The College and Resort-Town Housing Crisis: a YIMBY Laboratory?

Featured image: Looking over Hood River and towards Mt. Hood, just because. Source.

With media attention to urban issues often focused obsessively on the coasts and major cities, there’s a crying need for a little bit more varied texture in our discussions of planning and urbanism. People like Pete Saunders and Jason Segedy have done important work showing how needs and paradigms differ in a Midwestern/Rust Belt context. And indeed, it’s important to learn from the Rust Belt, since the geography of demand and capital in most American cities looks far more like its cities than those of the coasts. But there’s another, underappreciated set of towns whose experience of housing policy and planning may actually more closely parallel that of the coasts: those towns that are smaller, but are closely associated with a college or resort, and consequently experience a high level of demand and high prices–and as such need solutions similar to those of the much larger cities.

If you follow me on Twitter you know I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was inspired to finally write about it by the appearance of two items in close proximity. The first was posted by my dad’s cousin Lisa Perry, who with her mom runs Cody Orchards in Oregon’s Hood River Valley (my dad’s family’s ancestral homeland, a gorgeous place to visit, and some of the most fertile fruit-growing land in the world). Titled “The Next Aspen” and posted by a local activist group, this flyer calls citizens to action over increasing housing prices driven in part by the increasing presence of second homes and AirBnB-style part-time rentals in the Hood River Valley. The flyer cites a median listed home price of $533,000, which–to my admittedly-not-a-realtor eye–seems shockingly high for a rural area.

hood river market

The track of Hood River’s housing market, from an article in The Oregonian

The other article is from the current Aspen, the high-end ski resort in Colorado. Written by Aspen Ski Co. VP of Sustainability Auden Schendler, it takes a fairly standard YIMBY approach to ameliorating Aspen’s notoriously severe housing crunch–a situation so bad that the local transit agency recently initiated a 43-mile BRT-lite service to move commuters around. It’s worth quoting at length:

This worldview is widespread. Mountain communities are often run by environmentalists from 40 years ago whose thinking has not kept abreast of the development in their hometowns. They champion stasis over change, open space over density, and consider development evil. They hate crowds—even though crowds are the foundation of the entire resort economy. “The only thing they hate more than sprawl,” an architect told me, “is density.”

Parts of Aspen look like they did decades ago, with Victorian houses and big, lovely parks. There are, however, no people in those houses (often second, third, or fourth homes), and a long line of traffic every morning and evening as people forced to live downvalley, where real estate is cheaper, end up commuting 20, 30, and even 50 miles to work.

There’s nothing environmental-friendly about any of this. The long commute creates pollution. It blocks guests from the ski hill. It wears out the road. It’s the exact antithesis of all the ideas Aspen was founded on—about renewal and escaping from the world.

Aspen is perhaps the single most extreme example, but we can see here the ways in which towns that are small in terms of population, but have high demand for housing, can mirror the problems of big cities in a way that most of the nation’s midsize cities don’t. Indeed, as Aspen shows the problems in small towns can often be, though on a smaller absolute scale, even more severe on a per-person basis, as poorer citizens are displaced to entirely different towns, which in rural areas may be miles away and entirely lack suitable housing or transit.

The same is often true in college towns. The blog Walkable Princeton and the (sadly silent right now) Twitter account Central NJ YIMBY by one of its authors have chronicled the dearth of affordable housing and walkability in that Ivy League town. I’ve spent a lot of time in Massachusetts’ college-heavy Pioneer Valley, and particularly Northampton and Amherst, both of which are fairly expensive by rural/small-town standards–and lack sufficient housing for their student and young-adult populations.

