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7 CITIES EXPERIENCE SUCCESSES, SETBACKS WITH LIGHT-RAIL SYSTEMS

Denver

After 20 years of trying to build a rail system in Denver, the city has finally approved a two-mile line for $67 million in downtown Denver. The Denver Regional Council of Governments has yet to approve an additional 3.1-mile extension that is expected to raise the cost to $100 million.Some 13,000 commuters are expected to be served by the system, according to Bob Smith, public information coordinator with Denver's Regional Transportation District.

Transportation officials say the net cost of the project will be $70 million because bus service can be decreased to save $30 million.

Denver-area voters and the Colorado Legislature have rejected past proposals to finance a light-rail system with tax dollars. The proposed 5.2-mile system would be funded through bonding, not new taxes or federal funding, Smith said.

In May, the cost of the project became the center of controversy after inflation, interest and projected maintenance expenses raised the price tag to $170 million. Proponents say the figure isn't a fair representation, but opponents say it is, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

Opponents argue that the system amounts to a costly $175,000 per new rider of mass transit in Denver. They also say that statistics show that rail lines built in the past 10 to 20 years consistently exceed projected costs when they're completely built. Projects have run anywhere from 13 percent to 83 percent more expensive than initially forecast, opponents told the Rocky Mountain News.

San Jose

Skeptics called it "The Trolley to Nowhere" when the first segment of the 20-mile Guadalupe Corridor opened in 1987 because it extended from downtown to an industrial area to the north, rather than a southern residential area.

The second-phase southern route needed extra attention and sensitivity when workers discovered such things as asbestos deposits and an Indian burial ground.

The line first opened with a one-mile segment that carried about 1,000 passengers - a fact that confirmed critics' negative views.

But as each segment opened - the entire line opened in 1991 - ridership "skyrocketed," according to Lili Smith, media spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Transit District.

Ridership fluctuates depending on the economy and unemployment, but Smith said the system has seen steady overall ridership growth.

The 50-rail car system now carries 23,000 people daily and gets about 13 percent of its $23 million operating budget from fares. It costs $2 for a day pass, which also can be used for buses. The transit district also has seen an increase in riders on its 504 buses.

Plans are to make this the first of many spokes in a wheel-like transportation hub. The next phase is a 12-mile extension, although the outcome of a local referendum to continue a quarter-cent county sales tax will determine what happens next.

The Guadalupe Corridor exceeded its original cost projection of $372 million primarily because of a court injunction sought by property owners unhappy with the rail alignment, said Evans Mends, a public relations specialist for a transit consultant. Meeting court requirements caused a 24-month delay while environmental studies were redone. Mends also said design improvements were made to the system that increased the cost somewhat. The final tab: $545 million.

St. Louis

Construction continues on the 18-mile, 20-station Metro Link light-rail transit system that will extend from East St. Louis, Ill., via downtown St. Louis to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and Berkeley in the city's northwest suburbs.

The project utilizes existing rail lines, an abandoned mile-long downtown rail subway and the the unused rail deck of the Eads Bridge across the Mississippi River. These existing rail assets provide a one-third matching share for federal funding.

The project has been plagued by unexpected costs. For example, costs of purchasing downtown St. Louis property were 21/2 times the original estimate. Changes in seismic codes, cleanup of hazardous waste sites and increased costs of foreign-made rail cars resulting from the weak U.S. dollar have driven up the costs. The overruns have forced the Bi-State Development Agency to return to Congress to ask for more money, raising the cost estimate from $250 million in 1986 to $351 million now with future increases possible, according to Linda Hancock, director communication with the Bi-State Development Agency.

The project has been boosted by funding from Congress, promoted by both the Illinois and Missouri congressional delegations, including House Majority Leader Rep. Richard Gephart, D-Mo. The Bi-State development agency has been unsuccessful in obtaining funding from the Missouri Legislature to bridge the cost increases.

Sacramento

In the mid-1980s, voters said decisively they didn't want another freeway, so the Sacramento Regional Transit District obtained a freeway corridor and turned it into park-and-ride lots and a light-rail line. The light-rail system also used exclusive rights of way, land along main streets and tracks on streets.

The U-shaped 18.3 mile system line opened in 1987 with projected ridership of 20,000. Today, there are 23,900 weekday riders. It cost $178 million, with most of the construction money coming from California and the federal government, since funds for the defunct freeway plan could be used for light rail. The rest came from grants and city bonds.

Since then, voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax that is divided among light-rail construction and operational costs and highway improvements.

