Top 5 Transit System Projects Worth Watching in 2015

Public transit systems in the United States are experiencing rapid growth of ridership and growing revenue predictions, although the funding to pay for improvements and keeping their systems in a state of good repair may not materialize.  With that said, most if not all transit systems try to find ways to pay for transit improvements, whether for ridership increases or for an enhanced experience.  There are transit systems that add or change bus service to better serve its customers, while some systems convert their busiest service to rail service.  Some trains are added to an existing line or network, while some trains run in places where bus service is overwhelmed.  Some transit systems decide that rail systems to replace heavy bus lines is too expensive and decide to take the route of Bus Rapid Transit instead, which is less expensive and more flexible than rail service.  The common thread is that most of these transit systems have a goal in mind:  serve the greatest amount of people in the most efficient way while keeping costs down.

Some of these projects are meant to make transit more attractive and/or more efficient for many riders.  There are those that happen to excite railfans and busfans such as myself, giving us something to photograph, record, ride, draw, or compare to our own systems and associated expansion projects.  It invokes imagination as to how we think our systems can improve as well as gives us something to have an open dialogue about with people who work in the industry; it allows us to ask the questions such as why it works for them and not for us.

These five projects, being worked on and/or nearing completion, are worth watching as a busfan or railfan and as an industry professional.  I picked these projects because they appear to transform their systems, for better more than worse, and leave possibilities to the imagination about how our own problems can be solved.  Some are just mere entertainment.

5.  CTA Chicago ‘L’ Expansion

The CTA subway system, known locally as the ‘L’ system, is large enough, with 8 lines that go from the Loop in Downtown Chicago to places like Forest Park, Jackson Park, Skokie, Linden, and Ravenswood.  The CTA is looking at renovating or expanding the current system, with projects on the Blue, Red, Brown, and Orange Lines being looked at in the near future.

The Red Line had already gone through a rehabilitation of the south end of the line, in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway.  Now it’s the north end’s turn, with renovations of every station at least up to Bryn Mawr, with Belmont and Fullerton having been redone in recent years.  The Red Line corridor is host to the local Red Line, the Purple Line Express, and the Brown Line from Fullerton to Belmont.  The Red and Brown Lines are CTA’s busiest lines, and the junction north of Belmont Station is a flat junction, meaning northbound Brown Line trains must cross three tracks to access its own line to Kimball.  That means that while Brown Line trains cross over, Red and Purple Line Express trains must wait until the junction frees up to then proceed towards the Loop.  The CTA hopes to make for better service on all three lines, especially since Red and Brown Line trains are at or near capacity on the North side, one of the city’s fastest growing sectors.

Extensions are being looked at for the Red Line south of 95th Street in the South Side, the Yellow Line further into Skokie, and the Orange Line to Ford City, a few miles south of Midway Airport.  The only active projects of the three appears to be the Red Line extension plan, part of a plan to modernize the Red Line, the CTA’s busiest line at almost a quarter million riders a day.

Also of note…

The CTA has a Bus Rapid Transit line already in operation, called the “JUMP” service, running along the #14 Jeffrey Corridor.  This service is similar to NYCT’s Select Bus Service but without the off-board fare collection.  There is lots of momentum to expand BRT offerings, the most ambitious being along the Ashland Avenue Corridor, currently served by the #9-Ashland bus, one of the CTA’s busiest bus lines.  Serving major hospitals and local business improvement districts, this BRT will run in the median of Ashland much like the BRT systems of Curitiba and Mexico City, with modern stations and a predictable schedule.  Though the street will reduce the amount of general travel lanes from two to just one, the CTA and the city of Chicago hope that Ashland will be transformed into a major transportation corridor and a hub of economic activity.  The CTA is saying that the #9 bus will still run in its current form, but with the actual narrower width of Ashland, I would imagine that the BRT would eventually be the only service on Ashland.  Something to watch…

4. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail projects

The BART rail system has been around since the mid-1970s, but the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District was formed in the late 1950s to provide a solution to the transportation problems that still plague areas surrounding San Francisco.  The current fleet of subway cars has been built between the early 1970s and early 1990s and is still operational today.  The fleet consists of about 669 railcars for the entire 104-mile BART system, with service to Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley, Richmond, Dublin, Pleasanton, Hayward, Fremont, Concord, and points in between.  The cars have two doors, compared to three or four on average subway cars around the country, and they have carpet flooring and upholstered seating, much like a commuter train.  This was a hybrid of sorts, combining the comfort of a commuter train with the speed and frequency of a subway.  The trains are usually run on an automatic train operation mode, though a train operator can take over and operate it manually with the aid of cab signal systems.  Due to the relatively low ridership of BART, the trains are a one-person operation versus two in cities like New York.

