Top 5 Transit System Projects Worth Watching in 2016

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.  Port Authority of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) service delivery and fare changes

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and surrounding Allegheny County, have been in the news in transit circles for at least a decade, and not necessarily in a positive light.  With service cuts and fare increases, the Port Authority has had a hard time balancing its budget while coping with less funding from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital.  Port Authority, along with SEPTA in Philadelphia, are the state’s two largest transit systems, and dedicated funding sources for those two states are hard to come by, especially from a government who sees these companies as those who need to cut costs and turn a profit before the state legislature even thinks about providing more funding to those systems.  This usually leaves SEPTA and Port Authority with no choice but to raise fares and/or cut service.  For Pittsburgh, it meant both.

In 2006, during my first visit to Pittsburgh, the system had roughly 200 bus routes, many of which are peak-hour versions of all-day local bus routes, whether they travel on local streets or use one of Pittsburgh’s three busways (East, West, and South).  In 2016, just ten years later, the system has dwindled to about 100 routes.  The “T” light rail system in 2006 consisted of three light rail lines (Overbrook, Beechview, and Allentown) which have had service variations that are too complicated to discuss here.  Now, the light rail system is two lines, Red to Overbrook Juntion via the Beechview Line, and Blue to Library or South Hills Village via the Overbrook Line.  Red Line trains serve South Hills Village during rush hours, but Blue Line trains serve South Hills Village all the time to allow those residents to utilize the faster Overbrook Line to access Downtown Pittsburgh and the North Side.

Fares in Allegheny County are zoned based on how far from Pittsburgh a rider is travelling.  Currently, there are at least 3 fare zones, including a free downtown fare zone, which includes the light rail extension to the North Side, with fares ranging from $2 to $3.75, in addition to surcharges to riding the light rail after transferring from a bus during peak hours.  Transfers are usually $1, which means that bus rides from Overbrook all the way to Monroeville through Oakland will mean nearly a $4 ride, more if you decided to transfer to the light rail during rush hours.  The way it was, back in 2006, was that there were three primary zones, and special zones within the main zones, which required a separate fare.  There were also ticket books that you can buy to speed up boarding and have the proper fare all the time.  Those have been replaced by the ConnectCard.  The worst part about these fare hikes is that they usually happen right after service cuts and realignments haven’t decreased their bottom line.

I will give Pittsburgh the benefit of the doubt because of a few things they have implemented or are considering, without going into too much detail, to try to make the transit experience better in Allegheny County:

  1. Renumbering of bus routes:  Pittsburgh’s bus route numbering scheme was quite complicated, with routes numbered counterclockwise from north to northeast and certain route numbers ending in certain numbers that describe the type of route.  The 6B was a north side route from Spring Hill to Downtown Pittsburgh, while the 46G was a south side route from Downtown Pittsburgh to Elizabeth.  Lettered routes were “Flyer” routes.  What was done in recent years was color coded routes that ran on busways and HOV lanes, and removed the letter suffices on numbered routes so that branches of routes were given new route numbers.  Flyer routes were brought into the color scheme.  East Busway routes were “Purple” routes such as the P2, P3, and P76, while West Busway routes were “Green” Routes such as the G2 and G31 routes.
  2. Proposing to redo their system maps and wayfinding system:  Pittsburgh has a way of trying to make it easier for riders to get the gist of where bus routes run and how they operate in the grand scheme of things.  This hasn’t really worked since the maps aren’t geographic nor are the diagrammatic maps any less confusing than just looking at individual schedules for the route.  Also, signage in Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland isn’t very easily accessible or clear when you are in the street looking for transit stops.  There is talk about redoing the maps to show not only where routes go, but possibly how frequent they run, so that new users can see how a particular service operates and decide whether to take one route over another.
  3. Changing its fare structure:  There is talk about possibly implementing a single fare structure for most of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities and only charging an extra zone for riders coming from far-out communities.  So, a person from Monroeville or Robinson will pay $3 or $3.75 to go to Pittsburgh, whereas someone from Swissvale or Robinson will pay the same $2.75 as someone in Polish Hill or Brentwood.  Even though the closest areas to Downtown Pittsburgh will see their fare increase from $2, the advantage is that everyone will pay the same price in Pittsburgh without having to do any guesswork as to where the zone changes are…within the city limits.

Whether anything is done to make transit better in Pittsburgh is anyone’s guess.  But this system gets my attention because even though fares have increased and service cut for many people, there is at least an attempt to discuss what to do to attract riders and make Pittsburgh’s system great again.

