DOT High-Speed Rail

Ray LaHood's Expedition to Europe Bodes Well for U.S. HSR Hopes

LaHood ZapateroVisits France, Germany, and Spain to see high-speed rail working first-hand

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has spent the last week in Europe, where he’s been meeting with French, German, and Spanish officials on a high-speed fact-finding tour. His conclusions — that the U.S. has a model to emulate in European very fast trains — indicates the administration’s seriousness in approaching the development of such transportation technologies in the United States. Washington, it appears, is not going to let the dream for true high-speed rail slip away.

In meetings with French and Spanish officials, Mr. LaHood could hardly restrain his excitement about his trip to Europe, telling AFP that “In America we’re just beginning what you’ve done here in Europe for such a long period of time in such a successful way. This is very impressive.” He is likely to visit Japan, the Asian model for fast trains, later in the year. The United Kingdom’s Transport Minister, Lord Andrew Adonis, made a similar trip two weeks ago.

According to the AP, Mr. LaHood was especially impressed by Spain’s relatively lower-cost system compared to more expensive alternatives in Germany and Japan. I’m not sure whether those differences are a result of the lower-wage Spanish work force or some other factor; the article doesn’t specify. What is clear is that the distinctively Spanish obsession with using tunnel boring machines (TBM) seems to be a model for the Transportation Secretary; these semi-automated devices save on both time and cost in building underground rail corridors. For example, the 3.5 mile tunnel under downtown Barcelona, which is part of a larger project that will allow high-speed trains from central Spain to reach France, will only cost 180 million Euros to build. That’s far cheaper per mile than any similar U.S. tunneling project, and part of the explanation is the efficient use of those TBMs.

By 2020, Spain’s plan is to have 10,000 km of high-speed rail in operation, giving it the second largest network in the world after China. Ninety percent of the country’s citizens will be within 50 km of a high-speed station. Can the U.S. commit itself to an equivalent goal?

I have been a strong proponent of truly fast high-speed rail, and Mr. LaHood’s close inspection of European trains traveling at above 186 mph indicates that he feels the same. California needs a large federal commitment to get moving on its project — the first American example of modern rail investment and a case that is strikingly similar to Spain. Will Washington climb on board?

Image above: Secretary Ray LaHood meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, from AFP

Metro Rail Singapore

Singapore's Circle Line Next Step for a Network of Automatic Metros

Singapore Transit Plans

Project will be world’s longest driverless underground line when completed next year, and more lines will follow.

Yesterday, Singapore opened the first phase of its future Circle Line, which will ring the downtown core and provide easier connections among the city’s existing and future metro lines. Once completed in 2011, the circumferential route will have cost around $5 billion U.S. to construct and will run 33.3 km, making it the longest automated, fully underground rapid transit corridor in the world. The portion of the line opened yesterday, at 5.7 km, will connect the North-South (Red) and North East Lines (Purple). Singapore’s push to expand, starting with the Circle Line, will eventually double the city-state’s metro network with some of the most advanced public transportation technologies offered in the world and provide a model for other cities building such lines.

Singapore’s projects are constructed by the nation’s Land Transport Authority, which then leases out operations to two private operators. Since the country’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, it has proceeded with an ambitious urbanization scheme involving the construction of mass transit lines and large (banal) apartment housing estates. That process, in addition to an aggressive pursuit of foreign investment, has made the country the fourth wealthiest in the world by GDP per capita.

The government’s recent plans have focused on augmenting rail services, which already provide the vast majority of commutes, so that more can benefit from train service. Today, about two-thirds of transit riders rely on slower, less effective buses. Unlike the first two lines built — the red North-South line and the green East-West line, which are mostly elevated on concrete viaducts — the new projects are being constructed fully underground. As a result, they can be built with far less intrusion on the urban landscape and can operate less visibly in neighborhoods. In addition, tunneling the corridors makes full-scale automation more simple.

Indeed, the first product of this method of transit construction was the North East line, which opened in 2003. That project will be joined in 2011 by the full Circle Line, in 2016 by the Downtown Line, in 2018 by the Thomson Line, and finally in 2020 by the Eastern Region Line, doubling total metro route miles on the island to about 250 km, with an expected daily ridership of 4.6 million, slightly less than the population of the country. The Downtown and Circle Lines are currently under construction.

