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(Graphic: DDA)


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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.

27 March 2008

Ft. Lauderdale:
Light rail streetcar project pushed by civic leaders

A proposal for a light rail streetcar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, backed by the city's Downtown Development Authority (DDA), is advancing. According to a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (17 March 2008), private business interests have launched a marketing campaign to try to raise public awareness and support for the project, a 2.7-mile, $150 million urban circulator streetcar system, named "The Wave". The DDA has allocated an additional $50,000 to the publicity campaign, raising its total to $75,000.

The project's sponsors hope to obtain a 50 percent federal match for the capital investment cost, in addition to 25 percent apiece from state and local sources. The local $37.5 million share would be financed in part by special taxes or fees levied upon downtown property owners "in the immediate area of the downtown [streetcar]loop," which, according to the news report, is "expected to stretch from Sixth Street north of Broward Boulevard to Broward General Medical Center 17 blocks south of Broward Boulevard."

 Ft. Lauderdale streetcar Ft. Lauderdale: Simulation of streetcar at Andrews & 2nd
[Photo: Downtown Development Authority]

According to the DDA, "Like the urban core of many U.S. cities, Fort Lauderdale has seen a decline in the vitality and viability of the region's urban core. The large public and private investment in the city is, as a consequence, underutilized and in need of both redevelopment and substantial new investment."

As the Sun-Sentinel article relates, the number of motorists traveling into and out of the city's downtown is projected to roughly double between 2000 and 2030 to over 43,000 drivers a day. Developer and DDA board member Alan Hooper, in charge of marketing, told the paper that the streetcar operation would promote positive growth of housing and small businesses along its route.

Why install an electric rail streetcar and not just use buses? According to an FAQ page provided by the DDA:

The Wave is environmentally sound in many ways. The streetcar is powered by electricity, which when compared to gasoline, significantly reduces emissions and harmful air pollutants. It also provides a quiet ride, unlike the bus that operates on a noisy combustion engine. Additionally, the streetcar glides on steel wheels while the bus uses rubber tires that are not environmentally sound and is difficult to dispose of.

In order to support the urban center and its growth, we need to provide permanent infrastructure.

Fixed rail streetcar systems promote an economic development benefit that rubber-wheel vehicles do not. By knowing that a route will remain the same forever, it allows investment to occur. Streetcars are more convenient, more reliable, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly than rubber wheel operations.

In addition to the $150 million capital investment, the streetcar project would also need an ongoing annual commitment of $2 million for operations and maintenance. Local civic leaders and planners are hoping that Broward County would provide that funding commitment.

Thanks to transit advocate Edward B. Havens for a summary and reference on this issue.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/03/27

More on Public Transport in Ft. Lauderdale...

More on Rail Transit Development...

6 February 2008

Reading, Pennsylvania:
Civic leaders attracted by benefits of proposed electric streetcar system

"Lancaster isn't the only smaller city in Pennsylvania interested in reviving streetcar service as an economic revitalization tool" comments transit enthusiast Ed Havens, noting that Reading, Pennsylvania civic leaders are now seriously considering a streetcar system for their community.

Reading (pronounced "redding") is a small city of about 81,000 muncipal residents – the fifth- largest in Pennsylvania – located in southeastern part of the state, about 58 miles (93 km) northwest of Philadelphia, on the Schuylkill River. The metro area (county) population totals about 374,000.

According to Rail Transit Online (February 2008),

The Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry is planning to hire a consultant next month to make a very preliminary study of a streetcar line serving downtown, West Reading and Wyomissing. The line would start at Seventh and Penn streets and run west, crossing the Schuylkill River on the Penn Street Bridge. It would continue along Penn Avenue in West Reading, terminating at Hill Avenue and Park Road in Wyomissing.

Rail Transit Online further relates that "The chamber is supporting the streetcar concept because members believe a rail-based transportation system would help revive the business district."

Citing Ellen Horan, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry, the Reading Eagle (Jan. 19th) related the view of civic leaders that "Using a trolley that rides on rails instead of one on [rubber] wheels would be a key to attracting business development to the Penn Street and Penn Avenue corridor...."

"There is more willingness to invest because there is more permanence" Horan told the newspaper. "This is a nice next step for all the work being done to create an arts and entertainment culture in downtown" Horan added. "This fits in with the whole cool downtown concept."

