Author Archive: Sandy Smith

Nashville Mayor’s $5.2 Billion Transit Plan Proposes Free Fares for Some

(Photo by Michael Rivera)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects and ideas worldwide.

Nashville Mayor Outlines $5.2 Billion Regional Transit Plan
“Let’s move Nashville,” Mayor Megan Barry urged an audience of supporters at the Music City Center Tuesday as she officially took the wraps off a regional transit proposal that will be the largest and most complex public works project in the history of Metro Nashville if the voters approve the taxes needed to pay for it.

The Tennessean reports that the $5.2 billion plan calls for 26 miles of light-rail rapid transit in six corridors, including a direct connection to Nashville International Airport. The lines would converge in a $900 million, 1.8-mile-long subway tunnel under downtown Nashville with three stations. The first of these lines would open for service in 2026.

In addition to light rail, the plan calls for rapid bus routes operating in an additional four corridors, two dozen neighborhood transit centers around rapid bus and light-rail stations and immediate upgrades to existing bus service that would introduce 15-minute headways at peak hours on busy routes, increased frequency and 20-hour operation for bus routes across Davidson County, and service improvements that will cut travel times on some routes by as much as 80 percent.

The proposal also envisions eliminating transit fares for Nashville residents who live at or below the federal poverty line.

To pay for all this, Barry proposes two half-cent hikes in the sales tax, one next July and the other in 2023, two similarly phased-in increases in the city’s hotel-motel tax that would bring it to 6.375 percent, a 20 percent increase in the business and excise tax, and a 20 percent surcharge on the local car rental tax. Under provisions of a state law passed last year that gives Tennessee cities broad leeway to levy taxes for infrastructure improvements, the new local taxes would expire in 50 years. Barry also said the city would pursue federal funding to help finance the plan.

Barry plans to submit legislation to Metro Council in December in order to get the tax proposals on the May election ballot.

Bay Area Bridge Tolls May Rise to Pay for Transportation Projects
Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation that will allow San Francisco Bay Area residents to approve a hike in bridge tolls that would raise up to $4.5 billion for a raft of transportation projects, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

At least 36 projects either currently underway or planned would receive funding from the proposed toll hike, which would appear on the ballot sometime in 2018 as Regional Measure 3.

The projects would be spread across all nine Bay Area counties, with a little extra for the most heavily urbanized areas. They would also continue the region’s emphasis on public transportation: While some road widenings, interchange improvements and express highway lane projects are included in the package, no new roads would be built.

San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge

What would be built as part of the package is the last leg of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension around the East Bay to San Jose, a Caltrain extension to the Transbay Terminal, and a SMART commuter rail extension to Windsor and Healdsburg.

The measure would also provide money to expand transit vehicle fleets all around the Bay Area: new railcars for BART and Muni Metro, additional boats to allow the San Francisco Bay Ferry to add new routes, and new buses for regional express service, transbay service and bus rapid transit in the East Bay.

The major road projects that would be funded by the measure include widening the Novato Narrows and expanding the Bay Area express lane network, which converts high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that would allow solo drivers to buy a quicker trip.

For the toll hike to take effect, a majority of voters in all nine Bay Area counties must cast ballots in favor of the move. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission will decide how and when to stage the election early next year.

The bill is noteworthy for taking a regional approach to paying for Bay Area transportation improvements. If the measure is approved, tolls would rise on all the state-owned toll bridges in the Bay Area. Tolls would not rise on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is owned by an independent public agency.

Northern Virginia Begins Plans for Major Rail Expansion
The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority is finally drawing up plans for spending the funds that will be coming the region’s way thanks to a dedicated funding stream approved by the Virginia legislature in 2013, the International Railway Journal reports.

Northern Virginia Silver Line station (Photo by Ryan Stavely)

The update of the NVTA’s TransAction Plan is designed to address the region’s transportation needs through 2040. It identifies a total of 342 transportation projects that should be undertaken over that time span at a total cost of $43.2 billion. Among them: more Washington Metro extensions, presumably including completion of the Silver Line to Dulles Airport, capacity and service improvements for Virginia Railway Express, and construction of new light-rail lines.

The projects would allow the region to cope with a projected 24 percent rise in population and 37 percent jump in employment over the next 22 years.

The NVTA has also issued a call for proposals from the region’s transportation agencies for projects to be completed between 2018 and 2023. The deadline for applications is December 15.

Know of a project that should be included in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Canberra Joins Light-Rail Club

A rendering of Canberra light rail (Credit: ACT Government)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Canberra Light Rail on Track to Open Next Year
The largest infrastructure project in the history of the Australian Capital Territory reached a major milestone on Friday when the first tracks for the Canberra light rail line were laid in Franklin, the Canberra Times reports.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris were on hand for the track-laying along Flemington Road.

Barr said that the track-laying sent a message to skeptics who doubted that the project would ever become reality. He added that it was more than a transportation project: “It’s not just a transport project for Canberra, it’s a city shaping project and you’re seeing … a new city take shape, one that will be more sustainable, one that will meet our ongoing population growth.”

Fitzharris said that the A$939 million ($730.8 million U.S.) project to build a light rail line between Gungahlin and the center of Canberra was within budget and on track for a scheduled opening in late 2018.

Seattle Hits Milestone in Light-Rail Tunnel Project
Slowly but steadily, the Sound Transit East Link tunnel is inching toward completion across Lake Washington from Seattle. Actually, it’s doing a little better than inching towards completion: Railway Track and Structures’ progress report on the excavation under downtown Bellevue states that the project is progressing at the rate of three to four feet per day.

(Photo by Oran Viriyincy)

As of last week, the tunnel was 30 percent complete, according to the report. It’s being dug by a method known as “sequential excavation,” in which an excavator removes soil in small sections. The method was chosen because of the tunnel’s short length — 2,000 feet, or about one-third of a mile. Sequential excavation causes less disruption on the surface than cut-and-cover construction or tunnel boring machines but takes longer to complete.

The tunnel will connect East Link’s East Main and Bellevue Downtown stations, both of which will be on the surface. The city of Bellevue made in-kind contributions of $100 million to bury the East Link line through its city center. The 14-mile, 10-station East Link line from downtown Seattle to Redmond’s Overlake section is scheduled to enter service in 2023.

European Bank Funds Bangalore Metro Expansion
The rapid spread of rapid transit throughout India’s cities got a big vote of confidence from the European Investment Bank, which has agreed to a €500 million ($589.61 million U.S.) loan to finance construction of the second line of the Bangalore metro.

Global Rail News reports that the loan is the largest the EIB has made in India to date as well as the largest to support sustainable transport outside Europe.

(Photo by Pbhattiprolu)

Along with a loan from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the EIB loan will finance the construction of a 22-km (13.7-mile), 18-station metro line that will cut travel times across the city significantly: the EIB said that a trip that takes two hours now will take only 15 minutes when the new “Reach 6” metro line, also known as the Namma Metro, opens for service in 2021. The loan will also cover the cost of the 96 rail cars needed to provide service on the line.

The line, which will run both on elevated structures and in tunnels, is also a key component of planned service to the Bangalore airport.

The loan was agreed to on Friday, and comes on the heels of a similar loan from the EIB to the Indian government to build a metro line in Lucknow. The EIB is the international public investment bank of the European Union and is owned by the EU’s 28 member states.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Mesa Trades Road Improvements for Light-Rail Extension

(Credit: Valley Metro) 

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Mesa Trades Road Improvements for Light-Rail Extension
The Phoenix suburb of Mesa has put the final piece of a financing package for a planned two-mile extension of the Valley Metro light rail line in place by reallocating sales tax revenue earmarked for intersection improvements to the project, the East Valley Tribune reports.

The funds, which come from a regional sales tax, were to have gone to upgrade five street intersections in the northeast part of Mesa. Instead, they will cover an additional $1.3 million needed to meet the city’s 5.7 percent share of the $186 million extension project. The extension will take the line from its current terminus at Valley Drive eastward to Gilbert Road. The extra money covers added construction costs along with retention basins to prevent flood damage and landscaping improvements recommended by residents living along the line.

A report prepared for the Mesa City Council showed that the intersection improvements, which were first proposed in 2000 and 2003, were no longer as urgently needed as they once were thanks to the opening of a new freeway that reduced traffic through them and caused crashes and fatalities at the intersections to plummet.

Beijing Kicks Off Tests of Chinese-Built Maglev Train
The Railly News reports that testing and debugging has begun on Line S1 of Beijing’s metro system, the first maglev train line in the country to use Chinese-built equipment.

The trains, built by CRRC Tangshan Locomotive & Rolling Stock Company Ltd., will operate on a 10.2-km (6.3-mile) maglev line with eight stations. The line will connect Pingguoyuan in the Shijingshan district with Shimenying in the western district of Mentougou.

The zero-emission trains have a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph).The first of 10 trainsets was delivered in December of last year, and the Beijing Suburban Railway, which will operate the line, anticipates a trial run of the trains by the end of the year.

Another Step Forward for Mexico City Commuter Line
Meanwhile, in Mexico, dynamic testing has begun on the new regional rail line connecting Mexico City with Toluca, as a CAF Civity trainset ran slowly under its own power between Zinancantapec and Pino Suárez stations on June 12.

The International Railway Journal reports that the first of 30 five-car CAF Civity EMU trainsets arrived on the property in January.

The 57.7-km (35.9-mile) standard-gauge line will have six stations and run from Zinancantepec in Toluca to an interchange with the Mexico City metro at Observatorio. The line, which is set to open in April 2018, is projected to carry 230,000 passengers a day and complete the end-to-end trip in 39 minutes. CAF is the lead company in a consortium that received a €690 million ($773.2 million U.S.) contract to build and equip the line.

Know of a project that should be included in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Baltimore Learns a Lesson in Complete Streets Planning

(Photo by Bruce Emmerling)

Like many cities across the United States, Baltimore has embraced “complete streets” design principles. The approach emphasizes moving people over moving cars and allowing all potential users of a road to use it safely.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials book “Urban Street Design Guide” lays out the complete streets philosophy and its design elements, and Baltimore, a NACTO member, turned to the guide as it sought to transform its thoroughfares from conduits for cars into bike- and pedestrian-friendly arteries.

So far, the city has given parts of two major arteries, Maryland Avenue and Roland Avenue, the complete streets treatment. But when it turned its attention to a third — Potomac Street, a north-south route that runs from Patterson Park to the waterfront through the Canton neighborhood on Baltimore’s southeast side — it tripped over a speed bump.

In contrast to the earlier efforts, the construction of a parking-protected bike lane on Potomac sparked an outcry from Canton residents. Among the complaints: The two-way bike lane was so wide that cars were driving and parking in it. The markings and barrier posts were confusing. Driveways would be blocked and parking spaces removed. Residents with some disabilities would not be able to get to their homes. The travel lane was now too narrow for emergency vehicles to make their way down the street.

That last one was also lodged by the Baltimore City Fire Department, which pointed to a provision in the city fire code that requires a 20-foot-wide travel lane for fire equipment.

The resulting uproar led the city to bring all the aggrieved parties and transportation planners together in a room on May 25 to hammer out a compromise that would address as many of the complaints as possible. The result of that meeting was a partial redesign proposal that would move the bike lanes next to the travel lane on the street’s northernmost three blocks, which are narrower than those to their south. On other blocks, the bike lanes would remain curbside with a buffer zone between them and the right-hand parking lane, but they and the buffer zone will be narrowed a bit.

Then last week, residents received a letter from the Baltimore Department of Transportation announcing a complete tear-out of the protected bike lane, according to the Baltimore Sun. The newspaper reported June 8 that the mayor’s office “said the administration will ‘restart the infrastructure design process’ on Potomac Street.”

