Part C, A Strategic Proposal To Develop A Federal Policy

Prototype 3 Key Through-Routes and pay for them with Fare Integration.

Analysis Summary:  Terminals, poor operator collaboration, and policies favoring autos are three key obstacles that restrict trains from significantly improving transportation within a metropolis. These three key problems can be solved sufficiently only if we evolve new authorities specific to each metropolis. Each authority should fulfill a new social contract that reduces road congestion, carbon emissions and transportation costs for lower income households. These benefits emerge after investing to modernize rail and how it is governed. Proof comes from Europe’s major metros whose rail transformation is largely complete.  U.S. metros are two or more decades behind. To catch-up and achieve the above benefits, the U.S. needs train policies that help cities and suburbs — together as a governing coalition — redevelop sustainably.

Proposal Overview. A federal Metropolitan Rail policy can be prototyped by converting terminals into through-stations in Chicago first and, then, New York and The Bay Area. These three feasibility studies should project how through-routes — using federal loans — can be paid back by increased ridership resulting from Through-Networks and Fare Integration. Also, Value Capture transfers should assist in more sustainable redevelopment and housing affordability. These three studies — plus one for evolving a federal policy — should be authorized by the INVEST Act revisions made in 2021.

Study Recap: A five year research/writing project concludes with this proposal. An early sketch of its findings emerged from this summary of 12 articles analyzing commuter rail and using their central terminals as the microcosm for understanding each metro’s transportation alternatives. Surveying all major U.S. metros and focussing on ten legacy systems, these articles were posted from 2017 to 2019 on the website “What Stations Teach”.  

Recognizing these under-utilized assets needed the synergy of a federal policy, I explored its elements by posting articles on the project’s next website. Starting with “The Pre-Reauthorization Series,”  the first five articles addressed these elements: how the private sector can help; how bi-partisanship should underpin new authorities; and how a U.S. federal policy can find strong analogy in The Munich Model

To prepare a proposal for federal policy to discuss, I started a three part conclusion in March 2020 when I posted a Preliminary Summary. A May 2020 posting detailed the analysis and logical progression to propose a solution. The table on the May article’s first page generalizes commuter rail’s three core problems and how each can be cured by these 3 Principles: Capacitate, Collaborate, Compete.  

The table is a bit of a slog, but is copied below to structure this November update reflecting two intervening milestones. In early July, The House passed The INVEST Act; creating an unfunded framework for surface transit alternatives. Second, the Senate’s failure to bailout transit agencies sufficient for survival has laid bare their long-term insolvency and created an opportunity for reform and restructuring not seen for over half a century.

a) Ridership growth stagnates relative to need. Terminals defy conversion and remain the neck of the bottle preventing significant growth today. After bankrupt railroads turned assets over to caretaker public agencies, commuter rail did grow nationwide: averaging 7.9 million more rides each year from 1990-2007. (Data is courtesy of spreadsheet link contained in “Transport Politic”, 4th graph.)  But, systems still were under-invested and un-modernized. Growth soon slowed by half, 3.4 million rides from 2008-18. This kept with population growth, but did not expand trains’ market share despite policy seeking to solve chronic road congestion.

Recognizing commuter rail’s slow growth results from outdated terminals and knowing that western European trains were transforming into through-networks and growing ridership impressively, metro planners in the U.S. started 9 attempts to convert terminals to higher capacity central through-stations. All failed because no body had the authority to execute master plans and increase Capacity.

U.S. ridership is constrained by century-old routing and terminals. These contributed to bankruptcy and, without modernization, has been followed by agency insolvency for several decades. Compared to European rail’s revenue growth, U.S. commuter rail has survived barely; requiring significant public subsidy, with only 4 systems requiring less than 45% subsidy. (The three in New York and Caltrain.) Worse than its subsidy addiction, U.S. rail’s severe under-investment prevents us from ever approaching the much smaller range of subsidies and the much larger benefits enjoyed by our European competitors.  

The U.S. consequences of poorly managing trains as a transportation alternative are exposed by today’s pandemic. With 2020 ridership dropping perhaps 75% and guesses for several years to get to “new normal” recoveries (all below 2019 levels), commuter trains are trapped in a hopeless insolvency and under-capitalization. 

Yet, these chronic bankruptcies really are our opportunity to modernize trains into valuable assets for the coming era. For that, we must invest in and manage trains properly with new laws. To increase Capacity, we must change how we govern trains and how they do business. This goal requires solving our next Problem with its Principle.

b) Poor Collaboration. No body adequately coordinates most metropolitan transit. This is most obvious in how many trains connect poorly to other modes to make a good journey downtown. Poor collaboration is even more hurtful to operations. Persistent throughout many metropolises, conflicts in fare policies discourage transfers between modes. This results in lower usage. In turn, this makes frequency too expensive to expand peak-intensive service into all-day train service. Some recent research indicates that off-peak hours are when lower income riders most need transit. Hence, transit’s ability to reduce household costs is not optimized.

While operations are largely unimproved in the half century since the public agencies took over, what will hinder modernization most is U.S. capital grants have declined substantially from the established 80%. Carrying this trend of the last 15 years into the 2020s, we should anticipate 50% of capital will be provided by U.S. taxpayers. States are highly unlikely to meet this new 30% gap; particularly since states already cannot meet their current responsibilities to erase trains’ two decade backlog of deferred maintenance. With the pandemic’s supreme stress put on state budgets, they furthermore cannot rise to commuters’ challenges for modernization.

As an extreme example of how states still will be able to help modernization, Illinois (my broke state) now pays zero for a major renovation of Chicago’s most-used heavy rail (the Red Line north to Evanston.) But to help, Illinois compensated by allowing Chicago to structure a new value capture scheme along the line to pay for what had been Illinois’ 20% match. Illinois should make a similar deal to modernize commuter rail routes. However, a new metropolitan authority will need to take responsibility for execution and paying the loans.

