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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.

30 June 2009

San Jose:
New heritage trolley line opens

San Jose, California — A new heritage trolley line, the Happy Hollow line, began operation in San Jose's Kelley Park on 3 June 2009. The line runs less than a mile from the History San Jose Trolley Barn down Senter Road to just past the Japanese Friendship Garden, and it will be extended another block to Happy Hollow Zoo. The nonprofit California Trolley and Railroad Corporation began laying tracks for the project more than a decade ago, but funding and donated work for the overhead power lines didn't come through until a couple of years ago. Funds were contributed by the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission ($10,000) and The San Jose rotary Club ($13,000).

Trolley Early-20th-century-era trolley on inaugural run from History Park to the Japanese Friendship Garden at Kelley Park.
[Photo: San Jose History Park]

The streetcar is a refurbished 1912 trolley, holding up to fifty passengers, that was once part of the San Jose Railroad line that closed down in the 1930s.

The trolleys are operated by volunteers on weekends only and rides are free. Kelley Park Trolley runs historic trolleys through the grounds of the San Jose Historical Museum in Kelley Park, which is a landscaped 14-acre site that recreates an historic town setting.

The new line augments heritage streetcar services in the San Jose metro area, where historic trolleys have been sharing tracks with San Jose's modern interurban-type light rail transit system in the city's CBD for nearly two decades.

Heritage trolley/streetcar services like this – that provide a useful public transport function as well as a "taste of history" excursion ride – illustrate the flexibility of light rail-type electric rail transit in facilitating useful mobility services at relatively very low cost (with, of course, liberal dollops of volunteer efforts by trolley fans).

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/30

More on San Jose-area Public Transport Developments

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Heritage Streetcars...

25 June 2009

Fix FTA's New Starts program, transit industry pros tell Senate

For years, the Light Rail Now Project and a handful of other transit-advocacy forces have been voices in the wilderness, decrying the absurd procedures and regulations of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) that have turned the agency's New Starts rail transit development program into more of a bottleneck than an efficient facilitator of rail transit startup funding. Now, the complaints and calls for change seem to be growing from a whisper to a clamor, with top industry figures speaking out on the issue.

A recent occasion – a Senate Banking Committee hearing on June 3rd – was chronicled in a report by Elana Schor on the Streetsblog website published 4 June 2009. As she explains,

To all but the most ardent transit wonks, the phrase "New Starts" sounds like a motivational tape sold on late-night TV. But those two words actually represent Washington's predominant mechanism to pay for major transit expansions – everything from expanding an existing rail station to building a new bus line.

Since its inception in the 1970s, New Starts has provided states and localities with more than $10 billion. Unfortunately, the program has forced local planners to clear cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles in order to prove their projects' cost-effectiveness while ignoring the economic-development benefits of transit.

 Minneapolis LRT While FTA's New Starts funding has been key to launching many urban rail projects, critics contend that the program's increasingly constrictive procedures have been forcing planners to underestimate potential ridership and thus downplay feasibility. As Schor's article reports, citing the Twin Cities' Metropolitan Council, Minneapolis's Hiawatha light rail line has been exceeding its initial ridership estimates by a whopping 58 percent. Here, a train arruves at the busy Lindbergh Terminal subway station serving the airport.
[Photo: Peter Ehrlich]

As Schor recounts, at the Senate Banking Committee hearing, several witnesses from the transit industry "sent an urgent message to Congress: Please fix New Starts." One of these was Richard Sarles, executive director of New Jersey Transit, who testified:.

I can say with some certainty that if a mayor requested an additional station for a New Starts project today – a request that would improve the project through increased ridership and economic development – the result would be project delay and cost increases.

How vibrantly does the issue of public transport development resonate with American senators? Well, apparently not very, at least with respect to the members of the Senate Banking Committee – since, as Ms. Schor points out, almost all of them managed to be absent from the hearing chamber, with the single exception of Sen. Robert Menendez (Democrat from New Jersey), chairman of the Banking panel's transportation subcommittee. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (Democrat of New York), Ms. Schor notes, "left the hearing after reading a brief statement on the importance of keeping federal transit funding high, providing a dismaying illustration of Congress' lack of urgency on transportation issues despite the system's imminent insolvency." Nevertheless, she recounts, the poor attendance of lawmakers at the hearing "didn't impede a lively debate...."

Two shortcomings of the New Starts process were singled out as ripe for reform: the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) intense level of review for even smaller transit projects and the lack of consideration of economic development in evaluating funding pitches.

Shortcomings of FTA's mandatory ridership forecasting procedures have been an issue targeted in a number of Light Rail Now analyses – see, for example: As Washington Meanders Toward "Regime Change"... Here's Our Wish List for Rational US Public Transport Policies

This problem – and related problems with FTA's quirky "cost-effectiveness index" – were also addressed by one of the witnesses, as Ms. Schor reports:

Mariia Zimmerman, policy director at the advocacy group Reconnecting America, said her recent research has found that several newly built transit lines are 15 years ahead of ridership estimates issued during the New Starts process. She questioned the effectiveness of the FTA's existing ridership-prediction model, dubbed the Transit System User Benefit, given its poor track record at determining cost-effectiveness.

"It is interesting to note that some of these [successful transit] lines would not have [been] funded if rated solely on their cost-effectiveness rating," Zimmerman said.

Picking up on Zimmerman's criticism of FTA's "cost-effectiveness" evaluatory procedures, Schor notes that "Indeed, the Obama administration recently cleared Portland's streetcars for $75 million in New Starts money that the Bush-era DOT had denied, citing a subpar cost-effectiveness rating."

A final witness quoted by Schor was Gary Thomas, president of Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Thomas, she recounts,

...had another suggestion for bringing New Starts ratings into the 21st century: Start accounting for the environmental benefits of extra transit. "In addition," he added, "the cost calculation should consider only the federal project cost – local sponsors should be able to add project features at their own expense without harming their cost-effectiveness rating."

Schor's report concludes by noting, somewhat ominously, that

Increasing transit's overall share of the discretionary transportation budget – that is, creating transit funding outside of New Starts – was mentioned in written testimony but didn't get much airtime at the hearing. As the federal transportation bill moves slowly towards reality, that subject may need to be dragged to the forefront.

Schor's remarks here seem to be on target, especially in view of the growing crisis among transit agencies across the country that are struggling with mounting difficulty to try to meet ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) expenses – a tiny portion of which are usually eligible for "discretionary" budgeting under the FTA's Section 5307 "formula" grant allotments. Otherwise, for the preponderance of O&M costs from the FTA's perspective, the rule is YOYO – You're On Your Own. This means that federal stimulus money might help an agency build a new line, but then provide virtually nothing to enable it to run. That issue indeed needs to be "dragged to the forefront".

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/25

More on Policy & Political Issues ...

More on Cost, Budget, & Financial Issues ...

Toward a "New Deal" for Public Transport ...

19 June 2009

Feds OK nearly $55 million for streetcar starter line ... but bickering stalls progress

Milwaukee — It's been about 18 years of rail transit "analysis paralysis" – proposals, plans, debates, hope, enthusiasm, hesitancy, reluctance, resistance, more proposals, more plans, more debate, and nothing to show for it – but maybe, just maybe, close to $55 million in federal stimulus cash will be enough of a sweetener to finally break the city's rail transit political logjam and get a rail transit starter line project moving.

Or maybe not.

