Light Rail Metro Rail Toronto

In Toronto, the Fight for Transit City Continues

» Facing increasing criticism from a city council, Mayor Rob Ford’s plans for new subways may not come to fruition after all.

Transportation is an intensely political game in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, home to millions of daily transit users, has been fighting for half a decade on how to expand its rail network over issues that might be familiar to inhabitants of many metropolises. Should trains be put in a subway or remain on the surface? Should extensions be developed downtown or in the suburbs? Should funding come from the public or private pocketbook?

The election of Rob Ford to the mayoralty in fall 2010 seemed to answer some of those questions: All new urban rail projects would be built underground in order to avoid disrupting traffic. Most new lines would be designed to extend into suburban business districts, rather than reinforce the network in the center city. And an emphasis would be placed on finding private financing to cover costs. Almost as soon as he entered office, Mr. Ford managed to dismantle the light rail surface-running, publicly funded Transit City plans his predecessor David Miller had imagined and, in one case, actually brought to the construction stage.

In the process, no one seemed to notice that the mayor, who never sought full approval from the council in renegotiating the funding contract with Ontario Province, didn’t have the legal authority to trash the plans.

For Toronto, this once again puts the city’s public transportation future up in the air. Mr. Miller’s project would have funded three new light rail lines and a refurbishment and extension to another by 2020; only a 6-mile segment of the Eglinton Crosstown corridor would have been underground, compared to 29 miles overground on the rest of the plan, all at an Ontario-funded cost of C$8.2 billion. Mr. Ford squashed plans for the Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue light rail lines and killed the planned extension of the Scarborough RT; in their place would be a 12-mile fully-underground Eglinton line and a refurbishment of the Scarborough line — a total of about 15 miles of fixed-guideway transit at the same cost, serving far fewer Torontonians in the process. A subway extension along the Sheppard corridor would be paid for by the private sector. In theory.

The new mayor claimed he had a public mandate to build only subways; people hated Mr. Miller’s cheaper light rail lines, he said.

These changes brought on by Mayor Ford’s honeymoon in office, however, have come to an end. Left wing and centrists members of the city council banded together to push back on the administration’s efforts to reduce public services a few months back — and now a majority may be in favor of going back to Mr. Miller’s Transit City plans, especially since many on Finch Avenue northwest of the city center feel completely excluded from current plans. Mr. Ford’s own counselors suggested that private businesses would only be able to contribute 10 to 30% of the Sheppard subway’s costs. Karen Stintz, who chairs the board of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), recommended last week moving parts of the Eglinton corridor back above ground to save up to C$2 billion, limiting the extension of the Sheppard subway to one stop (instead of five) at a cost of C$1 billion, and adding a busway to Finch Avenue for C$400 million.

Mr. Ford’s response so far: “I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways. That’s it. They don’t want streetcars.” At a meeting today, Ford sympathizers on the TTC board voted against continuing to work with provincial planners — despite Ms. Stintz’s recommendations, putting her future in jeopardy, according to one observer. The mayor, who continues to label the Transit City light rail services designed to run in independent guideways “streetcars,” does not take criticism well.

But the mayor may be an increasingly irrelevant player here, since a majority on the council may be able to overrule him. In the process, Toronto may backtrack on its transit policies, taking the city two years back in time.

As for the public reaction, people do not seem to be screaming in the streets about the potential loss of their much-promised subways in favor of twice as many route miles of above-ground light rail. In the name of fiscal efficiency, one does wonder how it ever made sense to anyone to prioritize building subways through areas of only moderately dense development. Mayor Ford’s unwillingness to change rather comes across as the same old fight to “end the war on cars” he promised during the 2010 elections, a stand against getting in the way of a few drivers for the sake of speeding the commutes of many transit riders. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Toronto have seen few improvements to their daily commutes and delays in acting on future proposed services.

Nonetheless, the intense disagreement between Mr. Ford and his council counterparts — one that seems unlikely to die down at least for the next few months — suggests that public involvement is necessary. It might be reasonable to suggest a direct vote on the options available: With C$8.2 billion, what would you do? Think big: You never know what might come next.

