“The Dialogues,” “The Series” and The Campaign

(Last updated 7/17/20.)

I’m writing “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” to propose policies that support a Campaign so the Reauthorization funds through-run studies so commuter rail in six U.S. metros can prepare for the 21st Century.  As others give me feedback, “The Reauthorization Dialogues” start. As a website, “The Dialogues” could continue, after 2020, if an organization wants to take it over.

I’m optimistic about progress. “The Series” has a select distribution list of 94+ policy people (most targeted invites) that I’ve built since starting my blog “What Stations Teach” in October 2017. More importantly, the INVEST Act shows the U.S. House’s resolve to develop an alternative federal transportation policy. Before INVEST becomes law in early 2021 with the participation of the next Senate, a few through-route studies should be written into it.

That will require a Campaign targeted to perhaps two dozen Members of Congress and several Senators. Let’s call it for now, The Campaign to INVEST in Metropolitan Rail.

My Plan A is that a national organization sees the Campaign can work, adopts it and adapts it to the group’s agenda. My Plan B is that at least one major metro (hopefully mine in Chicago) gets some Reauthorization funds to conduct a serious feasibility for a through-station that serves as a prototype for seven other terminals with plans to convert to through-stations, but have failed.

The map above is a first sketch to show that we can devise a winning strategy for a federal policy for what I call Metropolitan Rail (MR).  (I initially called it Regional Rail, but that name is used by a fledgling inter-state program of the Federal Railroad Administration.)

Why The Campaign to INVEST in Metropolitan Rail (MR). While INVEST makes breakthroughs for a post-pandemic transportation policy particularly for short and inter-city journeys, options for trips within a metropolis require vast improvements in train connections. Through-routed trains multiply alternatives to the auto and deliver policy to the emerging urban-suburban governing coalition.

Symbolically, the MR Campaign is launched in honor of Tax Day 2020 (July 15!) ; as if to say future federal dollars should be invested in systems that multiply change. Taxpayers deserve such value… as much as commuters deserve alternatives… as much as trains help redevelop more sustainably. MR can deliver this trifecta if federal funds and authority convert terminal into through-stations that center high capacity through-networks. It’s a simple strategy.

Full-time for five years I have studied the politics that perpetuate legacy terminals and their systems. Much is summarized in the most recent article on my website “What Stations Teach.”  (And if you want to know more about the site, go to its “About” page. Towards its end, I offer my partial profile that starts with my mugshot.)  Eight of my eleven articles conclude, to varying degrees, that through-routing one corridor will show each metro how its trains can progress.

How far has the U.S. fallen ?  While Uncle Sam was essential to completing the Philadelphia through-route 36 years ago, no U.S. legacy terminals since have been connected to one another and ridership is stagnating relative to demand or, certainly, need. During our four decade sleep, almost all major European terminals have been converted to through-stations; encouraging greater system capacity. Their ridership has risen dramatically and created effective through-networks. 

Yet without a MR federal policy, states can continue to neglect transportation alternatives and chronic congestion continues.

MR advocates soon could have numbers in Congress… even without earmarks. My short-hand for the next six paragraphs suggests MR might become believable. Check my arithmetic.

Seven major metros with legacy trains have 84% of Americans who commute by train. They are the motivation of a political strategy, but really only the start.

The legacy terminals (above in blue) center six metros represented by about 82 Members, most of whom get enough complaints about road congestion that they are motivated to propose sensible solutions such as through-routing their terminals. 

Of course, 82 does not make a majority. But, a House Whip once said his rule-of-thumb was that if an infrastructure project served a district well, then its Member could be counted on to get one other vote, on average, using the time-honored tradition of legislative log-rolling. 

So theoretically, those 82 motivated blue-terminal Members should double to 164 votes. 

Now, add in those young suburban lines with potential (the 6 metros in orange above.) They eventually will benefit from a future federal metro rail policy. So, we should be able to get another 15-18 votes. 

Less concrete motivations add to the total.  Most districts that flipped Democratic in 2018 were suburban. They have elections in 2020 and 2022 and new MCs should want to bring home the regional prosperity and Quality Of Life that rail promises. If Democrats want to sell themselves as the metropolitan party, almost no public policy delivers better than metropolitan rail.

Add this up. Suddenly, there is hope that the proposed studies could produce outlines of a MR policy with a new Reauthorization passage sometime after the 2020 election. 

What might restrain suburban MC’s enthusiasm is that commuter rail is the turf of suburban mayors. In turn, they have unusual influence upon state laws which, of course, are the main obstacle to improved metropolitan governance. So that suburban mayors do not feel their control threatened, I propose organizing the change by corridor. A town can elect to participate … or not. But, so can the next town down the line. Set-up as a competition for those who choose to change, MR finds its friends and eventually shares its benefits. 

Add it all up. Then, suggest how this strategy gets us over the top.

This Corridor Concept needs to work once before it can be trusted. I already know how much work is involved in my proposal for Chicago’s O’Hare/Union Station/Convention Center through-route. (An initial proposal calls it Crossrail Chicago.) I’ve studied other metros enough to know their similarities and challenges.  But that’s why the Campaign is needed: to share proposals so that Members put these ideas together and into the Reauthorization so federal funds study how to reshape authority so a through-route leads to better transportation governance.

And Who Is The MR Campaign ?  You.  

Busy enough already? I’m sure. But consider how we got into this predicament of the most efficient transportation technology known to humans being neglected for 75 years. Could it be that the advocates in New York, Chicago, Boston and LA were not talking together ?  And if that poor coordination doesn’t change, what are the chances our global metros will get rail that helps us compete with Europe’s ?

The photo below flatters me. I’m actually an old man. I’m currently limiting my work on “The Reauthorization Dialogues” to writing “This Series.” It also is my civic duty to bug three influential Members of Congress from my state of Illinois. And with the distribution list developed for “What Stations Teach,”  I hope to help shape a national network of metros with similar station and system problems so Members can develop policies that actually produce solutions. 

In brief, I will do what I can… if you do, too. Simple stuff adds up. Forward my emails to friends and colleagues and tell them to get on the list… or just ask me to put them on. Dust off a past proposal from your MPO. Annotate or update its case. Get a sketch of your through-station proposal into the face of a Congressional staffer. Let me know of your progress and if you want it shared in a newsletter.

And if you are particularly ambitious, talk with me about you starting a social media campaign for a federal rail policy. (Email is all I can handle, thank you very much.)

2021 will be a big year.  Be ready. This is your Campaign. It is the test of how much you want to convert commuter rail and advance your metropolis.

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