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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.

17 December 2009

Oklahoma City voters approve funding for light rail streetcar

Oklahoma City — Rail transit has scored another major victory in a popular vote with the approval on December 8th of the locally designated "MAPS 3" (the third iteration of Oklahoma City's Metropolitan Area Projects, basically a public works development program).

According to a Dec. 8th Associated Press report, by a bit more than a 54 percent margin Oklahoma City voters approved the extension of a 1-cent sales tax to fund the c omprehensive urban development plan, with a $130 million public transit component out of the total of $777 million in projects ratified.

As a "MAPS 3: At a glance" article in The Oklahoman newspaper of December 6th, just prior to the election, summarized,

A modern streetcar is the key piece of MAPS 3’s transit component. The city plans to build five to six miles of track for the streetcar, which would be quieter, more comfortable and more efficient than traditional streetcar systems. The project also would include a large public transit hub, which would connect the streetcar with the city’s bus system and current and future rail lines. The transit hub would open the door for the city’s efforts to get federal funding for regional commuter rail and possibly high speed rail linking the city with Dallas, Tulsa and other major cities.

The route of the proposed starter streetcar system was described in our NewsLog article Oklahoma City: Streetcar plan gains support (26 August 2009), which reported that the route of the initial segment of the starter system would probably follow Sheridan Avenue from Bricktown, beginning near the Coca-Cola Bricktown Events Center, passing the Bricktown Ballpark, crossing the heavy-traffic arterial of Gaylord Blvd., passing the Ford Center, and perhaps terminating at the Myriad Botanical Gardens.

Additional segments would extend the line northwesterly up to the St. Anthony Hospital complex and to the northeast through the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, eventually terminating at the Capitol complex.

A firm route plan has not been finalized, but, using information from both official and media sources, a transit advocate identified as Platemeker published the following sketch map on the OKCTalk discussion forum website:


In a November 29th story, The Oklahoman cited Jeff Bezdek, a downtown resident and chairman of the pro-streetcar Modern Transit Project, in reporting that "other cities that have put in a modern streetcar have seen a 10-to-1 investment by the private sector along the streetcar's route."

While a specific route has not been chosen, reported the paper, Mayor Mick Cornett indicated he favors a "spoke and hub" system "that would function as legitimate transit rather than a loop that would only really serve tourists."

"The idea is to put a down payment on this regional system and be able to apply for and procure federal dollars" Bezdek told the newspaper. "The easiest way to get to the top of the list is to show that your community is committed to a mass transit plan."

"It's hard to picture getting around in Oklahoma City without a car, but Mayor Cornett said he believes that will change", reported The Oklahoman.

Mayor Cornett told the paper that the $130 million public transit portion of MAPS 3 "is all about what the city can do to prepare for a future in which a car won't be the only way to get around."

"A streetcar system and a downtown transit hub linking buses, the streetcar and rail lines are the city's first step toward that future" said the paper, citing Cornett.

[GRAPHIC] Simulation of proposed streetcar running through Bricktown historical district, which would be linked to a variety of other important destinations and activity centers, including downtown, the Amtrak station, a planned intermodal transfer hub, the St. Anthony Hospital complex, various sports and entertainment venues, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, and the Capitol complex.
[Photo: Keep OKC Moving]

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/12/17

More on Public Transport in Oklahoma City

More on Streetcars...

More on Transit Initiative Campaigns...

More on Rail Transit Development...

10 December 2009

France programs massive investment of as much as €21 billion (US $29 billion) for urban electric rail transit development

The government of France has announced plans to award major capital grants to help fund investment in new public transport systems, according to a recent report in Tramways & Urban Transit (TAUT, June 2009), the authoritative international magazine about light rail and urban rail transit developments published by the British Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA). "It gives the reasons as both to improve the environment and support the national economic recovery" says the magazine's report – adding that this new spurt of urban electric rail investment "is the first stage of an announced 1500km [930 miles] of new tramway covering just provincial cities across the country."

In what's described as the "first stage" of a massive investment in new tramway (light rail/streetcar) development, the French government has committed funding within a "financial envelope" of €1 billion (about US $1.4 billion) to support a list of 57 tramway projects. In addition, the government also announced a commitment of €15 to €20 billion (about $21 to 28 billion) for capital funding to help finance "a state-of-the-art 130km [81-mile] automated metro for the capital of Paris, which will have a total of 60 stations and be known as Arc Express." This "ambitious project" could be completed by 2020, says the TAUT report.

France's commitment to urban rail transit eclipses by far the USA's rail transit funding gestures, which seem puny by comparison. Even with the Obama administration's 2009 stimulus package, America, with about 5 times France's population, has committed only about $8 billion – and that's for both high-speed intercity rail passenger projects and "inner-city rail". In other words, with about 5 times France's population, the USA has committed less than one-third as much central government spending for this crucial public transport program – despite all the "yak" about a "green economy", reducing carbon emissions, addressing the "peak oil" crisis by reducing dependency on petroleum, and the need to shape more efficient urban development and transport patterns and reduce the ongoing costs of mobility.

In contrast, the magnitude of France's current urban rail development program already under way is staggering:

• Electric trolleybus projects in 5 cities...
• Metro expansion in 2 cities (in addition to Paris)...
• Electric tramway (light rail streetcar) development in 30 cities...

France has been encouraging urban rail transit development – especially light rail tramways – by leaps and bounds. Over the past couple of decades, "new start" tramways have been installed and "legacy" tramway systems upgraded in more than a dozen French cities. (See, for example, our collection of articles at France – Rail Transit, Light Rail, Tramway, and Public Transport Developments.)

Currently, according to the LRTA's summary A world of trams and urban transit – A complete listing of Light Rail, Light Railway, Tramway & Metro systems throughout the World, totally new tramway projects (i.e., "new starts") are under construction in six more French cities:

• Angers — completion scheduled for 2010...
• Brest — completion scheduled for 2012...
• Le Havre — completion scheduled for 2011...
• Reims — completion scheduled for 2011...
• Toulouse — completion scheduled for 2010...
• Tours — completion scheduled for 2013...

