El Paso Juarez

El Paso and Juarez Plan Transit Link

» Project would span international boundary, but it’s unclear how immigration law would be upheld.

Counselors in both El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico agreed this week to support the creation of a fixed-corridor transit line connecting their two cities. A new line, probably rail, could use existing bridges and track to reinforce a link that tens of thousands of people cross today in automobiles or by foot. An hour-long wait is common for Mexicans attempting to enter the United States. Other than speeding movement, however, there are few specifics offered about the project, which seems more of a pipe dream than a serious proposal.

The project’s ambition brings to mind the still-born effort to stage the 2016 Summer Olympics in San Diego and neighboring Tijuana. In that case, a local attempt at bi-national unity was superseded by higher level administrators who feared the logistical and political problems inherent in trying to run a Games in two different countries. It is not surprising that the San Diego Trolley terminates blocks from the international border, but goes no further. How would border crossings be arranged? How could illegal trafficking be prevented?

These same issues will probably prevent any El Paso-Juarez link from being built. The United States and Mexico have closed borders and a rail line connecting border cities would be difficult to build and even harder to operate. At the international crossing, customs officers would have to check the papers and baggage of every passenger on board, a time-consuming and invasive process well-known to anyone who’s ever taken a train between the U.S. and Canada. Riders would either have to leave the train or be questioned one-by-one on board by immigration officers. These procedures would eliminate many of the speed advantages of constructing a new transit link.

If the goal of a public transportation connection between two countries that don’t have open borders seems unrealistic, it at least says something about the openness of the people who live in the affected areas and their hope for better international relations. As long as prominent American commentators and policymakers remain antagonistic in reference to any relationship with Mexico, people will be waiting hours to cross the border with no rail option for decades to come.

Proposed Juarez Rail Line MapUpdate, 1 October

The El Paso Times provides more details on the Juarez-El Paso project, demonstrating that the City of Juarez’s primary interest is in building a new line within Mexico, from the municipality’s airport, through downtown, to the border. A connection over the existing bridge into downtown El Paso is a future possibility, but only if U.S. customs officials approve the use of the link, with the problems discussed above and all. The project could be in service by 2013 if the $120 million corridor can compile enough financial and political support.

This information adds a realistic note to this idea for a new transit service: instead of emphasizing the border crossing as the important element of this line, the project’s main goal will be to get people from the south side of the city to the border, where they will be able to cross by foot into El Paso’s center city, which is just a few blocks away.

Juarez officials also hope to eventually connect their city with the proposed Denver-El Paso commuter rail link, though that project’s future depends on the release of federal stimulus funds, something that is in no way guaranteed.

Image above: from the El Paso Times

Bay Area Light Rail

San Jose Plots a Renewal of Its Struggling Light Rail Network

San Jose Transit Map

» VTA, unlike most other modern systems, has had trouble attracting ridership.

More than 20 years after its first segment opened, the VTA Santa Clara County light rail system has yet to provoke a significant change in the land use patters of San Jose and its surroundings. Rather, the project has yet to attract major investment in areas around stations and it has done little to reinforce the tenuous status of downtown San Jose as the region’s center. Fortunately, VTA planners are on the lookout for potential improvements and are now evaluating ways to improve service. The problem is that the failures of this rail system aren’t the lines or vehicles themselves but rather the physical form of the city.

VTA’s difficulties are made manifest by the system’s low ridership: despite the fact that the system now offers 42 miles of service heading in all directions from downtown, it only transports about 30,000 users a day. Per mile, it attracts the lowest ridership of all modern light rail system in the U.S. Lyon’s 30 mile long network of trams moves 160,000 daily — and it began operating just eight years ago! Of course, France’s second city is far more densely populated than San Jose, and its tram network parallels an extensive collection of metro, bus, and rapid bus lines.

Even so, San Jose is America’s 10th largest city and it is rapidly approaching one million citizens. It ought to have a better-working transit system, especially since its neighbor on the other side of the San Francisco Bay is so well outfitted.

Light rail in San Jose, however, is paralyzed by the South Bay’s adherence to a land use model that encourages single family homes and office complexes surrounded by parking. Downtown San Jose is growing slowly compared to other resurgent inner cities, and it remains an unwalkable neighborhood. It is not recognized as the center of the region by the area’s inhabitants. The “garage” model for tech company headquarters has been taken a bit too literally here and the consequence is a landscape that is all too dependent on the automobile. How can light rail compete effectively when most destinations are far easier to get to with cars and when parking is provided everywhere at no charge?

