In my last report, I looked at Pete Buttigieg, President-elect Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, and what he would bring to the post. I looked at his own concepts as he expressed them in his acceptance speech, how he might serve USDOT’s business constituents, and his background. Part of that background is the time he spent as mayor of South Bend, a post he occupied starting in 2012. As I will describe in this article, he can claim some credit as an urbanist with his “Smart Streets” policy for the city’s downtown area, but local bus service remains limited, and the passenger trains that ostensibly run to South Bend do not go anywhere near downtown.
South Bend is a formerly industrial city in northern Indiana about two hours east of Chicago. Bendix Drive, the location of the current Amtrak station, preserves a name associated with the city’s industrial past. That included transportation, as Studebaker produced horse-drawn vehicles for decades, starting in 1852, and automobiles for decades more, until 1967. Now all that’s left is the Studebaker Museum.
South Bend was my first destination on a long-distance train. It was the summer of 1969, and I was an undergrad with a plan to visit Chicago to ride the CTA and a number of trains. A friend advised me to get off at South Bend and take the South Shore Line into Chicago. I rode Penn Central’s Lake Shore Limited, which was still a semi-luxurious train. South Bend’s Union Station served three daily trains on the historic former New York Central route, and three on the Grand Trunk Western, a CN subsidiary that operated two trains to Detroit and one to Toronto. All of those trains were eliminated when Amtrak started on May 1, 1971, and the building has sat unused since that day. It was a short walk to LaSalle Avenue and Michigan Street, where the South Shore Line began its run to the Windy City. Trains ran every hour in those days. The connection was easy, requiring only a short walk, but service on the street-running portion of the route along LaSalle Avenue ended on July 1, 1970. The terminal was moved to Bendix Drive, in an industrial area several miles from downtown.
Ten months later, the long-distance trains were gone, and Union Station was closed. The Lake Shore came back later that year for 207 days, but it did not stop at South Bend. When it came back permanently in 1974, it used a station adjacent to the South Shore Line’s. Amtrak trains still stop there, but the South Shore Line, operated by NICTD (Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District) moved to South Bend Airport in 1992. The current schedule calls for five trains a day between Chicago and South Bend Airport.
Buttigieg said in his acceptance speech, “In a community where more than a quarter of our residents lived in poverty, I worked to fill in the gaps that were created when under-funded transit resources that left too many cut off from opportunity, just because they didn’t have the means to own a car.”
South Bend residents who do not own a car must rely on local Transpo buses that operate Monday to Saturday. Connections with NICTD trains are spotty. I mention this because local transit is equally sparse in many other cities and their surrounding areas. How will Buttigieg address this as SECDOT?
An Urbanist in the Rust Belt
To his credit, Buttigieg has supported a number of initiatives that fit in with the new “urbanist” policy philosophy that calls for measures to revitalize the historic downtown core areas of cities, often after they have fallen into decline. South Bend was once a powerful industrial city that hosted companies like Honeywell, Bendix and Studebaker. Now it is attempting to re-invent itself.
Buttigieg has supported projects that could take the city in that direction. He supported an initiative to return the South Shore Line to downtown South Bend, after an absence of more than half a century. An AECOM study evaluated five locations for relocating the South Shore Line’s terminal. One was a downtown location, near the shell of the old Union Station. Buttigieg supported this alternative. He also supported the now fully funded plan to add 26.6 miles of double-track between Gary and Michigan City to improve capacity.
Buttigieg’s best-known planning initiative was “Smart Streets,” a “Complete Streets” policy designed to spur development and economic activity in downtown South Bend. Jeff Parrott reported on the policy in the South Bend Tribune in 2019, a story repeated on Dec. 17, 2020 in the wake of Buttigieg’s nomination for USDOT Secretary. Parrott reported: “Downtown underwent a dramatic transformation under his leadership. One-way streets became two-way. Speed limits were reduced. Driving lanes were narrowed. Trees were planted. Decorative brick pavers were laid. The project gained national attention and accolades for the city, and for the mayor … Buttigieg and his supporters said his signature ‘Smart Streets’ initiative brought much more than aesthetic changes. They argued that a more pedestrian-friendly downtown spurred more than $100 million in private investment, as several key buildings found new life … New hotels. New apartments. New restaurants.”
Policies such as the Smart Streets initiative are controversial, though. As downtown areas gentrify, rents go up, so some downscale residents can no longer afford to live there. Motorists and the organizations that represent them hate “complete streets” policies, because they redirect real estate between the curb lines that previously belonged exclusively to automobiles toward other purposes.
Still, the Smart Streets policy gained Buttigieg a measure of credibility as part of the vanguard of urban policy, especially since his initiative appears to be succeeding. Parrott concluded his report by saying, “The revitalization ‘is going to have a very long-lasting and impactful effect on the city as a whole,’ said [Buttigieg’s Controller, Mark] Neal, now a partner at Bradley Co., which redeveloped the Hibberd Building downtown as new apartments. ‘People like me, 10 years ago, would never have thought about investing a single dollar in South Bend … If a downtown isn’t attractive, it’s really hard for someone from outside the community to want to spend any time there. That’s just the reality.’”
