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Capital MetroRail, Austin, Texas
(Photo: Rickey Green,
Capital Metro)


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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.

18 September 2008

US Federal Railroad Administration takes aim...
at light rail

In the USA, the Bush Administration has been implementing a number of policies that make it increasingly difficult for cities and counties to pursue light rail. (See, for example: With Rail Leading, America's Transit Ridership Soars – But After Years of Underfunding, Agencies Plunge Into Crisis.) One of the more ominous of these developments involves the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) oversight of light rail transit (LRT) lines and other light railways that travel outside the urban core or use existing freight rail track. In a policy initiative that has emerged most recently with respect to Capital Metro's light railway project in Austin, Texas, the FRA is threatening to put such restrictive requirements on these lines (under certain conditions) that local entities will be discouraged from attempting to implement them.

The FRA is now implicitly asserting jurisdiction and full railroad regulations not only over lines that share railway trackage with "heavy" railroad operations, but over virtually all lines that extend beyond city boundaries and which have not already involved Federal Transit Administration (FTA) oversight. The FRA now seems to be insisting that, in most cases, these are not light railways, but must be considered "commuter railroads", and therefore must comform with FRA's full requirements for "heavy" railroad operations.

In recent years, FTA policies have made it increasingly difficult for local areas to receive funding for new rail transit projects, so transit agencies have increasingly sought other sources of funds to finance these projects. Light rail lines that receive funding from the FTA fall under that agency's jurisdiction, so the FRA typically does not contest for oversight in those cases. However, since a number of recent projects have begun to eschew FTA funding, relying instead on local funding resources, the FRA is now starting to assert that they must comply with FRA requirements that FTA-funded projects do not have to follow. To many transit planners and project proponents, it seems unreasonable and inequitable to penalize, in effect, locally-funded projects merely because they did not pursue federal grant funding.

This issue is very important because, by requiring "heavy" facilities, rolling stock, and operating practices, these FRA requirements could make it cost-prohibitive to implement many new rail transit services. Indeed, the numerous interurban trolley systems that used to run in many locations throughout the country might not have been able to operate under these requirements.

The FRA rules currently do not recognize light rail, so rail power cars in any of the rail systems that come under their jurisdiction are considered by FRA to be "locomotives." And, as such, they must meet FRA "locomotive" standards, which mean that either light railway rolling stock cannot be used, or already procured cars must be retrofitted.

Although a transit agency can seek a waiver of the FRA jurisdiction and oversight, in Austin, Capital Metro's request for such a waiver for its Capital MetroRail project has recently been denied, and it appears that, in practice, the FRA will henceforth make it very difficult for similar projects to receive a waiver approval. CapMetro asked the FRA to grant a waiver for operation of "light" (non-compliant) diesel multiple unit (DMU) railcars over its 32-mile light railway demonstration project between the city of Austin (population about 706,000) and the town of Leander (population 18,000) on rail track shared with Austin and Western Railroad shortline freight trains (whose operation would be restricted to late-night hours, temporally separated from transit operations) as well as the Austin Steam Train Association tourist line (whose operation would be moved beyond the portion of route used for transit). In the planning stages for the project, during the late 1990s to 2003, CapMetro worked with FTA and FRA to obtain waivers to operate the system with the freight service, but when CapMetro decided not to seek FTA funding, the cooperative attitude by FRA changed.

Capital MetroRail FRA would re-classify Capital MetroRail light railway as a heavy "commuter railroad". Here, Capital MetroRail light DMU railcar crosses on special transit-only viaduct over Union Pacific Railroad main line in northern suburbs of Austin.
[Photo: Rickey Green, Capital Metro]

CapMetro insists that the rail line from its inception has been designed to be a "rail fixed guideway system," as defined by FTA policies, and therefore would qualify for treatment as a light railway, with state safety oversight provided by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). FRA, in its response to CapMetro's request for a waiver [FRA letter to CapMetro, 19 Feb. 2008], argued:

. . . in comments provided to FRA during the evaluation of this waiver, FTA noted that to be considered a "rail fixed guideway system" within the agency's State Safety Oversight requirements, CMTA [Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority or CapMetro] would have to receive, or formally indicate its intent to receive, funds under 49 U.S.C. § 5307. FTA further noted that CMTA had not indicated an intent to receive such funds; and because the CMTA CRS [commuter railroad system] is being built entirely with local funds, the system could not be considered a "rail fixed guideway system" as defined by FTA regulations. Because the CMTA CRS system would not meet the definition of a "rail fixed guideway system," FTA noted that TxDOT would not have authority to provide system oversight through the agency's State Safety Oversight Program.

Increasingly, the picture is emerging of a prevalent view within the FRA that many states lack the technical knowledge or judgment to oversee rail safety concerns. Although waivers have been issued by FRA for new LRT (or DMU-powered light railway) starts over the past several decades, the current staff apparently think that some of those waivers were ill-advised. According to FRA's newly emergent interpretation of its bailiwick, the agency's jurisdictional claim is asserted not because affected rail lines are shared with freight or because of the type of rolling stock selected, but rather on the basis of other factors – such as whether rail services extend beyond a city's boundaries (especially if these use a separated alignment, which might include a shared or abandoned rail line). Another factor is the pattern of traffic and scheduled operations: A light railway that tends to be predominantly focused on peak-period trips is more likely to be "fingered" by the FRA as "commuter rail" – i.e., the lighter the traffic volume, the more likely is the FRA to designate it a "heavy" railroad type of operation!

"Commuter Operations" in 49 CFR Part 209, Appendix A, spells out FRA's definition of rail passenger transit operations that fall under its jurisdiction:

FRA exercises jurisdiction over all commuter operations. Congress apparently intended that FRA do so when it enacted the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, and made that intention very clear in the 1982 and 1988 amendments to that act. FRA has attempted to follow that mandate consistently. A commuter system's connection to other railroads is not relevant under the rail safety statutes. In fact, FRA considers commuter railroads to be part of the general railroad system regardless of such connections.

FRA is likely to consider an operation to be a commuter railroad if:

• The system serves an urban area, its suburbs, and more distant outlying communities in the greater metropolitan area,
• The system's primary function is moving passengers back and forth between their places of employment in the city and their homes within the greater metropolitan area, and moving passengers from station to station within the immediate urban area is, at most, an incidental function, and
• The vast bulk of the system's trains are operated in the morning and evening peak periods with few trains at other hours.

But such a definition is extremely broad in its sweep. Indeed, many of today's existing light rail lines could be redefined, under FRA parlance, as heavy "commuter railroads" because they link a suburb or ex-urban area with a central city and their primary function is serving commute-type trips, including lines in San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, St. Louis, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Hudson and Bergen Counties of New Jersey).

If the FRA decides that a line is a "commuter railroad" that does not fall under FTA's jurisdiction, the rolling stock, infrastructure and operations must comply with FRA requirements. In Austin, this could mean some major increases in operating requirements and costs plus an overhaul of all of the Stadler GTW light railway DMUs to meet FRA's "heavy" railroad safety and operational standards. The capital cost of converting a light railway into a "commuter railroad" could amount to tens of millions of dollars added on to the project.

The FRA has not provided any evidence to support their claim that light rail lines, either running on separate tracks or time-separated from freight rail, need the additional safety measures that they are requiring. They want to require buff (structural frame impact) strengths (or equivalent physical capabilities) for new track-sharing light rail lines that are based on a collision between a rail passenger car and a freight train. But such collisions could occur only if the rail transit trains and "heavy" railroad trains were operating on the same tracks at the same time – and transit agencies make sure this isn't possible. In several cases, transit agencies have routinely been granted waivers by the FRA to operate light rail-type services under conditions of temporal (time-of-day) separation.