Other examples led this writing project to conclude almost uniformly for the six major legacy systems that states failed to prepare commuter rail for the future. A primary cause is the 20th Century’s federal structure relies too much on states who don’t have as a priority to help metros reorganize their services; transit now being the next frontier. While the INVEST Act seeks to return federal capital nearly to its 80% historic level, part of that increase should set-up effective metropolitan bodies to coordinate scheduling and fares so alternative systems can compete with the auto. Otherwise, federally-funded transit improvements will not result in sufficient train ridership as experienced today in, say, LA and Dallas. If the U.S. investment does not produce benefits, the U.S. have to forgive these new loans and metropolitan self-sufficiency will have to wait for the next crisis.  However if we can maximize revenue via Collaboration (of which Fare Integration is primary), then each metro can reconfigure its policies and authority enough to increase ridership revenue sufficient to sustainable goals. 

If the pandemic is to be a pivot point and if we are to change commuting as we aspired back in Spring 2020, then all surface transportation policies must allow trains to serve as a Competitive alternative backbone working in conjunction with the micro-mobility evolution.

c) For the Panoply of Policies, use the Pandemic as leverage for trains to Compete. Car usage (Vehicle Miles Traveled) grew 50% while population grew only 30% during the last three decades. We understand well enough how transportation and land use policies perpetuate our addiction to autos. Available as a relatively quick cure, connecting trains with new modes will make for more options for the “first and last mile” of mid-range journeys. But, there are many policies outside of transit agencies’ jurisdiction that must be changed if we are to support multiple modes so they and trains can grow meaningfully as well-networked alternatives. 

In light of the myriad of local practices undermining metropolitan policies and the inability of states to reorganize trains, federal policy appears increasingly as the secret sauce to modernize commuter trains so modes collaborate better to compete with the car. INVEST and its next iteration in the 2021 Reauthorization serves as a foundation for breakthroughs, particularly as the Senate comes to take alternatives seriously.  Yet, converting commuter rail needs specific laws; hence, the four studies proposed here.

With transit agencies drowning in a deluge of red, our strategy needs more than mere stimulus. Instead, we must start reforming transit’s governance. To get some real change amidst all the cries of service reduction and shovel-ready stimulus, some federal money should invest in ridership multipliers such as through-networks and integrated fares. These proven ways of doing business will continue being resisted by current agencies… unless federal policy makes change a prerequisite to on-going bailouts.

By starting to reorganize during today’s bankruptcy, trains can achieve their promise of reducing road congestion, carbon emissions and transportation costs of households that need it most. Furthermore in today’s public debt reality, trains must achieve these benefits in more fiscally sustainable ways. This is possible if trains are re-organized to compete against the car. The proposed body to help them compete is a temporary “corridor council or corporation,” depending on what suits a specific through-route. Each corridor must have advocacy powers to help its alternatives Compete against the car and achieve the benefits of Metropolitan Rail (MR). 

What follows is the proposal to help U.S. commuter trains evolve MR.

With these 4 Studies, The INVEST Act will sketch Metropolitan Rail and shape its Deal.

The goal is to use Federal Authority/Funds/Credit to test a social contract capable of making Metropolitan Rail perform near the European standard for global cities. MR starts by converting 20th Century terminals so 21st Century high capacity through-networks can produce economic benefits.

Modernizing legacy systems will require a metro/state/federal deal to rearrange authority so each corridor can pay back its U.S. loans. We will need to adapt the proven modernization techniques used by European metros since the 1970s. (Read what U.S. metros have to compete against in the highlighted fact at the top of this Introduction to the Campaign for MR.)

To makeup for lost time and the fragmented nature of U.S. metros, they must view the U.S. as its partner so states will delegate enough authority so their metros can grow train ridership.  A key is for each metro’s authority to integrate all operators into one system by controlling contracts, schedules and fares. This is how European systems increase ridership. This is really only conceptual in major U.S. metros. However, that starts to change if the metro’s authority has Fare Integration.

The proposed three studies to convert terminals into Through-Routes will prototype re-governing trains in three different types of metros. Then, a fourth study proposes the policy suitable to help many of the nation’s larger metros. In brief, federal authority should be applied based on how backward the metro’s trains are and how serious the impasse. To test an authority equation for different situations, the three Through-Route studies each represent an appropriate level of federal authority so states delegate to metros. The three levels increase from “gentlest” to “moderate” authority to “federal emergency.”

1st: The gentlest authority suits the Bay Area (and many metros). With only a strategic boost from Uncle Sam, updating the Bay Area’s Clipper Card could advance to real Fare Integration and bring its 29 operators under the same fare rules. Having done the work to simplify fares and expand ridership, the Bay Area is positioned to negotiate building a second tube from the Caltrain terminus across the Bay to Oakland and link its major cities.

2nd: Moderate authority will be most effective in single metro states such as Illinois. Illinois is broke and Metra resisted a universal card (a preliminary to Fare Integration) for nearly a decade. Inexpensive to through-route, Chicago’s two main terminals are next to each other.  With proper authority, this should be an easy connection. Boston has its terminals further apart and an expensive tunnel will connect them. But that metro also is a good candidate to spawn a through-network.

3rd:  Only federal emergency authority can unify the fragmented New York metro. The U.S. quickly must replace the Hudson Tunnels and, then, connect Penn Station and Grand Central. Fare Integration among three states certainly requires U.S. direction. Another multi-system candidate is Washington Union Station.

A 4th federal study synthesizes the above three and proposes the federal MR policy. It has investment formulas and suggests governance methods that help metros shape a sustainable transportation future. This study also guides a new federal agency to make the loans and supervise its investments. A federal MR policy should resolve these issues.

* Through-Route cost/benefit ratios that increase Capacity and reduce related social problems. 

* Revenue projections that use Fare Integration methods to increase ridership and reduce federal risk.

* A clearinghouse of how metros might level the local policy playing field for transit so they can Compete with cars and reduce road congestion.  

