Are Regional Transit Agencies Too Beholden to the Suburbs?

The conflict over the Cincinnati Streetcar is clearly rooted in some sort of geographic tension. The new mayor, whose strength comes from the city’s outer neighborhoods, has taken aim at a project held very dear by people who live in the city center — and now the whole country’s watching to see if the city will squander the millions it’s already spent on the project.

Jeff Wood at The Overhead Wire thinks the Cincinnati story also illustrates a different but related urban-suburban tension: cities’ mistrust of transit agencies that also serve car-dependent suburbs.

Earlier this week Federal Transit Administration Director Peter Rogoff told local elected officials the Cincinnati Streetcar should have been led by the regional transit authority, because of its greater experience. But Wood says there’s a valid reason that cities are taking on transit projects without turning to regional agencies for help:

These massive regional transit agencies are typically stacked with suburban board members that don’t always have the core cities’ needs at heart. They are usually concocting schemes to extract money or service in some form or fashion from the more transit willing neighborhoods in the region in order to have some sort of suburb to city dream bus or commuter rail line that costs a lot, but really doesn’t move the needle on changing mobility in a meaningful way. Either that or they have to have an election that includes heavy transit opposition precincts that sink ballot initiatives that pass in the city proper.

So recently cities have been taking on the mantle of thinking up and building transit that works for them and their goals. Portland, Cincinnati, Austin, and others have all taken up planning for more urban transit options and with much different goals. At the start of the Portland Streetcar process, Tri-Met wanted nothing to do with it. They were a regional agency. Right or wrong, the city streetcar movement is a function of the neglect that center cities feel when it comes to regional transit priorities. The core might be the economic engine for the region, but the fiscal extraction continues.

This is also a disappointing admission that transit agencies and their federal funders still don’t know their role in city building. I’m not talking about building a streetcar and waiting for housing development to come, but rather the need to economically serve, connect, and bolster regional employment centers with workers in a more productive way than the single occupancy car…

What we continue to see today is an overly regional approach to transit development based on a suburban fantasy of living where you want and commuting into work downtown.  Most people don’t work downtown.  But intensification of core neighborhoods strengthens the tax base.  So what you get is like what is happening in Minneapolis.  The transit agency is trying to fund commuter service that they call light rail while the city thinks of streetcars because they don’t have the funding power to do more.  But there is no talk of dedicated lane surface light rail or subways that only go to the edge of the streetcar suburbs because that doesn’t fit each side’s worldview.

The FTA seems to be on the suburban side of the issue, allowing, even wanting, these commuter systems that end up being really expensive to operate (See Northstar in the Twin Cities) with somewhat limited value at this point in their transit network development.  If the FTA can’t figure out the suburban leaning of transit agencies or the need to feed employment centers better, we’re going to keep traveling down the same choked road, and it won’t be pretty.

By the way, in light of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s insistence that the operating costs of the streetcar be provided for by a private entity, Cincinnati’s regional transit system SORTA stepped up this week and announced it would take on the $60- to $80-million commitment over 30 years. Cranley refused the deal. The city has until tomorrow at midnight to continue the project or the FTA will revoke a $45 million grant.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Transportation for America reports that a group of mayors recently traveled to Washington to meet with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the importance of passenger rail. Transitized – inspired by Streetfilms – points out that patterns in the snow can help reveal what portions of the street should be turned into pedestrian space. And Robin Wagner at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin writes about how her love of birds moved her to get around without a car.