Categories
Los Angeles

AnsaldoBreda Plays Corporate Incentive Politics with L.A.

Company wants Los Angeles Metro to sign up for a new rail production facility… at the cost of 100 rail vehicles

Five years ago, the city of angels signed a contract with AnsaldoBreda, an Italian train maker, for 50 new light rail vehicles, with two options for a total of 100 more. The city had a bit of a historical relationship with the company, since its predecessor Breda had also produced the first cars for the Red Line subway back in 1993. The company has also built heavy rail vehicles for Atlanta and Washington and light rail vehicles for San Francisco, Cleveland, and Boston.

But though the first of those fifty trains arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 2005 for use on the city’s Green, Blue, and Gold light rail lines, today, the company has yet to complete the delivery: it’s three years behind schedule. To make matters worse, the trains are 6,000 pounds heavier than Metro initially predicted. Though the city’s experience isn’t as bad as Portland’s with Colorado Railcar – Tri-Met literally had to assume control of the company to get it to finish the trains it had promised – it is unfair for a city to have to deal with such inefficient, incompetent contracting.

Now, Metro, which needs those 100 extra cars to serve its new Gold Line Eastside Extension, to open late this year, and the Expo Line, to open early 2010, must decide whether to sign up for the options it initially made with AnsaloBreda or whether to put the light rail cars up for competitive bids by other companies such as Siemens, Alstom, or Bombardier. Theoretically, it would be easier and perhaps cheaper to simply ask the Italian company to continue producing the cars, as they’ve already been designed; on the other hand, other manufacturers have been successful in delivering vehicles without such delays and design flaws. Metro staff – and the organization’s President Roger Snoble – would prefer a new contract with another company.

AnsaloBreda knows it’s in the doghouse, so it has offered Los Angeles another deal: if the city agrees to purchase the contract option’s 100 cars, it will move its headquarters and production facilities to the city. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who also chairs Metro’s board, likes the deal because it would provide up to 500 new unionized manufacturing jobs in the city and 100 white collar headquarters jobs.

The problem, as Tim Rutten pointed out in a good column in this morning’s L.A. Times, is that the company has been trying to make this deal with cities all over. It told Miami and Madrid that it would build plants in those cities if they awarded rail contracts. Even more astonishing, AnsaloBreda moved its headquarters and a manufacturing plant to Pittsburg, in the East Bay, in 2007, on the assumption that it would build Los Angeles’ rail cars – as well as those for San Francisco and San Jose – there. How many places can this company have production facilities? How frequently is it willing to move its headquarters? What would the move it’s now promising to Los Angeles mean to communities in Northern California that would likely lose their jobs in the process?

The company’s offer makes me incredibly suspicious of its good will, now completely dubious considering its pitiful track record. Though the company may indeed move its plant to the city, how long will it actually stay there? What other city will attract AnsaloBreda’s attention in the next decade and make it decide to pull its investment out of Los Angeles?

This is blackmail, and Los Angeles shouldn’t be playing into it. Time for a new process of competitive bidding.

Categories
Bay Area Bus Commuter Rail Light Rail Los Angeles Milwaukee Portland Streetcar

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

Categories
Los Angeles

After Measure R, Los Angeles Transit Plans Advance… Slowly

Back in November, Los Angeles voters passed by a more than two-thirds majority Measure R, which provides another 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation in Los Angeles County. Unlike previous tax measures, which we discussed in a previous post, Measure R allows future funding to go to subway construction, notably to the much-discussed “Subway to the Sea,” which is a proposal to expand the existing Metro Purple and Red Line to Santa Monica from the Wilshire/Western and Hollywood/Highland Stations, respectively, via Beverly Hills and Westwood. The passage of Measure R was a strong sign from L.A.’s voters that they wanted to change the tenor of mobility in their region and radically improve public transportation.

Yesterday came a report from Metro (PDF) that proposed a construction timeline for the Subway to the Sea, as well as a host of other projects in Los Angeles that will be funded by the $40 billion that Measure R will likely raise by 2040. The problem is, even with Measure R, Metro claims that there isn’t enough money to fund the subway all the way to Santa Monica, and even the 10-mile extension to Westwood wouldn’t be completed until 2032. This is, to say the least, quite a disappointment for those who were excited about the prospect for this subway line.

And in fact, the Subway to the Sea’s biggest booster, City of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (also the chair of the Metro board), calls the timeline quite unacceptable. His argument is bolstered by the fact that Metro recognizes that the extension all the way to Santa Monica could be completed in five to ten years if it were prioritized. But Metro planners have pushed it behind in this report. A great debate, then, seems likely to come soon over which corridors are most important to L.A.’s citizens and which ones may have to be lost to the sands of time.

We here at the transport politic tend to consider the Subway to the Sea to be L.A.’s best bet in terms of expansion, so we’re of course a bit dismayed by this news. The subway extension will be the highest ridership line on the entire West Coast, and it will serve L.A.’s most populous districts outside of Downtown, including areas with large numbers of students – Santa Monica and Westwood – and areas with huge numbers of businesses, along the Miracle Mile. While we support all these transit expansions in L.A. county, focusing on the subway would ironically be the most efficient way to radically alter the city’s transportation landscape, even though it would concentrate most of the resources in one corridor. The truth, however, is that that one corridor – along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards – is the lifeline of the entire region and sincerely deserves good transit service.

