Renovating Penn Station as an institution, not a building

NYP Cuomo

Beware nostalgia for the old Penn Station. While the railroad station’s current iteration neither functions well nor provides an inspiring space, addressing these problems requires addressing the underlying issues of railroad governance, finance, and operations.

Writing in the New York Times, David Dunlap aims to demolish the myth of Penn Station’s demise as solely an act of civic vandalism. Penn Station’s decline was a symptom of major shifts in transportation finance, travel patterns, and urban development. Railroads were accustomed to their monopoly position and regulated accordingly.

With the rise of direct competitors for both intercity and commuter traffic from airlines and cars (both subsidized by the government), change was inevitable:

In “The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station,” Lorraine B. Diehl said the death knell first sounded in 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill to provide $1.5 billion in federal financing for new highways, including an interstate system.

It sounded again in 1947, when the Pennsy reported an operating loss for the first time in its long existence. One month later, in March, a United Air Lines DC-6 reached La Guardia Airport only 6 hours 47 minutes after it left Los Angeles.

It sounded again in 1949, when the railroads’ share of intercity passenger traffic fell below 50 percent. And again in 1956, when construction of the interstates began in earnest. And again in 1958, when National Airlines inaugurated domestic jet travel with a run between New York and Miami that took just 2 hours 15 minutes.

Intercity travel and freight were the most profitable business lines for railroads. Commuter trains provided some feed for longer distance trains, but were an otherwise marginal business. In reality, the business was in decline well before 1944; Ridership for transit of all forms declined during the Great Depression (along with the rapid expansion of suburbs and proliferation of the automobile), only propped up by travel restrictions during WWII.

Penn Station’s edifice was torn down because the economic model of American railroads, predicated on their monopoly on metropolitan mobility, collapsed. Looking to monetize their assets, developing their lucrative real estate seemed obvious. For Penn Central, it wasn’t enough to save the company. Still, the loss of the building draws most of our attention.

Even today, we tend to focus mostly on Penn Station as a place, rather than on the underlying tunnels, tracks, and organizations that operate them. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his reboot of the longstanding plans (with a throwback to Gov. Pataki and Pres. Bill Clinton) to redevelop Penn Station, complete with a rebranding.

The full presentation slide deck includes lots of flashy renderings of what’s possible, building off of the same basic concepts as before: relocating Amtrak functions to a new facility within the Farley Post Office building; removal of Madison Square Garden’s theater and a complete redevelopment of Penn Station’s concourses below.

There’s a lot to be said in marshaling the political will to get something done. Cuomo’s presentation doesn’t shy away from that ambition. But ambition alone isn’t enough. Given the challenges in executing complex projects, it’s not surprising to see figures like Robert Moses viewed favorably. But are you executing the right projects?

Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo's presentation, complete with Robert Moses.

Slide #6 from Gov. Cuomo’s presentation, complete with Robert Moses.

Not only does the focus on the building itself miss the real capacity challenges for Penn Station’s infrastructure, it also elides over the very real challenges for operations and governance. Adrian Untermyer reminds us of the key governance challenges to success for any plan:

In 1970, one railroad controlled the transportation hub. After it went bankrupt, New York State took over trains to Long Island, New Jersey took over trains to the Garden State, and the Feds took on the rest…

Even with a reinvented station complex overhead, the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit, and Amtrak will still share the mostly same tracks, cramped platforms, and underwater tunnels. It’s unlikely that decades of dysfunction will disappear after the ribbons are cut.

Finding effective governance solutions for both the physical station as well as the underlying railroads that use it is a much bigger challenge. During the monopoly era, before the creation of either the MTA or Amtrak out of the remnants of Penn Central, that kind of vertical integration clarified things. Current governance is muddled.

Lack of integration and coordination among various stakeholders isn’t a new problem. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killed the ARC project, some advocates celebrated the demise of a flawed project with the hope for a better one. ARC’s primary flaws stemmed from an inability for the key stakeholders to effectively coordinate investments. Instead of one railroad forcing coordination, Penn Station was a battle between three entities (Amtrak, NJ Transit, and NY’s MTA – each with different priorities and different leadership).

The unwillingness to share turf isn’t just a challenge for Penn Station, coordinating between two states and Amtrak; but even within the MTA. East Side Access, connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal is an extraordinarily expensive project, opting for a deep cavern terminal station under Manhattan instead of a potentially cheaper and more useful option that would’ve required better coordination and integration between the MTA’s own commuter railroads. Instead of tackling this issues, the MTA opted for the more expensive solution.

Integration isn’t easy. The MTA’s split personality for regional rail dates back to the differences between the PRR and NY Central railroads. The merged Penn Central couldn’t integrate; it’s not a surprise integration hasn’t happened without some larger outside incentive to do so. The past decade of airline industry consolidation in the US shows how hard this can be, even with incentives.

