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Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2016

Construction

» More than 240 miles of new fixed-guideway transit is expected to come online in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico this year. Also, check out a new way to visualize existing, planned, and proposed transit lines in North America: Transit Explorer.

Cities across the country are waking up to new bus and rail lines in droves. In 2016, North American transit agencies are expected to open 245 miles of new fixed-guideway transit lines, including 89 miles of bus rapid transit, 93 miles of commuter rail, 7 miles of heavy rail, 39 miles of light rail, and 18 miles of streetcars. This is more than triple the new mileage of such lines opened in 2015.

Use Transit Explorer to visualize the routes of existing, planned, and proposed transit lines, and to learn about their individual characteristics.

Thanks in part to significant expenditures by national governments—such as the Urban Circulator and TIGER grants distributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation—but also due to the allocation of significant new funding from cities and states to transit agencies, 2016 will be a banner year, bringing new rail and bus lines to neighborhood after neighborhood. Projects opening this year, listed in detail below but including nine bus rapid transit lines, eight streetcar routes, seven light rail lines, six commuter rail lines, and two heavy rail extensions, will have cost more than $15 billion to build.* Three of these projects—the Second Avenue Subway in New York, University Link in Seattle, and BART Warm Springs Extension outside of San Francisco—each took more than seven years to build.

In the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, projects costing a total of $70 billion and representing more than 470 miles of new, fixed-guideway transit will be under construction by the end of the year, with completion expected in the coming decade. Much more is in planning.

This is the eighth year of my annual compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015.

In order to provide a comprehensive view of the scope of investment planned, I worked with Steven Vance to develop a new resource, Transit Explorer, that offers readers an interactive and open-source mechanism to view these projects, an improvement over the Google Maps system I’ve used in the past. Transit Explorer shows new projects in the context of existing fixed-guideway lines.

A long route to 2016

More than any recent year, 2016 will be marked by the return of the modern streetcar in the U.S. A total of eight streetcar projects will open, including five in cities with no previous service—Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Washington. While the two Missouri projects have advanced relatively easily, the three others have had long and sometimes tortuous histories that demonstrate the lengths to which many American cities struggle to get new transit projects off the ground.

After having been advanced by transit advocates, Cincinnati’s line was subject to a failed fatal ballot measure in 2009 that would have killed it, later funded by the city, and then awarded state and federal support. In 2011, the project lost its state funding thanks to an intervention by now-presidential aspirant, then-Ohio governor John Kasich and in 2013 it was practically killed by new anti-streetcar mayor John Cranley. But now the line is finally ready for operation, and downtown Cincinnati and the nearby Over-the-Rhine neighborhood have been gentrifying in bubbly anticipation.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, in Detroit civic leaders have pinned their hopes for the city’s renaissance on a proposed new rail line. Just a three-mile line, the streetcar will undoubtedly have little ability to cure what ails the Motor City, but it has been a long time coming. In the 2000s, local leaders proposed a 9.3-mile light rail line connecting downtown with the suburbs on Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag, but the project became mired in delays such that in 2008 private investors representing local companies drew up a competing, much-shorter project that has evolved into the “M-1 Rail” line to open this year.

This project took a number of remarkable leaps towards its realization, including the assembly of funding not only from private funders but also non-profits, including the Kresge Foundation, which contributed $35 million. The project was supposed to be completed by 2013, and received aid from the U.S. Department of Transportation in the form of a $25 million TIGER grant. By 2010, state leaders developed a proposal for a regional BRT network, a plan that could be seen as complementary or potentially competing, depending on whether funding could be identified. Indeed, despite the streetcar’s federal support, facing overwhelming municipal funding problems in late 2011 city officials proposed shutting off the project because of a fear that Detroit wouldn’t be able to pay operations costs. After intense negotiations in 2012, including an agreement from private backers that they would fund operations, the federal government committed another $25 million TIGER grant to the project, securing enough support for the line to move toward completion this year.

Political troubles may have been the name of the game in Cincinnati and Detroit, but in Washington there has been relatively steady commitment from elected officials for building a streetcar—combined with poor technical execution. Originally promised to Northeast D.C. in 2002, the streetcar on H Street and Benning Road east from Union Station was meant to link a neighborhood far from the region’s Metro system. But the city government was distracted, initially building another set of tracks across the river in Anacostia instead. That line began construction in 2004, received streetcars in 2007, had tracks laid in 2010… and has yet to open for service.

Cincinnati Streetcar Detroit M-1 Rail Kansas City Streetcar Loop Trolley H St/Benning Rd Streetcar
New streetcar lines are expected to open in Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Washington in 2016.

