Preview E (Part 1): How Uncle Sam Can Help Tunnel Like Never Before

DCUS Akridge Dev, view west down H St

Rendering courtesy of Akridge Development, owner of air rights over the 1909 platforms. The green roofs compose DC’s proposed mini-city, Burnham Place. As fantastic as it looks, it cannot be built. First, the platforms below must be updated. But, there is no funding nor the political will to update to a global standard, despite the Capitol sitting one block away.


Washington DC, Baltimore and Boston have central stations that need a simple tunnel before trains can benefit each metro’s commuters as they should. While each metro talks about such a tunnel, none can dig one.

Why ?

Intuitively, we know why. Our trains and terminals operate much as when they entered bankruptcy in mid-century: under-invested, restrictive agencies, uneconomic transportation policies that support autos at the expense of developing alternatives for commuters.

After a quick analysis of how authority is in the wrong hands and often takes the wrong steps, this Preview proposes rearranging how we govern commuter trains so they stimulate growth around each central station and their network’s secondary stations so communities reap the benefits of transit more.

In the Big Picture solution, elected officials (and the people they appoint to transit agencies) might complete tunnels if they were held accountable to achieve a through-routed standard similar, let’s say, to that which benefits Europe. To create this needed discipline, this Preview of three chapters outlines a metropolitan body specialized to solve each region’s transportation problems; judiciously borrowing some tools from their partner, Uncle Sam.

Why is a metro authority necessary? The general answer is metro transportation rarely gets rationalized well by states; unless they are delegating that authority. (The previous Preview on California outlines the best progress.) In this century, the feds and some states are funding smaller shares of projects. We have just seen this trend’s big jump with Trump’s intent to make states fund shares they cannot afford. Clearer now than in 2017, authority must be rearranged if trains are even to keep the passengers they have. Real growth is unlikely.

The metropolis is the rational place for rearranged transportation authority if we expect trains to serve the public better and give an edge to economic growth. Outlined in this Preview, these three metros represent Uncle Sam’s best opportunity to help trains stimulate alternatives to auto commuting.

Symbols matter. For many reasons, the place to test and expand a metro regime is DC’s Union Station. (Hence, the station of the future is referred to as DCUS and the chapter will explain the strategy behind the abbreviation.) Instead of terminating two differing state systems as now, DCUS will center a redesigned network that serves one metro… much as the DC beltway was designed to rationalize vehicle traffic. Making the most of train assets also is pivotal to rationalizing the region and, indeed, making the Beltway work better.

But in today’s real world, the leverage of a productive asset won’t evolve because the station is broke. Despite having one of America’s most successful malls, Washington Union Station lacks funds for updates and, pitifully, stands hat-in-hand on the doorstep of an indifferent Congress and, now, a capricious Executive.

Congress is so negligent in delegating authority that the station’s concourse has devolved into a chronic peak hour congestion. More pressing for the region’s inner network, Metro is one of the nation’s most-stressed heavy rail systems. Expanding train service helps prevent Metro’s precipitous recent decline from recurring. Frequent through-service is a proven strategy to relieve the subways of Europe’s capitals, first Paris then Berlin and, recently, London.

But, help from trains has two obstacles. First, plans for a new concourse and platforms are un-funded. Second, the need to rebuild them first prevents the fantastic mini-city (rendered above) from being built and providing revenue via value capture.

Discussed in the DC chapter, stewards of public dollars also should update and expand the through-tracks to Virginia. A new through-route invests in a triple benefit of reducing concourse congestion, Metro stress and the region’s peak road traffic. Plus, it bolsters Homeland Security. Through-routing is not discussed seriously by agencies comprising the station’s Board.

For contrast, Paris achieved this innovation in the 1970s. Its trains grew into the region’s key alternative to the car, stimulated other options and focussed redevelopment around transit. Paris could do this because one body had authority. Berlin and London proved this again. It is a recipe for progress… and should be in the U.S.

The DC proposal can be adapted along the NEC. Let’s see at the next major stop.

Good States Struggle. To highlight how misaligned transit authority is, Maryland has one of the best DOTs. Yet, it cannot make a central station in downtown Baltimore. Contrary to common sense, Amtrak invested for three decades in rebuilding a station almost two miles from the heart of downtown. This also perpetuated the station’s approach; a tunnel opened in 1873 and the NEC’s second worst bottleneck. Both could be resolved with a central station downtown … if an agency was effective enough to dig a new tunnel through the downtown.

