Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Official "I told you so."

Last Monday after our weekly local food policy group meeting I popped into the library branch across the street. I had a few minutes to peruse the recent releases section, and found an interesting looking book called:

Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars and Suburbs
by Eric W. Sanderson, author of Mannahatta

Now, I blast through books pretty quickly, but this one has gone very fast because this guy apparently loves charts and graphs as much as I do. But what made me stop and say, "Ah-ha!" appears in a section that starts on page 206 near the bottom, called "Roads to Rails." Yes, you read that rightly. Roads to Rails.

"...When imagining the [coming] streetcar revolution, don't rely on your experience of public transit today, with long unpredictable waits, dingy subway tunnels, and motorbus diesel fumes. Instead, imagine what every city once had - lots and lots of streetcars running all the time along every big street. ...Streetcars...are [part of] the beginnings of a new transportation network, reaching...across America and bringing people to light rail trains running along major thoroughfares. Light rails are close cousins of the subway and elevated railway, except they run on the ground.

...America already has a world-class freight rail system. ...Today freight railways connect to trucks for the final delivery; in the future, they will connect to streetcars, and in the cities, the old subway tunnels. ...At night specially designed flatbed streetcars will pull up to businesses or neighborhood stations. ...Curb cutouts with loops of side track will provide lading sites out of the main flow [of traffic].

...We make this happen by committing roads to rails, literally. Dedicating road space to rails resolves two problem simultaneously. First, the roads turn out to be excellent places to build railways at lower cost. The budgets of most rail projects today are based on an assumption that automobile traffic will continue on ad infinitum. ...they literally have nowhere to go in today's world because all our [urban] land is already given over to established public and private uses. ...As a result, the budgets of [projects] are swollen with funds for purchasing rights-of-way and to construct tunnels, overpasses, elevated lines, and other extraordinarily expensive acts of engineering necessary to find a route without disturbing the [angry gods of the] car. Making the counter assumption of [limited] cars provides extraordinary relief - now there is lots of space and reduced costs. Roadways are already engineered for transport, with bridges and tunnels in place. The electricity is already there... Dedicating roads to rail means that capital costs drop dramatically because land acquisition and grading expenses evaporate; it also means we need less land dedicated to mechanized transportation, so we have more room for sidewalks, bike paths, parks, and garden cafes.

...Deploying railways down Main Street provides a second great advantage: it competes with the cars that remain. As streetcars...become more prevalent [and are given preferential treatment at intersections, etc.]...congestion worsens for automobiles, fuel costs rise [and insurance, and taxes, and mileage fees are implemented, not to mention the costs of just buying more cars], and free parking vanishes [I think it pretty well already has downtown here where we live!], more people will see the wisdom of giving up on cars [for urban transport, and utilize the streetcars, trolleys, bike paths and walkable neighborhoods]...

Do you hear that jingling in your pocket? That's the 20% of your income now free to be deployed elsewhere in the economy...."

Any of that sound familiar, class? Wait for it...Yes! That is pretty much exactly what I told the LFUCG at the planning commission meeting back in 2007, right down to the freight delivery at night.

Just think, if our area had inter-urbans running between Lex and the surrounding towns, if we had regional rail to Lousiville and Cincinnati, and streetcars serving every neighborhood. Since republicans plan to sell off all the highways and interstates as toll roads, commuting will be even more annoying than Mr. Sanderson imagines, and more costly.

The city would install and own the basic infrastructure, as well as the actual streetcars and rail cars, he goes on to explain. These then could be leased to private companies to run, or kept as a govt affiliated non-profit public service with an independent board. (Leases to for-profits would only be 3-5 years in length, and a public town meeting would decide whether the customers were happy with the prices and service or not.) Since transportation is a necessity of life, I am far more in favor of the non-profit solution.

Vehicle Miles Traveled - VMT - has fallen and will continue to fall, despite claims of a so-called "recovery." Tax revenue for maintaining roads for cars continues to fall and efforts to boost revenue will only drive more people away from the market, no pun intended. There is not enough gasoline tax revenue to maintain roads now. Continuing to commit to more roads is foolish in the extreme. There is no economic model that enables families with falling wages to continue paying higher and higher taxes and operational costs for cars.

The fact is the expenses of private automobiles are no longer sustainable and will become increasingly less so, as cost creep drives more and more families away from automobiles being affordable. It is time Lexington and every township take an honest, hard look at our priorities for transportation spending. We should not be subsidizing a dead-end, obsolete product, and should instead re-direct our efforts at democratic and egalitarian solutions, accessible to all, and not-for-profit.