Rail, power, Peter Coyote, and Bay Area HSR

Rail advocates love to write and say victim-y things about how cars have all the advantages. This is a bit like Donald Trump whining that Indians get all the breaks*. Rail development today is backed and pushed by extremely powerful coalitions of real estate and construction interests, just like highways were a generation ago. And rail coalitions have an additional ace–the coalition includes environmentalists.

The real second-class citizenry in transportation = bus riders. Followed by walkers and bicyclists. But bus riders are treated terribly, by the agencies who are meant to serve them as customers, politicians, and the electorate. People in LA love to complain about the Bus Riders’ Union, but without them, the bus riders who have supported LA’s transit for years would be treated like they matter not at all.

Rail advocates will argue that they want to serve bus riders better by giving them rail. It’s probably an argument that works better in theory than in practice. Rail and bus service have to work together and in tandem for good frequency, geographic coverage, and, ultimately, customer service. When you are focused entirely on building rail, and bus service operates as a mere hey-you, it’s not likely that anybody will take the time to harmonize the transfers and go to the considerable work it takes to serve bus riders well.

Where are the *transit* advocates? Is bus transit is second-class because of its inherent limits as a technology, or is it second class because everybody treats it that way?

Here is a movie of the Transbay Terminal redevelopment, narrated by Peter Coyote. The Transbay is meant to be the terminus of the the HSR for San Francisco. When was the last time a new bus line got a celebrity to narrate? Oh, the money that is going to be made here–and it will happen even without the HSR. You can build and sell anything you build on the peninsula.

I have no objections to making money. But.

I have a friend who bought her loft last year. She got $9,000 in tax credits for it. On a place she was going to buy anyway. That’s bad pubic policy. Just like it’s bad public policy to chuck money at projects like Transbay. Let the developers develop–don’t make them more miserable during the approvals process than necessary–but don’t hand them any public candy, either.

In the end, I doubt the HSR will get into Transbay. It will stop somewhere on the edge of the region and passengers will be expected to transfer to BART or Caltrain.

And that would be fine. The Bay Area has a lot invested in transit. So what if the transfer point to regional rail network occurs in a suburb rather than downtown?

Right now, the board is committed to getting HSR into Transbay. They will get sued a lot, incurring much higher costs than necessary, and then they will settle on a peripheral location.

*Trump once complained that Indian casinos in NY state had an easier time of it than his own casinos did, at least in terms of public approval. Oh, my, how Donald does understand why the caged bird sings. Idiot.

the MTA budget cuts and the need for long-term transit finance reforms

David King pretty much sums up how I feel on the cuts, except for one thing: I was surprised they weren’t worse. However, the MTA is a sharp outfit: if they have to, they’ll announce 4 percent this month, another 4 percent three months from now, and another 4 percent after that until they can meet their payroll. It’ll be…interesting…to see where we are a year from now.

There has to be long-term finance reform in transit, and no, the 30/10 doesn’t get us there. The 30/10, wonderful as it is, would enable us to build more stuff that, ultimately, we won’t be able to operate.

These cuts are going to get worse and worse, not just in LA, but everywhere, and eventually, those cuts are going to hit the train operations, too. Um, yeah. Without long-term finance reform, eventually we’re going to get to the point where the bus cuts that all the transit blogs treat as little more than a passing headline will be joined by rail service cuts.

New York is already there.

Train cutbacks might actually make people in the streets blogging and transit-advocating world actually care …maybe…about operations.

Then maybe they will spend as much time talking about the hardship that ensues from cutting services as they appear to want spend gossiping about which of their favorite celebrity transit advocates might work in Los Angeles to replace retirements.

Nah. Talking about transit’s operations problems–like getting back and forth to work in a world where services are getting cut–would be a distraction from treating transit like the jungle gym in the ultimate urban playground for twentysomethings raised on a steady diet of Friends rather than as a place where transit needs to work for people other than trust funders on pub crawls.

Whatever, right? Everybody knows operations are just a waste of money in transit. Building is where the professional and political payoff is. Advocacy for projects gets you in the position where you get to be part of the buzz. Who was the last bus operations drudge you saw featured on a transit blog, or given an high-profile award for their work?

So what to do–other than grow the hell up? I haven’t run any numbers yet, but it’s pretty clear that the Feds are not going to hand out candy for operating subsidies. Which means we are probably left with local funding sources. A place to begin thinking in terms of reform:

a) When we find new a dedicated source of funding–and we’ll have to–we’ll have to have the self-discipline NOT to promise to spend it on our addiction to building new transit projects.

New sources of funding = political nightmare. But some suggestions: Ratchet back on property tax insanity in California–ideally. So how about a 3-cent gas tax increase on local pumps? We can tell everybody we are solving congestion even though we aren’t. Sure, let’s have parking charges a la Don Shoup. But whatever funding it is, it’s not for geegaws or fripperies or extensions or new services in far-flung suburbs, at least not right now. It’s about keeping existing routes and frequencies.

With whatever funding victory may come, we can’t fall the into the political expedience trap of earmarking new funds for projects. We love to do that because taxpayers like to be able to point at a map and see what they think their money goes to.

We can’t keep indulging that. We have to start learning how to make the social marketing case for operations.

b) Create a dedicated pot for operations at the local and regional level, and expect to put money into that pot forever for transit as the municipal public service it is.

Nobody expects street sweeping to pay for itself; ditto police protection or libraries or snow clearance. Transit in cities should be treated the same way as those services. We don’t talk about “garbage collection subsidies.” It’s time to talk about funding services instead of obsessing about subsidies.

(And yeah, in case you can’t tell, I’m pissed.)

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