Light Rail Miami

Building Connections in Miami’s Urban Core

» The city’s existing transit system doesn’t adequately address transportation needs in some of the country’s most densely populated neighborhoods.

Compared to more successful rapid transit systems, Miami’s Metrorail has never come to define the lifestyle of a significant portion of the metropolitan area’s population. Rather, the 22-mile elevated line, which runs from the western extent of Miami-Dade County to its southern border, has served as something as a sideshow, serving less than one third of the number of people who take the bus. The line has a future — it provides the excellent, reliable service every recent rapid transit system offers — but any investments in the medium-term will have to come in some other mode, because Miami cannot justify either the cost or the low ridership projections of a new heavy rail project.

A surprising conclusion, considering that just three years ago the Miami-Dade transit agency had plans for significant new metro lines running nine miles north to 215th Street and thirteen miles west east to Florida International University. Poor management of tax revenues meant to pay for the line expansions, little interest from the federal government in paying for a part of the costs, and the recession have doomed the proposals, and they have been scuttled, at least for now. All that’s left: a 2.4-mile fingertip of a line running from the existing Earlington Heights Station to a new stop near the airport.

Miami, in other words, is in no shape to pay for another Metrorail line. But that might be good news.

The city has seen serious growth in the last decade, building up an impressive skyline from Brickell north through downtown into Edgewater, buoyed by the strong urban real estate market. Though apartment sales were left for dead after the crash, in recent months, they appear to be coming back. Midtown Miami has evolved into an arts district. Downtown is being rejuvenated through huge government investments in new parks and cultural centers. Across the bay in Miami Beach — a separate municipality — the resorts along the Atlantic have only densified.

Yet the majority of these places have no direct access to fixed-guideway transit, either in the form of Metrorail or Metromover (which runs people-mover services downtown), despite their heavy population growth and very urban characteristics. In response, leaders on both sides of the bay have called out for new investment.

Plans for Miami Transit

The City of Miami has since 2006 been discussing plans for a center-city streetcar, illustrated in yellow on the map above. It would circulate in a series on one-way loops through downtown, up to Midtown, and west into the Health District/Civic Center Area.

But why a streetcar, when the Metromover could easily be extended north and west, without having to duplicate corridors downtown? Metromover is a popular service, providing free transit to 30,000 riders a day who benefit from trains every three minutes. But the biggest obstacles to the network’s expansion are aesthetic: Metromover is elevated above the street, disrupting the views of pedestrians and creating an awkward interface between transit stations and the sidewalk. Similarly, it is expensive to build a system that requires a fully reserved right-of-way, such as Metromover.

So a cheap-running streetcar line has presented itself as the best option for Miami politicians.

Those advocating for new transit to Miami Beach have harped on a similarly conceived new light rail line, to run in street right-of-ways in Miami and Miami Beach but in its own corridor along the bridge between the two, as the ideal future system. That project, which is illustrated in pink above, would require a series of complex one-way loops downtown, where commuters would have to choosing between Metromover lines, a Metrorail line, and two streetcars, all running in their own corridors.

These separate proposals, though currently out of commission because of a lack of political willpower and money, are generally good ideas: they connect people from downtown to the metropolitan area’s most significant centers of activity. Yet the disordered, confused manner in which the lines have been planned would be a disservice to the residents of Miami and likely result in low ridership.

There is an alternative, and it’s based on legibility, simplification, and quality of service.

Sorting Out Miami Transit

What if the plans for the Miami streetcar and the Miami Beach light rail line were incorporated into one project? The two lines could run together downtown for about 1.5 miles on parallel streets until reaching Government Center station, where an interchange with Metrorail would be possible — as would a connection to Tri-Rail commuter services if a planned extension into downtown is developed. This shared track would ensure that customers know to find all light rail service offered downtown in the same place. There will be no confusion about which tracks lead where; rather, riders will simply have to wait for the right train.

Instead of planning a disorderly series of midtown streetcar routes, Miami could offer its residents a simple three-mile north-south line running parallel to the bay to the Design District, following 2nd Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard for most of the time, with a switch to Miami Avenue at the northernmost segment of the line. Though the branch to the Health District articulated in the city’s streetcar plan has some merits, it ultimately seems wasteful, considering that Metrorail already provides service to the area; the same could be said of the proposed line running through Overtown. This is especially true because the city’s primary density is on the waterfront, and transit should be located there.

