(Photo: Richard Panse)
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Light Rail Progress
Workable Light Rail Meets Small-Town Mobility and Urban Development Needs
The following article has been adapted, edited, and expanded with the permission of the author, from a section of the draft of a paper by Lyndon Henry, "Heritage Streetcar Systems – Effectively Developing the Potential of a (Re-)Emerging Light Rail Mode for Urban Transit", submitted for presentation to APTA's June 2005 Rail Transit Conference in Pittsburgh.
Affordable, workable light rail transit (LRT) in an American city of less than one million population? How about less than 100,000 population?
That seems to be precisely the case with the new light rail streetcar
system in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a small city of about 90,000 population.
Located along the shore of Lake Michigan, Kenosha lies a short
distance north of the illinois-Wisconsin border, and about 70 miles (113
km) northwest of Chicago. Since 2000, Kenosha Transit has operated a
1.7-mile (2.7-km) streetcar loop designed to connect the local Metra
regional passenger rail ("commuter rail") station to downtown attractions, a transit center, and
the new 64-acre Harborpark residential development situated on the Lake Michigan shore.
A Kenosha PCC car passes picturesque homes and resort residences
in one of the neighborhoods served. Connecting local residents to the
Metra regional rail station for work and shopping commutes to Chicago
is one of the functions of the streetcar system.
The route of the Kenosha Transit Electric Streetcar – a heritage-type system using renovated,
Art Deco-era PCC (Presidents' Conference Committee) rolling stock – begins at Kenosha's
Metra rail station and extends south on 11th Ave. to 56th Street. (See map, below.) Streetcars
run in the grassy boulevard median of 56th St., then are routed east through the Civic Center,
then past the 6th Ave. retail district, the new Harborpark neighborhood, and Southport Marina,
and finally to a terminus at Celebration Park adjacent to Lake Michigan. In the opposite
direction, cars operate between Harborwalk Park and 54th Street, past the Museum Complex,
the north side of the Harborpark Condominiums, Navy Park, City Hall, and Kenosha Transit's
new downtown Transit Center. Streetcars operate in the curb lane of 54th Street between 8th
Ave. and 11th Ave., stopping at Sheridan Road and the Public Safety Building before returning
to the Metra station.
The line is routed in a grassy median for about half its length, alongside the street for about a
quarter of its length, and in the street for the remaining distance. While the single tracks are
one-way, bidirectional service is rendered since the two parallel tracks are situated just two
blocks apart, and there are 17 simple car stops. A double-ended siding is installed about
midway through the route, adjacent to the city museum, allowing extra cars to be queued to
accommodate special events, when needed, at the museum and the lakefront park. For
electric power distribution, the street railway uses a 600 VDC OCS (overhead contact system)
with simple trolley wire, with current being drawn by trolley poles on the cars.
As the Vintage Trolley website notes, "One of the most outstanding features of the operation is
its attractive right-of-way through the city." Much of this consists of a relatively new track
design embedded in turf (grass) developed by Stone Consulting & Design, Inc. (also an
underwriter of the Light Rail Now Project) that hides the track in grass-seeded areas on
median strips and throughout the landscaped Harborpark segment. The track sections are
surrounded by geotextile filter fabric, and contain a layer of topsoil over the crossties and up to
the rail to facilitate vegetation growth. The net effect is nearly invisible trackage embedded in
attractive verdant landscaping.
With its trackage embedded almost invisibly in turf (grass), much of
the alignment of the Kenosha streetcar's alignment is an attractive
carpet of green vegetation – a method of "guideway" installation and
landscaping that is unique to the LRT mode ... and Kenosha's streetcar
system has taken full advantage of it!
Service is provided by one of five refurbished Toronto PCC cars, each painted in a different
color scheme. The cars were converted from Toronto's broad gauge to standard gauge (1435
mm) by refitting trucks (bogeys) from a group of just-retired Chicago rapid transit cars. The
PCCs also received general repairs, wheelchair lifts, plus repainting, with work performed by Miner Railcar in iowa.
For ADA accessibility, infrastructure costs were minimized by fitting the cars with onboard lifts.
These take advantage of the wide rear doorway on the PCCs by swiveling out through the open
doorway and then moving vertically to and from street level. When stowed, the lift does not
block the center door.
According to information from APTA's Heritage Trolley and Streetcar website, the entire project, including a new maintenance building, was completed for the astonishingly low cost of about $5 million - amounting to $3 million per mile (2000), or about $3.5 million per mile ($2.2 million/km) in year-2005 dollars. The cost of in-street track was reduced by using steel ties where track is embedded in pavement. OCS costs were reduced by standardizing four typical pole designs. Federal funding was obtained for most of the cost of the system.
