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Transit Infrastructure: Why We All Lose by Not Investing

One of the standard figures of speech that politicians like to use is "kicking the can down the road." In a time when it counts as long-term thinking to set the alarm for the next morning, this is exactly what happens time and again. 

Even though infrastructure is needed for an economy to run it is initiated by "the government" which makes it an easy target for political play.

Infrastructure is an investment without a direct or short-term return, and so is often the first victim when politicians run on austerity and fiscal prudence but really cater to immediate gratification and private consumption at the expense of long term thinking and communal benefits. 

Rail Transit. Who pays is main question at this time

And so it is that the good people of Maryland elected a new governor who ran on the promise of lower taxes and smaller government, and who disparaged two long-term public infrastructure transit projects during the campaign. 

These projects represent $5.3 billion dollars of transit investment, $450 million that have already been sunk into planning and design.

They have been in development for over 12 years, and both are recommended projects in the transportation apportionment approved in the federal budget adopted by House and Senate in the final hours before the holidays.

It wouldn't be without precedent that a Governor would scrap an advanced or even fully-funded transportation project. The Governors in three states rejected federal High Speed rail (HSR) money that had been set aside for their states. Governor Christie not only rejected a rail tunnel under the Hudson River that is desperately needed, but even repaid the feds some money.

ICC: More money for roads and bridges? The current MD
Governor took the ICC over from a republican and completed it.

The narrative of these actions is always the same: We can't afford the big expenses of these long-term infrastructure projects, they are government "boondoggles," they bust the budgets and so on.

Those who spin this story are the same ones who promote and benefit from the policies that promote short-term consumption, namely tax cuts. These are the arguments in spite of a GOP commitment to infrastructure in the party platform.

Infrastructure: Building the Future

(From the GOP Platform)

America's infrastructure networks are critical for economic growth, international competitiveness, and national security. Infrastructure programs have traditionally been non-partisan; everyone recognized that we all need clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports. 

This would have been the thinking when L'Enfant laid out the plans for the District of Columbia, when America built its railroads, when Baltimore, Philadelphia and scores of other cities built their sewer and water systems early in the last century (systems that lasted to this day and are now finally giving out with no replacement dollars in sight).

Imagine this would have been the argument when Dwight Eisenhower envisioned the Interstates or Lyndon B. Johnson laid the ground for the Great Society Metro in DC, the Dulles Airport, the BART subway in San Francisco. There is nobody in his right mind today, who would want to miss any of these projects because generations later the general public is still enjoying the enormous benefits. But make no mistake, all these projects required sacrifices, they cost lots of money and they had their enemies at the time.

So what to do about the Baltimore Red Line and the Washington-area Purple Line? Is the new Governor right, that it is irresponsible to spend such large percentages of the discretionary transportation fund on transit when only a small percentage of Marylanders ever use transit?

After all, he represents the rural areas, the small towns and villages that in many cases hardly have any transit at all. Even if large investment in transit infrastructure is appropriate, are the Red Line and the Purple Line good projects, or are there more efficient and better options that could achieve the same outcomes instead?

Do the years of planning and progress matter, or should a new Governor get some time to look it all over before proceeding, and at least have the opportunity to delay, if not halt these projects completely?

Purple Line Maryland

These questions are being asked by many, and certainly proffered by those who have been skeptical about large transit investments all along.

With a Republican Governor in the offing who has questioned transit and stated that foremost the State needs to fix what it already has, especially roads and bridges, an assortment of unlikely partners has formed that, for a variety of reasons would like nothing more than to see these two large New Starts project die.

Let's look at the above questions in order to try for some answers:

"Most Marylanders never use transit":

Yes, true, even in Baltimore the mode split is only 16%.

But if we want this to improve, the transit system must be expanded.  How true that is demonstrated by DC where just under 40% use public transit.

Current transit ridership is not a good, let alone the only, available metric to determine the proper proportion of transit investment compared to roads.  For example, one must consider where the vast majority of Maryland's gross economic product comes from, i.e. the metro areas around DC and Baltimore. Neither of these areas can thrive without good mobility.

Transit is an increasingly highly ranked mobility choice. Lack of transit holds the economy back. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore finds that businesses report lack of good transit as the # gripe of area employers. The leading business organizations, the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC) and the Washington Board of Trade fully support the Red Line and the Purple lines. Aside from that, the transportation investments projected for the coming years include significant amounts of investments in "roads and bridges".

MDOT Capital Program Summary shows that Red and Purple Line are not sucking up all money

"Are the Red and Purple Lines good projects, or are there more efficient options that could achieve the same outcome?" 

The Red Line and Purple lines have been investigated and studied for over twelve years now, four of which were under a previous Republican state administration.

Each project has used up millions of dollars in planning money and thousands of community hours in participation. Surface rail, underground rail, rapid bus and various route alternatives were studied, compared and evaluated. Full environmental Impact Statements (EIS) were prepared, reviewed and approved.

A locally preferred alternative (LPA) was selected on merit in terms of the best cost benefit ratio as calculated by strict FTA standards originally conceived by George W. Bush when he as President initiated the comprehensive transportation bill which was called ISTEA. Under that recently modified formula benefits were expressed in cold numbers such as ridership forecast, and based on rigorously tested and calibrated metropolitan models that include demographic projections, time savings for riders, and environmental benefits.

