Intercity Rail Norfolk Richmond

A Bipartisan Push for Rail in Virginia Produces Ridership Successes

» An expanding rail network in Virginia serves more customers and demonstrates that the public will come when new and better train service is offered.

Despite the significant opposition to investment in intercity rail from Republican governors in states from Ohio to Florida, Virginia’s GOP leadership has taken a considerably different course. In office since January 2010, Bob McDonnell has presided over a significant expansion in Amtrak routes — and more is expected by the end of this year. In the meantime, the state’s population has gobbled up the service offered, seeing very significant increases in ridership, offering considerable evidence that Americans are perfectly willing to take the train — if the right routes are provided.

Amtrak service to the state capital at Richmond and points further south via services such as the Carolinian, Palmetto, and Silver Meteor/Silver Star has been offered for decades, as has a line to Newport News, which serves as an extension of the Northeast Regional route that serves cities as far north as Boston.

But in 2009, thanks to an agreement between Amtrak and the State of Virginia (under former Democratic governor Tim Kaine), new service was opened between Washington and Lynchburg, via Culpepper and Charlottesville, offering rail to the western sections of the state. Later this year, another route will be opened, adding Amtrak services to Norfolk as part of the Virginia intercity rail mix. Though the project, which cost $115 million in line upgrades, will provide only one daily round trip to Washington (in four and a half hours), two more are planned if the state can secure an additional $75 million for the purpose. Federal rail grants, which are now impossible to get because of a deadlock on transportation funding in Washington, would be very helpful.

As seen in the chart below, Amtrak ridership has increased steadily over the past three years on many major state-supported Amtrak routes. The Keystone Corridor, a route between Philadelphia and Harrisburg that I profiled in 2009, has continued to see major gains in ridership, increasing its monthly ridership in May from about 100,000 to more than 120,000. Much of that improvement is likely due to increased service frequencies and faster trains introduced as part of a capital investment partnership between the State of Pennsylvania and Amtrak.

In terms of percentage change in ridership, however, routes like the Keystone are expanding ridership only about as quickly as the system as a whole, or about 20% since 2009. As shown in the chart below, other routes have seen far higher increases in ridership, notably in Virginia and North Carolina. Since 2009, trains to Newport News have increased their passenger counts by more than 60% and those running to and through North Carolina (the Carolinian and Piedmont) by almost 80%. Since 2010, the first year for which data is available, Amtrak trains to Lynchburg have increased their ridership by more than 60% as well. Investments in improved Amtrak services appear to be producing beneficial results.

Though the Amtrak trains to Norfolk will start off with very limited service, the service seems likely to be popular in a state with such a record of late. Norfolk’s new light rail line — the Tide — stops at the future rail station, and it has seen higher ridership than estimated. Its 4,800 daily users far exceed initial predictions of 2,900 a day. With a lengthening of that route into Virginia Beach now being considered, access to Amtrak service will be even more convenient to thousands more.

In addition to the planned increase in service frequency, Virginia hopes to invest further in its intercity rail portfolio. It has already spent $370 million on the upgrade of the line between Richmond and Washington, and it hopes to extend the spur to Newport News further south to serve that city’s downtown. But the biggest proposal on the books is a significant improvement in service further south, into North Carolina, as part of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Project. Tolls on I-95 have been mentioned to help pay for that project (though they have seen significant opposition from some), and indeed some source of funding is necessary if the project is to be under construction within a year, as is technically possible.

But without additional federal funding, the likelihood of real rail improvement projects actually being implemented is limited at best.

Image at top: Map of planned Norfolk-Richmond rail services, from Virginia DRPT

Finance Light Rail Norfolk

How significant an opportunity for reducing U.S. construction costs?

» Norfolk, Virginia celebrates the opening of a relatively cheap new rail corridor. It’s not as out-of-the-ordinary as we might hope, though.

Last weekend, Norfolk’s Tide light rail line opened to big crowds and lots of excitement in a state that has never before seen modern light rail technology in action. But the project was overbudget and the subject of years of controversy. What was once supposed to be a $232 million line had ballooned in cost to $318.5 million and in the process taken down political leaders who had supported it. Perceived mismanagement delayed consideration of extensions into nearby Virginia Beach. And the scheme’s implementation flaws emboldened conservative activists insistant on playing up the poor performance of government.

The irony of the story, it turns out, is that even at its higher-than-expected cost, the Tide’s construction came in at just $43 million a mile, less than any recently completed or under construction light rail system in the United States — even better than Salt Lake City’s just-finished Mid-Jordan and West Valley light rail lines, which cost $50 and $73 million per mile, respectively. It came close in price to the cheapest such project in generally less expensive France, Besançon’s $35 million a mile tramway.

What does this mean for other U.S. cities hoping to keep costs down and get the biggest bang for their buck? Has Norfolk done something tremendously different than other places?

