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Light Rail Now! NewsLog

Produced by the Light Rail Now! Publication Team

This news feature provides an ongoing Weblog of particularly significant developments in public transportation and rail transit.

15 June 2005

Salt Lake City:
Construction begins on newest TRAX light rail transit station

Another sign that success is driving vigorous growth of Salt Lake City's TRAX light rail transit (LRT) system came this past 21 April (2005), with the official kickoff of construction of TRAX's newest LRT station, located at 900 South and 200 West. According to the Salt Lake Tribune [2005/04/22], the $1.2 million station is scheduled for completion in early September, and it's billed as the first LRT station on the line to be added "since the light rail system opened in [Dec.] 1999." Major upgrades and expansions such as this provide powerful illustration of the ongoing vitality and development of LRT – and the confidence of local community leaders – as well as a clear refutation of rail critics' contentions that LRT is stagnant and shunned by the local communities it serves.

According to the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), opening the new station-stop, combined with the effects of projected growth, holds the promise of adding about 130,000 new rider-trips annually to TRAX's already impressive annual ridership of about 10 million annual trips (now averaging about 39,000 per weekday). TRAX has also been proving highly succesful in cost-effectiveness – as of 2003 (the latest year available from the Federal Transit Administration) moving its riders for about 36 cents per passenger-mile compared to 92 cents on UTA buses.

UTA General Manager John inglish noted that the new station was expected to increase TRAX ridership while adding "less than two minutes" to total commute time. And Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson declared that "This station signals the improvement of mass transit in Utah." According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Anderson described the new station as "a boon to the neighborhood" which would "help Salt Lake City to get away from sprawl development." in addition, said the paper, "The mayor predicted the area will sprout new businesses and housing."

Public officials weren't the only people hailing the new station – some local businesspeople also proclaimed their enthusiasm. "We've waited a long time for this" said Margaret Yee, who, together with her husband, Ben, owns the Jade Cafe, located less than half a block away from the new station. "We foresee a big development in this area and it will be so convenient for the local community" she added. "Business has been good for Ben and Margaret Yee..." observed the Salt Lake Tribune, and, with the new station, "it's about to get even better."

More on Salt Lake City Public Transport

11 May 2005

Newest light rail tramway spotlights innovative urban planning

Rotterdam's vigorous enlargement of its light rail tramway system is under way in a massive expansion and upgrade program called TramPlus. One of the most recent projects – the inauguration of the new Route 25 line, also dubbed the Carnisselande line after the southern "satellite" town it serves – is described in an article by C. J. Wansbeek in the May 2005 issue of Tramways & Urban Transit.

Wansbeek reports that the new line, 12 km (7.4 miles) in length with 21 stops, was installed at a cost of €85 million (about US $110 million). That calculates to about €7.1 million/km or about $15 million per mile – not bad for a system located in a transit reservation over its entire length, "allowing high commercial speeds to be achieved."

Route 25 runs in a generally north-south direction, starting at the city's Centraal Station, crossing the Nieuwe Maas River (a branch of the Rhine), then proceeding southerly to the Carnisselande inner-suburb. The alignment on extensive reservations enables a maximum speed of 50 kph (about 30 mph) – a relatively higher speed for a urban surface line in a highly developed European city.

Wansbeek describes the new line as "a major step forward in the history of European light rail development" – not least because of its illustration of innovative urban planning. Wansbeek notes that the "bedroom suburb" of Carnisselande was "specifically designed with trams in mind...." He notes that "Road traffic is deliberately forced into narrow streets, all of them circuitous, all designed to discourage speed" (emphasis added). That seems amazing, in view of traditional North American practice of designing urban arterials and "improving" streets into racetracks slicing through developed areas at the expense of people and transit. Wansbeek adds that, in addition to the transit facilities, "there is a maze of interlocking cycle paths, and spacious pavements [sidewalks] everywhere."

At least as amazing (in light of American practice) is Wansbeek's report that transit planners "have managed to complete the light rail line well before development is finished." He explains that "It is official national policy to encourage people to become regular tram riders, and drop the idea of buying a second, or third car." Fittingly, Wansbeek's article is subtitled "Trams now, people later!"