As with resort towns, college towns are often dominated politically by aging ex-hippies and Boomers who consider themselves environmentalists, but feel ambivalently at best about the popular demand that underlies their town’s economic success. David Roberts’ recent piece in Vox about the difference between environmentalists and climate hawks is perhaps one of the best–although not the only–lenses onto the political dynamic that drives (non)-development decisions in both resort and college towns. College towns suffer from the additional complication of much housing demand being driven by students, who are (with perhaps some justification) generally considered an undesirable class to live near and preemptively zoned out. It was, after all, conflict between “townies” and students that yielded Belle Terre v. Boraas, one of the Supreme Court cases that allows towns to most restrict housing flexibility. College-town homeowners have even been known to speak about student housing with language reminiscent of racial blockbusting:

Smaller towns do present YIMBYs with the challenge of accepting that certain things we (correctly, in my opinion) dismiss as distractions from the housing debate in larger cities do in fact have outsize impacts in some smaller towns. Part-time occupation and the outsize presence of second (and third, and fourth) homes in high-demand small towns and rural areas really do have a huge impact on the local market. I’d argue that you do have to be more careful with development than I’d argue for a big-city context. For some of these towns–particularly resort towns–it’s the existing built environment and character that form a large part of their appeal, and therefore their economic bottom line. There’s no shortage of potentially cute small towns out there in America; there’s always going to be stiff competition for success, and it’s reasonable for leaders to be wary of ceding their core competencies in the face of stiff competition.  

Those items aside, the high-demand small-town dynamic in some ways parallels–and can learn from, and inform–the big-city experience more than that of most of Middle America. As such, the solutions to the crisis confronting some of these towns probably parallel big-city solutions as well: a simple willingness to grow and include the people who want to be there as well as old-timers, an emphasis on walkability and a few select transit corridors so that growth can scale without corresponding increases in traffic, and selective application of regulation and mandates like incentive zoning and social housing. Indeed, given the very manageable scale of need in smaller towns, it’s probably not unfair to think of these towns as laboratories for proving the efficacy of YIMBY policies that can then be scaled to apply to larger areas.

The core principles of a growth-accepting worldview still apply. There are almost always corridors where growth can happen without impacting the touristy areas. For Northampton-Amherst, those would be the Route 9 corridor connecting the two towns, with its relatively robust transit and high-quality rail trail:

northampton amherst route 9

And the north-south Route 5 corridor in Northampton, much of which was previously railyards and has been developed not as the dense housing that’s needed but as pedestrian-hostile big-box retail.

route 5

Smaller towns also present the possibility of the strong alliance between farming/conservation interests and YIMBYs/Smart Growthers that should exist nationally. Dense development close to the core of town ought to absorb sufficient demand to slow or stop the farmland-eating process of sprawl–a process that, as in Hood River, not only threatens the environment but drives up costs for farmers, making a difficult business even harder. This alliance can’t function, though, if core development priorities continue to be set by people with a no-growth agenda; and the result is that farmland continues to be eaten up by sprawl (the same goes, to a lesser extent, for conservation of open land in non-farming areas). Technical tools like a regional Transfer of Development Rights program could help facilitate this alliance, but face several challenges: they are highly complex and unintuitive; are often only legally authorized to follow municipal boundaries, when a rural environment demands a regional strategy (this is true in New York State, where the Hudson Valley would really benefit from such a program); and above all require a willingness for somewhere in the core to accept actual growth.

Northampton isn’t Boston and Hood River isn’t Portland (duh). But if the goal is creating sustainable policy that can meet the needs of today while also nurturing future generations (a particular concern in college towns, I suppose), these smaller towns have in some ways failed nearly as badly as our big cities have. And it’s important not only to recognize those failures as an opportunity (which they are!) but to understand that they are the product of particular choices made by particular people at particular times. The core insight of YIMBYism–its simple power–is the insight that none of this was inevitable. Big-city activists can learn from smaller towns confronting similar issues–and the smaller towns from their big siblings.  

 

Advertisements

Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.