Time-separated light rail and "heavy" freight rail operations share the same tracks at a number of locations in Europe and a few in North America, and there have not been accidents between the two types of trains. Non-electric systems using DMUs are operating in San Diego (Oceanside-Escondido Sprinter) and between Camden and Trenton (New Jersey Transit's RiverLine), where system designers have implemented scheduling procedures and signal-protected safety controls to ensure smooth sharing of the tracks. These procedures are well-proven and widely deployed, and transit industry planning professionals have long assumed that there is no reason why similar measures cannot be implemented in other transit applications.

According to reliable sources, the FRA evidently consider the Capital MetroRail line in Austin to be a test case, and if they are successful in asserting their jurisdiction, they will do so for numerous other rail projects in development throughout the country (one representative estimated about 40 other projects).

This new policy stance by the FRA seems to fit into a consistent pattern of policy measures by the George W. Bush administration that have the net effect of attenuating rail transit development. Indeed, the number of rail New Start projects that have materialized during the Bush administration is down sharply from the number in the previous Clinton administration.

Many public transport professionals and advocates recognize that certain areas of federal transportation policy are in need of serious changes – and the issues raised by the FRA's jurisdictional ambitions are among these.

In particular, federal policy needs to formulate a consistent definition of terms and concepts such as "light railway", "light rail transit", and "commuter railroad". In addition, safety and operational regulations need to be factually based on real-world experience, not arbitrary whims and anxieties of bureaucratic officials. This may well imply the need for substantial revisions of FRA's regulatory structure and policies, particularly in terms of implementing a framework of rational, justifiable, and workable policies for various types of light railways.

Toward this goal, modelling European operational and regulatory practice would be an excellent place to start.

Basic research and working narrative for this article were provided by Susan Pantell, a Research Associate with the Light Rail Now Project.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/09/18

More on Policy & Political issues...

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More on Public Transport in Austin...

2 September 2008

New Orleans:
Public transit helps evacuation...and streetcars, buses are protected

New Orleans — Contending with Hurricane Gustav, New Orleans transit officials apparently have learned their lesson from the 2005 Katrina disaster and have taken crucial and effective steps to protect both their streetcar and bus rolling stock.

As rail transit advocate Ed Havens recounts, "The Canal Street [streetcar] line sustained flood damage during Katrina, resulting in restoration of service with historic Perley Thomas cars because the replica streetcars stored at the Canal Street car house were flooded when levees broke."

As of Friday, August 29th, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Aug. 29th) the city's bus and streetcar service was shut down indefinitely to allow the Regional Transit Authority time to move transit vehicles to safety in advance of the hurricane.

Underscoring the role of public transport in expediting the city's evacuation, the Times- Picayune article further noted that officials of the Regional Transit Authority "said Thursday that they will have 40 buses on standby to participate in a possible evacuation of residents who have no means to leave the city. The agency also plans to use eight vans to evacuate disabled riders."

As part of a disaster plan developed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the RTA buses will pick up residents at 17 designated sites across the city and bring them to the Union Passenger Terminal downtown. From there, the plan calls for people to be evacuated by chartered buses and possibly by train to shelters in northern Louisiana and other states.

"We do not expect to carry anyone out of the city" aboard RTA buses, Mark Major, the agency's general manager, told RTA board members during a briefing Thursday on the evacuation plan.

In addition to helping significantly with the evacuation effort, the RTA has mobilized to try to ensure that the destruction of streetcars and buses of the 2005 disaster would not be repeated. As the Times-Picayune reports,

Three years ago, the bulk of the RTA's bus fleet and many of its streetcars were destroyed after Katrina's floodwaters swamped the agency's Canal Street headquarters. This time, transit officials say they are taking a number of steps to avoid any potential damage from flooding.

The 35 new biodiesel buses that were put into service during the past several weeks and the five large commercial coaches that the RTA uses for special events will be moved to Baton Rouge.

The historic green Perley Thomas streetcars that escaped the 2005 flooding once again will be parked Uptown on high ground at the RTA's Carrollton Station and along the downtown riverfront behind the floodwall. The older buses being kept on hand to assist in a possible evacuation will be stored on the Poland Avenue Wharf.

In addition to the threat to rolling stock, Ed Havens points out, the current storm poses an additional threat to the streetcar line's infrastructure:

Hurricane Gustav, already battering New Orleans, will test the durability of overhead wire reconstruction on the historic St. Charles streetcar line. Its simple trolley wire was heavily damaged by falling trees and flying debris during Hurricane Katrina and it was only this year the full streetcar route over St. Charles and Carrollton was reopened to rail service.

Hopefully, damage from this latest disaster will be minimal, and we will continue to see progress made in restoring streetcar and other public transit services back to their pre-Katrina levels.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/09/02

More on Public Transport in New Orleans...

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2 September 2008

Hurricane Gustav:
Amtrak trains play key role in New Orleans evacuation

On Friday, August 29th, the approach of Hurricane Gustav and official declaration of an emergency prompted Amtrak to temporarily suspend service to and from New Orleans "for the safety of passengers, employees and equipment."

As the rail passenger agency noted in a Service Alert (Aug. 29th),

Amtrak train equipment currently in New Orleans will be made available to federal and state authorities to assist in the evacuation of the city and to help maximize capacity for the evacuation. Amtrak is taking this action as a national transportation asset in accordance with its contract with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which is preparing for the evacuation of New Orleans.

According to the Service Alert, operation of the the City of New Orleans (Trains 58 and 59) would be suspended for the length of the route, through September 1st; service on the Crescent (Trains 19 and 20) suspended south of Atlanta, including Birmingham, Alabama, through at least September 4th; and service on the Sunset Limited (Trains 1 and 2) suspended east of San Antonio, through at least September 4th, with Amtrak Thruway Motorcoaches continuing to operate from Longview to Houston and other points in Texas.

In a posting to the Railspot Yahoo-Groups Internet discussion list, Shawn Levy, an Amtrak enthusiast based in Amite, Louisiana, reported that evacuation trains in advance of Hurricane Gustav, designated FEMA-1 and FEMA-2, departed New Orleans on Saturday, August 30th, bound for Memphis, Tennessee. "The trains depart New Orleans as they fill up, then return back south after they're cleaned, serviced and refueled."

From what it appears, there are two train sets. FEMA-1 is made up of Superliners from the last City of New Orleans and Sunset trains to arrive in New Orleans and four ex-CDOT (Connecticut Dept of Transportation) commuter cars. FEMA-2 [was] comprised of five ex-CDOT cars and equipment off the Crescent. Both trains had two P42DCs [locomotives] on the front and rear.

There is no set schedule as the trains sets run when ready. It's estimated each train will carry 1000 to 1500 passengers. They are expecting to make 8 trips total.

FEMA-1 departed sometime mid-morning but experienced a mechanical break down, delaying it about 5 hours. FEMA-2 departed early afternoon.

Amtrak Amtrak's FEMA-1 New Orleans evacuation train passing through Hammond, Louisiana en route to Memphis.
[Photo: Shawn Levy]

Obviously, Amtrak's rail passenger services and assets represent valuable resources both in normal times and in times of severe and dire public emergency.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/09/02

More on Amtrak & Intercity Public Transport...

More on Transit Safety Issues...

29 August 2008

Newark City Subway:
Light rail + freight railroad track-sharing ends

The issue of track-sharing by both light rail transit (LRT) and "heavy" railroad operations is important to the North American public transportation industry, and particularly to cities and agencies considering possibilities for new rail starts involving joint use of lightly used freight railroad tracks. Such operation – once commonplace in North America's earlier electric surface railway era – exists, or has existed, in the modern era in several light railway systems, including Newark's City Subway line, the San Diego Trolley, Baltimore's LRT, Salt Lake City's TRAX, Ottawa's O-Train, New Jersey Transit's RiverLine, and, most recently, the Oceanside-Escondido Sprinter.

