This Is Our Dialogue

When will we have this chance again ?

(last revised 5/1/20)

The 2020 Reauthorization creates an opportunity to goad U.S. Surface Transportation into the 21st Century. If a new federal policy can convert key legacy terminals into through-stations, then the through-networks suitable for 21st Century rail will emerge.

But, this opportunity to correct a long-ignored mode in federal policy also has danger of being ignored for another ten years .  If this next Reauthorization does not explore the feasibility of paths to regional rail, then advocates will face continued obstacles for improving alternatives to the car, particularly for mid-range journeys that trains are best suited for and are they key infrastructure for a metropolis’ sustainable redevelopment.

If U.S. authority sits out the next ten years, then proposals will be controlled by states who are unlikely to propose real solutions. In the final analysis, real solutions only will emerge if states delegate more authority to metros; and they will need help from Uncle Sam to succeed. The nine states I’ve studied who currently are responsible for the stagnancy in commuter rail will continue to suppress solutions. The U.S. must act decisively to overcome state inertia and its biases that are both against rail and favoring cars.

Proposal for this Reauthorization. Consider this modest goal: during the next few months, let us decide if Congress will fund several feasibility studies to find the most viable corridors so legacy rails can evolve.  These three studies will guide the prototypes that will plant the seeds of a federal rail policy.

The Big Question: Does the Reauthorization of commuter rail need a campaign ?

The Short Answer: Yes.  Only a Campaign will change the status quo of the last five decades. A longer answer is suggested at the end of this article.

I’ve studied the politics of regional trains for five years and posted over 30,000 words (essentially a book) on the topic. I’ve concluded the arrested evolution of commuter rail restricts the redevelopment of cities and suburbs alike. History tells us inertia gets overcome with a strategic campaign that has federal leadership during key moments of change.

Proposals I’ve sketched in previous articles replace our governing impasse by re-organizing the self-interest of landowners along corridors. They are more suitable for taxing increased property value and create less political stress than proposals for region-wide institutions. Recall that organizing by corridors is how rails settled our lands… and they can be redeveloped sustainably by rails. After a corridor or two proves itself, then regional government can emerge. 

As for the track record of Reauthorizations… Increasingly they started with earnest efforts to change transportation’s auto-regime. But with the status quo using delay tactics, each effort got lost in the crunch as Congress takes the easier path of feeding existing systems who, in turn, may improve their outdated methods slightly. In light of the ‘de facto’ federal retreat from 80% funding, deferred maintenance of inadequate systems gets funded before updates.

For the upcoming Reauthorization to break this pattern, federal policy should encourage states to empower metros so they fund and develop transportation alternatives… which can include road usage fees as an economic leveler.

As I see the campaign, it has three tactics that over-lap.

Tactic 1: Tell Success Stories That Narrate Change. For my part in this first tactic, I’m writing “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” or see the menu at the top of this page to access these articles.

The message of the first two stories is rail advocates need a vision that motivates Americans to use alternatives for the car. The third article sets a model: the successes of Munich’s S-Bahn, a key part of what many consider to be Europe’s most successful “transit metropolis.” The final article pulls all my research together to propose our policy. Here is the “Series” overview.

#1 “Brightline To Bright Future: Remaking Rail’s Vision” shows conditions under which rail entrepreneurs can make alternatives. South Florida’s public funding of its stagnant Tri-Rail contrasts starkly with Brightline’s 100% private capital that has revolutionized inter-city travel. Brightline adds some sizzle to the vision thing. 

#2 “Plucky Corridors And Organizing Metros For Rail: What I Learned From The Rail Passengers Association” shows how pluck matters more than power. RPA’s story is citizens can organize as rail advocates so that even the U.S. Senate responds positively.

#3 “Munich Loves Cars, But Uses Trains To Compete With Cars. Can The U.S.” German S-Bahns are great because one agency coordinates each metro’s transportation. While the agency improves transit’s networks and uses trains as the backbone, transit’s support comes when government coordinate with land use and has cars pay their fair share of costs. This article draws tight analogies to the U.S. because Munich loves its cars (BMW) and they make trains work great within a federal structure.

#4 The Series Summary has 3 Parts. The first Part is an Executive Summary “How Trains Can Grow Again.” Part B (to come) is an Analysis that links the Problems to those Principles likely to make Through-Routes more successful. Part C (probably in June 2020) will detail how to develop this federal policy for Metropolitan Rail (MR). Note this use of MR is similar to “regional” rail, but the short explanation is that converting commuter rail should not be confused with an inter-city program of the Federal Railroad Administration. The long explanation is in Part C’s policy proposal for three prototype Through-Routes.

Tactic 2: Get To Your Metro’s Members of Congress.  Different tactics will get Through-route studies written into the Reauthorization. I’ve started on Chicagoland’s influential MCs in transit. I will followup this summer with a fuller prototype proposal and get feedback and, then, approach Senate staff. 

While my intent is to propose through-route studies for three metros, there is the issue of time. I’m hoping you also will present your metro’s proposals to your MCs. My chapters on individual metros indicate that re-organizing a key corridor can start to evolve Metropolitan Rail in Chicago, New York, Boston, DC, LA and the Bay Area. Tweaks to existing local/state laws can start evolution soon.  But to get a federal boost, you have to ask.

Tactic 3: Your Participation: Critique. Around Tax Day 2020 (presumably April 15), I started circulating for comments a two page flyer for a Campaign to Fix FAST For Trains. In late May, I probably will send the flyer to a select list of 98 urban policy wonks interested in this largely ignored topic of metro rail in the U.S.  Please critique anything I write; either on the website or to me via email.  But, I’d like even more that you send me relevant articles; including articles you’ve written and tidbits you think our network should know about. This gives me grist for another email!

That’s it?  So far. Beyond these tactics and five articles in “The Pre-Reauthorization Series”, I’d like to retire from leading the Campaign. But if the Reauthorization’s completion is not apparent in 2020 (likely), I could easily be recruited out of retirement… providing you provide some help with one of the prototype proposals. If not recruited, I will return to completing the last two chapters of “What Stations Teach.”  And If some group wants to shape a federal policy for Metropolitan Rail, that is more than fine with me.

As your first step today, forward this link to an associate, colleague and/or co-conspirator and suggest that they put themselves on the email list.

Add it all up over the next few months… and who knows? We might even start a Campaign for Metropolitan Rail.

Email me anytime. And/or, I am glad to take calls.

Robert Munson


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