All of this could have been avoided with a little forethought and better communication, according to both city officials and neighborhood leaders.

Before the news of the total do-over last week, James T. Smith Jr., the city’s chief of strategic alliances, wrote in a May 31 letter to Potomac Street residents: “The communications and coordination regarding this project left much to be desired. Had there been better communication internally and in the community, this situation could have been avoided.”

Canton Community Association’s Doug Kaufman admits his group could have done a better job of communicating as well, but adds that this misstep on the road to a complete street had many parents, starting with the city itself. “There’s a long history of poor transportation planning in the southeast portion of Baltimore City,” he says. “Over the course of a decade, there have been different studies done by different agencies attempting to solve the traffic congestion problem.”

One of the sources of the problem, he says, is the constrained nature of Baltimore streets and neighborhoods. “Even if we had the money, we have no public land on which to build a parking infrastructure, and we don’t have the land to expand the street grid, so we can’t build our way out of this traffic and parking problem,” he says.

Which is where the complete streets approach comes in. By adding features that make pedestrians and bicyclists feel safer and more comfortable, the goal is to reduce car traffic so that the existing street grid can handle it. “A lot of people do not feel safe riding in Baltimore,” says Kaufman. “Drivers don’t know how to deal with bicyclists, and bicyclists have to look out for drivers and people opening car doors. A protected bike lane encourages even novices to use the street, thus increasing bike lane use.”

But the way the city implemented the changes also caused confusion, he says. For Potomac Street, the city decided to phase in the various changes on the entire length of the street rather than implement all of them at the same time, as it had on a previous complete streets conversion. The painted lines and posts are, or were to have been, precursors to landscaped islands planted with trees that would form a permanent and unmistakable barrier.

Then there was the long lead time between when the city announced that changes were coming and when it finally made them. “Over a year ago, the CCA had a meeting to discuss this bike lane,” Kaufman says. “We had a decent number of people show up. Some were opposed, and they shared their thoughts. Then the city started rolling out information last fall, followed by signs saying ‘Don’t park here, because we’re going to do this,’ then no progress. Then more signs, then no progress. Then, in April, the city started making the changes.”

That was when the opposition went into orbit.

Some of the criticism, Kaufman says, simply represents fear of change. But some of the opponents’ arguments were also contradictory: “Potomac Street is so busy, it needs two lanes for traffic, it can’t get by with just one” was one line of attack, according to Kaufman, while others argued that “Potomac Street is so devoid of traffic, it’s already safe for bikes.”

Ultimately, the party the transportation planners had to satisfy was the fire department. According to Smith’s May 31 letter, representatives from NACTO, which the letter characterized as “a national bicycle advocacy organization,” recommended that the city study the various provisions of the fire code closely to see where exceptions to the 20-foot rule could be made. (One example involves short blocks where the fire department can deploy equipment at the end of the block and run hoses to the fire site.) After all the alternatives had been considered, Smith wrote, it was still not possible to keep the original configuration of the bike lanes.

In the long run, Kaufman suggests the Baltimore City Fire Department also consider another alternative: more compact vehicles, particularly ladder trucks. But he stresses, as the city apparently did not, that the first pass at the Potomac Street bike lanes is supposed to be a trial run to see how well they work. “I think it took a while for people to figure that out,” he says. “The signage was bad, the communication was bad, but now it’s been effectively solved.”

Relief on the Way for Canada’s First Subway Line

(Photo by Anil Mohabir)

Our weekly “New Starts” column on new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Toronto Begins Preparations for Subway Line 5
Plans for a “Relief Line” to ease congestion on Canada’s oldest subway line got another nudge forward with a pledge of C$27 million ($19.54 million U.S.) toward planning and design work on the line, Railway Track and Structures reports.

The federal commitment comes on top of C$150 million ($111.14 million U.S.) from the Ontario provincial government and C$27 million ($19.54 million U.S.) from the city of Toronto, which has already spent C$4 million ($2.96 million U.S.) on preliminary planning work.

As approved by Toronto City Council, the Relief Line would run from Pape Station on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth to downtown via Queen Street East, connecting there with Queen Station on the original Yonge subway line.

Toronto Mayor John Tory praised the federal commitment to advancing the line but added that a long-term commitment from the province was needed to make the line a reality. “We need them to commit to partnership on the construction of the transit project and the continued expansion of our network across Toronto,” he said. “I am asking for a steadfast commitment from the province that they will be financial partners in the building of the Relief Line.”

Current traffic forecasts project that Line 1 Yonge-University will reach its capacity of 36,000 passengers per hour per direction by 2031, by which time the city and the Toronto Transit Commission hope to have the Relief Line in service.

Another Subway Tunnel Breakthrough in L.A.
Angeli is still digging away under the streets of downtown Los Angeles, hollowing out the tunnels of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (LACMTA) Regional Connector Transit Project, which will tie together the Blue, Expo and Gold light-rail lines.

Railway Track and Structures reports that Angeli reached a milestone on June 5, when it broke through the wall of the Grand Avenue Arts/Bunker Hill station on its way from Little Tokyo/Arts District station to Metro Center station.

The station at 2nd Place and Hope Street is one of three new subway stations being built in connection with this project. The Little Tokyo/Arts District station is being buried and relocated, and a third new station is being built at 2nd Street and Broadway in the heart of L.A.’s historic downtown.

The 1.9-mile, $1.75-billion tunnel is projected to carry 88,000 daily riders, 20,000 of them new passengers, when it opens for service in 2021. It will also cut commuting times by up to 20 minutes for those riding through Downtown Los Angeles by reducing the need for riders to transfer between lines.

BRT Comes to Inner Boston Suburb Next Year
Chelsea, Massachusetts, a working-class community at the north end of the Tobin Bridge across the Mystic River, is notable for being the only one of the communities that touch Boston that has never had light rail or rapid transit service.

(Photo by Adam E. Moreira)

That will change soon, reports WCVB-TV, when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) extends the Silver Line bus rapid transit route from Logan Airport into the city.

The Silver Line extension will cost $82 million and begin service in April 2018. A map produced by the MBTA shows that the new BRT line would run from Logan Airport via Airport Station on the Blue Line to a new commuter rail station at Mystic Mall in Chelsea via a mix of dedicated rights-of-way and local streets. Intermediate stations would serve downtown Chelsea, the Box District and Eastern Avenue.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

If You Know How to Fix New York’s Subway System, Enter Here

(AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Anyone Know How to Fix New York Subway Woes? Anyone?
Meanwhile, in the other four NYC boroughs, riders of the world’s largest and busiest subway network have had to cope with increasingly frequent breakdowns and unreliable service as they pack onto crowded trains. To tackle these problems, the MTA is launching a competition to develop innovations that can improve capacity and reliability quicker and easier.

Global Rail News reports that the agency will award three prizes of $1 million each for the most innovative methods in three categories: improving the signal system, getting better subway cars and increasing communications connectivity.

In a statement, the MTA said this was needed because current systems and industry practices “cannot improve service as expeditiously as is needed.”

A panel of engineers, industry experts and representatives of New York City will judge the submissions. The competition kicks off with a June 29 conference at the City College of New York.

This program comes on the heels of a previous MTA announcement of a series of internal changes intended to fix trouble spots on the city’s subway network faster.

New York Studies Light Rail on Staten Island
Staten Island’s east shore has had rail transit since the early 20th century. The Staten Island Rapid Transit (now Staten Island Railway) was to have been connected to the rest of the city’s subway system via a tunnel under the Narrows that was never built. Now it looks like West Shore, connected to New Jersey more than it is the rest of New York City, may get a rail line that will strengthen those connections.

The Staten Island Advance reports that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is allocating $4 million to an “alternatives analysis” for a light-rail transit line down the West Shore.

As proposed by Staten Island economic development officials, the line would run from Richmond Valley at the island’s southern tip up its west side to Elm Park, where it would continue across the Bayonne Bridge to connect to New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen LRT line.

Two previous studies in 2004 and 2009 examined whether the corridor could support a light-rail line and developed ridership estimates. The MTA had committed to studying the line last year but didn’t include funding until it added it to its amended capital budget.

Boston Close to Restarting Green Line Extension
Railway Track and Structures reports that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has asked for final proposals for its revived Green Line extension project from three firms it had shortlisted in February.

(Photo by Adam E. Moreira)

This time around, the proposals come with a price ceiling: $1.319 billion (out of a total project budget of $2.3 billion). That figure includes both base work and possible optional enhancements.

The project, which would take the LRT line from its current terminus at Lechmere in East Cambridge to Somerville and Medford, was put on hold in 2015 after projected costs rose $1 billion above original estimates. The project was restarted last May after the authority hired a new project manager to oversee work through December 2022.

According to the article, both the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the federal government will commit $996.1 million toward the project; the federal share is included in the recent short-term budget deal passed by Congress to avoid a government shutdown.

Know of a project that should be included in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Judge’s Ruling Puts Purple Line in Jeopardy in Maryland

Purple Line rendering (Credit: Maryland Transit Administration)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Judge Throws Another Monkey Wrench in Path of Maryland’s Purple Line
Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland transportation officials are increasingly worried that the Purple Line may die a death by a thousand cuts, the latest of which, The Washington Post reports, was made by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon.

Leon ruled May 21 that Maryland officials must re-examine their projections for ridership on the suburban Washington light-rail project in light of the Washington Metro’s declining ridership and ongoing safety problems. The ruling keeps in place a hold the judge had placed on construction of the line after opponents sued to halt the project.

When Leon first issued the hold last summer, radio station WTOP reports, he instructed the Federal Transit Administration to determine whether a supplemental environmental review would be needed for the Purple Line in light of the deteriorating WMATA ridership picture. The FTA responded with a finding that many riders would use the line anyway and that WMATA’s safety issues would likely be resolved by the time the line opens.

In his ruling, Leon rejected that argument. The hold has delayed the start of construction by seven months already and thrown into jeopardy a $900 million full funding grant agreement from the federal government that would cover half the line’s construction cost. Maryland officials are reported in the Post as saying that if they can find “no foreseeable path” to resolving the lawsuit by June 1, the state would have to suspend all design and planning work on the line. If another 60 days pass from that point without any promise of progress, the state would be forced to cancel the public-private partnership to build the line. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said in a court filing that cancellation could cost the state as much as $800 million in sunk costs and contract termination fees.

Lausanne to Begin Work on Metro Expansion
The Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport in Switzerland’s Vaud member state has two contracts that will start the ball rolling on a planned expansion of the Lausanne metro system, the International Railway Journal reports.

Work on Line M2 in Lausanne (Photo by  Rama)

The work, which is being carried out as part of the Strong Public Transport Corridors Program, will address capacity issues on the second of the city’s two existing metro lines and add an all-new third metro route. Line M2, which has a design capacity of 25 million passengers annually, carried 28 million in 2014. Under the program, additional rolling stock will be purchased for the line and a single-track tunnel bottleneck will be eliminated with the construction of a parallel two-track tunnel between Grançy and Flon stations. The tunnel will also contain a new station under the Lausanne Swiss Federal Railways station, and the existing tunnel will continue to be used for a shuttle service that will operate at three-minute intervals between the railway station and Flon. The work on Line M2 will be completed in 2023.

A new Line M3, scheduled to begin service by the end of 2025, will connect the railway station with the city’s airport at Blécherette. The 4-km (2.5-mile) line will have seven stations.

The contracts cover engineering services for both the new metro lines and for equipment.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Australia Will Fund Several Big-City Rail Projects

Adelaide tram (Photo by Philip Mallis)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Australian Government Backs Urban Rail Improvements
In a reversal of its past policy, Australia’s Liberal government (the Liberals are the country’s conservative party) is earmarking A$10.7 billion ($7.4 billion U.S.) to its National Rail Program in its 2017-18 federal budget, the International Railway Journal reports.