France has also been aggressively developing tram-train operations – light rail services that run as trams (streetcars or more advanced LRT systems) on urban streets and reservations, then share "heavy rail" railway lines with intercity rail passenger trains. This type of operation is currently adamantly prohibited in the USA by the Federal Railroad Administration, but it has become widespread in Europe, where it's been operating safely and efficiently for nearly two decades.

Currently, in addition to those operating and planned, new tram-train systems are under construction in two French cities that already operate brand-new urban tramway systems:

• Mulhouse — completion scheduled for 2011..
• Nantes — completion scheduled (in stages) for 2010-2013...

And, in addition to its existing new tramway system, Lyon has a more advanced, high-performance LRT system also under construction, due for completion in 2010.

Bottom line: While the United States excels among the world's advanced countries in procrastinating, dreaming, and dithering in terms of urban rail transit development, France is moving rapidly and aggressively to actually put in place a comprehensive, efficient, cost-effective, and highly "green" network of urban electric metros, trolleybus lines, and tramways that will provide lower-cost public transport, ensure quality urban mobility, dramatically minimize petroleum dependency, and help reduce carbon emissions for generations to come.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/12/10

More on Public Transport in France

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Electrification Issues...

Toward a "New Deal" for Public Transport ...

5 December 2009

Reno planning to convert new "BRT" line to streetcar system

Reno, Nevada — "BRT", we hardly knew ye?

It's only been in service less than a month, but already the city's new Virigina Street "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") line is being slated for conversion to streetcar-type light rail transit (LRT) technology.

map On October 11th, financed in part by $7.4 million in federal funding, Reno opened a so-called "BRT" operation running articulated buses along a 14-stop route in the Virginia Street corridor – a service already credited with generating a roughly 10% increase in ridership. The route is shown on the map at right.
[Map: Downtown Makeover]

However, even before the "BRT" line opened, city officials were already planning to convert the "rapid bus" line to streetcar operation and eventually faster, higher-capacity light rail for economic development reasons – citing the experience of Portland, Oregon as an example.

According to a report in the April 30th Reno Gazette-Journal, John Hester, the city's economic development director, "says rail systems make private investment happen."

Citing Hester for its source, Gazette-Journal went on to report that

The Reno City Council approved a plan to convert to street cars and light-rail, making Virginia Street wide enough for bus, street cars, eventually trains and other motor vehicles.... New lots would be required to replace the lost parking.

Street cars, fueled by an overhead electric cable, would travel from central downtown to the university and would be the next phase after buses.

The council also wants a new Virginia Street bridge strong enough for rail cars. Eventually, a light rail line would run from the University of Nevada campus to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center....

Six months later, the streetcar project took a dramatic step forward, according to a Nov. 13th Gazette-Journal report:

Aiming to kick-start a streetcar/light rail project along Virginia Street and rebuild central Reno, local transportation officials Thursday approved spending $200,000 for planning.
The Regional Transportation Commission ordered staff update studies needed to get federal money for the $151 million line....

The $200,000 apparently was redirected into the rail project from funds left over from the "rapid bus" project. The study would Include examining alternatives to the rail project and implementing a new "rapid bus" service on Fourth Street between Reno and the suburb of Sparks "to provide more passengers for the Virginia Street rail line."

The streetcar project would be implemented in two phases:

• Phase 1 — line construction from California Avenue to the University of Nevada, Reno campus, projected to cost $67 million ...

• Phase 2 — construction from downtown to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, projected to cost $84 million...

In terms of funding ongoing operating costs, the paper notes:

Fares would be structured to cover a portion of operating and maintenance costs. For the downtown-university link, annual operating costs were estimated at $1.3 million and $3 million for the entire line.

As the Gazette-Journal reiterates, "The rail system eventually would replace the rapid bus system on Virginia Street..." with several objectives in view, including "to provide a better transit service, reduce traffic congestion and sprawl and encourage a higher density of development down Reno's main corridor...."

Urban revitalization seems to be a major focus of the interest in LRT-streetcar development. John Hester, identified in the article as Community Development Director, emphasized that the new rail system would "enable urban renewal to take root in rundown sections along Virginia Street."

Hester again cited the experience of Portland, Oregon's 2.4-mile streetcar line, which is credited with attracting about 10,000 dwelling units built within two blocks of the line and total new investment exceeding $3.5 billion.

"Those are the kinds of things we hope to see happen in our transit corridor" Hester told the newspaper.

Hester said that planning for the streetcar would include extending the rail transit line to Meadowood Mall. Tracks in Virginia Street would be laid within existing right-of-way, with parking removed from some sections of the route, resulting in in real estate cost savings estimated at $100 million.

Apparently, implementation of the Virgina Street "BRT" is being designed for either joint use with the streetcar system, or easy conversion. As the paper notes, citing Hester, "For the rapid bus system, 11 stations are planned to be built starting a year from now and would accommodate the rail system...."

According to Lee Gibson, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), . local officials hope to obtain some federal funding for the project, but at least half the project costs would need to be covered locally. Federal funding could be available in the next federal transportation bill, but that's not expected to be considered by Congress until after the 2010 election.

For the streetcar line, the local share could include a city property tax increase of 3.3 cents per $100 of assessed property valuation, Hester said. Extending the system to the convention center would require another 9.2 cents in city property taxes.
If all the funding pieces came together quickly, Hester said, the first steel for the tracks could be laid in 2012.

Reno's City Council is now faced with the challenge of deciding if it wants "to ask voters next November for authority from the Nevada Legislature to raise the limit on property taxes to provide money for the rail project" reports the Gazette-Journal.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/12/05

More on Public Transport in Reno

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

More on "BRT" and Busways

22 November 2009

Light rail boosts uptown's economic revival

Phoenix — "Light rail contributes to Phoenix area's revival" is the headline of a June 8th Arizona Republic article describing what the paper calls a "renaissance" attributed at least in part to the urban area's new Metro light rail transit (LRT) line (connecting central-city Phoenix with two major suburbs, Tempe and Mesa)

As the paper reports,

Uptown Phoenix, once home to dilapidated strip malls and run-down lots, is enjoying a revival of sorts. With light rail cutting straight through the central Phoenix district, more than a dozen new businesses have sprouted in the neighborhood near Camelback Road and Central Avenue from coffee shops and restaurants to an organic pet store.

