$3.195 trillion -TRILLION - for urban RAIL transit


We are at the end of an era – the end of cheap oil, the end of suburban sprawl, the collapse of the world’s “shadow banking system”, the end of Wall Street’s arrogation of our nation’s financial system, the end of treating our natural environment as a “free” externality that corporations and consumers can ravage at will. In this time, as we transition from one era to another, billions is the mark of a mere politician. A true statesman -- someone who understands what we need to bring our country into the new era dawning -- will be talking about how many trillions we need. That’s why I was not happy with the stimulus package proposed and won by President Obama. Fortunately, the President has noted that it was only the first stimulus, implying there may be more to come. What we need to do now is begin defining the terms of the debate as to what is needed, and how much it is going to cost.

Below I outline one -- just one -- such national program we need. To build adequate urban rail transit systems in the 39 largest U.S. cities, where nearly half of all Americans live, is going to require $3.195 trillion. That is just construction costs – it does not include the cost of new rolling stock and maintenance rail vehicles. It is a project that can create 7.5 million jobs a year, for ten years. And it is a project that we most assuredly will not even initiate so long as we are content with politics and business as usual. NYC BMT Brighton at W 8th New York City Transit BMT Brighton Line, at West 8th Street, photo by David-Paul Gerber, 7/13/2008, www.nycsubway.org

Building 50,757 kilometers of new rail transit lines, at a cost of $3.195 trillion. is based on building urban rail mass transit systems to the same service density found in New York City, in the next 38 largest urban areas. I began by assuming a desideratum of having a rail transit line no more than 2.5 miles from any point in an urban area. That is, if you took a square of urban area five miles on each side, we want to have a rail transit line running directly across the middle of that square. Slice that 25 square mile area into one mile strips, and you get one mile of rail transit line for every five square miles of urban area, or a density of 0.2 mile of rail transit line for every square mile. Converting square miles to square kilometers, and miles to kilometers, what we are looking for is a density of 0.124 mi of rail transit line for every square kilometer of urban area.

Let me note here that these are numbers aggregated on the national level, and there will, without doubt, have to be major adjustments made for each urban area, to take account of specific factors of geography, population density, and existing transportation service densities. This is only an attempt to discover the size of national effort required, not a detailed plan for guiding planning and implementation. No small part of my intent is to demonstrate how inadequate the recent $750 billion stimulus package is, when measured against actual infrastructure needs.

I needed to convert to metric because I wanted to be able to compare U.S. cities with cities in Europe and elsewhere, and for the more basic reason that the statistics available for urban rail transit systems, at both Wikipedia’s List of Urban Rail Systems by Length and at the amazing www.urbanrail.net provides statistics in kilometers.

The statistics for land area for major cities in the U.S. is found in this table from the U.S. Census Bureau: United States and Puerto Rico -- Metropolitan Area, GCT-PH1. Population, Housing Units, Area, and Density: 2000.

Also, the primary Wikipedia entry for each city provides the population and land area, including for cities around the world. My theory was that in order to achieve the same proportional levels of transit rail ridership you find in the great European cities, you need to provide similar densities of transit service and infrastructure.

I was surprised to find that my desired density is met by New York City, which has 368 kilometers of rail transit line for a land area of 1,141.64 square kilometers, or a density of exactly 0.1245 kilometers of rail transit line per square kilometer. Perhaps I have stumbled upon a statistical artifact of some competent city planning authority for New York from a by-gone era? Someone with some knowledge of the history of New York urban rail transit might be able to provide an answer.

Finding that New York City meets the desired rail transit density is also a confirmation of the validity of the desideratum because New York City is unique among American cities in the high percentage of its population that uses its urban rail transit system. Over 80 of the passenger route miles in New York City are carried by the rail transit system. New York City has, by far, the highest rate of public transportation use of any American city, with 54.2% of workers commuting to work by this means in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2006, Table S0802. New York is the only city in the United States where over half of all households do not own a car (Manhattan's non-ownership is even higher - around 75%; nationally, the rate is 8%).

The geographical availability of rail transit is a major determinant in whether or not commuters will use a system. In the Journal of Public Transportation, Vol. 9, No. 5, 2006, Robert Cervero of the University of California, Berkeley found that

Surveys of rail-commuting in metropolitan Washington, D.C. found that nearly 50 percent of those working in offices within 1,000 feet of downtown Metrorail stations rail-commuted. In the case of offices that were comparable distances from the more suburban Crystal City and Silver Spring stations, the shares were 16 percent to 19 percent (JHK and Associates 1987). Place of residence was a particularly important explainer of whether office workers patronized transit. In the case of the Silver Spring Metro Center, a 150,000-square-foot office tower 200 feet from the Metrorail portal, 52 percent of workers who lived in Washington, D.C. rail-commuted; among those living in surrounding Montgomery County, Metrorail was used by just 10 percent (JHK and Associates 1989).