The "sweetener" (as reported by the Business Journal of Milwaukee of March 13th) is a dollop of funding in the recently approved federal Omnibus Budget Bill which "contains a provision that dedicates 60 percent of the $91.5 million appropriations funding for public transit in Milwaukee for Mayor Tom Barrett’s downtown streetcar rail project." Take 60% of $91.5 million and you get $54.9 million – just call it "about $55 million".

The other 40% (about $36.6 million) is specified for a "Bus Rapid Transit" ("BRT") plan promoted by Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who has been hostile to rail proposals – and it's the ongoing conflict between the rail vs. bus (actually, pro-rubber-tire-motor-vehicle) factions that seems to be impeding progress, especially on the mayor's streetcar-type light rail transit (LRT) plan.

The current version of this Transit War has basically been going on since 1991, when the federal transit program provided a grant of $289 million to construct a dedicated bus lane in what was known as the East-West Freeway corridor (Interstate 94 from downtown Milwaukee to Waukesha). When this plan was cancelled, the feds took back $48 million – according to a timeline published April 19th in the Urban Milwaukee blog.

As this timeline further reports, in 1999 then-Governor Tommy Thompson swung a deal to funnel a huge chunk of the remaining transit grant money into a series of road projects that included construction of a new Marquette Interchange, the 6th Street Viaduct, and Canal Street – thus leaving the transit grant fund with a residual $91.5 million "designed for capital costs of a downtown circulator starter system".

In the intervening years, political battles between rail and road interests continued, with a $300-million "guided-bus" proposal holding favor for a brief period until it was dumped by Mayor Barrett. Then, in 2007-2008, the current competing proposals emerged, vying for the $91.5 million to fund a so-called "Connector" system – Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's LRT streetcar vs. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker's "BRT" proposal. The 60%-40% split apparently is the result of a compromise worked out by two key Wisconsin Democrats – Senator Herb Kohl and Representative David Obey – to divvy up the federal grant more or less equitably between the contending sides/projects.

The current dispute seems to revolve around the issue of which official body will develop the plan to be financed – the previously existing Milwaukee Connector Study panel, or a new city-appointed committee. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained in a June 16th report,

...federal rules still require a study to be completed before spending federal money on transit projects. And the connector study has been paralyzed by continuing disagreements between city and county officials over how Barrett's downtown streetcar line will fit together with Walker's express bus route linking the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, downtown and the County Grounds in Wauwatosa, said Pete Beitzel, the [Connector] study panel chairman.

Downtown [Alderman] Bob Bauman wants the new city committee – eight city officials and the managing director of the Milwaukee County Transit System – to take over streetcar planning. Walker, meanwhile, wants the county to move forward with the express bus line. Beitzel says he's not sure either can happen unless his panel finishes its work. Patrick Curley, Barrett's chief of staff, says he still believes it's possible to coordinate both plans under the aegis of the connector study.

And, as The Transport Politic blog noted in a commentary dated 14 March 2009, there's still the issue of finding a local funding mechanism to finance both local capital match and ongoing costs:

Unfortunately, the release of the $91 million will not solve all of the funding issues for the city’s transit system: it won’t be enough to allow for the full implementation of the 3-mile streetcar loop, whose final route has yet to be set. It also won’t be enough to assure the greater bus rapid transit network that Mr. Walker had proposed. As a result, local transit advocates will continue their support of a new source of revenue for transit in Milwaukee, which will likely include a half-cent sales tax, that notoriously unreliable funding mechanism. The state legislature will have to act to get such funding put into effect.

The debate over what kind of funding mechanism should be established – and, with objections emanating mainly from rightwing state legislators, whether public transit should be funded at all – have provided the basis for a whole 'nother enclave of political bickering.

Per Mayor Barrett's Downtown Streetcar Circulator plan, a modern electrically powered streetcar line would be operated over a 3-mile loop in downtown Milwaukee (see map below, with the streetcar route indicated by red lines). The streetcars would operate on paved track (rails imbedded in pavement) in mixed traffic with motor vehicles – no reserved or dedicated right-of-way is envisioned – and on-street parking along the route would be largely unaffected. Also, existing bus service would be maintained.

[Map: Milwaukee Mayor's Office]

The Mayor's transportation planners estimate that the Downtown Streetcar Circulator would cost about $52.6 million to build.

Some historical perspective is appropriate and useful at this point. The current confrontation over rail actually represents the continuation of a decades-old struggle during which the predecessors of today's crop of anti-transit Road Warriors successfully engineered the destruction of what once was a vast network of electric streetcar, interurban, and quasi-rapid transit lines serving the entire Milwaukee region.

While several systems once served the area, consolidation and restructuring produced two major systems:

TMER&LTMER&L — According to the Wisconsin Electric Railway Historical Society website, the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co. (TMER&L) was the largest electric railway and electric utility system in Wisconsin, and its streetcar lines ran on most major streets and served most areas of the city. TMER&L electric interurban lines reached throughout southeastern Wisconsin, and the company also operated the streetcar lines in Appleton, Kenosha, and Racine.
[Photo: Ken Josephson collection]

Much of the TMER&L (later The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transport Co., TMER&T) system included rapid transit-like routes on exclusive alignments. Later, after public policy, the machinations of highway special interests, and other factors such as the Great Depression, whittled away much of the network during the Transit Devastation era, some of the remaining interurban-type and rapid-transit-like lines were absorbed by a new company, Milwaukee Rapid Transit & Speedrail Co., which operated them until ultimate abandonment in 1951.

North Shore LineNorth Shore Line — The other most important rapid-transit-like service was provided by a major electric interurban system, the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad (CNS&M), more commonly known as the North Shore Line.
[Photo: Joe Testagrose collection]

As the Wisconsin Electric Railway Historical Society summarizes, "Often referred to as "America's Fastest Interurban", its trains raced between Milwaukee and Chicago at speeds approaching 90 mph." The system's largely grade-separated, highspeed Skokie Valley Route, bypassing street-running through a number of shoreline communities, became the showcase of the system.

According to the Historical Society summary, in 1941 two sleek, modern Electroliners were acquired, representing the state-of-the-art in highspeed electric railway (early light rail) technology, and featuring air-conditioning and a tavern-lounge section. Excellent maintenance kept even older cars in top shape to maintain highspeed (in excess of 80 mph) and frequent (hourly) service. In addition to their interurban services, the company also operated a local streetcar line in Milwaukee and several lines in Waukegan.

However, succumbing to the public neglect and a government-highway industry campaign to force dependency on personal motor vehicles – political, social, and economic hallmarks of the Transit Devastation era – North Shore Line service finally came to an end in 1963.

The infrastructure and other assets of both the TMER&L system and the North Shore Line and their subsidiary systems were basically destroyed, with some of the highspeed alignments being absorbed into the publicly supported roadway system.

Mayor Barrett's 3-mile-long LRT streetcar starter line thus represents a tiny step toward restoration of at least a portion of Milwaukee's once-superb electric railway system.

 streetcar Rendering of planned streetcar passing Milwaukee Public Market at Water St. and St. Paul Ave. Mayor Tom Barrett's project, now funded with nearly $55 million in federal aid, would install a 3-mile streetcar starter line in the city's downtown.
[Graphic: Milwaukee Mayor's Office]

Already, expansion ideas are being discussed; as the June 16th Journal Sentinel story relates, " officials are reconsidering the idea of running the streetcar in a loop around downtown..." and ""exploring routes that would reach into the lower east side and former Park East Freeway corridor, or possibly as far north as E. Brady St., and would serve the Bradley Center on the west...."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/19

More on Milwaukee Public Transport Developments

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

17 June 2009

Portland, Oregon:
New streetcar line finally gets federal funding

Portland, Oregon — After years of federal stalling by the previous Bush administration, Portland's new streetcar line has finally received a go-ahead to proceed ... from the Obama administration. On 30 April 2009, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $75 million in federal funds for the Portland Streetcar Loop Project (formerly called the Eastside Extension), approved as part of the recent federal appropriations bill.

