Last weekend, the MTA’s recent struggles went national when the Mayor of Chicago, published a Monday New York Times Op-Ed entitled “In Chicago, The Trains Actually Run on Time.” The haughty, headline of Emanuel’s opine earned a swift backlash from New York’s press and many ordinary citizens. New Yorkers may hate the MTA, but it’s our MTA! Beneath all of the noise, there was a rare, thoughtful and prominent critique of urban mass transit best practices.

For me, many of Emanuel’s argument’s resonated, while other’s didn’t.

The crux of Emanuel’s argument lay in the fact that New York and Washington DC (cities that have seen recent struggles with transit infrastructure could learn from strategies that have been implemented in Chicago.

The Premise: Chicago is Comparable to New York and Washington

CHICAGO — On Thursday, in the wake of a subway derailment and an epidemic of train delays, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the busiest mass transit system in America. That same day, the nation’s third-busiest system — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — handed out coupons for free coffee to riders stuck in the second year of slowdowns caused by repairs to prevent chronic fires.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a recent survey found that 85 percent of passengers are satisfied with service on our transit system, the nation’s second most used.

The L, Chicago’s system, turned 125 this year. The elevated railway began as four wooden cars powered by coal and steam. Last year, more than 238 million rides were taken on the system, which, unlike the ones in New York and Washington, has not been troubled by systemic failures, breakdowns and delays. Even during a 28-day stretch of arctic temperatures in 2014, the L was never interrupted.

Emmanuel’s foundation rests on the contention that Chicago has re-invested in infrastructure, while New York and Washington haven’t. New York’s MTA and Washington’s WMTA have lagged in maintenance, but Chicago has made critical investments. As a result, the Windy City isn’t experiencing the systemic failures that plague its eastern brethren.

There is another difference between these cities however; New York and Washington are growing–rapidly– and Chicago is shrinking. Since 1990, New York City has seen a 16.5% increase in population while the District has grown by about 13.5%. Both cities expect the robust growth to continue– Gotham expects 9 million residents to call the city home by 2040, while demographers predict a population of 1 million for the nation’s capital within the same timeframe.

In the same period, Chicago has lost about 3% of its population.

Strong growth trends result in both increased utilization —and stress— on existing facilities, exposing defaults in maintenance and operations plans. But, more importantly, these trends also cause city leaders and municipal planners to consider system expansion.

A growing population leads to increased strain on existing system, while forcing planners to contemplate system expansion to accommodate new development. Picture via Sócrates Rízquez on Flickr

Contention 1: Put Reliability Ahead of Expansion

How have we done it? First, we put reliability ahead of expansion. We focused relentlessly on modernizing tracks, signals, switches, stations and cars before extending lines to new destinations. Unlike New York, which has spent billions to reach Hudson Yards, or Washington, which has concentrated on trying to reach Dulles Airport (both laudable projects), Chicago has improved the existing system.

Emanuel’s philosophy may work for for Chicago, but is inadequate for a growing metropolitan region. Planners and policy-makers correctly view transit expansion as a means to catalyze the development of housing and the regional economy. Transit project’s, like the ones citied by Emanuel, can result in the development of many tens of thousands of housing units and even the creation of entire mixed used neighborhoods, as in the case of New York’s Hudson Yards.

This is not to say that maintenance is not worthy of prioritization, it is. I simply believe that growing cities must invest simultaneously in expansion and maintenance. Outside of the US, it isn’t unusual to see high functioning infrastructure, in older systems, and ambitious expansion plans.

Paris, one of the oldest Subway systems in the world, has embarked on a $25 billion project that will result in the construction of 68 new stations and 120 miles of new track. The project, the largest expansion of its kind in the Western world, is being built alongside a high functioning subway that recently upgraded it’s signaling system.

In London, home to the world’s oldest metro network, a 73-mile railway line is under construction, to relieve crowding on existing transit services.

