» After thirteen years of planning, a federal financing guarantee puts the project to connect the Connecticut capital and New Britain on sound footing.
The New Britain-Hartford busway, a 9.4-mile bus rapid transit line that has been under consideration since the late 1990s, has finally locked in the funds to be completed. A New Starts grant announced last week by the Federal Transit Administration will cover about half of the project’s $567 million cost; construction of the segregated right-of-way and 11 stations will begin next year, with completion expected in 2014. It will be the latest true busway to open in the United States, following similar projects in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Pittsburgh.
The decision to move forward with a busway at a cost of $60 million a mile was controversial — just as it was in other cities that have implemented bus rapid transit systems in lieu of rail programs. The 13-year gestational period of the project is one indication of the problems the project faced. Despite support from former governors John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell, two Republicans, critiques from project opponents, who cited its high costs and perceived disadvantages with regard to rail, delayed action.
When Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy entered office early this year, he heard similar opposition from both Democrats and Republicans, but he decided to sign on definitively in April with $113 million in state support, leading to the FTA’s new commitment (the remainder of funds come from other federal sources).
The busway, expected to carry a total of 16,000 passengers a day — 5,000 of whom will be new to transit — will feature all of the elements crucial to a good BRT project, including off-board fare-collection, level boarding, signal priority at intersections, and next bus arrival information at well-outfitted stations. Its reserved right-of-way throughout its route will allow much faster travel times: 20-minute trips between downtown Hartford and downtown New Britain, down from between 42 and 52 minutes offered by existing bus service.
Most intriguingly, the corridor provides the opportunity for feeder service into and out of the busway. As illustrated in the map at the top of the page, buses will not only run from Hartford to New Britain, but also extend to cities like Bristol and Waterbury, being able to bypass congestion on I-84. Others will reach the University of Connecticut Health Center. At peak hours, up to 20 buses will run in each direction on the route.
These elements make it difficult to criticize the busway from the perspective of its potential to improve mobility in the corridor running southwest from Hartford. The project fulfills all of the technical requirements for a world-class BRT network.
But opposition to the project was — and remains — steady. Part of the criticism focused on the program’s relatively high costs; GOP opposition in recent months, fundamentally anti-transit, launched a “block the bus” campaign in the face of Governor Malloy’s support. This disagreement has assumed a partisan color: Democrats who once argued that the project would make more sense as rail have muted their objections.
Yet other organizations which are typically pro-transit, like the Sierra Club, have been steadfast in their disgruntlement with the line. Their concern? The busway’s construction will make future rail expansion in Connecticut far more difficult. At the heart of the matter is the project’s route, which will extend five miles south from Hartford along Amtrak’s New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Corridor (soon to be upgraded to full double trackage for an increase in service), and then branch off on 4.4 miles of the abandoned freight railroad right-of-way that runs to Bristol from Newington.
This latter section, called the Newington Secondary Corridor, has been considered for rail expansion in recent years by Connecticut legislators, but the installation of the busway will make it physically impossible to situate rail there later, as there is not enough room for both in the right-of-way. Is the appeal of the busway, such as allowing feeder routes to use it, strong enough to rule out the use of the corridor by rail into the future?
Would it have made more sense — and perhaps been cheaper — to install new tracks along the Newington Secondary and simply connect them to the New Haven-Hartford line, which would need few upgrades other than those already programmed for it? This course was likely not pursued as the improvements on that rail mainline have only been funded in the last two years thanks to the Obama Administration’s intercity rail grants, while the New Britain-Hartford busway has been in planning for more than a decade.
Less mentioned by opponents of the project is the proposed terminus of the line, at Union Station in downtown Hartford. While the station serves intercity buses and Amtrak, it is not at the center of downtown; in fact, it is 4,500 feet from the convention center on the other end of downtown. Existing buses run by CT Transit extend into the center of Hartford, at the Old State House on Main Street, for a reason: That’s where the greatest concentration of employment is located. While Union Station is not far from these areas, a more than half-mile walk between the busway and a job puts in serious question the appeal of the new transit service for downtown workers.
