Posts about Light Rail
Often when a new city proposes its first rail line, opponents who don't like spending money on transit call for BRT instead. So it's tempting to think cities might have an easier time implementing new transit lines if they simply planned BRT from the start. Unfortunately, BRT often faces the exact same opposition.
Two projects that have faced major opposition, the Nashville BRT (left) and Cincinnati streetcar (right). Images from the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati.
Both Nashville and Cincinnati are among America's most car-dependent and least transit-accessible large cities. Nashville's entire regional transit agency only carries about 31,000 passengers per day. Cincinnati's carries about 58,000.
For comparison, Montgomery County's Ride-On bus carries 87,000, never mind WMATA.
In places like Nashville and Cincinnati, authorities have ignored transit for so long that any attempt to take it seriously is inherently controversial, regardless of the mode.
Arguments may fixate on rails, dedicated lanes, or overhead wires, but for at least some opponents those issues seem to be simply vehicles for larger ideological opposition.
That may sometimes be true even in places with stronger transit cultures. Arlington's streetcar and Montgomery's BRT network are both controversial themselves. Both have plenty of detractors who say the plans are unaffordable or would get in the way of cars.
Ultimately there are many reasons a city hoping to improve transit might choose BRT or rail. The two modes are both useful, and smart cities use them both based on the specific needs of the location.
But either way, expect similar tropes from opposition. It's inescapable.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Better transit could one day come to Virginia's Route 1 between the Beltway and Woodbridge. A transit study looked at transit options and narrowed down the choices to curbside or median Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), light rail, or a hybrid of BRT and extending Metro's Yellow Line.
The study presents a wealth of data and a thorough analysis, but raises key questions, including what speed limit is appropriate for a more transit-oriented Route 1. A new high-capacity transit system would transform the corridor, but there would be challenges to ensure a safe pedestrian and bicycle environment and preserve affordable housing.
The study considered 8 transit options before eliminating streetcar, enhanced bus, express bus, local bus, a Yellow Line extension all the way to Woodbridge, and monorail. The 4 alternatives that remain for further study are:
- Curbside Bus Rapid Transit (including a stretch in mixed traffic from Pohick Road to Woodbridge)
- Median Bus Rapid Transit (with a shorter mixed traffic section in Prince William County to Woodbridge)
- Median Light Rail Transit
- A Metrorail-BRT Hybrid, extending the Yellow Line to Hybla Valley and then switching to BRT.
The study looked at 3 land use scenarios:
- A baseline forecast for 2035 from the regional Council of Governments model;
- 25% more growth based on what a BRT or LRT line would likely generate;
- 169% more which is necessary to support Metrorail service.
For the road itself, the study rejects widening Route 1 to four lanes in each direction, as well as converting existing lanes to transit-only. That leaves a recommendation for three general lanes in each direction as well as transit in a separate right-of-way.
What transit do you think should go in this corridor? In part 2, we'll talk about how to create a sense of place and what this plan means for housing affordability.
When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.
Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.
The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.
The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.
Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.
But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.
These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.
But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.
There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.
The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.
There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.
The Federal Transit Administration has just issued a Record of Decision for the Purple Line, basically approving the 16-mile light rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton. It's one of the last pieces needed to build the line, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2020.
Maryland Transit Administration officials made the announcement this morning during a Montgomery County Planning Board meeting about the Purple Line, which Purple Line NOW! and BethesdaNow subsequently tweeted.
The FTA will make a formal announcement next week. The agency's decision means Maryland can start purchasing right-of-way to build the $2.37 billion Purple Line, and makes it eligible for federal funding. President Obama recently included it in his 2015 budget, which Congress will have to approve later this year.
With state funding in place and an ongoing search for a private partner in the works, nearly all of the money needed has been secured. As a sign of how likely the Purple Line is to get built, the Planning Board is meeting today to make detailed recommendations about how it should interact with surrounding neighborhoods, like what materials to use for retaining walls.
Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney has a column today urging the affluent Town of Chevy Chase, which has been fighting the project for years and recently hired a congressman's brother to lobby on their behalf, to lay down their arms and use their money to make the project better instead.
"Some people have more money than good judgment," he wrote. "The town should end its obstruction of a worthy project. Burning money is unwise even if you have it to spare."
Six private consortia have expressed interest in building and operating the $2.2 billion Purple Line in partnership with the Maryland Transit Administration. They bring experience from similar deals around the world, including a successful project in Denver.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has received responses from six private consortia who want to bid on the planned light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton in a public-private partnership (P3), which the state approved in August.