Not only does this represent a significant unclogging of Portland's streetcar funding logjam, but also this is the first streetcar project in the USA to receive substantial federal funding.

The streetcar system is owned and operated by the City of Portland, in partnership with the Tri- County Metropolitan Transportation District (TriMet), which operates and maintains the streetcars and contributes a portion of operating funds. The City of Portland contracts with Portland Streetcar, Inc., a non-profit corporation, to manage the development, construction and operation of the streetcar system.

Portland's Loop Project is a 3.3-mile (5.3-km) double-track extension of the streetcar east from downtown Portland over the city's Broadway Bridge and south along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and then back up the way it came on a parallel street, Grand. The new line will serve project 28 additional streetcar stations.

The ultimate goal is to complete the loop by crossing back downtown over a new Willamette River bridge proposed as part of the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project. (In the map below, the Loop project is shown in blue/turquoise and the existing streetcar route in orange/ochre; the dotted blue and blue/orange lines represent the alignment of the eventually completed loop, including the route over the planned new Willamette River bridge at the southern portion of the "loop".)
[Map adapted from Portland Streetcar graphic by LRN team]


For a more detailed map, see:

The total cost of the project, including the vehicles, is estimated at $147 million – a total of about $44.5 million per mile ($27.7 million/km). Per a report in The Oregonian of April 30th, construction of infrastructure (i.e., less rolling stock and other items) is estimated at about $77 million – an infrastructure construction cost of about $27.3 million/mile ($14.5 million/km).

According to another April 30th report in the Portland Business Journal, most of the federal funding – about $45 million – comes from the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA's) Small Starts program, generally aimed at assisting smaller-scale urban transit projects. Small Starts, combined with a similar New Starts program aimed at larger-scale transit projects, received $750 million from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, more widely known as the federal stimulus bill. This award speeds up allocation of the money under the Small Starts program but does not add new funds.

The remaining $30 million of federal funding is an allocation from the US Department of Transportation. Local match funds are coming from several state and local sources, as listed in the table below.

Funding Sources for Portland Streetcar Loop Project
[Source: On Track: Portland Streetcar Loop Newsletter, Portland Streetcar, Spring 2009]

Final engineering for the project is 75% complete, and it is slated to begin operation in the end of 2011 or early 2012.

streetcar Portland Streetcar, Inc. granted Oregon Iron Works, of Clackamas, Oregon, a $20 million contract to build six new streetcars at about $3.3 million apiece. Oregon Iron Works created a subsidiary, United Streetcar LLC, which is the only domestic US manufacturer of modern streetcars, and the new company hopes to supply streetcars to cities throughout North America.
[Photo: United Streetcar]

The company's first streetcar – funded earlier as a prototype – is now being tested in Portland. This prototype car brings the total Loop Project fleet to seven cars.

The streetcars built by United Streetcar are similar in design to those of Skoda Transportation in the Czech Republic, under a technology transfer agreement signed by the two companies in 2006. Modern streetcars have not been produced in America for the past 58 years.

The return of electric streetcar service to Portland's streets has been the result of decades of community effort and planning. The idea for the Portland Streetcar was initiated 25 years ago, and formal planning for it began in 1990. The existing line is an 8-mile loop with 46 stops. The first line began operation in July 2001, and extensions were opened in March 2005, October 2006, and August 2007.

Today, streetcars run every 12 minutes during the day, Monday through Saturday, and less frequently on Sunday and in evenings and early mornings. The system operates mainly in mixed traffic at a maximum speed of 31 mph.

Oregon congressional representatives Peter DeFazio (Democrat) and Earl Blumenauer (Democrat) had tried to move the streetcar project forward for a number of years, but during the Bush administration it was held up because the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave the project a rating of medium-low for cost-effectiveness and warned that that rating would have to be improved for the project to receive funding. The appropriations bill signed in the end of 2008 included $45 million for the project, but it was contingent on final approval by FTA of the cost-effectiveness analysis.

The FTA relies heavily on its own cost-effectiveness index (CEI) – a unique, agency-developed evaluatory process – which measures benefits in terms of time-savings, to evaluate New Starts and Small Starts projects. However, some transit supporters and professionals have criticized the FTA's CEI for a variety of shortcomings.

Most recently, criticism has come from streetcar advocates, who point out that streetcars usually run in central urban areas, often in mixed traffic, so they are not designed to create time savings, but to provide other types of benefits. As a result, no streetcars have received FTA funding approval, even though the Small Starts program was originally designed for that purpose.

Representatives of Portland transportation agencies have been trying to convince the FTA of the merits of the Loop streetcar project for a number of years. The FTA, in their report on the Portland Streetcar, admitted that the cost-effectiveness rating "may not accurately capture the travel-time and non-travel-time transportation benefits of the proposed circulator project." ["FY 2009 FTA Annual Report on Funding Recommendations for Small Starts", FTA, 2008]

This funding award may be an indication of a shift by the Obama Administration toward more favorable federal transit policies. According to Transportation Secretary LaHood, "This became a priority when the administration came into office and we decided the concept of livable communities is something we really want to expand. Portland is a model for this." ["Feds Give $75 Million for Oregon Streetcar," Portland Business Journal, 30 April 2009]

Initial projected ridership for the streetcar was 3,500 boardings per day when it opened in July 2001. Those ridership levels were exceeded within the year, and current levels are at about 12,000 riders per weekday. The projected number of new riders on the streetcar loop is 3.5 million per year, which TriMet estimates will reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled in Portland by 28 million miles per year. ["The Portland Streetcar Loop: Facts at a Glance," TriMet and the City of Portland, Feb.2009.]

The project is estimated to bring 2.4 million square feet of new development to the project area. Since 1997, when the original streetcar alignment was identified, $3.5 billion has been invested within two blocks of the streetcar alignment, and 55% of all central business district development has occurred within one block of the streetcar. [Portland Streetcar, Inc., "Portland Streetcar, Development Oriented Transit," April 2008]

In announcing the funding, Secretary LaHood underscored that "This streetcar project will not only offer Portland residents additional options for getting around, but will also spur economic development along the line and create opportunities for employment." ["U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Announces $75 Million in Federal Funding for Eastside Extension of Portland Streetcar Loop," FTA news release, 30 April 2009]

Another extension of the streetcar is planned, the Willamette Shoreline project, which would extend service to Lake Oswego. Although it is opposed by some residents who live along the right-of-way, it is also favord by many community residents in the corridor.

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/17

More on Portland Public Transport Developments

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

17 June 2009

FTA planning to revamp New Starts/Small Starts rating criteria

On 20 May 2009, the US Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued proposed changes to the evaluation process for New Starts. These changes are required by the SAFETEA-LU Technical Corrections Act of 2008 that was passed in June 2008, and they will likely have significant impact on the prospects of federal funding for new rail transit proposals.