Image above: Toronto transit street art, from Flickr user jmv (cc)

Infrastructure President

On Infrastructure, Hopes for Progress This Year Look Glum

» President Obama barely mentions the need for improvements in the nation’s capital stock in his State of the Union.

The contributions of the Obama Administration to the investment in improved transportation alternatives have been significant, but it was clear from the President’s State of the Union address last night that 2012 will be a year of diminished expectations in the face of a general election and a tough Congressional opposition.

Mr. Obama’s address, whatever its merits from a populist perspective, nonetheless failed to propose dramatic reforms to encourage new spending on transportation projects, in contrast to previous years. While the Administration has in some ways radically reformed the way Washington goes about selecting capital improvements, bringing a new emphasis on livability and underdeveloped modes like high-speed rail, there was little indication in the speech of an effort to expand such policy choices. All that we heard was a rather meek suggestion to transform a part of the money made available from the pullout from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts — a sort of war dividend whose size is undefined — to “do some nation-building right here at home.”

If these suggestions fell flat for the pro-investment audience, they were reflective of the reality of working in the context of a deeply divided political system in which such once-universally supported policies as increased roads funding have become practically impossible to pursue. Mr. Obama pushed hard, we shouldn’t forget, for a huge, transformational transportation bill in early 2011, only to be rebuffed by intransigence in the GOP-led House of Representatives and only wavering support in the Democratic Senate. For the first term at least, the Administration’s transportation initiatives appear to have been pushed aside.

Even so, it remains to be seen how the Administration will approach the development of a transportation reauthorization program. Such legislation remains on the Congressional agenda after three years of delays (the law expires on March 31st). There is so far no long-term solution to the continued inability of fuel tax revenues to cover the growing national need for upgraded or expanded mobility infrastructure. But if it were to pass, a new multi-year transportation bill would be the most significant single piece of legislation passed by the Congress in 2012.

The prospect of agreement between the two parties on this issue, however, seems far-fetched. That is, if we are to assume that the goal is to complete a new and improved spending bill, rather than simply further extensions of the existing legislation. The House could consider this month a bill that would fund new highways and transit for several more years by expanding domestic production of heavily carbon-emitting fossil fuels, a terrible plan that would produce few new revenues and encourage more ecological destruction. Members of the Senate, meanwhile, have for months been claiming they were “looking” for the missing $12 or 13 billion to complete its new transportation package but have so far come up with bupkis. The near-term thus likely consists of either continued extensions of the current law or a bipartisan bargain that fails to do much more than replicate the existing law, perhaps with a few bureaucratic reforms.

In the context of the presidential race, Mr. Obama’s decision not to continue his previously strong advocacy of more and more transportation funding suggests that the campaign sees the issue as politically irrelevant. If the Administration made an effort last year to convince Americans of the importance of improving infrastructure, there seems to have been fewer positive results in terms of popular perceptions than hoped for. Perhaps the rebuffs from Republican governors on high-speed rail took their toll; perhaps the few recovery projects that entered construction were not visible enough (or at least their federal funding was not obvious enough); perhaps the truth of the matter is that people truly care more about issues like unemployment and health care than they do for public transit and roads.

This does not mean an end to the beneficial shifts in national policy that have for the first time in decades really made transportation a tool for the improvement of conditions in cities large and small. This, ultimately, is the success of the Department of Transportation under Mr. Obama: Making livability and density primary goals of the mobility system. Even if little gets done in 2012, it is hard to see these ideas disappearing from the popular discourse.

Airport Metro Rail Miami Washington DC

Does an Airport Line Have to Reach the Airport?

» For Washington Dulles Airport, raising the unthinkable on a new rail link.

Yesterday, Robert Brown, a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), suggested rethinking his agency’s planned Metro rail extension out to Dulles Airport, the Washington region’s prime international gateway. Instead of the bringing this $2.8 billion rail link — frequently referred to as the Silver Line — directly to the airport, Brown noted that replacing the final 1.5-mile connection with a people mover would save $70 million thanks to a more limited right-of-way and the construction of one less Metro station.

