Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Yesterday evening (December 19), I attended a gathering of transportation, research, and government people at the Michigan League of the University of Michigan. The U of M and its sponsors are conducting a tremendous amount of research to transform transportation and accessibility around the world, and is putting it into place with excellent results in places like South Africa, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines.

But not in Michigan.

Although the state of Michigan supports research and assistance for others, it doesn't make use of it for its own benefit. Instead, politicians make decisions that ignore research findings supported by Ford Motor Company, ALCOA Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, not to mention the citizens and tuition-payers of Michigan. In addition, Michigan politicians overrule Federally-mandated procedures designed to insure that community members and stakeholders have a voice in their own transportation decisions.

I'm speaking of SMART, the University of Michigan, and the United States Department of Transportation's own procedures for establishing transit systems. And I'm referring, of course, to last week's decision by three men to implement a transit system for the Detroit metropolitan area that bypasses all the resources provided for sound decision-making, and all the community stakeholders. (All links below)

The three men are Dave Bing, Mayor of Detroit; Rick Snyder, Governor of Michigan; and Ray LaHood, United States Secretary of Transportation. Their decision to replace a light rail system with rapid buses ignores the experience and research findings of those who truly know about public transportation options. The decision also overturns the multi-year information gathering process that citizens paid for, as the process went through several iterations of the painstaking Federal Transit Administration's requirements, designed to link the best engineering knowledge with the most cogent local interests.

Citizens, stake-holders, investors, and engineers all agreed: the best option for Detroit is to begin with light rail on Woodward in combination with better connecting bus service. In a post to this blog in July 12 of this year, I debunked criticisms of the process with detailed references to how the light rail decision was arrived at. Light rail is the Locally Preferred Alternative.

Yesterday's gathering at the University of Michigan was notable for who was there. It was even more notable for who was not there. Present: sponsors from Ford, Rockefeller, and ALCOA; interested citizens and advocates from Washtenaw County, Detroit, and Lansing; researchers from U of M and Michigan State; the CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority; the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

Absent: anyone from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration, the office of Governor Rick Snyder, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the office of Mayor Dave Bing, or the counties of Oakland or Macomb. In other words, nobody who needs information to make sound transportation decisions was there.

I'm really glad people in Cape Town, Chennai, and Manila are benefiting from research conducted by the University of Michigan. What a shame it doesn't benefit Michigan itself.

To learn more:

  • SMART, Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation
  • Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's Op Ed in the Detroit Free Press, 2011-12-18
  • "Smearing Woodward Avenue Rail" in this blog post.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Detroit's Dilemma: Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, or Rapid Bus?

You may have heard that yesterday (Dec. 13, 2011) a decision was made to cancel Detroit's Woodward Avenue Light Rail project, and to substitute instead a "rapid bus" system that would serve four Detroit corridors.
In an interview with Fox 2 News (linked below), Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is quoted as saying, "I don't think we should concentrate all of our efforts on the Woodward light rail. I think we've got to look at this region and do what's best for the region." A Detroit News article, "Light rail backers push Woodward line as bus system proposed", outlines the details and includes interviews with people who back the light rail system.
Does this mean the light rail plan is history? Another ambitious plan for Detroit that falls into oblivion? Possibly. Moneyed backers of the light rail system are reluctant to give it up, so some semblance of the proposed system may yet be built.Either way, now is a good time to look more closely at rapid bus in comparison with light rail. When transportation nerds hear "rapid bus", we think "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT). But I'm not at all convinced that the Detroit plan will actually involve BRT - at least, not at first.
You see, some statements made by Gov. Snyder and his spokespeople a couple of months ago about the low cost of rapid bus, when Snyder announced his plan for Detroit transit, lead me to believe either of two possibilities: they may not understand what is really involved in"Bus Rapid Transit", or they may have used the term "rapid bus"because they envision something simpler and less expensive.
Here's a little table outlining the similarities and differences between Light Rail, true Bus Rapid Transit, and rapid buses:
Light Rail Bus Rapid Transit Rapid Buses
Runs on Rails in separate lanes Asphalt or concrete in separate lanes Asphalt or concrete in normal traffic lanes, possibly on a freeway at times
In traffic Usually has the right of wayUsually has the right of wayRuns with traffic, but may have special signals at some intersections
Stop spacing 1-2 per mile 1-2 per mile 2-3 per mile
Getting on Station or special platform Station or special platformsBus shelter
Paying Buy ticket before boarding Buy ticket before boarding Pay on the bus
Initial average cost per mile $34.8 million $13.5 million Much less, but not documented
Operating cost Low Moderate Moderate
Potential for development High Moderate Low
Light rail is a well-established transit mode that runs on rails, usually on its ownright-of-way. The Detroit plan called for mixing with traffic in the downtown area to give better access to local businesses. Over most of the line, stations were located about a half-mile apart, though the downtown area had closer spacing. Compared with buses, light rail is relatively inexpensive to operate. Each 120-foot train holds about three times as many passengers as the 60-foot buses normally used for BRT; each train and bus is operated by one driver, and since personnel is typically the largest cost, running BRT buses costs roughly three times as much as running a light rail train. Also less expensive is the energy for moving them: electricity for the trains,versus diesel or natural gas for the buses. However, to those low costs we must add the cost of maintaining the track and electric wires, while normally only the pavement would be a factor for the buses.
Bus Rapid Transit in its pure form is designed to work like a light rail train on rubber tires. It has its own right of way, similar station spacing, and people board at stations after paying their fare. The station platform is level with the floor of the bus, so people, strollers,and wheel chairs can roll on and off without having to lower the bus,deploy a ramp, or slow the boarding process in any way. When crossing streets, the approach of a bus changes the signal so the bus can proceed without stopping. Everything is designed to move people as efficiently as possible. But as you can imagine, dedicating a lane to nothing but buses, building stations, and purchasing large,specialized buses makes BRT pretty expensive compared with other kinds of bus service.
Rapid (or Express) bus is primarily a way of using ordinary buses on existing streets or freeways to speed up service at a minimum of cost. The buses stop less frequently than local buses, and in some cases have devices that give them some amount of precedence at intersections. Rapid bus routes are inexpensive to set up, since they don't necessarily need special stations, equipment, or lanes. But they sacrifice many of the advantages of either light rail or BRT systems: they are slower and less comfortable, because they stop and start much more frequently. Boarding is slower if fares are collected by the driver as passengers get on.