While Rotterdam's urban tramway system is a "legacy" light rail transit (LRT) system dating from 1879, it has been modernized and improved into one of the best in Europe, now operated by RET (Rotterdamse Elektrische Tramweg). Solid statistics are hard to obtain (and are changing rapidly, with rapid growth), but apparently the urban tramway (streetcar) system extends some 70 km (about 43 miles), running nearly 120 railcars carrying 55 to 60 million annual rider-trips and racking up about 160 million passenger-km a year.
[Rotterdam Trams website; Light Rail Atlas website; LRTA website, May 2005]

Rotterdam's Calandlijn "light metro" line, generally routed east-west, dates from 1982 and is described by Light Rail Atlas as "a newer, recently extended east-west line" of route-length over 45 km (28 miles), including an 8.3-km (5.1-mile) "Light Rail" or sneltram (fast tram) section. In addition to this, Rotterdam also boasts a 21.5-km (13.3-mile) north-south "heavy" metro (rail rapid transit) line called the Erasmuslijn, dating from 1968.
[Light Rail Atlas website; Urban Rail website, May 2005]

More on Public Transport in the Netherlands

11 May 2005

Another transit photographer collared in "terror" hysteria

"Was it a security threat or a case of police going overboard?" That question headed a news story from Seattle's KOMO-TV (11 April 2005), reporting another incident of police action to suppress transit photography. According to the report, a King County Sheriff's deputy seized a photographer's digital camera picture chips in a public bus tunnel, "citing terrorism concerns."

Photographer Alex Williams (who says he usually photographs "nature subjects") told the TV reporter he was intrigued by the vast open space, the unique design, and the lights and movement of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel – a subway currently used by buses but now being adapted for joint light rail transit operation.

According to Williams, he "…was approached by a King County Sheriff's Deputy who said, 'Oh no, no, no, no, no. This is no good. We're going to have to confiscate all this stuff.' And he motioned to all my gear."

Insisting that the tunnel is a potential terror target, the deputy claimed that photographers must have permission to be there. He demanded Williams's photographic equipment.

Williams offered to delete his digital photos, but the deputy proceeded to confiscate his camera's digital photo chips, allegedly "to search them for security breaches", according to the TV report.

However, in the transit tunnel, "There are no signs there saying photos aren't allowed" reported KOMO-TV. "The deputy was wrong."

Law enforcement authorities downplayed the seriousness of the incident. King County Sheriff's Spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart told the news reporter, "We're going to do some additional training with our deputies who work the bus tunnel, let them know that yes, it is okay to photograph inside the tunnel. I think he just went overboard a little bit. He shouldn't have done that. It isn't against the law."

But it was only after his gear was confiscated, noted KOMO News, that Williams found out he hadn't broken the law. As a result, Williams told the reporter, he plans to file a formal complaint with the King County Sheriff's office, and to consult the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It's alarming if an officer can approach you and take your stuff or force you to leave when it's not really against the law" Williams complained, adding that all he really wants is an apology and the return of his digital photo chips.

"The Sheriff says he'll get both" reported KOMO News. However, noted the reporter, "That doesn't mean the tunnel is a free-for-all for photographers. Because of security concerns, deputies will still question people taking pictures in the tunnel."

Furthermore, the TV report warned, Seattle's Metro Transit agency is now requiring commercial photographers to get permission before snapping pictures, "for liability reasons."

More on Seattle Public Transport issues

More on security issues and the controversy over efforts to criminalize railway and transit photography...

7 May 2005

After "BRT" disappointment, civic and political leaders embrace rail transit plan

Honolulu seems to have emerged as another major city seriously in quest of a rail transit system – possibly light rail transit (LRT). Certainly, a lot can happen on the trail to rail; but Honolulu has already had a rather disappointing fling with "bus rapid transit" ("BRT" – see Honolulu "BRT" service slammed for poor ridership), and interest in a higher-quality solution to the city's legendary traffic quagmire problems seems to have the momentum ... at least, currently.

At present, the concept of the rail system seems rather murky. It's typically described as "light rail", but an all-elevated system appears to be favored, which could result in a selection from a wide range of possible modes – from elevated LRT to a light metro or some form of "gadgety" automated guideway transit (AGT) – depending on community predilections, Honolulu's financial resilience, and local tolerance for "sticker shock" (grade-separated transit solutions can tend to be fairly expensive).