One hopes that the transit agency will choose to extend many of the buses using the busway further into the center of the city, an option that would not only require no construction, but also provide a real justification for the choice of bus over rail for this corridor, since trains, unlike buses, would have no alternative but to remain at the station.
Image above: Feeder routes into New Britain-Hartford Busway, from CT Transit
» Los Angeles submitted an application for U.S. TIGER funds with the intention of building a downtown streetcar line. But the alignments proposed are very similar to those offered by existing rail and bus services — and each would operate in a one-way loop, a failed transit concept.
Despite the fact that planning for the L.A. streetcar goes back for more than a decade thanks to the work of a public-private local advocacy group, the city will have plenty of competition in its effort to win federal funds. Requests for the third round of TIGER funding outnumbered actual funding available by 27 to 1. With so many projects up for consideration, anything funded by Washington ought to be valuable. But L.A.’s project could benefit from significant improvement.
The fundamental problem with the proposed streetcar is that its service pattern would overlap that of other transit lines either funded or in service today. Though there are several corridors under consideration (a final route alignment will be selected in February 2012), each would run within the general north-south corridor between Broadway to the east and Figueroa to the west and Pico to the south and Union Station to the north.
Business groups representing the Broadway corridor see the streetcar plan as a potential avenue to economic growth; they argue that the line would attract more customers to their stores and contribute to a more vibrant environment. The majority of costs for the line ($50 to $60 million) are expected to be covered by property owners, who are enthusiastic about the regeneration of the area. The Bringing Back Broadway group, which has led the effort, has a promising streetscaping plan that would work well with either the streetcar or improved bus service.
Even so, it is dispiriting to see yet another city make decisions on streetcar planning that imitate previous mistakes seen elsewhere.
The first is the one-way loop travel pattern of all of the proposed alignments. Rather than running in two directions on Broadway, which would appease those who feel that the east side of downtown is underserved by rail transit, all of the routes would run south on Broadway, only to turn around and run north on another street west of there. The result? People on Broadway would have to go south, then west, then north — just to get to the center of downtown. And people at L.A. Live, where a new football station is planned near Pico station, would have to go north, then east, then south — just to get to Broadway.
That is out-of-the-way thinking that does not address the travel needs of most people. Unsurprisingly, similar one-way transit loops in other cities have had difficulty attracting ridership. Though the transit agency predicts 7,000 to 11,000 daily riders on the line, one wonders what percentage of this group would simply be switching out of existing transit modes on parallel routes, to little benefit of anyone.
There are no transportation capacity concerns here: Not only would streetcars run in alignments shared with cars (with the predictable consequences: limiting capacity, slowing trains, and disrupting services), but Broadway has a total of five lanes reserved for automobile circulation. So why not just run the trains up and down that street, perhaps with a connection at the southern terminus to Pico station? Or why not simply focus on taking advantage of the frequent bus routes that already run in the area by directing streetscape projects to their needs?
L.A.’s transit priorities are generally in the right place — focusing most funds on extending rapid transit, both in the form of rail and BRT, to areas of the city suffering from lots of traffic congestion and too few transit options. Downtown is not one of those places.
» A 30-year plan to bring increased bus service and three new rail lines to the Research Triangle gets off to a promising start with an election in Durham.
In 2000, North Carolina’s two largest metropolitan regions each planned big transit improvements, and each had received preliminary approval to do so from the Federal Transit Administration.The Triangle’s leaders wanted to build a diesel multiple unit-powered regional rail line connecting Durham and Raleigh while Charlotte’s elected officials planned an electric light rail line linking downtown with its southern suburbs.
Ten years later, Charlotte’s Blue Line has been up and running for almost four years, attracting higher than expected ridership. The Triangle’s efforts were flummoxed in November 2005 by an FTA ruling that the regional rail project was not cost effective, and the project was cancelled.