Here’s the timeline of all the projects to be funded by Measure R:

  • 2013 – Orange Line North-South Extensions – BRT lines running on the Canoga Corridor and another corridor in East San Fernando Valley, extending the existing Orange Line busway
  • 2015 – Expo Line Phase II, Culver City to Santa Monica – this is the LRT extension of the line currently under construction from Downtown to Culver City – it comes at significantly lower cost than a subway expansion
  • 2015 – Wilshire Boulevard Bus Lane – this is an interim BRT solution from Downtown to Santa Monica that will not have nearly the capacity necessary to provide service to this incredibly dense area
  • 2017 – Gold Line Foothill Extension – this is an extension of the LRT Gold Line from Pasadena, east
  • 2018 – Green Line to LAX Extension – will finally bring LRT rapid transit service to the area’s major airport
  • 2018 – Regional Connector – downtown LRT extension connecting Metro Blue and Expo lines at Metro Center to the Gold Line at Union Station
  • 2019 – Purple Line Extension Phase I – brings the subway to La Cienega along Wilshire
  • 2026 – Purple Line Extension Phase II – brings the subway to Century City
  • 2029 – Crenshaw Boulevard Transit – LRT line from LAX to Miracle Mile
  • 2032 – Purple Line Extension Phase III – brings the subway to Westwood/I-405
  • 2035 – Green Line Extension – Extends the Green Line LRT south to Redondo Beach
  • 2038 – Westside/San Fernando Valley Transit – LRT or BRT service along the I-405 Freeway

Keep in mind that while this is an incredibly long timeline, the overall cost of these projects, with federal and state contributiions, is likely to reach $100 billion total, which is by far the most ambitious rapid transit program in the United States. It’s also one that’s merited for the country’s most populous county. Now, if we can only make that Subway to the Sea happen a little bit quicker…

Categories
Bus Los Angeles New York Pakistan

Safety on Buses; Fuel-Cell Vehicles; Lahore Metro

Early this month, a bus driver in Brooklyn was stabbed by an angry passenger after the driver refused to give the man a transfer pass. The rider hadn’t swiped his MetroCard in the first place. The driver was killed.

Now, MTA’s New York City Transit is considering whether to install partitions in buses that would separate drivers from passengers and ensure greater safety for drivers, who often complain of being assaulted by riders. This is an interesting approach, and it would make the bus driver separated from the “life of the bus,” probably meaning assault would become less frequent.

But there’s another, perhaps more useful solution that would not only lead to fewer driver assaults but also that would speed up bus routes. What if all bus routes had offboard payment systems? This would mean paying for your MetroCard on the street and then getting on the bus where it might – but probably wouldn’t – be checked by an MTA transit agent. This system is already in operation on the BX12 Select route up in the Bronx, and it lets drivers do what they should be doing in the first place – driving the bus.

In an increasingly stressed economic period, too, this system may be necessary. Larger numbers of riders are going to stressed about paying for their transit passes, and the bus driver’s presence as ticket-checker acts as a threat on the bus. The bus driver should be the riders’ ally, rather than their antagonist. Let a separate transit agent, checking tickets on the side, do the messy stuff.

Meanwhile, Burbank, California is planning to test the operation of a plug-in hybrid-electric hydrogen fuel cell bus (phew!) starting in the Spring of next year. It will be run in a downtown environment, meaning that it will have a slow-moving route, the perfect testing grounds for this first-of-its-kind new technology. It will also have easy access to the hydrogen filling station in the city center.

The bus will be manufactured by Proterra Technologies of Colorado, which has a very high-tech looking bus on offer. The company claims that the technology is similar to that of the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid – but the main difference is that instead of a gas engine operating alongside the electric batteries, in this case, a full cell running on hydrogen will run along with the batteries. This makes the system emissions free (if we ignore how the hydrogen is produced), and is a rather thrilling step towards the next generation of transit vehicles. If buses can be converted to hybrid-hydrogen-electric operation, the significant pollution (both air and noise) that they currently produce will be eliminated in cities across the country and make these vehicles better neighbors. Exciting news!

Finally, news from Pakistan: the city of Lahore is currently constructing the first line of its new metro system. The 27-km long Green Line, have of which will be in subway (the other half on elevated tracks), will be complete by 2011. The construction is proving to be challenging, though: the system’s trackage may be interfering with the construction of the structural supports of a number of new high-rises under construction in the city.

This is, by the way, the second of two major mass transit systems currently under construction in Pakistan. The other is the Karachi Circular Railway, which will serve the city of Karachi with a number of new lines.

Both systems have been inspired by the dramatic success of the recent Delhi metro in India’s capital.

Categories
Bay Area Los Angeles New York

Measure B Passes; MTA in a Huge Hole; Driving Decreases Nationwide

Today’s top news:

Santa Clara County‘s Measure B, which is intended to authorize funds for the expansion of BART service to downtown San Jose, now looks almost guaranteed for passage. Unless the last few ballots to be counted go against the measure, the current 66.74% in favor of the provision (66.67% needed to pass) is enough. This would be a $6 billion, 16-mile extension of the train system.

New York City‘s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is finding itself in a bigger and bigger hole. Today, the New York Times reports that there is little funding available for the system’s next 5-year plan, which funds capital improvements. The MTA needs about $30 billion to pay for it, and now that it faces a massive debt load of $27 billion and it has little incoming tax revenue because of the fiscal crisis, people are raising questions about whether the capital improvements that have been scheduled will actually happen. We raised this issue a few weeks ago, and the question remains: will the Second Avenue Subway project be cancelled?

Meanwhile, nationwide, people continued to drive less than they once did, even as gas prices have gone down substantially. There was a 4.4% decline in September from the previous year, probably due to declining economic conditions. One wonders whether this decline would be even more precipitous if gas prices remained at their summer peaks. That said, the Los Angeles Times reports that some transit agencies in the L.A. region have seen drop-offs from their high ridership this summer. Even so, in Los Angeles itself, Metro ridership has increased by 4% on buses and 17% on rail lines in October as compared to last year. This is good news for a system that just won another half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation projects, Measure R.