The real challenge isn’t in finding the right design for a new Penn Station, but in reforming the institutions that operate and govern our transit systems.

672,228 – DC’s growth continues – short-term trend or long-term shift?

Just before the end of the year, the US Census Bureau releases their state-level population estimates. Thanks to DC’s city-state status, we get an early view of the District’s population trends before other major cities. DC’s 2015 estimate clocks in at 672,228 people – an 1.9% increase over 2014.

In 2009 and early 2010, I had a chance to help coordinate the District’s local outreach for the decennial census, emphasizing the importance of getting an accurate count of the city’s population. Back then, we were hoping to see a number above 600,000. Five years later, we’ve blown past that, climbing back to the city’s population in 1977:

DC (and Baltimore) population estimates, hovered over 1977. Screenshot from a Google search for DC Population; data from the US Census Bureau.

DC (and Baltimore) population estimates, hovered over 1977. Screenshot from a Google search for DC Population; data from the US Census Bureau.

(There’s also a great deal of uncertainty to contend with. Census estimates are often revised as better data is collected.)

DC’s press release about the data documents the elements of the recent population growth. Of DC’s increased population, about 1/3 was a natural increase, 1/3 from net new domestic migrants, and 1/3 from new international migrants:

According to the US Census Bureau, the main driver of the increase was domestic and international migration—people moving to the District from other parts of the United States, and from abroad. Between July 2014 and July 2015, in addition to the natural increase (births minus deaths) of 4,375 residents, a total of 8,282 more people moved into the District than moved out. Of these 8,282 net new residents to the city, 3,731 more people moved from other U.S. states than moved out and 4,551 more moved to the District from other countries than the number of residents that left the District for other countries. While net international migration made a greater contribution to the District’s population growth than net domestic migration, net domestic migration has grown four times its previous year total and demonstrates that the District continues to attract residents from other U.S. states.

Back in 2013, DC’s Chief Financial Officer forecast a slowdown in the District’s growth, citing slower economic growth in the region (thanks to decreased Congressional spending) as well as a slowdown in new housing starts. Part of the CFO’s job is to be appropriately conservative in these forecasts, but the Census Bureau’s estimates bucked the CFO’s forecast.

Part of the question is if this growth in DC represents a flash in the pan, or a real long-term shift in migration patterns. Last week saw some hearty twitter debate over this piece by Lyman Stone, questioning the narratives about a major shift away from suburbs and towards more urban locations (examples: here, here and a counter-example here). Stone argues that the data doesn’t support the conclusion of a major shift towards urban living. And given the macro-trends, it’s hard to argue against his broad conclusion.

Consider the analogue of driving, where a sustained period of high gas prices and a weak economy put a serious dent in US vehicle miles traveled, spawning all sorts of theories about how we’ve passed ‘peak car.’ But as soon as oil prices dropped, we’ve seen a massive increase in VMT (never mind the negative consequences of cheap gas). The broad narratives about a paradigm shift against car usage seemed hung up on anecdotes about Millennials using smartphones instead of cars, rather than looking at the broader trends of where people live and work (which hadn’t changed much). Beware reading too much into the data; or missing the outside factor.

However, the smaller-scale evidence is also hard to dismiss. Apartments in DC are sprouting like mushrooms (where they are allowed by zoning), and DC’s population can only increase as fast the city’s housing stock can expand. And even with the District’s sustained growth, rents and home prices continue to rise, indicating demand for urban living greater than the available supply.

Those peak-car arguments might accurately assess our desires to drive less, but the driving data is based on the reality of housing and transportation options available, rather than the options we might wish were available. Likewise, urban migration patterns are based on available housing, not what migrants might wish were available.


Parallels between Zoning and Airline Deregulation

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Last week, Ilya Somin published a piece in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog entitled “the emerging cross-ideological consensus on zoning.” The lede:

In recent years, and especially over the last few months, economists and other public policy experts across the political spectrum have come to realize that zoning rules are a major obstacle to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the poor and lower middle class. By artificially restricting new construction, zoning and other similar land-use restrictions greatly increase the price of housing, and prevents the market from adjusting to increasing demand. This emerging consensus is a good sign, though it may be difficult to translate it into effective policy initiatives.

The issue isn’t zoning per se, but zoning (in practice) as a constraint against matching housing supply with demand. Somin notes that arguments about negative impacts from overly strict zoning come from across the political spectrum, ranging from the kinds of libertarian, free-market scholars you might expect, to Paul Krugman (noted previously here), writing “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”

Somin draws the parallel to a past cross-ideological consensus in favor of deregulation: Airlines.

Airline deregulation is a bit of a misnomer. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 only removed government regulation of the airline business model; air travel is still highly regulated, particularly for safety purposes.  Here, the parallel with zoning is useful: zoning is just one set of regulations that govern development in cities. Building codes still apply; just as airlines are still subject to safety regulations.

