Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.

Rail Options Suck, But I’m Not Sure They’re Worth Improving

Politicians in the Pioneer Valley really want more intercity rail coming through the region. At an MPO meeting that I wrote about several months back, Mayor Sarno of Springfield commented that building an east-west rail link to Boston would open up the city’s affordable housing stock to Boston, which has a housing affordability crisis. Meanwhile, north-south rail improvements would improve access to Hartford, New York City, and Montreal, better integrating Springfield into an interior northeastern route. These same sentiments were described more fully in a recently released report, Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI) Study

northern new england rail
Proposed NNEIRI route. Source: NNEIRI study.

And it’s true, right now rail options suck in the Pioneer Valley. We have the Lake Shore Limited, which goes east-west one time per day, and the Vermonter which goes north-south one time per day. Even though both these routes could serve commuters traveling between Worcester and Springfield, or Hartford and Springfield, the schedule makes them useless to anyone other than an intercity traveler.

Writing about rail transportation in Springfield, I am reminded of a few years ago when Chris Leinberger, a real estate expert, came to visit Springfield and provide thoughts about how to improve the economic performance of the city. A point he hit a couple of times was that we have got to build a streetcar; the city would be transformed by it. Score another endorsement for rail! 

What’s amazing to me is the persistent dedication people have to rail transportation, despite the fact that it has so many apparent disadvantages relative to rubber-tire service. In brief:

  1.  It is really expensive. The proposed track upgrades to connect Boston to New Haven via Springfield would be at least $554 million, not counting operating costs (see table below); this route would need to be subsidized at $145 per trip, which doesn’t include capital costs. As for streetcars, the most celebrated American streetcar in Portland, Oregon cost several hundred million dollars to construct and carried 3.9 million riders last year. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line bus rapid transit line in Cleveland cost only $50 million,  and boasts 5 million trips per year
  2. Also, it’s really expensive. The cost of riding the train from Springfield to New York, for example, is $47 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on freight traffic). The cost of taking a bus is $27 and takes 3.5 hours (depending on highway traffic). So it gets you there no faster, though is nearly twice as expensive. 
  3. Did I mention that it’s expensive? It’s usually more expensive than we expect. Planning studies for rail projects tend to have ridership projections that are too high and capital cost estimates too low (also known as The Pickerell Effect). A good example is Albuquerque’s Rail Runner commuter rail, which has continued to underperform in ridership since it started service in 2007.
estimated costs table
Estimated costs of rail upgrades in New England. Source: NNEIRI Study.

The reality is that bus transportation, while not as efficient at moving people as rail, tends to be much more flexible and affordable. So why are elected officials stuck on rail? I have a few theories:

  1. It’s undeniably sexy. Even Ayn Rand made the main character of her celebration of fierce individualism and greed, Atlas Shrugged, a railroad tycoon. There’s something about the iron horse which connotes power, industry, and sophistication (while a bus brings up images of people coughing, yelling, and spilling Big Gulps on you).
  2. It’s expensive. Yes, I realize that I listed that as a drawback. But one person’s expense is another’s income. I wonder if the high price tag does not in fact invigorate elected officials to embrace rail because it will do what every elected official wants  – it will create jobs! Just this past week, Massachusetts mucky mucks were in Springfield to celebrate the completion of the factory that is going to manufacture new $2 million subway cars for the MBTA.
  3. It’s perceived to be an economic development engine, probably for two reasons. First, it attracts higher-income riders, and in so doing funnels these high-earners into a narrow corridor that businesses want to occupy. Second, it cements the route to a particular corridor, whereas bus routes could change at any point. Although, in the case of the DC streetcar, the economic development transformation took root well before the streetcar was finished – suggesting that we should just announce streetcars and then never actually build them. Hmm… developers might eventually catch on.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out that I’m not necessarily anti-rail. I would love to be able to hop on a high-speed train to get down to New York City in 90 minutes, or down to Washington in four hours. But I am a strong proponent of using tax dollars wisely. And for the most part, rail just doesn’t seem to pencil out when driving is so cheap and easy.

So who knows, maybe someday I’ll take one of the added trains on the Inland Route to get to Boston or New York City from Springfield. Honestly, I’d be happy to do so. Until then I’m content hopping a Peter Pan bus and working my crosswords as the road passes by my window. At $27, that’s not too bad.

Them Fancy Federal Dollars

In a prior job, I was tasked with reviewing public comments on a proposed transit extension in Oregon. It was a pretty controversial project, which included several ROW takings, and was making headlines right at the crest of the Tea Party wave. A lot of people were pissed off. I remember one comment in particular. It went something like:

You people think you can do whatever you want just because you have them fancy federal dollars.

I really like the idea that federal funding is somehow more ornate than “regular” money, making it “fancy.” The $2 dollar bill is pretty fancy-looking, maybe all federal funding comes in $2 increments. Continue reading “Them Fancy Federal Dollars”