“It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back everything is different.” –Calvin & Hobbes
With great fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) announced on March 10, 2014 that overall transit ridership in 2013 was the highest since 1956. Naturally, the anti-transit crowd (plus a few neutral observers) threw torrents of cold water on this statistic, finding fault with APTA President Michael Melaniphy’s statement that “there is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities.” In Newgeography.com, Wendell Cox opined that not only was there “no fundamental shift to transit: [but] not even a shift.” Three professors from Columbia University, Cornell University and Rutgers University respectively stated in a Washington Post op ed that “the association’s numbers are deceptive, and this [APTA’s] interpretation…wrong.” Strong words, to be sure.
Some facts are in order to put APTA’s announcement in the proper perspective. Since 1920, government highway spending has undermined tax-paying, payroll meeting transit companies, contributing mightily to their demise. Other factors of course came into play, including inability to raise fares to recapitalize the streetcar infrastructure, onerous requirements to maintain streets with streetcar tracks, the Public Utility Company Holding Act of 1935, predatory strategies by General Motors and fellow travelers, cheap government-guaranteed mortgages (after WW II), and the Interstate highway system as it increasingly penetrated our nation’s downtowns (much to Eisenhower’s consternation). It should be no surprise that, by 1963, transit finally became unprofitable in the aggregate. This signified another milestone in the plummeting (at the time) prospects for transit. Transit could ultimately have become completely marginalized in the U.S., relegated to vestigial or legacy services, as private transit company after private transit company threw in the towel.
That this did not happen can be attributed to the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and the formation of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The UMT Act of 1964 provided funds to localities to purchase the assets of private transit companies across the country and preserve transit services that would have otherwise disappeared or been further curtailed. These acquired assets served as the foundation for preserving and expanding transit operations in many of our nation’s metropolitan areas. Transit ridership reached its nadir in 1972, before the trickle of federal monies initiated in the previous decade could begin to have any impact and help address the hemorrhage of transit riders (caused in large part by the federal government’s own policies).
Critically, research has found that even today fully 50% of Americans do not have access to transit. In order to take transit, it must exist. A recent vote to provide funds to expand transit in the Atlanta metropolitan region foundered on this very fact. Vast swaths of suburban Atlanta are bereft of transit, rendering the question moot for thousands of ‘no” voters who saw no reason to give transit additional resources when they detected no transit service at all where they lived. Never mind that those “no” voters were inextricably tied to their automobiles for even basic mobility (and they certainly did not fare well in the snow and ice catastrophe of this past winter).
While the anti-transit crowd puts much weight on the great recession as temporarily depressing auto travel while transit ridership essentially plateaued, there is growing evidence that a fundamental shift in basic attitudes and behavior toward mobility is occurring, exclusive of the economy. Much has been made about Millennials and their willingness to forego a driver’s license or even owing a car, but these may be symptoms of a larger, more momentous cross generational catharsis. The long term trend of reduced or tiny increases in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) likely points to fundamental shifts on how (and whether) people travel. One can certainly see manifestations of the concern the automobile industry has for the younger set. No auto (or light truck) commercial I’ve seen lately has a gray hair (or wrinkle) in sight. It appears that auto (and truck) commercials are exclusively targeting the 18-33 year old age group. The automobile industry knows that the grayer we get, the less we drive and the fewer autos we acquire.
Much has also been made about the 85% increase in population since 1956 suggesting that transit should have been making much greater strides than APTA is trumpeting. This point is irrelevant when you consider the tremendous resources that have been devoted to highways since 1956 compared to the relatively miniscule transit investment made over the same period. From 1956 to 2011, highways consumed 91% of available capital, while transit collected a paltry 9%. Quite a disparity, you might conclude and reason enough to easily (and rightfully) conclude that the mode with the most resources will dominate.
The primary advocate for highway building during this period, the state highway departments, now called DOT’s, have wielded overwhelming influence in determining the direction localities take. Buttressed by a federal highway program that essentially puts state DOT’s in the driver’s seat, these state agencies have dictated the terms of the transportation future. Transit was relegated to subsist on the crumbs. The Golden Rule applies here, that is, he who has the gold, certainly rules. Localities that wished to fund transit initiatives did so largely or exclusively on their own nickel. Not so for highway improvements, which state DOT’s were (and, largely, are) quite willing to fund (and that friendly federal highway program would fund some improvements with an 80 to 90% federal share). Thus localities were faced with the choice of raising the money themselves for major transit projects (with some federal funds) or choosing highway improvements that were either fully or largely funded by the state (including using federal monies from the (now-approaching bankruptcy) Highway Trust Fund). It is odd when the anti-transit crowd disparages local rail projects as a waste of money when it is clear that localities that choose to build transit do so knowing that they will bear much higher costs for transit improvements than for highway projects (and likely take much longer to implement). That they still proceed reveals that they do so because they are finding that transit offers a better long term investment to achieve true mobility and real choice.