Regarding recent developments on the Newark City Subway line, Northern New Jersey transit industry professional and advocate Phil Craig has posted the following report.

Temporal separation between New Jersey Transit's light rail vehicles [LRVs] and the Norfolk Southern's [NS] weekly freight train along a quarter-mile [0.4-km] stretch of NJT's extension of the Newark City Subway to Grove Street, Bloomfield appears to have quietly come to an end sometime in late Spring [2008]. The extension, opened for non-revenue service operations in 2001 with the conversion of the Newark City Subway from PCC car to LRV operations, and placed into revenue service in 2002, is built almost entirely over the right-of-way of the former Erie Railroad's Orange Branch, a line that passed through ownership by the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad and its successor, the Erie Lackawanna Railway (no hyphen), then the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) and finally to the Norfolk Southern Railway before being bought by New Jersey Transit [NJT].

NS retained the rights to switch the line in order to serve a Hartz Mountain warehouse located just west of Bloomfield Avenue in Bloomfield (until March 30, 1952 the site of an interlocked grade crossing between Public Service Coordinated Transport's No. 29-Bloomfield streetcar line and the Erie Railroad). The NS served this receiver by running a once-weekly (usually on either Tuesdays or Thursdays) freight train east from Denville on NJT's Montclair-Boonton Line as far as a junction at Claremont Avenue, Montclair with what historically was the Erie Railroad's Greenwood Lake line, thence via the remaining NS-owned track to Forest Hills, Newark, after which it would reverse onto the Orange Branch; outbound movements took the reverse routing.

Newark LRT train Newark City Subway LRT train waits at Grove St. station, Bloomfield.
[Photo: David-Paul Gerber]

This involved a lot of freight train movements in order to deliver two to nine freight cars per week to Hartz Mountain. Initially, the FRA-approved temporal separation arrangement required NJT not to operate revenue service LRV movements west of Branchbook Park (nee Franklin Avenue) on the historic Newark City Subway between 10:00 PM [22:00] and 4:00 AM [04:00], seven days per week.

A few years ago, NJT "cut a deal" with FRA and NS that allowed the freight to come through in mid-day while LRV operations were put on hold for a few minutes while the NS freight entered the joint westbound track, traversed a facing-point crossover at NJT's Silver Lake station, proceeded on the eastbound joint track through the Belmont Avenue grade crossing and then took a diverging switch only freight-only trackage parallel to the NJT's double-tracked light rail line; including putting LRT movements on hold, removing the derails on NS trackage that protect the joint trackage, setting the route and aligning the crossover for the freight train, running the freight over the quarter-mile of joint trackage including flagging it through two traffic light-protected grade crossings (with two longs, a short and a long being blown by the NS's locomotive), and then re-establishing the LRT routings after the freight had reported to NJT's control that it was in the clear, took five or six minutes.

As a result of this unique arrangement, NJT was able to extend the hours of operation of the Newark City Subway over its full Pennsylvania Station to Grove Street alignment from 4:29 AM [04:29] inbound departure from Grove Street to 1:35 AM [01:35] outbound arrival at Grove Street, Mondays through Fridays and 4:55 AM [04:55] inbound and 1:51 AM [01:51] outbound on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays.

In late May, the rails on NS-owned trackage started to show an unusual accumulation of rust; by late July it was clear that no freights had been over the line in a couple of months. Investigation of the parking lot at the Hartz Mountain warehouse indicated that not even a watchman was in evidence. Local intelligence is that HM has closed the facility permanently; if so, the temporal separation between NJT and NS on the Newark City Subway has come to a de facto end. The unanswered question is "How long will it take for NS to formally abandon the line and rip up its tracks?"

We, as light rail advocates, need to remember that this unique, FRA-approved temporal separation arrangement between a main line railroad's freight operations and light rail transit did exist; in the future, there will be those who will deny it ever existed.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/29

More on Public Transport in New Jersey...

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25 August 2008

Kansas City:
New light rail transit plan heading for November vote

If you've been wondering what's happened to Kansas City's plans for light rail transit (LRT), well, you've got good reason.

Since LRT, with a tax to finance it, was endorsed by voters in 2006, KC's planning has been all but deadlocked in an agonizing debate, much of it provoked by technical and legal problems encumbering the original voter-approved scheme. In November 2007, the KC City Council annulled the 2006 vote, setting off about another 10 months of intensive debate and intrigue centered on the forging of a new plan.

But a KC light rail plan seems to be on course again – in the words of Kansas City Star reporter Jeff Spivak, "Light rail is once again on a Kansas City election ballot, after more than a year of studying, talking and building consensus."

xxxxxx According to reports in the Kansas City Star, Aug. 8th, and Dos Mundos, Aug. 21st, at their first meeting in early August, the Kansas City (Missouri) City Council voted unanimously to put a new LRT plan on the Nov. 4th ballot, asking voters to approve a 25-year, 3/8- cent sales tax increase to pay for about 50% of the capital cost of the project. Planners and decisionmakers are depending on grants from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to cover the remaining cost of installing the starter line.
[Map: LRN, on base map of Google Earth]

Working with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the KC City Council has developed a plan for a 14-mile-long (22.6-km) regional starter line, "stretching from Interstate 29/Vivion Road in the Northland to Bruce R. Watkins Drive and 63rd Street" according to the Star report.

The Dos Mundos report provides a few more route details:

The proposed route will run from Vivion Road and North Oak Trafficway through North Kansas City on Burlington and south through downtown to the Country Club Plaza, then east to Bruce R. Watkins Drive and 63rd Street.

Capital cost of the project, in current dollars, is estimated at $815 million, or roughly $58 million per mile. However, as the Star report notes, "Kansas City has some special circumstances driving up that cost, such as having to build or strengthen five bridges along the route."

Ultimately, the 14-mile line is intended to be merely the start-up phase of a much larger, regional system.

So far, no ridership forecasts have been released to the general public. These will undoubtedly be produced as the project progresses – if, of course, voters give the OK in November.

Under the assumption that the project will indeed move forward, the next hurdle will consist of the FTA's arduous obstacle course of bureaucratic rules and delays, designed to bottleneck major transit projects (thus constraining federal fund outflows), inculcate frustration, and persuade local transit systems that supposedly cheaper solutions (such as "bus rapid transit") will get faster and friendlier FTA approval. In that process, the FTA stipulates ridership-forecasting procedures that are designed around rigid, mechanistic rules and aimed at suppressing potential rail ridership while exaggerating potential bus ridership. (See, for example: Rail Transit vs. "Bus Rapid Transit": Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership; and Local Money for Starter Lines.)

Therefore, KC-area decisionmakers, planners, and transit advocates need to be particularly alert to the pitfalls of the FTA's mandatory ridership-forecasting methodology and "stacked-deck" game rules.

Despite all the obstacles, why has LRT continued to grab the enthusiasm of so many in Kansas City? According to Dos Mundos, a recent surge of problems has especially prodded local interest in pursuing the option of LRT:

Gas prices have hit record highs this summer – and while they’ve dropped recently, they’re likely to keep inching up. Studies show that private vehicles emit about 95 percent more carbon monoxide into the air and use twice as much fuel as public transportation. And the skyrocketing price of fuel, rising auto insurance and tax rates have all driven up vehicle operating and ownership costs.

But, according to Brian Kaberline, writing in the Kansas City Business Journal ("KC needs to get on right track", August 8th), the LRT plan offers to solutions to more than just mobility problems:

What’s missing from much of the light-rail debate is the notion that transportation systems are about much more than getting from one place to another.

