DALLAS - A convergence of economic and social trends is driving cities in the Southwest toward rail as an alternative to cars and planes, say transit experts who predict a new era in public-private partnership to finance the costly systems.
"The economics are right for a massive jump in transit," Art Guzzetti, American Public Transportation Association director of policy, told the 11th annual Transportation Summit in Irving, Tex., last week.
"The trends are all favorable - the environmental trends, the energy trends, the population trends, the urban trends, the economic trends - all show a prominent economic outlook coming from our nation's cities," Guzzetti said.
With federal highway tax revenue falling due to drivers traveling fewer miles and using more efficient cars, alternatives to highways are gaining unprecedented attention, Guzzetti said.
Despite their long love affair with the automobile, cities in Texas and the Southwest are aggressively embracing rail systems that will do for passengers what intermodal air and rail hubs have done for freight, speakers at the summit said.
"We've got all these various forms of infrastructure, and they're not linked very well," said David Casselman, principal at the engineering consulting firm Lea & Elliot Inc., which is working on rail transit systems for Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Phoenix, and other airports in the U.S. "Once you've connected them, you can leverage their value."
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, planners are awaiting the arrival of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority's rail line that will connect through Irving to downtown Dallas to the east. From the west, the Fort Worth Transit Authority is planning a commuter rail line to the airport that will link up with DART.
Those lines will run to the north end of the airport. The two transit systems already share a commuter rail line to the south called the Trinity Railway Express. In its long-range planning, DFW wants to build a rail system that will link the northern rail hub with the TRE. In the process, the airport envisions the rail line replacing the buses that currently run curbside from the airport's five terminals to passenger parking lots and rental car facilities, Casselman said.
"There's a big, up-front cost," he said. "But if they could fund that, it would replace about 180 buses and 180 drivers with just a few drivers and a system that could run 365 days a year and 18 hours per day."
Connecting airports and urban transit systems has required new levels of cooperation between the airline industry that supports airports and the cities that operate the airports. Even before airlines faced the current dire economic straits, they were loath to surrender passenger facility charges for operation of urban transit systems.
In Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority got around that issue by raising funds from car rental fees instead of passenger facilities charges, UTA chief executive officer and general manager John Inglish said. While the airlines' corporate headquarters were unwilling to share airport fees with the transit system, airline employees in Utah are eagerly awaiting the rail service that is expected to begin in three years, Inglish said.
The airport connector is just one of seven projects covering 70 miles that UTA is undertaking over seven years, including a commuter rail line called the Front Runner.
"The most popular project - the one project that everyone wants - is the connection to the airport," Inglish said.
In Denver, the Regional Transportation District is building a 23.6-mile commuter rail line between downtown's Union Station and Denver International Airport at an estimated cost of $1.14 billion. The commuter line is part of a $6.2 billion rail and bus transit plan called FasTracks covering 119 miles and expected to open between 2013 and 2016. Voters approved bonds for the program in 2004.
Unlike some rail lines that would bring passengers to a station served by a short bus ride to the airport terminal, Denver's plan is to bring passengers directly to the DIA terminal, Casselman noted.
By contrast, at Dallas Love Field, the smaller Dallas airport, DART's plan is to connect the terminal by a bus line to the new Green Line rail that will traverse the airport's west side. Ultimately, the city would like to build some kind of people mover that would take passengers from the rail station directly to the terminal, Casselman said.
In Phoenix, a new light-rail system starting service this year will deliver passengers to a bus system that will take them to the terminals of Sky Harbor Airport. The bus system will be replaced by an automated electric train expected to start service in 2013 and expected to take 20,000 vehicles per day off the road.
The transit plan is part of Phoenix's 10-year, $2.9 billion capital program that calls for the sale of $1.3 billion of revenue bonds over the next five years.
While the bonds for Sky Harbor have maintained relatively high ratings of AA-minus from Standard & Poor's and Aa3 from Moody's Investors Service, airports are under renewed financial pressure because of the troubles in the airline industry, according to the agencies.
Moody's last week changed its outlook to negative for U.S. airports. Standard & Poor's saw a better future for large hub airports, saying that they tend to have better credit ratings than small and medium-sized hub airports.
But comfortable mass transit could contribute to boosting traffic to typically remote airports while lowering passenger costs, said Jean-Claude Ziv, project manager for Veolia Transportation, a French company that is the largest private transportation provider in the U.S.
In France, Veolia is building a $150 million light-rail link from Lyons' Part-Dieu train station to Saint-Exupery airport under a 30-year concession that will be entirely privately funded. The concession model, which is common in Europe and controversial in the U.S. for toll roads, is applicable to the U.S., Ziv said.
Ziv and others said rail is also the answer to congested air routes that cause frequent delays, particularly on flights to the East Coast.
"Only in the U.S. do you see 200- and 300-mile commuter flights in association with hubs," Ziv said.
"If your trip is 500 miles or less, why do you have to go by airplane?" Guzzetti said. "You can go on a high-speed train and get there just as quick. You can save the country air space. If we connect it right, you can have a very efficient connection between the airport and the high-speed train. That vision doesn't have to be that far off. I think some things are on the verge of happening right now."
While little legislation is expected in the remainder of the presidential election year, Guzzetti said he sees hope for passage of an Amtrak funding bill because of the service's popularity among constituents.
Indeed, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., told the summit that she has fought to keep the state's two Amtrak lines running and that she considers the Amtrak structure the "skeleton" of a developing mass transit infrastructure.
"My goal has always been national or nothing," said Hutchison, who called herself "the mother of mass transit in Texas" for her authorship of the funding bill that created DART's light-rail system 25 years ago.
In addition to the election of a new president and Congress, the election will provide another watershed moment in California, where a $20 billion high-speed rail initiative is on the ballot.
"I predict it will pass," Guzzetti said. "I predict that $20 billion will infuse the industry with the capital we need to grow a new industry in America, and that's high-speed rail."