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Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina approaching New Orleans
(Graphic: UWisc/CIMSS)


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Light Rail Now! NewsLog

Produced by the Light Rail Now! Publication Team

This news feature provides an ongoing Weblog of particularly significant developments in public transportation and rail transit.

21 September 2005

Hurricane Katrina:
Lessons for public transport

A new paper from the Victoria Transport Policy institute (VTPi) examines failures in Hurricane Katrina disaster response and their lessons for transportation policy and planning in other communities. "Lessons From Katrina What A Major Disaster Can Teach Transportation Planners", prepared by agency head and chief researcher Todd Litman, identifies "various policy and planning strategies that can help create a more efficient, equitable, and resilient transport system."

In a Media Release of 20 September 2005, the VTPI declares that "The evacuation plan functioned relatively well for motorists, but failed to serve people who depend on public transit." According to the VTPi, "Transport planners can help prevent future disasters by demanding that emergency response plans devote at least as much attention to the evacuation and care of non-drivers as they do to motorists."

The VTPI notes that non-drivers include many people with various physical, economic, and social problems. "Planners need to anticipate these people's needs", the report asserts, adding that "This may require special community outreach and communications activities to build understanding and trust among planners and the people they serve."

The VTPI continues:

From a transport planning perspective, the greatest mistake in New Orleans was the lack of a detailed action plan to dispatch buses for evacuating transit-dependent residents. Such a plan would include an inventory of all available buses and essential staff, and pre-established procedures to deploy buses when an evacuation order is announced.

The VTPI goes on to observe that

It is important to understand why many people ignored evacuation orders. Many faced logistical or financial barriers obtaining transport out of the city. Many had nowhere to go and were fearful of emergency shelter conditions. Some stayed to protect their property or pets, or out of bravado. Addressing these objections would increase evacuation order response.

The VTPI concludes that "A variety of planning policies and programs can help create a more resilient transport system."

These increase system diversity and integration, improve user information, prioritize use of infrastructure, and provide special services during emergencies. These can benefit everybody in a community, even people who currently rely on automobile transportation.

The full paper can be obtained at

The Victoria Transport Policy institute, 1250 Rudlin Street, Victoria, BC, V8V 3R7, Canada, can be reached by phone at 250.360-1560.

The agency's website is:

Todd Alexander Litman can be Emailed at

More on public transport safety issues...

14 September 2005

New Orleans:
More updates on Hurricane Katrina's impact on the streetcar system and general public transport

Some corrections, modifications, and elaborations of information have emerged since our original report on New Orleans's streetcar and public transport system of 11 September. Brian Theriot, a resident of New the city's famous French Quarter who says he was "present during and immedatly after Katrina", has submitted some corrections to our original report and adds "some information about the condition of the [Amtrak/Greyhound] Union Passenger Terminal as well as the streetcar lines." in addition, New Orleans streetcar expert (and community activist) Alan Drake also provides further information.

· Union Passenger Terminal: According to Brian Theroit, the historic terminal "was looted, broken into, but the building itself was not flooded." Alan Drake reports that the terminal "is now being used as the city jail" with "Over 200 in custody there."

I was there within 20 hours of the levee breaking" says Brian.

The looters' damage to the interior is minimal. An older Amtrak locomotive they always have on site was in good condition and was in fact sitting running on one of the tracks closest to the station. I'm not sure if it may have been used to power the station or another nearby building, possibly the post office.

· Canal streetcar line: According to Brian, "As far as the right of way, there is damage to the overhead wires downtown, where the newly planted palm trees fell on them."

· St. Charles streetcar line: Brian reports his observations along St. Charles after Hurricane Katrina, "but before the levee broke."

There is significant wire damage due to fallen trees. Lee Circle is especlally bad; all the trees on Lee Circle fell outward onto the wire as if the wind came from the statue in the middle itself. It was really wierd looking. After the flooding I did not go down St. Charles again. The only part of the line that I saw after the levee broke was the downtown street trackage – that was fine.

Alan Drake points out that, just prior to the hurricane, the construction firm Boh Brothers had been awarded a contract to completely replace the St. Charles line power distribution system, including substations. Thus, even though the power system was seemingly destroyed in the hurricane and flood, that is not as disastrous as one would think, since it was slated to be removed and replaced anyway.