Smart States Struggle. Even the state with the brightest people cannot link its two terminals. Three governors have advocated a tunnel between Boston’s North Station and South Station. Despite trains being the best mode to relieve cobbled-together urban transit groaning under peak hour stress, MassDOT still killed a tunnel proposal a decade ago that even the USDOT wanted to study.

Overview Over. For the balance of this Part 1 (today) and all of Part 2 (tomorrow), I outline the case to rearrange authority so it works for these metros. To overcome chronic false starts in these three and other legacy cities, the federal government must partner with metropolitan agencies before they can modernize. A constitutional key is the federal authority to encourage inter-state commerce and apply it to multi-state metros. This power proves its legitimacy when it converts legacy terminals into through-networks which, in turn, stimulates commuting alternatives that generate more revenue and support regional redevelopment.

The policy proposals for these three metros contained in their respective three chapters will be posted in the Fall 2018. So, comment please now on their outlines. Thanks.


DCUS, capitol

Preview of Chapter 7 on DC Union Station: How A Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) Can Symbolize Dysfunction Does Not Reign

My 2014 photo above has a gauze-like image from scaffolds installed so masons could fix the dome’s cracks.  Metaphorical to me, some cracks represent how Congress avoids policies that will help diverse metros develop their commuting alternatives.

For example, serious cracks in transportation policy help explain why Union Station is broke. Contrasting to its 1990s success as an asset that stimulated one of urban America’s great renewal stories, Union Station never figured out how to finance its future. So despite its 2012 Master Plan being published with great hopes, it remains unfunded and congestion worsens.

Making the Station’s problems permanent, Trump’s plan pushes even more responsibility on fiscally unstable states. Since neither Virginia nor Maryland will adopt Washington’s Union Station, America’s best chance for transportation progress is an orphan. For those wanting reliable funding that advances transportation policy by decentralizing authority, the time is now and the place is DC.

Anyone hoping to lure the private sector into the hugely unprofitable business of moving commuters had better invent an authority to change entrenched commuting habits. For prospective private operators soon will learn they cannot succeed unless they work with an inventive agency that has the public’s support.

Will the region’s taxpayers step-up ? Only if new agencies are based on a new deal. Consider DCUS (the through-station) as the nation’s prototype.

First, let us briefly unravel how authority got misplaced. This chapter offers the cautionary tale from the 1980s deal that converted Union Station’s concourse into a hugely profitable mall. While saving the station from destruction, that deal shorted transit’s interest; given that mall deal set aside no money to update today’s inferior concourse. I also argue the station’s air rights were sold cheap; losing leverage to negotiate a win-win value capture scheme.

(If you want a quick backgrounder on the station’s history that must be overcome so DCUS can emerge, see the #1 question/station in the WST Quiz… It is about how today’s train station fantasies remain just that unless we govern them well. Take the Quiz, if you haven’t.)

Showing its sincerity, Trump’s proposal ignores the obvious solution to reconstruct governance so regions can solve these transportation problems that states have neglected for decades. A first experiment to craft regional transportation policies starts with the federal District. This “CityLab” article contains a good summary of DC’s gridlock caused by underinvestment in Metro, the region’s increasing population and congestion and the lack of a political body to act on these inter-related problems. The station’s aged caretaker (Amtrak) is no shape to redevelop tracks and platforms so DCUS can center a through-network. If a new agency can run through-tracks, the mini-city vision (rendered at the top of this Preview) can become reality.

While Amtrak and the USDOT lack regional nuance, they still can channel federal authority to metros. For that, the DC chapter in “What Stations Teach” will propose a prototype. A Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) could update the platforms/concourse, help make the Burnham Place mini-city into a success and even make an electric through-route to Virginia. CRTA would be a symbol to the nation that these problems, typical of our larger commuter systems, can be solved by rearranging regional transportation so the metro’s citizens have the incentive to fund and change habits.

Lost in America’s ideological civil war, we forget Uncle Sam’s purpose is to make sure everything works together to provide the best public service at the best value to taxpayers. Today, that includes new metropolitan agencies that can attract private capital. So that common metro mistakes can be best resolved (and most central stations fit that description), a federal rationale emerges to share solutions and adapt them to a region’s specific needs.

