Bus Light Rail Nashville

Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board

» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.

Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.

Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.

Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.

But the proposal could face the same problems previous Nashville transit efforts have—namely inadequate public support and vocal opposition. These opponents, as I describe below, are relying on inadequate and deceptive claims to critique investment in transit, but they’re right that the system won’t automatically be effective in attracting riders. Nashville needs better transit, but it’s got to design its system appropriately if it’s going to work.

Fixed-guideway transit for Nashville

Mayor Barry’s plan is to have the city’s voters approve a significant increase in four local taxes in a May 1 referendum. The proposal would increase the sales tax incrementally and add surcharges on existing hotel, rental car, and business taxes. Funds would raise enough to fund $5.4 billion in capital investments, plus a billion more in operations costs over the next 14 years, when construction will be completed. That’s not as large as Los Angeles’ or Seattle’s 2016 referenda, but it’s a big investment in a much smaller metropolitan area.

Indeed, Nashville’s plan would be enough to provide the city’s almost 700,000 inhabitants a large new transit network, encompassing 26 miles of light rail, 25 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and significant improvements to the existing bus service and Music City Star commuter rail line.

Lines would largely extend out from downtown, where a $936-million, 1.8-mile transit tunnel would separate trains and BRT services from street traffic. It would make Nashville the fifth U.S. city to invest in a modern light-rail downtown tunnel, after Buffalo, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Dallas* (like Seattle, it will include both trains and buses).

As the map below indicates, light rail lines would extend northeast along Gallatin Pike, west along Charlotte Avenue, northwest along a former rail line, and southeast along Murfreesboro and Nolensville Pikes, all major arterial routes. Four BRT corridors would fill in the gaps. The result would be an urban core generally well served by fixed-guideway transit services.

As currently described, the network would feature relatively high-performance light rail corridors, “traveling in their own lanes,” with transit signal priority and frequent weekday service. The trains would begin running 2026, with full completion by 2032.

The rapid bus corridors, which would be implemented more rapidly, would be electric, have limited stops, also feature transit signal priority, and, “where feasible and supported by the community,” include dedicated lanes and off-board payment.

In sum, the network is projected to attract significantly more riders than the existing regional network, which carries about 33,000 daily bus riders and 1,200 commuter rail users. The city estimates that the rapid bus corridors would see between 9,600 and 11,600 boardings a day and the rail corridors between 61,100 and 71,400. If these projections are realized, the city’s system will carry more riders per mile than those in Charlotte, Dallas, and Denver, and it would more than double existing use of the system.

Over the 2018 to 2032 construction period, about $900 million, or about 10 percent of the total, would go to operations and maintenance costs, with the rest paying for the massive expenditures related to the new rail and bus lines.

That’s a very capital-heavy allocation of resources, and it has its limitations. Light rail service on weekends, for example, would only be scheduled for every 30 minutes. And some local buses would continue to provide service only every 30 minutes, at best. But a new Frequent Transit Network would offer service every 15 minutes or faster on the 10 busiest bus routes, which would have significantly longer hours and an expanded fleet.

The opposition

Assuming these outcomes play out as planned, should the voters endorse Nashville’s proposal? Would the city be getting its money’s worth?

For critics of the project, massive investment in transit simply doesn’t make much sense. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Economic Malcolm Getz epitomizes the opposition, and he has produced a lengthy critique that’s been used by local media as evidence for the proposal’s failings. A few years ago, Getz was a key opponent of Nashville’s proposed Amp BRT line, which ultimately failed in the face of state legislative and local business opposition.

Getz’s arguments are similar to those used by most opponents of transit investment in cities across the U.S.: For one, he argues, transit does not reduce congestion and in fact may make matters worse if trains or buses take space away from cars on the street. Two, transit is slow because it requires transfers and thus will not increase ridership. Three, the benefits would go to just few people (since most people don’t use transit), and transit would accelerate gentrification. And four, the availability of new types of car services, combined with tolled express lanes, actually would be more beneficial.

These claims—like many of the popular criticisms of transit—mislead, simplify, and contradict.