BART has realized that over the years, ridership has increased beyond expectations and more ridership means more wear and tear on rails, stations, and railcars themselves.  With that said, BART has performed numerous studies with private consultants, market researchers, and the riding public to determine which direction the system will head.  Most riders wish that BART would update its look, but a number of riders don’t want to part ways with the comfort and feel of the current BART system.  There are more disabled and wheelchair-bound riders, while those with bicycles need more options to get around the region.  Years and years of research and design have finally paid off, with the design of a new BART car to replace and expand the entire fleet.  The current fleet of 669 cars will be replaced by 775 new cars with the possibility of a 1,000-car fleet for expansion purposes and adding cars to current train consists.  There would also be room for a larger spare fleet so that cars can be worked on while still having enough cars for base service.

With new cars also comes extensions of the current system.  The most active route construction project involves extending the system south past Fremont to Warm Springs and, in a few years, to San Jose.  Much of the right-of-way to Warm Springs is completed, with contracts to be signed later on for work to Downtown San Jose, San Jose Diridon Station, and Santa Clara.  This will not only provide BART service to the Silicon Valley for the first time ever, but it will also allow riders to travel from San Jose to Oakland (previously only possible via numerous AC Transit-to-VTA bus connections), provides additional options for those travelling to SFO or Oakland Airports, and adds another layer of service from San Francisco to San Jose previously served only by CalTrain.  Fares, calculated by distance and varies from station to station, have not been determined yet.

The other component to the BART system worth looking at is the advancement of the e-BART concept, long talked about but never materialized due to lack of funding and/or political support.  The e-BART system was designed to provide BART access to far-flung areas in the East Bay that may not necessarily warrant a full BART subway line.  e-BART is smaller than regular BART, in route length and fleet type.  BART is looking at a diesel multiple-unit (DMU) or diesel light rail car (similar to Capital Metro’s Stadler GTW 2/6 or North County Transit District’s Siemens Desiro DMU) for service from Pittsburg to Antioch.  These smaller trains, which are like light rail vehicles but larger, will serve a market that is of a lower construction cost than regular BART and can provide a “shuttle” service to the regular BART which will take riders the rest of the way to San Francisco.  The lower capital costs has gotten the approval of the cities of Pittsburg, Antioch, Oakley, and Brentwood.  The plan calls for a rail line along State Route 4 with a station adjacent to the Pittsburg-Bay Point BART Station for transferring riders.

The feasibility of this concept inthis and other areas is questionable though worth a look, especially since trying to attract ridership from such distant cities in the East Bay with a costly hybrid subway might be a bit of a gamble.  The advantages of e-BART are lower startup costs and giving BART more reach into the East Bay; its disadvantages are the lack of a one-seat ride for someone coming so far out and could easily resort back to driving if connections aren’t maintained between modes.

Let’s see how this pans out.

3.  Los Angeles Metro rail expansion

I combined all of Los Angeles’ rail expansion projects under this one headline, mainly because they not only were funded at roughly the same time, but they are all going on simultaneously at different stages of construction.  Most of these projects are funded by Measure R, setup by Los Angeles County for the collection of a percentage of sales tax to fund transportation projects.  Some of these projects are put forth and/or paid for by the 30/10 initiative, 30 years worth of transportation projects implemented in a 10-year time frame.  It accelerated many projects so that they can be done quicker without decrease in build quality and without excessive political red tape that comes with your average public transportation expansion projects.

The Exposition Line, or Expo Line for short, is progressing rather quickly towards Santa Monica, with Phase I from Downtown LA to Culver City currently in service and Phase II to Santa Monica being built as we speak.