The Republic quotes City Councilman Tom Simplot, speaking during a recent ceremony celebrating the spate of mom-and-pop businesses that have recently opened.

"As we hear about all the businesses closing in the malls and other parts of the city, this is proof we are really sizzling in this part of Phoenix" Simplot told the audience. "The investment [in light rail] is paying off."

As an example, the article focuses on Hula's Modern Tiki, an "Hawaiian-inspired eatery" owned by Dana Mule and his two California business partners. Having taken over a "funky" old building along the Central Avenue segment of the Metro LRT line, Hula's owners have implemented what the paper describes as "a massive $1 million remodel, nearly doubling the size of the building to 2,900 square feet." As a result, "The expansion and renovation will allow seating for up to 125, including an indoor bar and outdoor patio area."

"We looked at 50 locations in Phoenix before we found a place we really loved" Mule toward the Republic reporter. "This has the soul and character and community-based support that we were looking for."

The future Hula's is located "At the heart of the renaissance" notes the Republic, described as "the unassuming Xavier Square retail center at 4700 N. Central Ave."

Among a diversity of "trendy" retail establishments blossoming at this center is an "eco-friendly pet store", relocated to the Central Avenue site from elsewhere in Phoenix. The owner, Christopher Pulvermacher, emphasized that, in contrast with his previous location, his new location on the LRT line is more in synch with his target market.

"People downtown are more savvy about health and about what is important" he told the Republic reporter. "Most of our customers come here because of what we carry."

As for Hula's, the Republic article recounts that the restaurant "will join a small cluster of trendy restaurants along Central."

One of these is Maizie's Cafe and Bistro, whose owner, Joel Miller, told the reporter that his restaurant was received well by the community it first opened a year previously. However, noted the article, "since light-rail trains began rolling in December, there is a new energy in the neighborhood that has boosted business."

"Uptown was nothing" Miller emphasized. "It was dead. You only went to uptown if you needed a bicycle fixed or wanted to go to AJ's [Fine Foods]. Now, people are saying, 'Let's go to the north-central area,' and they are not being disappointed."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/11/22

More on Public Transport in Phoenix...

More on Urban Development and TOD...

20 November 2009

Winston-Salem, NC:
Officials eye federal stimulus funds for modern streetcar proposal

Winston-Salem, NC — Here's another US city where interest in a possible streetcar-type light rail transit (LRT) service continues to simmer. The fourth-largest city in North Carolina, Winston-Salem is located somewhat in the northeastern part of the state, somewhat northwest of Raleigh and northeast of Charlotte.

A June 17th report in The Transport Politic summarizes the current situation in regard to the streetcar proposal:

As America’s streetcar renaissance continues, more and more medium-size cities are considering an investment in the mode. The latest addition to the game: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a city of about 200,000 and the state’s fifth-largest. Transportation planners envision a 2.6 mile corridor financed by federal government stimulus funds that would redefine downtown mobility there.

The proposed trolley would run in a figure-8 pattern in mixed traffic and connect the central business district with a future commuter rail station that would provide service to nearby Greensboro if built in the next decade.

According to the Winston-Salem Journal (31 Oct. 2006), "Wide city streets and the presence of the medical center and the research park on opposite sides of the city's center make streetcars a good way to move people."

As The Transport Politic also relates, one of the city’s top priorities in construction of such a line – with an investment cost projected at about $65 million – is an attempt to leverage the benefits of improved transportation to increase commercial and residential development in Winston-Salem's downtown, current undergoing a process of renewal.

map In 2006, transportation planners with HDR Engineering evaluated the possible construction of an approximately 3.8-mlie. (6.1-km) streetcar loop along Fourth and Fifth streets, linking the Piedmont Triad Research Park downtown with Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. [Rail Transit Online, September 2006] Daily ridership at that time was estimated at 5,800 rider-trips in 2010 and 9,500 by 2025.
[Map: LRN, modified from Winston-Salem Journal]

According to The Transport Politic summary, this forecast compares with the ridership on a "trolley" decorated circulator bus "running the route today which attracts a mere thirty-seven people a day; planners argue that the rail system would be able to vastly increase the number of people choosing to ride public transportation."

Similar to almost all New Start streetcar projects in American cities, this one would represent "back to the future". As the Winston-Salem Journal (31 October 2006) has pointed out, "Winston-Salem had a streetcar system in the early 1900s, but the tracks were abandoned around 1950 as more people began to drive cars."

According to Alan Coleman and Ken Humphreys, Guide to Past & Present Traction Systems in North Carolina, at its peak Winston-Salem's electric street railway system had 43 cars and 9 miles of track. All trolley service ended on 30 December 1936, in the midst of the Transit Devastation era and the Great Depression.

To finance at least part of the project, city leaders and planning officials, as previously noted, are eyeing possible federal stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding. However, The Transport Politic is skeptical of the feasibility of the project, and whether it could actually qualify for federal funding. The article expresses some skepticism about the high ridership forecasts, particularly in comparison with the tiny ridership volume on the current circulator bus. The article notes this and other problems facing the project:

The federal government should have other priorities for streetcar funding – larger, more transit-oriented cities such as Seattle are applying for the same limited pot of money to build new trolley lines. Winston-Salem’s ridership estimates, on the other hand, are undoubtedly overestimates. Though the city’s downtown is being redeveloped, street activity remains minimal and a car culture predominates.
it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this system attracting fewer than 1,000 riders a day considering its limited destinations and the anemic ridership on the existing downtown [faux] trolley bus. As with other recent proposals, this project suffers from underambition; it’s simply too short a line to attract many users.

