Average unit cost of installing light rail in street/arterial alignments

Left: Phoenix LRT in arterial alignment. Right: Houston LRT in street alignment. Photos: L. Henry.

Left: Phoenix LRT in arterial alignment. Right: Houston LRT in street alignment. Photos: L. Henry.

Increasingly, interest has been growing in the use of street and arterial roadway rights-of-way (ROW) as alignments for new light rail transit (LRT) segments – either new-start systems or extensions to existing systems. As planners, other professionals, advocates, and civic leaders consider such projects, it’s useful to have reliable data on the installation costs.

Unfortunately, many available “average unit cost” methodologies present averages based on various types of alignment — such as re-purposed railroad ROW – rather than exclusively or predominantly street/arterial corridors, which present quite specific needs, challenges, and costs with respect to installation of LRT. For example, while railroad ROWs typically need rehabilitation, much of the necessary preparation for LRT tracklaying is usually in place; space and installations costs for overhead contact system (OCS) infrastructure and stations are often easier to deal with. On the other hand, installing LRT tracks, stations, and electrical systems in streets/arterials typically requires extra (and more costly) tasks such as pavement removal, subsurface utilities relocation, traffic management and reconfiguration, and other measures.

The brief study described in this post has been undertaken as an effort toward fulfilling the need for reliable total-system unit cost data for street/arterial LRT project installations. It has focused on predominantly (or exclusively) street/arterial LRT projects, drawing upon data from eight specific projects in five U.S. cities (Salt Lake City, Houston, Portland, Phoenix, and Minneapolis) as listed in the table further below.

Also, this study (conducted by LRN technical consultant Lyndon Henry) has endeavored to avoid carelessness as to what is designated as “light rail”. As it has been most pervasively considered since the 1970s, LRT is regarded to be an electrically powered mode, not a light diesel-powered regional railway. For the purposes of this study, LRT has been considered as both electrically powered and operating predominantly in exclusive or reserved alignments (i.e., streetcar-type systems have been excluded).

Analysis of this data has yielded an average capital cost of $85.5 million per mile ($53.0 million per kilometer) for construction in these kinds of alignments. This figure might be considered appropriate for approximating system-level planning cost estimates for corridors considered possible candidates for LRT new starts or extensions. (Capital costs, of course, may vary significantly from corridor to corridor depending on specific conditions, infrastructure needs, service targets, and other factors.)

It should be noted that these data have been primarily drawn from Federal Transit Administration resources (particularly New Start profile reports), supplemented where necessary by data from Light Rail Now and Wikipedia. Because these figures present final total capital cost data, they represent final year-of-expenditure costs, including infrastructure and vehicle requirements, and incorporate other typical ancillary cost items such as administration, engineering, contingencies, etc.

Capital costs for the eight projects were tabulated as shown in the table below.


Relevant data for 8 LRT segments used in study. (Click to enlarge.)

Relevant data for 8 LRT segments used in study. (Click to enlarge.)


NOTES

Portland: Interstate (Yellow) line data include section at outer (northern) end on viaduct over Columbia Slough and flood plain. Phoenix: Initial project data include new LRT bridge over Salt River, and short section on abandoned Creamery Branch of Southern Pacific Railroad. Minneapolis: Green line data include adaptation of roadway bridge over Mississippi River.

It should also be recognized that the design requirements and installation costs of streetcar-type LRT projects average significantly lower than those of rapid or interurban-type LRT, particularly because of several factors. For example, streetcar alignments predominantly share street/arterial lanes with existing motor vehicle traffic. Stations often consist of simple “bulge-outs” from adjacent sidewalks, and are typically designed for single-car trains (i.e., single vehicles) rather than multi-car LRT trains. Also, the lighter static and dynamic loading requirements of some streetcar configurations facilitate the use of lower-cost “shallow slab” construction rather than the deeper excavation more typical of “heavier” LRT designs.

Capital costs and line lengths were aggregated for all eight LRT cases studied. Results are presented in the table below:


Data and calculation of average LRT project cost in street/arterial alignments.

Data and calculation of average LRT project cost in street/arterial alignments.


Hopefully, the information from this study will be helpful in developing realistic cost estimates for new LRT projects in these types of alignments. ■

Austin: Support for “Plan B” urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor advances

Proposed design for dedicated light rail alignments, retaining 4 lanes of traffic, could resemble San Francisco's Muni Metro N-Judah light rail alignment in Judah St., seen here near 16th Ave. Photo: (copyright) Eric Haas.

Proposed design for dedicated light rail alignment in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, retaining 4 lanes of traffic, could resemble San Francisco’s Muni Metro N-Judah light rail alignment in Judah St., seen here near 16th Ave. Photo: (copyright) Eric Haas.

Austin, Texas — Community support is mounting to apply millions of dollars in available municipal funds to resume the decades-old planning for light rail transit (LRT) in the city’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, described in a recent Austin Rail Now (ARN) posting as Austin’s “most central north-south corridor, with by far the heaviest travel and congestion.”