 

Explorations in the Pioneer Valley

Though it’s been variable given how much I’ve moved around, my most frequent Thanksgiving destination since my family moved to New Haven in 1994 has been my aunt Karen‘s in Northampton, MA. Over 20 years of visiting, I’ve grown to really like Northampton and the broader Pioneer Valley. While it can be more than a little precious, and even insufferable at times, the region has a nice variety of assets and more than a few interesting challenges to tackle.

On this particular trip, I actually had a professional assignment: for a transit planning class, I’m doing part of a group review of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority system. From a transportation planning perspective, the Pioneer Valley is an interesting challenge in that, with the exception of the decent-sized Springfield metro at the southern end, it has a number of smallish nodes of density and activity with relatively little in between.

Some of my part of the project is examining the possibilities for rail transit in the area, something I wrote about here very early on–as well as an active political desire among Valley leaders. Though I think I know the area fairly well for someone who doesn’t live there, I hadn’t seen many of the areas I’m proposing for stations from ground level, and I hadn’t seen the new stations that opened over the last year to serve the Vermonter in Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield at all. So I took the opportunity of Black Friday and the Sunday following–and my very generous partner–and scouted the Connecticut River Line, as it is known, in full from Greenfield to Springfield. Here are some notes from those trips.

Greenfield

Not technically part of the PVTA service area (Franklin County has its own transit agency, the Franklin Regional Transit Agency), Greenfield may in fact have the best multimodal center of any town in the Valley, at least until the revamped Springfield Union Station opens. Just a block from Main Street, the John W. Olver Transit Center integrates local and intercity buses, and now a (temporary) platform for Amtrak’s Vermonter and whatever rail service may follow.

20151127_105605.jpg

The temporary platform and the Olver TC (on the right)

20151127_105530.jpg

Better view of the temporary platform. It’s a nice model, I don’t really know why Greenfield would need much more. Note the MBTA-style station sign; is the state prepping for commuter service?

20151127_105332.jpg

Looking north along the Conn River Line from the temporary platform. The former Boston & Maine line to the Hoosac Tunnel curves off to the left. The red thing on the left is a canopy covering a staircase up to Energy Park, the former location of Greenfield’s old junction station (there’s a caboose on display back there if you look carefully).

20151127_105711.jpg

A better view of Olver TC. I find the building itself kind of ugly, but it seems to work well and has nice amenities on the inside. In fact, it stands somewhat in contrast with FRTA’s aging bus fleet.

East Deerfield

No, it’s not a potential passenger station, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to visit Pan Am’s East Deerfield yard, just off the Conn River line southeast of Greenfield.

IMG_3248

Pan Am seems to have borrowed a Vermont Railway system loco to help out.

IMG_3253

There’s an old MBTA coach stashed back there for some reason (note also the snowplow just to its left). I might be tempted to go start running a passenger service on the line with just that one coach and a locomotive…

IMG_3277

Just as we were getting ready to leave (there really wasn’t much going on), one of the numerous railfans gathered at the yard on this glorious 60-degree Black Friday mentioned there was a westbound autorack train about to come through. This is my favorite of the resulting pictures.

Old Deerfield

Just a few miles south of Greenfield, this is probably a marginal spot for a new station, but it did historically have a depot, and between Deerfield Academy, the Eaglebrook School, and tourist traffic to Historic Deerfield, there might be enough to sustain a stop. What’s there now, though, is down a rough, potholed 1.5 lane road with a “closed during the winter season” sign…and there’s  not much to see.

IMG_3296

Trusty steed “Fred” (yes, I have warm feelings for my car, though I’d get rid of it in a second if we lived someplace bigger) on the clearing where I think the old Deerfield station was.

IMG_3299

Looking north. A passing siding begins here.

South Deerfield

The only town of any size between Northampton and Greenfield, and it’s not really that big. But it’s walkable and has a few decent-sized employers (the station site is only a few blocks from the massive Yankee Candle factory/outlet, which was crazy full on Black Friday).