A key is for the U.S. to suggest how to re-structure governance along the train’s corridor. Why corridors are a good place to start is sketched for six metros in the concluding article of “What Stations Teach”. A federal application can be seen in the Corridor Implementation Plans in a presentation by the Federal Railroad Administration or FRA (page 12) for planning its inter-city Regional Rail program.

Defining Metropolitan Rail And Sealing MR’s Deal.  The FRA program (linked above) is an inter-city “Regional Rail” program initially focussed on three multi-state regions (the Midwest, Southwest and Southeast.) To avoid confusion with this FRA program, this website’s proposal to transform commuter rail, instead, uses the term “Metropolitan Rail” or MR.  While the FRA and inter-city rail has different economics and goals, a MR policy should help each metro evolve its specific metropolitan body to suitably bind cities and inner suburbs to use a shared infrastructure that promotes sustainable redevelopment. Note also, Europe uses the term “Regional Rail;” but this is supervised by a strong national rail… which, of course, is not analogous to the U.S.  For those familiar with German commuting, this MR proposal resembles S-Bahns.

The Deal reduces household transportation expenses.  Road congestion costs each driver almost $2000 as an annual average across the six metros studied with legacy rail terminals.  Also, it has been known for a while that American households spend more than Europeans on transportation because they have alternatives to the auto.  America’s new Deal for trains is more apparent when looking at the lowest quintile households: these Americans spend 29% of income on transportation and their EU counterparts spend only 7.5%.  

We are discovering how cars — key to the 20th Century American Dream — actually make the poorest Americans poorer. Alternatives to car-dependency can contribute mightily to building some net worth of poor families in a 21st Century American Dream. This must be sold by a modernized metropolitan agency so trains’ deliver social benefits of reducing road congestion, carbon emissions and household transportation costs.

Detailing Our 3 Prototypes As Through-Route Projects. Most of this article’s remainder suggests why these three studies have been proposed. The primary reason is each study prototypes a different level of federal authority that needs to be “borrowed” to help setup a suitable body for each metro. After this three-part section (each starting with a map of the metro’s central through-route), we outline the 4th study. It starts with a map of the U.S. that highlights the 14 major metros with commuter trains that could benefit from a federal policy to promote Metropolitan Rail; indicating the policy’s political base.

Drawing courtesy of SPUR’s 2016 White Paper “Designing The Bay Area’s Second Transbay Rail Crossing.”    Four years later, agencies have not made a serious study despite chronic highway congestion. Yet connecting the Bay Area’s difficult geography is possible with gentle federal guidance and loans. Trains from San Jose’s emerging global center can run-through downtown San Francisco and on to Oakland’s slow-recovering downtown; achieving the multiple benefits that modern trains promise.

Overview to 1st level: Gentle Federal Authority. I first sketched this GFA level in the article I posted in late 2017 when it was apparent Caltrain would not get through its remote terminal (4th & King) and tunnel to the new Transbay hub downtown. I suggested re-organizing as a Corridor to tunnel downtown and, eventually, to the East Bay.  My article also suggested there was flexibility in rebalancing authority by applying this corridor concept to a very different failure at LA’s Union Station. Its required Through-Route has gotten very expensive; in part because its tracks and platforms must be lifted four feet higher above Highway 101. Because California is devolving transportation authority to metros faster than most states, a GFA could be applied to empower through-stations in LA and the Bay Area. And GFAs can help resolve other bottle-neck corridors in California, also on a sunset basis, until a true, balanced metro authority has evolved.  

Other multi-metro states (Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania) could use a GFA to encourage their states to devolve authority; particularly since states have a fiscal incentive to use trains to reduce road costs. For broader application, GFAs can help single-metro states whose transit is advancing. Roughly in order of testing this temporary authority during the roll-out of a federal MR policy are the metros of Seattle, Denver, Twin Cities, San Diego and Salt Lake. Their common problem is convincing enough drivers to use cars less.

Why the Bay Area Prototype will work and help setup other GFAs

Problem Summary: Without a Transbay Through-Route and Fare Integration, transit does not keep pace with population growth and cannot attack road congestion.

Note: These three groups of problems below correspond to the tri-color Problem Analysis >> Principle Synergy at the top of Part B or the second page of this article.

a) Outdated Institutions. BART’s tunnel was at-capacity during 2019 peak travel. While we don’t know when that peak returns in post-Covid, we know a second tunnel eventually will need to relieve East Bay Bridge traffic and reduce Bay Area’s high transportation and housing costs.  While BART’s 21st Century ridership has grown impressively relative to America’s legacy systems, BART is not regarded as the best institution to complete a major project. BART’s extensive delays, cost over-runs and friction with local agencies in connecting the East Bay to San Jose all lead into our next general problem.

b) Dysfunctional “Authority.”  The Bay Area’s  27 operators set fare rules and amounts. This leads to ridership suppression that is described in this study written by the transit policy manager at SPUR,  the region’s prominent civic group. This article started its campaign — now over three years and counting — to upgrade the Bay Area’s Clipper Card properly so as to minimize fare chaos. Clipper is managed by the Bay Area’s MPO (Metropolitan Transportation Commission.) While MTC arguably is the most effective large MPO in the U.S., this rationalization of Clipper has had enough compromises and diversions that I conclude the Bay Area missed this opportunity to upgrade to the higher level of Fare Integration that benefits Europe’s metros. This missed chance has the backdrop of the MTC’s own research indicating its per capita ridership has declined 11% since 1991.  These problems of ridership growth must be overcome before the Bay Area can pay for its 2nd tunnel. And since MTC seems to lack authority to solve these problems, increased construction loans from the U.S. should be conditioned on giving MTC the authority to solve Fare Integration.

c) Chronic Car Congestion. CCC became entrenched famously in California. But, one of the nation’s best corridors to use trains to cure congestion is where Caltrain runs, near near enough to relieve the two congested highways from San Jose to San Francisco (U.S. 101 and I-280.) Both are great candidates for tolling … if there were proper authority. This car usage fee also should help modernize this train corridor between both downtowns.