Los Angeles provides good examples of all three of these transit modes (see links below). The Blue, Green, and Gold line are light rail; the Orange Line is BRT,and there are 26 rapid bus routes in addition to multiple local bus lines. (The Red and Purple lines are what's known as "heavy-rail"subways.) I've ridden the Blue, Green, Gold, Red, and Orange lines,but not the rapid buses. The Orange Line runs from North Hollywood to Canoga, part of the way in the wide median of Chandler Boulevard, the rest of the way on the old right of way of Southern Pacific Railroad's Burbank Branch; it is being extended to Chatsworth. I rode it in October of 2007 in mid and late afternoon, and found the bus a little bumpy and jerky, but well patronized. (The buses are equipped with TVs, but what do you expect in Hollywood?) During rush hours,the BRT system now operates at capacity due to high ridership, and the LA transit authority is experimenting with ways to increase capacity, such as using longer buses or running buses in "fleets"of two or three.
The LA Transit "Metro Rapid" and similar area services use articulated buses, for the most part,similar to those on the Orange Line (but painted different colors). They stop at bus shelters (not stations) and are built with low floors to make boarding more rapid. Some of the bus shelters are equipped with "next bus arrival" signs. In the City of Los Angeles, traffic signals along their route recognize the buses' presence and change to let them through, but outside the city many of the signals aren't equipped to recognize them, and don't give them precedence. Their speed and passenger-carrying capacity is less than that of light rail or the Orange Line BRT, but greater than that of the local buses.
Development incentive is probably the the most important difference for a metropolitan region choosing between light rail, BRT, and rapid bus systems. Light rail systems built recently in several U.S. cities have spurred tremendous investment in developments around the stations. Four to eight dollars of private investment is widely reported for every dollar spent building light rail. Most observers agree that rails in the ground give developers confidence that the service will be around for the long term, and that lots of people will be riding.
BRT figures aren't so easy to come by in this country. The systems I've looked at personally (Los Angeles and Cleveland) don't appear to have attracted much development that wouldn't have happened anyway. However, Enrique Peñalosa,who spearheaded the BRT system in Bogotá, Colombia, points to tremendous development near the BRT corridors of his city. Bogotáhas no other rapid transit in competition with BRT, whereas both LA and Cleveland have rail transportation options, which experience shows to attract development quite reliably.
There is no evidence that I know of to indicate that rapid or express buses stimulate development. Because they have so little fixed infrastructure, there is no assurance for developers that their investment would be safe.
Perhaps in Detroit, with few rapid transit options other than BRT, it would attract some of the development we've been looking for from a light rail system. We can hope - and push for - a true BRT system. But let's not give up on light rail: experience around the country shows light rail is really what attracts private investment to cities.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Exalted, Unreasonable Hope

Do you know the exalted, unreasonable hope that wells up out of utter despair? That's what I tried to get at with this piece.
- Darol Anger, from the liner notes to "The Unbearable Gift", on his CD album Woodshop.

I've been following with great interest Vivienne Armentrout's blog, "Local in Ann Arbor" (all links below). Vivienne has a great eye for detail and a gift for putting the details all together in a lucid, enlightening essay.

But much as I admire her abilities, I almost always end up in disagreement with her. (So much for the idea that we can solve all our disagreements if we all agree on the facts.)

Vivienne has been doing a carefully-researched series titled, "AATA: Moving Us Where?", analyzing the emerging county-wide transit plan, "Moving You Forward". Her well-documented conclusion: we can't do it. We don't have the money, and there are far too many uncertainties in the political arena, not to mention the uncertainties of life in general.

That's why Darol Anger's thoughts (quoted above) struck me when I noticed them in a copy of Sing Out magazine this morning. I continue to hope, unreasonable though it may seem, that we'll be able to develop and support a county-wide transit system. Here are two ways to look at it: historically, and in terms of alternatives.


When have we ever achieved anything worth doing, without risk? Consider...

  • Would we be living in America if our ancestors hadn't taken the risk of coming here, not knowing whether they would make it in the "new world"? (Many, many of them died in the attempt.)
  • Would the United States be an independent nation if the Founding Fathers had waited until the budget permitted them to raise an army? (And the outcome was in grave doubt for many years.)
  • Would the Interstate Highway System have been built if it was known back in 1956 that the system would cost more than 1.2 trillion dollars...and practically none of that was identified in the budget?

Many factors led to people's decisions to go ahead with these efforts. One factor was an optimistic vision of the future, an "unreasonable hope", as Darol Anger put it, that they could make their lives better by working through the uncertainties.

Another factor was "utter despair" at the current situation, whether it was poverty and opression in the "old world", anger at being exploited by England, or frustrating snarls of congestion on two-lane roads. My feeling is that, if we're not in "utter despair" yet (and many Michiganders are), we will be soon.

One Alternative

What happens if we elect the "status quo" alternative, continuing as we have been? Certainly, one alternative is to do nothing. We could try to continue with AATA as it is, supported mainly by the millage paid by Ann Arbor residents, together with state and federal funding and relatively small "Provision of Service Agreement" funds from outlying areas.

As Vivienne has counted the cost of improvement, so too, we need to count the cost of doing nothing. I hope Vivienne will update and elaborate on the estimate I did two years ago in my blog entry, "Can we afford a county-wide transit system?" Using data from the Census Bureau, WATS, AAA, and APTA, I came up with these conclusions:

  • 112,980 households in Washtenaw County had 2 or more automobiles;
  • the annual cost of owning an auto at that time was $9,190 (it's closer to $10,000 now);
  • if only 20% of the multi-auto houseolds were able to reduce their vehicles by one because of improved transit, the total savings in the county would be $207,657,240 each year;
  • if residents kept 75% of that money and paid only 25% for transit, the county-wide savings for residents who sold one car would amount to $155,742,930 county-wide, and the transit agency would receive $51,914,310 in local funds;
  • each household would pay $386.88 in transit tax, and those that sold a second vehicle would gain $1,160.64, a 300% return on investment.

These figures are now two years old, and they don't take into account Michigan's local tax structure. It would be a great service for someone with a better understanding of the legal details to update and refine these numbers.

We also need to consider the "collateral damage" of leaving most of the county very auto-dependent: the loss of people who can no longer afford to live in such an expensive transportation environment, and the loss of creative young people who far prefer to live free from the many burdens placed on us by our automobiles.

So the ultimate question to answer is, Can we afford not to have a county-wide transit system?

To learn more:

