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Posts from the "Transit" Category

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Decades in the Works, D.C.’s Silver Line Opens to Commuters

silver_line_turnstiles

By 10 a.m., more than 9,500 passengers had made trips that started or ended at the five new Silver Line stations today. Photo: @drgridlock/Twitter

Half a century ago, when Dulles International Airport was constructed in the farmlands of Virginia, planners were forming a blueprint for the Washington region’s new Metro system. Back then, they ruled out the idea of stretching the rail line 30 miles beyond the capital through rural counties to connect with the airport. Such a line would serve no purpose for commuters, they said, and would do nothing to help congestion.

But there wasn’t a total absence of foresight regarding the region’s potential explosion. Along with the airport came the Dulles Access Road — and through the center of it, a median reserved for future transit.

The new Silver Line, which officially opened to riders on Saturday after months of delays, runs along that exact path. Ultimately, the 23-mile extension — the largest infrastructure project in the nation – will connect not only to the airport but beyond it to Ashburn, Virginia. The $2.9 billion first phase laid 11.7 miles of new track along five new stations in Tysons Corner and Reston, expanding the Metro system’s mileage by 10 percent.

Today is the first weekday for commuters to try out the new line, which runs east from Reston through the city to Largo Town Center in Maryland. WMATA predicts ridership will be low at first, then eventually reach as many as 25,000 boardings a day. As of 10 a.m. today, more than 9,500 people had passed through the five new stations, the agency said.

It took over five decades for the Silver Line to get here. The last 20 years were particularly contentious, as the project overcame political strife, cost overruns, financing complexities, and construction delays.

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The Secrets of Successful Transit Projects — Revealed!

Green Line Trax at Gallivan Plaza

The Trax light rail system in Salt Lake City has the hallmarks of high-ridership transit. Photo: CountyLemonade/Flickr

All across America, cities are investing in new transit lines. Which of these routes will make the biggest impact by attracting large numbers of new riders? A landmark report from a team of researchers with the University of California at Berkeley identifies the factors that set successful transit investments apart from the rest.

The secret sauce is fairly simple, when you get down to it: Place a transit line where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible, and it will attract a lot of riders.

What makes the work of the Berkeley researchers, led by Daniel G. Chatman, remarkable is that it compiles decades of real-world data to predict how many people will ride a given transit route. Their conclusions should bolster efforts to maximize the effectiveness of new transit investments.

The report authors examined 140-plus factors to build these ridership models, based on data collected from 55 “fixed guideway” transit projects, including rail and bus rapid transit routes, built in 18 metropolitan areas between 1974 and 2008.

They found the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods. In the report’s model, the combination of these factors explains fully 62 percent of the ridership difference between transit projects.

Surprisingly, the only design factor that seemed to have a significant effect on ridership was whether the route is grade-separated (in a tunnel or on a viaduct). In isolation, transit speed, frequency, or reliability did not have significant impacts, but the great advantage of grade-separated routes is that they can run quickly and reliably through high-density areas.

While it may seem like common sense to put transit routes where they will connect people to jobs, agencies don’t always choose the best routes — often opting for expedience over effectiveness. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner commuter rail service, for instance, very closely parallels a newly widened I-15, and many stations are located in low-density industrial or residential areas. Ridership has fallen short of expectations.

Elsewhere in Salt Lake City, the authors identify the University/Medical Center Trax light rail route as a good example of a high-ridership transit project. It connects major high-wage job centers — notably the university, its hospital, and downtown — and also many leisure destinations like museums, sports stadiums, the state fair park, concert halls, and nearly half of the region’s hotel rooms. Locals have embraced light rail as an alternative to costly parking, as well: Parking demand on the growing University of Utah campus has fallen 30 percent since the route opened. The route carries 78 percent more riders than initially projected.

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Why the Federal Funding Emergency Matters for Transportation Reform

Why does it matter if state departments of transportation get less money?

In light of last week’s news that the U.S. DOT might have to ration its payments to states in the absence of new revenue for the federal transportation program, we posed that question to David Goldberg, communications director at Transportation for America. After all, a lot of states are pursuing wasteful boondoggles, like Kentucky’s Ohio River Bridges Project and the Illiana Expressway.

Several states have said they will hold off on planning new projects until they have some certainty that they will be reimbursed with federal funds. And if Washington can’t deliver those funds, good projects will be shelved as well as bad, Goldberg said.

Transit agencies will also feel the pain if Congress can’t come up with a funding solution. The Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund, which provides money to the nation’s transit agencies, is running low and on track to go into the red by October. ”Transit agencies are starting to say, ‘We better not let contracts because we don’t know where the money’s coming from,’” he said

Losing any portion of federal funding for transit agencies would be “devastating,” said Goldberg, as many of them are already stretched very thin.