In recent years, VTA has seemingly abandoned its interest in making light rail work, focusing instead on extending the BART heavy rail system south from Fremont and Warm Springs through downtown San Jose, as if convinced a different type of transit will solve the city’s structural problems. The 16-mile BART project will cost billions of dollars and provide slower service into San Francisco than is currently available on Caltrain. It will be next in the line of poorly planned projects in the Bay Area.

But there are ways in which the existing light rail system could be improved, and VTA’s recent actions are a step forward. Management is considering building a second track through downtown to increase speeds from the current 10 mph average that makes cross-region trips a nightmare. Trains on the Almaden spur will continue all the way downtown, rather than stopping at Ohlone as they now do, an operations pattern that forces customers to make a transfer and reduces ridership. A new through-route will run from East San Jose to Mountain View, instead of requiring customers to wait for a separate trains at Tasman. A new overpass will increase vehicle speeds through a major intersection.

All these changes would make light rail a more convenient option for people living in the valley, but ridership won’t skyrocket until San Jose and the surrounding cities become more serious about encouraging transit-oriented development. The region should pilot a program of suburban reconstruction that would replace large groupings of stand-alone office parks with denser towers and apartment homes. Downtown and the surrounding area should be reinforced with better landscaping and public amenities. Diridon Station should be transformed into the region’s center, rather than a peripheral transit node.

VTA’s obsession with a BART extension, reaffirmed by voters last November, should be delayed for now. While a new light rail line running directly from downtown to Alum Rock would vastly improve speeds, the $334 million Capitol Expressway Line that would extend the corridor further south would attract just as little use as the existing lines. Other projects that might be more successful, like a route west from downtown through St. Leo’s along Stevens Creek Boulevard or northwest through the huge office parks in Sunnyvale, are not being considered.

San Jose’s future won’t be defined by the transit system VTA has built for it — and its inhabitants won’t use it — unless city planners focus on rebuilding the region in a denser, more transit-friendly nature. Stations should be surrounded by apartments and office towers, not single-family homes and office parks. Until that transformation occurs, San Jose’s improvements to the light rail system will be limited in their effect.

Intercity Rail Philadelphia

Learning from the Keystone Corridor

» We can expect modest jumps in ridership after investing in relatively minor rail line upgrades.

In 2006, Amtrak and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation completed work on improvements to the Keystone Corridor, which runs 104 miles from Philadelphia to Harrisburg. The $145 million project increased top speeds to 110 mph and allowed for full electric operation, making it possible to run trains reliably from New York’s Penn Station. The line now offers 14 weekday round trips between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and 1h35 trip times between the city centers on express trains (compared with two hours previously), with local routes making the journey in up to 1h55. The improvements on the Keystone demonstrate the small gains that can be garnered from making rail services more time competitive.

The upgrades to the route have allowed Amtrak to increase passenger totals significantly over the past two years. Though Keystone ridership has been on the rise since 2003, its 20% growth in 2007 and 2008 vastly outpaced that of the Amtrak system as a whole. Overall, the corridor attracted 1.2 million people in 2008, compared with 400,000 in 1998; it now represents 4% of total U.S. intercity rail ridership, compared to 2% ten years ago. It is reasonable to assume that the increase in number of users is a reflection of the improved services provided after the renovation.

Keystone Corridor Recent Ridership Trends

In addition, the uptick in ridership and the switch to electric operation have provided a number of benefits, namely an increase in revenues and a decline in per-passenger government subsidies. Fare revenue increased from about $2.4 million in 2005 to $7.2 million last year. Subsidies decreased from about 27¢ per passenger mile in 2005 to about 20¢ in 2008. This is clear evidence of the benefits of rail investment — as more people take advantage of a line, Amtrak is able to save money per passenger mile.

Keystone Corridor Recent Performance

According to the 1995 American Travel Survey, the most recent data available, travel between the Philadelphia and Harrisburg metro areas was the 17th highest of all metro pairs in the U.S. — with slightly less travel than between Boston and New York! Travel between Harrisburg and Washington and New York was relatively high was well. This should be a well-used train line. But Keystone remains a subsidized train: last year, the state of Pennsylvania provided almost as much in operations aid to the line as passengers contributed in fares. Despite the capital investment, this train line will never reach a fare/passenger volume equilibrium that will allow it to be profitable.