Tools To Connect The Metro: T-R Multiplier; F-I Authority; Traffic Regulation Advocacy. Despite its flaws, Bay Area transit is more modern than any major American metro. For that reason, the Bay Area was selected as the comparative example in my article on how Americans can learn from Munich’s higher standard. As the low-hanging fruit to prove that Gentle Federal Authority works, Bay Area trains can solve the 3 problems above by studying the 3 strategic solutions proposed here and organized under the next rendition of the INVEST Act.  

a) Invest in the Through-Route Multiplier. Despite the increasing inconvenience of having its current terminal 1.5 miles from the downtown, Caltrain is the nation’s fastest-growing route. A key reason is Caltrain’s 50 mile route runs in a narrow geographic corridor between the hills and the Bay. So, Caltrain in 2019 was at full-capacity during peak hours. Bringing higher capacity trains direct to downtown SF and, then, a Through-Route to Oakland has a multiplier for ridership that relieves the metro’s worst bottlenecks: the Bay Bridge; and several points along this 50 mile corridor. Since the 47 year old BART tunnel is at peak capacity.  The Bay Area needs this added train Capacity so ridership can grow faster than population.

b) Boost the MPO so it has Fare-Integration Authority. This May 2019 White Paper from SPUR summarizes the metro’s fare policy problems and suggests simplifying the update of the MPO-managed Clipper Card by first developing a seamless fare policy which, in turn, would generate a significant mid-term rise in ridership. This reasoning got bogged-down by larger operators fearful of losing short-term revenue. However, linking Fare-Integration to pay federal loans to tunnel Caltrain to the Transbay hub and, then, to Oakland is a win-win-win that lasts.  

Yet, only a powerful, new enterprise will build this tunnel. BART is embattled and has not proven to be a good partner of its East Bay extension to San Jose. While California law uses Joint Power Authorities with operational success such as running Caltrain, JPAs perform poorly on major capital projects. For example, the four county JPA for the Transbay hub failed at its one mile tunnel to bring Caltrain downtown. And if we assume the Bay Area MPO has its hands full managing its unnecessarily complicated Clipper Card conversion with its 29 operators fare rules, then we need to explore how to build this 11 mile tunnel can provide a one-side ride connecting the Bay’s three largest downtowns.

In my 2017 article, I advanced the idea of a Corridor Council since the west Bay Area geography suits corridors. Another helpful governing component, the Bay Area has a track record of electing some operators’ Boards and this should be explored in the tunnel study. The Corridor Council (CC) study should explore how to attract private ventures to control costs. (Recall, Transbay cost-overruns killed its tunnel.) Another Transbay lesson is it got too little Value Capture. Given the high land values of the Caltrain Corridor and how much more it will generate, a CC should be an advocate for these landowners paying their fair share.  

c) Regulating traffic has a Bay Area precedent.  With MTC setting Bay Bridge tolls, California can extend MTC’s authority to the two SF-SJ highways to help pay for the train route’s updates. To rebalance transportation’s overall usage fees, this CC should have advocacy powers. For this rebalancing and finding increased Value Capture, the CC is expected to advocate change with existing authorities. If that doesn’t work and it is not paying back its loans, federal persuasion should come into the picture.

2nd level: Moderate Federal Authority requires states to delegate sufficient authority. 

MFAs are needed in individual states (such as Illinois and Massachusetts) who have not delegated sufficient authority to their key metro and failed to convert legacy terminals into through-stations so stagnant ridership could grow significantly. The need for this second level occurred in my March 2018 article suggesting the connection of Boston’s two terminals; as proposed by the North-South Rail Link. With an effective and strong state, breaking this Massachusetts stalemate has fraught politics; requiring significant federal persuasion, funds and authority, if needed, to build a downtown tunnel of at least 1.5 miles.

A less-costly through-station was described several months later in my article on Chicago’s inability to execute plans. Conditions are riper for intervention. Illinois is flat broke and, related, remains one of the most ineffective big states. The state widely allows Value Capture authority using tax increment financing and recently innovated the practice so Chicago’s transit-oriented development along its busiest heavy rail line might pay Illinois’ 20% match to renovate this key Elevated that has not been upgraded significantly for over 100 years. For these reasons and others too lengthy to describe in this summary, Chicago remains the nation’s best prospect to take a quick step toward through-networks and Metropolitan Rail. Roughly structured by my larger study’s 3 point analysis>principle framework, the corresponding proposal below argues for this becoming Uncle Sam’s most productive prototype.

What Restricts Chicagoland Train Ridership?

Despite having America’s second best suburban rail assets, Metra has not tried seriously to compete with the car. It has been poorly governed for the last half century; piling up two decades of deferred maintenance and still using cars inherited from bankruptcy. Reforming governance obstacles is key to using these rail assets to stem Chicago’s decline as a global center.

a) Outdated Mechanics. Chicago has four terminals. Two are adjacent (Union Station and Ogilvie) and terminate eight routes downtown. Metra’s 2019 ridership had not recovered from the 2009 real estate depression. Terminals contribute to this stagnant ridership by limiting journey options and increasing transfer costs; causing more people to rely on cars. Unable to take steps to increase ridership during a decade of economic growth, Metra certainly appears inadequate to the task of reviving after an 80% drop in ridership in 2020.

b) Regional Authority Dysfunction.  The RTA — the regional agency — cannot control the finances of its three Operator Boards. Balkanized services pitting Chicago (CTA) against its suburbs (Metra) has suffered decades of bitter fights over subsidy. Transfers between operators are unfriendly and expensive. Lacking reliable funding, operators’ annual deficits have created insurmountable deferred maintenance. No major train projects recently have been started. No existing agency can be trusted to complete major projects. While Chicagoland’s MPO produces award-winning plans that include train upgrades (including the merger of these two stations), they are voluntary plans and innovations are usually unfulfilled. Current agencies have lost that chance to modernize in even the mid-term due to Covid-induced deficits.