It is true, as Getz notes, that the fundamental law of road congestion means roads will fill up to their capacity, so more transit is unlikely to reduce congestion in itself. But evidence does, in fact, show that transit plays an important role in reducing overall automobile traffic, even in places like Nashville where it accounts for a small share of commuters. As such, improving transit service can be an essential mechanism to move more people around a city without having to build more highways.

Getz suggests that eliminating automobile lanes for dedicated lanes for transit will exacerbate congestion by forcing the same number of drivers into fewer lanes. But such reductions in vehicle traffic have been shown either to have minimal impact on roadway capacity or actually reduce the number of people driving. Just as importantly, transit can carry a lot more people in a lot less space than automobiles on roadways.

Of course, transit can only be effective if it’s carrying people, and that’s a shortcoming that Getz relies upon throughout his criticism. He suggests, to summarize, that there’s virtually nothing that can be done to attract people onto the region’s trains and buses because they are slow and require transfers, and thus that those vehicles will be empty no matter what.

But there are ways to make transit effective—it’s just that Getz isn’t much interested in them. As noted above, he’s opposed to dedicated lanes, but those are essential for speeding up transit and actually making them competitive with cars. Nashville’s transit system is quite low-ridership today, but one reason for that is that the service it provides is slow and infrequent, exactly the deficiencies this transit plan is designed to address.

Getz’s claim that Nashville’s transit system simply won’t be well used, and thus does not deserve significant investment, is simply a reflection of existing conditions and an unwillingness to believe that cities have the capacity to change.

Moreover, he is willing to use an argument that contradicts his other claims—that transit will induce gentrification by increasing property values near transit stations. Why, though, would transit improvements increase values if no one is using the system? There is significant evidence that transit investments increase surrounding property values, and the reason for that is that transit improves accessibility. In other words, you can’t both argue that transit won’t be used and that it will increase gentrification.

Getz’s proposed solutions include increasingly relying on ride-hailing services and putting buses in tolled express lanes on Nashville’s highways. Yet encouraging people to take Uber or Lyft into downtown wouldn’t do much at all to solve congestion—in fact, it might make it worse if people are subsidized to take those vehicles instead of the bus. Moreover, given that such services are hardly self-supporting today, and far from inexpensive, it’s hard to see this approach as effective in the long term.

While tolling expressways might be effective in cutting down on traffic, putting the buses there instead of on arterial surface streets would essentially remove transit from the places where it can actually thrive: In walkable, relatively dense neighborhoods, and relegate it to an automobile-dominated corridor.

Plus, Nashville’s massive growth requires new transportation capacity. Simply tolling some highway lanes won’t actually increase the ability of the region to handle more people. That’s why it’s so important that transit investments be offered as an alternative.

What future for the city?

Despite the limitations of Getz’s arguments, they are getting play in the local press. One reason for that is that there are reasons to be skeptical of the potential for Nashville transit improvements.

The city is incredibly sprawling, with a population density of just about 1,300 people per square mile—far less than what is typically needed to make fixed-guideway transit effective, which is something in the range of 10,000 people per square mile. I’ve written critically of the previous transit proposals in Nashville precisely for this reason. Along the proposed lines, densities are higher—3,000 to 4,000 people per square mile, but still pretty low.

As such the city should be focusing intensely to construct larger projects along the routes and downtown to ensure that the transit investment is worth it. The existing land use code also has high parking requirements—at least one space per unit for residential uses, and one space per every 200 to 300 square feet for office uses—that should be eliminated to support a transit-focused city.

This plan is better than the previous one, focusing more on improving transit in the center, where it is likely to work best. Whereas the previous proposal would have extended light rail 30 miles from downtown, this one goes, at most, about seven miles from there. While the city extends roughly 15 miles from downtown, the underdeveloped, exurban parts are not to be served by this plan. That means that it’s designed to encourage development in the core by capitalizing redevelopment of existing built-up areas. That’s the right approach.

