Finance Salt Lake Social Justice

A Call for Minimum Service Standards

» All across the country, transit agencies are opening new rail lines with inadequate service.

At $37 million for two miles of track, Salt Lake City’s new S-Line, sometimes referred to as the Sugar House Streetcar, was one of the cheapest rail transit projects recently completed in the United States, with per-mile costs equivalent to the typical bus rapid transit project. From a capital cost perspective, it’s a great success.

Too bad the S-Line is such a dud when it comes to ridership. According to recent data from the local transit system, the project is serving fewer than 1,000 riders a day, far fewer than the 3,000 expected for the project. One explanation is that the short route doesn’t attract many people. Another is that the line’s frequency is simply too low to convince people to orient their lives around it.

The thing is, providing new rail lines isn’t enough — service standards really matter when it comes to attracting people to use transit. And on that front, too many transit agencies around the country are failing to offer the services people can rely on. The problem extends far beyond New Orleans and encompasses a large share of the cities that are investing in new rail lines today, ultimately limiting their effectiveness and cutting down on ridership.

We must commit our transit agencies to providing a minimum level of transit service on their lines, particularly those in which it has been deemed necessary to invest millions of dollars in capital upgrades.

Certainly part of the answer should be speeding transit up. In an urban environment where automobiles dominate, making sure that buses and trains can move as quickly as possible reduces commute times and, ultimately, reduces the appeal of driving by providing a time-competitive alternative. At an average of 10 mph, the S-Line is certainly no stunner.

But the streetcar’s bigger problem is that trains only make the 2-mile, 12-minute trip every 20 minutes, or 3 times an hour.* If you miss a trip, you might as well walk, because you’ll save virtually no time waiting for the train. As Jarrett Walker has noted many times, frequency of service can be just as important as speed, since the frequency at which a vehicle on a line arrives determines how long most people have to wait — especially when they’re transferring between services, an essential element of any big-city transit network and one that cannot be significantly improved with real-time data.

An examination of the operations of 49 new or extended light rail or streetcar lines built in the U.S. after 2000, summarized in the table at the end of this article, suggests that the situation experienced in Salt Lake is hardly unique, particularly at off-peak hours. While the large majority of these services offer at least four trains per hour (one vehicle every 15 minutes in each direction) at peak hours, 35% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour at midday and 73% offer fewer than 4 trains per hour in the evening (indeed, 33% offer 2 or fewer trains per hour, or a train every half hour, in the evening).

The difference for a passenger using a transit service offering robust frequencies — 6 trains per hour, or one train every ten minutes — versus mediocre ones — 3 trains per hour, like the S-Line — can be dramatic. A hypothetical rider in the robust city who has to take two 15-minute train trips that involve one transfer between them will spend an average of 40 minutes commuting in each direction (30 minutes on both trains and 5 minutes waiting for each individual train). In the mediocre city, on the other hand, average waiting times of 10 minutes for each train would increase commute times to 50 minutes, or a 25 percent increase. In the worst circumstances, where a rider just misses each train, the rider in the robust city would require 50 minutes to commute while her peer in the mediocre one would need 1h10, a full 20 minutes more.

To create a transit system that is attractive enough to pull people out of their cars, high frequencies of service at all times of the day are essential.

Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, as the table demonstrates, have chosen to outfit their new rail lines with a robust level of service that befits the major investment that has been put into them and recognizes the time constraints of their riders. Others, from San Jose to Sacramento to San Diego and even to Portland, have simply chosen to give up on their passengers at night. What they’ve effectively decided is that only people who truly have no other choice should rely on transit outside of peak hours.

The poor service offered on these lines produces infrastructure that is massively underused. One of the frequent arguments made by proponents of investment in rail is that “people know” that the trains will come because of the fixed track and supposedly high quality of service. But inadequate operations make this benefit disappear.

The federal government, which has funded the majority of these projects, has failed to enforce any sort of minimum level of service that these lines must provide. Rather than mandate that new services funded through grants offer service at least every 15 minutes, for example, the Federal Transit Administration simply requires agencies to “develop quantitative standards for all fixed route modes of operation” for issues like vehicle headway. In other words, if a transit agency provides service every three hours on a just-built rail line, that’s fine — as long as that information has been submitted in triplicate to Washington in advance.

The federal government is throwing money at these projects with little supervision over how they are operated. The results are underperformance and relatively low ridership.

Certainly many transit agencies will suggest that the reason they do not offer better service is that they cannot afford to do so; as I wrote last week, the way that transit funding is allocated results in perverse incentives that encourage transit expansion over transit service. But local governments that commit to new projects should be required to identify adequate funding to cover operations if they are awarded federal money for construction.