A light rail line to Miami Beach is entirely reasonable, but the large loop previously proposed would be confusing, especially since clockwise and counter-clockwise services would operate differently. A simpler approach would bring trains seven miles across the MacArthur Causeway, east-west along 5th street, and then north-south along Washington and Collins Avenues, continuing as far north as the famed Fontainebleau Hotel at 44th Street.

Future extensions south into Brickell or west into Little Havana from the downtown line at Government Center would be relatively simple to plan, since the main downtown tracks for light rail would already be reserved.

The overall approach for this first phase: a 11.5-mile project whose scope would dramatically alter the provision of transit to Miami’s urban core. But implementation would only be successful if the city abandons the streetcar approach that puts trains in mixed traffic and adopts a more expensive strategy that would require handing over vehicular lanes to transit vehicles, closing some side streets to through traffic, and incorporating automated traffic-light-changing mechanisms — all necessary steps if transit is to be quick enough to attract a sustainable number of passengers. Fortunately, this can be accomplished pretty easily and with few negatives using the scheme noted above, which would place one-way lines on parallel streets. Most of the streets considered for operation are wide enough to lose one vehicular lane without any serious effect on traffic.

A focus on the waterfront may seem unreasonable for a transit investment of this scope. Shouldn’t inland neighborhoods benefit? Will there be enough ridership along the thin strip of land bordering the bay and ocean? In Gold Coast, Australia, those questions are being tested. There, an eight-mile light rail system is being constructed, with operations planned for 2014. With similar densities as Miami, and with an alignment just blocks from the coast for most of the route, the city expects 40,000 daily riders.

If Miami could replicate the investment, with light rail lines running to Miami Beach and to Midtown, it would probably benefit as many people. One major advantage of the massive build-up of residential units along the metropolitan area’s dual coastlines is that it has basically ensured success for any fixed-guideway system positioned there.

Yet there appears to be no political constituency for a project of this nature in Miami. Yesterday’s election of Tomás Regalado as the city’s mayor is likely to introduce a new era of fiscal austerity and an end to the big plans that defined the administration of previous mayor Manny Diaz. Miami-Dade Transit is hardly capable of financing its present services, and it will be unable to plan any new extensions for the next ten years at least.

But these facts don’t mean the need for better public transportation along the city’s waterfront will disappear. One can only hope that if and when such new transit is offered, its routes are legible, simple to understand, and of high quality.

Atlanta Charlotte Elections Houston Miami New York Seattle

Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision

» Third in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first considered governor’s races; the second reviewed ballot measures.

In six big cities across the country — Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, New York, and Seattle — transportation is playing a role in the mayoral race being decided today. With the economic crisis front and center, however, transit isn’t anyone’s biggest priority.

Mayor of Atlanta, GA

Update: Mary Norwood, with 46%, and Kasim Reed, with 36%, have moved on to a runoff on December 1st.

Atlanta’s dramatic growth over the past twenty years — it has increased in population from 394,000 in 1990 to an estimated 538,000 today — has brought with it a panoply of benefits, including increased density and better services. Much of the population increase has been due to an increase in the number of white people, who now make up 38% of the population, compared to 31% just nine years ago. Those changes are producing a vastly different political environment, one in which a white candidate may take office for the first time since 1973.

Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has served since 2001, was a relatively competent manager of the city’s finances and livability, pushing proposals like the Beltline and Peachtree Corridor streetcar. But during her time, the city has suffered from a spike in crime, coming in opposition to the experience of other major U.S. cities, which have seen steady declines. That issue is tops in today’s mayoral race, though transportation proposals are also getting their day in the sun.

Current polls put white candidate Mary Norwood, currently a city counselor, on top. She has been strident in her statements against crime, and she has convincingly pulled off a characterization of herself as an “outsider” — good for a city sick of eight years of the same person. But she is facing strong competition from State Senator Kasim Reed and City Council President Lisa Borders, as well as three other candidates. If no one person wins a majority of votes, there will be a runoff on December 1st.