One curious possibility on the table includes construction of a "Nimitz Flyover" (named after the World War Two admiral), an elevated two-lane road from the Keehi interchange to Pacific Street. While the federal government would be expected to pay for 80 percent of this $250 million project, the "Flyover" highway facility "eventually would be converted to be part of this fixed-rail system for electric-powered trains", as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin describes the proposal. Overall, the rail plan envisions a 22-mile, US $2.6 billion elevated "light-rail" system extending from the Kapolei area to iwilei, to be placed in operation by 2018.
[Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 9 November 2003; Honolulu Advertiser, 14 December 2003]

The most daunting hurdle facing the rail transit plan at the moment seems to be local funding. However, on 3 May 2005, after a contentious struggle, the Hawaii legislature passed a measure authorizing Hawaiian counties to increase the state's General Excise Tax (GET) from 4 percent to 4.5 percent – a 12.5 percent increase – beginning in 2007. (The state's GET – a kind of value-added tax, or VAT – is levied on all goods and services in Hawaii and is charged on every exchange of money, including exchanges at the wholesale level.) if approved by Oahu's county council before December, the GET increase could raise $296 million a year, easily enough to finance the proposed $2.6 billion rail transit line, according to the state Department of Taxation.
[Honolulu Advertiser, 9 February 2005; Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 4 May 2005]

Since the early 1970s, Honolulu's quest for (and evasion of) rail or "fixed-guideway" transit has had a very rocky and generally unproductive history, with a seemingly disastrous case of "Gadgetbahnitis" (obsessive focus on exotic, "gadget" transit systems) which has repeatedly inflated costs, constrained the regional spread of proposed systems, and led to frustration and planning dead-ends. Despite repeated characterizations of "fixed-guideway" schemes as "light rail", bona fide LRT apparently was never considered in previous planning. instead, a range of unconventional modes was favored, including rubber- tired automated guideway systems and maglev (magnetically levitated vehicles), usually running mainly in subway and on elevated viaducts.

As a result, costs ballooned and the size of the affordable system shrank to a point where political support wavered. By 1992, Honolulu's City Council voted 5-4 against raising the state excise tax 0.5 percent on Oahu to finance the local share of the rapid transit project. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, "The decision forced Sens. Daniel inouye and Daniel Akaka, Abercrombie and then-Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, all Democrats, to return more than $800 million in federal money, including the initial appropriation of $620 million."
[Honolulu Advertiser, 14 December 2003]

Despite the 1992 defeat, planning for some kind of higher-quality transit continued to simmer at various official levels. In 1998, the late renowned transportation planner Gordon Thompson gratuitously sent Honolulu's then-mayor, Jeremy Harris, a detailed study suggesting a 31.0-mile (50.0-km) predominantly surface-routed LRT system, providing 67 stations with an average spacing of about a half-mile (0.8-km).

Thompson's meticulously detailed plan (including station sites and recommendations for bridges, intersections, and other features) proposed routes using mostly exclusive or reserved surface rights-of-way, including much of the abandoned Oahu Railway & Land Co. railway line, and the medians or adjacent rights-of-way of major highways and arterials. His main trunk route would extend 26.7 miles (43.1 km) from Waipahu, through central Honolulu, to Hawaii Kai, serving a wide range of residential areas, schools, malls, shopping area, recreational facilities, and other activity centers. A 4.3-mile (6.9-km) Waikiki branch would extend from the trunk route downtown to Diamond Head just north of Poni Moi Road. At 2005 cost levels, a reasonable "horseback" estimate of the cost of Thompson's proposed system would come to about $1.6 billion.

Despite some 50 pages of elaborately specified detail, Thompson's proposal evidently never was considered, either by the mayor's office or by Honolulu planners. Nevertheless, the plan could apparently provide some 9 more miles of rail transit for about a billion dollars less than the plan currently envisioned.

Referring to the previous "Gadget transit" proposal for an elevated system using exotic technology, Thompson warned, "To pick up the old project and run with it now would be a serious mistake. it is time to do what the earliest study failed to do: examine conventional rail modes, and avoid 'goldplating.'" Thompson also pointed out that "A glance at rail systems in other cities will show that the simplest rail lines with frequent stations (linking the greatest number of origins to the greatest number of destinations) and easily-approached surface stations enjoy the highest levels of ridership."

As Honolulu edges toward serious consideration of rail transit now in 2005, its planners, engineers, and decision-makers might well take Thompson's sage advice to heart, re-examine his 1998 proposals, and ask themselves whether their transit vision for Honolulu should be based more on cities which have opted for glitzy and exotic, but expensive and constraining technology, like Las Vegas, Jacksonville, and Detroit, or on cities which have developed regionwide light rail transit networks, such as San Diego, Portland, St. Louis, Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City.

More on Honolulu Public Transport

1 May 2005

New tramways attract 60% new riders ... 14% of motorists in service area switch to transit

Opened approximately a year ago, Barcelona's two new light rail tramway systems (described in the article Barcelona: Two separate tramway systems launched) seem to be providing the boost to public transport that planners had hoped for. According to recent survey data, reported by the Associació per a la Promoció del Transport Públic (Association for Promotion of Public Transport), and translated for this report by Marco Longoni, approximately 60% of tramway passengers are new to mass transit, and, in both service areas, apparently some 14% of motorists surveyed have switched to using the tramway system for some trips formerly made by motor vehicle.

