Viewing city-to-city trains as public goods and not profit generators

An overview of what expanded Midwest city-to-city train service could look like includes a call to recast the purpose of trains:

Matthews said it is important for Congress to realize that passenger rail offers a public good, just as street lights do. The question is not whether the Southwest Chief makes money, but whether the community makes money because the train is there.

As the thinking about more train service in the Midwest between major cities continues, it will likely take a lot to shift perspectives from making money to providing a public good. If more service is provided, will more people ride it? Of course, it is hard to know what could come of more service until it actually happens. My guess is that we are still a long ways off in the United States from more train service – people still like their cars – and it would be difficult to funnel money from other transportation budgets – such as road maintenance and construction – to trains.

This call for a shift in perspective could serve as a general reminder for all infrastructure projects: focus less on the cost now and think more broadly about what that piece of infrastructure enables. Roads, power lines, water, railroads, and more enable other activities to take place that depend on solid infrastructure.

This also reminds me of sociologist Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. As railroads emerged in the mid-1800s, Dobbin argues France employed a top-down centralized strategy for railroads in the country, Britain had the most laissez-faire approach, and the United States was in the middle with some government support for railroads. While that occurred at the beginning of the railroad age, much of that transportation money in the United States has gone to roads and highways for roughly a century.

Informing the public about delays in completing large public projects

The reasons for delayed Jane Byrne Interchange project in Chicago are only now trickling out to the public:

In January 2015 — just over a year into construction — university workers noticed the building had been sinking and shifting, leaving cracks in the foundation and making it impossible to shut some doors and windows, according to court records…

Over the next 1½ years, IDOT blamed engineering firms it had hired for missing the poor soil conditions that contributed to the problem. That led to a redesign of a key retaining wall that boosted costs by $12.5 million and dragged out that part of the project at least 18 more months…

IDOT’s Tridgell gave the Tribune a list of other reasons for delays. Among them: The city was leery of shutting down ramps and lanes on many weekends because of festivals and other events. And other local agencies required extra permits and reviews for work…

UIC’s Sriraj said public outreach is challenging on big projects, with no “gold standard” on how much is appropriate.

The public is likely not surprised that such a large project is behind schedule and over budget. This is common on major infrastructure projects. They just want the project done. (And I’m sure some of the cynical ones will note that even when the Byrne project is done, repaving of its surfaces will probably begin again very soon.)

Is this expectation of poor performance what then allows public agencies to not have to explain further delays and costs? Realistically, there is little the public can do whether they know about the delays and cost overruns or not: the construction keeps going until it does not. And the article hints that there is possibly little the state can do to compel contractors to do better work. So, because the news looks bad, is it just better to sit on the information?

I would prefer it work this way: given that such large projects affect many people and involve a lot of taxpayer dollars, the public should have access to clear timelines and explanations for delays. Many people won’t care, not matter how much information is available. But, in general, public life is valuable and information should be widely available and not hidden for fear of angering people or avoiding blame. At the least, knowing about delays and increased costs could theoretically help voters make better choices in the future about leaders who will guide these processes.

Where the money goes when you buy a gallon of gas

An overview of the problems electric cars pose for funding road maintenance includes a breakdown of where the money for each gallon of gas goes:

About half goes to the drillers that extract oil from the earth. Just under a quarter pays the refineries to turn crude into gasoline. And around 6 percent goes to distributors.

The rest, or typically about 20 percent of every gallon of gas, goes to various governments to maintain and enhance the U.S. transportation’s infrastructure.

Currently, the federal government charges 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, which provides 85 percent to 90 percent of the Highway Trust Fund that finances most on highways and .

State and local government charge their own taxes that vary widely. Combined with the national levy, fuel taxes range from over 70 cents per gallon in high-tax states like California and Pennsylvania to just over 30 cents in states like Alaska and Arizona. The difference is a key reason the price of gasoline changes so dramatically when you cross state lines.

I would guess few drivers have a sense of where money at the gas station goes. Instead, they likely just react to increases or decreases in prices and when prices go up possibly grumble about who is being made rich.

Forgetting the railroad tracks in downtown Chicago when they are covered up by developments

As Chicago grew at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century, the railroad lines that helped make the city largely converged in one place: the south bank of the Chicago River alongside Lake Michigan where goods could be loaded and unloaded for the city or for ships. A 1948 image on the Maggie Daley Park website gives some indication of the scene:

Later development of land, such as Millennium Park, helped eliminate and then cover up more of the tracks. And a new proposed development south of Grant Park may cover up more:

Even as city officials weigh other proposed megadevelopment deals in and near downtown, a Wisconsin developer who played a key role in building Ford Field in Detroit and rebuilding Lambeau Field in Green Bay is pitching another: a multibillion-dollar plan to deck over Metra Electric rail tracks west of Soldier Field to build a mix of residential, office and retail space.

Several sources close to the matter say a partnership headed by Wisconsin executive Bob Dunn has briefed City Hall and other officials on plans, set to be officially unveiled next month, to build over 34 acres of Metra Electric tracks and storage facilities just west of South Lake Shore Drive, from McFetridge Drive south to roughly 20th Street.

