Sunday, February 15, 2015

"People love their cars"

In 1974, Seattle had a dream: to build a modern, underground rapid transit network. The city sits on top of an eerily hollow underground, the end result of reconstruction following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. Although its catacombs were not incorporated into its transit tunnel, the city's unique infrastructure provided room underground that many cities lack. 

Construction on Seattle's downtown transit tunnel began in 1987, but it wouldn't see trains for twenty years. Prior to that, the city relied on busses that had utilized the tunnel since its opening in 1989.


Politics 101.

In the aptly located 1992 movie, Singles, Tom Skerritt's Mayor Weber character sums up the political attitude towards rail transit perfectly, "I've been burned by this train business before...people love their cars." Likely a nod to a real Seattle running busses through its subway tunnel, it captures the political attitude towards trains. 

So what exactly is the political problem with rail transit, particularly subways? Why have cities chosen to embrace busses, or at best, light rails and trolleys, rather than putting their trains underground and out of sight? How had the fictional Mayor Weber been burned by the "train business"?

Because politics is rarely about creating the best city, it's about bettering a city in a way that makes our decision makers look good. 

Closer to home, we have at least six things that will make you scratch your head. From Passyunk Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia built several subway lines that never saw a train. Additionally, the abandonment of the Reading Terminal Viaduct and the City Branch line removed transportation opportunities from Spring Garden, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion.

Let's use it.

The defunct City Branch line is perhaps the most baffling, namely because the tunnel and right-of-way remain in tact from Center City to northwest neighborhoods of the city. Reopening the line would be a game changer for struggling neighborhoods north of Brewerytown along Ridge Avenue, neighborhoods just about to pop on their own. 

But it's not that City Hall and SEPTA underestimate the value rail transit, it's that politicians understand how little it means to their career. I couldn't tell you how much reopening the City Branch line would cost, but I have to imagine its on par with some of the other proposals the city is seriously considering, like capping I-95 for a park. Still, the word "train" terrifies politicians and decision makers. 

I certainly can't downplay the benefits of parks. They raise property value and benefit neighborhoods and the city. But so does transportation, and if managed properly, subways can pay for themselves. For the City Branch line, ready-built and begging for trains, such logic is a no-brainer. But to decision makers employed by votes, parks are the infrastructural equivalent of a photo-op with someone's baby. Parks are pretty, they're visible, and they're relatively quick and easy to pull off. 

A subway is seen as a pricy gamble and the lines can take a while to build. They're long term investments. Politicians don't like to get behind projects that might not come to fruition until they're long gone from office, passing on the ribbon cutting to a mayor ten years from now. But in Philadelphia, politicians are just bending to a thought process that doesn't apply here. We have a subway line that could be easily reopened without interrupting traffic and without excavation. 

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