"The six responses, from local, national, and worldwide firms, clearly demonstrate leaders in the P3 industry have strong interest in delivering this long-awaited project," said Maryland transportation secretary James Smith in a statement. The consortia include a who's-who of investors and operators active in the P3 space, including the investors in the only comparable transit concession in the United States, the Eagle P3 in Denver.
The interested teams are: M-PG Connect (Plenary Group and Bechtel Development), Maryland Purple Line Partners (Vinci Concession, Walsh Investors, InfraRed Capital Partners, Alstom, and Keolis), Maryland Transit Connectors (John Laing Investments, Kiewit Development, and Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate), Purple Line Development Partners (CSCEC and United Labor Life Insurance), Purple Line Transit Partners (Meridiam Infrastructure, Fluor, and Star America Fund) and Purple Plus Alliance (Macquarie Capital and Skanska Infrastructure Development).
Macquarie and Fluor's Denver Transit Partners was the winning bidder of the Eagle P3, the only design-build-finance-operate-maintain (DBFOM) transit concession that has successfully closed in the US. John Laing and Uberior bought Macquarie's stake in the project when its financing closed in August 2010.
Under a DBFOM concession, a private consortium takes responsibility for the design, construction, financing, operations, and maintenance of a project within the parameters of the contract with the grantor, which in this case is the state of Maryland. The deal structure also places the majority of the design, construction, and operational risks on the private sector.
The Eagle P3 is a good comparison for Maryland's Purple Line. In addition to being the country's only DBFOM transit concession, it also uses availability payments, which are guaranteed payments to the concessionaire from the grantor.
It also involves an isolated rail system that is separate from Denver's existing light rail. This separation is important in terms of measuring the operational performance since there aren't any other services to affect it. This allows the grantor to accurately reimburse the private concessionaire in the future.
The Purple Line light rail will stretch 16 miles from Bethesda to New Carrollton through Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Operationally separate from the MTA's other transit lines, the concession also includes a maintenance facility and rolling stock.
The Eagle P3 includes three commuter rail lines that will run more than 35 miles from Denver Union Station to Denver International Airport, the suburb of Westminster and the suburb of Wheat Ridge when they open in 2016. It also includes a commuter rail maintenance facility and Hyundai Rotem rolling stock.
Fluor, John Laing, and Macquarie will undoubtedly be able to bring best practices to Maryland from their experience in Denver, some of which could help reduce costs and possibly speed up the construction schedule.
Other interested firms also have transit concession experience outside the US. Keolis and Plenary are investors in the eight-mile Gold Coast light rail concession in Australia, and Vinci is an investor in multiple light rail concessions in Europe.
Meridiam and Skanska bring experience from other DBFOM concessions in the US to the table. Meridian built a courthouse in Long Beach, California, while Skanska worked on the Midtown and Downtown Tunnels in Virginia's Hampton Roads area.
The next steps for Maryland include evaluating the responses that the six consortia submitted for the Purple Line P3 and selecting a shortlist of qualified teams who will move on to the actual bidding phase. Robert Smith, administrator of the MTA, says that they plan to shortlist up to four consortia.
The MTA plans to announce the shortlist in January 2014 with proposals due in the early summer, the agency says. It expects to pick a preferred bidder by either the end of 2014 or early 2015.
Construction on the Purple Line could begin as early as the second quarter of 2015, subject to approval of the concession contract by the Maryland Board of Public Works and funds from the federal government to help finance the project.
Maryland is seeking up to $1.05 billion in a New Starts grant from the US Federal Transit Administration and has submitted a letter of interest for a TIFIA loan from the US Department of Transportation. The state plans to contribute at least $711 million and expects between $400 million and $900 million in funds from the private sector.
While there aren't many transit projects built through P3s in the United States, if successful, the Purple Line could set an example for the rest of the country.
This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.
It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.
Cross-posted to BeyondDC.
Railvolution conference. While there, they'll offer a series of short posts about their experiences.
Seattle has a lot of interesting transportation infrastructure. Among the most interesting is the Seattle Transit Tunnel, a 5-station subway that forms the core of the city's transit network.
It started off as a bus-only subway, but became a joint bus/rail tunnel when Seattle's Central Link light rail line opened in 2009. Each station is different, but one, Pioneer Square, would look particularly at home in DC:
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.
"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.
According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.
Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.
Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."
Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for comments until October 21, the line's preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit "transformer hum" sounds.
MTA plans to mitigate the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, "The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment."
Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.
In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.
The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.
Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City's subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne's 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations.
