What if we made transportation systems regulated public utilities? | MinnPost

Marlys Harris, in her swansong column for MinnPost writes about my recent CityLab article: How to Make Mass Transit Financially Sustainable Once and for All, as well as my Enterprising Roads idea.

The Minnesota Legislature has also shown little appetite for forking over more cash for transportation. In its most recent session, it allocated to fixing roads a measly $15 million, an amount termed a “bandaid” by MoveMN, a 170-group coalition that offered a modest batch of proposals that would have raised hundreds of millions for trains, buses and roads.

If nothing changes, we will be looking at a future of crumbling bridges, pot-holey roads and halted projects.

David Levinson, a professor who specializes in transportation issues at the University of Minnesota, says that there’s no need for us to live with such shabby transportation or for government to continue shell out bigger and bigger subsidies. In a story recently published on the Atlantic Monthly’s CityLab website, Levinson makes the case for returning to private ownership — kind of. He would like to see our transportation systems, even the highways, operate as highly regulated public utilities.

She is concerned about what would happen, whether the transit death spiral would resume, whether utilities like this are governable (the malfeasance at the Port Authority is unhelpful), and whether operating like a business is actually better. These are all valid concerns. New York, on which much of her anecdotal experience is based, is unfortunately not one of the better governed places, and in any case is unrepresentative of transit or highways in much of the rest of the US. On the other hand, the current system isn’t really working very well.

MPR’s The Daily Circuit: Friday 9 am CDT

The Daily Circuit
The Daily Circuit

Will be on Friday’s with , Chuck Marohn, and Russ Adams of

[Discussing transportation of course – including restructuring transportation funding.]


WSTLUR @ Delft is where all the cool kids will be next week. I will arrive on Sunday, so if I have any Dutch peeps, get in touch.WSTLUR 2014 Program

The Triumphant Return of Private U.S. Passenger Rail | CityLab

All-Aboard Florida station

Over at CityLab Henry Grabar writes about All-Aboard Florida in  The Triumphant Return of Private U.S. Passenger Rail: Can new train service between Miami and Orlando be a model for the rest of the country?

Life-cycle of rail in the US. From The Transportation Experience, Figure 6-4
Life-cycle of rail in the US. From The Transportation Experience, Figure 6-4

I was interviewed:

It’s a big project by any standard, but it looms even larger in historical context. No private intercity passenger rail line has operated in the United States in 30 years — and it has been longer still since a new service was introduced. “You’d have to go back over 100 years to find a significant investment in private intercity rail in the U.S.,” says David Levinson, a transportation analyst at the University of Minnesota.

Comment: Of course this depends on significant. There were a few stations built within the past century, and some of the fastest trains are from the 1920s and 1930s, but trackage started its long decline in 1920 and ridership peaked around the same time (excepting World War II).

Later the article talks about economic development effects, since this seems to be a land development project as much as a railroad (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Unlike the activity around commuter rail, subways, and other daily-use transit, the financial spillover effect of a high-speed rail station is not clearly established. “The evidence that’s looked at the economic development effect of high-speed rail has shown that there’s not a whole lot of local effect,” says Levinson. “A comparison is to the airport: What frequent business traveler is going to live next to the airport?”

Comment: See: Levinson, David (2012) Accessibility Impacts of High Speed Rail Journal of Transportation Geography Vol 22 May 2012. pp. 288-291 for more details and review of the evidence.

Also, it appears they are ready to sell bonds, so it looks like it will go forward. Note the bonds are likely to be offered at 12%, so this is considered a very high risk investment. Good luck to them. (I am not an investor in this project).


Don’t Walk | streets.mn

Cross-posted from streets.mn

Don't Walk
Don’t Walk: Washington Avenue at Union Street, just west of the East Bank station. I see a pedestrian signal telling me not to walk in the landscaped median area from east to west. There are no through roads for traffic either to the north or south of Washington here, since Union has been closed at Washington. Are they concerned I will bump into a bike or other pedestrian. Are we now signalizing pedestrian on pedestrian traffic and pedestrian on bicycle traffic? I mean, maybe I could understand this after a concert let out (though I have never seen such a thing), but on a relatively unbusy summer afternoon? Other theories?
Don't Walk, Green Light.
Don’t Walk, Green Light. Are they concerned I will move east-west parallel to a moving train or bus? That happens all the time.
Don't Walk
Don’t Walk: Washington Avenue at Church Street, just west of the East Bank station. Again there is no regular motorized cross traffic here, since Washington Avenue is a pedestrian/transit mall


Lisa Schweitzer on transit’s financial sustainability | Urban ethics and theory

Lisa Schweitzer has comments on my recent CityLab post:  How to Make Public Transit Sustainable Once and For All. You, fellow transportationists (much better than fellow travelers), should read.

So in my defense, they allotted me 1000 words, I sneakily used about 1600, and Lisa’s part 1 is about 1400 words. This appears to be a multi-part review which will no doubt be longer than my original post, which was constrained by the principles of popular journalism.


