Transit- Value Capture: Institutional Pitfalls and Potential Reforms

I made a blog post on the Critical Transport website earlier this year based on my presentation at Columbia University’s Past is Prolouge: Planning’s Critical Approach to 100 years of Zoning conference in December 2016. Consider it a dissertation work-in-progress.

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Allocation and Goverance

Last night the Collective of Critical Transport Scholars kicked off another year of meetings with a discussion on Social and Environmental Justice Issues in Transportation. We were joined by Dr. Devajyoti Deka, Assistant Director for Research at Rutger University’s Voorhees Transportation Center. The conversation was guided by Dr. Deka’s 2004 chapter in The Geography of Urban Transportation (Hanson and Giuliano).

Many interesting comments were made during the evening session but of particular interest was our discussion on the appropriate focus and purpose of urban planning, as a profession and an area of research/expertise. What is the purpose of planning in U.S. cities and regions today? Being a critically oriented group, many people suggested planning (or urban policy related to the built environment) should focus on issues of equity (broadly defined). It was proposed that ‘Equity Issues’ were largely a consequence of resource allocation (by both public and private means), making distributional questions of paramount importance in transport policy and investment decisions. Even if cities have the tools to re-allocate in favor of equity (they don’t according to Petersen), how do they decide the patterns or priorities of redistribution? The answer would seem to lie in their Governance systems.

Governance is a key aspect of my dissertation research, as is financing. In my opinion you can’t look at one without looking at the other. Decision making process and structures (i.e. Governance) only matter if resources are available to implement or act on the decisions made. Follow the money (or the lack of it) and you will track the decision making process. Too often however, financing is juxtaposed to governance, as was on display at a panel discussion this morning on Regional Transit Governance.  Thomas Prendergast – CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority –  stated that while we can identify cases of ‘bad governance’ it is impossible to stipulate an ideal governance model. On this point we agree – I think governance structures and lessons cannot easily be transplanted from one context to another, although we can certainly learn from the contextual experiences of others. But Prendergast went on to argue that in New York discussions about governance are a waste of time, the instead we should be focusing on getting more funding and creating accountability. Here is where Prendergast and I part ways.

For me, funding is fundamentally a governance issue. The problem is not that we lack the financial resources in society to accomplish a wide range of transport-related goals. As Buz Paaswell mentioned this morning, last year’s bonus payouts to Wall Street executives would be enough to fund the entire 2nd Ave Subway line. What we lack is the ability to harness resources for transport projects. The mechanisms for harnessing resources vary – from engaging the private sector in partnerships (P3) to collecting more revenue (higher taxes, fares) for the public sector – but the activation of these mechanisms are clearly related to governance. A call for more funding partnered with a desire to not discuss the systems by which it is obtained and distributed is simply a call for supporting the status quo. We need to stop looking at funding as a separate issues from governance and see them as two parts of a larger whole. Perhaps such a framework will help us move toward more sustainable models of transport provision.

Federal Funding for Streetcars (CNU Blog)

Thanks to Gary Scott for the invitation to write a blog post for the Congress for New Urbanism’s website. The data and conclusions are based on a working paper by myself and Prof. David King.  In case the link fails to work, I’ve re-posted the content below.

Transportation and Equity: Federal Funding for Streetcar Projects

Tags: modern streetcars, federal grant programs, social equity

Federal competitive grant programs allow federal officials and policy makers to favor certain transportation projects over others. Historically, this has allowed federal actors to pursue preferred policies – such as building interstates, reducing carbon emissions or facilitating mode shifts – without having to directly implement projects. This division of labor makes sense when impacts from projects have national consequences, such as completion of a national road system or congestion reductions in urban areas that contribute to the national economy. But what is the role of competitive federal grants when project benefits have solely local consequences, such as downtown property development?

