Light Rail Seattle

Agreement on Downtown Tunneling for Seattle Region’s East Link Light Rail

» City of Bellevue will get its desired underground segment through downtown thanks to an agreement from Sound Transit.

At a cost of $2.5 billion, Seattle’s planned East Link light rail extension project is one of the nation’s largest and most expensive transit expansion programs, which makes it remarkable in itself. A new connection across Lake Washington and into the cities of Bellevue and Redmond will significantly decrease transit times for intercity trips in the region and attract about 50,000 riders a day once it is completed in 2023.

The real achievement of the project, though, is its response to local demands in the form of the construction of a tunnel through Downtown Bellevue, agreed upon by the transit agency Sound Transit last week.

The passage in 2008 by Seattle region voters of the Sound Transit 2 package of bond releases guaranteed that local funding would be available to construct new lines extending the original Seattle light rail line from downtown to Sea-Tac Airport, which opened in 2009. East Link is the largest funded segment, though additional lines running north and south are also planned.

Once it became clear that light rail would be running through Bellevue, the city council made apparent its interest in tunneling the section of the line through the business district. From a point of regional equity, that might have made sense (since Seattle had its own downtown tunnel), but according to initial studies it would cost up to $1 billion more than a surface-level line. With broad streets and thus plenty of potential right-of-way, there would be little reason to spend so much.

But further engineering studies suggested that the tunnel would cost only about $320 million over the surface line, and the city agreed to chip in half of the extra costs, making it feasible to include the underground segment in the project. After Sound Transit’s agreement, the city has until November 14 to sign the accord, settling the matter once and for all. Though opposition from Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman — who has been fighting light rail expansion into the city for a decade — remains an issue, the path forward seems to be construction beginning in 2015 or 2016, including a tunnel.

What is intriguing here is that Sound Transit, which has the legal right to build the project as it wishes, is choosing to develop a project that costs more because it is interested in acquiring the support of Bellevue’s local government. The $160 million it has agreed to further contribute to the project’s costs to satisfy local demands could have been spent on another project.

And there may be an argument for putting the line underground. At the Rail~Volution conference in Washington earlier this month, Arlington County Board Chairman Christopher Zimmerman argued that the long-term benefits of digging tunnels for rail projects more than make up for their higher costs. The theory goes that development is more likely to follow when the noise and visual intrusion of trains are out of sight and mind, even as stations themselves are easily accessible.

I am not particularly convinced of the necessity of a downtown tunnel through Bellevue considering that there is plenty of space on the street — nor is it clear to me that it will bring economic development to the area that would not have been possible were the line on the surface. While the Washington Metro, with its very long trains, huge ridership demands, and third-rail propulsion, cannot be installed on the street (and thus can only be placed in a reserved corridor either above or under ground), Seattle’s Link light rail is designed specifically to be able to act as a tramway on surface streets. While the question in D.C. is whether to put metro extensions underground or along a highway right-of-way, the question in Seattle is whether to place light rail underground or along far more pedestrian-accessible surface streets. So the lessons of the nation’s capital region may not apply to the Pacific Northwest.

But the broader point here is the use of democracy in the decision-making process; regional agencies like Sound Transit have a responsibility to be responsive both to metropolitan and local priorities. In this situation, while the choice of an underground route for East Link in Downtown Bellevue may not be ideal from a policy or fiscal perspective, it is a respond to local demands expressed through the city council. It would be difficult to envision how the project could be pursued if it were designed in opposition to local interests.

Of course, the decision of the City of Bellevue to contribute to the costs of the tunneling has played a significant role in making this possible. Negotiating with local interests — and responding to their demands — is always simpler when they are willing to help pay for the things they desire. The question is how to negotiate with groups or municipalities that cannot afford to do so.

Image above: Conceptual image of East Link light rail crossing Lake Washington, from Sound Transit

Amsterdam Dresden Freight Light Rail Paris Zurich

Opportunities Abound for Transporting Goods by Tram — If Properly Coordinated

» Though a proposal in Amsterdam has been abandoned and freight transport in Zurich and Dresden is limited, Paris considers options for using its new tramways to move goods to stores.

There was a lot of excitement in the transportation press in mid-2007 when Amsterdam signed a deal to allow the transport of local goods by tramway beginning in 2008. In theory, fifty light rail trains operated by a company called CityCargo would move freight from warehouses to local stores without interruption along the city’s existing and extensive passenger tracks, reducing the need for trucks in the city center by half while cutting down on pollution significantly. A network of 600 electric trucks would move the freight minimal distances from the trains to the stores.