Singapore’s massive investment in new rapid transit is one element of the nation’s strong efforts to encourage public transportation use. Since 1975, the city has also operated a congestion charge downtown, a system that has been relatively effective in limiting automobile traffic even with the island’s increasing wealth and car ownership. In addition, the decision to build high-density, focused neighborhoods near transit stations has ensured that most people, even those far from the downtown core, aren’t isolated from the city’s urban life. The construction of more heavy rail lines will shore up missed connections.

Houston Light Rail

After Years of Conflict, Houston's Transit System Advances

Houston Light Rail Network» Tom DeLay’s departure from Congress has made the project’s implementation quite a bit easier.

Houston is America’s fourth-largest city and one of the nation’s most car-dependent. That’s because for the past sixty years, the city has invested in almost nothing other than new highways. Only in 2004, with the opening of a new light rail line running 7.5 miles down the city’s Main Street, did the trend begin to reverse itself. Though the region remains committed to the construction of huge expanses of asphalt, for the first time in decades, a large transit expansion program is under way.

The biggest news came last week, when the federal government announced that of the five New Start corridors for which it would be approving construction in FY 2010, two would be in Houston, providing a guarantee of $900 million. Construction on the system’s north and southeast lines will begin this year. The other corridors projected to receive light rail in Houston — the Uptown, University, and East End lines — will follow soon after, and all are expected to open for business by 2012.

Though Washington is playing a primary role in assuring the project’s financing, Houston’s own voters approved the system expansion in November 2003, even before the first line opened. That project, running down Main Street, has more than lived up to expectations, even though its route serves only a small number of the city’s major destinations. In fact, while the system was expected to attract 40,000 daily boardings only by 2020, it achieved that ridership in its second year of operation. It attracts more riders per route mile than any other light rail corridor, with the exception of Boston’s Green Line. Continued public support for the project undoubtedly is a result of the Main Street line’s success, and Houston is raring for more of the same.

Yet what’s interesting about Houston’s story isn’t so much the strong ridership along its light rail line — many cities have seen similar success. Rather, Houston’s ramping up of its light rail construction comes after years of strong political opposition both from within the city and from without.

In fact, though Houston had the first operating monorail line in the country in 1956, hopes for expansions of that project — which was closed eight months after it opened — were quickly forgotten. Yet by the late 1980s, Houston was refocusing its efforts and started pushing a 22-mile transit project that would extend from the Texas Medical Center, through downtown, to the Galleria. Voters agreed in 1988 to fund a “light rail” project, but by 1991, Congress added $500 million in the transportation bill for a monorail whose total cost would rise to $1.2 billion once completed. A dedicated city revenue source would cover the gap.

Just when the city seemed to be on the cusp of a serious transportation program, though, Bob Lanier (D) won the Mayor’s seat in the city in November 1991; the position gave him chairmanship over Houston Metro’s board. His principal campaign plank was opposition to the monorail project. It’s not surprising, then, that Mr. Lanier took Congress’ $500 million and stuck it elsewhere: fixing potholes and filling a gap in the police department’s budget. Monorail plans were abandoned.

Like an eternally optimistic child, though, Houston was at it again by the late nineties, this time planning a full-scale light rail project, starting with the Main Street corridor that is in operation today. The plans would need federal funding, of course, but that would require support from the area’s congressmen, something that would not be universally forthcoming.

That’s because while the new mayor Lee Brown (D) was a proponent of light rail expansion, Tom DeLay (R), who represented Sugar Land in the U.S. House, was adamantly opposed. Sugar Land is a suburb southwest of Houston that is too far away to justify extensive transit investments there. In 2000, the congressman killed $65 million appropriated by Congress for the now-planned Main Street line and proceeded to write language into the federal transportation bill effectively making it impossible for Houston to receive money for light rail from Washington. The Houston Chronicle quoted congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D) in reaction: “I will not tolerate, no matter whether he is in the leadership or not, some Texas congressperson blocking federal funds coming into the 18th District. I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Ms. Jackson-Lee, far less powerful in Congress at the time, actually represents Houston.