In a series of candidate forums, the three front-runners have made their positions known on transit issues, and Ms. Norwood doesn’t seem as appealing as her poll numbers suggest. Unlike the other two candidates, Norwood lives in a huge house in an unwalkable part of the city, whereas Ms. Borders has a residence downtown. Mr. Reed is a frequent user of the city’s MARTA rapid transit network, while Ms. Norwood appears to use it simply to get to the airport.

On their websites, both Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed highlight their respective records on transportation, which Ms. Norwood fails to do. As a state senator, Mr. Reed has been pushing for a new revenue source for transit, something the state has to approve before the city can implement it. Ms. Borders, meanwhile, has suggested that she would continue the Franklin legacy of encouraging investment in the Beltline, though at the candidate forum, she admitted that “it’s not going to be soon” — a response that shows either a taste for the realistic or a lack of ambition, depending on one’s perspective.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates has made a strong claim to being the supporter of transit; while Ms. Norwood’s lackluster responses on the subject knock her down a few points, her opponents aren’t much better. No one’s proposing the sort of long-range plan Atlanta needs. Nor is it clear that any of the candidates understand how and why transit should be implemented. Disappointing for such a promising city.

Mayor of Charlotte, NC

Update: Anthony Foxx, with 51% of the vote, has won the mayor’s race in Charlotte; the first for Democrats in 22 years; Democrats also take huge majority on City Council

Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a name for himself as a Republican in favor of transit, has spent the last fourteen years in Charlotte’s City Hall, but he declined to run for reelection this year after loosing last year’s governor’s race to Democrat Beverly Perdue. Attempting to take his place are contenders Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, and John Lassiter, a Republican; both are currently city council members.

Though Charlotte once had some of the country’s biggest transit ambitions, with five separate rail lines planned, it was humbled by the financial crisis and the sudden decrease in sales tax revenue that hit virtually every municipality. The city is planning a streetcar to run through the downtown area and some of inner-city neighborhoods, and it has already put some tracks in place. Yet with no money on tap, the project is on hold — and that’s where the mayoral race became interesting.

Whereas Mr. Foxx voted in favor of allocating funds for studying the streetcar’s alignment and conducting some preliminary engineering, Mr. Lassiter voted against those studies, arguing that it was a waste of money to plan for a project that would not get built. Mr. Foxx continues to uphold his vote, arguing that the research was necessary to evaluate what the city could or could not build.

All that said, Mr. Lassiter remains a supporter of light rail expansion, though it is unclear whether he would suggest implementing a new revenue source to pay for its construction. Mr. Foxx seems more clear in his unambiguous interest in such investments.

Mayor of Houston, TX

Update: Annise Parker, with 30.5%, and Gene Locke, with 25.9%, have moved on to the runoff December 12th.

Of all of the races today, Houston’s may be the one where voters have no real possibility of going wrong when it comes to transportation issues. All three of the front-runners, including City Controller Annise Parker, Former City Attorney Gene Locke, and City Planner/Architect Peter Brown, are seriously in favor of transit investment. This marks quite a shift for a city that for almost a decade was unable to receive any federal funding for new rail lines because of the intervention of Congressman Tom Delay (R).

Yet times have changed. The city’s citizenry sees current Mayor Bill White as having had a successful career at City Hall, and that’s especially true for his work on light rail, which has been moved forward dramatically in the last few months, with approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the construction of two new lines. Houston’s single rail line has the highest ridership per route mile of any such system in the country.

This consensus, which generally includes an acknowledgment that transportation only functions effectively when growth is appropriately planned around stations, suggests a promising next four years for this fast-growing city.

Mayor of Miami, FL

Update: Tomás Regalado, with 72% of the vote, cruises to easy win over Joe Sanchez.

With Mayor Manny Diaz being forced out of office after eight years because of term limits, Miami voters will choose between Joe Sanchez, a supporter of Mr. Diaz’s work, and Tomás Regalado, who has been a regular opponent of the current mayor’s philosophy on development.