· RTA bus fleet: Alan Drake questions our earlier report, via Boston's MBTA, that 200 of the agency's buses were driven out of town to safety before the flood. According to an RTA supervisor contacted by Alan, the agency "barely had enough drivers reporting to ferry people to the SuperDome and were only able to ferry 75 buses from Canal Barn (flooded 6.5' to 8') to the docks, where they were parked 'High & Dry'. Alan notes that the RTA official "is unaware of 200 buses being driven out of town and 'doubts it.'"

A New Orleans Times-Picayune article of 12 September cites RTA officials as the source of their report that "at least half of the 350 buses in the fleet, remain partially submerged in floodwaters and may be beyond repair...." Most of the ruined buses were stored at the Canal (Randolph) station (storage facility and garage). "When transit workers evacuated the building nearly two weeks ago, water levels in the parking lot had already risen 'up to the steering wheels' of most of the vehicles", the paper reports.

The paper also notes that "Some 150 buses that were moved to the Poland Avenue Wharf in the Lower Ninth Ward appear to have fared well, but about 70 of those vehicles were commandeered by the police and fire departments, the National Guard, and in a few cases by individual citizens who used them to evacuate family members, friends and neighbors."

The Times-Picayune goes on to report:

The RTA is in the process of recovering those buses and other unaccounted-for vehicles. The agency has learned that two buses wound up in Lafayette, one in Opelousas and one in Bunkie. Two other buses were found in the Ninth Ward, where residents used them several days for shelter.
in what may be the only bit of good news, RTA spokeswoman Deslie isidore said it looks like the passengers on the pirated buses "did not lay a finger on the fareboxes."
in the short term, the RTA will offer all functioning buses in its fleet for use in the recovery effort.
FEMA officials have asked that some of the buses be made available as early as next week for transport between Baton Rouge and New Orleans for staffers, clean-up crews, construction workers and other participants in the rebuilding process.

According to the same article, an RTA official reports that "RTA buses and drivers soon may be rolling through the streets of Baton Rouge to help relieve the pressure that tens of thousands of south Louisiana evacuees have placed on the capital city's traffic."

The article also provides the first onsite information from a major media source regarding the streetcar system. It warns that "the brand-new Canal Street streetcars that debuted to considerable fanfare in April 2004", as well as the Riverfront line streetcars, "remain partially submerged in floodwaters and may be beyond repair...."

"The 24 apple-red streetcars – assembled largely by hand by RTA artisans as part of a $161 million project that restored rail service to Canal Street after an absence of nearly 40 years – were stored at the A. Philip Randolph Operations Facility in the 2800 block of Canal as Hurricane Katrina approached the Louisiana coast", reports the paper. The report also notes that the same facility housed the seven streetcars comprising the Riverfront line for the past 16 years. When transit workers evacuated the building nearly two weeks ago, the article relates, water levels in the parking lot had already risen "up to the steering wheels" of buses and thus undoubtedly up to the control consoles of most of the streetcars. The report continues:

"It wasn't a pretty sight," said Mark Major, the agency's finance director. "Those new streetcars have a lot of delicate electronics. Even if they were sitting in clear pool water, it would have caused serious problems. The fact that the water is filled with gasoline and other corrosives is not good news."
in the 16 months since they began operating, the Canal streetcars, which cost almost $1 million each, became very popular among locals and visitors, boosting ridership on the line beyond expectations.
Major said the 35 streetcars on the historic St. Charles Avenue line appear to have escaped serious water damage, although the condition of the tracks and the bed beneath them, the overhead electrical system and the power stations is unknown.
"We're hoping the metal bodies [of the streetcars] are OK," he said. "But until we get a look inside, we won't know what can be salvaged. Some may be in good shape, some may have damage and some may need total replacement."
While all streetcars and buses are covered by insurance, it is unclear how much depreciation will play into what the RTA can recover and how soon.
The bottom line, Major said, is that even when New Orleans' transit system gets back in business, rail service probably won't be part of the equation at first.
"Large portions of Canal Street are still sitting in water," he said.
"There's a lot that has to be assessed, but we believe it's imperative to get some kind of rail back in service as soon as possible. Our streetcars are icons and it's important that our citizens see them up and running.

