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Big News Day: DC, NYC, Chicago, Philly, Minnesota, and Canada

Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Corridors» Today’s Big News Day Update, from Washington, New York, Chicago, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Ottawa

  • The Overhead Wire brings us news we’ve been expecting for a while: the Dulles Rail Project, extending Washington‘s Metro system from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, via Tysons Corner, is approved and will start construction soon. This project has been the subject of manipulation, deception, and outright lies by the Bush Administration over the past several years. Here’s the WaPo article.
  • But the Bush administration, whether we like it or not, will remain in office for the next week and a half, and so it continues to wreak havok. Chicago‘s $153 million plan for bus rapid transit lines across the city has been cancelled by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters after the city council failed to enact downtown congestion reduction fees on parking and deliveries by the deadline of December 31st. No extension was given – the funds were simply forfitted by the city’s mayor, Richard Daley. This makes the city’s Summer Olympic bid for 2016 seem a bit shaky, especially considering that transportation problems in the Windy City already had the bid on the rocks. By the way, this money (as well as $300 million more) was once designated for New York City before its congestion reduction plan failed.
  • Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas describes the State of the State Address given by David Paterson, Governor of New York. Though the state is facing a giant budgetary mess, the Governor pushed the Ravitch Report recommendations, the Second Avenue Subway, and the reconstruction of the Tappen Zee Bridge as part of a “brighter future.” Here’s the NYT interpretation.
  • Rochester, Minnesota‘s Mayor is interested in developing a high-speed rail link from Chicago to Minneapolis, via his city. Meanwhile, Canadian Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro is pushing for a link between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montréal, which would shorten travel times between the cities by half. Both are good plans – we’ll be coming out with a high-speed rail plan for North America as a whole, including these links, next week.
  • Montréal-based Bombardier, a train (and airplane)-making company, is considering how it might expand in the wake of the upcoming economic stimulus in the United States. The company is banking on the stimulus paying for new rail cars in Chicago, San Francisco, and New Jersey, all of which are in the process of refreshing their fleets. Meanwhile, Amtrak, whose funding has recently shot up, has already signed Bombardier for the renovation of its Acela Express trains, and replacements for the decades-old fleet of rail cars in the next few years is likely. Though the company currently has factories in New York and Pennsylvania, it may need to build new ones in the U.S. to handle the extra business.
  • The Delaware River Port Authority’s plan to expand the PATCO Hi-Speed Line from Downtown Philadelphia to Southern New Jersey has advanced a bit, with a locally preferred alternative being selected. The project, which may also involve the creation of a new LRT line instead of a simple expansion of the existing heavy rail PATCO, will follow the Conrail Right-of-way from Camden to Glassboro. The expected $3 billion cost of the project, however, is a real limitation: the project has received a $500 million commitment from the State of New Jersey, but that’s about it so far.
  • The Washington Post, finally, reports that light rail is overwhelmingly the preference for the Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, via Silver Spring, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Though LRT will cost more to construct than the BRT alternative being considered, it will likely attract more riders and more transit-oriented development. Prince George’s and Montogmery Counties – on the poorer, eastern side of the line, and on the rich, western side, respectively, will vote individually on the matter in February or March. If one voted for LRT and the other BRT, trouble could ensue, but an LRT preference is looking increasingly universal.

Above: scuttled plans for the Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Program, from the Chicago Transit Authority.

Chicago DOT Finance Toronto

Weekend Update: Transit Funding; Chicago Congestion Fees; Ontario HSR

Quick news updates:

  • Congressman James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is looking to dramatically improve mass transit’s share of total federal transportation outlays, reports the Wall Street Journal. This would be a dramatic improvement, as transit currently receives 25% of the total allocations put towards highways; Oberstar wants to increase that percentage to 40% – $12 billion in the next year alone.
  • As we reported last week, the failure of the auto bailout would also mean that the transit agencies that had lost big bucks because of the failure of companies like AIG would not be bailed out. However, the Washington Post reports today that Senators and House members are pressuring President Bush to include aid for transit in his Treasury-financed GM and Chrysler package. But, unless the pressure’s increased, the administration isn’t going to do anything about it, which in some ways makes sense, for reasons we’ve discussed before.
  • Economic advisers to the Ontario Premier are suggesting that Canada could benefit from a large high-speed rail system centered around Toronto. The network’s more than 500-km of track would cost up to $20 billion to build and take years of construction time to be implemented, but it would make sense, especially if it were connected to the high-speed network that neighboring Quebec wants to see built.
Bay Area Chicago Washington DC

Expansion in Chicago and DC; BART service for Baseball?