Before deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) controlled all of the key elements of the airline business: what routes could be flown (and by which airlines), the schedules of those services, and the fares airlines could charge. The market for air travel was completely controlled by the regulators.

Airlines couldn’t compete based on price, nor could they easily add new routes or serve new markets. With this tremendous constraint on capacity, they had no choice but to compete by offering luxurious service. Perhaps this sounds familiar to anyone who’s recently apartment-shopped in a tight housing market.

However, despite the conceptual similarities, there is one key difference: airline regulation was centralized in the federal government. Reforming things was relatively simple. Zoning is ubiquitous in American cities, but control over zoning is decentralized. There’s no national zoning office, no obvious equivalent of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Because the Federal government can only regulate interstate commerce, the controls of the CAB did not apply within states. In big states that could support commercial air traffic wholly within their boundaries, there was already a preview of deregulation: Pacific Southwest Airlines (within California) and Southwest (within Texas). However, this intra-state experimentation in airline business models didn’t have the large impact on the industry until taken to scale nationwide. Likewise, because of the regional nature of housing markets, there’s not sure to be a benefit to a single city in a region to be the first mover on looser zoning.

Because of the decentralized nature of legal control over zoning, even an emerging consensus among legislators and policy-makers would have to be much deeper than the kind of consensus that deregulated the airlines. And even with a broad and deep consensus, the sheer number of jurisdictions that would need to take action is enormous.

For that reason, it’s hard to imagine action to change zoning on a scale akin to airline deregulation without some kind of intervention from the courts. Charlie Gardner covers the history of the jurisprudence of single-family-only zones and notes how long it’s been since these issues have been before the court – and how some of these issues have never been directly addressed:

Ninety years after the Euclid decision, land use debates in the United States continue to be distorted by this same dichotomy between “single-family zoning” and “multifamily” areas. Rather than talking about housing in terms of units/acre, or total floor area, or some other similar metric, we tend to use purported building types — whether single-family, duplex, triplex, ADU or other such classification. Yet these classifications are in a sense illusory. Whether a builder puts up three detached homes on a lot, three stacked units in a triplex, or three side-by-side units in rowhouse form really shouldn’t matter a great deal to the regulator.

The court’s confusion on this point may have stemmed in part from the lack of a concrete controversy. The respondent, Ambler Realty, was seeking to use its property for industrial purposes, and had no intention of constructing any residential buildings, much less apartments. The dispute was an abstract one which only pertained to the value of the land. Had the court been confronted with a scenario in which an individual builder sought to construct a two-unit building conforming to height and bulk regulations within a single-family zone, it could not have evaded the question so easily.

Charlie also cites Sonia Hirt’s excellent book Zoned in the USA, which documents America’s unique and ubiquitous single-family only zoning and how much of an outlier these regulations are in the world. In other words, outside of the consensus.

Would a challenge in the courts bring the US in alignment with the kinds of regulations used elsewhere in the world? Would posing the question to the courts embrace decades of regulatory momentum – or look to academics and policymakers for a new emerging consensus?

Zoning restrictions on housing supply catch the White House’s eye

In case you were wondering, the White House grounds are technically unzoned - as is a lot of federal property in DC. Screenshot from the DC online zoning map.

In case you were wondering, the White House grounds are technically unzoned – as is a lot of federal property in DC. Screenshot from the DC online zoning map.

Zoning has been on the national stage in the past few weeks, starting with this paper (just hovering on a link to is good to see) based on remarks delivered to the Urban Institute on Nov 20 from Jason Furman, chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors:

In today’s remarks, I will focus on how excessive or unnecessary land use or zoning regulations have consequences that go beyond the housing market to impede mobility and thus contribute to rising inequality and declining productivity growth.

For more in-depth commentary, I’d recommend the following:

  • Joe Cortright at City Observatory: “these observations show the pervasive and powerful effects of what we’ve called the nation’s shortage of cities.”
  • Matt Yglesias at Vox: “for younger people, for renters, and for the overall cause of social and geographical mobility it’s a disaster.”
  • Gillian White at the Atlantic: Rent seeking “often means that changing zoning laws or other supply-constricting regulations is in the hands of those who stand to collect on those economic rents in the first place, which can make change slow and difficult, if it happens at all.”
  • Paul Krugman at the New York Times: “Rising demand for urban living by the elite could be met largely by increasing supply. There’s still room to build, even in New York, especially upward.”

I had two immediate reactions to the paper: first, it’s great to see the White House recognize the importance of issues like this. Getting an issue like this on the national stage, linking it to a salient national political issue such as inequality is important. Getting someone like Paul Krugman to devote his NYT column to the subject is great to see (note that Paul Krugman is no stranger to urban economics: he won the Nobel Prize for his work on economic geography and agglomeration economies).

Second, given the scale and importance of the issue, the list of administration actions is underwhelming. Affirmatively working towards fair housing, offering incentives to localities to loosen zoning, and HUD’s program to lessen lending risk for multifamily housing development are all good ideas, but seem small in comparison to the scale of the issue.

