How can U.S. streetcars evolve into better light rail systems?

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Prague Skoda 15T tram (streetcar) running in mixed traffic. Photo: Pinterest.

Last month, our article «For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution» emphasized that “For the first time since the advent of the USA’s modern light rail transit (LRT) revolution in the mid-1970s, the modern streetcar — a scaled-down version of higher-performance LRT — has emerged as the leading form of LRT development for launching urban rail in American cities.” One of the features of the new-start modern streetcar systems, the article notes, is “more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic” (i.e., as compared with prior conventional implementations of LRT). However, it’s precisely that “reliance” on sharing streets with mixed motor vehicle traffic that has fed a debate, at least in North America, among transit advocates over the relevancy of some streetcar lines, in contrast with “full LRT” routed in dedicated lanes or reservations. (Jarrett Walker, especially in posts on his Human Transit website, is an influential critic.)

The Light Rail Now Project team realize that dedicated-lane operation is superior, but we also recognize that occasionally mixed running with general traffic may be necessary. Furthermore, we believe that most streetcar systems should be implemented with a longer-term view toward eventual upgrade to “full” LRT features, included running in dedicated or exclusive lanes, under traffic-signal prioritization, etc.

Systems elsewhere, such as those in Europe and Australia, offer excellent examples of how streetcar (tramway) systems can by installed or upgraded cost-effectively with incremental operational improvements and tweaks. Tram advocate Tony Prescott, in postings on the Eurotrams online forum, provides useful information that offers some illumination on these issues.

Regarding tramway operations, Tony writes

One message you’re obviously going to have to get across in the debate is that separation [via dedicated or reserved lanes] is not a magic pill that will necessarily solve all street-running issues. A lot is … down to smart planning and operation. Mixed running along a street is not necessarily a problem till you get to an intersection, and you will see if you study a lot of the European cab videos that the tracks are segregated as they approach an intersection, as far back as necessary to avoid the tram being caught in a traffic tailback.

There are lots of little such techniques – and most importantly skilled management – that keep those traditional European tramways moving along swiftly, indeed often more swiftly than many expensive new separated “modern light rail” projects.

Tony cites a YouTube video of one of Prague’s tramlines (Line 18, videoed from the cab of one of the city’s new Skoda 15T trams, such as the one shown at the top of this post). The video provides an excellent illustration of the techniques used in a modern European city, with heavy reliance on tramway services for its public transport, to optimize operations via a blend of mixed-traffic and dedicated-lane alignments plus deft traffic management. Even just a few minutes is worth watching (the full video is nearly an hour in length) to acquire an understanding of the sensible, often minimalist techniques deployed to expedite tram (streetcar) operations in this city.



As Tony points out:

What is interesting about this video is that it is filmed on an evening weekday peak run. … This video shows the peak-hour challenges faced on line 18 between Pankrac depot and Petriny. It goes across the city and through the centre from south-east to west.

In relation to the parallel discussion here about mixed-traffic running vs separation, it shows the varied running environments, challenges and techniques on one of the world’s busiest tram systems. You can also see the now considerable development of shared running with buses through the tram stops, to the enormous benefit of bus operations and interchange convenience for passengers. This has been made possible by the development of 100% low floor buses with multiple doors, enabling the same dwell times as trams.

Tony also notes that “In Prague, buses don’t enter the city centre for environmental reasons. They feed off the trams and metro at the edges of the city centre.” Perhaps an interesting and useful model for North American urban public transport?

Our own recommendation: These comments and videos of high-quality tramway/streetcar services like this represent lessons that planners and designers of new streetcar systems in North America would be well-advised to heed. ■

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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. ■

Austin: With flawed “urban rail” plan now on ballot, debate heats up

Project Connect's 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Austin, Texas — For months, this city’s staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit advocates, including the Light Rail Now Project team, have been leading the criticism of an “urban rail” (light rail transit) plan being proposed by Project Connect, a consortium of several public entities, including the City of Austin, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro), and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). A central focus of most of this criticism has been the fact that the proposed route fails to serve the city’s premier central corridor, identified as Guadalupe-Lamar because it follows two major arterial roadways by those names.

Project Connect’s route, a meandering 9.5-mile alignment now priced at roughly $1.4 billion (2020 dollars), instead seems to try to create a new corridor from a southeastern area known as the East Riverside corridor, across the Colorado River and north through the east side of the CBD, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, and through a somewhat convoluted connection to a declining shopping mall site, known as Highland Mall, now being transformed into a new Highland campus for Austin Community College (ACC). However, at a staggeringly high cost, the proposed line fails to solve critical mobility needs, misses the major local travel corridor of the central city (Guadalupe-Lamar), and misses the high-density West Campus neighborhood area.

Rail proponents also warn that, by “soaking up all the oxygen” (available financial resources), the project would seriously constrain further rail development and extensions throughout the city. Furthermore, the dubious urban rail plan (driven more by desires of real estate developers than by mobility needs) also seems linked to a plan to entrench the MetroRapid bus operation (portrayed as “bus rapid transit”) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, where it would likely become a barrier to urban rail development there.

On June 26th, the Austin City Council designated the Project Connect plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), and on August 7th the Council authorized a ballot measure that asks voters to approve $600 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a local portion of the proposed urban rail project. The ballot language stipulates that bonds could only be issued if the City finds an additional $400 million in funding for an array of roadway projects, including roadwork on Interstate 35 running through the city.

The Austin Rail Now website (a project partly sponsored by Texas Association for Public Transportation and the Light Rail Now Project) has been a significant resource of information and analysis on Austin’s recent urban rail planning, including alternative plans as well as drawbacks of the official plan developed and recommended by Project Connect. Most of this material represents potentially useful guidance for other communities similarly involved in rail system planning. Listed below are just a few of the key major articles posted on the site that provide a better overview and insight into the forest of issues involved. ■

Project Connect planning problems

Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

Questions for Project Connect

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

Reality Check: How plausible are Project Connect’s time/speed claims for Highland-Riverside urban rail plan?

Problems of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

Three “incontrovertible facts” about urban rail proposals in Austin

Political issues of Project Connect plan

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

Official urban rail plan bulldozed to ballot — in bulging bundle

Guadalupe-Lamar alternative

An alternative Urban Rail plan

Give priority to “Missing Link”

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

West Campus is where the students are!

Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

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.