Looks like Chicago’s long-proposed vision to expand its Red Line south to the far South Side may be coming closer to reality. The CTA transit authority is beginning public hearings, which are the first steps towards the ultimate implementation of the project. It would mean bringing the line, which runs down the center of the Dan Ryan expressway, from 95th Street to 134th Street. Though the proposal suggests either BRT or metro service, the latter option seems more likely because it would act simply as an easy growth of the current line.

Because the Red Line’s southern branch is stuck in the middle of a heavily-trafficked highway, transit-oriented development around stations is virtually impossible. And getting to stations is an unfriendly process, requiring an approach over the highway on bridges. But the extension would act differently, diverging from the highway route. If Chicago officials are smart, they’ll take advantage of this expansion to focus development on much of the undeveloped South Side of the city.

In Washington, DC, or rather – in Northern Virginia – the Federal Government has given its final approval to the Dulles Metrorail project. This $5.2 billion project, to be built in two phases, would be an overhead extension of the DC Metro, serving the business-heavy Tysons Corner area in Fairfax County and then Dulles International Airport, way out in the city’s suburbs.

This approval has come after years of fights and represents a significant achievement for the people of Fairfax and Loudon Counties, who will now have direct Silver Line service into downtown Washington. It’s not the best project in the world. After all, just like Chicago’s existing Red Line, much of the new service would operate in the median of a highway, meaning that the line will be more of a commuter rail line than an economic generator, as the DC metro has been in the past in Arlington and Bethesda Counties. Also, an effort to tunnel the line through Tysons Corner, which would have made that district significantly more transit-friendly, now seems completely dead.

That said, this project, which has been proposed since the 1960s, is a necessary improvement to areas of Northern Virginia that simply do not have good transit access. It will mean better service to Dulles Airport, which isn’t a bad thing, and it will mean fewer Fairfax and Loudon County inhabitants choosing to drive into DC, rather than taking the Metro. As a result, it’s overall a pretty good investment for the region as a whole.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Oakland A’s Baseball team, which had been planning a new stadium far from transit access, are now seriously considering a new site, this time in Warm Springs, just steps from the site of a future BART metro station. This is an excellent idea, as it would make both of the region’s baseball teams very easy to access by transit. It might also make the transit-oriented development proposed for the station site actually a reality.

Chicago High-Speed Rail New Orleans

Local Beneficiaries of Obama's Presidency

We’ve had some discussion in the past about the potential implications of an Obama presidency. As we noted on Thursday, California’s High Speed Rail System, now that it has a $10 billion taxpayer-approved bond on its side, may well be the first project to benefit. But there are three other major infrastructure projects that are quite likely to find further funding in the first few months of the Administration: the further reconstruction of New Orleans and the surrounding area post-Katrina; a Midwest High-Speed Rail system initially emanating from Chicago; and the necessary financing of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Games, if the city is selected by the International Olympic Committee as host.

Mr. Obama has made it clear that the Bush Administration’s failure to provide for the functional reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is unacceptable. His campaign platform argues that “as president, Barack Obama will partner with the people of the Gulf Coast to rebuild now, stronger than ever.”

New Orleans’ transit network was devastated by the hurricane. It had recently completed construction on its first new streetcar line in years, along Canal Street, and outfitted that line with brand new cars. But the storm’s rising waters destroyed their machinery. And the city’s older existing line, along St. Charles Avenue, had its catenary system tangled by the hundreds of fallen trees in its path.

While the Federal Transit Administration under Bush has indeed helped the city pay for not only the reconstruction of the damaged cars but also gotten to the St. Charles line going again (a renewal of the catenaries was planned anyway), there has been little federal interest in paying for expansions of the network.

Pre-storm plans for a “Desire Streetcar” that would travel from the city’s core to the Lower Ninth Ward to the East and to the Airport to the West seem to be regaining traction with the city’s recovery. If we are to believe the campaign’s rhetoric about giving this area of the country a second chance, then an investment in improved transit seems likely, and we might indeed see the Desire Streetcar fast-tracked.

In Obama’s native Midwest, perhaps the biggest winner will be the Midwest High-Speed Rail proposal, which would dramatically improve services in that area of the country. Unlike the California High-Speed Rail plan, which involves the construction of a brand-new corridor for trains travelling at up to 220-mph, the Midwest plan would simply improve existing rail corridors to make them able to handle trains running at up to 110-mph.

Indeed, while this would not be most dramatic of improvements, it would allow train travel to be competitive on routes of less than 300 miles with automobile travel. This plan is similar to that proposed by Southeas-High Speed Rail. The first phase of the plan would be involve improving the lines that spread out from Chicago. Since these older lines need dramatic improvement for the sake of the city’s commuter rail anyway, their development for a Midwest High-Speed Rail program makes sense.