The program is tied to the government’s “Smart Cities” initiative and promotes the role rail transit can play in urban revitalization.

The government has identified several big city projects for funding, including the Cross River Rail link in Brisbane, extensions to the Adelaide tram network, proposed rail lines serving airports in Melbourne and Sydney, and Perth’s MetroNet rail project.

The initial round of funding will go toward rail improvements in Victoria state. Federal funding will be tied to financing packages that balance money from the capital of Canberra, the states and private sources.

NYC Subway Fix to Focus on 5 Key Problems
With delays and breakdowns mounting on the world’s busiest subway system, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is taking steps to quickly fix some of the key trouble spots and modernize the more than 110-year-old system, Railway Track and Structures reports.

One of the moves is administrative — separating the positions of chairman and chief executive officer — but the rest are taking place along the tracks and in the storage yards.

NYC’s 149th Street-Grand Concourse station (Photo by The All-Nite Images)

The short-term improvements, which are meant to complement a $29.5 billion capital improvement plan that includes more than $14 billion for New York City Transit, will focus on five key problem areas: track and signal issues; sick passengers and police activity; subway car equipment failures; loading and unloading in stations; and bottlenecks that occur at critical points in the system where lines merge.

The program will begin by addressing conditions in the Eighth Avenue subway from Fulton Street to 125th Street and at two key subway stations in the Bronx, 149th Street-Grand Concourse and Third Avenue-138th Street. The MTA says that an average of seven incidents per month, delaying 50 trains, occur on the Eighth Avenue subway. Improvements scheduled to take place as soon as possible include the installation of 3,000 feet of continuous welded rail by September, stepped-up ultrasound testing of track, and the deployment of rapid response teams at the busiest stations to address track and signal problems.

The MTA is also moving to expedite delivery of two new subway car orders and revamping its car maintenance procedures, involving the manufacturers in developing maintenance practices. Trains will also receive pre-trip inspections before they leave a yard to reduce the likelihood of mid-trip failure.

Funding Secured for Managua BRT Line
Metro Report International reports that the Nicaraguan capital of Managua will get a new 9.6-km (6-mile) bus rapid transit line thanks to a $136 million loan from the European Investment Bank.

The loan will pay for the widening of Avenida Juan Pablo II from two to three lanes in each direction, with the third lane separated and reserved for buses. The work also includes the construction of a bicycle lane and pedestrian overpasses and traffic signals.

The BRT line will have 17 stops and is projected to carry 80,000 passengers per day. It’s part of an action plan for Managua aimed at both increasing mobility and improving the city’s ability to cope with natural disasters.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Some Philadelphia Neighborhoods Are Walking a Line Between Boom and Bust

Meet Diane Richardson, achiever of the American dream.

A Penn State graduate and the owner of a business that helps homeless veterans, Richardson followed a common trajectory for a child of the civil rights-era black middle class: She grew up in working-class neighborhoods alongside mostly black neighbors, and attended college, which was followed by a few years of working and saving while living with her parents. Then marriage and the search for a home of her own.

Like her parents, she migrated to places where she believed she could find a better life. By the time Richardson finished college in the 1960s, her parents had followed a familiar path of upward mobility from North Philadelphia to the city’s West Oak Lane section, a neighborhood that had been mostly white and Jewish, but was then filling with middle-class black homeowners.

Once Richardson left the family home and struck out on her own, she and her husband, Ulysses, rented a house just to the west of her parents. The comfortable, middle-class neighborhood was called East Mount Airy.

Finally, in 1978, the couple bought their own home in the same 19150 Mount Airy ZIP code: a model house, in a tree-lined subdivision of moderne-style brick rowhouses built by a Jewish developer in the early 1950s, for $25,000. The Richardsons raised their daughter there.

Like many of their neighbors, the Richardsons moved to Mount Airy in search of a neighborhood where they could own a house with a yard alongside homeowners of all different backgrounds. That’s what she found at the outset.

“There were a few [African-Americans] already there” when she bought her home, she recalls. “But it was 80 percent Caucasian. That was what attracted us to the block, we were going to be multicultural. But I guess when they saw more of us moving here, they fled. And in a two-year period, they ran like crazy.”

Thirty-six years later, the neighborhood appears to be a portrait of middle-class stability. Tidy brick rowhouses stretch into infinity, all with neatly manicured front lawns. Neighbors sit on their front steps in good weather and wave at passers-by. In fact, you could probably take a photo of this block today, compare it to one taken around 1950 when it was new, and not notice anything different other than the faces of the residents. Then, they were white and many of them, Jewish; now, African-American. The racist fears of crime and decline that propelled so many of Richardson’s neighbors to move were never realized. Today, the neighborhood is safer than average. Richardson’s block is so well trimmed, cleaned and planted that it has won awards from both the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee.

At 63, Richardson remains very involved with her neighborhood; she serves as a block captain, the head of her block’s neighborhood association, and a Democratic ward committee member.

Gallery: Seeing 19150

  • A road repair is underway on Vernon Road in Philadelphia’s 19150 zip code. 

  • A slate of improvements are planned for the Vernon Road business district. 

  • The foreclosure crisis hit the 19150 zip code hard, resulting in higher rates of vacancy in an area that has long had a high rate of home ownership. 

  • A sign reminds 19150 residents of a street cleaning. 

Her biography is a classic American success story, embodying powerful national narratives about economic mobility, inclusion for African-Americans and the utility of homeownership as a tool to generate wealth. It is also a classic Philadelphia tale. While the city’s struggles with chronic poverty and, more recently, gentrification tend to dominate headlines, Philadelphia is a place that rises and falls on the fortunes of middle-class people like Richardson and the places they call home. Even as other post-industrial cities bled out all but the richest and poorest of their residents through the latter decades of the 20th century, Philadelphia managed to hold onto valuable tax-paying households in many neighborhoods.

The presence of schoolteachers, small business owners, craftspeople and social service professionals like Richardson kept the city afloat through lean times and enabled the rebound being felt in many parts of Philadelphia today as population decline trends slowly reverse, the number of jobs grow and crime rates fall.

Furthermore, even as new investment and attention rain down on Center City and the gentrifying areas that border it, new data from Reinvestment Fund and Next City show that most of the population boom — 76 percent, to be exact — is actually occurring far from downtown in modest, outlying neighborhoods not all that dissimilar to the one that Richardson supports as a homeowner, civic leader and taxpayer, and most of the new residents are immigrants.

In ways that aren’t often recognized, these places are where the city’s future is being forged, says Emily Dowdall, a researcher at Reinvestment Fund who studies middle neighborhoods.

“Many middle neighborhoods are seeing significant population growth and for decades they have steadily contributed to the tax base,” Dowdall says. “They really have been places of upward economic mobility for Philadelphians, particularly African-American homeowners.”

People who study cities call these areas “middle neighborhoods,” a term popularized by urban planner and scholar Paul C. Brophy, the editor of a new book about American middle neighborhoods called “On the Edge.” Brophy, who happens to share Richardson’s North Philadelphia roots, describes these places as walking the line “between growth and decline.” They are home to the people whose incomes fall in the middle of the spectrum, neither rich nor poor; median sales prices in these areas range from 50 percent below to 50 percent above the 2015 median home sales price citywide of $96,500, according to municipal data. Today, 41 percent of all Philadelphians and 42 percent of homeowners citywide live in middle neighborhoods. They tend to be more racially integrated than other parts of the city and boast some of the highest voter turnout rates.

“These are neighborhoods where housing is often affordable and where quality of life — measured by employment rates, crime rates and public school performance — is sufficiently good that new residents are willing to play the odds and choose these neighborhoods over others in hopes that they will improve rather than decline,” writes Brophy.

And in Philadelphia, three-quarters of the city’s population reversal was in these areas, indicating that many newcomers are indeed choosing them. Between 2000 and 2015, middle neighborhoods as a whole gained residents at a rate of 5 percent, compared to 2 percent across the city. Most of the growth, in part driven by immigrants from Latin America and Asia, is concentrated in Oxford Circle, Fox Chase and other parts of Northeast Philadelphia that already have large populations of Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

But even with so much riding on the stability of these areas, a secure future is far from assured, particularly in middle neighborhoods where more than two-thirds of the population identify as African-American. These areas have not experienced the growth of more diverse or white middle neighborhoods, and there are clear indications that these areas are more vulnerable to changing economic winds and market forces.

“Some of the recent trends indicate growing fragility in [African-American] areas, particularly as they compare to other middle neighborhoods,” says Dowdall. “Falling home prices, mortgage denial rates that are higher than elsewhere and higher involuntary mobility — the term we use for eviction and foreclosure. All of these are indicators of vulnerability.”

Strong Bones, New Pressures

With a grant from the William Penn Foundation, Next City and research partners at Reinvestment Fund spent several months analyzing housing, demographic and economic data from Philadelphia’s middle neighborhoods. Our goal was to determine how these vital neighborhoods are faring in the wake of an uneven recovery from the 2008 mortgage crisis, and as the city as a whole reaps the benefits of their continued growth and relative stability.

But as journalists we know that data only tells you so much. Understanding economic trends requires first disaggregating it and then talking to those people whose experiences are being quantified. With that in mind, we decided to drill down on one focus neighborhood that covers all but a tiny sliver of the 19150 ZIP code Richardson calls home, encompassing the area bounded by Stenton Avenue, Cheltenham Avenue, Washington Lane and Ivy Hill Road, plus a small piece of West Oak Lane from Walnut Lane to Washington Lane.

What emerged was a portrait of a neighborhood simultaneously vulnerable to decline and positioned for tremendous growth. The strong bones that drew Richardson and her neighbors remain in place, but new pressures are bearing down and many of them are the descendants of racist housing and development policies of the 20th century.

White flight shaped Richardson’s experience in 1980 and today, the legacy of that disinvestment persists in disparities in home values between black middle neighborhoods and peer neighborhoods with more white residents. Between 2000 and 2015, home prices in black middle markets experienced a decline in home prices of 5 percent, while white-majority middle neighborhoods experienced a 64 percent increase and middle neighborhoods in aggregate experienced a 22 percent increase. In the 19150 focus neighborhood, prices rose only 3 percent, putting the neighborhood ahead of other black middle neighborhoods but behind city averages across races. Citywide, home prices surged 33 percent in that period.

And while the era of redlining officially ended decades ago, data show that rates of mortgage denial are higher in middle neighborhoods where black people make up the majority of the population than in comparable white neighborhoods. In areas where most people identify as white, 79 percent of mortgage applications were accepted. In black areas, that figure drops to 69 percent — a denial rate of nearly one in three. The 19150 ZIP does better than many black middle neighborhoods but worse than white peers with a mortgage acceptance rate of 71 percent. That figure puts the 19150 focus area in line with neighborhoods with a population classified as racially mixed.

Foreclosure and eviction rates too vary depending on the melanin in a neighborhood, with rates higher in predominantly black neighborhoods, including the slice of 19150 Richardson calls home. Every year between 2004 and 2015, the neighborhood experienced a higher rate of foreclosure than other middle neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Black middle markets had the highest rates in the city, with 35 foreclosure filings for every 100 home sales. Eviction rates were also highest in black middle neighborhoods with 10 percent of renters facing eviction in 2015, double the 5 percent rate in peer white-majority neighborhoods. Foreclosures have also hit the 19150 focus area hard. The empty houses don’t announce themselves and aren’t readily visible in many parts of the neighborhood. Richardson’s block has no vacancies and she’s unaware of recent foreclosures nearby, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for concern.

