Rail to the Rescue

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Despite its flaws, Seattle's light-rail system demonstrates a replicable strategy for U.S. cities seeking to expand both rail and affordable housing in equal measure. 

Twenty-five hours is a long time. With it, you could file your taxes twice; roast, burn, then re-roast a brisket; obtain (and recover from) a stomach virus; or watch an entire nonstop month of The View. Olga Sokal used to dread something far worse: spending 25 hours on the bus—every week.

In cities on both coasts, as well as Sun Belt growth centers in between, housing costs have skyrocketed in the urban core, while affordable homes can often be found 30 or 40 miles outside downtown. But antiquated or nonexistent rail service combined with congested highways make for unbearable commutes. Meanwhile, underdeveloped bus lines make for arduous travel even closer in.

With soaring Portland rents, Sokal moved to Lake Oswego just south of Portland to take a job as an artist for animated films. Without money for a car, Portland’s bus system was the only way for her to get to work. She spent months commuting two and a half hours each way. But even Portland’s transit was a step up from her former home in L.A.: “You can walk faster than an L.A. bus,” Sokal tells me.

To a great degree, gross extremes in housing prices and associated transportation troubles are a reflection of America’s widening income and wealth gap. As city centers become gentrified playgrounds for an ever more ostentatious class of elites, a relatively fixed urban housing supply bids up prices. Yet the affordability crisis also reflects deeper policy failures on the twin fronts of housing and transportation. Part of the problem is inadequate funding for both. Another is neighborhood resistance to more construction of affordable housing—the old NIMBY story.

Still, there are solutions to a housing crisis that will only grow more dire as cities grow denser and infrastructure ages. One option is an increased commitment to public transportation coupled with the creation of affordable units close to transportation nodes, often facilitated by deals with developers. Another is social housing protected in perpetuity from market price pressures. And a third is investment in commuter rail, ensuring that people with jobs in downtown centers can live in affordable outlying areas without commute times that significantly damage their quality of life. Each of these approaches brings its own political and policy challenges and none is currently on the fast track. With that said, there are some promising experiments worth visiting.

 

FOR SPRAWLING WEST COAST cities like L.A., the housing crisis is less about room to build, and much more about political attitudes. In California, where a progressive governor enjoys a legislature with Democratic supermajorities in both houses, you might expect broad support for increasing affordable-housing options. One bill, SB 827, proposed unprecedented statewide “upzoning”—allowing developers to skirt restrictions for height and density limits in exchange for constructing housing within close proximity to public-transportation routes and a quota of some affordable units.

The bill was first met with opposition from the usual suspects: suburban residents bemoaning changes to neighborhood character and traffic congestion. Others supported SB 827 despite concerns about producing enough affordable units to meet California’s need. Some took things one step further.

Tenants’ rights organizations backed by local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) activists argued that the language of SB 827 failed to ensure new developments would actually serve low-income people. More likely were thousands of displaced residents and a welcome mat for luxury apartments. Their proposed alternative? Explicit public housing, state subsidies, and a focus on public transportation. In a rebuke to the NIMBY contingent, they dubbed themselves PHIMBY: Public Housing In My Backyard. As strange bedfellows as could be, the PHIMBYs nonetheless found themselves aligned with the NIMBYs in opposing the upzoning bill, ensuring no short supply of annoying acronymic perplexity.

A year after its first attempt, a reworked bill pairing affordable housing with transportation made it through its first committee vote in 2019, but the opposition is fierce in cities like San Francisco, where a 9-2 board of supervisors vote opposed the bill this spring. For now, the language in SB 50—the latest resurrection of SB 827—still lacks clarity on regulating the specifics of developers’ pledge to guarantee the number of affordable units that would make it worthwhile.

As the economic geography scholars Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper detail in their recent study “Housing, Urban Growth and Inequalities,” these developer-led deals are neither progressive nor grounded in socioeconomic reality. Theirs is a trickle-down theory of affordable housing: build more units, slash regulations, make developers rich, while including modest amounts of affordable units to sweeten the deal. Only when compared to the flat-out opposition of the NIMBYs does this model assume a progressive sheen.