Explaining “Complete Streets” Policies
Before the proliferation of the automobile, streets served a variety of purposes. There were horse-drawn carriages and omnibuses that carried people, and horse-drawn trucks that carried freight. Then streetcars came, and they were an important component of street use a century ago. People walked in the street and congregated on sidewalks then, and kids played on some lightly traveled streets. Then automobiles took over all of the real estate from curb to curb, and the other activities ceased.
The Complete Streets movement constitutes an effort to re-introduce some of the other historic uses of street real estate with bicycle lanes, wider sidewalks for pedestrians, pedestrian-friendly design features like benches on the newly widened sidewalks, and, in an “everything old is new again” twist, streetcars.
The purpose is to promote development and economic activity in downtown areas by making them attractive places in which to live, work and socialize outdoors. Improving transit is often, but not always, part of the mix of policies that form a local Complete Streets program. Transit improvements spur transit-oriented development (TOD). As an example elsewhere, there is plenty of TOD along the light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. For example in South Bend, the Tribune report quoted A.J. Patel, CEO of the company that recently opened a Courtyard by Marriott hotel downtown: “Overall, with the two-way streets and the apartment people, it’s a livelier downtown … Everything kind of came together and it’s cleaned up the whole area. You’ve got a different image when you go down there now, compared to five years ago.”
The policy is controversial, with owners of downtown businesses welcoming increased foot traffic and new transit riders, assuming that improving transit is part of the policy. But at the same time, some residents fear gentrification, which raises rents and forces at least some low-income residents out of the neighborhood. The Tribune reported: “Not everyone has been a fan. Critics have complained that the new apartments’ monthly rents, easily topping $1,000, are priced beyond many residents’ reach. They also questioned whether projects that could have had a direct impact on struggling neighborhoods should have been prioritized instead.”
Motorists and their representatives despise even the concept of Complete Streets for a simple reason: The distance from curb to curb is finite, and using any of that real estate for another purpose takes it away from the automobile use that came to dominate streets everywhere during the previous century. It is truly a zero-sum game. The Tribune mentioned that, too: “The street changes themselves also annoy some motorists. Any news story about Smart Streets that’s shared on Facebook is bound to draw complaints from residents that there is now too much traffic congestion downtown at peak travel times. The roundabouts that were installed as part of the project have also been criticized as unnecessary aesthetic features … For his part, Buttigieg has said that slowing traffic downtown was exactly the point, to help make the streets more pedestrian- and business-friendly.”
Changing street configurations also costs money, and much of it comes from Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), where businesses and residents who benefit from downtown revitalization pay for it through tax increases in the redevelopment district. South Bend’s Smart Streets’ roughly $21 million price tag was financed with bonds that are being repaid with TIF money, which comes from property taxes paid on the assessed valuation growth. But it seems to be paying off, as the assessed value of downtown property rose 21%, according to a Tribune analysis of St. Joseph County property tax records.
Despite the controversial nature of his Smart Streets policy, Buttigieg deserves credit for implementing innovative ideas to improve his city’s downtown core. He also deserves credit for supporting the initiative that would bring the South Shore Line back to downtown South Bend after an absence of more than 50 years. On the flip side of the coin, the weak local transit in South Bend is also part of his legacy.
TOD is a hot concept in urban planning today, and it is succeeding in a number of places. But the “T” stands for “Transit,” making transit a necessary component for overall success. While downtown South Bend seems to have improved on Buttigieg’s watch because of his Smart Streets program, how much more successful could it have been with better transit? That would require a far-more-robust Transpo bus schedule, and perhaps a larger service area with more routes. It would include bringing the South Shore Line back to downtown, more trains to and from Chicago, and bringing Amtrak back to downtown, too.
When I first reported on the Buttigieg nomination last month, I included laudatory comments from industry leaders in the transportation field. Advocates for Amtrak and transit riders have raised questions about his potential to improve mobility for their constituents. So, as I asked in part one in this series, why would Biden have nominated Pete Buttigieg for this post? The answer may lie in Indiana politics. Still, there are some things that Buttigieg could do for Amtrak passengers and the nation’s transit riders. I will look at these issues and possibilities in my concluding report.
David Peter Alan is one of America’s most experienced transit users and advocates, having ridden every rail transit line in the U.S., and most Canadian systems. He has also ridden the entire Amtrak network and most of the routes on VIA Rail. His advocacy on the national scene focuses on the Rail Users’ Network (RUN), where he has been a Board member since 2005. Locally in New Jersey, he served as Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition for 21 years, and remains a member. He is also a member of NJ Transit]s Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee (SCDRTAC). When not writing or traveling, he practices law in the fields of Intellectual Property (Patents, Trademarks and Copyright) and business law. The opinions expressed here are his own.