It’s hard to say if there’s more that could be done administratively at the Federal level. In the absence of additional legislation, it’s hard to make the case for federal interference in an ostensibly local issue like zoning (no matter the national interest). Perhaps there are additional tools available that build on new rulemaking enabled by existing fair housing laws (perhaps involving litigation in the courts as well) in the same vein as New Jersey’s Mount Laurel doctrine.

Even with the national scope of housing supply constraints and their clear impact on the national economy, Pete Saunders at Corner Side Yard is quick to point out that housing demand is far more varied across the US. This presents yet another issue in raising housing supply as a national issue – it’s not a uniformly national issue. Relaxing the restrictions on housing supply only matter in the face of demand pressure – and many markets in the US don’t have the kind of demand to drive up housing costs in the first place.

USDOT rejects NTSB recommendation to shift WMATA to FRA oversight

US DOT Logo - Image from Wikipedia.

US DOT Logo – Image from Wikipedia.

Well, that was fast. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx rejected the NTSB’s urgent recommendation to shift safety oversight for WMATA to the Federal Railroad Administration. From the Washington Post:

The Transportation Department “does not believe that the NTSB recommendation is either the wisest or fastest way to bring about the necessary safety improvements” at Metro, said Foxx spokeswoman Suzanne Emmerling.

“While we have made similar findings of oversight and management deficiency in recent inspections and audits, we disagree with their recommendation,” she said in an e-mail.

Rather than transfer Metro oversight from one agency to another within the Transportation Department, Foxx has a different plan, Emmerling said. She offered no details of the plan but said, “We are examining all options to make [Metro] safer immediately, and will release a plan very soon.”

Part of the reasoning from Foxx includes the very different characteristics of mainline railroads and rapid transit systems, as well as the different regulatory systems require a different approach. Foxx and the USDOT do not disagree about the first of the NTSB’s conclusions, that WMATA’s safety oversight is inadequate, but he does disagree on the second element: the FRA. The Washington Post cites this statement from the Federal Transit Administration:

“We take all recommendations of the NTSB seriously, but in this case, the NTSB is recommending shifting safety oversight from one agency to another,” the FTA said in a statement. “And these agencies have different authorities and areas of expertise. The NTSB is not wrong to assert that urgent action is needed; we just believe that there is an even more effective and faster way to achieve the safety goals we all share.”

Stay tuned.

UPDATE – Oct 10:

In lieu of the NTSB’s recommendation, Secretary Foxx informed the NTSB that the FTA will take over WMATA Safety Oversight from the Tri-State Oversight Committee effective immediately. This is an unprecedented step for the FTA. You can read Secretary Foxx’s letter here. Part of Foxx’s rationale includes the recognition that “WMATA does not have an understanding or familiarity with FRA regulations,” an implict admission of the wide gulf between regulations appropriate for rapid transit vs. those on the books for mainline railroads.

According to the letter, the FTA will retain direct safety oversight until WMATA’s jurisdictions can create an effective State Safety Oversight agency. This is not a new recommendation; the creation of a new, independent safety oversight agency was proposed following the 2009 Fort Totten crash and mandated by Federal law in 2013. WMATA’s contributing jurisdictions have been slow to act in creating, empowering, and funding this agency, dubbed the Metro Safety Commission.

WMATA, the NTSB, and the FRA: or, what do you mean the Metro doesn’t count as a railroad?

FRA Type II Safety Glass in a WMATA rail car. Photo from nevermindtheend.

FRA Type II Safety Glass in a WMATA rail car. Photo from nevermindtheend.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an urgent recommendation to the US Department of Transportation and the US Congress to re-classify WMATA to be regulated under the authority of the Federal Railroad Administration. The NTSB usually waits until their full report on an incident is complete to make recommendations. If the preliminary conclusions from a report warrant immediate action, they will issue an urgent recommendation – this recommendation falls into the urgent category. The NTSB’s reports are thorough, but usually not released quickly (the full report from WMATA’s June 2009 Fort Totten crash was approved in July 2010). There will likely be more recommendations in the NTSB’s final report.

Looking at the NTSB’s letter, there are two distinct conclusions:

  1. WMATA’s existing safety oversight is inadequate.
  2. The Federal Railroad Administration has the appropriate regulatory tools to address these inadequacies, and therefore should have safety oversight over WMATA.

The letter documents the numerous occassions the NTSB has asked for strengthened safety oversight: “In general, the NTSB investigations of WMATA found that although safety program plans were in place, they were not effectively implemented and overseen.”

