Destined to Fail: Rust Belt Cities Without Rail

Rust Wire’s Rick Brown makes the case for how multi-modal transit—that means both roads and rails—is an absolutely vital component for full recovery in the heretofore auto-based cities of the Rust Belt.

Delavan Station on the Buffalo Light Rail. Matt Johnson on Flickr

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This piece originally appeared on Rust Wire.

Any major American city that solely relies on streets and highways for its transportation network will fail to remain competitive and will falter economically over time. That includes cities with bus transit systems that rely on the same streets and highways.

By rail, I am including subways, commuter rail or light rail (tram, trolley and modern streetcar). I am not including BRT (bus rapid transit), because they use the same thoroughfares as traditional buses and automobiles. Even the sprawling cities of the south and west—like Dallas-Forth Worth, South Florida, Los Angeles, Charlotte and Salt Lake City—have learned that they cannot rely solely on streets and highways to efficiently operate a regional transportation network.

Sadly, too few Rust Belt cities are heeding this message. There is talk, but for the most part only talk, about adding some sort of rail service here and there, but it is hardly focused. Detroit is a perfect example of a large city that has vastly over-relied on streets and highways. Hence, it is largely sprawled out in a low-density spatial pattern that helps hinder its recovery. The hope for a 3.4-mile light rail line down Woodward Avenue recently faded as the design has now been altered to a BRT. While better than nothing, BRTs do not have the WOW factor of rail.

Other sizeable Rust Belt cities currently missing the train include Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati,** Rochester, Akron-Canton, Syracuse, Albany, Hartford, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Toledo, Dayton, Greater Lansing and Grand Rapids.

Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Credit: Sean Marshall on Flickr

Why do I think incorporating rail is so important to the long-term viability of our Rust Belt cities? Several reasons:

• A city’s transportation infrastructure must be comprehensive and multi-modal, not solely focused or over-weighted toward a single element. Should that single element fail (i.e. the I-35 bridge in the Twin Cities) the whole system is impacted.

• A multi-modal transportation approach is much more environmentally sustainable in an era of higher energy costs,  aging populations, global warming and climate change.

• A multi-modal transportation approach is more affordable and approachable to the less fortunate and helps foster greater social equity within the community.

• Incorporating rail into a region’s infrastructure helps make the city more competitive nationally and globally by reducing transportation network delays, commuting times and overall congestion. • With the exception of subways, commuter rail and light rail service are significantly less disruptive to the continuity and social fabric of the community than new highway construction.

• Incorporating rail services into a region’s transportation program encourages redevelopment and reinvestment in older neighborhoods, while also increasing densities along and near the rail corridors.

• Rail services are beneficial toward placemaking.

• Rail services does not carry the latent social stigmas and stereotypes of bus transit service.

[As an occasional bus commuter myself, I questioned the continued existence of the last bullet point in the 21st century. That was until I overheard comments during a forum whether to develop a modern streetcar or bus rapid transit corridor.  Apparently, certain segments of the population continue to associate bus transit service with the poor, immigrants and the disadvantaged. While this perception is flat out wrong, it unfortunately still lingers. That makes promoting BRT a much more difficult endeavor, no matter how sleek and fancy the features.]

Personally, I am a bit miffed at the fact that cities in the south and west have been provided funding for rail transportation projects, while cities in the Rust Belt tend to be told that a BRT is their only viable (or fundable) option. That in itself gives those cities in the south and west an unfair advantage.

Fortunately, some cities in the Rust Belt have seen the light at the end of the railroad tunnel and have invested in one of the three traditional rail options. From a Michigander’s viewpoint, Chicago is the best and most obvious example. One need look no further that the choice of emphasizing rail service in Chicago to emphasizing car travel Detroit to see a clear difference in outcomes. I love both Detroit and Chicago, but all of us in Michigan need to get our individual and collective heads out of the four-wheeled cocoon.  Other Rust Belt cities with rail service include Philadelphia, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Cleveland (Red Line to the airport), St. Louis and even Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis. Credit:

So, the question remains. How can cities of the Rust Belt generate the political will and support, as well as the monies, to develop rail systems? Here are some  ideas:

• Immediately incorporate rail services into your all of your planning efforts (not just transportation) and reemphasize its importance at every opportunity. This means incorporating rail at the local, regional and state levels.

• Emphasize increased densities along important transportation corridors to help justify the use of rail.

• Repeatedly bend the ears of your local, state, and national politicians.

• Coordinate with freight railroads to protect existing freight rail corridors for anticipated future passenger rail use.

• Set aside (or protect) right-of-way along rail corridors or road corridors for modern streetcars whenever an opportunity arises.

• Continuously support increased funding for mass transit in local, state and national budgets. Speak out when highway advocates attempt to underfund or defund mass transit programs.

• Emphasize the economic, environmental and societal benefits of rail versus more highways.

• Create an 30 second elevator speech about why rail service is critical to your community’s future and use the speech at every opportunity.

• Advocate for and support other communities (even your competitors) in the Rust Belt. It is high time we worked together as a unified political voice to attract projects and funding.

• Point out the inequities of funding rail services in other regions of the country, while asking areas of the Rust Belt to accept BRT instead.

• Keep the topic front and center in the media through use of web pages, newsletters, press releases and especially via social media resources.

• Work, coordinate and cooperate  with all rail, mass transit, alternative transportation, environmental and social justice advocacy groups. They can bring a lot of powerful voices to the table and provide an army of support.

• When the budget allows, set aside matching monies for necessary studies, plans, corridor acquisition and construction.

• Celebrate and promote every small victory in your community and the entire Rust Belt and also learn to adapt quickly from each defeat.

• Don’t give up–keep pursuing the goal.

**This is soon to change: Cincinnati plans to break ground for a new streetcar system today. —Ed.

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Tags: infrastructuredetroitlight railtrainsstreetcarsbus rapid transitrust belt

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