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Posts from the "Light Rail" Category


Phoenix Light Rail Beats Projections, and the Mayor Wants More

Phoenix Metro light rail is besting expectations. Photo: Wikipedia

Phoenix Metro light rail is beating expectations. Photo: Wikipedia

Can Phoenix become a transit city? It’s looking like more and more of a possibility lately.

Phoenix’s Metro light rail system is less than six years old but has already surpassed ridership projections for 2020. The system is carrying 48,000 passengers a day, or 22,000 more than initially projected, according to the Arizona Republic. Extensions of the system, which currently has 20 miles of track and 28 stations, are already underway and eagerly anticipated in Phoenix and the suburb of Mesa.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton isn’t about to stop there. He wants to triple the size of the system by 2030. Business and civic leaders will convene soon to develop an expansion plan to bring to voters next year. The team will be headed by Mary Peters, U.S. transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, the Republic reports.

Phoenix has also been trying to make the neighborhoods around the rail system more conducive to riding it. The city used about $3 million in funds from the Obama administrations’ Sustainable Communities Program to plan for transit-oriented development around the system’s stations. The blueprint, called Reinvent Phoenix, lays out incentives and zoning rules to encourage walkable development around the stations.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Rondo Revisited

Finally, there is a light rail line connecting the Twin Cities. The Green Line, running 11 miles from Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, cost $957 million and took decades to build. The process of choosing stations was contentious but eventually incorporated the proposals of low-income communities that wanted them, and the line is already being held up as a model. It’s not the fastest way between the two downtowns, but it might be the best way. Jeff and I discuss.

Then we sink our teeth into the Sightline Institute’s proposal to change the property tax structure in order to incentivize better uses of downtown space. That might help some cities with their parking crater problem.

Finally, we rejoice at Calgary’s decision to tear down a whole mess of parking outside one of its light rail stations, and we discuss the balancing act between preserving broad access to transit and creating walkable, compact communities where they belong: near transit.

We can’t wait to read your thoughts in the comments.

P.S.: Get us on iTunesStitcher or the RSS feed.

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Indiana Transit Bill Moves Forward With Only Some of Its Worst Provisions

Opponents had a field day inserting “poison pills” into the bill to allow transit expansion in the Indianapolis area. But so far, they haven’t been able to slow down the bill’s progress. It passed the Indiana House Transportation Committee yesterday, 11-1.

Indianapolis' bus-only transit system will stay that way, thanks to a light rail ban in the transit funding bill. Photo: ## Star##

Indianapolis’ bus-only transit system will stay that way, thanks to a light rail ban in the transit funding bill. Photo: Indy Star

The bill would allow Marion County — where Indianapolis sits — and six surrounding counties to ask voters to approve local tax hikes to fund transit. The Indianapolis area has outpaced the rest of the country in exporting jobs to the suburbs. Expanded transit is needed to help urban workers access those jobs.

In addition to the legislation, Urban Indy blogger Curtis Ailes (who just last week moved to Portland) says there are three rapid transit lines in the planning stages that already have secured federal funding. “If this legislation passes, it would give them the authority to raise the money they need to operate those systems,” Ailes said. “And obviously, rapid transit with 10- or 15-minute frequencies through the day would be a big deal for people in Indianapolis.”

Republican state Sen. Brent Waltz, who countered the entire transit concept with his own three-page road-happy proposal, had gotten a provision inserted to raise corporate taxes to pay for at least 10 percent of any new transit service — at the same time Gov. Mike Pence is trying to cut corporate taxes. “I always thought it was curious that some of the large corporations that had been talking about the need for mass transit weren’t paying any taxes toward it,” he said.

While it’s not at all a bad idea to ask businesses that will benefit from transit to contribute to the cost of its construction, the spirit of the measure was clearly aimed at tempering the overwhelming support among the Chambers of Commerce and area employers for the transit bill.

Waltz’s corporate tax provision was in the final Senate bill, but the House Transportation Committee stripped it out.

The House panel also rejected a Senate-passed requirement that any new transit serve 100 percent of a county’s residents — something even the best urban transit systems struggle to achieve. Another failed amendment would have limited collective bargaining rights.