Unfortunately, the company fell short of its goal to raise the €150 million necessary to commence operations and the city refused to subsidize the project, so the project died even before the project could come into being.

Needless to say, the concept still has currency in European cities that are looking to reduce traffic and clean the air and which have tramway tracks running through some of their most congested areas. In 2001, VW implemented the CarGo tram between a logistics site and an automobile factory in the center of Dresden, creating a carbon-free mechanism to transport parts along 3 km of passenger lines. Zurich uses CargoTrams — old tramway vehicles, such as those pictured above — to move recycling. Vienna attempted a similar experiment a few years’ back, but never implemented it despite successful results. These projects are of limited scale, so their effects have been similarly small.

A new experiment called TramFret in Paris, however, could transform the way cities think about moving goods from place to place by establishing a regionwide system by which freight like groceries can be moved between distribution facilities and stores by electric tram. Experimentation will begin next month, with full implementation possible by 2014; positive results could show that rail can play an important role in moving freight not just at the intercity scale but also within regions, a market now completely dominated by trucks. But the success of the project will require significant coordination between competing stores and it will need to be carefully planned to as to avoid conflicts with passenger transit routes.

Under Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, the French capital has been a pioneer in all things transport, introducing huge bike-share and car-share networks, building dozens of miles of reserved bus and tram lanes, reducing speed limits to 30 km/h in many neighborhoods, and allowing reverse-direction bike riding on most small streets. But these projects have largely avoided the issue of cargo transport so far, despite the fact that one million daily deliveries are made each day in the Paris region, 90% by road; those trips produce 25% of the region’s carbon dioxide emissions and 50% of particulate releases — as well as consuming 20% of all road space. A successful TramFret could thus improve quality of life significantly.

The Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR), the Paris city planning study office, has conducted a study on the project and has led thinking about its implementation, which is increasingly relevant considering recent public policy choices. The Paris region, called Île-de-France, has begun a significant investment in new tramway lines (much like American light rail) and by 2016 expects to have 105 km (65 miles) of them in operation, carrying about 800,000 people a day (there are currently 26 miles of trams in operation, carrying about 350,000 people a day). Unlike metros or commuter rail, which Paris has much more of, the street rights-of-way offered by tram could allow much almost direct small-scale delivery to stores. With so many tram routes, many stores could be linked up for reduced truck deliveries. In addition, the French government plans a pollution tax on tractor trailers beginning in 2012 that should encourage the movement of goods off the road.

APUR suggests beginning with the existing T3 and T2 lines, which roughly run around the southern and western sections of the city. A new distribution facility would be created at the future terminus of the T2 line at Pont de Bezons, to which grocery stores would bring their goods from other facilities throughout the region. The APUR study suggests that within 500 meters of the two tram lines are 128 grocery stores representing the four largest chains in Paris (Casino, Carrefour, Monoprix, and Franprix, along with their subsidiaries). Trains would each carry the equivalent of three to four truckloads of goods, which means there would likely have to be dozens of trains each day to handle the needs of all these stores.

In order for implementation to occur, the tracks of the two lines would have to be connected at Porte de Versailles, but that will require just a few hundred feet of new track. But new sidings for freight trains to stop would have to be built*, not necessarily an easy proposition considering that the tram lines have been built in dense urban areas. In addition, stores would have to acquire small electric trucks to move goods the final few blocks from the trains to stores. [Note: the study suggests that short rail extensions directly to stores be built so this final step is avoided, but it is my (perhaps unfair) presumption that it would be more simple to implement trucking from distribution points along the line than it would be to go through the regulatory process required to build these line extensions.] All this would necessitate a huge degree of logistical coordination to work efficiently, but better web-based mobile tracking of goods could make it possible.

There is some precedent in Paris for using rail lines for intra-regional goods transport. The Monoprix brand uses the RER D passenger rail line to move goods from a suburban distribution location to a facility in Paris, from which trucks move goods to their final destinations during night trips. Over a year’s period, this eliminates 10,000 trips by trucks and reduces the emissions of carbon and NOx by about 50% over previous conditions. These are hardly negligible results.

Experimentation will begin this fall on the T3 line. Empty trams will be placed with normal headways between passenger trains to see how much capacity is available on the route for more trains (it already carries 112,000 daily riders with high frequencies). APUR will follow up with economic studies beginning next year.