Whether private or public, of course, the idea of building affordable housing near transit nodes also requires the transit. But like housing, transit has not been forthcoming at adequate scale or reliability.

Click here to read about how bus rapid transit can bridge the gap for cities struggling with transportation funding

ANOTHER STRATEGY that is yet to live up to its promise is light rail. In the era of ubiquitous streetcars, documented by Sam Bass Warner Jr.’s great book, Streetcar Suburbs, dozens of trolley lines crisscrossed cities, with housing developments springing up in their wake. The result was that a large fraction of urban residents lived within walking distance of streetcars. After most trolley lines were torn up in the auto era, cities began to sprawl. Superimposing a few light-rail lines onto a sprawled city doesn’t begin to replicate the transportation density of yesteryear’s trolleys. Yet many cities place their hopes on inadequate light rail.

While living under the unrelenting roar of SeaTac–bound jetliners in Seattle, Phil Neel, the author of Hinterland and a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of Washington, saw the interaction of limited transit and market-oriented housing development firsthand. Even though light-rail lines extended to his neighborhood, the trek to get to them meant unreliable buses and long walks, adding to an already grueling downtown commute.

“You always hear this density argument, but when I was living out by the airport in Seattle, density meant something entirely different than in downtown,” he told me. “You have massive immigrant populations with extended families and far greater numbers of residents per unit living on the outskirts of major cities in a way that isn’t replicated by upper-class urban professionals.” In other words, poorer communities in outlying areas don’t get the public transportation they need, while richer residents with nominal public-transit access are more likely to turn to cars for transportation.

For Neel, the problem is twofold. First, even relatively efficient public transportation isn’t easily accessible to everyone in the area. Second, creating more density can be deceiving: A massive increase in single-occupancy units inhabited by Seattle’s exponentially expanding tech class is not the same type of density found in communities like those surrounding Sea-Tac. More units does not necessarily make for more transportation-efficient or socially equitable housing.

Despite its flaws, Seattle has had far greater success than most cities when it comes to legislating policy that incentivizes development near public transportation while maintaining comparatively high percentages of low-income housing. The key to the city’s success has been mandating affordable-housing creation in the lots used for building out train stops, which lie vacant after their construction is complete. These lots are sold to developers at low cost but with high mandates on the number of below-market units (80 percent) that must be included in every development.

A massive 62-mile expansion of Seattle’s light rail is planned in the coming years, with more than 30 new stations and a slew of available construction lots in tow. With $54 billion allocated under ST3—Seattle’s mass-transit expansion bill—affordable housing is sure to follow. And while some say these efforts still don’t go far enough—pointing to the tens of thousands still struggling to locate affordable housing in Seattle’s red-hot market—at the very least the system demonstrates a replicable strategy for U.S. cities seeking to expand both rail and affordable housing in equal measure.

 

JUST A FEW MILES west of Boston, in affluent Newton, the average house costs well over $1 million. There is light-rail access, and swollen public coffers, but similar obstacles to building affordable housing nonetheless. Newton is bisected by the Green Line, a century-old trolley that connects western suburbs to Boston’s downtown core. Creating affordable housing near this transit route would allow low-income workers to access jobs in Boston proper without having to pay the exorbitant costs that city living now incurs.

But Newton’s attempts to develop affordable housing have stalled, illustrating the difficulty in both of the policy extremes debated in California: create true public housing and watch cash slip between the cracks of ballooning development costs and nonstop contract wrangling. Or go with big private contractors and watch a megalith of luxury condos wipe out entire neighborhoods while providing a meager number of affordable units.

Andreae Downs, a city councilor in Newton, says that when the city explored creating its own low-income apartment development, they found the estimated $4.9 million price tag for an eight-unit project just didn’t make sense, especially with projected upkeep costs falling on the city’s shoulders alone. What’s now on the table is a massive private development: 800 residential units with 125 dedicated to low-income applicants. But even then, says Downs, the development can hardly be described as “transit oriented,” with a mile walk to the nearest Green Line stop.