The "Proposed Guidance on New Starts/Small Starts Policies and Procedures" may be viewed at the following URL:

New Starts Project Justification Rating

The FTA is proposing to change the criteria for evaluating projects seeking New Starts funding to the following, with the proposed weights shown in parentheses:

Mobility improvements (20%)
Environmental benefits (10%)
Cost-effectiveness (20%)
Operating efficiencies (10%)
Economic development effects (20%)
Public transportation supportive land use policies and future patterns (20%)

This proposal seems to represent a major shift from current policy, which gives 50% weight each to cost-effectiveness and land use, and 0% weight to other factors. This may therefore be significantly more favorable to the justification of rail transit projects. Each of the criteria will be rated on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest rating.

The measures for mobility improvements, environmental benefits, and cost-effectiveness will initially be the same as those used in the current ratings and evaluations. The measure of operating efficiencies, which has not been used in the last two years, will be rated as it was previously. There is no current process for rating economic development, and environmental benefits are rated solely based on whether the area is designated attainment or non-attainment by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) FTA will revise the procedures for evaluating environmental benefits and economic development.

Until they develop a new measure for the economic development criterion, FTA will use the average of the ratings for two of the three subfactors currently used to rate land use – transit supportive plans and policies, and performance and impact of policies. The remaining land use subfactor, existing land use, will become the only factor used for the rating of land use. Each of these three subfactors, although separated into two separate measures, will be evaluated and rated as they are currently, so that new information will not be required from project sponsors.

Small Starts Project Justification Rating

FTA proposes to change the criteria for rating Small Starts projects to the following with the proposed weights shown in parentheses:

• Cost-effectiveness (one third)
• Economic development effects (one third)
• Public transportation supportive land use policies (one third)

The evaluations will be made as discussed above under New Starts Originally, the Small Starts program was intended to foster streetcar systems development, but FTA's implementation in the past has de-emphasized the economic development and urban land use objectives of streetcar lines, instead focusing on promoting "bus rapid transit" ("BRT") projects. Overall, these new evaluatory criteria appear to address the criticisms of streetcar planners and advocates, who have argued that these broader goals should be elevated in importance as acceptable justifications for new streetcar lines.

Alternatives Analysis of Tunnels

As a condition of advancement into preliminary engineering, FTA is proposing that Alternatives Analysis studies evaluate:

. . . the congestion relief, improved mobility, and other benefits of transit tunnels in those projects that include a transit tunnel and the associated ancillary and mitigation costs necessary to relieve congestion, improve mobility, and decrease air and noise pollution in those projects that do not include a tunnel, but where a transit tunnel was one of the alternatives analyzed.

Comments on this Guidance

Comments on this draft guidance must be submitted by June 19th at the following URL

Follow the online instructions for submitting comments. The final policy guidance is anticipated to be issued sometime in late spring 2009 and will take effect immediately.

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/17

More on Policy & Political Issues ...

More on Cost, Budget, & Financial Issues ...

Toward a "New Deal" for Public Transport ...

5 June 2009

Brisbane Reality Check:
The high cost of "cheap" busways

In the ongoing battle between backers of light rail transit (LRT) and the rather blurry concept dubbed "bus rapid transit" ("BRT" ), Brisbane (capital of Queensland, and Australia's third-largest ciry, on the country's eastern coast) is definitely one of the hottest flashpoints, with Queenslland Premier Anna Bligh touting "BRT" busways as costing about half as much to build as LRT, and Transport Minister John Mickel advancing the merits of a "tramway-style" LRT system.

First, some background on Brisbane's public transport system...

The city's pervasive and efficient light rail electric tramway (streetcar) network was scrapped in the 1960s during the worldwide Transit Devastation era (when most city officials and planners were doing all they could to "motorize" their local travel and promote public dependency on personal motor vehicles running on public roadways).

In this process, as the electric tramways were ripped out, they were replaced by motor buses running on petroleum fuel (believed to be forever cheap and abundant). Fortunately, Brisbane's legacy regional passenger rail (RPR) transit system relained, to evolve into today's efficient Citytrain system, reaching some 382 km (237 miles) of route throughout the metro area.

In recent years, the need for a more rapid, medium-capacity surface transit system has sparked a debate between advocates of light rail transit (LRT) – basically, a re-introduction of tramways – and "BRT", operating on both dedicated busways and streets. In 2000, "BRT" won the initial round, with the opening of the first of the region's busways. Now 19.3 km (12 miles) of busway serve the Brisbane metro area, carrying some 100,000 weekday rider-trips. Promoters are claiming supposedly lower costs and greater "flexibility" as reasons to favor more "BRT" development rather than a light rail transit (LRT) system, proposed as an alternative by rail advocates.

 Brisbane BRT One reason for the high cost of busways is the need for passing lanes at stations to enable capacity approaching that of rail – but high ridership results in serious queuing of buses. Imagine your waiting time if you're trying to catch your bus home after work, but it's somewhere in that "conga line" of "BRT" buses trying to access the station!
[Photo: Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP]

In Brisbane as elsewhere, proponents of "BRT" typically mix-and-match design criteria and lowball investment estimates in their campaign to assert that "BRT" is "just like light rail, but cheaper"

The claim that busways are "cheaper" than light rail merits examining with considerable skepticism – as Light Rail Now has done repeatedly, in numerous articles on this website. See: "Bus Rapid Transit" Analyses and Articles

In terms of capital investment cost, our research of Brisbane's busway projects hardly justify the claim of "low cost" compared with LRT.

Obtaining the costs of Brisbane's busway projects is not particularly easy – the public agencies involved don't publicize them to facilitate access. However, the following two documents (recently available) have proven to be an extremely helpful source of basic information needed:

• Public Transport Mode Selection: A Review of International Practice

• State of Queensland (Queensland Transport) 2009 — Busways

Splicing together data from these two sources, we've been able to ascertain the actual cost, converted to current (2009) US dollars, of several of Brisbane's major busway projects, as follows:

South East Busway (completed 2001):
15,6 km (9.7 mi), US$421 million
$27 million/km
$43 million/mile

Inner Northern Busway (completed 2008):
4.7 km (2.9 mi), US$408 million
$87 million/km
$141 million/mile

Northern Busway Project (currently under way):
1.2 km (0.7 mile), US$158 million
$132 million/km
$214 million/mile

These unit capital costs seem staggering, and it leaves little wonder why they are not more readily publicized by the authorities and "BRT" promoters.

These costs are particularly striking in comparison with the costs of LRT lines on exclusive rights-of-way (comparable to busways). There is no project in Australia in such an alignment (the Adelaide LRT was an upgrade of an existing railway alignment), but two projects in US urban areas could be considered comparable:

Charlotte — Lynx LRT, South corridor (completed 2007):
9.6 mi (15.5 km), US$496 million
$32 million/km
$52 million/mile

Sacramento — Folsom LRT extension (completed 2004):
7.4 mi (11.9 km)
$25 million/km
$41 million/mile

(Again, all costs above expressed in 2009 US dollars.)

These comparative costs would certainly seem to call into strong question the claim of "BRT" promoters – in Brisbane and elsewhere – that busways are significantly "lower-cost" investments than LRT lines.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/05

More on Public Transport in Australia

More on Cost, Budget, & Financial Issues...

More on "BRT" and Busways

2 June 2009

Obama administration's DOT appointments suggest more signs of major policy change

More indications of a pro-public transport orientation on the part of the new Obama administration in Washington seem to be provided by more recent actions with respect to the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

On May 21st, John Porcari was confirmed as DOT Deputy Secretary.

