Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Neglected Cities Push Certain Transit Because Regional Agencies Won't

In the middle of all the wrangling over the Cincinnati streetcar Peter Rogoff, who is the FTA administrator, said something really interesting in his letter to the city and transit agency. The transit agency (SORTA) is the fiduciary agent for the FTA funding pass through to the city and wants to stay on the FTA's good side since they receive other federal funding. The mayor is looking to kill the project for who knows what reasons he set his mind to, but this is really kind of an aside.  Rogoff:
Transit improvements are best deployed when they are governed and controlled 'under one roof.
He goes on to say in his letter, relayed by the Cincinnati Business Courier
While FTA has been successful in supporting transit projects that are not controlled or operated by the region's principal transit agency, we have found that there are a great many economies of scale that better serve the taxpayer when a fully staffed and experienced transit provider is involved from the very beginning
But isn't that part of the problem?  These massive regional transit agencies are typically stacked with suburban board members that don't always have the core cities needs at heart.  They are usually concocting schemes to extract money or service in some form or fashion from the more transit willing neighborhoods in the region in order to have some sort of suburb to city dream bus or commuter rail line that costs a lot, but really doesn't move the needle on changing mobility in a meaningful way.  Either that or they have to have an election that includes heavy transit opposition precincts that sink ballot initiatives that pass in the city proper.

So recently cities have been taking on the mantle of thinking up and building transit that works for them and their goals.  Portland, Cincinnati, Austin, and others have all taken up planning for more urban transit options and with much different goals.  At the start of the Portland Streetcar process, Tri-Met wanted nothing to do with it.  They were a regional agency.  Right or wrong, the city streetcar movement is a function of the neglect that center cities feel when it comes to regional transit priorities.  The core might be the economic engine for the region, but the fiscal extraction continues.

This is also a disappointing admission that transit agencies and their federal funders still don't know their role in city building.   I'm not talking about building a streetcar and waiting for housing development to come, but rather the need to economically serve, connect, and bolster regional employment centers with workers in a more productive way than the single occupancy car. 

Today an NPR story on Austin popped up with TTI's Tim Lomax stating that it wasn't building roads or transit that needed to change, it was people's behavior. 

But Lomax says his computer models show the only real solution is going to involve changes in behavior and lifestyle. "We did some modeling to suggest the kind of magnitude of change," he says. "We used a giant hammer on the travel model. We took away 40 percent of the work trips. We said those are going to happen somehow, but they're not going to happen in a car." To keep traffic flowing in his sophisticated models, Lomax plays God of Austin. "We said, instead of people driving on average 20 to 25 miles to get to work, now they're going to drive five, six or seven miles to get to work," he says. "That says there's going to be a massive shift in jobs and population."

Emphasis mine.  Those other 40% of work trips that would be needed to keep traffic flowing green (which would never happen - induced demand, duh) would come from walking, biking, and transit because the employment cores were adequately served with good transit. 

What we continue to see today is an overly regional approach to transit development based on a suburban fantasy of living where you want and commuting into work downtown.  Most people don't work downtown.  But intensification of core neighborhoods strengthens the tax base.  So what you get is like what is happening in Minneapolis.  The transit agency is trying to fund commuter service that they call light rail while the city thinks of streetcars because they don't have the funding power to do more.  But there is no talk of dedicated lane surface light rail or subways that only go to the edge of the streetcar suburbs because that doesn't fit each side's worldview. 

The FTA seems to be on the suburban side of the issue, allowing, even wanting, these commuter systems that end up being really expensive to operate (See Northstar in the Twin Cities) with somewhat limited value at this point in their transit network development.  If the FTA can't figure out the suburban leaning of transit agencies or the need to feed employment centers better, we're going to keep traveling down the same choked road, and it won't be pretty. 


Alex B. said...


Are there any good examples of regional agencies that easily allow for a core city to 'add on' service or a project without resorting to an entirely new level of governance?

Questions along the same lines here:

Portland is a good example, but are there any examples of a Portland-like situation where they didn't need to create an entirely new, locally focused organization to push the project through?

It's disappointing that it requires this.

Alex said...

I think your thesis is compelling, but I wouldn't say that Minneapolis is the best illustration. The Met Council (the responsible agency for transit in the region) is taking on LRT only because the counties advocated it and brought it nearly to the point of construction. The counties are as bad or worse than the Met Council at ignoring the needs of cities due to their political structure, so you are correct that they come up with LRT alignments that favor suburban commuters. The Met Council (which is controlled by the state governor) dragged its feet on LRT for many years because of the right wing antipathy towards rail (Northstar was again pushed by the counties until the Met Council couldn't refuse it any more) but actually came up with an enhanced bus program that would do more for central city mobility than any other plan any other local agency has come up with since the 70s. Unfortunately the central cities are run by suburban elites who don't really know how transit works, so they've ignored or even worked against the Met Council's enhanced bus plans, possibly delaying implementation in at least one case by proposing a streetcar for the same corridor. So it's not as neat and tidy as 'cities have to develop their own transit because regional agencies ignore them' here.

CMT said...

More needs to be said about this. Many streetcar projects are not coming out of the transit agencies, but rather advocates and cities. St. Louis and Kansas City are two examples where the transit agencies are mostly on the sidelines.

EngineerScotty said...

I'm not sure TriMet is a good example of this phenomenon. There are many valid criticisms of TriMet, but accusing it of being suburban-dominated is not one of them. The lions share of service-hours in the TriMet system are allocated to the City of Portland.

While it is true that TriMet was skeptical of the Streetcar (and still is), that skepticism does not flow from a "screw Portland" mentality within the agency. A lot of it comes from simple philosophical disagreement as to the role of transit in placemaking (TriMet is a bit more skeptical of capital-intensive-transit-as-neighborhood-amenity, as opposed to buiding it for more efficient mobility); there's also the system integration issues to consider. Also, Portland underwent a detailed streetcar planning exercise that was somewhat at a variance with regional transit planning, and approached it from the point of view of "we've got this cool technology (modern streetcars), where in the city can we put them?", rather than from the point of view of where-is-service-needed-and-what-will-work-best?

The Streetcar (particularly the recently-completed CL line) also has the problem of partially-replicating existing bus lines--something that results in either duplicated service (which is what in fact has occurred) or the need to curtail perfectly good bus lines and force transfers.

The good news is that TriMet and Portland do seem to have improved their working relationship--it wouldn't surprise me, longer term, if Portland Streetcar Inc. (having made its point) closes down as a separate entity, with its operations being merged into TriMet and its planning activities merging into the existing region-wide and city-wide planning organs. But that's a ways off; probably not at least until after the Milwaukie MAX line opens and the streetcar loop is completed across the new bridge.

Pildyti said...

Great comments about agencies, I would like to hear more about god examples.