Charlotte Commuter Rail Finance Florida Light Rail

Rail in Florida Advances; Charlotte Lacks Tax Revenue

Sun Rail Map» Commuter rail in Orlando picks up support from Governor and Legislature… will funding follow?

Florida Governor Charlie Crist (R) has come out in favor of the central Florida Sun Rail commuter system. The Sun Rail project, which would be focused around Orlando, would provide commuter rail along a 61-mile stretch of the state, from Deland to Poinciana, via DeBary, Winter Park, Orlando, and Kissimmee. The trains would run on a freight corridor purchased from CSX. The first phase of the $600 million program would link DeBary with Orlando and is expected to carry about 7,400 riders a day by 2030.

The support of Mr. Crist means that the project is more likely to make it through Florida’s state legislature, which put the brakes on the project last year. The govenror seems to have been convinced by the project’s promises of economic development along the line.

The move in favor of commuter rail in Orlando comes at the same time as the legislature has become more and more vocal in its support of transit projects in Jacksonville and in Tampa. The three projects together would create an entire system, running continuously along almost the entire distance from Jacksonville to Tampa. But the projects all need significant monetary backing from the state government to get going.

One problem for Floridians, though: the state’s citizens, according to a recent poll, are against the idea of the state legislature paying the CSX tracks and then for the renovation of the rails by a margin of 61 to 25. I wonder, though, how much of that opposition has to do with the poll’s rather questionable questions, and whether opposition will deminish now that very popular Governor Crist has come out in support of the project.

» Charlotte’s sales tax for transit slowing down

For transit funding, Charlotte has relied on a 1/2-cent sales tax since 1998, when the measure was passed in a referendum by county voters. The sales tax was reaffirmed overwhelmingly in a highly contentious 2007 vote just before the city’s first light rail line began operating. But that tax, which was intended to fund the city’s ambitious LYNX rapid transit program, is not meeting expectations as a result of the economic crisis. During the next ten years, the tax will produce $252 million less for transit than had been expected. This is the same situation currently facing Denver.

In response, Charlotte has no intention of asking in the short-term for another sales tax increase, à la Denver, nor will it increase fares until next year at the earliest, but it will begin reducing service on bus and rail lines beginning in March. A more dramatic consequence of the reduction in revenue is likely to be the postponement of construction on some of the city’s proposed new transit lines. $250 million is roughly equivalent to the one-fourth share the city was expected to pay for the construction of the Blue Line extension into the northeast section of the city. This northeast line is expected to have very high ridership and it would serve as an effective continuation of the very popular south corridor that is currently in operation. Not to fund it would be a disappointment for the city.

Oddly enough, though, the city may actually move ahead with another line – the north corridor Purple Line commuter rail system – if it finds federal funds in the economic stimulus to begin construction. This corridor, which, because of low ridership projections, is far less cost effective than would be the Blue Line extension, would nonetheless be far cheaper to build, at $372 million, versus $1 billion. Each project is relatively advanced in the planning process, though, so the city could decide to divert some funds to each of the corridors depending on revenues from the stimulus.

Image above: Sun Rail alignment, from Sun Rail

Charlotte Connecticut Seattle

Seattle Viaduct Will be Tunnelled; Charlotte LRT to Expand; Connecticut Sees a New CR Line in Its Future

Seattle Approves Tunnel Replacement for Viaduct

After years of discussion – and few actual conclusions about what to do – it looks like Seattle will replace its elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct (shown in the picture above), which currently separates the city’s downtown from its waterfront, with a tunnel directly underneath downtown. It will be completed by 2015. The project, at a cost of $4.25 billion, will include the construction of the deep-bore two-level tunnel, the demolition of the viaduct, and its replacement with a park-like environment along the water (shown in the picture below). It seems likely that the city will contribute funds towards the project’s transit component, probably by building a waterfront streetcar that would fit in with the city’s overall inner city transit plan.

