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. ■

Caen: Guided BRT out, real LRT tramway in by 2019

Rendition of Caen's proposed LRT tramway that will replace problematic guided-BRT system. Graphic: Caen municipality.

Rendition of Caen’s proposed LRT tramway that will replace problematic guided-BRT system. Graphic: Caen municipality.

When the “tram on tyres” or “rubber-tired tramway” technology first emerged in the early 2000s, it was positioned as part of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept attracting interest at the time. The argument went that “BRT” was “just like light rail, but cheaper”, and the “rubber-tired tramway” was intended to demonstrate that a “tram” constructed with automotive/bus technology could be “guided” just as a light rail transit (LRT) tramway was guided by its track rails, and able to operate extra-long, multi-articulated buses smoothly and reliably just like the tramcars on LRT railways.

A number of cities have experimented with or adopted the technology, particularly in France, where cities like Nancy, Clermont-Ferrand, and Caen made the “tram on tyres” the centerpiece of their transit systems. Now, plagued by reliability and performance problems, Caen is clearly fed up with it, and has launched a project to convert to a standard LRT tramway — running on bona fide tracks — by 2019.

In France, the designation TVR, Transport sur Voie Réservée, roughly translated as “transport on reserved way”, is used to refer to these rubber-tired guided-bus systems. In English, they’re often referred to as GLT, for Guided Light Transport. As explained in a Wikipedia article, “GLT vehicles bear a strong resemblance to trams, but are actually buses capable of following a single guidance rail or even operating without any surface guidance system.”

Opened in 2002, Caen’s guided-bus system eventually stretched to 15.7 km (9.8 miles), using longer-than-usual articulated buses guided by a flanged wheel running on a center guiderail in the middle of the paveway. While the buses have diesel motors (and steering wheels, so they can be driven to their garage at night), their ordinary propulsion is electric power, via an overhead contact system (OCS) and LRT-like pantographs, with the guiderail also serving as the electrical return circuit. (The dual rails of standard LRT serve this same purpose.)

Caen guided BRT ("rubber-tired tramway") system, now scheduled for replacement by LRT. Photo: TendanceOuestRouen.com.

Caen guided BRT (“rubber-tired tramway”) system, now scheduled for replacement by LRT. Photo: TendanceOuestRouen.com.

However, reliability problems with the technology (especially derailments of the guidewheels) reportedly have persuaded Caen’s political leadership and transit management to ditch the guided-bus system. In the new LRT tramway plan (see graphic simulation at top of post), 16.8 km (10.4 miles) of LRT routes will replace (and slightly extend) the guided-bus routes, and tracks will replace the paveways (or be embedded in some sections of pavement). A fleet of 23 trams is projected to replace the BRT buses, with a total project cost estimated at €247 million (currently about $269 million, or about $26 million per mile). Project completion is aimed for 2019.

From its early years, the usefulness of the system, as a substitute for standard LRT, baffled transit advocates and professionals. As John Carlson, one advocate posting to the Eurotrams list in 2004, commented

I found the system at Caen and also the one at Nancy to be a solution in search of [a] problem. While there must be some economies from installing just a guide rail instead of double-railed load bearing track looking at the system in [situ] I would have to ask if the guide rail is needed at all.

The vehicles are long and do turn some sharp corners but I’m still not sure if they would be beyond a competent driver and a well-constructed articulated bus operating without a guide rail.

As time went on, other problems, such as pavement wear, began to emerge. Graeme Bennett, a transit advocate in Melbourne, posted observations about the Caen system in the summer of 2005:

A friend and I recently visited Caen and were shocked, stunned, and amazed as we watched and rode these weird vehicles.

We found they were speedy, but fairly noisy, and seemed to do the job well, although they rode more like a trolleybus rather that a tram, in particular with a lot of vertical perambulations and rear end whip as they rounded corners at speed!!

One point that was obvious is the fact that because the vehicles follow exactly the same part of the road without any deviation for cut in or out, … the road surface in some areas is becoming badly damaged particularly at some of the stops where it was noted repairs have had to be made.

Even the smallest pothole will deteriorate rapidly and every tyre on every bus will hit that spot in exactly at the same place every ten minutes or so.

Bennett also observed what seemed to be an emerging problem in keeping the guidewheels in contact with the center guiderail, reporting that “We noted several “Rerailers” around the system to direct the guides onto the track.”

By 2009, serious problems with derailments were being experienced. At the end of May that year UK transit advocate Simon P. Smiler reported that, days earlier, “there was another derailment in Caen, and now it seems that their TVR rubber tyred ‘trams’ are only providing a part time service.”

Smiler wondered “Will this result in the ultimate death of the TVR as a mode of transport? Caen was looking to getting more TVR’s to expand its system — so what will it do now?”

Caen’s experience re-opens anew some of the considerations we originally raised 15 years ago in our LightRailNow.org article prompted by the very similar new guided-bus system in Nancy (also plagued with guidance reliability problems): «“Misguided Bus”? Nancy’s BRT Debacle Exposes Pitfalls of “Half-Price Tramway”». Asking “Does the ‘guided bus’ really have a purpose in life?” our article pointed out that

They basically will have a system of elongated trolleybuses camouflaged as “trams”, with lots of gadgetry to keep the buses on course. They will have a central slot to deal with in the middle of the paveway (tending to collect rain, mud, etc.). And they will be persistently trying to solve lots of operational challenges over the next months and years to prove the whole thing works. Thus one can safely predict that Nancy will be expending a lot of its planning and administrative energy trying to solve the challenges of making a trolleybus system mimic the performance of an LRT system.

There’s a recurring question: Why bother at all with the guide rail in the slot? it is dubious whether such an arrangement will permit higher vehicle speeds, although Nancy designers seem to think their bus will run a bit faster in a narrow right-of-way if it’s guided in this fashion. One is tempted to suspect that the extra-long, multi-articulated bus benefits from having its axles guided by such a mechanism, possibly minimizing any misalignment of the rear section while in the guideway (which might explain why the vehicle tends to “fishtail” when free-running).

And beyond the question of whether it’s worthwhile trying to imbue a bus with LRT characteristics, there’s another issue as well. Once a transit agency or government entity buys into an entire, specific “guided-bus” technology, its planners and decisionmakers commit to a specialized guideway and technical infrastructure using one form or another of specially designed curbs, below-pavement conduits, special travel lane markings, etc. That might happen after the initial order of vehicles, where competition is alive and well, and the initial bidding environment may be fairly competitive among a number of vendors.

However, the agency then has a stock of specialized buses with a 12 or 15-year life expectancy and capital costs sunk into building a specialized guideway which may work properly with only one manufacturer’s product. When the agency proceeds to expand the fleet or must find replacement buses, it may well find itself “trapped” with only one manufacturer/bidder. Is any vendor going to assure transit planners that its proprietary technology will become an industry standard in the next dozen years?

In contrast, imagine instead that the transit agency set down a few miles of steel rails with 1435 mm (standard) track gauge with readily available, dependable track switches, and mature signalling technology. The agency buys a couple of dozen light rail vehicles which have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years with trainlined controls so that one operator can control two to four cars. When it’s necessary to expand that system or replace the vehicles, the agency will find at least half a dozen suppliers lined up who can make cars which will work fine with the previous generation. Productivity is better, competition is alive and well, and the technology is mature.

Certainly, in view of recent experience, those comments seem as relevant today as they were a decade and a half ago. ■

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.

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… ■

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. ■

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.

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…