The new federal spending bill that just became law represents a big win for transit, clean technology and energy efficiency. Despite efforts by the administration to gut funding in all of these areas, a bipartisan majority in congress resisted.
Curbed covered the increased spending for transit:
The bill, which covers spending through the end of September, includes significant increases in transit funding. The Community Development Block Grant program, which many local governments have used to fund streetscaping, cycling, and pedestrian-friendly projects, would receive a significant boost, rising to $3.3 billion from the $3 billion allocated in 2017. Initially, President Trump’s budget called for eliminating the program.
In addition, the bill includes more money for Capital Investment Grants, which help pay for transit projects, increasing spending from $2.4 to $2.6 billion, and would allocate $1.5 billion for the TIGER Grant program, tripling the $500 million spent on the program in 2017. This Obama-era program has been a key tool used by state and local governments to fund new rail and transit expansions.
Notably, even Amtrak funding increased under the package.
Meanwhile, some of the most important research and clean energy programs at the Department of Energy were bolstered, as E&E reported [paywalled]:
Instead of eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm, the package increases funding to a record level of $353 million. The Weatherization Assistance Program, which Trump also wanted to kill, would get a more than $20 million boost to $248 million. The deal keeps state energy grants and the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program intact.
It also would increase funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Trump wanted to slash by more than half.
This is all good news, and it points to the bipartisan support for these key components of our climate mitigation strategies. There’s still a larger issue about the availability of long-term funding for these programs, given the massive deficits the federal government is running, particularly with the budget-busting tax cut passed last December. But for now, these programs are safe and even stronger, in a rebuke to the administration and transit and clean tech opponents.
What’s a transit line without a tunnel? For densely populated areas, digging a tunnel can bring badly needed new capacity to congested corridors, while promising quick speeds underneath crowded roads. Plus tunnels represent interesting engineering and construction projects.
So when Jody Litvak of LA Metro invited me for a tour of the regional connector tunnel last spring, I jumped at the chance. At the time, the regional connector was under construction underneath Downtown Los Angeles, as you can see in the map above. I wrote about tunneling in Railtown, my book on the history of Metro Rail (I actually devoted a whole chapter to construction). But I’d never seen it up close until this tour.
I met Jody and her team at the staging area near Alameda and 1st Street in downtown. Olga Arroyo helped arrange the details, Dick McClane was the lead tunnel operator, and Bill Hansmire, Gary Baker and Glen Frank came along for the tour. Dick helps control the tunnel boring machine from a command center that resembles a miniature air traffic control tower. He monitors and corrects the machine’s every moment, using a complex network of sensors.
Dick also helps oversee the workers who do the tunneling. They call themselves “miners” — not “tunnel stiffs,” as the original tunnelers called themselves who built Metro Rail back in the 1980s, as I wrote in Railtown. The work is not for everyone: the miners described to me how some first-time workers have panic attacks when they get in the tunnel and simply can’t do the work.
But the regional connector and other train tunnels are actually a luxury — in the tunneling world. Many tunnels they work on are tiny and go miles deep, such as for sewers or other pipe infrastructure. The workers have to journey in the whole way on a makeshift train, leaning over to speed through the narrow tunnel. By comparison, this was a big, convenient tunnel. But still, there’s no daylight down there, so it’s a challenging work environment, and the miners work long shifts — sometimes 24 hours, 5 days straight on multiple shifts (with downtime in between, of course).
As the tour kicked off, safety was a priority. We were outfitted with helmets and reflective gear and instructed on proper procedures in the tunnel. Upon approach, the first thing we saw was the multi-block, fenced-off project site. The main feature was a conveyor belt from the shaft below, bringing up dirt that probably hadn’t seen the light of day in centuries, to be hauled off to help bury landfills. It created a huge pile that was actually just a couple days’ worth of excavation (see photo to the left).
The crew used this staging area to avoid disruption to the community from truck traffic coming out of tunnel. All that dirt requires a lot of vehicles to move it out of the area. In fact, truck traffic could be a limiting factor on tunnel boring, even if Elon Musk and his “Boring Machine” could speed the physical tunneling process.
Also visible up above were stacks of preset concrete slabs to line the tunnels, along with temporary steel rails. The rails help bring materials in and out of the tunnel, as they are hoisted down by crane and brought into the tunnel by temporary rail cars to lay more track.
