The commuter rail turf battle

Carolyn Feibel’s Chronicle article does a good job of outlining the growing turf battle over commuter rail in the Houston region. METRO, Galveston, and the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (with support from Harris County) are all pursuing their own, independent commuter rail plans. We have two uncoordinated studies for commuter rail from Houston to Galveston, both studying the same technology on the same alignment.

Clearly, everyone needs to get on the same page. Duplicate efforts waste money, reduce the odds of getting federal funding, and may well lead to an uncoordinated system.

So who should be in charge? Fundamentally, I don’t think prospective riders care. If they get where they want to go, if their connections are smooth, if the same ticket works for their whole trip, if they can go to one place to get all the schedules and information they need, it doesn’t matter which agency does what.

In fact, it’s normal for commuter rail systems operated by one agency to connect to local transit operated by another:

  • In New York City, commuter rail lines in New York and New Jersey are operated by the MTA, which also operates New York subways and bus. But New Jersey commuter rail lines, which share a station with New York lines, are operated by New Jersey Transit, which also operates local rail and bus, and they connect to PATH, a local rail system operated by a third agency.
  • In Los Angeles, MTA operates subway, light rail, and bus, multiple cities operate additional local bus networks, and a multi-county agency operates commuter rail. All these systems connect.
  • In Chicago, the “El” and local bus are operated by the CTA while commuter rail is operated by METRA, but a regional agency (RTA) coordinates the two. Another commuter rail line, the South Shore, is operated by a separate Indiana agency.
  • In Washington, the WMATA heavy rail system, a D.C.-Virginia-Maryland interstate agency, connects at multiple stations with commuter rail lines operated by Virginia-based VRE (a multi-county agency) and the State of Maryland’s Department of Transportation, which also operates bus and light rail in Baltimore.
  • In San Francisco, two commuter rail lines (operated by two multi-county agencies) and two high-frequency intercity corridors (overseen by two more multi-county boards but operated by Amtrak under contract from the state) connect to a heavy rail system and two light rail systems, operated by three more agencies.
  • In Philadelphia, SEPTA operates bus, light rail, subway, and commuter rail. But it also connects to commuter rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit and a heabvy rail line operated by the Port Commission.
  • Boston has one agency that does everything: subway, light rail, commuter rail, us, ferry. The commuter rail system extends outside the MBTA service area, so it has interlocal agreements with those areas to fund that service.
  • In Dallas, DART operates light rail and bus, but the commuter rail line is operated by TRE, a DART-Fort Worth T joint venture.

The same pattern (or lack thereof) continues for smaller cities: Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Albuquerque have commuter rail operated by one agency and local transit by another. Portland, Salt Lake City and Nashville have commuter rail operated by one local local transit operator.

Multiple agency systems can be well coordinated. Interagency transfers, schedules, and tickets are common even in the United States. And, even when a single agency operates multiple modes, they aren’t necessarily coordinated. And we have more than one transit agency already.

In fact, more than agency can be involved in a single commuter rail system, since implementing a system involves multiple tasks:

Funding and governance, both for construction and operation
Scheduling, ticketing, and public information

For planning, funding, and governance, political representation is important. Every area that’s served by a system needs to have representation. That’s most easily done by an agency that covers the entire system, especially one that’s linked to local elected officials. It can also be done by a board of local governments that then uses a different agency to do the work. Where the majority of a system falls within the area of one agency, that agency can put agreements in place with the local political entities that cover the rest.

Operations, scheduling, ticketing, and public information take place under the supervision of the governance entity, so the political representation is already there. Many systems actually subcontract these functions to a private company. Others use local public agencies that already have experience, or even Amtrak.

In that light, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the local contenders?

  • METRO has experience and staff expertise in planning and operations. But its service area only covers a part of the region. METRO can easily handle the planning, governance, and funding of lines that fall within its service area (like the proposed 90A line) and it could reach agreements with outlying cities or counties for extensions to those lines (like Sugar Land). But that’s much more difficult for lines that extend far outside the METRO area (like Houston to Galveston.) Any system will rely on METRO to connect to Houston job centers, so METRO is also well suited to planning and building commuter rail terminals that serve the urban core. METRO’s existing infrastructure makes it very well suited for operations and even more so for scheduling, ticketing, and passenger information.
  • Other transit agencies in the region aren’t broad enough in scope to contemplate commuter rail, and they generally don’t have the manpower, either. But they need to be involved to coordinate local transit connections.
  • HGAC, which did the Commuter Rail Connectivity study, has a lot of expertise in planning and in administering federal and state funding, and it covers the entire region with representation from counties, cities, and transportation agencies. But HGAC does not construct or operate, and it probably doesn’t want to. Nor does it have a revenue source.
  • The Gulf Coast Freight Rail District is being expanded to cover the entirety of the Galveston-Houston-Hempstead lines, with representation from the counties along the way and the City of Houston. But it has only a small staff and no local funding source. That could be remedied, though.
  • Individual counties and cities have tax revenues and experience in construction. But they generally aren’t big enough to cover an entire commuter rail line (let alone a system), so they’d have to band together to make anything happen (which the Freight Rail District provides a political structure for.) Counties and cities may well have to be part of the funding picture, and they may well have a role to play in building stations and providing transit feeders.

Thus, we don’t have an entity that’s perfect for making commuter rail happen. But we have pieces: the Freight Rail District has the right political scope, HGAC has planning experience, counties have tax revenues, and METRO knows how to operate and could easily be the public face to riders. The final solution may well be a consortium of the different entities with different strengths.

The reason why there are so many transit agencies on most large metros is ultimately political. Everyone who’s paying for a service wants to feel like they have representation and like they’re getting their money’s worth. Suburban areas are often reluctant to join urban transit systems out of fear (whether justified or unjustified) that their voice will be diluted by the population of the large city and their tax dollars will subsidize urban transit service. But cities can be reluctant to expand service areas, too, because it dilutes their influence and increases the demands on the agency. A superagency that can do everything sounds good on paper. But it easily becomes the kind of unwieldy animal that voters, taxpayers, and local elected officials hate.

Ultimately, commuter rail is a political problem. This will cost real money — estimates for just the Galveston line are $450 million in upfront capitol costs and $17 million in annual operating costs. HGAC estimated a mutli-line system as $3 billion capital and $89 million operating. The feds generally fund no more than half of the capital cost, and commuter rail systems cover typically cover at best half of operating costs with fares. Where that money comes from — and how taxpayers can be satisfied that it’s well spent — is the real challenge here.

So how does this settle out? Nobody quite knows yet. One person has the power to figure this out, but we don’t know who they are until November. The mayor of Houston can tell METRO what to do and commands considerable city resources and public prominence as well. The city and the county (which, under Ed Emmett, has already reached out to other counties) getting together could be the key to making this happen. The city and the county butting heads could kill all of it.

So what do you think will happen? Or should happen? Tell us in the forums.

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