The inclusion of a transit tunnel downtown is a radical, expensive approach, but it’s ultimately a good idea from the perspective of making the system as effective as possible. By separating trains and BRT services from traffic, the system will avoid the pitfalls of places like Portland, where light rail vehicles crawl through downtown, and make it far more feasible for people to travel from one side of the city to another.

Moreover, the plan’s opponents are missing the larger issue: This transit plan isn’t really about responding to Nashville’s current travel patterns, for better or worse. It’s about creating a framework for the future development of the city around a reliable transit system.

If the proposal is successfully implemented, it will make it possible to have a transit-oriented life in a city where living without a car is now virtually impossible. It will create the groundwork for an alternative mode of development than the parking-heavy construction that currently dominates.

Despite the vocal opposition, Nashville’s citizenry may, in fact, be willing to go along with Mayor Barry’s transit proposal. It’s a big ask, and it will hit people in their pocketbooks, but the city’s residents are hardly arch-conservative; they voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite her winning only 35 percent of the statewide vote.

Even if they vote for the referendum, though, the way the transit projects that are funded by it are ultimately designed will play an essential role in determining their effectiveness. The fact that the city is proposing to include dedicated lanes only where “supported by the community” suggests that the city’s leaders are already anticipating opposition from neighbors in places such as along the West End corridor, which connects downtown to Vanderbilt University, and where the Amp project met its demise a few years back. But the transit services will only be useful for people in the city if they’re designed to be as rapid as possible.

Better transit for Nashville, then, means more than just passing new funding for the city’s system. It means making sure that the projects built are designed to work and to actually attract riders. That’s the really difficult part.

* Several cities, including Boston, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, built light rail tunnels many decades ago and have kept them operating. Tunnels in Dallas and Los Angeles are planned or now under construction.

Image at top: Downtown Nashville, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina (cc). Map of proposed Nashville fixed-guideway transit routes, from City of Nashville. Updated Jan. 31, 2018 to clarify changes to local bus service.

Beijing China Guangzhou Hong Kong Infrastructure Metro Rail Shanghai

In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros

» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.

Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.

Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming problems that infect that very core of the American planning apparatus—excessive reliance on consultants, acceptance of rapidly growing costs, failure to adapt to new technologies, compulsive regression to benefits for small groups over for the common interest—have encouraged this approach to understanding what is possible. And there are some cities (Los Angeles and Seattle come to mind most quickly) where these issues seem less acute.

But it is perhaps only in the act of comparison that the illness of American planning is made apparent. For in examining how one place acts in the context of another we can see whether the malignant cancer to which it has become resigned is, in fact, a factor of unavoidable shared inheritance, or if, rather, it is the consequence of its own poor choices that others have not made.

Evidence, indeed, suggests that there are choices when it comes to planning, that it is possible to have more, not less. I point to Chinese cities, which over the past ten years have acted to seize the reigns of transport planning through aggressive investment.

Having been reliant on bicycle transportation for much of the 20th century, Chinese cities were models of unmotorized mobility. But the country’s opening to capitalism in the 1990s brought massive motorization and the purchase of millions of automobiles. Millions of rural inhabitants streamed into urban cores. Many of the cities were woefully unprepared to respond to the sudden changes that ensued; until 1995, only one Chinese city—Beijing*—had any metro line, by which I mean fully grade-separated rapid transit.

What has occurred since then, however, has truly altered the way people use transportation in Chinese cities, and the changes will keep on coming.

Metro construction in these cities has exploded, rising exponentially especially since 2008. A country largely bereft of metros in the 1990s now has more than 5,000 kilometers of metro lines, more than four times the U.S. figure, which has increased very slowly since the 1960s. 25 Chinese cities now have systems, and the number is rising every year.

Of the 12 largest metro networks in the world by length, seven are now in China. As of December 2017, Guangzhou’s metro passed New York’s Subway in length, and Beijing and Shanghai have by far the longest systems.

Some estimates suggest that Chinese cities will have more than 10,000 kilometers of metro lines by 2020. That’s in addition to the almost 1,000 kilometers of bus rapid transit, hundreds of kilometers of tramways, and massive commuter rail systems that have been built in cities around the country—not to mention the enormous high-speed rail network that has been constructed since 2007.