The curious part is the specificity of the second recommendation. Instead of suggesting that the existing safety oversight authorities through the Federal Transit Administration be strengthened to include the kinds of tools available to the FRA, the NTSB instead recommended a dramatic shift. The NTSB’s previous investigations specifically recommended that Congress act to increase safety oversight for the Federal Transit Administration:

In the NTSB’s investigation of the June 22, 2009, WMATA accident near the Fort Totten station, we called for increased regulatory oversight of rail transit properties and recommended that the DOT seek the authority to provide safety oversight of rail fixed guideway transportation systems, including the ability to promulgate and enforce safety regulations and minimum requirements governing operations, track and equipment, and signal train control systems.

Unsatisfied with both the pace of progress as well as the likelihood of resolving this conundrum soon, the NTSB is recommending shifting WMATA to the FRA’s jurisdiction as the most expedient option. Neither the legislation to expand safety oversight under the FTA, nor the region’s plans to replace WMATA’s existing safety oversight committee with the Metro Safety Commission would rise to include the regulatory tools available to the FRA:

Based on testimony from representatives of the TOC and the FTA during the NTSB’s June 23, 2015, investigative hearing on the January 12, 2015, WMATA Metrorail accident, the NTSB further concludes that neither the regulatory changes the FTA can make as a result of MAP-21 nor the proposed creation of a Metro Safety Commission will likely resolve the deficiencies identified in safety oversight of WMATA.

The only rapid transit system under FRA regulation is the PATH system connecting New York and New Jersey. Only four rail rapid transit systems that cross state lines – WMATA, the PATCO Speedline between Philadelphia and New Jersey, Metrolink in St. Louis, and PATH.

The NTSB suggests that PATH’s regulation under the FRA is due to the cross-jurisdictional nature of the service, but this doesn’t seem correct. In the NTSB’s accompanying blog post for the letter, they make the case that other transit agencies are regulated under the FRA (even though the use of the plural here is incorrect – there is only PATH):

There is precedent for the FRA oversight of WMATA that we have recommended because there are some transit agencies in this country that are currently under FRA safety oversight. For example, the FRA provides direct oversight over the New York and New Jersey PATH system instead of using state safety oversight agencies.

PATH’s regulatory jurisdiction is an anachronism. Because PATH previously shared a short section of track with the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was also considered a railroad. And while it remains under FRA jurisdiction, it only operates as a rapid transit system under several waivers that grandfather the system from FRA regulations aimed at mainline freight and passenger railroads.

Even with waivers, the impact of this unique set of regulations is substantial:

Before each run, PATH workers must test a train’s air brakes, signals and acceleration, Mike Marino, PATH’s deputy director, said in a telephone interview. When a train gets to its terminus, workers repeat the test.

In addition, every 90 days all of PATH’s rail cars undergo a three-day inspection at a facility in Harrison, New Jersey. Brakes, lights, communications, heating and air conditioning, signals and odometers are all checked, Marino said.

Many of these FRA regulations carry over from past generations of railroading. They’re extraordinarily detrimental to the progress of high-speed rail and passenger rail. This memo gives some regulatory background to the FRA’s role. It specifically discusses light rail transit operations and the potential for shared use of mainline rail tracks (as PATH used to do), and by doing so highlights exactly how many FRA regulations make little sense (by mutual agreement between the FRA and transit operators) for rail transit operations. Numerous waivers of these regulatory requirements would be required from the start.

Like PATH, WMATA is not a mainline railroad. It’s not hard to understand why the NTSB would think that the FRA’s authority to inspect, fine, and shut down non-compliant operators is necessary; but those authorities also come with a rulebook that won’t make much sense to apply to WMATA.

Ultimately, the division between what is under the FRA’s jurisdiction is almost entirely arbitrary:

FRA will presume that an operation is a commuter railroad if there is a statutory determination that Congress considers a particular service to be commuter rail. For example, in the Northeast Rail Service Act of 1981, (3), Congress listed specific commuter authorities. If that 45 U.S.C. 1104 presumption does not apply, and the operation does not meet the description of a system that is presumptively urban rapid transit (see below), FRA will determine whether a system is commuter or urban rapid transit by analyzing all of the system’s pertinent facts. FRA is likely to consider an operation to be a commuter railroad if:

  • The system serves an urban area, its suburbs, and more distant outlying communities in the greater metropolitan area,
  • The system’s primary function is moving passengers back and forth between their places of employment in the city and their homes within the greater metropolitan area, and moving passengers from station to station within the immediate urban area is, at most, an incidental function, and
  • The vast bulk of the system’s trains are operated in the morning and evening peak periods with few trains at other hours.

Examples of commuter railroads include Metra and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District in the Chicago area; Virginia Railway Express and MARC in the Washington area; and Metro-North, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, and the Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) in the New York area.

Despite PATH’s history, it’s regulated by the FRA because Congress said so. The three specific criteria listed don’t particularly apply to PATH, or WMATA, or any other rapid transit system (nor some mainline rail systems that offer a high level of all-day passenger service).

A few things to note:

The NTSB can only make recommendations. The NTSB is not a regulatory agency, they are charged only with investigating safety-related transportation incidents. Their independence is by design – any regulatory agency must consider both costs and benefits to a regulation, while the NTSB’s purpose is to conduct independent investigations and offer their recommendations solely on the basis of improving safety.