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rick Snyder's New Way to Go

Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder introduced a new transportation funding proposal. Little by little, details are coming out.
First, here are the main parts of the proposal as they were delivered Wednesday:
  • Changing the way motor fuel is taxed from per-gallon paid at the pump by motorists, to a percentage of the price paid by wholesalers; the shift is to be "revenue neutral" when it kicks in, but will change as the price of oil fluctuates;
  • Adding an additional registration fee for license plates;
  • Allowing regions to add a further fee to license plates for regional transportation projects;
  • Creating a regional transportation authority for Southeast Michigan that includes the City of Detroit, and the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw.
Today (Friday, Oct. 28) Dennis Schornack, Special Advisor to Gov. Snyder, added a number of details at a meeting of the special financial advisory group of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. (This is the blue-ribbon pannel assembled to propose funding methods for the Transit Master Plan.)
Remember that these are still proposals, and must be approved by the House and Senate, which will certainly have a lot to say about it...but here are some of the highlights:
  • The state-wide registration fee is to be based on the value of the vehicle, as the current fee is; it is advertized as "$10 per month", but that obviously adds up to $120 per year; that's said to be a maximum, so presumably people whose cars are worth less money would pay less than $120 for their registration;
  • Any county or contiguous group of counties can propose a license fee of up to $40 per year; (that's $13.3333 per month); the amount would need to be approved by the majority of voters in the proposed region, with no "opt-out" provision for sub-regions that don't think they want to participate; in our case, that means the votes of everybody in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, including the City of Detroit, would be tallied together - not as individual counties, and if the majority of voters in one county voted against it while the majority of the region voted in favor, they would still be subject to the tax;
  • All the funds raised by either new fuel or new license fees would be subject to the Michigan constitutional requirement that 90% of all funds raised through vehicle and fuel taxes be allocated to roads and bridges, with a maximum of 10% going to transit;
  • Funds raised by a regional registration fee would be limited in where they can go: 95% would be directed to the county in which they are raised; in other words, for every $1,000,000 Washtenaw County raises, it would be guaranteed at least $950,000 for its internal use, but the other $50,000 could be spent in another part of the region at the discrition of the regional authority;
  • The Governor will recommend that the full 10% constitutionally allowable be used for transit, which is more than the amount currently allocated; using the example above, Washtenaw County would be able to use $100,000 for transit out of every $1,000,000 it raises through license fees;
  • The regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan would be responsible for four proposed transit routes: Gatiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, M-59, and Michigan Avenue to Detroit Metro Airport and Ann Arbor;
  • Other public transit services in the area would be "contracted" to provide service, and would receive federal and state funds through the regional transit authority
  • The committee setting up the regional authority for Southeast Michigan is composed of Governor Snyder, Mayor Dave Bing, andx Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff; these would continue to serve as titular heads of the authority once it is set up, though of course others would carry out the day-to-day administration.
So that's a lot of information, but it's all tentative. Remember the second Detroit River Bridge? The Governor proposes, the Legislature disposes. (But the Governor hasn't given up on the bridge yet...)
The information we have raises a lot of questions as well. Mr. Schornack, when questioned about some of them, smiled and said the Governor preferred to start with the "10,000-ft. view" and work out the details later. What questions do you have? We may be able to get at least a few answers from the Governor at Monday's Michigan Rail Summit.
Meanwhile, I'm off the the Midwest Highspeed Rail Association's Fall meeting in Cleveland. I started this blog on the AATA bus coming home from the meeting, and I'm now on the Megabus en route from Toledo to Cleveland. (I had to try the Megabus service to see how public transportation that claim to make a profit actually feels to the consumer. More later...)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

If you don't offer walkable urbanism, you can write off your future development

"If you don't offer walkable urbanism, you can write off your future development." - Christopher Leinberger

That was his answer when I asked about need for healthy development in the face Southeast Michigan's declining population and environment.

Leinberger, a Professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, was speaking at Concentrate's Speaker Series at The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase. (No joke.)

After his talk, I pressed him further about Ypsilanti Township's situation - after all, that's where I live and where I'm a Planning Commissioner. He answered with a smile, "Ah, Ypsilanti! What a great town!" "But what about the Township," I insisted. "Focus, focus, focus on the downtown!"

Unable to monopolize the Great Man's attention further, I couldn't tell him that Ypsi Township doesn't have a downtown. But I can imagine his reply if I had. "Work with the City!" Can we actually work together, the City and the Township...?

I just read in today's Ypsilanti Courier that Paul Schreiber, the City of Ypsilanti's Mayor, addressed his City Council with a gloom-and-doom message last night. So bad is the financial outlook that not only could 65% of the City's general-fund employees be laid off, but those that remained would have their health insurance capped or cropped. The Township isn't much better off, with the work-week reduced to 30 hours and mandatory furlough days.
The City's Water Street project was to be a great example of what Leinberger praised tonight as a "near-downtown" center of walkable urbanism. Instead, it's a $1.3 million annual debt load on the City and it's citizens. We've got to find a way to turn it from a burden into a profitable, tax-paying development. The City and the Township need to work together for that, because without a financially healthy urban center, neither of the Ypsilantis will pull through this financial crisis. But we can't seem to work together, can we?

It was Ben Franklin who said, "If we don't all hang together, then surely, we shall all hang separately."

Looks like we're about to prove him right. The noose is tightening around Ypsilanti, both City and Township. Let's get together and at least plan our development strategy jointly, beginning with walkable urbanism, a focus on downtown, and and end to greenfield development in the Township.

More on this later...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Q: Sustainable I understand, but why transit-oriented?

I've been re-thinking some of the basic issues Wake Up Washtenaw is here to address. Based on some of the questions I get when out talking with people, I'm going to "go back to the basics" with a series of FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions). Here's the first:

Q: Sustainable I understand, but why transit-oriented?

A: Transportation has determined how humans build communities since the rise of cities. Whether on rivers, harbors, or caravan routes, people living in fixed towns and villages want to be where they can take advantage of transportation routes. In the United States, it's especially important for us to be able to move freely, because the essence of freedom is being able to go where we want to go.When someone is arrested, the first freedom they lose is the ability go where they want.

During the second half of the 20th century, we Americans invested about 1.2 trillion dollars to build the Interstate Highway System, which enabled many of us - for a while - to live a long way from where we work, play, and get our food.  But now, we're paying the price: the result was sprawl, congestion, dependence on foreign oil, and forcing people either to invest heavily in personal transportation (cars), or be relegated to an under-class whose freedom to move around is very limited. Car-less people have relatively few choices of where to live in order to preserve their freedom of movement. That's why young people who prefer not to have a car migrate away from Michigan to live in cities like Chicago, Boston, Washington, Seattle, and San Francisco. And that's why being unable to own a car in Michigan is effectively a prison sentence.

Good, reliable transit provides everyone with a relatively inexpensive alternative way to get where they want to go...within limits. It doesn't go everywhere, and it never will. Transit will never replace personal vehicles for everyone, so it's important to have cars and trucks that don't burn petroleum products.

But strong, fixed transit does more than provide an alternative: it encourages communities to grow in compact clusters close to transit stations. Such communities enable people to obtain their daily needs within walking distance of where they live. It enables them to use transit to get to work on time. It makes it necessary to for them to walk a bit more, which improves their health. It eliminates the need to burn petroleum in order to get to a store for food. That, in turn, reduces our dependence on imported oil. (Americans send more money abroad to buy oil than we pay in taxes to maintain our roads.) And greenhouse gas emissions are reduced as well. Transportation is responsible for about 30% of America's greenhouse gas emissions.

So having communities that are oriented around good, fixed transit is an essential key to sustainability. There's a lot more we need to do, but without reshaping our communities away from sprawl, all other measures will fall very short of sustainability.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What ever happened to profitable public transportation?

Back in the 19th century, lots of entrepreneurial companies set up public transportation services...mainly rail-based, both on streets and on their own right-of-way. And they made handsome profits.
We still have a few private transportation companies making a profit in the early 21st century, but very few: some airlines (not all!), and just possibly some inter-city bus companies. Megabus? Greyhound? I'm not sure. (Usually I like to check my facts, but today I want to spark comment and discussion, so bear with me...and put in your two-dollars worth! [Inflation.])
I think it's critical to get private business to invest in - and make a profit from - public transportation. Why? Because we need to ramp up our public transportation options pretty quickly to avoid peak-oil problems, and if the private sector could be offered a profit in making that happen, it could get done much sooner.
Today, I want to look at how public passenger transportation used to make money, how it still does in some places, and why it no longer does here in the US.

