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Rail News Home Passenger Rail

June 2008



Rail News: Passenger Rail

Trends are turning in transit's favor, putting passenger rail in prime position to serve as the 'mode for mobility'



By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

John Inglish has a theory that the U.S. economy is defined by transportation infrastructure development in 50-year increments — the canal system in the early 1800s, transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s, roads and airports in the early to mid-1900s, and the interstate highway system between 1950 and 2000. In keeping with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) general manager’s theory, the United States now must determine what will define the next half century.

“There has to be some kind of transportation infrastructure that will guide the growth of this country, and we better get after it and decide what it is,” says Inglish.

Most transit proponents will say it’s rail. With today’s gasoline prices at $4 per gallon and rising, people want — and need — transportation alternatives. Other trends are turning in rail’s favor, too, as the country’s population grows, and traffic congestion, air pollution and global warming concerns mount.

“We need to look at the big picture: Where do we want our country to be in 50 years? And transportation is at the core of that,” says Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Executive Director Gary Thomas. “Is there going to be a need for public transit in the next 50 years? Absolutely — probably a much greater need than we understand or realize today.”

A new image

Transit agencies are poised to take an active role in meeting that need. The industry has spent the past several decades working its way back up the transportation ladder after the popularity of the automobile sent the industry into a downward spiral in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, agencies boast record ridership and constantly growing demand.

“Public transit’s image is changing,” says Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) General Manager John Catoe. “Thirty years ago, it was the mode for transit dependent. Now, it’s the mode for mobility.”

With that in mind, many execs believe now is transit rail’s time to shine.

“The industry has an opportunity to be proactive and take a lead in developing the country’s transportation plan rather than in the past, when we attempted to adjust or adapt to the changes,” says MTA Metro-North Railroad President Peter Cannito.

Transit rail is well-suited to reduce urban sprawl, global warming and highway congestion, execs say. But with those opportunities come challenges. The future success of the industry depends on how well transit agencies can attract and handle ridership growth, add capacity, find creative ways to fund their systems, attract and retain workers, and implement new technology.

Agencies need some help at the federal level, too — with funding, certainly, but also with prompting a national transportation policy that includes passenger rail as a key component. If those pieces fall into place — and most execs believe they have to — there’s no telling what the industry could do in the next 50 years.

“We’re poised to rediscover the grand old days of public transportation and railroading, and we need to be prepared to do that, to make the investments,” says Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon. “Just as rail had a big role in how this country was developed, I think it will have a big role in how it’s redeveloped.”

Most transit agencies would jump at the chance to invest more money into their systems. One problem: They don’t have it.

Although ridership at many agencies is at an all-time high, escalating expenses are cutting into budgets. And with consumer spending dropping, the sales tax revenues many agencies depend on for funding are declining, while other agencies are in an ongoing battle to obtain dedicated funding. So, while demand for transit has never been higher, some agencies are being forced to hike fares and/or cut service. Meanwhile, the ever-increasing competition for federal New Starts funding is delaying or back-burnering plans to expand or improve service.

“We’re lucky to get the systems we have, but there are few that meet the community needs and most all are starved for funding,” says retired transit exec Alan Kiepper, who between 1972 and 1996 held top posts at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, and MTA New York City Transit (NYCT).

Playing catch-up

Filling the funding void will be critical for transit agencies to maintain and expand service — as it is, there’s already a lot of catch-up work to be done.

“Costs have been growing much higher than the traditional rate of inflation, and we haven’t been investing in our transportation infrastructure like other countries,” says Joseph Calabrese, general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA). “I think we’re losing some of our competitive advantage.”

Help could be on the way. In late 2007, the Passenger Rail Working Group of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission — a 12-member committee created under the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) to recommend ways the United States can address its deteriorating transportation infrastructure — unveiled recommendations to improve the country’s transit-rail system during the next four decades.

The working group recommended maintaining the entire existing intercity passenger-rail system, reintroducing service to several cities, upgrading lines to offer higher speeds and greater frequencies in fast-growing corridors, strengthening service lines in the Northeast Corridor, adding routes in areas where the population is expected to grow significantly and developing federally designated high-speed rail corridors. The total price tag: $357.2 billion.

To cover it, the working group recommended an intercity passenger-rail program be included in the next federal transportation reauthorization bill, which could be funded through an 80/20 federal/state matching program. The committee also recommended transitioning away from the gas tax to a vehicle miles traveled tax by 2025 to spur investment funding, and in the interim, raise the motor fuel tax by five to eight cents annually for the next five years, implement a freight fee and ticket tax for transit users, and contribute a portion of the customers fee to the trust fund.

Fair funding

“The federal government needs to provide the same type of funding for passenger rail that they do for highways and airports, and that’s all we’ve been asking for — to put rail on the same level footing,” says Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who served on the commission and spearheaded the Passenger Rail Working Group. “If you’re going to reauthorize the highway fund for six years, make passenger rail part of that and let them compete for those projects, with an 80/20 split.”