“So where are the problems? Well, first, utilities have been most robust for services that are relevant to just about every household. It would be nice if that were true for transit, but it is not.”

Lisa identifies a “voter-customer dichotomy”, and clearly there is one. Whether investors will come along is a market clearing problem, which without actually testing, we cannot know for sure. I imagine like most reforms, it would be phased in, tested, refined, and revised in the various laboratories of democracy. Some city has to go first, some other city has to go second, and hopefully learn from the first, before every last city does. The degree to which people vote against providing the service locally will vary. But remember, most places already pay for the operating costs of the transit they get, only the capital costs have the federal subsidy. So it is a question of making this subsidy explicit, and determined at a local rather than metropolitan level, that will (I think) improve efficiency.

While most people don’t use transit every day, many people use transit sometimes, or did when they were younger, or have family members or employees, or friends, who do more frequently. (It would be nice to have statistics on this). So the antipathy towards transit is probably not as strong among the general public as we might fear.

“The second problem concerns jurisdictions who want to opt out and their effect on other jurisdictions. “

Lisa uses the example of Beverly Hills.  I don’t know much about Beverly Hills, though I have seen every episode of the Beverly Hillbillies and the first few seasons of Beverly Hills 90210, so I can imagine. If Beverly Hills opted out of service (i.e. buses could run through BH (since the roads are still public), without stopping to pick up or let out passengers), I imagine employers would complain. But that aside, assume the BH city council still didn’t want service. Then BH employers would need to pay higher wages to attract workers (even for “minimum wage” jobs) since the extra  transportation costs would now be borne by workers, who now don’t have subsidized transit service. These workers may choose to use the higher wages to buy a car, take a taxi or taxi-like service, pay for carpooling, ride an illegal Dollar Van, or whatever. This may be dysfunctional, (or not), but my guess it will also be uncommon. While  there will likely be some service cutbacks (otherwise what is the point of reallocating resources), I don’t think there will generally be whole jurisdictions in metropolitan areas that currently have significant transit services choosing no transit at all.

In part this is a problem of too many jurisdictions (should this be a city-level or county-level decision, e.g.), so maybe LA County would be the relevant jurisdiction for transit service rather than Beverly Hills. How these decisions are allocated to municipalities vs. counties is a state decision, since they are both creatures of state government.

(I grew up in Maryland, which is a county-oriented place, with few independent-ish cities, so I am always puzzled by the desire for so many layers of government much of the rest of the country has. I am sure it is historical (town vs. rural), but we should be over that now. I am fairly convinced that county and state are sufficient in most places, and local governments could be dissolved  … some counties may be too large and could stand to be broken up, but as a rule of thumb most municipalities are too small to achieve efficiencies.)

Finally, service question differences in transit are a big deal, but they are not in other types of services once you reach a particular threshold.

Undoubtedly, wealthy jurisdictions would get better service, as they do now. Whether this makes it worse (or less equitable) I am not sure. It might increase the amount of Tiebout sorting, so people who want to live in transit-oriented jurisdictions (TOJs) will move there, while other move to transit-free jurisdictions, and there is a whole range in between. This already occurs of course to some degree.

Bus Toll Lanes

Complementing recent discussions about transit systems, RF passes this along about Bus Toll Lanes. The idea is basically a HOT lane  (e.g. MnPass) where the transit agency helps finance the lane and gets an equity stake in the BTL, so revenue (profit) is dedicated for the bus service. Obviously, whether this pencils out depends on local conditions, demand patterns, costs, etc. This might work where a bus lane by itself would not have sufficient buses per hour to fully utilize the capacity, but coupled with a limited number of toll users it would, and it has enough toll users to justify installing ETC equipment.

Transit advocates may perceive that this is a highway use raiding what are seen as scarce transit funds. This is particularly an issue with grants; at least loans would get paid back. Sadly we are very silo-ed in the  transportation sector, so achieving multi-modal solutions like this is challenging. Ideally with a Transportation Bank, the mode would not matter, just whether it could pay back the loans.

Some reports from Tampa are here. They write:

Imagine a transit solution that reduces traffic congestion and pays for itself

By combining the individual strengths of transit and tolling, Bus Toll Lanes gives travelers a real choice by providing sustainable, competitive options.  This public partnership will fund the construction and operations of this transit solution.

“BTLs offer premium transit service on dedicated lanes added to local highways.

These dedicated transit lanes allow private vehicles to pay a toll to travel in the lanes.

With tolls collected electronically, (no toll booths, no toll booth congestion) all vehicles in the lane will maintain free-flow operating speeds.

Construction and operation of the Bus Toll Lane would be funded with a combination of public transportation sources (such as federal grants) and tolls collected from users.

Toll revenue collected from private vehicles are re0invested into the transit agency to at least cover the operational and maintenance expenses.