“This community means so much to me. I love where I live. I work to keep it up. I don’t want it to decline,” Richardson says. “If there are foreclosures, we need help from the city to resolve the issue and get new people in. To take us to the next level.”

Dowdall refers to eviction and foreclosure as “involuntary mobility.” When it come to voluntary mobility, 19150 and other middle areas where more than two-thirds (66 percent) of the population identifies as African-American have another problem: Their head counts are shrinking at a time when the city as a whole is adding residents and middle neighborhoods with more diverse populations are outpacing the city in growth.

In the section of 19150 where Richardson lives, the population contracted by 3 percent between 2000 and 2015.

An analysis of population growth across middle neighborhoods taking into account racial and ethnic differences shows stark disparities. Those areas with the multicultural demographics that Richardson sought back in 1980 experienced a 9 percent net gain while peer neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations added people at a rate of 11 percent and white-majority areas stayed largely the same, growing at a 1 percent rate. In contrast, predominantly black middle neighborhoods shrank by 2 percent over that same period.

For Richardson and her neighbors, the threat of instability looms large. The homes they own carry a large portion of the wealth that will transfer to the next generation. Their value determines the economic foundation of a next generation of black Philadelphians.

“People have family members that are going to take over their property,” says Richardson. “I have a 34-year-old daughter. She was raised in this community and she is sure to take over our home and maintain in the same way I have. The goal is not to let the neighborhood go down.”

Searching for Integration

“Please don’t call it Cedarbrook,” says City Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents the 19150 ZIP code. “When we bought our homes here, it was Mount Airy. Now that we’re experiencing some trouble, they want to give it another name.”

Whatever name you use, the neighborhood is part of a belt of predominantly African-American middle neighborhoods that stretches across the northern tip of the city. There’s a lot of pride attached to living in Mount Airy: It’s the Philadelphia neighborhood that gained national fame in the days of blockbusting and white flight when local real estate agents drew a line in the sand and vowed to keep the neighborhood integrated as blacks in search of a better life began moving in.

In the 1950s, as the area’s population exploded, Mount Airy was split into two ZIP codes, 19150 and 19119. While race was never a part of the public conversation about the divide, 19150 quickly became the zone for the part of East Mount Airy east of Stenton Avenue that instead of integrated was nearly all black. In the years following, the area became known in some quarters as Cedarbrook, though many residents, like Richardson, refer to their neighborhood as East Mount Airy. In 2015, 95 percent of the 32,835 residents of the 19150 ZIP code identified as African-American, the highest ratio among middle neighborhoods and one of the highest in the city.

Stenton Avenue is a color line and also a socioeconomic boundary. West of the avenue, the 19119 zone is 59 percent black, 32 percent white, 2 percent Asian, 2 percent other races, and 5 percent multiracial. That last figure is nearly twice the citywide percentage, indicating that the area remains one of the city’s most integrated pockets. Economically, this area is thriving and much of it is classified by urban researchers as a “strong,” (not middle) neighborhood, based on real estate and income data.

The black Philadelphians who bought homes across Stenton, in 19150, were looking for the same things as their neighbors to the west — an integrated neighborhood where they could be sure that they would get the same city resources as white neighborhoods. But their experience was more typical of upwardly mobile middle-class African-Americans; instead of settling down in an integrated paradise, they eventually ended up in an all-black neighborhood again.

Shirley Armstead is the founder and owner of S.E. Armstead Real Estate, a small brokerage a few blocks from Richardson’s home. Armstead established her real estate business in West Oak Lane in 1976, and moved it to its current location in 1992. Over the decades, she has seen the neighborhood through its share of transitions. Not all of them have been fun to watch. “A lot of people lost their houses” when the real estate bubble burst in 2008, she says. Yet watching the crisis unfold didn’t shake her faith in the place where she has built a home and a business.

“It’s a good neighborhood,” Armstead says. “Crime here is no worse than in any other neighborhood and … the values have gone up tremendously.”

The new Reinvestment Fund data reinforces Armstead’s point to a degree — crime is lower than it’s been in decades and home prices have risen, bringing the median sales price in 2015 to $99,125, a few thousand dollars above the citywide median of $96,500 and the median for middle neighborhoods as a whole. But those medians obscure the fact that prices in the area are not rising as fast as in comparable white neighborhoods or those with more diverse populations.

Nearly 10 years after the housing market crashed, the toll of the system’s collapse weighs heavily on the 19150 ZIP code. In 2015, according to Reinvestment Fund data, foreclosure filings accounted for 47 percent of all home sales in the area — more than double the 22 percent citywide rate and 21 percent rate in white areas.

“The number one issue is housing preservation and neighborhood preservation,” says Parker, adding that equity is “draining” from the neighborhood.

Richard Rothstein is the author of a new book called “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He says the trends seen in the section of 19150 where Richardson lives are representative of a larger phenomenon.

“Before the housing bubble burst in 2008, there was a substantial increase in African-American wealth,” says Rothstein. “But when that bubble burst, it wiped out that wealth. White neighborhoods have recovered from that bubble bursting while black neighborhoods have not.”

Parker grew up in the district she now represents, in West Oak Lane. She too has watched the neighborhood go through ups and downs. If housing values aren’t appreciating quite as fast here as in other parts of the city, that may be just fine, she says. The bigger problem is stability — protecting the neighborhood from losing more homeowners to foreclosures and predatory lending, preventing evictions and assuring that homes maintain their values and people keep their wealth.

Part of the challenge has to do with an unfortunate coincidence of timing: The mortgage crisis hit at the moment when many of the neighborhood’s residents were approaching retirement age, a time of increased financial vulnerability. Some people refinanced at the wrong time and suffered the consequence. Others are struggling now to keep up with the costs that come with maintaining a home, says Parker.

“People are retired, and because they’re retired, they get only a fraction of the income they were getting, so they don’t have enough” to pay for that roof repair or paint job, Parker says. “They’ve been contributors to the tax base, but with retirement, they make a nickel more than they need to qualify for the assistance programs the city offers. You see it block by block.”

Six years ago, Parker convinced the Kitchen of Love food pantry to set up shop in the basement of her district office. “I said, ‘These people don’t need stuff like this up here,’” recalls Marlene Trice, the pantry’s director. “But she said, ‘Come try it.’”

On a recent early spring day, lines of people waited outside the pantry to take their pick of meats, produce and canned goods donated by local grocers. By closing time, Trice had distributed 4,605 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables and several shopping carts filled with meat and poultry. “It started out with about 25 or 30 people, and then we got bigger and bigger,” she says. After the pantry outgrew its original basement home, Parker found it a new home in a former city recreation center. “I’m up to over 800 people now,” says Trice.

This past winter, Richardson called a block meeting to discuss issues facing the neighborhood. Her neighbors echoed Parker: “‘What we have a problem with is the issue of them trying to call this Cedarbrook! Uh-uh, no! When we purchased this home, it was Mount Airy. I don’t want to be called Cedarbrook,”’ she recalls them saying. Richardson and others blame what they see as a downgrade of the area’s reputation on three widely reported killings that took place over the last year in the generally low-crime neighborhood. One, a double murder last April, included a neighborhood resident who was shot execution-style on Vernon Road while talking to an aide to Chris Rabb, a candidate for the state representative seat once held by Parker. The headline-making homicide happened on the block where Armstead has her office.

While crime rates remain low (and are dropping, in line with larger citywide public safety trends), residents fear that misperceptions about public safety could extinguish hopes to finally build the integrated neighborhood Richardson and others moved to Mount Airy to find three decades ago.

“I want this to be multicultural,” she says. “We’re hoping that people come in from the suburbs and move in with us and enjoy this part of the city.”

There is no data on in-migration from the suburbs, but Reinvestment Fund data on changes in the population of foreign-born residents suggest that the area is gradually becoming more diverse but the pace of change is much slower, and the scale less dramatic than in other parts of the city. Citywide, the number of foreign-born residents increased by 44 percent between 2000 and 2015 with more than half of them — 52 percent — making homes in middle neighborhoods.

But only a small portion of these middle-neighborhood newcomers — 223 out of a total of 40,840 — settled in the 19150 focus area. Foreign-born residents today represent 6 percent of the focus area’s total population, 13 percent more than in 2000, compared to an 82 percent increase in more diverse middle neighborhoods, a 60 percent leap in peer Hispanic neighborhoods and a 48 percent jump in those areas with largely white populations.

“We have so much to offer,” Richardson says. “And new people will help us keep our neighborhood vibrant.”

Investing for the Future

SEPTA’s 18 bus line snakes through Mount Airy before eventually terminating at the Cedarbrook Plaza shopping center, just across the city line in a town called Wyncote. I’ve made the trip there often from my home in the East Germantown neighborhood, to pick up groceries and other household items at Walmart and the other large stores that occupy the plaza. As I ride, the bus passes through blocks upon blocks of homes that look just like Richardson’s block. It almost touches on the grassy playing fields owned by the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, a large and influential Germantown congregation that built a second sanctuary on the former site of Temple University’s football stadium. It passes a modern grade school built in 1948, just as the neighborhood was filling with homes, and a city library branch that opened a decade later. That library sits at the east end of the Wadsworth Avenue business district, the chief shopping strip serving the 19150 zone.

These are the assets — the strong bones — that residents and the elected officials are counting on as they organize to keep their community strong.

“The key to us is Wadsworth Road and Vernon Road, our commercial corridors,” says Richardson. “If we can walk to the corner and get what we need, that is economic development and it invites other people in.”

Richardson is looking to other neighborhood business corridors in the city, North Second Street in Northern Liberties and East Passyunk in South Philadelphia, as models. “It’s inviting to see a cafe,” she says. “I can plug up on my laptop and have a donut, a piece of cake and get my work done. Right in my neighborhood.”

Today on Wadsworth you’ll find a mix of neighborhood businesses much like what you might in any urban shopping area — pizzerias, both local and chain. Sam’s Meat Market, a staple on the avenue for decades. Caribbean restaurants and breakfast places. A CVS drugstore. Insurance agents and doctor’s offices. A branch of United Bank, Philadelphia’s largest African-American-owned bank. A welcoming lunch spot recently opened by a Korean-American entrepreneur and two childcare centers. You’ll also find a storefront church where a bank had been, a check cashing agency across from the library, and several vacant storefronts.

“The physical appearance of the neighborhood was attractive and appealing,” Parker says. “But you can see it declining.” Strategic investments now, she says, can stave off that decline and shore up the area.

Those investments have come, in the form of streetscape improvements on Wadsworth and in the neighborhood’s other business district on Vernon Road. A few days before I visited Armstead in her Vernon Road office, Mayor Jim Kenney swung by the business district to announce that the city would provide about $160,000 in funds to finance storefront improvements, business security cameras, new solar-powered compacting trash cans, planters and new street lighting.

“Philadelphia’s success is dependent upon the success of businesses of all sizes and in all neighborhoods,” Kenney said in a statement. “Investment in commercial corridors is a major priority for my administration, and the Vernon Road project is a great example of our desire to do more for neighborhood businesses.”

Parker joins a long line of Northwest Philadelphia elected officials, including her predecessor on City Council, Marian Tasco, and U.S. (formerly State) Representative Dwight Evans, who have funneled public money to this part of Northwest Philadelphia in order to shore up flagging business districts.

In West Oak Lane, the 7100 block of Ogontz Avenue was a particular beneficiary of Evans’ efforts via the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC), and his work to keep that business district healthy contributed to his outsized popularity with West Oak Lane residents relative to voters citywide. A new organization — The Medina Community Development Corporation — is doing the same thing for the Vernon Road business district.

Evans believes that the key to stability in 19150 will be organizing by groups like Medina and residents. “You must control the real estate in order to do what you want to do,” says Evans.

