Talking Headways Podcast: The Annual Review Show with Yonah Freemark

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Editor’s note: This week’s episode of Talking Headways was recorded prior to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s shocking how fast the world can change; we’d love to hear your latest predictions for our transit future in the comments.

This week, we’re joined by Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic for his eighth appearance on the show. We look back at past transit predictions and then make a few more for next year. We talk about building subways around the country and cheer ourselves up about the state of transit as well.

Here’s the show. An edited transcript is below, if you prefer to get your information through your eyes instead of your ears.

Jeff Wood: So, you know, I used to get super excited when the New Starts report came out and I used to call it Transit Christmas. And now I saw it this year and I was like, meh and I felt a bit jaded. I was just kind of annoyed about how little we spend on transit and I went over it last night for the first time. I usually go pour into it as soon as it comes out. But now I’m just kind of annoyed. We can’t build some subways without blowing out budgets and we have all these issues. I’m annoyed that I’m not as excited about these projects as I used to be. So, how can I change my outlook?

Yonah Freemark: Well, I certainly am on board with your growing pessimism. I mean, I wonder if it’s just you and I growing up sort of at the same time and seeing the world around us and and saying maybe maybe things aren’t as optimistic as we thought when we were younger, but I do think the biggest concern I have is that we continue just like massively overspend on roadways compared to transit

I mean, it’s true our transit construction costs are really expensive, but we’re spending so much more on roadways than we are on transit and that’s the biggest problem in my mind, BUT I would say there are actually some projects in that transit-funding package that I’m definitely excited about. I think you are being overly negative.

JW: I did get a little bit excited when I started writing stuff down. So eight projects have existing Full Funding Grant Agreements. FFGAs for the acronym lovers among us. And there are two core capacity projects, you know, those 10 projects makeup $23.5 billion in spending approximately which is a lot of money and it’s all local and federal money.

I do like a lot of these projects in their own ways. So the LA Subway, the Seattle Subway, Caltrain electrification, I think they’re all necessary projects and exciting projects and I’m excited that there are more, you know subway opportunities, but also, you know, where’s my Minneapolis subway? Or my Boston North South Corridor connector? Or my Oakland subway?

YF: Or a Portland subway, right?

JW: Right, Portland Goose Hollow to Lloyd Center Subway, you know I want those big dreams. I’m curious, if we can get a London or Paris Metro in our lifetimes in a new city, maybe in Seattle’s the best bet or Los Angeles is the best bet. But what is your big dream? What would you want to see if we were optimistic?

YF: Well, I think we should be asking why it is that virtually every European city is building a subway right now. Yet in the U.S., that’s extremely rare. You know the New York City subway Second Avenue subway second phase is on this list and it probably will happen, maybe be completed by 2030 and that’s obviously good news, but that’s like a two-mile extension of the subway on a line that’s been promised for 100 years. We should be seeing lots more subways being discussed and imagined all over the country.

So I think one big question is whether the big historic transit cities of the east coast and maybe Chicago can identify new funding to do some of the things that we’re seeing in Los Angeles and Seattle. So, you know, Los Angeles and Seattle are building these gigantic networks of new transit systems, whereas Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Chicago are doing very very little And so one thing that I was really optimistic to see just a few weeks ago was that Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh said he wanted to get a local option sales tax for the region for the Boston region and use that money to develop new transit lines for the Boston region.

One example that I think is desperately needed in the next 10 years is a new subway in Washington, D.C. This has been discussed for many years. There’s now some discussion about extending the subway out and further into Virginia, but there needs to be new downtown core capacity. And you know, where’s the money coming from? Is Metro going to actually advance that project. These are big questions, but I think we should be positive because I do think there is some momentum going on there.

JW: Georgetown subway?

YF: It could be through Georgetown, but that’s a different discussion, right? I mean, that’s what’s cool about Washington is that there are a lot of options.

JW: Let’s take out our crayons and do it right now.

YF: Yeah let’s do it!

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On this week’s podcast, Yonah Freemark of the Metropolitan Planning Council (you may know him from The Transport Politic) shares the scoop on transit-oriented development in Chicago. In a recent post, Yonah writes that in order to break the pattern of slow growth but ever-increasing demand, more development should happen near Chicago’s extensive transit system. We talk about why […]