During the first year of operation (3 April 2004 to 2 April 2005) the two systems carried ridership as follows:

· Trambaix – 8.2 million rider-trips; average weekday ridership 34,600
· Trambesòs – 2.4 million rider-trips; average weekday ridership 17,900
· Total Annual Ridership (both systems) – 10.6 million rider-trips

According to the study, Barcelonans are using the trams for several major reasons:

· Faster ... 50%
· Clean ... 28%
· Nice and accessible ... 22%

The Trambaix system is used for "regular" trips (school, office, etc.) by 67.2% of riders, and for "random" trips by 32.8%. On the Trambesòs system, "regular" users represent 56.8% of passengers and other users 43.2%.

According to Marco, rider loyalty, as indicated in the study, was nothing less than "remarkable", with nearly 25% of passengers reporting they ride the tram at least 5 times every week. Overall, the study confirmed that the tramway system is an excellent generator of new mass transit ridership, with 57.8% of passengers on the Trambaix system and 63.1% on the Trambesòs system indicating they are new mass transit riders. Moreover, the study found that some 14% of motor vehicle drivers decided to leave their cars and use transit for travel into central Barcelona. Marco points out that "inside Barcelona more than 50% of trips are made by mass transit." He adds that "Trams increase this percentage in their coverage area."

Currently, the Trambaix system has an average "commercial" speed of 16.5 kph, while the Trambesòs system provides 19 kph (although it should be noted that these apparently include layover times at ends of routes, and are different from the schedule speeds, undoubtedly faster, which are perceptible to passengers). However, this may improve in the future. Projects are under way to produce the following:

· Extensions for both Trambaix and Trambesòs
· Faster routes for the tram in some critical segments
· Higher frequency of service and average speed

Marco notes that additional projects are under way to install a link between the two tramway networks (which Marco describes as a "short and very profitable operation"), and to construct new lines, one of which is a "very interesting" one on the waterfront, "partially re-using an abandoned heavy rail corridor."

information in this report has mainly been provided in a translation by Marco Longoni of reports on the website; additional information from the website was obtained directly by the Light Rail Now! Publication Team.

More on Public Transport in Spain

23 April 2005

Modern light rail project breaks ground, moves into major construction

On 26 February 2005, Charlotte's modern light rail transit (LRT) project, now designed to be 9.6 miles long with 15 stations, was officially launched with a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of a joint bus and light rail maintenance and storage facility. (See map and other data at Charlotte Light Rail Transit Project: Key Facts.) Local planners forecast initital ridership of 9,100 boardings a day when the starter line opens, with that ridership doubling by 2025.
[Charlotte Observer, 10 Feb. 2005, 27 Feb. 2005 ]

Speakers at the launching ceremony praised the LRT project as one of the tools regional planners and officials are using to try to cope with Mecklenburg County's rapid growth, with a population of 750,000 expected to reach 900,000 in 2010 and 1.1 million in 2020, according to the Charlotte Observer (27 Feb. 2005). "instead of reacting to growth, we are preparing for it" Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory told the crowd. "You can wait until the pain arrives and then try to do something. But by then, it's probably too late."
[Charlotte Observer, 27 Feb. 2005 ]

The LRT starter line is budgeted at US $427 million, or roughly $44 million per mile. While the route predominantly utilizes existing railway rights-of-way, there are stretches of elevated viaduct which raise the cost above the average for many surface-routed LRT lines. in Charlotte's CBD – locally called "Uptown" rather than the more typical "Downtown" – the LRT line will share trackage with the already- operating Charlotte Trolley, a heritage streetcar. That will involve double-tracking the current line, which is single-tracked except for passing sidings.

The $427 million project cost estimate represents a 7.1% increase over the original Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) with the Federal Transit Administration, and the transit agency, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), also announced that the starting date for light rail operations would be delayed six months, from late 2006 to early 2007. in the fall of 2004, bids for the line's vehicle maintenance facility and for track and structure contracts came in some 30% over budget. Naturally, that's given critics a new opening to attack the project. According the CATS, "The cost increase and schedule delay resulted from several construction contracts coming in over budget due to the volatile nature of building material prices."
[Charlotte Observer, 27 Feb. 2005; CATS, South Transitions (newsletter), Winter 2005]