Without federal funds, Houston began construction in March 2001 and opened the project in January 2004 at a cost of $300 million. Though the line has been plagued by car-train accidents, it has otherwise been an unambiguous success.

Even before that line opened, voters agreed in November 2003 to support a $7.5 billion plan for 73 miles of light rail that would connect all of the city’s major destinations. The city’s public clearly is in support of transit expansions. Yet with continued problems being assured federal funds, that plan fell apart, and in 2007, the transit authority announced that it was switching those proposed corridors to bus rapid transit, claiming that the lack of federal matching funds would simply make funding for light rail impossible. The BRT lines would be designed to switch relatively cheaply to LRT in the future.

The Houston public and its government weren’t satisfied with this result, however, and clamored for LRT instead. The embarassing departure of Tom DeLay from Congress in 2006 opened up opportunities for federal funding for the city’s transit lines. Mayor Bill White (D) has become a strong supporter of the project. As a result, Metro revised its temporary 2007 plan, deciding instead to build 30 miles of light rail, 28 miles of commuter rail, and 40 miles of bus rapid transit (pictured in the map above). This project, though not as extensive as once envisioned, still would make Houston a far more transit-friendly place.

The good news Houston received earlier this month — guaranteed 49% federal New Starts funding for both its North and Southeast light rail lines — puts a firm foot down for the city’s transit legacy. With these new lines in place, it’s hard to imagine the rest of the projected corridors not being built by 2012, and it’s likely the city, with strong public backing, will want to invest in more. Houston’s success in the New Starts ratings shows just how far it has come since just ten years ago, when the federal government was instructed by Mr. DeLay to pretend the agency didn’t exist.

Yet there will always be obstacles ready to make moving forward difficult. Earlier this week, opponents of the project in the Texas legislature proposed preventing Metro from using its powers of eminent domain in the construction of its light rail lines, an action that would make the completion of the University line (and the connected Uptown line) a virtual impossibility. As with any major government investment program, conservatives are likely to stand in the way as much as possible. Houston’s politicians, in other words, shouldn’t be celebrating too much.

Houston’s example demonstrates that a truly auto-dependent city can make significant steps towards improving transit capacity, but that those advances are unlikely without support at both the local and federal levels. Cities whose excitement for transit is ephemeral, or worse, not particularly strong, are unlikely to be able to move forward quickly.

DOT Finance

Standardizing Transit Funding

Transit capital projects should receive federal funds proportional to their merit.

There’s been a lot of talk in transportation circles recently about ensuring that the federal commitment to transit projects is as strong as that to the national highway program. Such a policy change would require a sea change in Washington, principally because it would necessitate a radical transformation of the transportation legislation, which defines how funding is distributed. In addition to more funding allocated to new corridors in general, the federal government must reform the manner in which it determines its share of total construction costs.

Highway funds are distributed with an 80% federal share of construction costs on new roads projects. Gas tax revenues go to the states based on a number of factors including population and road network length; states are required to write up five-year transportation improvement plans to quantify how that money will be spent. In truth, though, states have the ability to invest more in highways than is guaranteed through than 80% share. States have their own gas taxes from which they cull money to use on individual projects, and tolling is used by a number of agencies to raise independent funds for road maintenance and construction. It is a generalization, in other words, to say that the 80% number defines all federal roads expenditures, because there simply isn’t enough money going around to pay for all possible transportation needs.

Most transit funding from Washington comes in the form of standardized “formula” grants that go to cities largely based on population and transit usage. Yet these “capital” funds are rarely used to pay for new transit corridors; rather, most of the money goes towards expenses such as new vehicles, maintenance facilities, or replacement track. Rather, the competitive New Starts grant program — at about $1.5 billion allocated a year — represents the major federal contribution for new transit lines.