The high tunnel costs of the LPA are offset by travel speed increases and higher ridership due to routing the line through areas with the highest densities of transit riders (compared to where it is the easiest and cheapest to do). Alternatives to the LPA that were studied never gained real traction because they were found either to not provide the hoped for cost savings, were simply not technically feasible, or did not have the same benefits.

The few alternatives still proposed by project opponents are all reformulations of these old plans.

They all fare just as badly or worse, and for the same reasons. Furthermore, anybody who thinks that design modifications can still be made at the time when the projects are ready to be bid completely misjudges the time it takes to get altered design documents bid ready.

In the case of the Purple Line, the request for P3 proposals is long out and responses were due in January with the deadline now extended by 2 months to give the incoming administration some time to settle. Each submitter of a valid proposal receives a stipend for the substantial effort it takes to submit under design-build rules, making this bids useless alone would cost $8 million.

In the case of the Red Line 50% of the work is also P3 with proposals to be requested concurrent with standard bids for the other 50% in 2015.

A Red Line downtown station will look much like a subway

Should a new Governor delay these projects?

Any delay would most likely be tantamount to death for the projects through loss of the $1.8 billion of federal funding that would most certainly come with delay. New Starts projects are incredibly competitive. Dozens of cities compete with projects over the about $14 billion that the FTA has set aside for transit funding annually.

Maryland's two New Starts projects both received a letter of recommendation and are funded in FY 15 with $100 million each.

It is more than likely that any delay would not only increase the cost of construction but move the two projects back to the back of the queue.

The Governor, who was already part of the previous Republican administration eight years back when the Red Line was already in planning should recall that extensive attempts of pushing the project in the direction of BRT were already undertaken back then and included in the analysis of alternatives. Bus tunnels proved to be more expensive than LRT tunnels and surface BRT proved to either be too slow to really bring benefits over the existing bus service or the required dedicated lanes were too intrusive to the flow of downtown traffic.

Can we afford them when the budget appears to have significant shortfalls as it is?

Any time a new administration takes office, there is much moaning and groaning about how terribly the previous administration managed the budget.

In fact, every year when a new budget has to be proposed by Maryland's Governor, projections downsize the expected revenue and increase expected expenditures. This is a well-worn ritual and Maryland is no worse off in this than most states, and in fact is actually better than most. In addition, the current Governor has proposed and the General Assembly has approved significant revenue increases for the Transportation Trust Fund from higher gasoline taxes, coupling the tax to inflation and making several other small tweaks.

The resulting $400-600 million annual additional revenues (depending which year since the increases are gradually introduced between 2014 and 2016) pay for more than what the two New Starts transit lines draw annually from the trust fund. That was exactly the idea, to make the fund flush enough to afford investments. And to create some balance, the budget for 2015 includes significant amounts going to roads and bridges. In 2014 the legislature approved a "lock box" provision that makes it much harder to divert transportation revenues to balance the general budget.

Is the Baltimore Red Line too expensive? 

With a price tag of nearly 3 billion dollars, nobody can contest that the Red Line is a very expensive project. How did it get that way, when initial estimates were so much lower? The main reason has to do with the decision to tunnel the project through all of downtown and through the entire historic Fells Point area as well as for a short segment on the west side of town near the county line.

Even with trains that are shorter than subway, underground segments of LRT approach the cost of metro subway systems because the construction method of bored tunnels and cut and cover stations are identical and many of the station accessories, escalators, elevators, smoke evacuation systems etc. are also the same. Underground sections also require a much more detailed investigation of existing conditions than surface rail because many surprises could lurk down below. It were the tunnels, then, which drove the Red Line cost up. The per mile cost is at nearly $203 million still significantly below that of a full fledged metro system which requires full track separation on bridges or tunnels throughout.

When dealing with long-term infrastructure projects, like Baltimore's water system, which was constructed in the 1920s, the question has never been, "Can it be done cheaper?" Rather, the question has been, and should be, "What is excellence, what is state of the art, and what will serve future generations optimally?" The Baltimore Red Line and the DC area Purple Line should be approached with that same troika of questions. 

The current Administration has [replaced] civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. (From the GOP Platform)

Those who peddle "alternatives" should admit that they are not really transit advocates, have no real alternative project, and are working to undermine the largest transit investment this state has ever made. Only the two FTA recommended New Starts projects in their current configuration have an approved EIS, are engineered, priced and ready to go. Everything else is a pipe-dream and conjecture.  Pursuing anything else would set either metro region back at least 5-7 years.

For Baltimore, it means no significant transit investment. The city hasn't seen a new rail line in twenty years, and it is simply not responsible to work against the Red Line, especially not after over $230 million have already been spent on the project for planning, design and testing.

Neither businesses nor citizens benefit from cancelling a $2.9 billion transit infrastructure investment that has attracted $900 million in federal funds, and will utilize private sector money. Denying this investment to a region which is already reeling from drastically cut back federal activities and expenditures is the opposite of job creation and economic development. It pulls the rug out from a number of investors and developers who have projected or already realized projects in the corridors which were slated for light rail.

It doesn't consider the future of a metro area that is increasingly attracting millennials and young creatives that clamor for better transit. It doesn't consider the needs of those who need better access to jobs on the periphery nor those who are too old, too young, too poor or to infirm to drive and it doesn't care that any dollar spent on on the Red Line could come back through economic development and community transformation that have shown to be possible with light rail transit if done right as in Denver and many other cities.

A governor whose agenda is a better business climate and job creation must recognize these facts, even if he is from the suburbs, represents the more rural areas and has fiscal prudence as his goal. It is fiscally prudent to invest in the future. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff

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