In the meantime, city officials made big plans, in 2009 announcing a 37-mile, eight-route, $1.5 billion streetcar system that would serve virtually the whole city. At the center of the network would be an east-west line running from Georgetown to Anacostia, including the aforementioned initial H Street Northeast link. Construction there began in 2009 with completion expected in 2012. Tracks were installed in 2011, but service kept being delayed by problem after problem and cost increase after cost increase. In 2015, new mayor Muriel Bowser evaluated the possibility of cancelling the project, but decided instead to focus in on the east-west segment, leaving the rest of the system for some future decade. Now this first route is supposed to be up and running in the next few months, though given this fraught history, one never knows.

In 2016, existing streetcar networks in Dallas, New Orleans, and Seattle are expected to be expanded for riders. Meanwhile, construction will continue or begin in El Paso, Milwaukee, and Oklahoma City as planning ramps up for streetcars in Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Tempe.

The large number of streetcar projects opening this year should not be mistaken for a nationwide consensus about the benefits of these new transit systems. Already, mostly funded projects in Arlington, Virginia and Fort Worth, Texas have been cancelled. The merits of mixed-traffic streetcars as mobility providers have always been, and will continue to be, questionable: They’re slow; they get stuck in traffic; they’re not even particularly good at moving a lot of people around.

Yet they’re likely to remain a growing element of American transit planning because, more than anything else, they offer mid-sized cities the opportunity to create new rail networks at relatively low costs.

Which isn’t to say that streetcars are the only investments cities are making. To the contrary. In fact, we’ll see several gigantic, expensive, and most certainly not mixed-traffic transit projects open in 2016, at least according to agency officials. L.A.’s Metro light rail network will finally (almost) reach the beach thanks to the $1.5 billion expansion of the Expo Line to Santa Monica; Seattle will open a $2 billion tunnel for its light rail trains to the University of Washington; and the Bay Area’s BART system will extend another few miles south in the East Bay.

In New York City, the Second Avenue Subway’s 1.7-mile, $4.9 billion first phase, theoretically to serve 200,000 daily riders, will run Q trains into the Upper East Side after nine years of construction. Maybe. And the $4 billion World Trade Center transportation center—perhaps the most expensive station in the world, and definitely one of the most extravagant—will finally open its winged lobby to the public.

Second Avenue Subway World Trade Center transportation center Denver commuter rail University Link Expo Line
The most expensive new projects expected to open in 2016 are New York’s Second Avenue Subway and World Trade Center Transportation Center; Denver’s three-line electrified commuter rail system; Seattle’s University Link light rail tunnel; and Los Angeles’ Expo Line light rail extension to Santa Monica.

To round out this surprisingly long list are a series of new rail lines in Denver constructed by what is likely the largest design-build-maintain-operate contract ever signed in the U.S. for a transit system. The Eagle P3 was finalized in a $2.1 billion, 2010 agreement that includes about 37 miles of electrified commuter rail operating on newly built tracks running west, north, and east from downtown’s Union Station. Declining sales tax revenues in 2009 almost killed the project, but in 2016, riders will get fast, sort-of-frequent service to the Denver airport, among other destinations.

If all this new rail hasn’t been enough to raise your inner transit-loving glee, perhaps you’ve been hoping for buses. Good golly, don’t be worried; there are several BRT routes planned for opening later this year, and even more after that planned for new construction. Check out the following lists—or use Transit Explorer.

The following new or expanded lines are expected to open to the public in 2016:

Construction is expected to begin on the following projects in 2016:

Progress in 2015

Cities across the continent outfitted themselves with significant new transit infrastructure in 2015. The most expensive project, by far, was New York’s 7 Subway extension, which added about one mile and one station to Gotham’s network—for the remarkably high cost of $2.4 billion.

Loop Link CTfastrack Viva BRT
In 2015, BRT lines with significant infrastructure opened in Chicago, Hartford, and Toronto.

But the year may also be remembered for adding four significant BRT corridors to the continent. CTfastrack’s connection between downtown Hartford and New Britain is a full-scale busway offering service in an entirely dedicated corridor. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Jacksonville, and Toronto, dedicated lanes opened with significant stations and other features for their buses. If these services are successful in attracting new ridership to transit and in providing measurable speed improvements, we are likely to see more of these lower-cost BRT projects in the future.

Projects that were completed in 2015:

Looking ahead

One need search no further than the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel proposed to connect New Jersey and New York City to know that even after funding has been secured and construction has begun, changes in estimated costs or new political leadership threaten to derail the completion of transit expansions. In 2015, the Baltimore Red Line, a light rail project that would have run east-west through the city, fell victim to a change in gubernatorial leadership. Several of the projects noted above will also likely be cancelled in the coming months.

But the broader story presented here suggests dramatic and nationwide commitment to expanded fixed guideway transit in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Though 2016 may be a high-water mark when it comes to transit line openings, we’re likely to see many years like it in the coming decade.