Though the transportation legislation officially allows transit agencies to apply for New Starts funds that cover up to 80% of construction costs, the same legislation also points out that the federal government looks favorably on agencies that demand less of Washington. Of the dozens of corridors being built today in the United States, only two — the Mid-Jordan LRT line and the Weber County commuter rail line, both in Salt Lake City — have such strong federal support. Every other project has a federal commitment of 60% or less, depending on the involvement of local governments and agencies.

The problem with this system isn’t necessarily the fact that most transit lines require at least a 50% local funding commitment to be built. Rather, the fundamental trouble is that the federal government pays varying amounts for similar projects in different cities: the relative value of a project has no role in determining the federal government’s share of funding. There is also an unsaid rule enforced by DOT that requires more expensive projects, no matter their benefits, to receive a lower relative federal share of costs. The argument goes that Washington needs to distribute funds throughout the country, and therefore it shouldn’t have to commit too much to any single city’s project.

As a result, projects like Seattle’s $1.9 billion University Link LRT only had a 43% construction cost commitment from Washington, D.C., while Salt Lake City’s $535 million Mid-Jordan LRT had an 80% federal funding share. The former is expected to serve 40,200 daily riders by 2030 ($47,000 total/rider); the latter, 9,500 ($56,000 total/rider). There is no DOT rule explaining why the national government should pay $45,000 per rider in Salt Lake but only $20,000 per rider in Seattle.

Cities with transit systems supported by more politically powerful legislators can often expect a higher federal share of costs, even if their projects are less worthy of funds. Some cities, benefiting from a larger share of federal funds, can spread their own tax revenues across a larger number of projects, while other regions, spending a higher percentage of project costs, are unable to invest in multiple corridors. This mess needs to be cleared up.

Below, I compare the five projects recommended for New Starts funding in FY 2010. Together, the federal government has committed a total of $4 billion to these projects, with $3 billion going to the ARC tunnel between Northern New Jersey and Manhattan alone. These funds will be distributed throughout the projects’ respective construction periods. The share of costs paid by the federal government is based on arbitrary decisions by local authorities, in cooperation with the DOT.

I’ve compared these expenditures with three potential alternatives, based on more objective criteria:

  • Qualified projects funded at 80% federal share: If a project meets the required (“Medium”) New Start ratings, the federal government simply chips in 80% of the construction cost. This formula doesn’t account for relative differences between proposed projects and rewards any project that meets basic requirements. This would cost Washington $8.6 billion for the projects approved for New Starts funding in FY 2010.
  • Qualified projects funded at $25,000 federal dollars per projected future daily boarding: This formula would reward projects that serve the most people per project cost. It doesn’t account for travel time benefits, new riders, environmental impact, or development around lines. This would cost Washington $8.2 billion for these projects.
  • Qualified projects funded at $60,000 federal dollars per projected daily travel time benefit hour: This formula would reward projects that do most to reduce commute times, and by extension measures riders (and new riders) per route mile and cost. (If the ARC Tunnel has a 104,000-hour travel time benefit, that means that once the tunnel opens, its users will collectively save 104,000 hours every weekday on their commutes compared to today.) This system doesn’t account for environmental impact or development around lines. This would cost Washington $7.7 billion for these projects.


New Starts – Recommended for FFGA in FY 2010
Project (riders/wkdy travel time benefits (TTB))
Total Cost Existing Fed Share*
Proposed Fed Share: 80%
Proposed Fed Share: $25k/rider
Proposed Fed Share: $60k/TTB h
Orlando, FL – Central Florida CR (7.4 k/5.1 kh) $356 m $178 m
$285 m $185 m
$306 m
NYC, NY – ARC CR (254.2 k/104 kh) $8.7 b $3.0 b
$7.0 b $6.4 b
$6.2 b
Sacramento, CA – South LRT II (10 k/2.3 kh) $270 m $135 m
$216 m $250 m
$138 m
Houston, TX – North LRT (29 k/11.1 kh) $677 m $332 m
$542 m $677 b**
$666 m
Houston, TX – Southeast LRT (28.7 k/7 kh) $681 m $334 m
$545 m $681 m**
$420 m
Totals $4.0 b
$8.6 b
$8.2 b
$7.7 b

* This refers to the New Starts share; excludes highway transfer flexible funds and other federal transportation dollars that states may use to fund transit expansion.
** Federal share goes over projected cost, so Washington would cover entire cost.