We then journeyed down from the staging area to the giant shaft in the shape of the eventual station box. It had steep, temporary stairs leading down to the future station bottom and tunnel entrance. At the bottom, we could start walking through the actual tunnel.
Getting close to the tunnel, we could see lots of utility lines through pipes above us, including an old aqueduct from original the original Pueblo settlement. As the workers told me, these “station boxes” are where they find all the archaeological finds. Otherwise, the boring machine pretty much grinds everything else up (although evidently the formation that the tunnel passes through doesn’t typically have archaeological finds). For more on the archaeological finds in the tunnel, check out this article.
Inside the tunnel, it was hot with an odd smell. It was loud, too, particularly when workers dropped new 30-foot steel rails to the ground. The rails were needed for the temporary cars that brought in equipment. The tunnel boring machine (“TBM”) itself was probably about 100 yards long. In fact, it was so long, I was walking through it for a while without even knowing it.
The TBM is operated by four people: an operator, engineer, and mechanic, along with an MTA inspector. The machines have sensors everywhere and are extremely high-tech, monitoring the ground movement above. The software can automatically brake the TBM if the machine starts going in the wrong direction. The TBM uses pressure within the tunnel to maintain the pressure in the ground around the tunnel as it’s bored. That stabilization reduces, if not eliminates, both ground subsidence and gas seepage into the tunnel. For example, at the time of the tour, we were directly under a Japanese market in Little Tokyo. Hopefully, the patrons up above had no idea what was going on below. Sometimes TBM workers have to tunnel quickly through some parts of the city, like through certain soils that aren’t as solid.
Progress was steady: the miners were clearing about 80 feet in one day, at an average of 65 feet. They were starting with just the “left” bore for now, drilling it out for one mile, then hauling the tunnel boring machine (TBM) back to the project site and reassembling it for the “right” bore in the same direction, to create two tracks for the line. Overall, the first tunnel was set to take 5 months to go the whole 5,000 feet, 2 months to reassemble, and then another 5 months for the other tunnel.
In terms of cost, the tunneling represented only 10% of the total project cost. The station boxes are the other big chunk of change, particularly the future Bunker Hill stop, because it’s so deep.
Overall, it was an interesting opportunity to see digging in action. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2021. Once I ride it, I’ll end up whizzing through the section I walked. But I’ll now know how much work went into building it.
I’ll be on KQED radio’s Forum this morning at 10am discussing SB 827 (Wiener) to relax local restrictions on transit-oriented housing. We’ll discuss what the bill might mean for California’s cities, environment and economy.
Please tune in at 88.5 FM in the San Francisco Bay Area and weigh in with your questions. Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can stream it live.
Joe DiStefano at the Urban Footprint blog ran a useful experiment to see how the transit-oriented upzoning proposed in SB 827 would affect three station neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART system. All three stations are in the East Bay but are somewhat distinct:
- Orinda is a low-density suburban commercial and residential stop
- Rockridge is a medium-density, largely suburban stop
- MacArthur is a more urbanized commercial stop
The analysis included an assessment of what housing units are currently built in the 1/2 mile radius of the stop, how much capacity would be legal to build under current zoning, what would happen if only commercial areas were rezoned and not single-family homes and townhomes, and what would happen if the full upzoning allowed under SB 827 took place.
Here are the results (apologies for the blurry screengrab — check out the site for a better image):
The bottom line is that under SB 827, potentially 48,000 additional new units could be built, just within 1/2 mile of these 3 station areas. It demonstrates the power of upzoning near transit to build enough housing to accommodate future population growth and stabilize prices for existing residents.
And even if single-family homes and townhomes didn’t redevelop (either because the owners didn’t sell or the bill eventually gets amended to prevent development there), the state could still see over 10,000 new units in the “modified upzone” scenario — again, just at 3 station neighborhoods.
Caveats are of course necessary: not all of these units would be built, even under the full scenario. Property owners wouldn’t sell in some cases, developers wouldn’t maximize density and height on all lots, other local restrictions may prevent some of the units from getting built, and the final bill may contain additional restrictions that would limit a full build-out.
But this analysis indicates the power of upzoning near transit to help solve California’s dire housing shortage. Given the importance of this issue to California’s environmental and economic health, solutions like SB 827 are well in order, as this analysis shows.