How did they do it?

In the 19th century, railroads were money-making operations for a number of reasons...
  • At first, roads were terrible and there was no other practical way to get around. (Contrary to what some people may think, Conestoga wagons were never  transportation of choice - only of necessity.)
  • In competition with canals, they were faster and less labor-intensive.
  • When other railroads arose in competition, they either provided needed capacity, or were bought out; we see this happening in the airline industry now.
  • In the west, the government granted lands to the railroads - more than they needed for themselves, but enough to sell as real estate to pay for the cost of their construction. Of course, this land had been stolen from the Native Americans...
  • Monopoly was standard procedure whenever possible; when a railroad was the only one serving a territory, it charged crushing rates, and employed any means possible, including violence, to maintain its monopoly; ask any California historian about the "soulless Southern Pacific".

Why can't we do it anymore?

Several reasons, some connected to abuses of the past...
  • No more stolen Native American lands to give away to the railways.
  • Heavily subsidized options: highways are almost 100% subsidized by taxpayers, and airways are to a large extent also, yet the fact that we have to subsidize public bus and rail service comes as an unwelcome surprise to many Americans.
  • In order to use automobiles on "free" (publicly subsidized) highways, we pay more to foreign countries in gasoline and diesel costs than we do to our own government for the highways.
  • Transportation companies are not allowed to diversify much, because of their history of monopolizing and bullying.

Where does public transit make a profit?

True, there aren't many places where it does...but there are some. Each merits a closer look than I can give it, but here's a quick outline.
  • Latin America, for sure Curitiba, Brazil; and Bogota, Colombia; maybe others too. The government of these two cities built the infrastructure for bus rapid transit (BRT) and loaned money to private operators to purchase appropriate BRT equipment. The operators repay their loans, pay taxes, fuel, drivers, etc., and make a profit beyond that. Labor and fuel costs are relatively low in Latin America, which clearly helps.
  • France with high-speed rail. The French TGVs run on track paid for with government money, but they make enough profit from high-speed service to subsidize normal-speed service operation throughout France.
  • Japan has many private companies that run passenger railways and make a profit. Whether the railways themselves make a profit is not always clear, because the companies are all diversified into retail, real-estate, entertainment, banking, hospitality, and so forth. In many cases, a company's railway and its other holdings operate synergistically. For example, Hankyu owns department stores built over some of its stations, and hotels nearby, each part of the business helping the other.

Now what?

What can we do here in the United States? Are our legal and financial structures too rigid to allow public ground transportation to make a profit ever again? If not, what do we need to change? What legal and financial structures can be modified to permit us to provide lots more public transportation, and fast? Share your ideas here!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yes Folks, Some Government Spending Really Is "Investment"

These days, we hear politicians earning "points" by always using the word "wasteful" along with "government spending". Yes, some of it is wasteful. But I'd like to point out one example of government spending that's really an investment.

But first - what exactly is an "investment"?

According to Dictionary.com, to invest is:

to put (money) to use, by purchase or expenditure, in something offering potential profitable returns, as interest, income, or appreciation in value.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

In Finance investment is putting money into something with the expectation of gain, that upon thorough analysis, has a high degree of security of principle, as well as security of return, within an expected period of time.

Can we say that government spending on subsidized transportation is really an investment? Can we all expect to gain from it? Has thorough analysis been done? Is the principle secure? Will we see a secure return within an expected period of time? Or does it fail on any of these counts, making it truly wasteful?

Turns out the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Economic Development Research Group of Boston (EDR) recently did an analysis of spending on highways and transit. They were apparently concerned about the fact that Congress has failed to pass a Surface Transportation bill for three years. Too many things seemed more important to Congress, so we've been limping along with extensions of the previous bill. Since that was crafted eight years ago, a lot of things have changed. One very important change: the Highway Trust Fund, which help build and maintain our road system, has run out of money. It's been supplemented by money from the General Fund...some of it from our income taxes, much of it borrowed and contributing to the trillions of dollars of debt our country now owes.

Here's ASCE summary:

The nation’s deteriorating surface transportation infrastructure will cost the American economy more than 876,000 jobs, and suppress the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product by $897 Billion by 2020, according to a new report released today by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The report, conducted by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston, showed that in 2010, deficiencies in America’s roads, bridges, and transit systems cost American households and businesses roughly $130 billion, including approximately $97 billion in vehicle operating costs, $32 billion in delays in travel time, $1.2 billion in safety costs, and $590 million in environmental costs.
If investments in surface transportation infrastructure are not made soon, those costs are expected to grow exponentially. Within 10 years, U.S. businesses would pay an added $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by more than $7,000, and U.S. exports will fall by $28 billion per year.

What does this mean to ME?

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that in July of this year, 13,900,000 people were officially unemployed. If 876,000 were added to that, it would increase the number of unemployed by nearly 10%. That would further reduce investment in our transportation infrastructure by reducing tax revenue...but the infrastructure would still be deteriorating, needing more investment with less revenue. The infrastructure is our "principle" (because we already invested in it) and if it deteriorates, it would reduce the "security of principle" mentioned in the definition of investment above.
  • How much would it cost for each US household if we invest nothing more than we do now? According to the study, changing nothing incurs a loss of $7,000 per household. (Not a good investment.)
  • The Census Bureau tells us there were 112,611,029 households between 2005 and 2009. If, instead of losing $7000 each household were to invest half that amount ($3500 over the next ten years, or an average of $350 per year) there would be $394,138,601,500 ($394 billion) more spent on transportation infrastructure and services over the ten-year period..
  • According to the Department of Energy the 2009 revenue into the Highway Trust Fund was $36.9 billion. But an additional $350 per year investment from each household produces roughly $39 billion each year, more than doubling the Highway Trust Fund.
  • This $350 per year would result in a net gain of $6650 per year, or $66,500 on the the $350 annual investment.

Is this "wasteful government spending"? You decide.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Calling All Champions

In the last post, I talked about the some of the arguments for and against dropping the WALLY line. In this post, I want to talk discuss what to do about it.

We need a Champion!

By now, I've been to quite a few conferences about transit and transit-oriented development. I've learned that one thing in common with all successful transit initiatives is that they have a "champion" - a person or group who takes an interest, talks to the right people, monitors progress, and when progress lags, kicks butt.

WALLY has no champion.

But isn't AATA the champion for WALLY? No. It can't be.

Let me explain. AATA is a tax-supported transit authority. Like all tax-supported entities, it cannot, by statute, advocate taxing the people to support itself. Conflict of interest.

I'm sure Mike Benham would love to be the champion for WALLY and any number of other the transit initiatives that are part of the "smart growth" master plan. And he would make a great champion. So would Michael Ford. But neither of them can do it without putting AATA in an illegal position...and losing their jobs.

