Light Rail Lyon

Lyon’s Rhônexpress Project Pioneers a New Way of Thinking About Public-Private Partnerships

» France’s southeastern metropolis readies a downtown-airport connection with help from the private sector.

After the collapse of the massive London Underground PPP scheme early this month, the future of major private involvement in the maintenance and operation of public transit systems was put on the skids. There, the city took back full control of a system whose maintenance and reconstruction had been signed off to private entities less than ten years before, claiming that municipal entities would be able to do the job keeping up the network more easily than had the PPP partners. Though there is no technical reason why such cooperation between the public and private sector had to fall apart, the recession underlined the vulnerability of having corporations assume risk over vital public resources.

The signing of a contract to operate two new transit lines between the Denver transit system and the private Denver Transit Partners, however, suggests that there may still be some merit to the idea of getting corporate involvement in public projects. Just finalized a few weeks ago, this agreement is too young to be evaluated on its merits.

But a new airport connection almost ready for operation in Lyon, France, provides an example of how such a cooperation might be structured efficiently and reasonably.

The Rhônexpress program will bring the Lyon Saint Exupéry Airport within 25 minutes of downtown’s Part-Dieu station every fifteen minutes. The line will operate using six Stadler tram-trains running on tracks partially shared with the T3 tramway line completed in December 2006.

The contract, signed in 2007 between the département (the French version of the county) and the Rhônexpress group, commits local entities to €31.35 million in expenses for the construction of a train maintenance center and a maximum of €3.5 million in annual subsidies for thirty years, increased at a standard 2% yearly rate. The French government also contributed €10 million. The private entity, operating under European Union rules for public service provision, has paid the majority of the corridor’s estimated €110 million construction costs and will be liable for any operational losses.

The Rhônexpress group is a cooperative between several French entities; it is controlled 36.6% by the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (a semi-public investment bank), 28.2% by Vinci (a contractor), and 28.2% by Veolia (a transit operator). Each has on its own been closely involved in other French public transportation programs.

Their willingness to commit to an initial investment in the line’s construction suggests that they expect it to be operationally profitable, at least above the €3.5 million subsidy they’ll be receiving every year to operate trains. Though the local and national governments have committed a total of €146.6 million to the project’s construction in 2007 dollars, that money is to be distributed over a course of 30 years. It will almost certainly be less than overall infrastructure and operations spending on the corridor.

Also, by agreeing to distribute most payments year-by-year rather than alone in the construction program, the local governments are minimizing the hit on any one annual budget. This could be a lesson for U.S. systems considering similar deals: Rather than pay for all of the infrastructure upfront and then assume that the operator can simply pay for operations, the local governments have ensured that the private group has a steady source of income throughout the 30-year contract — this may, in turn, have lowered the needed commitment to the initial infrastructure program. This could in turn be a relatively good deal for the governments.

Of course, whether the Rhônexpress program was worth any public investment at all is a matter that certainly merits debate. The new trains will replace the Satobus with a new service that is only five minutes quicker and almost 50% more expensive. Even if the project is profitable, it won’t improve service much for the region’s inhabitants. (Passengers are guaranteed a 50% discount if trains are ten minutes late and a full payback if they’re more than 20 minutes late.)

Nonetheless, Lyon proceeded quite reasonably in the implementation of this infrastructure project; a €146.6 million total commitment isn’t bad for a new airport rail link. But the city and its regional transit authority were smart: they have been planning since 2001 for this line and made a number of provisions in other transit projects to ensure lowered costs.

The region committed first to the T3 tram, which runs east from the Part-Dieu station in downtown Lyon to an industrial district. As part of that 9-mile project, the line included from the beginning bypass tracks at many of the stations — a minimal expense for a big payoff. Once the Rhônexpress project is up and running in August, the airport-bound trains, stopping at only two stops between downtown and the terminals, will be able to bypass local trams. On most of the tracks, the Rhônexpress will share tracks with trams and run at urban speeds. The only construction necessary for the new link, then, was a 4.3-mile track on a new alignment. There, the tram-trains will be able to reach 60 mph, not bad at all.

Lyon’s airport project suggests a reasonable way for private involvement in public infrastructure. Long-term payments, a commitment from corporate entities for initial infrastructure costs, and a reduction of costs through shared tracks with another transit program has likely saved the region money over the long-term.