There a number of questions to consider: Will there be enough reduction in pollution and congestion within the center city to justify what is likely to be a more complicated distribution procedure? After all, what right now is a relatively simple truck-from-warehouse-to-store process would be replaced with a journey for goods that requires a truck or train from the warehouse to a logistics facility, to a tram, to a local electric truck making the final trip to the store. Even if trams are cheaper than trucks to operate (because they use electricity and can transport more goods per driver), it’s hard to imagine that these tram-freight trips would be cheaper overall, especially since these trains would have to operate around the passenger train system and in coordination with competing stores.

If tram freight is more expensive than truck freight, does it deserve to be subsidized? Under a typical economic model, the answer is up to the externalities freight rail eliminates. If moving goods by tram reduces congestion or pollution by an amount that is larger than the price difference with the trucking status quo, the public has a societal interest in encouraging its use — unless congestion and pollution of those trucks are appropriately taxed, which they are not. But a source of funds would have to be identified to make such subsidies.

There’s the final question of whether improving freight access by rail into the city is more important than encouraging transit-oriented development. A new distribution facility for the rail line will have to be near the rail line. Would it be more environmentally friendly in the long-term to build high-density housing where that facility would be, even if it required goods to be trucked to it?

* Having them stop at passenger stations at night is possible, but doesn’t seem ideal.

Image above: Zurich’s CargoTram, from Flickr user Sven Dowideit (cc)

California High-Speed Rail Finance High-Speed Rail

With Little Hope for Near-Term Federal Support, California High-Speed Rail Struggles

» Despite an excellent proposal and significant state support, the project cannot hope to attract private investors without a larger commitment of aid from Washington. Meanwhile, Europe continues to invest.

The long hoped-for private financing necessary to construct the California High-Speed Rail project will not come as easily as originally planned.

That, at least, is the conclusion of the authority empowered to build the project, the nation’s single-largest infrastructure program. According to the Los Angeles Times, in a letter to legislators this week the agency warned that the private money that it had counted on to cover a third of the project’s more than $45 billion costs would likely not be available until after parts of the line were up and running. The problem is that investors are concerned about the fact that of the expected major contribution from the federal government, only $3 billion has been authorized so far — and opposition in Congress to President Obama’s high-speed rail program means more money will be difficult to get, at least until after the 2012 elections.

The letter was essentially a preview of the authority’s new business plan, which is due to be submitted November 1. The plan must be approved by the state legislators in order for state funding to be spent on the 220 mph line, which is designed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with future links to San Diego and Sacramento.

The news is embarrassing for the authority, which has been arguing for years that it could attract billions in private funds before the project was ready to be built, but it is not altogether surprising given the situation in which it has been placed. As I argued in mid-2009, California may well “never receive a guarantee that the feds will fully fund their prescribed share of the entire corridor’s construction costs. This is a huge problem, because a public agency shouldn’t be expending massive amounts of money on sections of a train system it doesn’t know it can finish completely. The private partners California hopes to interest in its program will not be excited about helping out on a train line they aren’t sure will ever open.

And indeed, this has been a legitimate concern about the Obama Administration’s high-speed rail program since it was first formulated. Though it is designed to sponsor major projects like California’s, its small appropriation ability means that the commitments it should be making — California wanted upwards of $10 billion from Washington, equal to the full amount thus far appropriated by Congress to the national program — cannot be distributed. The fact that the House and Senate have yet to agree on a long-term transportation bill, and the fact that Republicans have shown no interest so far in funding more intercity rail programs using the public purse, suggests that the situation is unlikely to get better for now.

This is likely to put a dent in plans to open the new rail line by 2020.

The California authority has developed a series of potential solutions to the problem, which must be solved if the agency wants to use the federal grants it has received thus far, since they must be spent by 2017. One option is to use federal loan guarantees and tax credits to provide an incentive for private investors to put their funds into the project or to leverage the $9 billion in state funds (authorized by the public in a 2008 vote) through the bond market, which could allow a tripling of available money. This would all have to be paid off eventually through public sector tax funds or user fees. While the California network is to be operationally profitable like virtually every high-speed rail system, it is unclear whether receipts will be large enough to cover capital costs.