Keystone’s example, though relevant to other corridors, is somewhat of an exception. The investments made in 2005 and 2006 on catenary upgrades and track replacement were made in the context of an already high-quality line. The corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia is owned by Amtrak, and electrification along the whole line was in place by the end of the 1930s. Though the corridor was once fully four-tracked, it continues to offer at least two tracks along its entire route.

There are few rail corridors in the U.S. that offer similar conditions today. Confounding matters, most are owned by freight railroads, making improvements a difficult process. As a result, the $145 million spent by the State of Pennsylvania on the project would likely buy fewer improvements in other states.

Even so, the experience with the Keystone Line is indicative of the kind of ridership improvements we’ll get with other 110 mph “high-speed” investments being proposed for places like Illinois or the Southwest. In other words, there might be a doubling of ridership over ten years, but no huge mode shift. Unlike true high-speed rail operating at speeds upwards of 200 mph, trains traveling at 110 mph maximum can hardly compete with automobiles. Driving between Philadelphia and Harrisburg takes about two hours — from origin to destination. If the Keystone train, operating as an express, takes an hour and a half in train travel alone, there is no overall time advantage for the train: this is a major hindrance to increasing ridership. A true high-speed train, operating at an average speed of 130 mph, would cover the distance between the cities in 48 minutes and attract enough ridership to make the line operationally profitable.

Nonetheless, it is clear that even minor investments such as those completed in Pennsylvania do improve conditions for riders, make train travel more effective, and reduce subsidies per passenger.

Bay Area Bus

East Bay, Starved for Transit Funds, Considers Postponing BRT Project

East Bay BRT Route Map» Line connecting Berkeley, Oakland, and Bayfair had been planned for 2012; Oakland Airport Connector project, meanwhile, still appears to be moving forward.

AC Transit, which provides service in the California East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa, announced earlier this month that it would have to cut service by 15% to make up for budget shortfalls. The agency has suffered from declining tax revenue and a complete cutoff from state funds that it had relied upon in previous years. The agency, which is centered in Oakland, is one of the largest transit providers in the country, with buses carrying 240,000 people a day.

In order to avoid cutting service, General Manager Rick Fernandez has proposed using $80 million in funds now designated for a bus rapid transit line and divert it to normal bus service. The BRT project would connect downtown Berkeley with Bayfair, via downtown Oakland, roughly paralleling the existing BART route but providing more stops; it would provide light rail-quality connections to an area whose buses are notoriously overcrowded. AC Transit’s board of directors will meet on the issue later today.

For the sake of today’s large number of bus users, delaying the implementation of the BRT seems like an acceptable trade-off. Should people suffer through dramatically worse transit service now for the benefit of improvements they’ll get in four years? On the other hand, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to delay other, less useful projects in the Bay Area instead?

Take, for instance, the Oakland Airport Connector, which has been earmarked $70 million in U.S. government stimulus funds because the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission considers it a top priority. The Connector would connect passengers between the existing BART Oakland Coliseum stop and the airport 3.2 miles away, at a cost of $530 million — again, by 2012. Unlike the BRT, or, of course, bus service AC Transit already offers, the Connector would do very little to improve the daily lives of the vast majority of residents in the region.

In the plan, the existing $3 AirBart bus service that runs on Hegenberger Road would be replaced by a more reliable $6 rapid train. The installation of much cheaper bus-only lanes for AirBart has been rejected outright by a Board that thinks that the city’s airport passengers deserve a silver-plated shuttle even as the principally lower class passengers of AC Transit continue to be, well, screwed. The MTC doesn’t have its priorities right, and it’s no surprise that the Oakland City Council is considering asking the MTC to transfer the funds to be used for the project to other, more essential programs.

The State of California clearly has a role to play here — despite the recession, it should raise taxes and restore the essential transit funding localities rely upon to provide good service to their communities. But the MTC isn’t making a good name for itself when it chooses to willingly ignore the more pressing needs of its current transit users and instead invest in expensive, prestige projects in the interest of attracting well-off “choice” riders.

Image above: East Bay BRT Route Map, from AC Transit

Atlanta Light Rail Streetcar

Readying Atlanta for Its Bright Future

» Resurgent city plans major transit expansion in the form of streetcar and light rail lines, but will they serve its growing population well?

When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, it had the chance to project itself as the epitome of progress in the New South. But the city was sick. Despite massive growth in its suburbs, Atlanta had been losing population since 1970. The Games were marred by poorly planned transit service and a bombing that killed two people and injured 100 others. The year before, the city had been rated the most dangerous in the United States.