The Gold Line, which currently runs from Pasadena to East LA, will have an extension east from Pasadena to Azusa and eventually to Montclair and possibly Ontario in San Bernadino County.  Dubbed the “Foothill Extension,” this line will add roughly 11 miles (to Azusa) to the current 20+ mile line and, if extended to Ontario, will bring the Gold Line to a 44-mile line through the Foothills, past Union Station, and out to East LA.

The LAX/Crenshaw line will bring service to LAX International Airport for the first time since Metro tried to extend the Green Line back in the mid-1990s via a spur track from Aviation Station.  This new line will connect the airport and the Green Line with the Expo Line in Culver City.

The Purple Line Extension will bring trains from Wilshire/Western to Downtown Santa Monica, finally completing the forever-anticipated “Subway to the Sea” that was promised decades ago by Metro (Los Angeles County MTA) at the time.

The Regional Connector, a forever-anticipated 2-mile light rail tunnel under Downtown LA, was planned back in the 1990s around the time the Blue Line opened and the Blue Line Extension (now part of the original Gold Line from Union Station to Pasadena) was planned but almost didn’t exist.  With the recently-built Eastside Extension which brought the Gold Line from Union Station to East LA, the Regional Connector will allow trains to go from Santa Monica to East LA and Long Beach to Azusa, if not allow for transfers in Downtown LA for these kinds of trips, even if they are rather lengthy.  Originally, Blue Line trains were to operate from Long Beach to Pasadena, but rising costs and low ridership projections put the Regional Connector in the backburner.

When all is said and done, LA’s rail system will be nearly as big as Washington DC’s, the light rail system alone will be much larger than Denver’s  at 46 miles but nearly as big as Dallas’s at 93 miles.  The subway has quite a ways to go, but with subway and light rail included, we are looking at roughly 100 miles.  The line with the most ridership potential as of right now will be Expo Phase II, since most of these new riders will be former Santa Monica Rapid 10 riders.  Once the Purple Line extends to Santa Monica, that line will see mainly current LA Metro 720 Wilshire Rapid riders.

2. Denver RTD FasTracks

Denver, The Mile High City, isn’t really known much for its transit network, but with 4 new commuter rail lines, a few new light rail expansions, and a new light rail line in the works, Denver will be a city on the up-and-up.  It currently is, from a real estate perspective, but with current projects either completed or underway, Denver will be a destination city much like San Francisco or Dallas.

Denver has embarked on FasTracks, a program that accelerates certain transportation projects by allowing for contracts to be bid on all at the same time and with funding available from revenue and state and county subsidies.  Among the projects included in this program are two new light rail lines, 4 new commuter rail lines, and the massive Union Station project.

The [W] Rail line is the newest addition to the light rail system, which consists of the (C), (D), (E), (F), and (H) lines, a 46-mile system that reaches southern Denver, Englewood, Lincoln, Arapahoe Valley, and Cherry Creek.  The [W] takes riders from Lakewood and Golden to Union Station in Downtown Denver.

The (G) Rail Line, which was formerly a shuttle between Lincoln, the end of the (E) and (F) Rail Lines, and Nine Mile, the end of the (H) Rail Line, might be re-incarnated into a full line from Lincoln through Nine Mile to the Interstate 225 corridor in Aurora and then connect to the East Rail Line, a commuter rail line being built from Union Station to Denver International Airport.

Union Station is a work in progress, with the Historic Union Station fully restored and converted to part of a hotel, the light rail line re-aligned a decade ago to make room for the commuter rail/Amtrak terminal, the Union Station Bus Terminal (USBT) completed and operational (thus closing down the old Market Street Bus Station), and commuter rail set to open next year.  With new residential housing built or being built on either side of the nearby freight tracks, this part of Downtown Denver will be alive with activity and be the focal point of transportation in the region.  Currently, about 20 bus lines pass through or terminate here, including the 16th Street MallRide shuttle, DIA/Skyride Route AF, and the 18th/19th Street MetroRide shuttle, along with three light rail lines, the (C), (E), and [W] lines, terminating here.  The first commuter rail line, the East Rail Line, will be the first operational line from Union Station in 2016, with the other commuter rail lines to follow.  Currently, Amtrak is using the terminal for its long-distance rail operations (i.e. The California Zephyr).