More on New Orleans Public Transport issues

11 September 2005

New Orleans:
Update on Hurricane Katrina disaster and public transport

In response to the disastrous damage inflicted on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding (mainly from a levee breach in the Lake Ponchartain canal and flood control system), the Light Rail Now Project has received numerous inquiries regarding the status of New Orleans's transit system, and particularly the condition of the streetcar system. Unfortunately, little to nothing on this issue has appeared in the mass media. From contacts and various public transport industry, advocacy, and professional sources, here is a summary of what we know so far.

· The Carrollton Station (streetcar storage and maintenance facility for the historic St. Charles line) was located on higher ground and apparently escaped flooding and serious damage, along with rolling stock located there (historic Perley Thomas streetcars as well as some newer cars, probably Riverfront rolling stock).

· The Canal St. Station (aka Randolph Station, the storage and maintenance facility for the new Canal St. rolling stock, combined with a major bus garage) evidently was severely flooded. Reportedly, the new PT-2000 cars were submerged up to their fareboxes. The precise condition of the streetcar rolling stock and buses at Canal Station is unknown. Rehabilitation of the cars – particularly motors and electrical components damaged by the brackish water – is a possibility and is being explored, as least unofficially.

· The condition of the streetcar system's overall infrastructure (trackage, power distribution, etc.) is not known precisely. Apparently only the Riverfront line – constructed on a railroad right-of-way atop a Mississippi River levee – was largely untouched. Photos have shown major sections of the Canal and St. Charles-Carrollton lines totally flooded, with only the overhead contact system (OCS) visible above water and appearing mostly intact. However, since trackage on the Canal St. line was predominantly embedded in concrete, it may not be catastrophically affected. Conditions on the St. Charles-Carrollton line – where trackage was predominantly embedded in a grassy median or "neutral ground" – remain unknown at present.

· Vandalism and theft remain ongoing threats to both streetcar facilities and rolling stock, especially at the heretofore largely unharmed Carrollton Station. "If any special measures are being taken to safeguard the facilities against these threats, they have not been reported.

· Regarding the Regional Transit Authority's bus fleet, Jim Schantz reports that "According to information received by the MBTA in Boston, the official word from the RTA is that 200 of their buses were driven out of town before the storm and are safe." The remaining buses (most of which apparently remained at the Canal/Randolph Station) were, like the PT-2000 Canal streetcars, "flooded up to their fareboxes." As of about 10 days ago, the RTA reportedly had resumed limited bus service. Routes or types of service are currently unknown.

· Reportedly, Amtrak's historic passenger station in downtown New Orleans – which also serves as the city's principal Greyhound motor coach station – was seriously flooded. In addition to transit buses, schoolbuses, and motor coaches, special Amtrak passenger trains were deployed to transport refugees out of the city and to evacuation points. The results of this effort are not yet known.

Reconstruction of the city and its public transport system – and facilitating the return and safe resettlement of evacuees – are clearly major challenges now facing the city. Some urban planners and other observers question the official policy of forced removal of remaining New Orleans residents.

While conflicts among public interests are unfortunate, sometimes they do occur. In the New Orleans case, the dangers of depopulation, and the need to ensure acceptable rehabilitation and revitalization of the city, may trump the threat posed by toxic flood water and associated dangers (such as natural gas leaks and the possibility of fire). Furthermore, the need to totally depopulate Algiers (the section of the city across the Mississippi, which suffered little more than sporadic street flooding) is unclear.

A city is basically its people. While public health and safety clearly are critical factors to consider, draconian depopulation could further the destruction of the city, rather than promoting revitalization and rehabilitation – particularly when carried out with violence.

While some public transport commentators have suggested that restoration of the streetcar system will be far down the list of major reconstruction tasks, other transit supporters argue that such a "defeatist" approach should not be accepted. "Streetcar service can and should be restored as soon as possible in New Orleans – in my opinion, as a national priority", argues longtime public transport professional Tom Matoff. Tom notes that, after the siege of Sarajevo, was the restoration of streetcar service in the city that symbolized to the people of Sarajevo and to the whole world, that the city was coming back. The streetcars were synonymous with the life of the city, and their reappearance gave everyone hope and heart for the future. I believe that the same will be true in New Orleans. Nothing less than complete restoration of service should be considered – although it can be done in stages as cars and track become available. As soon as there is enough dry trackage, usable cars, repaired overhead and traction power, access to Carrollton station, and trained operators, service should be started. Even a partial service would give the city a great psychological boost. There should be an effort to get something moving as soon as practicable. This is a high priority and not a frill.