Furthermore, Goldberg said that if Washington can’t find a solution to the transportation funding problem, it will bode poorly for attempts to solve other problems — like enacting federal policies that make transportation safer, greener, and more efficient.

“This is an opportunity for people in Congress, for Americans in general, to consider what the point of these programs are,” he said. “If we can’t take it seriously, we can’t ask for those progressive things.”

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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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Transit Agencies Pull Out All the Stops for “Dump the Pump” Day

L.A. Metro Transportation Authority CEO Art Leahy smashing a gas pump yesterday. Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard, L.A. Metro

L.A. Metro Transportation Authority CEO Art Leahy smashing a gas pump yesterday. Photo courtesy of Gary Leonard, L.A. Metro

The perks of public transportation will be more tangible than usual today, the ninth annual “Dump the Pump” day. More than 135 transit agencies across the country are taking part in the campaign, attempting to lure drivers out of their cars with free rides and all sorts of promotions, contests and schwag.

In Los Angeles, they literally demolished a gas pump. Atlanta and Greensboro have hosted scavenger hunts on train and bus routes. Dayton, Ohio, is blocking cars from a stretch of Main Street today. And in Chicago, the White Sox mascot, Southpaw, has been popping up on commutes all week.

The American Public Transportation Association first launched the awareness campaign in 2006, when gas prices shot above the $3 mark. “Dump the Pump” is meant as a one-day boost to the ongoing effort to promote the environmental, financial, and health benefits of choosing transit over driving.

APTA, which teams up with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council for “Dump the Pump,” is particularly focused on transit’s financial benefits. According to APTA’s latest Transit Savings Report, an individual can save an average of $10,187 a year, or $849 per month, by using public transportation instead of driving.

Though it’s a low-key affair in many jurisdictions, with stickers and handouts, some campaigns “go all out,” said APTA spokesperson Virginia Miller.

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Is Philly’s 24-Hour Subway Service the Wave of the Future?

This weekend, Philadelphia ran subways all night on two of its lines for the first time in 23 years, and ridership jumped. The city normally runs a night-owl bus that mirrors the subway between midnight and 5 a.m., but the early Sunday morning subway ridership this weekend was 35 percent higher than the average for the bus.

Blogger Conrad Benner pushed for 24/7 SEPTA service -- and got it. Photo: ##http://streetsdept.com/2014/06/18/midnight-thirty-subway-ride/##StreetsDept##

Blogger Conrad Benner pushed for 24/7 SEPTA service. 24/2 is a pretty good start. Photo: StreetsDept

The return to overnight service on two lines doesn’t yet put Philly in the ranks of New York and Chicago, the only two U.S. cities with round-the-clock rail. After all, Philly’s all-night service experiment is only on weekends, only for the summer, and only on the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines — at least for now. But there are reasons to think that improving late-night transit can be a boon for the entire system.

“Metropolitan areas across the United States — whether their primary mass transit system is a metro rail or a commuter train or a bus network — are recognizing that city residents can’t get by on great rush-hour service alone,” wrote Eric Jaffe in CityLab, then called Atlantic Cities, in February. “They need frequent, reliable transit all hours of the day and long into the night.”

Jaffe quoted transportation planner David King of Columbia University: “The growth in transit ridership is happening in the off-peak hours,” said King. “It’s strange. You get on a train at five o’clock in the morning and it’s jammed.”

Philly already had late-night transit — it was just a bus, rather than a train. But many people ignored that option, choosing instead to pay for a taxi or just making sure to be home before the subways closed at midnight. What is it about all-night subway service that draws them when the night-owl bus did not?

Maybe people feel safer waiting in a subway station in the wee hours, rather than a bus stop. But there’s a safety argument to be made for the night-owl bus too: Although the bus is supposed to follow the same limited-stop route as the subway, drivers are required to stop anywhere riders want to get off, meaning shorter walks.

Or maybe people prefer having one option that works no matter what time it is, rather than having to keep track of various schedules.

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A Decade of Growth for Transit-Accessible Neighborhoods in America

About 75 percent of Americans who live within a half-mile of a fixed transit station live in just five cities. Image: Federal Transit Administration

While the number of regions with good transit is on the rise, access is still concentrated in a handful of places. About 75 percent of Americans within a half-mile of a transit station live in just five cities. Chart: Federal Transit Administration

The first decade of the millennium saw significant growth for transit in America.

From 2000 to 2010, the number of regions with fixed-guideway transit — rail systems or bus systems with dedicated lanes — grew from 27 to 40. And ridership followed. In the period beginning in 1995 and ending in 2008, total American transit ridership grew 36 percent — or three times the rate of population growth.

A new report from the Federal Transit Administration and the Center for Transit-Oriented Development [PDF] takes a closer look at population changes and travel behavior in transit-accessible America. Some interesting patterns emerge.