Surveys of those working in offices near rail stations in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1990s found that around 1 of 10 individuals got to work by transit (Cervero 1994b). Suburban station-area workers were 2½ times more likely to get to work by rail than other Bay Area commuters. As in metropolitan Washington, living near transit made a difference. On average, 19.3 percent of those who lived in a city served by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains and who worked near a BART station commuted by rail compared to 12.8 percent of those who worked in a similar setting but did not live in a BART-served city.

This table, Annual Unlinked Passenger Trips and Passenger Miles for Urbanized Areas Over 1,000,000 Population, Fiscal Year 2004, from the American Public Transit Association, shows that the more dense a rail transit system is, the more it will be used. For example, passenger miles in Chicago are some 30 percent higher than Los Angeles, despite the larger population in L.A. Particularly telling is a comparison of Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington DC – each with relatively much more developed rail transit systems – with Miami, Dallas, and Houston.

The amount of rail kilometers of new line required for each city is based on land area, not total area, which includes water. For some cities, such as New York City or Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, Virginia, the amount of total city area under water is very significant. For many of these, it appears to be because the municipal boundaries are extended into neighboring bodies of water. For example, the Milwaukee-Waukesha, Wisc., PMSA is listed as having a total area of 3,322.27, of which 1,862.38 square miles are water, or 56.1 percent, the highest percentage of the 29 cities. The Cleveland-Lorain-Elyria, Ohio PMSA has a total area of 5,347.31 square miles, of which 2,640.47 square miles are water, or 49.4 percent, the second highest percentage. The city with the third largest percentage of water area is Norfolk--Virginia Beach--Newport News, VA--NC MSA, which has a total area of 3,586.20 square miles, of which 1,237.71 are water, or 34.5%. The next largest water areas by percent are Chicago, IL PMSA at 24.6 percent; Tampa--St. Petersburg--Clearwater, FL MSA at 23.3 percent; New York City at 19.3 percent; Baltimore, Md. and the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA CMSA both at 16.0 percent; and Providence-Fall River-Warwick, RI-MA MSA at 15.9 percent. Boston, MA-NH PMSA is 14.7% water; Los Angeles--Long Beach, CA PMSA is 14.5 percent; Orlando, FL MSA is 13.0 percent; and Seattle--Bellevue--Everett, WA PMSA is 11.9 percent. All the rest are ten percent or less of water area.

The city with the smallest percentage of water area is Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona, which has 14,598.36 square miles of which only 25.63 are water, or 0.2 percent. The next two lowest are Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif. PMSA and Denver, Col., which both have 0.5 percent of their total area listed as water.

I may have lost you in that listing of water areas, but the overall national total can be greatly impacted by these considerations. In my initial calculations, I found estimated cost was bloated over $1 trillion by the unusually large land areas of Riverside, Calif., and Las Vegas, Nevada. There may be good reasons why these municipalities have incorporated so much land area, but it is doubtful that as much transit rail network needs to be built for these areas as the numbers indicate. I discarded the land areas numbers for these two cities found in the U.S. Census Bureau table, and substituted the land areas numbers given by Wikipedia for each urban area.

