Management & Operations

The Death of Intermodalism is Greatly Exaggerated

Posted on November 19, 2007 by Cliff Henke

Intermodalism — a concept borrowed from freight transport — was first used in passenger transportation more than three decades ago. As far back as the late 1970s, the pages of METRO have touted rail connections at airports and terminals serving both intercity motorcoach services and bus transit as the first steps in moving people intermodally.

These early steps evolved into a vision of all modes moving people from coast to coast using a combination of air and land services, perhaps with a source of information that would give travelers the best choice based on fares and/or trip time, while using a single payment or fare medium. This idea was turned into a formal commitment in the late 1980s, culminating in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991.

Many technologies and infrastructure investments have been rolled out in the nearly three decades since intermodalism was first conceived, but how have we done in tying it all together? From the perspective of passengers, the goal remains largely unfulfilled in most U.S. cities, but recent developments could bring about the vision in a way not imagined.

Policies fall short
Since ’91, the federal government has neither given its funding recipients much incentive to coordinate, nor has it mandated they work together cohesively. ISTEA did enable transit authorities, state highway departments and other grantees of surface transportation programs to switch these funds to other transportation uses as states and regions saw fit. In this way, nearly all such money was “flexible.” In fact, federal regulations allowed transit grantees to count highway money switched to transit projects as part of the local match. As a result of ISTEA and the two reauthorization laws Congress has enacted since, approximately $1 billion under highway programs, typically the core Surface Transportation Program and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program, have been “flexed” to transit.

Yet even if much more were switched to transit uses and the gap between highway and transit assistance was narrowed, the “intermodal” aspect of ISTEA is an objective that never really materialized in the planning of new projects. The Los Angeles Green Line, Chicago’s Blue Line extension to O’Hare Airport or, more currently, the Dulles Airport extension of the Washington Metro’s Orange Line have been planned and executed as multimodal and intermodal facilities. But, they were not driven that way because of federal policy, nor were they even funded in some cases with such goals in mind. In fact, all levels of government involved missed an opportunity to connect the Green Line to Los Angeles International Airport; instead, they allowed the airport authority to block consideration of such a connection. Were there an intermodal policy with teeth, the project would not have been allowed to go forward until such an impasse was resolved.

There was even a national framework championed by the transit industry prior to, and shortly following, the signing of the law. The George H.W. Bush administration issued a new federal rationale for the surface transportation programs leading up to ISTEA that called for intermodalism. In ‘93, APTA convened a press conference to roll out its vision for a national passenger system modeled after the interstate highway system.

The idea died quietly in the mid-‘90s when it became clear that growing the public transportation system was possible by relying on other strategies. The FTA also held listening sessions on implementation of ISTEA. The feedback both APTA and the FTA received was that the higher priority was meeting the need for greater investment than a more interconnected one.

Instead, larger, stable and more guaranteed levels of investment became the rallying cries for subsequent reauthorization battles. This was especially true when a gasoline tax increase used for reducing federal deficit in the early ‘90s was to be transferred to the Highway Trust Fund and its Mass Transit Account. In addition, authors and advocates of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) introduced the concept of funding guarantees to transit spending, something the highway program has always enjoyed through contract authority provisions, however, until TEA 21 nothing similar was attributed to public transportation investments.

The next reauthorization in 2005 was two years overdue, and the debate leading to its passage was primarily characterized by two interrelated issues; overall spending levels and funding distribution among the states. Complicating the issues was the current Bush Administration’s insistence that the package be far less than what Congress had originally passed. Beyond funding, the act addressed a number of other issues, such as new safety funding and streamlining environmental regulations, but intermodalism was again largely ignored as an important issue except in the context that more funding is needed. Moreover, intermodalism as a policy interpretation has often meant better interconnections between modes and multimodal approaches to corridor planning. While these are important first steps, they fall far short of what was envisioned.