The construction of the interstate highway system in the late ’50s and ’60s is a prime example of how transportation systems shape where and how people live and work. It also shows that it is possible to drive change nationally when people are sold on the benefits.

Kansas City leaders – and residents – shouldn’t judge the cost of light rail by how many trips to the gas station it will save them. This math hides the many other costs of driving – from vehicle cost to upkeep to insurance to air pollution – while ignoring many of the benefits of light rail. Here are a few:

• Economic development – The city has forgone hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes in the form of incentives to get developers to renovate older structures and build new ones, to attract visitors from near and far, and to allow Kansas City to compete for jobs and residents.

Light rail does all this. It provides a spine for new residential and commercial construction, making new lofts and old neighborhoods more desirable. It gives visitors from near and far more reason to come to Kansas City’s heart by tying together its many, but far-flung, amenities. And it helps Kansas City build the kind of urban environment that young, skilled workers crave and a density of talent that employers seek.

• Community relations – Light rail can help tie together the city’s neighborhoods physically and, by bringing together people of different ethnic groups, income levels and lifestyles. Contrast with the experience most of us now have each workday: leaving a neighborhood of people just like us to ride alone in a car to workplaces filled with people largely just like us.

The troubles of the Kansas City School District or of low-income neighborhoods go from theoretical and abstract to human and personal when you’re exposed to students riding to class or see people working hard to give their families a better future.

• The environment – Think beyond reducing air emissions. Consider residential density that unclogs highways and streets, and that discourages the construction of houses with more bathrooms than residents. How about the health benefits from development that encourages walking (and not just the 300 yards across the big-box store parking lot)?

It’s difficult to put a price on these “other” benefits of light rail. But they are there, if Kansas City will regain the vision of how transportation can help this city move ahead and not simply move around.

KC LRT Kansas City: Simulation of LRT on Grand Blvd. at 18th St.
[Graphic: BNIM Architects]

Light Rail Now will continue to follow the Kansas City light rail initiative, and report significant developments in forthcoming articles.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/25

More on Public Transport in Kansas City...

More on Rail Transit Development...

22 August 2008

Euclid Corridor "BRT" – "just like light rail" ... or maybe not?

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s new Euclid Corridor "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") project, 6.7 miles of line with a project cost of approximately $200 million, is tentatively headed for launch this coming October – and it's already been turned into one of the latest battlewagons of "BRT" bus promoters in their ongoing campaign to convince the public that "BRT" is "just like rail, but cheaper".
[Map: GCRTA]


"Our system has almost every attribute of rail except rail" proclaimed Joe Calabrese, GCRTA chief executive officer, in an interview published in the Toledo Blade (August 12th).

Lately, "BRT" promoters' attention has particularly focused on claims of the Euclid project's association with transit-oriented development (TOD) in the corridor. As an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (10 February 2008) asserted,

City planning literature is packed with proof that streetcars and light rail inspire "transit-oriented development." So far, it seems, bus rapid transit is doing the same in Cleveland.

Bill Vincent, head of the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center, claims (MassTransit Online Exclusive, 8 July 2008) that Cleveland's experience, along with the experiences of a couple of other cities,

shows that land use and economic development impacts are not the exclusive province of rail transit. These developments are every bit as substantial as developments around rail systems.

First of all, just how much "cheaper" is "BRT" as an alternative to light rail transit (LRT) in the Euclid corridor? The original Alternatives Analysis contrasted the "BRT" project not to a surface streetcar light rail system – the obvious option to an arterial "BRT" – but to a "Dual-Hub" rapid LRT alternative, including a subway connection. (See Kenneth G. Sislak, Bus Rapid Transit as a Substitute for Light Rail Transit: A Tale of Two Cities", in Light Rail: Investment for the Future – 8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit, 2000.)

It doesn't take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out that the bus altrnative was low-balled, while the logical rail alternative was loaded with extra costs, pricing it out of the running.

Cleveland BRT With a unit cost that works out to about $30 million per mile, the Euclid "BRT" actually is fairly close to the cost of recent double-track modern LRT streetcar projects, such as those in Portland ($26 million/mile, 2006) and Seattle ($40 million/mile, 2007) – and some lines have been installed for significantly less (such as Tampa, Memphis, Little Rock). However, instead of a system running electric railcars, that can benefit from the environmental and economic advantages of relatively cheaper electric power, and can increase capacity with reduced labor costs by coupling into trains, the Euclid Corridor project will be running diesel-fueled buses, each with its own driver (for reasons unknown, the GCRTA prefers to call their rolling stock "Euclid Corridor Vehicles", or ECVs, and doesn't like to call them buses).
[Photo: Toledo Blade]

Ridership for the Euclid Corridor "BRT" is projected at approximately 22,000 passenger-trips per day.

Regarding Euclid's comparative "BRT" investment vs. the alternative investment that could have been made in LRT, Ed Tennyson – a transportation engineering consultant, former Deputry Transportation Secretary of Pennsylvania, and now a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project – makes the following observations:

The $30 million BRT "cost" per mile is not a "cost". It is an investment in a fixed asset that must be amortized or depreciated annually. That is where the "cost" comes in, and when the pavement crumbles, it must be replaced. After 15 years fhe buses must be replaced. That also is where the cost comes in, along with the drivers and the articulated bus maintenance, the mechanics, and so on. It will not turn out to be such low cost after all.

In regard to TOD impact, much of the discussion of real estate development in and around the Euclid corridor seems to ignore the fact that Cleveland already has a well-developed light rail and rail rapid transit system. In regard to the TOD impacts of the Euclid Corridor "BRT" project in particular, as far as the Light Rail Now Project team can determine, most of the heavy investment cited by the GCRTA and reported in various articles is occurring either at Public Square or University Circle, both of which are also major interchange stations for Cleveland's Red Line rail rapid transit system. This would make debatable at least some of the TOD impact allocated to the "BRT" project.

As Ed Tennyson also points out,

According to the news, only one billion dollars of real estate development consists of taxpaying projects. All the rest are non-profit, politically sponsored, or related projects that can be dictated by Cleveland city planning but that take money from the city rather than put money in. Even the billion of private money may have been attracted by the existing rail rapid transit at the ends of the "BRT" corridor and the non-profit institutions that will bring people in.

What about diesel fuel at $4 to $5 per gallon? How can anyone justify that over clean, low-cost electricity?

Cleveland rapid transit Cleveland's Red Line rapid transit train arrives at Tower City/Public Square station in Euclid corridor. Substantial TOD impact may be accountable to rail transit as well as new "BRT".
[Photo: Jason R. DeCesare]

The fallacy of the "just like rail, but cheaper" argument for "BRT" is implicity refuted by the Toledo Blade article cited above, which observes that, "For many urban planners, busing systems also have become the figurative poor man’s light rail, a shot below the mark for cities focusing on asphalt instead of track and relying on tenuous data promising real estate development around buses."

The Blade story related the views of John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, based in Chicago, who insisted that "developers are more likely to be attracted to areas along rail stations or lines where the city has signaled its intention to make large, nearly indelible investments."

"Light rail is good because it’s permanent" Norquist told the Toledo reporter. "People say with buses they’re good because they’re flexible, but they could disappear at any moment."

According to the Blade article, despite the fanfare over Cleveland's Euclid "BRT" and similar bus projects, investment in LRT tends to make more sense than investment in "BRT":

The push toward rail is being seen in other U.S. cities.

About 100 years after its invention, light rail experienced a heavy resurgence. Most of the United States’ busiest light rail systems today were built or intensely renovated in the last two decades, including lines in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; Denver, and Dallas.

Even smaller cities such as Little Rock, Tacoma, and Galveston, Texas, have invested in light rail systems since the turn of the century.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston shuttles over a quarter million people per day on its green and red lines, making it by far the largest light-rail operation in the country.