This particular recommendation is for the USDOT to seek reclassification of WMATA as a ‘commuter railroad’ via congressional action. Perhaps in considering any action, Congress might consider addressing the other shortcomings in transit safety oversight.

Despite the FRA’s impact on PATH operations, it’s worth considering if additional safety inspections might help improve WMATA’s operational discipline. The FTA’s Safety Management Inspection report (the first such safety report for the FTA, under the new safety role authorized by Congress as a part of MAP-21 but deemed insufficient by the NTSB) identified several shortcomings in WMATA’s procedures and practices. Stronger safety oversight might help address those problems; the question is if the FRA is the right regulatory body and if their rulebook is the right one to use.

Is there a Chipotle near my Red Line station?

Is there a Chipotle within a half-mile walk of my WMATA Red Line station?

In case you were ever curious about transit oriented burrito chains in the DC area:

chipotle red line

I’m not sure why I looked into this (besides having a burrito for lunch), but it seemed like many Red Line stations have Chipotles nearby. Indeed, 15 of the 27 Red Line stations have a Chipotle within a 0.5 mile walk (with #16 coming soon – in Brookland). Distances were determined by Google Maps walking directions with some minor adjustments.

As of June 30, 2015, there are 1,878 Chipotle restaurants in the world; 97 of those locations opened in 2015. Anywhere on the Red Line, you’re never more than three stops away from a walkable burrito chain. 14 of those are walkable to a Red Line station. A few Chipotle locations are the closest outlet for multiple metro stations (the closest location to Van Ness is the Cleveland Park Chipotle); at least one location (the 7th and G location) is the closest Chipotle to three different Metro stations (Metro Center, Gallery Place, Judiciary Square).

The award for the closest Chipotle to a Metro station entrance goes to Union Station, located just a few feet from the top of the escalators. Union Station also wins for having two Chipotle locations – with a recently-opened location in the station’s lower level food court.


Seeking clarity on WMATA transit governance – operations vs regional funding and coordination

WMATA logo on a 7000-series seat. Creative Commons image from Kurt Raschke.

WMATA logo on a 7000-series seat. Creative Commons image from Kurt Raschke.

It’s not easy to do two things at once. Particularly when you have two very different tasks, one might get more attention than the other – or the goals for each might blur together in your mind.

Keeping these tasks distinct is a challenge. Jarrett Walker often speaks about the distinction between transit systems that focus on providing coverage vs. maximizing ridership, and the importance of thinking clearly about the two goals.

The current public dispute among WMATA’s Board of Directors about the preferred qualifications for a new general manager exposes a similar rift – with some members preferring to focus on a seasoned public transit executive (an operator), and others looking for a business-oriented financial turnaround manager.

As a transit agency, WMATA has to fill several disparate roles (thus the search for a single leader with super-human capabilities):

  • Operate regional and local bus transit, as well as the regional Metrorail system
  • Coordinate regional transit planning
  • Provide a regional transit funding mechanism

The latter two tasks (planning and funding) can be somewhat grouped together. WMATA’s Board of Directors is therefore charged with two rather disparate tasks: to oversee the day-to-day management and operations of a large regional rail and bus system; and to coordinate and fund that system across three state-level jurisdictions.

These disparate roles present plenty of challenges for WMATA’s leadership – just look at this list of tasks facing WMATA’s future GM, ranging from safely operating the system to uniting the region. Piece of cake – anybody can do that! Super heroes need not apply.

Absent any regional government, the WMATA Board has no choice but to act as a proxy for a regional legislature. While state-level governments might be anachronisms, they’re also not going to disappear anytime soon. Twitter-based WMATA reformers will call for ‘blowing up the compact’ and replacing it with… something. Aside from the Federal government, an inter-state compact is the only form of cross-border regionalism we have available to us. Others call for direct election of Metro board members. It’s an intriguing idea – BART’s board members are elected – but BART only operates a regional rail system. There’s only one elected regional government in the US, and it is wholly contained within a single state.

The medium-term fiscal outlook for WMATA shows an unsustainable trend of rising costs and stagnant ridership and revenues. These trends have stressed the agency’s business model, which requires member jurisdictions to pitch in to cover the annual operating subsidies.

However, the most recent breakdowns in WMATA’s reliability demand greater oversight on the agency’s primary task: safe and efficient operation of the regional transit system.

Instead of arguing about the preferred qualifications for a general manager, this dispute should open the door for a broader conversation about the system’s governance and how it can best tackle the different tasks as a transit operator and as a regional governing body.

During WMATA’s last crisis and most recent round of governance reform proposals following the 2009 Red Line crash, David Alpert hit on the challenges of the different roles for the WMATA Board. Given the different needs, David went so far as to suggest two separate boards for WMATA. Too many reform proposals seemed to talk past the different tasks required of the agency’s leadership – operational oversight and regional coordination.