IMG_3300

That’s a hella nice grade crossing they put in when the Conn River Line was reconstructed.

IMG_3302

Looking south from Elm Street in South Deerfield, the ROW actually widens to three tracks to serve a couple of customers.

IMG_3303

Looking north from Elm Street, there’s a nice space for a station and park and ride on the west side of the tracks.

IMG_3305

I don’t know if this is the original station or a replica, but it’s renovated nicely for a siding company. (pun on the piece of track out in front semi-intended)

IMG_3307

Gotta have a station sign in classic font! This appears new, so I wonder if it was done recently.

Northampton

I considered throwing in a stop in West Hatfield, but I decided it was too marginal to be worth it (OK, I missed the turn and was hungry, but I had already pretty much made up my mind!) I also think a stop at Damon Road in Northampton is a good idea, but there’s no safe way to park and approach it on foot, so we grabbed lunch and skipped right to Northampton Union Station.

IMG_3310

The temporary platform at Northampton is a virtual twin of Greenfield’s, though on the other side of the tracks. The folks standing on it in the picture are waiting for the southbound Vermonter, which wouldn’t show up until hours later after it hit a couple of people sitting on the tracks north of White River Junction.

 

IMG_3311

The new platform is next to, though not integrated with, the now privately-owned former Union Station. They share a good deal of parking, which was mostly empty despite the mobs descending on downtown Northampton for Black Friday lunch. #blackfridayparking indeed.

IMG_3324

Main Street, Northampton, looking west from the Canal Trail bridge over it.

20151127_133210.jpg

Bicycle-oriented development: apartments just north of Union Station have doors opening directly onto the Canal Trail.

IMG_3326

The southern face of the Union Station building was once the platform for the New Haven & Northampton division of the New Haven railroad, much of which is now a bike path.

Holyoke

Arguably the most depressed city in the Pioneer Valley, Holyoke is the only one to currently boast an (almost) full-scale train station. It’s also the newest, kicking off in August at a cost of $4.3 million.

IMG_3341

The station boasts a 400-foot high-level platform and various amenities one would expect at a station with more than one train per day in each direction, including a bike rack and signs for a bus drop-off.

IMG_3343

MBTA-style signage, like Greenfield and Northampton.

IMG_3345

Looking south along the platform.

IMG_3347

Looking north from the platform, Holyoke’s 1880 H. H. Richardson-designed station is visible.

IMG_3332

The Holyoke site has serious TOD potential, with architecturally impressive but vacant buildings right next to and across from the parking lot, and plenty of adjacent vacant land.

All in all, fairly impressive for $4.3 million–and clearly designed for more than just the occasional Vermonter.

Chicopee

Before talking about the potential for a train station, let me just say: what’s up with the four-lane, super-wide one-way streets, Chicopee? Totally unnecessary for a town of this size.

The site I’ve flagged for a new Chicopee station isn’t ideal–it’s separated from the town by I-391, for example–but it seems to be the best option for a town that could use the service.

Looking south. There are actually four trackways on the bridge; there was once a small yard here.

Looking south. There are actually four trackways on the bridge; there was once a small yard here.

IMG_3352

Looking north.

Wason Avenue, Springfield

The site is at least as interesting for its historical connections as for its potential today. Wason Ave. was named after the Wason Manufacturing Company, a late-19th and early-20th century builder of railcars and especially trolleys. Wason’s plant once occupied the area around the rail crossing here, sending out trolleys to customers far and wide (though a large proportion of its business seems to have been concentrated right in Massachusetts).

The Wason Manufacturing plant

The Wason Manufacturing plant, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Wason lasted, as a subsidiary of the larger Brill company, until 1932. Today few of the original plant buildings remain, which is actually fairly unusual for New England. The area of the plant is only blocks from Baystate Medical Center, though, and the hospital and affiliate buildings have sprawled into it, such that it has become a major center of medical employment. The built environment is pretty awful, with huge parking lots and high-speed traffic.

