Upstate Must Earn “Parity”

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio have finally come to agreement on the scope (though not every detail of funding for) the 2015-2019 MTA capital program. So, naturally, Upstate politicians are again beating the drum of “parity,” demanding an equal amount of capital spending on transportation infrastructure (mainly, of course, roads) Upstate. There’s only one problem.

Upstate doesn’t deserve the funding. Yet.

“Parity” is a problematic concept when it comes to New York State infrastructure spending in any case, implying as it does that the needs of the New York City region and Upstate are somehow equivalent. They’re not. The MTA estimates that its service area contains 15.2 million people; even if we subtract 1.8 million people to account for the inclusion of Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut, that’s still approximately 69% of the entire state’s population. New York City alone accounts for between 8 and 9 million of those people. Logically given that population density, NYC’s rapid growth, and the region’s economic success, Downstate taxes heavily underpin state activities Upstate. A world of real parity would reduce that spending, something that few Upstate politicians (or voters) seem to understand. As such, as Cap’n Transit pointed out a few years ago, requests for “parity” are really a demand for various politicians to be able to steer state funds to pet areas, modes, projects, and (this being New York, after all) people.

But the reality of the financial landscape of New York State isn’t the only reason leadership should resist Upstate demands for help with infrastructure funding. Upstate’s been hit hard by economic restructuring in the last couple of decades, and I’m certainly OK with some level of subsidy being extracted from Downstate to pay for ongoing revitalization efforts here. But as an Upstate resident (albeit a recent arrival), I’ve come to appreciate another reason Upstate doesn’t deserve transportation infrastructure spending parity: its inability to control sprawl and create an efficient framework for provision of public services, even as the region’s population shrinks.

It’s not news that by and large Upstate continues to shrink even as NYC and its region grows. That shrinkage is, of course, in and of itself a reason that Upstate shouldn’t receive large amounts of capital funding; it should be focusing on maintaining existing infrastructure, not building new things. What people from Downstate and elsewhere don’t appreciate as much sometimes, I think, is the extent to which Upstate continues to sprawl even as its population declines.

That’s the subject of one of Aaron Renn’s most striking posts (from 2011, well before I knew I was moving Upstate), as well as a 2003 Brookings report titled “Sprawl Without Growth: the Upstate Paradox.”  Though a few Upstate areas, including the Capital District, are growing (even if typically at anemic rates), even in those regions sprawl has outpaced the rate of growth. The Capital District’s pattern is typical. As the local MPO, CDTC, laid out in their new regional transportation plan draft, despite slow growth the region has basically merged into one “urbanized” (really, suburbanized) area stretching from Albany’s southern suburbs all the way to Glens Falls and Lake George.

CDTC New Visions 2040

CDTC New Visions 2040

No one has done better work showing the costs of this kind of development than Charles Marohn and the team at Strong Towns. Their series on the “Growth Ponzi Scheme”  lays out the ways in which sprawl–especially in declining or economically weak areas–becomes a millstone around the necks of local government, demanding ever-greater maintenance spending, as well as facilitating a mindset that thinks the solution is yet more capital spending regardless of economic realities. That describes the broken cycle in Upstate pretty damn well.

“But Sandy,” you say! “We can’t just leave Upstate to suffer a slow economic death, strangled by the decline of American manufacturing and the forces of globalization.” And I agree! There’s absolutely a place for capital spending on infrastructure Upstate; I even wish the state were a little more aggressive about it. But the money must be spent in the right places and in the right ways. That means fundamentally changing the realities of planning and development Upstate to conserve sparse governmental resources and allow efficient ongoing spending into the future. It means curbing sprawl, which sucks dollars out to the perimeter and demands an ever-growing amount of spending, and reinvesting in cities , whose infrastructure already exists. It means an end to resource-agnostic demands for spending billions on objectively wasteful projects like the “Rooftop Highway” in the North Country or tunneling I-81 in Syracuse (a consideration that DOT officials had rejected as absurd, but added back into the alternatives process at the insistence of local stakeholders).

And more than anything, Upstate needs to earn infrastructure investment by articulating a positive vision for fiscally responsible growth (or decline, as it may be) that upends the currently dominant “way we’ve always done it” mentality and begins a movement toward adapting to the new shape of the American economy. That means dropping the territorialism and learning to work with major global concentrations of intellectual and financial capital like New York City and Toronto, to which Upstate just so happens to be adjacent. If (as) housing prices in those markets continue to skyrocket, Upstate stands a good chance of skimming off some overflow–but only if attitudes and development patterns change.