That rationale gets expanded further in Baltimore where Amtrak’s 8th largest station is almost two miles from its downtown.


Baltimore Penn, courtesy of WikiCommons

Courtesy of WikiCommons, this photo looks north past Baltimore Penn Station; showing its isolation.

Chapter 8 Preview on Baltimore: Amtrak’s Mistake And Uncle Sam’s Opportunity To Expand the Capitol Region Transportation Authority

As a clue to the problem, Amtrak is making its fourth attempt to convert two floors of Baltimore Penn Station (BPS) into a hotel. Three earlier attempts failed, partly, for the obvious obstacle that BPS is inconvenient to downtown. Nor will an agency correct Amtrak’s mistake made two decades ago when it abandoned downtown Camden Station and, instead, invested in the off-central BPS. If you think I overstate, consider a more balanced view of Penn’s positioning.

Nothing can ever change that Penn Station sits two miles from downtown nor that Camden Station could be a superior transit hub; serving several large downtown office buildings, nearby Harborplace, several other tourist attractions, the Convention Center, many large hotels, two medical centers and two athletic stadiums… all of which bring tourist money into a city that desperately needs more. Yet, Amtrak persists to invest in BPS; despite only really serving two nearby educational institutions that do not attract much outside money.

While pedestrians are often the largest source of passengers entering central stations, BPS is borderline hostile. It is wedged between its tracks and surface lot on the north while a highway divides it from its south. Compounding isolation, eastern and western streets are wide, one-way and fast-moving. Besides three educational and cultural institutions, the half-mile ped-shed to BPS mostly has residential neighborhoods, on average, struggling to stabilize.

A true custodian of public assets — or a supervisor of private operators — should find money to tunnel so trains they serve downtown redevelopment. A pressing incentive to resolve this should be the 113 year-old tunnels that emerge on both sides of BPS. They constitute the NEC’s second worst bottleneck and are shared by freight and a commuter line, MARC. After two decades of studies, Amtrak’s preferred route for the new tunnel is within two blocks of the old.

In earlier studies, a tunnel to downtown was suggested by consultants as an alternative. It was eliminated. Further illustrating Amtrak’s inability to make progress, a private proposal for a DC-Baltimore high-speed line connects to Camden Station; avoiding BPS as a non-direct route that does not serve downtown passengers.

Maryland has one of the better state DOTs. But with secondary powers incapable of creating a downtown hub and the required tunnels, MDOT, in my opinion, should advocate for a metro agency with federal powers to do the heavy lifting. How that gets organized so close to DC is discussed in this chapter. But as preview, the case is stronger for Congress to form a regional prototype using federal authority that can be extended to Baltimore. (Baltimore and DC are about to become the third largest metropolitan Combined Statistical Area, passing Chicagoland which has twelve commuter lines. Hence, a DC metro needs to use their five lines much better.)

So Baltimore realistically could be included in the Capitol Region Transportation Authority (CRTA) which eventually also should include northern Virginia’s commuter line so that DCUS through-tracks create a unified network. Not only would this reduce Metro’s stress, but it would show America that multi-state dysfunction does not reign in the new metropolitan regime.

A further adaptation based on the lessons of the CRTA can take place at the other end of the NEC in Boston where its talking for two decades has yet to produce a unifying tunnel.




4 thoughts on “Preview E (Part 1): How Uncle Sam Can Help Tunnel Like Never Before”

  1. The Feds directly going over the heads of States to empower Metros – an obvious 21st Century need – we were hoping for it from Obama and it never happened. Shall we wait for the next Democratic administration – or will that too be too obsessed with health care to care about anything else?


    1. Alan–
      You raise a key point. Medical care is running at 12% faster than inflation for over two decades and Medicare is in deficit and the Democrats will expand that program for all American when they get power again. Add it all up… and there is not enough federal money for infrastructure… just like today.

      So instead of letting Uncle Sam off the hook for what used to be 80% for capital projects, he at least needs to let metros use his authority to reorganize themselves so they can make all the mobility changes needed now; given that Americans cannot afford the car culture we had in the 20th Century.

      These are big changes and politics is about setting priorities. Metropolitan priorities have been environmental and transportation now for a few decades. It is time for metros to set up government agencies that reflect this reality.

      What do you think ?


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