Despite being a top priority of a powerful mayor from 2011 to 2019, train service from O’Hare Airport remains an unimproved embarrassment. The O’Hare Transfer station is a shack, symbolically next to the new car rental facility. The route had only 11 trains in each direction each weekday in 2019. Despite several years of Mayor Emanuel exploring alternatives, upgrading the Metra train service was not seriously considered. The reason? Metra is the province of suburban mayors.   

c) Illinois allows Metra to be uncompetitive. Metra’s three largest terminals connect poorly to Chicago’s heavy rail; hurting ridership for both systems. Metra also resisted the region’s fare collection card (Ventra) for a decade; a few of those years defying Illinois’ directives. If Metra can misbehave on a low-capital card, it cannot be trusted for a high-capital innovation. Re-working commuter rail starts with a Through-Route corridor prototype connecting O’Hare to Ogilvie (named for a Republican Governor) to the Obama Library. In the new Era of Collaboration, call this corridor the Bi-partisan 3 Os of Shared Infrastructure.

Strengths That Can Be Used To Re-Connect Chicago

With its airport and great rail bones as key assets, Chicago is ranked #7 among the 24 global cities studied by McKinsey in its “Elements Of Success in Transportation”; higher than New York at #9.  Chicago’s assets derive from it being the nation’s central freight rail hub for a century. Re-developing Chicago’s passenger rail assets is one of the metro’s most cost-effective ways to reduce road congestion, carbon emissions and household transportation costs. It also is one of the key technologies that — if shared properly — helps city and suburb redevelop sustainably as a unified metro. What follows are more details about why we should study how to make the nation’s easiest and probably most productive through-station. These benefits will jump-start The INVEST Act’s ability to make Metropolitan Rail a reality.

a) A very short Through-Route with a very high ROI to increase train Capacity. The two main terminals are separated by one downtown block and connecting them sets-up the possibility of converting these eight terminated routes into multiple Through-Route options. For example, an under-utilized existing route runs from O’Hare and should run-through the two soon-to-be converted terminals. Just south of there is Amtrak’s railyard, the largest developable land extending from the downtown and a key source of value capture to fund the infrastructure and other equitable TOD southward. All this needs a second connector (the green 16th Street Flyover) so the four remaining commuter lines to create a true through-network. 

These routes then can connect the airport to the Convention Center and on to the city’s struggling Southside; including its two key assets, The University of Chicago’s main campus and the Obama Library. Not only does this north-south through-route spring multiple transportation benefits and housing affordability models, but it helps ameliorate Chicago’s expensive racial problems.

b) Federally-induced Collaboration. Depending on the study’s findings, the O’Hare-Southside Express might require a purchase of the route and should include a joint-venture for redeveloping Amtrak’s railyard. This scenario suits a prototype Corridor Corporation (CC) and is explored in my “WST” article. Since the City of Chicago has neither authority nor band-width for this Through-Route, federal authority must oversee the use of this federal asset (and protect it from politically connected middlemen) so it can prototype multiple benefits. And since Illinois has ‘de facto’ abdicated financial responsibility for improving trains, it should be glad to give the corridor sufficient authority so the prototype (all contained within Chicago) can show its possibilities to suburbs and other routes who, then, can help evolve metropolitan governance.  

Chicago offers another lesson in why a federal policy is needed. As the nation’s freight hub for North America’s six major haulers, Chicago and Mayor Daley in 1999 initiated CREATE, the. Chicago Region Environmental And Transportation Efficiency. This public-private partnership and will finish its last major project 25 years later. Its delays resulted from a funding hodge-podge; boosting costs by about 400% over original estimates, forcing many improvements to be reduced or abandoned. No sufficient authority was in charge because updating a central hub for haulers was, somehow, a tertiary federal transportation priority. Such logic assured further decline of rail and further ascent of trucking. Lesson: if we are to use trains to build an alternative for car passengers, we will need to be a federal priority.

c) Advocate for Competitive performance. With Chicagoland’s MPO unable to discipline operators for poor performance or deferred maintenance, modernization needs an advocate to achieve both transportation and social goals. A CC for The Bi-Partisan Three Os (again O’hare, Ogilvie, Obama center) would put Metra on notice that its other routes must improve.  Thus, The Three Os is a tool to discipline Metra’s ineffective monopoly. 

Trains also need to compete fairly against the car. Therefore, the CC should have advocacy powers to encourage regulators and administrators (Illinois DOT and Tollways and CDOT) to level the playing field between modes.

For further information, see the introduction to Through-Route Chicago

This 2016 proposal is courtesy of IRUM, The Institute for Rational Urban Mobility. It sketches the under-discussed tri-state network that could save substantial capital and speed delivery before the 115 year old tunnels fail. IRUM’s proposal expands the Hoboken hub and reasserts the oft-forgotten idea to connect Grand Central and Penn; integrating one-seat, cross-metropolis travel from Long Island and the metro’s north to New Jersey.

Top Federal Priorities (TFPs) lean on the Inter-state Commerce Clause to integrate trains.

TFPs are critical national infrastructure priorities requiring decisive federal authority to avoid likely emergencies. Currently, there are two good prospects. As destination to almost half the nation’s rail commuting, Manhattan has two terminals for America’s three largest systems. With obvious national benefits, integrating the three into one MR system is explored starting in the third paragraph below. 

The second prospect is Washington Union Station. It needs through-routing so DC’s suburban trains — currently owned by Virginia and Maryland — can be integrated and grow their ridership so trains reduce the stress on DC’s over-burdened heavy rail system, Metro. Two years ago, I sketched this key Corridor through Union Station. I added a national security rationale; that the 100+ year old train tunnel goes under The Capitol grounds. Further rationale is the DC metro’s transportation should be re-governed in a manner similar to Europe’s capital regions: using national/federal authority for major projects and developing more regional control to fund operations properly.