Both candidates are members of the City Commission, and they’ve had very different voting records. Whereas Mr. Sanchez has come out wholeheartedly in favor of Mr. Diaz’s big development schemes, including a new tunnel to the port, a new baseball stadium, and a big condo building boom, Mr. Regalado has been a proponent of improving conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. That position, which has favored the majority of Miami residents who do not live in the areas affected by recent development trends, has given Mr. Regalado a serious lead in the polls. That probably means no major investments in transit over the next four years.

That’s because while Mr. Sanchez sees public transit as a core element of developing the future city, Mr. Regalado is more interested in fiscal austerity — despite the fact that Mr. Diaz, even with all his promotion of big new projects, shored up the city’s finances dramatically during his time in office. That stance means that Mr. Regalado will probably do little to improve the conditions of the city’s Metrorail network, which is already cashless.

Nor will Mr. Regalado stand firm in promoting more pedestrian-oriented spaces. In the vote on Miami 21, a strong decision about making the city a more walkable, livable place, he placed himself in the opposition. Mr. Sanchez was in favor. Mr. Regalado’s insistence that the city go “back to basics” ultimately means he won’t do much to help it improve.

Mayor of New York City, NY

Update: Defying all odds, Bill Thompson gets 46% of the vote, despite being outspent 14 to 1 and having been left for dead by basically the entire Democratic establishment. Michael Bloomberg, however, moves in for his third term as mayor.

New York may be the only city in the country where the Republican-endorsed candidate has a significantly more pro-transit platform than the Democrat. In many ways, that’s terrible, because Independent-former-but-maybe-still-Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg has basically bought himself the next four years, spending $35,000 an hour to do so throughout the campaign. All this after forcing the city council to alter its term limit rules to allow him to run for a third term. Democratic opponent Bill Thompson has had no chance.

Perhaps that’s why, despite his reasonable record as City Controller, Mr. Thompson has staked himself as the anti-Bloomberg on livability issues such as bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian plazas. While Mr. Bloomberg has given his chief of Transportation Janette Sadik-Kahn basically full reign in implementing an excellent streets reform project, Mr. Thompson has held rallies decrying BRT on some of the city’s most-trafficked corridors. Maybe he sees that as the only way to get votes. If so, it says something terrible about New York’s citizenry. If not, Mr. Thompson’s priorities are woefully misguided.

Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, for all his investment in nice streetscapes, has reduced the city’s commitment to sponsoring the state-run MTA, which runs the Subway system. His claims that he’ll invest in a new streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront seem exaggerated, especially when he can’t seem to get off his obsession with the less-than-useful extension of the 7 Subway into West Midtown.

It’s not a particularly good day for transportation advocates in America’s biggest transit city. Here’s to a better choice in four years…

Mayor of Seattle, WA

Update: In early results, Mike McGinn has a 910-vote lead over his opponent; with a large number of votes yet to be counted, the lead could switch hands. However, pro-transit Dow Constantine wins big over conservative Susan Hutchinson in the King County Executive race, with 57% of the vote.

In this runoff race, it’s quite clear who thinks what. In the first round, incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels found himself cornered from the left (environmentalist Mike McGinn) and from the right (businessman Joe Mallahan) and he dropped to last in a three-way race. If some transit proponents were disappointed — Mr. Nickels had staked his legacy on transportation investments — Mr. McGinn is attempting to pick up the mantle today, though with a spin.

Mr. McGinn’s primary campaign was mostly premised on his opposition to the construction of a full-bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the moribund Alaskan Way Viaduct, which sits on the waterfront. Unlike Mr. Nickels, who promoted the project, the candidate suggested simply replacing the Viaduct with a surface level road and using the remaining funds for better transit. Mr. Mallahan found himself rigorously opposed to that position; he’s made himself into the candidate of the drivers, so to speak.

Nonetheless, the Viaduct has become a bit of a non-issue in the meantime because of the fact that state financing has come through and the city has approved work, making its completion a virtual certainly. But there are still major transportation issues to be resolved in the Puget Sound. Will light rail run on I-90 or SR520? Will there be a streetcar network? Will there be a West Seattle line?

Mr. McGinn, a staunch defender of transit, is the right man for this job. Mr. Mallahan’s car-driving mentality won’t privilege the kind of long-term investments Seattle needs.

