Public Transit in America

RTD, FasTracks, and Public Transit in America

The Denver Metro region’s transit provider, RTD, has won national awards and it building the largest expansion of passenger rail in North America, Fastracks. But Denver is a city that tore down its excellent trolley system, abandoned its commuter rail lines, and built itself around private automobiles for more than a half-century. So it is difficult to restore excellent public transit in Colorado’s capitol.

Los Angeles has it even worse. It once had a fabulous, region-wide, transit system, the Pacific Electric Railway. This electric “interurban” style railroad made it easy to get around Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century. Today Los Angeles is even more sprawled than Denver, with worse road congestion, and a much bigger challenge for restoring public transit.

Several cities of the USA retained at least their subway/elevated railways and their commuter trains. Chicago and New York, particularly, offer very good travel by rail, including direct rail service to their airports. Older transit and commuter systems persist in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Many American cities are rebuilding transit and commuter rail. The pioneer, starting in the 1960s, was “BART” the Bay Area Rapid Transit around San Francisco and Oakland, California. Its trans-bay tunnels greatly relieve car congestion on the Bay Bridge and service goes direct to the SFO airport. But voters in Marin County rejected BART, so car commuting over the Golden Gate bridge now is a daily ordeal for thousands of people.

The U.S. Congress has enough allocated money since 1969 to build an excellent Washington, DC Metro. Like BART, it combines characteristics of subway/elevated rapid transit with commuter rail, serving city centers and extended suburban destinations. It reached that National Airport in 1977. New construction will bring it to Dulles Airport in 2018.

Los Angeles began reconstructing its urban transit in 1990 and now has six rail lines radiating from downtown.

In New Mexico, the Railrunner service offers frequent daily service from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and Belen. It’s a blend of commuter and inter-city passenger rail.

Atlanta, Georgia has built a 48 mile system since 1979. It covers a rather small slice of the metro area, so it can compete with automobiles only within narrow geography. Thus, Atlanta has severe automobile traffic congestion on its roads. Even Chicago and New York suffer from too many cars on the finite road acreage.

RTD’s Fastracks will soon finally link downtown Denver with the Denver International Airport. That line should have accompanied initial construction of the airport, but the American political dynamic led only to the Pena Boulevard highway. Still, 2016 will be “The Year of the Train” for Colorado, as the Fastracks rail lines open to Arvada, Aurora, Westminster, and DIA, along with a faster bus to Boulder. A 0.4% sales tax pays for this. Unfortunately, the fifth major leg of Fastracks –the northwest rail link of Denver to Broomfield, Louisville, Lafayette, Boulder, and Longmont — has run into severe financing shortfalls and may not be built before 2040.

Transit in America gets financed partially through the federal gasoline tax, partially through state and local taxes, and partially through rider fare payments. A long time ago, rail transit was a profitable operation for private businesses. They built great routes, competed for passengers, and made good money. The rise of the automobile, funded by government spending on roads, eliminated that private profitability. Today, inner city transit and suburban commuter rail depend entirely on public government taxation and spending — just like all our streets and roads. We both tax and spend much more on roads than on passenger rail. America needs to change that. It’s time to fundamentally change our transportation spending — whether public or private — to restore urban passenger rail.