The viaduct, built in 1953, has been long in need of replacement. An earthquake in 2001 damaged it, making its continued use unsafe in the long-term. But the state and city have argued since about whether to replace the elevated highway with yet another viaduct, build a tunnel, or simply create a surface road along the waterfront. And just a month ago, the state seemed to have concluded that the only feasible options were the viaduct and surface options. So this news comes as quite a turn-around.

This is good news for Mayor Greg Nickels, who has campaigned vigorously against the new viaduct option. Governor Christine Gregoire’s new willingness to sponsor a state contribution to the project ($2.8 billion) means that the Mayor’s determination not to continue the city’s separation from its waterfront has been rewarded.

Charlotte Moves Ahead on Light Rail Expansion

The Lynx Blue Line, North Carolina’s first example of rail mass transit in decades, has been a dramatic success, having achieved its 2020 projected ridership goals within the first two months of operation. Running from the city’s downtown to the south, a proposed extension would extend the line from downtown to the northeast, reaching the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Yesterday, the city approved the routing of the project.

The 11-mile project is expected to cost around $900 million and will be completed by 2015 – construction could begin by next year. It will be funded by the city’s 1/2-cent sales tax, which is dedicated to mass transit.

Connecticut Blames Amtrak for New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail Delay

Connecticut, which currently offers Amtrak service from New Haven to Springfield, Massachusetts, via Hartford, the state capital, has been planning for the past few years to develop a commuter rail line along the same route, hoping to duplicate the success of the state’s Metro-North New Haven Line, which ferries commuters along the shore to New York City. The state has studied the project extensively and even developed a preliminary service plan, which could include the construction of a second track along the route and the development of several new stations.

But the state now argues that Amtrak is preventing the state from moving forward because the federal agency is demanding too much from the state – such as basic improvements along the line that would allow for service improvements. Now, while it’s always easy to blame Amtrak, in this case, the intercity rail operator makes sense. The route is currently in a decrepit state, trains must run at a slow speed along much of the line, and because of most of the route’s one-track nature, it would be difficult to add many trains. So if Connecticut is really intent on expanding service, it should invest in the line, paying for the upgrades before more trains are added.

This type of complaining, without promises by the state to improve the current situation, is pretty annoying.

Top photo from flickr user Slightlynorth under CC license; bottom photo from Washington State DOT

Charlotte Finance Minneapolis Seattle

Fares in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charlotte

With the nation confronting economic problems as a whole, and with tax revenues down dramatically, transit agencies are finding themselves in need of more money, and fare increases are on the calender all over the country. We’ve talked about the potential extreme fare hikes in New York City, where a base fare may increase from $2 today to $2.50 or even $3 in the next few months, but today there’s discussion to increase rider revenue in Minneapolis and Seattle, and a new strategy for fare collection in Charlotte.

Fare Increases in Minneapolis

The Star-Tribune reports today that Minneapolis’ Metro Council has called to increase fares by 50% because of increasing numbers of riders, slower revenues, and high energy costs. The most fundamental problem is that the majority of revenue designated for transit operations comes from a motor vehicle sales tax, and as we’ve seen over the past few months, the number of new cars being sold in the United States has plummeted incredibly quickly. In 2001, the Metro Council decided to change to this revenue source (from a former regional property tax), convinced that revenue growth would be quicker from the motor vehicle tax. Unfortunately, that prediction has proven disastrous.

Currently a separate tax approved by the state legislature provides money to transitways, such as the Hiawatha Light Rail line, but that does nothing for the mainstay of the system’s operation: buses running in regular streets. The Council cannot cut service on those lines because of fears that such a reduction in operations would make getting federal money for the planned Central Corridor light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul more difficult. So few options remain other than increasing rider-based revenue.

Seattle Link Light Rail – Zone-Based Fares?

