Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2017

Transit construction in 2017

» There are major transit infrastructure projects under construction throughout North America thanks to significant interest from local officials and support from national governments. That momentum is likely to continue thanks to the passage of several transit-supporting tax referenda last November. But in the U.S., there are big questions about the impact of the incoming Trump Administration.

New rail and bus routes are being built by virtually every large metropolitan area in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Almost 800 route-miles of new transit infrastructure–most of it with dedicated lanes–is now under construction, at a total cost of almost $80 billion, to eventually serve some three million daily riders.

Transit Explorer has been updated to offer the latest information on existing, planned, and proposed routes.

Every January, I compile information on all the transit projects to keep track of what kind of investments are happening. See the end of this post for a full list of projects opening in 2017, as well as a list of projects that will enter the construction phase this year. I keep this information up to date on Transit Explorer, but this post serves as a summary of all that is happening in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

This is the ninth year of my annual compilation of new transit projects on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 .

Transit investment in 2016

The new year’s eve opening of New York’s Second Avenue Subway, or at least its first three stations, capped off an impressive year in new transit investments. Though it certainly meant a lot to New Yorkers, it was arguably less transformative than new projects that opened elsewhere. Seattle’s light rail system grew both north and south, instantly doubling ridership and allowing direct connections to the University of Washington. Denver linked its rail network to its airport. Los Angeles extended its light rail lines both east and west, finally offering its residents direct access to the beach. Vancouver’s SkyTrain became the world’s longest automated rail network. Meanwhile, streetcars returned to Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C.

In November, voters approved referenda in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Raleigh, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle that will direct billions of dollars in the coming decades to massive transit expansions. Voters in cities across the U.S., at least, seem to think investing in transit is a good idea.

The Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation capped off 2016 and began 2017 by approving several major Full Funding Grant Agreements, which essentially guarantee federal support for the completion of transit projects. The agency officially lent its support to the reconstruction of a portion of Chicago’s North Side Red and Purple Lines; it provided $1.6 billion for the extension of Los Angeles’ Purple Line subway further west; it provided $500 million to a commuter rail project connecting Fort Worth to its airport; and it offered millions for bus rapid transit projects in RenoSalt Lake, and San Francisco.

What impact will the Trump Administration have?

Yet the future of these projects, and ones like them, is murky. In her confirmation hearing this week, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, failed to promise to support existing transit funding contracts. Does that mean projects that are now under construction could be cancelled? Probably not. But it does add a degree of mystery about what the federal role will be in funding future projects.

Indeed, President-elect Trump’s entire infrastructure plan is an unknown entity. During the campaign, his advisors floated the idea of a $1 trillion plan whose primary beneficiaries seemed likely to be profit-seeking corporations and toll roads, but the prospects for such a proposal are unclear in the incoming Congress. We don’t know what the new administration’s first moves will be in terms of actually supporting new transit.

In Canada, in contrast, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to providing billions of dollars in new federal funding for transit projects across the country. Toronto’s ability to continue expanding its transit network seems assured at least for the moment.

Projects underway this year

Despite the concerns about changes in Washington, 2017 will be a big year for new transit expansions. San Francisco’s BART and Toronto’s TTC heavy rail systems will both be extended. New light rail lines will open in Charlotte, Denver, Guadalajara, and Monterrey–as well as new streetcars in Detroit and St. Louis. And new bus rapid transit routes will serve customers in Albuquerque, Fresno, Oakland, San Jose, and the Chicago suburbs.

Moreover, construction is set to begin on some game-changing investments in a number of cities. Montréal’s REM project, notably, will by 2020 or so provide a brand-new, 42-mile automated heavy rail network that will double the city’s metro system. Indianapolis will invest in the country’s first electric bus rapid transit line. And the Caltrain system will be electrified to provide more frequent, faster trains. These are important and beneficial improvements.

Gloomy trends

Whatever the environment for expansion, the future of transit in the U.S. is threatened by deeper problems having to do with the economy as a whole, as well as low gas prices. Since mid-2014, the number of vehicle-miles traveled in the U.S. has skyrocketed, meaning people are driving more than they ever have on American roads. At the same time, transit ridership for most agencies around the country is declining.

What is unquestionable is that spending on new projects–despite the glitz associated them them (and the attention they get on this site and others)–is not adequate to support increasing transit ridership. More must be done to make transit more appealing, and alternatives less so.

Projects opening in 2017 (click on the to see the route on Transit Explorer):

Heavy rail

Commuter rail

Light rail

Bus rapid transit

Streetcar

Projects beginning construction in 2017 (click on the to see the route on Transit Explorer):

Heavy rail

Commuter rail

Light rail

Bus rapid transit

Streetcar

There’s more…

Dozens of other transit projects are under construction around the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, but are not listed here because they won’t open for service this year or they started construction before 2017. Information about all of them is available on Transit Explorer. The five most expensive projects in the U.S. and the most expensive in Canada fall onto that list: New York’s East Side Access (more than $10 billion); Honolulu’s Rail Transit project (more than $6 billion); Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown light rail ($5 billion); Los Angeles’ Purple Line Extension Phase 1 ($2.8 billion); Seattle’s East Link Light Rail ($2.8 billion); and Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 ($2.8 billion). None of these projects will open before 2020.

On the horizon, there are two equally large projects that have yet to get started but seem likely to move forward. New York’s Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, recently entered into the federal funding approvals process. That potentially-$6 billion project would extend the Subway to 125th Street. And a new tunnel under the Hudson River, connecting New York to New Jersey and providing access for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, could end up costing more than $20 billion.

Despite local support for more transit infrastructure, the high costs of new investment in the U.S. are limiting the number of projects that can be funded. The massive cost of tunneling is especially problematic; the San Francisco Central Subway, at more than $900 million a mile, is particularly expensive, but so is the Los Angeles Regional Connector ($750 million a mile) and Purple Line extension, phase 1 ($730 million a mile), as well as Seattle’s Northgate Link ($490 million a mile). Seemingly simple, mostly at-grade light rail projects, like Minneapolis’ Southwest Corridor ($130 million a mile) and Charlotte’s Blue Line extension ($125 million a mile), are expensive.

Even the seven streetcar projects under construction in 2017–other than Seattle’s Center City Connector, they don’t even remove a lane of traffic for their construction–average almost $60 million a mile. Suffice it to say that U.S. transit costs a lot more to build than similar investments in other countries.

If cities don’t get these costs under control, even their billions in new local-taxpayer-provided funds won’t be enough to make an adequate dent in their overall mobility needs. If nothing else, this is the challenge for 2017.

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