In March, Parker passed a resolution calling for a hearing on middle neighborhoods. The goal of the hearing, scheduled for June 20 at City Council chambers, is to explore solutions for the problems of neighborhood stabilization, including foreclosure, and housing preservation. Brophy and researchers from Reinvestment Fund will speak.

Dowdall, for her part, says there is plenty that can be done. The city can support homeowners who are facing trouble with their mortgages and enact policies that reduce the rate of evictions. The city can direct resources toward fixing up vacant properties and bringing new investment.

“There are signs of resilience and these signs of stress,” says Dowdall. “Now the question is how to ensure resources go to address issues and keep strong the amenities and assets that made these areas into neighborhoods of choice.”

Meanwhile, Evans paints the picture in terms of a classic political fight over who gets what. “There’s a fight over resource distribution in cities,” he says. The fight is likely to get even tougher — President Donald Trump has proposed severe cuts to the federal grant program that has traditionally funded community stabilization efforts like foreclosure prevention clinics and the streetscape improvements happening on Vernon Road.

“At the one end, you have your center cities. They take care of themselves,” says Evans. “Then you have the other extreme, declining neighborhoods, where dollars are invested in them to build infrastructure. These middle neighborhoods are caught in the middle. They do need some kind of love.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

Detroit to Start Riding Streetcar Friday

(Credit: M-1 Rail)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Detroit’s QLine Is Ready for Its Close-up
Come Friday, the nonprofit private organization behind the $142 million bet on central Detroit’s future that is the QLine streetcar will begin to see if it will pay off in a revitalized city core as it hopes.

Friday is the day the line enters service, and a Detroit Free Press feature goes into detail about how it will function and what it will connect, and the hopes of its backers and the businesses located along it.

Matt Cullen, the CEO of M-1 Rail, the nonprofit that built and will run the streetcar, told the paper that the project already has brought benefits “as a catalyst for economic development.”

The 3.3-mile line connects Downtown Detroit with the New Center, Midtown and North End districts via Woodward Avenue, passing by many of Detroit’s major spectator sports facilities and cultural attractions along the way. A one-way trip from end to end will take anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes, depending on the day and time; the $1.50 fare is good for three hours from time of purchase. M-1 Rail projects initial ridership of 5,000 per day, a figure it hopes will rise to 8,000 per day in the near future.

New York Studies a Cross-Harbor Rail Freight Tunnel
The Hudson River tunnels that feed New York’s Penn Station aren’t the only ones being discussed as critical infrastructure needs for the region. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) is also exploring the possibility of building a tunnel under New York Harbor for rail freight as a way to relieve congestion caused by truck traffic on the region’s highways and speed the movement of goods into and out of the city.

The International Railway Journal reports that the PANYNJ has issued a request for proposals to conduct the second phase of an environmental impact study for the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, which would connect rail routes in Brooklyn with an existing freight yard in Jersey City. A previous environmental impact study identified the tunnel as one of the best means by which New York City can alleviate both the congestion and the strain on the city’s roads and bridges caused by freight traffic by physically connecting it once again to the national freight rail network.

The office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo estimates that the tunnel could eliminate 1,800 truck movements across New York Harbor each day.

Currently, trucks carry nearly 90 percent of the New York region’s freight, with rail accounting for only 3 percent of the total. The governor’s office says that freight traffic in the region is expected to grow by 37 percent in the next 20 years, an amount too large for the road infrastructure to handle.

The PANYNJ has committed $35 million to the Tier 2 environmental impact study and can access up to $35 million more for design and engineering work. The study will also examine the impact of enhancements to the existing train ferries across the harbor.

Nevada Senate Smooths Path for Light Rail in Vegas
The Las Vegas Sun reports that a bill approved by the Nevada Senate with bipartisan support lays the groundwork for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada to actually begin work on a light-rail system for Las Vegas if and when it’s ready to proceed.

The bill, which is now being debated in the Nevada Assembly, clarifies state law to ensure that regional transportation agencies have the authority to carry out rail transit projects.

The commission is currently conducting an environmental assessment of several transportation improvements, including light rail and bus rapid transit, for the Maryland Parkway corridor, which connects McCarran International Airport with a number of other sites of regional importance, including downtown, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Sunrise Hospital.

Once the assessment is completed this summer, the agency expects to move on to design work and solicit bids for construction of the projects. A light-rail line could begin service as soon as 2022 if all the elements fall into place, including taxes to fund construction; the bill also seeks to clarify the requirements to place taxes for transit projects on the ballot for voter approval.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Stopgap U.S. Budget Contains Rays of Hope for Local Transit Projects

Sacramento streetcar rendering from a report prepared for the city by URS Corp.

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Stopgap U.S. Budget Has Good News for Sacramento, Twin Cities
Amid news of likely booby traps planted in the path of rail transit projects nationwide by President Donald Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, there’s some funding in the stopgap spending bill Congress cobbled together Friday to avoid a federal government shutdown that’s likely to make a few cities smile.

There’s $50 million toward a 4-mile modern streetcar line that will run through downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento. The Sacramento Bee reports that work on this project could begin as early as next year as a result of this funding but adds that local officials ultimately want the federal government to pick up half the line’s projected $200 million construction cost. Approval by property owners along the line’s route in downtown Sacramento and a full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration, set for later this year, are both required for work to proceed.

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune reports that Minneapolis-St. Paul will get $10 million for the controversial Southwest LRT project as part of the bill. Metropolitan Council officials consider this a sign that the FTA will approve a $928 million full funding grant agreement for the $1.9 billion line connecting downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie by year’s end. That doesn’t mean smooth sailing ahead for the Southwest LRT project, however; it remains enmeshed in a political tug-of-war between Governor Mark Dayton and an LRT-hostile Republican-controlled state legislature, and local environmental groups have sued to overturn the federal approval of the line’s environmental impact statement, claiming that its route had been decided before environmental review was completed.

Always reliable for news about transit funding and planning, urbanist and journalist Yonah Freemark noted that some other cities might be celebrating too.

In the federal budget agreement: New Start funds approved for DC Purple Line; Minneapolis Southwest light rail; Seattle Lynnwood Link. pic.twitter.com/lLc2QoAXH2

— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) May 2, 2017

“Regional Rail Revival” Planned for Victoria
The Australian state of Victoria has committed a total of A$1.45 billion ($1.09 billion U.S.) to a multiyear statewide regional rail renewal and upgrade program in its budget for the coming fiscal year, the International Railway Journal reports.

Australia’s V/Line

The one asterisk: To proceed with the whole package, the Victoria state government is counting on Canberra to chip in.

Assuming the Australian federal government’s Asset Recycling Initiative comes through with A$1.46 billion ($1.1 billion U.S.) in funding, the Victoria state government will begin a series of improvements that will expand capacity and speed service on the V/Line regional rail network centered on Melbourne, the state capital and Australia’s second-largest city.

The biggest project announced as part of this package is an A$435 million ($327.1 million U.S.) upgrade of the Gippsland Line that includes double-tracking the line between Moe and Traralgon, improving grade crossings and signals, and station improvements that include additional platforms at several stations.

A$200 million ($150.4 million U.S.) is being allocated for services in the southwest region, including acquisition of land for a future expansion of service to Torquay, and A$39 million ($29.3 million U.S.) will go toward Phase 2 of the Ballarat Line upgrade, a A$518 million ($389.5 million U.S.) project announced in last year’s budget that is also being funded by the allocation from Canberra. Finally, A$91 million ($68.4 million U.S.) will go toward improvements on the Bendigo Line to the northwest.

International Tram Begins Service in Strasbourg
The International Railway Journal reports that service began April 28 on a new international tram line connecting the French city of Strasbourg with the German town of Kehl.

The line extends the Strasbourg tram network’s Line D eastward through the port of Strasbourg, then across the Rhine on a new bridge to the mainline railroad station and town hall in Kehl. The route includes four new stations in Strasbourg at Citadelle, Starcoop and Port du Rhin.

Total cost of the extension is 93 million euros ($101.5 million U.S.). The German federal government picked up 19 million euros ($20.7 million U.S.) of the 44 million euro ($48 million U.S.) cost of the line’s German segment.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

On-Again, Off-Again New Jersey Bus Terminal May Be On Again

NJ Transit’s Secaucus Junction station (Photo by Jim McIntosh)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Secaucus Surfaces Again as Possible Bus Terminal Site
Warnings of future track closures and delays at Penn Station are rippling through NYC commuter circles this week, but another transit hub project, in New Jersey, is also getting a closer look. While the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has committed itself to building a replacement for the Port Authority Bus Terminal on the West Side of Manhattan, a proposal that previously had not found favor on the west bank of the Hudson has resurfaced.

That’s a new bus terminal in Secaucus, floated in conjunction with an extension of New York’s No. 7 subway line across the river, an idea that had been advocated by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

NJ.com reports that former Port Authority Chair Scott Rechler recently dusted off the idea of building a new bus terminal in Secaucus and rehabilitating rather than replacing the Manhattan facility. New York Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg endorsed the idea at an April 21 panel sponsored by the Regional Plan Association.

Reviving the possibility of a Secaucus bus terminal is just the latest tug in a tug-of-war between New Jersey and New York officials, neither of whom actually relish the idea of building an entirely new bus terminal to replace the aging and overcrowded Port Authority, which opened in 1950 and was expanded in 1979.

The New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers supports the No. 7 line extension, saying it would ease pressure on both the Lincoln Tunnel and the bus terminal and offer New Jersey residents a faster commute into Manhattan, since many already connect to New York subway lines once across the Hudson.

Tunnel-Boring Harriet Honored for Her Work in L.A.
Having successfully dug two 1-mile tunnels beneath Los Angeles’ west side, Harriet the tunnel-boring machine was given a farewell send-off by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials at an April 21 retirement ceremony, Streetsblog LA reports.

(Credit: LA Metro)

Harriet, named for heroic Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, spent the past year digging out the north end of Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX light-rail line, which will provide a more direct connection to Los Angeles International Airport. The line will also connect the existing Green Line and Expo Line LRT routes.

The 1-mile, twin-bore tunnel Harriet dug will contain the three northernmost stations on the line: Crenshaw/Expo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Leimert Park. The entire line will have eight stations — three underground, three elevated and two at grade — when it opens in 2019. A ninth station, which will become the transfer point for a people mover Los Angeles World Airports is building to connect LAX directly to rail transit, is being built separately and should open in 2023.

In a Metro news release, a Metro board member acknowledged the disruptions the excavation caused to small businesses along the line’s route, saying, “We all know that construction is a messy business but with the arrival of Harriet to Leimert Park we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Light-Rail Extension to Bergen Airport Opens
Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, now has light rail to its airport with the opening of a two-station extension from Birkelandsskiftet to the airport April 21.

The International Railway Journal reports that the 2.2-km (1.4-mile) extension will directly serve the airport’s New Terminal, which will open this August. The existing terminal is a 3- to 5-minute walk from the rail line. Travel time from the airport to the city center is 45 minutes, and trains run at 5-minute intervals at peak hours.

The extension is the final segment of the third phase of construction for the city’s light-rail network. The first segment of Phase 3, a 4.8-km (2.9-mile) extension from Lagunen to Birkelandsskiftet, opened last August. Total cost for the 7-km (4.3-mile) project was 3.7 billion Norwegian kroner ($430 million U.S.)

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Jerusalem Light-Rail Extensions Are Now Clear to Proceed

Jerusalem light rail (Credit: MFA Pikiwiki Israel)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Jerusalem Light Rail Impasse Resolved
The International Railway Journal reports that two years of tough negotiations over extending Jerusalem’s light-rail line have finally come to an end with an agreement between the Israeli government and CityPass, the line’s operator, to build four new segments.