So...where can WALLY find a champion?

I've been inspired by the Texas Eagle Monitoring and Performance Organization (TEMPO). It's a "champion" group for Amtrak's Texas Eagle, the train the runs from Chicago to San Antonio. It's composed of mayors, chambers of commerce, and citizens from the cities and towns along the Texas Eagle's route. They did an incredible job of making sure the Texas Eagle kept running when it was threatened with extinction by Congress. They've monitored its performance and let Amtrak know when they are not happy with it. They've managed to get the frequency increased from three time weekly to every day, by lobbying their congressmen and badgering Amtrak. They've produced travel guides for passengers that whoop up the attractions of each town along the way.

Why did they bother? Because they realized the economic value of well-run, reliable, frequent rail service to each and every town along the way. That's why it was the mayors and chambers that started the organization. And notice that elected officials and business leaders carry a lot of weight with Congress.

That's what we need for WALLY: elected officials and business leaders. They need to champion the economic benefits of a commuter line the runs north and south, as well as east and west. They're the ones who can talk to legislators and have their voices heard.

And not just for WALLY. The Ann Arbor to Detroit line needs similar champions. So does the Wolverine line - Amtrak's service from Pontiac to Chicago. SEMCOG can't advocate for the AA-Detroit line any more than AATA can advocate for WALLY. And by 2013 or 2014, Michigan will have to pay for the entire cost of Wolverine service, according to PRIIA, a Federal statute that modifies the way Amtrak is funded. Who will go to the State legislature and tell our congressmen and senators we really need Wolverine service? Not Amtrak - they are forbidden by statute.

It's up to us, the citizens, to alert the elected and business leaders of the economic value of each of these services to their communities, and point out what they stand to lose without them.

So let's do it. Let's kick butt.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is WALLY Dead?

At Tuesday's meeting of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's Planning and Development Committee there was a short but intense discussion of WALLY, the WAshtenaw-LIvingston commuter rail proposal.

You see, about $190K has been budgeted for station architecture, but not spent this year. Should it remain in the budget for next year? The money has come from several sources, including Washtenaw County, the City of Howell, and AATA itself. The question came up when Board Member David Nacht questioned whether it was responsible to pay architects to design stations if the chances of trains running was practically nil.

Mr. Nacht is doing his job in a responsible way. His point is that spending taxpayer money for something that's already doomed is irresponsible, and AATA should either return the money or use it for something more likely to succeed.

AATA staff members pointed out that money has already been spent for WALLY line track upgrades, signal systems, grade crossing adjustments, refurbishing rail cars, and environmental studies. Why kill the project now?

The answer - which is well taken - was that operating funds haven't been identified, so even if all the preparations are made, how can we run trains without enough money? Without Livingston County's support for WALLY, the trains just won't run anyway.

Good points, but not insuperable. If it had been easy, we would have done it already. Although I respect Mr. Nacht for trying to be a good steward of taxpayer money, cutting off funding for WALLY is not responsible for two reasons...

1. Money already invested

A lot of money has been invested in WALLY already. If the $190K is given back, it will effectively kill WALLY. The point is not that the architecture of stations is essential to get WALLY going. The service can start, if necessary, using concrete slabs and bus shelters. But AATA has been the leading agency for WALLY, and refusing to spend money on it would send a powerful message that it's a dead duck.

Mr. Nacht's question is, "Aren't we just throwing good money after bad?" If the death of WALLY was a sure thing, I suppose he'd be right. But it's not a sure thing unless AATA kills it. More on that later...

Another reasonable question of Mr. Nacht's: "Can't the track be used for freight and the rail cars for other purposes?" Yes, but the freight business run by Great Lakes Central Railroad was doing fine before the tracks were upgraded. MDOT, which provided the money for the upgrades, did it specifically for passenger service. Its purpose was to reduce congestion on parallel US 23 during peak travel times. It directed the money to rail rather than highway because adding lanes to US 23 would be far, far more expensive. And yes, the rail cars could be used on the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line when/if it starts, but there is another set of cars refurbished for that purpose. If WALLY doesn't use the cars intended for it, the money will have been spent for resources that won't be used.

In short, by saving $190K, several million will have been spent needlessly. I call this penny-wise but pound-foolish.

2. Future money lost

By refusing to continue with AATA's funding for WALLY, we-the-taxpayers will lose out on a great deal of money we could be getting. Some of this is Federal and State transportation money, but even more is private investment that will go elsewhere

Yes, WALLY is public transportation and is eligible for Federal and State funds. Both Federal and State treasuries are tight, and likely to get even tighter. But what money is available will go elsewhere if give up hope now.

Moreover, the primary reason for WALLY (in my view, at least) is not to relieve congestion on US 23, helpful as that would be. It's to provide an economic incentive for investment in compact, transit-oriented development in Southeast Michigan. That's a goal worth a lot of effort, because without it we'll lose not only money, but one chance for a future with hope of sustainability. Our children and grandchildren will find themselves in a region whose developement is choked by high transportation costs and low potential for growth. Those who can, will leave the area to those who can't. It's what I'm working to prevent.

The wall, the chicken, and the egg

Mr. Nacht is afraid continuing efforts on WALLY is like driving full-speed into a concrete wall. I know from my study of rail transit growth that it's a wall of mist. Forgive me for saying it again: it's normal for rail initiatives to face opposition and for people to think it will never work. But the opposition is more a wall of mist than of concrete. When nay-sayers see the benefits and decide to invest time and money in the project, it works. Or at least, if they stand back with a wait-and-see attitude, once it gets going the rail line proves itself worthy of continued funding.

The wall is not simply nay-sayers, but a lack of obvious funds to run the trains with. Nobody "knows" where the money will come from. That doesn't mean there isn't money to do it with. Remember that 76% of people polled for AATA's Transit Master Plan said they wanted the Smart Growth plan - the plan requiring the highest level of citizen funding. WALLY is part of that plan, and though it won't serve everyone, it is part of the package people say they want. Out of the entire Smart Growth plan, it's only a small part, requiring a modest proportion of any funds raised through millages. For the last several months we've heard Tea Party legislators talking about "the will of the American people" being to cut back on everything. I honestly don't believe it. Some Americans, sure. Not all of us. Paying for something that will benefit our local economy is far different from sending money off to Washington with no say in how it's spent.

Michael Benham compared finding the funding to a chicken-and-egg process. Without operating funds, why should we build it? But without building it, how can we operate it? Clearly we have to start by building it. I'd rather see us being the egg, not the chicken - in the sense of "chickening out".

If we don't invest in Southeast Michigan, nobody else will. Let's do it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Public-Private Stations

As news of the impact of Federal budget cuts trickles down, I'm reminded once more of Wake Up Washtenaw's emphasis on private-sector investment. Since its inception four years ago, Wake Up Washtenaw has held that private investment, not government dollars, is the key to successful, sustainable community development.