The idea isn’t unprecedented. For example, in Paris, the Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France (STIF) is the regional entity that coordinates planning, funding, and operation of transit in the region, and oversees the performance of the various transit operators it contracts with.

STIF negotiates with operators, holding them to performance-based contracts. In Paris, there are two primary rail operators – RATP, operating the Paris Metro, and SNCF, operating most of the RER and suburban trains. STIF also contracts with various bus operators.

The European Union issued mandates for how transportation companies must organize themselves, but the arm’s-length contracting between the regional planning body/coordinator and the local operators pre-dates these EU models. While these mandates for privatization and separation of operations from infrastructure are intertwined with this governance model, they remain a separate issue.

The idea of keeping operations and regional funding/planning at arm’s length seems to help sharpen the focus on accountability. It remains to be seen if the competitive tendering of contracts between transport associations and operators results in meaningful competition – after all, these kinds of systems are natural monopolies. But these contracts do indeed codify the relationships between the regional governance system and the operator, opening the door for maintaining accountability.

In these examples, the governance structure helps provide clarity about the roles and responsibilities for each participant in the system.

Rising housing prices impact all incomes

In cities with strong real estate markets, affordable housing is a big problem. And it’s not just a problem for those with lower incomes, it’s a problem for everyone. The problems aren’t even limited to just their own metro areas.

Note: in this case, the term “affordable housing” refers to the plain meaning of the word: housing that is affordable (not Affordable Housing, in reference to a set of programs designed to subsidize the cost of housing – see this from Dan Keshet on the difference, as well as a better way to think about it: abundant housing).

Expensive housing is squeezing people at all income levels

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute documented the disappearance of DC’s market-rate affordable apartments in a report: Going, Going, Gone. And while the focuses on the dramatic decline in apartments available for an inflation-adjusted $800/month between 2002 and 2013, rents are up for all incomes in that same time period – and they’ve increased faster than income growth.


Rising rents for those with higher incomes presents less of a challenge, since these households can afford it. But simply because higher income households can afford higher rents doesn’t they want to pay more than they have to.

It’s not just a phenomenon in DC, but in lots of strong real estate markets. Richard Florida summarizes some research from Todd Sinai at the University of Pennsylvania, noting that rents in many cities have been outpacing income gains for more than a decade. Like DC, rents are rising and requiring a larger portion of income for a wide range of income brackets:


The upward trend for each of these lines represents a larger and larger portion of household incomes spent on rent in cities across the US. Sinai suggests that any policy response would require a large increase in the supply of market-rate housing (as politically challenging as increasing housing density can be). Because even a large increase in housing units would merely moderate prices, Sinai recommends a targeted program of housing subsidies, as well.

Even with these potential remedies in mind, Sinai isn’t optimistic: “It is hard to conclude that there is an affordability cliff from whence we can step back from the brink.  Rather, the threat to housing affordability in this country is much more fundamental, and more economically pervasive.”

The higher rents are hurting the economy

It’s not just an inconvenience to pay a lot to rent an apartment, even if you can afford it. As Sinai argues, this added rental cost is “economically pervasive.” Put another way, the failure to add housing supply in strong markets is a huge drag on the economy. Kriston Capps summarizes research by Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh:

Hsieh and Moretti came up with a way to measure what local output and national growth would look like if wage dispersion were equalized. They proposed a model that lowered the regulatory housing constraints in New York, San Francisco, and San Jose to the level of a median city. If workers were able to cross over from low-wage cities to high-wage cities—that is, if New York, San Francisco, and San Jose were to lower barriers to new housing and let them in—then GDP could rise by 9.5 percent.

Easier said than done, but it does show the magnitude of the problem. More people would move to these productive metropolitan areas if the housing prices were more affordable.

Affordable Housing vs. affordable housing

Part of the reason to illustrate rising housing burdens for all incomes is to help define what “affordable housing” means. The plain English meaning is simply housing that is affordable. Relative to a household’s income, how much can they afford to easily pay for rent or a mortgage?

Then there is Affordable Housing (capitalized here), referring to a whole host of programs that subsidize housing for lower-income households. Labeling these subsidies under the umbrella of Affordable Housing is an effective bit of rhetoric to earn support for these programs (who would possibly be against affordable housing?) in light of the sullied reputation of public housing.

You can see the confusion in some of DC’s recent debates about the impacts of rowhouse pop-up expansions on housing prices. The DC Zoning Commission recently tightened rules on development in these zones, with one commissioner unconvinced that additional housing units would create more affordability:

But Anthony Hood, the chair of the commission, pushed for the restrictions, saying that he didn’t believe that pop-ups and condo conversions helped bring down housing prices.

“This connection to affordable housing? I’m sorry, I haven’t seen it yet. I’m still waiting for it. It’s not a reality.”