Air rights to build over the tracks were acquired more than 20 years ago by developer Gerald Fogelson, who built the huge Central Station residential complex just to the north, south and east of Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. Fogelson had hoped to develop the adjacent air-rights property himself as a sort of a Central Station 2.0, and as late as 2015 he was looking for a partner, describing then a $3 billion long-term plan with 3,000 apartments and 500 hotel rooms.

But Fogelson’s plans never jelled, and a new group named Landmark Development has emerged, with Fogelson still involved but Dunn, who is president of Milwaukee-based Hammes, now serving as lead developer.

Few would argue that the railroad tracks downtown and along the lakefront contributed to a beautiful aesthetic. Between the noise and the sights, most residents and leaders would prefer to see buildings, parks, and water than tracks. But, I wonder if the continued covering of tracks and building on the air rights might help lead Chicagoans to forget both the historical and current importance of the railroads to Chicago.

As Chicago grew, the railroads helped Chicago become the center of the Midwest as commodities came in from north, west, and south and were turned around for the Chicago market or markets out East. (See Nature’s Metropolis for all the details.) Today, Chicago is still a railroad center with numerous important railroad lines and a lot of freight traffic. The move in recent years to relieve accidents, ensure on-time trains, and traffic congestion is to move more and more of the railroad traffic to the outskirts of the region.

It might be easy today in a world of smartphones to forget the basic railroad infrastructure that helps undergird Chicago and the country. Chicago itself has shifted away from a commodity based economy and joined the ranks of finance and corporate capitals (and done so successfully). Yet, the railroad will continue to be important for Chicago even if it is no longer visible in some of the city’s most iconic locations.

#1 payment priority for Americans: car loan

In a country dependent on and built around driving, perhaps the importance of making car payments is not a surprise:

“Your car loan is your number one priority in terms of payment, “said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.”

People who are three months or more behind on their car payments often lose their vehicle, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor or other critical places…

After the financial crisis, there were a lot of restrictions placed on mortgages to make it harder to take out a home loan unless someone could clearly afford to make the monthly payments. But experts warn that there are far fewer restrictions on auto loans, meaning a consumer has to be more savvy about what they are doing when they take out a loan.

This article made me think a little: does this mean that cars come before homes in the United States? This would counter my own claim that suburbs are more about single-family homes then they are about cars – see my rough rankings of Why Americans Love About Suburbs.

Yet, the suburbs existed before cars. By the early 1900s, suburbs existed and utilized transportation technologies like railroads and streetcars. Mass suburbanization certainly occurred on a different scale with the availability of cars in the 1920s and then after World War II. But, the United States would have had some form of suburbs and their emphasis on single-family homes without cars even if that was on a smaller scale.

The whole relationships between cars and homes was cemented in the postwar era when increasing sprawl really did limit other transportation options for many people. And the shift of jobs to the suburbs made this problem even worse. Perhaps we could shift the what-if scenario to the future: could the suburbs go on without cars (hard to imagine) or cars on without suburbs (probably)?

The 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair helped lead to Disneyland

Disneyland and Disney World are notable to urbanists for their opening spaces. Main Street is meant to evoke an American small town like the one in Missouri in which Walt Disney lived as a child.

I recently read that Main Street had an additional inspiration: the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being the last great assembly of railroad equipment and technology by participating railroad companies, the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair holds a lesser known honor and connection to Disneyland. In 1948 Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball attended the fair. To their enjoyment they not only got to see all of the equipment, but they were also allowed to operate some of the steam locomotives that were at the Fair. Upon their return to Los Angeles, Disney used the Fair, the House of David Amusement Park, and Greenfield Village, as inspiration for a “Mickey Mouse Park” that eventually became Disneyland. Walt also went on to build his own backyard railroads, building the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Kimball already had his own, named Grizzly Flats Railroad.

And this fair was quite a gathering of American railroad leaders and equipment:

The fair was rapidly planned during the winter and spring of 1948, and originally scheduled to run between July and August of that summer. Erected on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of Burnham Park in Chicago between 21st and 31st Streets, the fair opened after only six months of planning. A grand opening for the fair commenced on July 20 with a parade that featured such spectacles as a military marching band and a replica of a troop train, a contingent of cowboys and Native Americans, a replica of the Tom Thumb, the first American locomotive, and the spry, octogenarian widow of Casey Jones, who served as honorary Grand Master of the parade. One dollar was the price of admission, and, except food, all the attractions, displays, exhibits and shows were free. Besides the thirty-nine railroads who participated in the fair, there were more than twenty equipment manufacturers, including General Motors. The Santa Fe also sponsored an Indian Village where Native Americans sold handicrafts, staged dances, and explained the different types of lodging that were on display.