Several commentators also emphasize that restoration of the streetcar system, as well as additional extensions, and the restoration of other public transport infrastructure and rolling stock, should be funded 100% by federal disaster relief as an economic revitalization tool. This would require a very serious commitment by the federal government including the demonstration of good faith with the people of New Orleans. Undoubtedly, a major political effort – perhaps involving major celebrities and community figures – would need to be mounted, with an initial focus to bring the city's Congressional delegation on board. Together with lobbying assistance from other interested parties, directed to their own political representatives, perhaps America's obligation to the restoration of the city of New Orleans – including its public transport system – can be fulfilled.

NOTE: Much of the information in this report has been obtained and adapted from postings on the Public Transport Progress, Light Rail Progress Professional, and Streetcars Desired Everywhere online discussion lists.

More on New Orleans Public Transport issues

9 August 2005

Light rail line exceeds weekday average ridership goal 15 years early

Ridership on Minneapolis's new light rail transit (LRT) system has been soaring. John DeWitt of Twin Cities-based Transit for Livable Communities (TLC, an underwriter of the Light Rail Now Project) relates that total ridership for June hit 699,000 person-trips (of which 75,000 were for Twins games). The ridership breakdown was as follows:

· Average weekday ridership – 25,193 (ranging from 22,700 to 31,700)
· Average Saturday ridership – 22,645 (ranging from 16,700 to 29,800)
· Average Sunday ridership – 13,581 (ranging from 9,100 to 17,200)

John observes that "Since the 2020 forecast for weekday ridership was 24,600, the Hiawatha line has surpassed that forecast by a healthy margin in its 12th month. The line provides in excess of 10% of all Metro Transit trips for 7.84% of the agency's total operating expense."

For July, ridership results are equally impressive. "Although Metro Transit was expecting a slip in ridership for July," reports John, "only the rate of growth slipped as it grew by about 22,500 rides in comparison with 50,000 per month in the preceeding months." He notes further that July ridership came in at 721,700, with weekday ridership averaging 26,500 – compared to a 2020 forecast of 24,600. The Hiawatha LRT service is thus exceeding its forecast 15 years early!

Another Minneapolis transit advocate, Tom Fairbairn, points out that LRT rolling stock is being utilized to capacity; thus, "all available equipment is frequently in use." Tom further reports that

"The system has ordered three additional articulated cars (same design as now used, from Bombardier), which should be here within the next year, I believe. But I suspect more will be needed shortly, and definitely if the University light rail system ever is built between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. One of the big draws has been during Metrodome events. The Vikings are looking to build a new stadium up in Blaine, Minnesota (a second-tier suburb north of Minneapolis several miles), which will take them out of the loop at the Dome. However, even if the Twins move to North Minneapolis, they will still be on the light rail and that won't change the loadings, or might increase them. The Vikings really don't contribute that much on an annual basis, anyhow, as the number of NFL games played at the dome is not that high.

More on Minneapolis-St. Paul Public Transport

9 August 2005

Washington, DC:
Suburban and exurban residents favor MetroRail expansion

A strong majority of Washington, DC-area residents want more MetroRail rapid transit, according to a new poll. The Washington Post of 5 August 2005 published a report on a random telephone survey of 1,263 people by QSA Research & Strategy to find out where people in Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City and County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County, Va wanted transportation money invested.

Sixty percent in the Dulles Access Toll Road corridor indicated they wanted MetroRail, and in the rest of the area, with 1.5 million people, the proportion of respondents favoring more MetroRail was very close to sixty percent. The inner cores of Arlington and Washington were not included; the survey was limited to suburban and exurban residents. The majority of respondents indicated that more roads were not essential, and some even thought them counter-productive.

Edson L. Tennyson, a Washington-area transportation engineering consultant (and technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project) who related these results to us, notes that Loudoun County, with 250,000 people, "is served by all of a dozen buses – not routes, but just buses. it is promised and needs MetroRail, but FTA won't fund it (yet)."

Ed also notes that

Prince William County has good parlor coach and VRE rail service. All counties have HOV lanes with emphasis to Prince William County. The Dulles Toll Road has an express bus every three minutes at peak, half non-stop to Herndon Park-and-Ride and half branching out to serve North Reston, South Reston Herndon, Dulles, and Franklin Farm.