Reading Mayor Tom McMahon said a trolley could be another boost for the city and for the municipalities on the opposite side of the Schuylkill River. "It could be a very attractive idea" the mayor told the Reading Eagle reporter. "It could bring a lot of people to the area."

As in almost all cities installing surface light rail or considering it, creation of an electric streetcar system in Reading would represent a return of surface electric railway transit since its catastrophic destruction during America's Transit Holocaust era. As Ed Havens relates, "Most of Reading Street Railway's system was converted to buses by 1947 but a single line – operated by a dozen 1926 Brill-built Boston Type-5 "clones" – continued to run until January 1952." According to Ed, the Reading-Shillington-Mohnton suburban line ran mostly on private right-of-way, its survival prolonged by a special lease arrangement "that required legal action to break before bus conversion was possible."

Reading streetcars Reading once was served by a valuable network of electric trolley lines linking neighborhoods within the central city and reaching out to many of the smaller communities in the region. Here, two Reading Street Railway cars meet in a Reading suburb.
[Photo: Bill Volkmer collection]

The streetcar proposal does face opposition – such as such as the editor of the Reading Eagle, who sees the streetcar plan as "a big step backward" in part because of the expense, and the obstruction to motor vehicles posed by a "trolley stopping to allow passengers to board and disembark...." In addition, at a time of widespread concern over diminishing petroleum availablity and global warming, when the consensus of planners, scientists, environmentalists, and political leaders favors a major expansion of electric power in transportation, the Eagle stalwartly opposes the electric propulsion of the streetcar and champions "trolleylike buses" instead.

But despite these naysayers and critics, local momentum favoring the project seems to be growing.

Particularly by crossing the Penn Street Bridge, "Such a service would convey the message that Reading, West Reading and Wyomissing are connected in their efforts to improve the area and attract visitors" reported the Reading Eagle, citing the views of Eric G. Burkey, president of Burkey Construction and chairman of the Chamberís trolley study committee.

"That bridge is a big disconnect" Burkey told the paper. "This would make a connection between the two [Reading and West Reading]. That would help create the corridor concept."

Streetcar service "could help solve parking problems in the borough", according to Rolin Sugg, owner of Bistro 614 in West Reading, cited by the newspaper, which also related his view that "Above all, it would promote the entertainment corridor as a destination."

While the streetcar project faces some hurdles, "such as planned repairs to the Penn Street Bridge," thereís also a "potential benefit", noted Michael Leifer, president of Jimmie Kramerís Peanut Bar, in Reading. "This is a great idea" Leifer told the reporter. "It will help move us forward."

The Reading streetcar study, projected to take six to nine months, would estimate costs, develop recommendations for operation, and recommend an organizational and legal structure for running such a system.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/29

More on Public Transport in Reading, Pennsylvania...

More on Rail Transit Development...

29 January 2008

Birmingham, Alabama:
Light rail streetcar plan now moving forward with local funding

Birmingham, Alabama – Streetcars seem to be on track for a comeback in Alabama's largest city. Implementing the wishes of executive director David Hill, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority at last seems to be moving forward with a $33-million plan to install a 1.0 -mi. (1.6 km) heritage streetcar line in downtown Birmingham by the end of 2009.

A summary in Rail Transit Online (January 2008) – based on an outline presented by Hill to the transit authority board of directors on Dec. 19th – reports the starter line "would run between 111 Avenue North and Linn Park, using portions of 18th and 20th streets...."

Hill told the Birmingham News (Dec. 20th) the proposal was prompted by Mayor Larry Langford. "The mayor was very direct on it" Hill told the paper. "If he wants streetcars, I'm going to put them on the street."

Included in the $33 million estimated investment cost are installation of tracks and an electric power system, construction of a maintenance building, and procurement of 10 historic streetcars. According to the Rail Transit Online article,

The authority reportedly would be able to purchase 10 fully-operable Peter Witt cars, built in the late 1920s, from Milan, Italy, for between $25,000 and $35,000 each. The only major work needed would be the addition of air conditioning.

Milan tram Milan, Italy: Example of Peter-Witt-type tram (streetcar) that Birmingham officials seek to purchase for new heritage streetcar line.
[Photo: Malc McDonald]

Plans are to use six of the cars to operate a 10-minute service, along 18th and 20th Streets between Morris Avenue and Linn Park, 7 days a week between 06:00 and 22:00, with stops approximately at every block. The remaining four cars would be held in reserve for expansion or as replacements in the event of major repairs to other cars.