Other agencies might argue that the service they provide simply matches the demand; there is no need to offer more than three trains an hour on the S-Line because only 1,000 people a day will even ride the thing. This fact raises questions about whether it made sense to build the project in the first place — if it’s not serving many people, is it needed? Or it represents a self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course the line serves few people because the service it provides is so poor.

Choosing to invest in better services comes at a cost. But it’s one that our political leaders and local transit activists should be fighting for. Now that we have some rail lines constructed, let’s start running more trains on them before we rush out to build more track!

Service levels for new or expanded light rail or streetcar lines in the U.S. since 2000
CityExtension Project or New LineYearPeak trains per hour (8-9 AM)Midday trains per hour (12-1 PM)Evening trains per hour (9-10 PM)
CharlotteBlue Line2007643
DallasStreetcar Extension2013442
DallasBlue to Rowlett2012433
DallasRed to Plano2002433
HoustonRed Line200410103
Jersey CityTonelle Ave20061074
Jersey City8th St2011532
Little RockStreetcar2004223
Los AngelesGold to Pasadena2003956
Los AngelesExpo 12012556
MemphisMadison Line2004440
MinneapolisBlue Line2004664
MinneapolisGreen Line2014666
New OrleansCanal2004334
New OrleansLoyola-UPT2013332
NewarkLRT Penn to Broad2006422
NorfolkLight Rail2011644
PhoenixLight Rail2008553
PittsburghBlue Line2004222
PittsburghNorth Shore20121586
PortlandRed to Airport2001443
PortlandInitial Streetcar2001353
SacramentoSouth to Meadow View2003442
SacramentoGreen to Richards2012220
Salt LakeRed Line2003444
Salt LakeBlue to Draper2013444
Salt LakeGreen/Airport2013444
Salt LakeStreetcar2013331
San DiegoGreen: Mission to Santee2005442
San FranciscoT Line2007663
San Joseto Alum Rock2004442
San JoseSacramento to Winchester2005422
SeattleCentral Link2009766
St LouisCross County to I-442006533
St Louisto Scott AFB2003433

* This is the level of service provided all day. In its submission to the federal government in 2010, Salt Lake claimed it would provide service every 15 minutes at peak and every 30 minutes in off-peak periods.

Image at top: S-Line Streetcar in Salt Lake City, from Flickr user Paul Kimo McGregor (cc)

Light Rail Salt Lake

Two Light Rail Extensions for Salt Lake, with More on the Way

» An extensive network of rail and bus corridors spreads out across the Wasatch Front.

Much thanks to federal spending, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area practically doubled the size of its TRAX light rail network this weekend, adding two extensions a year early and 20% under budget. Though estimates predict relatively modest ridership on the new lines, the routes provide the city and its suburbs one of the most comprehensive transit systems in the country, with frequent bus and rail corridors spread out in a grid across the immediate urban core.

And with two other light rail extensions, a commuter rail line, a streetcar, and a series of bus rapid transit corridors on the way, the region is far from finished.

After passing a local sales tax increase in 2006 for the UTA transit agency’s $2 billion Frontlines 2015 program, millions of dollars flowed in from Washington as the government agreed to fund 80% of the new Mid-Jordan extension through a New Start grant as part of a significant downpayment on system expansion. (For Frontlines 2015, federal funds to three lines now account for $1.04 billion in total, up from $500 million as originally planned.) In combination with the West Valley line, paid for mostly with local funds, UTA officials suggested that this weekend’s was the largest two-route rail opening in a single day in American history.

Light rail routes in the region have been re-configured into three colored corridors — the Green, Red, and Blue Lines.

In addition to the pre-existing 15.8-mile route from downtown Salt Lake to Sandy (which opened in 1999) and the 3.8-mile corridor to the University of Utah (which began operations in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics there), the 10.6-mile, $535 million Mid-Jordan route extends southwest from Fashion Place to a major development at Daybreak and the 5.1-mile, $370 million West Valley line runs from Central Pointe to West Valley Central Station. The 3.5-mile extension south from Sandy to Draper (receiving a 60% commitment from Washington), the 6-mile link to the airport, and the 44-mile FrontRunner South commuter rail route to Provo (getting 80% of its funding from the feds) are other parts of the program and are under construction, ready to be open by 2013 and 2014.

The region, with about 1.2 million inhabitants, now has as much light rail — 35 miles of it — as far larger metropolitan areas like Denver. Total TRAX ridership is expected to reach 58,000 a day by the end of this year, up from 43,000 today; ridership could exceed 100,000 daily by 2030.