Two will extend the existing 13.5-km (8.4-mile) Red Line. A 2.1-km (1.3-mile) extension to the north will serve Neve Yaakov, with four stations, and a 3.2-km (2-mile), five-station southern extension will serve Hadassah Medical Center.

In addition, two branches from the existing line to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem campuses at Mount Scopus, in east Jerusalem, and Givat Ram, the center of the national government, will eventually be incorporated into the planned Green Line.

The agreement calls for the Israeli Ministry of Finance to boost the national government’s contribution to the project to 40 million shekels ($9.1 million U.S.)

Preliminary work on the route corridors has already begun. The extensions are scheduled to enter service in 2021-22.

St. Paul Studies Transport Options in Abandoned Rail Corridor
The city of St. Paul has devoted numerous studies to figuring out how to develop the area where a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, northwest of downtown, closed in 2011. The Star Tribune reports that the 16th such study in a decade is now underway, and this time, it’s looking at ways to get people to and from the plant site.

Options being considered for the 5-mile former Canadian Pacific Railroad corridor include light rail, bus rapid transit and a bike trail.

Options for the plant site itself envision a new neighborhood with parks and up to 4,000 new housing units. Some neighbors fear that 7,200-odd new residents could clog local thoroughfares and add too much density to the area. Others expressed concern about noise from buses or trains operating on the now-quiet line, but Council Member Chris Tolbert pointed out that running public transit in the corridor would alleviate those congestion concerns.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is paying half of the study’s $200,000 bill. The city of St. Paul is chipping in $70,000, and Ford Motor Company and the transit-focused business group East Metro Strong will pick up the rest of the tab.

Bids Sought to Build Athens Metro Line 4
Attiko Metro issued a call for bids for the construction of the first section of Athens’ fourth metro line on April 10, the International Railway Journal reports.

Section A of Line 4 will be 13 km (8.1 miles) long and have 14 new stations, including two interchange stations with existing lines: one with Line 2 at Panepistimio (Line 2)/Akademia (Line 4) and one with Line 3 at Evangelismos.

The work will include construction of a 10-km (6.2-mile) double-track tunnel using tunnel boring machines and an 840-meter (2,756-foot) single-track tunnel connecting the new line to existing Lines 2 and 3. The underground section of the line will be in a deep tunnel with stations located between 20 meters (66 feet) and 34 meters (111.5 feet) below the surface. Ridership is projected at 220,000 daily passengers when the line opens.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Trump Infrastructure Plans Leave Projects in the Lurch

A Hudson-Bergen Light Rail train in Jersey City, New Jersey (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Maryland’s Purple Line Hangs by a Thread
Several dozen urban transportation projects across the United States face an uncertain fate at best while President Donald Trump’s administration figures out how it will make good on its trillion-dollar promise to repair America’s crumbling transportation infrastructure, The New York Times reports.

That trillion dollars is not contained in the budget the Trump White House has submitted to Congress. Instead, that budget proposal cuts Department of Transportation spending by 13 percent, eliminates funding for Amtrak and ends the Obama administration’s TIGER grant program, which funded a number of transit and highway projects in cities nationwide.

One of the projects left hanging by a thread is the Purple Line light-rail route in Washington’s Maryland suburbs. Maryland transportation officials were ready to sign a full funding grant agreement with the federal government when a judge temporarily voided the project’s environmental approvals in August of last year. Under the proposed Trump budget, any transportation infrastructure project that does not now have federal funding agreements in place will have to be paid for by the local governments “that use and benefit from these localized projects.” Fifty such projects, including the Purple Line, were on a list of high-priority items circulated among Trump transition staff prior to his inauguration and published by the McClatchy newspaper chain. Maryland officials were quoted in the Times as expressing disappointment in the last-minute withdrawal of a firm federal commitment to the line.

The Trump administration is promoting public-private partnerships as the way to finance and build many of these projects; Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to an infrastructure program but said that the projects should not “burden future generations with massive debt.”

According to a story in the Hudson Reporter, New Jersey transportation officials expressed similar dismay over the elimination of federal New Starts funding for projects going forward but said that the state would find ways to finance most of the projects on its transportation wish list, including an extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line north into Bergen County and south to State Route 440 in Jersey City. Nonetheless, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise called the cuts from Washington “extremely shortsighted.”

First Train Leaves Britain for China via the Silk Railroad
Even as Britain disengages itself from Europe a la Brexit, there’s news related to its extension of an ancient trade route, this time on steel rails.

Railway Gazette International took note April 10 of the departure from London of the first eastbound freight train to China from DP World’s London Gateway port facility. The train, carrying a mix of containers filled with products including soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals, baby products and whisky, is ultimately destined for Yiwu, a city of 1.2 million located 100 km (62 miles) south of Hangzhou in southeast China.

It will take about three weeks for the container train to complete the 12,000-km (7,456.5-mile) journey from London to Yiwu, crossing through France, Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan in between.

This train marks the establishment of a permanent rail cargo service between the United Kingdom and China. A demonstration train had left Yiwu on Jan. 1 and arrived at a port in London’s Barking section on Jan. 18. It extends an intercontinental freight service between China and Duisburg in the Ruhr region of Germany that has been operating since 2015.

The new service further develops a Chinese government program called “One Belt, One Road” that will create a network of similar trade routes across Eurasia.

“This new rail link with China is another boost for Global Britain, following the ancient Silk Road trade route to carry British products around the world,” Greg Hands, Minister of State in the Department for International Trade, told Railway Gazette. “It shows the huge global demand for quality U.K. goods and is a great step for DP World’s £1.5 billion [$1.87 billion U.S.] London Gateway port as it also welcomes its first regular container ships from Asia.”

Swiss Government Greenlights Zurich Light-Rail Project
The Swiss Federal Transport Office issued permits on April 10 to allow construction of the Limmattalbahn, a 13.4-km (8.3-mile) line connecting the states (cantons) of Zurich and Aargau, to proceed, the International Railway Journal reports.

The meter-gauge line will connect two Swiss Federal Railways stations, one at Zurich-Altstetten and the other at Killwangen-Spreitenbach in Aargau. It will have 27 stations in between the two end points, and 92 percent of the route will be on dedicated track.

Trains will operate at 15-minute intervals and will take 37 minutes to travel from end to end. The line’s 715 million Swiss franc tab ($709 million U.S.) is being split between the federal government and the states of Zürich and Aargau.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Closed Freeway Gives Some Atlanta Commuters New Transit Perspective

Passengers board a MARTA train during the evening rush hour in Atlanta, on March 31. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Overpass Collapse Sends Commuters Streaming Onto Public Transit
Thousands of Atlanta-area commuters are getting their first taste of using mass transit thanks to a fire that caused an overpass on a key central Atlanta freeway to collapse March 30, forcing the closure of the road for what’s expected to be months.

WSB-TV reports that ridership on the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) system jumped 25 percent on March 31, as workers sought alternatives to Interstate 85 in the notoriously traffic-choked city.

More than 50 volunteers from the grassroots advocacy group MARTA Army showed up at rail stations Monday to help first-time riders learn how to use the system.

“As they say, MARTA is smarter,” longtime rider Raheem Franklin told WSB-TV reporter Rikki Klaus. “I just was trying to show a lady how to reload her Breeze card just a second ago, so it’s just about learning the schedule, learning the routes, learning how to load your cards.”

The volunteers were also on hand at nine MARTA rapid transit stations on Tuesday to provide assistance.

“I think that this bridge collapse is an opportunity to see that relying solely on road infrastructure is not resilient,” MARTA Army Executive Director Simon Berrebi said.

Feds Pick Replacement for Amtrak Bottleneck
The Federal Railroad Administration has reached a decision on what should replace one of the worst choke points on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, Railway Track and Structures reports.

In this 2015 photo, an Amtrak train emerges from the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The agency issued a Record of Decision (ROD) March 31 selecting the option to replace the deteriorating, two-track Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Tunnel west of Baltimore Penn Station with four one-track bored tunnels.

The project would include three ventilation shafts, one at each portal and one midway through the tunnels, and measures to mitigate the project’s impact on surrounding neighborhoods in West Baltimore both during construction and once the tunnels enter service.

Amtrak owns the current tunnels, through which Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) and Norfolk Southern freight trains also operate. All three services would share use of the new tunnels as well.

The estimated cost is $4.2 billion. Sources of funds for their construction have yet to be identified.

Two Berlin U-Bahn Lines Finally Become One
It will take another three years for all the finishing touches to be applied, but the hard part of Germany’s newest unification project is complete.

U-Bahn carriage ready to be set down at U55 tunnel opening in Berlin (Photo by Dabbelju)

Global Rail News reports that Berlin’s mass transit agency, BVG, celebrated the completion of two 1-km (0.62-mile) tunnels that will connect Lines U5 and U55 on March 22 when the tunnel boring machines broke through to Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) station on Line U55.

Line U55 had been planned as an extension of Line U5 westward from Alexanderplatz. Work on the extension began in the late 1990s, but the project was put on hold and the completed segment opened as a standalone line in 2009. Line U55 runs from the main railroad station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, east to Brandenburg Gate via Reichstag station.

The new connecting subway will have three intermediate stations at Unter den Linden, Museumsinsel and Berlin Rathaus (Berlin City Hall). Most of the tunnel was excavated with tunnel boring machines, but a short segment incorporates an existing turnaround loop tunnel on Line U5 west of Alexanderplatz. The finished U5 tunnel will open for service in 2020.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Seattle Dips Into Reserves to Cover a Bridge Retrofit

Seattle bridges crossing Lake Washington (Photo by Joe Mabel)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Sound Transit Raids Piggy Bank for Floating Bridge
The East Link extension of Sound Transit’s light-rail network, which will connect downtown Seattle with Bellevue, Washington, and other communities on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, includes a unique engineering challenge that has led the agency to dip into a reserve fund set aside for project cost overruns to the tune of $225 million.

According to news reports from KING5 and The Seattle Times, the extra money is required in order to properly retrofit the floating bridge that the trains will use to cross Lake Washington. The tracks in both directions will be installed on the inside of the westbound span, outboard of the bridge piers, in what are currently reversible express lanes for cars. The added weight of the trains and tracks will necessitate strengthening and reinforcement of the bridge’s pontoons and increasing their rigidity while still allowing the bridge to rise and fall with the water level in Lake Washington.

Project contractor Kiewit-Hoffman plans to do this by inserting steel frames in the pontoons that will then be connected to one another by steel cables threaded through them. This “post-tensioning” will tie the pontoons together to form a single rigid structure that still floats on the water.

The East Link Lake Washington crossing is the first that will run a railroad across a pontoon bridge. The issue has been studied and tests conducted for 12 years, the Times reports.

Critics of the project point to this fund drawdown as yet another example of Sound Transit getting things wrong. “This is just too significant of an issue and just calls too much into question, what we’ve been told by Sound Transit,” David Thompson, an attorney who lives on Mercer Island, told KING5. Mercer Island residents have also voiced objections to the rail line’s takeover of the bridge’s express lanes.

The additional money brings the total cost of the East Link project to $712 million for the 7-mile East Link segment from International District/Chinatown station to South Bellevue, a critical piece of the route that will run to Overlake and ultimately Redmond via downtown Bellevue. The drawdown leaves $147 million in the East Link project’s contingency fund. The fund and the rest of the project’s cost is covered by increased car license fees and sales taxes Seattle-area voters approved in the ST2 transportation package in 2008. An additional tax hike approved last fall is to cover the cost of the extension from Overlake to Redmond. The route to Overlake is set to begin service in 2023, with service to Redmond beginning the following year.

