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Return to the Rails

Light rail train zooms past freeway traffic in Denver

Switching people and freight from roads to rails would increase American productivity, says Thomas Finkbiner, senior chairman of DU's Intermodal Transportation Institute. Photo: Tyrone Turner/National Geographic Society/Corbis

To understand the marriage of transportation and land use, look no further than a pair of old maps—in this case, maps of Denver, though they could just as easily be those of Des Moines or Detroit.

In 1900, Pitner & Fergie’s Official Map of Denver depicted a downtown webbed with streetcar lines. Lonelier spurs reached out along dirt roads in various directions, to what were the fringes. One such line tracked south to Evans Avenue and then east to the DU campus. Another went south along Broadway to Hampden Avenue in Englewood.

But by the time the Hotchkiss Map Co. printed its Map of Denver and Surroundings in 1952, not a single streetcar line remained. The “surroundings” dwarfed the old downtown. In Denver and throughout the United States, the automobile had reshaped the landscape.

“We built an awful lot of highways and automobiles because gas was selling for 29 cents a gallon,” says Gilbert Carmichael, a former federal railroad administrator and founding chairman of the board of directors of DU’s Intermodal Transportation Institute (ITI). “When you get a cheap fuel, you get a system based on it.”

Americans still love their cars. But the sprawling human landscapes cars have enabled are now costing us $87 billion a year in wasted fuel and lost productivity — $750 for every U.S. traveler.

That’s about a week’s worth of fuel as well as time, the Texas Transportation Institute says.

And the problems don’t stop there. The American Society of Civil Engineers has projected a $115-billion-a-year shortfall for road and bridge maintenance and improvements in the next five years. The transportation sector, powered overwhelmingly by liquid (petroleum) fuels, accounts for one-third of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). Though fuel prices have dipped because of the recession, oil remains a finite resource. The U.S. imports 60 percent of what it burns, thereby sending more than $25 billion a month to overseas coffers, says the EIA, and a healthy portion of those imports come from politically volatile regions.

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama said that “our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardize our national security. It will smother our planet. And it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.”

America’s challenge is to keep people and goods moving at low cost, with minimum congestion, and with as little environmental and geopolitical impact as possible. The answer for Denver and elsewhere, land-use and transportation planners increasingly agree, is to shift back to the nation’s roots on the rails, despite the high cost of trains that move people as opposed to goods.

“In this case, there are bad solutions and worse solutions,” says Thomas Finkbiner, a longtime transportation executive and senior chairman of the ITI board of directors. “The consensus shortcut that people are coming to recognize is the modal switch. The one thing you can do in terms of improved productivity is switch both freight and people from the highway to the rail.”

Such a switch would have impacts far beyond people’s choices in how they get from point A to point B. A return to the rails would, like previous transportation revolutions, reshape American landscapes and redefine American life.

Steel on steel

There are four primary modes of transportation: air, water, rail and road. We use them in two ways: to move ourselves (passengers) and to move stuff (freight). On the freight side, matters are more settled. Nearly half of U.S. freight, measured in ton-miles, moves by rail, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). About half of that is coal, followed by grains, chemicals, foodstuffs and fuel.

Chart showing freight distribution by mode of transportationThe fastest-growing area of freight transport, intermodal, involves moving metal containers roughly the size of 18-wheel truck trailers. Such containers arrive on ships with 2,500 of their ilk stacked in a multicolored LEGO mélange. The containers, transferred to rail, can then ride double-stacked on low-riding flatcars. They are transferred to trucks for the final legs of their travels.

Intermodal freight has grown explosively as manufacturing has globalized. From 1980 through 2008, according to the DOT, intermodal shipments by rail grew from 3 million containers to more than 11.5 million.

Rail is the most efficient way to move freight over land. Carmichael says the classic “steel wheel on a steel rail” configuration is almost frictionless, able to move a ton of freight more than 400 miles on one gallon of fuel.