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ITDP Study: “A Coming Out for Bus-Based Transit-Oriented Development”

Cleveland's HealthLine is widely considered the best bus rapid transit line in the United States, and it's busted some myths about BRT's power to stimulate transit-oriented development. Photo: ITDP

In a new report making the rounds this week, “More Development For Your Transit Dollar: An Analysis of 21 North American Transit Corridors,” the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy does two things.

First, authors Walter Hook, Stephanie Lotshaw, and Annie Weinstock evaluate which factors determine the impact of urban transit on development, coming up with some extremely useful and not necessarily intuitive results.

Second, they show that BRT projects — only a few of which exist in the U.S. — can in fact spur walkable development. Then the authors go a step further, asserting in no uncertain terms that good bus projects yield more development bang for the buck than equivalent rail projects.

What Makes TOD Successful?

ITDP examined 21 light rail, streetcar, and bus routes in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada to determine how transit lines affect development. While the report does pick a side in the BRT-vs.-rail debate, ITDP found that three factors are much more powerful determinants than transit type in the outcome of transit-oriented development.

First, what ITDP calls “government intervention” is key. There is a direct correlation between robust TOD investment and robust public policy.

Everything from assembling the needed land to offering incentives for tenants falls under the umbrella of government intervention, but perhaps the most important aspect is to make sure the zoning near transit encourages mixed-use, walkable development.

One of the best things policy makers can do, said Weinstock, is to limit parking. She said that the city of Ottawa’s downtown parking restrictions were a huge boost to transit ridership on the Transitway, a bus rapid transit line which blew every other line ITDP studied out of the water with 244,000 weekday riders (four times more than the next runner-up, Denver’s Central Corridor light rail line).

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Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to the fight one lawmaker picked about the Columbia River Crossing.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler wants to take light rail out of the Columbia River Crossing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham derided the administration request for $50 billion for “immediate transportation investments” as “a proposal we’ve seen three times before” which, like the 2009 stimulus package, is “not paid for or offset by reductions elsewhere.” He dismissed the plan to pay for transportation with war savings as “dubious,” saying, “Many members hope that the drawdown of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to reduce spending and the deficit, and not serve as excuse for even more spending.”

LaHood told Latham he “can’t have it both ways.”

“The first two years I was in this job you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation,” LaHood said. “For the last two years, after receiving criticism for the first two years, for no funding, we’ve come up with a funding mechanism.”

Even worse than defending a gimmicky pay-for, LaHood tied himself in knots promising the U.S. DOT “has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster.” He defended this position when it came to the Columbia River Crossing in the Portland area, which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler raked him over the coals for, and even for high-speed rail, which he pledged was not actually about increasing speeds. A weird position, indeed.

Latham noted that the administration budget proposal included $40 billion for rail and wondered when the administration might send over a draft proposal of the rail reauthorization those numbers are based on. He reminded LaHood that the administration never actually sent a draft surface transportation reauthorization.

LaHood tried to turn the tables on Latham, saying the president was busy with guns, immigration and the sequester, and when Congress does its work on those three issues, Obama will bring out his bold plans for transportation. LaHood has made this argument before, and it’s one I find perplexing. Isn’t that why there are Cabinet secretaries, with thousands of people working under them? No one at DOT is working on guns and immigration, but I bet someone there has a pretty good handle on their plans for the next rail bill.

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Honolulu Mayoral Frontrunner Would Torpedo Light Rail Project

However controversial a rail project is, is it a good idea to pull the plug after construction has already begun? Honolulu residents have that question to ponder from now until Election Day.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano is campaigning for mayor with a single-minded focus on jettisoning the light rail project already under construction. Photo: Yes2Rail

The city’s mayoral election has become a referendum on its controversial rail project. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano came out of retirement (and took a demotion) to save the city from building a light rail system in Oahu, passing through downtown, the airport, the state’s largest shopping center, and the proposed site of a new University of Hawaii campus. Pillars for the elevated track have already been built.

If Cayetano had won 50 percent of the vote in the August non-partisan primary, the race would be over. His 44 percent is still a formidable hurdle for challenger Kirk Caldwell, a former state legislator who briefly served as acting mayor when the sitting mayor resigned to run for governor. Caldwell lost the job to Peter Carlisle, another rail supporter, in a 2010 special election.