The Silver Line is an extension of the Washington Metro’s Orange Line and will eventually reach Loudoun County. The first segment of the project, to Tyson’s Corner and Wiehle  Avenue, is planned to open for service next year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea was perceived as heresy, both by local commenters and board members. Mame Reiley, one board member, saidI just don’t think that’s what we labored for… it is not rail to Dulles.” Concerns were raised that the federal government might delay the program because the board was “starting over.” And indeed the proposal appears to have been dismissed by the authority board as unacceptable.

Counter-intuitively, however, such a change in alignment could be a reasonable money-saver and may actually improve transit service for both commuters and air travelers. And though the question is immediately relevant to the Dulles Rail extension, it is equally valid to many cities, as the issue of extending rail networks out towards airports is frequently of concern for transportation planners in major metropolitan areas.

The question of how to reach Dulles by rail has been fraught with controversy since project development began. Originally, the concept was to connect the Metro line to an underground station about 550 feet from the main terminal, but after the project’s price tag had exploded past $3 billion, an effort at cost-savings was in order. The MWAA, which runs Dulles Airport in addition to the Metro extension, eventually agreed in July April 2011 to move the stop about 600 feet further away — and to elevate it above the ground. Riders wanting to get off at Dulles will have to make the more than thousand-foot walk from the station to check-in.

Mr. Brown’s likely stillborn proposal to replace the direct rail link with a people mover reflects the fact that riders are likely to see this connection as inconvenient, especially compared to that at Reagan National Airport, where customers only have to walk about 150 feet between Metro platform and the terminal entrance.

Mr. Brown would reroute the Metro line away from the airport (the existing plan is shown in orange below and would be about 4 miles from Route 28 to Route 606), so that it runs directly along the Dulles Greenway (in blue, about 2.5 miles from Route 28 to Route 606). A people mover (also in blue, about 1.5 miles) would connect the Route 28 station to the front of the terminal. Though customers would have to transfer, they would now get a more direct journey, since it would be far easier to fit in front of the terminal the tracks and station for the people mover than it would have been for the Metro line (and in fact this explains why that latter possibility was never brought up).

This would save a total of $70 million, according to planner estimates, because it would replace about 1.5 miles of very expensive Metro infrastructure (readied for eight-car trains) with much lighter automatic people mover infrastructure, designed for one- or two-car trains.

We know this would save some money. How would this change affect customers?

Riders commuting in to Tyson’s Corner, Arlington, or Washington from outer suburban destinations on the end of the rail line west of Dulles would save time: At the 35 mph average speed expected for Silver Line trains,* it will take about 6.9 minutes to get from Route 28 to Route 606 using the current plan. The more direct route proposed by Mr. Brown would reduce that journey to 4.3 minutes. That’s almost half an hour in saved travel time per week per commuter.

Even better, those using the Silver Line to get to and from the airport might actually save time travelling too!** Though these customers would have to transfer between Dulles Metro and the people mover, if that connection were timed and across the platform (as is quite possible when two automated systems are linked and built at the same time), the time lost would be only two or three minutes. Meanwhile, once they actually get off at the terminal, the experience of riders taking the people mover would be much superior: Rather than walking 1,150 feet to the terminal — which would take them about 4.8 minutes on average — they would walk something more like 150 feet, which would take them only 0.6 minutes.*** See this back of the envelope comparison:

 Arrive at Rt 28 StationTimed Transfer to People MoverTime to Dulles Airport StationWalk to TerminalTotal Travel Time
Existing Proposal0 Min--2.5 Min4.8 Min (or about 3 Min by moving walkway)5.5-7.3 Min
People Mover Proposal0 Min3 Min2.5 Min0.6 Min6.1 Min

Though the use of the people mover raises questions about operating another rail system, it could be maintained with similar vehicles as those already servicing Dulles on the Aerotrain, which connects checked-in passengers to the terminals.

