Regional briefs

1. After having looked at literally thousands of plans for New Urbanist developments around the world, I learned to to groan and roll my eyes whenever one had either (a) a green semicircle or (b) a “promised rail transit line” somewhere on the plan. These were cliches that every plan seemed to have, and those promised transit lines never actually seem to materialize.

Now, here we have a plan that was designed around a “promised rail transit line” — so much so that the retail and high-density residential are at the middle of the neighborhood, much to their detriment, instead of along the arterial at the edge — and now the promised transit is coming so late in the game that it’s facing NIMBYs from within the walkable neighborhood: “Rockville City Council votes to reroute CCT out of King Farm.”

Unlike yesteryear’s streetcar suburbs, we now can’t put the tracks in first. Today’s cost-effectiveness measures rightly demand that transit go where people live today, instead of where they might be living tomorrow.

2. A thought: bikeshare came in quite handy for a short trip out of town — I left via bus, from Chinatown, and returned via trail, into Union Station, and bikeshare is perfect for trips like that (different start and end points, falling outside usual transit operating hours).

While I was in Crystal City a few weeks ago, I noticed that there’s a bikeshare station near the airport access road ramp — which gave me an idea. Since National Airport is right next to the Mount Vernon trail and already has bike racks, couldn’t I use bikeshare to get to a flight out of/into DCA? Many flights — late weeknight or early weekend — fall outside Metro service hours.

The trouble is, all of the stations are on the west side of the CSX/GW Parkway corridor and the trail/airport are on the east, with few ways to cross. The two ways to do this now (until MWAA decides to add a bikeshare station within DCA, perhaps as an employee incentive) appear to be:
– Exit the Mount Vernon trail at the Aviation Circle “cloverleaf” and park the bike near the Crystal City metro. Walk back along the trail and Aviation to the parking lots and the airport.
– Ride around Crystal City, looking for a hotel with an airport shuttle parked out front. Return the bike near the hotel and hop on the shuttle. Tip the driver. (I don’t feel all that guilty about using hotel services since I do frequently stay in hotels, but others might disagree.)

3. Sadly, that brings me to this (during Restaurant Week, no less): “goddammit, DC is the worst food scene ever. anywhere else in the US this is just airport food and airport prices!” — seen on Wonkette

4. It seems that the most popular uses of Capital Bikeshare so far are for entertainment trips, rather than work trips. The densest routes are within the DuPont-Logan-U Street triangle, with intra-Capitol Hill and DuPont-Adams Morgan-Columbia Heights as other important corridors. I’m also surprised at how many trans-Potomac trips it’s getting, given that the pricing structure discourages such long trips.

Also interesting from Arlington’s transportation blog: planners are now soliciting public ideas for how to improve bike routes parallel to Columbia Pike. The Pike itself is undergoing a transformation into a transit boulevard, with wider sidewalks but without bike lanes; perhaps bike boulevards alongside the road (as along Shattuck in Berkeley or Broadway in Vancouver) can help make the corridor work better for all modes.

5. An updated version of a comment defending the notion of a new high-speed rail corridor in the Northeast from uninformed attacks at Megan McArdle’s blog.

1. New Jersey includes a lot of rural areas, like Cape May. The metropolitan counties that line the Northeast Corridor have a population density of 982/sq. mi., and growing (unlike Germany) to a projected 1,248/sq. mi. by 2040. Japan is blanketed by solidly profitable high-speed rail, reaching even its most distant corners, and has a population density of only 870/sq. mi.

2. High-speed rail turns operating profits all over the world, from France and Spain to Taiwan; in fact, even Acela generates an operating profit. Amtrak’s proposal for a new high-speed Northeast Corridor predicts an operating surplus of nearly $1B a year in 2040, and the medium-speed continuation south to Charlotte is similarly expected to turn a net profit.

Acela, in fact, is quite profitable for Amtrak. Preliminary 2010 figures put the operating margin at 29%, or $130.7 million, and revenues grew 16% over the past year. The rest of the Northeast Corridor regional services run at about break-even on this basis. (Amtrak excludes OPEB, capital, and other costs, so these are not readily comparable to airlines’ financial reports, and airlines obviously don’t report profitability on a corridor or route basis.) To put 2010 into perspective, airfares in some northeast city pairs (Boston-Washington, for instance) have been exceptionally low, the NEC was washed out by the Rhode Island floods, and the northeast’s intercity bus market has grown tremendously — and yet Amtrak’s existing and slow services are doing just fine.

3. No, high-speed services will not repay their capital costs. Very few passenger transportation investments do. The first railroad boom in America was underwritten by a giant speculative bubble which cost investors dearly, even after receiving immense federal subsidies in the form of land grants. Similarly, most older rail transit systems in the USA were built by real estate developers, hucksters, or both. Over the course of history, airlines have lost their investors countless billions even though they only pay a fraction of their capital costs — and create significant negative externalities (pollution) while operating with less than amazing reliability.

The subsidies that the public sector extends for infrastructure are repaid to the public in that they enable productivity gains that lead to greater economic growth down the road, so to speak. Which brings us to:

4. A growing population and growing economy (the Northeast’s GRP will double by 2050, assuming no constraints [like traffic] to growth) creates more demand for passenger travel. How do you propose to shoehorn ever greater passenger numbers down I-95 and through JFK? Or do you intend to stop economic growth in the Northeast, and thus for 20% of America’s economy? Isn’t unconstrained economic growth the Republican mantra?

Or, if you do wish to allow the Northeast to continue to grow and therefore assent to spending billions on transportation corridors, why would you not want to spend public funds on the mode which can deliver the most capacity, at the highest speed, with the best safety and reliability record, between the highest-value (highest productivity) center-city locations, at the least cost? Right now, we’re coasting off of infrastructure investments made 50 or 100 years ago (no new Hudson road tunnels have been built in 53 years, and no rail tunnels in the past century) — that’s only possible for so long before new investments need to be made to maintain and upgrade what’s there.

Moving 50 million riders a year, as a new Northeast high-speed rail line could do, would cost vast fortunes to do in cars, buses, or planes. Consider that the DCA-LGA-BOS airline shuttles move just 3 million passengers a year, that their use is eroding, and that the billions being spent on the region’s airports will just maintain today’s unacceptable delays. I-95 is about 450 miles from Boston to Washington. Adding surface-level HOT lanes to improve bus service in Virginia is costing about $136 million per mile; going to a double-deck format could almost double that. Doing this for the entire corridor would easily cost as much as a new railroad — Amtrak puts the cost of an entirely new NEC high-speed line at $70 billion — and at much lower speeds and much less safely.

5. Overspending on rural roads has persisted far out of proportion to need or any sense of equity. The Illinois DOT has long spent 40-45% of its statewide funds within the Chicago metro, even though the metro accounts for about 65% of the population, well over half the cars and fuel tax revenue, and has higher per-mile construction costs (due largely to that heavier traffic). As a result, bike lanes in Chicago carry more people over more potholes than smooth interstate highways downstate.