Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Streetcar Debate: Part 1

There have been some posts by M1ek about streetcars and I thought it would be a good idea to do a back and forth so that folks can trade thoughts and ideas on the subject.

So let's look at some of the issues he brought up:

Capital Costs

Light Rail - These days grade separated light rail will cost you between $45 and $75 million per mile. Denver's most recent line came in at $47 million per mile while Phoenix's line cost $72 because of a major river crossing bridge. It depends mostly on the choice of route, whether it's going to take a lane like Houston or need a tunnel or elevated segment to grade separate intersections. Getting built in street which might require utility movements as light rail excavation is between 16 and 24 inches deep. 90 foot LRV's cost over $3 million per vehicle these days and are often coupled in trains (Charlotte's Siemens vehicles were $3.28 M, Seattle $4M and hold 230 people). Electrification costs run around a $1.5 million per mile. Stations are usually large. Now these costs are much bigger than they need to be, yet no one seems to be taking a stand on building them with too much expense. Locals want every bell and whistle added including fancy stations among other things.

Streetcar - Streetcars depending on the type and track configuration will cost between $20 and $35 million per double track mile. Portland in 2001 completed their line for around $24 million per mile and Little Rock has built a single track mile of their most recent extension with two vehicles for around $8 million or $16 million with a double track. Recent studies in a few cities are saying that these lines will cost around $35 million per mile on average. The lower cost from light rail is due to less of a need for deep track excavation. The Portland streetcar excavation was 12 inches and streets without utilities were chosen to lower costs. Kenosha's line was built for $3 million per mile but that isn't possible anymore with inflation and materials cost.

New heritage vehicles cost around $850,000 (50 feet). For the modern vehicles which are basically smaller LRVs. Portland's streetcar is 66 feet(130 passengers) but the vehicles are modular and can be added to in sections, however the design must fit in a city block so as not to block intersections. The modern vehicles can be coupled but for Portland and Tacoma they have been covered with a bumper. Because the vehicles are smaller than full size LRVs, the track doesn't have to be as hefty. However some cities such as Tacoma have chosen to build to Light Rail standard because they expect the Seattle system to expand to the city eventually. Stations are small, usually shelters with bulb-out sidewalks.

Bus - Obviously buses have a much cheaper capital cost. Or do they? Standard 40 foot diesel buses cost around $330,000 (70 passengers). Many agencies these days are going with hybrid electric buses which are double the diesel. If you want to go with a 60 foot articulated bus (105 passengers), costs can run from $550,000 for diesel or $730,000 for a hybrid. Special BRT buses for Eugene cost about $1 million each. Road costs, on Lamar for example, were $12.6 million for 1.4 miles of 4 lane road reconstruction with all of the utilities($2.25 million per lane mile). Obviously this depends on the type of road and if there are utilities etc. There are a lot of what ifs but I wanted to give an idea of what it costs. There is a lot of repair and upkeep that is paid for not by gas tax funding, but property tax monies collected by cities. Gas tax generally only goes to freeways, state roads, and a select few arterial streets.

To pay for transit expenditures, transit agencies have to raise money. For buses and bus barns, they can be replaced for 'free' by the FTA after they are passed their usable life which according to the FTA is 12 years from first operation. Rail cars can be replaced after 25 years meaning two buses per rail car, or even 4 buses if you consider the capacity of two 40 foot buses versus a streetcar and 6 to 8 for the capacity of LRVs. That is unless you chose artics (Articulated Buses) which hold more people, but are also more expensive.

For rail or BRT projects, Track/Guideway and overhead wire construction can be funded by the new starts program however many projects have been dogged by the cost-effectiveness index. Two major projects dropped out last year including possible rail lines in Raleigh Durham and Columbus Ohio. Other projects including the Metro to Dulles and the Central Corridor in Minneapolis are under serious pressure to get under the medium measure. In the 2005 Safetea-Lu bill over 300 projects were approved for the program, however over the 6 year life of the bill, there won't be that many. In the 2008 New Starts report, there are only 11 funded projects and funding is spread out for a number of years.

Local funding for streetcar projects has come from property owners in Seattle and Parking fees and a number of other sources in Portland. Most of the heritage projects have been paid for with new starts funding that they can't seem to qualify for anymore and CMAQ and other flexible funding sources provided by MPOs.

With so few projects being funded, the FTA has been pushing for smaller rapid bus projects. This isn't like full BRT projects such as the Orange Line in LA, this is for projects like the Metro Rapid in LA which is similar to a limited route. The long and short of it is that cities have had to start looking for other ways to pay for the capital cost of transit lines. This is leading to more BRT projects and faux BRT express bus lines. But that is a decision that is being made based on cost and not the wants of the community. We'll discuss some of these other issues in the next segments.

Next: Operating Costs


M1EK said...

The "average" figure is misleading because it compares streetcars installations (none of which require tunnelling) to LRT installations, some of which do and some of which don't. It's not that streetcar couldn't be tunnelled (as somebody indicated, Boston did it); it's that streetcar is usually not the technology of choice for a route which doesn't run completely in-street.

The extra digging required for LRT versus streetcar in the same spot simply can't cost $20 million/mile. You know that as well as I do. $500,000 per mile, I MIGHT buy - IF there's a lot of utilities in those extra inches. If it cost much more than that, we simply couldn't afford to do full-depth street reconstructions - there's your obvious check.

Mark said...

Thanks for putting this all together. With links and references to boot!

I've got a lot of reading to do.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

But remember, with light rail the cost per mile is inclusive of larger vehicles, larger maintenance barns, larger stations instead of 'stops', catenary wires for higher speeds versus trolley wire, street reconstruction instead of retrofit because taking a lane and rebuilding is different than slicing out a slab of the road and dropping in a streetcar lane. The construction methods are very different. I'll try and find a link to some differences.

Also, i tried to put in a range of recent costs. Obviously in my post before Norfolk had a low cost and they are building light rail but they are also not building in street on a railroad right of way. I've heard track construction without all the street concrete work is much less.

M1EK said...

I don't see streetcar being done without reconstruction here. That's the kicker again - we talked about light rail down Congress in 2000; we're talking about streetcar down the same street now - but everything else is different. If streetcar was run in its own lane down Guadalupe, it would require the same reconstruction as LRT would have. If not, then it isn't remotely the same thing. Likewise, running a LRT vehicle in shared traffic wouldn't necessitate a full rebuild of the full road either for the same reason.

Anonymous said...

There are some cool pics of the Seattle line being developed. I think it is neat to see how well the area is developing.

Justin said...

You should look into the concept of "rapid streetcar". It is pretty much a streetcars running in their own ROW, and with the similar grade separated characteristics as LRT. In my opinion, many cities do not actually need a full LRT system, but every proposal focuses on building a high end LRT, when a tram line will do just fine.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Here is a previous post I wrote on Rapid Streetcar Justin. And here is a post with lots of discussion about it over at Portland Transport

M1EK said...


Rapid streetcar would be fine, if it was possible to build it anywhere up to the actual promise; but in practice it ends up as rapid bus always does - a shared-traffic service with (at best) a doodad to let the light stay green a few more seconds - i.e., worthless in implementation.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

In practice? The only application of rapid streetcar I've seen hasn't been built yet.(Portland to Lake Oswego) So I don't think you can say 'in practice'

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