As the highest level of U.S. federal authority, TFAs also serve as backup if lending negotiations go too slow with Illinois, Massachusetts or southeast Pennsylvania (and/or the two-state Delaware Valley) for their required updates.

But for today’s imminent emergency, here’s how the TFA prototype will avoid catastrophic problems caused when one old Hudson tunnel must be closed. Declaring a Federal Emergency appears to be the only realistic way for the Biden Administration to avoid closure. But federal intervention eventually should be extended to do what states cannot do: create a tri-state metropolitan system. Let’s explore why and how.

Three Key Problems Restrict The New York Metro: Capacity, Dysfunction, Monopoly

a) Capacity limits demand.  Limited by their respective terminals, Metro-North and LIRR have largely stagnant ridership since 1996, despite the metro growing by 15%. While New Jersey Transit ridership into Penn Station rose steadily for 21 years (mostly resulting from state investment to meet increased demand to cross the Hudson), ridership growth seemed to stabilize in 2017; partly from the terminal’s congestion. However an immediate and effective response also is needed to meet long-term demand for all Trans-Hudson options which is expected to increase 34% by 2040. The same study by the Regional Plan Association describes how this inter-state problem developed: there are 33 options to approach Manhattan Island from the east and north (all controlled by New York State agencies); but only 6 other options cross Manhattan’s western border, the Hudson River, from New Jersey; requiring collaboration with New York state, an unusual event and one that too rarely sticks.

b) Hyper-Dysfunction among agencies. Despite being the nation’s most important 1.5 mile of rail infrastructure, the Hudson Tunnels are running out of time and cannot be battered further by bi-state politics. The first deal for replacement was wrecked when New Jersey’s Governor pulled out in 2010. The second deal negotiated by Obama’s Secretary of Transportation in 2016 was killed by a vindictive President who lost both states in that election. My 4,263 word article gives context to how new Tunnels also should redevelop rail for the New York metro. But for a quick review of the dysfunction, I suggest my Overview analysis entitled “A Quick History Of What Metros Get When No Body Is In Charge Of No Policy.”

While two farecards are rare among European train commuters, a commuter from Queens to New Jersey transfers at Penn and pays twice for doing the right thing. Both states collect because states fight over revenue. Instead, they should be collaborating to advance this most vital solution to improve metropolitan traffic. This can only be resolved by a higher authority… which also must enforce the resolution. Interstate compacts — the basis of NJ and NY interaction — are not effective for developing metropolitan transportation. We have half a century of proof.

c) Authorities became monopolies. Commuter trains, in general, are a public service dependent on state annual budgets. With mere hand-to-mouth revenue, rails do not innovate enough to compete against the convenience of cars. However, New York illustrates a related problem that U.S. policy must correct: while the New York metro’s bureaucracies do regulate cars via tolls, the bureaucracies also do too little to improve trains as an alternative. With tolling authority on bridges and tunnels, the Port Authority and the MTA have reliable money; but mostly spend it on new trains and prettied stations, much like the new Moynihan Station.  Yet money is not invested strategically to grow ridership, such as for European-demonstrated solutions like through-routing and fare integration. Worse, New York’s bureaucracies were not held accountable on major projects; such as the PATH reconstruction after 9/11 and the MTA’s Eastside Access to Grand Central. Both suffered ridiculous cost-overruns and did little to modernize service. 

All of which leads to me to the conclusion (also obvious in New York’s blogosphere) that the Port Authority should not continue as the lead agency in making new Hudson Tunnels and the MTA is not going to connect Penn Station and Grand Central. To get these two vital jobs done on-time and on-budget, a federal emergency task force should work through the details and structure an accountable metropolitan agency suitable to create and maintain a 21st Century sustainable transportation regimen.

Using NY’s Strengths To Make Three Train Systems Into One Metropolitan System 

a) Increasing rail Capacity pays for itself throughout the New York metro. The new Hudson Tunnels, the conversion of Penn into a ‘bona fide’ Through-Station and connecting it to Grand Central are among this metro’s three most critical pieces of infrastructure and could be connected with merely three miles of tunnels. Their loans can be paid as the tunnels add value to the nation’s most valuable real estate around stations. But that wealth also eventually is spread to help redevelop around the metro’s other rail hubs. Since existing authorities look as if they failed to leverage developing above Hudson Yards to create sufficient value capture to fund the through-station upgrades, federal authority and accountability must now supervise the financing of a 21st Century system for the metropolis. 

b) The multitude of conflicted agencies need a “Daddy” to design a metropolitan agency. Let’s get at this solution by analogy for what works in Europe. German federal states grant authority to regional authorities. But always helping with the finance and decision-making of major projects is the German national rail (DB) and, by extension, the federal government. When the pivotal project is completed (as the Munich through-route before the 1972 Olympics), DB recedes to a secondary role as asset-owner and lets the regional agency run the rails. In the case of Munich’s second through-route now starting construction, DB has reasserted itself. (I explore their authority ebb and flow in this article.)

New York, of course, is more complicated as a tri-state metro and requires U.S. Federal authority to end revenue fights between operators and hold them accountable. Bigger than just trains, this federal authority must rebuild — as a final goal — a rational, collaborative transportation policy that is required to support a dense, global center wedged into a narrow downtown island. While the NY metro once had a tri-state planning agency in the 1980s,  a national effort to rationalize today’s planning disintegration failed in 2016. The lesson is for the U.S. to create a specific Collaboration for trains and use that to guide developing an effective metropolitan government to take over the trains. Then, the U.S. becomes a supervisor of a federal policy and intervenes ideally only to invest in major projects… much as DB is doing 50 years later to create Munich’s second tunnel to handle its impressive ridership growth. How to execute that ebb-and-flow process in the U.S. must be addressed in the independent study INVEST will sponsor. 

c) To avoid a Hudson crossing Catastrophe, declare a Federal Emergency. In 2021, the next President could declare a national emergency to rebuild the Tunnels cost-effectively. (As noted often on this website, closing one tunnel will cost $16 Billion over four years.)  Further justification for an independent study can be found in an IRUM opinion piece carried by one of New York’s major dailies indicating construction costs for these Tunnels could have been 75% less

Feasibility (technical, financial and political) should be clarified by the INVEST study carried out independent of current agencies and governors. Clearly, Uncle Sam’s new role is not just to arbitrate differences as in the 2010 and 2015 deals for a tunnel that fell apart. The U.S. also must help get value for federal and metropolitan taxpayers alike… and help establish an accountable, probably elected, metro agency.   New York’s morassed metro with its multi-layered, multi-state bureaucracies can only be corrected by Uncle Sam.  

