Dallas DART Blue Line light rail train
[Photo: Jim Cumbie]
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Despite Critics and Federal Opposition, Light Rail Transit Chalks Up Major Successes in 2007
Despite the escalation of a massive misinformation campaign by pro-highway transit opponents, and opposition to new rail projects from the Bush administration in Washington, America's light rail transit (LRT) – including modern streetcars, interurban or semi-metro-type trolleys, and heritage streetcars – chalked up a year of amazing progress throughout 2007. LRT consistently exhibited the highest percentage of ridership increase among all transit modes.
In city after city, LRT systems have continued to experience phenomenal expansion – clear evidence that LRT is both fulfilling its goals and is enthusiastically desired by local communities.
Summarized below are just a few of the most outstanding successes.
After an absence of slightly over 60 years, on Saturday, 13 January 2007, electric light rail transit returned to San Francisco's Third Street corridor, with the public opening (initially, on weekends) of the 5.1-mile (8.2-km) T-Third St. route of the Muni Metro – the citywide urban semi-metro-style LRT system operated by the Municipal Railway (Muni), SF's municipal public transit agency. See San Francisco: Third St. Light Rail Line Rolls Again!
The first extension of Little Rock's River Rail heritage-style streetcar – a half-mile (0.8-km) double-track extension along Commerce and Third streets to the Bill Clinton Presidential Center –debuted in mid-February. The $8.7-million project is expected to generate an approximately 20% ridership increase. See Little Rock – Streetcar Extension Opens.
Heartened by the success of the little streetcar line, local planners and decisionmakers are now considering extending the rail system to the city's airport – see Little Rock: Another "Rapid Streetcar"? Communities eye extending River Rail to airport.
In April 2007, Tampa's City Council voted to authorize a 1/3-mile extension of the city's TECO streetcar line.
The extension, budgeted by Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit Authority (HART) to cost between $3.7
million and $5.6million, with $4.3 million expected from Federal Transportation Administration grants,
will carry the streetcar route further into downtown Tampa by continuing up Franklin Street from the
streetcar station near the Tampa Convention Center to Whiting Street.
"The system should be expanded" emphasized City Council member Charlie Miranda. "People are going to get used to moving without automobiles, and that is a great asset to the city of Tampa." "This project is an investment in the future of downtown" said Robert Cursey, a planner with URS, the consultant contracted by HART to study the extension.
With official sentiment building for LRT and a regional rail transit system in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, the Florida legislature created the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. At its second meeting in September, the newly formed agency voted unanimously to adopt a transit blueprint drafted in July by representatives of planning agencies from six counties: Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota. Development of such a major regional system would require a public vote to authorize a new funding mechanism – probably a sales tax dedicated to transit development.
Meanwhile, Tampa's airport board unveiled a proposal for a 3.5-mile LRT line through the airport to connect with a regional LRT system. The investment would require $190 million to $235 million but would be small in comparison with the many hundreds of millions financing the area's interstate highways. The airport agency promised to donate right-of-way for the LRT system, the value of which could serve as a local match for federal funds to build the system.
Portland, Oregon's MAX LRT system – operated by TriMet, the regional transit agency
– passed another ridership milestone in May 2007 – setting a new record of 110,300
average weekday rider-trips.
Weekday ridership on the MAX Yellow Line increased 17.2 percent to 13,600 trips. Blue and Red line
weekday ridership were up a combined 4.3 percent
Enthusiasm for the successes of TriMet's LRT system has led to further rail expansion projects across the urban area. By far the most important project is the 8.3-mile (13.4-km) MAX LRT Green Line, with 6.5 miles (10.5 km) within the alignment of interstate Route I-205 from the Gateway Transit Center to the Clackamas Town Center. The Green Line project will also add LRT operation to the Southwest Fifth and Sixth Avenue transit malls, between Union Station and Portland State University – a particularly significant segment of the project because it will feature both large, high-performance LRT trains and buses sharing the mall paveway. See Portland: As MAX Light Rail System Reaches New Ridership Record, Green Line Project Advances.
The Green Line project advanced further with a $250 million state grant.
Portland's other electric LRT operation – the Portland Streetcar – also registered successes during 2007. In mid-August, the streetcar's $14.5 million SW Lowell extension was opened, lengthening the southern end of the streetcar route – gradually being transformed into a Rapid Streetcar line – by eight blocks, and adding a new stop in the South Waterfront District.