Transit has come a long way and the progress made is truly amazing when you realize these obstacles most localities have faced and some have overcome. Hostile state DOT’s, hostile state legislatures, and exceedingly well funded lobbies at the state and federal levels intent on maintaining their place at the transportation trough have all stood in the way of transit expanding as it should.
This hostility has not melted away with the years. For example, just recently, the Indiana legislature sought to prohibit the city of Indianapolis from even placing rail alternatives in the city’s planning process. And a U. S. congressman from a district that includes parts of Houston, TX, inserted a provision in the latest federal Omnibus funding bill to prohibit the city of Houston from building light rail in his district. The Tennessee legislature adopted legislation that would require the city of Nashville, TN to secure state approval for a local BRT scheme. The Governor of Ohio withdrew previously approved state funds for the Cincinnati Streetcar in a blatant attempt to stop that project (he failed). And finally, the state of Wisconsin is doing everything in its power to stop the city of Milwaukee from building its own streetcar line. These efforts are desperate attempts to stave off change, which threatens the current order, the status quo. Transit patronage gains across the country reflect the changes that are happening in cities, large and small, across the country, in spite of those counter-forces.
No doubt, the population of the U.S. has surged since 1956, but transit spending levels necessary to provide for and sustain real alternatives to the automobile did not happen until the late 20th century. The dearth of transit spending at all levels of government that existed for at least the previous 50 years has, until recently, severely retarded transit’s ability to compete with and also complement the automobile. Furthermore, the lack of resources resulted in deferred maintenance and deferred projects, conditions that persist to this day. For critics to point out that the population of the U.S. has increased by 85% since 1956 while serving up only self-serving homilies masquerading as serious analysis as to why transit hasn’t kept pace is, frankly, inexcusable. Superficial (or lack of) analyses, cherry-picking figures and ignoring history as the axe grinders have done only solidifies their reputations as shills for a certain point of view, regardless of the facts.
The bottom line is transit has indeed reached the ridership level last achieved 57 years ago. This IS momentous. Transit has reached that decisive point where its relevance to the economic health and vitality of our metropolitan areas is apparent and increasingly accepted. We now need to move further into the 21st Century with the goal of providing true mobility and choice to all our citizens, whether they be young, old, high, medium or low income groups, in short, all strata of our society. It won’t be easy, for nothing is more powerful than the status quo, and nothing harder to dislodge. We need look only at the difficulties currently being encountered to secure long term federal transportation legislation (and long term funding) as proof. We, however, can settle for nothing less; otherwise we’ll find ourselves mired in a bleak future, bereft of smart choices of where, how, when or whether to travel.
Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
As a long-time resident of the Washington metropolitan area, I have been following the saga of the Purple Line in suburban Maryland from its early conception in the 1980s to its current status as a 16.0 mile cross-county light rail line. Initially envisioned as a trolley line to run between the Bethesda and Silver Spring Metro stations, it is now seen as a major addition to the transit network in suburban Maryland.
From its inception, the Purple Line has been fraught with threats from all manner of opponents. First the Columbia Country Club sought to kill the project to prevent the use of an abandoned railroad right-of-way that cuts through its property. Then, when the right of way was temporarily converted to a trail, trail supporters disingenuously fought the project even though they were only given temporary use of the right of way until the transit line was ready for implementation. Now the tony (and tiny) enclave of the Town of Chevy Chase (population 3,000) is aghast that the right of way would impinge on their community. Their sudden concern for a mysterious microscopic shrimp-like creature found in Rock Creek Park that might be an endangered species is downright laughable. The shrimp has never been seen anywhere near the proposed right-of-way of the Purple Line and no less an authority than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the Purple Line project the green light, but, hey, if you are rich enough to hire good lawyers, facts don’t matter.
In fact, the Town of Chevy Chase has also hired a Pittsburgh, PA law firm to fight the Purple Line whose stable of lawyers includes the brother of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster. The brother is clearly identified in lobby disclosure forms as a lobbyist working directly on this issue. The Mayor of Chevy Chase says (with a straight face) that she was unaware of this connection. If you can’t stop a project with facts, the next stop is Congress. We note that a Congressman from Houston quietly inserted a provision in the two-year Omnibus budget bill recently passed by Congress forbidding a light rail extension that would pass through his district. Not to be outdone, the Indiana legislature is trying to forbid the city of Indianapolis from even considering rail. There is nothing conservative about these violations of the conservative principle of subsidiarity (which holds that the best decisions are those made at the lowest governmental level for the issue under consideration).