One explanation is the corridor chosen for the rail line: The 7.4-mile right-of-way was almost entirely located within either an existing freight railroad corridor or along public streets. This reduced the need for land acquisition and land grading. It also made it simple to serve some of the region’s most important destinations pretty directly, including the Medical Center west of downtown, Norfolk’s central business district, a baseball stadium, and Norfolk State University. The line’s position along the edge of I-264, a major highway, and the quite limited residential and commercial populations of downtown Norfolk won’t do the project any favors; its eleven stations are only expected to attract 2,900 daily riders this year and 7,200 by 2030. But its alignment parallel to Virginia Beach Boulevard — the route of the most popular bus line offered by Hampton Roads Transit — means it would likely do better than any other rail line in the city.

Let’s return to the matter at hand, though: Just how different is Norfolk? Has it been able to apply some magic elixir to reduce its costs of construction?

Perhaps the most accurate answer is that it’s not clear. A review of 32 urban rail transit projects across the nation that have either been recently completed, are under construction, or are soon to enter construction suggests that there are limited margins for cost differentiation among similar projects.

In the following chart and the table at the conclusion of the article, I have compared service miles with construction costs among five types of projects — some that are fully underground; some partially underground, partially above ground; one that is fully elevated; some fully on the surface (or partially elevated); and two fully on the surface with only one track in service for parts of their routes.

As the chart demonstrates, there is clear evidence that the type of service provided — surface, elevated, or subway — is the primary determinant of construction cost differences. Unsurprisingly, of course, rail projects that operate within independent rights-of-way such as along elevated viaducts or underground are likely to cost more than similar-length projects running at ground level. The easiest way to lower construction costs would be to convert every subway project to an elevated and every elevated line to surface running and every surface-running corridor to one with just one track.* Yet this is no answer at all: This would be an ineffective solution, since it would reduce capacity in corridors where it is necessary.

But within each of these groups, evaluating like project to like project, we are given the opportunity to compare similar schemes addressing similar ridership demands. If Norfolk is cheaper, why? How do light rail programs serving equivalent populations fare?

Unfortunately, this comparison indicates that there isn’t much we can do to differentiate between projects. For surface-running lines and those that are planned to run on the surface and in subways, for instance there is relatively strong evidence (note those trendlines) that construction costs will be close to $73 or $239 million per mile, respectively.

The most expensive surface-running rail line now under construction is Portland’s Portland-Milwaukie light rail, which will cost $204 million per mile to construct as of the most recent estimates. That’s expensive, but it includes a significant bridge over the Willamette River and a series of elevated sections. The large majority of light rail lines like Norfolk’s will come in at less than $100 million per mile, most between $50 and $70 million per mile. Streetcar lines, running in shared automobile lanes, are a bit cheaper. Overall, this suggests that regional differences do not seem to matter much (see Sacramento’s South Corridor, in a union-friendly state, versus Phoenix’s Central Mesa Extension, in a right-to-work state), nor a reliance on federal funding (see Salt Lake’s West Valley line, which was funded without Washington’s support), nor indeed the existence of private investment (see Denver’s Eagle project, funding that city’s East and Gold Lines).

What conclusions can we take from these data? One must be that construction costs in the U.S. are relatively steady across the country, at least when taking into account differences in grade separation. The other is that if we consider it in the public interest to reduce construction costs because of a declining ability to afford infrastructure, a national solution, rather than a local one, may be necessary.

Table of recent American rail transit projects, either under construction or soon to enter construction
CityProjectProject TypeCost $mMilesCost $m/MileRiders 2030Cost $/Rider-Mile
St. LouisDelmar Loop TrolleySurface, 1 Track442.22026007692
New OrleansUPT StreetcarSurface451.530
NorfolkTide LRTSurface3197.44371006072
SeattleFirst Hill StreetcarSurface1252.55090005556
Salt LakeMid-Jordan LRTSurface53510.650190002656
Salt LakeDraper LRTSurface2063.85468007972
DenverWest LRTSurface71012.159
SacramentoSouth II LRTSurface2704.363100006279
PhoenixCentral Mesa LRTSurface1983.164
DallasGreen/Orange LRTSurface14062167459001459
DenverEast/Gold LRTSurface204330.268575001177
Salt LakeWest Valley LRTSurface3705.173105006909
Twin CitiesCentral LRTSurface9571187409002127
CharlotteNortheast LRTSurface118011107175006130
HoustonSoutheast LRTSurface8236.5127283004474
HoustonNorth LRTSurface7565.2145282005155
Los AngelesCrenshaw LRTSurface/Subway14008.5165180009150
PortlandMilwaukie LRTSurface14907.3204228008952
San JoseSilicon Valley BART MetroSurface/Subway256310.2251467005381
HonoluluHCT MetroElevated534820.12661160002294
WashingtonDulles MetroSurface/Subway314211.7269857003134
Los AngelesWestside SubwaySubway53409593780007607
SeattleUniversity Link LRTSubway19483.16284020015632
Los AngelesRegional Connector LRTSubway13672684900007594
San FranciscoCentral LRTSubway15781.79283510026445
New YorkEast Side Access CRSubway73863.5211016730012614
New York2 Ave SubwaySubway48872.321252130009976

* In essence, this means reducing the degree of provisions for independent rights-of-way for each project is the best way to save costs. But those same reserved rights-of-way are the best ways to keep transit reliable and fast; the effort to reconcile this problem is the raison-d-être of BRT. Data for charts and table above from either agency websites or Federal Transit Administration 2012 New Starts Report.