Portland Streetcar ridership, initially projected to be 3,500 passenger-trips a day, was reportedly
exceeding 9,800 by the fall of 2007 – growing at about 17% a year.
"Emboldened by the success of the downtown streetcar line, city leaders want to expand service into
a network that would crisscross the city" related The Oregonian
The City of Portland reportedly is assembling about US$75 million to match federal money to expand
the streetcar system from downtown to the city's east side, on the other side of the Willamette River.
Denver's Regional Transportation District (RTD) officially kicked off its huge FasTracks regional public transit construction on program in mid-May 2007. Under the FasTracks program, six new regional passenger rail ("commuter rail") and light rail transit lines will be constructed, three existing LRT corridors extending , adding 18 miles of "us rapid transit and redeveloping Denver Union Station" See Denver launches massive FasTracks construction program with West corridor light rail project.
And less than a year after the opening of its Southeast LRT line, Denver's entire LRT system was reported to be carrying an average of nearly 61,000 rider-trips around the metro area each weekday – 7,000 more rider-trips than RTD expected.
All told, nearly 3 million passengers have ridden the Southeast line since it opened in November 2006, and ridership on that line has already surpassed expectations. In the words of RTD spokesman Scott Reed, "We are already at our projected ridership for the end of the first year of operation."
These and other ongoing successes – including a massive boom in transit-oriented development (TOD) around existing and planned LRT stations – refute the relentless efforts of critics to portray Denver's rail program as a failure. See Denver: Light rail ridership, now at 61,000 a day, continues to set new records.
The San Diego Trolley – launched in 1981 as the USA's first all-new LRT system of the modern era – continued to demonstrate that high-quality rail transit can attract increasing numbers of riders, even in a sprawling, heavily automobile-oriented American city. According to data released by the San Diego Association of Governments, average weekday boardings in June reached 108,873 – a 5.1% increase from the same period in 2006. Total ridership, including weekend ridership, was up 3.7% over June 2006.
St. Louis's MetroLink LRT system ridership reached an all-time high in July 2007. According to Metro, the transit agency, "July 2007 was the highest ridership month ever for MetroLink." Indeed, for the first time in history, passenger-trips exceeded 2.3 million in a single month - an event marking the fourth consecutive month that ridership exceeded 2 million riders.
"The new extension is certainly the reason why ridership is rising to these levels” said Todd Plesko, Metro’s Director of Planning and System Development. "While we knew ridership would increase because of the additional eight miles and nine new stations that now offer more choices, no one really expected it to climb this high this fast.”
Metro also noted that early ridership forecasts for the Cross County MetroLink Extension had predicted an average of 18,900 additional daily rider-trips by the year 2025. "However last month, after only eleven months of operation, MetroLink ridership totaled more than 88,000 boardings per average weekday, an increase of more than 27,000 additional daily riders – much higher than predicted" reported the agency. Moreover, the ridership growth stimulated by MetroLink's high-quality service and its expansion have had a "ripple effect" – helping to boost ridership over the entire multi-modal transit system.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) moved forward with construction of the Green Line, a 21-mile, two- segment extension of the agency's nationally acclaimed LRT system. The Green Line will extend from the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas through downtown Dallas and on to Farmers Branch and Carrollton. Facilitating the expansion project was a US$80 million grant received in fall 2007, the first installment of a $700-million grant approved in 2006 by the Federal Transit Administration.
On August 30th, DART held a ground-breaking ceremony to herald the start of construction for the Farmers Branch light rail station, and Carrollton held a similar ceremony on Sept. 8th for the city's main downtown station, one of three planned for the city. The Downtown Carrollton station will be the hub for three separate DART lines, making it one of the busiest in the system.
Earlier, a study released in May 2007 by the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research projected that DART’s existing and soon-to-be-expanded LRT system will stimulate more than $8 billion in economic activity.
A Dallas DART Blue Line LRT train speeds through a snowy February landscape in 2004.
LRT is reshaping region and has sparked billions of dollars in economic benefits.