Yet the passage yesterday of a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transit in Durham County offers strong evidence that the region’s electorate is ready to invest in new public transportation options — the referendum passed with a large 60% majority in approval. Durham’s endorsement of the transit improvement program, like similar efforts in cities from Los Angeles to Denver, provides clear evidence that voters are willing and even excited to pay higher taxes in exchange for tangible improvements in transportation.* If in the U.S. Congress future funding for mobility remains tenuous at best, local level support for such policies is clear.
For the Triangle, this is the first step towards the completion of what will not only be a vast upgrade over current transit offerings in the region but also a significant improvement on the 2000 regional rail plan.
Triangle leaders have learned from Charlotte’s success. Realizing that the FTA would be unwilling to commit to a project without a stronger demonstration of local funding efforts, politicians pushed the North Carolina State Assembly to allow counties to submit sales tax increases to their voters, an option that had been reserved for Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County until 2009. Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax provided a quarter of the light rail line’s cost, while the Triangle’s 2000 plan could cover less than 10% of costs with local revenues, which came from a tax on rental cars and vehicle registrations.
Durham (population 270,000) is the first of the three Triangle core counties to put a transit sales tax referendum up to voters; Wake County (whose 900,000 population includes the cities of Raleigh and Cary) and Orange County (130,000 inhabitants, many of whom are in Chapel Hill) are likely to follow up next year now that the transit plan has received its first public backing. Each county will receive improvements roughly in proportion to the taxes locals pay; if one county’s voters reject the referendum, the other counties will keep their revenues and continue work on their own projects. (Update: Durham County Board members may have said they will not levy the tax unless Wake and or Orange County does as well.)
The implementation plan, developed by Triangle Transit the Triangle Regional Transit Program, will be implemented over the next thirty years as long as tax revenues come in as expected. It will offer big improvements in bus service soon and new rail links beginning a decade or so from now.**
Upgrading the region’s bus network is a top priority and is the ideal first step towards a big investment in fixed-guideway transit. Charlotte, which substantially increased bus services once its half-cent sales tax was approved in 1998, more than doubled its daily transit ridership over tenyears, mostly thanks to bus riders (though the light rail project helped as well). Some of the $17.2 million in sales tax receipts Durham expects to collect annually beginning in April 2013 2012 will immediately go to 25,000 additional annual bus service hours, with another 25,000 new hours planned by 2015 2013. This represents a 28% increase over current service levels and it will allow 15-minute peak frequencies on several routes. Similar improvements are planned for Orange and Wake Counties if and when their voters approve their respective referenda. (The Town of Chapel Hill wants to use some of its future funds to pay for a bus rapid transit project along Martin Luther King Boulevard, its primary north-sout thoroughfare, by 2017.)
In the meantime, Durham and the rest of the region will continue their work on the long-term fixed-guideway rail projects that are the headliners here. In the 2000 plan, the whole point was the intercity link between Raleigh and Durham; in the past few years, Triangle planners decided to realign — and broaden — their focus. Not only would a commuter rail line running at limited frequencies be developed to connect the two big downtowns by 2018, but two light rail lines sharing parts of the same corridor will run from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Durham and from suburban Cary to northeast Raleigh, via that city’s downtown.
Unlike the regional rail plan, which would have had twelve stations spread across 28 miles of service — more like commuter rail than urban service — the two light rail lines will have a total of 38 stations along 35 miles of service, meaning most people along the route will be within walking distance of a stop. In addition, the light rail lines will run partially in the existing railroad right-of-way (as would have the regional rail plan) but also within street medians in some urban sections, such as the newly developed Erwin Road near Duke University Hospital and N.C. 54 in and around Chapel Hill’s new urbanist Meadowmont development. Street alignments are generally cheaper and more pedestrian accessible than their peers in independent rights-of-way.
Together, these projects would attract roughly 32,000 daily riders by 2035 at a cost of $3.5 billion, thus making it far easier and more reliable to get around these cities by transit.