Mr. Porcari has been the head of Maryland's DOT since 2007, and previously served in that position from 1999 to 2002. The Maryland DOT is responsible for all modes of transportation in the state – highways, aviation, mass transit, maritime, commerce and rail – and Porcari is also the chairman of the entity that oversees the state's bridges and tunnels.

During his tenure at the Maryland DOT, Mr. Porcari implemented a number of highway projects, including the controversial $2.6 billion InterCounty Connector, a six-lane toll highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel. He was also directly involved with the $2.4 billion project to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Mr. Porcari is considered friendly to light rail, heavy rail, and Amtrak. He has been a supporter of the Purple line in Montgomery County; and although he has not stated his preferred mode for the line, he said that the decision should not be based on short-term economics, but on what will best serve the long-term growth in the region.
[Washington Post, "Dr Gridlock", 23 Oct. 2008.]

Porcari serves on the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA's) Board of Directors. APTA President William W. Millar lauded the nomination of Porcari and said that APTA looks forward to working with him.

He also has a background in environmental planning and a reputation for addressing environmental concerns associated with large-scale projects. As the Washington Post reports [19 May 2009], environmental and "smart growth" groups praised Porcari and called him one of the country's most "progressive" transportation secretaries, saying that he seriously considers the needs of pedestrians and cyclists and uses mass transit to focus growth. Porcari is a member of Maryland's Climate Change Commission and Smart Growth Cabinet, and he chaired a special task force on Transit-Oriented Development in 2000-01.

At a forum in April, regarding the upcoming federal transportation reauthorization bill, Porcari emphasized that "The reauthorization bill must be bigger in dollar terms, but you don't start the discussion with dollars. You start with allocating the funding more broadly, making it much more inter-modal, and holding States accountable with performance measures." He spoke of the need for a "balanced" transportation system, and of the importance of the nexus between land use and transportation. [1000 Friends of Maryland, "Follow the Money: A New Direction for Transportation in Maryland", April 2009.]

Mr. Porcari said that he might commute to his new job from Cheverly, Maryland, via the Washington Metro.

As Light Rail Now has previously reported, The Senate also confirmed Peter Rogoff to Head the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Joe Szabo to head the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). See: USA: "Regime change" at FTA, FRA bodes well for public transport.

And in what may be a further signal of the Obama administration's emphasis on public transport development, at the end of May President Obama announced his intention to nominate Polly Trottenberg as DOT's assistant secretary for transportation policy.

Trottenberg is executive director of Building America's Future, described by Progressive Railroading (June 3rd) as "a national bipartisan coalition that supports U.S. infrastructure investments and seeks a more accountable, sustainable and performance-driven national transportation policy." The coalition is co-chaired by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The PR article provides further details about Trottenberg 's background:

Trottenberg previously served in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, lastly as deputy chief of staff and legislative director for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). She also was legislative director for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a legislative assistant for transportation, public works and environment for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). In addition, Trottenberg previously served stints at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Massachusetts Port Authority and Joint Commerce and Labor Committee of the Massachusetts State Senate.

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/06/02

More on Policy & Political Issues ...

25 May 2009

Los Angeles:
Voters demonstrate increasing enthusiasm for rail transit initiatives

Los Angeles — Rail advocates have long contended that, once an urban area has a rail transit system up and operating, public enthusiasm grows and voters exhibit willingness to OK even more rail.

That contention appears to be corroborated – at least, for the Los Angeles area – by a voting tally compiled by Roger Christensen, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Roger's tally of LA-area rail transit initiative measures, below, provides the percentage of voters in favor and the outcome of the measure – plus additional information, as appropriate.

• 1968 – 44.88% – measure failed...
• 1974 – 46.39% – measure failed...
• 1976 – 39.64% – measure failed...
• 1980 – 54.33% – measure passed (vote that authorized construction of rail starter lines)...
• 1990 – 50.44% – measure passed (Blue Line opened in July)...
• 2008 – Over 67% – measure passed (2/3 voter approval now required – Blue, Green, Red, Purple, and Gold lines all open)

This obviously mounting and widespread voter enthusiasm for rail transit – commensurate with the LA public's increasing experience with it, as more and more lines have opened – must be highly irritating to such intrepid naysayers and ferocious opponents of rail as the LA-based Reason Foundation and critics such as University of Southern California professors Peter Gordon and James E. Moore II, who, along with accounting consultant Thomas Rubin, have relentlessly attacked LA's rail development ... even at times to the point of advocating that the Red Line metro be replaced by a busway system! Tough breaks, muchachos...

As Roger sums it up, "What is suggested here is that LA, now that it has some rail, wants a lot more. The City is growing up!"

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/05/25

More on Los Angeles Public Transport Developments

More on Popular Support for Public Transport...

More on Policy & Political Issues...

10 May 2009

The freeway city that might have been – without light rail

Portland, Oregon is certainly a model of the benefits a good light rail transit (LRT) system can bestow – but that attribute also lifts Portland high in the target sights of dedicated rail critics, who relentlessly try to portray soaring success as abject failure.

Because of the MAX interurban LRT system, installed in 1986, and the Portland Streetcar, installed in 2001, central-city Portland is today an exceptionally livable urban environment, with clusters of retailers, restaurants, inner-city housing, small shops, sidewalk cafes, and other amenities.

So it's relevant to consider what Portland would have been like if it had followed the typical American city's freeway-focused path of development, rather than the rail transit-focused path it took – in other words, the kind of development pattern favored by anti-transit, pro-sprawl advocates such as Randal O'Toole, Wendell Cox, and Portland anti-rail activist John Charles and his Cascade Policy Institute.

Such a vision of Portland as a "might have been" freeway city was resuscitated in a Feb. 16th article by Elly Blue on the website, titled The Portland that might have been.

Elly refers to the map shown further below – which she says she rediscovered recently – describing it as "the map that might have sealed our fate, developed by Portland city planners in 1966 in response to freeway guru Robert Moses’ vision for the city."

Robert Moses (in case you don't know, or need reminding) is the planning consultant and official who basically devastated swaths of New York City with his freeway-development plans – forcing the destruction of the city's once-extensive urban electric light rail (street railway) system in the process.

As a Wikipedia article (20 May 2009) describes him,

Moses was arguably the most powerful person in New York state government from the 1930s to the 1950s. He changed shorelines, built roadways in the sky, and transformed neighborhoods forever. His decisions favoring highways over public transit helped create the modern suburbs of Long Island and influenced a generation of engineers, architects, and urban planners who spread his philosophies across the nation.

The article further notes that "his works remain extremely controversial."

His critics claim that he preferred automobiles to people, that he displaced hundreds of thousands of residents in New York City, uprooted traditional neighborhoods by building expressways through them, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx and the amusement parks of Coney Island, caused the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants Major League baseball teams, and precipitated the decline of public transport through disinvestment and neglect.

His career is summed up by his sayings "cities are for traffic" and "if the ends don't justify the means, what does?"

Robert Moses is perhaps best remembered for what he did to "motorize" New York City, but his efforts on behalf of private automobile-based, sprawl-oriented urban development touched other cities as well — including Portland.

Elly Blue continues this story in her blog entry:

Moses was known for saying “Cities are for traffic,” and he dedicated his career to creating freeway networks inside cities, many of which cut across existing neighborhoods — often the poorest ones.