Critics Blast Taiwan Tram-Train Proposal
“The people want subways.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen didn’t use this phrase that the late mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, used to justify the cancellation of a network of light-rail lines, but she channeled his spirit in defending her commitment to build a “tram-train” line connecting the port city of Keelung in the island’s northeast to the Taipei rapid transit system. Still, the Taipei Times reports that critics of the project are arguing that the money could be better spent on a number of projects, including beefing up service on the existing commuter rail line serving the city.

“Keelung residents have been expecting a mass rapid transit [MRT] system for decades and none of the previous administrations could provide it. I want to tell everyone in Keelung that we will definitely deliver it. The Democratic Progressive Party administration has the will and determination to ensure that Keelung gets an MRT,” Tsai is quoted in the article as saying.

But Chen Yen-liang, secretary-general of Taiwan’s Society of Railway and National Planning, said that “tram-trains” like the one Tsai plans to build usually serve areas of relatively light traffic, which the Keelung-to-Nangang corridor these trains would serve isn’t.

He also criticized the fact that passengers would have to change trains at Badu station in Keelung in order to reach the central railway station in Taipei. “Rather than building a light railway whose trains run only slightly faster than TRA trains, the government should use the earmarked funds to buy new commuter trains,” he said.

A former Keelung resident quoted in the story also stated that residents of the area could travel to central Taipei faster by bus.

Chen said that the proposed line was being pushed merely to fulfill a campaign promise of Tsai’s.

Los Angeles to Tunnel for Subway Extension?
Plans to extend the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line eastward to Whittier could lead to the construction of another Southern California subway tunnel, this time in East L.A., Los Angeles magazine reports.

Los Angeles Metro Gold Line train at the Little Tokyo station (Photo by Tim Adams)

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is currently in the midst of a technical study to identify the best alignment for the proposed Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension, which would take the light-rail line from its current East L.A. terminus to the suburbs of Whittier and El Monte. Both routes may follow a stretch of the Pomona Freeway (State Route 60), with one continuing along the freeway to El Monte and the other heading south, then east, to Whittier, but one of the Whittier options would involve a subway tunnel from the freeway to Washington Boulevard, while the other would avoid the freeway completely but might also include a subway along one of two thoroughfares between the current terminus and Washington. According to the magazine, either of these last two options would also include putting the current end-of-line station at Atlantic and Pomona boulevards underground as well.

Together, the two extensions are projected to cost $6 billion; both of them would be paid for from tax revenues generated by the Measure M ballot question voters approved last fall.

The magazine waxed ecstatic over the prospect of a quicker ride to Santa Monica via a subway: “Exciting times,” it said.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Indonesia Short on Funds to Restart Stalled Rail Projects

Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo by Ecal Saputra)

Our weekly “New Starts” column of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Indonesia Looking for Cash to Advance Stalled Rail Projects
Got spare change under your sofa cushions? If you do, take it to your bank, get a money order and send it to: Ministry of Transportation, Government of Indonesia, Jakarta.

It seems that the Indonesian government is short on funds it needs to continue work on two large rail transportation projects: a $5.1 billion high-speed rail line connecting Jakarta and Bandung and the $2 billion Jakarta light-rail system.

Global Construction Review, citing an article on the Indonesian news site Tempo.co, reports that Antonius Kosasih, the finance director of the state-owned Wijaya Karya construction company (Wika), says his firm needs 2 trillion rupiah ($150 million U.S.) to complete land clearance for the HSR line. The source of the cash crunch for that project: money that was to have come from the China Development Bank to cover 75 percent of the project’s construction costs. The Tempo.co story states that the Chinese government is waiting for the land to be cleared before releasing the funds. The HSR project was scheduled to be completed in January 2019 but is now behind schedule. To get things moving, Fast Trains Indonesia-China (KCIC), the consortium building the line (Wika is in that group), is purchasing 590 hectares of land in Karawang and Purwakarta and asking shareholders to pitch in to cover the land clearance costs.

So is the Greater Jakarta Light Rail Transit project, work on which began in September 2015. As of now, only 12 percent of that project has been completed. Funding for this project was to have come from the Indonesian government, but it has now decided to make the state-owned railway company PT Kereta Api Indonesia the project’s financier as well as its operator to get the expense off the government’s balance sheet and allow the project to proceed.

Another “Tram-Train” Line Announced for Taipei Region
The China Post reports that the northern port city of Keelung, Taiwan, located about 13 miles northeast of the capital of Taipei, will get its own “tram-train” line connecting it to the capital.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced the project on March 17. The line will connect Keelung with Taipei’s Nangang district utilizing existing rail rights-of-way. There will be nine stations on the line that will run from Nangang Exhibition Hall Station in Taipei to Keelung. The route will utilize existing tram tracks from Nangang to Badu and share the right-of-way of a Taiwan Railway line connecting Badu with Keelung.

The line will connect with two Taipei Metro lines, buses, intercity and high-speed rail service at Nangang.

The line is being built now because of both political and economic changes that have taken place since Keelung Mayor Chang Tung-rong first proposed building it during the administration of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. At that time, the Taiwanese government said that there was insufficient traffic to justify the project and that it would be a burden on the Keelung city government budget. Tsai said in her remarks that Keelung “has changed for the better” under Chang’s successor, Lin Yu-chang.

Tsai said that the line, which is scheduled to open in 2022, is “Keelung’s largest construction plan in the last 30 years.”

New Metro Extension Opens in Moscow
Moscow’s newest Metro extension entered service on March 16 with the opening of a 7.3-km (4.5-mile) extension of Line 8A, the International Railway Journal reports.

Moscow’s Park Pobedy station (Photo by Jaime Silva)

The segment extends Line 8A westward from Park Pobedy station to Ramenki, with intermediate stations at Minskaya and Lomonosovsky Prospekt. A cross-platform transfer with Line 3 can be made at Park Pobedy.

The new extension will reduce journey times from the section of Moscow it serves to the city center by up to an hour. It is the second section of Line 8a to open; the first, from Delovoy Tsentr to Park Pobedy, opened in 2014. Eventually, Line 8a will become the western end of Line 8, which opened in stages between 1979 and 2012.

The new extension brings the total length of the Moscow Metro’s route network to 346 km (215 miles). An additional 35 km (21.75 miles) of new routes are set to open by the end of this year.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Calif. Contingent Visits D.C. to Make Case for Trump-Style Caltrain Funds

Caltrain in the Bay Area (Photo by Chris Enright)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Californians Lobby Washington for Caltrain Electrification
A $647 million federal agreement for the electrification of the Caltrain commuter rail line from San Francisco to San Jose currently sits in limbo while President Donald Trump’s administration works through its infrastructure spending proposal. Railway Track & Structures reports that a group of Bay Area business and political leaders joined Caltrain executives in Washington, D.C., March 13 to press for approval of the agreement.

The project would electrify the diesel-hauled commuter line from its downtown San Francisco terminal at Fourth and King streets to Tamien Station in San Jose. The electrification would allow Caltrain to increase its peak-hour service from four to six trains per hour in each direction. Caltrain officials have acted to prevent the delay of approval from jeopardizing the project by extending a deadline for contractors to begin work from March 1 to June 30, but their trip to Washington was intended to stress that this is the kind of project that meets the goals of the administration’s infrastructure program and deserves quick approval.

“Caltrain electrification upgrades service on an existing system that serves the country’s fastest-growing companies, the rest of the funding is already lined up, it creates thousands of jobs nationwide and if the goal is to focus on projects that are ready to go, we aren’t just shovel ready, our shovels are in the ground waiting for the OK from Washington to turn some dirt,” Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett said.

Hartnett said he was pleased with the positive response he got from representatives on both sides of the aisle, adding that “when it comes to investing in infrastructure, this project checks all the boxes.”

B.C. Studies Commuter Rail for Capital
The British Columbia Ministry for Transportation and Infrastructure announced on March 9 that it is launching a feasibility study of commuter rail service on Vancouver Island, Railway Gazette International reports.

The last passenger trains quit running on the Southern Railway of Vancouver Island in 2011. (Photo by Alasdair McLellan)

The island, located off the Canadian province’s west coast, is home to its capital, Victoria, the core city of a region of nearly 350,000 residents. The service being studied would bring commuter trains to a 15-km (9.3-mile) stretch of the now-dormant former Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway from Victoria West to Westhills in Langford. The study will take into account the region’s growing population and congestion on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) leading into Victoria.

The segment is part of a 234-km (145.4-mile) railway stretching the length of the island and owned by the Island Corridor Foundation, a partnership between First Nations and local government authorities. The line has not seen trains since the Southern Railway of Vancouver Island ended freight service in 2014; the last passenger trains quit running in 2011 because of deteriorating track conditions.

“There has been strong community support for establishing a commuter service from the West Shore,” Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Todd Stone told Railway Gazette. “We’re listening to what residents are telling us, and we are excited about the possibilities and want to engage further with the local governments as we work to turn this concept into reality.”

Beijing to Build Two More Light-Rail Lines
China.org.cn reports that Beijing will add two light-rail lines to its network in the Fengtai District as a move to reduce energy consumption.

Beijing Subway Line 2 (Photo by Jucember)

Work is set to begin this year on the two lines, to be numbered T1 and T2. Line T1 will connect Daotian Station on the Fangshan Line of the Beijing subway with Beijing Garden Expo Park North, with connections to Line 14 of the subway. Line T2 will run from Line T1 to Qinglong Lake.

The article notes that a light-rail vehicle consumes one-third as much energy as a diesel bus. No completion date was given for the two lines.

The article also reports on progress on five subway lines. Line 16 should be complete by 2018, and the final segment of Line 14 is set to open in 2019. The New Airport Subway Line, which the article states will be the fastest in the city when complete, is also set to open that year. An extension to Line 8 from Olympic Park to the South Fifth Ring Road is also underway, as is an extension of the Fangshan Line in Fengtai District that will connect with Line 10.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Private Sector Offers Up Ideas to Fast-Track Light Rail in L.A.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Orange Line BRT (Photo by METRO96)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

L.A. Gets Bid to Convert BRT to Light Rail
Not that the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority was asking, but Fluor Enterprises believes it would be a good idea for the agency to convert its Orange Line bus rapid transit route in the San Fernando Valley to light rail and has submitted an unsolicited bid to fast-track the job.

Railway Track and Structures reports that Fluor is proposing a public-private partnership for the project, which is one of several authorized under the Measure M sales tax proposal Los Angeles County voters approved last fall.

The proposal is one of several the agency has received from private firms in response to a call its Office of Extraordinary Innovation put out for ideas to get Measure M projects moving. The office is now in the process of putting together a team to evaluate Fluor’s proposal.

“These proposals can be game changers in delivering better mobility to our region sooner than expected,” LACMTA CEO Phillip A. Washington told RT&S. Chief Innovation Officer Joshua Schank said the agency was “gratified” by the response it has received from the private sector since it announced it would consider unsolicited bids last year.

Melbourne Regional Rail Line to Get Capacity Improvements
The Victoria state government in Australia is soliciting bids for an A$518 million ($395 million U.S.) project to increase service on one of Melbourne’s regional rail lines.

International Railway Journal reports that the project will add a second track to two segments of the V-Line route from Melbourne to Ballarat — a 17-km (10.6-mile) stretch between Deer Park West and Melton and an additional 3-km (1.9-mile) segment east of Warrenheip.

The project also includes new crossovers, new platforms at two stations and extended platforms at a third.

The upgrades will allow for more frequent services on V-Line routes to Melton, Ballarat and other destinations to Melbourne’s west as well as the eventual electrification of the line as far as Melton.

Construction is slated to begin in early 2018, with completion set for late 2019. The deadline for proposals is May 1.

Toronto’s Mixed on Temporary Bus Swap
Toronto residents who live along the Queen Street corridor have greeted the Toronto Transit Commission’s announcement that the Queen Street streetcars will be replaced by buses while the street is being rebuilt this summer with mixed emotions, The Toronto Star reports.

