More Transit Agencies Become Landlords

Also: Business owners’ complaints lead Tulsa to remove bike lanes, and more in this week’s Mobile City.

An empty WMATA train in Washington, DC. Transit agencies that saw revenue and ridership plummet during the pandemic are doubling down on using their land as another revenue source. (Photo by nevermindtheend / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of noteworthy transportation developments.

Transit Agencies in Search of Revenue Turn to the Land They Own

Transit agencies are getting more aggressive about leasing land they own in order to generate revenue and build ridership, both of which have fallen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline.

“The precipitous drop in ridership across the country during the pandemic really exposed the vulnerability of the agencies’ funding because of the close tie with fare revenues,” Paul Supawanich, an associate director at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told Stateline. “A lot of them are saying, ‘How can we be creative and think about real estate development as an opportunity?’”

And that creative thinking is producing some very big real estate deals. The article notes that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority announced in August that it had signed a lease agreement with a group of developers who seek to build 1 million square feet of office, residential and retail space on land it owns near one of its Virginia stations, and New Jersey Transit Corporation is choosing a developer to turn 12 acres of land it owns in Woodbridge, near one of its busiest rail stations, into residences and commercial space.

The article also notes that some agencies have been playing landlord to developers for years. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) is one of them. In 2013, it established an office of transit-oriented development to exploit development opportunities around its stations. Today, the agency has 17 ground leases with developers who have built nearly 2,000 housing units, 2.6 million square feet of office space, 371,000 square feet of retail space and nearly 2,400 parking spaces, and 18 more projects are in development.

MARTA spends $2 million a year to run its real estate department, which produces $6 million a year in ground rent. In recent years, it has shifted its focus to producing housing on its land. The agency’s board mandates that 20 percent of the units it produces be affordable, and in projects in economically distressed neighborhoods, the agency aims for a 30 percent affordable ratio.

Baruch Feigenbaum, managing director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, told Stateline that the pandemic lit a fire under transit agencies that had previously been lukewarm at best about cashing in on the value of the land they own. “The pandemic added some new urgency. Now it’s become something they’re really focused on,” he said. “Many hadn’t taken advantage of transit-oriented development as much as they could. They might have developed near one metro stop or part of the land, but not all of it.”

Northlake LRT Extension Opens in Seattle

Seattle’s light metro system grew by three more stations Oct. 4, when the Sound Transit Northlake extension opened, My Ballard reports.

The mostly-underground extension from the University of Washington station adds intermediate stations at University District and Roosevelt before climbing to an elevated structure to reach its terminus at Northlake.

The extension is the last piece of the original light metro system Seattle-area voters approved in 1996 with a ballot measure that created Sound Transit and authorized a sales tax to help fund projects. It’s also the first of several extensions slated to open over the next three years that will triple the light-rail network’s route mileage from 22 to 62 and bring the system into Tacoma and Bellevue as well. These extensions are the product of the “Sound Transit 2” sales tax that voters approved in 2008; a third sales tax approved in 2016 will bring total light metro mileage to 116 and extend the network to Everett.

“This is a historic day and the start of three years that will transform how people get around our region,” said Sound Transit Board Chair and University Place Council Member Kent Keel in a statement. “Northgate Link will let thousands of riders get to their destinations on time without sitting in horrendous traffic. We are able to celebrate this milestone thanks to support from Federal Transit Administration, our congressional delegation and the regional voters who approved building a world-class transit system for our growing communities.”

According to Sound Transit, the $1.9 billion, 4.3-mile long extension came in about $50 million under budget.

New York Governor Takes All Bets Off the Table Regarding LaGuardia Airtrain

Apparently, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is sympathetic to the critics who called on her to pull the plug on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s planned Airtrain connector to LaGuardia Airport (“The Mobile City,” Sept. 8).

WPIX reports that when Hochul was asked directly whether she thought the Airtrain project was a good idea, she replied:

“I’m looking at all the options. The whole idea of looking at alternatives does not mean on the same day I’m going to say which alternative I want. I don’t feel obligated to accept what I’ve inherited.”

Hochul has asked the Port Authority to conduct a thorough examination of alternative mass transit options to reduce car traffic and improve access to LaGuardia. Options include a busway and an extension of the N subway line.

Critics have called the $2 billion Airtrain project the wrong solution to the problem, pointing out that it takes riders away from Manhattan before connecting with trains headed towards it.

North Tulsa Business Owners Make City Remove Bike Lanes; Chicago Could Use Them in Its Black Neighborhoods

Pine Street is a major east-west thoroughfare that crosses Tulsa’s heavily Black north side, running about a mile north of the Greenwood business district. Last year, the city of Tulsa added two bike lanes to a four-mile stretch of the street, removing two lanes for cars in the process.

Now, reports KTUL News Channel 8, the city is undoing the change in response to complaints from business owners along the street.

The retailers complained that the bike lanes increased congestion on the street and made it harder for their customers to reach their stores. In addition, said Paul Zachary, the city’s director of engineering services, congestion around George Washington Carver Middle School, near the west end of the bike lanes, and at railroad crossings made it necessary for the city to “do something different” and scrap the bike lanes.

One local business owner, Mack’s Wings owner Michael Manning, told KTUL that he considered the entire bike lane project a waste of tax dollars that could have been avoided had the city asked the residents. “I certainly would wish that if they come up with any other bright ideas that they would make a conscious effort to poll the community,” he said.

Studies, however, have found that a lack of bike lanes is one factor in the disproportionate ticketing of Black cyclists. A study reported on in Streetsblog Chicago found that Black riders get ticketed for riding bikes illegally far out of proportion to their share of the bike-riding population.

The study, titled “Biking Where Black,” was conducted by University of California, Davis professor Jesus Barajas. It found that tickets for riding on the sidewalk, which is illegal in Chicago for bike riders 12 and older, were issued eight times more often in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods than in predominantly white ones.

Barajas notes in his study that the citations are also a legal form of stop-and-frisk; the article notes that the Chicago Police Department has been upfront about using traffic enforcement as a way to enable searches for guns in high-crime neighborhoods. And the study also notes that the pattern of issuing citations bears no relation to where bicycle-pedestrian collisions actually occur: Those happen mainly in the more affluent white neighborhoods of the North Side.

In his report, Barajas writes, “Many sidewalk cycling tickets would not have been issued if the infrastructure associated with improved safety perceptions were available. In this light, bicycle infrastructure might be seen as a tool to advance racial justice…a small but important measure of protection from police overreach.”

Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the number of housing units built on MARTA land.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: new york citypublic transportationchicagowashington dcbike lanestransit-oriented developmenttulsa

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