While daily service is provided, operating hours vary by season, with a shorter schedule provided during winter months. On average, the line currently carries several hundred rider-trips per day. Annual ridership in 2003 (from the latest National Transit Database Agency Profile report available at the time of this analysis) totalled about 67,600 boardings, and 76,400 passenger-miles – indicating a rather short average trip length (ATL) of just 1.1 mile. in contrast, Kenosha's bus system (a 48-vehicle fleet, as of 2003, carrying about 5.9 million passenger-trips) exhibited an ATL of 3.7 miles, and the city's demand-response (D-R) minibus (or van) system exhibited 4.5 miles (for about 15,000 annual trips). Clearly, the streetcar is functioning as a very short transit shuttle or connector, in contrast to the long-distance commuter-type services provided by Kenosha Transit's bus operations.
During the summer season, up to 30% of the streetcar's operating costs have been covered from the farebox; the remainder of ongoing costs is borne by Kenosha Transit. However, sharp differences in function and trip-length produces a stark disparity in comparative operating and maintenance (O&M) costs, which are currently quite high for the streetcar – as a general rule, modes carrying passengers longer distances tend to show higher cost-effectiveness than modes functioning in a short-haul, stop-and-go, circulator mode over short route lengths. O&M cost data for all three Kenosha modes are shown in the following comparison (again, from the 2003 NTDB Agency Profile):
While costs of over $4.50 per passenger-mile and over $4.00 per passenger-boarding are inordinately high for typical LRT, they may not be quite so egregious for a short, slow, central-area shuttle or circulator service. Would a rubber-tired faux-"trolley" minibus really have dramatically different costs – and still offer the same attraction for the public, and interest for adjacent businesses and developers?
It's worth noting that the O&M cost per passenger-mile of Kenosha's streetcar circulator service is actually not out of the range of other major short-distance central-city circulation-distribution rail or "fixed-guideway" transit systems, and in fact is less costly than some, in far more transit-favorable conditions. These systems use a variety of modes, including streetcar, automated guideway transit (AGT), and monorail (automated and manual). The following table provides comparative per-passenger-mile cost data for a number of such systems (FTA, NTDB, 2003):
In all but one case, a multi-station, circulator-type service is provided. The single exception is the Seattle monorail, which provides a point-to-point shuttle service between downtown and the Seattle Center in a heavy travel market, popular with tourists; furthermore, the absence of intervening stops allows higher schedule speed and a reduction in operating cost.
Most general-purpose circulator lines, like Kenosha's street railway, do not have such an advantageous market and service situation. Therefore, most of them will probably face relatively higher O&M costs as long as their routes are short and ridership is limited to extremely short on-and-off trips in a confined area.
What could help lower costs in Kenosha (and elsewhere) would be to expand the system beyond the CBD and the circulator function, establishing one or more longer routes which could attract longer-distance commute-type trips, for work, shopping, and other purposes. in lower-density conditions typical of US cities like Kenosha, this almost certainly implies the need for park & ride facilities, plus perhaps bus feeder services in neighborhoods outside the central city. The original circulator route could thus expand in function into a distribution spine for the longer-distance service – in effect, a development of the Rapid Streetcar concept. However, whether such expansion is feasible in a small town like Kenosha is a subject for further study.
In any case, Kenosha's short streetcar service appears to be achieving the objectives for which
it was originally installed, with the major benefits of the system being increasingly realized as
the Harborfront development approaches complete build-out. The streetcar provides an
increasingly useful circulation system which enables both residents and visitors to the
recreation facilities to access the Metra regional rail station, the municipal buildings, and the
downtown retail area. As the NYC Subway website notes, the colorful PCC streetcars are
esthetically pleasing and provide conspicuous, high-quality circulator service for people living,
shopping and working in the area. "The presence of the streetcars enhances the character of
the area while providing needed mobility, reliably, with zero emissions."
The apparent success of Kenosha's system in fulfilling its mobility and urban development goals seems to suggest that quite attractive and workable LRT systems can be installed with a minimalist design approach and strict cost containment – making a heritage type of LRT perhaps an affordable option even for smaller cities and towns.
A Kenosha PCC glides quietly over its turfed alignment in the
Harborpark area, with a Lake Michigan lighthouse visible in the
Light Rail Now! website