Nevertheless, the article emphasizes that "There is no question that investing in a new trolley would act as an economic development tool and improve the chances for the city to expand its downtown core" .. and, in terms of local funding, suggests that Winston-Salem might consider "flexing" soime of its available federal highway dollars to such a rail transit project – noting that

...highway funds, which are distributed to metropolitan planning organizations, are mostly “flex” dollars that could be spent on transit programs – if the city is willing to take the risk. Shouldn’t municipalities be willing to sacrifice their roads for the benefit of transit?

Light Rail Now Project senior technical consultant Ed Tennyson has more confidence in the ridership forecasts for the Winston-Salem streetcar project, and suggests another option for funding.

Ed notes that Winston-Salem has about the same core-city population as Salt Lake City, and draws the conclusion: "Strong LRT ridership. Low cost."

If Winston-Salem's estimates are even half right, they can build their trolley line with borrowed money from any large bank or bond house. By increasing bus (called trolley) patronage of 37 to 5,800, downtown business will obviously be boosted considerably.

Ed points out that business increases averaging about 18% in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City have impacted property values, a result which in turn "determines how much the city can borrow."

According to Ed's research, a streetcar line increases the rate of real estte valuation by an average of $75 million per mile – "but downtown it may be $225 million per mile."

That will pay for the streetcar, but the state may also help pay, even if Federal aid is too hard to get. Since streetcars improve the downtown economy, no taxes are necessary to pay for the investment. The losses avoided by not operating the bus for so few people will help pay for streetcar operating costs.

Winston-Salem civic leaders and planners continues to pursue these and other funding options, driven by a perception of the benefits of streetcar investment in terms of both central-city mobility improvements and reinforcement of economic development and revitalization goals.

Charles Hales, an HDR consultant and former Portland official that spearheaded the Portland Streetcar project (today deemed a stellar success story) summed up the prospects for Winston- Salem well in a 2006 presentation to the city council: "Nothing touches streetcars in sparking development, and you've got a lot of potential for development left in downtown Winston-Salem."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/11/20

More on Public Transport in Winston-Salem

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

15 November 2009

San Antonio:
New light rail/streetcar concept gains support

San Antonio — Dreams of light rail – most likely, in the form of streetcar technology – may be arising again in the Alamo City.

As a Nov. 14th news report from San Antonio TV station KENS 5 points out,

Ten years ago, San Antonio rejected a light rail initiative but backers say times have changed. A ballot measure could be placed before voters next year....

A Sep. 4th article in the San Antonio Express-News reported that

The future of transportation in San Antonio could include a mix of light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit, according to a draft plan unveiled Thursday by VIA Metropolitan Transit.

The agency is developing a long-range comprehensive plan that reaches to 2035.

Alongside the long-term planning, VIA has continued working on a streetcar feasibility study, which is expected to be completed in November.

The draft plan includes the potential for both streetcars and light rail in a number of corridors across the city.

streetcar Henry Muñoz, board chairman of VIA (the region's public transportation authority) has indicated he's hoping to announce a streetcar project "by the end of the year".
[Streetcar simulation: VIA]

According to the Sep. 4th Express-News article, planners are evaluating for various public transit applications a list of 20 corridors, of which "16 are viable for streetcars, including potential lines along Commerce, Broadway, San Pedro, Fredericksburg, Austin Highway, Roosevelt and Zarzamora."

More specifically, the paper reported,

>>'s likely that a starter streetcar system would be in the central city, with northern bounds around Mahncke Park and southern bounds in the Lavaca or King William neighborhoods. An east-west line would connect the AT&T Center to Our Lady of the Lake University.

The Broadway corridor – running somewhat northerly through the central-city from the edge of downtown – is certainly a strong contender for an initial rail line, since it's an historically strong commercial area connecting numerous small shops and restaurants, major museums, and other trip- attractors, and is bordered on both sides by medium-density residential neighborhoods. However, much depends on whether the majority of adjacent stakeholders back such a project.

Several miles west of Broadway, VIA already has a "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") project in final design for the Fredericksburg Road corridor, intended to connect the South Texas Medical Center area in the northern part of San Antonio to the city's downtown, with major transit terminals at both ends of the route. About 8 to 10 miles in length, the "BRT" line will serve the two transit centers at each end, 6-8 station locations along the corridor, and several stops in San Antonio's central business district. [VIA website, 2008]

However, there's a reasonable possibility that this line could be converted to streetcar technology or even rapid light rail transit (LRT), either after it goes into service as "BRT", or even before the project is completed.

An urban mobility and economic development model that has been driving enthusiasm for rail transit in San Antonio is Portland, Oregon's experience resulting from its investment in of rapid LRT and streetcar systems. This past summer, as reported in an Express-News article of Aug. 2nd, VIA chairman Muñoz and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff joined a delegation of local government and business leaders on "a whirlwind fact-finding mission".

The delegation were particularly impressed by the success of the Portland Streetcar. As the Express-News related,

...the little streetcar line – four miles from end to end – is an economic powerhouse, according to Portland officials. They say some $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of the streetcar line’s footprint. More than 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office space have been built in the same area.

San Antonio officials are looking to replicate that.

The renewed enthusiasm for streetcar-type light rail possibly represents an effort to jump-start rail technology with a somewhat smaller investment, reports the Express-News article:

It’s clear there’s been a shift in thinking among local leaders, who in the past have advocated for [larger, faster] light rail. They say a streetcar system, which is smaller in scale and cost, could prove to be a gateway to larger projects for San Antonio.

A starter system would allow people to “kick the tires” and get used to rail, which could lead to support for larger light rail and commuter lines that move more people longer distances.

The article also elaborates on the range of Alamo City activity centers that could be served by a streetcar system:

During conversations in Portland, San Antonio leaders rattled off a number of key sites that potentially could be accessed by a streetcar system: Southtown, HemisFair Park, the Convention Center, the River Walk, the Alamo, Municipal Auditorium, Market Square, Museo Alameda del Smithsonian, several college campuses, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Museum of Art, the Alamodome and even Fort Sam Houston.

The prospect of a light rail streetcar project has definitely caught the imagination of many San Antonians. In an Aug. 9th Express-News article, columnist Jan Jarboe Russell explained why the city should develop a modern streetcar system:

Sometimes San Antonio feels like the sleepy city that time forgot. But when it comes to the streetcar, we are the city that time remembered.