Obama’s repeated expressions of excitement about the potential of high-speed rail to improve communication networks in that region implies that he will devote himself to working on funding the service

China proved this year how an Olympics can radically transform a city for the better. Beijing’s renaissance, including the construction of a vast network of subway lines, the huge olympic stadia, and the development of a new Central Business District put the Chinese capital firmly into the small group of world cities and allowed it to host a highly successful Games.

More importantly, though, the improvements that came with the Olympics have made it significantly more livable for its own inhabitants. This is the real potential benefits of hosting the Games: making a dysfunctional city workable again. And herein lies Chicago’s chance with its plan to host the 2016 Games. This great Midwestern city, for all its beauty and fame, is in some ways falling apart at its seams. Its transit system is repeatedly underfunded, its elevated trains still running on uneven tracks and its stations have ancient wooden platforms. Meanwhile, though its reputation and economy have improved far more than many other formerly industrial cities, huge sections of the city’s West and South sides remain impoverished and crime-ridden. The exodus from the urban core that marked the period beginning in the 1960s is still plainly evident, with many neighborhoods half-vacant, the result of arson and neglect.

Chicago’s Olympic Games would provide an impetus for change, especially since the epicenter of the Games would be in the depressed South Side. But only if the Obama Administration commits to a large share of the project’s costs will the benefits be manifest. Indeed, the recent economic downturn and the city’s already shaky finances mean that it would never be able to fund improvements itself.

And it needs improvements. While Chicago has a natural opportunity to win the games, as North America hasn’t hosted the summer event since 1996, transportation is a major problem. Competitors for the opportunity to host Madrid and Tokyo have far more extensive and modern transit networks.

Chicago’s Applicant File assumes the development of two major expansions to the network, both of which provide bypasses around the Central Business District. The Circle Line would be a secondary loop around the city’s core, providing direct access to the United Airlines Center, which would be a major location for Olympic events. The STAR Line, which would be run by the commuter rail system Metra, would be less useful for the purposes of the Games but allow for suburb-to-suburb commutes by public transportation, a service that is currently impossible.

Though almost all venues are either at current stations or near them, the overcrowded transport infrastructure as it stands today wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds, though the plan calls for events to be scheduled at off-peak hours as possible. As a result, the project will be compact, with most events in and around the Olympic Village on Lake Michigan. In addition, “Olympic Lanes” along the region’s highways would allow for athlete shuttles to move quickly between events.

But the fundamental point is that Chicago will not be an effective host unless its public transport infrastructure is improved. Fortunately, President-Elect Obama, whose adopted home is Chicago, has demonstrated his past interest in supporting the Games. This support will be essential in providing funding to improve transit services adequate for the International Olympic Committee to support Chicago’s bid.

Beijing Chicago Honolulu New York President

Chicago to Benefit from Obama Election; Beijing Commuter Rail; ARC Costs a Lot More

Finally, the end of a long and dramatic week!

The Wall Street Journal had a nice report today about the potential benefits of an Obama Presidency for Chicago, which needs funding for transit as well as for its fledging 2016 Olympics bid. It’s not hard to imagine that Obama will focus on his adopted home town, especially now that his White House Chief of Staff will be Rahm Emanuel, another Chicago native. Also, one of the new co-chairs of his transition team, Valerie Jarrett, who is the chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Board, once was the chair the Chicago Transit Authority and worked in the city planning agency. She will be a strong proponent of transit and smart growth and she’s a good addition to the Obama team.

We will be discussing Obama’s influence on specific local projects, including the Chicago Olympics bid, in a post this weekend.

In Beijing, the government has announced the construction of a 100-kilometer suburban rail line which will provide efficient suburb-to-city centre commutes that are currently only realistically possible on the highways in automobiles. This comes on the heels of the city’s recent announcement that it will built two more subway lines, this in addition to the opening of three lines in July for the Olympic Games. Overall, the city plans 516 km of urban rail by 2015, up from 200 km today.

Note: by 2015, New York City will have (theoretically) completed the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a 4 km line. Don’t laugh, cry.

Meanwhile, in the New York Region, the Access to the Region’s Core project, which will provide a second rail tunnel from New Jersey to East Midtown, is now estimated to cost $8.7 billion. That’s $1 billion more than estimated last year. Based on the fact that the states of New York and New Jersey are approaching bankruptcy, either the federal government gets involved to a greater extent or this project isn’t happening.

Anyone think this project doens’t make that much sense, anyway? The new tunnels won’t connect New Jersey riders to the tracks at the existing Penn Station, meaning that through-running Amtrak trains can’t use them, and the terminus is on the West Side, which New Jersey commuters can already get to. Why isn’t the station being built in the vicinity of Grand Central instead? It would make a lot more sense.

Finally, opposition mounts in the Salt Lake area of Honolulu following yesterday’s announcement that the rail line that was approved this week might bypass that area in favor of providing better service to the airport. Expect further controversy before the situation is resolved…