A highlight of the fair was the presence of the Freedom Train.The Freedom Train travelled the country from September 17, 1947, through Jan 22, 1949, and was at the Railroad Fair from July 5 – 9. It held many documents and artifacts from the National Archives. Available for public viewing were the original United States Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Security of the documents was the responsibility of the Marine Corps…

38 railroads and more than 20 railroad equipment manufacturers participated in the Chicago Railroad Fair exhibiting equipment and interpretive displays around the fair’s theme of 100 years of railroad history. The majority of the participating railroads maintained a direct rail connection to Chicago…

The highlight of the Chicago Railroad Fair was the “Wheels A-Rolling” pageant. This was a dramatic and musical presentation intended to showcase the development of transportation and the railroads across the country beginning with trails and waterways. The pageant included a recreation of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory, Utah, and various historic rolling stock and replicas of equipment in operation.

I wonder what Disneyland might begin with if Disney had been a child in the age of the automobile. Instead of Main Street, imagine a typical commercial stretch viewed at 35 mph with signs for fast food joints, strip malls, and gas stations. Would it induce the same sort of nostalgia for later generations? Or, as suburban critic James Howard Kunstler suggests, those suburban arterials are not worth places worth caring about.

Furthermore, this celebration of the railroad would be interesting to contrast with celebrations of the automobile. The largest auto show in the world, the Chicago Auto Show, starts this weekend. The displays are largely divorced from history or urban surroundings. While the automobile has been important for the development of the Chicago region (and all American metropolitan regions), it cannot claim the same influence in helping to kickstart the Chicago region in the mid-1800s. Yet, it is hard to imagine Chicago holding a massive celebration for railroads today, even as they continue to bring much freight to and through the Chicago region.

Resist the social engineering of mass transit but ignore the social engineering of suburbia

Mass transit in the suburbs is hard to accomplish but one of the biggest advantages of establishing mass transit now is that it can help shape future suburbia. Yet, a number of commentators mass transit efforts are folly even as they ignore how the suburban decentralized landscape came about. Example #1:

That was my first up-close encounter with the Cult of Transit. There is nothing wrong with expanding bus service and building new rail lines—provided they actually enable people to get where they are going. However, urban planners’ fixation on transit stems more from social engineering than transportation engineering. The latter develops projects that enable people to get from Point A to Point B. The former builds projects designed to change the public’s behavior—prodding them into getting around in ways the planners believe is best…

I think of my attempts to take transit to go from my exurb to downtown Sacramento. It would involve driving to a station 20 minutes away, paying for parking, buying a ticket and waiting for a train. It would take longer and cost almost as much as just driving downtown directly and parking. That train might make sense in the urban core, but not in the outlying areas, yet officials love to lecture us about our supposedly unsustainable reliance on driving.

This highlights the real problem with transit. Planners, not consumers, drive it. Real private enterprises—as opposed to firms receiving taxpayer-funded subsidies to build government-directed projects—would never build a rail system based on an “if we build it, they will come” model. They would build systems that meet customer needs rather than fulfill wishful fantasies.

Example #2:

Some propose to redesign American cities to serve obsolete transit systems: forcing more jobs downtown, building high-density transit-oriented developments in transit corridors, and turning highway and street lanes into dedicated bus lanes. Yet huge changes in urban form are needed to get a small change in transit usage, and the benefits are trivial. Transit isn’t particularly green, using more energy and producing more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average car.

Seattle has done the most to reshape itself into an early twentieth-century city. Draconian land-use policies and tax subsidies increased the city’s population density by 25 percent since 2000 and increased the number of downtown jobs from 215,000 in 2010 to 281,000 in 2017. These policies came at a terrible price: housing is no longer affordable and traffic is practically gridlocked. The urban area gained 58,000 transit commuters since 2000, but it also gained 190,000 auto commuters.

It is time to stop thinking that transit is somehow morally superior to driving and that it deserves the $50 billion in subsidies that it receives each year. Ending the subsidies would lead to a variety of private transit alternatives where people will use them and allow cities to concentrate on relieving congestion and making roads safer and cleaner for everyone else.

The suburban landscape based on driving and single-family homes did not come about organically or naturally; it was the result of government support (presidential statements, highway construction, socialized mortgages) and American ideologies. And it developed in nearly a century and a half from railroad suburbs to streetcar suburbs to mass-produced suburbs accessible by car.

Thus, I find the arguments against mass transit spending a bit strange. The suburbs occurred at least in part through direct intervention (what could be called social engineering) and over a long period of time. If planners and others wanted to change suburbia for the future, the elements of time and intervention would also be necessary. Mass transit construction in suburbs today may be much less about current results and instead about setting up an infrastructure that enables more suburban density and mass transit possibilities in the future.

All of this does not necessarily mean that planners and others want to destroy everything about suburbs. Higher densities in suburbs do seem attractive to a number of communities and residents as it allows for more housing options, more street life, and using less land. Suburban mass transit will likely not replace driving but it could enable some households to go from two to one car or provide new options and possibilities.

Trying to predict future suburban patterns is always difficult. My own research suggests planners, officials, and residents in the postwar decades had a difficult time envisioning significant growth. But, if we are looking toward the suburbs of fifty or one hundred years from now, is it so unreasonable to think some suburban areas will be denser and certain mass transit decisions made today helped guide some of those patterns? Wouldn’t we want to try to act with the future in mind rather than simply saying Americans prefer driving and sprawl now so that is the way it will always be?