Reflexively, a blanket 80% federal share for new transit projects, as long as they meet New Starts requirements, may seem acceptable because that’s the way highway projects are currently funded. But the problem with that system is that it provides little incentive for local authorities to improve a project’s design once it has met federal guidelines. It funds projects — some very important, others marginally necessary — unselectively, and that’s problematic if we want our national transportation system to be improved for the purpose of achieving specific outcomes. Specifically, we want to move more people via public transportation and encourage transit-oriented development.

On the other hand, funding projects based on their anticipated ridership and travel time savings would be more effective. I’ve highlighted potential rates above — at $25,000 per anticipated rider (in 2030), or at $60,000 per weekday travel time benefit hour. I chose these rates with an interest in roughly doubling transit funding overall, but there’s no reason, for instance, that the DOT couldn’t choose to fund projects at a rate of $30,000 per rider or $40,000 per travel time benefit hour. These guidelines could be adjusted up or down depending on the amount of funds made available for transit expansion by the Congress.

Some combination of the travel time benefit calculation and additional points gained based on environmental impact and transit-oriented development should be used to determine the federal share of a new transit construction project. Both small and large projects should be judged based on these criteria, with an eye towards associating federal funding shares with objective measures of project desirability. The rather indiscriminate manner in which some cities pay more than others for similar projects needs to come to an end.


For further information, the following table provides similar information about all the other projects currently receiving New Starts funding and demonstrates the funding commitment that would have been necessary from the federal government if another system by which to award funds had been used. I could not find all of the relevant information about travel time benefits for older projects, so that information is not complete below. If implemented, increasing the federal share to a blanket 80% or paying out $25,000 per rider would have roughly doubled New Starts expenditures, from $11.4 billion to $23.5 or $21 billion, respectively, over the construction period of these projects.


New Starts – Currently Receiving FFGA
Project (riders/wkdy travel time benefits) *** Total Cost Existing Fed Share*
Proposed Fed Share: 80% Proposed Fed Share: $25k/rider Proposed Fed Share: $60k/TTB h
Phoenix, AZ – Central LRT (49.9 k/15.3 kh) $1.4 b $587 m
$1.1 b $1.2 b
$918 m
L.A., CA – Gold LRT (23 k) $899 m $491 m
$719 m $575 m
Denver, CO – Southeast LRT (38.1 k) $879 m $525 m
$703 m $879 m**
Denver, CO – West LRT (29.7 k/5.7 kh) $710 m $309 m
$568 m $710 m**
$342 m
DC – Largo Metro (20 k) $607 m $364 m
$486 m $500 m
Minneapolis, MN – Northstar CR (5.9 k) $317 m $157 m
$254 m $148 m
NJ – Hudson-Bergen LRT (38.2 k) $1.2 b $500 m
$960 m $955 m
NYC, NY – LIRR East Side (167.3 k/139.6 kh) $7.4 b $2.6 b
$5.9 b $4.2 b
$7.4 b**
NYC, NY – 2nd Ave Subway (202 k/63.6 kh) $4.9 b $1.3 b
$3.9 b $4.9 b**
$3.8 b
Portland, OR – Green LRT (46.5 k/7.7 kh) $576 m $345 m
$461 m $576 m** (100%) $462 m (80%)
Pittsburgh, PA – North LRT (14.3 k/4.2 kh) $435 m $236 m
$348 m $358 m
$252 m
Dallas, TX – NW/SE LRT (45.9 k/13.2 kh) $1.4 b $700 m
$1.1 b $1.1 b
$792 m
SLC, UT – Mid-Jordan LRT (9.5 k) $535 m $428 m
$428 m $238 m
SLC, UT – Weber CR (11.8 k/6.4 kh) $612 m $489 m
$489 m $295 m
$384 m
Norfolk, VA – LRT (7.1 k) $232 m $128 m
$186 m $178 m
DC – Dulles Metro (85.7 k) $3.1 b $900 m
$2.5 b $2.1 b
Seattle, WA – Central LRT (42.5 k) $2.4 b $500 m
$1.9 b $1.1 b (46%)
Seattle, WA – University LRT (40.2 k/14.5 kh) $1.9 b $813 m
$1.5 b $1 b
$870 m
Totals $11.4 b
$23.5 b
$21 b

* This refers to the New Starts share; excludes highway transfer flexible funds, etc.
** Cost goes over, so feds would cover entire cost
*** Did not include Ravenswood Line Extension project in Chicago because a large percentage of its funding comes from fixed guideway modernization funds, and it would be hard to argue that it’s a comparable “new” corridor.

