Charlotte Connecticut Seattle

Seattle Viaduct Will be Tunnelled; Charlotte LRT to Expand; Connecticut Sees a New CR Line in Its Future

Seattle Approves Tunnel Replacement for Viaduct

After years of discussion – and few actual conclusions about what to do – it looks like Seattle will replace its elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct (shown in the picture above), which currently separates the city’s downtown from its waterfront, with a tunnel directly underneath downtown. It will be completed by 2015. The project, at a cost of $4.25 billion, will include the construction of the deep-bore two-level tunnel, the demolition of the viaduct, and its replacement with a park-like environment along the water (shown in the picture below). It seems likely that the city will contribute funds towards the project’s transit component, probably by building a waterfront streetcar that would fit in with the city’s overall inner city transit plan.

The viaduct, built in 1953, has been long in need of replacement. An earthquake in 2001 damaged it, making its continued use unsafe in the long-term. But the state and city have argued since about whether to replace the elevated highway with yet another viaduct, build a tunnel, or simply create a surface road along the waterfront. And just a month ago, the state seemed to have concluded that the only feasible options were the viaduct and surface options. So this news comes as quite a turn-around.

This is good news for Mayor Greg Nickels, who has campaigned vigorously against the new viaduct option. Governor Christine Gregoire’s new willingness to sponsor a state contribution to the project ($2.8 billion) means that the Mayor’s determination not to continue the city’s separation from its waterfront has been rewarded.

Charlotte Moves Ahead on Light Rail Expansion

The Lynx Blue Line, North Carolina’s first example of rail mass transit in decades, has been a dramatic success, having achieved its 2020 projected ridership goals within the first two months of operation. Running from the city’s downtown to the south, a proposed extension would extend the line from downtown to the northeast, reaching the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Yesterday, the city approved the routing of the project.

The 11-mile project is expected to cost around $900 million and will be completed by 2015 – construction could begin by next year. It will be funded by the city’s 1/2-cent sales tax, which is dedicated to mass transit.

Connecticut Blames Amtrak for New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail Delay

Connecticut, which currently offers Amtrak service from New Haven to Springfield, Massachusetts, via Hartford, the state capital, has been planning for the past few years to develop a commuter rail line along the same route, hoping to duplicate the success of the state’s Metro-North New Haven Line, which ferries commuters along the shore to New York City. The state has studied the project extensively and even developed a preliminary service plan, which could include the construction of a second track along the route and the development of several new stations.

But the state now argues that Amtrak is preventing the state from moving forward because the federal agency is demanding too much from the state – such as basic improvements along the line that would allow for service improvements. Now, while it’s always easy to blame Amtrak, in this case, the intercity rail operator makes sense. The route is currently in a decrepit state, trains must run at a slow speed along much of the line, and because of most of the route’s one-track nature, it would be difficult to add many trains. So if Connecticut is really intent on expanding service, it should invest in the line, paying for the upgrades before more trains are added.

This type of complaining, without promises by the state to improve the current situation, is pretty annoying.

Top photo from flickr user Slightlynorth under CC license; bottom photo from Washington State DOT

Charlotte Finance Minneapolis Seattle

Fares in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charlotte

With the nation confronting economic problems as a whole, and with tax revenues down dramatically, transit agencies are finding themselves in need of more money, and fare increases are on the calender all over the country. We’ve talked about the potential extreme fare hikes in New York City, where a base fare may increase from $2 today to $2.50 or even $3 in the next few months, but today there’s discussion to increase rider revenue in Minneapolis and Seattle, and a new strategy for fare collection in Charlotte.

Fare Increases in Minneapolis

The Star-Tribune reports today that Minneapolis’ Metro Council has called to increase fares by 50% because of increasing numbers of riders, slower revenues, and high energy costs. The most fundamental problem is that the majority of revenue designated for transit operations comes from a motor vehicle sales tax, and as we’ve seen over the past few months, the number of new cars being sold in the United States has plummeted incredibly quickly. In 2001, the Metro Council decided to change to this revenue source (from a former regional property tax), convinced that revenue growth would be quicker from the motor vehicle tax. Unfortunately, that prediction has proven disastrous.

Currently a separate tax approved by the state legislature provides money to transitways, such as the Hiawatha Light Rail line, but that does nothing for the mainstay of the system’s operation: buses running in regular streets. The Council cannot cut service on those lines because of fears that such a reduction in operations would make getting federal money for the planned Central Corridor light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul more difficult. So few options remain other than increasing rider-based revenue.