“It’s really a chicken and egg scenario,” she tells me. “We want more affordable housing, which means adding density near transit. But to get that we really need a highly efficient transportation system, and if we want that, we need the density to convince the transportation authorities that it’s worthwhile. The real point is proof of concept: How do we start some of these projects to get the ball rolling and stop the endless back and forth.”

 

THE GREATER PAYOFF in the quest to connect transportation solutions to housing programs could well be in high-speed commuter rail. In metro areas like Boston, older outlying towns have lost population while maintaining housing stock and affordable rents. The challenge is getting there. While the quest for transit-accessible and affordable housing in Boston’s inner suburbs like Newton is an uphill battle, commuter rail holds new promise: If you build it, they will come.

As things stand, the existing Massachusetts commuter rail functions, but it’s slow and unreliable. Trains snake their way toward Boston, shuttling in commuters from aging mill towns like Lowell and Haverhill in the north and growing exurbs like Natick, all the way to cities like Worcester to the west. Viewed on a map, the commuter rail spans an impressive breadth, with close to 400 miles of line extending all the way into Rhode Island and covering much of the Boston’s North and South Shore.

On the ground, however, Massachusetts commuter rail leaves much to be desired. According to many of the experts I spoke to, the actual train schedules represent a model of transportation from a bygone era, when 9-to-5 jobs meant that commuter rail could run just a few times a day while meeting the needs of most, if not all, of the standard workforce.

Today, it’s not only blue-collar and gig economy workers with late-night and early-morning schedules who find the 20th-century model untenable. From creative-industry employees with day-to-day scheduling changes, to parents juggling in-flux child-care needs, to students priced out of the once-affordable Boston border towns of Somerville and Medford, inconsistent service means that commuter rail is failing to meet the needs of its diverse ridership.

Jim Aloisi, former secretary of transportation for Massachusetts, envisions a commuter rail transformed from hulking double-decker diesel engines running on a postwar-era schedule to a modern electrified track, zipping commuters, tourists, and cash across the state. He calls it “regional rail” and says without it, the existing system will continue looking more and more like a relic from the past.

Aloisi’s re-envisioning mirrors many of the projects and policies promoted by MassINC, a Massachusetts-based think tank that has framed transit-oriented development as a panacea for economically depressed “gateway cities” spread across Boston’s periphery. An effective regional rail could serve not only to bring workers to and from downtown Boston, but also to stimulate economies along the entire route. The path forward is focused in part on expansion, but more so on modernizing the existing system. This would mean electrifying rail, investing in high-level platforms to expedite stop times, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring that trains run consistently throughout the day to serve a broad diversity of riders.

For former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the patron saint of public-transportation advocates, regional rail is a much better policy solution for the housing crisis than the type of blanket upzoning proposed in the past by the current Republican administration of Governor Charlie Baker. “I’ve been riding trains in Boston since I was five years old,” Dukakis tells me, “and one thing I know for sure is that people prefer high-quality transportation over high-rise apartments that they can’t afford.”

Following suit, the extension of commuter rail into the South Shore suburbs has finally secured funding and permitting. Governor Baker, with $1 billion in transit bonds, has promised completion of the long-anticipated extension. In addition, Boston city councilors have shown enthusiastic support for an east-west line connecting the towns of Springfield and Pittsfield to Boston. Both extensions would serve to spread out the economic and population concentration in the coastal hub by stimulating commerce and transit to towns and cities that have seen their populations dwindle in the past decade.

Despite its positioning to become a leader in the push for regional rail, Greater Boston is far from the only metro area where modernized rail could link housing solutions to transportation. From Denver to Houston to Atlanta, cities across the country are starting to consider regional rail as a solution for a multitude of economic and social ills.

California has not been as successful. A high-speed rail system slated to connect San Francisco and L.A. has stalled, with the words “regional rail” far from legislators’ lips. Instead, lawmakers opted for a flashy and overpriced north-to-south bullet train, which now seems as infeasible as it is impractical for solving California’s deepening housing crisis.