Indeed, regions are continuously searching for ways to ramp up investment on better transit. In November 2016, Los Angeles County and the Seattle metropolitan area are likely to ask their voters to devote new tax revenues to building more. In L.A., a repeat of 2008’s Measure R could fund a new subway through the Sepulveda Pass, among other projects. In Seattle, the passage of a third Sound Transit referendum could fund light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. There’s a lot to look forward to.

* The average cost per mile expected to be completed in 2016 will be:

  • $4 million for bus rapid transit
  • $30 million for commuter rail
  • $778 million for heavy rail (though the sample is very small—just two projects!)
  • $141 million for light rail
  • $46 million for streetcar

2016 streetcar photo credits: Flickr users 5chw4r7z, Sean_Marshall, Glithander, Scott Thomas Smith, and mariordo59, respectively (cc).
2016 major projects photo credits: Flickr users Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Anthony Quintano, airbus777, Sound Transit, and Steve and Julie, respectively (cc).
2015 BRT projects photo credits: Flickr users John Greenfield, airbus777, and wyliepoon, respectively (cc).

A new federal transportation bill rejects the long-standing consensus on revenue but preserves the policy status quo

TP-Main-Logo

» The FAST Act is passed by the House and Senate, profoundly dismissing the claim that transportation is to be funded with user fees. Yet it reinforces decades-old policy about how money is to be spent and does nothing for the climate.

It’s a big achievement. At least, that’s what members of the U.S. House and Senate are telling themselves this week, now that they’ve passed a major long-term transportation reauthorization bill with overwhelming majorities from both sides of the aisle. President Obama will sign the bill in the coming days.

This legislation reinforces the trend that has been developing over the past seven years: Transportation funding at the federal level no longer has to be derived from user fees.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (“FAST”) will not fix America’s surface transportation, but it will provide $305 billion in spending over the next five years for our highway, transit, and railroad networks,

Continue reading A new federal transportation bill rejects the long-standing consensus on revenue but preserves the policy status quo »

America’s car obsession will not be diminished by Millennials alone

Commuters-top-cities

» We cannot bank our hopes for a less car-dependent future on the supposed preferences of a new generation.

The plateauing and decline in U.S. vehicle miles traveled per capita that occurred between mid-2005 and mid-2014 was described by some hopeful commentators as a dramatic shift that was indicative of the preferences of a new workforce. Yes, it coincided with the recession and an increase in gas prices, they said, but it was really more about generational change. Whereas in the past Americans dreamed of living in the suburbs and traveling virtually everywhere in their single-occupant automobiles, now Americans, addicted to their smart phones, are looking for walkable, urban living. Evidence suggests that they may have had a point: The age at which people registered for drivers licenses is increasing and certainly neighborhoods in central neighborhoods in city after city have been blossoming of late.

The more recent uptick in per-capita vehicle miles traveled

Continue reading America’s car obsession will not be diminished by Millennials alone »

In L.A., efforts are afoot to make bike share a genuine part of the transit network

L.A. bike share

» Late to the bike-sharing game, Los Angeles nevertheless could offer an important innovation: Transfers to and from transit.

You might say that bike sharing has conquered the world, invading city after city since the first modern systems featuring information technology opened in Europe in the 1990s. Now more than 40 U.S. cities have systems in operation. They’ve been attracted to the relative ease of implementing bike sharing, the low costs of operation, and the popular interest in the programs which indeed do a lot to expand mobility in cities.

Los Angeles is the glaring outlier, the only one of the ten largest American cities with no system. Though the City of Los Angeles planned a system in 2013, that proposal fell apart after difficulties with permitting got in the way. In the meantime, other cities in L.A. County—including Santa Monica and Long Beach—have implemented new dock-less networks.

Metro

Continue reading In L.A., efforts are afoot to make bike share a genuine part of the transit network »

For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus

Leipzig S-Bahn

» For commuter rail, through-running is becoming increasingly popular in city after city looking to take advantage of faster travel times, direct suburb-to-suburb services, and more downtown stops. Leipzig, Germany, whose City Tunnel opened in 2013, is a case in point.

There’s a romantic notion of the downtown rail terminal in the American popular culture, often expressed in movies and books. It’s a scene that is easy to conjure up in one’s mind: The steaming locomotive comes slowly to a halt at the end of a track, passengers stream out into a giant waiting room, and from there they exit into the bustling metropolis. The railroad terminal is the physical manifestation of the end of a journey and the exciting moment of arrival.

For railroad companies and government agencies, the need to create this welcoming travel environment has inspired multi-billion-dollar station redevelopment schemes. The argument made has been that in order to

Continue reading For rail services, downtown sometimes isn’t the right place for a terminus »