Anti-transit, pro-highway critics have used the budget-creep issue as a springboard to attack the very feasibility of the project as a whole. "These people are in la-la land. Light rail will not work" claimed Mike Castano, a former city council member, to a Charlotte Observer reporter. Castano rehashed the familiar ploy of comparing transit ridership in the corridors served to total regional travel throughout the urbanized area – much of it not even served by transit. "He argues light rail will carry only 2 or 3 percent of the city's daily trips", reported the Observer.
[Charlotte Observer, 26 Feb. 2005]

But Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory countered that the real impact of LRT travel will be seen on rush-hour commutes, "not on all the county's traffic, which includes delivery trucks and trips to the grocery store" (as the Observer related his points). "We can't ignore the growth that's coming" McCrory told the reporter. "We can probably add just two more lanes to I-77 [interstate freeway], and then we have to start tearing down office parks and neighborhoods and churches. We're not going to do that."
[Charlotte Observer, 26 Feb. 2005]

Furthermore, it's important to recognize that the impact of major transit improvements like the South Corridor LRT starter line will be felt in the corridor, and should be measured in its service area – i.e., the specific market – not in a huge, amorphous region where it cannot possibly have an impact. As the Light Rail Now Project has demonstrated, the impact in terms of corridor travel and population can be quite significant – in Denver, for example, the Southwest line to Littleton apparently carries about 30% of the peak traffic in the Sante Fe Drive corridor; see: Denver Data Show Light Rail's Real impact on Mobility Congestion. And, to take another example, Houston's new Main St. LRT line is carrying a volume of individual passengers equal to at least 25% of the population in the corridor served; see: Houston's MetroRail Alleviates Congestion as Riders Fill LRT Trains.

And, for Charlotte specifically, CATS ridership forecasters predict that the transit expansion program will produce a significant travel impact on areawide travel into the city's CBD. CATS expects that "with five corridors of rapid transit serving Uptown Charlotte ... transit will increase its share of [CBD] trips to at least 25%." And, with success in terms of urban-livability land use goals, the results for transit could be even better. "With follow-through on the land use policies that are part of the 2025 Transit/Land Use Plan, transit's Uptown market share could reach 40% or more" states CATS.
[CATS, "Responses To Criticisms Or Questions About investing in Public Transit", April 2005]

And, of course, rail critics "disappear" the key benefits of major rail transit projects as they endeavor to focus on nitpicking cost and ridership issues. Charlotte Mayor McCrory insists that the LRT system will help keep the city's economy strong. "If businesses can't get their people to work in a reasonable time, it is tough to keep them or recruit more" he told the Charlotte Observer.
[Charlotte Observer, 26 Feb. 2005 ]

"Already, 9 percent of uptown workers ride public transit, and McCrory says he expects that to grow when trains start running" noted the Charlotte Observer. And that will grow to 25 percent if all five lines are built, McCrory emphasized, citing city studies.
[Charlotte Observer, 26 Feb. 2005 ]

More on Charlotte Public Transport

23 April 2005

New York City's MTA holds off photo ban – but do the cops know?

So far, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority apparently has not proceeded with its threatened action to criminalize transit photography. "Ten months after the MTA first warned photographers to prepare to keep their lenses covered when descending into the subway," reported New York Newsday on 14 March 2005, "the agency board has not passed its controversial ban on unauthorized photography." However, it's unclear whether city and transit authority police are fully aware that there is no photo ban currently in effect.

Apparently, widespread public outrage has so far stayed the MTA's hand. As New York Newsday related, MTA officials "said the hold-up is the result of an outpouring of criticism about the move, which would offer exemptions to working photojournalists but give police wide latitude in limiting even the most innocent souvenir-taker from clicking away." (See our reports New York City MTA's photo ban plans spark firestorm of protest and New York City transit tops move toward criminalizing transit photography.)

"It's in limbo" declared Paul Fleuranges, a spokesman for NYC Transit. "In light of the public's comments, it's being reviewed" he told New York Newsday.

"While the MTA claims the ban would protect the New York subways from possible terror plots, many photographers argue the ban would infringe on their First Amendment rights" reported Washington Square News (31 March 2005). "This is a result of the scare tactics that have come as aftermath of 9/11" explained metropolitan studies professor Daniel Walkowitz. "Recently there has been a lot of legislation infringing on freedom of speech and these need to be seriously challenged by people" he told the paper.

The Washington Square News article touched on more deep-going implications of the proposed criminalization effort.

Talk of the proposed ban has sparked discussion of not only First Amendment violations, but questioning of the tactics employed to avert terrorism.

"I think what this proposal does is give us another reason to cave into terrorism," Handschuh said. "it's cutting off our right by the guys at national security. If we keep caving into threats of terrorism, then the terrorists have won."