Instead of rushing to complete the rail connections as soon as possible, the plan is designed to build up a reserve fund for capital costs and slowly pass through the FTA’s grant process. This is an appropriate response to unexpected changes in the economy and the delays that are likely to be encountered when dealing with Washington. Thus the 2025 completion dates for the light rail projects may seem far off but they are realistic.
In order to sponsor these projects, regional officials are counting on the passage of the sales tax referenda in each of the three Triangle counties. They will also use a $10 vehicle registration fee and rental car tax (both already in place), as well as 50% capital program support from Washington and 25% support from the State of North Carolina (roughly what Charlotte received for its light rail project). Collectively, the three counties would locally raise more than $2 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars by 2035 (Durham County, for instance, will collect about $730 million), enough to pay for the local share of all of these projects and the operations costs not only of the rail lines but also of the improved bus network.
Compared with the 2000 program, this is a far more comprehensive set of improvements that will do more to change the transit access of the typical resident of the area — especially since much of the funding is designed for bus service, which was ignored in the previous plan. Despite the fact that they will attract new riders into the transit system, the rail services as currently proposed are not perfect. One hopes that the long planning process will allow further refinements that ensure that the program is as cost-effective and traveler-oriented as possible.
The biggest trouble with the plan, like the previous one, is that it attempts to impose what is effectively radial transit on a multipolar region whose most prominent employment center is actually a series of isolated office blocks in the zone between Durham and Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park (RTP). Though RTP has been the region’s growth generator for decades, its radically suburban form makes it difficult to envision efficient transit there.
Meanwhile, there is relatively little commuting between Raleigh and Durham. The cities are too far apart to be true suburbs of one another; most people who work in Downtown Durham live in Durham County and most people who work in Downtown Raleigh live in Wake County. This means that the $650 million commuter rail line expected to pass through RTP and between Durham and Raleigh will have limited value — this was, after all, the problem with the 2000 regional rail proposal.
For the same reasons, the new focus on light rail connecting Chapel Hill to Durham and Wake County’s suburbs to Downtown Raleigh is much more reasonable. There has been significant growth in both residential and worker populations in downtown Durham and Raleigh since 2000, so there is both demand and interest in getting into these cities more easily. Connections to Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, which have a collective student body and staff of more than 100,000 (not including their medical centers), are likely to make the rail services quite popular, especially for people who live nearby but cannot afford parking in expensive university lots.
Nonetheless, the access provided to the respective downtowns is weak according to current plans. While Durham’s downtown will be within half a mile of two stops, no station will be directly next to the city center; in Raleigh, a lively debate this summer over the appropriate alignment for rail through downtown resulted in a compromise that puts some much of the business district a full mile away from the nearest station. Meanwhile, while the UNC Hospital is at the terminus of the proposed Durham-Chapel Hill light rail line, the main sections of the University and Chapel Hill’s downtown are both about a mile away. These could be fatal flaws in terms of attracting ridership.
Just as problematic is the choice of light rail for the Durham-to-Chapel Hill corridor. The alternatives analysis completed for the line suggests that a true bus rapid transit alternative with an independent guideway would actually attract more total riders at a far lower cost, with only slightly slower travel times. How is this possible, when studies have shown that more commuters will ride rail than bus when similar services are offered? Because the analysis included the possibility of interlining local bus routes onto the fixed-guideway for parts of their route (see map below from the study). This would effectively make travel faster and more reliable even for people whose origins and destinations are not directly along the fixed guideway line.
But local officials have recommended light rail, primarily because of its perceived transit-oriented development potential. This may be a short-sighted decision, since it denies the conclusion that overall transit ridership would be higher with an interlined system. But it also reflects the fact that the route includes several stations in greenfields (at Leigh Village and Gateway) that are poised for significant growth if developers heed the call. Would they do so with a BRT system?