These extensions, in addition to the Sugar House streetcar half-funded by a federal TIGER II grant and the BRT routes, are being completed fifteen years ahead of what was predicted to be feasible by the region’s original long-term plans laid out in the early 2000s. UTA’s 2003 purchase of the rail corridors along which most of the routes run was assumed to provide for expansion needs up to 2030 or 2040, but local entrepreneurship and skilled application of federal dollars pushed up construction.

Now the area will have to focus on maintaining frequent service. A cut of bus operations by 10% to coincide with the opening of the rail lines and more efficiently utilize the gridded transit network may make sense from an operations standpoint, but it is an ominous sign of tighter budgets to come.

Compared to light rail projects around the country, the $50.5 million and $72.5 million per mile spent on the Mid-Jordan and West Valley lines, respectively, is limited. They are on the low end compared to similar projects currently under construction in Portland ($204 million/mile), Houston ($145 million/mile), and the Twin Cities ($87 million/mile). But Salt Lake had the advantage of building its rail lines along existing corridors, limiting right-of-way purchase costs. In addition, it has constructed most of its projects in the midst of a recession that has hit the construction industry particularly hard, making it possible to contract out the building of the tracks and stations at comparatively low prices.

Salt Lake’s lines are exciting, certainly, especially as they are being implemented in coordination with the bus connections. The BRT route with dedicated lanes completed along 3500 South last year has been quite successful in increasing ridership, doubling the number of daily passengers even before full improvements were completed. The new light rail line to West Valley Central will provide direct connections to that route.

Overall, 90% of all bus routes in the region are being reconfigured to better match the new rail service in order to guarantee best-possible utilization of the significant investment made in rail.

Moreover, Utah seems to have taken strongly to the idea of transit-oriented development: A massive new mixed-use project called Daybreak has been constructed southwest of the city, directly along the final two stations of the Mid-Jordan extension.The developers were so convinced of the value of light rail that they agreed to provide $13 million in property and cash to the UTA to speed the line’s construction. Inhabitants of the area who work downtown may find the transit offering appealing: The reliable 42-minute trip time offered between it and Salt Lake’s courthouse is only about five minutes slower than a car trip on uncongested roads. As Jeff Wood has noted, it will be interesting to examine commuting trends for people who live here to see whether light rail is a useful tool or simply an exciting accessory to what is otherwise a standard suburban subdivision.

Daybreak is not the only place where new development is expected to follow construction of light rail: West Valley City, for instance, expects to see a “string of pearls” in new buildings constructed near its new rail stops.

The successful use of locally raised taxes and developer contributions in Salt Lake City’s transit expansion is to be lauded, but the massive involvement of the federal government in the funding process cannot be overlooked; after all, Washington has spent more than a billion dollars aiding this city to become more transit friendly in the last decade. Salt Lake would not have been able to do nearly as much with a government that pulled back. We may want other cities to follow in this city’s footsteps, but assuming we can do so with fewer federal dollars seems completely unrealistic.

Bus Las Vegas Salt Lake

Salt Lake City Opens First Separated-Lane BRT Corridor, Plans for More

» Mile-long segment of dedicated lanes is just the start of an 80-mile network.

Though it houses a total of only about one million inhabitants, ranking it almost fiftieth in size in the United States, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is expanding its transit system at full clip with a program rivaled by only the largest cities.

The TRAX light rail system that first opened in 1999 has received most of the interest because it’s been able to attract tens of thousands of more daily riders than initially anticipated. With the help of large federal grants, the UTA transit authority is engaging in a large expansion of that system with the goal of adding four line extensions as well as a new commuter rail line by 2015.

Less frequently mentioned, however, is the bus rapid transit system Salt Lake County is planning to develop over the course of the next twenty years with the goal of linking every city in the region directly to TRAX light rail stations. Though buses running with limited stops branded as MAX BRT began running in 2008, only yesterday did service actually begin in dedicated bus lanes, making more appropriate the appellation rapid.

The $8 million separated bus corridor covers about a mile between Constitution Boulevard and Bangerter Highway on West 3500 s, southwest of the center city. The MAX 35M bus that takes advantage of the route runs the full 12-mile distance between the suburban town of Magna and the light rail station at East 3300 S, via West Valley City. That service has 13 stops along the line; equivalent local buses have 70 and are up to twenty minutes slower. Most of the route remains unaltered and requires buses to share lanes with cars, but that’s because this is just the first section of what will eventually be a full system of rapid bus routes.

UTA plans to implement similar busway improvements along up to 80 miles of corridors. Starting with 3500 S was ideal because the state department of transportation was renovating the road anyway, and UTA managed to get bus lanes included in the project, as well as construct a new median bus stop. In the short term, BRT is planned for routes between Provo and Orem as well as along the Mountain View Corridor on 5600 W.

