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. ■

TRB/APTA study: Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System

Typical LRT station platform profile dimensions, as discussed in TRB/APTA presentation on LRT design guidelines. Graphic: L. Henry.

Typical LRT station platform profile dimensions, as discussed in TRB/APTA presentation on LRT design guidelines. Graphic: L. Henry.

From the standpoint of public transport and light rail transit (LRT) advocacy, there’s long been a need for planners, political and civic leaders, decisionmakers, and community stakeholders to have a guidelines manual as well as a general understanding of the details of LRT design and technical issues.

LRN technical consultant and Railway Age online writer Lyndon Henry has taken a major step toward the development of such guidelines in a report prepared for the 13th National Light Rail & Streetcar Conference co-sponsored by Transportation Research Board and American Public Transportation Association, to be held next week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Titled Developing Infrastructure-Relevant Guidelines for Preliminary Conceptual Planning of a New Light Rail Transit System, the proposal will be presented in the conference’s Infrastructure Developments session on Tuesday, Nov. 17th. Here’s an abstract of the report:

Increasingly, local planners, transit agency personnel, other professionals, and civic and community leaders have need of comprehensive, readily accessible guidelines to provide a resource for developing conceptual design and evaluation plans, particularly involving infrastructure and fleet requirements, for new light rail transit (LRT) systems in their communities.
This paper addresses this need and seeks to initiate the development of such a resource by presenting a sampling compilation of Best Practices and design recommendations for conceptual planning of LRT alignments and associated infrastructure. This discussion lays out preliminary criteria for such a more comprehensive and inclusive guideline document, as well as providing design information based on common practice. The paper hopefully will both serve as a resource to the intended audience and stimulate further development and elaboration of a comprehensive guidelines document. It is intended to have applicability and transferability for a broad range of North American communities in the early stages of considering and evaluating new LRT systems.

Both a copy of the paper and the PPT presentation can be downloaded here (as PDFs):

Proposed Design (paper):

_LH_Developing-guidelines_draft-refs_public-doc

Proposed Design (PPT):

LH_Developing-guidelines-new-LRT_public-ppt

TRB/APTA study: A Proposed Design Alternative for Inserting Dedicated Light Rail Transit Lanes and Other Facilities in a Constrained Arterial Roadway

San Francisco's N-Judah light rail transit (LRT) line provides a model of how 2-track LRT can be fitted into a narrow arterial. Photo: Eric Haas.

San Francisco’s N-Judah light rail transit (LRT) line provides a model of how 2-track LRT can be fitted into a narrow arterial. Photo: Eric Haas.

How can dedicated lanes for a 2-track light rail transit (LRT) line be inserted into a relatively narrow 75 to 80-ft-wide arterial street or roadway, while maintaining basic 2-lane traffic flow capacity in each direction? Plus facilities for pedestrians and bicycles?

LRN technical consultant and Railway Age online writer Lyndon Henry describes how in a proposal prepared for the 13th National Light Rail & Streetcar Conference co-sponsored by the Transportation Research Board and American Public Transportation Association, to be held next week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Titled A Proposed Design Alternative for Inserting Dedicated Light Rail Transit Lanes and Other Facilities in a Constrained Arterial Roadway, the proposal will be presented in the Complete Streets session on Monday, Nov. 16th. Here’s an abstract of the report:

Plans for inserting new light rail transit (LRT) tracks and other facilities directly into existing streets and arterial roadway s often encounter the problem of constrained right-of-way. This can present a serious challenge, especially when maintenance of basic traffic lane capacity is desired together with dedicated transit lanes. This paper suggests, as an example, a design solution that may be applicable or adaptable to similarly challenging situations. In a right-of-way width limited to 80 feet/24.2 m , inserting dedicated lanes for LRT while maintaining four traffic lanes plus adequate pedestrian and bicycle facilities was a significant design challenge. The proposed solution utilizes the adaptation of a very similar example of San Francisco’s Muni Metro (LRT) N-Line running in Judah Street. It also relies on Best Practices from several existing LRT systems and other sources such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials.
Hopefully the design concept described in this paper may be useful to the intended audience in suggesting a possible approach to solving similar problems involving the installation of LRT alignments in constrained arterial roads. It is expected to have applicability, potential adaptability, and transferability for a broad range of North American communities confronting similar design challenges.

Both a copy of the paper and the PPT presentation can be downloaded here (as PDFs):

Proposed Design (paper):
LH_Design-alternative-dedicated-LRT_doc-public

Proposed Design (PPT):
LH_Design-alt-LRT-in-arterial_ppt-public

Latest FTA data: Light rail trumps “BRT” in key performance measures

Left: Portland MAX LRT. (Photo: L. Henry). Right: Cleveland Healthline "BRT". (Photo: GCRTA).

Left: Portland MAX LRT. (Photo: L. Henry). Right: Cleveland Healthline “BRT”. (Photo: GCRTA).

Until recently, industrywide comparisons of performance between light rail transit (LRT) and the specific bus service mode of “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”), relying on reporting information in the National Transit Database (NTD) of the Federal Transit Administration, have been impossible because “BRT” data were not separately reported but instead were merely jumbled into the large general category of Bus. However, that has recently changed.