Back in 2008, and then again in 2016, transit advocates in Los Angeles came together to get county residents to fork over $160 billion over 30 years in new sales taxes revenue for transportation investments. A sizeable chunk of that money goes to major transit capital projects, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines.
They successfully secured approval for these tax hikes with 2/3 voter support. But now transit ridership is plummeting in Los Angeles. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but it’s particularly severe in L.A. While there a few ways to counter-act these trends, the most proven and sensible one is to boost transit-oriented development of all types.
Yet given recent public debate on SB 827, which would upzone residential areas within a few blocks of major transit stops, it’s clear that many of these advocates are not committed to the land use changes necessary to achieve this density. Despite SB 827’s promise to accomplish the very increase in residential density needed to support transit, they remain opposed.
So who are the culprits? Most prominently, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (who championed the 2016 measure) still refuses to support SB 827, despite the recent amendments to address his legitimate displacement concerns. Instead, he stated concern for the area’s single-family homeowners, professing a desire to “protect” these mostly affluent residents from mid-rise apartment buildings near major transit.
And it gets worse. Move LA, the organization that has probably done the most to launch these voter sales tax measures, actually came out against the bill in a joint letter with various community groups. This opposition comes after their executive director Denny Zane already helped sink a major transit-oriented project near an Expo Line station that would have added more than 400 hundred badly needed homes in the area, including 50 affordable units. His main concern at the time was too much car traffic.
Even Sierra Club California used the fear of these land use changes in SB 827 as a reason not to support the measure. Specifically, the organization wants to see a new rail transit line in Sacramento, even though the line will be a massive money-loser without more density around the stations.
Based on these transit advocates’ arguments, it seems clear that many are only focused on one thing: building new transit lines. They don’t seem to care how cost-effective they are, and in many cases they actively don’t want to see much new development around the stations — especially not market-rate housing, and especially not in “quiet” affluent areas that are benefiting financially from these publicly funded investments.
So despite SB 827 being one of the most important pro-transit measures put forth by the legislature in recent years, some key transit advocates seem unlikely to join a coalition in support.
It’s a disheartening — though clarifying — turn of events. What it means is that the help to save transit agencies from plummeting ridership may not come from advocates for expanding new lines. It will instead come from those who favor more density of homes near transit in general, which is apparently a distinct cause for many in the “transit advocacy” community.
Some opponents of SB 827 (Wiener) — to essentially upzone residential areas adjacent to major transit stops — simply reject the idea of any new housing in their neighborhoods. Others are generally hostile to new market-rate development. But besides those non-helpful objections, the one compelling knock on the SB 827 approach is that the new residential development it would unleash could displace low-income renters.
There’s a clear moral objection to that happening. With the housing shortage and jobs boom leading to high home prices and rents everywhere, low-income residents of rent-controlled units will basically have no place affordable to go if they’re displaced. The bill shouldn’t force some of the most economically insecure and impoverished among us out of their homes.
And displacement also potentially undermines one of the key purposes of the bill: to boost transit ridership. Low-income people are more likely to use transit than higher-income people. So replacing them with market-rate renters or owners could be a loss for the nearby transit system.
That said, I do believe the concern is overstated, as low-income neighborhoods are not likely to be a prime target of developers risking capital on expensive multi-family buildings and needing a high return to justify the expense.
But still, we knew anti-displacement measures in SB 827 were coming, and yesterday Sen. Wiener introduced them. They essentially boil down to two things:
1) Explicit recognition that SB 827 does not preempt local policies preventing demolition of rent-controlled units or displacement of those tenants or requiring affordable units to be built with market-rate ones. This recognition is probably not needed legally, but it’s a handy reminder to critics that SB 827 takes nothing away from locals on the issues of affordability and displacement.
2) Making it expensive to displace residents of rent-controlled units.
This second approach is where the amendments get interesting. Basically, if any SB 827 project displaces these residents, the developer must honor a “Right to Remain Guarantee.” As Sen. Wiener explains in a blog post:
[The guarantee] must, at minimum, provide all of the following, at the developer’s expense:
All moving expenses for a tenants moving into, and out of, an interim unit in the area while the project is being built.
Up to 42 months of rental assistance that covers the full rent of an available, comparable unit in the area.
Right of first refusal for housing units in the new building, and offered with a new lease at the rent previously enjoyed by the tenant in their demolished unit.
