Besancon Light Rail Montréal

How is Besançon Building a Tramway at €16 million/kilometer?

» Montréal plans to spend hundreds of millions on a new busway. Is it spending too much for what it will get?

Though Montréal has significant Metro and tramway expansion plans, its next new transit line will come in the form of a bus rapid transit line down Boulevard Pie-IX on the east side of the city.  The city hopes that the creation of a “bus highway” connecting into the suburban city of Laval would be able to attract about 70,000 daily users. The project, which includes the construction of new stations and dedicated lanes along the entire Montréal side of the 15 kilometer corridor, would cost some C$305 million — or about U.S. $32 million a mile.

Montréal’s new line will share many features of the Express Pie-IX, a bus line whose contra-flow bus movements were blamed for the deaths of several bikers and pedestrians and which was shut down in 2002 after carrying about 8,000 daily users.

The development of BRT in Montréal isn’t particularly remarkable outside of the fact that it is being done at a high price for what are primarily surface improvements. Yet compared to other recent rail projects in North America, the project looks downright cheap: Phoenix’s first light rail segment cost about $70 million a mile; Seattle’s broke the bank at $150 million. Subway projects are far more expensive.

How, then, is the eastern French city of Besançon building a new tramway for the equivalent of just about $35 million a mile?*

It’s a question Americans should be asking themselves, since the costs of transit investments seem to be spiraling out of control even as the demand for alternative transportation options has increased and the funds to support them have diminished. Besançon, a city of about 115,000 in a region of about twice that size, has managed to develop a project whose costs are acceptable — “optimized,” the local transit agency calls them — even in a small metropolitan area.

Besançon will be getting a light rail line fully in its own right-of-way that extends over nine miles and thirty stations, all for a price of €228 million ($310 million), with construction beginning this fall. The city expects about 43,000 daily riders once the project opens in 2015. This is no streetcar, and yet plenty of U.S. cities are thinking about spending far more per mile on those limited ridership, low-performance systems.

There are some good explanations for the low costs of what Besançon is calling the cheapest tramway project in France. According to the city, the entire manner in which the project was pursued was based on the goal of limiting spending to ensure that its completion would be possible in a place with limited public funds.

For one, the request for proposals to provide trains was opened up to seven candidates (of which six negotiated), versus the two or three typically offered. This increased competition between vehicle manufacturers and allowed the provision of nineteen 23-meter trains from Spanish constructor CAF for a price of €34.8 million ($47.33 million total, or $2.5 million per train). For comparison, the same company had planned to give Houston 103 similar trains for a cost of $330 million, or $3.2 million per train. Competition in Besançon cheapened the costs of train purchase. The price was also cheapened because the city chose to buy standard, rather than customized, train exteriors and interiors.

Meanwhile, Besançon made the decision to prioritize building the system over making the system beautiful. One might argue with this choice, but it has certainly lowered costs. The city chose to standardize stations, making them as simple as possible and similar in operation to existing bus stations. The maintenance center for the trains is more of a yard than anything else; it will have no roof.

The consequences on the urban landscape are more problematic; while many urban rail lines have been designed to ameliorate the surrounding urban environment, the Besançon project will be able to do less. This means that there will be fewer street improvements sponsored by the project, less planting of new trees, and a reduction in expenditures in landscaping. This means that the appearance of the areas in which the tram line will run will not be significantly better than before, in contrast to many successful interventions in other cities where the creation of a new street rail line provided an incentive to renovate the whole street. (As a Paris official recently said in reference to that city’s tram project: “We are profiting from its arrival to produce urban renovation. [The affected streets] need a re-qualification of public space.”)

This unwillingness to spending transit funds on street improvements in Besançon, though, does have its positive benefit: In some places, instead of reworking a street to offer both rail and automobile traffic, the city is simply banning cars. This will improve the circulation of the transit vehicles and improve the incentives to use public transportation in general. Much of the dedicated right-of-way for the rail line — usually expensive to develop because planners are afraid to take space away from drivers — simply is taken from the roads in Besançon. There is little concern expressed here about the loss of automobile capacity.

Besançon will come away from the project with a significantly improved urban transit system that would have been impossible had the city been asked to pay for it at the typical prices. Which brings us back to Montréal: Is the city spending too much on its transit projects? Could funds being spent on that program be better used somewhere else in the city?

(I have not studied the Pie-IX project in detail, so it would be difficult for me to identify specific ways in which that project could be reduced in price; it may be that its current cost estimates are perfectly reasonable.)

I do not want to suggest that the answer to calls for reduction in government spending is to cost-cut. But there are significant advantages to finding ways to pull down expenditures for new transportation projects, both in terms of economics and politics. Besançon could provide a useful model for American cities that want to improve their public transportation networks but simply cannot afford to.

* Assuming an exchange rate of about 1.36 U.S. Dollars to the Euro. Costs per mile updated to reflect incorrect information when first published. Image above: Planned route of the Besançon Tramway, from the City of Besançon.