Despite touting the Euclid "BRT" as a kind of "rail without rail" project, even GCRTA CEO Calabrese seems to exhibit some reservations about the commitment to "BRT". The Blade report summarizes his view that, in cities like Cleveland, while bus ridership has grown in recent months, "diesel costs have ballooned. And those fuel bills threaten the revenue and viability of busing systems across the country."

"Many systems around the state, instead of adding service when demand is at an all-time high, are probably going to be cutting service" Calabrese warned, adding that "My diesel bill went from $5 million in 2003, to $12 million last year, to $21 million this year, and it should be about $24 million next year."

As the paper reported, Calabrese acknowledged that "Cleveland could have been well served by a light-rail system bringing additional speed, carrying capacity, and pollution abatement to the city, but that the project would have been too expensive."

"The projects are getting more and more difficult to get funded" he told the reporter. "[Rail] is very expensive to build and very expensive to maintain."

However, it's important to note that the LRT alternative to "BRT" in the Euclid corridor was a very different project – including a subway that Cleveland's "BRT" planners opted to omit.

In addition, it's important to note that the Euclid project is GCRTA's first busway. After they have some experience under their belt with maintaining the paveways, stations, and ancillary facilities, as well as the specially built "BRT" buses, plus providing them with diesel fuel, it will be interesting to see just how much "cheaper" maintenance of this bus operation actually turns out to be compared with rail.

NOTE: This article has been slightly revised since original publication. The original article stated that the Euclid Corridor Alternatives Analysis and cost estimates had been performed "while Norman Mineta was still Secretary of George W. Bush's Department of Transportation." Actually, most AA work and cost estimation was performed in the 1990s during the preceding Clinton administration.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/25

More on Public Transport in Cleveland...

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17 August 2008

Regional passenger rail project gets federal thumbs-up

Rail map Orlando, Florida — The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has announced that the first phase of a proposed 61-mile regional passenger rail ("commuter rail") line focused on Orlando has been cleared for the final design phase. The new rail service is expected to open for service in 2011. The project's investment cost is estimated at somewhat more than $1 billion, according to a report on Fox 35 News (11 Aug. 2008).

"This announcement brings Central Florida within grasp of a cost-effective alternative to crippling gasoline costs and growing highway congestion along I-4" said US Rep. John Mica, a powerful Republican who has championed the rail project.

According to a report in the Daytona Beach News-Journal (August 11, 2008), the FTA approved an initial 32-mile segment segment "connecting DeBary and Sand Lake Road in Orange County along a rail corridor owned by CSX Transportation of Jacksonville."

"The next phase would extend one end of the line to Poinciana in Orange County and the other to DeLand" reports the paper, adding the following details:

The estimated cost for the first segment is $357 million, with the federal government picking up 50 percent, the state picking up 25 percent and Volusia, Orange and Seminole counties and Orlando picking up 25 percent.

State Department of Transportation officials said the approval cleared the way to spend $60 million of that on final design.

As the Fox News report elaborates,

The Federal Transit Administration's approval to enter the final design phase means that federal environmental work has been completed and the project sponsor can begin expenditure of federal funds for right of way acquisition, equipment and other project requirements.

The Florida Department of Transportation can now move forward with contracts to design twelve rail stations between Fort Florida Road in DeBary and Sand Lake Road in Orlando. The project will also get its own dedicated funding request in the next president's budget, instead of simply being eligible to compete for a portion of an unspecified sum of money.

The next hurdle comes for state legislators, who must approve a liability agreement to allow rail operations along the 61-mile route, before proceeding with a full funding grant agreement with the federal government. Lakeland-area lawmakers have resisted the project for fear that extra freight trains will be rerouted away from Orlando and into Polk County.

"Once we have a full funding grant agreement in place, actual construction can begin and Central Florida will have a more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly transportation alternative that will take thousands of cars off our roads every day," Mica added.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/17

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17 August 2008

State of Texas to Austin transit: Get lost

Across the globe, scientists and national governments are agitating for more energy-efficient public transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Diminishing petroleum supplies, plus intensifying Third World industrialization, are causing motor fuel prices to soar out beyond the Earth's gravity. Throughout America, public transport services are being inundated with a surge of additional passengers, and the public are clamoring for expansion.

So political leaders and legislators are responding swiftly and responsibly to improve and expand urban mass transit, right?


As our article With Rail Leading, America's Transit Ridership Soars – But After Years of Underfunding, Agencies Plunge Into Crisis points out, in state after state, city after city – and at the federal level – public transit is under siege like never before.

Funding is increasingly constricted. Various interest groups are fighting new services and beneficial projects. And government policies continue to treat public transport more as a stepchild that must be tolerated rather than as an essential public service that must be promoted.

Nowhere is this currently better illustrated than in Austin, Texas, where the state government is expelling Capital Metro's transit service from its Capitol stop (11th and Congress) – not only one of the system's busiest transfer hubs, serving at least two dozen routes, but also certainly one of its most venerable, dating from the late 19th century.

Initially, state officials cited "security and safety" concerns as a pretext for the expulsion. But, as this rationale evaporated under scrutiny, the state has reverted to ... no reason at all. And Gov. Perry's officials have shown no interest whatsoever in the forthcoming impact on transit passengers or the system's ridership.

In the following report, LRN research associate Susan Pantell provides additional details about this controversial eviction-order against transit, and insight into some of the probable underlying motivations.

The Texas State Preservation Board, which consists of appointees by the Republican Governor, Rick Perry, notified the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) in November 2007 that they must close the Capitol Transfer Center bus stop, in front of the Capitol building in Austin, by November 2008. The Capitol Transfer Center, which is located at 11th Street and Congress Avenue, occupies a sliver of state property at the edge of 11th Street.

Capitol bus stop Austin's Capitol Transfer Center stop will disappear by 24 August 2008, when Texas Governor Rick Perry's State Preservation Board will evict Capital Metro from this busy transit location, established well over a century ago.
[Photo: L. Henry]

The Preservation Board cited safety and security concerns around the Capitol as the reason for the closure. Buses heading north on Congress Avenue turn left (west) onto 11th Street and stop at the bus stop on the north side of 11th Street, about 100 feet west of the south exit from the Capitol. The Governor's office proclaimed that the change is necessary because new security measures at the Capitol will require all vehicles using the Capitol access roads to exit the grounds at 11th Street. The Capitol grounds were recently closed to public vehicles; state troopers guard the gates to ensure that only authorized drivers enter, and retractable bollards will be placed at the exit on 11th Street to block the entrance by vehicles. [Austin American-Statesman, 28 May 2008.]

The Preservation Board insisted that the stop is a security risk because the westbound buses might stack up and slow the free flow of cars leaving the Capitol grounds, a theoretical situation which could lead to delays or accidents. [Austin American-Statesman, 11 Jan. 2008.] The board provided no data to support these concerns, and did not explain why they claim to have jurisdiction over safety issues when their legal mandate is only to "preserve, maintain and restore" the Capitol and its grounds. [Press release, Debbie Russell, President, ACLU-TX, Spring 2008.]

Efforts by CapMetro to reach an agreement with the Preservation Board to keep the transfer center where it is or find a suitable alternative failed. CapMetro presented three alternatives for keeping the stop at 11th Street, but the state denied these options without explaining why they did not meet their concerns. The CapMetro Board voted to move the stop on an interim basis to 10th Street and Congress Avenue.