Sure, this isn't a time when the private sector has a lot of money to throw around, either. But the principle remains: the key to success lies in private investment.

Why? Because the underlying philosophy of our country is private enterprise.

Is government "bad"? No. Is business "good"? No. But each has its strengths and weaknesses.

The private sector can usually come up with more innovative ideas, and can usually get from plans to accomplishments faster. But business requires a rapid return on investment, and may be unwilling to shoulder risks. The government, on the other hand, is here for the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens (or should be) and so can take risks if necessary. It can wait much longer for return on its investments...and is often OK with no direct returns at all. The government also has what are known as "police powers", which in the legal sense include regulating land use and, sometimes, using "eminent domain" to acquire land for the public good.

All of that adds up to "public-private partnership" (PPP) being a good way to go.

Stations for transit, whether for rail or bus, are a good example of PPP opportunities that often go begging. But we've recently seen a couple examples where PPP has been used here in Michigan: one is Woodward Avenue light rail in Detroit, where station "naming rights" are sold for $3 million each.

The other example is Ann Arbor's Fuller Road station...sort-of. It's being built with funds from the City of Ann Arbor, a Federal High Speed Rail grant, and the University of Michigan Medical Center (UMMC). It's the latter that can be considered private...sort-of. Certainly, it's not the usual kind of "private" partner, but UMMC functions in many ways like a private business, so let's just call it that. After all, it's the largest employer in Washtenaw County.

Looking farther afield, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in the D.C. area has capitalized on PPP with many of its stations, leasing land to developers of high-rise buildings.

Even farther away, Japan has many examples of railways (all are at least nominally private) that make money from a host of travel- and land-related sources. The typical medium-to-large Japanese rail station is lined with shops, much as airports are in the U.S. Many also have high-rise or underground buildings with shopping centers, hotels, banks, and offices, directly over the tracks, under tracks and street, or immediately adjacent to them. Washington's and Chicago's Union Stations offer shops or, at least, food courts.

Why don't more of our stations do that? At meetings, I've gotten a sense that transit planners think primarily about government funds for their projects. There are well-established channels for government money, but not private funds, to flow to transit agencies. Likewise, developers and businesses don't analyze potential new locations in terms of possible partnerships with transit. Most banks and other lenders don't think of PPP with transit as a safe lending risk.

That doesn't mean forward-looking transit officials haven't tried. AATA's CEO Michael Ford has gone practically door-to-door along Washtenaw Avenue looking for businesses willing to help support improved bus service along the corridor. And the new AATA downtown transit center will apparently be built without any private investment. When urged at a Board meeting a couple of years ago, the response was a brief, "We've tried". But apparently failed.

And yet, since the 1960s Federal transit funding laws have encouraged PPP. Why hasn't it taken off? Are the Federal rules too complex? Are lenders too hesitant? Are the communication channels too rusty? Most of all, what can we do about it...?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Transportation Characteristics of Livable Communities

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) released “Public Perceptions on Transportation Characteristics of Livable Communities,” a report that outlines the findings of a 2009 survey.

I've rummaged through most of the data and pulled out some results you might find interesting. What do people think are the most important transportation needs for a community?

Here's a ranking by perceived importance:

  1. Major roads or highways that access and serve your community
  2. Side walks, paths or other safe walking routes to shopping, work or schools
  3. Adequate parking in the downtown or central business district
  4. Pedestrian-friendly streets or boulevards in the downtown or central business district
  5. Easy access to an airport
  6. Reliable local bus, rail or ferry transportation that can be reached without driving
  7. Reliable long-distance bus or train transportation to and from major metropolitan areas
  8. Bike lanes or paths to shopping, work or schools

Here's how the ranking was arrived at:

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics conducted a survey in October of 2009. Among other questions, they asked people, How important is it to have X in your community, where X was one of the eight items listed above. People were asked whether each as "Very important ", "Somewhat important ", "Somewhat unimportant", or , "Not important". (Pretty standard survey stuff.) They tabulated the percentage of each response, weighted by population and similar factors. To simplify the results, I combined the two "important" and the two "unimportant" categories to see what percentage of people favored or did not favor each transportation option.

Of course, the details reveal a lot than a simple ranking. For one thing, each mode of transportation was considered important...just not quite as important as the others. So here's a set of pie charts showing percentages of important vs. unimportant for each mode:


Side walks and paths

Downtown parking

Pedestrian-friendly downtowns

Airport access

Local transit

Long distance bus and train

Bike lanes

My bottom line conclusion:

People are aware of the need for multiple modes of transportation, but are still focused primarily on automobiles. It's noteworthy that they want to be able to walk comfortably and safely, both in neighborhoods and downtown. But transit, bikes, and long-distance public surface transportation are not as high in people's priorities. *Sigh*

There's lots more interesting information in the survey results, including how people get to work, and a lot of questions related to airport screening procedures. I'll talk about those later, and - for my fellow data-geeks -I'll put up the spreadsheet I derived from downloaded and enhanced from BTS's on-line data. (Their on-line spreadsheets are basically database dumps, and don't allow information to be easily extracted.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Smearing Woodward Avenue Rail

Detroit's new light rail system is progressing well, in spite of media reports to the contrary.

Why is this important?

Well, nobody needs to be told about Detroit's economic woes. Looking at other cities like Charlotte, Denver, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Dallas, and many others, we see economic investment ballooning as soon as light rail is put in. In many cases, the investment starts well before the trains start running, and light rail usually brings between six and eight dollars of private investment for every dollar spent on building and running the system. Light rail, in other words, acts as a big magnet for investment. Detroit sure could use a magnet for investment...

But looking at cities that recently built light rail, we see the same scenario re-enacted every time. When the first light rail line is proposed, many people don't believe the "magnet" will work in their city, or doubt the figures cited for other cities. Quite a few believe that unlike other cities, residents of their city will never give up their cars, and the trains will run nearly empty, so the whole effort is a boondoggle. Then finally the first line is built. Almost always, the number of riders using it exceeds predictions made by the planners (because Federal planning formulas are extremely conservative). Construction cranes sprout up along the route. Skeptics eyeing the line gradually find their mouths hanging open in astonishment as the predictions come true. Between one and two years after the first line is built, every suburban mayor in the region is making angry speeches about how unfair it is that their jurisdiction has been denied the benefits of light rail. The race is on to see who can get light rail built in their community first. Believe it or not, this really happens time after time, in city after city.

So at this stage, it's not surprising to see the opposition online in comments. What does surprise me is to see articles like the one that came out yesterday morning in Crain's Detroit Business. That's a very reputable, well-respected publication. The article, titled "Woodward Rail: The Great Train Jobbery", focused on supposed attitudes and interactions between officials and engineers, rather than on the light rail plans themselves. The author, Bill Shea, seems a lot better at stirring up controversy and (presumably) grabbing readership for his articles.

I was at the TRU meeting yesterday evening (Monday, July 11) where Megan Owens and representatives of DDOT and the engineering firm URS presented a progress report. I'd like to pass along a few facts to counterbalance some of the claims made in Mr. Shea's article...