Looking northwest; I believe the arch-windowed building in the background is an original Wason plant building.

Looking northwest; I believe the arch-windowed building in the background is an original Wason plant building.

Looking south.

Looking south.

Just south and west of the Wason Avenue crossing. Parking lot and weep.

Just south and west of the Wason Avenue crossing (the tracks run just out of the picture to the left). Parking lot and weep.

Springfield Union Station

Our final stop was Springfield Union Station, the subject of an ongoing $80+ million renovation project that will return the station to its previous glories in preparation for the implementation of commuter service from New Haven and Hartford sometime in the next two years, and hopefully service to Boston sometime after that. It’s an impressive project that will integrate a terminal for local PVTA buses and hopefully intercity buses as well. The future looks pretty glorious:

springfield rendering

Let’s play “spot the technical improbability” with this image.

But the present is rather less glamorous. There wasn’t much going on on a quiet November Sunday, but there’s still clearly a lot of work to be done and it takes some imagination to see that rendering coming together.

IMG_3367

IMG_3368IMG_3371

Though there’s a long way to go, it’s still a very hopeful project for downtown Springfield–and hope is something that city needs. And on that sentiment, this tour is over.

Pioneer Valley Should Consider its Rail Options Carefully

Frequent passenger service is coming back to the  Pioneer Valley. Amtrak, and its contractors MBTA (which, though the Pioneer Valley is outside of its service area, provided engineering services) and Pan Am Southern (the freight railroad from which the Commonwealth has bought the tracks) are wrapping up work on the Knowledge Corridor project, renovating the decrepit rails along the Connecticut River in order to shift Amtrak’s Vermonter back to the line through Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from its 20-year diversion to the tracks through Amherst. With the end of that long slog in sight–Amtrak service is supposed to return in early 2015–Valley political leaders have begun calling for commuter trains on the line to complement the restoration of the once-daily long-distance Vermonter. These trains would run several times daily between the cities of the Valley and Springfield, connecting to commuter trains to Hartford and New Haven (a project scheduled to open in 2016), and hopefully eventually MBTA service east to Worcester and Boston.  Sounds great, right? Let’s take a closer look.

The Knowledge Corridor project represents a huge opportunity for the area–the Valley is essentially being gifted a high-quality, 79-mph railroad at no local cost (other than the local share of the state dollars that went into the renovation, of course).  Using that high-quality railroad for more than the one train a day in each direction represented by the Vermonter (plus a couple of freight trains a day) seems like a no-brainer, but in order to maximize the usefulness of this resource, Valley leaders should think carefully about what kind of local rail service they want to introduce. The current plan (explained in the MassLive article linked above) seems to be to purchase old, excess commuter-rail equipment from the MBTA and run a few trains in each direction every day, primarily serving 9-t0-5 commuters.  This is certainly a start–and preferable to not using the Connecticut River Line’s new capacity at all–but for me it hardly seems to represent an ideal use of the resource.

For one thing, commuter rail is very expensive.  American commuter trains–built to withstand collisions with the heavier freight trains with which they often share tracks–guzzle fuel at very high rates.  Commuter trains are required to have two or more (usually more) crewmembers on board at any time, regardless of the number of riders. With labor expenses making up the vast majority of public transit operating costs–a fact little appreciated by the public–running a commuter train with multiple employees is vastly more expensive than running a bus with only one driver. Meanwhile, commuter trains tend to attract riders only during the peak commute hours since they run very infrequently or not at all in between, eschewing a broader vision of what public transit can be and do for a community. Five or six trains a day between Springfield and Greenfield is a start, but the ridership that could be attracted will likely not move the needle much in terms of the landscape of transportation in the Valley.