Take for instance modern streetcar systems, which are the rage in U.S. cities. Unlike other modes of transit, such as light rail or bus rapid transit, the benefits of streetcar projects are thought to accrue through property development or local economic stimulus rather than through enhanced transportation services. This is evident in the table below, which shows data collected from cost-benefit analyses of streetcar projects receiving federal TIGER grants. Since TIGER is an outcome of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we would expect that these projects to have large economic impacts, but in general most streetcar projects emphasize their economic development potential more than their contributions to the transit network.

These numbers raise interesting questions about the role of federal grant programs in supporting or hindering local equity agendas. If federal competitive grant programs incentivize the creation of projects with substantial economic development impacts – like streetcars – then does the grant process reinforce patterns of unequitable resource distribution while also failing to improve transit services for dependent populations? Of course, many streetcar projects are aimed at facilitating pedestrian friendly environments as well as stimulating downtown real estate and there is potential that such improvements to the built environment will benefit all transit users (including the transit dependent). But this outcome is contingent on the spatial distribution of residences, workplaces and transit services. If the poor or transit dependent populations live outside of the streetcar’s vicinity and/or do not work in the central business district (where streetcars tend to be located) they will not directly benefit from the streetcar-influenced pedestrian environment. As U.S. downtowns again become places for residential development, who can afford to live in the central business district? There is strong evidence that it’s not transit dependent or low-income populations.

Some of these concerns are raised in a working paper sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. Based on an analysis of 2009 TIGER awardees, the authors conclude that federal competitive awards have the potential to deepen disparities among and within regions. Within regions, the study finds that capacity of equity or affordable housing actors (such as non-profits) is important for leveraging federal investment to assist low-income or transit dependent populations. If the federal government seeks to address issues of uneven resource allocation and the widening wealth gap in American cities, federal policy makers should reevaluate competitive grant programs in light of such goals. Those of us seeking to expand transit usage in US cities have a responsibility as well – to ask whether specific investment decisions mitigate or exacerbate issues of equitable resource distribution. If we support transit projects solely for the sake of having new investments but fail to consider their influence on local resource allocation, are we missing an opportunity to leverage federal funding to address longstanding patterns of inequality in American cities, and to act in a socially responsible manner?

In Defense of Streetcars

Thanks again City Lab for providing confirmation that streetcars are a worthy area of inquiry that spurs interest outside the academy! After several project specific articles and some general critiques of streetcar projects, today features a Defense of Streetcars by David Alpert. His article is addressed to pro-transit streetcar critics which he feels are making ‘Perfect’ the enemy of ‘Good’.  Another great topic for discussion – below are some comments on the author’s critique and his five ways streetcars can benefit cities.

First, I don’t share the authors concern that streetcar critics are threatening streetcar adoption. By all measures, streetcars are moving full steam ahead in US cities (Providence and Detroit received federal money for streetcars last month). This desire for streetcars by localities is due to many reasons (downtown elites, political impact, ‘permanence of rails’, ease of operating outside the transit agency when introducing a new mode vs. expanding buses, etc.) and does not seem to be slowing down based on media or academic critics. Of course there are the anti-transit groups in every case but many people opposed to the streetcar in Kansas City and other places are pro-transit groups that want more dispersed service to transit dependent populations. This does not represent an anti-transit critique of streetcars – its a valid concern about how we spend limited transit dollars and speaks to the nature of infrastructure decision making in US cities.

(1) Imperfect transit can still be good for cities. I agree that streetcars are being proposed as a means to facilitate walkable, livable urban places and that this outcome would be good for cities. But such environments are not solely the outcome of streetcars or even transit – they are the result of land use and pedestrianization features. Communities can have walk able amenities and pedestrian features without having quality transit service, so this is not an argument in favor of streetcars (See Dan Chatman‘s “Does TOD need the T”). Indeed, downtown streetcar projects in cities without robust commuter transit systems and with available downtown parking (like Kansas City) require residents to drive downtown in order to use the streetcars anyway. Chatman argues that transit may serve as a Trojan horse, catalyzing policies that favor higher density, mixed use development, but this just means that the political will to implement preferred policy solutions is lacking, not that transit is a necessary feature of pedestrian, mixed use environments (in all contexts).