The survey found that respondents were willing to pay US$1.87 per day each to fund transit. As Ed points out, "That comes to $900 million a year, $11 billion capitalized." With that much funding, he notes, "We could build 14 miles of Seattle [type] monorail, but I do not think we will."

Instead, perhaps this evidence of strong public support for rail transit and funding will spur planners and decisionmakers to increase funding for further expansion of the MetroRail system, which has proven highly effective and clearly very popular.

More on Washington, DC Public Transport

8 August 2005

How about a modern light rail car demo on the Madison Ave. line?

Apparently faced with public confusion and ambivalence over their plans for a modern regional light rail transit (LRT) system, officials of the Memphis Area Transit Authority have announced plans to launch a marketing effort to attract support for such a system. Recently, a majority of the City Council narrowly defeated an effort to delete funds for the LRT plan from the city's capital improvement budget. MATA president and general manager William Hudson warned that the vote demonstrates that MATA and other local officials must do a better job of educating the public on the project, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal (5 August 2005). "The fact of the matter is, we've got to go back to the community and see if they support it" Hudson emphasized at a meeting of a regional rail steering committee a few days ago.

As the Commercial Appeal notes, the proposed $400 million LRT system would connect the downtown area with Memphis international Airport and other employment centers. The US federal government, it's hoped, would provide half the funding, with the state and city splitting the remainder of the project cost.

A Memphis Business Journal article (15 July 2005) provides further details, noting that MATA is proposing two route alternatives to the airport: "Alternative 1 would go east on Madison before turning south on Cooper, east on Young and then making the final trip south on Airways. Alternative 2 would follow Pauline to Lamar, where it would connect with Airways." The Journal further points out that "The route along Madison could merge three entertainment and shopping districts – Downtown, Overton Square and the Cooper-Young neighborhood – with three employment districts – Downtown, the medical district and the airport." On the other hand, "the other route could help revitalize part of the economically depressed Lamar corridor while connecting the employment centers."

During the recent rail committee meeting, committee members said the public should be adequately informed about the economic benefits that other cities have enjoyed after installing LRT systems. They also noted that "many Memphis-area residents tend to confuse the higher-speed light-rail systems with the slow-moving Downtown trolley", according to the newspaper report.

The heritage streetcar system consists of an enlongated loop in and around the CBD plus a perpendicular line, opened in April 2004, along Madison Ave. between downtown and the Medical Center area (see map and additional information in Memphis: Medical Center heritage trolley extension opens as planners eye modern LRT). The latter route was constructed to modern LRT standards with an eye to future joint use by the heritage trolleys and an eventual modern LRT system.

However, the rail trolley circulator system has become a target of criticism because of poor ridership – during its first year, the service averaged slightly over 500 rider-trips a day. This and other evidence of poor trolley system performance, the Commercial Appeal editorialized (30 April 2005), "are points City Council members need to consider carefully before moving forward with a plan to extend light rail service to the airport."

These issues have prompted some observations from Frank Miklos, a retired New Jersey Transit professional and longtime leading member of the Electric Railroaders Association. "The only thing that the Memphis voters have to ride are the slow-moving downtown trolleys" Frank points out. He contiues with a suggestion:

If MATA is really serious about going to the voters with a plan for light rail, they should consider borrowing a modern LRV [light rail vehicle] from another system for demonstration rides. The new extension [on Madison Ave.] to the Medical Center would be an appropriate venue for such a demonstration ride. Otherwise, I fear the voters will only be influenced by the existing rolling stock which is great for a vintage line, but not even close to modern light rail standards.

Sounds like a worthy idea to us.

More on Memphis Public Transport

More on Heritage Streetcars

8 August 2005

Union County, NJ:
Elizabeth-to-Newark Airport light rail project under way

Union County, New Jersey is proceeding with plans for a light rail transit (LRT) line to link Elizabeth, NJ (the county seat) with Newark Liberty international Airport terminals, reports Doug Bowen, a leader of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (an underwriter of the Light Rail Now Project). The Union County LRT plan is apparently independent of either the Hudson-Bergen LRT (HBLRT) or Newark LRT system, although it may eventually connect with these other New Jersey Transit systems.