This map is fascinating. The red lines represent freeways already built. The green ones were planned. Look at how North Going Street, which is slated to be part of one of Portland’s next bike boulevards, would have been a huge expressway. Can you imagine Alberta Street being what it is now if Prescott had been a freeway? And what would have happened to the neighborhoods around SE 20th and SE 52nd?

 Portland freeway plan
[Map: City of Portland]

The green lines are planned freeways, and the Mount Hood Freeway was the first of these that would have been built. It was stopped by a strong grassroots effort, with the support of local political leaders. After that, none of the other projects got rolling, and much of the money that was appropriated for the freeway instead went into other transportation projects like the first MAX light rail line.


We’re lucky to have escaped the fate of many other cities – but I hope we are not getting ready, with the Columbia River Crossing project and all the stimulus spending in our near future, to make some of the same mistakes that we avoided forty years ago.

 Portland LRT Instead of a city sliced by freeways, Portland opted for a more livable development pattern centered on light rail and other good mass transit, pedestrian amenities, and cycling facilities. The result is people-oriented neighborhoods like this with small shops and open-air cafes.
[Photo: LRN file]

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/05/10

More on Portland Public Transport Developments

More on Urban Development Issues...

9 May 2009

Pro-transit vote edging city back toward a real (rail) transit system?

Kalamazoo County, Michigan, approved a ballot measure on May 5, 2009 to levy a tax of 0.4 mill ($0.40 per thousand dollars of taxable value on all taxable property) to support public transportation. Even in today's currently severe economic times, this measure passed by a 63% to 37% margin – certainly indicating to some degree the strength of public support for mass transit.

This tax will replace a tax of 0.45 mill that expired in the end of 2008. The property tax will raise about $3.2 million a year over four years, which is about 23% of the $13.8 million budget for public transportation. A second measure for a 0.6 mill tax levy for the City of Kalamazoo will be brought to the voters in November 2009.

The Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority (KCTA), the City of Kalamazoo, and the Kalamazoo Transit Authority Board signed a cooperative agreement in January 2006 to manage and fund public transportation for the county. Currently, they have bus service, operated by Metro Transit, and demand/response vans.

A dedicated tax opens the possibility for funding larger-scale transit improvements, including investment in a new rail start – perhaps even to eventually reinstate at least a small portion of the electric street railway system that once operated in Kalamazoo, as in most American cities.

Kalamzoo streetcar Kalamazoo's electric streetcar system evolved from a small horsecar system that was electrified in 1893. The electric streetcar system provided public transportation at a fare of 5 cents (a price usually mandated by local ordinance in most cities) until after World War I, when the streetcar company (Kalamzoo Street Railway) began losing money – particularly because of publicy subsidized roadway development. After a series of strikes and fare increases and pressure to convert to motor buses, the electric streetcar system was finally shut down in 1932, in the early years of the Transit Devastation era.

Kalamazoo's civic leadership has shown some interest in historic preservation and effectively utilizing architectural assets from the past. The city's intermodal Transportation Center dates back to 1887 – a railroad passenger station originally built by the Michigan Central Railroad, and renovated in 2006. Today it functions as a hub for Amtrak, Greyhound, and Kalamazoo's Metro Transit bus service.

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/05/09

More on Popular Support for Public Transport...

More on Historical Public Transport Issues...

2 May 2009

Streetcar possibility attracts local interest

Waco, Texas — This mid-sized central Texas city (pronounced Way-koh, population about 118,000) has emerged as one of the latest urban areas eyeing the possibility of a new electric streetcar line.

Why a streetcar line? “Fixed guideway transit is a tremendous development driver” explained Chris McGowan, urban development director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, in an interview by the Waco Tribune-Herald (March 29th).

Several days later, in an interview by Austin-area TV broadcaster News 8 Austin (March 31st), McGowan was cited as the reporter explained, "One major reason for looking into the streetcar lines is for the growth of area businesses."

According to McGowan, a streetcar system would help boost downtown development. "People who are interested in making investments in areas are confident that the rail is going to pass by on a regular basis every day" McGowan said.

The US Obama administration's economic stimulus program apparently is another major factor in the surprising interest in a streetcar system. As the News 8 Austin report explained, "Thanks to the stimulus package, Waco leaders can explore new options, like having a trolley to connect growing downtown Waco with the Baylor student population."

Further details on the streetcar project were reported by The Lariat (March 31st), student newspaper of Waco-based Baylor University, which noted that on March 17th Waco's Metropolitan Planning Organization policy board voted to approved launching the engineering study into a proposed electric rail trolley line to link downtown Waco with Baylor campus.

Safety, funding, and traffic are among the issues being addressed in the streetcar study, according to Chris Evilia, director of the MPO. "Safety is an issue that will be handled when the actual designs are worked up, but we think by reducing the amount of traffic going between the two [places], ultimately it'll be safer than everyone getting into their vehicles and driving by themselves" Evilia told the campus paper.

The Lariat also credited the economic stimulus program for helping launch the streetcar study:

An unplanned amount of money came in from the economic stimulus package, which was recently approved by Congress. Waco's share is about 2.9 million for public transportation capital projects....

According to Evilia, "This includes things like purchasing buses and vans, but can also include engineer studies."

As the campus paper reported, "Evilia and others say they believe in the trolley idea, because they said they hope it will encourage people to go downtown who may not otherwise do so."

"When people are walking, they're generally willing to walk about a quarter of a mile" Evilia noted. "Depending on where on campus, it could be anywhere from three quarters of a mile to a mile from Baylor to downtown."

Evilia also pointed out that "There are several developments taking place in downtown Waco that are intended to serve Baylor." For example, one of the largest new additions involves student housing, to be completed shortly and designed to house 400 Baylor students.

"Short term, these students will have to use cars to get to Baylor, but this project could ease parking on Baylor campus and would reduce the amount of traffic going between the two areas" Evilia explained. "There's also a lot of property between downtown Waco and Baylor that is underused or outright vacant."

Evilia told the paper he hopes a streetcar service would make that land more accessible and convenient to use.

According to Brandon Thomas, an administrative assistant for Waco Transit (the transit agency that is overseeing the project and would be expected to operate the streetcar line), "Downtown Waco's got some really cool stuff happening; two restaurants just opened this week, living areas and a new housing complex." Thomas emphasized the impact of these new developments on Waco's central city. "It gets students out of the so-called 'Baylor bubble', coming from a recent Baylor graduate. It gets people outside of the 'there's nothing to do in Waco' mentality."

Leah Stewart, the owner of Olive Branch, a restaurant that recently reopened in downtown Waco, told The Lariat she thought the possible trolley addition was a "great idea" and that it would "absolutely" help business.

"I think it connects students to Waco itself and it encourages them to be part of the city and not just their school" Stewart said.

The Chamber of Commerce's McGowan believes Waco could build a system in the lower end of the streetcar cost range by using existing right-of-way without major geographical obstacles. According to the Tribune-Herald story (March 29th), for a "first phase" starter line, "he envisions a loop of two or three miles [about 3-5 km], perhaps including University-Parks Drive and Fourth Street."

However, a more extensive system could also evolve, McGowan told the paper:

I also think it would be logical to have an extension connecting both sides of downtown across the river and to connect the park and Cameron Park Zoo with downtown. Over the course of three or four phases, I could see a system of six to eight to 10 miles.”

Besides federal transit program assistance, for financing the city's local share, a streetcar project could draw upon revenues from Waco's Tax Increment Financing Zone that funds capital improvements within downtown and the Brazos River corridor.