If these benefits are not convincing enough in themselves, it should be noted that the Washington region would not be alone if it chose to make its airport rail link stop somewhat short of the terminal itself. In Phoenix, the new light rail system was built in coordination with airport officials, who are currently constructing an automated train between the rail station and the terminals. The San Francisco Bay Area is building an airport connector to the Oakland Airport that will link a BART station some miles away to the terminals. And Miami’s new AirportLink Metro Rail project will not actually stop at the airport, but instead at a new central station (pictured at the top of this article), where transfers to a people mover will be offered.

Riders in these regions will not suffer; they may lose a few minutes transferring between trains, but if the connection is short and timed, that pain can be minimized. Avoiding the airport, paradoxically enough, could both save money and improve the situation for riders.

Update: I should say that the underground passage way from the elevated station as currently planned will include moving walkways (it already exists), so the time difference between getting from the elevated station to the terminals and getting from the people mover station to the terminals will not be as large as I suggested above. The time difference still should be in the range of two to three minutes longer, however, making the travel time about equal overall.

* 35 mph: PlanItMetro projects it will take about 22 minutes to travel the 12.8 miles between Dulles Airport and Tysons 7 Station.

** The only customers would would lose out with this change would be those traveling to and from Dulles from outer-suburban locations.

*** Assuming that people with bags travel at about 4 feet/second, a bit slower than the average walking speed of an elderly person.

Image above: Miami Central Station rendering, from Miami Intermodal Center

High-Speed Rail Intercity Rail London United Kingdom

Defying Criticism, Government Finalizes Plans for U.K. High-Speed Rail

» A new route from London to Birmingham to be opened by 2026, with further extensions planned into 2030s. Project continues to face healthy skepticism.

Whatever the recession’s effects on government budgets, infrastructure development in Europe continues to advance at a steady pace. The United Kingdom government affirmed last week that it would move forward with the construction of a £18.8 billion ($29 billion) high-speed link between London and Birmingham, due for opening in 2026. This in spite of draconian cuts across all sorts of public services, both in Britain and across the continent.

The U.K.’s high-speed effort — it will effectively produce the nation’s first domestic truly high-speed line — follows almost two decades of travel to and from Paris and Brussels via Eurostar trains that operate under the English Chanel. Though those services have only recently met opening-year ridership expectations, Eurostar holds the large majority of the air-rail market share to these continental capitals, especially since following improvements completed in 2007 London finds itself within about two hours of its mainland peers. The popularity of that service surely had something to do with the government’s decision to move forward on a second line.

HS2 will bring measurable benefits: London to Birmingham in just 45 minutes, compared to 1h20 today, and eventually an hour off of trips to Manchester or Leeds, once extensions north to those cities are opened in 2032 at a cumulative cost of £36 billion. Direct trips between northern cities and Heathrow Airport and even the continent via the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be put into place. London’s aging Euston terminal will be significantly spruced up. The biggest improvement, perhaps, will be the practical doubling of capacity between the capital and the Midlands by providing a release valve for the West Coast Main Line, which recently went through its own upgrading project but which is predicted to reach capacity with a dozen years. (It already handles more than 40% of the country’s freight and 75 million annual passenger journeys.)

Yet the enormous cost of the link up to Birmingham has been put in question repeatedly not only by those who worry about increasing public debt but also those who question the need for the new rail link — especially along the chosen alignment.

The questions vary, depending on the critique: Is it worth spending this much money, primarily to reduce travel times by half an hour on trips between London and northern cities? Is the West Coast Main Line actually at capacity, or can it easily be expanded? Will UK travel patterns change to a significant enough extent to justify more transportation connections?

Much of the criticism of the project has focused on the line’s segment through the Cotswolds northwest of London, a pristine section of Britain that also happens to hold the residences of some of the nation’s most wealthy. But project planners seem to be unable to find an alternative to that alignment; it has remained the same even after the political transition between Labour and the Conservatives after the 2010 elections. That opposition, however, comes across as nimbyism, especially since its prime backers call from the affected area.