Under the Union County plan, the LRT line will be routed from the Lot D Monorail Station at the Newark Airport (EWR) to the Elizabeth regional and intercity rail station on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) main line, with a possible future extension to either Cranford or Plainfield, NJ. The LRT system design is intended to be comparable to that of the Newark City Subway or HBLRT .

The Union County project would total about 5.8 miles (9.4 km) in length, and would include 9 or 10 stations, as follows:

  • Lot D Monorail Station at Newark Airport (EWR)
  • North Avenue station east of NJ turnpike (near IKEA)
  • Kapkowski Road Station (near new hotel)
  • Jersey Gardens Station
  • Ferry Terminal Station
  • Possible future Singer Station (near an abandoned Singer sewing machine factory)
  • Third Street Station (near Trumbull Street in Elizabethport area)
  • Division Street Station (near Trumbull Street)
  • Spring Street (Routes 1 & 9) Station (near Grand Street)
  • Elizabeth station on the Northeast Corridor main line.

The line would have two tracks except for one segment where right-of-way and railroad freight service limit the system to a single track. This segment would be approximately 700 feet in length near Division Street. The LRT system will use an overhead contact system and operate over a portion of the partially used freight right-of-way owned by Conrail, CSX, and Norfolk Southern, situated between the NEC and the Jersey Gardens Mall, plus newly developed right-of-way. Five grade-level crossings are planned, and it is anticipated that LRT tracks would displace 50 parking spaces at EWR Parking Lot P1.

The cost of the project (in 1997 dollars) is estimated at US$291.7 million – about $380 million in current (2005) dollars. Daily ridership for the Union County line is projected at 13,000 daily passenger trips (6,500 people x 2 rides per person). A 12-minute peakhour headway is tentatively planned, with trains operating 365 days per year, 06:00 to 23:00, plus special service beyond these hours as necessary.

Rolling stock is envisioned to consist of 90-foot long light rail vehicles (LRVs), providing 70 seats and space for 110 standees for a total maximum capacity of 180 passengers per car. The Union County LRVs would be designed for maximum speeds of 55 MPH.

So far, the Union County LRT project has received little public attention, evidently somewhat obscured by other major transit developments in North Jersey. "Nonetheless," says Doug Bowen , "the plan is there, it is moving ahead, if glacially, and even LRT-hostile New Jersey Transit acknowledges this plan as a 'real' one." So, he says, it's worth taking seriously.

This report has slightly adapted information originally provided by Gary Johnson of NJ-ARP.

More on New Jersey Public Transport

31 July 2005

Planning progresses for city's second light rail tramway

Tramways & Urban Transit (June 2005) reports that the second tramway for the French city of Orléans, to be routed east-west (see our earlier report Orléans: New east-west light rail tramway to be "true tram on rails", not "BRT"), will be a 12-km (7.4-mile) line linking La Chapelle St-Mesmin with St-Jean-de-Braye. Capital cost is now estimated at 300 million (about US $390 million), for a unit cost of about $32 million per kilometer, or $53 million per mile.

T&UT also relates that, if a declaration of public utility can be obtained by the summer of 2007, the new line could open for operation in 2010.

More on Public Transport in France

22 July 2005

Luas light rail tramway ridership soars

Continuing to illustrate the substantial benefits of implementing light rail transit services, Dublin's Luas light rail tramway is on track to hit another ridership record. For 2005, the tramway is expected to carry some 20 million passenger-trips – "well ahead of estimates", according to Tramways & Urban Transit (June 2005).

The 24-km (15-mile), 2-route LRT system was carrying an average of approximately 50,000 rider-trips a day prior to Christmas 2004, but this increased within two months by another 10,000 per day. T&UT reports that some 7,000 daily trips have come from Dublin's bus ridership, "and this trend is expected to continue when the proposed network of feeder buses to Luas interchanges is introduced."

More on Public Transport in ireland

9 July 2005

Las Vegas:
Monorail bonds fall to "junk" status

"Critics of the glitch-plagued Las Vegas Monorail might consider the transit line a piece of junk" noted the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Thursday, 31 March 2005. "Now, bonds that helped pay to build the system really are junk."

The paper related that approximately $455.8 million in bonds, supposedly to finance the entire system from private sources, were dropped to "speculative" grade, or "junk" status, by Moody's investors Service on 30 March "amid concerns over lagging ridership and revenues to date." The Review-Journal noted that the monorail's bonds, intended to cover a large portion of the $650 million system's costs, had previously been rated "investment" grade by the global credit ratings firm.