Clearly in New York, but also in Chicago and the Bay Area, federal authority should be used to reorganize their high-capacity corridors. With the key corridor prototyped, each metro should evolve its other corridors and an effective metropolitan body. Don’t forget, rail corridors helped re-organize the economy in the 19th Century and should be tested for their benefits in redeveloping today’s economy. In this and other ways, the INVEST studies will explore a Metropolitan Rail policy. The next section suggests how.

4th Study: USMRA Orchestrates Experiments in Best Practices for a variety of metros.

The U.S. Metropolitan Rail Authority starts by directing studies of the three prototype through-routes. But, it does so flexibly in order to implement solutions specific to each metro. USMRA’s balanced direction adds to our collective knowledge of how the nation’s metros should evolve their transportation without each having to reinvent the wheel badly, as is too often today. To achieve this balance, USMRA must protect each study’s independence and each prototype’s direction from local agencies who failed to convert their terminals. Studies also require federal supervision to build formulas and procedures useful for a variety of metros in a Phase 2 and 3 as the federal policy is improved and rolled-out. 

If the paragraph above is USMRA’s flexible policy goals, its case for exercising authority also must fit federal law. To repeat, trains are controlled by caretaker agencies created 50 years ago whose powers are limited by states. To break out of that box, the USMRA essentially gives authority to metros so they convert terminals and modernize trains so the combined alternatives are a serious competitor to cars for daily journeys. Since bankruptcy, trains did not improve because their governance was inadequate. And if the U.S. is to compete against Europe and enjoy its benefits of superior shared mobility, the U.S. cannot ignore the strategic first step and continue to let each terminal conversion fail

A balance of metropolitan flexibility and federal supervision will seed a regimen so each metro re-develops more sustainably. While the USMRA applies temporary authority to establish an effective metropolitan authority, USMRA also is a temporary federal agency. Here are three key ingredients to guide the policy’s development.

#1 Plan Outside-the-box.  Each metro’s Through-route and Fare Integration study should not be limited by transit agency bureaucracies. USMRA staff should approve all study personnel and proposals before moving them forward. USMRA staff/consultants should have multiple disciplines since studies also should solve environmental, economic and social problems. USMRA’s senior staff is selected by its Executive Committee which initially operates under emergency powers of the President (particularly for the New York through-route.) USMRA senior staff selects the temporary Corridor Councils (CCs are described below) primarily from the broad civic community.  

#2 Organize Corridors suitably. USMRA studies should test how corridors are the basis for developing through-routes. A temporary authority to reconstruct corridors also minimizes entanglements with current operators. My research suggests each prototype is low-hanging fruit. But if corridor reorganization doesn’t work, the USMRA tests other methods. Creating recent precedent, corridors also are the basis for planning the Federal Rail Administration’s inter-city Regional Rail program. Corridors also are how the FRA conveys these plans visually and in summary.  The USMRA tests best practices and best applications suitably along corridors. 

For example, Chicago might best use a Corridor Corporation (CCorp) because its through-route depends much more on capturing the value of real estate development over the Amtrak yard and supporting TOD around stations from O’Hare to the Obama Library. However, New York’s key challenge is to shape one metropolitan network from three separate systems. Thus, a Corridor Council (CC) — eventually elected by residents — can help resolve the current failures of unaccountable agencies. A hybrid CC concept might work for the Bay Area. While it elects several operator boards, the Bay Area still lacks a metro authority strong enough to resolve operator fights over fares. But, property values can be taxed at a higher rate while redeveloping around Bay Area stations; hence there could be hybrid features of a CCorp to encourage private sector participation while California strengthens metropolitan power, first for true Fare Integration.

#3 Principles Matter because they are based on Analysis. For consistency and to check how assumptions work, this 4th Study should be organized around the same 3 Principles guiding the three prototype Through-route studies. Here’s how those 3 Principles apply to the 4th Study whose goal is to create federal policy.  

a) Increase Capacity and quantify the multiple sustainability benefits of Through-Routes.  Since the 1990s, federal reauthorizations attempted half-heartedly to develop alternatives to solve transportation’s true costs: lost time, sprawl, carbon emissions and household transportation costs. Additionally in the 2020s, strategies for controlling capital costs and operating losses should be central to future funding/lending decisions. Studies should use, critique and reprioritize existing federal performance criteria preceding grants and, after completion, each project’s evaluation. Studies should add criteria such as monetizing the costs of not completing these Through-Routes and the ridership losses caused by not improving Fare Integration. As part of understanding the broader inefficiencies of legacy systems, environmental costs should be calculated. Household transportation and housing costs of auto-dependency also should be factored, particularly as part of an emerging social contract. And increasing train capacity should be justified in its help to rectify how America’s lowest income quintile pays three times more than their counterparts in the EU where through-networks and fare integration are standard.

In summary, this 4th Study makes federal formulas specific to MR and its emerging multiple benefits that move far more people better by fostering auto-alternatives. 

b) Multiply Collaboration at all levels. A key objective of federal authority — and a measure of how much of it needs to be used — is that all levels of government must collaborate to develop serious alternatives. For this, metro transportation must be governed properly. Key is making Value Capture regimens and Fare Integration work long-term to pay back U.S. loans. Since states grant metros the needed authority, each study evaluates how well negotiations went with each state and how they can be improved. Each report should detail the following. 

