Our Next Dialogue: Make More Of INVEST … Add MR

How Transit’s deadly pandemic can be our Perfect Storm to improve options for metropolitan mobility.

(last revised 8/26/20)

Showing that 9 of the 10 largest U.S. metros have commuter rail, this map conveys enough latent political power to develop a federal policy for Metropolitan Rail. A MR policy makes it more likely each metro can redevelop more equitably and sustainably.

For decades, transit’s tactics were timid and, as a consequence, participated too little in urban revitalization. That should change starting with The INVEST Act passed by the House in July. Investing in a New Vision for the Environment and Surface Transportation can be the change agent that goads U.S. transit into the 21st Century. But … it also might not.

Increasingly, the impact of INVEST will depend on our response to this pandemic. Several experts now project it takes over a year for enough Americans to be vaccinated before we get a semblance of normal. While masks improve transit safety, the key control of the pandemic is social distancing; and this takes away transit’s money-maker at peak hours. Also conspiring to pile on top of these deadly deficits is this recent discovery: Covid-laden aerosols in a contained space can be super-spreaders. Already losing badly relative to 21st Century population and car usage escalation, pre-pandemic train ridership has dropped 80% today. The second Covid resurgence slapping down European metros indicates U.S. passenger revenue will stay suppressed and will be lucky to get to 50% by 2022. That is likely to be our “new normal” plateau and — without reform– we realistically return to agencies’ slow annual growth of over the past three decades and will never be enough to compete with cars.

This resulting red ink is unfathomable to U.S. taxpayers and, apparently, the U.S. Senate. This all is compounded by fearful former passengers avoiding trains for years; even after risk rationally subsides. We probably face a death knell for commuter rail worse than the 1970s.

Avoid trains’ demise by using INVEST and the stimulus/bailouts to change how commuter rail conducts its business.

Back when lockdowns worked in April, we talked about using the pandemic to reinvent daily transportation as we know it. Now is the time to make good on that talk.

However, our talk also must cure transit’s bankruptcy stretching back decades. In most major metros, agency insolvency and their inability to compete with cars is the elephant in the room that is sitting on INVEST. How we get that elephant to move (that is, increase revenue and compete with cars) will determine if INVEST is a lever for change … or merely results in good intentions dissolving into another reauthorization to perpetuate the car’s near-monopoly.

Instead of seeing this opportunity to get to the future, agencies today desperately petition Congress to keep alive. But recall, many agencies were ineffective decades ago; given their minimal authority to solve the car-dominance that led private commuter rail into bankruptcy. Without the structural change needed to invest proper authority in transit, today’s bailouts merely continue to let the elephant sit on the lever; public insolvency persists and the INVEST opportunity is belittled into no deal.

Clearly, bailouts are another losing tactic of bankrupt agencies. For proof, notice how April’s $25 Billion CARES bailout was followed by agencies requesting $32B of which the House granted $16B in May and the Senate granted $0B in July; then went on vacation. Agencies whose most visible strategy is to put their hands-out have just been given the thumbs-down. In the fight for finite federal funds, transit will lose to the bailouts of bigger services with far bigger and better organized constituencies.

To start transit’s thumbs-up modernization, Senate Democrats should call some bluff. They should take the position of giving value for taxpayers and propose to invest, say, the first $50m of stimulus in self-sufficiency strategies to test pilot projects that change how transportation is delivered and governed. These studies and pilots should be independent of DOT bureaucracies and, most probably, be based in universities and civic groups. Independent of moribund agencies, these studies make reinventing transit more likely. Studies should report results to Congress to impact the 2021 rendition of the Reauthorization. Studies also should suggest how each major metro can reinvent how it governs mobility.

For example, take the New York metro. Their MTA can be partially bailed out, but it also needs to agree to rationalize how this multi-state metro’s transportation is governed. The New York metro certainly need this before it can modernize rail.

To start winning its stimulus competition against autos and airplanes, trains must be remade into a vital business. This long-term goal allows it to compete against cars… and eventually can give transit leverage to level transportation’s rules.

Each bailout, essentially, takes trains through a bankruptcy process that requires every agency and operator — and their labor contracts — to improve how they do business. And if they can’t improve and justify another bailout, they go into a receivership and a modern authority gets funded. Suburban trains are the most inequitable mode and, hence, probably are the fairest place to start this process. (But, fairness also says the same rules, ultimately, should apply to subsidies for cars and planes.)

Tactics during the next few months should connect stimulus/bailouts to the strategic alternative offered by INVEST. Recall INVEST’s recent approval by The House still requires the next Senate and Executive to make INVEST’s breakthroughs possible. INVEST’s loudest discipline requires federal funds to “fix it first.” The Act more quietly sets a dynamic for advocates to “fix it right” by improving safety and access broadly so more residents have transportation options.