High-Speed Rail Israel Midwest High-Speed Rail Norfolk

Midwest HSR News; Jerusalem and Virginia Beach LRT

Midwest High-Speed Rail Has Many Backers for Stimulus Funds in Wisconsin, but Controversy Abounds in Minnesota

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle wants to see federal stimulus money used for the Midwest High-Speed Rail program. Meeting in Milwaukee, the Governor suggested that a line would run from Chicago to Minneapolis, through Milwaukee and Madison, with a potential extension to Green Bay. Mr. Doyle seems to know a little something about transportation, eschewing the typical superficial arguments to point out that all forms of transportation are subsidized by the government, so a public investment in rail isn’t somehow inappropriate:

Just as we heavily subsidize our road transportation system, we subsidize heavily our air transportation system. I don’t think people should say rail is somehow not subject to subsidy when the others are.

We’re obviously happy to hear such clear language from a Governor, and we hope to see more such arguments as the push for high-speed rail advances.

But up in Minnesota, on the other end of this potential rail line, there’s a big argument brewing about how about to connect Minneapolis and St. Paul with Chicago. Some suggest that the best alignment would follow the existing Amtrak route, along the Mississippi. This is the corridor that the FRA established several years ago for high-speed service into Minnesota. But others, including the nascent Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, would like to see the route go through relatively big Rochester, Minnesota instead, some 30 miles south.

St. Paul Representative Betty McCollum (D) has threatened to oppose the Rochester route, arguing that because the FRA already demonstrated its support for the other route, a Rochester path would make getting federal money more difficult. Her argument makes some sense in the short-term, but it would result in the unfortunate loss of service for one of Minnesota’s largest cities, quite a disappointment considering just how little the planned alignment would have to be altered to provide Rochester service.

Jerusalem LRT to be Completed More Quickly

Jerusalem’s light rail system, whose first phase is currently under construction, will be sped up for a completion later this year, ahead of the planned 2010 opening date. The 14-km system, which faces enormous opposition in the Israeli capital because of the street disruption and slow business its construction has caused, will run southwest-to-northeast through the city, with a stop just outside the Walled City at Jaffa Gate.

New mayor Nir Barkat ran as an opponent of the light rail system, suggesting that “environmentally friendly” buses would be more appropriate for the city and that rail investment was a waste of money. There’s also been a lot of discussion about the “inappropriateness” of Santiago Calatrava’s new Chords Bridge, which looms over the landscape and will allow trains to traverse a valley just beyond the Walled City. The system’s future, which was to include seven more lines, seems to be in doubt, but this initial Red Line will go into operation, as the Mayor has suggested rightfully that it’s simply too late to cancel the project. So he’s going to push ahead with 24-hour construction that will allow the project to be completed as soon as possible to avoid more disruption to life in the city center.

Jerusalem’s light rail is one of the most advanced systems currently under construction, with elevated security measures such as bullet-proof glass and hidden machinery incorporated into the trains built by Alstom. Despite vocal opposition, the light rail line will provide useful and needed alternative mobility for a city currently choked by traffic.

Norfolk’s LRT to Expand to Virginia Beach

The Tide Light Rail system, which is currently under construction along a 7.4-mile alignment in Norfolk, Virginia, is likely to be expanded into nearby Virginia Beach along a 10.6-mile corridor currently used by Norfolk-Southern freight rail operations. The city is under negotiations with the company to purchase the corridor, thereby allowing an easy expansion. It is always easier to develop a transit corridor when the right-of-way already exists, so we should see this project getting going soon, as long as the Tide’s opening goes as expected early next year.

Image above from Jerusalem Light Rail website

Baltimore Bay Area New York Norfolk Seattle Washington DC

Big News Day: DC, Balto, Seattle, SF, Norfolk, NYC

There’s so much news today, we’re just going to summarize it quickly:

  • There’s increasing support in Baltimore for the construction of the $1.6 billion Red Line light rail system. It will run partially underground, partially overground, and complement the existing light and heavy rail systems in the city.
  • Sound Transit in Seattle got a huge rebate on its plans for an extension of its light rail line underconstruction: bids for the University extension were under estimates by $10 million.