In 1987, Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called "bungalow-style substations," throughout Toronto. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.
Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on Pepco's program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. Pepco employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.
Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren't limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.
One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower's visual impact to the established neighborhood.
One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.
The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.
It's far too soon to know whether the Purple Line's faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied "real" homes.
MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won't be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And it's not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.
While much of Tysons Corner is slated to become a new urban center, parts of the area will remain disconnected office parks for the foreseeable future. By planning for future demand and leveraging rising property values, Fairfax County can encourage more investment in the area and provide new public amenities, like improved transit.
Last week, President Obama announced that the federal government may try to reduce its support for mortgage company Freddie Mac, headquartered in Tysons Corner. If Freddie Mac eventually downsized or consolidated its operations, they might sell their 37.8-acre campus on Jones Branch Drive, far from Tysons' core or the Silver Line.
This may not happen for years, if not decades. By then, it may not be as desirable a location, especially when the Silver Line opens and Tysons begins the transition to a more urban, walkable place. But a land sale could be an opportunity to bring one of its largest office parks in line with the larger vision.
Freddie Mac's campus contains just 800,000 square feet of Class A office space. When built in 2002, it had a very desirable location: direct access to the Dulles Toll Road and adjacent to the Westpark transit center, served by 6 Fairfax Connector routes. It's also close to the new Jones Branch Drive exit on the new 495 Express lanes.
Map of Tysons with Freddie Mac and Jones Branch Drive from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment and edited by the author.
By 2025, much of the land around the four future Tysons metro stations will be substantially developed. The street grid will still be discontinuous, and each of the station areas may act as a discreet hub, similar to Reston Town Center. But the area will have enough density to justify its own internal transit needs, perhaps even exceeding the capacity of bus service.
Meanwhile, the office parks of North Tysons, where Freddie Mac is located, may have filled in with some residential development. But it still won't have direct access to transit, nor is it covered by the design guidelines of the Tysons Comprehensive Plan, which guides the redevelopment of Tysons. Freddie Mac's property will be very valuable, but the current zoning and allowable density prevents major redevelopment from occurring.
In order to take advantage of this site's potential, two things need to happen. First, Fairfax County should rezone the property for higher density and mixed-use development to fit with the larger vision for Tysons Corner. Second, the county should start planning for high-quality transit service to North Tysons that can not only support future redevelopment, but be financed by it as well.
Street section of light rail on Jones Bridge Drive. Image from the Tysons Comprehensive Plan Amendment.
The Tysons Comprehensive Plan refers to a light rail circulator that would serve parts of Tysons Corner that are far from the Silver Line. The estimated cost of a 2.5-mile light rail line along Jones Bridge Drive between the future McLean and Spring Hill Metro stations (via a future bridge over Scotts Run) is about $60 million.
This assumes that Jones Bridge's existing right-of-way could accommodate a new rail line. Let's take a worst-case scenario and say the county would need an additional $40 million in right-of-way. For approximately 200,000 square feet of land, that comes out to a very conservative $8.8 million per acre.
With a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 3.0, Freddie Mac's 37.8 acres could easily support 5 million square feet of development. (To compare, the property's current FAR is about .5, and the maximum FAR allowed in downtown DC is 10.) If the county rezoned the property, they could also levy a special tax as was done for rezoned properties associated with the Silver Line, or to cover school and public safety improvements.
At the current assessed price per square foot, a fully built-out development on this property would have assessed value of $2.1 billion, generating $23.1 million in taxes to Fairfax County and $2.1 million in special taxes each year. The county could initiate a bond using the special tax as backing that could pay for all capital costs associated with the light rail.
Is this all pie in the sky? Of course, as is the case with all long-term planning, everything over the course of 20 or 30 years is an assumption based on reasonable estimates created from a past history. If Tysons' critics are right, it may struggle to get development activity going, and vacancy rates could be high enough to undermine the marketability of such a land transfer. If that were the case, the above scenario would not be necessary.
So far, that's not the case. Land sales in Tysons have garnered a lot of private interest, especially for large corporate campuses. If those trends continue, Freddie Mac could sell their property to a developer in the future, and the county as well as taxpayers could really benefit. It would also be a step towards creating a new type of infrastructure in Tysons, giving more options to commuters, workers, shoppers, and residents.
What the sprawl history of Tysons has taught us is that if you don't plan for the future, you are destined to end up with a disconnected mess. Instead of leaving the Freddie Mac property to deteriorate or hoping for a new corporate tenant, Fairfax County needs to plan their next steps and leverage future changes to the benefit of Tysons and the county.
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