Of course, part of the problem Upstate faces is its geographic isolation. And that’s where I’ll live up to the obligation I’m placing on Upstate to articulate a positive vision for a new framework for transportation and development. What’s the “parity” I envision for Upstate, given the state’s investment in the MTA? How about building out true high-speed rail (HSR) along what’s now called the Empire Corridor, from Albany to Buffalo? Alon took a close look at NYC-Toronto HSR a while back, and has taken the Cuomo administration to task for its lack of interest in the project. For the record, I concur in the judgment that the current administration has probably chosen to sandbag proposals for real HSR in the corridor, and that the “alternatives” analyzed are somewhat absurd.

Current politics aside, the demand for parity and an HSR project actually fit together fairly well. The overall investment in the current MTA capital program is about $29 billion, all but $3.2 billion of which will come from the state and the MTA’s own funds (which are, as much as Cuomo’s people like to deny it, state funds). Even at the inflated prices sometimes quoted for the California HSR project, that’s either just about enough or almost enough to build a full-scale HSR line from Albany to Buffalo, plus upgrading the existing Hudson line for faster, electrified trains. (though it will never be a true HSR line because all those curves that make it so pretty) A few billion more–most of which would be paid by Ontario–would bring the line to Toronto.

Imagine Buffalo, and Syracuse, and Rochester being 2-3 hours from NYC by train. Right now, there are a few unreliable trains per day, plus buses. Air service is massively expensive and spotty. HSR would give people and firms in those cities quick access to the red-hot markets in NYC and Toronto, and likely even bring some transplants looking for a slower pace of life and more affordability back. That would be a positive vision, one worth spending “parity” money on. Let’s change how things work up here. Then we’ll deserve that parity.


Re-post: Streetcars for New Haven?

This piece originally ran in the New Haven Independent, under the title “All Aboard? Define ‘Streetcar’ First” on 1/17/2014. Crossposted here with permission. Original link here.

(News analysis) Streetcars, innocent as they may seem, are in fact one of the most controversial topics among 21st-century planners—and among people who care about New Haven, as witnessed by passionate debate over a plan that the Harp Administration revived this week.

This seemingly never-ending discussion is of interest to me both as a New Haven expat and as a planner-in-training, since it directly reflects some of the loudest debates in the planning and transportation professions.

New Haven’s nostalgia for streetcars as a mode of transportation is certainly understandable. The city was once home to a comprehensive streetcar system, the last remains of which can be seen at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven. Though the last trolleys operated in 1948, and despite the damage done by the misguided urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, the city still has “good bones” that make it transit-friendly—a logical street grid, densely built neighborhoods, a system of mixed-use arterial roads, and a compactness conducive to getting across town quickly even on a local bus.

It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the recent proposals for bringing a “streetcar” back to New Haven mean something entirely different from what existed in the city before 1948. The 21st-century urban streetcar, often built as a downtown circulator (as is proposed in New Haven), has only limited value as a technology for mobility. Streetcars that run in traffic lanes together with cars move no faster, and often more slowly (you can’t dodge obstacles if you’re on rails!) than bus service on an equivalent route.

Indeed, most advocates and planners point to the primary purpose of the modern streetcar as being not urban mobility, but economic development. Streetcars are supposed to appeal to a Millennial generation that craves the urban experience and living with few or no cars, and their “permanence” (it’s much harder to move rails embedded in a street than a bus stop) is supposed to indicate to developers a city’s commitment to dense and transit-friendly (and therefore profitable) development.

The logic of streetcars as propelling development, too, has been challenged, on the general premise that correlation does not equal causation. If a city is compelling enough to create demand for new development, that development will happen with or without a streetcar, and there is no way to know how the existence of a streetcar or plans for one has influenced development. New Haven’s experience, too, give some credence to that critique, with several new large downtown developments open or in the planning or construction process.

If streetcars are less than useful as a mode for moving people around, and their development benefits are questionable, should New Haven bring one to town? The answer would seem to be a clear no. But there are ways that the process of building a modern streetcar can actually be made to benefit the city.

