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The idea of a Green New Deal (GND) has been generating a lot of political excitement in progressive circles of late. It’s also generated a lot of capital-D Discourse online, with transportation and land use wonks (myself among them) noting that one of the draft GND documents floating around is notably weak on those issues, and that the movement in general has seemed reluctant to be bold on transportation and land use topics. Unsurprisingly, some more libertarian-leaning urbanists types are skeptical that transportation and land use are a good fit for a GND structure; while I think that position is worth some consideration, I am of the opinion that there is plenty enough work to do to spend multiple hundreds of billions of federal dollars on transportation and land use, should we have the desire to do so.

So what would an urbanist/transportation wonk’s GND look like? I start from the principle that a GND should in fact be all of the things it promises:

  1. Truly green
  2. New, changing systems and institutions to fit a new reality
  3. A deal in all senses of the word: a fair shake for the people; a set of compromises between potentially competing interests; and an efficient set of spending priorities that doesn’t waste money

One implication of 3)–and something that has been disputed in the online discourse as of late–is that everyone is going to have to give something up. We can’t produce a true GND simply by going after “corporations” or “the rich”–while higher levels of taxation and redistribution are almost certainly necessary, they are equally certainly insufficient to achieve an environmentally sustainable society all on their own. Specific problems require specific policy solutions, not just an overall progressive orientation that skips over the details. It’s not going to be green unless it reaches virtually every American.

That being said, I would imagine that to gain sufficient ground in its core political constituencies (and, you know, to do its job of righting historical wrongs), any GND will have to fulfill the core missions of redistribution and desegregation. Redistribution, because American society is highly unequal, and that was most of the point of the original New Deal; desegregation, because we need to correct the mistakes of the original New Deal in failing to see that ideal through, and because infrastructure and planning–the particular topics of this post–have traditionally in the US enshrined segregation rather than fighting it, and we need to do better now.

But enough with the serious aspects and amateur political analysis! The fun part of trying to influence a grand political idea that’s still in the early stages of formation is what transit geeks call crayoning: throwing creative and potentially infeasible, but often highly specific, ideas out there to see what sticks. So here are, in no particular order, a few ideas. Not all are mine, originally, and I try to give credit where due.

  1. Federal R&D investment into battery technology. Better batteries are clearly key to any lower-carbon future. They are essential to electric vehicles of any sort that use road infrastructure, and as much as us transit purists might object, we will need a ton of electric cars if we have any hope of fighting climate change in the coming decades. I’m not sure the battery technology is up to the challenge for larger vehicles, though; electric buses have an uneven track record in the US thus far, and while I’m fairly confident they’ll get where they need to be eventually, perhaps some targeted federal help can speed up the process. We also need to build out a network of charging stations for electric cars, scooters, and bikes, some of which will need to be quite high-capacity. On the rails, batteries offer a potential partial replacement for expensive traditional electrification, but are highly unproven. Matt Rose of BNSF, the best-run of the Class I freight railroads (especially as regards infrastructure investment), brought up the idea of battery locomotives in a recent interview, so the industry–traditionally a conservative one–is at least thinking about it. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for public-private cooperation on a grand scale. Finally, batteries are often constructed from quite dirty materials obtained under ethically questionable (at best) circumstances, meaning that a progressive vision of how to obtain the materials under a progressive foreign policy is incredibly important.
  2. Ban (or enforce the ban on) requirements that applicants for jobs have a vehicle, except where having a vehicle is actually necessary for the job (and in that circumstance employers should help or entirely pay for the vehicle). This question is probably already illegal but I just heard someone mention it at a party and it comes up not infrequently on Ask A Manager (where the comments are sometimes respectful, sometimes vile). Making a big deal out of banning this question won’t make everything better or, probably, make a huge impact on carbon, but perhaps it can kickstart a sympathetic PR campaign.
  3. A national high speed rail network. This is, obviously, the biggest of all the bigs in terms of actual infrastructure, but it’s absolutely a federal priority, and should be; it could be the green equivalent of the Interstate Highway System. Shifting a ton of trips to HSR would also reduce flying, lowering carbon emissions immediately while also decongesting a whole bunch of airports. An HSR network isn’t going to touch all corners of the country but has the potential to spread wealth and economic activity away from major coastal centers; the classic example I like to give on this is the potential for an Empire HSR system linking New York City with cities like Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, not to mention Toronto on the other end. Workers and companies would have the choice of being able to relocate to cheaper, but still urban and potentially very pleasant, areas while retaining easy access to major centers.
  4. Make the entire US transit system accessible to wheelchair and other mobility devices.  H/t on this to Ellen. Yes, this is something have been taken care of by local authorities years ago, and the failure of systems like New York to provide basic accessibility is nothing short of shameful, but if we’re going to be spending tons of money on infrastructure, with an equity lens, let’s just get it done while we’ve got the chance. I think it’s the perfect chance for technical transit activists and disability activists to unite on influencing a GND:  it involves manufacturing and skilled labor (both for platforms+track work that would be needed in some places); it solves a technical problem; it uplifts a highly marginalized population (disabled people) AND makes transit more efficient; and it has little existing constituency.
  5. Process and planning reform. I can’t touch on this in a ton of detail given my day job as a cog in the federal transportation planning machine, but let’s just say there’s a lot of room to improve the process by effectively regionalizing planning; coordinating transportation and land use planning; and emphasizing equitable representation and outcomes. These two threads from Will Stancil and his respondents are worth your time:

    The model for climate-centered federal land use policy isn't the New Deal, it's the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1962 twitter.com/MarketUrbanism…


    Will Stancil (@whstancil) January 02, 2019

    I'm two years late on this amazing @surlyurbanist piece about regional planning, but it made my day.… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…


    Will Stancil (@whstancil) January 02, 2019
  6. Subsidize transit fares and passes for the lowest-income individuals. Much attention is being given right now to New York City’s messy attempt to roll out lowered fares for low-income folks (the program was supposed to roll out today and…didn’t), but there’s a lot of room to use federal money to help out here. Systems across the country are hiking fares to patch financial holes, which lowers ridership from price-sensitive riders; one way to fix that is to use the federal government’s financial muscle creatively. 
  7. Transform commuter rail into regional rail. This is, obviously, my hobby horse, and I’ve written about it more than perhaps anything else; but suffice it to say that in the US we spend a ton of money operating trains on a paradigm of highly niche peak service for white-collar commuters that exists basically nowhere else in the world. Federal leadership–perhaps making it clear that running trains that way is not acceptable as suburban demographic change accelerates–is sorely needed. 
  8. Expanded federal operating support in smaller metros. As I understand it, the federal government once provided more operating funding to transit agencies in smaller metro areas, but it was cut under Reagan, with the excuse that locals were using it to substitute for providing their own funds. Which may have been true, but it’s not an excuse for the poor service that current funding levels allow in many American cities. This could take any number of potential paths, but as part of a GND the federal government should provide massively expanded operating grants to many transit agencies, in return for: no reduction, or even an increase in, state and local commitment; zoning laws, parking regulations, and other policies, changing to support transit; and a commitment to maintaining minimum levels of service much higher than they are today. 
  9. Figure out the future of driving pricing. This one has easily been the most controversial online; a lot of left-leaning people are quite resistant to the idea that driving should cost more. And indeed, a progressive GND should rebate the proceeds of any road/driving pricing scheme in a redistributive way (perhaps indirectly, through massively better transit, land use, and affordable housing). But a GND just isn’t green without taking on driving directly–even electric vehicles generate considerable pollution from the tire-roadway interface, not to mention the danger they pose to pedestrians, cyclists, etc. We can’t escape that. And there’s a lot to figure out, what with EVs, AVs, TNCs, and all the other acronyms.

That’s far from an exhaustive list of my GND ideas, but I’ve written plenty, and the road pricing question leads into perhaps the most important discussion at the moment: why bother with the discussion. Isn’t any GND a good GND? My thoughts on this are derived from part of my very long thread on this topic from a few days ago.

Like, I suspect, most of the people I talk to online, I think the GND is a very exciting concept. But it could go screwy in a number of ways, one of which is not listening to the right people about the scope and/or the details. Generalist activist/wonk types, much less “normal people,” often don’t realize, or like to confront, the tradeoffs inherent in very technical topics.

There’s a strong element of the American left (at least online, and probably not a majority, but they’re certainly loud) that likes to project the idea that we can make progress on climate and sustainability while only impacting villains–corporations, richy-rich people, industrial farmers, etc. This is not true! Projecting that image certainly makes the GND an easier sell. But talking about a cleaner future in which a strong majority of *all* Americans have not had to radically revise some aspects of their daily lives is a lie. I would also argue that it’s bad Left politics, because we *should* be organizing around the concept and action of solidarity. But that’s something of an aside. 

Data for Progress‘s version of the GND is only one vision; much remains to be fleshed out; and they have a good track record of listening. But I already see in the document and the surrounding discourse tendencies toward the idea that the GND can be executed solely on the backs of convenient villains. And it’s from us, from the technocrats and the policy specialists and the geeks, that those shaping the GND are going to have to realize that that cannot be the case, and develop alternatives. It would be easy to fall into the trap of ideological purity and not listen.

And to those activists and politicos and elected officials running the show I say: please don’t go down that path. Instead: illuminate tradeoffs. Work on solidarity. Don’t BS your way through a difficult, wrenching process. Remember you need specialists to help frame that process, in the same way we need activists to help reach the public. Only working together can we make this happen in a productive way.

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I’ve written before about how the country’s last interurban, the South Shore Line, could play a larger role in the transportation network for Northwest Indiana and beyond. The City of South Bend apparently feels the same way, and recently commissioned a study from AECOM to examine the possibility of rescuing the South Shore’s eastern terminus from its 26-year purgatory at the South Bend Airport.