This is a no-brainer: We should bring back the streetcar.

Here's why: A starter streetcar system costs less than half of the expense to build light rail. It can be built in about half the time. It doesn't add to air pollution and hums along like a quiet song. And, as city leaders found out on a recent trip to Portland, Ore., streetcar lines not only move people efficiently and quietly, they drive economies.

In Portland, every street on a streetcar line first attracted housing units, which then drove retail and office development. Instead of an inner city that's vacant, down on its heels and tax-poor, Portland's is vibrant and pouring money into city and school tax coffers.

streetcar As Russell points out, a modern streetcar system would represent a revival of the electric railway system that San Antonio scrapped over 75 years ago:
[Photo: Texas Transportation Museum]

In the late 1920s, all of San Antonio – then, a tiny 36 square miles – was connected by about 130 miles of electric streetcars. It was a better, more fuel-efficient and cheaper transportation system than we have today.

Sadly, in 1933 we became one of the first American cities to dismantle its streetcar system.

Russell also asserts that "San Antonio now is the only large American city without any kind of rail system" ... but that's really not accurate, since a number of other major American cities – cities like Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Columbus (Ohio), Cincinnati, Toledo, Detroit, Louisville, Raleigh, Birmingham, Orlando, Tallahassee, Rochester (NY), Albany (NY), Richmond (Virginia), Spokane, Omaha, Des Moines (Iowa), Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Baton Rouge, Boise – don't have rail transit (yet) either. (We do note that Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Detroit are now well into the implementation of New Start light rail projects, with funding basically in place.)

While the notion of a streetcar formerly reflected old San Antonio and "a bygone economy" writes Russell, modern streetcar technology "has emerged as a symbol of a new San Antonio with a revitalized center city and a 21st-century economy." And "a coalition of city leaders – County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Julián Castro, VIA Metropolitan Transit's board chairman Henry Muñoz, the Downtown Alliance and others – is finally on track to bring back the streetcar."

However, as with any major public transportation project – particularly one requiring substantial infrastructure investment – having a funding mechanism in place is essential to move from dreams to reality. As usual," Russell points out, "the trick is how to pay for it. The city, county and VIA are looking at a combination of local and federal money and support from the private sector, which stands to benefit the most from development opportunities.

"We were once a city of streetcars and we can be a bigger, more prosperous city with streetcars in the near future" writes Russell. "All we have to do is remember."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/11/15

More on Public Transport in San Antonio

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

15 November 2009

Reeling from world economic crash, 90% of public transit systems raise fares or cut service

As Light Rail Now has pointed out in recent articles, America's public transit systems are facing a deepening financial crisis, particularly as the global economic crash precipitated by the collapse of financial and credit industry markets has worsened. "Plummeting economic activity has meant plummeting tax revenues and thus plummeting subsidies for mass transportation services, throwing transit agencies across the USA into serious crisis" – so we wrote a year ago in our article US Transit Ridership Surges, But Crisis Deepens, and Clamor Grows for "New Deal" Economic Investment in Public Transport.

Listening to various transit critics and rail opponents in city after city, you'd certainly never know it – there's little acknowledgement of the economic crash, and the portrayal consistently projected is that public transportation just cannot sustain itself, every public transit agency in every individual city is (amazingly) run by inherently and uniquely poor management, and usually rail transit (and other heavy investments) are the dastardly culprits, diverting scarce dollars from basic bus operations, which is all public transit should be operating, if it operates anything at all.

Refocusing attention back on the actual reality of a systemic problem, however, is a recent report released this past June by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), titled Challenge of State and Local Funding Constraints on Transit Systems: Effects on Service Fares, Employment and Ridership and available at the following URL:

According to a summary of the study provided by APTA,

Public transit riders across the country are paying higher fares and face reduced service due to revenue shortfalls experienced by many public transit systems. More than 80 percent of public transit systems have seen flat or decreased funding from local, regional, and state funding. Among transit systems facing this decreased funding, nine out of ten transit systems (89 percent) were forced to raise fares or cut service....

Based on a survey of 98 APTA transit system members carrying more than half the nation’s transit riders, and including 10 of the top 15 agencies in terms of annual ridership, the study demonstrates that "among those systems facing revenue declines almost half of the transit systems (47 percent) reported they have both raised and cut service to address funding shortfalls."

“With state and local revenues declining due to the recession, public transit systems are facing severe financial challenges, and America’s riders are paying the price” warned APTA President William Millar. “Raising fares and cutting service drives people away from using public transit and is counterproductive, as America struggles to create jobs, cut greenhouse gases, and reduce our reliance on expensive foreign oil.”

APTA summarizes several other key findings from the study:

The impact of the economic downturn on public transit systems is broad and widespread. General declines in real estate transactions, property tax collections, and sales tax revenue are likely contributors to flat and declining revenue sources.

More than 80 percent of systems have seen flat or decreased funding from state sources. Among those systems facing a decrease, the average decline was more than 20 percent. In some states these cuts are quite substantial. For example, all transit systems in California are facing the complete elimination of state funding. Similar declines are seen in local and regional funding.

Among those public transit systems reducing service, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) have eliminated or reduced off-peak service and nearly half (48 percent) have reduced the geographic coverage of public transit service.

In view of this crisis, APTA has been urging federal legislators to provide new revenue sources for public transit riders through two pieces of legislation moving through Congress.

First, APTA has been asking Congressional leaders to include an allocation of so-called "cap-and-trade" (carbon-emissions-linked) revenues for public transportation in current climate change legislation on the table – the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). APTA points out that "public transit is a part of the solution to address climate change, already saving 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and 4.2 billion gallons of fuel per year."

“As the country moves forward with this significant climate change legislation, it is inconceivable that Congress will miss this opportunity to include public transportation as one of the most effective solutions to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint” APTA's Bill Millar emphasized.

Secondly, APTA has backed joint legislation to permit transit systems to use up to 10 percent of their American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) formula funds for operating purposes.

