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Transit


Anti-transit ideology endangers Silver Line

Transit advocates should take heed of Steven Pearlstein's insight into the battle over the Silver Line and fight back against the anti-transit ideology that lies just under the surface and threatens transit projects everywhere.


Photo by Patrick DB on Flickr.

This weekend, Pearlstein wrote in the Washington Post, "So what are we arguing about here? Politics. Ideology. Certainly nothing that is worth risking the most important economic development project in the region."

To see the ideological anti-transit forces at work, compare the recent death of a rail megaproject in New Jersey to the situation unfolding in Virginia with the Silver Line extension.

In late 2010, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie rejected $6 billion in funds from Federal and other non-state sources to build a new commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan. The project would have provided tens of thousands of jobs now and in the future, created over $100 million of business activity per year, increased the value of homes nearby, created huge amounts of tax revenues for the State of New Jersey, and eased the commute for hundreds of thousands people who have to get in to Manhattan from Northern Jersey every day.

And the independent Government Accountability Office confirmed these lost benefits just last month in a well-researched and detailed report.

Despite those cold, hard facts and the fact that New Jersey would have been on the hook for only about 14 percent of the project's total cost, the New Jersey Governor killed the project. The Governor veiled his anti-transit actions in the ideology of austerityitself a harmful ideology in a time of recession when government's focus should have been directed toward increasing employment instead of cutting deficits.

A closer look at the facts reveals that Governor Christie falsely inflated the short-term economic cost of the project in his mission to kill a well-funded, well-planned, and hugely beneficial public transit project. Now that his assertions about funding have been largely debunked, we can see what anti-transit forces have attempted to hide: an ideological opposition to transit itself.

Simply put, there is a vocal movement that rejects the notion that public transit has or should have a place in our development, let alone a place of priority. And some politicians are responding to that movement.

Now, anti-transit forces in Virginia are also pursuing a similar veiled anti-transit ideology as they attempt to kill phase 2 of the Metro Rail extension to Dulles Airport.

The project is the largest expansion of Metro rail lines in the D.C. Metropolitan Area since Metro was built in the 1970s. Like the Hudson River tunnel in New Jersey, the Silver Line would move thousands of people a day by rail through one of the most congested areas in the United States. It would (and has already) created jobs and other economic benefits. The project is being managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and is currently in Phase I, which extends the rail from East Falls Church through Tysons Corner.

Phase I has been an unqualified success. It is scheduled to be completed on time and it is on budget. The project also has an exemplary safety recordincredibly important for a project being performed as commuters zoom around nearby and underneath. Because the first phase was so successful, the Airports Authority decided to largely replicate the model it is used on Phase I to implement Phase II of the rail extension. It voted to approve a bidding process and Governor McDonnell gave his blessing to that process.

Then anti-transit forces stepped in and Governor McDonnell changed his mind, threatening to withhold funding unless the Airports Authority changed the requirement that the biggest contractors on Phase II use the same union hiring halls that were used to staff Phase Ii.e., the same workforce that is successfully completing Phase I.

To avoid a fight, the Airports Authority was flexible and it changed the bidding to accommodate Governor McDonnell's request, implementing a system that would give bidders using the same hiring halls from Phase I extra points in the competition for the contract but not requiring their use.

Apparently this hasn't appeased Governor McDonnell's anti-transit donors because the Governor is now threatening to kill the project unless the preference system is dropped entirely.

Anti-transit forces in Virginia have now created a full-blown crisis on account of their ideological opposition to using union labor on any projectanother dangerous ideological position designed to destroy key progressive constituencies. Headlines now scream that Phase II of the project is "in doubt."

Transit advocates should be wary of the stated ideological reasons given for killing these projects because they veil another ideology that fundamentally opposes the expansion of public transit.

The Virginia and New Jersey casesnot to mention House Republican's continuing efforts to kill high-speed rail in the U.S. Congressprovide evidence of such an ideological anti-transit war. Instead of seeking practical solutions to improve public transit in neglected or over-trafficked areas, anti-transit politicians have sought to kill rail projects on other questionable grounds. And they have done so even where those projects have minimal costs and maximum benefits for the regions in which they operate.

Anti-transit ideologues veil their opposition to transit projects with other ideological memes that incite their basein Virginia it's union boogey men, in New Jersey it's misstatements about "debt" and "overspending." These ideological memes are as dangerous to progressive values as the anti-transit ideologies they mask.