Urban Area Population (million\s) Land Area (sq kms) Existing rail km Desired rail km
New York, NY PMSA 9.3 2,957 368 367
Los Angeles--Long Beach, CA PMSA 9.5 10,518 117.6 1,304
Chicago, IL PMSA 8.3 13,111 170.6 1,626
Dallas--Fort Worth, TX CMSA 5.2 23,579 72 2,924
Philadelphia, PA--NJ PMSA 5.1 9,985 61.6 1,238
Houston, TX PMSA 4.2 15,333 12 1,901
Miami--Fort Lauderdale, FL CMSA 3.9 8,162 36 1,012
Washington, DC--MD--VA--WV PMSA 4.9 16,859 171.0 2,091
Atlanta, GA MSA 4.1 15,861 77.0 1,967
Detroit, MI PMSA 4.4 10,093 4.8 1,251
Boston, MA--NH PMSA 3.4 5,236 708.0 649
San Francisco--Oakland--San Jose, CA CMSA 7.0 19,083 167.0 2,366
Phoenix--Mesa, AZ MSA 3.3 37,743 32.2 4,680
Riverside--San Bernardino, CA PMSA 3.3 12,562 none 1,578
Seattle--Bellevue--Everett, WA PMSA 2.4 11,457 24.5 1,421
Minneapolis--St. Paul, MN--WI MSA 3.0 15,703 19.2 1,947
San Diego, CA MSA 2.8 10,878 82.0 1,349
St. Louis, MO--IL MSA 2.6 16,555 74.0 2,053
Tampa--St. Petersburg--Clearwater, FL MSA 2.4 6,615 none 820
Baltimore, MD PMSA 2.6 6,757 24.5 838
Denver, CO PMSA 2.1 9,740 56.0 1,208
Pittsburgh, PA MSA 2.4 11,980 41.6 1,486
Portland--Vancouver, OR--WA PMSA 1.9 13,022 70.0 1,615
Cincinnati, OH--KY--IN PMSA 1.6 8,655 none 1,073
Cleveland--Lorain--Elyria, OH PMSA 2.3 7,011 54.0 869
Sacramento--Yolo, CA CMSA 1.8 13,194 61.0 1,636
Orlando, FL MSA 1.6 9,041 none 1,121
San Antonio, TX MSA 1.6 8,615 none 1,068
Kansas City, MO--KS MSA 1.8 14,002 none 1,736
Las Vegas, NV--AZ MSA 1.6 1,600 6.2 198
San Jose, CA PMSA 1.7 3,343 67.5 415
Columbus, OH MSA 1.5 8,136 none 1,009
Indianapolis, IN MSA 1.6 9,125 none 1,131
Norfolk--Virginia Beach--Newport News, VA--NC MSA 1.6 6,083 none 754
Charlotte--Gastonia--Rock Hill, NC--SC MSA 1.5 8,746 15.5 1,084
Providence--Fall River--Warwick, RI--MA MSA 1.2 2,956 none 367
Austin--San Marcos, TX MSA 1.2 10,940 none 1,357
Milwaukee--Waukesha, WI PMSA 1.5 3,781 none 469
Nashville, TN MSA 1.2 10,548 none 1,308
TOTALS 123.4 429,563 2.569.3 50,757

Again, keep in mind that this exercise is intended only to outline the scope of the national effort required. According to these numbers, very little new transit rail needs to be built in cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago, but given that these urban areas already have workable urban densities, and are being choked daily by congestion caused by the currently preferred national mode of transportation -- automobiles -- it is more than likely that extensive additional construction is needed in these areas. For example, here is the result of a quick one-hour PowerPoint exercise in filling in the gaps in the rail transit system of Chicago. (The dotted lines are my flight of fancy.)

Chicago Rail Expansion

In fact, when we look at the number of miles based on population, we find that many urban areas which already have large urban rail transit systems could use much, much more. For example, the Chicago area’s 8.3 million people are served by 170.6 kilometers of urban rail transit. At 40 kilomoters per million people, the Chicago rail transit system should be doubled in size, to 331 kilometers.

This is a map of the underground transit system in Vienna, Austria. And this is a map of the Vienna tramway system.

Vienna has 1.7 million residents. The city covers 415 square kilometers. The underground transit system runs for 66 kilometers and has 95 stations. Vienna has about the same population as the fifth largest city in the United State, Phoenix, Arizona, with a population of 1.5 million. But Phoenix covers 1,230 square kilometers, three times the land area of Vienna.

This is a map of the rail transit system of Phoenix. It runs half the length of Vienna’s system, and has only one third the number of stations.

Please take the time to compare the maps of the rail transit systems of these two cities. I find the exercise a sobering lesson in how far behind the United States has fallen in terms of public infrastructure. Rail transit in Phoenix opened for service in December 2008. It is a light rail system, running above ground for 32.2 kilometers, and serving 32 stations. There is no underground rail transit system in Phoenix.

Parts of the Vienna system were begun in the 1890s, but it was not until 1968 that the city decided to build a fully integrated rail transit system, including the semi-circular U2 line around the city.

Today in Vienna, public transit accounts for 48% of personal trips each day. This is just a bit more than the 47% of personal trips each day taken by car. Bicycling or wlaking account for the remaining 5%.

For estimated cost per unit length of rail system, I emailed four transit agencies that have completed extensions the past few years, and received the desired information from the Los Angeles Metro, which had extended its Gold Line back by 9.6 kilometers in 2004. I used the cost and amounts of steel and concrete used to for the Gold Line extension, divided by the kilometers of the extension. The resulting figure was $62.5 million per kilometer, which includes a small amount of tunneling. Next, I multiplied those numbers by the amounts I found doing the spreadsheet of the various cities.

But is $62.5 million per kilometer a number that can be applied to different cities across the entire country? In his 2006 book, Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro, George Mason University history professor Zachary M. Schrag writes that the Washington DC Metro cost about $100 million a mile, adjusted for inflation. Dividing this by 1.6 to get cost per kilometer, we get $62.5 million per kilometer – exactly the same as the number calculated from the Los Angles metro number.