Commuter Rail Florida Intercity Rail Miami

Florida East Coast Railway Studied for Potential Intercity and Commuter Services

Florida East Coast Railway Map» State applies for stimulus funds to connect Jacksonville and Miami; a Miami-West Palm Beach local service also possible.

In addition to submitting an application for $2.5 billion in funds to speed trains between Tampa and Orlando, Florida asked the federal government earlier this month for some $268 million to restore Amtrak service to the state’s east coast. If the Department of Transportation chooses to reward money to the state, trains could be running between Jacksonville and Miami twice a day on renewed tracks in a few years. A new commuter rail system between Miami and West Palm Beach could follow soon after.

Today, Amtrak serves Miami with two daily trains, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, both of which originate in New York City. The Meteor runs between Jacksonville and Miami on a relatively direct route through Orlando and West Palm Beach, taking 9h32 to complete the Florida segment. The Star meanders, heading to Tampa after Orlando before retracing its steps back to the east coast, increasing journey times between Miami and Jacksonville to 11h10, if the trains are on time. Both routes terminate at the Miami station, which is far northwest of downtown.

In the car, by contrast, the 350-mile trip takes five and a half hours.

The Florida East Coast Railway, however, may hold the keys to better Florida service. Built in 1885, the line is privately owned and used for shipping, having last served passengers in 1968 when it was shut down due to insufficient ridership. It connects to five intermodal terminals and hosts dozens of daily freight trains. Between West Palm Beach and Miami, the line is roughly one mile east of the existing Amtrak route, making it closer to the densely populated coastline. In addition, it passes directly through the downtowns of West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, and Boca Raton. Further north, trains link Palm Bay, Daytona Beach, and St. Augustine, none of which currently offer Amtrak.

Minor upgrades of the line would provide new service to 12 stations along the coast, serving 8.3 million Floridians living in 11 counties; initial estimates show the route would attract 250,000 annual riders. The Miami to Jacksonville run would be reduced to only six hours. The section between Miami and West Palm Beach would offer new commuter rail service to complement the existing Tri-Rail operations running further to the west in a parallel alignment.

A more comprehensive refitting of the line, which would require double and triple tracking, would cost $5 billion and include forty to sixty stops. That project, however, is nothing more than a pipe dream since Florida’s main priority at the moment is Florida High-Speed Rail, whose second phase would connect Miami to Orlando in a new right-of-way following either I-95 or the Florida turnpike. It might be worthwhile to consider integrating that project with the east coast plan by using the existing Florida East Coast Railway for high-speed services between Miami and Cocoa, where some trains would continue north to Jacksonville and others could run west to Orlando. Freight operations might be shifted to the less-convenient-for-passengers Amtrak route.

Florida’s attempts to get funding from the federal government may stall out, however, if the state doesn’t take seriously recent threats by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Mr. LaHood has made clear that he expects the state to contribute to rail project funding if it wants Washington to reciprocate. Though his comments have generally been directed at the SunRail project, which was awarded a New Starts funding guarantee earlier this year but lacks state support, they could also be interpreted in the case of Tri-Rail, which has had fiscal problems of its own. The commuter rail system lacks a stable revenue source and has as a result been forced to raise fares, partially resulting in a quick decrease in ridership at the system’s 18 stations. A new transfer charge to switch to local buses hasn’t helped much, either.

The state may convene a special legislative session in December to consider allocating funds to SunRail and Tri-Rail, but legislators have been reluctant to poor money into such public transit operations. We’ll see whether the appeal of high-speed rail funds from Washington is enough to convince them otherwise.

At the local level, investments in a new commuter rail service between Miami and West Palm Beach would likely raise the ire of Tri-Rail supporters, who would be (for good reason) afraid that the new line would take away many of Tri-Rail’s existing riders. The east coast route is more convenient for more people than is Tri-Rail. Will the services co-exist? Will the affected counties be able to afford operations on both lines?

Despite the attractiveness of new rail service, then, it is unrealistic to envision Florida investing in East Coast service unless the federal government steps in.

