How is Besançon Building a Tramway at €16 million/kilometer?

» Montréal plans to spend hundreds of millions on a new busway. Is it spending too much for what it will get?

Though Montréal has significant Metro and tramway expansion plans, its next new transit line will come in the form of a bus rapid transit line down Boulevard Pie-IX on the east side of the city.  The city hopes that the creation of a “bus highway” connecting into the suburban city of Laval would be able to attract about 70,000 daily users. The project, which includes the construction of new stations and dedicated lanes along the entire Montréal side of the 15 kilometer corridor, would cost some C$305 million — or about U.S. $32 million a mile.

Montréal’s new line will share many features of the Express Pie-IX, a bus line whose contra-flow bus movements were blamed for the deaths of several bikers and pedestrians and which was shut down in 2002 after carrying about 8,000 daily users.

The development of BRT in Montréal isn’t particularly remarkable outside of the fact that it is being done at a high price for what are primarily surface improvements. Yet compared to other recent rail projects in North America, the project looks downright cheap: Phoenix’s first light rail segment cost about $70 million a mile; Seattle’s broke the bank at $150 million. Subway projects are far more expensive.

How, then, is the eastern French city of Besançon building a new tramway for the equivalent of just about $35 million a mile?*

It’s a question Americans should be asking themselves, since the costs of transit investments seem to be spiraling out of control even as the demand for alternative transportation options has increased and the funds to support them have diminished. Besançon, a city of about 115,000 in a region of about twice that size, has managed to develop a project whose costs are acceptable — “optimized,” the local transit agency calls them — even in a small metropolitan area.

Besançon will be getting a light rail line fully in its own right-of-way that extends over nine miles and thirty stations, all for a price of €228 million ($310 million), with construction beginning this fall. The city expects about 43,000 daily riders once the project opens in 2015. This is no streetcar, and yet plenty of U.S. cities are thinking about spending far more per mile on those limited ridership, low-performance systems.

There are some good explanations for the low costs of what Besançon is calling the cheapest tramway project in France. According to the city, the entire manner in which the project was pursued was based on the goal of limiting spending to ensure that its completion would be possible in a place with limited public funds.

For one, the request for proposals to provide trains was opened up to seven candidates (of which six negotiated), versus the two or three typically offered. This increased competition between vehicle manufacturers and allowed the provision of nineteen 23-meter trains from Spanish constructor CAF for a price of €34.8 million ($47.33 million total, or $2.5 million per train). For comparison, the same company had planned to give Houston 103 similar trains for a cost of $330 million, or $3.2 million per train. Competition in Besançon cheapened the costs of train purchase. The price was also cheapened because the city chose to buy standard, rather than customized, train exteriors and interiors.

Meanwhile, Besançon made the decision to prioritize building the system over making the system beautiful. One might argue with this choice, but it has certainly lowered costs. The city chose to standardize stations, making them as simple as possible and similar in operation to existing bus stations. The maintenance center for the trains is more of a yard than anything else; it will have no roof.

The consequences on the urban landscape are more problematic; while many urban rail lines have been designed to ameliorate the surrounding urban environment, the Besançon project will be able to do less. This means that there will be fewer street improvements sponsored by the project, less planting of new trees, and a reduction in expenditures in landscaping. This means that the appearance of the areas in which the tram line will run will not be significantly better than before, in contrast to many successful interventions in other cities where the creation of a new street rail line provided an incentive to renovate the whole street. (As a Paris official recently said in reference to that city’s tram project: “We are profiting from its arrival to produce urban renovation. [The affected streets] need a re-qualification of public space.”)

This unwillingness to spending transit funds on street improvements in Besançon, though, does have its positive benefit: In some places, instead of reworking a street to offer both rail and automobile traffic, the city is simply banning cars. This will improve the circulation of the transit vehicles and improve the incentives to use public transportation in general. Much of the dedicated right-of-way for the rail line — usually expensive to develop because planners are afraid to take space away from drivers — simply is taken from the roads in Besançon. There is little concern expressed here about the loss of automobile capacity.

Besançon will come away from the project with a significantly improved urban transit system that would have been impossible had the city been asked to pay for it at the typical prices. Which brings us back to Montréal: Is the city spending too much on its transit projects? Could funds being spent on that program be better used somewhere else in the city?

(I have not studied the Pie-IX project in detail, so it would be difficult for me to identify specific ways in which that project could be reduced in price; it may be that its current cost estimates are perfectly reasonable.)

I do not want to suggest that the answer to calls for reduction in government spending is to cost-cut. But there are significant advantages to finding ways to pull down expenditures for new transportation projects, both in terms of economics and politics. Besançon could provide a useful model for American cities that want to improve their public transportation networks but simply cannot afford to.

* Assuming an exchange rate of about 1.36 U.S. Dollars to the Euro. Costs per mile updated to reflect incorrect information when first published. Image above: Planned route of the Besançon Tramway, from the City of Besançon.

30 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • zefwagner

    The key point here, I think, is the one about planners in most cities being afraid to remove car capacity. That is why we end up building incredibly expensive grade-separated systems instead of using the infrastructure we already have. We need to ignore the howls and moans of current car drivers and make decisions on behalf of future transit riders (some of whom will be the same people!). We need to recognize that the only way to increase transit mode share is to both make transit more convenient and driving less convenient, not one or the other.