There will be two types of commuter rail in Denver.  The East Rail Line, an electric heavy rail with railcars similar to SEPTA’s Silverliner V cars, will take riders from Union Station to Denver International Airport in almost half the time it takes the AF Skyride Line currently running.  The other three commuter rail lines, the Gold Line to Arvada, the North Metro Line to Thornton, and the Northwest Metro Line to Longmont and Boulder, are diesel heavy rail lines scheduled to start partial service to Westminster in 2016, with full service by 2021.  Though I personally do not agree with two types of commuter rail cars being ordered for this system, it does make sense from an operational standpoint.  This is because the East Rail Line to the Airport will make more sense as a busy electric rail line than the other three lines combined with the heaviest service being Denver-bound in the morning and suburb-bound in the afternoon.  These commuter rail lines will replace Regional and Skyride buses along nearby highways and all for increased bus service elsewhere in the region.  As far as RTD is concerned, this is a win-win situation for them.

Rouding out the Top 5…

1.  Minneapolis Metro Transit system expansion

Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the Twin Cities, are cities with growing transit options and enhancements to transit services already available to residents in the surrounding towns and cities.  As hot as it gets in the summer and as cold as it can be in the winter time, Minneapolis is another city worth watching as transit projects are either completed, under way, or are being planned.

In addition to the Metro Blue Line, formerly the #55 Hiawatha Light Rail Line, Metro Transit in collaboration with the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority opened the Metro Red Line Bus Rapid Transit line and the Metro Green Line light rail line.  The Red Line operates from Apple Valley to the Mall of America, and the Green Line runs from Downtown Minneapolis to Downtown Saint Paul and the University of Minnesota, also known as the Central Corridor.  In the coming years, construction will be ongoing for the Green Line extension from Downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and will add another 16 miles to the 20+ mile light rail network.  The current Green Line is a replacement of the #50 bus route and a supplement to the #16 bus route, one of the region’s busiest bus routes.

The Metro Blue Line will also have a much anticipated extension north of the Target Field Station, adding about 13 miles of track north to Brooklyn Park in the Bottineau Corridor.  This is still in the planning and design stages, but this project is still a go, which will replace or supplement the upper half of the #5 bus route, another of the busiest route in the Twin Cities.  Once this extension is built, there will be roughly 50 miles of light rail, more than Denver’s current system.

But light rail transit isn’t the only card in the deck; bus rapid transit is getting some more steam, in the form of highway BRT (like Phoenix’s Rapid express bus system or Los Angeles’ Metro Silver Line) and “arterial” BRT (like Seattle’s Rapid Ride or New York’s Select Bus Service).  The Metro Red Line from Bloomington to Apple Valley is the first BRT line in Minneapolis, an arterial BRT named in the same fashion as the light rail system.  The next two BRT lines in the works are the Snelling Avenue (A Line) and Penn Avenue (C Line) Arterial BRT lines.  The A Line will start later this year, while the C line will start around 2017.  The Metro Orange Line will be the first highway BRT, named in the same way as the light rail system, which will complement and/or replace numerous I-35 freeway express bus routes but will also allow for all-day service to and from Downtown Minneapolis.  Right now, it is in the planning stages, accelerated by the fact that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has given them the go-ahead to start the process and receive grant money for the project.  This is slated for 2019 service.  The second highway BRT line, the Metro Gold Line, will take riders from Union Depot out to East Saint Paul and beyond.  There is not too much information available about that particular corridor.

With all of these light rail and bus rapid transit projects, there have also been scores of changes to the current bus network, to either have the buses meet the trains or to reshape the routes to better serve areas which had poor service or would wind up with poor service in lieu of the high-capacity transit corridors opening and prioritizing much needed transit capacity.  Being that high-capacity transit projects do take up much needed transit frequency and vehicles, some areas seem to be left out, which leaves Metro Transit to provide at least some service that would have otherwise been shifted to LRT or BRT, which is better than no service at all.  In the areas with Arterial BRT planned, it appears to be a restructuring and rebranding of existing bus service to make it more efficient and more user-friendly.  With this in mind, Minneapolis is a city to watch for its rapidly-evolving transit scene…keeping in mind that Minneapolis hadn’t been widely known for its transit scene aside from its streetcar history.

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