Transit-rail execs would be all for that, and they hope the need for more transit funding will be addressed through the SAFETEA-LU reauthorization. Signed by President Bush in 2005, the legislation provided a record $52.6 billion in federal funding for transit investments between FY2004 and FY2009. Considering the economic and environmental factors driving more people to public transit, officials believe the next federal transportation bill should provide even more transit funding.

“We are encouraged by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which has strongly recommended robust reauthorization, and [James] Oberstar in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as well as his Republican leader [John] Mica, have talked about the need for robust reauthorization,” says New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Elliot Sander.

It’s also important that new legislation include funds not only for new projects, but system modernizations, says WMATA’s Catoe.

“The industry is not even calling this a reauthorization bill, but an authorization bill,” he says. “This is not to redo what’s been done, but to talk about how we move forward and meet future needs. We’ll be requesting a much larger number and we’ll talk about not only new lines, but funds to ensure we maintain existing systems in a state of good repair.”

The call will be heard, Catoe and other transit execs believe.

“Historically, from a federal funding standpoint, the government has looked at highways as being No. 1 by a large margin,” Catoe says. “I’m not saying they’re going to change the formula now, but for the first time, most elected officials are looking at transit as a bigger piece of the solution, which hopefully will provide additional funding for transit agencies.”

Adds DART’s Thomas: “I think the priorities are going to become more and more clear, and people are going to start putting the pressure on their local leaders that transportation and transit be a higher priority. And when that happens, the funding will be available.”

Easing the capacity crunch

Once funding is in hand, transit agencies could move forward with more aggressive plans to boost capacity, be it through expanding lines, adding service, or using existing infrastructure and equipment more efficiently.

“The easiest way to add capacity is to build right of way, and we’re working on that here in Utah,” says UTA’s Inglish. “There needs to be relatively exclusive lines for passenger rail, and that means the public has to step up and foot the bill.”

But finding areas to build exclusive lines will be tough.

“The last 50 years have been spent consolidating and shrinking resources,” says Metro-North’s Cannito, who will retire in July. “We’ll have to overcome what we’ve lost. “There’s competition for scarce resources as both freight and passenger railroads start addressing some of these capacity issues.”

Metro-North’s parent agency MTA is moving forward with several capacity expansion projects. Among them: extending NYCT’s Second Avenue Subway to Harlem, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn; extending MTA Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal through the East Side Access project; and adding Metro-North service to Penn Station. MTA also is seeking to add service on underutilized rights of way.

“We’re going to use a combination of building new system capacity and becoming more efficient in the existing framework,” says MTA’s Sander, adding that the agency also will turn to technology. “With improvement in technologies like communications-based train control and more advanced signal systems, we can move more equipment per hour than we do now.”

Caltrain also is eyeing technology to help speed up trains and expand capacity. The agency has proposed operating electric multiple unit (EMUs) vehicles on its San Francisco-to-Gilroy, Calif., commuter-rail corridor.

“The U.S. rail industry has always addressed capacity issues by adding more infrastructure, but we’re doing something different here,” says Caltrain’s Rail Transformation Chief Robert Doty. “We want to evolve by looking at the technology and systems over our infrastructure that add performance.”

Caltrain’s plan calls for electrifying the railroad, then operating the lightweight EMUs, which can stop and start much faster than diesel locomotives. However, it’s currently against Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations to operate such vehicles on the same track as FRA-compliant vehicles — in other words, passenger- and freight-rail trains that operate on the same corridor. So, Caltrain is seeking a FRA waiver to operate the EMUs on its tracks. In addition, the agency proposes to implement positive train control along the corridor to further increase safety and enable the agency to run 12 trains per hour compared with the current five.

Just how serious is Caltrain about implementing the EMUs? Doty, who formerly held the title of “director of rail transportation, engineering and construction,” is no longer involved in day-to-day operations and instead is “trying to create the future” in his new post as rail transformation chief.

Another way agencies can help mold the future: transit-oriented development (TOD). Encouraging housing, retail and office development at or near stations can help address urban sprawl, and assist communities in maximizing their remaining land — something that’s becoming more and more scarce, especially in urban areas.

“In transit, we tend to focus on just the ride and just the people, when in fact these [TOD] investments pay huge dividends to everybody,” says Caltrain’s Scanlon. “It literally dictates the development patterns of new and redeveloped cities and town centers.”

Well-planned development near stations also will help accommodate the country’s growing population, which is expected to soar well above 400 million by 2050.

“We have to overcome the stigma that no one wants to live around railroad tracks,” says South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Joe Giulietti. “Traditionally, that’s where all the freight ran through. Now, it’s a mechanism to move an urbanized area.”

In addition, TOD attracts more people to an area and, in turn, to the area’s transit services.

“It’s just like the highways. When they were created in the ’50s, communities sprung up around them,” says DART’s Thomas. “It’s the same thing you see in Boston, Chicago, New York — those communities developed around the stations, so as time goes on and communities evolve, you’ll see those same things happen.”

TOD could create new funding opportunities, too.