    I’m currently in vancouver, and while the skytrain is great, I can see why people think it was too expensive to be worth it. The streets are incredibly wide here, and many arterials have 6 lanes or more. They could have built at-grade in separated right-of-way for a lot less money if they were willing to take away car capacity. There could be a lot more bus only lanes too, for that matter.

  • alexjonlin

    I keep hearing people talk about how Seattle’s Link Light Rail was so much more expensive than these other cities’ light rail projects, without any kind of context. Seattle’s light rail was built to the standard of a metro for the most part, rather than a tramway, and will thus attract and be able to carry more riders and provide a faster trip.
    Zef, in Vancouver, if they had built at-grade light rail, it would’ve taken far longer, been far less reliable, and wouldn’t have been able to be automated, which allows it to have very short headways and low operating costs. Most people whom I’ve talked to there seem to love that they made the extra investment to do their Skytrain system right.

  • Peter Smith

    I don’t think people deserve beautiful public places and spaces, either, so I agree wholeheartedly with what Besançon is doing. This project will help degrade the quality of civic life in the city, and for that, all of its citizens will be grateful. And, they’ll all have plenty of time to appreciate their cheap…errrr, high-quality, cost-contained transit system.

    • Woody

      ” … the appearance of the areas in which the tram line will run will not be significantly better than before …”

      Here is an opportunity for the free market to upgrade the street look through transit oriented development. New buildings will arise to meet the increased demand for housing and retail close to the transit line; older buildings will be renovated. Private owners will probably have an opportunity to plant trees in the sidewalks to beautify their blocks, as they can in socialistic NYC.

      If the stations are all alike, that may look like Central Planning, but we can stand it. Let’s not hire Calatrava or other starchitects to do showpieces up and down the line.

      • Ocean Railroader

        They could have the local unversties and collages do some of the planning for this thing instead of going out and spending millions to higher some very expessive forgion artisy planning frims to lay this thing out. A lot of people at the collages

    • Tom West

      I assume Peter smith is being sarcastic… however, beautifying public places and spaces should not be paid out of a transit budget. (Is it ever paid out of road budget?)

    • Vladimir

      Actually, Besançon isn’t an ugly place to be as it is, if you check it in StreetView. Hence launching LRT without fancy amenagements is not a crime against the public.

  • dejv

    Besançon could provide a useful model for American cities that want to improve their public transportation networks but simply cannot afford to.

    Not just American cities, many former eastern bloc cities face similar dificulties (the same with rolling stock procurement and kind of similar with track renewals).

  • Thanks for telling the Besançon story. I’m not why you paired Besançon with Montréal, though. Their situations are so different that it’s not clear how a tramway in a small city in Europe should constitute a critique of a busway in Canada, or even a relevant data source for it.

  • Danny

    Although I’m glad that you chose to highlight procurement decisions and how they effect outcomes, I’m baffled as to why you chose Bensancon as the example. $20m per mile is on the lower end, but there have been better examples elsewhere.

    As an aside, people who think that beauty trumps functionality and cost have no idea what it means to live in a slum. The slums aren’t slums because they aren’t pretty. They are slums because people are segregated by wealth and there is no escape. Public transportation means so much more than just having something pretty to look at.

    • Danny, usually if you see lower costs, then it’s because the line follows an existing highway or railway ROW. For example, Calgary built its first three lines at about $30 million per mile, but of those two followed grade-separated arterials and one followed a railroad; only the central segment was on-street. (Of course, leaving space for the trains when the city built the arterials is what made this so simple to begin with.) On-street trams tend to be more expensive. Paris’s trams have the same per-mile cost range as American Sunbelt LRT projects – they go to 50 or higher; if they’re more cost-effective, it’s because they get more riders.

  • John

    I think Pie-IX is also an extremely high traffic route. They were thinking of building a metro line there but Quebec is too poor for stuff like that, so busway it is. But I think this will be a very high capacity busway. Think buses coming every 90 seconds during rush hour, signal priority, etc.

    Naturally, it has a wikipedia article:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_7_White_(Montreal_Metro)

    • Nathanael

      Gah.

      I can’t read French, but if this busway consists of *converting existing car lanes*, it seems a very decent idea. If it consists of elevated viaducts or new pavement, it doesn’t.

  • according to a gazette article, the cost is 305M$ for 15km. In Montreal – 154M$ for 10km (25$M/mile), in Laval 125$M for 5km (40$/mile), 26$M for unforseen expenses. And the higher relative cost in Laval is due to having to modify on/off ramps, and building parking lots. Apparently. It still smells kind of expensive, especially since they already have the rolling stock.

    The Laval portion is kind of annoying — spending all this extra money to shuttle suburban residents from parking lots to the metro. I wonder how much every parking spot costs.

  • Allen

    I’m all for keeping costs low. But in the context of bang for our buck, we shouldn’t be talking about the cost of a project until it’s completed. After all, history is full of public projects that that run 50% – 500% over initial projections.

