Transit stuff #2: Reducing the cost of constructing transit systems
There was an op-ed, "California's slow ride to new transit," in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ethan Elkind of the UCLA Law School's Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, based on a position brief, Back in the Fast Lane: How to Speed Public Transit Planning and Construction in California, discussing various ways for reducing the cost of building transit systems in California (and by extension, the US).
His recommendations fall into three categories:
Engage in strict oversight of construction management and awards and ensure no conflicts of interest due to construction-firm campaign contributions, possibly through the creation of more independent construction authorities.This is important, because now that the US financially is in more of a zero sum situation, the various environmental and public participation reviews add a lot of time and cost to projects, without necessarily adding value.
Reform state laws to reduce litigation over environmental review of transit projects.
Allow local agencies to prioritize transit infrastructure over automobile traffic without requiring expensive new planning studies.
Cars parked along 26th Street fell onto CSX rail tracks when the road bed collapsed. (Photo credit: Stacey Mink via Associated Press.)
I do think it's important to balance competing public interests with environmental reviews. Much citizen involvement in such reviews is aimed to stop projects, not to improve the project.
At the root there is an unwillingness to acknowledge competing but equally compelling claims and the failure of automobility promoters to acknowledge that they are focused on maintaining automobile primacy rather than optimizing the mobility system, especially for urban transportation.
For example, while I can respect resident concerns about the impact of construction of a new Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Southeast DC ("Pressure builds over proposed reconstruction of CSX tunnel," Washington Post), I don't see how not rebuilding and expanding the tunnel isn't in the public interest.
It will enable safer transportation, enhance the freight transportation system, enable more passenger railroad transit service to Virginia, and will ward off structure failure like what has been happening in Baltimore--railroad tunnel fires a few years ago in one tunnel, inadequate capacity for higher speed trains, and a road cave in earlier this year ("City approves $12M contract for East 26th Street repairs," Baltimore Sun).
Calling for postponement until DC starts and finishes a "comprehensive rail plan" is a waste of time because such a plan would endorse reconstruction of this tunnel as one of the most fundamental and basic recommendations.
But there are many other examples, from a lawsuit against the LA MTA for plans to build a tunnel under Beverly Hill High School (if transit tunnels are that harmful what do we do with London, Paris, NYC, or DC, among others?) to opposition to building a taller apartment building at the Takoma Metro Station in DC of how the Town of Chevy Chase, Maryland is challenging the calculations for ridership of the Purple Line light rail system, proposed for Montgomery and Prince George's Counties--a system that I think will have the highest light rail ridership of any single line in the US as of the first day it opens. See "MTA hands over Purple Line ridership data" from the Gazette.
Conclusion. It is inexcusable that it costs so much more in the US to construct rail transit systems than it does in Europe and we need to address this, if we hope to construct more rapid transit systems in the future. The recommendations in Back in the Fast Lane: How to Speed Public Transit Planning & Construction in California are a good place to start.