Several possible route plans for LRT in the corridor have been suggested. As this blog reported in November, one of these, proposed by ARN, would stretch 6.8 miles, with a short link to the city’s developing Seaholm-Amtrak station site, for a capital cost of $586 million.(See map below.)


Annotated map of proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line shows various major activity and population points served, as well as connection to Seaholm-Amtrak site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

Annotated map of proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line shows various major activity and population points served, as well as connection to Seaholm-Amtrak site. Map: Austin Rail Now.


In a December posting, ARN presented a proposed design to install dedicated LRT tracks in North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., while retaining four lanes of traffic as well as sidewalks for pedestrians and bicycles. Modeled after San Francisco’s Muni Metro N-Judah LRT route in Judah St., the design shows how an effective LRT line could work within what is mostly an 80-foot-wide right-of-way. (See photo at top of this post and graphic of cross section below.)


Cross-section of proposed LRT line, showing dedicated track alignment, 4 lanes of traffic, clearances, and facilities for pedestrians and bicycles. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-section of proposed LRT line, showing dedicated track alignment, 4 lanes of traffic, clearances, and facilities for pedestrians and bicycles. Graphic: ARN.


Widespread community support for such an urban rail line in this high-traffic, dense central corridor is evident. The crucial task is to gain official cooperation. But, warns ARN in a posting earlier this month, despite this community backing, a long history of previous study of the corridor, and suggestions for route and design options, key local officials “seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor.”

On the other hand, a recent major overhaul in Austin’s local government, reorganizing how councilmembers are elected and installing entirely new representatives, may open the possibility that things will change. As ARN‘s article asks,

Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?

This is a developing saga worth following… ■

Austin: As urban rail vote fails, campaign for Plan B light rail rises

"Plan B" is a 6.8-mile light rail starter line route for Austin's most central inner-city local corridor. It was originally proposed as a more feasible alternative to the official "urban rail" plan, defeated on Nov. 4th. Map graphic: Austin Rail Now.

“Plan B” is a 6.8-mile light rail starter line route for Austin’s most central inner-city local corridor. It was originally proposed as a more feasible alternative to the official “urban rail” plan, defeated on Nov. 4th. Map graphic: Austin Rail Now.

Austin, Texas — In a somewhat astonishing victory, on November 4th the city’s most dedicated, experienced, and knowledgeable rail transit advocates — including leaders of the Light Rail Now Project — helped defeat an officially sponsored rail transit plan that they said would waste resources on a very weak route and actually set back rail transit development in the community. See: Austin: With flawed “urban rail” plan now on ballot, debate heats up.

Produced by a consortium of several public agencies called Project Connect, the official plan — designated “urban rail” but in fact deploying light rail transit (LRT) technology — proposed a 9.5-mile route connecting the declining Highland Mall shopping center on the city’s north side (also a site being developed as a new Austin Community College campus) to the East Riverside corridor in the southeast. While the proposal was projected to have an investment cost of $1.4 billion in 2020, Austin’s City Council placed a $600 million General Obligation bond measure on the ballot as the local share, in hopes that the remainder would be covered by federal grants and other undisclosed sources.

It was that bond measure that was defeated, by a 14-point margin, 57%-43% — a stunning triumph for opponents, outspent 2-to-1 by a powerful coalition of the core of Austin’s business and predominantly Democratic political leadership, who also managed to enlist the support of major environmental, liberal, New Urbanist, and other “progressive” leaders. But a coalition of transit advocates and many other community and neighborhood activists otherwise inclined to support rail transit vehemently opposed the plan, objecting to what many perceived as a scheme that ignored crucial mobility needs in deference to real estate development interests. Many community members also felt excluded from what was depicted as a “fraudulent” process that had engendered the proposal. See: The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan.

For analyses of the campaign and defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail plan, see:

Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters’ rejection

Austin urban rail vote fails, alternative light rail plan proposed


With Austin's most powerful business leadership, mass media, and Democratic Party-dominated political leadership arrayed against them, grassroots rail advocates, community activists, and neighborhood groups opposing the official "urban rail" proposition seemed to face overwhelming odds. Graphic via TheKnowNothingNerd.com.

With Austin’s most powerful business leadership, mass media, and Democratic Party-dominated political leadership arrayed against them, grassroots rail advocates, community activists, and neighborhood groups opposing the official “urban rail” proposition seemed to face overwhelming odds. Thus defeat of the official “urban rail” plan on Nov. 4th was an amazing upset. Graphic via TheKnowNothingNerd.com.


While the defeat of the City’s official plan might be seen as one step back, it could well lead to several steps forward in the form of a new “Plan B” LRT starter line in the central city’s heaviest-travel local corridor, potentially making far more sense to voters and attracting much broader support. This route, original proposed in the 1970s and intensively studied since the 1980s (and very narrowly defeated by less than 1% of voters in a 2000 regional referendum), follows the major arterials North Lamar and Guadalupe Street, serving increasing residential density and commercial activity in the corridor including the West Campus area adjacent to the University of Texas campus, with the third-highest residential density in Texas.

Various alternatives for a light rail starter line to serve this corridor are possible; one prominent example is a plan recently proposed by Austin Rail Now (ARN, a coalition of rail supporters including the Light Rail Now Project). As illustrated by the annotated map at the top of this post, this proposal envisions a 6.8-mile line, running from the North Lamar Transit Center (at U.S. 183) to the city’s Core Area (comprising the UT campus, Capitol Complex, and Central Business District). Along the way, it would provide a connection to the MetroRail diesel-multiple-unit-operated regional rail passenger service at the Crestview station (also a major development site), and important the Triangle multi-use development further south.

This plan also includes a branch stretching west to a new urban development site located at the former Seaholm electric power plant and current Amtrak intercity train station (at the western edge of the CBD). See: A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line.

With 17 stations and a fleet of 30 LRT railcars, ARN’s Plan B is designed to carry daily ridership of as many as 30,000 to 40,000 rider-trips — a figure derived from federally funded studies of the 2000 proposal, and roughly two to three times as much ridership as was likely for the now-defunct Highland-Riverside scheme. Yet, at a projected $586 million, and with no major civil works along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, it would have roughly half the investment cost, and an affordability likely to be more appealing to voters.

Furthermore, a cost-effective and financially doable starter line located in Austin’s centralmost and most heavily traveled inner-city local corridor could plausibly serve as the central axis or trunk of a far larger citywide LRT system, with lines branching into many other neighborhoods and outlying communities.


LRT in Austin's North Lamar and Guadalupe corridor could resemble Portland's Yellow Line on Interstate Avenue, shown here. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

LRT in Austin’s North Lamar and Guadalupe corridor could resemble Portland’s Yellow Line on Interstate Avenue, shown here. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.


Supporters hope that this illustration of a Plan B LRT concept for Guadalupe-Lamar will provide a spark to re-kindle an official rail planning process that truly makes sense. Key to any plan for expansion of transit in Austin is acceptance of the need for re-allocating some street space — and traffic lanes — to dedicated transit use, and this policy is included in the proposal.

Most important, unlike the defeated urban rail proposal, a Plan B LRT on Guadalupe-Lamar seems to be an initiative that comes from the community itself. That’s an excellent ingredient for success. ■

New streetcar startups bringing rail transit to more U.S. cities

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Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities in July 2014. Photo: Ed Havens.

Light rail transit (LRT) continues to sprout across the USA, driven especially by the lower cost and easier implementation of streetcar-type LRT technology. Listed below are several U.S. cities where new streetcar systems either have recently opened, or projects are under way, bringing the first rail transit in the modern era to these metro areas. Links to helpful articles providing further information are provided, as available.

Tucson

This medium-sized Arizona city’s 3.9-mile streetcar line, branded Sun Link, opened this past July, at an investment cost of $198.8 million. The starter line route links up the University of Arizona campus with important activity points like Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, and downtown Tucson, continuing westward to the Mercado area west of Interstate 10. Ridership (averaging over 4,700 on weekdays) has already surpassed projections. See: Tucson Sun Link streetcar opens, meets ridership goal.

Cincinnati

This midwestern city’s streetcar project, now in the advanced stages of construction, will install a 3.6-mile loop (1.8 miles of route from one end to the other) in the CBD. The $133 million starter line will stretch from The Banks to Findlay Market, and is projected to open for service in the fall of 2016. See: CincyStreetcar Blog.

Kansas City

This 2.2-mile starter streetcar line will operate mostly along Main Street through the CBD, connecting River Market with Union Station. Budgeted at $102 million in 2012, the project is well under way. Construction began in May 2014, and the line is expected to open for passenger service in late 2015. See: Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.

Oklahoma City

A 4.6-mile streetcar starter line, now in advanced planning, will bring rail transit to this major city. The project, currently estimated to cost $128.8 million, will circulate through the CBD, and will feature wireless operation beneath the BNSF Railway overpass linking the city’s MidTown area with the historic and adjoining Bricktown district. Opening is projected for late 2017 or early 2018. See: Oklahoma City Rail Transit and Public Transport Developments.

Milwaukee

The City has a 2.1-mile streetcar starter line project under way with a budgeted investment cost of $64.6 million. Extending from Ogden & Prospect on the northeast of the CBD to 4th & Wisconsin, completion has been targeted for 2016. However, the City may have to find an additional $20 million to cover the cost of utilities relocation, under a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. See: Milwaukee aiming to start streetcar line construction in 2014.

Detroit

In September, tracklaying finally began for this 3.3-mile, $136 million streetcar starter line, financed from both public and private sources. Designated M-1, the line will operate on busy Woodward Avenue, from Grand to Congress. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. Opening is projected for 2016. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. ■

New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile

LEFT: LA Blue Line train emerging from tunnel portal. (Photo: Salaam Allah.) RIGHT: Norfolk Tide LRT train on single-track railroad roght-of-way. (Photo: Flickr.)

LEFT: LA Blue Line train emerging from tunnel portal. (Photo: Salaam Allah.) RIGHT: Norfolk Tide LRT train on single-track railroad right-of-way. (Photo: Flickr.)

This article has been updated to reflect a revision of the LRN study described. The study was revised to include Salt Lake City’s TRAX light rail starter line, which was opened in late 1999.