But isn’t “fixing it right” really about fixing transportation’s governance on the metro level ?

If we expand INVEST’s change strategy in this way and tie it to the pandemic bailout, then we turn 2021 into The Perfect Storm that helps Americans, eventually, use cars less. Sitting on my internet perch, that’s how this sparrow sees the opportunity.

In brief, use the pandemic to strengthen INVEST’s policy push to modernize commuter rail.

More specifically, fixing roads and fixing commuter rail are different reforms.

Roads probably can be “fixed right” with a federal policy that leans on state DOTs to rebuild first and right. Commuter rail requires a more subtle solution. To speak bluntly, rail is provincially run for suburban commuters. Very little has changed since states took over rails from bankrupt firms. Suburbs hold essential hegemony over this vital, vastly under-utilized public asset which is now stagnant.

In rebuilding better, trains should be a dynamic tool to redevelop the entire metropolis more sustainably. MR also can help below median households reduce transportation and housing costs and, presumably, save for education and retirement. In a brief Big Picture, trains as a public asset should help build a newly articulated American Dream that relies less on a diet of ever-bigger cars and homes that too many households can no longer afford.

Current terminals (left.) Connected through-stations and new route options (right.) Courtesy of Boston’s N-S Rail Link.

Cut to the chase: convert terminals.

The 2021 INVEST will trigger commuter rail’s change if we convert key legacy terminals into through-stations. In turn, these expand rail capacity and stimulate through-networks so they make more journeys more convenient. Increased passenger capacity, in turn, is fed further by the micro-mobility revolution’s ability to ease the beginnings and ends of journeys within the mid-range market. Micro-mobility is key to modernizing rail because U.S. metros only will gradually get the authority to coordinate modes and share fares.

Why name it MR.

European metros largely succeed at what they call “regional rail” because they integrate all operators with a regional authority. Since American transit starts more fragmented, we should not expect Europe’s regional rail model to work in the U.S. So while advocating for most of the same attributes of regional rail, this website proposes the term Metropolitan Rail.

MR is our framework to make much better mid-range journeys, between municipalities within one metro. Specifically, MR is a strategy to overcome how states preserve suburban hegemony over this public asset. To improve alternatives for mid-range journeys, MR remakes a shared infrastructure between suburbs and city by giving them better governance. To govern for a while, a Democratic Congress needs train reform as it will improve various transportation and housing policies for suburbs and cities alike.

MR also gives advocates more leverage and flexibility. Some states, like my Illinois, teeter chronically on insolvency. Its capital poverty creates Chicagoland’s opportunity to build a metropolitan authority. This shift has not seen since the 1970s when states took over trains at the behest of suburbs. But instead of continuing Chicagoland’s cumbersome six county authority (which may take forever to negotiate), MR is initially organized by corridors since its land-owners benefit the most and will be taxed the most.

In the final analysis of the nine states I’ve studied, real solutions only will emerge if states delegate more authority to metros.

But, they will need help from Uncle Sam if we are to turn these deadly deficits into a Perfect Storm for changing transportation.

Proposal for this Reauthorization.

The current INVEST does too little to change commuter rail. To use U.S. authority and funds to start MR during the next five years, this website proposes four pilot studies. Congress funds three feasibility studies for the most viable corridors to convert legacy terminals so rail can evolve quickly. (Currently these conversions are in New York, Chicago and San Francisco; each requiring different levels of federal help.) The fourth study sets up a U.S. Corridor-like Authority that directs these three plans and synthesizes a prototype policy for the nation’s other metros.

The Big Question: Does commuter rail need a campaign ?

The Short Answer: Yes.  Only a Campaign will change the status quo of the last five decades. A longer answer is suggested at the end of this article and this website’s articles.

I’ve studied the politics of commuter trains for five years and posted over 30,000 words (essentially a book) on the topic. I’ve concluded the arrested evolution of commuter rail restricts the redevelopment of cities and suburbs alike. History tells us inertia gets overcome with a strategic campaign that has federal leadership during key moments of change. So, let’s INVEST now !

Proposals I’ve sketched in previous articles could replace our governing impasse by re-organizing the self-interest of landowners along corridors. This is more suitable for taxing improved property value. Corridors also create less political stress than proposing region-wide institutions. Recall that organizing by corridors is how rails settled our land… and rail corridors will help us redevelop sustainably. After a corridor or two proves itself, then transit’s metropolitan governance can emerge. 