Lorie Novak, chair of photography and imaging in Tisch fears the precedent the ban would set.

"[Cameras] are no more a threat than anything else. If they ban this, what will they ban next? Written words?" she said.

Even without an official position taken by the MTA, the de facto criminalization of photography may already be facing photographers. There have been several reports of photographers being harassed and threatened by police officers even with no official ban in effect.

More on security issues and the controversy over efforts to criminalize railway and transit photography...

23 April 2005

Monorail project's financial uncertainty sets off alarms

Is the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) facing financial troubles? in Washington state, alarms are being sounded over the project's prospects.

Grappling with the problem of insufficient revenues from motor vehicle fees, monorail project officials sought legislative changes to extend the tax – designed to allow the monorail agency to extend its bonding to as long as 60 years. However, in mid-March that effort apparently hit a brick wall. "Legislation that would have extended the car-tab tax supporting Seattle's monorail is dead this state legislative session...." reported the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (21 March 2005), noting that even the bill's "prime sponsor", State Sen. Eric Poulsen (a Seattle Democrat) had concerns about the project's situation.

Also questioning the legislation – and the project's prospects in general – was State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, another Seattle Democrat, who relayed "more concerns about monorail finances" expressed about the project in a letter prepared by Washington state Treasurer Mike Murphy. As reported by the Post-Intelligencer, Murphy's letter "said the monorail estimates receipts from the car tax, used to repay bonded construction debt, at $47 million the first year of debt payments." This, predicted Murphy, appeared to present a big problem:

"If you use 6 percent as an interest rate assumption, interest payments for the first year would total $90 million, with none of the principal paid down" said Murphy in his letter. "Even if the rate is at 5 percent, the first year interest-only bill would be $75 million. ... Something doesn't add up."

The monorail finances issue is also the focus of an article in The Stranger (14 April 2005), a Seattle alternative newspaper which has been a staunch advocate and ally of the monorail project. But the prospect of financial crisis apparently has even friends like The Stranger worried. "State Treasurer Sounds Alarm on Monorail Finances" warns the paper.

The Stranger notes that, last month (March 2005), State Treasurer Murphy also wrote a letter to Washington State House Speaker Frank Chopp "expressing concerns about the Seattle Monorail Project's financial viability."

The letter pointed out that under one possible financing scheme, the monorail would have to collect millions more in car-tax revenues than it is currently taking in. In a 40-year financing scheme, Murphy's letter says, annual payments would be "approximately $83 million. The annual tax cash flow from MVET [Motor Vehicle Excise Tax] is currently $48 million... It is clear that this cash flow is insufficient."

The paper proceeds to report Monorail Finance Director Jonathan Buchter's response that the SMP plans to defer interest payments until "later years", when it expects motor vehicle values (and thus tax revenues) to expand sufficiently to meet total bond-payment demands, including interest. However, says the report, "Murphy scoffs at that prediction", calling it an "astronomical" expectation of value and tax-revenue increases. "I would love to see the monorail succeed" Murphy stated. "Unfortunately, the math just doesn't work out."

In a posting to the SaveSeattleCenter online discussion list (2005/03/22), Richard Borkowski of the Seattle-based People for Modern Transit (an underwriter of the Light Rail Now Project) argues that the Treasurer's remarks, plus his own analysis, demonstrate "why it's mathematically impossible to build the monorail."

"On the revenue side of the equation," says Borkowski, "the situation is pretty bleak. While the SMP wants to issue $1.5 billion in bonds, it does not have the revenue stream to support the payments unless the bonding terms are extended to 50 years or beyond. Even with the extension, it would appear they can't support the bond payments."

Borkowski notes that, according to the SMP's revenue figures (presented to the agency's Finance Committee in February 2005), SMP is collecting approximately $4 million per month in MVET taxes. Borkowski then performs an analysis estimating SMP's payments on $1.5 billion in bonding. "Even at a conservative 5% interest rate and 50 year repayment term, monthly loan payments are $6.8 million/month" he points out.

"So, the question is, how do you make $6.8 million/month bond payments with a $4 million/month revenue stream?" Borkowski asks. "The answer is, you can't."