The South Shore, as befits its interurban heritage, once terminated on street trackage downtown, but has long since been cut back, first to the current site of the South Bend Amtrak station, and then via a circuitous route to the airport. A marginal Midwestern airport makes a kind of silly terminus for a reasonably frequent commuter line, and while downtown South Bend isn’t exactly booming, it’s not in the worst shape relative to many Midwestern cities. It’s also got a progressive, pro-business, ambitious mayor with a certain determination to make his name on a national scale. So it’s not surprising to see some kind of reexamination. The question is whether South Bend and the South Shore can get together to do the right thing–and at the right price, because South Bend is still a cash-strapped quasi-Rust Belt city.

And there is a need to get it right–because, to put it mildly, not all of the analyzed station locations are of equal quality.

Studied station locations, from the AECOM report

According to the study, none of the station alternatives offers a decisive upgrade over the others in terms of travel time or projected ridership at commencement of service. So the question comes down to cost/benefit ratios and core planning principles such as ability to promote development; walkability of the station area; and connections to other transit services. AECOM has laid out the projected costs in fairly neat form.

Table from AECOM showing costs and complications of each station alternative

“Property acquisition for approach” perhaps belies some of the difficulty of the Chocolate Factory location; it would require takings, which can be difficult politically. The Amtrak, and to a greater extent the Downtown locations, require negotiations with the freight railroads, but room exists on the shared right-of-way to extend the South Shore tracks. Presumably as a result of its relative complexity–construction in an active railroad environment is expensive, particularly when Class I extortion is involved–the Downtown alternative also has the highest associated costs.

Still, the costs associated with the Downtown alignment seem too high. The AECOM report estimates a total of $60.5 million for construction, with soft costs and contingency adding another more than $40 million. While the line would need to be electrified, we’re talking an extension of just under three miles, the first mile and a quarter of which, as far as the Amtrak station, already has track and electrical infrastructure in place, although it would need to be rehabbed or rebuilt as it hasn’t been used for passenger service in decades. While NS would presumably demand significant compensation for use of its right-of-way, at least one trackway is clear and available for use all the way from the Amtrak station to the old Union Station site; given the short distance and that NICTD service isn’t all that frequent, a single-track approach and a single-platform, two-track terminal is probably perfectly sufficient. Done cheaply, three route-miles of track and electrification, plus one platform, should probably cost $30-$40 million, not $60 million, much less $102 million.

Overview of the core of the rail network in the South Bend area.

The “Downtown” location at the old South Bend Union Station, while not perfect, is pretty good. The “old” South Shore, as befits its interurban heritage, rolled right onto the streets and terminated downtown, around a mile from Union Station (which served the New York Central and Grand Trunk).

The old South Shore on the streets of downtown South Bend. Source: https://thetrolleydodger.com/2016/06/21/night-beat/ 

But the attractive Art Deco Union Station building is still there; a new minor league baseball stadium has been built across the street; and most importantly, the local transit system’s major bus hub is one short block away. Oh, and there’s lots of land to redevelop in the immediate vicinity; in a slow-growth but not hopeless case like South Bend, that’s a big deal (and, if we’re being honest, what makes the whole thing attractive in the first place).

As the graphic makes clear, the development potential of the Union Station/Downtown location blows every other alternative out of the water. And that’s not even counting its significantly greater potential for multimodal transportation connections. Put bluntly, South Bend has a choice between making the choice American cities have been making for decades along “commuter” rail lines–sticking stations in a quasi-suburban location on the cheap, with plenty of parking–or making a choice to anchor a truly urban redevelopment strategy that relies on multimodalism, TOD, and strategic redevelopment possibilities.

Luckily for South Bend, Mayor Buttigieg seems to be leaning toward supporting the Downtown option, but some powerful forces–such as the airport’s leadership–are trying to move the future station’s location in a more suburban direction. Given the economic potential–even exaggerated as such analyses almost always are–and transportation benefits, the Union Station site is almost certainly the correct one, even at a higher cost. But to get it done, cost control is key. The city has already authorized $25 million in spending, which would only get the entire project done if South Bend turned into Spain overnight, but given limited federal commitments–the South Shore’s double-tracking project is one of those whose grants the Trump FTA is inexplicably withholding–the more of the project local funds can pay for the more likely it is to get done. According to the South Bend Tribune article linked above, Buttigieg seems to believe for some reason that a Union Station location would “likely require vacating South Street along the south side of Four Winds Field,” which seems rather unnecessary to me. Presumably, someone has told the mayor that building a brand-new alignment over a city street would be easier than dealing with NS and CN and relocating some HVAC equipment that currently occupies the empty trackways behind the Union Station building; but this seems unlikely in the extreme.

Plenty of room on that viaduct for a few more trains.

The mayor should enlist some allies at the state and federal levels and play hardball with the Class 1s on the right-of-way issue. This could be a very promising project for South Bend and for the South Shore–but the way forward won’t be clear unless the whole thing can be competently managed and brought in at a reasonable price.

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