While the nation’s public transportation systems are receiving funding through ARRA, funding is limited to capital expenditures. Public transit system operations are funded primarily through state, local, and regional sources in addition to transit fares. As a result of declining revenue from these sources, one-half of the systems participating in the survey have indicated that they have been forced to eliminate positions in order to address budget shortfalls, as the nation’s unemployment skyrockets.

“The bottom line is that additional funding for both capital and operating costs is urgently needed and that all levels of government – local, state, and federal – must step up and expand investment in America’s public transit systems to meet our country’s economic, energy and environmental challenges, while increasing mobility choices” Millar warned.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/11/15

More on Policy & Political Issues ...

Toward a "New Deal" for Public Transport ...

7 November 2009

Norfolk area:
Virginia Beach mulls light rail link-up with Norfolk's Tide project

Virginia Beach (Virginia) — With a light rail transit (LRT) line already being constructed eastward from Norfolk, could a further extension to this neighboring community be in the works?

Virginia Beach is considering building a light rail line 10.6 miles (17 km) from the Norfolk city boundary east to Virginia Beach along an old Norfolk Southern (NS) freight railway right-of-way. The line would run through the middle of the city, roughly parallel to Interstate 264. The map below shows the proposed project corridor.
[Map: HRT]


The Virginia Beach City Council has agreed to pay $40 million for purchase of the NS right-of-way, which is no longer in use. The money to pay Norfolk Southern would come from a $20 million state grant; $10 million from the city; $5 million from Hampton Roads Transit (HRT), the region's transportation agency; and $5 million from a utility easement on the land. [The Virginian-Pilot, 13 March 2009] There is no cost estimate for the total project available at this time.

Norfolk LRT This rail line would connect with an LRT project that the city of Norfolk is building – a 7.4-mile (11.9-km) starter line, the Tide, that will end at the Norfolk-Virginia Beach city line and is slated to open in fall 2010. For details on that project, see our November 2007 article, Norfolk (Virginia): Light Rail Project Gets On its Way with Federal Funding.
[Simulation of Tide LRT: HRT]

Stations for the proposed new line are tentatively planned for Witchduck, Town Center, Rosemont, Lynnhaven, Great Neck, Oceana, Birdneck and the Convention Center/Oceanfront area. [Hampton Roads Transit Newsletter, Sept. 2009] The NS right-of-way ends about a mile before the beach.

In 1999, the residents of Virginia Beach voted down a similar proposal for a light-rail project in a non- binding referendum. HRT completed a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and brought the project to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for New Starts funding review. FTA gave the project a Not Recommended rating, in part because no local funding was committed to it. [FTA, New Starts Report, Nov. 1999] Renewed interest in the project is attributed to increased highway congestion, rising motor fuel prices, increased environmental awareness, and new urban development patterns in Virginia Beach. [HRT Website, 2009]

In July 2008, the General Assembly passed a bill directing that state and local agencies study a light rail project between Norfolk and Virginia Beach. HRT is conducting a $5.7 million study of the rail line. The study will include an Alternatives Analysis and Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Study (SDEIS) and will be completed in late 2010 or 2011. [Virginia Beach Transit Extension Study, HRT website, 2009] HRT contracts separately with each city in its service area, which includes Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and surrounding areas, and has a total population of 1.6 million. Each city determines what services to provide, so the Virginia Beach City Council would have to approve the project; though HRT would be responsible for funding and building it.

Some opponents of the project have circulated a petition to put a referendum on the ballot in November 2010 that would ask residents whether the City Council should approve and fund a light rail project. The Virginian-Pilot (Oct. 10th) printed an editorial saying that there should not be a referendum on the matter until the study is completed, and the public has more information on the proposal. The petition mentions an extension of the rail line to the Norfolk Naval Station, which is going to be studied separately and may be added at a later time.

Most members of the city council say they support the rail project, but some are in favor of a referendum. Council member Glenn Davis is preparing a resolution to prevent a ballot measure until the feasibility study is completed. The outcome of a referendum would only be advisory. [Virginian-Pilot, 8 Oct. 2009]

Original research and narrative for this report were prepared by Research Associate Susan Pantell; some additional material and analysis have been provided by others in the LRN team.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/11/05

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22 October 2009

Streetcar plan, and future of all rail, to be decided in November 3rd vote

Cincinnati — Light rail transit (LRT) – initially at least, in the form of streetcar technology and service – is once again on Cincinnati's planning and political agenda.

map In April 2008, the Cincinnati City Council voted 6 to 2 to build a streetcar system, proposed as a 7.9-mile (12.7-km) loop linking the Downtown riverfront to the Uptown neighborhoods near the University of Cincinnati (UC). The proposed route for the first phase of the project runs from the Banks along Main and Walnut Streets to the Over-the-Rhine district, from 12th Street to McMicken Avenue, and from there into Uptown, serving Fountain Square, the Contemporary Arts Center, Findlay Market, and the Brewery District. Engineers are evaluating two alternatives for the route to Uptown. Vine Street is the path of the earlier streetcars, but there is not much land for development The other option, West Clifton Avenue, passes through a dense neighborhood of UC students, but a section may be too steep for the streetcars. The city is also considering loops within Uptown that could extend the line to a cluster of hospitals, Corryville's business district, and the zoo.
[Map: Wikipedia]

Station stops would be installed about every two blocks, and trains would average about 13 mph (21 kph). According to the proposed plan, streetcars would be operated 18 hours a day, seven days a week, with 10-minute peak headways and 20 minutes off-peak. Management, operation, and maintenance of the streetcars would be contracted out by the city. [City of Cincinnati, "Getting There: Positioning Cincinnati for Growth and Development," Oct. 2008] Planners estimate the line linking downtown wuth the Over-the-Rhine district will draw an average of 4,850 daily trips during the first year of service, not counting special events. Ridership studies have not been conducted for the extension into Uptown. The earliest a system could open would be 2011 or 2012. [The Cincinnati Enquirer, 24 April 2008]

streetcar Cincinnati streetcar line (shown here in a simulation) is envisioned to be beginning of an urban LRT network that could provide essential mobility, with nearlly 5,000 daily passenger-trips in its first year, and economic benefits ultimately 2.7 times greater than its cost.
[Graphic: Queen City Discovery]

Opponents of the streetcar proposal, the Cincinnati NAACP and a rightwing group called the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (COAST), have succeeded in placing an anti-rail measure on the ballot for November 2009 (election day is Nov. 3rd). Its wording would require all rail projects, even a proposal to develop high-speed rail between Cincinnati and other Midwestern cities, to go before Cincinnati voters for approval before the city could move forward with them. The ballot language reads as follows:

Shall the Charter of the City of Cincinnati be amended to prohibit the city, and its various boards and commissions, from spending any monies for right-of-way acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation (e.g. a trolley or streetcar) within the city limits without first submitting the question of approval of such expenditure to a vote of the electorate of the city and receiving a majority affirmative vote for the same by enacting new Article XIV?