Transit-accessible places are growing, but not as fast as the general population

During the aughts, 881 new stations were built across the United States for rail transit or high-quality bus transit, and the number of people living within a half mile of a transit station grew 6 percent. However, overall population increased nearly 10 percent over same time.

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Why the Senate Transportation Bill Will Devastate Transit

Transit officials lined up today to make clear that holding transit spending at current levels — as the Senate’s transportation authorization bill does — will put transit systems at risk of falling further into dangerous disrepair.

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are "woefully insufficient."

Beverly Scott of the MBTA warned that current funding levels, as continued by the proposed Senate transportation bill, are “woefully insufficient.”

The backlog for transit maintenance and replacement stands “conservatively” at $86 billion, according to the Federal Transit Administration. That backlog is expected to keep growing at a rate of $2.5 billion each year without a significant infusion of funds.

To put it another way, the country needs to spend $2.5 billion more per year – from federal, state and local sources – just to keep the state of the nation’s transit systems from getting even worse.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) was determined to expose the shortcomings of the bill Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently shepherded through the Environment and Public Works Committee. While the bill’s transit title hasn’t been written yet, EPW has been clear about its intentions to keep spending at current levels plus inflation. That means no help toward the $2.5 billion boost needed to keep things from getting worse.

Menendez chaired a hearing today of the Banking Committee — the very committee tasked with writing the transit title within the framework established by EPW — to demonstrate the problem with the bill’s funding levels.

“By a simple yes or no,” Menendez asked the transit officials before him, “does anyone on the panel believe that current funding levels are enough to help you achieve a state of good repair?”

“They are insufficient,” answered Joseph Casey, general manager of Philadelphia’s SEPTA.

“Woefully insufficient,” added Beverly Scott, head of Boston’s MBTA and a nationally respected transportation visionary.

“No sir,” said Gary Thomas of Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Houston, Transit Paradise?

Welcome to a super-long extra-bonus episode of Talking Headways! We only took on two topics this week, but we got so enthralled by both of them we just couldn’t shut up.

First, we talked to Christof Spieler, a member of Houston Metro, about the “blank-sheet” bus overhaul he helped design. Instead of trying to tweak the current system around its edges, Metro decided to start again from scratch, planning routes and service that make sense for the way the city is now. Metro thought the upside would outweigh the downside, but the agency wasn’t prepared for this: There was almost no downside. By eliminating redundant and inefficient service, Metro could optimize routes without eliminating low-ridership routes that people depend on. And to hear Christof tell it, what they’re accomplishing is pretty amazing:

What we’re really doing is focusing on frequent service. We’re basically doubling the number of routes that offer frequent service, and we’re extending that frequent service to seven days a week. So: every 15 minutes, seven days a week, network of about 20 routes.

That puts a million people within walking distance of those routes; it puts a million jobs within walking distance of those routes. It is going to be one of the largest coverage areas of high frequency transit in the United States. And that is a huge deal for our existing riders, because currently only about 25 percent of our boardings are at stops that have all-week frequent service. This will take that up to 73 percent.

Once we tear ourselves away from Christof and his beautiful vision of the future of transit, we do a debrief on what’s going on with the transportation bill in Congress. The Senate bill isn’t all it could be, but in Congress nothing is ever all it could be, and this one at least stands a chance of passage — or it would if there were an actual, realistic funding stream attached to it. No such luck. Tune in for all the gory details.

Side note: Big thanks to all who have donated during Streetsblog’s spring pledge drive, especially those of you who specifically mentioned the podcast as why you’re giving. We appreciate you! There’s still time to get in on the fun: Please donate today!

As always, Talking Headways is available on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed, and this right here is where you leave your snappy comments. We welcome your backtalk and your sassy mouth.

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Talking Headways Podcast: California Über Alles

Welcome to our all-California, all-the-time episode of the Talking Headways podcast.

We start with a statewide debate over whether $60,000+ Teslas should qualify for tax breaks — or whether any electric vehicles should get tax breaks. Then on to the conversation about how California’s cap-and-trade dollars should be spent. One proposal, from the State Senate leader, would spend it on affordable housing, sustainable communities, transit, and high-speed rail. And then we zoom in on Fresno, where one blogger wonders why the political threat to BRT didn’t get as much attention as it did in Nashville.

We missed the podcast after a long-ish break and are glad to be back! We hope you filled the gaping hole in your life by listening to back episodes of Talking Headways goodness and subscribing to us on iTunes or Stitcher or signing up for the RSS feed.

And, side note: The giveaway for our spring pledge drive has changed since we recorded this podcast. Now, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a package of zines and books by feminist bike activist and writer Elly Blue. Thanks for your donation!