The new location will disrupt travel patterns that have been in operation for over a hundred years. People will have to cross at a busy intersection to access connector buses that they could previously access at one stop. The intersection at 10th Street is not designed for the significant increase in pedestrian traffic, which will likely result in bottlenecks, safety concerns, and difficulties accessing businesses at that location. Congress Avenue has more traffic than 11th Street, and there are no dedicated bus lanes. Cars parked diagonally along Congress will have added difficulty maneuvering in and out. The current location has a number of design elements that make it preferable including natural shade, accessibility, level ground, wide sidewalks with no businesses, and nearby security officers. The new location will also be less appealing to tourists because the buses will no longer stop directly in front of the Capitol.

map As this historic map indicates, 11th St. was also a major segment of the original Austin streetcar system's route, so the Capitol stop (marked by a red dot) probably dates from the 19th century.
[Photo: Travis County Historical Collection, LRN alteration]

All eight members of the legislative delegation from Travis County, in which Austin and the Capitol are located, sent a letter to the Preservation Board asking for the stop to be preserved. The letter stated that none of them could ever remember buses blocking the south exit from the Capitol grounds at the intersection of Congress and 11th Street, so there is not a safety hazard as claimed by the Preservation Board. If buses turning westbound on to 11th Street extended all the way to the intersection, then northbound buses on Congress Ave. waiting at the light (or westbound buses at the 11th St. light) would not pull out into the intersection if the light is green. It would be illegal for them to do so. They would need to wait for a cycle of the lights until the intersection was clear. [Austin American-Statesman, 28 May, 2008.]

This bus stop has long been the main route interchange facility for central downtown Austin. It serves 27 bus routes, and another 20 pass near enough for it to be a transfer point for them. About 2900 passengers per day use the bus stop. In a letter to Governor Perry dated May 23rd, CapMetro Board Vice-Chairwoman Margaret Gomez warned, "The removal of this bus stop would have a tremendous impact on our service and is an essential access point to Capitol visitors, state employees and the many Austinites who use this stop daily." [Austin American-Statesman, 28 May, 2008.]

Because the safety concerns are not substantiated, some public transit advocates suspect another motivation for moving the bus stop. Dave Dobbs, Executive Director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation (and publisher of Light Rail Now), writes in a letter published in the Austin-American Statesman, "destroying Austin's most vital downtown transit junction may send significant numbers of transit-riding state employees back to their cars and increase traffic on our roads, most Austin's bus riders are minorities and earn less than $20,000 annually. Moving the buses is really about keeping 'those kind of people' away from the Capitol grounds and Governor's Mansion." [10 Jan. 2008.] (Note: This is the same Governor's Mansion that was severely damaged in a fire in June 2008, in a purported act of arson linked to poor security by the Texas Department of Public Safety.) In addition, he points out that "literally thousands of buses pass the National Capitol in Washington every day and stop regularly within 300 feet of the building, next to the Congressional Office Buildings, the Library of Congress, etc. . . .it's clear that 'security' is being used to promote another agenda here in Austin." [Letter to, 11 Jan. 2008.]

Capitol stop Since the 19th century, the Capitol Transfer center has been one of the most heavily used stops in Austin's transit system, with passengers accessing and interchanging among more than two dozen routes in recent years – yet this kind of busy transit scene will be history by the end of August 2008, as the governor's appointees evict transit from this location. Some transit advocates argue that Texas state officials don't want "those people" (transit riders) near the Capitol.
[Photo: L. Henry]

With the rise in motor fuel prices, concern about foreign oil supplies, need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and auto congestion a significant problem in cities, particularly in Austin, government leaders should be doing everything they can to support public transit and encourage more riders. This relocation of a major downtown bus transfer hub will accomplish just the opposite.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/17

More on Public Transport in Austin...

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13 August 2008

Grand Rapids:
Streetcar proposal gets boost from projections of major benefits

Grand Rapids, Michigan — Community interest in a possible light rail transit (LRT) streetcar system continues to grow, now fueled by the results of a feasibility study, a draft of which was released in late May. According to the study, a 3.2-mile streetcar starter line would cost about US$78.8 million (about $25 million/mile) in 2008 dollars, or about $92.8 million (about $29 million/mile) in 2012 dollars.

Grand Rapids streetcars Grand Rapids streetcars are proposed to run in mixed-traffic lanes, mostly in curbside lane or adjacent to parking lane (as at left of illustration).
[Graphic: The Rapid]

However, the benefits projected from the project seem to be giving the proposal a boost, and provide, for other urban areas, some indication of the kinds of payback that are leading so many communities around the nation to pursue their own streetcar dreams.

"Results of a feasibility study indicate that a streetcar system in the downtown area – just the first 1.6-mile segment of it – would spur some $388 million in new development and create more than 700 new jobs in Kent County over nine years" reports WZZM 13 News (July 7th), which also notes that "Usage by tourists and convention goers could be one of the more notable system benefits...."

The original (May) economic development analysis, prepared by a consortium of the consultants DMJM Harris/AECOM, projects that the project would produce a return on investment ranging from 1.47 (earnings/cost, state of Michigan) to 4.58 (output/cost, state of Michigan).

The WZZM 13 News report elaborates on some other projected benefits:

According to study projections, if the streetcar system was implemented in 2012, $388 million in housing, office, retail and hotel development would follow between 2012 and 2021 in the one-quarter mile surrounding the proposed streetcar route. The streetcar would stimulate a 74 percent increase in residential units in the area, including condos, apartments and student housing. Within that same timeframe, the occupied square footage of office space would likely increase 24 percent, and occupied square footage of retail space would likely jump 67 percent. The study also indicated that the route would spur a 31 percent increase in the number of hotel rooms in the downtown area.

Each $1 of capital investment in the streetcar would generate an estimated $3.77 in sales for Kent County businesses and $4.58 in sales for the state, the report indicates. The initial streetcar segment would stimulate the creation of 772 in Kent County with an average annual wage of just over $38,000. That translates into $72 million in earnings from jobs in Kent County, which is only slightly less than the estimated $81 million cost of the first leg of the project. The study indicates the streetcar would generate $72 million in earnings from jobs in Kent County, which is only slightly less than the estimated $78.7 million cost of the first leg of the project. The project would also create 1,269 new jobs in the state, as well.

Furthermore, the streetcar would add nearly $15.7 million in personal income tax and property tax to Kent County coffers, as well as garner some $6.9 million in taxes for the state.

streetcar map The WZZM report also relates that, per the proposed design, "the first leg of the streetcar system is aligned to travel along Monroe and Market avenues from the Sixth Street Bridge on Newberry Street to Rapid Central Station." The news story further explains that "The Public Transportation Tomorrow Taskforce selected the Monroe-Market route for its economic development potential, its connection to major existing venues, and preliminary construction estimates and operational considerations, such as street grade and vehicle maneuverability."

Currently, Grand Rapids has a modest-sized all-bus transit system, called The Rapid and operated under the management of the Interurban Partnership Board.

Even before the streetcar project has been approved for implementation, local planners seem to be envisioning expansion:

The route provides multiple options for future streetcar extensions, according to Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid. He said the task force [evaluating streetcar feasibility] is already envisioning the next possible alignment.

Grand Rapids officials envision that construction of the streetcar project's first segment would be funded under a public-private process, eschewing federal funds because, reports WZZM, citing executive director Varga, "under the federal New Starts program, The Rapid cannot compete effectively against cities that are vying for those funds to build streetcar systems that go long distances." This glitch in project evaluation rules of the Federal Transit Administration has for some time been identified by streetcar proponents, such as the American Public Transit Association's Vintage Trolley and Streetcar Subcommittee, who have tried to have adjustments made in the process – so far, without success.

Despite such hurdles, and federal efforts to discourage streetcars and other rail modes, Grand Rapids planners believe the advantages of streetcar transit justify their efforts. As the WZZM report notes, "Data compiled by the American Public Transit Association and the Community Streetcar Association indicates that streetcars generally provide 10 to 20 times their initial construction cost in private investment on or near the streetcar alignment.