New Orleans Streetcar

New Orleans Rekindles Hopes for a Desire Streetcar

New Orleans Desire Streetcar Map» City to use FTA planning funds to consider new line downtown.

New Orleans is famous for its streetcars, but the fact is that the city has only a few lines in operation, and their service has been relatively limited since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Yet the RTA transit operator there is intent on moving ahead with increasing its offerings, and has launched a study of potential corridors in the still-vibrant French Quarter and Central Business District. The three lines under consideration — shown in the map above — are all quite short and provide service just a few blocks from where streetcars already travel. The options, in other words, aren’t particularly compelling.

RTA’s focus is on increasing the attractiveness of the city’s core by expanding access to the convention center, the city hall, and the northern areas of the French Quarter and the burgeoning Marigny neighborhood. Each line could bring in between 800 and 2,000 additional daily boarders, no huge boost for ridership in the city, but that’s largely because no real improved service would be provided to some of the city’s poorer and more transit-needy areas. RTA plans on submitting its application for federal Small Start funding by September, with funding possible in the President’s FY 2011 budget. Money for the study itself comes from a federal allocation awarded to the city in 2003.

I hate to say it, but if they were built as envisioned here, these routes would do very little for New Orleans. Their modest ridership estimates are probably accurate, because the limited extent of the service proposed, as well as their duplication of existing lines, would make these streetcar investments a waste. The project proposed is simply too small.

What’s interesting about the project are the similarities between its “French Quarter loop” concept and the Desire Streetcar project rejected by the Federal Transit Administration in 2003. That streetcar line, whose route is shown in the map below, would have run 2.9 miles from Canal Street along Rampart and St. Claude Avenues through Marigny and Bywater towards the Lower Ninth Ward, expanding access to some of the city’s most deprived citizens. The corridor being considered today covers about 2/5 of the same route.

The FTA rejected the Desire line during the New Starts process because it would have done little to decrease commuters’ travel times, as the streetcars would have been just as slow as existing buses. The project would have cost only $121 million to build, and it would have attracted 20,000 daily riders — but most of them would have simply been transferring from buses. Yet, there’s a strong argument to be made that streetcars can play a positive role in focusing neighborhood development in a way that buses cannot, making their added expense sometimes worth the cost. In the case of Desire, a streetcar line could be a spark for greater revitalization of the neighborhood as a whole. Though the feds were probably right in their assessment of the limited time-travel savings offered by the line, the possibilities for land use improvements are endless. A Desire line makes more sense now than ever.

Considering the wide-scale destruction caused by Katrina (including the temporary shutting down of the St. Charles streetcar line), perhaps it was a good thing that Desire wasn’t approved for funding. But considering the Obama Administration’s new livable communities initiative and its clear support for streetcar projects, it’s likely that it would have been approved for Small Starts funding had its application come through today. So there’s a strong chance that at least one of RTA’s proposed routes could find money in Washington.

Why, then, are the proposals being considered now so limited in their scope? Why isn’t a full-scale Desire line on the agenda again? The answer is likely the limited finances of the anemic RTA, which has yet to regain its former scope in a much smaller New Orleans. But the city needs bigger plans than what is now on offer, because these projects — while they could be the start of something more important — aren’t much right now. Transport for NOLA could offer some helpful advice on where to go; I think a full-scale Desire line is the place to start, not some shriveled one-mile excuse for a project.


Image above: CBD/French Quarter Streetcar routes, from New Orleans RTA; Desire Streetcar project, from New Orleans RTA