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Portland WES Opens; BART Signs up for Wi-Fi; L.A. Gold Line Nears Completion; Milwaukee Studies Streetcar

Portland’s Westside Express Service Begins Operations TodayPortland Westside Express Service

The Tri-Met WES, which is a 14.7-mile commuter rail line from Beaverton to Wilsonville in Portland’s western suburbs, will open today for its first commuters. The project allows diesel multiple unit trains to run the route in less than 30 minutes, stop at three new intermediate stations, and connect to MAX light rail service in Beaverton. What’s perhaps most exciting about the service is that it will offer free Wi-Fi in trains, something no other commuter rail service offers in the country making it the second commuter rail line in the country to offer such a service.

WES hasn’t been without its problems, however. Tri-Met had to acquire Colorado Railcar, the equipment maker, to prevent it from going belly-up before the trains had been built. And WES won’t be providing the best service in the world, either. It’s a commuter line, not designed for carefree use, and it will only run every thirty minutes between 5:30 and 10 am in the mornings and 3:30 to 7 pm in evenings, only on weekdays.

Tri-Met expects 4,600 daily riders by 2020, though with such limited service, one wonders whether or not that’s a realistic estimate.

BART Expects to Have Wi-Fi on Trains by 2011

WES won’t be the only system in the country (of two) with mobile internet access, however, if BART has its way. The heavy rail system serving San Francisco and the Bay Area has signed a contract with Wi-Fi Rail, Inc. to provide for wireless internet use along the entire system within three years. The company will hold the contract for 20 years.

The system is currently being tested in the downtown San Francisco stations and will work even when trains reach their maximum speeds of 80 mph. Though that service is being provided for free, eventually users will be charged to use their computers and smartphones on the trains if they want to use the internet for more than three and a half minutes (including 30 seconds of ads). Charges for subscribers will be about $6 for two hours, $9 a day, $30 a month, and $300 a year, a good deal for commuters but terrible for everyone else.

L.A. Gold Line Extension Almost Ready for Service

Los Angeles is just months away from the opening of its newest light rail line, the $900 million Gold Line extension from downtown’s Union Station to East L.A. The 6-mile-long project has been under construction since 2004 and includes a significant tunnel under Boyle Heights. It is to be opened for riders later this year, though a specific date has not yet been set because the project is coming in early and below budget.

Now comes news that the entire track has been completed and that a light rail train has been pushed along the system successfully. The tracks will be tested over the next several months to ensure safety for riders.

Milwaukee Considering whether to Invest in Streetcars or Express Buses

Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city, is considering how to invest in its transit future with the Milwaukee Connector study. A series of meetings will be held this month to get citizen input in the potential improves in mass transit, which may provide service along the following corridors:

  • A streetcar within downtown Milwaukee
  • Bus rapid transit from downtown north to the University of Wisconsin; west to the Milwaukee County Research Park; northwest to Midtown Center; and south to the airport
  • Bus rapid transit from Bayshore Town Center south along 27th Street to Northwestern Mutual Franklin Campus

The team wants to apply for a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant, which goes for projects worth less than $250 million, so the study will focus in on how that money could be best used. The city currently has $91 million in federal transportation dollars at its disposal and the Small Starts grant could provide another $75 million if the city’s application is successful.

But there’s some controversy about what mode of transit would best suit the city. Whereas Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has suggested the best possible use of money would be in bus lanes, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has campaigned for a downtown streetcar and fewer bus lines. The study will help gauge citizen interest and preferences.

Image above: WES Colorado Railcar Train, from Tri-Met