Meanwhile, the streetcar proposal continues to inch forward. The Interurban Partnership Board accepted the feasibility study in late June and referred it back to the Strategic Planning Committee for further analysis and identification of the next steps in the process.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/13

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8 August 2008

More spectacular ridership gains for Hiawatha light rail transit

Minneapolis, Minnesota — Light rail transit (LRT) ridership on the Hiawatha starter line has continued its spectacular record of gains, with an increase of 18 percent over a year ago for the month of June, and 15 percent for the month of May.

Average weekday ridership in June came in at about 32,200 vs. about 26,400 in June 2007. Average Saturday ridership was also up, recorded at about 24,900 vs. 22, 600 in June 2007, and average Sunday ridership reached about 19,900 vs. 18,600 the previous year.

The impressive performance of the Hiawatha LRT line has continued to inspire local advocates, planners, and decisionmakers to pursue the proposed Central Corridor LRT project, an 11-mile LRT line that would connect Minneapolis with its companion city of St. Paul. Currently, planners are struggling with a change in rules from the Bush government's Federal Transit Administration, which raised its "cost-effectiveness" benchmark and required that the estimate of some costs be escalated.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/08

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8 August 2008

Bush DOT's privatization & motorization scheme = "Been There, Done That"

The Light Rail Now website's article With Rail Leading, America's Transit Ridership Soars – But After Years of Underfunding, Agencies Plunge Into Crisis (originally published 6 August 2008) raises critical questions about several policy trends emerging from the US Bush administration's Department of Transportation (DOT).

These include an intensified effort "to promote motor-vehicle transportation just as the Peak Oil crisis has begun to be felt", and an apparent goal of "privatizing the entire transportation system" – particularly the conversion of mass transportation from a predominantly publicly supported mobility system to some kind of private-profit-based system.

"And hasn't the USA already 'Been There, Done That'?" the article asks.

LRN publisher Dave Dobbs elaborates on these issues:

Didn't the transit transit "privatization" model basically collapse in the Transit Holocaust of the 1930s-60s, when the US government over-regulated the private railways and built vast networks of "socialized", supposedly "free" (tax-supported) roads that made the private-market model of urban public transit, passenger rail, and much of the freight railway system impossible? (Remember Conrail?)

Instead of trying to turn back the clock in the middle of the greatest world energy shortage in history, is not a more equitable distribution of funds to transit, where it will get the most bang for the buck, a better solution than building more roads of any kind?

Consider that, since FY 2004, the US Government has budgeted over four times as much money for roads as it has for public transit in the last five years – and even while the Bush administration calls for "privatization," the proposed Bush highway budget would be the highest in history at $43.338 billion, by "borrowing" $3.2 billion from the Mass Transit Trust Fund!

Why, with rising fuel prices, when America can't afford to maintain the roads and bridges it has and transit clearly delivers more passengers for the dollar spent, are we building more roads?

For DOT budget trend data, see NARP News (National Association of Railroad Passengers newsletter), March 2008, page 2, table titled "Proposed Fiscal 2009 Transportation Funding Compared with Previous Years".

For further discussion of the Bush gambit to steal transit funds, see:

For background information on Conrail, see Wikipedia article:

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/08

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4 August 2008

Stamford eyes light rail streetcar system

The small Connecticut city of Stamford (current population about 124,000) is one of the most recent US cities to seriously consider re-installing an electric streetcar system, approximately 75 years after its earlier system (operated by the Connecticut Company electric railway) was discarded in the early years of the nation's devastating Transit Holocaust (1933).

 xxxxxxxxx Stamford's earlier streetcar system, operated by the Connecticut Company, once linked the city to Bridgeport and other Connecticut cities and towns in a vast network of electric public transport that eventually fell victim to America's Transit Holocaust. Here, a Stamford trolley runs down Main St. on the last day of service, 11 November 1933.
[Photo: Stamford Historical Society]

According to an article in the Stamford Advocate (July 28th), Mayor Dannel Malloy is envisioning "a modern trolley system, now called light rail."

With the urging of Mayor Malloy, city representatives in late July approved a $141,000 contract with URS Corp. for a streetcar feasibility study.

Initial conceptualization is suggesting a 2.3-mile starter line, possibly with stretches of single track, connecting the Metro-North regional passenger rail station, downtown Stamford, and residential development expected to expand near the I-95 freeway. Investment cost for the initial line is projected at about $100 million in current dollars. "The study is the first step toward securing federal funding" reported the Advocate.

According to the news article, citing city transportation planner Joshua Lecar, "Light rail would attract people who otherwise would drive .... Riders find light rail easier to navigate than a bus and service is usually more frequent...."

Because of space limitations, a light rail system likely would share lanes with car traffic, but it could be given priority at traffic signals, Lecar said.
Developers like the rails because such a system cannot easily be rerouted, like a bus, Lecar said.

Again citing Lecar, the paper noted that "Squeezing light rail on city streets will be a challenge.... Stamford has a dense urban center and traditional downtown – all good for light rail – but it lacks wide boulevards to accommodate it...."

Unfortunately, despite the emergent petroleum crisis that has spiked motor fuel prices, Stamford's streetcar dreams are not exactly on a fast track to fulfillment – construction of the system is not expected for 10 to 12 years, when the city's population is projected to reach about 131,000.

Nevertheless, Lecar told the reporter, "If you don't have a little bit of vision and faith in that kind of future, forward-looking project, it is just not going to happen, and you are going to be in a situation 10 years from now when gas is $10 a gallon, and you still don't have a way to get people around the city."

While, as the Advocate notes, "There is no exact model for Stamford's system", Kenosha, Wisconsin (with a population of about 96,000) has a small streetcar starter line that has been in operation since 2000. See:
Kenosha, Wisconsin Streetcar System: Workable Light Rail Meets Small-Town Mobility and Urban Development Needs

Len Brandrup, Kenosha's director of transportation, related that his city's streetcar system had helped promote the redevelopment of a brownfield now holding a museum, housing, and a marina – with more development in planning.

Brandrup's advice to Stamford city leaders on investing in a streetcar system was brief and clear: "Just do it."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/08/04

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18 July 2008

Led by rail, DART transit ridership setting records

Ridership on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) public transit network has been setting records, reaching its highest levels in the history of the agency two months in a row, according to a recent DART media release (17 July 2008).

By far the sharpest gains were experienced in the agency's rail operations, with both DART Rail (light rail transit, or LRT) and the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) regional passenger rail (RPR, or "commuter rail") operations posting their highest-ever average weekday ridership totals.

• DART Rail (LRT) – average weekday ridership 69,861 rider-trips, up 14.2% over June 2007
• Trinity Railway Express (RPR) – average weekday ridership 11,105 rider-trips, up 19.8% over the same period.

DART's systemwide bus ridership also showed a significant gain, with average weekday ridership of 157,794 up 6.8% over June 2007, and the monthly total up 6.2% over the same period of 2007.

These performance data expose once again as utter nonsense the contention of of rail transit opponents that rail development "robs" the transit system of resources and produces a "disastrous decline" in ridership. On the contrary, DART's impressive successes in building ridership and lowering unit operating costs have been generally and consistently characteristic of all systems where the expansion of new LRT and other rail transit services has been vigorously pursued.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/07/18

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11 July 2008

SEPTA light rail ridership up 54.2%

The following report by transit journalist and advocate Ed Havens on rail transit developments in Philadelphia is slightly adapted from material previously posted to online discussion lists.

If you read the statistical tables accompanying the American Public Transportation Association's first quarter 2008 ridership report (recently released), you would have noted a surprise not included in APTA's news release.

