A Tale of Two Cities [L’viv, Ukraine and Krakow, Poland]

July 27, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

I had the good fortune to recently spend two weeks in L’viv, Ukraine with a side trip to Krakow, Poland (and cooled my heels for almost four hours to cross the border). I met wonderful people (especially in L’viv where I spent the majority of my time). Although I had sporadic internet access, the relative isolation from the political discussions in Washington was frankly a welcome balm to my psyche.

This is literally the best of times and maybe, the worst of times, depending on which side of the border you reside. Ukraine and Poland look quite different today than twenty or so years when they emerged from the dark days of communism. The Poland I observed looked, well, genuinely prosperous. The change began at the border. Roads were well-maintained, infrastructure had been rebuilt and the villages on the road to Krakow bustled with activity. Krakow, Poland (population- 750,000, second largest in Poland) was a gleaming city, with a comprehensive transit system blanketing the region with fast, frequent service employing a variety of modes. The tram system, the backbone of the public transportation network, has been completely rebuilt and extended with new and used trams from the West placed into service.

Konstal 105N
A Polish-built Konstal 105N tram provides fast service on a busy arterial near the Old City in Krakow, Poland (July, 2011)

A new Fast Tram service (KST) was inaugurated in 2008 which provides direct access to the town’s main train station through a tunnel originally started in 1974. I saw interconnected public transit that gave access to all corners of the city, fares that encouraged ridership, while generally providing the glue that makes cities economically viable, attractive to live in and certainly to visit. Membership in the European Union certainly has provided advantages and Poland has played those advantages magnificently.

In sharp contrast, L’viv, Ukraine (population- also about 750,000) still reflects the chronic lack of money dating from Soviet times needed to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure. The good news is that change is coming (slowly) and the city is working to upgrade the public transportation system (as well other services and infrastructure) in anticipation of jointly hosting the Euro Soccer Tournament with neighboring Poland in the summer, 2012. Like Krakow, the backbone of L’viv’s transit system is the tram (at least in the center city and environs- outlying areas with blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings are served by a large, sprawling network of trolleybuses and buses).

Tatra T-4
An aging Czech-built Tatra T-4 bogie tram, vintage 1977, trundles through an older part of L’viv on a wet day in July 2010 (this section currently closed for a complete rebuild of the street infrastructure, including new track)

The meter gauge system provides intensive service with a mixture of old and second-hand Tatra-built trams. Fares are also cheap (about 12¢ a ride). New rolling stock may be years away although Koncar of Croatia recently reached agreement with a Ukrainian bus manufacturer LAZ (located in L’viv) to build low floor trams. L’viv would certainly provide a ready local market. If Ukraine’s current drive to join the European Union remains on course, perhaps a Poland-like future is in the offing. Ukraine’s geographic location is not its greatest asset, however, and it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid unnecessarily arousing its sometimes fulsome eastern neighbor.

There was one thing that I noticed about both cities. Getting around town is easy. Squads of minibuses (locally called Marschrulkys charging a premium fare of 25¢) prowl the side streets of L’viv, ably augmenting the trams and the trolleybuses. Krakow maintains a high level of service on all modes throughout the day. I also noticed new diesel articulated buses carrying crush loads at most times of the day in both cities. While car ownership is exploding in both Poland and Ukraine, city officials in Krakow and L’viv clearly recognize that in the competition for public road space, public transportation must prevail. Now there’s a refreshing point of view that we could take to heart (and to town) here in America.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation

What We Believe

July 5, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Car Stop 

My colleague, Glen Bottoms, suggested we offer a clear statement of what we, as pro-transit conservatives, believe. The results follow, as a draft. We welcome comments and suggestions for improvement. Once we think the draft is finished, we will post the final version near the top of our website so new visitors have some idea about what we are about.

Let me anticipate one question. Why do we title (below) it in Latin? Because Latin is God’s favorite language.


As conservatives, we believe some national needs should not be politicized. One such need is an effective national defense. Another is sufficient infrastructure so that a free-market economy can flourish. Transportation arteries are part of that infrastructure.

Many of the Founding Fathers, including President George Washington, recognized that transportation infrastructure was a national necessity, because without it commerce would be stifled. From our republic’s inception, government has played a role in funding transportation infrastructure. The first bill passed by the First Congress was a transportation infrastructure bill, to build a lighthouse in Virginia for coastal shipping. In 1806, Congress passed and President Jefferson signed the first federal highway bill, to construct the famous National Road through the Allegheny Mountains. Both federal and state governments funded and provided land grants for canal and railroad construction in the 19th century. Conservatives respect precedents, and no American historical precedent is stronger than that which justifies government action to build transportation infrastructure.