Funding of the streetcar project is slated to come from Birmingham's business license fees. According to the Birmingham News, these amount to "$8 million a year from existing fees and an additional $9 million a year expected to come from a recently approved doubling of those fees."

Hill has set a deadline of 18 to 24 months to complete the first phase of the streetcar project, "and is willing to boot anyone from his team who says it can't be done", according to the News. However, to meet this tight deadline, the transit authority may need a funding "advance" from the city.

Hill has indicated he's certain the project can be completed in the time allotted, including construction of a maintenance facility. Hill predicts that the per-mile cost of extensions would be lower "because the maintenance base and yard would not have to be duplicated", as reported by the newspaper.

Hill and city officials are planning a trip to Milan in June to inspect and possibly purchase the streetcars envisioned for the project. Forays to Memphis and Tampa are also planned to inspect their streetcar systems.

The streetcar startup represents a return of streetcar service to the southern city after an absence of about 55 years. Birmingham once boasted one of the largest electric streetcar networks in the South, extending some 80 miles (129 km) in total length. The system was abandoned in 1953, in the midst of the Transit Holocaust, leading to a precipitous decline in transit ridership.

Birmingham streetcar Passengers board PCC car, most modern streetcar of America's surface electric railway era. With 80-mile system, Birmingham once operated one of the largest streetcar systems in the South.
[Photo: Barney L. Stone]

The streetcar project is part of an overall $115.2 million plan pushed by Mayor Langford to improve the transit system's service. In addition to installing the streetcar starter line, plans include procuring 100 new CNG-powered buses and 30 new paratransit vans by October 2009, adding service between downtown hotels and Birmingham's airport, and starting up Sunday service on bus routes.

The authority anticipates that about $53.8 million of the system upgrade total will come from federal grants for bus service improvement; however, no federal aid for the rail project is expected. According to Rail Transit Online, per Hill's preliminary schedule, an RFP (Request for Proposals) for design of the maintenance building would be released in June 2008, with construction starting in November.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/29

More on Public Transport in Birmingham, Alabama...

More on Rail Transit Development...

13 January 2008

St. Louis:
MetroLink light rail ridership continues to soar with 33% growth

Ridership on St. Louis's MetroLink light rail transit (LRT) system through the first three quarters of calendar year 2007 jumped a spectacular 33% over the same period of calendar year 2006, reports the St. Louis-based Citizens for Modern Transit (12 December 2007). The report is based on data recently released by the American Public Transit Association (APTA).

This follows on the heels of an earlier APTA report for the first six months of 2007, compared to the first six months of 2006, which indicated that St. Louis had the largest LRT ridership growth in the nation, thanks in part to the new Shrewsbury-Interstate 44 MetroLink extension.

For that period, St. Louis's LRT ridership had increased 38 percent over 2006, with more than half of Metro customers reporting they were using the new Shrewsbury extension.

St. Louis also scored above the national average in several categories, including:

• Percentage of riders who use public transportation to get to work – 76 percent compared to 59 percent nationally...
• Percentage of riders who use public transportation five or more days a week – 82 percent compared to 66 percent nationally...
• Percentage of riders using public transportation for the first time (2007) – 31 percent compared to 30 percent nationally.

Currently, according to the most recent APTA data, MetroLink's ridership is averaging about 82,000 rider-trips each weekday.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/12

More on Public Transport in St. Louis...

More on Ridership issues...

10 January 2008

Higher ridership may justify more 2-car trains, revision of forecasting

In Charlotte, North Carolina, ridership on the new Lynx light rail transit (LRT) Blue Line has continued to exceed projections. "Higher-than-expected midday ridership has transit officials considering whether to use two-car trains during the day" reports the Charlotte Observer (23 Dec. 2007), which explains that currently the Blue Line "alternates one-car and two-car trains during rush hour, but then uses only one-car trains in the middle of the day."

Also, officials with Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) are considering an increase in train frequency during the middle of the day, to a train every 12 minutes. Trains currently run every 7.5 minutes during rush hour, and then only 15 minutes during the day.