(2) An imperfect streetcar might be all your city can afford—for now. This is a much stronger point, in my opinion. There is an argument for starting small and building political support for a larger system (I think this is preferred and has worked well in the case of other public interventions such as reducing parking or creating pedestrian plazas). Many streetcars are referred to as “starter lines”, implying that expansion will come. Of course, there will only be support for expansion if residents see the value of the system, which requires it serves the needs of the population in some manner (be it transit or a tourist amenity for downtown circulation). The People Mover (Detroit) was intended to be one component of a larger system but its cost overrides, lack of functionality and distrust in competency of local government – among other things – contributed to the projects (and rail transits) demise. While streetcars may be the start of transit expansion, this is not guaranteed – and heeding the critiques of people like Eric Jaffe may be useful in making sure systems do set us in a pro-transit trajectory.

(3) Funding won’t get redirected towards a “better” transit project. Excellent point – streetcars have the local political support that helps them cobble together funding (including from federal sources) which may not be available to other modes. Lamenting that Kansas City could have spent $102 million dollars on BRT or Commuter rail instead of the Streetcar is not entirely accurate. The taxing district that raises the local match (and fund operating expenses) probably would not have passed if the investment was BRT or regular bus service. But this bring up another point – are referendum the best decision-making forum for infrastructure investment – given that the local debate is contentious and often misleading and that voting procedures tend to be gamed to produce a favorable vote rather than meet the standards of democrat decision making? And it is our duty (as citizens in a democracy) to raise questions about opportunity costs – KC is devoting considerable local funds and political resources to the streetcar…what if they did the same for their failing local schools or affordable housing? Sure the ‘political will’ might not exist because it doesn’t favor the downtown elites but that is no reason not to raise the critique and try to hold local officials responsible for how they prioritize needs. If local elected officials base their decisions solely on what can get done, then maybe we need to make other policy options easier to “get done” (either by building local capacity or changing public opinions about local resource allocation).

(4) Streetcars Can Outperform Buses, Even Without Dedicated Lanes. Dedicated lanes would be great but the author is right that they do not make streetcars useless. In fact in cities that do not have downtown congestion problems, using the traffic right of way is a perfect solution – it leverages underutilized infrastructure for potential gains. Dismissing streetcars solely because they do not have dedicated lanes is unfounded. But the benefits of streetcars – at least according to Cost-Benefit documents – are overwhelmingly from economic development not transportation impacts and this seems to be what gives them a leg up over BRT in local decision making. So how are we measuring streetcar performance? Using transit metrics or using economic development metrics? And are the later reliable measures if we do not conduct a holistic accounting of the subsidies and incentives being provided to encourage development near transit?

(5) Your city can make it better later, and may even plan to.There is path dependence to infrastructure investments but again it is not necessarily in the direction the author implies. Cities will only improve the system if there is political and financial support. In addition, streetcar systems can become a money sink in a bad way – attracting future transit dollars to the downtown core while putting bus services to transit dependent, neighborhood populations at risk. The details and trade-offs are of primary importance here.

Governing Structures and Change

Despite my previous post – on the role of KCBiz in facilitating TOD development in Kansas City – I do not believe that governing structures are a panacea for TOD implementation. That is, governing structures alone are not sufficient to guarantee a particular outcome, although they may be one of the components needed to realize policy solutions. This is an idea that I first formulated during my research trip to Australia in March 2014.

I went to Australia with the intention of learning how different governing arrangements may facilitate TOD implementation and came away with the notion that planning competency and governance structures may not be as important to facilitating change as I had originally anticipated. I was inspired to visit Melbourne and Perth because both regions were pursuing innovative governing arrangements that appeared to vest responsibility for land use and transport investment with a single entity (the Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure in Victoria and the now defunct TOD Committee in Perth). After on-site investigations, however, I came to the conclusion that even when key competencies reside in a single organization – an element thought to facilitate regional, cross-sector problem solving – the character of the organization and the outlooks of individuals in decision making roles were still of considerable importance.