Is technology the answer?
Meanwhile, a variety of technologies have been introduced that could pick up where policy has fallen short. Magnetic fare media that began being used in the ‘70s has helped increase intermodal transfers using the same fare medium as more agencies began to get on board, particularly in the same region. These concepts resulted in the launch of the Metrocard in New York City, as well as similar programs in other regions. In the case of Metrocard, free transfers were also offered resulting in an explosion in both rail and bus ridership.

These solutions, of course, depend on compatibility among fare media and fare collection technology, which rely on capital purchasing and operating agreements among agencies. Sometimes it also results in policy disputes among these agencies regarding revenue sharing from these arrangements, as has been the case with London’s Travelcard program.

Technological incompatibility may about to be overcome. The Universal Transit Fare Systems standard, a major initiative of the APTA standards program, is nearing completion. When completed data from fare systems will use the same architecture, enabling agencies to share information. While it is not a seamless compatibility of systems, it is an important first step.

Physical coordination of schedules and passenger information that would enable travelers to plan their most optimal trip is another aspect envisioned by the ideal of intermodalism.

Several technologies have begun to make that vision a greater possibility. Transit Websites that feature trip planners and up-to-date schedules are almost a standard online offering today. Some agencies are also beginning to offer the same service with the schedules of its counterpart agencies within a given region. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) now includes commuter express bus services as alternative options for users of LACMTA’s Website trip planner.

A second enabling technology is real-time passenger information systems in stations, online or even on cell phones. These technologies often use automatic vehicle location and rail signaling systems to determine actual service location and communicate “next vehicle” information.

Another development is Google Transit. Beginning with services in the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area, and now being offered in other cities, Google Transit aims to knit together real-time information about a range of transit systems to enable users to determine the best trip plan using multiple participating bus and transit services. Of course, these services depend on participation of transit systems.

Level of participation
As with fare agreements and regional coordination of services, intermodalism will ultimately depend on the level of voluntary participation. Here, as has been noted, the record has been mixed. Part of this is due to the institutional mandates of the transit industry; agencies through enabling legislation have mandates and service areas and are focused on providing service within those contexts. Region-wide or even national coordination for tourists and business travelers could be construed as beyond their mandates.

Further, transit agencies’ financial structures do not incentivize service expansion without major influxes of subsidy. Passenger fares pay for typically one-third of bus and rail service, which means that every passenger carried is an operational loss. When vehicles are underutilized, say on off-peak periods, it could make economic sense to fill the vehicles (assuming no additional maintenance costs due to more passengers —a big if). However, when more passengers are put on already crowded services it will cost more to expand. Thus, incentives for additional cooperation and coordination to achieve the goal of seamless transit journeys must include financial support.

There are several signs that such financial and policy encouragement for intermodalism may be in the offing. First, a business case is being made for greater intermodal efficiency to enhance passenger and freight movements more productively. “We must do more than acknowledge that transportation is a set of interconnected systems. We must move our minds to a place that believes we have efficient transportation only if the individual components in the system work together,” noted Douglas L. Whitley, a prominent executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in hearings before the House Subcommittee on Highways & Transit in June 2002.

Secondly, additional operational subsidies are being proposed in several bills to encourage transit usage in recognition of its contribution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and furthering energy security. If the bills that subsidize new passenger increases more heavily than existing service are enacted, it could help encourage transit agency participation in services such as Google Transit, as well as encourage the use of standardized fare systems and other technologies that can tie systems together.

As for the most common interpretation of intermodalism — better physical connections among the modes — there has been encouraging progress. The number of airports with rail transit connections has steadily increased since the passage of ISTEA, and additional airports will be connected thanks to commitments already made at the state, regional and federal levels of government. Now, intercity rail and motorcoach services need to make more steps toward similar connections with transit — a result in no small part due to the fact that investment in these modes has been woefully stagnant.

The country’s grade on intermodalism during the past decade and a half since ISTEA’s passage is at this point an incomplete. With the help of greater funding by all levels of government, technologies to enable better coordination and policies that look to encourage intermodalism, the grade could improve. At this point what is really needed is a national rededication of commitment, combined with funding and implementation guidelines to fulfill ISTEA’s vision

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