Image above: Florida East Coast Railway map, from FEC Railway

Finance Miami

Miami Voters May be Asked to Consider Abandoning Transit Tax

picture-14General discontent in Miami-Dade County foments over lack of transit expansion progress

— Update: the measure to allow voters to decide whether to remove the 1/2¢ sales tax for transit was defeated by the County Commission by a vote of 7-4 —

The Miami Herald reported yesterday that Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has introduced a resolution to the body that would allow the greater electorate to vote on whether to continue paying the dedicated 1/2¢ sales tax that they approved for transit funding back in 2002. The council will have to approve the measure before it would be submitted to voters on the ballot. Allowing voters to cancel the sales tax, however, would result in not only nothing being constructed but also a significant decline in existing transit, which is now quite reliant on the revenue source.

The vast majority of money raised by that tax — $900 million thus far — has gone to subsidize existing operations, with little going to the 89 miles of Metrorail service initially planned. The first link to be constructed, the 2.4-mile Orange Line Phase I, connecting the existing system to the airport’s people mover system, will break ground on Friday with service expected by 2012. But an extension of that line west to Sweetwater and the construction of a new corridor north along 27 Avenue to Carol City have been put on the slow track, now that most of the tax revenue is being used to cover operating expenses.

Sales taxes did provide 11 million miles of annual bus service, and the city has succeeded in providing free rides to senior citizens, an initial goal. But the original plan was to add 17 million additional miles of service, and of the 11 added to operations, half has already been cut. There are fewer trains running on the Metrorail system than in 2002. Instead of ramping up expansion, the transit agency instead ramped up hiring, adding 1,000 jobs and spending mostly on maintaining existing transit operations and increasing salaries. There are some pretty good reasons to be pissed off at the way the money collected from the sales tax has been spent, especially considering the grandiose plans that were promised to taxpayers. While many cities — including Charlotte and Denver — promised more than they could chew when they encouraged their populations to vote for 1/2¢ transit sales taxes, Miami seems to have done particularly poorly in implementing initial goals.

But while the county commissioners have been relatively honest in admitting their failure to complete projects as planned, they argue that eliminating the sales tax would ultimately mean destroying the transit system. While the tax has not led to a significant increase in service, it has prevented a decrease in service that would have otherwise been inevitable. For the sake of Miami’s transit-using citizens (Metrorail alone attracts almost 70,000 riders a day), it would be disastrous to eliminate this principal funding source.

Clearly, though, oversight on the use of the tax receipts is a necessary step. While the city has an independent Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, supposed to oversee transit expansion, it clearly hasn’t been successful. The city’s existing priorities must be reexamined, focusing on lines that would attract the highest ridership, such as the Douglas Road Extension and the BayLink Line to South Beach, which are more likely to attract federal New Start funds than the north and western corridors of the Orange Line proposal. In addition, there clearly is a pattern of corruption in rewarding employees with unnecessary wage increases and subsidizing bus lines that serve few customers. A reformed transit agency would spend more of its money on bolstering service.

Even with Miami’s problems, Mr. Gimenez’s instincts — to simply shrivel up funding for transit — are completely wrong-headed. Perhaps it’s not the time to increase the sales tax… but it is the time for finding better uses of existing funds. Miami needs to get its transit system in line, not out of service.

Image above: Miami transit plan, from Miami-Dade County (PDF)

Bay Area High-Speed Rail Miami

Friday News – Bay Area, Miami, and HSR

The Bay Area’s BART rapid transit authority has been aggressively considering extensions to its lines for years now. This has led to a very spread-out system, more than 100 miles long, but with only one central two-track line through downtown San Francisco, the region’s core. As Transbay Blog has shown, the most important new extensions for the agency would be in this area that has so far been largely ignored by BART, because that central line, which is expected to handle virtually all of the system’s trains, is overcrowded now that BART is reaching up to 400,000 riders a day. So there have been numerous proposals to build a new transbay tunnel and connect it to a new subway line running under Gehry Boulevard.

But the transit system continues to emphasize its suburban extensions. Most recently, it built a line from South San Francisco to the San Francisco Airport and Milbrae on the West Side of the Bay. Though the line has attracted relatively good ridership – around 8,000 a day is pretty good for an airport station – transit planners expected far higher use, enough to allow the line to pay for itself. That simply has not happened, and probably never will. Transit rarely, if ever, makes money, so transit agencies should stop designing projects with the expectation that they somehow will.