So displacement could still happen, but only at significant expense and with displaced residents being “made whole” by the process. It’s essentially a quasi-market-based approach to discouraging displacement. It will incentivize developers to seek to redevelop properties that don’t have rent-controlled units on them to avoid these costs.
In addition, a separate amendment requires a local jurisdiction to adopt a demolition process for rent-controlled units if they don’t already have one, for any SB 827 project to occur.
It remains to be seen whether anti-displacement critics of the bill will be mollified by this approach. But I do think these changes make the bill stronger, without conceding too much of the market-rate development we still need for residents of all incomes in our state.
The Trump Administration yesterday unveiled its long-heralded “infrastructure plan,” which Trump himself claimed would be a top priority in his 2016 election night speech.
While some headlines described it as a $1.5 trillion plan, it actually boils down to $200 billion in new spending, supposedly from offsetting savings elsewhere in the budget. And that $200 billion is conditioned on state and local government funding together with private investment. Think toll roads, which create a necessary revenue stream in order for the federal money to flow, as my colleague Dan Farber explained.
But even if the $200 billion didn’t have the privatization strings, it’s a drop in the bucket. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the current infrastructure backlog amounts to $4.59 trillion in needed investments by 2025, per Politico. $200 billion is therefore negligible (although arguably at least a start). But to make matters worse, his proposed federal budget seeks to gut other infrastructure spending programs on badly needed investments like new rail transit and Amtrak.
In addition, the infrastructure plan proposes putting a hard time limit on environmental reviews, ostensibly to weaken their efficacy. I’m definitely in favor of re-examining our environmental review processes, as I’m sure there are efficiencies that could be gained. But knowing the people involved in the Trump Administration and their record on the environment versus business interests, it’s hard not to be skeptical of this proposal.
Ultimately, a robust infrastructure bill without the privatization strings should have been passed during the last recession, when we needed the jobs and the construction and labor costs were much lower. Now we have a tepid proposal which mostly seeks to privatize public assets and weaken environmental laws, during a time when the economy is humming and construction costs are high.
My guess is the bill is either not going to pass Congress anywhere near its current shape, or it simply won’t be effective in spurring much infrastructure investment. Either way, the country has missed an important economic window for this needed investment, and now only has this relatively weak offering to show for it.
What value does rail transit bring to a city? The bottom line is increased capacity. You can squeeze a lot of people into multiple rail cars, all driven (or overseen) by one conductor in the lead car.
There are other benefits, too, of course, like fast electric acceleration (if it’s not diesel powered), smooth riding (if the rails are in a separate right-of-way and not stuck in street traffic), and general reliability (again, if the rail travels in a separate right-of-way and not slowed by cars). And as a uniquely permanent infrastructure investment, with tunnels and elevated tracks (sometimes) and fixed stations, it can help stimulate real estate investment to encourage thriving, walkable neighborhoods around it.
But technology may make this beloved, nineteenth century style of transit propulsion obsolete. I’m talking about electric platooning buses, which makes use of the self-driving car technology that is rapidly advancing. As the U.S. Department of Energy defined it in a recent post about platooning trucks:
Platooning involves the use of vehicle-to-vehicle communications and sensors, such as cameras and radar, to virtually connect two or more trucks together in a convoy. The virtual link enables all of the vehicles in the platoon to communicate with each other, allowing them to automatically accelerate together, brake together, and enables them to follow each other at a closer distance than is typically possible with unlinked trucks.
If we can place 8 or 10 buses in a row, have them all accelerate electrically and brake together, be separated by just a few inches, and be operated by just a single lead driver (or computer), isn’t this essentially just a long train?
The benefits would be immense:
- Massive cost savings: with electric buses, you don’t need to lay tracks or have overhead or down-below wiring to power trains. You don’t need substations along the way. The buses would be battery operated (as they already are, through companies like BYD and Proterra), so they could charge in central, convenient places. Sure, that requires charging infrastructure. But it’s much less expensive than wiring an entire route.
- Faster build times: transit agencies could build transit lines much more quickly without all the wiring infrastructure and tracks. Tunneling and overpasses still take time, but transit agencies basically just need to put down pavement and striping. Bus rapid transit lines can be built in about a fifth of the time as rail (and at a fifth of the cost), meaning a city can get a lot more transit, a lot more quickly.