* How the prototype Corridor Council/Corporation can lead to other CCs in the metro.

* How each metro’s political strategy for transit and transportation governance can emerge. 

* How each CCs social contract and accountability emerges to lead the metro’s evolution.

c) Develop Competitive Alternatives by using Federal Authority flexibly. Each prototype’s level of authority is based on what is needed for MR to emerge. To determine the appropriate level, each study should project growth before and after a terminal is converted into a Through-station and how much Fare Integration can increase rider revenue. If progress is too slow, studies should propose a Plan B for even more appropriate federal intervention if deadlines are not met.  The USMRA also should set parameters for how its Board is selected/elected and how it directs staff. Its authority sunsets in, say, 10 years. All CCs also sunset; replaced by a metro authority originated by the state. As such, CCs are not agencies; but rather are change agents; able to advocate for more sustainable transportation policies that level subsidies and usage fees based on actual costs. These formulas will help trains and the micro-mobility evolution compete against cars.

The Golden Spike connected the first Transcontinental railroad; re-uniting the nation after the Civil War. This stamp commemorates the Spike’s 75th Anniversary. 2021 will be its 150th. 

So, “Here’s The Deal.”  A Biden Administration will need a policy so trains help Build Back Better, post-Covid. Further forward, advocates for a Green New Deal will need trains to underpin auto-alternatives that are effective enough to reduce household transportation and housing costs. A Big Picture, then, suggests how these household savings can be applied to other social problems such as affordable continuing education and retirement.   

Policy wonks need a Big Picture to show how benefits feed each other. Vision matters in developing public support for reducing car usage. How do we replace the late 20th Century American Dream of more cars and bigger homes on bigger lots that, now, makes it harder for the middle class to build assets ?  How do “sacrifices for the future” actually outweigh benefits? 

For governance…. How does accountability of the metro’s authority help make those benefits real? What electoral reforms will prevent a metro’s new authority from being diluted?

The Deal is not about more authority; a rut U.S. debate often is dragged into by opponents of progress.  Rather today, the debate is: how do we make authority smarter and make multiple benefits ?  How do we evolve to sustainable transportation and its benefits ?

Bi-partisan politics are essential. For that, I find clues from the Rail Passengers Association. My article on RPA, “Plucky Corridors,” talks about their successes in urging conservative Senators to defend Amtrak against annual onslaughts by the duopoly of the Trump DOT and Amtrak-killers in Congress. A stultifier of behemoths, tiny RPA keeps alive Amtrak’s national network by leveraging a simple truth: trains bring us together.

Thus, RPA annually awards a Golden Spike to its friends; continuing the tradition of how the Transcontinental reunited a divided nation. Those rails also signaled how the agricultural economy was to be replaced by an industrial one. Today’s commuter rail, needs a metaphorical Golden Spike to unite city and suburbs, break our political dysfunction, signal the end of auto-monopoly and the growth of sustainability industries. On a practical level, all this starts by converting terminals into through-stations and ending an intentional bottle-neck.

But, advocates have to sell The Deal. How do we reshape today’s rails to replace the carbon-auto regime with sustainable alternatives? How do we involve the private sector to create efficiencies in public services ?  How do we mollify tensions between city and suburbs by shaping a more accountable metropolitan authority?

This may ask a lot of a federal policy for Metropolitan Rail. But, rails ushered in a new national purpose 150 years ago. They will play a role today, too.

Four End Notes on This Proposal’s Sources. 

For my research background on how a federal policy can modernize metropolitan trains and impact transportation, consider these sources. 

First, In 2017, I started this website of twelve book-length chapters. Its Table of Contents on the right column reveals the 14+ metros I studied to determine which were mostly likely to serve as good prototypes. The link above takes you to the summary article, “What Have We Learned?”

Second, more background on how I started thinking-through this federal policy for Metropolitan Rail (MR)… started in March 2019. 

* Recently “The Dialogueshome page was revised to suggest opportunities created by The House passing its INVEST Act in June 2020 and the fiscal collapse of transit caused by Covid… and, now, how bi-partisan support will be needed to change how transit conducts its business.

* Also revised this summer was the Introduction to the “Pre-Reauthorization Series” and how a campaign for a MR policy might emerge. This “Series” has two Sections: elements of MR; and the policy’s case. 

Series” Section a) Three articles suggests how these three elements should shape a MR policy. 

One is about The Brightline and suggests the private sector is an asset to improve trains. 

A second article about the Rail Passengers Association successful efforts to keep the knives from destroying Amtrak’s national network. “Plucky Corridors” describes a politics in which bi-partisanship works and how trains are a symbol to bring us together. The analogy is drawn simply to a MR policy that also will need bi-partisan support in a contentious Congress.

A third looks at how German federalism shaped metropolitan transit authority and draws inferences to U.S. federalism. This also suggests a temporary corridor/route reorganization might be a quick-start for the U.S. to catch-up; finding ourselves several decades behind.

Series” Section b). The case for MR is built over 3 articles that conclude the “Series” and shape arguments and features of a policy:  Part A is an Overview;  Part B details the Analysis largely leading to the three metro prototypes;  and a Part C, The MR Proposal of Prototypes which you just read. 

Third. Consider my Annotated Bibliography at the very end of the detailed Analysis in Part B. It mentions how key scholarship influenced my thinking on this MR policy.

Fourth, literature for the Campaign for MR.  Currently, there are two pieces; both written to win the attention of Congressional staffers (hence, much fewer words.)

 The first introduces the Campaign that, as of December 2020, is just the Chicago prototype.

The second piece is specific to the mini-campaign to convert Chicago’s main terminal, Union Station, and build The Bi-Partisan 3 Os Through-Route (from O’Hare through Ogilvie/Union Station to the Obama center.)

As always, please email brickbats and ideas to me at

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