By Timothy Lane
Every age feels like it’s poised on the edge of the future. The glimmering possibilities of our fantasies are always just about to be reached and realized. Your father, your grandfather, and his grandfather before him could all safely say that they lived in unprecedented times.
Public transportation is no different. And lately there have been splashy headlines prophesying the coming of supersonic trains, self-driving cars, and of course, the Hyperloop. Investor/celebrities like Elon Musk and Richard Branson promise advancements like an underground web of tunnels for getting around L.A. and supersonic jets to shrink the world even further. With visionaries and private companies invested in mass transit on an unprecedented scale, perhaps now is the time when we step into the future. Perhaps now is when the seemingly impossible becomes every day.
However, should the public be wary of charging headlong into funding dramatic moonshots in transportation? After all, many of the most futuristic and ambitious concepts—three-hour supersonic flights across the Pacific, 30-minute Hyperloop commuting between L.A. and San Francisco, and South Korean trains that approach the sound barrier—are announced with sexy mock-ups that are intended to capture and rouse the public imagination, in order to win its much needed support.
“When you’re spending billions of dollars, sexy is a really bad objective,” says Jarrett Walker, Ph.D., who is president of transit consultancy Jarrett Walker & Associates. “Sexy, by definition, is ephemeral, and yet what’s needed is permanence. Sexy is over fast and that’s not what we’re after when we spend billions of dollars.”
Public transit, a necessity in any metropolis where high densities of people live and work in a small amount of space, operates on simple principles: systems need to be designed and built to move people without taking up too much additional space. Which is why cars, most typically carrying one person, are less desirable than buses, which can carry many. Problems arise, however, when this basic equation is addled with too many unnecessary variables. When it’s also charged, for example, with being sexy.
P3s could pave the way (or lay the track, so to speak)
Of course Walker is referring above to the spending of public dollars, raised through taxes and municipal bonds. But what if much of the up-front funding for designing, building, operating and maintaining is coming from private sources? Much has been written about public-private partnerships (P3s), in which public transit agencies establish financial partnerships with private entities, such as investors and commercial developers, in deals in which both short-term risks and long-term rewards are shared among the partners.
The P3 concept seems like a no-brainer for financing big mass transit infrastructure projects like commuter rail. The practice is fairly common in Europe, yet there’s been only one P3 that included design-build, financing and long-term operation in the U.S. to date. With the Eagle P3 Project in Denver, a consortium of private companies called Denver Transit Partners (DTP) serves as the design-build, financing and operations concessionaire for a major expansion of the Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) light rail network. The innovative P3 arrangement allowed the RTD to spread out what would have been large upfront costs over a longer period of time, and resulted in the winning bid coming in some $300 million below original internal budget estimates.
The $2.1 billion Eagle P3 Project was completed and went into operation in 2016. And while there have been several service hiccups since service commenced, passenger fares enable RTD to pay back DTP $3 million per month. So RTD passengers are literally paying for construction while they’re using the finished product.
Swing for the Fences, or Try to Get on Base?
While expansion of a regional light rail network may seem rather mundane, it’s the moonshot initiatives—like Hyperloop—that can play a larger role than simply moving people from place to place. Some would argue that by thinking, acting, and spending bigger, it energizes the public around the possibilities of public transportation, and helps pave the way for a better future.
Walker doesn’t buy it.
“Lots of money gets spent on big fantasies,” he says. “Either the project collapses or sometimes, even worse, the project gets built and then turns out to not be as useful as people thought. And those sorts of failures do not lead to greater support for transit.”
Also, a danger in following the dreams of the Musks and Bransons of the world is confusing what’s best for their private businesses with what serves the greater good. Walker calls this ‘elite projection,’ and defines it as ‘the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole’. Last year he caused a Twitter stir by directly challenging Musk for this kind of thinking. Musk responded by calling him an idiot.
However, the core of Walker’s point is sound. The elite, by definition, are the few. Public transit, by contrast, is for the many. It’s crucial for a robust public transit system that the former prioritizes the latter.
To start, what Walker proposes is making better use of what’s already built unless absolutely necessary. This means using existing infrastructure in more efficient ways. By doing things like expanding light rail systems, increasing bike lanes, and improving the information technology around travel, public transit can reach and serve more of the public without burdening them with enormous cost.
“It cannot just be all about grand, expensive gestures,” Walker says. “It’s also about being sensible and working with what works.”