disorder. 

We know that agencies created to assume bankrupt rails five decades ago, today, manage inefficient monopolies. They cannot update terminals into high capacity through-networks. They have trouble containing costs or working with private partners who can. Most of these problems result from state indifference.

Plus, we must recognize that the car operates like a monopoly. This persisting 76% is a key clue that autos keep laws and subsidies in their favor and prevent a level playing field upon which trains can compete.
How do interests of the public and private sectors get realigned to deliver quality mobility?

And more important, what structure makes delivery possible?

3) Proposed Solution: Make the core Social Contract for trains with those who most have the incentive to make the Contract: property owners who benefit and those who want to drive their cars in mid and long-ish commutes. (Hence, re-organize by Corridor.)

Now, let’s be clear: not all the questions below get answered in one brainstorm. But, I do suggest answers in Part 1. Its summary of 10 articles leave you with a sketch to adapt to your work. Until you read Part 1, here are those questions repeated; then, followed by one-line answers.

How do you get state politicians to give up power?Answer: As states approach insolvency, they must take transit off their budget (and already are.)

How does Authority get rebalanced so it is effective?Answer: By states delegating more to Corridors (and their metros) as a department of government.

How does Delivery get realigned to use the best of both the public and private sectors?Answer: Realign economic interests in the corridor; creating a core motivation for solutions.

How does the U.S. develop a regional rail policy?This is explored in Part 3 and has a few paragraphs at the end of Part 1 .

If cars are in the promised 20th Century American Dream, what is the Alternative Dream?Let’s try: Equity, Environment, Economy… or words to that effect applied at the household level.

Part 1 takes us through our brainstorming session and a few steps closer to a strategy that is grounded, perhaps, in Corridors. One was sketched in four of the last chapters (Bay Area, DC, New York, Chicago… all of whom, I note, have regional policy experts on this distribution list.) 

But I stress to all 87 of you: it is very important that you don’t let me do all the talking. Something bigger has to evolve from the brainstorm. 


Robert Munson


P.S. Whether the brainstorm session is over for you or it’s just on-pause, reading “What We Have Learned” clarifies our common problems that block regional solutions. Legacy systems cannot grow unless we get a comprehensive regional rail policy for the U.S. 

And if you think different, then please comment, shoot me an email or even call.

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