In this table, Light Rail Costs Approach $70 Million per Mile in 2000, Wendell Cox, an anti-public works consultant who is often cited by conservative wrong-wing media and institutions such as the Cato Institute, conveniently brings together cost information for nineteen light rail transit projects. (Note that “light rail” refers to on-ground, at-grade rail lines, often laid along existing streets; the DC Metro is considered a heavy rail system; I’m not sure what the Los Angeles Gold Line is considered). The numbers from Cox’s table range from $28.67 million per mile for an 18.3 mile rail system in Norfolk, Virginia, to $208.33 million per mile for 7.2 mile “shorter route,” in Seattle. Eleven of the nineteen projects are tightly clustered between $36.18 million per mile for San Diego and $50.62 million per mile for a 14.6 mile system in Austin, Texas.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) are finally working on a 11.6-mile extension of Metrorail through the edge city of Tysons Corner to Reston, another edge city on the western side of Fairfax County. In a second phase of construction, this line will be extended the remaining twelve miles needed to reach the passenger terminals at Washington Dulles International Airport. According to a January 2009 announcement by these two agencies, the new 23 miles of rail system will cost $1.63 billion, or $70.9 million per mile.

I was also looking for a bill of materials, especially for the amount of steel needed. Interestingly, reflecting the post-industrial devastation on the economy these past three decades, such information is extremely difficult to find. Information from the Los Angeles Gold Line extension indicates that 2,604 tons of steel are used per kilometer of rail line. I believe that the LA Gold Line extension involved some tunneling, so this steel amount is probably not accurate for rail lines built on ground at grade. However, if we want some general idea of the scope of such a national program, we are looking at a physical requirement of 133.1 million tons of steel. This is about two years of U.S. steel shipments, or probably about three years of U.S. steel production, assuming we become sane and produce it all here, providing good-paying jobs for ourselves, making, shaping, and distributing, big pieces of iron.

In summary, there is no need to save the financial system if it is not able to provide financing for these types of massive national projects that will build a sustainable future for our children and their posterity. Every dime spent on saving Wall Street and money center banks that destroyed themselves through providing ample credit for gambling, rather than providing credit for these types of real investments, is a dime that is being wasted. Imagine what we could be doing if we took all that funding away from the banksters, and instead spent it on these types of programs. And, remember, this is a lesson that President Obama and his team has yet to learn: the President’s top economics adviser, Larry Summers, slashed 41% of transit funds from the stimulus bill before it was even submitted to Congress.

Note: This list of the 39 most populated urban areas does not include the following cities, which have one half to over one million people. Akron, OH Albany--Schenectady--Troy, NY Albuquerque, NM MSA Allentown--Bethlehem--Easton, PA Bakersfield, CA Baton Rouge, LA Birmingham, AL Buffalo--Niagara Falls, NY Colorado Springs, CO Dayton, OH Des Moines, IA El Paso, TX Fresno, CA Flint, MI Grand Rapids--Muskegon--Holland, MI Greensboro--Winston-Salem--High Point, NC Greenville--Spartanburg--Anderson, SC Harrisburg--Lebanon--Carlisle, PA Hartford, CT Jackson, MS Jacksonville, FL Knoxville, TN Louisville, KY Memphis, TN Nashville, TN New Orleans, LA Newark, NJ (not included in New York?) Oklahoma City, OK Omaha, NE Orange County, CA Raleigh--Durham--Chapel Hill, NC Richmond--Petersburg, VA Rochester, NY Salt Lake City--Ogden, UT Scranton--Wilkes-Barre--Hazleton, PA Spokane, WA Stockton--Lodi, CA Syracuse, NY Toledo, OH Tucson, AZ Tulsa, OK Wichita, KS Youngstown--Warren, OH Wilmington--Newark, DE-MD

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I lived in New York City (excepting a year  in Michigan and a bit more in London) for 53 and using mass transit was an important part of my "quality of life." The one negative feature of the subways was the fear of crime, although I never experienced anything worse than the kind of masher who plagued young girls. Moving to Leesburg, VA was a rude shock. Lack of public transporation meant taking the car everywhere. There weren't even safe places to walk and bike riding is not an option for me really. The roads are dangerous and I am too old really.

As is despite the fact that I live in a rural setting, the ever-increasing traffic density here is a big factor in our increasing air pollution.

WE NEED A NATIONAL URBAN RAIL SYSTEM as well as an upgraded long haul rail system on a par with that in Europe and Japan. And we need to foster the kind of population density that will support it.