The proposed Woodward Avenue light rail project is in jeopardy.
The private consortium of investors that has pledged $100 million toward the project's $528 million cost doesn't have faith in the Detroit Department of Transportation's plan and won't provide funding until it does, sources familiar with the situation told Crain's.

Fact: "Rip" Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation, which pledged $35 million, was the most vocal critic of having the light rail tracks run in the center of Woodward Avenue, rather than at curbside. But he made a statement broadcast on Michigan Radio Monday saying he and the Kresge Foundation have never threatened to withdraw their funding.

We are completely committed to making this work. We’re all now negotiating through the details of how to get it done. Not whether it should be done, not whether it can be done, but how it will get done.


The engineers for the project insist their design is superior to all other options for Woodward. It's natural that those in the pay of DDOT are going to argue that their plan is the One True Religion, and that anything else is so fatally stupid as to be beneath both contempt and worthiness of discussion.

Fact: The federal grants process requires multiple plans to be considered and carefully evaluated.

DTOGS identified a wide range of potential transit improvements in a study area encompassing the City of Detroit and the Cities of Dearborn, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. Fourteen transit corridors identified in the SEMCOG Regional Transportation Plan (Figure 2-1), including adjacent primary roadways within a two-mile buffer area, and 13 transit technologies were initially identified for evaluation.
DTOGS used a systematic process to narrow the number of alternatives, ultimately resulting in selection of the Project: LRT [Light Rail Transit] on Woodward Avenue between Downtown Detroit and the Michigan State Fairgrounds near 8 Mile Road. (FEIS, sec. ES.5)

After analyzing the fourteen corridors, three were arrived at as most likely: Gatiot, Michigan, and Woodward. Three transit technologies were winnowed out: conventional bus, bus rapid transit (BRT), and light rail. You can see a detailed discussion of each alternative in Section 2 of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), linked at the end of this post. (For federally-funded projects like this, the FEIS is like a contract. Once it is approved by both local and federal parties, it's "the law" on how the project will be done. It's not a detailed engineering plan, so issues that couldn't be resolved without careful engineering are left open.)

DDOT representatives and the engineers from URS held several public meetings to get input beginning in July, 2010, and several designs were offered to everybody for consideration; a total of 497 people attended. (Section ES.10 of the FEIS lists the meetings and their attendance.) In the ~500 public comments they received, 91% favored center-running; only 9% thought running along the curbside was better.

There are 517 questions and comments received from the public and from other agencies. Every one of them is listed with a response in Appendix H (linked at the end).


The argument amounts to, "We're engineers, we know best. You're not an engineer, so just shut up and hand over the money."

Fact: Matthew Cullen, President CEO of M1 Rail (the business group offering $100 million) wrote the following comment in an email dated March 14:

I am writing to express my support for the Woodward Light Rail project in Detroit, Michigan and specifically the B3 alignment option described in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. (FEIS Appendix H, question B.10)

The B3 alignment is not the one chosen, and a long, courteous reply is given explaining why not. Option B runs along the curb all the way from downtown to the State Fairgrounds. But the alignment chosen is in fact a compromise, incorporating curbside running downtown and center-running north of Adams Street / Grand Circus Park - five blocks, plus Campus Martius. (It was also noted during the TRU meeting that the Federal Government is paying 60-80% of the cost of building the project, so if "money talks," it's feds who have the deciding vote, not the M1 group.)

Note: One of the major reasons for choosing the center-running option for most of the route was safety. MDOT, which owns the road, and FTA/USDOT which makes the rules, are very concerned about the safety of the light rail. The trains are 200 feet long, much bigger than a trolley car. Running along the curb next to parked cars and blocking traffic trying to make right turns was just too much of a recipe for trouble. In addition, the Fire Department was concerned that if the tracks ran along the curb, the high-voltage wires (usually 600 volts) would make it dangerous to fight fires in adjacent buildings. There is a lot of public concern about safety, too - some people at the TRU meeting wanted the trains to be equipped with radar or sonar to stop them if someone strayed in front of them, and if they were to run along the curb, it would be more likely for a child or someone in a wheel chair or on a bike to accidentally fall from the sidewalk into the path of a train.

The problem with Mr. Shea's journalistic approach - in addition to peddling falsehoods - is that it fans the flames of a fire that threatens one of Detroit's biggest chances to attract investment. Granted, Mr. Shea obviously doesn't believe light rail will bring investment, or that the City of Detroit can build and run it effectively. He makes comparisons to the People Mover, which certainly seems to have done little to improve Detroit's economy or carry very many people. But there's a big difference between a line using experimental technology that goes around in a small circle, in one direction only; and a line using proven technology that can actually take people from the outskirts of town downtown and back.

Predictably, there were public comments on Mr. Shea's article (not Mr. Shea's words) that it's "a rail line to nowhere". That's saying that neither downtown Detroit, nor midtown, nor Highland Park are anywhere worth going to. I've run across this attitude about Detroit before, and it's totally defeatist. It's equivalent to saying, "Last one out of Detroit, turn off the lights." We don't need people who are ready to give up on Detroit, or southeast Michigan, or Michigan as a whole. We would do ourselves a favor to buy such people a one-way ticket to anywhere.

So, Mr. Shea, why not at least ignore the light rail issue - you can hope it will go away if you do. But please, don't try to kill it with falsehoods and smear tactics. In the end, it will only hurt Crain's Detroit Business. Ask Rupert Murdoch...he'll tell you cheating doesn't pay in journalism. He just found out the hard way.

To learn more:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 3

What's an effective Message?

We heard from lots of people - both winners and losers of elections - about messages that work for voters. Here's a brief distillation:

Campaign "SMART":

  • Specific plans ,rather than "improve transit"
  • Measurable goals
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

Get on message and stay on message!

  • Answer the question: What's in it for me?
  • Present a long term vision: What's the plan?
  • Assure voters of accountability: Can I trust you to use my taxes wisely?

A couple of observations from studies of election results:

  • New rail projects appeared to have some correlation with lost elections in some regions, but maintaining or expanding existing rail does not; this makes sense, as there is a widespread phenomenon of support for rail transit in areas that have experienced the benefits.
  • A very positive factor is the perception of a congestion "crisis" (or other need for transportation alternatives) in a region; but this doesn't always work: Atlanta is the prime counter-example, since they built a heavy-rail transit line ("MARTA") in the 1970s, but refused to expand it because of an apparent perception that only "undesirable people" used it.

Nine Focus-Points

  1. Focus on return on investment, rather than taxes
  2. Forget TV, print, and radio. Use Facebook, blogging & tweeting. There was a strong counter-argument to this assertion as well: while e-media are ideal for young, engaged professionals, senior citizens by-and-large don't use e-media, yet they are the demographic most likely to vote in "off" elections.
  3. Get young professionals on the team (maybe "lost") but passionate and wanting to contribute.
  4. Hit the chamber of commerce - through the chambers, you can work better with business.
  5. Set specific goals and stick with them.
  6. Own the "emotional vibe" - don't respond to the angry vibe. Be optimistic, returns-oriented, positive.
  7. Don't try to convince the hard-core opposition; work hardest to get support from independents; they respond best to solid numeric support and evidence on the Web.
  8. Get a progressive coalition together, but consensus is illusory; rather than seek con census, look for common ground among progressives.
  9. Leave ideology at home: talk about issues on which you share common ground. For example, climate change and global warming are perceived as ideological issues (many Americans don't "believe in" man-made climate change), but most people can support job-creation and economic growth.