Image above: Rhônexpress photomontage, from Rhônexpress

Barcelona Metro Rail

Barcelona’s Metro Continues Its Expansion at a Relatively Cheap Price

» The latest segment of lines 9 and 10 opened last week. The city should have 30 miles of automatic metros by 2014.

Over the next ten years, New York, Los Angeles, and Barcelona each hope to have new underground rapid transit lines up and running. Gotham will spend $4.5 billion on a 1.7-mile line under Second Avenue. Los Angeles will get a 8.6-mile extension to the Westside for $6 billion. And Barcelona will have built 30 miles of automated subways for €6.5 billion ($7.9 billion according to today’s exchange rate).

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison: Spain has lower labor costs, and despite Barcelona’s international prestige and high densities, land values there are generally lower than in the two American metropolises. But the disparity in infrastructure creation remains dramatic; countries like Spain and China are able to build far more than American cities can even dream about.

Barcelona’s newest exploit was the opening last week of the first shared segment of the L9 and L10 lines. Both are being constructed as part of a unified program that will increase the metro system’s size by a third, providing a new north-south circumferential corridor west of the city center, access to northern neighborhoods, a connection to the new high-speed rail station at La Sagrera, and direct links to both the airport and the port to the south. The first segment of L9 opened in December 2009 and the first section of L10 in April this year. The southern links will be completed in 2012, with the full program in service in 2014. That’s six years after the project was originally expected to be done.

Though Barcelona’s project doesn’t come close to the scale of Madrid’s metro expansion program — that city increased the size of its network by more than 100 miles between 1995 and 2007 and now has the highest metro route miles per person in the world — Barcelona will have Europe’s longest underground route and the continent’s most extensive automated line in four years.

For €6.5 billion, the city will be getting 52 stations, 20 of which will include transfers; the project is expected to attract 350,000 daily riders. Because of Barcelona’s already very dense metro network, the line has been built below everything else. Tunnel boring machines, which Spain specializes in, were used for the entire underground path (the line includes a few miles above ground on viaducts); this decreased costs by limiting surface cuts and land purchasing. The city also has taken advantage of the line’s building to produce some very interesting street reconstructions.

Stations in the center city are so far below ground that the transport authority has designed stops so that commuters move to and from trains by elevator.

This subway project has consumed the majority of the region’s transportation funds, but the city was also interested in investing in surface transit. Specifically, several boulevards were set aside for a bus rapid transit system. Yet the mayor’s biggest priority was supposed to be the reconstruction of the Diagonal Avenue, which cuts across the city roughly east-west. Though both its eastern and western extends are served by trams, its central section has no rapid transit either on it or below. So Mayor Jordi Hereu attempted to invoke public participation in the elaboration of the project, calling a referendum on the program to implant light rail and a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape there.

But the mayor’s effort to involve the people was a failure — the poll attracted only 12% of the electorate, and they voted massively against any of the two changes proposed by the mayor. For now, Diagonal will have to stay as it is.

Thus Spain’s second city will have to content itself on its relatively ambitious subway expansion program. Not too disappointing a result…

Image above: Barcelona L9 Tunnel, from Generalitat de Catalunya

Dallas Light Rail

Once Assured, Dallas Light Rail Expansion to Airport Now Off Track

» A project that cheered suburban officials hoping for more economic development lacks adequate funding.

If the recession taught us anything, it’s that long-term fiscal projections aren’t to be trusted. After pulling together a massive 25-year expansion plan just four years ago based on assumptions of decades of increased tax revenues, Dallas’ DART has had to pull back dramatically, putting in purgatory all planned capital projects not yet under construction.

Now under threat: the long-planned light rail connection to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

It’s not that DART’s management has committed serious financial malpractice, it’s just that its guesses in 2006 about how the economy would expand haven’t played out as expected. Just as importantly, though Dallas is at the heart of one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions, the population within the district DART serves is becoming less wealthy compared to the national average and especially compared to unserved (and untaxed) suburban areas nearby.

Yet the announcement by DART CFO David Leininger last week that the full Orange Line project — which was supposed to extend northwest from Dallas into the city of Irving and then to the airport — would not be completed on time still came as a bit of shocker. In April, the news of a decline in tax revenues seemed to imply a choice between the Orange Line and a new downtown light rail link — a contest that the cheaper and closer-to-construction airport link was supposed to win. But the situation has evidently gotten far worse in the last few months, pushing both projects down the drain.