The only real impact of the Purple Line on the Town of Chevy Chase will be to increase the mobility of its citizens. The Purple Line will provide connections to four Metro stations and all three MARC commuter rail lines. It will also establish an inter-county service benefitting thousands of Montgomery and Prince George’s County residents. Ridership estimates are eye popping (74,000 weekday riders in 2040). It will bring car-free mobility to those who wish to travel to destinations around the Maryland suburbs and will facilitate trips into downtown Washington, DC. It will also significantly enhance the trip possibilities for University of Maryland students with three stations on campus and an easy connection to a nearby Metro station. If patterns shown elsewhere hold, this transit improvement will spawn quality economic development all along the Purple Line route. Everyone but the Town of Chevy Chase has concluded these improvements are desirable. Can a tiny town stop a major transit improvement at least twenty years in the making? Stay tuned.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation
The Greek General, Pyrrhus of Epirus, remarked after attaining three victories over the Romans, “If we are victorious in one more battle, we shall be utterly ruined.” Well, Cincinnati’s streetcar has won two referenda, endured raucous political debate, and finally, survived a bombastic effort by the new Mayor, John Cranley, to bring the streetcar to a permanent halt. Hopefully, there won’t be a need for that fourth victory to insure the completion of this project.
The city of Cincinnati has taken the right step, choosing to complete its oft attacked streetcar project rather than taking a huge financial hit and halting all work (shades of the abandoned Cincinnati subway, two miles of which continue to molder away under city roads). The new mayor, who actively campaigned to stop the streetcar in its tracks (pun intended), found that his election didn’t turn on this project but on the fiscal problems now plaguing the city and dissatisfaction with the previous Mallory administration. His ultimately futile effort sparked an amazing grass roots effort (spearheaded by Believe in Cincinnati, organized immediately after the new mayor was elected) to save the streetcar. The first segment of the streetcar project (costing $133 million for 3.8 miles) was grounded in revitalizing a section of the city (Over the Rhine, or OTR) while laying a basis for extensions into other parts of city. From the start, the streetcar has held great promise in Cincinnati for revolutionizing how people might choose to travel in the city proper. The streetcar could also provide the entry trackage for any light rail system built to connect with the surrounding suburbs.
Trying to divine the reasons why the new mayor so abhorred the streetcar might be a fool’s errand. Perhaps, as with many unschooled in the intricacies of transit, he equated the streetcar with the bus and saw a huge disparity in costs, additional costs unjustified, in his mind, by the mode. But the streetcar is much more than simply getting someone from point A to point B. Heck, Roman chariots could do that (with real horsepower but also, at a ratio of one operator per passenger, high operating costs!). The streetcar can succeed, as part of a well-conceived and implemented plan, by sparking quality economic development, such as is now being experienced in the OTR district. Streetcars are ridership magnets. This translates into fewer trips by car, especially for those trivial trips easily served by the streetcar. In Europe, planners talk of the “tram bonus.” When a European city substitutes streetcars for buses, city planners expect to reap an additional 25 -50% riders over the previous bus line (and they get it!). For those all important Millennials, now increasingly moving into downtowns around the nation, streetcars offer the quality transportation they expect in walkable, pedestrian-friendly urban environments. Finally, and no less important, the streetcar provides a sense of place, of permanency, and of official commitment. Streetcars can and do foster and bind cohesive neighborhoods in ways that buses simply cannot. We conservatives look kindly on streetcars for these very reasons. [N.B.: This is not to ignore the venerable bus. It is and will remain the workhorse in our nation’s cities, large, medium and small. It holds a significant place in furthering mobility, especially for lower-income groups, in our nation’s cities. Preserving and enhancing bus service is always a key component in any city’s transit operation.]
Cincinnati is not alone in choosing the streetcar as a catalyst for change. By my count, a total of thirteen (13) U.S. cities are currently constructing streetcar lines (including the Queen City). Our website lists all streetcar projects under construction (or just opened), authorized, or moving toward approval and can be found at: www.theamericanconservative.com/cpt (scroll down on the right side of the home page to Urban Rail Statistics and click on Streetcar Projects Across the U.S.).
The most successful streetcar operation in the country is Portland, OR, where almost 17,000 Portlanders take the streetcar every weekday, followed by Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Both cities have experienced robust growth along the route of the streetcar. In Tucson, AZ, which looks to open its 3.9 mile streetcar line in mid-2014, city officials are already pointing to $250 million in downtown development sparked by the coming of the streetcar. At least an additional $1 billion is expected over the next decade as the streetcar becomes part of the urban fabric. Washington, DC’s H Street, NE corridor, to be served early in 2014 by the first streetcar to operate in that city since January, 1962, has experienced a burst of renewal activity, the first in that corridor since the 1968 riots.
We are gratified that the project will move forward, and hope the city’s leaders will grasp the importance of extending the streetcar to the University of Cincinnati campus, a major source of urban activity and an obvious key destination. Maybe this will be that fourth victory, but unlike poor Pyrrhus, Cincinnati’s fortunes will only improve and flourish. They can thank Believe in Cincinnati for that!
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation