Cincinnati Dallas Fort Worth New Orleans Phoenix Streetcar

Streetcar Projects Advance Nationwide Thanks to Local Initiative

» In spite of questions over whether the federal streetcar program has a future and the death of a project in Fort Worth, local dollars are distributed to build new links in Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe.

Last week’s decision by officials in Fort Worth, Texas to halt planning work on the city’s streetcar line struck a blow to the nation’s nascent collection of modern streetcar lines, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest transportation policy moves. Local leaders backed down from a $25 million grant received from the federal government earlier this year, arguing that the city wasn’t ready to invest its own money in a project that some suggested shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

The decision reinforced the commonly heard argument that the federal government is encouraging a form of transportation that is not fully accepted by people on the ground. It is certainly true that Fort Worth was far from prepared to accept the grant from Washington when it was first distributed, as the city had yet to specify a route or identify a definite local funding source.

The disappointing news from Cowtown, however, was the exception to the rule this month as Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe worked to establish their own local revenue streams for major streetcar projects.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory celebrated the decision by Ohio’s Transportation Review Advisory Council to award the city’s planned streetcar line $35 million in state funds. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator grant this summer and dedicating corporate and local dollars to the line, Cincinnati is now ready to break ground on the first phase next year. Dallas, which won a $23 million TIGER grant for a new downtown streetcar link in February and later received more funding from Washington for an extension to its McKinney Avenue historic streetcar, now has $10.8 million more from the Regional Transportation Council to spend on both projects. And New Orleans, whose Loyola Avenue connection is fully funded by the federal government, is considering redirecting local dollars to build another line down Rampart Street. Millions of dollars in new development is already being directed to sites adjacent to proposed streetcar stops in New Orleans.

The funds once earmarked for Fort Worth are likely to be redistributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to another more interested city like Washington, D.C., which has a major streetcar system planned but which has yet to receive any federal funds for its construction.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix metropolitan planning organization has agreed to move a 2.6-mile streetcar planned for Tempe to the region’s long-term transportation plan. Though the group will ask the federal government to cover half the project’s costs — likely to add up to about $160 million — this represents a concrete commitment to spend local dollars on the project. Ten years ago, the only city in the country that would have agreed to such a major engagement was Portland. Other cities that have received U.S. funds and which are likely to move forward with their own projects over the next few years include Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tucson.

Together, this news represents a strong endorsement for streetcar projects at the local level: Interest in streetcar construction extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. The mode’s expansion into metropolitan areas nationwide is genuinely supported by a whole bevy of citizens and leaders from coast to coast, willing to put up their own funds for projects that they think will improve their communities’ development patterns and mobility options.

Nevertheless, future federal support for streetcar projects has been put into question by the arrival of a new Congress that clearly does not share the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for this particular mode of transportation. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported expanding the federal pot of funds for transportation, but he has also argued for increasing Congressional oversight over executive agencies such as the Department of Transportation. The grant programs that have contributed mightily to the build-up of streetcar networks — TIGER, Small Starts, and Urban Circulators — currently give the Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood) decision-making powers over which projects to fund. Mr. Mica has implied that he thinks such decisions should be made by legislators; would a new Republican majority in the house choose to spend that money on streetcars?

Democrats have picked as their ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), someone who, to put matters mildly, has not made much of an effort to demonstrate his support for alternative transportation. He doesn’t seem likely to be a big voice in favor of devoting more of Washington’s money to streetcars.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Congress has any interest in making room for further discretionary grant programs at all, considering the complete lack of consensus on how to fund maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, let alone expansions in the form of streetcars.

Nonetheless, the clear commitments given by some localities to their own streetcar programs indicate that there is a future for such transportation in the United States, even if Washington takes its hands off.

Light Rail Phoenix

More Light Rail Presents Itself as the Answer for a Growing Phoenix

» Planners suggest that the current 27-mile expansion plan isn’t big enough to meet the travel demands of the region’s population.

Now that they have gotten their hands wet, Phoenix’s leaders are pushing for a much larger transit investment than planned before the opening of their first light rail line. Apparently once you get a taste of the stuff, there’s no turning back.

Arizona’s first modern light rail transit line opened in December 2008, running twenty miles from Mesa to Alhambra’s Spectrum Mall, via Tempe, Sky Harbor Airport, and downtown Phoenix. The $1.4 billion Valley Metro Rail project was predicted to carry an average of 26,000 daily riders. But like many similar rail lines that have opened in recent years, Phoenix has shot past initial estimates, reaching an average of 35,000 daily users and succeeding in distributing traffic relatively evenly throughout the day and on weekends, a rarity for commuter-heavy transit systems.

The approval by Maricopa County voters in 2004 of the $9 billion Proposition 400 instituted a 1/2¢ sales tax that would extend the rail system by 27 more miles thanks to $2.3 billion in dedicated capital funds (beyond the initial 20-mile corridor). Six planned routes would extend the initial light rail line into North Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, and Paradise Valley, with some lines planned by 2012. By 2025, $2.7 billion will go towards improved bus service.

But that 57-mile rail network is only a taste of what the region’s planners hope to build, according to The Arizona Republic. Transit advocates have suggested a whole bevy of new routes worth considering that would extend the light rail system to every developed part of this four million-person region. Officials suggest that these other routes, which would expand the system by more than one hundred miles if built, would perform just as effectively as the current light rail line, which is to say adequately by U.S. standards.

No one has provided a clue as to where financing would come for these projects.

As the map above demonstrates, housing density is distributed relatively evenly throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area, which means that from the pure perspective of getting close to where people live, most of the lines that have been added to the region’s potential route map would indeed hit populated areas filled with potential train riders. On the other hand, with the vast majority of the region’s housing stock is made up of single-family homes, meaning that none of these lines are ever going to get much activity compared to similar routes in denser cities.

One problem that could arise results from the extended nature of the region: It’s almost forty miles in diameter, so getting from one end to the other, even by light rail, will never be simple. This is especially true because the existing line, which could serve as the system’s trunk route, is relatively dense with stations on average every 7/10th of a mile, slowing down trains significantly. Will commuters actually be interested in riding one hour or more from the region’s edge to the central business district? And if they do, won’t the central trunk line be overcharged with too many trains?

The fact that Central Phoenix, while growing, is not the overwhelmingly predominant business and retail district in the region suggests that it won’t be the main destination of many passengers, and that therefore many trains could avoid the downtown core altogether if the whole series of proposed routes were built. Because the region’s commercial activities are spread out in a series of “urban villages,” these circumferential lines would hit prominent destinations and find riders.

But the continued expansion of light rail into the far suburbs won’t address the paradox that plagues Phoenix’s urbanism: It is dense enough to make congestion a serious problem, but it is not dense enough to promote walkable, “livable” communities. By choosing to spread light rail from the core to the region’s edges, planners may be encouraging people even in automobile-dependent areas to switch to transit for at least some of their commutes. But at the same time, they may not be doing enough to promote transit-dependent lifestyles because they’ll be spreading the development potential associated with transit investments across the region, rather than in a few choice areas.

Perhaps there can be too much light rail for a city like Phoenix.

Nonetheless, for now the complex series of routes planners in the city have assembled is pure fantasy: there’s no money to back up the idea beyond the six first extensions now programmed.

Light Rail Phoenix

Phoenix Light Rail Opens

This weekend, Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States with 1.5 million people, opened its first rail line in sixty years. This light rail line, a part of the region-wide Valley Metro system, will also serve the cities of Tempe and Mesa, with populations of 174,000 and 453,000, respectively, and the airport in the middle, called Phoenix Sky Harbor International. This passes the honor of “largest U.S. city without a rail transit system” to San Antonio, Texas, with a population of 1.3 million (#7), which, as far as we know, has no plans to build one (other than a potential commuter line to Austin).

Phoenix Light Rail MapPhoenix’s light rail opening attracted a lot of crowds this weekend. People were attracted to th $1.4 billion project, whose 20-mile line crisscrosses the region and will allow easier access to downtown Phoenix, Arizona State University, and the airport (which is currently in the process of constructing a people mover that will connect directly to the light rail station). The equivalent bus that currently serves the route took around 80 minutes to complete it; this light rail line will reduce travel time to a respectable 50 minutes.  Vehicles were constructed by a Japanese constructor named Kinkisharyo, which has also built the light rail cars for San Jose, Dallas, Northern New Jersey, and Boston, and is currently providing the vehicles for Seattle’s upcoming line.

Valley Metro predicts 25,000-30,000 trips a day, which seems like a low prediction, especially considering that the light rail system of an equivalent city – Houston – is now attracting 40,000 trips a day, even though that system is only 7.5 miles long. But, on the other hand, Phoenix’s whole system seems designed for these low-ball estimates; trains will arrive only every ten minutes between 6 am and 7 pm and every 20 minutes at other times. If this system becomes popular, these frequencies will have to be increased at rush hour, where heavily used systems provide trainsets every 2-5 minutes. Let’s hope that Valley Metro has budgeted further train purchases.

This is an exciting event for Arizona and demonstrates that even some of the most car-dependent areas of the country are beginning to recognize the value of providing serious alternatives. But at the same time, this intervention comes mind-blowingly late. We referenced the population facts about this region because we wanted to emphasize the shear size of this area – this line will serve three cities whose combined population reaches over two million. And we’re expecting 25,000 daily riders? For some perspective, consider that Portland, Oregon‘s entire metro area – which has basically the equivalent population – provides 120,000 daily trips on light rail, and the vast majority of those trips occur within the city, which has a population of 575,000.

Phoenix is planning a number of extensions to be completed by 2025, but all of them would rely on the central segment of the line that has just opened. In other words, that section will be completely overcrowded by the time the rest of these lines have begun service. By then Phoenix may well be considering a secondary downtown light rail line, as Portland is currently constructing and as Dallas is planning.

We’re not convinced that Phoenix deserves an expensive heavy rail system with a much higher capacity, but one wonders whether this line’s planners are serious about changing land use development in this massive trio of cities. A city of this size – it’s now bigger than Philadelphia – merits a large downtown where people are entirely transit-dependent, and a singular light rail line with 10-minute headways won’t provide that. For the most part, the biggest city in Arizona will remain a principally suburban city.

That said, we’re sure that Valley Metro will produce a number of transit-oriented developments, at least once the current economic crisis subsides. And the result will be a more sustainable, livable metropolis.

Image from Valley Metro.