For new urban rail — Modern streetcars now lead light rail revolution

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

Streetcar under testing in downtown Kansas City. Streetcar systems can readily be upgraded into full-performance light rail transit. Photo: Michael Leatherman.

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. Characterized by typically shorter stop spacing, somewhat slower speeds, more reliance on sharing road space with motor vehicle traffic, and often slightly smaller rolling stock, streetcars seem to be perceived as a more financially accessible path to initiate a new local urban rail system scaled to the needs of communities previously dependent only on buses for their public transit.

However, because its technology is nearly identical to high-performance LRT, streetcar starter lines may offer the basis of a system that can be upgraded to “full” LRT via affordable and reasonable modifications.

While several major cities with rail rapid transit and/or LRT systems (e.g., Washington DC, Atlanta, Seattle, Sacramento, St. Louis) are also adding streetcar operations with new streetcar systems, this article focuses on new modern streetcar projects that represent the first installation of any form of urban rail for their communities. Thus, projects now well under construction (with route-miles and total investment cost) include:

Cincinnati — 1.8 miles, $148 million

Kansas City — 2.2 miles, $102 million (see photo at top of post)

Detroit — 3.3 miles, $140 million

Modern streetcar projects in planning and preparatory stages of development are also under way in Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, and Ft. Lauderdale, leading the inauguration of urban rail for those communities as well.

In most cases, streetcars are being introduced initially as circulator modes, typically for the CBD or a single major corridor. Even when routed in mixed (shared) traffic, streetcars offer faster, more attractive service to comparable bus operations together with additional benefits for urban livability and economic development.

However, the possibility of upgrading this mode into a cost-effective, higher-performance form of LRT is raised by the rapid streetcar concept, originally proposed in 2004 by Lyndon Henry, a nationally known public transport planner and a technical consultant to Light Rail Now. The concept has generated interest within the rail transit planning profession; see, for example:

The Rapid Streetcar

Rapid Streetcar: Rescaling Design And Cost for More Affordable Light Rail Transit

Rapid Streetcar concept gaining ground

Henry and other public transport professionals and advocates emphasize that it’s critical to upgrade streetcar operations by converting shared-traffic street alignments into dedicated lanes free of other traffic, implementing traffic signal prioritization for streetcars, and expanding these new lines into other city sectors and suburbs.

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. ■

Cases where voters okayed rail transit after first rejecting

Rail transit ballot measures are critical events. But if one is rejected, is it a "catastrophic" for the community? Graphic: RochesterSubway.com.

Rail transit ballot measures are critical events. But if one is rejected, is it a “catastrophic” setback for the community? Graphic: RochesterSubway.com.

Voter rejection of a rail transit project is almost always unfortunate.

But is it catastrophic? Does it signal that the majority in a community will persistently and permanently reject any rail project, or does it represent a more temporary setback, with remaining hope that a better plan, a better presentation to voters, at a better time, could have a chance to win approval?

This issue often arises not only in communities where a rail transit project has unified support from transit advocates, but even in cases where an official plan has faced strong opposition from rail transit supporters. In an effort to mobilize support, proponents of the given project may argue that it may be the community’s “only chance for rail”, that, no matter its deficiencies, a given plan cannot be allowed to fail, because it would be a “disaster”, setting back rail development for decades, perhaps forever.

To evaluate the validity of this argument, and assess the actual delay between the failure of rail ballot measures and the ultimate passage of support for a subsequent rail transit ballot initiative, the LRN Project team examined available cases since 2000 where an initial rejection of rail was followed by a successful later vote. LRN’s approach has examined this issue strictly from the standpoint of attracting voter support — in other words, if the issue of rail transit is re-voted, how long does it take to win approval?

It should be noted that this study has examined the sequence of events only in cities where, after the failure of an initial measure, a new measure for rail transit (often with a somewhat different plan) was offered to voters. In other cases, poorly prepared or presented rail plans were rejected by voters, but rail planning was subsequently dropped (e.g., Spokane, Columbus) or has proceeded without needing a public vote (e.g., San Antonio).

Thus this study has sought to address the question: If rail has previously been rejected by voters, but a new rail measure is subsequently presented for a vote, how long does it take to achieve successful voter approval for rail?

Since 2000, there have been six cases where such re-votes have occurred:

Austin — A plan for a light rail transit (LRT) system was very narrowly defeated in 2000; rail transit was subsequently repackaged as a light railway using diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) rolling stock, and passed in 2004 (now branded as MetroRail). Delay between votes: 4 years.

Kansas City — An officially sponsored LRT plan was defeated in 2001; a different LRT plan initiated by a citizens’ referendum was subsequently approved in 2006. (However, the successful vote was annulled by the city council; implementation of an officially sponsored streetcar project is now underway without a public vote.) Delay between votes: 5 years.

Cincinnati — An LRT plan was rejected in 2002. Rail transit was subsequently repackaged as a streetcar plan that was forced to a public vote, and ultimately was approved in 2009. (A re-vote, forced by opponents’ referendum, was held in 2012, and the streetcar project again passed.) Delay between votes: 7 years.

Tucson — An LRT plan was rejected in 2002; rail transit was subsequently repackaged as a streetcar plan, then submitted for a public vote and approved in 2006. (The new system, branded as Sun Link, is due to open later this year.) Delay between votes: 4 years.

Seattle — A multi-modal transportation proposal, Roads and Transit, including LRT expansion, was defeated in 2007 (with opposition from environmental organizations and other traditional pro-transit groups, dissatisfied with the plan’s heavy highway element). A new package, Sound Transit 2, was prepared, with much heavier transit emphasis, and presented and approved by voters in 2008. Delay between votes: 1 year.

St. Louis — Proposition M, including funding for the region’s MetroLink LRT system, was defeated by voters in 2008. A new package, Prop. A, aided by an improved campaign, and including funding to improve and expand LRT, was subsequently approved in 2010. Delay between votes: 2 years.

From these experiences, it’s plausible to conclude the recent re-votes on rail transit have taken from one to seven years to succeed. This would not seem to suggest that initial loss of a vote results in a “catastrophic” delay of “decades” before a rail transit project can muster approval.

On the contrary, the average delay, on the basis of these cases, is 3.8 years. However, the data seems to suggest a pattern, whereby the delay before a successful rail transit re-vote is less in cities already operating some form of rail transit (Seattle, St. Louis), in contrast to cities where rail would be a totally new addition to the transit mix (Austin, Tucson, Kansas City, Cincinnati). This differential in average delay is illustrated graphically in the chart below:

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit.

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit.

Other than to infer that the loss of a vote does not inevitably represent a “catastrophic” setback for rail transit in a given city, this study with its very small data set does not offer a basis for strong conclusions. However, there is opportunity for plausible speculation:

• Conditions for a more speedy re-vote and approval of a rail transit ballot measure may be more propitious in communities that already have experience with successful rail transit systems.

• The process of re-submitting a rail transit measure to a vote may depend not so much on public attitudes but on the determination of sponsoring officials, their responsiveness to public input, and their willingness to re-craft specific project details to more closely conform to public needs and desires.