This investment in metro capacity has been met by a popular shift in how people get around. Current Chinese metro lines collectively carry about twice as many riders as the entire American public transportation network, buses, trains, and all.

The “riding habit”—the frequency of transit use per capita—has risen quickly in city after city. Guangzhou and Beijing now have greater use of their systems than any American city except for New York, with the average resident there taking 189 and 167 rides per year, respectively, compared to 230 per year in Gotham. Beijing and Shanghai systems now each carry more than ten million daily riders, the two highest figures in the world. And they have both doubled their ridership since 2010. It seems likely that the other cities following their path in line construction will eventually follow their lead in ridership, too.

Metro construction in China is largely the product of a massive central government investment. Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment.

The story of Chinese investment in metro systems might be chalked up to processes of urbanization that were familiar, too, to U.S. cities in the early 1900s. It is easy to forget that American residents of major cities were the most reliant on transit in the world at the time, and that before the Great Depression, efforts to build subways and elevated rapid transit were widespread (if ineffective).

Yet actions in Chinese cities today are examples of contemporary planning, not simply responses to a particular historical moment that all cities eventually go through. The unabashed commitment to investment in rapid transit in city after city through support from the national government is an effort that never had its equal in the U.S. The growth in metro systems is being conducted in response to, not before, the increase in automobile dependence. Line construction is being undertaken in parallel with massive creation of dense new neighborhoods, a legacy whose hysteresis will produce generations of transit riders.

While Chinese cities have frequently been poor models of urbanism—massive highways, malls, and tower-in-the-park apartment blocks have taken root in too many places—they appear to be at least minimally cognizant of the reality that a future of unlimited automobile growth is unsustainable. Unlike any American city, for example, cities from Harbin to Shanghai to Shenzhen have implemented caps on vehicle registration and are examining congestion fees. Thus the growth in metro construction is being implemented in line with restrictions on overuse of cars.

The feats of Chinese infrastructure development are often dismissed by Western critics as the unrealizable actions of an authoritarian, illiberal country with no property rights, a poor citizenry, too-dense neighborhoods, and sheer government power. Its actions, then, are supposedly not meaningful for the deeply democratic American context.

Yet this is too much of a gross exaggeration of what is actually happening in China. While it is true that the country is authoritarian, land cannot simply “be taken” with no response from residents. Incomes have increased dramatically many of the larger cities, creating a middle class of individuals ready to contest projects they don’t like. Investment isn’t cheap; Chinese metros, while not as pricey as American ones, aren’t much cheaper to build than their European counterparts. And the residential areas that have been created around metro stations are intentionally dense, the product of a decision to be dense, not the product of poverty.

The difference between U.S. and Chinese approaches to planning for growth through transportation, then, really gets down to this question: are cities prepared to make the commitment to change, or not? American cities have largely abandoned the effort, hoping and praying that they may eventually wean people out of their cars through such under-supported devices as commuter incentives and tactical urbanism. Chinese cities, aided by massive central investment, are building a new society for themselves.

Data on Chinese metro expansion available here.

* Hong Kong has had extensive rail services throughout the twentieth century, and its metro, beginning in the 1970s, was quite popular, but it was a British protectorate until 1997.

Image at top: Guangzhou Metro, from Flickr user Enzo Jiang (cc).

Finance Infrastructure

A year into the Trump Presidency, federal transit support limps along

Minneapolis Southwest Corridor

» Despite efforts by the administration to eliminate support for new transit projects, they continue to be funded by Congress—and transit agencies are continuing to act as if they’ll see aid far into the future.

Last March, the Trump White House released its budget blueprint, a document designed to articulate the administration’s orientation toward the executive agencies. The blueprint took a radical stance toward the federal government’s involvement in transit: It proposed a wholesale elimination of the capital grant programs, which fund a portion of costs for rail and bus guideway projects around the country. It suggested doing away with the TIGER discretionary grant program, which is frequently used to fund small-scale bus rapid transit and streetcar routes, as well as transit stations.