Caldwell did better than Carlisle this August, garnering 29 percent to Carlisle’s 25 percent, meaning that he will be the one to face Cayetano in the run-off. Though he won’t continue in the office, Carlisle pledged, “As mayor for the next four months, I’m going to do everything I can to get rail far enough along so that it cannot possibly be stopped.”

If Caldwell can win over the great majority of Carlisle voters, he could be victorious next month. Besides, August’s primary isn’t necessarily a precise indicator of how the general election could go, since turnout will likely be far higher in November.

Cayetano is a named plaintiff in an anti-rail lawsuit, which charges that the city “did not adequately consider viable transportation alternatives” and “decided to conduct the archeological inventory in four phases, rather than surveying the entire 20-mile route before starting the project.”

Cayetano’s counter-proposal includes bus rapid transit and new road capacity, including elevated express roadways and shorter bypasses. His platform‘s tagline says it all: “It’s time to get our city on the road to a better future” [italics added]. Cayetano says his plan would cost about 20 percent as much as the light rail system, and that it would take just six months to build (as opposed to 10 years for rail). But critics say it isn’t a sustainable solution to Honolulu’s traffic woes.

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Detroit Abandons Light Rail Dreams, Plans BRT Routes

There was a lot riding on light rail plans for the city of Detroit.

Four years of planning, for one. Almost $100 million in private commitments, for another. But the most important consideration — by far — was the promise of a revitalized Woodward Avenue through the heart of the city’s up-and-coming Midtown neighborhood.

Detroit is trading light rail plans for bus-rapid-transit. Photo: Free Press

Suddenly, yesterday, everything changed. Officials announced that despite all that — plus $25 million promised by USDOT — the city was abandoning light rail plans for a system of bus rapid transit.

According to a report by the Detroit Free Press, USDOT officials met with Mayor Dave Bing recently and outlined concerns that the city, which is in danger of being handed over to an emergency fiscal manager, would have trouble providing the operating funding for the nine-mile line.

This comes amid drastic service cuts at both Detroit’s urban and suburban transit systems — cuts that have led to reports of bus riders stranded at stops waiting three hours for a bus. The Free Press article also noted that among Detroit residents who depend on the bus to get to work, almost 60 percent travel to jobs in the suburbs, a symptom of crippling job sprawl.

News reports yesterday did not have details on BRT plans, except to say that buses would have a dedicated lanes from downtown to and through the suburbs possibly along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and M-59.

Reactions to the announcement were mixed. Geralyn Lasher, a spokeswoman for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, told the Free Press that light rail was “out of our lane … We’ve always been more in the line of the rapid bus.”

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Light Rail Line Hangs By a Thread as Maryland Goes to the Polls

With Election Day fast approaching, Streetsblog Capitol Hill is turning our attention this week to key governor’s races. As Ya-Ting Liu of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign recently wrote (and as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has made painfully clear), “decisions by state and local elected officials ultimately determine whether federal transportation policies become instruments of reform or tools to be abused.” Today we look at the gubernatorial election in Maryland.

One of the key races for transit advocates to watch next week will be Maryland’s vote for governor. The election will determine the future of a light rail line designed to link the northern suburbs of Washington, DC, providing an alternative to driving along the notoriously congested Washington beltway.

Governor O'Malley announcing the decision to build the Purple Line as light rail - Photo from Washington Post via ## for Transit##

Governor O'Malley announcing the decision to build the Purple Line as light rail - Photo from Washington Post via ACT for Transit

Governor Ehrlich raising campaign funds at Columbia Country Club- Photo by Patricia Metzger via ## for Transit##

Governor Ehrlich raising campaign funds at Columbia Country Club- Photo by Patricia Metzger via ACT for Transit

The Purple Line has been under consideration since 1987. Incumbent Democrat Martin O’Malley is a staunch supporter of the light rail line and has been instrumental in advancing plans to build it. Republican challenger Bob Ehrlich (who served as governor before losing to O’Malley in 2006) has pushed to turn the Purple Line into a bus rapid transit corridor. And during his term as governor, he pushed through a new highway, the Intercounty Connector.