- Operational flexibility: the buses would be free to travel on surface streets as needed, giving transit agencies much more flexibility to move buses around as needed.
And the potential downsides? First is the technological uncertainty, as platooning is still being tested. Second, and related to the first point, is the cost and range of the battery. But as I mentioned, electric buses are already being used now, battery prices are falling dramatically, and energy density is improving. True, the buses have higher upfront costs, but they offer significant and offsetting savings on operations and maintenance. Finally, we’d need more charging infrastructure for the buses, as mentioned. Although again, that infrastructure is proven — and simpler than overhead lines or third rails.
But there’s one additional important point here: the prospect of electric platooning buses should not be used as an excuse to kill or postpone new rail transit proposals in the works today. City residents still need the infrastructure that goes with a separate right-of-way for rail, even if the technology changes. They need tunnels, grade separation, elevated lines, dedicated lanes, and overpasses and underpasses to keep rail out of street traffic. Even if platooning electric buses happen soon, that construction will still be put to good use, albeit with ripped out tracks and overhead lines.
But as transit agencies think about other types of rail upgrade projects, like converting the Orange Line bus rapid transit in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles into light rail, maybe they should take a step back and assess the state of platooning electric bus technology. That Orange Line project in particular is costly, and the dedicated right-of-way already exists to convert to electric bus. If rail construction is underway in 2020 or 2021 just as electric platooning buses are market-proven, it will be a giant waste of money.
So transit advocates should still want rail projects to move forward, and cities will still need dedicated rights-of-way, separate from car traffic. But looming around the corner may be a technology solution that could dramatically reduce costs and construction time for major transit projects. Even for those who will always love steel wheels on rail, it’s got to be hard not to see the appeal.
Los Angelist offers a nice and succinct video summary with narration of the Purple Line heavy rail extension down Wilshire Boulevard. As I wrote in the book Railtown, Wilshire Boulevard is the most densely populated corridor west of the Mississippi and should have been the first route to get rail transit in Los Angeles. So of course it’s only now under construction more than 30 years since Metro Rail began construction.
Here is the video for your viewing enjoyment, complete with a welcome shout-out to Railtown at the end (plus a rightful shaming of the Beverly Hills Union School District, which has wasted about $10 million so far on losing lawsuits against this line):
Lost riders on L.A. Metro alone, which serves L.A. County, accounted for fully 72 percent of lost transit patronage across the entire state. Those losses are even further concentrated: Remarkably, just a dozen bus and rail routes in L.A. County account for nearly 40 percent of all the vanished ridership in California.
Right now, the best explanation seems to be a staggering increase in cars on the road, owned and driven by the very people who used to ride buses, the report states. From 2000 to 2015, the population of the Southern California region grew by 2.3 million people, and the region added 2.1 million household vehicles—close to one new car for every person and a huge jump from the previous decade. In the same period, the proportion of immigrant households that own zero vehicles dropped 42 percent, and a whopping 66 percent among Mexican immigrant households specifically.
The ridership gap and vehicle usage seems to be particularly high among immigrant communities that previously were a backbone demographic for transit.
What are the solutions? One option is simply to make it more expensive to drive a car, through mileage-based fees, congestion pricing, and other taxes and fees. There’s merit to that approach, particularly if the funds generated help support transit in those corridors as an alternative.
But the other alternative is to stop forcing people to use cars as the most convenient travel option, and similarly stop subsidizing automobile infrastructure, particularly “free” mandated parking. And that all boils down to land use. People use cars to travel because their home is nowhere near convenient transit, they may have readily available free parking on-site and at their jobs (while paying for it via higher home prices and rents), and their jobs and other destinations are similarly not near transit.
So the most effective solution, as we’ve seen all over the world throughout the history of transit, is to encourage more homes and jobs near transit. It’s not really complicated: we need to build transit-oriented, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods within a convenient transit-ride of clustered job centers. Needless to say, this is exactly the goal of SB 827 (Wiener), which would lift local restrictions on growth near major transit stops.
Possibly the biggest beneficiaries in government from an SB 827 to approach to housing would be transit agencies. These agencies across the country have suffered this declining ridership over the past decade, hurting their revenues and undermining political support.
So far I haven’t heard California transit agencies clamoring to support SB 827, probably due to the complicated politics involved. But if they were honest, they would tell the public that SB 827 and similar approaches are what is truly needed to bring ridership back.