The budget also offered no remedy for the upcoming depletion of revenues from the federal gas tax, which has not been increased since the early 1990s, thereby wildly decreasing its revenues over time.

The proposed cuts could have seriously undermined efforts by the nation’s cities to expand their transit networks. Transit agencies in places from Charlotte to San Diego, among many others, rely on Washington’s support to cover 30 to 60 percent of the capital costs of their major transit projects (through the New Starts program) and major line renovations (through the Core Capacity program). Los Angeles, for example, is funding 47.7 percent of its Regional Connector light rail subway with federal New Starts grants; 48.3 percent of the costs of Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project are borne by Washington.

Smaller cities have used the Small Starts program to fund 30 to 80 percent of their streetcar and bus rapid transit lines. A full list of projects currently on the list for future federal funding—but lacking a guarantee of Washington’s support—is below. This includes projects such as Albuquerque’s BRT, which has already been built on the assumption that the federal government would contribute funding. Yet it hasn’t yet.

A year into the administration, transit projects continue to be built around the country, and dozens more are planned. As I detail in this post, Congress has largely ignored the White House’s efforts to cut funding for transit projects. Moreover, transit agencies are acting as if grants will continue far into the future; they’re continuing to submit their projects for federal review.

But the threat remains that the administration will find ways to seriously undermine transit programs in the U.S. Indeed, Trump has yet to even submit a nominee to head the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA’s capital investment report suggested that “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” despite the government’s continued support for road projects, whose use is overwhelmingly local.

This stance has not yet affected many projects directly, but it does suggest that the government won’t go out of its way to make them happen. Last month the administration announced that it would pull out of an Obama-era deal to aid the funding of a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey that would carry both NJ Transit commuter and Amtrak intercity trains. A deputy administrator at the FTA dismissed the tunnel as “a local project where nine out of 10 passengers are local transit riders.”

Congress ignores the president

The administration’s deep antipathy for transit projects has been largely dismissed as irrelevant by the Congress which, of course, ultimately determines how the federal government spends its money.

Last May, the Congress allocated funding for a full bevy of investments. Projects such as Minneapolis’ Southwest Corridor and Seattle’s Lynnwood Link light rail projects, recommended for no funding by the president, were allocated the first of what are likely to be years’ worth of grants to support. That said, those projects’ full-funding grant agreements, which guarantee multi-year support by the federal government, have yet to be signed by the FTA.

Other lines, such as Indianapolis’ Red Line bus rapid transit, were given large Small Starts grants despite the administration’s effort to halt that program altogether.

Even the TIGER program—which is discretionary in that it requires the Department of Transportation’s Secretary to make decisions about which projects to support—is moving ahead, despite considerable delays. After the Congress agreed to fund the program mid-year, the government provided a notice of funding availability in September, for which awards are anticipated soon.

Transit agencies plot a path forward with federal funds

If the intention of the administration’s proposal to eliminate federal support for transit was to encourage local and state governments to simply fund projects themselves, there is little evidence that they’ve taken that tack so far.

I asked representatives of transit agencies throughout the country to describe how they planned to move forward given the administration’s hostility to new funding. None suggested that they were changing their plans whatsoever.

Corinne Holliday of Phoenix’s Valley Metro, for example, noted that the agency and “its city partners remain confident that Tempe Streetcar and the South Central [light rail] Extension will be fully (federally) funded and we continue to move forward as such.” Representatives of Twin Cities Metro continue to plan on full federal support for the Southwest Corridor and Blue Line Extension light rail projects. Bryan Luellan of Indianapolis’ IndyGo noted that the agency had in fall 2017 submitted its Purple Line bus rapid transit line to federal review, and that it is planning to submit its Blue Line project soon.

Agency confidence—or at least their unwillingness to change plans—has meant that they have continued pressing ahead. Jose Ubaldo of Metro Los Angeles noted that the Trump budget and other executive actions “have not materially affected” the financing schedule of the third phase of the Purple Line subway extension, which has not yet received federal support. “Metro continues to work with FTA in the grant application process that would result in a grant agreement in 2018,” he said, “under the presumption the New Starts program is funded through a Congressional appropriation.”