The other possibility is to shorten the planned route, replacing what was originally supposed to be a full new line from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a feeder line that would speed up existing Amtrak trains. Because the federal government has committed to a Central Valley segment between Merced and Bakersfield as the first section fo the route to be constructed, it seems likely that the authority would have to concentrate its resources on this project.

In some ways, this could be a reasonable approach. Trains between Oakland and Bakersfield currently take six hours to complete their journey, but the high-speed line would allow 52-minute trips between Merced and Bakersfield, compared to three hours today. Thus constructing just this segment would reduce Oakland-Bakersfield trips to less than four hours — a massive reduction in journey times — if the appropriate rolling stock were available.

Of course, this would do little to address the greater concern, which was supposed to be linking San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2h40. Currently, there are no direct trains into San Francisco, and the coastal route along which Amtrak trains run from Oakland to L.A. requires 11 to 12 hours of journey times. There is no train link between L.A. and Bakersfield. Because of the federal government’s previous decision to concentrate its resources in the Central Valley, resolving this issue will have to wait for another time if more funding is not found in the short term. But one wonders whether a link between Oakland and Bakersfield will be enough in itself to generate profitable ridership that convinces private investors to commit to the project, as the authority seems to be implying.

This news comes just as the European Union announced its most recent Ten-T program, which is investing €31.7 billion in ten E.U.-scale corridors, most of which are designated for high-speed rail. Member countries have committed to hundreds of billions of euros more to build the projects, and indeed, there are active plans for new lines in most European countries. This is a prime example of governments thinking seriously about how to invest their limited resources in transportation projects that will pay off in the long-term.

Some might argue that the United States and Europe are simply different, that private investors here recognize that Americans will not ride trains and thus will not commit to funding irrational projects. But the ability of European countries to attract private partners to cover up to half of the costs of their new rail lines has a lot more to do with the fact that there has been a solid commitment from governments there to invest in those programs, whereas American policy on the issue has been erratic at best.

The problem is that California has been shunted into an impossible position: forced to make due with very limited federal funds despite a large commitment from state voters, the authority cannot attract private dollars. This is not, I would argue strongly, the fault of the authority or the Department of Transportation, which has funded it so far; blame rests entirely on a Congress that has been incapable of having a serious discussion (and making a final decision) about the merits of major investments in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. Instead, it continues to hand out small amounts, enough to keep projects like California’s alive but not enough to actually implement them.

But California is still in a bind. It must either must cancel work — a dead-end proposition that will inevitably require unearthing the proposal in a decade — or build a much-shortened segment with far fewer benefits to the state. While it would be nice to get from Oakland to Bakersfield more quickly, the advantages of such a project pale in comparison to those of a full San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line.

None of this news should be cause for celebration for opponents of spending on government infrastructure. The millions of people who are expected to ride the high-speed rail system every year will have to get between their destinations by some mode, and California’s air and roads infrastructure is at capacity. No high-speed system means spending just as much — or more — public dollars on upgrades to the existing system. Meanwhile, even if the financial costs of upgrades to highways and airports were similar to those of building the new rail network, the society’s economic costs of doing so are completely different: The high-speed rail system would offer an ecologically friendly alternative that reinforces the city centers of the state instead of furthering sprawl.

Without a real sign of commitment from the federal government, however, projects like California’s simply will not be able to be constructed in the United States. This speaks volumes of the ability of the American public sector to invest in projects that are beneficial to the society as a whole from a long-term perspective.

Image above: California High-Speed Rail, from California High-Speed Rail Authority

Chicago Freight Intercity Rail

At the Heart of the U.S. Freight Rail System, Chicago Advances Grade Separation

» A grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will speed up both passenger and freight trains by eliminating delays caused by a grade crossing.

Chicago is at the center of the American freight rail system, handling 40% of U.S. rail freight on 500 daily trains. It forms the primary junction of the four biggest American freight rail companies — BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific — in addition to the two big Canadian carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. But the complex and intertwined web of tracks that brings trains into and out of the city is hopelessly out of date and causing congestion that limits the number of both freight and passenger trains that can run there.

Last week, ground was broken on the Englewood Flyover, a major element of CREATE, a grand scheme to eliminate such delays in the Chicago area. CREATE — which stands for Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program — is a series of 67 individual projects that would speed up freight, commuter, and intercity rail by increasing trackage along heavily used routes and eliminating intersections between competing roads and rails.

Thanks to a significant federal grant, some of those delays will be eliminated.