In addition, there is considerable momentum for a streetcar system among local developers, who might contribute some private funding to such a project. As the Tribune-Herald article reported:

Developers and proponents of downtown redevelopment have advocated a fixed-line trolley as a way to encourage private investment along the route. They point to development that has followed streetcar lines in cities such as Portland, Ore.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Tampa, Fla.

The paper noted that "Rick Sheldon, a developer who has proposed a huge development along the Brazos River, has been a strong proponent of a trolley system that could run along University-Parks."

Michael Wray, managing partner for the city's Heritage Square loft and retail development, "said he believes investment in a streetcar system would pay off in economic development."

"There’s a good chance fixed rail will be a reality in the next five years" he told the paper.

Evilia and others were cited by the Lariat article as believing in the "trolley idea" because they said they hope it will encourage people to go downtown who may not otherwise do so.

"When people are walking, they're generally willing to walk about a quarter of a mile. Depending on where on campus, it could be anywhere from three quarters of a mile to a mile from Baylor to downtown" Evilia said.

In his interview in the Tribune-Herald, McGowan noted that studies on other cities in the United States that have trolleys show that the successes of these systems serve as primary examples that a rail line can have a significant economic impact.

"We've seen tremendous development activity occur when there's been a fixed guideway system put in place" McGowan said.

 Waco streetcar Like many American cities, Waco once was interconnected by an electric street railway system, running streetcars such as the Stone & Webster "turtleback" car shown here. The Waco system was owned by the relatively highspeed Texas Electric Railway, which linked Waco by electric rail with Waxahachie, Dallas, and Denison. Both urban and interurban systems fell victim to the Transit Devastation (Holocaust) of the 1930s and 1940s, when public policy rejected public transport in favor of the development of private motor vehicle transportation.
[Photo: Bill Volkmer collection]

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/05/02

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

25 April 2009

Ft. Lauderdale:
Mayor seeks to revive light rail plan

Fort Lauderdale, Florida — The city's somewhat sidetracked plans for a light rail transit (LRT) system (led perhaps with a streetcar-type starter line) are being reinvigorated by Fort Lauderdale Mayor-Elect Jack Seiler.

Interviewed on South Florida's TV station WPLG Local 10 (Feb. 15th), Mayor Seiler emphasized that "We desperately need a light rail proposal downtown."

However, Seiler noted, LRT has been treated as a kind of luxury item, and shelved while the city has addressed more basic services. Nevertheless, "If we can get the federal dollars we can get this project moving."

The necessary funding may come through the US Obama administration's new stimulus package.

Mayor Seiler indicated he would work on lining up state and county funding to go along with the city's allocation for such a project. Any light rail proposal, he added, would have to qualify as environment-friendly and efficient.

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/04/20

More on Ft. Lauderdale Public Transport Developments

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

22 April 2009

"Regime change" at FTA, FRA bodes well for public transport

On 8 April 2009, US President Barack Obama made nominations for administrators of America's two most important federal agencies overseeing public transportation policies, programs, regulations, and funding. Almost surely (compared with the last 8 years), these appointments will produce much-needed change for the better – in particular, progressive policies supporting public transport in general, and new rail development in particular.

To lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) after the departure of James Simpson late last year, President Obama announced his nomination of Peter Rogoff. Rogoff worked for the last 22 years for the Senate Appropriations Committee, and for 14 of those years worked for the Transportation Subcommittee. He helped to draft the three transportation authorization bills, starting with the trailblazing Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991 that launched a significantly more progressive urban public transit program at the federal level.

Rogoff advised senators on the financing of new light rail transit (LRT) and bus transit systems and on the capital and operating needs of Amtrak. He was also helpful in obtaining federal support for Seattle’s streetcar starter line.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) warmly endorsed Rogoff’s appointment, with APTA President William Millar observing,

APTA and its nearly 1,500 members are very pleased with President Obama’s nomination of Peter Rogoff to lead the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). With a long and distinguished career in the transportation field, he has the experience and the knowledge that is needed to advance public transportation in the United States. [APTA News Release, 8 April 2009.]

To head the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which oversees freight rail movements, Amtrak, and most "commuter" (regional passenger transit-type) railroads, Joe Szabo was President Obama's nominee. Since 2005, Szabo has served on the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, and before that he was mayor of the Village of Riverdale, Illinois.

Szabo holds a long resume in the railroad industry, having worked for the Illinois Central Railroad beginning in 1976, where he was a yard switchman, road trainman, and conductor. In 1987, he began working for Metra, the regional passenger rail provider for northern Illinois. He has a long history as an elected union representative, and is currently the Illinois State Director of the United Transportation Union. Through his union involvement, he has twenty years of experience with political activism. Szabo is a member of the Executive Council of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a member of Business Leaders for Transportation, and a member of the legislative advisory committee for the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council.

Strong support for improvements in Amtrak's intercity and regional rail passenger service is expected from Szabo as FRA administrator. He was instrumental in getting the Illinois state legislature to double the funding for Amtrak in 2006 to increase the frequency of train services. In December 2006, he commented on the increased ridership that resulted.

This was what we’ve been trying to say all along – there is a pent-up demand for inter-city passenger rail, and increased frequencies raise ridership exponentially. . . . A 91-per cent increase in the first month of operation is unheard of. Illinois’ new trains only started running on October 30, and in their first full month of operation one of the routes nearly doubled its business. . . . The market for rail travel is much bigger than anyone has imagined.

Regarding needed improvements to passenger rail, Szabo made his views clear:

We have to get on-time performance over 90 per cent or better. Nothing less is acceptable. Reliability is extremely important to people when they make their travel decisions. We also have to improve overall train speeds, and reduce trip times, which is why infrastructure development is so important. Likewise, customer service has to be absolutely top-notch at all times.” [Midwest High Speed Rail Blog, 13 Dec. 2006.]

The Association of American Railroads, which represents the seven Class I carriers, endorsed Szabo’s appointment. Both appointments (Rogoff and Szabo) are subject to Senate confirmation.

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/04/18

More on Policy & Political Issues ...

20 April 2009

As "BRT" plan fizzles, light rail moves to center stage

Detroit — After decades of procrastination and indecision on rail transit – including several years of fantasizing about a "Bus Rapid Transit" ("just like rail") system concept that has apparently evaporated – Detroit seems at last headed toward reinstating rail transit with not one, but two light rail transit (LRT) plans that seem to be gathering real momentum ... and funding.

"Light-rail trains could shuttle people along downtown Detroit's Woodward Avenue as soon as late next year." That's the assessment of Crain's Detroit Business (8 Mar. 2009), focusing on the mostly privately funded streetcar-type LRT starter system now dubbed the M1-Rail project.

As Crain's describes the $103-120 million proposal, "The M1-Rail will be a 3.4-mile curbside light-rail loop along the Woodward corridor from Hart Plaza to Grand Boulevard in New Center, running past major business, cultural, medical, educational and sporting destinations."

In a 3 April 2008 article, Detroit: Streetcars at last to make a comeback? Light Rail Now provided a map of the proposed route, and noted that the 3.4-mile "Woodward Transit Catalyst Project" would include "12 stops near busy destinations such as Campus Martius Park, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center."

The M1-Rail streetcar line – which already has received funding commitments totalling $74 million (about 62-72% of the projected capital investment) – is envisioned as just the "first link" in a potentially much larger, regional system. First there's the longer, faster Woodward corridor "Detroit Transit Options for Growth" rapid LRT plan – an 8-mile route, with many more stations, using rapid-type LRT rolling stock, with a projected capital investment of $371.5 million.