Indeed, agencies seem to be assuming that the Congress will continue to be by their side. “The contingency plan in the event of no New Starts [funding] is to redouble our work with House and Senate appropriators,” Ubaldo said. Norm Mah of the City of Seattle noted that “despite the Trump administration’s lack of support for the FTA Capital Investment Grants program… Congress continues to demonstrate bipartisan support which is shown by a letter signed by [Washington] Senator Patty Murray and other congressional members.”

Not actually getting the funding, however, will make transit agencies incapable of moving forward. Kimberly Reason of Seattle’s Sound Transit—which is planning a massive light rail program—made the dynamics of the situation clear. “The elimination of federal funding assumed for Sound Transit projects poses a great risk to delivering these projects by their planned completion dates,” she said.

Steven Taubenkibel, an FTA spokesperson, emphasized that the agency was continuing to accept projects. “We continue to advance projects through the process, consistent with the statute,” he said. But he cautioned that those projects’ future funding is in no way ensured. “Project sponsors that do not yet have construction grant agreements acknowledge they are undertaking additional work at their own risk.”

What will 2018 bring?

Pressed by agencies, mayors, and other local officials, Congress may continue to fund transit projects with individual allocations. The FTA continues to maintain a list of projects it is willing to support—whether or not the administration is actually suggesting funding them—and Congress seems likely to continue to use that list to pick out which projects to fund.

If the agency continues to accept applications for project funding and Congress continues its allocations, transit agencies may be in the clear. It is worth remembering that the Bush Administration repeatedly proposed gutting support for transit investments, too, but those proposals went unheeded by a Congress representing jurisdictions all over the country with transit plans.

Taubenkibel also underlined that the White House is—at least if you believe what its officials say—interested in supporting transit projects. “The Administration’s upcoming Infrastructure Initiative,” he noted, “will provide a comprehensive proposal to accelerate project delivery, spur private sector innovation and investment, and ensure that the Government effectively invests Federal infrastructure funding.”

It is true that government officials have repeatedly suggested they’d like to move forward with an infrastructure bill, which has sometimes been described as a one-trillion-dollar investment. In theory, new infrastructure funding could support new transit projects.

What we know about that proposal, however, suggests that it is unlikely to be supportive of the transit projects most cities want. The administration’s rhetoric about the plan suggests that it would emphasize selling or leasing assets to private entities (though the president himself is apparently not confident that public-private partnerships work in the first place), and fund projects that can “support themselves” through user fees, which means that it won’t do much for projects other than toll highways in dense urban areas.

Meanwhile, the Congress just passed a massive tax cut that will decrease federal revenues. It is hard to believe they’ll invest in an infrastructure program if it requires increasing taxes in an election year.

Image at top: West 21st Street Station, on Minneapolis’ Proposed Southwest Light Rail Corridor, from Metro Transit.

General Infrastructure

Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2018

» Despite significant hostility from the Trump Administration, cities are pushing ahead with major new transit projects nationwide. Here’s the annual roundup, with dozens of projects on the way with planned openings in 2018.

In 2018, 340 route miles of new fixed-guideway transit projects, representing a total investment of $13.2 billion, are expected to open for riders in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. An additional 366 miles of lines, costing a total of more than $75 billion to build, will be under construction in 2018 but are planned for opening in later years. The continent’s cities, then, continue to be active sites of expansion for relatively high-quality transit improvements.

Projects are described in more detail below. They’re also accessible on the updated Transit Explorer map and database, on which it’s possible to view project routes, stations, and details throughout North America.

This is the 10th year of my compilation of new transit projects here on The Transport Politic. Find previous years here: 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017.

A 2017 round-up

The first year of the transit-hostile Trump Administration was never going to be fun, but the fact that transit ridership declined throughout the U.S.—particularly on bus services—didn’t help. Competition from ride-hailing services, reductions in service provided, and low gas prices all conspired to encourage Americans to get into automobiles. That said, transit systems in Canada and Mexico did fine.

The Trump Administration’s budget officially cut off federal funding for new transit projects, but—as I’ll document in an upcoming post—cities kept on, and keep on, building.