As conservatives, we also believe in a level playing field. Unfortunately, over the past century, government funding of transportation infrastructure became skewed in favor of one alternative, highways, at the expense of another, railways. A century ago, almost all travel, urban and intercity, was by rail. The railroads, interurbans and streetcars our grandparents and great-grandparents rode were almost all privately owned and operated by companies which received no government subsidies but instead paid taxes. Not surprisingly, they were unable to compete against government-funded highways. Conservatives know what happens when government subsidizes one competitor while taxing another. We also know that the inevitable result – – in this case, automobile dominance – – is not a free market outcome.

Automobile dominance, in turn, now endangers our national security. Americans’ automobiles depend on imported oil, much of which comes from unstable parts of the world. At present, only 50% of all Americans have any public transportation available to them. If the other 50% cannot drive, they cannot move.

The solution to this problem is not to be found in more wars for oil. As we learned in Iraq, a war for oil will get us war but not oil. We can do far more for national security by re-creating the network of passenger trains, interurbans and streetcars we once had, allowing all Americans to remain mobile if gasoline is unaffordable or unavailable, than by involving ourselves in more foreign wars. Streetcars and interurbans run on electricity, and mainline railroads can be electrified, all with technology that has been available for more than a century. A fraction of the trillion dollars spent so far on the Iraq war could have provided most Americans with some form of rail transportation.

As conservatives, we believe national policy be based on facts, not myths, misstatements and questionable numbers. Regrettably, at present, the debate among conservatives over transportation alternatives is dominated by misinformation. Examples include:

  • Public transportation requires subsidies while highways pay for themselves through the gas tax. In fact, highways are heavily subsidized. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the gas tax plus all other user fees cover just under 52% of the cost of highways. In comparison, Amtrak now covers 67% of its operating costs out of revenues, while urban rail transit systems cover 50%.
  • Buses are cheaper and better than trains. In fact, urban bus systems cover only 28% of their operating costs from passenger revenues, far less than rail. Initial rail capital costs are higher than buses running on existing roads, but buses require replacement far more frequently than trains, and the cost of building dedicated busways is roughly equivalent to Light Rail and higher than streetcars. Buses provide an inferior travel experience for riders, so much so that an argument for buses is often a disguised argument for automobiles. Few people who have a car and can drive choose to take a bus instead, while may will choose to take a train.
  • Public transportation carries only 1% of total trips. With only half of all Americans having any public transportation available, and only half of that half rating their service even “satisfactory,” the problem here is not the answer but the question. If it isn’t here, people can’t ride it. Studies show that in corridors with higher-quality rail service, public transit often carries 40% or more of all commuting trips.
  • As conservatives, we support development and economic growth. Rail transit has repeatedly shown that it can generate urban development and re-development, with accompanying increases in property values and tax revenues. Buses running in regular traffic have no effect on economic development. While property values rise within walking distance of a rail transit stop, they decline with proximity to a highway interchange.

    As conservatives, we believe that unnecessary costs in projects funded with public money are wrong. We are concerned that construction costs for Light Rail and streetcars have in some cases risen to levels far in excess of what is necessary. Overbuilding, often driven by consultants who recommend expensive, high-tech approaches, threatens the future of rail transit in America more than the myths and inaccurate numbers purveyed by professional transit critics.

    Transit proponents and public officials should remember that the more cheaply we can build rail transit, the more we can build. We recommend adopting “should cost” figures of $10 million for streetcars and $20 million for Light Rail, not including land acquisition costs which vary widely. Any proposal exceeding these “should cost” figures ought to be carefully and critically examined for evidence of overbuilding.

    Where intercity passenger trains are concerned, we recognize the desirability of High Speed Rail, which is defined as speeds of 250 kilometers per hour or more (about 150 miles per hour). However, the parlous state of America’s public finances and the urgent need to reduce the federal deficit and national debt make true high speed rail unaffordable in this country for the foreseeable future.

    Instead, we favor higher speed rail: passenger trains running on existing tracks at speeds sufficient to make journey times competitive with travel by car. In most cases, this can be done within the FRA speed limit of 79 miles per hour, so long as almost all of the journey can be made at that speed. Higher-speed rail is affordable, and should be national policy to re-create the network of passenger trains we had in the 1950s, again with the goal of giving almost all Americans an alternative to driving. Only once such a network of conventional passenger trains is in place does it make sense to consider building true high speed rail in corridors carrying sufficient traffic to justify the investment. That is how High Speed Rail has developed in other countries, and it is the practical way to develop it here.

    Conservatives know that the America we once had was in many ways better than the country we have now. More, we know that the solutions to many contemporary problems can be found in our own past. What worked once can work again.

    Nowhere is this more true than in transportation. Conservatives should lead efforts to restore America’s streetcars, interurbans and passenger trains, while simultaneously demanding that costs be kept down. By becoming a constituency for both rail transit and cost control, conservatives can fill an important vacuum in the national transportation debate, benefiting both the traveler and the taxpayer. And, we might add, doing far more for national security than will any further foreign military adventures.