Ridership levels have continued to surprise CATS managers and planners – pleasantly. CATS had originally projected an average ridership of 9,100 weekday trips for the first year of operation, but so far that number has consistently remained above 12,000, according to CATS officials. (See: Charlotte: New light rail line's ridership exceeds forecast by 35%.)

The forecast-busting ridership numbers may yield another benefit: busting the constraints on forecasting procedures imposed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that have tended to produce unrealistically low ridership estimates, often forcing planners to discard rail plans and stifle promising new transit projects.

The Light Rail Now website identified this problem as long ago as 2001 in the article Light Rail's Besieged With Riders! This is a Problem? The article focused on the "avalanche" of unexpectedly high ridership experienced in three systems – Denver, Dallas, and St. Louis – and fingered the FTA's forecast modelling contraints as a major source of the underestimation.

According to the Denver Business Journal (26 January 2001), Denver's Regional Transit District (RTD) blamed much of the ridership underprojection on "rigid rules handed down from the Federal Transit Authority, which paid [for] a significant portion of the light rail line."

As the Business Journal article went on to relate, Denver's lower ridership forecast meant that the FTA would fund too few LRT railcars and railcars – leading to overly crowded trains and overflowing park & ride facilities. In addition to failings such as inaccurate population data from Denver's regional planning agency, "The other half of the problem stems from rules dictated by the FTA about which factors, such as fare cost and travel time, can be used to project light rail ridership, say transit agency officials around the nation."

As the Light Rail Now article pointed out, "Ridership-forecasting modelling procedures mandated by the Federal Transit Administration unrealistically expect public behavior to be the same whether they're offered LRT or just a bus."

"The federal government wants us to use these models to compare various projects, like light rail and bus lines, the same way," said Doug Allen, vice president of planning and development for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency.

The problem is that people like light rail a lot more than they like buses – a fact the federal rules don't take into account, say transit agency officials.

Local FTA officials said the agency was working on the problem and referred questions to the Washington, D.C., communications office, which didn't return repeated calls for comment made over two weeks.

"How people respond to rail is different than how they respond to bus," said Utah's Crandall.

"There's a dependability on travel time with rail that there isn't with buses. It has its own tracks and you know where it goes," he said.

In recent years, reacting to the barrage of criticism from transit agencies with new rail systems, the FTA has somewhat begrudgingly begun to permit revising ridership forecasting models to allocate a higher estimate for rail-specific attributes – if local experience can demonstrate such an effect. That's what seems to be happening In Charlotte; as the Charlotte Observer reported (Dec. 16th, quoting transit agency management), "Higher than expected ridership on the Lynx light-rail line might raise ridership projections for the $750 million Northeast Corridor line and make it more financially feasible...."

"The higher ridership in the south definitely raises the stock" observed CATS CEO Ron Tober.

If the ridership level for the Lynx south line (Blue Line) remains high for approximately a year, Tober told the Observer, "then CATS will look at recalculating its estimates for the Northeast Corridor.

"We'll probably increase the projected ridership for the Northeast Corridor" Tober added. "That should move us up in the competition for federal funds. It probably will result in us getting speedy approval from the Federal Transit Administration."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/10

More on Public Transport in Charlotte...

More on Ridership issues...

1 January 2008

New Jersey:
Hudson-Bergen light rail leads in growth rate, as NJ Transit ridership reaches all-time high

New Jersey Transit has posted all-time-high ridership for its fiscal year 2008's first quarter, with systemwide ridership totalling 64.4 million rider-trips – a 3.2 percent increase compared with the same period in FY2007.

According to an article in The Press of Atlantic City (December 26th), systemwide ridership "reached an average of 881,700 trips each weekday while weekend trips averaged 712,800. The weekend trip total was the highest for any quarter in the corporation's history."

Rail transit took the lead in ridership growth rate. During the three-month period ending Sep. 30th, regional passenger rail ("commuter rail") ridership totaled 18.9 million, a jump of 5.4 percent, with average weekday passenger-trips totaling 275,850. Progressive Railroading (Dec. 13th) reported that the agency's Main/Bergen County Line posted the largest gain, with overall ridership increasing 8.7 percent and weekend ridership skyrocketing 23.5 percent compared with the same period in FY2007.

