» 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.
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.
|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.
|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:
- Bus Rapid Transit: Arlington Virginia’s Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway; the Bay Area’s Alum Rock/Santa Clara BRT; Denver’s Flatiron Flyer (U.S. 36); El Paso’s Brio Alameda; Jacksonville’s First Coast Flyer Southeast Line; Las Vegas’ Flamingo Corridor; Mexico City’s Línea 6; Toronto’s Viva Highway 7 West/Vaughan; Vancouver Washington’s Vine.
- Commuter Rail: the Bay Area’s SMART Train (Phase 1); Boston’s Wachusett Extension; Denver’s A Line, B Line, and G Line; Los Angeles’ Perris Valley Line.
- Light Rail: Dallas’ South Oak Cliff Blue Line Extension; Denver’s R Line; Los Angeles’ Expo Line (Phase 2) and Gold Line Extension to Azusa; Phoenix’s Northwest Extension (Phase 1); Seattle’s University Link and South 200th Link Extension.
- Heavy Rail: the Bay Area’s BART Warm Springs Extension; New York’s Second Avenue Subway (Phase 1).
- Streetcar: Cincinnati’s Streetcar; Dallas’ Oak Cliff Streetcar Extension; Detroit’s M-1 Rail; Kansas City’s Streetcar; New Orleans’ North Rampart/St. Claude Line; St. Louis’ Loop Trolley; Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar; Washington’s H Street/Benning Road Line.
- New stations: Chicago’s Washington/Wabash Station; Los Angeles’ Bob Hope Airport/Hollywood Way Station; Miami’s Central Station; New Jersey’s Westmont Station; New York’s World Trade Center Transportation Center.
Construction is expected to begin on the following projects in 2016:
- Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s Pace Pulse Milwaukee Line; Richmond’s Pulse Line; San Diego’s South Bay Rapid; San Francisco’s Van Ness BRT; Toronto’s Viva Highway 7 Rapidway (Phase 2); Winnipeg’s Southwest Transitway.
- Commuter Rail: Fort Worth’s TEX Rail.
- Light Rail: Edmonton’s Valley Line (Stage 1); Seattle’s East Link; Washington’s Purple Line.
- Streetcar: El Paso Streetcar; Milwaukee Streetcar; Oklahoma City Streetcar.
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.
|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:
- Bus Rapid Transit: Chicago’s Loop Link; Hartford’s CTfastrack; Jacksonville’s First Coast Flyer Downtown Phase and North Corridor; Toronto’s Viva Davis Drive Rapidway; Waterloo’s ION
- Commuter Rail: Boston;s Fitchburg Line improvements; Toronto’s Georgetown South and UP Express;
- Light Rail: Edmonton’s Metro Line; Houston’s East End Line (Phase 1) and Southeast Line; Phoenix’s Central Mesa extension; Portland’s Orange Line; Sacramento’s Blue Line extension
- Heavy Rail: New York’s 7 Subway Extension;
- Streetcar: Charlotte’s CityLYNX Gold Line (Phase 1) ; Dallas’ Oak Cliff Streetcar (Phase 1)
- New stations: Chicago’s Cermak-McCormick Place Station; Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Transit Center
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).