Such a revelation necessarily leads to questions of power in the public decision making process. Power does not ultimately reside in the organizations we create and changing organizational arrangements will not necessarily change power structures or even result in the practical outcomes desired. Power resides in social relations – how individuals interact in the decision-making and planning process determines the outcomes. Social relations and interactions may be influenced by governing structures in important ways, such as having stakeholders interact in ways they might not have otherwise and develop solutions that would be impossible without specific structural support (such as TOD committee), but the real essence of decision making is found in the detailed social processes that play out over specific conflicts and negotiations in the decision-making process. Such a finding aligns nicely with Bent Flyvbjerg‘s work in Europe, although it does present some challenges for research – how do we identify and examine conflict and negotiation in TOD implementation? What can we learn from such investigations? Are there clear policy solutions or only “words of caution” that can be offered in conclusions of such research?

Kansas City Streetcar

City Lab posted a story on the Kansas City Streetcar earlier this week. I spoke with Ron Knox (the author) for an hour during his fact gathering mission and he quotes me a couple of times in the story. The piece does a good job of highlighting some of the issues at stake in the city’s attempts to expand rail transit beyond the initial Streetcar line that serves the central business district. I especially like the quote from the Streetcar’s CEO (and former MARC employee) Tom Gerend: The Streetcar “…was as much about rebuilding and refilling downtown as it was about moving people.” This assertion is backed up KC’s TIGER grant application which has a economic development: transportation benefits ratio of 18.5:1 – meaning that for every $1 in transport related benefits, the system anticipates $18.5 in economic development benefits. In total, economic development benefits account for 79% of the anticipated benefits that would be realized from the streetcar project.

Of course – as the article aptly states – it is difficult to know how effective the streetcar will actually be at rebuilding and refilling downtown. New transit systems in U.S. cities with high rates of car usage have mixed results at facilitating transit-oriented development. There are many reasons for this but one key aspect is the level of intergovernmental coordination surrounding the projects. Portland, OR is often cited as proof that Streetcars spur real estate investment but when one compares Portland to other places, the causal impacts of the Streetcar pail in comparison to the coordination exhibited between transport and economic development policies. Indeed, Portland Streetcar’s CEO admits that financial incentives and other real estate development subsidies were more important than the streetcar in redeveloping the Pearl District. Of course, we can ask whether such incentives would have been concentrated in the Pearl district had the Streetcar not been part of the larger project.

Then an important question for planners and policymakers becomes – what other things are we doing around the Streetcar that will facilitate redevelopment? Economic Development planners have a host of policy tools they can leverage – tax increment financing, urban renewal districts, land write-downs, low interest loans to name a few – and by all accounts these are used fairly liberally in most US cities. What remains to be flushed out is how cities align their economic development efforts with their transport investments. It cannot be assumed that policy alignment simply happens since the fractured nature of local government means that different departments and organizations have responsibility for transportation and economic development planning. Innovations found outside the U.S. – such as the TOD Committee created by Perth, Australia to facilitate development near new rail lines – are not often adopted by Streetcar cities. In Kansas City, however, KC Biz Care may be a key governmental innovation that deserves more attention. By providing a one-stop shop for developers along with a staff that tracks development activity near the streetcar, the city may be better positioned than others to corral economic development into the streetcar corridor and realize the revitalization they anticipate.

Kansas City states in their regional plan that they hope to become a model for other U.S. cities. With 15+ streetcar projects in the works in other areas, it seems they are well positioned. It may be, however, that local government organization is where the city has the most to contribute in terms of leadership and innovation. Of course, to see such innovations requires us to look beyond simply notions of streetcar investments spurring development and toward the messier and mundane questions of governance. For those interested in creating sustainable change in urban areas, it would be worth the effort.