In Los Angeles, the first phase of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Exposition Light Rail project was given a big boost forward in September 2007 with a $314 million allocation from the California Transportation Commission.And in East Los Angeles, the $900 million Gold Line Eastside Extension project continued to progress, bringing revitalization to a somewhat previously economically blighted area even before the line's completion. "Light rail stations are in the works," reported the Los Angeles Business Journal (30 July 2007), "and virtually every bus stop boldly proclaims in Spanish – 'Llegando 2009 Gold Line': the rail line will open in two years." As the article noted:
In late September 2007, Utah Transit Authority cleared a large hurdle in its bid to finance four new
LRT lines plus an extension of commuter rail service from Salt Lake City to Provo, as the transit
agency finalized a letter of intent with the Federal Transit Agency calling for the federal government
to pay for 20 percent of the overall cost of the projects, estimated at about $2 billion.
Earlier, in April, Salt Lake City's success in attracting transit-oriented development (TOD) was featured in a national news article publiched by the New York Times (22 April 2007).
Norfolk, Virginia has emerged as America's latest New Start light rail transit project, as the city's planned 7.4-mile (11.9-km) system in early October 2007 received a strong green light and a contract for over 50% funding from the Federal Transit Administration. See Norfolk (Virginia): Light Rail Project Gets On its Way With Federal Funding.
On 11 November 2007 the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) restored streetcar service along the downtown half of the St. Charles Avenue line – the fruit of considerable effort and investment in rebuilding the line's infrastructure following Hurricane Katrina, particularly the devastating flood. See New Orleans: Streetcars returning to St. Charles Avenue.
Houston Metro celebrated a major milestone in the second week of November 2007 when it carried its 40 millionth boarding passenger rider on the MetroRail LRT system, making MetroRail LRT "the most successful light rail line in the country," according to Metro officials, who pointed out that the 7.5-mile line now carries about 45,000 passenger-trips each weekday – a number Metro didn't expect to achieve until 2020.
"The success of this line goes beyond anything we anticipated and proves that Houstonians do ride the rail, finding it a valuable way to get to work, weekend outings and sporting events" said Metro's president and CEO Frank Wilson. See Houston's MetroRail (LRT) breaks record with 40 million boardings.
And, in a startling change of course, on 18 October 2007 the board of Houston Metro voted not only to proceed with a new east-west University LRT line with part of its route on Richmond Ave. (an issue under debate for over a year), but also to reinstate LRT in all four of the other corridors that had previously been downgraded to "Bus Rapid Transit" ("BRT"). See Houston Metro dumps "BRT", reinstates light rail transit plan in 5 corridors.
Fending off a ferocious attack by transit opponents, Charlotte's LRT and overall transit development program won a major endorsement by voters in the November elections, trouncing the effort to rescind transit funding by a margin of 70% to 30%. See Election 2007: Charlotte Transit Wins By 70%; Seattle Transit Expansion Loses.
Subsequently, on Nov. 24th, the $462.7-million, 9.6-mile-long modern Lynx LRT project, serving 15 stations, opened to huge public turnout. See Charlotte: Lynx Light Rail Transit Line Opens!
As Light Rail Now noted, "Charlotte demonstrates, once again, that, contrary to what transit critics in cities across the country try to portray, rail transit is growing, and it's being enthusiastically embraced by more and more communities across the country."
Then, less than two weeks after starting revenue service, Charlotte's new Lynx LRT South line exceeded its projected ridership target of 9,100 weekday trips, with an average daily ridership of 12,300 in the first seven days of LRT service (after the agency began charging fares) – some 35% over the forecast ridership level. See Charlotte: New light rail line's ridership exceeds forecast by 35%.
America's newest electric light rail transit (LRT) line – Seattle's modern, 1.3-mile (2.1-km) South Lake Union Streetcar starter line – opened for service on 12 December 2007, representing the return of streetcars to the heart of the central city after more than 65 years. See Seattle: South Lake Union Streetcar System Opens.
And less than a week after launch of the new system, the headline for one news report was "Ridership Skyrockets On New Streetcar".
The news media related that while original planning forecasts estimated a daily ridership of about 900,
by the middle of December actual ridership was averaging some 6,000 daily trips –
more than six times higher than the projected ridership.
We must note that the impressive successes of LRT in the USA represent just a small portion of the spectacular worldwide successes of LRT being realized in city after city across the globe, on every continent – particularly in European countries such as France and Spain, in Australia, and in Japan. European and Australian experience especially has provided valuable models and strong inspiration for America's light rail renaissance.
From major world metropolises to medium-sized and smaller cities, electric LRT is increasingly demonstrating its advantages such as its attraction to the public, its significantly lower cost, and its greater versatility. The successes being realized in the USA are a clear illustration of these advantages, and their value to planners, decisionmakers, transit agency professionals, and the public at large.
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