  • The Rail for the Valley group, in conjunction produced a TramTrain plan for the Fraser Valley (Vancouver BC, Canada.

    By track-sharing with a seldom used freight line we have got costs as low as $6 million/km.!

    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/groundbreaking-report-on-interurban-light-rail-released-today/

  • Andrew

    Besançon has got to be one of the smallest cities in the world to be building a tram system. I presume this must contribute to lower costs because this will be a low-capacity system with small vehicles, and less need for costly features like grade separation etc. This should be good news for cities in the US building small urban streetcar systems though.

    • Woody

      Yonah says they will be using a version of the “23-meter trains from Spanish constructor CAF for … $2.5 million per train … the same company had planned to give Houston similar trains for … $3.2 million per train.” About $13.3 million total, roughly $1.5 million per mile. Other things account for the larger part of the savings.

      Seems like your “less need for costly grade separations” come from this: “Much of the dedicated right-of-way for the rail line — usually expensive to develop because planners are afraid to take space away from drivers — simply is taken from the roads.”

      So the lesson I get from Besançon is that auto traffic substantially increases the cost of rail transit. Sorry, that sounds like bad news for U.S. cities building urban streetcar systems.

      The post says Besançon expects the 43,000 daily passengers to be more than a third of the city’s population of 115,000. That truly remarkable fact provides political support for reducing street traffic that no system in the U.S. can hope for.

      • Vladimir

        I believe since they have ‘park-n-ride’ (P+R on the map) options, they hope to capture the attention of those who commute to Besancon by car from the nearby towns and villages. That explains the expected ridership of 43,000.

      • Mike Jones

        Most US cities have loads of space. Not only wide roads compared to Europe, but light traffic and freeways as an alternative. It is just the reluctance of planners (and voters) to attempt projects that adversly impact private vehicles. Also, the signalling methodology, that stores vehicles(and pedestrians)at traffic lights and then releases them in platoons, gives the impression that there is a shortage of roadway capacity.

  • I think these techniques (building streetcar/light rail) could be investigated together with Calgary’s techniques (building light/medium rail) to create some sort of good business guidelines for transit expansions. One could also look at how medium-sized cities in the German speaking world are building relatively cheap S-Bahn systems (building medium/heavy rail) — which similarly as BART act as rapid transit in downtown and as commuter rail spread throughout the region.

    • Max Wyss

      This would kind of mean “Tram/Train” solutions, as we find in Germany (Karlsruhe, Saarbrücken) or France (Mulhouse, Paris, etc.).

      • Tram/Train is a fourth way of getting rails moderately prized – but it is a bit different from S-Bahn.

        S-Bahn is usually built by creating a downtown heavy rail corridor, that is reserved. In this downtown area the station density is high. There would be several S-Bahn lines running on the corridor, and they diverge away from downtown, usually running on mainline (depending on the size of the city). The way that S-Bahn acts as rapid transit in downtown is by having multiple lines overlap in the downtown section. Every line runs at a fixed 60..20 minute frequency (depending on the size of the city) and overlap downtown to a metro-like frequency. The downtown corridor sometimes is an existing rail corridor, for some cities they are tunnels (i.e. Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Paris, Zurich). Of course the infrastructure is still fairly expensive, but it’s good bang for the buck – basically a 4km downtown tunnel can give a large network with downtown metro for the prize of a 8km tunnel.

        Tram/Train are special trams that can run on mainline tracks. They are most useful in medium sized cities (500k?). The trick is to run the trains on mainline with large station distances outside of downtown, but have them go onto the street network inside the city. Again the stop and train frequency is high in downtown. It’s a way to combine cheap streetcar construction with the speed and existing infrastructure that mainlines can provide. The systems are usually much more small scale, and might get overburdened when the cities grow (for example karlsruhe is putting the downtown of their streetcar portion underground).

        Tram/Train is probably not all that different from Calgary C-Train, except that C-Train only runs on former rail corridors — in North America light rail vehicles cannot really share tracks with operating mainlines.

        • Robert in Calgary

          Calgary uses one rail corridor that is still operating.

          We don’t use the railway tracks!

          We built the LRT tracks in the rail ROW next to the railway line.

          • Yep. And that cost, what, $2,000 per weekday boarding?

            Seriously, if I were a political or business leader in Calgary, I’d start an international consultancy for low-cost transit, drawing on the success of the C-Train. It would not just make money but also hedge against environmental legislation weakening the city’s oil industry.

  • Dan

    From everything I’ve read, this is all pure speculation since the line hasn’t even begun construction yet and is still in the planning stages. Is this correct?

  • Gwendy

    Problem is, this cost doesn’t include the fact that dozens of old trees are to be cut off for this to be build, leaving Besancon horribly scarred.
    Then there’s one historical bridge that will have to be destroyed and rebuilt and THAT is absolutely not included in the price since its cost is one of the things that forced the Town to lower the cost of the tramway.
    And let’s not forget how it won’t go through very important industrial places, universities or commercial points.
    And that’s just one of the few examples of why this project is just an electoral argument for the mayor instead of a project to improve life for Besancon citizens (who, for the most, don’t want this tramway).

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