To estimate bond payment requirements, Borkowski makes the following assumptions:

Amount to borrow: $1,500,000,000.00 ($1.5 billion)
Interest Rate: 5%
Payment terms: 25 years, 40 years, 50 years

If you repay in 25 years, your monthly payment is $8.8 million/month
Total Amount paid = ($8.8 mil x 300 months) = $2.6 billion

If you repay in 40 years, your monthly payment is $7.2 million/month
Total Amount paid = ($7.2 mil x 480 months) = $3.5 billion

If you repay in 50 years, your monthly payment is $6.8 million/month
Total Amount paid = ($6.8 mil x 600 months) = $4.1 billion

"So" concludes Borkowski, "the price of the monorail will be $1.5 billion more with 50 year bonds vs. 25 year bonds" – and that's assuming the agency eventually succeeds in getting legislation passed to extend its bonding authorization. Otherwise, it appears they'll be looking at a shortfall of about $2.8 to $4.8 million a month.

It should be noted that all major transportation projects, including some light rail projects, may similarly encounter a variety of problems as they proceed. But the Seattle Monorail Project was sold to voters in 2002 as a problem-free, lower-cost, thoroughly "honest" alternative to the then somewhat disgraced Link light rail transit (LRT) project, which had encountered bid price overruns which previous agency (Sound Transit) officials had tried to obscure – provoking a scandal. LRT opponents at the time had leaped to counter with the monorail plan as part of an effort to abort further development of the LRT program. (instead, the Link LRT project was revamped to give priority to development of the south line into the Rainier Valley, and that is now under construction.)

In the 2002 campaign, monorail agency and campaign officials had dismissed critics' charges they were lowballing costs, exaggerating revenues, and otherwise "cooking" projections about their project. Now it appears that at least some of those charges might have been on target. And, in any case, these recent developments tend to provide additional evidence that monorails are not the "miracle transit" solution their promoters would have the public believe – and in fact are as vulnerable to common problems as any other major transit project.

More on Seattle Public Transport

More on Monorail issues

21 April 2005

Light rail ridership hits another new record

The Houston, Texas MetroRail light rail transit (LRT) system marked another new ridership record in March 2005, carrying more than one million rider-trips (boardings) that month, the first time the monthly passenger total passed that milestone. According to a report in the Houston Chronicle (10 April 2005), MetroRail trains recorded 1,063,446 boardings in March, 25 percent above the previous monthly record of 853,524 in October.

Apparently, as with many new rail services, utilization of the transit service by attendees at special events continues to be a major factor in boosting toal ridership. According to the Chronicle, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo generated an estimated 225,000 boardings, helping Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) surpass the million-rider-trip mark.

In terms of daily ridership, MetroRail recorded an average of about 32,800 weekday boardings in March, up less than one percent from February's count. The Chronicle notes that March's average "came close" to the Main Street LRT line's record of over 32,900 average daily boardings last October (2004). The paper also notes that "To maintain consistency, the average daily count excludes special-event riders such as those going to or from the rodeo at Reliant Park."

Meanwhile, bus services did not fare as well as LRT. Bus ridership averaged approximately 271,600 weekday boardings in March, down 2 percent from February's total, reports the Chronicle. (This may reflect some realignment of public travel patterns from bus to LRT.)

More on Houston Rail Transit

20 April 2005

Ft. Lauderdale:
Light rail preferred to "BRT" for east-west corridor

Light rail transit (LRT), rather than so-called "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT), appears to be the preferred mode to serve a major travel corridor in the Ft. Lauderdale area, located in Broward County in South Florida. A report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (15 April 2005) pretty much sums it up in its first sentence: "Broward planners chose light rail over buses Thursday to serve a $1 billion east-west mass transit line, opting for a pricier but more appealing system they hope will draw more commuters and help ease traffic."

The area's Metropolitan Planning Organization also voted for constructing as much of the system as possible in an exclusive path that would not interfere with motorists. "Both decisions give the Florida Department of Transportation the green light to apply for federal funding later this spring", relates the Sun-Sentinel.

According to the article, the board also gave engineers a go-ahead to begin fine-tuning such design details as the locations of stations and which segments of the project would be elevated, placed adjacent to roads, or routed to share lanes with mixed traffic. Construction is projected to begin about 2012.

The 21-mile route would begin near Office Depot Center and run along 136th Avenue, interstate 595 (freeway), State Road 7, Broward Boulevard, Andrews Avenue, and US 1 (highway), finally terminating at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Along I-595, LRT would either run in the median of the interstate under elevated toll express lanes, or be elevated between eastbound I-595 and eastbound State Road 84 or south of State Road 84.

The mostly elevated LRT system is projected to cost about US $1 billion and require about $29 million a year in local tax money to build and operate, according to state estimates reported in the paper. Those figures assume that the federal government would contribute at least half the capital cost, and the state 25 percent. Otherwise, $83 million a year in local money would be required if the county receives no federal or state funding.