A 2009 Federal Railroad Administration study comparing rail and truck fuel efficiency showed that, depending on the route and the commodity carried, railroads are up to 5.5 times more fuel-efficient than trucks. Depending on the type of freight and the distance hauled, a single cross-country intermodal double-stack train can replace 280 trucks and save up to 80,000 gallons of fuel.

Yet the rail freight system faces problems, Finkbiner says. Rail infrastructure is wearing down, and it’s not clear how to finance its rebuilding and upkeep. At the same time, consolidation of the freight system has shrunk the freight rail network from nearly 165,000 miles in 1980 to nearly 94,000 miles in 2008, mainly via the removal of redundant freight tracks. But such tracks are looking less and less redundant. The U.S. Department of Transportation expects tonnage on the nation’s rail system to increase 88 percent by 2035. And that’s not even taking passenger rail increases into account.

Out of suburbia

By contrast, America’s passenger transportation systems beg not only for enormous investment, but also for strategies related to land-use development and allocation of resources. The U.S. highway network extends roughly 160,000 miles. It was a key driver of postwar development patterns and the popularity of suburban living. In the 1950s, 57 percent of metropolitan-area residents lived in central cities. By 1970, the figure had fallen to 43 percent, and by 2000 it was just 30 percent.

Steve Rudy, director of transportation planning for the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), which is responsible for the region’s transportation-funding priorities, expects at best a 10 percent expansion of the area’s road network in the next 25 years. In that same span, an additional 1.5 million people will join the region — tantamount to another Salt Lake City moving to Denver, Rudy says.

Rudy’s DRCOG colleague Jill Locantore, a senior land-use planner, says the Denver of 2035 will be about the size of Washington, D.C., today.

“[D.C. has] mass transit, but also a lot of congestion. Regardless of what we do, it’s going to be more congested,” Locantore says. “I think the question for policymakers and taxpayers is how much do we want to invest in providing alternatives?”

At D.C. scale, we’ll still need to get around, as well as buy things arriving on trucks with which we’ll continue to share the road. While hybrid-electric vehicles (combining electric and internal-combustion engines) and all-electric vehicles will cut back on fuel consumption, they won’t reduce traffic. And the impacts of electric vehicles on land-use patterns remain unclear. If people can drive an electric vehicle 50 miles on a charge and then plug in while at work, they could still live in distant exurbs and continue postwar development patterns, Rudy says.

“I don’t think that’s what any of us want to see,” he says.

What’s more, Rudy says, long-distance electric-car commuters could stress the electric grid during peak daytime hours — rather than charging at night and serving as distributed “vehicle-to-grid” power generators by day, as some envision.

Vehicle-navigation technology may soon help congestion, though. Randal O’Toole, a transportation analyst and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, suggests that more advanced versions of adaptive cruise control — available now, and with which cars can stay a fixed distance behind the car in front of them — could allow for a tripling of vehicles on the roads.

“Increased automobility will lead to increased decentralization of cities,” O’Toole says, adding that the net effect would be a continuation of the postwar trend toward suburbanization and falling population density in urban areas.

Such a view goes against urban-planning conventional wisdom, though, which now views higher-density development as the best long-term answer to America’s transportation conundrum. DRCOG believes at least half of new housing and 75 percent of new jobs by 2035 ought to be in urban centers, Rudy says. That means creating places in which people can shop for groceries, get kids to school or go to work without having to get in their cars.

In addition to economic trends — principally the price of gasoline — demographic and cultural trends seem headed toward higher density, too, says Katherine Iverson, interim director of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute at DU’s Sturm College of Law. Less than one-third of American households will have children mid-century, she says, resulting in “a much older population, with much less demand for an Ozzie-and-Harriet-style single-family home with a family yard.” In the nearer term, Locantore adds, empty-nester baby boomers and young people choosing to remain childless or waiting longer to have kids tend to prefer urban lifestyles. “They want amenities close by. They don’t want to have to drive everywhere,” Locantore says.