First of all, the city and its contractors should clarify what they mean by “streetcar.” As noted above, in general the modern streetcar runs in the same traffic lanes as cars, leading to slow travel times. When given dedicated lanes of its own, an electrically powered railcar system is generally referred to as “light rail,” but in reality there is little difference between a light rail vehicle and a streetcar. If New Haven has the political gumption to dedicate lanes to transit vehicles (always a fight), then a downtown streetcar/light rail system begins to make sense.

The second key element of a successful rail system (or really, any public transit service) is frequency. Trains should come at close enough intervals (“low headways,” in transit-speak) that the rider has an incentive to choose that mode over another. In the case of a downtown circulator, the alternative mode is generally walking or a cab. Even when given dedicated lanes or right of way, running a streetcar with low frequency can be a ridership disaster, as the Utah Transit Authority has experienced with its newly opened S Line streetcar.

Finally, the routing of the line must be straight and uncomplicated, and to the greatest extent possible avoid splitting service in different directions on different streets. Unfortunately, past plans for the New Haven streetcar have shown all of these problems.

So a properly built and operated streetcar—one that blurs the arbitrary lines between “Streetcar” and “Light Rail”—can be a useful transit service. Is it right for New Haven?

Past proposals have been (not unreasonably) criticized as Yale-centric and not useful to the city as a whole. Critics have argued that the city of New Haven should not subsidize a service that will not be useful to the majority of city residents, a completely understandable position. However, with the proper understanding of the mission of a downtown streetcar system, and with the implementation of best practices as noted above, a streetcar system might, indeed, not be a bad contribution to the revitalization of downtown New Haven.

So under what conditions should New Haven build a streetcar? Most importantly, the streetcar should have limited impact on the city budget and encourage rather than discourage, a revamping of the rest of New Haven’s transit system. The city should pitch in money and resources to the streetcar project only on the condition that the system runs frequently in dedicated lanes along a simple route, thus serving a real transit purpose. The bulk or all of the operating costs in perpetuity should be born primarily by primary beneficiaries of the new service and its consequent development, rather than the city or state. Most prominently, Yale and Yale-New Haven (technically two separate corporations) should pay a yearly percentage of cost, with rest borne by a special taxing district for downtown businesses, with new developments paying a higher percentage. The idea that civic institutions and corporations which are the primary beneficiaries and proponents of downtown streetcar schemes should be largely responsible for funding it is currently in the process of bringing a streetcar to Detroit, and was recently responsible for saving Cincinnati’s streetcar from a hostile mayor.

What the streetcar won’t, and can’t, do is make job-access easier for New Haven residents, fewer of whom (particularly among the less affluent) have been able to find jobs in the city, even as overall employment in the city has grown.

Nor will it likely increase transit ridership in the city’s outer neighborhoods, though hopefully getting some momentum behind transit expansion in the city will spur CT Transit to give the city’s bus routes a much-needed revamp along with expanded service.

However, if the streetcar could be built with federal funds (no sure thing, given that federal budgets for such projects are generally unstable, and Providence was just denied funding for a similar project), and the majority to all of the operating costs could be covered by the project’s primary beneficiaries, then it could bring several benefits to New Haven.

The city could support the project with zoning for dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented, development along the route, allowing the city to add enough housing (ideally both upmarket and affordable) to bring down New Haven’s rental costs, which are exceptionally high for a city of its size and overall poverty. New residential development downtown, for which there seems to be significant demand, could finally begin to reverse some of the decay caused by the lasting damage from urban renewal, and support the city’s revitalization efforts in the Route 34 corridor. The streetcar could also be a key cog in the city’s attempt to turn downtown into a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and human-scaled area. Developments along the route could be allowed to build without the parking minimums generally required by American zoning laws, making apartments cheaper and encouraging walking and biking among downtown residents. And, of course, the city would get the high-frequency, fast downtown circulation service many seem to want.

Bringing a streetcar to downtown New Haven is far from a sure success, even if the line does eventually get built. It is clear, though, that the idea is reluctant to die. And while city residents may rightfully resent Yale and downtown developers getting a luxury amenity on the public dime, there are ways to make such a project work for New Haven as a whole. Yes, tens of millions of federal dollars would be better spent on enhancing the city’s primary bus network. Unfortunately, given federal funding priorities that favor new projects over improving existing networks, that is not the choice that urban advocates are presented with. If the streetcar project ultimately achieves the political consensus and momentum it needs to be built, it is in the best interest of urbanist advocates, and of the city itself, to try to shape the project to be the best it can be.