On Responsibility and Governance

Senator Chuck Schumer released a proposal on Monday to revamp the system governing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey:

First, the Port Authority should come back with a process for the nomination and confirmation of an Executive Director by the Board of Commissioners, not by the Governor of one state or the other. Second, the Port Authority should propose administrative changes vesting full managerial authority and responsibility of the entire Port Authority organization with the Executive Director. Third, the Port Authority should establish a permanent process to nominate individuals as Commissioners to the Port Authority who possess a comprehensive financial, engineering and planning background, and no conflicts of interest related to the Port Authority’s core mission. It should be clear that these commissioners have a fiduciary duty to the Port Authority.

While this is laudable in the sense of (to some extent), removing politics from the governance of the Port Authority, at the same time it removes any sense of accountability and dilutes what remains to the point where it’s hard to say where the affected citizenry might turn.

This is an inherent problem in any multi-state compact, with WMATA being – as usual – a prime example of the dysfunctionality that can ensue. The Pennsylvania-New Jersey Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) has problems of its own. With WMATA, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, the governors of Virginia and Maryland, and the federal government all appoint members to the board, which in turn appoints a general manager.

This has the perverse effect of establishing zero-responsibility positions with full authority. If dissatisfied with the GM, one can’t petition a single elected official to remove and replace him, nor is the GM himself elected. One could try to approach, say, DC councilmember and WMATA board member Muriel Bowser, but even if she were inclined to do anything, she’s just one voice on the board. And if one went to the Mayor of DC, what can he do? He only appoints two members of the board.

It’s clear that WMATA and DRPA and the Port Authority are all in need of major reform, but it’s less clear to me how we establish some accountability within the leadership of these agencies. Political patronage is not the answer, but neither is shelter from consequences. Managing interstate compacts is an incredibly difficult – but necessary – proposition, and somehow they must also be held accountable.

(via Second Avenue Sagas

What Rails Beneath/What Rails Above

Yonah Freemark, writing for Atlantic Cities, concludes that light rail systems have not been especially great for local transit or cities as a whole:

“In four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city’s share of the urbanized area population declined, too…while light rail may appear to make the public transportation system more appealing to the average rider, the construction of such a system will not automatically result in increased transit use.”

There is one bright lining, however:

“There is one metric by which the metro areas with 1980s light rail investments ‘thrived’ more than others: core population….The median 1980s light rail metro saw its center city’s share of the urbanized area population decline by just 6 percent by 2012, compared to more than 10 percent for the 45 other regions with populations of more than 500,000 in 1980.”

Freemark also points out that there hasn’t been a new heavy rail (e.g., subway) system constructed in the country since 1993. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been new heavy rail lines: the DC Metro’s Silver Line, New York’s Second Avenue Subway,  However, I fear he also draws the wrong lessons:

“Does this mean we should cease investment in new light rail lines? Certainly not; in many cases, rail has provided the essential boost to reinvigorate communities, and in some cases it has also resulted in higher ridership than before: just look at Rosslyn-Ballston in the D.C. region or Kendall Square in the Boston region.”

Of course, unmentioned there is that Kendall Square is served by the Red Line – a heavy rail line. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, Virginia is served by the Orange (and soon, also Silver) Line – heavy rail. Not all rail is created equal, and while the benefits of “transit” writ large are readily apparent, so too is the fact that nothing has driven development, demand, and ridership like heavy rail.

This is a key question if North American cities are to consider modes like mixed-traffic streetcars as mobility solutions or as development tools. They might work better in the latter category, but they do nothing to solve mobility issues. Proper light rail, such as Freemark is writing about, is a better mobility solution but still only a halfway measure.

Maybe the better judge of success for a rail line, though, isn’t even the dedicated right-of-way argument, but the grade separation. The three most-ridden light rail systems in the country all include significant portions of underground tunnels, as do four of the top six (and even the other two, the San Diego Trolley and Portland MAX, operate underground for stretches). The article Freemark links to about Rosslyn-Ballston and Arlington’s renaissance reinforces this:

“Arlington planners and politicians were bold, optimistic and foresighted. They insisted that the [Metro line] run underground through Arlington, following Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, rather than running along the Interstate 66 right of way, which would have been the path of least resistance and at the lowest cost.”