"The downgrade is our way of indicating to investors the prospects of timely payment of debt service are a little riskier now", Anne Van Praagh, a Moody's analyst, told the newspaper. Van Praagh had prepared the company's monorail report. However, she added that "Long-term, we do think that this project has a lot of potential."

The Review-Journal explained that the bond downgrade "would force the monorail to pay higher interest rates if it tried to raise more cash, though the system has sizeable reserves and has mothballed plans for a downtown extension." in its report, Moody's elaborated that "The downgrade is based on the actual revenues to date being lower than the original forecast, which is due in large part to the late opening and subsequent shutdown of operations."

"The negative outlook anticipates that the system will be required to continue to achieve a significant ramp-up in ridership and revenues in order to achieve financial self-sufficiency," the report aded.

Another Vegas paper, the Las Vegas Sun, reminded readers that Fitch Inc., another bond analyst, had placed the monorail's bonds on "Rating Watch Negative" in September 2004, meaning that the bonds were "on the verge of being downgraded by that agency." "A downgrade increases the cost of future bond issues and also bars some investors from holding the riskier bonds" noted the paper.

While ridership has been high by normal urban public transport standards – averaging about 30,000 a day – the monorail has nevertheless been struggling with lower-than-expected ridership. in may, average ridership dropped to just over 29,000 a day.

As Light Rail Now! has previously reported, extraordinarily high ridership was originally projected as essential to produce sufficient revenue to enable the automated system to not only pay for its entire capital and operating costs, but to render a profit. This was greeted with skepticism by some transit and financial industry professionals.

Currently, monorail officials are considering a fare increase – exceeding the current $3.00 fare for a one-way trip – to shore up revenue and offset the shortfall from insufficient patronage.

More on Las Vegas Public Transport

More on Monorails

7 July 2005

Metro dumps MetroRail expansion plan, substitutes "BRT"

Under pressure from two powerful rightwing anti-rail Congressmen – US House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and Rep. John Culberson (both of whom fought Houston's rail plans in 2003) – plus a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that has been campaigning for "Bus Rapid Transit" ("BRT") alternatives to rail, Houston Metro has announced a drastic downsizing of its plans for transit expansion (approved by voters in November 2003).

Gone are about 13 miles (21 km) of light rail transit (LRT) – what was to be four totally new lines – in the original plan, which would have meant a dramatic expansion of electric rail transit. instead, bus service, plus about 28 miles (45 km) of regional passenger rail ("commuter" rail), will be substituted. A single new LRT line to the west, plus a tiny extension of the existing route, all totalling to about 9 miles (15 km), is all that's left of the expansive system voters had originally approved.

Regional rail, oriented to suburban, exurban, and rural travelers, is a valuable adjunct to the public transport system of virtually any city. But – especially with headways typically counted in hours rather than every few minutes – regional "commuter" rail usually does not provide anywhere near the service level, penetration, and connectivity of an electric LRT system. Dallas Area Rapid Transit's Trinity Railway Express, for example, connects the cores of two large cities (Dallas and Ft. Worth), plus a string of smaller communities in between, over about 40 miles of track, but it still carries only about 10% of the ridership of DART's multi-line LRT system.

But what the new DeLay-Culberson-blessed plan really positions as the replacement for the discarded MetroRail is (no surprise here) more bus service. However, in a new twist, it's heavily promoted as "rapid transit" – "Bus Rapid Transit", or "BRT".

Under the new plan, "BRT" buses (styled to have a "train-like" look, and heavily portrayed by promoters as "railcars on rubber tires") will be substituted for bona fide electric rail transit on the previous MetroRail routes. According to Metro, there will be upwards of about 60 miles of "BRT" and "Signature/Suburban BRT" (whatever that is); of all this, "sleek" buses (streamlined and articulated to resemble railcars) will run at least partially in about 14 miles (23 km) of paveways.

But here's another twist. Rails for a promised "future conversion" to LRT will supposedly be embedded in the busways and paveways. This gesture – which seems to contradict the "cost-saving" claims justifying the "BRT" substitution itself – seems to be Metro's effort to assuage discontent erupting among communities which had expected to be linked by the now-scuttled MetroRail routes.