 

ADAM TOOZE, A historian at Columbia University, has written extensively about how productivity in the American construction industry has stagnated with devastating effect, leading to the struggling state of transportation infrastructure we see today. These flaws are compounded by conflicts of interest. For Tooze, one of the most egregious examples of this phenomenon lies with California’s failed attempt at high-speed rail.

In a flagrant display of corporate capture, Jeff Morales, a former VP of the construction hegemon WSP (formerly known as Parsons Brinckerhoff) was named CEO of California’s high-speed rail project. Any guesses as to which firm won the bid for the project? It was WSP. California’s high-speed rail has been significantly rolled back since the firm won the bid, and now even the small strip planned for the Central Valley is plagued with delays and overspending—making it a sore spot for everyone involved. This of course should come as no surprise, as WSP’s other mega-project—the Big Dig in Boston— ran $13.4 billion over budget, is filled with leaks and fatal construction errors, and is expected to need an immense and unanticipated overhaul to remain safe and functional.

The story of Morales and WSP is no isolated incident. It is a parable that symbolizes the failures of American transportation writ large, where dozens of consultants, construction firms, and regulators spend an eternity blasting through tax dollars only to deliver supersized and inefficient projects. Compared to other countries, U.S. spending per mile of rail when adjusted for purchasing power parity, wages, and scaling factors is three to four times higher. This isn’t a result of the cosmopolitan sensibilities of social democratic Euro-states, nor the authoritarian hand of countries like China, which seize land with little regard for those displaced in the process. Instead, all dilapidated roads lead to a general lack of oversight and wildly inefficient project management.

Alon Levy, a fellow at the D.C. Policy Center, adds to this list of failures contracts being awarded based on cost alone (instead of the formula used in countries such as Spain, which factor in construction speed and a technical score); horrible project management (Levy points to the Boston MBTA Green Line extension, which wasted $1.1 billion on a failed project overseen by a manager with no experience before starting over from scratch), and finally, perverse political incentives: “American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.”

All this is to say that the problem is not just inadequate funding. When the battle for transportation-oriented development is reduced to the split between conservative hand-wringing over deficit spending and liberal support for runaway project costs, the real culprits of the gridlock slink away unchecked. The fix is continuing to invest in crucial transportation initiatives while simultaneously working at the federal and state levels to streamline construction and planning so that the price tags associated with transit development could be reduced enough to generate bipartisan support.

Despite this grim portrait of America’s dueling crises of housing insecurity and failing public infrastructure, there are a number of places starting to use both heavy and light rail to transform economically depressed communities into reservoirs of affordable housing stock and new economic growth. In Florida, for example, the coastal Brightline, now owned and operated by Virgin under the name Virgin Trains USA, runs from Miami to West Palm Beach. The rail is high-speed and, with planned expansions to Orlando and Tampa, could become a structural model for future rapid-transit expansion.

In California, the billions of dollars poured into a high-speed rail to nowhere could have been effectively used to replicate Massachusetts’s model of interconnected heavy rail, threading through the Inland Empire and uniting sprawls from Sacramento to San Diego. Regional rail in California would help revitalize the impoverished hinterlands at the edges of city limits and provide housing for the millions of Golden State workers being pushed to the breaking point by outrageous commutes.

The same can be said for any number of so-called innovation hubs across the Eastern Seaboard, teeming with tech dollars ripe for redirection into massive rail expansion. From the Florida panhandle to Boston and New York, to Texas and the sprawls of the West Coast, people from all walks of life are desperate for housing that remains far out of reach. And while there isn’t any one silver bullet that can eliminate our country’s massive wealth inequality and its radiating effects, from nightmare commutes to affordable-housing deserts to ever-rising tides of gentrification and displacement, investment in rail expansion and improvement is one of the few options that policymakers, politicians, and riders should all find appealing. Now the task is getting everyone on board.

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