Irving, which has contributed more than $800 million in funds to DART since it joined the agency’s service district in 1983, has planned billions of dollars of new residential and commercial construction around Orange Line stations, hoping to attract businesspeople wanting the ideal compromise between downtown Dallas and D/FW Airport. Its politicians are understandably upset about the loss of the future airport connection.

Two earlier phases of the Orange Line, with six stations and nine miles of track, are still roughly on schedule, currently under construction and expected to be finished in 2011 and 2012. But the 4.7-mile project from Belt Line Road to the airport, which DART says it needs $275 million to complete, was supposed to be done in 2013 and now has been put off indefinitely. With $7 billion accumulated in debt, the agency can’t do much more other than support existing operations now that it will have $3 billion fewer revenues than originally projected.  Unless the agency identifies a new source of local funds or collects a major federal grant, it has little chance of building the airport connection before 2030.

The airport link is particularly expensive because it would run directly into the airport, ending services between two terminals, where it would also meet a proposed commuter rail line from Fort Worth. DART reevaluated the connection last year — considering a solution that would connect the light rail and commuter lines north of the airport — but eventually decided to stick with the original plan.

The separate Green Line project, which extends northwest and southeast of downtown, plus the Blue Line extension from Garland to Rowlett, remain funded; both are under construction and the first is supported by a federal New Starts grant.

For the city of Irving, the arrival of the Orange Line was supposed to mean a denser, more urban future focused around areas such as the Las Colinas urban center (which has its own people mover system) and the former site of the Texas Stadium. The city paid for most of the costs required to re-route the line into designated areas of high-density development. But leaders there are convinced that the growth they’re looking for in the future won’t happen unless the airport is directly connected to the line. If the project doesn’t happen, there is some suggestion that Irving may even consider leaving DART — a move that would not only hurt the agency directly, but also limit the ability of the organization to maintain support in other suburban jurisdictions that may feel slighted by the predominance of Dallas in the region. Some estimates suggest that the airport station would attract as many weekday passengers as all the others on the Orange Line combined.

Much like in many regions with transit authorities that spread out across city lines, from inner-city to suburb, Dallas faces a situation in which it has only limited funds to sponsor projects that must serve areas across the region. Everyone expects to see high-quality transit service thanks to their contributions to the overall revenue base, but only so many projects can be funded. Irving may be upset about its own loss, but so is downtown Dallas — and no one’s running to its defense right now. The fact is that DART cannot afford to build the D/FW connection in the next few years, and that’s not a personal affront to Irving, it’s just the result of bad timing. And even the truncated Orange Line will provide significantly improved service into this suburban city, if only towards downtown Dallas.

That said, it could be argued that the airport connection is vital: The facility plays an important role in the economic viability of the region as a whole. From that perspective, a future federal grant could be an important step towards filling in the gap, but Washington’s current belt-tightening isn’t likely to make getting hundreds of millions of dollars a particularly easy process. (I don’t know why the Orange Line was never submitted for partial federal funding through the New Starts program.)

The failure to fund the Orange Line link to the airport is only the most recent example of the consequences of the financial problems facing similar transit agencies across the country. You can’t envy those forced to explain why they can’t build projects promised just months ago.

Image above: Dallas DART preferred D/FW Airport Connection options, with future Cotton Belt Commuter rail, from DART


Weekend Links

» This week’s big news. Open thread in the comments.

Follow my Twitter account (@ttpolitic) to get news in real time.

On The Transport Politic:

Making existing transit work better

  • Reinforcing the sense that the top priority for transit systems around the country is getting to a state of good repair, Chicago announces that it has a $24 billion backlog to get its elevated, commuter, and bus lines back in order.
  • After an evaluation, Charlotte comes to the conclusion that it loses a total of $300 a day to fare beaters on its light rail system, hardly making a dent in its overall budget. In Paris, turnstile-jumpers form an informal insurance society to pay back tickets.
  • Berliners, convinced that the stairs into the U-Bahn are just too boring, opt to build a slide down into the subway.

Gearing up for rail

  • Kansas City, having tried repeatedly to fund a light rail line, turns increasingly towards commuter rail and hopes to get a federal commitment.
  • Paresh Dave writes an intriguing article on the forces at play in the construction of Los Angeles’ Expo light rail line. Meanwhile, California voters will consider a measure this fall that will prevent the state government from removing transit funding.
  • Maryland announces that it will prioritize development around transit stations through subsidies and incentives.

