Introduction to The Campaign To INVEST in Metropolitan Rail

To INVEST In MR: First Propose Pilot Through-Stations

Campaign Goal: Have The INVEST Act fund four independent studies (3 for through-station conversions and the 4th for a federal prototype policy.)  These studies detail the required economics and politics so each metros’ trains help integrate an alternative system that can compete with cars.

Metropolitan Rail (MR) is fundamental.  Without an alternative social contract, metropolitan transportation is trapped in its car-driven chaos and chronic congestion; stubbornly stuck at 77% of Americans driving alone to work. Rail helps write an alternative contract with competitive options… once we make high-capacity through-routes. As proven in Europe, alternatives grow after converting terminals into through-stations. These evolved into through-networks that benefit Europe’s metros and similarly offer the following benefits to U.S. metros.

  • The micro-mobility industry’s innovation for first-and-last miles will take many more mid-length journeys off of roads and put them on trains. 
  • Tension between cities and suburbs is reduced by sharing rail infrastructure of mutual benefit. This helps evolve governance for efficient metropolitan transportation.
  • Household transportation costs will be reduced, particularly for below median incomes. (The European Union’s lowest quintile pays 7% for household transportation costs while the poorest U.S. residents pay 28%.)
  • MR delivers a key policy to the Democrats’ emerging urban-suburban governing coalition that supports a platform to reduce both transportation and housing costs.

The Quick Analysis. Commuter rail’s slow growth has many causes. Terminals limit capacity. Trains are poorly run. Operator non-collaboration makes transfers inefficient and suppresses ridership. Perverse economic incentives favor the car so an alternative network can’t compete in cost and/or convenience. Just passed by the U.S. House to advance Reauthorization, Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (The INVEST Act) still needs to fund pilot projects to transform commuter rail so each metropolis can redevelop more sustainably and equitably.

Shape MR federal policy using 3 Principles. First, we must study how much through-routes can increase capacity. Second, these studies should propose agency collaboration and metropolitan Fare-Integration to increase rider revenue. The deal is the U.S. lends to cover the state’s capital share; but in return, the state must delegate sufficient authority so a metro can rationalize its transportation. Third, usage fees for single-occupant cars must be fair so alternatives can compete. 

To move the U.S. toward a MR policy, guidance should come from these three Principles: Capacitate; Collaborate, Compete.

Three proposed studies will pilot three levels of federal participation to complete each through-run so each metro can reshape its transportation.   

The basic level, Gentle Federal Authority (a working title.) GFA commonly would help most metros work through their barriers to train progress; probably serving 14 of the 19 major metros in the U.S. (See the map towards the end of this article.)

One of the best examples to prototype this GFA level would tunnel so Caltrain runs from its terminal (4th & King) to downtown San Francisco’s new Transbay hub as originally planned. Unfortunately, the four-county agency botched this build. Inexcusably disjointed and inadequately directed, transportation agencies ignored SPUR’s White Paper for four years and their time is running out. INVEST should figure out how to fund the downtown tunnel now and connect it with a second tunnel to downtown Oakland. Increased ridership is key to paying for the tunnel. But because the Bay Area MPO so far has been unable to integrate fares from 27 operators, sufficient ridership is unlikely; particularly given the momentum of the Bay Area’s 11% decline in per capita ridership since 1991. So, establishing proper Fare Integration should be included in the INVEST study. 

A second level, Moderate Authority, would take existing under-utilized lines that are managed poorly. A primary example runs by O’Hare Airport and should through-run Ogilvie Center/Union Station, where eight lines currently terminate. This makes multiple through-route opportunities if INVEST were also to lead the reuse of the 16th Street Flyover (green); connecting to Chicagoland’s four remaining routes. This further multiplies through-route options to include those traveling to the convention center, University of Chicago and the southside. This proposal helps redevelop Chicago sustainably, a key competitive advantage for this struggling metro. Best yet, costs are low since this can all be done without tunneling. For further information, see the “Through-Route Chicago” document (link.)

The other most viable use of this moderate authority is to connect Boston’s North and South Stations below. The current routes terminate in the left schematic. The right shows the through-route options. The benefits for the proposed North-South Rail-Link are captioned at the bottom.

An Emergency Authority could be controversial, but also the most urgent. The key example here would build new Hudson Tunnels and, then, connect Penn Station and Grand Central. INVEST would coordinate this multi-state collaborative authority replacing three separate systems with one higher-volume, integrated MR system. Once this new Authority was functioning and paying its bills, the federal role recedes.

Currently, the only other metro likely to need this multi-state authority would be Washington Union Station. Converting it into a genuine through-station and integrating two systems will be the most effective strategy to reduce stress on the Metro subway and the region’s roads.

The Federal Policy Emerges. A 4th INVEST study details how federal powers are supervised by a U.S. Corridor Authority (USCA). Corridor reorganization derives from the inter-city corridor preferences emerging from the FRA’s Regional Rail studies. But, the USCA adapts federal authority to serve journeys within one metro and the politics of that metro. This USCA’s 4th study also proposes how these three prototypes can produce a policy that is applied to other metros’ key corridors. This 4th study also suggests how a metro authority can integrate other modes better using Fare Integration and adapt other tools used by our European competitors. The USCA’s federal policy study should test how better governance of transit — including Fare Integration — can win more passengers and protect INVEST’s increased lending.  Finally, the 4th study should explore a type of federal receivership in which bailouts of existing metropolitan operators can accelerate reforms in how the metro governs its transportation.

Conclusion: INVEST so commuter rail evolves into Metropolitan Rail.

Converting century-old terminals into through-stations is a key first step to make possible high-capacity networks. The U.S. update to MR will happen quicker with a clear strategy. You may reference The Reauthorization Dialogues for more background. For now, let’s call the proposed decade-long update, Operation Through-Networks. It has three Phases.  

Phase 1: The Campaign To INVEST In MR (2021 and 2022.) The four studies described above will be written into the 2021 INVEST Act; providing pilot projects to explore a federal policy to improve mid-length metropolitan journeys.

Phase 2: INVEST Beyond The 3 Prototypes (2023 to 2025.) After determining the political and economic feasibility of the initial 3 routes/corridors and making realistic schedules by 2022, INVEST could fund through-route studies for other likely candidates listed in blue (LA, Boston, DC.)

Phase 3: Deliver Benefits Across Metropolitan America. (2026 onwards.) Once the deal for MR works, those metros with modest transit (orange in the map above) will benefit from a federal policy built on the principles of Capacitate, Collaborate and Compete.

For further information and to offer comments, email Robert Munson at Or, use the space below.

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