The press information listed a nationwide increase of 10.3% for all light rail categories including light rail transit (LRT), modern streetcar, and traditional trolley and heritage trolley systems. It listed the highest gain as 476% for the revived New Orleans streetcar system and LRT double-digit increases of 16.8% at Baltimore, 16.4% at Minneapolis, 15.6% at St. Louis, and 12.2% at San Francisco.

What the news release did not mention was that Philadelphia-based Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recorded a 54.2% light rail gain from January to March 2008 compared with the same three-month period of 2007. So SEPTA's double-digit increase in ridership was the highest of any agency operating light rail, with the exception of New Orleans (which was recovering from the impact of Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding).

What accounted for Philadelphia's gain?

SEPTA operates four types of light rail services:

• City Transit Division's five subway-surface routes
• CTD's all-surface Route 15, the 8.2-mile Girard Ave. line
• Suburban Transit Division's Media-Sharon Hill broad gauge lines
• STD's Route 100, the standard-gauge Norristown High Speed Line

SEPTA Rte. 100 SEPTA's Route 100 light rapid transit line, connecting Philadelphia's suburban 69th St. terminal with Norristown, shares in the ridership spurt being experienced by the system's light rail services.
[Photo: David Pirmann]

Both Route 100 and the subway-surface system operate closely spaced headways during peak period commuter travel. In the afternoon, Route 100 N-5 cars depart from 69th Street Terminal at Upper Darby as frequently as one to two minutes apart, which clearly is a scheduling challenge because they use the stub-ended terminal built by Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co. ("Red Arrow Lines") in 1962 to replace the run-through "temporary" terminal opened by Philadelphia & Western in 1907.

On the subway-surface lines, the most heavily traveled operate a four-minute "street", which means almost back-to-back departures from the Juniper Street (City Hall) loop in Center City Philadelphia. With gasoline prices now exceeding $4 per gallon in the Delaware Valley, the impact has been to prompt more people to use SEPTA rail transit for suburbs-to-city travel and reverse job commuting.

The latest figures show that SEPTA's three suburban light rail lines are sharing in the passenger gains, along with Regional Rail (the former Pennsylvania Railroad and Reading Company electric multiple-unit, or MU, lines) which posted a 10.4% passenger gain in the first quarter of 2008 compared with a year earlier.

The Media and Sharon Hill broad-gauge lines, operated by double-ended Kawasaki-built LRVs (light rail vehicles, i.e., interurban-type trolleys), have a combined ridership of 8,200 weekdays, while Route 100, 69th Street Terminal to Norristown, is carrying 10,000.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/07/11

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11 July 2008

John McCain's long hostility to rail public transport may now be liability

As America's 2008 presidential political campaigning intensifies, heading toward the November election, rail public transport advocates are focusing sharper critical scrutiny on Republican presidential candidate John McCain, whose signature domestic issue for well over a decade has been hostility to federal support of nationwide passenger train services.

John McCain Particularly among rail advocates, McCain is well known as a consistent critic of Amtrak who has repeatedly tried to eliminate national passenger train service by slashing funding and proposing to dismember the national system into disparate regional entities.

McCain has sought to camouflage his dismemberment plan behind a smokescreen of "privatization" schemes. A Fox News report 6 years ago (15 February 2002) was headlined "McCain Proposes Abolishing Amtrak, Turning Rail Over to Private Sector" and related that "Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed legislation on Friday that would break up Amtrak and send the nation's passenger railroad service down the track toward privatization."

Since there is virtually no private-sector interest in assuming operation of intercity rail passenger services, McCain's "private sector" call apparently seems to most rail advocates merely a gimmick to facilitate an underlying agenda of eliminating federal support of such services.

McCain's animosity toward rail service doesn't seem to be confined to intercity operations. In Phoenix – the largest city in McCain's home state of Arizona – it is widely recognized among professionals and decisionmakers involved with urban transportation development that McCain was of "absolutely no help" in the task of procuring funding assistance from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for the region's 20-mile light rail transit (LRT) line now under construction.

McCain's economic views raise concerns that a McCain administration might possibly be even more hostile to all forms of public transportation than the current Bush administration.

In a January 26th article in the New York Times titled "If Elected...Fiscal Mantra for McCain: Less Is More", McCain made clear that he intends to "cut government spending sharply ... while lowering taxes at the same time." As the article further notes, McCain "said that he would stimulate the economy by cutting government spending, a move that economists say would have the opposite effect."

Transit advocates fear that kind of language means that the McCain forces are laying the basis for more cuts to federal urban mass transit funding.

Scuttling federal support of intercity passenger service is clearly uppermost in McCain's target sights: "His campaign says it would also cut financing for programs that the White House budget office has deemed ineffective, a list that includes Amtrak."

However, with the recent intensification of a US motor fuel crisis, and fears of economic dislocation as prices head well over $4 a gallon, McCain's hostility to passenger rail seems to be boomaranging back to complicate his presidential campaign.

In this context, Amtrak ridership (as well as that of urban transit) is soaring, and Amtrak is being increasingly seen not just as a success but as a kind of resources-starved "Cinderella of American transportation" (David M. Kinchen, writing in the Huntington News of June 22nd) that could be part of the solution for American travelers.

"Travelers Shift to Rail as Cost of Fuel Rises" headlined the New York Times in a June 21st article that reported that "Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month."

"But" the article continued "the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand."

And, of course, it's becoming more widely recognized that Amtrak opponents like McCain have played a major role in maintaining those "financial constraints" that have hobbled the agency.

In effect, if Amtrak is being increasingly perceived as Cinderella, McCain is being seen as the mean-spirited stepmother who tried to keep the agency on a starvation diet.

As the Times article notes,

...Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, was a staunch opponent of subsidies to Amtrak when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Barack Obama, the probable Democratic nominee, was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill to provide an 80/20 financing match.

On the basis of McCain's stridently anti-rail passenger record, Kinchen (Huntington News, June 22nd) quips that McCain "represents the third term of George W. Bush when it comes to Amtrak...."

In a July 1st commentary in the Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson points out that

For years, McCain, in the comfort of cheap gasoline for autos and airplanes, made Amtrak a personal whipping boy. Despite the fact that governments in Western Europe and Asia zoomed far ahead of the United States by supporting high-speed trains to relieve congestion, promote tourism and now as we are coming to know, save the planet, McCain has spent considerable capital in denying the passenger rail system the capital to modernize.

Thus, with Amtrak suddenly in high favor, says Jackson,

Train travel is finally becoming a third rail of politics. The first one to fry over it might be John McCain.

McCain's attitude and program are brought into particularly sharp criticism by Will Bunch, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer of June 24th, in an article incisively titled "Why does John McCain hate trains?"

"It may not have felt that way when you were stuck in traffic on the way to work this morning, but Americans love trains" writes Bunch, listing various examples to bolster his point. "Given all that, why do so many of our politicians still hate trains[?]" he asks. "Including John McCain."

"Everyone in both parties at least pays lip service now to ending our 'addiction to oil,'" Bunch notes, observing further that "buying new rail cars and making sure that Amtrak doesn't crumble is something we know we can do right now, and get real results. That seems obvious – but not to John McCain...."

Bunch then cites the characterization by the New York Times that Senator John McCain of Arizona ... was a staunch opponent of subsidies to Amtrak when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee."

Finally, Bunch points out,

McCain's longstanding jihad against Amtrak is no secret – except maybe to voters in the 2008 election. I was just searching around and found only a couple of recent articles, mostly in obscure places or in the British media, that mention the Republican's positions against funding rail. In fact, I'm a little surprised that the Obama campaign hasn't spotlighted this issue in Pennsylvania, since Amtrak has higher ridership here than anywhere else.

But these are the stakes. If you envision a future with commuters out of their SUVs and off the [Philadelphia-area] Schuylkill Expressway and onto rail cars, you're probably not picturing the McCain administration.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2008/07/11

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