The light-rail revolution

Chart showing fuel use by mode of transportationIn cities across the country, light rail has become a linchpin of land-use and transportation planning. In Denver, 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail known as FasTracks — for which voters approved a 0.4 percent Regional Transportation District sales-tax hike in 2004 — eventually will connect the hub of Denver’s Union Station with Denver International Airport, Boulder, Longmont, Wheat Ridge and Golden.

FasTracks is both a reaction to metropolitan Denver’s current urban form and a means of shaping its future. By deliberately establishing fixed transit arteries, as railroad and highway planners once did, RTD’s marquee project is an attempt to steer growth toward higher density and away from sprawl.

“I think FasTracks and the transit-oriented development that it’s instigating are the biggest things that are changing the transportation land-use configuration in the Denver metropolitan area,” says Professor Andrew Goetz, chair of the DU geography department.

The transit-oriented development surrounding south Denver’s Englewood Station, which opened in 2000, offers a taste of what could be the future for dozens of FasTracks stops — and, for that matter, transit-oriented developments around the country. Just north of Hampden Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, the development is a cluster of retailers, restaurants, a fitness club, the Alexan City Center apartment complex, the Museum of Outdoor Art and the Englewood civic center. Just beyond the eastern edge of the multistory development is a Wal-Mart and a handful of other big-box stores.

Robert Corona, who works in downtown Denver, was just getting off the train at Englewood one recent afternoon. He had driven his Jeep less than a mile to the station’s park-and-ride lot and taken the train downtown.

“It beats the hell out of paying gas money,” he says.

Thirteen years ago, Corona would have been outside an abandoned shopping mall. The 1.3 million square-foot Cinderella City was demolished in 1998 to make way for the development. Englewood still owned the land underneath it, says Harold Stitt, an Englewood senior planner. That fact provided unusual sway in pressing developers otherwise cool to the idea of integrating RTD’s planned light-rail stop, Stitt says.

Englewood officials considered the work of transit-oriented development pioneers such as Portland, Ore., and the San Francisco Bay Area, “learning about [transit-oriented development] almost at the same time as developers were,” Stitt says.

While the impact on property values is hard to quantify, Stitt says the city believes land as far as a half mile away from the station sells at a premium. Indeed, a recent survey by Denver real estate investment group Grubb & Ellis showed that apartment seekers are willing to spend 4 percent more on rent for apartments within a quarter mile of a light-rail stop. Developers pay a 25 percent premium for land in such areas, too, the study found.

DRCOG’s Rudy calls the development “the first and greatest initial [local] example of a different way to develop, one where freeways are not the primary driver. Now all of a sudden, you have a way to say, ‘There’s a different way we can develop.’ Now that you’ve got some transit, you’ve got an inkling of what you could do.”

But light rail comes with a catch. It is expensive: $80 million a mile being a typical figure, including the rolling stock, says Richard Gilbert, a Toronto-based transportation analyst and co-author of the book Transport Revolutions. RTD’s FasTracks program, initially budgeted at $4.7 billion, is now slated to cost $6.5 billion, the result of ballooning costs. At the same time, plummeting sales tax revenues have left RTD with a shortage of funds to complete the project.

“That’s a perfect storm, when costs escalate and revenues decrease,” says RTD FasTracks spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas.

To build the system out by 2017 as planned, RTD needs to fill a $2.4 billion budget gap, Tonilas says. The RTD board recently decided to delay a ballot issue asking voters to approve a second 0.4 percent sales-tax increase. But without that money and a $1 billion assist from the federal government, FasTracks won’t be finished until 2042, RTD officials say.

Denver is not alone. The Maricopa Association of Governments — the DRCOG of greater Phoenix, Ariz. — would like to expand the 20-mile light-rail system it opened in late 2008, says Eric Anderson, the association’s transportation director. As has been the case with Denver’s southerly light-rail lines, ridership has exceeded expectations, with the line carrying 34 percent more passengers in 2009 than anticipated. The region would like to build another 37 miles of local rail, Anderson says. Money is lacking, though.

“Revenues are down, and costs turned out to be quite a bit higher than in the plan,” Anderson says.

