Saturday, June 11, 2011

A tale of three cities: Federal Way, WA, Las Vegas, NV, and Lyon, France

by Andrew Nelson

According to a 2009 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States a D-minus grade for public infrastructure. This accounts for all sorts of different areas of public services, including bridges, dams, available drinking water, rail systems, roads, schools, transit, and flood control systems. If you are wondering how your state is doing, you can check here. While the overall grade for all categories was a D minus, the nation’s score for transit came in a little higher: America earned a solid D.

The topic of public transit hits close to home for me. I commuted to high school in Las Vegas. Depending on the traffic, the trip could last anywhere between 25 minutes to over an hour. The ASCE report card mentions that 59% of Nevada’s urban freeways are congested. Las Vegas is one of those cities where public transport doesn’t really exist. Sure, there is the Citizen’s Area Transit (CAT) bus system, but it doesn’t really support the valley’s population needs. Rather, it serves a relatively small subset of the population on the Las Vegas Strip and provides limited assistance for suburban developments. For example, according to the Regional Transportation Commission’s website, there are only three transit centers in the entire RTC network, which, incidentally, serves a population of approximately 1.9 million people. A shallow examination of the numbers shows that, in 2009, the RTC shuttled 57.7 million people around the valley. That sounds great! It sounds as if everyone in the Las Vegas valley must be riding the bus. In reality, of the top five bus lines in Las Vegas, the top two (routes 301 and 502) serve almost exclusively the Strip. Realistically, these bus lines only serve tourists along a 7.5 mile corridor. The remaining lines in the top five serve artery roads that feed into the Strip.

You might be saying, “So what? The top five bus lines serve the commercial center of the city.” And you’d be right. But how do these people get to the Strip? They drive. Clark County has some nice freeways... when they aren’t mangled with traffic. In my mind, building larger freeways is equivalent to putting a band aid on a huge, bleeding gouge. It does nothing to inherently change the greater problem: Las Vegas cannot support its traffic needs and future growth.

Being in Europe again reminds me of how far behind American cities (especially those in the west) are in providing adequate public transportation. Take Lyon, France for example. Lyon’s metropolitan area is one of the largest in France with about 1.7 million residents. Lyon has a huge system of light rail trams, hundreds of bus lines, two major train stations, an airport, and four different underground metro lines. Additionally, the city has an advanced system of freeways and beltways.

Compare that resume with Las Vegas, which is about the same size as Lyon. In addition to the CAT bus system, Las Vegas has two freeways, two-thirds of a beltway, an airport, and an absolutely horrible Greyhound terminal. Oh, and a few years ago a private investment firm built the Las Vegas Monorail which ferries passengers up and down the strip. The monorail isn’t making any money. In fact, it recently filed for bankruptcy and it certainly isn’t alleviating surface street congestion.

Obviously, Las Vegas can’t build a metro system. The ground is much too hard that digging tunnels underneath would make the project exorbitantly expensive. Rail lines already exist and proposals are in place to extend a train line from Henderson to North Las Vegas. But instead of pushing ahead with plans for light rail, the RTC has instead invested in more buses. According to the Las Vegas Sun,the U.S. average [cost] for new light rail construction [is] about $35 million a mile. The RTC is building a 14-mile bus rapid transit line for $50 million.” That may make sense now, when gas prices are still somewhat low, but what will they do in the future when fuel becomes prohibitively expensive? Finally, instead of finding and creating a viable I-15 corridor high speed train alternative from Las Vegas to southern California they built an extra lane of freeway to Primm, Nevada, dropped the speed limit to 70 mph and called it good.

So far, I’ve discussed two large, relatively independent cities in North America and Europe. But what about a smaller city that is mostly dependent on the actions of a bigger city? A few weeks ago, Sound Transit in Washington State announced that they would be unable to fulfill a promise to connect a new light rail system to suburban Federal Way, Washington. Situated 23 miles south of Seattle, Federal Way voted in 2008 for a tax increase that would give the city access to Link light rail by the year 2023. However, “a plunge in sales-tax income” led to revenues 25 percent less than the forecast, resulting in a lack of financing to extend the rail line to the suburban city. Instead, Sound Transit will try to connect to the Highline Community College which is two miles outside of the Federal Way city limits. To make things worse, the larger, wealthier suburb of Bellevue is requesting larger and more expensive improvements to their own transportation projects. How can Sound Transit afford to give more benefits to some cities, especially since voters gave their approval and money to finance the project?

The answer is quite simple. Budgetary restrictions only allow revenue to stay within their respective jurisdictions, meaning there is no fund-sharing for the greater needs of the project. Thus, money raised in Bellevue for transportation projects stays in Bellevue. Surplus funds can’t be transferred to other cities. A lower-income resident in Federal Way loses on two fronts: first, they can’t afford housing in the urban centers in which they work and second, budgetary loopholes prevent them from access to transportation options. As a Seattle Times article reports, the “gentrification in trendy cities such as Seattle is pushing lower-income people outward, where it's harder to find reliable transit routes to work.”

I believe transportation infrastructure is a function of (1) geographic location, (2) budget politics, (3) social preferences, and (4) existing infrastructure. For example, Las Vegas’ geographic location and existing infrastructure do not lend themselves to underground projects. Budgetary policies for Sound Transit prevent fund-sharing between wealthier suburbs (like Bellevue) and working class cities (such as Federal Way). Lyon, France, happens to be at the confluence of two major rivers, meaning the ground is sufficiently soft to allow underground projects. France has always invested money into infrastructure development. In France, it makes sense to build upon those projects that already exist.

Lyon and Las Vegas are roughly the same size in terms of population. But they could not be further apart when it comes to planning for growing urban populations. Part of that is due to circumstances beyond human control and part of that is due to political maneuverings. Federal Way is tiny compared to either one of these cities, and yet the need for light rail is so great for them that they are willing to sue Sound Transit to get it. Whereas Lyon and Las Vegas are addressing their growing pains individually, based upon their own needs and capabilities, Federal Way cannot obtain the improvements they need due to budgetary policies, politics, and an unfortunate economic recession.

I believe we have a lot of work to do to catch up on building up transportation alternatives, and capital projects and infrastructure improvements have to remain a focus of local governments. Investing in sound, environmentally safe, and effective public transportation will create jobs, streamline the circulation of people and products, and allow for future growth. It is both illogical and irresponsible to push back vital projects when our modern society needs them so badly.

Do you think America is a D-minus country? I don't.

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