One additional point: If the commuter rail project and light rail projects are completed, they should be developed jointly, not independently. The current proposal recommends four rail tracks in some sections of the Durham-to-Raleigh corridor to allow for two light rail tracks and two shared between the commuter rail line, Amtrak, and freight trains. The section of line between the Ninth Street and Alston Avenue Stations in Durham, for instance, would require the installation of two new light rail tracks and a new commuter rail track (there is currently only one track there). This is overkill considering the proposed train frequencies (maximum 10-minute headways) and will cost more than is necessary.
With the advent of positive train control, the physical separation into different corridors between light rail and freight trains will no longer be necessary. Were the Triangle granted a waiver from the current Federal Railroad Administration rules, it could use tram-train vehicles for its light rail routes and use the same tracks as the commuter rail, thus reducing the necessary expenditures in the shared portions of the line.
Despite these objections, the overall transit plan for the Triangle appears mostly well thought-through. The light rail routes would run through the densest sections of the area and would stop at most major destinations. For a quickly growing region with few public transportation options today, that’s great news.
Thanks to the efforts of Durham’s citizens yesterday, the plan is also actually fundable. Simply proposing a tax cannot be enough to have it approved, of course. Like other cities that have passed transit taxes, Durham benefited from the near-universal support from public officials and the creation of an active supporter group promoting a clear, exciting plan. Wake and Orange Counties will need similar efforts to make the full regional plan possible.***
Bottom image: Interlining BRT on Durham-Chapel Hill high capacity transit project, from Our Transit Future
Update, 11 November 2011: I was contacted by an official who noted that the tram-train idea would be impossible considering current rules of the North Carolina Railroad (a private company 100% owned by the state), which owns the track. The company has so far been unwilling to consider having light rail run along its tracks. Thus the issue here is not only the FRA but also the opinions of the host railroad.
* This is apparently not true in suburban Cleveland, where two separate efforts to maintain bus service were roundly defeated in votes yesterday. But it was true in Vancouver, Washington, where voters endorsed a sales tax for transit, and in Cincinnati, where an effort to block work on the streetcar was ignored.
** Though the rail system will be developed by Triangle Transit, a regional authority that operates intercity buses, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh each have their own bus services that at least for now will remain separate. These agencies will receive proportional tax funds to improve operations and will be expected to coordinate with the rail services once they are running.
*** Feel free to blame the length of this article on the fact that I am a native of Durham.
» Over the long run, California’s fast train project remains within an acceptable range of costs, despite recent increases.
The release of the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s revised business plan on Tuesday underlined concerns about the future viability of the nation’s biggest proposed transportation project: Not only would its completion have to be delayed significantly — to 2033 or later — but projected costs have risen dramatically, to $98 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars. In a political environment where making a large long-term commitment to anything other than the military is almost impossible, the increasing costs required to pay for the program put in doubt its future. This fast train project designed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2h40 is not dead, but its completion is less likely now than it was last week.
The steadily rising nature of the public expenditures that would be required to build the project as now designed have been roundly criticized in some quarters, and it is true that the project’s increasing reliance on very heavy and expensive infrastructures like viaducts and tunnels may be unnecessary by international standards. But the project’s per-mile costs — even with the cost increase — are not hugely different from those in other developed countries for rail systems offering speeds of up to 220 mph.
Yet the broader issue is how the project’s price compares to that of existing public sector transportation investments and the economy as a whole, and as the chart above demonstrates, its ostensibly enormous price is, well, relatively small.
Between now and 2033, the rail project would cost between $65 and $75 billion (in2010 dollars). Over the same period, Caltrans, California’s Department of Transportation, can be expected to spend at least $286 billion (also in 2010 dollars), mostly on roads projects, assuming that its current annual budget of about $13 billion (including federal and state outlays) stays intact. In truth, considering that there is considerable support for increasing infrastructure spending in general, that figure is likely to go up considerably.
Compare those figures to the state’s GDP, which is estimated at about $1.9 trillion a year. Over the course of twenty-two years, the state will produce $42 trillion in output (again, in 2010 dollars) — assuming no growth in the economy, despite the fact that California’s population is expected to grow by seven to seventeen million people by 2040.