Atlanta rebuilt itself quickly into the capital of the South after it was destroyed during the Civil War by General William T. Sherman, who described it later: “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” The Atlanta of the early 20th century was dense and active, vibrating with business and public enterprise at the height of contemporary modernity. Now more than ever, the metropolis has the potential to be remade into the walkable and exciting city it once was. Its population reached 540,000 last year, a historic peak. Crime is down dramatically, and redevelopment has taken hold in neighborhoods from Buckhead to the West End. The city’s three skylines in downtown, midtown, and Buckhead are bursting with activity. But this growth needs to be put in order to create a livable city through the effective use of public transportation.

Last week, the city of Atlanta applied for $300 million in stimulus funds for the construction of a new streetcar in downtown and midtown. The U.S. Department of Transportation will make a decision on whether to allocate money for the project by February, and if it is approved, it could be complete by early 2012. The first phase of the Peachtree Corridor Streetcar would extend roughly three miles north-south on Peachtree and 1.5 miles east-west between downtown and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Sweet Auburn. The program is to be implemented by a group called Georgia Transit Connector, which expects 12,000 to 17,700 daily trips.

Though the streetcar project would be the first major transit expansion within Atlanta city limits since the Bankhead Station on the MARTA Proctor Creek Branch opened in 1992, the city has a number of other plans under active consideration. Most prominent is the Beltline, which would bring light rail to 22 miles of (mostly) inactive railroads ringing the city’s core. The $2.8 billion project has the strong support of current Mayor Shirley Franklin and most of the city’s other politicians. Its primary objectives would be to leverage brownfields adjacent to the improved line for new development (including 5,600 units of affordable housing) by improving public transportation, building 30 miles of trails, and creating 1,200 acres of new green space. It is one of the most innovative plans for using transit as a redevelopment tool in the country.

That’s not it, of course: MARTA has studied a number of proposals including a new bus rapid transit line on I-20, a light rail corridor along Clifton Road, and several suburban expansions of the existing heavy rail lines. The recent Connect Atlanta plan plans for a city with a population of 800,000 by 2030 with densities in the city core of 12,000 people per square mile compared to 3,500 today. It recommends a 5-mile east-west line on the north side of the city, the covering of freeway interchanges downtown, and the better connection of roads to make a more efficient street grid.

These ideas, however, do not do enough to take advantage of the city’s existing resources.

Atlanta Future Transit Map

The north-south segment of the proposed streetcar, the project city officials have pushed forward as their top priority, is the most problematic, because it duplicates existing service on MARTA’s main north-south line between Five Points and Arts Center. Its three miles of stops would be just two blocks away from MARTA’s closely spaced stations, which are only about half a mile apart in this part of the city. While the streetcar would encourage growth on the already dense Peachtree Street corridor, it should not be the first new transit line for Atlanta.

Indeed, a streetcar line running north from Arts Center station to Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station along Peachtree Street and Road would have the advantage of providing public transportation to currently under-served neighborhoods and increasing connectivity along MARTA’s existing routes. This has been mentioned as a second phase of the first streetcar line. Such a line would run through the heart of rapidly expanding Buckhead, both north and south of the existing MARTA station, and reinforce plans to remake the neighborhood into a walkable place. It would connect to Piedmont Hospital where it could link with future Beltline service, and it would provide direct service to the Amtrak station north of Arts Center. This seven-mile line could extend Buckhead’s growth south and east and push Midtown to the north, allowing for the replacement of several downtrodden strip centers along the street.

Although the east-west streetcar line proposed by city officials would improve connectivity among Atlanta’s top tourist areas, its 1.5-mile length makes it too short to be of much use. Indeed, what if it were extended north to serve the intown communities west of the Downtown Connector highway? A four-mile extension would bring the streetcar north on Luckie Street past Coca-Cola headquarters, along Tech Parkway through the center of Georgia Tech, and north on Northside Drive, where there a number vacant properties waiting for new use. Most importantly, though, this line would return east on 16th or 17th Streets to Arts Center, passing through Atlantic Station, one of the country’s largest urban development projects.

Connected, these proposals would create a 12.5-mile streetcar that would provide a valuable transit expansion in the inner city, acting as a counterpart to both the Beltline and existing MARTA lines. A Peachtree line between midtown and downtown could come later.

But these plans will need adequate funding. As Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood put it last week during a visit to Atlanta, “There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important.” When Georgia decides to bring mass transit to the front burner, and when the city finds itself willing to devote more tax funds to transportation improvements, the city’s potential as a modern, livable city will be reached once again.