Seattle is considering how it will pay for operations along its Link Light Rail line, which will open this year. Sound Transit is currently discussing a zone-based fare structure, which would mean increasing costs for the rider depending on the length of his or her ride. The Seattle Transit Blog reports that fares would start at $1.75 or $2 and increase to up to $2.75 for the full ride from Downtown to SeaTac Airport. If the base fare were $2, the transit tunnel downtown would be free to ride through, as it is today, otherwise, with a $1.75 base fare, it would cost some money to ride downtown.

The question of zone-based riders seems important in Seattle’s case, which is evaluating a wide number of extensions to the light rail under construction. With such a spread out system, short rides within Seattle perhaps should not cost as much as a long-distance ride from Everett to Northgate. Washington’s Metro operates with such a fare system, while New York’s subway trips cost the same no matter how long the ride takes.

One major disadvantage of a zone system is that it makes the development of weekly or monthly passes difficult. New York’s subway experienced significantly expanded ridership after the development of the 30-day MetroCard in 1997 – would other systems expand their riderships similarly if they too implemented monthly passes?

Fare Zones in Charlotte

Charlotte, which has had some problems with overcrowding at its stations, especially after major sporting events, will have fare zones set up at high-ridership stations. This will alow ticket-checkers to look at tickets before entry onto trains in specified areas of the system downtown and at the southern terminus. The transit agency hopes that the development of such fare zones would make overcrowding less of a a problem and make ticket inspection more simple.

This is somewhat of a deviation from the typical “honor system” that operates in Charlotte and in most light rail cities, where one is only expected to have to present one’s ticket inside of the train, rather than at stations. By creating “fare zones,” Charlotte is basically implementing invisible turnstiles, which are used by most Metro systems to contol entry into stations, which are for fare-holders only.

One wonders, though, whether Charlotte and other light rail cities ought instead simply put in turnstiles outside of their stations, so that ticket-checkers wouldn’t be needed at all. Los Angeles voted for the implementation at the end of 2007 of such devices at high-use stations along its Metro Red Line and Light Rail Blue and Green Lines, but the construction was delayed indefinately in late January 2008 because of threat of a lawsuit. Those lines previously all the honor system. The city argued that the $30 million cost necessary to put in the turnstils would be worth it as an estimated $7 million is lost every year to fare evaders.

That said, L.A.’s decision – even if it had been implemented – seems a bit half-hearted, considering that it would only have applied to certain stations and ticket-checkers would still be necessary throughout the rest of the line. Should all rail systems use turnstiles to control access? Do too many people ride for free? Or is the honor system ultimately cheaper to implement and therefore a better deal for cities, even though it results in some lost revenue?

Charlotte China High-Speed Rail Light Rail United Kingdom

Charlotte Ridership; HSR in the UK and China

Charlotte‘s year old light rail system, according to the Observer, experienced a slight drop in ridership in November, from 16,470 average weekday trips in October to 15,551. There are several reasonable explanations for this drop – colder whether, a broken economy (including the collapse of the city’s largest employer, Wachovia), and the Thanksgiving vacation. But even the new ridership numbers are far higher than those originally predicted for first year ridership – 9,100 a day.

The south’s second city, then, remains an example for how new LRT projects can be implemented successfully. Charlotte’s focused land use program, which encouraged dense development around the LRT station sites starting ten years before the project’s completion date, ensured a steady ridership. Meanwhile, the city’s 1/2-cent sales tax, whcih was reaffirmed by voters by a huge margin in November 2007, provides a degree of financial security that any city with a strong transit system necessitates. And the city’s efforts to expand the system, which will include an expansion of the existing line to the city’s northeast quadrant, a new commuter line to the north, and a downtown streetcar network, will only reinforce the growth of the system.

But Charlotte also provides a good example for the troubles facing transit systems in today’s economy. Falling tax revenues are making it difficult to continue subsidizing the system, and LRT service may be cut to six trains per peak hour, as compared to eight today. In addition, trains would run at 20-minute intervals on Sunday, compared to 10-minute intervals today. It would be a mistake to implement such service reductions: every cut is a disincentive to use transit. Charlotte’s funding problems, however, underscore the importance of finding more funding for our nation’s transportation networks.