This very conservative* estimate, then, suggests that a high-cost rail project would not only represent only 0.18% of a heavily depressed state economy over 22 years, but also that it would only account for 21% of the broader state transportation budget, which would remain mostly focused on highway construction and maintenance, as in the status quo. On average, the U.S. invested between 2.5 and 3% of its GDP on publicly sponsored infrastructure between the 1950s and 1990s. The full cost of the California project thus comes to appear far less dramatic.
The project becomes even less problematic considering it is, like almost every high-speed rail project, expected to be operationally profitable, and that its benefits to the society will be larger than its costs. The analysis done by the authority, based on decreased travel times, lower use of fuel, reduction in pollution, increases in productivity and reliability, and a decline in traffic accidents, suggests a decent benefits-cost ratio of 1.5 to 1.8. This does not include other benefits, such as the ability to avoid building hundreds of lane-miles of new highways and expanded airports to accommodate the mobility needs of millions of new California residents.
Nor is such a significant investment in one project out of the international norm. The Grand Paris Express, designed to connect the suburbs of the French capital with a circumferential rail network, will cost about $40 billion to build (including ancillary improvements in the existing system). This alone will represent about 0.4% of the Paris region’s GDP between now and 2025. Both the Paris and California projects will contribute massively to the economic growth of the regions in which they are being built.
The question, then, is two-fold: First, what level of investment should the country make in its transportation system? Second, are other transportation projects more valuable than the California rail project?
The first issue is political: Is there sufficient support among electoral constituencies in California to allow for the continued sponsorship of what will be a drawn-out process with plenty of controversy? California Governor Jerry Brown appears to remain on board, as does, surprisingly, at least one member of the state GOP delegation. The rail authority’s attempt to stage the project — beginning with a segment between the Central Valley and either the Los Angeles Basin or Bay Area, and then moving for a full-length line — is one way to make the project more palatable in the short term.
More broadly, the state must make a decision about how it wants to invest in its transportation future. As already noted, the state department of transportation is likely to invest about $300 billion in mostly highway infrastructure over the next two decades. With so much spending directed towards the roads network, it cannot be easy to dismiss a large spending commitment to rail. But the difference between the two is obvious: Because the rail line is a single project (despite its statewide implications), it is viewed in terms of its huge costs and long-term lifecycle; the roads improvements likely to occur during the same period are four times as expensive — but broken into much smaller, shorter-term projects, so they are far less politically vulnerable.
And the system will surely need further support from the federal government, which the authority hopes to convince (over the next few decades) to chip in $20 billion or more in grants. Because of the insecure fiscal situation, private funding for the project will have to wait. Nevertheless, a future Congress that considers high-speed rail an acceptable mode of transport will likely fund projects nationwide; remember that earlier in 2011, President Obama proposed entirely seriously investing $53 billion in fast trains. Though that effort was not successful, the idea is clearly on the minds of policymakers.
None of this suggests that it would be a bad idea to reduce the costs of the project. The cost of the line cannot continue to increase infinitely (though the authority’s math in this business plan is based on the considerable preliminary engineering completed since the last plan in 2009, so that doesn’t seem likely). The whole line cannot be put into tunnels or onto viaducts in order to avoid community opposition, or it will become impossible to fund.
At a certain point, the question is therefore whether there are other programs that would provide better societal benefit than the high-speed rail system, and this is a valid conversation worth exploring. From my perspective, moving the money into roads infrastructure would be simpleminded considering the need to expand mobility options and decrease levels of pollution. It could also be possible to use the funds for local transit expansion, which has plenty of unmet capital needs, especially in California’s largest cities. But who in the state is proposing a comprehensive effort to upgrade rail and bus networks? And how would that spending address the needs of intercity travel?
* And admittedly back-of-the-envelope, but the point is to highlight proportions here, not specific values.