Toronto streetcar at Queen Street and University Avenue (Photo by Rodrigo Paoletti)

Many took to social media shortly after the TTC announced the move to bemoan the disruption to their commutes, complain about the pollution the buses cause and welcome the switch as a good idea for streets like Queen that don’t have dedicated streetcar lanes.

Some riders approved of the move because the buses are air conditioned (the streetcars aren’t) and because it’s easier to board the low-floor buses with strollers (riders must haul baby carriages up steps to board a streetcar).

A few took a wait-and-see attitude and expressed hope that the city of Toronto would study changes in traffic and commuting patterns during the reconstruction period.

As of March 7, the plurality of respondents to an online poll on The Star’s website was resigned to the substitution, with 41.9 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement, “I’ll miss the iconic streetcars on Queen, but this is the only sensible way to navigate the construction.” One-third said, “It’s great. Buses can’t get stuck behind streetcars that break down,” while not quite one-fourth agreed that it was “Terrible. Buses don’t have the capacity to carry the same number of riders.”

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Largest U.K. Light-Rail System Keeps Expanding

Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens station (Photo by Rept0n1x)

Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

New Tram Line Section Opens in Manchester
The second section of Manchester Metrolink’s Second City Crossing, which was delayed when construction workers unearthed an ancient burial ground, opened for service Feb. 26.

The Guardian reports that the 185 million British pound ($230.6 million U.S.) line connecting Manchester Victoria Station with its neo-Gothic town hall, is the final part of a 1.5 billion British pound ($1.8 billion U.S.) transit expansion plan.

Two years ago, construction workers discovered the remains of 280 bodies buried in shallow graves about a foot and a half below Cross Street. The graveyard was attached to a 1694 church that had been destroyed during World War II. Work on the line was delayed for several months while archaeologists exhumed the bodies.

Peter Cushing, director of Metrolink for Transport for Greater Manchester, said the new line will add capacity and improve the reliability of service through the city center: “If we ever have an issue, for example, in Piccadilly Gardens, we can run things along the Second City Crossing rather than have to wait to resolve the issue.”

The 25-year-old Manchester Metrolink is the largest light-rail system in the United Kingdom, spanning almost 62 miles with 93 stations. A further extension planned for 2020 will add 4 more miles and six more stations to the system.

Memphis Trolleys Will Roll Again This Summer (But You Can’t Ride Them Yet)
Memphis’ downtown heritage trolley line, which was shut down in 2013 after two of its vintage Melbourne tramcars were destroyed by fires, will get rolling again this summer, the Memphis Business Journal reports, but residents and visitors won’t be able to board the cars again until the end of the year.

Memphis trolley in 2006 (Photo by Christian Banck)

The cars will run test trips as part of the ongoing repair process being carried out in accordance with safety directives from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT).

Last year, the Memphis Area Transportation Authority (MATA) brought in an international transit and rail consulting group, SNC-Lavalin, to help document the repair process in accordance with the FTA and TDOT requirements.

MATA has spent $10 million so far on restoring the neglected cars. To date, the agency has purchased one new car and refurbished two, with two more now being restored. Restoration of the first cars took longer than expected because of their age and documentation requirements.

Seattle Transit Tunnel Being Carved Out by Hand
Given that it took almost two years to unstick Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that was digging the replacement for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct, it may be no surprise to read that it will take two years to dig a 10-block-long tunnel under downtown Bellevue for a Sound Transit light-rail extension.

According to a news story in The Seattle Times, though, this time it’s because workers are digging the tunnel out by hand, so to speak.

The tunnel under 110th Ave. NE is being dug out 4 feet at a time using conventional construction equipment with carving attachments and handheld power tools when needed. Once the crew has advanced 4 feet, it will spray the dirt with fast-drying concrete before it crumbles, insert an arc-shaped steel lattice, and spray more concrete into the lattice.

The technique is known as “sequential excavation,” and Sound Transit chose it in order to minimize noise and disruption on the surface. A Sound Transit official said that boring machines would be expensive and require staging areas on the surface, while a cut-and-cover tunnel would have required expensive relocation of utility lines.

Sequential excavation carries with it the risk that a section of exposed dirt will collapse before it can be stabilized, but workers can spot trouble quickly using this method.

The tunnel and downtown Bellevue station being built represent a compromise between Bellevue city officials, who wanted a subway station closer to Bellevue Square mall, and cost-conscious Sound Transit officials, who said the shorter, shallower tunnel saved $200 million of what would have been an extra $320 million to build a subway through central Bellevue instead of the elevated route included in the ST2 funding package as a placeholder.

Know of a project that should be included in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

Philadelphia Has a New Plan for Its 43,000 Vacant Lots

A woman walks through a Philadelphia neighborhood. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

There is a simple argument for why Philadelphia needs to develop the 43,000 pieces of derelict property scattered across the city. Her name is Deanna Salley.

Despite a full-time, well-paying job, Salley recently found that she and her husband could no longer afford rents in the North Philadelphia neighborhood that had been home for decades. The couple couldn’t compete with Temple University students who could split the cost of an apartment four ways and prospects for the future looked even dimmer as more new buildings targeting the same young renters rose on the formerly empty lots that Salley had endured for years.

It’s a classic story familiar in resurgent urban neighborhoods nationwide yet it’s ending hasn’t been determined for Philadelphia. Last month, Salley’s situation and dozens like it were shared as representatives of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities testified one after another at a public hearing for a nascent city land bank that they believe is central to keeping rebounding neighborhoods affordable to longtime residents, even as more affluent newcomers move in.

Philadelphia became the largest U.S. city with a land bank in 2013 when the City Council, after intense negotiations, unanimously approved the redevelopment tool. The Philadelphia Land Bank opened for business in 2015 with a clear mandate: to quicken the pace of returning vacant and tax delinquent property to productive use by centralizing ownership of these parcels and streamlining the redevelopment process.

Despite a high-profile start, the Land Bank’s first few years have passed without much notice outside of city hall’s chambers. Accomplishments have been of the behind-the-scenes variety — Land Bank officials tout clearing some 6,000 titles for transfer and acquiring roughly 2,000 properties from other public agencies as big wins. In the first two quarters of 2016, the first where the Land Bank disposed of property and the latest for which figures have been publicly released on its website, the agency sold a total of 127 parcels of land. So far in 2017, nine properties have sold, officials say.

The slow pace of progress is hardly surprising. For generations, Philadelphia leaders have struggled to bring new investment into the neighborhoods outside of Center City where vacant property is concentrated. When the market is there, the struggle becomes how to weigh competing interests in communities where the needs are great, sometimes at odds with one another and all in need of support from strained public coffers.

The Land Bank’s new strategic plan — unveiled last month and expected to be on the City Council’s agenda this week — is an attempt at balance. The document is sprinkled with colorful maps and attractive graphics showing the potential transformation of vacant or underused lots into housing of all kinds, mixed-use development, community gardens and side yards. It sets a target of returning nearly 2,000 properties to productive use over the next five years, with more than 1,200 of those expected to become homes, 650 of which are intended to be affordable for low-income Philadelphians.

The plan doubles the amount of land to be redeveloped as housing for people making 30 percent of the Philadelphia area median income. The affordable units will be designated for households earning less than $20,000 per year, or 30 percent of the Philadelphia area median income of $38,253.

Framed as a win for the PCAC advocates who showed up at the January meeting, the change was made in response to feedback from residents across the city, says Tania Nikolic, the interim director of the Land Bank. “We heard from the public about the need for affordable, accessible housing and we listened,” said Nikolic in a public statement.

Other changes include the addition of a new policy allowing groups to obtain five-year leases on land in the bank’s inventory. That change too was made in response to feedback from Philadelphians, says Land Bank spokesperson Paul Chrystie.

“Community engagement around the strategic plan has been ongoing; it’s not that we simply held a public hearing — there was an ongoing back-and-forth over months about aspects of the plan,” he said.

That back and forth will continue in the coming weeks as the council weighs in on the new plan.

Kevin Gillen is a senior research fellow at the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University and a consultant who has worked with the Land Bank to shape its strategy. He has long argued that the new agency must be tactical in how it dispatches the tens of thousands of properties that it will ultimately have the responsibility of selling. Only a small fraction of Philadelphia’s vacant parcels — 10 to 15 percent — are desirable to for-profit real estate developers, he says. The other 85 percent are small lots scattered across neighborhoods outside of the city’s dense core. “Even if you gave away the land for free, a builder couldn’t sell a home that covered the cost of development,” Gillen says, speaking in his capacity as a private citizen. “Those lots work best as small community gardens, side yards or open space until the neighborhood recovers.”

The high-value lots, on the other hand, should be used for “high density, multifamily mixed-used projects,” Gillen says. “To use the land bank to promote affordable housing is to bring the wrong tool to the wrong job.”

One study the researcher worked on for the Land Bank found that the agency could generate more revenue by selling the high-value lots to developers for market-rate housing than could be generated through the sheriff sales wherein tax-delinquent property is typically sold. Not only do properties fetch better prices through the Land Bank, but the agency’s requirement that they be developed in some form within a year of sale produces both more revenue and significant cost savings for the city. This cash could then go back to the city to fund public services and the Housing Trust Fund, a public-private partnership that assists homeowners, landlords and developers who want to build or maintain affordable properties.

“I’m all for what the advocates want,” he says. “But the best place to find this [affordable] housing is to renovate and retrofit existing housing. This would be the most cost-effective way to provide affordable and workforce housing at market rates in the city.”

But for many of the housing advocates who testified at the Land Bank’s hearing last month, the question isn’t just how many affordable units, it also about their location. Especially in a city like Philadelphia where redlining and other exclusionary practices fostered the abandonment now being addressed.

“In 2012, in neighborhoods where [house] values increased in South and West Philadelphia, there were 29 percent fewer African-American residents,” says Nora Lictash, executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project and a PCAC steering committee member. “That’s not acceptable. In the city, we can have good policies that soften those effects. We can make things fairer.”

This dilemma of how to best leverage vacant land is one that land banks in urban and rural areas nationwide find themselves confronting, says Kim Graziani of the Center for Community Progress, a think tank that advises cities on reclaiming vacant properties.

“There are three to five key themes when we work with the most effective land banks around the country,” she says. “One is that the land bank is nimble and responsive to local problems as well as local land use goals.”

Another practice recommended by Graziani is aligning internal strategies with community partners and their strategies.

One item on the docket for Lictash and her colleagues at PCAC is the creation of a housing impact fee that would be levied on developers building market-rate projects. Modeled after policies in cities such as Oakland, California and Boston, the revenue generated by the fee would go into the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund.

While the City Council hasn’t taken an official position on housing impact fees, individual members are likely to mention affordability issues as discussion of the bank’s strategy moves forward. At its first meeting of the year, also held last month, the body passed a bill introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke calling for, among other things, a moratorium on sheriff sales until Council can conduct a review of the city’s land disposition policies.

“What happens in a lot of these areas is that people buy these properties [at sheriff sales] and they sit on them. They’re speculators,” he says. “What we want to do is acquire the properties per the Land Bank strategic plan and put them back on the tax rolls and provide housing, be it workforce, be it affordable, or be it market-rate.”

Supporting Clarke in the effort to ensure that the Land Bank isn’t losing out to the old system of sheriff sales is Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. The councilwoman, who represents a swath of North Philadelphia that has one of the city’s highest concentration of empty lots, introduced the legislation that created the Land Bank and remains committed to its vision of streamlined redevelopment.

“Whenever the bureaucracy stands in the way of community economic development, that’s not good,” she says.

This article is part of Next City’s Philly in Flux series made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.