Meanwhile, alternatives that would make better use of the Valley’s new transportation resource do exist. Most current public transit service in the Valley seems to wander through rural or sparsely populated areas, focusing on bringing people from the country and suburban areas into the nearest town. Frequent rail service along the Connecticut River line, though,  has the potential to directly connect most of the Valley’s densest core cities–the areas most likely to generate serious ridership. The only major population center whose core the line does not serve directly is Amherst (which, indeed, will lose trains service entirely once the Vermonter is re-routed), but that area would be directly linked to downtown Northampton and the new train service by the a planned “Bus Rapid Transit” route. Currently, and rather astonishingly, no direct service of any kind ties together the downtowns of Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield.  The Connecticut River Line rebuild offers the opportunity to do exactly that.

Given the gift of an upgraded rail service, and the lack of current options to connect its densest cores, the Valley should consider an enhanced rail service that will function more like an express bus service between the downtowns of the Valley’s several leading cities. Rather than a commuter rail mentality, which stresses attracting 9-to-5 workers and only operates a few times a day, the line should be used as if it were a regular PVTA bus route–indeed, it could probably be treated as that agency’s most important route, the spine that ties together each city’s local buses. Instead of concentrating service in rush hours, such an operation would run frequently–every 20 minutes or half an hour–throughout the day, making it easy to get from one city to another. A model for such a service can be seen in the Google Map embedded below (zoom in for more detail):

 

Running such frequent service would be best done with different equipment than the commuter rail currently under consideration as well. In Europe, many rural rail services use railcars called Diesel Multiple Units, or DMUs, that are, at their simplest, essentially buses on rails. DMUs accelerate and brake faster than the secondhand commuter rail equipment Valley leaders are currently considering, and because they are lighter they use considerably less fuel. The trade-off is less capacity on each train, and often a lower top speed, but when trains come more frequently and spend less time accelerating and braking with frequent stops, those become less important concerns.

There remain several constrains on the ability to implement DMU service in the Valley, or anywhere else in the US for that matter. First, and most importantly, Federal Railway Administration regulations currently prohibit lightweight, European-style DMUs from sharing tracks with freight trains. This is actually not as insurmountable a barrier as it might seem, however; many indications are that the FRA is likely to revise their regulations to allow such operations within the next couple of years, and several operations have already been given a waiver to operate lightweight DMU service on tracks shared with freights, so long as a temporal separation is maintained between passenger and freight service (generally, passenger runs during the day, and freight at night). Such operations include MetroRail in Austin, TX; the A-Train in Denton County, also in Texas; the River Line between Camden and Trenton, NJ; and the Sprinter between Escondido and Oceanside, California.Maintaining a temporal separation between freight and passenger traffic, should the proposed FRA reforms not occur, should not be too much of a challenge on the Connecticut River line, where freight traffic is sparse, consisting of at most two trains a day, and can definitely be run at night (in addition to which, one of the major on-line freight customers, the Mt. Tom coal-fired power plant, is closing this year). Another crucial aspect of FRA reform (or a waiver in its place) is the prospect of reduced labor costs relative to commuter train service. While many of the DMU services mentioned above do run with an engineer and conductor on each train, it appears that the FRA waivers allow for them to operate with only one crewmember, with ticket checking being conducted by roving inspectors, an approach known as proof-of-payment. Perhaps most relevant to the Valley, though, are the MBTA’s ambitious plans to convert the inner segments of many of their Boston-area commuter rail lines to frequent DMU operation. A potential Valley DMU operation could piggyback on the MBTA’s DMU order, reducing initial costs for buying new equipment.

The kind of semi-rural DMU service I am proposing here is unprecedented in the US, but it is commonplace in Europe, and has become a crucial part of the British approach to rural rail service, which stresses local partnerships and community ownership of operations. Running frequent DMU service as the trunk line of public transit in the Pioneer Valley would be a unique concept in the US, but what does the Valley stand for if not progressive ideas and publicly-minded innovation?

(Updated 6/2/14 with typo corrections and a new link to story about the Mt. Tom power plant closing)