OK, there we are. I learned a lot at this conference...hope you find it helpful, too!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 2

In this post, I'll share about educating, persuading, and arguing transit issues. Plus, we heard at the Transit Initiatives conference from a great - but very unusual - transit advocate, whom I'd like to tell you about.

One very important difference between electing an official and passing a transit proposal is this: Individuals campaigning for office are expected to "go on the stump" and ask people to vote for them. In transit initiatives, the "candidate" is the transit agency, but they are not allowed to "stump" for their issue because they're public agencies. A citizens' group must be formed to advocate for the transit proposal, tell people "Vote Yes", and get them out to vote.

For this reason, transit campaigns are divided into two parts: education and advocacy.

If a transit issue is on the ballot, there must be a transit plan. The plan is normally prepared by the transit agency, often with the help of specialized consultants, and paid for with public money. It will usually involve expansion of service, or at least propose maintaining existing levels. Since the plan is paid for by the public, it's the public's right to know what it is, and the transit agency's obligation to educate the public about it. So the education campaign is generally the transit agency's primary activity in an election campaign.

The Vote Yes part and the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) part are handled by the citizen organization. In St. Louis, this was done primarily by Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), an organization founded in the mid-1990s. It corresponds in many ways to Detroit's Transportation Riders United (TRU). Their job was to pull together groups that support transit and raise funds for campaign expenses - primarily advertising - but they also hired a consulting firm specializing in transit initiatives.

In conjuction with their consultant, CMT came up with a really effective campaign message: "Transit: some of us use it, all of us need it." They reinforced the message with interviews on the Metro rail trains of service providers who need transit to get to work - nurses, restaurant servers, and others. The point of the ads was that even if you don't use transit yourself, you depend on people who depend on transit...so, Vote Yes!

Another very effective move on their part was recruiting two co-leaders for the campaign: one, a leader of the African American community, the other...the mayor of a conservative St. Louis suburb.

John Nations, Mayor of Chesterfield, Missouri, was elected by a staunchly Republican electorate to be in charge of an upper-middle-class, white suburb. He was certainly not the obvious type of person to head up a pro-transit campaign. He was a lawyer (not currently practicing) who had prospered as head of a suurban development company. But he understood the business value of transit. In fact, when the St. Louis transit agency was defeated in a 2008 renewal measure and had to cut service drastically, Mr. Nations lead his City Council in budgeting extra funds to maintain bus service to Chesterfield. Naturally, that's what suggested him as co-leader of the campaign.

One of his first decisions as campaign co-leader was to engage an election consultant specializing in conservative, Republican campaigns. These people knew what the hot-button issues for conservative voters were, and were able to craft a campaign to address them.

That did not mean arguing against conservative issues. One very important point in transit campaigns - which all the experienced people agreed on - was, don't argue with your opponents. You won't convince them, and you'll get into negative statements that are more likely to damage than to help your cause. Rather, stick to your main message - in this case, "Some of us use transit, all of us need it". That can be said in many different ways using many people's stories.

In fact, stories are very important, and far more helpful than "arguments" or "doctrines". One consultant went so far as to say, "Don't talk ideology - talk only business". "Ideology" includes environmentalism, social justice, global warming, CO2 emissions, and a host of other good reasons for funding transit. "Business" is the positive impact transit has on the economy of a region. Especially in these "down" times, "it's the economy, stupid!" that makes or breaks elections.

Now, the message can - and should - be varied depending on the audience. Younger voters, especially college students, are very aware of environmental issues and are concerned about the earth. For them, the environmental message is very important, and needs to be included. Social justice is critical in minority and faith-based communities. But the central message for the general electorate is the economic benefit transit brings.

An important aspect of this is, "What's in it for me". All voters want to know that their taxes will be used for something that will help them as individuals and families. The more direct that is, the better. Hence the value of stories.

I'll close with a story that was very effective in the St. Louis campaign. Mayor Nations received a phone call from a constituent who thanked him for insuring good bus service to Chesterfield. Why the call? The woman said she had never ridden a public bus in her life, but wanted to thank the Mayor on behalf of her mother. Oh, she takes the bus or uses Call-A-Ride? No, she's in a nursing home. Huh...? Well the woman had heard conversations among the nursing aides and staff about how they wouldn't have been able to get to work without the bus. If the bus had been discontinued, there would have been a critical staff shortage at the nursing home, and the quality of care would have seriously deteriorated. Either that, or they would have had to raise the wages of the aides so they could afford their own cars, which would have driven the cost of the nursing home beyond this family's means. So, Thank You, Mister Mayor!

St. Louis Metro won the 2010 transit tax initiative. And Mr. Nations is now CEO of St. Louis Metro Transit!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Winning Transit Elections, part 1

This week I've been attending the Center for Transportation Excellence conference on "Transit Initiatives and Communities". It's about best ways to fund transit, with emphasis on winning funding elections. There's a lot of good info, so I'm going to break it up into more than one post.

Confession time: I'm totally new to politics. Worse yet, I hate politics. But you've got to "do politics" to fund transit in a democracy, and I wouldn't want to be part of any other kind of government, so...here goes!

You might be familiar with how elections are won or lost, but apparently there are important differences between electing candidates and passing funding proposals. We were fortunate to have at the conference not only consultants who specialize and have a lot of experience in transit funding campaigns, but also advocates and politicians who had worked on them. They shared their experiences of losing and winning, and were able to give us tips on what to do and what not to do.

I'll start with something that's probably well known to political activists, but was relatively new to me - and was presented in a very clear fashion. It's how you categorize voters by when they vote and how they vote.

How People Vote
    For Proposal Undecided Against
When they vote Always Educate + Enlist
Educate + Persuade
Sometimes Educate + GOTV
Educate + Persuade + GOTV

The critical point is who to talk to, and how. That's shown in the shading of the squares. The short version is this:

  • Educate everybody about what the transit plan is;
  • Persuade people who are undecided and get them to vote; (GOTV = Get Out The Vote)
  • Get all who support transit out to vote, especially if they only vote sometimes;
  • Don't try to persuade people who oppose transit or taxes - it doesn't work, and of course, don't try to get them to vote.

Presenting transit issues usually works much better in "off" elections - that is, elections that are not presidential or congressional contests. If you want to advertize (you probably do!), it's much less expensive in "off" election seasons. Fewer people come out and vote during "off" elections, and the ones who do are more likely to be in favor of transit. But if university students are a big part of your constituency, the election shouldn't be in August, when they're not in town! They usually vote enthusiastically for transit.

OK - enough for now. More later!