What’s been the been cost per mile of new U.S. light rail transit (LRT) “starter systems” installed in recent years?

The Light Rail Project team was curious about this, so we’ve reviewed available data sources and compiled a tabulation comparing cost-per-mile of “heavy-duty” LRT starter systems installed in or after 1990, all adjusted to 2014 dollars for equivalency. (“Heavy-duty” distinguishes these systems from lighter-duty streetcar-type LRT projects.)

This is shown in the figure below, which presents, for each system, the year opened, the initial miles of line, the cost per mile in millions of 2014 dollars, and comments on significant construction features. (“RR ROW” refers to available railroad right-of-way; “street track” refers to track embedded in urban street pavement, almost invariably in reserved lanes or reservations.)

2_LRN_US-LRT-starter-lines-cost-per-mi_rev2

Major data sources have included TRB/APTA 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit (2000), individual LRN articles, and Wikipedia.

Averaging these per-mile cost figures is not meaningful, because of the wide disparity in types of construction, ranging from installation of ballasted open track in railroad right-of-way (lowest-cost) to tunnel and subway station facilities (highest-cost). These typically respond to specific conditions or terrain characteristics of the desired alignment, and include, for example:

Seattle — While Seattle’s Link LRT is by far the priciest system in this comparison, there are explanatory factors. Extensive modification of existing Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (and several stations) previously used exclusively by buses; tunneling through a major hill, and installation of a new underground station; extensive elevated construction to negotiate hilly terrain, major highways, etc.

Dallas — This starter system’s costs were pushed up by a long tunnel beneath the North Central Expressway (installed in conjunction with an ongoing freeway upgrade), a subway station, a new viaduct over the Trinity River floodplain, and significant elevated construction.

Los Angeles — The Blue Line starter system included a downtown subway station interface with the Red Line metro and a short section of subway before reaching the surface of proceed as street trackage and then open ballasted track on a railroad right-of-way.

St. Louis — While this system’s costs were minmimized by predominant use of former railroad right-of-way, a downtown freight rail tunnel was rehabilitated to accommodate the system’s double-track LRT line, with stations; an existing bridge over the Mississippi River was adapted; and significant elevated facilities were installed for access to the metro area’s main airport.

Hopefully this cost data may be helpful to other communities, in providing both a “ballpark” idea of the unit cost of new LRT, and a reality check of any estimated investment cost already rendered of such a new system. ■

New subway (metro) systems cost nearly 9 times as much as light rail

Buffalo's LRT 6.4-mile system, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has not been expanded since its opening in 1985. Photo: Buffalo Tourism.

Buffalo’s 6.4-mile LRT system, with 5.2 miles (81%) in subway, has not been expanded since its opening in 1985. The high cost of subway construction is a likely factor. Photo: Buffalo Tourism.

Before the surface electric urban railway (the technology of former streetcar and interurban systems) was reborn as light rail transit (LRT) in the mid-1970s, North American urban areas that wanted urban rail for their inner cities really didn’t think there was any choice other than a full subway-elevated system — rail rapid transit, aka a metro system.

But not only was the expense of such a system daunting, and way above the financial capability of most moderate-sized and smaller American cities, its tremendous capacity generally wasn’t needed for cities just trying to get their feet wet with better-quality public transit.

Then, LRT as an option began to emerge, unveiled with maximum force at the first National Light Rail Conference of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in 1975, and … ka-boom! Urban rail systems in the form of lower-cost LRT began to sprout up in city after city. And they’ve been widely hailed as a great success and model for good urban public transport.

But the “why not a subway?” issue keeps rearing its head — mainly reflecting the resistance of the motor-vehicle-focused mindset to having urban space, especially street space, shared or usurped by mass transit operations. Overwhelmingly, surface LRT in one type of alignment or another (from street reservations to the re-use of abandoned railway corridors) has triumphed … although there have been cases where pressure to “build it out of sight” has forced new LRT startups underground (or even canceled planned projects altogether).

The tremendous investment cost of digging a subway and installing underground stations is obviously a huge deterrent to the development of such systems — both in the initial financing, and in sopping up available resources that could otherwise be plowed into vigorous expansion of the system. Buffalo’s 6.4-mile LRT line, for example, was constructed almost entirely (81%) in subway … and hasn’t been expanded one foot since its original opening in 1985.

One should keep in mind that the cost of more modest local projects (such as wastewater tunnels or similar smaller tunnels) can be very deceptive. Rail transit subways involve far more complex features (after all, they must provide environments to enable large numbers of human beings to survive underground safely and comfortably). There must be ventilation and lighting, of course, and often air-conditioning. More significantly from a cost standpoint, underground stations are extremely expensive, including access (elevators and escalators designed to convey large volumes of passengers rapidly up and down). Access for trains to get from the surface into the subway can also be expensive, typically involving portals spanning up to two city blocks and lengthy underground approach ramps to and from the level main subway alignment.

Nevertheless, from one city to another, subway enthusiasts (or, often, anti-rail Road Warriors seeking to tie a subway albatross around the neck of local rail planning) continue to emerge from time to time claiming that subway construction would cost only “slightly more” (or sometimes, even, “no more”) than installing a new urban rail line in public streets.