Opponents of the measure (mainly, supporters of rail transit) accuse the sposors (i.e., adversaries of rail) of intentionally misleading the public by including the language "e.g. a trolley or streetcar" – which will likely cause many voters to think that the measure only affects streetcars, while in reality it would impact all rail projects. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 25 Aug. 2009] Some of the people who signed the petition to put the measure on the ballot later said that they found the language misleading. [WLWT- TV, 25 Aug. 2009]

Mayor Mark Mallory and eight of nine Cincinnati City Council members oppose the ballot measure. [Cincinnati Enquirer 30 Sept. 2009] There is fear in particular that a requirement for voter approval of every rail "improvement" would jeopardize or delay funding to stimulate the city's economy. As Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz told the Cincinnati Enquirer [30 June 2009],

You're building extra months and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars for an election into the system. In addition, the delays caused by an election could result in losing federal matching funds for projects.

The group Cincinnatians for Progress says the measure will be "anti-progress", and it objects to changing the city charter for this one issue. [The Cincinnati Enquirer, 23 June 2009] The Charter Committee, Chamber of Commerce, Cincinnatus, and the League of Women Voters have joined to form the "Coalition to Protect the City Charter" to oppose the measure, insisting that the charter should not be changed to "handcuff the city manager, the mayor, and city council on specific issues within city government." [Coalition to Protect the City Charter website] They also assert that it would be difficult for the city to move forward with any type of rail project because even planning funds would not be covered unless the voters approved a project, and the need for voters' approval would cause excessive delays. [League of Women Voters website]

If the measure passes, Cincinnati would be the second city in the USA, besides Austin, Texas, that requires a vote of approval from the public just to move forward with a rail project. Yet Cincinnati's measure would be even more restrictive than Austin's, since it would require a vote not just to approve a single new rail transit line, but to approve every single new improvement involving construction or right-of-way acquisition for any kind of rail passenger system &ndash including intercity rail passenger operations.

In an August 8th editorial, the Cincinnati Enquirer opposed the ballot measure, even though they had run an earlier editorial recommending that the streetcar project be put on hold. As the Enquirer cautioned,

More deception: Finney [Chris Finney, co-founder of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (COAST)] claims that virtually every other city that has built a streetcar has put it to a public vote. But that's apples and oranges. Most were votes on new taxes or bond issues to fund a system – not a vote on any "right-of- way acquisition or construction of improvements," which would leave Cincinnati hamstrung, in an unenviable class by itself. ["'Poison Pill' Amendment is About Less, Not 'More'," 8 Aug. 2009]

Local NAACP President Christopher Smitherman, who is leading the opposition to the streetcar plan, told the Cincinnati Examiner that he is opposed to the streetcar because it will serve mainly "downtown yuppies". [8 Oct. 2009] Actually, 48% of residents along the streetcar line do not have cars [CincyStreetcar Blog, based on US Census data], and about 45% of riders along the Phase 1 route are low-income. [HDR Decision Economics Inc., Economic Worthiness Study of Cincinnati Streetcar, 29 Aug. 2007] Furthermore, 54% of jobs in Cincinnati in 2005 were located in the downtown and uptown areas, which would be served by the streetcar. [The Brookings Institution, KMK Consulting Company, RCLCO, and Social Compact, Go Cincinnati: Growth and Opportunity Study for the City of Cincinnati, Jan. 2008]

bus Campaign to defeat the anti-rail referendum is supported by SORTA, the Cincinnati regional transit agency. Here, the headsign of a SORTA bus exhorts the public to "Vote No" on the anti-transit measure.
[Photo: SORTA]

The Cincinnati Department of Transportation has been holding public forums to provide information on the streetcar proposal and collect the views of the public, which is required as part of the application for federal funds. The first phase of the project is projected to cost $128 million, or $12.5 million/mile, including the track, stations, maintenance facilities, utility relocation, engineering and contingencies. The city plans to pay for it in part with local capital and other funds and Tax Increment Financing (TIF). [City of Cincinnati, “Getting There: Positioning Cincinnati for Growth and Development,” Oct. 2008] They hoped to get private investors to contribute about $57 million toward the cost, but companies have been reluctant to contribute during the recession. [The Cincinnati Enquirer, 6 Aug. 2009] The city requested $78 million from the federal government but have not yet received a response. [WLWT-TV, 21 Sept. 2009] They intend to purchase seven streetcars, at a cost of $28.7 million. Operating costs are projected at $3.5 million per year. [City of Cincinnati, “Getting There: Positioning Cincinnati for Growth and Development,” Oct. 2008]

Extension of the line into Uptown would raise the total capital cost for Phases 1 and 2 to about $185 million. In March, the City Council voted to spend $800,000 on preliminary studies required to apply for federal funds to finance the Uptown loop. [Cincinnati Enquirer, 24 April, 2008]

The city has a $28 million budget shortfall and is considering service cutbacks and layoffs. Smitherman argues that the city should spend money on services rather than building a new streetcar. However, city officials say that the money that would be spent on the streetcar is legally restricted from being used to fund programs that are threatened by the budget shortfall [Cincinnati Enquirer, 6 Aug. 2009], and the resolution passed by the City Council specifies that operating expenses can not be taken from the general fund. In addition, the city made funding the project contingent on receiving a federal grant of at least $60 million. ["'Poison Pill' Amendment is About Less, Not 'More'", Cincinnati Enquirer, 8 Aug. 2009]

Consultants conducted a feasibility study for the streetcar in 2007 looked at a proposed 3.9-mile (6.3- km), loop from the Banks, through downtown, to Over-the-Rhine. They projected that total benefits of the project over 35 years would amount to $432 million, with net benefits of $316 million. The benefits include accident and emission cost savings, trip cost savings, reductions in welfare benefits needed, and increases in commercial and residential property values. The average economic return over 35 years is expected to be 2.7 times greater than the cost of the system. [HDR Decision Economics Inc., Economic Worthiness Study of Cincinnati Streetcar, 29 Aug. 2007].