As for the track record of Reauthorizations… Increasingly the last three started with earnest efforts to provide options to transportation’s auto-regime. But with the ‘status quo’ using delay tactics, each effort got lost in the crunch as Congress takes the easier path of feeding existing systems who, in turn, only improve their outdated methods too slightly. A worse threat is the ‘de facto’ federal retreat from 80% capital funding to around 50%. This really is Uncle Sam abandoning transit unless metros receive the required authority to replace that missing 30%.

The 2021 INVEST can break these negative patterns and create positive momentum. But federal policy must encourage states to empower metros so they fund and develop transportation alternatives… which should include road usage fees as an economic leveler.

As I see the Campaign to INVEST in MR, its three tactics over-lap.

Tactic 1: Tell Success Stories That Narrate Change. For my part in this first tactic, I’m writing “The Pre-Reauthorization Series.” (Or see the menu at the top of this page to access these articles.)

The first two stories tell us how to motivate Americans to use alternatives. The third article sets an ideal model: the successes of Munich’s S-Bahn, a key part of what many consider to be Europe’s most successful “transit metropolis.” The final three articles pull together all my articles to propose a policy. Here is the “Series” overview.

#1 “Brightline To Bright Future: Remaking Rail’s Vision” shows conditions under which rail entrepreneurs can make alternatives. South Florida’s public funding of its stagnant Tri-Rail contrasts starkly with Brightline’s 100% private capital that has revolutionized inter-city travel. Brightline adds some marketing sizzle to the vision thing. 

#2 “Plucky Corridors And Organizing Metros For Rail: What I Learned From The Rail Passengers Association” shows how pluck matters more than power. RPA’s story is citizens can organize as rail advocates so that even the U.S. Senate responds positively.

#3 “Munich Loves Cars, But Uses Trains To Compete With Cars. Can The U.S?” German S-Bahns are great because one agency coordinates each metro’s transportation. While the agency improves transit’s networks and uses trains as the backbone, transit’s key support comes when government coordinates land use and has cars pay their fair share of costs. This article draws tight analogies to the U.S. because Munich loves its cars (BMW) and they make trains work great within a federal structure.

The Munich model is the primary influence to “Collaborate” and “Compete” in the 3C principles of the logo below. (For the record, “Capacitate” is a rarely used verb… but represents well how through-stations lead to higher capacity through-networks.)

#4 The Series Conclusion has 3 Parts. Part A is an Executive Summary “How Trains Can Grow Again and it introduced the policy logo above.

Part B (summarized above) is an Analysis that links the Problems to those Principles likely to make Through-Routes more successful. The “conversion” table above is a bit of a slog; but shows the logical synergy needed to overcome challenges from the status quo.

Part C (posted probably in September 2020) will detail how to develop this federal policy for Metropolitan Rail (MR). Note that MR is similar to “regional” rail with similar elements. But, the short explanation of the difference is that converting commuter rail should not be confused with an inter-city program of the Federal Railroad Administration. The long explanation is in Part C’s policy proposal for three prototype Through-Routes.

Tactic 2: Communicate with Staff of your metro’s Members of Congress.  Different tactics will get Through-station studies written into INVEST 2021. I’ve started on Chicagoland’s influential MCs in transit. Specific to my city, read this brief introduction: “Through-Route Chicago.” I will followup this summer with a fuller prototype proposal, get feedback and, then, approach staff for Illinois’ U.S. Senators. 

While my intent is to propose through-route studies for three metros, time is a factor. I’m hoping you also will present your metro’s proposals to your MCs. My chapters on individual metros indicate that re-organizing a key corridor can evolve Metropolitan Rail quicker in Chicago, New York, Boston, DC, LA and the Bay Area. Tweaks to existing local/state laws also can start the required evolution; but MR will emerge slower.  To get federal leverage, you have to ask.

Tactic 3: Your Participation: Critique. I circulate for comments a short introduction To The Campaign to INVEST in MR. In late August, I sent the flyer to a select list of 98 urban policy wonks interested in this largely-ignored topic of metro rail in the U.S.  Please critique anything I write; either on the website or to me via email. 

But, I’d like even more that you send me relevant articles; including articles you’ve written and tidbits you think our network should know about. This gives me grist for another email and article!

That’s it? 

So far. Beyond these tactics and six articles in “The Pre-Reauthorization Series”, I’d like to retire from leading the Campaign. But if the Reauthorization’s completion is not apparent in 2020 (very likely), I could easily be recruited out of retirement… providing you help with a prototype proposals. And after that… if some group wants to shape a federal policy for Metropolitan Rail, I will be thrilled to help more.

As your next step today, send this link to an associate, colleague and/or co-conspirator and suggest that they put themselves on the email list.

Add it all up over the next few months… and who knows? We might even get Congress to INVEST in Metropolitan Rail.

Email me anytime. Or, I am glad to take your call.

Robert Munson



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