Then there's the "full regional plan", envisioning, as reported by the Detroit Free Press (March 16th),

...400 miles of routes served by a variety of equipment, from light rail and high-speed buses to commuter trains. The full plan would cost $10.5 billion and take up to 25 years to build out.

According to information presented on April 19th at a combined meeting of Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA) Light Rail and Streetcar technical committees (in conjunction with the TRB/APTA Joint Light Rail Conference in Los Angeles), the Woodward corridor streetcar will be designed with infrastructure capable of handling larger, faster rapid-type LRT rolling stock.

 Detroit LRT Rapid LRT using larger, faster rolling stock in Woodward corridor would be based on original streetcar project and infrastructure. In this simulation, rapid LRT train serves proposed Grand Blvd/New Center station.
[Photo: Detroit Transit Options for Growth (DTOG]

Rail planning in Detroit has come full circle since a Woodward rapid transit plan was presented in the 1970s; light rail was jawboned for about the next two decades, and then a "Bus Rapid Transit" ("BRT") proposal was launched with huge fanfare in 2001.

While rail visions were effectively discarded, "BRT" promoters – inspired by the "BRT" promotion campaign of George W. Bush's Federal Transit Administration (FTA) – hawked the fantasy of a glittering bus-based "rapid transit" network, dubbed "SpeedLink" and modeled on the "BRT" system in Curitiba, Brazil (see Brazil – Rail Transit, Light Rail, Tramway, and Public Transport Developments). SpeedLink, according to its main promoter, the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition (MAC), would be a

..."train-on-tires" delivering rapid transit service comparable to a train, with dedicated busways, sheltered passenger stations, signal preemption and color-coded, train-like vehicles.

SpeedLink buses, the promotional pitch explained, were to represent the "rapid transit" element of a three-tiered regional system, including an intermediate service called InterLink ("transportation using traditional buses") and HomeLink, a "flexible, neighborhood-based service". Furthermore, claimed the MAC "BRT" promoters, "SpeedLink should be quicker, easier and less expensive to install than light rail, while offering many of the same features...."

As the MAC website underscored, Detroit's "BRT" plan was encouraged by Bush's FTA:

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is helping to support bus rapid transit evaluation projects in 10 cities nationwide.... The FTA wants the program to show how combining planning and technology will allow buses to operate with the speed, reliability and efficiency of light rail – at a fraction of the cost.

The plan optimistically sketched out "an initial phase that would investigate the technical feasibility of bus rapid transit for metro Detroit...." This would demonstrate the system to be "technically feasible" and pave the way for "BRT" throughout the "metropolitan Detroit region".

Eight years later, the "train-like" rail-substitute "BRT" plan has fizzled into obscurity – the casualty of lukewarm public interest, lack of regional cooperation behind it, and a realization that operating vast brigades and armadas of buses (even if there were sufficient ridership attracted to justify them) posed both logistical problems for central-city streets as well as some daunting costs in terms of operations and maintenance, and frequent periodic rolling stock replacement.

In contrast, as "BRT" has dropped from the radar of Detroit's civic leadership, LRT has obviously re-ascended to become the focus of attention once again. In addition to the substantial influx of private investment commitments for the streetcar plan, the more extensive Woodward rapid LRT plan is also moving forward, with planning under way to meet FTA New Starts guidelines (and funding qualifications). State and county funding, as well as efforts to secure federal economic stimulus funding, are also under discussion.

Among community and civic leaders, hope is rising that, indeed, Detroit may at last be on its way to re-installing an urban public transit system commensuarte with the city's needs and importance. As the March 16th Free Press expressed it, "After decades of missed chances, southeast Michigan appears closer than ever to getting what other major cities already enjoy – a true regional transportation system."

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/04/15

More on Detroit Public Transport Developments

More on Rail Transit Development...

More on Streetcars...

More on "Bus Rapid Transit"...

14 April 2009

US streetcar development gets another boost from Blumenauer

Following in the tradition of his landmark Small Starts legislation of 2003 – intended to nurture new streetcar line investment, but hijacked by the Bush administration to stymie rail development and instead promote "Bus Rapid Transit" – on 3 April 3 2009 US Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon introduced two new bills that would improve federal support for streetcar system development.

One bill, the Federal Streetcar Revitalization Act of 2009, would modify the Small Starts program created under the Bush-sponsored SAFETEA-LU federal mass transit assistance program. The Streetcar Revitalization Act would increase the amount to qualify under Small Starts from the current level of not more than a $75 million federal match and $250 million total capital cost, to a new level of up to a $100 million federal match and $300 million total cost.

The bill would also change selection criteria used by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to eliminate consideration of "cost-effectiveness" and micro-manage the "accuracy" of forecasting models; and it would add consideration of reductions in vehicle-miles traveled in the corridor and greenhouse gas emissions.

The evaluation criteria under the existing law are as follows:

(A) determine the degree to which the project is consistent with local land use policies and is likely to achieve local developmental goals; (B) determine the cost effectiveness of the project at the time of the initiation of revenue service; (C) determine the degree to which the project will have a positive effect on local economic development; (D) consider the reliability of the forecasting methods used to estimate costs and ridership associated with the project; and (E) consider other factors that the Secretary determines appropriate to carry out this subsection.

The new criteria would read:

(A) determine the degree to which the project will have a positive effect on local economic development; (B) determine the effectiveness of the project to reduce per capita auto travel demand in the corridor of the project; and (C) determine the reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions that will result from the completed project, including related development, travel pattern, and land use changes.

The bill would eliminate the requirement that the FTA rate the projects as high, medium-high, medium, medium-low, or low based on the project justification criteria and the degree of local financial commitment. Significantly, the bill would revise the definition of "fixed-guideway" to no longer include corridor-based bus projects.

The second bill introduced by Representative Blumenauer, the Fast Starts Program Act of 2009, would create a new grant program to fund streetcar projects. According to this bill, "A delay in authorizing grants under the Small Starts program has created a backlog of streetcar projects requiring attention outside of that program."

The bill would provide federal grants to streetcar projects of up to $60 million with no local match requirement, and authorize $400 million for fiscal year 2010. The projects would need to have a local financial commitment, meet environmental requirements, meet the revised evaluation criteria contained in the other bill, and be ready to begin construction on or before March 1, 2012. There would be no restriction on other sources of federal funding. A streetcar project is defined as "a new fixed guideway capital project that is electricity and rail based."

As noted above, Rep. Blumenauer's original 2003 Small Starts legislation was intended to help jump-start streetcar projects, but the Bush FTA distorted the intent of the program, refashioning it into a de facto anti-rail policy and transmogrifying it into a program to facilitate "BRT" schemes. For a number of years, many transit advocates and industry professionals have decried the Bush FTA's corruption of Blumenauer's original legislative mandate.

For example, in our article As Washington Meanders Toward "Regime Change"...Here's Our Wish List for Rational US Public Transport Policies the Light Rail Now Project team contended:

FTA should eliminate the restrictions and requirements it has imposed on Small Starts projects, eliminate the emphasis on "BRT", and permit adequate flexibility in planning to permit workable streetcar projects and a return to the original aims of the Small Starts program.

It would certainly seem that Rep. Blumenauer's legislation is a forceful step in the direction of fulfilling this wish....

— Susan Pantell, with LRN team

Light Rail Now! NewsLog
Updated 2009/04/14

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