Combining short-term public transit capital project funding with long-term toll revenue and  real-world business practices, BTL is an innovation that creates a financially feasible, self-sustaining public transportation solution.”

A First Ride on the Green Line – 14 Random Thoughts | streets.mn

Cross-posted from streets.mn
Like some 45,000 passengers, my family took the Green Line yesterday. Since there were 5 of us, we made up collectively 1/9000 of all trips. Since we went both ways, and assume everyone else did too, we were in fact 1/4500 of all passengers (sounds a lot less impressive).

The Twin Cities Transit Network (incomplete)
The Twin Cities Transit Network (incomplete)

My Flickr set is here.

1. We went to Westgate station and boarded the second eastbound trip of the morning, headed for Union Station. The train was pretty much in crush mode, standing room only. All of the passengers seemed to go all the way to Union Depot. I assume this is just because it is opening day. The Capitol stop was empty.

2. The Westgate station platform wasn’t particularly crowded, there were probably more staff and volunteers and Metro Transit Police than Passengers.

Eagerly awaiting the train, if only it wouldn't get stopped at a red light just before the station.
Eagerly awaiting the train, if only it wouldn’t get stopped at a red light just before the station. When will it come? Please check Schedules!

3. Please Check Schedules. The Variable Message Sign which is supposed to say when the next train is coming STILL doesn’t work, even on the new system. I don’t know what the problem is, but this is embarrassing.

4. Based on this and other rides, my youngest son is moderately allergic (skin hives) to the material in the seats. I don’t know what chemical is used. I don’t know if he is the only one. He will be wearing long pants for any future rides.

5. Ran into streets.mn writer Tony Desnick on the train. So I suspect it is not 45,000 passengers, rather it is 22,500 transportation and planning geeks and their friends and family who made round trips on the train.

6. It was raining and windy, so many of the festivities were cancelled. Union Depot was mobbed, so it is good to have a backup indoor facility not otherwise being used.

Planned festivities sadly derailed due to weather.
Planned festivities sadly derailed due to weather.

7. Our plan was to go to the Science Museum, which we did. The St. Paul Skyway is terribly inefficient for this trip (and to their shame, the Pioneer Press closed their building’s section when it should have been open), but at least it was dry. There was a miniature golf campaign along the enclosed path, but business seemed low. A cookie vendor packed up and just left packages of (nice) cookies for the taking.

8. Going back to Minneapolis, we boarded at St. Paul Central Station (which seemed like it would be less crowded, and was slightly closer than Union Depot) and just before Robert Street Station got to see an automobile on the tracks. This did not seem to result in any cancelled trips, but instead I am guessing single-track operation for a bit. The adaptability is good. This however is a warning to streetcar designers about curb-running tracks, where switching will be much more difficult if not impossible to avoid blockages. (The fault is not in ourselves, but in our cars).

9. Buses seemed to be more frequent and faster than the train on University. I assume the more frequent will go away (with fewer (I assume no) “Green Line” buses), but faster surprised me.

Standing Room Only on the Green Line Opening Day.
Standing Room Only on the Green Line Opening Day.

10. The traffic signals are not optimized for LRT. It is especially annoying when there is a red light just before the station. I believe it is within the capacity of engineers to design traffic signals that will give higher priority to LRT than to cars, so that the train only stops at stations. The lack of coordination between the agencies (or lack of direction to the engineers) is a policy failure. I assume it will be tuned. On the other hand, what were the last 6 months of test runs and 4 years of construction for?

11. Snelling at University in particular really should have been grade separated. Think Dupont Circle in DC for a model.

12. Connections are important, and connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul is of course valuable. But for politicians to say this now connects the cities of course ignores the previously existing transit between the cities carrying the majority of passengers who will be using the Green Line. Yet more dissin’ the bus. But I am sure it will carry more people than the bus, mostly because of the higher frequency, but in part because some people are too good to ride the bus, and are now being catered to.

Car on tracks near Robert Street Station. Don't drive on tracks ... This is not a Streetcar.
Car on tracks near Robert Street Station. Don’t drive on tracks … This is not a Streetcar.

13. The ride was very smooth, and not too herky-jerky despite all the stops (stations plus red lights). Still standees need to hold onto something.

14. There seemed to be some LRT bunching, in that two trains arrived at Union Depot well within the 10 minute headway.

I-495 bridge closure a ‘national issue’ | Delaware online

The Leaning Bridge of Wilmington (I-495) is to be straightened. This  article by Jeff Montgomery and Melissa Nann Burke , I-495 bridge closure a ‘national issue’, discusses.

I was interviewed as part of the article.

University of Minnesota engineering professor David Levinson, who studied the effects of I-35W bridge collapse on the Twin Cities area, noted that the Minneapolis span was rebuilt in less than a year.

Considering the I-495 bridge is 40 years old, Levinson suggested replacing the whole structure for efficiency’s sake, he said.

“It’s logical to do as much as you can upstream and downstream from the bridge while it’s closed,” Levinson said.