A number of transit agencies are now reporting “BRT” performance data within a separate category, with a total of seven agencies specifying their “BRT” data in the 2013 NTD report (the most recent so far). Thus it’s now possible to perform an analysis of LRT vs. “BRT” data to produce a preliminary evaluation of comparative performance of the two modes. (Because of the wide disparity in infrastructure and operational conditions applied to “BRT”, Light Rail Now continues to refer to this diversely and hazily defined modal designation within quotation marks.)

A comparative analysis of these “BRT” data and available data for recent-era new LRT systems (defined as post-1970, roughly following the introduction of the LRT concept in the North American transit industry) indicates that new LRT systems continue to excel in the two most critical performance areas of ridership and operating and maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile. New recent-era LRT systems included in this analysis are those in the following cities/metro areas: San Diego, Buffalo, Portland, San Jose, Sacramento, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, and Norfolk. However, New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen LRT (HBLRT) system, launched in 2000, could not be included in this analysis of totally new systems, because the data for HBLRT is combined with that of Newark’s legacy subway-surface LRT system in the agency’s NTD report.

“BRT” systems with NTD data available include those in the following cities/metro areas: Cleveland, Eugene, Los Angeles, New York City, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Orlando. Note that a number of important new “BRT” operations, particularly those in Pittsburgh, Miami, Seattle, Honolulu, Charlotte, Boston, and Ft. Collins, are not included because their specific data are not reported to the NTD.

For more than two decades, proponents of “BRT” have pursued a virtual war against LRT with the mantra “just like light rail, but cheaper” — claiming that an array of rebranded and heavily promoted limited-stop bus services, deployed service applications similar to those of LRT, could offer all the benefits at far lower cost. Such claims can now be tested by comparing very similar relatively new installations of both systems. Derived from a comparative analysis of this data population, critical performance indicators are presented and discussed in the sections below.

Ridership — Certainly, average annual ridership is one of the most important indicators of a transit operation’s performance. As Exhibit 1 indicates (below), in this comparison of similar installations LRT services attract approximately three times the average annual ridership of “BRT”. However, it should be noted that the majority of LRT systems have been operational longer than the “BRT” systems.


Exhibit 1. Ridership comparison.

Exhibit 1. Ridership comparison.


Another important performance indicator is ridership per route-mile (or route-kilometer). This could be calculated from “Fixed Guideway Directional Route-Miles” in the NTD. Unfortunately, while these were available for LRT, none of the “BRT” systems presented this data in the 2013 report. Perhaps this data will be reported in future NTD reports.

O&M cost per rider-trip — In this important performance indicator, the “BRT” systems in this study averaged significantly better — 38% lower — than LRT, as shown in Exhibit 2. However, a drawback of this metric is that it fails to account for differences in average trip length, as discussed in the other performance indicators further below.


Exhibit 2. Comparison of O&M cost per rider-trip.

Exhibit 2. Comparison of O&M cost per rider-trip.

Another problem with this metric: While each agency’s LRT is a “closed” system (including virtually all costs, from platform operations to vehicle and way maintenance) with operational expenses compartmentalized and accounted for, “BRT” way maintenance accounting varies from agency to agency — sometimes funded by the transit agency, sometimes by the city or county in their public works budgets. Other “BRT” expenses, such as vehicle maintenance, may be blended with systemwide bus expenses. Likewise, while LRT security operations are almost always controlled and financially allocated to the LRT budget, for “BRT” this item may be hidden in systemwide costs. All told, there is really no consistency in how some “BRT” expenses are tallied and reported, thus affecting comparability to LRT costs.


Average trip length — Differences among modes may have different influences on passenger behavior and preferences, resulting in characteristically different average passenger trip lengths. This may also affect cost per passenger-mile. For example, the average O&M cost per trip of regional passenger rail operations is often compared disadvantageously with that of urban modes, including bus operations. However, the units cost per passenger-mile may be lower as longer trip lengths are factored in.

As illustrated in Exhibit 3, analysis of the 2013 ATD data indicates that comparable LRT systems attract passenger trip lengths almost exactly twice as long as the “BRT” systems in this study.


Exhibit 3. Comparison of average passenger trip length.

Exhibit 3. Comparison of average passenger trip length.


O&M cost per passenger-mile — This unit-cost metric is by far the most important indicator for assessing financial performance, since it measures the actual work being performed — the actual transportation of passengers — rather than cost based on merely the number of “bodies” boarding the average transit vehicle. As shown in Exhibit 4, The LRT systems in this study averaged an O&M cost per passenger-mile approximately 17% lower than the “BRT” systems reported.


Exhibit 4. Comparison of O&M cost per passenger-mile.

Exhibit 4. Comparison of O&M cost per passenger-mile.


The bottom line: In critical metrics of transportation activity, LRT continues to demonstrate major advantages.

NOTE: Since original publication, this post has been revised with a modification to the graph of cost per passenger-mile data (Exhibit 4). The original scale ($0.48 to $0.66) has been changed to $0.00 to $0.70 to reflect a minimum zero-value consistent with the other graphs. Also, in the discussion of O&M cost per rider-trip, a section has been added explaining the difficulty in accounting for some “BRT” expenses. Rev. 2015/07/02.

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. ■