But by far the biggest surge in the rate of ridership growth occurred on NJT's electric light rail transit (LRT) lines and its diesel-powered light railway (River Line) in southern New Jersey. NJT recorded 5 million rider-trips on its three light-rail lines, "a 13.5 percent increase compared with FY07's first quarter" reported the magazine. "Average weekday ridership totaled 65,150 and average weekend ridership, 61,500."

The Hudson-Bergen LRT system, serving Jersey City, Bayonne, Hoboken, and Weehawken, led the entire agency in growth rate, producing a spectacular increase of 18.4 percent. Newark's newly refurbished LRT system – locally known as the Newark Subway, now with its Broad St. surface line – also posted a healthy increase of 9.1 percent. Ridership on the River Line light railway (which operates diesel-electric multiple-unit (DEMU) rolling stock) rose about 3 percent, close to the systemwide average.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/01

More on Public Transport in New Jersey...

More on Ridership issues...

1 January 2008

Ft. Worth area:
Satellite communities clamor for inclusion in region's rail transit system

Public preference for rail transit over buses is reflected not just in the significantly higher ridership typically attracted to rail services and the higher ratings for rail in public surveys, but also in the markedly higher interest shown by satellite communities in joining new rail projects. This is being illustrated in the several major Texas cities which have launched new rail transit projects: Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Austin, where a number of suburban communities are now clamoring to be included for service by the new rail systems.

A recent article in the Dallas Morning News (10 November 2007) indicates this phenomenon in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where smaller cities and towns, which originally opted out of the transit service area when only buses were offered, now are clamoring to join in order to be served by rail.

"North Richland Hills and Haltom City are strategically located along Tarrant County's new commuter rail line, but the two cities are like kids peering into a candy store, hoping to enter" reports the News, noting that "The problem for both cities is that they are not members of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or the T. That situation is unlikely to change without sales-tax help from the Legislature in two years."

As the article details, the T 's public hearings on proposed rail-station sites were moving forward in November, presenting "about 14" station locations "that will be under consideration along the 40-mile rail route." Among those were two prospective station sites identified by North Richland Hills and one by Haltom City – "But the cities can't do much but plan until they can commit sales-tax money to join the T."

Unfortunately, like many other cities, these communities had rejected the original opportunity to join the transit system (when it operated only buses), electing instead to "max out" their legally available sales tax for other uses than transit. As the News describes the situation,

North Richland Hills and Haltom City are among dozens of Dallas-Fort Worth cities shut out from the T, DART or the Denton County Transit Authority because they have committed the full 8.25 cents in permissible sales tax to economic development, crime control or other community initiatives.

Research has shown that sales tax is the best way to fund mass transit.

What a difference a mode – and years of positive experience – make. Suburban officials now seem to be singing a very different tune.

"We feel that it is just a matter of time before we will be members of the T" Oscar Trevino, mayor of North Richland Hills and chairman of the Regional Transportation Council, told the News reporter. "Everyone understands the state's funding problems for highway construction, and that makes mass transit all more important."

As the News article elaborates,

A coalition of Dallas-Fort Worth area cities, along with mass-transit supporters, lobbied the Legislature this year to approve a measure that will allow communities to hold local-option elections to raise the sales-tax cap up to 1 cent to expand commuter rail.

The measure failed, so government leaders and transit supporters are regrouping to target the Legislature again in 2009.

Local leaders are optimistic that pressure on lawmakers to provide relief from highway congestion and federal mandates to improve air quality will bode well for mass transit.

As the article reports, the exurban community of North Richland Hills has already set aside $500,000 for station development, "so the city is ready to build when the opportunity comes."

Likewise, "Both cities have selected rail sites that have economic development opportunities."

"Economic development factors into every project we do in Haltom City" according to Haltom City's city manager, Tom Muir. "We need it so badly."

As noted above, a similar clamor for connection to new rail systems has been building in Houston and Austin. In Austin, outlying communities such as Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Pflugerville are currently pursuing ways to get connected with Capital Metro's new Capital MetroRail project, installation of which is now under way.

While such a revival of interest in a new transit service is virtually never experienced with respect to all-bus systems, even those with fairly high-quality, "BRT"-level operations, implementing rail seems to turn on some kind of switch, and public support and the enthusiasm of surrounding communities suddenly rev up.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/01/01

More on Public Transport in Ft. Worth...

More on Popular Support for Public Transport...

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