So a solid fact check is in order. After considerable investigation, the study summarized here has gathered a selected assortment of recent urban rail projects (all from the 2000s), either completed or well under construction and fully budgeted. A major and very helpful source has been Comparative Subway Construction Costs, Revised from the Pedestrian Observations blog, including data cited in comments. Additional data has come from Tramways & Urban Transit magazine (hardcopy only), September 2013 through February 2014 issues, data in Light Rail Now, Wikipedia, and the research study Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000, co-authored by Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs, and presented in November 2012 to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the TRB and American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

In this cost comparison, only full subway projects (entirely or nearly totally underground) are included. These also include LRT subways (e.g., San Francisco’s Central Subway, and underground LRT projects in Seattle). LRT projects are exclusively (or nearly so) in street alignments (e.g., San Francisco’s T-Line, Salt Lake City’s University line), and involve full-capability, high-performance LRT rather than streetcar technology. In some cases (e.g., Houston, Phoenix, Minneapolis), construction may include short segments on bridges or an exclusive alignment, but most construction is in-street. (LRT development is being aggressively pursued worldwide, and there are many more LRT projects recently constructed or now under way than are included here — but keep in mind that this study focuses only on projects with exclusive or nearly exclusive in-street construction (to compare the most difficult, highest-cost type of surface construction with subway construction). For most LRT projects, in-street construction may only represent a portion of the total alignment.)

All projects include costs of vehicles and facilities, as applicable. One should also note that the unit cost of an extension project is typically less than that of a new-start project, since basic storage-maintenance facilities and a vehicle fleet are often already in place, with perhaps only incremental additions required.

Per-mile unit costs (millions of U.S. dollars per route mile) have been calculated from total project costs and project lengths, and escalated to 2014 dollars. The results are presented in the following bar charts.

U.S. projects

Basic cost-per-mile data is present in this section for U.S. projects only ($ millions per mile).

1_ARN_Subway-cost-US

2_ARN_LRT-cost-US


Projects in other world cities

The cost-per-mile data in this section is derived from various projects outside the USA around the world (U.S. $ millions per mile).

3_ARN_Subway-cost-world

4_ARN_LRT-cost-world


Conclusion — Subways cost many times more

This final graph compares median cost per mile between subway and in-street LRT projects for both the USA and for all projects (including U.S.) worldwide (U.S. $ millions per mile).

5_ARN_Median-cost-per-mile


From this data visualization, it can be seen that, for recent U.S. projects, subway construction has a median cost nearly seven times that of in-street LRT construction. Worldwide, the differential is nearly 9:1. And thats only comparing in-street LRT construction, not accounting for the possibility of, say, transitioning into an available railway alignment outside the city center, with far lower installation cost.

What this means is that, even if your community can somehow afford the initial financial commitment (even with federal assistance), expansion of your system will be severely attenuated. Basically, for a given amount of available funding, you can construct 7 to 9 times as much surface LRT as subway. Put another way: For available resources, you can have a far more comprehensive rail system with surface LRT, many times the size of a system relying on subway construction.

That doesn’t mean there’s never an appropriate role for subway alignments. Both Portland and Dallas, for example, are now evaluating subway options through their CBDs to keep pace with ridership growth and the need for fast, more frequent service going beyond in-street capacity.

But both cities relied primarily on surface construction to start and develop their initial systems (although, because of special conditions, Dallas’s initial system did include a short stretch of tunnel under the North Central Expressway). In any case, any community considering a new urban rail system should pause and take a deep breath, with an eye on the longer-term implications, before committing to a subway option. And certainly, from the data above, such a commitment should not be made on the supposition that a subway would cost “just a little bit more” than constructing LRT in the street.

Note: Since its original posting, this article has been revised to incorporate small modifications and additions to narrative, and to substitute higher-quality chart graohics.

How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall

LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN.
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…

Bus operations as precursors of light rail transit

Seattle — Link LRT trains (left) and BRT buses share the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, originally installed as a busway.

Seattle — Link LRT trains (left) and BRT buses share the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, originally installed as a busway.


by Lyndon Henry

High-quality bus services – often characterized as “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) – are frequently portrayed as possible precursors of electric light rail transit (LRT) systems. But can BRT or “BRT-like” bus operations effectively fulfill such a role?

This question was examined in a paper that I and my colleague Dave Dobbs (executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and publisher of the Light Rail Now website) presented to the Joint International Light Rail Conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Transportation Research Board and the American Public Transportation Association in April 2009 in Los Angeles.

The formal paper, Bus Rapid Transit as a Precursor of Light Rail Transit? is available online, starting at p. 137 of the full conference proceedings:

http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

Our study includes general research as well as an examination of several specific case studies, drawn from both actual operations and planned operations. Our analysis identifies factors that may optimize the capability of of these kinds of bus operations to function more effectively as precursors of LRT systems, but emphasizes that “initial system design, to permit a transition, is critical, and major challenges and drawbacks must be addressed and overcome.”