Opposition to the Purple Line has largely been organized by members of an exclusive country club, which the line will pass through. Other neighbors have campaigned against the line by claiming (untruthfully) that it will narrow the Capital Crescent Trail, one of the most popular bike/ped trails in the Washington area, and diminish its wooded nature by cutting down the trees alongside it.

In fact, area bike groups from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to Silver Spring Trails strongly support the building of the Purple Line as light rail. “It is important that bicyclists reject the assertions that the trail and transit are incompatible,” WABA said in an alert. In fact, the plans for the Purple Line include the completion of unfinished portions of the Capital Crescent.

Still, Ehrlich has made clear his preference for a BRT alternative, which is estimated to cost $386 million to $1 billion, compared to $1.68 billion for light rail. A state analysis found that light rail would be faster and would attract more riders than BRT. (Meanwhile, a study by the World Resources Institute favored BRT, saying it would ”cost less, offer similar services, and fight global warming better than light-rail cars.”) Light rail is expected to attract more development along the corridor.

The state has already spent eight years and about $40 million planning the Purple Line. While Ehrlich didn’t put an end to the plans while he was governor, he did “obfuscate, alter, study and delay” it, according to his own appointee to the Metro board.

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Avoiding the Unintended Consequences of Transit-Oriented Development

We see it over and over again in our cities. Migration out of central cities hollows out neighborhoods and leaves the people who remain struggling with the consequences of disinvestment. But when development returns to urban areas, the arrival of new residents can impose burdens on people who never left. Often, as amenities come into an area and crime goes down, property values rise and poorer residents can no longer afford to live there.


The addition of light rail has been linked to higher rates of car ownership, as compared to the Metropolitan Statistical Area as a whole, but that doesn’t mean we should stop building light rail. Image: Dukakis Center (PDF)

Even when the new development is built around transit, which can lower transportation costs for low-income residents, unintended consequences can ensue.

Researchers with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy have recently reached some provocative conclusions from their study of gentrification and transit-oriented development. Without proper planning, they found, new development near transit can lead to stratified neighborhoods and higher rates of car ownership.

They also offered some solutions to ensure that transit-oriented development achieves its intended goals. The solutions include preserving affordable housing and restricting parking in new developments.

Historically, the authors note, transit-rich neighborhoods tend to be diverse. The low-income people and people of color who live there often don’t have cars and they depend on public transportation. They also usually rent their homes — and since rental housing turns over faster than owner-occupied homes, this speeds along the process of gentrification when new transit options come to a neighborhood.

Rents go up as transit arrives (often along with new shops and restaurants) and more affluent people move in. And guess what? Those wealthier people tend to have more cars. That’s the fundamental paradox: the people who are attracted to transit-rich neighborhoods – and have the money to pay more to live there – don’t use transit as much as less affluent people who can get priced out.

The authors stop short of calling this pattern “displacement” – they point to “normal processes of housing turnover and succession.” But what’s clear is that the people moving in are from a different income demographic than those moving out (though the researchers say the racial makeup tends to stay the same).

Income-based housing stratification and more cars are not the outcomes planners want from transit or transit-oriented development. The challenge is to keep development around transit from becoming too exclusive and too car-oriented. How can communities do this?

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Report: Bush-Era Transit ‘Cost-Effectiveness’ Rule to Cost Charlotte $67M

When the Obama administration moved in January to undo a 2005 rule that made a federal "cost-effectiveness" rating the most important factor in determining which transit projects received funding, critics and even some transit advocates were skeptical, questioning whether the U.S. DOT would be able to legitimately quantify the community-building benefits of rail and bus networks.

Charlotte_SharonRdWest1.jpgThe new light rail line in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo:

But federal officials continued to describe the shift as a significant boost for local transit planners, who will no longer need to design the budgets for new transit lines around the confines of a cost-effectiveness formula that attempted to measure the "incremental cost per hour" for each traveler.

Those who cheered the demise of the cost-effectiveness rule got new ammunition today from Greenwire, which sent a reporter to Charlotte, North Carolina, to track the city's plans for expanding its three-year-old light rail line.

The full story is available only to subscribers, but it puts a $67 million price tag on local  transit planners' mandate to comply with the Bush-era cost-effectiveness standard. As Greenwire's Josh Voorhees explains: