This Is Our Dialogue

When will we have this chance again ?

The 2020 Reauthorization creates an opportunity to goad U.S. Surface Transportation into the 21st Century. If Uncle Sam prompts the plans and execution of converting key legacy terminals into through-routes, then a supportive federal policy will allow Regional Rail to emerge.

But, this opportunity also has danger. For if this Reauthorization does not explore the feasibility of paths to regional rail, then advocates will face continued obstacles for improving alternatives to the car. This danger doubles if political trick shots extend today’s regime in the next Reauthorization to ten years

For if U.S. authority sits out the next ten years, studies and proposals will be controlled by states who are unlikely to propose real solutions. In the final analysis, real solutions only will emerge if states give more authority to metros. The nine states I’ve studied who currently are responsible for the stagnancy in commuter rail will continue to suppress solutions. Progress toward Regional Rail stays trapped unless the U.S. acts decisively to overcome state inertia and biases against rail.

Proposal for this Reauthorization. Consider this modest goal: during the next 6 months, let us decide if Congress will fund, at least partially, several feasibility studies to find the most viable corridors so legacy rails can evolve.  These studies should plant the seeds of a federal Regional Rail policy over the next five years.

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

The Big Answer: Yes.  Only a Campaign will change the status quo of the last five decades.

I’ve studied the politics of regional trains for five years and posted over 30,000 words 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 U.S. leadership.

Proposals I’ve sketched in previous articles break our governing impasse by 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, 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 first.

For the upcoming Reauthorization to break this pattern, federal policy should help states empower metros so they fund and develop transportation alternatives… which includes road usage fees.

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.” (See the menu at the top of this page to access the articles in this “Series” as they become available.)

The message of the first two stories is rail advocates need a vision that motivates Americans to use alternatives for the car commute. Florida’s Brightline is explored first and then followed by an article on what I learned from the successes of the Rail Passengers Association.

The next two articles illustrate European successes and draw useful analogies to the U.S.  (In May and most of June, I continued my on-site study of European rails for these two stories.) 

The final story ties together the other stories to help you with tactic #2 below. Briefly, here is why each story is important.

#1 “Brightline To Bright Future: Remaking Rail’s Vision” shows conditions under which rail entrepreneurs can make auto-alternatives. Public funding of troubled Tri-Rail and Brightline’s 100% private capital shows Members how to invest better. Brightline adds some sizzle to the vision thing. 

#2 “Rail Passengers Association And The Capitol: Crafting Rail’s Blueprint” 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 Also, Yet It Has Synergy: Simpler Steps Than U.S. MPO Reform” explains how Germans have great regional trains because one agency coordinates metro transportation using “push-pull” tactics. This article reminds MCs that the unfinished work of MPO reform can have another strategy.

#4 “Lessons From London For Converting American Terminals And Commuter Rail”

#5 “The Federal Factor” why a Corridor-Based Regional Rail policy will help metros negotiate better with their states.

All five articles make what I call “The Pre-Reauthorization Series.” Each will have a brief introduction emailed to you and the full article will be posted on “The Reauthorization Dialogues” behind that menu. Of course, you are expected to comment and make a true dialogue.

Tactic 2: Get In Members’ Faces.  Different tactics will get studies written into the Reauthorization. I’ve started on Chicagoland’s two influential MCs in transit. I will followup this summer with a fuller proposal probably for two corridors, get feedback and, then, approach Senate staff. 

I’m hoping you also will present your metro’s proposals to your MCs.  I hope this helps. My chapters on individual metros indicate that re-organizing a key corridor can start to evolve regional rail in Chicago, New York, Boston, DC, LA and the Bay Area. Tweaks to existing local/state laws can start evolution this soon.  But, a federal boost requires you to ask.

Tactic 3: Your Participation. As of its launch just after Tax Day 2019, The R4RR Campaign is not much more than a select list of only 93 urban policy wonks interested in the largely ignored topic of regional rail in the U.S.  Of course, you always can comment on what I write either on the website or discretely 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 just previewed, I’d like to retire from leading the R4RR campaign. But if the Reauthorization’s completion is not apparent in 2019 (likely), one of you could easily recruit me out of retirement… providing you provide some help. 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 Regional 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 (link.)

Add it all up over six months… and who knows? We might even start a Movement !

Email me anytime for the next two months. In July, I’m Stateside and will be glad to take calls.

Robert Munson

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