Our conclusions spell out some details:

This analysis has identified certain factors that may optimize the capability of Bus Rapid Transit to function effectively as a precursor of a light rail transit system. However, it is important for planners to keep in mind that initial system design, to permit a transition, is critical, and major challenges and drawbacks must be addressed and overcome. A major consideration is that the BRT facilities should not represent an obstacle to the subsequent LRT project. As noted, BRT-specific infrastructure (including stations) should ideally be designed to be very low in cost so the sunk cost for BRT is not an impediment to eventual conversion to LRT.

The examples of actual or prospective BRT-to-LRT conversion in both Seattle and Ottawa (and in fact Guadalajara as well) involve some degree of transit service shutdown or disruption on the BRT facility during the conversion process in these types of “high-end”, exclusive facilities. In contrast, a “lower-end” express-bus type of BRT service can probably more readily continue a parallel service on adjacent highway or arterial lanes (if they are available) during the conversion period – although generally without stations and intermediate interchange of transferring passengers (an essential characteristic of LRT which planners should seek in BRT if the BRT service is intended to offer really the same kind of service as LRT).

In addition, the staging and logistics of conversion must be considered, particularly to avoid or minimize disruption of the existing BRT-type service while the LRT installation project is under way. In this regard, alignments in or alongside existing arterials provide at least some opportunity for maintaining a parallel BRT or bus-substitute service; on the other hand, alignments that have appropriated railway ROW for BRT (such as the Ottawa Transitway) make it virtually impossible to maintain a true parallel bus service – thus representing a serious obstacle facing conversion to LRT.

On the whole, the case studies cited suggest that actual experience is still inconclusive as to full cost-effectiveness of some forms of BRT service functioning as precursors to LRT and other type of rail transit. However, several examples approaching implementation in the near future appear to show show promise. As these planned BRT-to-LRT conversions become operational, an updated assessment should be carried out.

For additional information, plus useful graphics, check out the PowerPoint presentation shown at the conference:

Bus Rapid Transit as a Precursor of Light Rail Transit?

Ed Tennyson: Streetcars use streets more efficiently

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Toronto streetcar downtown in August 2012. Photo: L. Henry

A recent Toronto poll found that opinions of metro-area respondents were almost evenly split on a plan to ban motor vehicles and allow only streetcars to operate on King Street (one of the downtown’s major thoroughfares) during morning peak hours, with 40% favoring the idea and 43% opposing it. While the plan had overwhelming support in the inner-city, the metro area’s more affluent, conservative suburbs (e.g., Scarborough) tended to oppose it. (Suburban voters have also tended to support conservative Mayor Rob Ford, who promotes policies similar to those of the USA’s Tea Party.)

The poll elicited the following observations and comments from Edson L. Tennyson, a renowned transportation engineer and consultant to the Light Rail Now Project. Ed is widely respected within the North American public transportation industry, having served as manager of several major transit agencies as well as Transportation Engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Without facts the people responding to that poll do not know what they are talking about. Since King Street is in the Old City, what business is it of Scarborough?

Let us look at the facts. A lane of autos waiting at traffic signals can move only 900 passengers per hour, not enough to keep a city busy or healthy. I do not know the streetcar headway, but with 56,700 weekday passengers, it sounds like 4,500 one-way in the peak hour, 5 times auto capacity. With 90 people per 4-axle car, that would require a 1.2-minute headway, 50 cars per hour. With articulated cars, a 1.8-minute headway could handle it.

The point is, who wants to allow 900 [Mayor Rob] Ford supporters to block the movement of 4,500 people per hour? Polls will not move anyone, but those 800 automobiles with 900 people will block 4,500. That is stupid, uneconomical, and grossly unproductive. When gridlock gets bad, transit speed falls to three (3) miles per hour. A streetcar costing $235 per hour will cost $78 per mile at three miles per hour; but at 6 miles per hour, which might be possible with no autos, the streetcar cost falls to $39 per mile, a saving of 50 percent for farepayers and taxpayers. If the media had the integrity and equity to explain it that way, I am sure the polls would change drastically in favor of streetcars.

Crooked politicians like Mayor Ford were running the U.S. Congress in 1959 when they banned streetcars from the District of Columbia [i.e., Washington, DC]. They did it to speed auto travel, but it did not work that way. It sped auto travel, all right — away from the city instead if into it.

Back then, Washington’s streetcars were almost as busy as Toronto’s streetcars. They made a profit to subsidize bus service, but they annoyed motorists. Traffic engineers wanted the streetcar lanes for auto left turns, a very low-volume use. Traffic engineers were trained at the Eno Foundation, then subsidized by General Motors. They were required to teach the need to eliminate streetcars.

The last [Washington] streetcar ran in 1962. Buying new buses escalated fares drastically and drove away
most riders. Many downtown department stores went out of business. People with good jobs moved out of the city to escape auto congestion caused by automobiles, not streetcars.

From 1948 to 1975, transit use in Washington fell by 72%. The population fell from 750,000 to 590,000. By 1990 the City had so much debt it could not function. Congress had to bail it out, castrating City Council.

By then, MetroRail [rapid transit] was growing large enough to replace the streetcars and greatly reduce bus dependence. Transit increased almost 300% from 1975 to now. The Mayor just announced a tax cut as the
city has too much money. The population is growing with higher-income people.