The overall transit budget is $55 million, with $7.3 million going for light rail and the rest for a 200-bus fleet. The light-rail farebox produces about 25 percent of operating revenues. Fares vary, with a daily pass costing $3.

Ridership has fluctuated. It began well, experienced heavy growth, underwent some declines, jumped 34.2 percent in 1990 and has stabilized. Last year, ridership grew 4.3 percent. The system is now reaching capacity and may need more frequent trains.

Critics saw this as a white elephant at first, but Alan Storey, transportation superintendent for Sacramento Regional Transit, light rail division, said support has grown as people have seen what the system does.

Another concern: "The original construction budget grew from $131 million to $178 million due to amenities built into the system and that roused suspicion," Storey said. These included such things as improved bus shelters and re-bidding rail cars to get better brakes.

Portland

The Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) has been lauded as one of the light-rail success stories in the United States, with supporters pointing proudly to a 1990 referendum in which 74 percent of voters approved property tax bonds to expand the 15.5-mile system. On the same ballot was a Proposition 13-style property tax lid that won approval by 54 percent.

"It was amazing," said Bob Post, general manager of the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon. "At the same time people passed a limitation on property taxes, they approved a one-time bond measure for another line for the rail system. That shows how popular it is."

Construction cost $221 million, with 83 percent from the federal government, a higher-than-usual amount of federal support.

The 26-car rail line carries 25,000 riders daily along the route from downtown to outlying Gresham. It is linked to the bus system and tickets can be interchanged. It costs $1.20 to ride the entire rail route. Operating costs are $80 million yearly for the rail line and $90 million for the bus system. The rail line covers about 51 percent of its operating costs from the fare box - substantially more than most systems.

MAX is not without its critics.

Ridership projections during the 1970s showed 40,000 people taking the train daily. These figures were revised downward during the economic stagnation of the 1980s - an action explained as realistic by transit planners but criticized as questionable by rail skeptics. The federal government also issued reports stating MAX didn't meet its ridership, budget and completion goals. However, Post disputes those, saying MAX was finished on time, under budget and carries a realistic passenger load.

Phoenix

In March 1989, Phoenix voters rejected a plan that would raise $6 million of a $8.4 million plan through a half-cent sales tax. The funds would have been spent on a package of mass transit improvements including a 103-mile light-rail line, 1,200 more buses, a commuter railroad from Chandler to downtown Phoenix, a 27-mile bus lane on freeways and $300 million in freeway improvements.

According to Phoenix Gazette reports, opponents to the plan said that rail planners were trying to implement a 19th-century rail technology in the 20th century. They said the only way to get people out of cars is to provide economy, speed and dependability. Pointing to Houston, the said a more viable solution to transportation was van pools and car pools.

An independent study commissioned by a tax watchdog group showed that Phoenix wasn't right for light rail because of its sprawling, low-density makeup. Instead, it recommended express buses on dedicated or high-occupancy vehicle lanes and financial incentives to promote car- and van-pooling.

Proponents said unless they did not do something imaginative they would end up like Los Angeles in 20 years - with crowded freeways in gridlock. In 20 years the same solutions would be four times the cost, they said.

Calgary

Calgary is a training ground for many North American cities con-tem-pla-ting light rail, since its system is clearly popular - it boasts a daily ridership of 114,530 on its three-legged 29-mile system.

The combined bus-rail Calgary Transit system runs 20.5 hours a day, offers 117 routes and has a multilevel fare structure, with a daily adult fare of $1.50.

The light-rail portion cost $543 million to build, with half that coming from the province of Alberta. Rail cars were another expense, at a cost of $1.2 million apiece for 83 cars.

Operating costs for the rail and bus portions of the system are difficult to separate because workers' wages and maintenance costs are blended, according to Judy Morris, coordinator of marketing.

However, the overall transit budget for 1992 is $110 million. The city of Calgary helps subsidize the system. It expects the system will fetch $70.5 million in revenues from a variety of sources, including the farebox ($55.4 million), grants from the province, advertising and other means.

"I was a skeptic at first, but it's converted me," said Doug Leibel, manager of marketing and customer services. "It's made a world of difference in our transportation system because it takes the burden off expressways. It also cuts down on motorists going through neighborhoods as a short-cut."

As it was being built in segments starting in 1981, some residents in attractive neighborhoods were worried that an ugly system would devalue their property and create unwelcome intrusions into their areas. Leibel said concerns about aesthetics were alleviated when architects worked with residents.