The Silver Line in Tysons Corner will help to distinguish between mere grade separation and underground vs. other modes as more beneficial than surface-running transportation. It probably should have been tunneled, but that moment is past. The key is to learn from light rail, elevated rail, and the undeniable and dramatic appeal of proper subways in forming future transit plans.

The importance and utility of underground heavy rail should be unquestioned (its high costs remain another matter). The same can’t be said for light rail, much less a streetcar. And to maximize dwindling transit dollar, the most bang for the buck might actually be found in more grandiose plans of heavy rail, or at the very least, down in the tunnels.

A Fantasy Map for the T

I learned the term “crayonista” recently, and while I do agree that it can get pie-in-the-sky counterproductive, it can also be a useful tool to spark the imagination and win popular support and funding (Burnham’s “make no little plans” comes to mind here).

That said, the Boston Globe just ran a piece on a crayonista MBTA map put together by a Redditor. (The mind shudders and recoils at those particular words strung together. But it’s not as bad as it sounds.) A friend asked for my thoughts, which I offered, and I’ve decided to reproduce them here.

In no particular order:

  • While the new Green Line branches do open up currently underserved areas, from what I understand the Central Subway is pretty much at capacity. And that still allows for an astonishing 42 trains per hour! There’s room to run more of the trains through the other end into Somerville (only E trains run to Lechmere; D trains terminate at North Station and B and C trains turn at Government Center), but not to expand to the south/east without cannibalizing existing service on the B/C/D/E branches. But the new F line to Dudley here would service some pretty important locations, which brings me to:
  • A proposal I’ve seen and agreed with is that either the C or B branches of the Green Line should be converted to heavy rail. Unlike the Blue Line (a converted streetcar tunnel), the Green Line is standard heavy gauge, so theoretically this wouldn’t require much more than rolling stock. How this would affect existing capability through the Central Subway, though – and/or require additional tunneling through downtown – I don’t know. This has historically been ruled out due to the interaction of heavy rail with at-grade crossings, but the additional capacity might justify it. Though so too would be just upgrading the power subsystems to enable 100% 3-car Green Line trains (or even 4-car). More Green Line through-service between Kenmore, Copley, and Somerville could probably help ease the load and provide a better service. But the ridership levels on the B and C branches justify the additional capacity of heavy rail.
  • Extending the Blue Line to Charles/MGH is a given (although what form that takes remains to be seen), and I’d agree that it should extend from there. On the other hand, the Esplanade probably doesn’t get enough steady traffic to justify a heavy rail stop (ironically, something more like Green Line-esque light rail would be more appropriate). Routing and station locations for the Blue Line extension are up for debate, but it’s definitely a good idea in the abstract. Also missing is the northern Blue Line extension to Lynn.
  • The Urban Ring, as is mentioned in the article, is definitely something being planned for. On the other hand, the planned version is pretty shitty – it’s watered-down BRT (is there any other kind of BRT?). But instead of this perfect circle, it should probably have a tail leading off somewhere (there is a whole host of operational challenges with running an unbroken circle). I think those stops are, on the whole, reasonably well-sited, though I’d wonder how the Logan stop on the Ring and the Airport Blue Line stop would interact. Connecting Allston and the seaport to the rest of the T is a must and long overdue, though this doesn’t take the newly-planned “Indigo Line” into account.
  • The “5” train to Readville, unless actually a separate service from MBTA Commuter Rail, should clearly indicate that it’s using heavy rail (or DMUs) and operating on a dedicated right-of-way. If it has to share tracks with commuter rail, freight trains, and other traffic, I don’t know how it could achieve the frequency necessary to be a rapid transit line and thus be worth of inclusion on this map.
  • On a more minor note, splitting the Orange Line at Fairmont would allow the MBTA to double the coverage area – but only at the cost of frequency. E.g., if trains normally are running every six minutes, only every other train will be able to service Readville and Roxbury, respectively, leading to potential 12-minute headways (ideally, we’re talking about 3-minute or less combined headways, or 6 minutes per branch. But if good frequency isn’t planned for, branches are a very bad idea). As a WMATA rider, I’m all too familiar with how terrible these bad headways can be. I think in an ideal world I’d pick one of the two; probably West Roxbury, and just run the whole line to there.

I would love to see the vast majority of this come to fruition. As we’ve recently seen with Chicago, presenting a grand vision for the future can spur discussion and investment and get people on board with a project that might otherwise be mired in minutiae of transformer voltage and bogie gauge and other small details.

The important thing for Boston is to think big.