Seattle Link Light Rail – Zone-Based Fares?

Seattle is considering how it will pay for operations along its Link Light Rail line, which will open this year. Sound Transit is currently discussing a zone-based fare structure, which would mean increasing costs for the rider depending on the length of his or her ride. The Seattle Transit Blog reports that fares would start at $1.75 or $2 and increase to up to $2.75 for the full ride from Downtown to SeaTac Airport. If the base fare were $2, the transit tunnel downtown would be free to ride through, as it is today, otherwise, with a $1.75 base fare, it would cost some money to ride downtown.

The question of zone-based riders seems important in Seattle’s case, which is evaluating a wide number of extensions to the light rail under construction. With such a spread out system, short rides within Seattle perhaps should not cost as much as a long-distance ride from Everett to Northgate. Washington’s Metro operates with such a fare system, while New York’s subway trips cost the same no matter how long the ride takes.

One major disadvantage of a zone system is that it makes the development of weekly or monthly passes difficult. New York’s subway experienced significantly expanded ridership after the development of the 30-day MetroCard in 1997 – would other systems expand their riderships similarly if they too implemented monthly passes?

Fare Zones in Charlotte

Charlotte, which has had some problems with overcrowding at its stations, especially after major sporting events, will have fare zones set up at high-ridership stations. This will alow ticket-checkers to look at tickets before entry onto trains in specified areas of the system downtown and at the southern terminus. The transit agency hopes that the development of such fare zones would make overcrowding less of a a problem and make ticket inspection more simple.

This is somewhat of a deviation from the typical “honor system” that operates in Charlotte and in most light rail cities, where one is only expected to have to present one’s ticket inside of the train, rather than at stations. By creating “fare zones,” Charlotte is basically implementing invisible turnstiles, which are used by most Metro systems to contol entry into stations, which are for fare-holders only.

One wonders, though, whether Charlotte and other light rail cities ought instead simply put in turnstiles outside of their stations, so that ticket-checkers wouldn’t be needed at all. Los Angeles voted for the implementation at the end of 2007 of such devices at high-use stations along its Metro Red Line and Light Rail Blue and Green Lines, but the construction was delayed indefinately in late January 2008 because of threat of a lawsuit. Those lines previously all the honor system. The city argued that the $30 million cost necessary to put in the turnstils would be worth it as an estimated $7 million is lost every year to fare evaders.

That said, L.A.’s decision – even if it had been implemented – seems a bit half-hearted, considering that it would only have applied to certain stations and ticket-checkers would still be necessary throughout the rest of the line. Should all rail systems use turnstiles to control access? Do too many people ride for free? Or is the honor system ultimately cheaper to implement and therefore a better deal for cities, even though it results in some lost revenue?

Dallas Seattle

Dallas Expansion; Seattle Viaduct

Over the past twenty-five years, Dallas has been aggressively expanding its inner city light rail system, DART. This makes the city one of the top contenders in the transit space race. The construction of a second downtown rail right-of-way would solidify the city’s position.

But the city has also been considering its relationship with the surrounding counties, and it, in conjunction with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has been planning the development of a commuter rail system extending wide out into the suburbs and greatly improving the service currently provided by the Trinity Railroad Express, which travels from Dallas to nearby Fort Worth. The proposal up for consideration currently would expand the system to 215-miles, making it one of the largest commuter rail networks in the country.

Yesterday’s vote on the Regional Transportation Council, which wasn’t unanimous, endorsed the plan. This means that counties in the Dallas area will now beginning the search for adequate tax revenues to support the proposal – no current financing exists to pay for the network. It is unclear how the system would proceed if some counties approve financing and others don’t, but this is the first step in the right direction for providing alternative mobility to the area’s population.

In Seattle, plans for the replacement of the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct have reached another milestone: the choice of two final options to consider. The highway, which serves 100,000 drivers a day, sits on the waterfront in the city and makes it difficult to enjoy the walk between downtown and the water, thereby limiting economic and tourist development in the area. This poses a problem for the city, which has seen the positive effects of waterfront development in cities such as Portland, Baltimore, and Boston.

But the question being considered by State Legislators and the City Council was how to replace the highway. Some wondered whether building another viaduct in its place would be the right option, or whether an underground freeway would make more sense. Others, who looked to Portland, saw the possibility of simply getting rid of the highway altogether and building a park in its place. Here’s the project webpage.