“As developers realize they can develop more intensely and more profitably around stations, there may be an opportunity to harvest some of that value to build, expand and maybe even maintain the public transit system that yields the benefits,” says American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President William Millar.

Environmental effects

Encouraging development near transit stations also fosters pedestrian-friendly communities, an increasingly popular trend as people take more of an interest in environmental issues. In that regard, the transit industry has been promoting its environmental stewardship. Recent APTA studies have shown transit saves about 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline and reduces the carbon footprint by 37 million tons annually.

“When you have good public transit, land use changes and there are fewer auto trips and more walking,” says Millar. “Going forward, energy will continue to be expensive and we’ll continue to look for alternatives, and we’ll be very concerned about climate change and global warming.”

Many transit agencies are taking steps to further reduce their environmental footprint. In March, New York MTA announced it would adopt a series of initiatives aimed at improving sustainability, based on preliminary recommendations from the agency’s Commission on Sustainability, which was created in September 2007.

Among the goals: derive 7 percent of MTA’s energy needs from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2015; partner with state agencies in the governor’s Smart Growth Cabinet to promote TOD; develop green design standards for facilities based on the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings; and identify uses for groundwater in tunnels and properties.

MTA plans to power a “significant portion” of the Roosevelt Island subway station with renewable tidal energy generated in the East River, add a high-performance roof at Metro-North’s Harmon Yard Shop and a white roof at the LIRR Hillsdale facility, and offer incentive packages from various state agencies to encourage development at or near stations.

Taking responsibility

Caltrain’s Scanlon believes that as environmental consciousness grows, transit use will, too.

“There may be a time in the not-too-distant future where you could be seen as irresponsible for not doing your part to reduce your carbon footprint,” he says. “It can become more popular to live in transit-friendly communities, do more walking and when you do travel, take some number of those trips on a railroad.”

There’s no question that transit rail can play a major role in the next 50 years on a number of levels. But for all the high hopes and expectations, there’s only so much that transit agencies can do on their own. A national policy is needed — and soon — if transit agencies are to reach their full potential.

“The federal department of transportation is just a collection of funding agencies for various modes,” says retired transit executive David Gunn. “There is no national transportation policy you can pick up, point to, and say, ‘That’s what we’re doing.’”

That federal vision is critical for a host of reasons. First, many of the necessary future passenger-rail lines would operate between two or more states, requiring a federal partner to serve as a liaison and prioritize the projects. In addition, there needs to be a federal agency that can view all transportation modes equally to determine the best way to improve mobility region by region — and how to best improve service within those modes, says Gunn.

“The highway system is congealing, Amtrak is hanging on by a thread, the freight railroads are choking and can’t absorb large amounts of additional traffic,” he says. “The politicians need to start looking at each market and figure out the most efficient way of moving goods and people. They need to look at all the modes in a systematic manner.”

Adds SFRTA’s Giulietti: “We can no longer think in terms of solving one problem, such as widening an airport or deepening the seaport — how do we make it all work and integrate with each other?”

A national policy also could prompt a more evenly distributed federal funding program.

“We have to look at a fair way to fund all these needs,” Giulietti says.

The need for high speed

The national plan would have to include a high-speed rail component, too, regardless of the price tag.

“You go to Europe, Asia, wherever — any first-world, developing nation has a highly developed high-speed rail network,” says UTA’s Inglish. “Where’s our national policy to development of a high-speed rail network? A lot of people say it’s too expensive. I disagree. It wasn’t too expensive or difficult to build the interstate highway system. This is the same thing. It will take national leadership and it’s something we can no longer avoid.”

MARTA General Manager and CEO Beverly Scott believes the transit industry needs to do its part to advance the idea of a national transportation policy.

“We, as an industry, have to become much less inwardly focused and figure out how we can paint the picture for the rest of America,” she says. “We’re getting ready to elect a new president and even in the debates, I don’t think we got much more than a sound bite, and that’s a problem. I can assure you that if people understood the transportation problem is as deep as it is and Americans were clamoring for better transportation systems, [candidates] would be talking about it.”

To a point, the general public is beginning to understand transit-rail’s importance, GCRTA’s Calabrese believes.

“The multi-modal concept is taking hold and more people realize we can’t simply build more highway lanes,” he says. “It has to be something much better thought out and coordinated. We might be a little on the late side, but we have a chance to recover.”

In the meantime, transit agencies are plugging away at projects and initiatives that will help set the stage for the industry’s future success. Multi-billion-dollar expansions are under way in New York, New Jersey, Denver, Salt Lake City and Dallas, among other cities. With the proper funding and oversight, other agencies could implement similar programs. If that happens, there’s no telling how big a part transit rail can play in the country’s transportation system of tomorrow. But one thing’s for sure: It will have a more prominent role.

“When Progressive Railroading celebrates its 100th anniversary, I think we’ll see transit as a much bigger fixture in the lives of Americans than it is today,” says APTA’s Millar.



Keywords

Browse articles on rail ridership rail capacity transportation policy rail policy transit funding National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission SAFETEA-LU

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