It is good, then, that BART to build a 3.2-mile light-rail line from Oakland’s Coliseum station to that city’s airport. The agency had planned a direct connection from the BART station, which is several miles away from the air terminals, which would have significantly reduced the travel time currently available on the agency’s “AirBART” shuttle buses. It would have cost $386 million.

BART had managed to find $256 million in public financing for the project – a surprise considering how much of a relative flop the San Francisco Airport extension had been. The agency thought it would be able to find an additional $130 million from private financiers, who supposedly would be able to make money from the line and therefore be willing to help out. But the most recent bid, from Merrill Lynch, fell through for obvious reasons. It looks like the agency may be reconsidering much cheaper and much more realistic rapid bus lanes. This is a reasonable and thoughtful decision. The $256 million already collected by the agency should go to better inner-city transit, where improvements are really needed and which would serve far more people.

Meanwhile, in the South Bay, transit folly over the extension of BART to San Jose continues. VTA, Santa Clara County’s transit provider, which currently runs poorly-used light rail lines, wanted to extend BART’s East Bay metro lines down to San Jose in a 16-mile extension. But November 4th’s incredibly close vote on Measure B, to increase the sales tax to pay for the extension, only garnered 66.52% of the vote, vs. the 66.67% needed. A very close result.

Instead of reconsidering whether or not extending BART actually makes the most sense, VTA”s leaders have decided to invest its more limited Measure A funds (which were approved in 2000) to a 9-mile extension, which would not go to downtown San Jose, rather terminating near the Milpitas Great America Mall or a flea market nearby. This will allow no connection with Caltrain trains at San Jose’s Diridon Station. It will also serve very few major job and residential locations in spread-out Silicon Valley.

VTA suggests that the new plan would cost $4 billion, as compared to the $6.1 billion of the original plan, because tunnelling under San Jose would no longer be necessary. The result would be a reduction in the number of estimated travellers from the originally estimated (and likely highly inflated) 98,000 trips a day to 55,000. Compare this to New York City’s Second Avenue Subway, whose first phase will cost around $3.5 billion and which will attract more than 200,000 riders a day.

Though perhaps it is unfair to compare two projects, especially when one of them is in the biggest city in the country, one questions whether or not the federal government should spend $750 million on this project as VTA will ask in the next few months. Wouldn’t this money make a lot more sense on improving Caltrain service, which is not only faster, but which also has the potential to carry more people and which would serve downtown San Jose. If VTA’s intention is to densify downtown San Jose and make it the region’s twin urban core with San Francisco, it needs rail service. This new, more limited plan will do none of those things, and isn’t particularly suited to heavy rail service, which is better for urban stations, closely spaced and with high ridership.

Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade, leaders are planning to admit that their promises back in 2002 will not come true. That is, elected leaders there argued back then that the passage of a 1/2-cent sales tax increase would allow for the construction of almost 90 miles of new metro lines, which would also supposedly receive support from the federal government. In the last six years, almost all of the money has been devoted to covering the transit system’s operating expenses.

The current plans for Metro extension – titled “New Money for New Projects” – would have meant an East-West line that would have eventually served the airport, as well as increases in service to the North of the city. With the revenues coming in not nearly enough to pay for all this, it looks like few if any of these extensions will be happening in the near future.

Meanwhile, in High-Speed Rail news, Ontario and Quebec in Canada are now considering a high speed rail link from Windsor to Quebec City that would pass through the two metropolises of Toronto and Montreal. They would be connected in less than 2.5 hours and the link would cost $25 billion. Federal leaders see this investment as an important step to solidify the country’s economy in the face of economic crisis.

Immediate effects of the recession and reduced gas prices are being seen on Amtrak’s Acela and Northeast Regional trains, which saw a collective 5% drop in travellers last month as compared to last year. This is the first drop in Amtrak ridership in the Northeast Corridor in months. That said, overall Amtrak ridership went up by 4.4%, most notably aided by the 53% increase in ridership in the Charlotte-to-Raleigh, North Carolina corridor.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News speculates on what a Vice-President Biden will mean for Amtrak services in the future.