Seeing Red over the Purple Line

February 8, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: The Right Answer 

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 Cincinnati Streetcar Lives!

January 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

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

DETROIT: Transit Did (and Does) Play a Part

August 22, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The Right Answer 

On June 18, 2013, under the direction of the state of Michigan, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy declaration in our nation’s history. According to the state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, the city has amassed some $18 billion (give or take a few hundred million) in liabilities, against assets of $4 billion. Those liabilities include unpaid bills, health care liabilities and unfunded pension benefits.

Since that date, we have witnessed a veritable avalanche of articles and op-eds attempting to explain why poor Detroit went bust. Each piece sought to assign blame as viewed through the appropriate ideological prism. George Will sees only labor and political perfidy. Stephen Rattner sees yet another opportunity for the federal government to play Santa Claus. Cato’s Michael Tanner identifies the usual suspects, paramount being the unfunded pension program and retiree health care benefit liabilities. Tanner also aptly identifies the city’s anti-business environment and crushing local tax burdens on remaining residents as additional culprits. Some even see a racist plot to undermine governance of a mostly black city. Mind you, some governance has to be in evidence in order to be undermined. There was (and is) scant evidence of that. Others see insensitive corporate policies that mindlessly pursued profits to the exclusion of all other considerations (some truth to that). Still others have dusted off more prosaic existential motifs as the root cause of the city’s myriad ills (capitalism’s ultimate destination, liberalism’s ultimate destination, etc.).

Whatever the reasons for Detroit’s slow slide to oblivion, no one, in our view, deigned to mention another obvious culprit. That is, the city helped fashion its own noose by slowly destroying a viable transit system at the insistence of one General Motors (GM). After pursuing a strategy of crippling transit across the country by purchasing streetcar systems through intermediaries and quickly converting them to buses, GM buses, GM could hardly stand by and let Detroit successfully operate a modern streetcar system in the very heart of the world’s auto industry.

Little known is the fact that the city of Detroit had municipalized its streetcar system as early as 1922. Only San Francisco, among major cities in the U.S., had followed that course of action (in 1912) so early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this did not ultimately insulate the streetcar from the strong anti-transit forces swirling around Detroit. Fast forwarding to the 1940’s, the streetcar system had become a campaign issue in the 1948 mayoral election with the victor, Eugene Van Antwerp, fulfilling a promise to maintain and improve the system. The defeated challenger would have junked it. Between 1945 and 1949, the city ordered 186 brand new PCC streetcars, the most modern available, to update the system. At the same time, the system was rationalized to recognize the shrinkage in patronage, especially in the off peak, and the need to retire older equipment on marginal routes. This rationalization was naturally in line with recommendations GM had made to the city to substitute buses on numerous streetcar lines. By 1952, the transit system’s backbone had been whittled down to four well-patronized streetcar lines, all served by modern PCC streetcars. GM kept bombarding the city government with plans calling for additional conversions. Bit by bit, the city finally caved under the pressure and the last streetcar ran in Detroit in April, 1956. It is telling to note that when the last route, the flagship Woodward Avenue line, was converted, headways were 90 seconds in the peak and 2½ minutes at midday. The line required 66 PCCs in the peak and carried over 70,000 weekday passengers.

So why was converting Detroit’s streetcar system so important an event? The reasons that we are investing in streetcars across America today were just as valid in the 1950’s. The streetcar helps bring and sustain economic development and typically draws a greater clientele than the bus. It reduces reliance on the automobile (obviously a non-starter for the automobile industry in Detroit). It encourages a walkable environment and binds and encourages cohesive neighborhoods. It is also a visible investment in the community that emphatically says we think transit is important. Developers and existing businesses all note this in their investment calculations. Take that away and you insert one more factor for fostering urban decay.

Abandoning Detroit’s scarcely depreciated PCC streetcars in 1956 (they ran for an additional 30 years in Mexico City) sent a clear message to the citizens of Detroit that transit was not important. And Detroit transit riders weren’t stupid. They knew that the replacement buses were smaller and slower and were no match for the larger, faster, and more comfortable PCC streetcars. One advantage that Detroit could have exploited was the work done in the 1930’s to widen Detroit’s main arteries (Woodward, Michigan, Gratiot and Jefferson). This gave Detroit’s streetcars plenty of room to make the most of their advantages. But GM saw only saw opportunities for additional automobiles on those roadways, not transit.

Now back to the present. We should note that in spite of the gathering dark clouds of bankruptcy, Detroit is actually now on track to restore rail service on Woodward Avenue. A ground-breaking privately initiated streetcar project will serve the rapidly redeveloping portion of Woodward Avenue between midtown and downtown. Called M-1 Rail, the project will receive private and philanthropic grants totaling almost $100 million of the $137 million cost. The federal government is chipping in $25 million. The co-chairs of M-1 Rail, Roger Penske of Penske Racing and Penske Automotive Group and Dan Gilbert, Chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, have seen the wisdom, indeed the necessity, of restoring quality fixed guideway transit in this corridor to help spark development. They have committed $3 million of their own money to the project. The Kresge Foundation is providing a $35 million grant. The line is expected to help generate over $500 million in new development along the corridor. Construction of the M-1 streetcar (M-1 is Michigan DOT’s highway designation for Woodward Avenue) begins this fall with the first streetcar scheduled to run in the Fall of 2015. The line will be 3.3 miles in length and feature eleven stations.

There is plenty of blame to assign in the slow descent of Detroit to its present sorry state. We all know that the population of Detroit has shrunk from about 2 million in 1950 to 700,000 today. And we know most of the vaunted automobile plants (GM, Ford, Chrysler) were moved to the suburbs, rather than investing in Detroit proper. The city was riddled with freeways, destroying and balkanizing viable neighborhoods, dispersing industry and commercial activity, and facilitating travel by rubber-tired conveyance and little else. Even today, the latest plans for the Detroit region center on a new $4 billion highway widening plan. There is also a new regional transit authority and a plan for a region-wide BRT system but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

This is also a tale of political fecklessness, when a city could not summon the will to adjust and live within its means. Herbert Stein (who was born in Detroit) once famously said that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Well, Detroit has reached this point. I can’t begin to predict how this bankruptcy will end and how any settlement will affect the municipal bond market (maybe it already has- Saginaw and Genesee Counties and Battle Creek, Michigan were forced to withdraw recent bond offerings). Detroit is only likely to be a winner if it can emerge with the necessary resources to improve and tailor city services to a population of 700,000, bereft, of course, of the crushing debts that it brought upon itself. The city will also need to get out of the way of the private sector and let it function freely.

Just remember, a key turning point for the city was in the mid-1950’s when Detroit was forced to walk away from a viable urban rail transit system. It is very likely that restoration of the streetcar on Woodward Avenue will be a key act in reviving a city that is already showing nascent signs of renewal. My money is on the private sector to successfully lead this resurgence. Detroit is not likely to capture its past glory but it can create a new path to prosperity through a newly invigorated private sector. The streetcar looks just like the vehicle to help make this happen. I’d say, all aboard!!!

Glen Bottoms is Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and a confirmed optimist

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