When MetroRail was planned they took a close look at Toronto to get it right. They did.

Providence streetcar plan hinges on federal funding

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Simulation of Providence streetcars serving downtown crowds at night. Source: City of Providence.

Providence, Rhode Island — This mid-sized New England city is ready to install a new streetcar system. All it needs is some federal cash.

According to a recent report from WPRI-TV News in Rhode Island’s capital city, local and federal officials are asking the federal government for $39 million to help pay for about a third of the cost of constructing a new streetcar line to connect the Upper South Providence neighborhood near Rhode Island Hospital to College Hill on the downtown’s East Side.

The following infographic provides a map and further information:

urt_prv-lrt-stc-map-infographic-20130610_City-of-Prv
(Click to enlarge) Source: City of Providence.

The 2.1-mile, $114.4-million starter line would have 11 station-stops and 4 streetcars. The federal money would come from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, a component of the Obama administration’s original 2009 economic stimulus package.

As the news report explains,

The rest of the project would be paid for with an array of city and state bonds as well about $5.25 million in additional federal funds secured by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. Sponsorships, advertising revenues and $2 fares would be used to sustain the system once it got up and running.

Once the project gets a green light, construction would begin by late 2015 and streetcar service would open to the public in 2017.

Read more here

[This article was first published on the Urban Rail Today blog. Thanks to Urban Rail Today for their kind permission to re-publish it.]

Alstom takes the leap into North American light rail market

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Alstom’s Citadis Spirit for Ottawa. Simulation: Alstom

Philadelphia — With an opulent reception and major flourish, on the evening of June 3rd during the annual Rail Conference of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the third of the “Big Three” global rail transit car producers announced its entry into the North American light rail transit (LRT) rolling stock market.

Unveiling its car model called the Citadis Spirit, Alstom company executives emphasized that “the Citadis Spirit builds upon the experience of more than 1,700 Citadis light rail vehicles in service worldwide…” and noted that “with over 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada planning new light rail or streetcar systems, the vehicle includes unique features to satisfy the transit needs and support the economic development goals of North American cities.”

Alstom’s move is not only a major step for Alstom, and for the North American LRT car market, but also a de facto testament to the vigorous growth — and strong potential growth — of LRT across North America. The two other “Big Three” producers — Siemens and Bombardier — have been major supplliers for the transit railcar market, [articularly in the USA and Canada, and a number of other firms, both foreign and domestic (e.g., Kinkisharyo, Breda, Kawasaki, Rotem, Skoda, Inekon, Brookville Equipment Corporation, Oregon Iron Works), have also been important players in the industry.

Alstom’s June 3rd press release touted important features and advantages of the Citadis Spirit car:

Those features include a 100% low floor design and the ability to operate at speeds of up to 65 mph. Hence, the Citadis Spirit is versatile and can provide both a streetcar service in mixed traffic as well as a commuter service on dedicated infrastructure. Its low-floor boarding and interior, which is free of steps, provides better accessibility as well as a safer and more comfortable ride to users of all walks and ages. The vehicle also is totally modular in length and can be expanded as a city’s transportation needs grow over time. Additionally, the Citadis Spirit can be paired with one of Alstom’s proven off-wire power supply systems to preserve historic cityscapes and minimize impacts on the environment.

Alstom has already secured a major contract for the Citadis Spirit. In February, the company announced its first order — from the City of Ottawa for its new LRT system — with a contract to deliver 34 cars, plus an option for an additional 21 cars, and 30 years of maintenance services. The car for Ottawa will be a high-capacity version of the Spirit with a total length of 160 feet.

As of 2015, says Alstom, the Citadis Spirit will be manufactured in North America . Its design and manufacturing process are very modular and flexible, allowing final assembly to be localized close to end-users and municipalities.

In a statement, Alstom Transportation’s President, Guillaume Mehlman, underscored that

in developing the Citadis Spirit, we recognized that every city has a unique ambition for public transportation and an expectation that our mobility solutions boost sustainable economic development. With this vehicle’s versatility and modularity, Alstom is able to respond to those expectations as they evolve over time. Our Design & Styling department can also customize the train’s interior and exterior design to embody each city’s unique character. Each new Citadis Spirit will be shaped by and a reflection of the community it serves.

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-diagram-modular-expansion_Alstom
Graphic illustrates how Citadis Spirit’s capacity can be expanded by adding modeules to the basic car. Graphic: Alstom

Alstom’s brochure on the Citadis Spirit provides this technical information:

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-chart-dimensions_Alstom

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-chart-interior_Alstom

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-chart-technical_Alstom

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-chart-main-equipmt_Alstom

Alstom-Citadis-Spirit-chart-options_Alstom

Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape

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Simulation of streetcar southbound on Main St. at 19th St. [Graphic: Downtown Corridor Alternatives Analysis]

[This article has been reprinted with permission from the Urban Rail Today website.]