This slow, incremental approach — first cutting down on the number of stops and then adding dedicated lanes — has already proven its benefits: UTA claims that the MAX service, even without the new lanes, had attracted double the previous ridership on local-only buses. Operations every fifteen minutes carry 4,100 daily riders, pretty good for a medium-sized city on an out-of-the-way route. By speeding up services with independent lanes, three-door buses, and traffic-signal priority, the line seems certain to encourage even more people to get on board.

The construction of the 5.1-mile West Valley Trax line, expected to wrap up next year, will add to the route’s appeal: that rail project will terminate at the West Valley City Intermodal Center, where the 35M bus service will also stop.

By bundling bus corridor improvements into general street upgrades, UTA can get improved transit even on corridors with minor traffic. If it makes an attempt to extend similar lane construction schemes to all major road rehabilitation projects, it could expand its rapid bus portfolio relatively rapidly and at a minor cost. People in cities across the country should learn from this effort and push to incorporate bus lanes into as many street improvement projects as possible.

Salt Lake isn’t alone in its interest in bus rapid transit, of course: last month Las Vegas introduced the ACE bus services, providing limited stop operations along two routes. These offerings provide customers vastly improved service with distinctive articulated buses, good-looking generously-sized stations, and tickets to be purchased before boarding. Some of the route mileage includes dedicated lanes for buses, while other sections are shared with automobiles.

Las Vegas plans to expand its system along a number of other corridors in the coming years.

But the truth is that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about what either Salt Lake or Las Vegas is doing: they’re simply introducing higher-quality services with the goal of making the average commuter far more likely to choose to jump onto the bus. We should see similar efforts in every city.

Bay Area New Jersey New York Salt Lake

Feds Push Forward Projects in New York and Salt Lake; Bay Area Abandons Dumbarton Rail for Warm Springs

Environmental Statement for Access to the Region’s Core is Approved

The Access to the Region’s Core Tunnel, which will provide a new rail connection between New Jersey and New York, is a step closer to reality after federal authorities approved the $9 billion project’s environmental assessment. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New Jersey, which are planning the project together, hope to receive $3 billion from the federal government in addition to the billions that the Authority and the Garden State have already allocated. The stimulus bill could provide the money to start construction on the project this summer. This would allow for completion in… 2017. The project is expected to create 40,000 to 50,000 jobs over the next eight years.

This is a necessary project for New York and its western suburbs, whose sole commuter rail connection is currently through a two-track 100-year-old tunnel that is woefully overcrowded. Those Hudson River tubes are shared with Amtrak. But, as we wrote two months ago on this blog, the project is fraught with a number of problems. Not only does it fail to provide New Jersey commuters direct access to the East Side of Manhattan and instead will deposit them in an incredibly deep station hundreds of feet below West 34th Street, but it will not connect to the existing Penn Station on the Manhattan side of the tunnel, meaning that through-running Amtrak trains will not be able to use the tracks. This will be a problem in the future when the existing tunnels have to be renovated. But the approval of the environmental statement virtually ensures that the project will be built as-designed, so no more complaining allowed.

Mid-Jordan LRT in Salt Lake City Gets Federal Funding

The Federal Transit Administration has committed to a full-funding grant agreement with the the Utah Transit Authority for the funding of the Mid-Jordan TRAX LRT line. The feds will provide $428.3 million for the project. Construction officially began last year after the FTA announced a Record of Decision and Letter of No Prejudice on behalf of the project, but the 10.6-mile line will not open for service until 2011. The line will serve the municipalities of Murray, Midvale, West Jordan, and South Jordan, running southwest from downtown Salt Lake.

BART Warm Springs Extension is Funded

The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) has approved the transfer of $91 million in toll funds to the BART Warm Springs extension. This 5.4-mile project will bring BART heavy rail services south from the existing Fremont terminus to Warm Springs, with a possible future station to be constructed at Irvington, about halfway between the two other cities. The project is massively expensive for such a short line in the suburbs, at $890 million, because about a quarter of the route will be in a subway under Fremont Central Park. Because of the line’s high cost and limited likely ridership, it would have failed to receive federal funding under the FTA’s New Start grant process, so the line will not receive any federal money. Construction will begin this year, and service is expected to begin in mid-2014. This extension will be necessary for the ultimate implementation of BART service to Silicon Valley, which will extend from Warm Springs to Santa Clara, via Milpitas and Downtown San Jose.

Lost in the process? Any immediate possibility of having commuter rail built across the Dumbarton Bridge from the Union City BART Station in the East Bay to Millbrae BART in the West Bay. This $600 million project would have taken advantage of the same funds now allocated to this BART extension. The MTC, however, transferred the money to the latter project because its design was more fully developed. The result, however, makes getting across the South Bay by transit a fantasy rather than a future possibility.