But the complaint that there is not enough of an economic rationale for the project is more compelling. The government’s own study of the project suggests that the first section would have a shaky benefits-cost ratio of just 1.6. This means that each pound of investment in the project would lead to £1.6 in economic benefits (in today’s discounted currency). Public works projects should be considered in comparison with one another to prioritize investments, and this rating is low.* The government’s own study of the 51M alternative, produced by project opponents as a suggestion to expand capacity on the West Coast Main Line, suggested a benefits-cost ratio of five or six for that less costly scheme.

Up in the air is the issue of whether the system will ever be extended north of Birmingham, to Manchester and Leeds as suggested by current planning, and then further north to Scotland. Of course, the financing to make those expansions possible is lacking, despite the fact that they would improve the benefits-cost ratio of the program to between 1.8 and 2.5, a far better result.

Meanwhile, the delayed completion of the line (it will not enter the construction stage until 2018) forces us to ask whether governmental action today is “final.” The justification of the wait has been that the government wants to first complete the equally huge Crossrail urban rail project for London. But who knows what priorities the government of 2018 will have. Will the high-speed rail project by then have lost political support?

A low cost-benefit ratio, however, does not necessarily mean the project shouldn’t be built.** The 51M scheme would be fine, but according to the government, it would fail to provide the capacity expansions to the rail network the country necessitates. It would force increasing freight shipments onto congested roadways. As the U.K. plans for its future, it has a choice: Allow its existing infrastructure to become paralyzed by disinvestment and a lack of capacity, or invest to expand it. The latter choice will allow for expanded travel and trade, the former will not.

These issues plague the development of many similar infrastructure investment projects. The California High-Speed Rail project, which continues to attract significant criticism from across the country and which lacks the national commitment devoted to Britain’s program, nonetheless represents a fundamental choice about the future of that state. Will it invest in its mobility systems to guarantee that its future inhabitants have access to travel options? Or will it overwhelm its existing infrastructure with the pains of growth? It’s an expensive choice.

* The government’s insistence that the project will create a large number of jobs (and therefore that it is good) improves the benefits-cost ratio only to the extent that external (non-construction) employment growth occurs because of the rail project and wouldn’t otherwise. After all, construction jobs, if that were the priority, could come cheaper: We could pay people to dig holes.

** As long as the ratio is over 1. Otherwise, the project would then produce more costs than benefits…

Image above: Rendering of British High-Speed Rail, from HS2

Bus Detroit Finance Light Rail

Back to Basics for Detroit Light Rail

» A private push to build a short line down Woodward may find itself in official plans once again.

Just three weeks after Detroit leaders announced that they had abandoned efforts to build a 9.3-mile light rail line down Woodward Avenue, the city’s central strip, Mayor Dave Bing revealed on Friday that he would allow a shorter link funded by a private group to move forward if it submitted an acceptable business plan within 90 days.

The project will have to be built right: Even at just 3.4 miles, the line could serve as a quick, reliable connector between the waterfront and the New Center, via Midtown, but that will only be possible if trains run in their own lanes, if they run frequently, and if they are funded with no negative effect on the city’s already under-financed bus system. There is evidence that those conditions will not be met. Yet the project’s design has yet to be completed — Detroit transportation advocates could successfully fight for the appropriate implementation of this first stage of Woodward Light Rail.

But the circumstances in which the project’s reactivation has occurred speak to a continued dysfunction not only in the City of Detroit but in American transportation politics in general.

The rail project was put on hold last month because of the sense that the City of Detroit — already mired in debt — would be unable to afford the operations costs of the corridor (estimated at $10 million a year) without sacrificing bus service. Repeated plans for a regional transportation authority, and associated funding, have been in the air for decades. Only a plan that served the suburbs well would be acceptable, since they would have to agree to increasing financing for transit, and so Governor Rick Snyder, Mayor Bing, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agreed to refocus efforts and money on city-suburban improvements to the bus network.