And discontent has definitely been evident. "Metro's plan to temporarily run train-like buses on a light rail bed on four routes originally slated for rail has given the agency a serious credibility problem" reported the Houston Chronicle on 28 June. "New Metro rail plan angering everyone" was the headline of the Lone Star Times (2005/06/16).

"I don't care if it looks like light rail. It's a bus, and that's not what the voters approved" Councilman Adrian Garcia told Metro officials, conveying the anger of many of his northside Houston constituents that they may have to wait seven years or more before Metro would consider converting their redesigned route from "bus rapid transit" to rail. "My district demands some very specific answers" Garcia added.

Likewise, Democratic Rep. Gene Green, whose district includes the east side of Houston, warned that Metro still has to "earn back the trust of the area I represent." "I may not be the majority leader or in the majority party, but I sure can make things hard" Green added.
[Houston Chronicle, 23 June 2005]

A second Democratic congressman from Houston, Al Green, commented that "People are concerned that there may be some plan that is going to develop that would not be consistent with what they perceived it to be when they were casting their votes."
[Houston Chronicle 16 June 2005]

The revised, bus-focused plan has been criticized as "Perhaps a deal with the devil, but the only deal that can get federal funding" – and that seems to be the consensus of many rail supporters. "Speaking as an environmental organizer who helped pass the Houston light rail referendum and touches base with Houstonites on this and other issues though I live in Austin," says David Foster of Clean Water Action, "i believe that [this] analysis is basically correct. This is a political deal done because DeLay and Culberson are in position to gum up the federal funding."

Foster notes that

It may make good sense from the point of view of those of us who wish to see more LRT; however, it may not, and I see two things to watch for:
1) Will the BRT lines actually be built in a way which allows future accommodation of LRT? I have heard of many cases where BRT gets watered down to "express bus" without dedicated lanes, platforms, etc.
2) Will rails actually be put into the ground, even if separate rights-of-way for BRT are built? I am certain that the other side is going to ask why it makes sense to spend more money on rails in the ground if the idea is to wait until ridership levels are high enough to justify conversion to LRT. Why not, they will ask, put the rails down only at that point, since ridership may never reach these levels? Their real goal would of course be to stop rail altogether, any way they can.

Foster concludes that "This is a move on the part of Metro to get federal funding soon in the hopes that more can be secured later for full LRT, and it may work – but it may not, and the battle is far from over."

Houstonian Stephanie Stout sees the revamped plan as "a delaying tactic to postpone, water down, or better yet, prevent any future rail transit expansion." She warns that "The rail transit opponents will try to suck up as much funding as possible to prevent future conversion from BRT to LRT and try to show that the ridership for the bus lines would never justify the traffic necessary for rail transit."

"I don't know anything about the specific buses proposed," says Stout, "but if they have a poor performance or reliability record, then rail opponents would gladly use them to sour the public on transit in general and perpetuate automobile dominance and the expansion of suburban sprawl." She further comments:

We the Houston voters approved the expansion of light rail and the improvement of our local bus system, not BRT. There has never been a vote on the expansion of our freeway system, especially the excessive I-10 West widening. The I-10 West widening has always been treated by the powers-that-be as inevitable with the federal funding taken for granted. The highway mob and business community try to get the public to look at air quality goals and energy independence as so much pie-in-the-sky.

On the whole, despite all those extra miles of "BRT" route, and the regional "commuter" rail line, in terms of quality, the revamped plan has all the look and feel of a major downsizing of future public transport for the Houston area – compared with what was on the table originally. At bottom, the revised "LRT out, 'BRT' in" plan also has several of the hallmarks of a combination of extortion and swindle, whereby longtime anti-rail Representatives DeLay and Culberson gave lip service to the "will of the voters" after the November 2003 voter endorsement of LRT, but then returned to Washington and hammered out a replacement "BRT" scheme in collusion with the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA (reconstituted and reprogrammed in line with the Bush administration's apparent new strategy to de-emphasize urban public transport). And it's the FTA, of course – especially if bolstered by powerful Congressional allies – which can issue "take it or leave it" ultimatums to transit agencies.

Many rail supporters are well aware that the DeLay/Culberson objective from the outset was to thwart the mandate of Houston voters and derail Houston's LRT expansion plan. in this goal – for the time being at least – they seem to have succeeded expertly.

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