HUDSON | If Colorado is going to sustain growth, it’ll have to invest in transit
Author: Miller Hudson - July 2, 2018 - Updated: June 17, 2018
Close to a thousand transit managers, manufacturers, engineering firms, financiers and attorneys arrived in Denver recently for the American Public Transit Association’s (APTA) 2018 Rail Conference. As one industry veteran commented, “There’s a whole lot of whistling past the graveyard going on here!” While our president bemoans the fact that the U. S. has failed to construct the High Speed Rail (HSR) systems scattered across the remainder of the globe, neither Congress nor his administration appears ready to appropriate the infrastructure funding required to jump-start such projects. Nonetheless, a lot of expensive planning is moving forward just as the spigot of available federal money runs dry under fiscal pressure from growing budget deficits precipitated by the 2017 tax cuts.
If you believe the American metropolitan regions that have invested in deploying rail transit networks are the cities that will enjoy robust economic expansion in the 21st century, then you recognize how lucky Denver was to approve nearly a hundred miles of rail and grab federal money for them when it was still on the table. During a discussion of pending “Mega projects”, an eighteen-mile light rail line connecting Chapel Hill, Durham and the Research Triangle in central North Carolina was highlighted as perhaps the largest pending new rail proposal in the country. Yet, even this fairly modest project is facing political trouble as both the Legislature and federal authorities threaten to withhold their contributions until the other guarantees its commitment.
It appears that only states with the economic resources to pay their own way may be able to afford HSR service in the immediate future. But that doesn’t mean projects will only be constructed with tax dollars. Both in Texas, where the Japanese are partnering with local businesses to privately fund a 200 mile per hour bullet train linking Houston and Dallas, as well as in Florida, where investors recently launched the 120 mph Brightline between Miami and Palm Beach with plans to extend service on to Orlando by 2020, these lines have been organized and operate as profit-generating corporations. In the case of Texas, there is little doubt that the Japan Central Railroad views its involvement as an opportunity to push the nose of its HSR technology under the flap of the American tent. Front Range rail, anyone?
But the numbers are daunting. Capital costs are high. Therefore, so must be traffic volumes. In the case of the Dallas to Houston route, operators hope to capture 14 million annual riders. There aren’t many such heavily traveled corridors in the interior of the United States. The American coasts are another matter, however. The opportunity to intensify development near stations goes well beyond what is often discussed as Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Great Britain is about to launch CrossRail2 upon the completion of CrossRail1 next year. This $42 billion dollar project was first suggested in 1944 and will not be completed until 2034. But it will make it possible to deliver an additional 175,000 passengers into the Canary Yards business center each morning.
Manhattan, Hong Kong and London levels of density can only be served by rail systems. How many lanes of traffic would be required, not to mention where would you park cars driven by 175,000 commuters? Los Angeles voters recently approved $120 billion in local funding for transportation projects, Seattle $60 billion. Colorado squabbles about $3 billion. Several candidates for governor claim they can identify $9 billion in waste. No taxes required.
As you fly into Toronto, which strings along Lake Erie, you can identify the location of subway stops by the high rise clusters every few miles. Transit serves to restrain sprawl by creating urban centers. There is a governor in Colorado’s future who will challenge voters to fund and build both a Front Range HSR system and an Advanced Guideway service to our central mountain resorts. With the strongest economy in the nation, we can certainly afford it. We just need to find the political champion, whoever he or she may be, that can convince us this is an investment that eventually pays for itself and preserves what we love about Colorado in the bargain.