The latest move is backtracking at its best. Seemingly overwhelmed by calls from influential congressmen and the executives of downtown businesses like Quicken, Penske, and Compuware, who have already lined up $80 million for a $125 million short version of the line (which they call M1-Rail and which was actually proposed in advance of the longer corridor), the deal from last month will be amended. That is, if business leaders are able to find an effective way to cover the remainder of the capital costs and provide for the continued operations of the line, which they have said they could pay for through a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. They also want to take back the $25 million TIGER grant promised by LaHood in early 2010, then pulled back in December.

Why the sudden change in prospects for the line? Why weren’t these investors — willing to put up a surprising amount of money — consulted before their project was abandoned? What assurances do we have from the mayor and governor that suburban interests won’t be yet again frustrated by the fact that Detroit gets rail and they get rapid buses — and veto a regional transit authority? Where is the communication and where is the consistency in policymaking?

Just as we have seen with the Obama Administration’s high speed rail program, or New Jersey’s ARC rail tunnel, or a variety of maglev projects, this country specializes in spending years studying projects, then partially funding them, then effectively abandoning them. This results in years of delays and extra spending. I have been clear in the past that the Woodward rail line is a questionable priority for the region, but the move back and forth on decisions helps no one. Downtown Detroit’s leaders have been waiting patiently for the rail line, planning ahead around its development; were they forced to reconsider their options last month? Now what do they do?

There is nothing clear, after all, about the future of this project.

Nonetheless, the line does show some promise, because if Detroit is going to grow at all (it lost more than 230,000 people between 2000 and 2010), it will be in the small area bordered by the Chrysler and Lodge Freeways on the east and west, by Grand Boulevard and the waterfront on the north and south — and that’s exactly the neighborhood the short light rail line is supposed to serve. In that area, within 1/2 a mile of the Woodward corridor, are already 123,000 jobs (map of employment density in corridor) and about 20,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the city’s major cultural institutions, including Wayne State University, the sports stadiums, and several casinos, are within walking distance. Connections will be possible not only with the existing bus lines and Amtrak but also with the new BRT services proposed by Governor Rick Snyder last month, meant to link Detroit with the suburbs and the airport, via Michigan, Woodward, and Gratiot Avenues.

As I referenced at the start of the article, however, a light rail line within this area could be an appropriate addition to the transportation landscape of the city — or it could be the second coming of the much-maligned People Mover, which makes a quarter-mile-radius circle in one direction downtown. That system attracts few riders. But the Woodward corridor, serving real trip needs, could work — under certain conditions.

Light rail vehicles must be designed to run in their own lanes and be able to take advantage of traffic signal prioritization to ensure that they make the journey between destinations quickly. But the M1 group has been adamant that trains run next to the sidewalk in shared lanes to “boost tourism and redevelopment.” I was not informed that tourists and developers were particularly enamored of slow trains that have the propensity of being stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, such a short corridor must feature trains running very frequently. While many of the riders will be residents commuting to and from work, a significant share is likely to be made up of people transferring from other transit modes and of people who drove into work and need a downtown circulator. For the latter groups, waiting more than five minutes for a train in the middle of the day would represent a significant impediment to using the system, as they have other options, such as walking or buses. But the tenuous nature of financing for transit in metropolitan Detroit suggests that it will not be easy to fund such services, even if a TIF district is established. Once it becomes clear that the light rail line hasn’t solved the city’s woes, can we be sure that the business lobby won’t switch its interests to funding parks or other amenities?

For the sake of the city’s bus system and its future BRT network, operations funding for the light rail project cannot be derived from expenditures meant to be devoted elsewhere, such as from the proposed regional transit authority, as Mayor Bing and Governor Snyder have already made clear. Making it over this hurdle will be difficult.

Within ninety days, the city should make a very clear, final decision about its interests in the future of the Woodward Corridor, giving the M1 group a definitive answer about the future of the light rail line. The rail project should be built only if it can be funded without affecting bus financing and provide excellent transit service downtown. No more dilly-dallying.

Image above: Detroit’s Campus Martius, adjacent to Woodward Avenue where rail line will run, from Flickr user jodelli (cc)