Last year, a number of new projects opened. The extension of the Bay Area’s BART heavy rail system to Warm Springs, the creation of Denver’s new R light rail line, the building of Detroit’s new QLine streetcar, and the addition of Toronto’s Spadina Subway Extension stand out as particularly remarkable. High-quality bus rapid transit routes in Albuquerque, Eugene, Mississauga, and New York City also opened for riders.

2018, however, is expected to be a much more significant year in terms of transit line openings, as I detail below.

Above: Expected to open this year, among many other projects: BART to Berryessa heavy rail extension; Boston’s Silver Line Gateway BRT; Miami Central station; Ottawa’s Confederation Line light rail project; and St. Louis’ Loop Trolley streetcar.

Projects we can expect to open in 2018

One heavy rail extension, five new light rail lines, four streetcar lines, six commuter rail lines, 11 bus rapid transit lines, and two major station projects are expected to open next year.

Of these projects, the extension of the Bay Area BART heavy rail system to San Jose is the most expensive (it has rung up a more-than $2 billion price tag), but the line won’t serve any downtown, let alone any particularly dense residential areas. On the other hand, Ottawa’s Confederation Line, a light rail project that will replace a decades-old dedicated bus corridor, will provide direct access to the center of Canada’s capital; its planners project it will attract 240,000 daily riders.

The four streetcar projects expected to open—in El Paso, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, and St. Louis—will share many of the deficiencies that have frustrated recent streetcars across the U.S. Namely, they’ll run in lanes shared with automobiles, meaning they get stuck in traffic. Fortunately, as a share of overall expenditures on major new transit projects, streetcar projects represent less than two percent of the total.

On the other hand, bus rapid transit projects continue to improve. Boston’s Silver Line Gateway, which will bring frequent service to Chelsea, a suburban city north of Boston’s downtown, will have dedicated lanes and high-quality stations.

Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.

Heavy Rail

Light Rail


Commuter Rail

Bus Rapid Transit

Major rail stations

Above: Under construction this year, among many other projects: Boston’s Green Line light rail extension, Los Angeles’ Purple Line subway extensions, Montréal’s REM automated heavy rail project, Seattle’s East Link light rail line, and Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown light rail subway.

Projects under construction in 2018… but opening later

A large share of the transit projects across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada won’t open this year, but they’re either already under construction or are scheduled to enter the construction process later this year.

Los Angeles and Seattle, whose voters passed very large funding packages for transit expansion in 2016, account for some of the most significant projects. In L.A., the Purple Line Subway is being extended west toward UCLA, through some of the densest neighborhoods on the west coast of the United States. Authorities there are also building a new light rail line on the Crenshaw corridor, which will connect to a new people mover for LAX Airport, and a new light rail subway through downtown called Regional Connector, which will allow trains to run directly from East L.A. to Santa Monica and from Long Beach to Pasadena, saving commuters time.

In Seattle, light rail extensions are underway in virtually every direction: East Link is connecting downtown to Bellevue, Northgate Link and Lynnwood Link will extend the system north, and Tacoma Link is lengthening the short line that currently runs through that city at the southern edge of the region.

Several other projects are noteworthy: Honolulu and Montréal are both investing in automated heavy rail projects. After years of delay, Boston is finally taking the first steps forward in its Green Line extension into Somerville and Medford. And a streetcar line with dedicated lanes—Seattle’s Center City Connector—will finally be added to the streets of a major American city.

The full list of projects under construction is below, and they’re all accessible on Transit Explorer using the icon.

Heavy Rail

Light Rail


Commuter Rail

Bus Rapid Transit

Updates: Jan 5, 13:20 EST: Added Tren Interurbano de Pasajeros Toluca-Valle de México. Jan 6, 15:40 EST: Added Raleigh Multi-Modal Transit Center. Jan 9, 10:30 EST: Added OC Streetcar. Jan 10, 9:30 EST: Added Redlands Passenger Rail Project. Jan 16, 10 EST: Added Minneapolis C Line and Orange Line BRT Projects.