One of the biggest issues is how that local share would be raised, and that "remains unanswered", according to the newspaper. However, some Broward business leaders apparently are favoring a sales tax for transportation. Jim Cummings, a South Florida Regional Transportation Authority board member, told the paper that Broward's largest businesses support raising the county sales tax to come up with a local match for the transit project. The paper notes that a one-cent increase in the sales tax would raise about $260 million per year.

Cummings also told the Sun-Sentinel he plans to make the sales tax pitch to the Broward County Commission shortly in an effort to place the issue on the ballot in 2006. He added that the bulk of the new tax revenue could be used to pay for light rail and other major transit projects, with 20 percent returned to each city and town to spend on transportation projects within their own borders.

"There are 1 million more people going to move here by 2030" Cummings noted. "That's enough cars to stretch from the northern tip of Alaska to the southern tip of Florida. Ladies and gentlemen, where are we going to put all those cars?" Cummings also emphasized that the county can't afford to waste more time because it's competing against dozens of cities around the country queuing up to apply for a relatively small pot of federal transit money.

The Sun-Sentinel also pointed out that Broward transportation officials must find a way to respond to "persistent concerns" from Sunrise area residents who "support mass transit but say 136th Avenue is the wrong place for it." NIMBY sentiment and the lack of familiarity with the low noise and other environmental impacts of LRT present challenges for promoters of the plan. "The noise [from traffic] is impossible" complained one long-time resident of the area. "If it's on 136th, I want it totally off" she added.

According to the paper, "Early analysis suggests the county would have a better shot at winning federal money for a bus rapid transit system because the costs per rider for rail are much higher" (an extremely dubious contention, from the basis of abundant evidence). Nevertheless, says the paper, "in picking light rail, planners said trains would serve the county's long-term needs better than buses." The Sun-Sentinel continues:

Newer bus rapid transit systems use fancy buses that look like trains, but "when you come right down to it, it's still a bus and people won't get on it," said Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Christine Teel in championing light rail.

Apparently, support for the LRT plan is currently gaining momentum. "I think it's the right thing for us to do" Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs told the Sun-Sentinel. "We must think about moving people instead of cars."

More on "Bus Rapid Transit" issues

19 April 2005

Light rail growth rate led other major modes in 2004's US transit ridership surge

The American Public Transportation Association reports that, for 2004, US transit ridership increased 2.1% over 2003 – to 9.6 billion rider-trips – with light rail transit (LRT) gaining 8.2%, rapid rail 3.0%, motor bus 2.4%, and regional "commuter" rail 0.3%. Thus LRT led all other major transit modes in its growth rate.
[Mass Transit, 2005/03/29]

For the last quarter of 2004, performance was even better, as public transit gained 5.0%, with LRT up a whopping 16.5%. Large-city bus systems gained 9.7%, rapid rail 4.0%, and regional rail up 0.7%.

Performance in selected individual cities was even more impressive. For example, New Orleans's heritage LRT streetcar ridership skyrocketed 82% (undoubtedly because of the new Canal Street line). in New Jersey, light rail ridership soared 31%, pushed up with the new River Line light railway and the opening of Hoboken west side service on the Hudson-Bergen LRT. in San Jose (Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority), LRT was up 24% with the opening of service to the city's east side. Memphis's heritage streetcar LRT system ridership climbed 22% with the opening of the Madison Ave. line to the city's Medical Center.

Regional passenger rail ("commuter rail") ridership also showed major gains, surging 30% in Seattle (Sounder), 14% in Northern California (CalTrain), and 10.6% in the Virginia Railway Express system connecting Washington, DC with its Virginia suburbs.

Some rail rapid transit services also exhibited impressive ridership gains. Miami's MetroRail ridership gained 15.6% and Cleveland's Red Line 9.5%, following major upgrades.

Los Angeles's Red Line ridership also showed an enormous gain of 237% in the last quarter of 2004, but transportation engineering expert Ed Tennyson, PE (a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project) cautions that this was somewhat of a fluke, with passengers surging back on the trains after the transit system's devastating strike earlier in the year. Ed emphasizes that "Next year cannot expect a similar result."

Overall, American public transit's growth rate in 2004 was higher than that of highway vehicle travel, which grew by just 1.14 percent over the year. "Public transportation is on the move", declared APTA President William W. Millar, adding that "Over the past ten years, 23 percent more trips were taken by Americans on public transportation."
[Mass Transit, 2005/03/29]

Millar emphasized the urgency of federal support for public transportation. "Now, more than ever, it is urgent that Congress pass a long-term, well-funded and fully guaranteed transportation bill that meets the increased public demand for public transportation."

More on Transit Ridership issues

NewsLog for 2005: Jan.-Mar.

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