Kansas City, Missouri — At a March 6th public meeting, city planners presented details of their construction schedule for Kansas City’s proposed 2.2-mile, $102 million streetcar project, approved by voters in late December (2012). The details may be instructive for streetcar advocates in other cities, giving them an idea of what’s typically involved in this kind of project.

The line is planned to run through the city’s Central Business District from River Market to Union Station, also serving Crossroads and Crown Center. According to a Dec. 28th report in the Kansas City Business Journal, “Proponents of the plan say the line … will spur development along Main Street while helping to attract young, creative residents to the city’s urban core.” The system is currently projected to open for service in 2015.

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[Map: Downtown Neighborhood Association of Kansas City]

Particularly for transit supporters in other cities considering a streetcar or large light rail transit (LRT) system, it’s instructive to look at the elements of this kind of project. A more recent report (March 7th) in the KC Business Journal provides an opportunity for this kind of examination, laying out the three main phases of the project.

At more than $46 million a mile, KC’s streetcar line will be far less costly than, say, a subway or monorail, or even many busways — but that per-mile price tag also buys a lot more than just the rail transit infrastructure, as we’ll see. First, let’s itemize the railway components themselves, some of which will occur over several of the phases:

• Streetcar rolling stock — to be selected, ordered, delivered.
• Tracks installation along Main Street from the River Market to Union Station.
• Rolling stock maintenance facility in the River Market to be designed.
• Underground utilities to be relocated.

That last item — relocating utilities — is not directly part of the rail infrastructure, but it’s a task that usually has to be done (although there are some ways to minimize or avoid it). In many cases, the utilities may have actually needed replacement for years, but the municipality or private utility owner holds off, hoping that the rail project will pick up the tab. There’s also wide divergence from city to city in terms of who the law specifies should be responsible for paying for such relocation — the agency sponsoring the rail project, or the utility owners.

Phase 1 (from 2013 until early 2014) will mainly focus on utility relocation and the construction of the maintenance facility. Utilities work will include:

• Opening trenches to remove and relocate utility lines.
• Suspending temporary overhead lines for temporary utility relocations.

According to the news report, this work will be done in three-block sections and taking two to eight weeks. “During the work, Kansas City residents can expect partial lane closings and temporary service interruptions.”

Work on the maintenance facility, lasting 12 to 18 months, will include:

• Clearing the site for the facility and starting construction of the building’s foundation.
• Commencing civil engineering work startup of actual shop construction.

Phase 2 (from late 2013 to late 2014) includes track installation (in pavement), station construction, and rebullding of streets and sidewalks. It’s debatable whether this last item, street and sidewalk reconstruction — routine for most urban rail projects — should be considered an indispensable component of the rail transit and assigned as a cost totally to the rail project.

To some extent, as with utilities, public works planners often realize that the streets and sidewalks need to be rebuilt anyway, and often wait to let the cost be picked up by the rail project. Also, these kinds of upgrades might be considered as more in the category of “urban amenities”, and some rail advocates argue they should be tallied separately as something like “urban renovation”.

On the other hand, it’s arguable that effective access to the new line requires good pedestrian facilities. Furthermore, for federal funding the Federal Transit Administration usually requires it (along with other amenities not directly essential to the transit operation, such as artwork at the stations).

In any case, both for track installation and the street/sidewalk reconstruction, the project schedule calls for closing “two city blocks … for three to four weeks to accommodate construction of the streetcar’s tracks and stops.” This will include:

• Removing existing pavement and sidewalks.
• Reconstructing sidewalks, curbs, and gutters.
• Installing railway hardware on track slabs with drainage facilities and special trackwork (switches, crossovers, etc.).
• Rebuilding existing curbs, gutters, and sidewalks near stations.
• Building concrete platforms and canopy foundations, and installing “amenities and finishes at the streetcar stops.”

As the Business Journal report indicates,

Construction of each station is expected to last three to four weeks. Track installation will require a 20- to 25-foot work zone and will close multiple lanes or entire sections of Main Street, depending on the width of the street at the work location.

Phase 3 (from late 2013 to late 2014), the final phase of construction, will focus mainly on the power system and traffic signals, with some replacement of street lighting (again, this last item may be one of those “urban amenity/renovation” elements not strictly essential to the urban rail project). There’s an advisory that “Temporary closures during non-peak hours are expected at each two-block section for the three to four weeks it will take to complete this phase of the work.” This last phase will include:

• Installing the overhead contact system (OCS) — i.e., the support poles and wiring for the electric propulsion system (this is often erroneously referred to as “catenary”, which is actually a somewhat heftier type of OCS; however, many streetcar lines and even some larger LRT lines use much simpler single-contact-wire OCS to minimize its visibility).
• Installing new traffic signals and street lighting (again, see the discussion above about “urban renovation” and whether the cost of these project elements should be assigned to the urban rail project).
• Installing power substations (these are just relatively small power booster units to maintain adequate voltage on the OCS, which tends to drop because of the resistance of the OCS wire).

“After construction is complete,” notes the Business Journal report, “the city expects to take four to six months for testing and startup work between late 2014 and early 2015.”

That, then, is what this relatively small KC urban rail project will involve. Hopefully, this information will be helpful to those of you contemplating similar projects for your own cities.