Indeed, passenger rail’s high costs don’t end when construction wraps up. Amtrak carried about 27 million passengers in fiscal 2009 but needed $1.5 billion from the federal government to cover operating and capital shortfalls.

Light rail in the United States is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. O’Toole calculates that light rail costs eight times the price per mile as urban driving.

“Huge subsidies are required to make these modes of transit attractive to people,” he says.

O’Toole says buses, if less sexy, are cheaper to buy and operate and don’t force transportation planners to predict financial needs, development patterns or ridership decades into the future.

“With bus transit, you see where people are going and you go that way,” O’Toole says.

Gilbert points to trolley buses — buses on an electrified network in places like Cambridge, Mass., and Vancouver, B.C. — as a promising alternative to light rail at one-tenth the cost.

“They’re not quite as good as light rail, but you can deploy a lot more of them,” Gilbert says. “They’re very energy-efficient, quiet, and relatively inexpensive.”

Planes, trains and automobiles

A rethinking of transportation systems — and, by extension, land use — can’t stop at the metropolitan boundary’s edge. Long-distance travel also is at a crossroads. In the coming decades, Gilbert believes domestic U.S. airline travel will increasingly cede to regional high-speed rail links—to the extent that the number of airports will shrink 80 percent to 90 percent by mid-century.

Fuel cost will be the main challenge, Goetz says. It takes an immense amount of power to plow through the atmosphere at more than 400 mph, leaving energy-packed — and, analysts believe, increasingly pricey — liquid fuels the only option into the foreseeable future.

But if Gilbert is right, regional high-speed passenger rail will be the biggest threat to airlines. The Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package jump-started the decades-old vision of a U.S. high-speed rail network, spending $8 billion on 13 regional high-speed rail efforts, with the promise of $5 billion more over the next five years. Carmichael says that as rail takes hold, commuter planes and many domestic flights will eventually disappear.

Investing in a high-speed passenger rail network of 100-mile to 600-mile-long intercity corridors “builds on the successful highway and aviation development models with a 21st century solution,” but one focusing on “a clean, energy-efficient option,” according to the Department of Transportation’s strategic plan for high-speed rail.

One of the proposed routes extends from Cheyenne, Wyo., through Denver south to Albuquerque, N.M., and El Paso, Texas. The Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Rail Authority currently is developing plans for passenger rail lines along the state’s I-25 and I-70 corridors.

To Carmichael, it’s a familiar vision. He has been advocating something he calls the “Interstate II” for years now. The system would add 30,000 miles of high-speed railways to existing rights of way to create “a 21st century intermodal transportation system for passengers and freight.”

Regions around the country submitted $55 billion in requests for the $8 billion in high-speed rail regional stimulus funding. The largest recipients were California ($2.25 billion for a Los Angeles-San Francisco route) and Florida ($1.25 billion for a Tampa-Orlando link).

A web of regional high-speed rail networks would be expensive. O’Toole estimates the latest plan would cost $150 billion to build, and that’s assuming that certain regions settle for trains topping out at 110 mph rather than 220 mph. Complicating matters, Finkbiner says, is that most of the rights of way, not to mention the rails themselves, are privately owned by freight carriers.

“The freight carriers are steeling themselves for the shared usage of mainline routes for railroads,” he says.

How America’s collective transportation choices will shape future maps, one can only guess. But in 2006, nearly six decades after the University of Denver campus saw its last streetcar, the first light-rail train arrived. Rather than running along Evans Avenue, it rode on the southeast rail line, 19 miles of tracks built as part of RTD’s $1.6 billion T-REX project to improve the Interstate 25 corridor south of the city. Passengers boarding across Buchtel Boulevard from the Ritchie Center are downtown in 17 minutes. Perhaps one day the line will link up with high-speed rail to destinations across the country. It depends as much on priorities as it does on money, Carmichael says.

“An ethical transportation system, that doesn’t kill people and doesn’t waste fuel and doesn’t pollute the air, is what we ought to be building,” he says. “One that uses each mode — water, rail, highways and airways — in its most efficient way.”

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