The Englewood Flyover, but one of the hundreds of infrastructure projects reliant on funds from Washington, is designed to reduce train conflicts for the 130 trains that run through the intersection of the Metra Rock Island District commuter rail line and the Norfolk Southern/Amtrak line just south of 63rd Street and near I-90/I-94 on the South Side. Rock Island trains run between Joliet in the southwest suburbs and LaSalle Street station in the Loop; Amtrak trains connect Union Station with destinations in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

The two corridors currently intersect perpendicularly, meaning that trains can only pass through on one corridor at a time. A new bridge will not only separate the operations of the two rights-of-way, but will also increase the number of tracks on each line.

At $133 million, the Englewood Crossover is no major project when it comes to typical American infrastructure (one may question whether this cost is too high for a bridge and a few hundred feet of tracks), but the cumulative effect of similar investments is an improved rail system both for freight and passenger users.

Though this project is all about improving freight systems, the large majority of the project’s funding ($126 million) originated with the federal government and the DOT’s high-speed and intercity rail passenger program, the same funding source that has been much-maligned by GOP governors in states like Florida and Wisconsin. Illinois’ Jobs Now! program* will fund the remaining costs.

The CREATE project is far from the only intercity and freight rail improvement project being funded through public sector financing. Though the high-speed rail program, with its marquee projects such as the link between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has commanded much of the discussion and controversy in recent months, more mundane improvements will play a significant part in keeping the country moving.

Earlier this month, CSX announced that one-third of its major National Gateway improvement project is either complete or under construction. This project is designed to create a double-decker freight corridor between Mid-Atlantic sea ports and the Midwest. The major program will cost almost a billion dollars by itself and will have a majority of its costs paid by public sector sources.

Meanwhile, slow-speed Amtrak celebrated last Thursday its highest ridership ever: 30 million riders in fiscal year 2011. It may not have the class or the efficiency of its counterparts abroad, but the national passenger railroad has steadily increased its role in the lifestyles of Americans — by almost 50% since 2001. But it faces annual grilling sessions in Congress by conservatives who think the government should get out of the rail business.

Neither the freight rail system, nor the passenger rail system, nor even the highway system, could survive without subsidies from the federal government.

Bipartisan “agreement” in the Congress in September produced a deal that will fund intercity rail projects at just $100 million in Fiscal Year 2012 — not enough even to afford the small Chicago project, not to mention the dozens of similar improvements that are vitally necessary to keep the U.S. rail system in a state of reasonable repair. Projects like the Englewood Flyover have little to nothing to do with true high-speed rail investments, but they have a lot to do with making sure people and goods can continue to get around as they have for the last century.

* A state-level stimulus funding program that is intended to eventually pump $31 billion into Illinois’ economy. In addition to funds for roads, schools, and more, $3 billion will be distributed for transit improvements, $550 million for intercity rail, and $322 million for the CREATE project.

Image above: Amtrak passenger and Union Pacific freight trains near Chicago’s Loop, from Flickr user vxla (cc)

Seattle Streetcar

The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains

» Streetcar projects are advancing seriously in cities across the nation, but their quick rise to the top of municipal transportation priority lists may not be matched by sound thinking in terms of project design.

If the Obama Administration’s push to construct high-speed rail lines has suffered numerous delays as a result of Congressional inaction and state-level criticism, its decision to allow numerous streetcar projects to move forward through the federal funding pipeline has produced a veritable explosion of project proposals across the country. Yet the manner in which cities are pushing these schemes smacks of poor policy making and suggests that a better use of limited transportation dollars is possible.

The recent promotion of streetcars in the United States is something of an aberration — at least in terms of recent history. Generally ignoring the successes of the locally funded vintage 2001 Portland Streetcar, the Bush Administration repeatedly informed municipalities across the country that their transportation policies should emphasize bus improvements over road-running rail lines. Though the SAFETEA-LU transportation authorization bill passed in 2005 specifically included a provision for limited-cost projects such as streetcars (called Small Starts), the Department of Transportation under Bush refused to fund them either in 2006 or 2007 (fiscal years 2007 and 2008), picking BRT projects instead — despite significant local demand for rail.

In early 2008, though, the Bush Administration seemed to relent, agreeing to recommend the funding of the Portland Streetcar Loop — and then beginning in 2009, the Department of Transportation under President Obama pressed forward with TIGER and Urban Circulator grants, encouraging cities from Dallas to Seattle to apply for federal funds and more recently allowing project development to move towards construction in cities such as AtlantaCharlotte, and Tucson.