But make no mistake, if the anti-transit ideologues had any predisposition to implement real transit solutions, they would cast aside those ideological battles in favor of the compromises and heavy subsidies they have been offered to move the transit projects forward.

Their absolute refusal to do so in favor of other pet ideological battles"hostage-taking" as Pearlstein calls itindicates a broader ideological opposition to the transit projects themselves. If robust public transit is to become a priority in this region (and everywhere), transit advocates and their allies must expose and defeat these ideologies.

Transit


New Jersey says no to FTA money. What would you build?

It was reported yesterday that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, is expected to kill the ARC Tunnel project. The tunnel would double rail capacity under the Hudson River, and would allow more trains to enter Manhattan each day.


Photo by Rrrodrigo on Flickr.

Christie, it seems, plans to take the state's share of the project and devote it to building roads. This means that New Jersey will lose some $3 billion in federal funding for the project while furthering its sprawl. That money will end up going to other transit projects in other cities.

If the governor does indeed cancel the project, it will be a big loss for the region, and for the Northeast as a whole.

Currently, the only railroad access from New Jersey into Manhattan is through the North River Tunnels, each with one track, which were built in 1910 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. This bottleneck means that all Amtrak and NJ Transit trains operating along the Northeast Corridor into Penn Station fight for space in the tunnels, which are operating at about 100% capacity.

While the ARC Project isn't perfect, it's still an essential project. New Hudson River tunnels will need to be built eventually, and it's unfortunate that the taxpayers of New Jersey are losing out on this opportunity for a federal partnership.

But without the local match, those federal dollars will go elsewhere. While there's no indication that a project in this region would be likely to receive this funding, it is an interesting thought exercise to wonder what we could do with $3 billion.

Considering that we'd need a local match of at least $3 billion, that would mean $6 billion in funding for transit projects in our region. I asked the contributors what they'd spend that on. Here are some of the ideas they suggested (ordered by overall cost):

Metro capital upgrades: WMATA estimates $11 billion in unfunded capital needs over the next decade. Spending this money toward keeping Metro in a state of good repair would be an excellent use of these funds, even if maintenance isn't as "sexy" as a shiny new rail extension.

Separated Blue Line: With congestion on the rise in the Blue/Orange subway, it's only a matter of time before we'll need a separated Blue Line in Downtown DC. Some estimates show this project costing upwards of $6 billion.


Image by David Alpert.

DC Streetcars: At about $25 million per mile, $6 billion could build about 240 miles of streetcar. That would certainly finish off DC's planned 37-mile system and those planned in Northern Virginia, with plenty of room for expansion.


Image from NCPC.
Washington freight bypass: NCPC studied ideas to reroute freight rail traffic around the Washington region. These concepts are estimated to cost between $3.2 and $5.3 billion, depending on the alternative. A freight bypass would speed commuter and inter-city trains (and add capacity). It would also move hazardous rail cargoes outside of the central business district.

MARC investment and expansion: In September 2007, Governor O'Malley put forth a plan to quadruple MARC capacity by 2035. Doing so would cost about $3.8 billion, with the majority ($2.9 billion) going toward the Penn Line. It would include through-running of MARC trains into Northern Virginia by 2020. But the recession has meant the plan is unfunded.

Baltimore-Washington Maglev: In 2002, this project was estimated to cost $3.2 billion. It would provide a very high-speed link between Washington, BWI Airport, and Baltimore.

100% 8-car operation: It would cost about $600 million to buy enough railcars to allow the system to operate all 8-car trains during peak periods. This is essential to increasing capacity on the system.

Metro station pedestrian connections: With congestion at the downtown transfer stations growing, many have called for connections between the Farraguts (around $72M) and between Metro Center and Gallery Place (around $100M). Both of those could be constructed for well under $6 billion.


Image from DDOT.
K Street Transitway: In February, DC was turned down for a TIGER grant to fund this project. The $140 million busway would've increased travel speeds and added improved stops for many of the buses serving Downtown DC. Whenever it's constructed, it will also be home to the K Street streetcar line.

Water taxi docking stations: With water taxis starting to troll the Potomac between Alexandria, National Harbor, and the Waterfront, one wonders if money couldn't be spent to build stations along the Potomac to encourage small-scale ferry service between Virginia and Washington.

If we could get New Jersey's transit money, what would you suggest we spend it on?

Update, October 7: Governor Christie has officially killed the ARC Tunnel.

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