If Hood is thinking of capital-A Affordable Housing, then he’s correct. But that’s not the only meaning of the term; it’s not the only measure of affordability. And while additional market-rate housing units might not directly help lower-income households, they can make a big difference for those middle-income households feeling a squeeze.

Flipping Houses, Zoning Codes, and Building Codes

DC row houses - the first CC image hit for "dc house flips" on Flickr. Photo from Elvert Barnes.

DC row houses – the first CC image hit for “dc house flips” on Flickr. Photo from Elvert Barnes.

Earlier in May, local public radio station WAMU aired a lengthy three-part report on the collateral damage involved in house flipping in DC. Martin Austermuhle’s series offers a window into the nightmare for buyers of newly renovated homes – often converted from single family rowhomes into multi-unit buildings – who soon learn that their dream home is actually a nightmare of shoddy work and potentially illegal construction.

The three-part series focuses on buyers, developers, and the city’s regulatory response.

As horrifying as these stories are, Austermuhle correctly focuses on the challenges of enforcing the building code as the root cause of these problems, rather than the zoning code.

Small-scale development is an important tool in strong markets (like DC) to respond to demand for new housing. So many opportunities for small-scale urban development have already been regulated out of existence in American cities. The people buying these flips aren’t suckers taken by con men; they represent the market for additional housing in a city like DC.

Shoddy flips shouldn’t put those remaining opportunities for small-scale development in DC at risk, because the problem here is with building code enforcement and inspection, not with zoning. But whenever there is outrage, there is a strong urge for the city to do something, even if it doesn’t address the stated problem.

The zoning code is not the building code

Tales of illegal construction in flipped houses might stoke the fears of development opponents, but the problems described in the series involve errors in construction.

Too often, cities attempt to use the zoning code as a catch-all regulatory structure, encompassing economic development goals, social policy, etc. Part of this is out of convenience (I did have at least one proponent express support to me for DC’s recent zoning code changes in rowhouse neighborhoods due to the challenges in enforcing the building code – both for approvals and for construction inspections). I suspect part is also a confusion of the issues, thinking that because zoning deals with the city therefore zoning is an appropriate place for regulations about the city.

This series helps clarify the differences; Austermuhle correctly gives zoning only a cameo appearance.

Pop up limits

Even with the focus on building code enforcement, that doesn’t stop public calls to address development issues via zoning restrictions. However, it’s not clear that zoning would stop the flips. House flips are hardly limited to structures with the opportunity to increase the total number of units.

Enforcement matters:  One example of shoddy construction also includes blatant violations of the zoning code. What good will modestly tighter zoning regulations do without basic enforcement? Perhaps zoning isn’t the root problem; enforcement is.

Building codes matter

While zoning codes often get the attention, this doesn’t mean building codes aren’t important factors in determining the shape of the city. Houston famously (or infamously) lacks standard, use-based zoning codes. However, Houston’s building code and other regulations still mandate many of the aspects commonly found in zoning codes: minimum on-site parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, etc. It’s not a regulation-free environment.

Even when the building code sticks to more traditional subject matter, there can still be a tremendous impact on the financial feasibility of certain types of construction. In February, Let’s Go LA featured a guest post from LA Architect Tom Steidl about local differences in LA’s high rise building codes that make Vancouver-style towers less financially feasible:

Towers in Los Angeles tend to have significantly larger floor plates than those in Vancouver and US cities that have embraced high-rise design. The primary reason for this isn’t differences in land use or zoning codes. It’s mainly building code and fire department regulations that require additional floor area be added to the core of the tower. In addition to making our towers more bulky, this added floor area increases construction cost and reduces affordability.

One of LA’s quirks (now removed from the code) was a fire department mandate for rooftop helipads. But, as Steidl notes, each requirement that reduces the efficiency of the floor plate adds to the total cost. High rises are already expensive to build and will only pencil out under certain circumstances. Adding costs on the margins only makes the developer’s pro forma more challenging.

The building codes matter. But, LA’s quirky code provides a cautionary tale on policy relying on high rises alone to absorb housing growth. As Payton Chung has written, achieving mass market affordable housing via expensive construction types is a challenge – particularly in DC.

A comprehensive approach to affordable housing in strong markets like DC and LA can’t ignore the key role of small-scale, low-rise development in providing affordably built housing. This means projects of the type taken on by house flippers; smaller scale projects that increase a single lot into 2-4 units.

Poor construction risks eroding confidence in small-scale construction that is vital to meeting housing demand. Likewise, a strong, predictable, and nimble team of inspectors needs to effectively enforce DC’s building codes to manage this period of change.

Lawsuits: the American Way.

Maybe they will help. Writing about some of the same flippers as Austermuhle (and working in parallel), Ian Shapira at the Washington Post notes that some of the same flippers have been sued by DC’s newly elected Attorney General. A more robust consumer protection watchdog can’t hurt, and could even help jump-start a more robust system of code inspections.