Over the past few months, the interest of cities in streetcars has seemingly exploded even further. Providence has proposed a two-mile route for $126 million; San Antonio wants a line that will spur real estate development; Milwaukee envisions a $64 million corridor through downtown; Kansas City plans $101 million worth of tracks between City Market and Union Station; and Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Northern Virginia are moving forward with a streetcar down the Columbia Pike. Each plan’s proponents will apply for — and expect to win — federal funds to cover most costs.

These are not isolated examples of cities suddenly interested in a new transit mode. Rather, the relatively sudden availability of dollars from Washington, D.C. has encouraged new thinking about what kinds of transit are possible. The fact that streetcars can be built with lower per-mile costs than other forms of rail transit, their ability to attract denser development in some cases, and the possibility of farming off most of their costs to another government entity has made them incredibly appealing. Washington, seeking transit projects that are visible and reinforce dense communities, has been a willing partner in this effort.

For the most part, this has been beneficial policy, since it has encouraged more cities to think seriously about how to invest in high-quality transit. In addition, it has spread rail transit beyond the nation’s biggest metropolitan regions, a trend that arguably will be helpful in encouraging choice riders onto transit systems and simultaneously improve the daily commutes of regular riders.

But the difficult side of the story is that many of the projects are planned to be constructed in a manner that provides an inferior quality of service than the bus lines they replace. In one city, the transit agency proposed building a line with only one track, making it impossible to increase the frequency of service (the situation was fortunately resolved in a second grant); in others, the streetcar lane would be located in a section of the street vulnerable to considerable delays from backed-up and turning cars — because streetcars, unlike buses, are not able to navigate around sources of delay. Vehicles proposed for services have universally been of limited capacity, meaning they offer little improvement in terms of passenger space over articulated buses.

Most importantly, almost every one of the major streetcar projects proposed has refused to separate trains from automobile traffic for the majority of the routes, despite the fact that doing so usually requires little more than different types of paint, camera enforcement, and a few barriers, all of which can be installed at minimal cost.

This means that streetcars will be stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making speed improvements impossible. The lack of dedicated street right-of-way for streetcars likely stems from a sense that it would be politically difficult to promote removing lanes from automobilists and providing them to transit users. Yet the vast majority of traffic lanes, after all, are off-limits to trains; why is it so crazy to imagine a few dedicated to streetcars?

These should not be considered nit-picky complaints, since the cities promoting streetcars are investing millions of public dollars in their lines — often at an expense of $50 million per mile and up. At those costs, an effective quality of service should be standard.

Fortunately, at least one city seems to have seen the light. Seattle’s recently released Transportation Master Plan recognizes the fundamental difference between what it calls local and rapid streetcars, noting that most of such projects in the U.S. so far (including Seattle’s own South Lake Union Streetcar) have skewed towards the former type, which I have described above.

The Plan notes two major possible rapid streetcar lines for Seattle, extending from the downtown core to the Ballard and University Districts that would “Achieve faster operating speed and greater reliability through longer spacing between stops and more extensive use of exclusive right of way.” Trains would be either larger or coupled “to accommodate high passenger loads.” Though significant sections of these rapid lines as currently planned would remain in shared lanes with automobiles, these proposals are the closest U.S. transit agencies have yet come to the ideal of developing cheaper light rail by effectively running it in street rights-of-way (like a European tramway), which is what the rapid streetcar concept is advocating.

Simply suggesting moving streetcars into their own dedicated lanes, however, is not always a universally appealing solution: Cities like Sacramento and Buffalo, for instance, have chosen to study reintegration of formerly transit-only streets into their downtown automobile circulation networks because they were concerned that restricting rights-of-way to trains was limiting business activity. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the effect of these transit malls, they were perceived as negative enough to the community that attempting to replicate their forms today cannot always be the right answer. Every city must decide for itself the best way to integrate new train systems into their streetscapes.

And yet the Bush Administration’s bias against streetcars was logical from the standpoint of encouraging pure mobility; for the same cost, rapid buses provide faster and more reliable service in dedicated lanes. In order to justify the continued enthusiasm of municipalities for streetcars, we should push for guidelines that ensure that services must be designed to operate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Streetcars may be less expensive than comparative types of light rail, but at the cost we are spending for them we should expect more out of them.

Image above: A simulation of a streetcar line in Atlanta, from Georgia Transit Connector