Fighting for speed

  • The United Kingdom, whose newly conservative government is demanding massive reductions in public sector spending, plans to sell off the rights to High-Speed 1, which terminates into London’s St. Pancras International (pictured above) after a trip northwest from the Channel Tunnel.
  • Texas politicians assemble to discuss the potential for implementing a “T-Bone”-shaped high-speed rail line, despite the state government’s manifest unwillingness to put any local money into the project.
  • California High-Speed Rail Blog expounds on the inevitability of fast train service to Las Vegas. Meanwhile, some California legislators promote a bill that would require the state’s high-speed rail project to judge potential operators based on their involvement in the Holocaust — a policy that could affect France’s SNCF, Italy’s Trenitalia, Spain’s Renfe, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn…


  • When it was completed in 2005, the SAFETEA-LU transportation bill included billions of dollars in Congressionally approved earmarks for transportation projects around the nation. Five years later, some of that money went unused. At the top of the list: North Carolina’s Triangle, which missed out on $20 million for regional rail; Rochester, which was given $10 million for a transit center; and Michigan, which got $5 million to help build a commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Image above: Eurostar trains at London’s St. Pancras International, the terminus of High-Speed 1, by Flickr user slideshow bob (cc)

Calgary Edmonton Finance

Alberta Dedicates $2 Billion to Transit Programs

» Commitment will improve chances of new rail transit lines in Edmonton and Calgary.

In the United States, the federal government plays a very important role in the construction of new transit systems through the awarding of billions of dollars annually with the New Starts grants process. Over the past fifty years, virtually every new rail line and most new bus rapid transit lines have been constructed with most money coming from Washington.

In Canada, the federal government plays a similarly important role in many cases; Vancouver’s Canada Line is named as such because of the significant involvement of Ottawa when sources of financing were being established. Yet many other system expansions have been built thanks to the largess of provincial governments, which are more autonomous than U.S. states. Toronto’s huge Transit City plan, though now diminished in scale, remains principally financed thanks to the Ontario government. The announcement last year by Montréal that three new Metro extensions would be built over the next few years came after an agreement by the Québec government.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that Alberta has taken the primary role in advancing the capital programs of the transit systems in its biggest cities. This week, the government led by Premier Ed Stelmach cashed in on a tw0-year-old promise to invest C$2 billion in public transportation. The “Green Transit Incentives Program” — otherwise known as GreenTRIP — will require applicants to contribute at least a third of funds to any project approved after a review by the province.

By contributing a large source of the funds, the province is likely to play an important role in determining what projects will be built. In Toronto, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty exercised his influence to determine which light rail lines he would fund in face of opposition from Mayor David Miller. In Alberta, this could mean direct political control over which investments should be made in each city, though municipalities are likely to make their own decisions about how to prioritize which lines they submit for provincial grants.

For Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, and its largest city, Calgary, the money is a godsend, even though it won’t provide even close to the sum of funds required to complete the transit extension programs both cities have on tap. Both cities (and their respective suburbs) will receive C$800 million, with the remaining C$400 million going to the province’s smaller metropolitan areas.

Both Edmonton and Calgary have major transit expansion plans readied, with their respective mayors Stephen Mandel and Dave Bronconnier strong public transportation advocates much like the leaders of most major Canadian cities. Edmonton recently opened a light rail extension south of the city, and has several other lines planned. The money from Alberta will allow a 3.1 kilometer corridor reaching northeast of the city to open as planned in 2014. Calgary has a new light rail line (C-Train) currently under construction, though its C$1.6 billion Southeast light rail South Calgary Hospital line and its plan for regional commuter rail will still not be guaranteed for construction because of the limitations of the money from Alberta.

Yet a potpourri of funding sources — from municipalities, the province, and the federal government — could improve the chances of these lines seeing the light of day. There’s certainly nothing negative about a sudden big increase in available funds for transit.

For U.S. states looking to increase their influence and involvement in local transit expansion programs, Alberta’s investment could be a model to emulate. For better or worse, with increasing funding commitments come increasing political influence. For state governors wanting to demonstrate their interest in the quotidian commutes of their states’ inhabitants, a direct investment in new transit systems can’t be bad.

Image above: Calgary C-Train light rail, from Flickr user Robert Thivierge