Yesterday’s action, though, implies that there are only two options under full consideration: a new set of viaducts or a “surface and transit” option that would simply build three lanes of roadway along the waterfront and dramatically slow down traffic (this would not be a highway). The surface and transit option would also provide for increases in bus service and potentially the implementation of a new waterfront streetcar.

The viaduct option makes little sense. After all, it will again desecrate the waterfront and make economic development unlikely. Some argue that a highway solution is necessary – that other roads in the city would fill up beyond capacity if a new highway weren’t built. But building the new viaducts would require first the destruction of the old ones, and in the intervening time, there would be no highway… if the city is able to survive in that intermediary without a highway along the waterfront, it would be able to do so in the years to come as well. So the surface and transit option – whose three lanes along the water wouldn’t be the most wonderful thing in the world – still makes the most sense.

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.
Bus Detroit Seattle Streetcar Washington DC

Streetcars in Seattle & Detroit; Rapid Busses in Maryland

After a prolonged debate, Seattle’s City Council approved yesterday a $600 million streetcar network that will redefine the inner city’s approach to getting around. This will make Seattle the second city in the United States, after Portland, to develop a modern downtown streetcar system from scratch. This news comes after last year’s opening of the South Lake Union Streetcar (aka the SLUT), and its successful meeting of ridership estimates.

Seattle’s system has been funded by the recent passage of the Sound Transit ballot passage, which will provide $120 million for a line between downtown and the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but funding for other lines isn’t as obvious, though some of it may come from state money for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The replacement of the former Waterfront Trolley, which was shut down for a sculpture garden, is a priority.

The streetcar system will be an efficient way of connecting the light rail line currently under construction with destinations throughout the inner city. Here at the transport politic, however, we’re big proponents of streetcars not so much for the frankly limited improvements in mobility they provide but rather the fact that they stimulate dense development near stops, as the case of Portland’s Pearl District demonstrates. Streetcars allow for the development of transit-oriented districts far more cheaply than either light rail or heavy rail lines, and they provide downtown dwellers an easy manner to avoid driving – not so much true for busses, which often follow confusing routes and offer substandard service.

We’ll be following the development of Seattle’s system with excitement (along with that of its light rail system). The real question is whether Portland (which has its own large system (PDF) under development) or Seattle will have a bigger network in the years to come!

In Detroit, after days of speculation, the City Council has finally approved a regional mass transit plan. The network considered by the City will provide a number of lines: 1. a streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main street; 2. a commuter rail system connecting Detroit with Ann Arbor; and 3. an improved system of suburban bus lines. As we’ve discussed several times before on this blog, Detroit faces unusual circumstances in the development of a transit system. Unlike Seattle, for instance, Detroit has a quickly declining population, with fewer jobs every year as the auto industry contracts. Recent Census estimates show that the city’s population has declines from 950,000 in 2000 to 917,000 today – and that’s down from 1.85 million back in 1950.

When you visit the city, it’s obvious that it’s just a shell of its former self; the huge downtown, dense as hell, is empty and marked with a lot of vacant buildings (not to mention random vacant lots). How can a city like this, which looks like it is closer to abandonment than anything else, sponsor an effective transit network, whose primary goal in other cities is to stimulate economic development?

But to argue that the City Council shouldn’t invest because the city is loosing population is self-defeating. Doing so would mean giving up on the city, which its own elected officials just aren’t going to do. But for a new transit system to work, the city’s going to need to attract a few more jobs and start finding ways to rebuild its population.

Finally, Maryland’s Montgomery County, which forms the northwestern border with the District of Columbia, is finally recognizing that it is developing into an increasingly urban place, and its council members are considering how to ramp up transit service to meet that densifying profile. Council member Marc Elrich has recently discussed constructing a rapid bus system that would serve east-west trips in the county, which is currently served by two branches of the north-south only Metrorail Red Line. To get from Bethesda to Silver Spring, for instance, residents must either take a slow local bus or ride the Red Line all the way through downtown D.C. and back out.

Elrich’s proposal makes sense; any improvement of bus service in the provision of bus-only lanes, better stop shelters, and increasing frequency, would be good for the county’s population. But the real solution would be the full funding of the Purple Line as light rail. That system, which would connect Montgomery and Prince Georges’ County, would transport 66,000 riders a day and ensure easy cross-county transport that would avoid transferring in downtown Washington. Acting together with a newly efficient bus system, the Purple Line would provide greatly enhanced mobility for the county.