The city has been emphasizing the potential economic development benefits from building the project. Potential redevelopment of vacant and under-utilized floor space and 92 acres of parking lots along the route could generate over $1.4 billion in development benefits over fifteen years. [HDR Engineering Inc., Cincinnati Streetcar Feasibility Study, July 2007] A report commissioned by UC's Center for the City assessed the accuracy of the feasibility study and found the projections in the report to be credible. [George M. Vredeveld and Jeff Rexhausen, University of Cincinnati Economics Center for Education & Research, "An Assessment of the Cincinnati Streetcar Study", 2008].

"We've lost development deals because we have less product to show," City Manager Milton Dohoney told the Cincinnati Enquirer [23 June 2009]. "[The streetcar] would make the city more interesting to people here now and especially to those thinking of moving here" he emphasized.

The streetcar starter line is envisioned to become the core of an ultimate citywide light rail streetcar system – and that would function as just the urban component of a much larger network of metro-like and interurban light rail, regional passenger rail ("commuter rail"), and the Cincinnati-area component of a highspeed intercity rail passenger system linking Cincinnati to cities such as Cleveland and Chicago to the north and Louisville and Atlanta to the south. These possibilities are included in the Re-Envision Cincinnati map, below.
[Map: Envision Cincinnati]


Original research and narrative for this report were prepared by Research Associate Susan Pantell, and additional material and analysis have been provided by others in the LRN team.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/10/22

More on Cincinnati Public Transport Developments

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5 October 2009

How a "flexible" busway can grind to a halt

Brisbane — There's no question that this Australian city's busway system (currently 12 miles/19.3 km of route) represents a major improvement, in terms of public transport mobility, over "ordinary" transit service provided by relatively slower local and express buses operating in mixed-traffic streets and highways. (See map, below.)

[Map: TransLink]


However, if you're going to provide an exclusive alignment for transit, is a busway the best way to go? In other words, the question arises whether investment in busways – exclusive facilities on which to operate so-called "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") – is the most effective service option, and the most cost-effective and rational use of public funds and other limited resources ... especially as compared with electric light rail transit (LRT).

As we've demonstrated in our article Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of "cheap" busways a busway can cost about as much, or very little less than a comparable light rail system. Yet, in contrast, a busway can have some very significant drawbacks, such as...

• Rolling stock (buses) that are dependent on petroleum, rather than LRT railcars that can run on a variety of fuel and energy sources – including sustainable souces such as hydro, wind, and solar power...

• Slower acceleration from internal combustion power, rather than more powerful electric energy – usually necessitating more vehicular passenger-space-throughput for buses to maintain capacity equivalent to electric rail...

• Slower boarding/deboarding of passengers (because of typically fewer, narrower bus doors) – compounding the problems already noted...

• Higher operating cost per passenger or passenger-mile (passenger-km), largely because of higher "platform labor" costs stemming from the need for one driver for every vehicle...

• Constrained capacity – mainly because of factors noted above, plus the sharp rise in operating expenses associated with rising passenger volumes...

• Worsening traffic-congestion and traffic-safety problems, even with the largest buses, when battalions of buses of leave the exclusive busway in downtowns and other major activity centers to run on urban streets for passenger access.

Promoters of "BRT" often ignore or downplay such drawbacks and instead emphasize the advantages of bus transit, such as its ability, with rubber-tired vehicles, to run in general-traffic roadways and change lanes to avoid obstacles.

Pursuing this theme, "BRT" proponents often contend that "BRT" is "just like light rail, but cheaper", and likewise claim that "BRT" is "more flexible" as well. While a train breakdown or other problem will stall a rail line, so the argument goes, a busway is far more flexible – "BRT" buses will just "leapfrog" around a stalled bus or other problem and keep the service open.

Really? For those interested in a real-life example of the "flexibility" of busways and (supposedly) how easily a bus, unlike light rail trains, can bypass a stopped vehicle, the experience of the Brisbane busway system last year (September 2008) might give pause for second thoughts.

This experience is detailed in a posting by James Saunders, "Bus Jam in the Cultural Centre", on 9 September 2008 to the Australian Transport Discussion Board:

James recounts that he was travelling into Brisbane's Cultural center from the city's southside to catch his bus home, "when I stumbled upon this nice bus jam...."

An ambulance was blocking the southbound lane (platform one) for approximately 10 minutes at around 5.10pm. It appeared a passenger has had a medical problem and needed to be taken by ambulance to the hospital.... The bus jam went [off] the Victoria Bridge and down in the Queen Street Bus Station. As I went past on my 330 [bus] I could see quite a few frustrated passengers and drivers.

James was able to document the situation in several photographs, some of which are shown below...

buses "BRT" flexibility? Blockage at a station by an emergency vehicle causes Brisbane's "BRT" service to stack up into a "conga line" of buses stretching from the city's downtown across a bridge and into a major station.
[Photo: James Saunders]

busway Bedlam ensues at the station, as dozens upon dozens of buses (remember, "BRT" passenger- moving capacity depends on lots of buses) muscle with one another to access and then depart from loading bays.
[Photo: James Saunders]

busway As the late afternoon advances, the huge bus logjam continues at the station. Even with two lanes in each direction (equivalent to a four-track railway), capacity seems as constipated as ever. And where's the "flexibility"?
[Photo: James Saunders]

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/10/05

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