Introduction to The Campaign To INVEST in Metropolitan Rail

last revised 12/20/20

Before Trains Truly Can Be Built Back Better, The U.S. Must Pilot Through-Stations

Campaign Goal: Have The INVEST Act 2021 authorize four independent studies; three for through-station conversions and the fourth is a federal prototype policy.  These studies plan-outside-the-box; detailing economic and political tactics required for each metro’s trains to increase ridership significantly and integrate alternative modes well enough to compete with cars.

Why Metropolitan Rail (MR) is fundamental.  Without an alternative social contract, metropolitan transportation remains trapped in chronic car congestion; stubbornly stuck for decades with around 76% of Americans driving alone to work. Rail accelerates an alternative contract for mid-length journeys once high-capacity through-routes can emerge. As proven in Europe, alternatives grow after converting terminals into through-stations which, in turn, grow through-networks that benefit Europe’s metros. Similarly, MR can yield these four benefits below to U.S. metros.

  • Reduce road congestion. The micro-mobility industry’s innovation and municipal street redesign will improve first-and-last miles so significant mid-length journeys can be taken off of roads and put on trains if they are modernized. 
  • Reduce household transportation costs. This particularly helps below median incomes. The European Union’s lowest quintile pays 7% for household transportation costs while these same U.S. households pay 28% and helps explain the persistence of U.S. poverty.
  • Tension between cities and suburbs is reduced by sharing rail infrastructure of mutual benefit. This helps evolve governance for efficient metropolitan transportation.
  • MR delivers a key bi-partisan policy for an emerging urban-suburban governing coalition so it can reduce both transportation and housing costs associated with sprawl.

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.

The Quick Ask of Congress. Passed in June 2020, the House’s Reauthorization, Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation (The INVEST Act), should have additions in 2021 to The Commuter Rail Title. This proposal pilots projects to start transforming commuter rail into a tool for each metropolis to redevelop more sustainably and equitably. Since INVEST currently lacks a revenue source, these proposed studies also have a built-in capacity to accept federal loans using the three terminals as collateral.

Shape MR federal policy using 3 Principles. First, we must study how much through-routes will increase Capacity. Second, these studies should propose agency Collaboration that includes 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 fares and overall 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.) GFAs 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 Introduction.)

One of the best examples to prototype this GFA level would be to tunnel so Caltrain runs from its terminal (4th & King) to downtown San Francisco’s new Transbay terminal as originally planned. Unfortunately, the four-county agency botched this build. Having lost a decade, the goal now should be to extend the tunnel and the required second transit crossing to the East Bay. Inexcusably disjointed and inadequately directed, transportation agencies ignored SPUR’s White Paper and failed to act on other proposals. Planning time is running out. With MR as a federal priority, INVEST should authorize a study 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 Bay Area’s 11% decline in per capita ridership since 1991. So, projecting Fare Integration should be included in the INVEST study. 

The pandemic’s collapse in ridership and likely slow growth provides a breather to rebalance Bay Area transportation sustainably.

A second level, Moderate Authority, would take under-utilized lines that are poorly managed public assets. A primary example of an INVEST authorization brings together three strategic, yet stalled, proposals in Chicago, the nation’s train hub. This combined project is packaged as the Bi-partisan 3 Os (O’Hare airport express, through Ogilvie/Union Station, to the Obama Center. The Bi-partisan 3 Os establishes a key through-route and potentially combines Chicagoland’s twelve separate lines into a through-network that could bestow the benefits Europe now enjoys. This proposal helps make it possible to redevelop Chicago more equitably and sustainably, a key competitive advantage for this struggling metro. Best yet, costs are low since this can be done without tunneling. For further information, see the “Through-Route Chicago” document. Of the six metros studied with legacy trains, Chicago’s is the most promising.

The other viable use of Moderate Authority is to connect Boston’s North and South Stations below. The current routes terminate respectively at North or South stations (left schematic.) The right shows the through-route options created by connecting the two stations. The benefits for the proposed North-South Rail-Link are captioned at the bottom.

An Emergency Authority — now held by The President — shortly will need to be exercised on the nation’s most urgent transportation threat, the Hudson Tunnels. However Uncle Sam steps in to rebuild them, that Authority should be mindful of the ultimate goal of connecting Penn Station and Grand Central. INVEST should authorize the study of a multi-state temporary authority that can replace three separate systems with one higher-volume, integrated MR system. Once this expanded Authority has made a functioning through-network that can pay its bills and loans, the federal role recedes and a multi-state metropolitan authority takes over.

Currently, the only other metro likely to need this multi-state Emergency Authority would be Washington Union Station which was two 100 year old tunnel going under the grounds of The Capitol and is a high-risk for a terrorist bombing. National Security aside, an added benefit of converting Union Station into a genuine through-station would also make it possible to integrate two state railroads and redevelop them 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. Metropolitan Corridor Authority (USMCA). Corridors have a 150 history with trains. In addition to the economic advantages, corridors make sense for terminal conversion and through-routes. And as a strategy for developing policy, there is precedent from the inter-city corridor preferences emerging from the FRA’s Regional Rail studies. But for commuter rail, the USMCA adapts federal authority to serve journeys within one metro and the politics of that metro. The USMCA’s 4th study proposes how these three prototypes can produce a policy that is applied to other metros’ key corridors (see map below). 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 to keep costs down.

The USMCA’s federal policy study should test how better governance of transit — necessary for effective 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 post-pandemic 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. Converting 19th Century routes into through-routes serving a sustainable 21st Century will only happen with a clear federal strategy for MR. You may reference The Reauthorization Dialogues for more background. For now, let’s call this proposed 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. If INVEST does not fund these studies in 2021, then loans should be authorized with the terminals as collateral. Further planning delay only makes unnecessary costs in overcoming our systematic failure to convert terminals and modernize trains.

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 above (LA, Boston, DC and Baltimore.)

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 on The Campaign For Metropolitan Rail, the proposal is developed at length in this concluding article of the “Pre-Reauthorization Series.”

To offer comments, email Robert Munson at rcmunson@icloud.com.

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