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

(Last updated 5/1/20.)

Let me be clear at the start.

I’m writing “The Pre-Reauthorization Series” to propose policies to support a Campaign that gets the Reauthorization to fund studies so commuter rail in six U.S. metros can prepare for the 21st Century.  Then when others comment on my articles, “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; given that “The Series” has a select distribution list of 94+ policy people (most targeted invites) built since I started my blog “What Stations Teach” in 2017.

My Plan A is that a national organization sees the Campaign can work… it 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 prototype.

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 formerly called it Regional Rail, but that name is used by a fledgling inter-state program of the Federal Railroad Administration.)

Of course, I’m expecting others to improve the strategy and make its tactics work. 

But, the basic goal is to build an effective federal policy for metropolitan rail; starting with this Reauthorization expected in 2021. It is unclear if FAST (Fix America’s Surface Transportation) will be reauthorized or a new body will emerge out of the House Transportation Committee’s January 2020 Moving Forward framework. Or the post-pandemic wheels really could revolve and a new governing coalition makes a Green New Deal. Pick your scenario. New train systems should be proposed for any opportunity.

The Campaign to Fix FAST for Metropolitan Rail (MR). Symbolically, this is launched in honor of Tax Day 2020; as if to say future federal dollars should be invested in future systems that create maximum change. Taxpayers deserve such value… as much as commuters deserve alternatives… as much as trains help redevelop more sustainably. MR can deliver this trifecta. To maximize tax investments in surface transportation, the federal government must lead with a policy that conveys both federal funds and authority. 

For major metros with legacy trains, MR will be the single most effective investment that can be made to stimulate options for mid-range journeys within each metropolis. Those six metros (in blue above) have tried to through-route and failed. Along with the Philadelphia metro, these metros have 84% of Americans who commute by train. They are the heart of the strategy that I hope becomes ours.

The proposal made on this website is simple: have Uncle Sam participate in planning through-routes along key corridors in these six metros.

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 the region how its trains can progress.

How far has the U.S. fallen ?  Since completing the Philadelphia through-route 36 years ago, no U.S. legacy terminals have been connected to one another and ridership is, generally, stagnating. During our slumber, 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. 

Logic tells us this: we must change American laws. Yet without a federal policy for regional rail, states can continue to neglect transportation alternatives and congestion goes unabated.

In light of federal dysfunction and state indifference to how metros need commuting alternatives, it is understandable if civic groups retreat and settle for incremental changes. But, neither Automated Vehicles nor ped-friendly streets will reduce regional congestion.

Most important, we can serve the sea-change with sound proposals….

Train advocates soon could have numbers in Congress. My short-hand for the next six paragraphs suggests MR might become believable. Check my arithmetic.

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 restrains 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 regional governance serving the metropolis. 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.

Why The MR Campaign ?  The 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 and authority gets the job done that every state has failed at.

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 we will ever get regional rail that helps us compete with Europe ?

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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