The United Kingdom is looking closer than ever to getting a full-scale north-south high-speed rail network. We reported back in November that Labour, currently in power, had been hesitating to invest in HSR, acting instead in favor of a third runway at Heathrow. But pressure from conservative leaders, especially “shadow” transport minister Theresa Villiers, is taking its tool – in a positive way.

The Economist reports that the engineering firm Arup completed a basic study at the beginning of this year presenting a $6.6-billion new HSR line from London’s St. Pancras (where Eurostar trains from Paris and Brussels currently terminate) to Heathrow Airport. But engineering work on a replacement for the recently renewed West Side Main Line, serving Manchester and Birmingham, has yet to commence.

Yet in January’s issue of Prospect, Andrew Adonis, current transport minister, comes out wholeheartedly in favor of HSR in his country, citing the passage of California’s recent $10-billion bond measure as evidence that Britain must push forward with a system of its own in order to compete.

We’re a little skeptical of his extremely optimistic vision of the U.S.’ progress on this matter (!), but we’re excited to see both sides of the political equation getting together to address this issue.

The U.K.’s slow climb towards HSR is especially interesting in light of today’s confirmation by China‘s Xinhua news agency that the nation will spend $88 billion this year alone on rail investments. This compares to about $50 billion invested last year, certainly not an insignificant sum in itself!

This money will allow for the opening of five new HSR lines next year:

  • Wuhan – Guangzhou
  • Zhengzhou – Xi’an
  • Ningbo – Wenzhou
  • Wenzhou – Fuzhou
  • Fuzhou – Xiamen

The transport ministry will also begin construction on 70 new projects in the country as a whole, leading to a network of 13,000 kilometers of HSR lines (between 200 and 350 kph). The total route mileage of all rail lines in China will increase from around 78,000 km in 2007 to 110,000 km in 2012 and 120,000 km by 2020. This is what we like to call a stimulus.

Charlotte Detroit High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

Passenger Rail in Ohio and UK; Light Rail in Charlotte and Detroit

Ohio‘s interested in getting into the passenger rail game. The state is planning new service between Cincinnati and Cleveland based on the assumption that it will be able to apply for – and get – $100 million in infrastructure spending money. This plan would be incorporated into the Midwest High Speed Rail plan, but for the meantime, it wouldn’t mean fast or even frequent trains. Rather, the system would be limited to 79-mph and only have two trains, running one round trip a day. This is a nice idea, though quite modest, considering that Ohio will eventually play an important role as the link between the East Coast and Chicago once high-speed rail nationwide becomes a reality.

Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary of the United Kingdom (Labour Party), has now come out in favor of a high-speed rail link between London and Scotland via the east coast of the country. This is in contrast to the Tory Party’s plan for a west coast high-speed rail line, which they contend would make a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport unnecessary. Hoon argues that the west coast line – which serves Birmingham and Manchester – was recently upgraded, but there isn’t any doubt that it is the west coast line that would attract more users. Perhaps in the long term, both are good ideas?

Charlotte, North Carolina, is facing rising questions about whether its current 1/2-cent sales tax will be enough to provide the kind of transit expansions its politicians have been promising since the tax was passed in 1998. Agency leaders are now suggesting that another form of funding will be necessary if the system is to expand to all parts of Mecklenberg County, as was originally envisioned. The Lynx light rail system’s first line has been a smashing success, however, so support may be more forthcoming than it would have been in the past.

Finally, in Detroit, the plan for a light rail line down the city’s main strip, Woodward Avenue, is taking shape. The State Legislature has approved a plan that would allow the development of such a line, which is currently being proposed by both a private group and the Detroit Department of Transportation. The issue of transit is increasingly important in the Motor City – it is even playing a role in the upcoming Mayoral election. Whether such a network will save the city from what increasingly looks like eternal damnation is unclear at this time, though.