Subway hub Paris
A new subway hub, which is under construction in Paris. The city has committed to both modernization of the existing system and expansion

Contention 2: Local Control is Important

Second, our management structure works. Chicago riders have closer contact with the person whose job it is to make the trains run on time: the mayor. In New York City, it is the governor in Albany. In Washington, it is an agency consisting of officials from the city, two states and the federal government.

While there is no one-size-fits-all model, I am confident local control is essential to Chicago’s transit success. It strengthens accountability, focuses priorities and ensures the people most directly affected by decisions have more of a voice in making those tough decisions.

It’s hard to disagree with Emanuel’s argument; mayor’s are directly elected and accountable to local residents. Yet in New York and Washington, local authorities have little control over an infrastructure that directly impacts almost all of their residents. By removing power from local authorities, and vesting it within the confines of governors and unelected boards, these transit agencies violate a core principle of good democratic governance; efficacy and accountability.

Any good government agency must be accountable to its constituents. Our transit agencies are are not.

Here in New York, the Governor (despite what he says) exercises the most control over the city’s subways and busses. In a large sprawling state, that Governor is mostly impervious to local issues, even in the state’s largest jurisdiction. The DC Metro is governed by a toxic, indissoluble maelstrom of city council, federal, Virginia and Maryland appointees.

Correspondingly, when mismanagement is present, city residents are unable to exercise any direct (or even indirect) influence over the transportation system that which their livelihoods depend.

Local control, or an element thereof, is an essential component to any local service, especially mass transit.

Governor Andrew Cuomo at Belmont Stakes
Control of New York City’s Subways rests with Govenor Cuomo, not local authorities. Photo via Diana Robinson on Flickr

Contention 3: Federal Support is Required

Rather than tweeting about violence in Chicago, President Trump should be looking to Chicago as a model for the infrastructure investments and economic growth he wants to replicate across the country. Instead of embarking on his wrongheaded plan to privatize infrastructure construction, he should expand existing programs that have used local-federal partnerships to build transportation systems.

Chicago has modernized its system thanks in part to the Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity Improvement Program, which funds upgrades to existing corridors that are at or over capacity today, or will be in five years. Congress should double funding for the program to allow America’s busiest mass transit systems to meet rising demand. It should also expand the low-interest federal infrastructure loans that have helped Chicago to rebuild rail lines and airports, and to create the downtown Riverwalk.

And Washington should increase the portion of the Highway Trust Fund that supports mass transit to 25 percent, while also raising the gas tax by 10 cents. Yes, Americans would pay more at the pump, but it is a smarter alternative than the Trump administration’s privatization plan, under which we will all pay more in tolls and fees to the private investors who would own our roads and bridges.

The disrepair, which plagues mass transit in America’s two principal cities, is indicative of a larger problem; the federal government has neglected infrastructure investment, causing the United States to fall far behind other industrialized countries in this regard.

Despite the obvious economic ramifications– America’s cities account for half of its economy– there has been shockingly little leadership from the federal government with respect to urban infrastructure. Aside from New York and Washington, other major cities have seen a marked decline in the quality of transit infrastructure.

Other nations, such as Canada, have made urban mass transit a national priority, producing tangible benefits. America needs to do the same.

Contention 4: Local Funding Mechanisms Are Invaluable

Finally, local governments should look to innovative financing mechanisms like special taxing districts, known as TIFs — an idea Chicago borrowed from New York — to use growth in property taxes to finance transit improvements. Today we are using TIFs to match federal resources and modernize Chicago’s busiest rail lines.

Local funding mechanisms, that exist aside from the whims of politicians, are in fact invaluable to transit capital plans. In Los Angeles, the poster-child for such schemes, local sales taxes are slated to produce more than a hundred billion dollars for transit orientated mass transit projects.

Here in New York, proposals like “Move NY,” which would generate many billions for mass transit by implementing a congestion charge scheme on the city’s bridges and busiest roadways, is regarded as a non-starter in the capital. Robust dedicated funding sources aren’t the entire answer, but it’s these are a necessary component of the solution.

Without steady financial foundations, urban infrastructure crumbles.

Featured Image courtesy of Daniel X. O’Neil on Flickr


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