4. Los Angeles Metro Rail Current Projects

Metro in Los Angeles is just a few short months away from opening two extensions of their Metro Rail network this year.  The Gold Line Foothill Extension Phase I will bring trains from the current Gold Line terminus at Sierra Madre Villa Station to the new APU-Citrus College Station in Azusa (APU is the Azusa Pacific University), while the Expo Phase II will bring trains from the current Expo Line terminus at Culver City Station to the new Downtown Santa Monica Station.  There are two other major rail construction projects occurring at the same time, one of which is the LAX/Crenshaw Line which will run from the Expo-Crenshaw Station on the Expo Line to Aviation Station on the Green Line, and the other being the Regional Connector, the tunnel/surface project that will connect the Gold Line and the Blue/Expo Line and allow a range of travel and routing options for the LA Area.

For the first time ever since the planning of rail projects in the LA area, trains will travel all the way to the Santa Monica coast line from Los Angeles.  Santa Monica officials are eager to encourage riders to ride the Expo Line all the way from Downtown Santa Monica (DTSM) to Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) when their only options currently are Santa Monica Municipal Bus Lines’ Rapid 10 Express bus or LA Metro Rapid Lines 704 and 720.  With all the service changes in both bus systems required to work seamlessly with the Expo Line Phase II, June 25 is the target implementation date for the opening of the line to passengers.  There are some issues to work out and more real-time testing still to come, but Santa Monica and Metro officials hope that they can open the extension before the summer.

The Gold Line extension to Azusa is slated to open around March 5, with stations in Arcadia, Irwindale, Monrovia, Duarte, and Azusa.  This is only half of the extension of the Gold Line in the Foothills (San Gabriel and Ponoma Valleys in Los Angeles County), but still noteworthy since the extension will add roughly 12 miles to the current 20-mile line.  The extension from Azusa to Montclair will add yet another 12 miles to the system, making that line a 44-mile route when completed.  That extension will also mark the first Metro light rail line to cross county lines into San Bernadino County, to reach the city of Montclair.

As far as the projects that are noteworthy but not opening soon (though they are rather important):

The Regional Connector tunnel is being worked on as we speak to connect the Gold Line near the now-closed Little Tokyo-Arts District Station (to build a new station nearby but underground) to the Blue and Expo Lines in Downtown LA.  The tunnel will be opened in 2020, but major work has started in the area to build a interlocking and set of tracks to eventually allow trains from the Regional Connector to access either end of the current Gold Line.  This tunnel will allow Blue Line trains to run all the way from Long Beach to Pasadena and Azusa and Expo Line trains to run all the way from Santa Monica to East Los Angeles and beyond.  This has been in the works since at least the 1980s.

The LAX/Crenshaw Line is being built between Expo/Crenshaw Expo Line Station to Aviation Green Line Station.  Two noteworthy things are happening on this line:  the dismantling of temporary counterweights that were placed in order to seal off the Green Line connection to LAX that never happened back in the 1990s, and the transfer station being built at 96th/Century between Crenshaw Line trains and LAX’s planned new people-mover system.  The Green Line was proposed to connect to LAX with a branch line from Aviation Station but was shelved due to lack of funding and Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) participation.  N ow, LAWA and Metro are working together, somewhat, to build a transfer station between LAX transit and Metro’s transit, although at an inconvenient location.  Nonetheless, once the LAX/Crenshaw Line is done, certainly not in 2016, but still noteworthy, the LAX/Crenshaw Line will travel from Expo/Crenshaw to Redondo Beach and the Green Line will travel from Norwalk to either LAX or Redondo Beach.

With the Expo and Green Lines opening extensions this year, there is also the need to operate more cars with longer trains, and thus the new Kinkisharyo P3010 cars coming in will help to fill the void, making LA Metro’s light rail system worth watching in the next 6-12 months.

3.  Minneapolis Metro Transit Light Rail and BRT projects

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.  (There is B Line, to run along West 7th Street between Downtown Minneapolis, MSP Airport, and the Mall of America, but that will start once Ramsey County has completed their own studies in the corridor.)  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.  There is one more BRT service proposed, the Metro Gold Line, that will take riders from Union Depot out to East Saint Paul and beyond.  This is slated to be an arterial BRT named in the same fashion as the light rail lines much like the Metro Red Line.

2. Denver RTD FasTracks

Denver, The Mile High City, isn’t really known much for its transit network, but with 3 new commuter rail lines (with another one in the works), 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.

If it appears that I have Denver RTD on this list, it’s because I still firmly believe that Denver’s transit system is something to watch, but especially this year.  There is a lot going on in Denver and surrounding cities, and this post is merely an update.  This is also an opportunity to clarify and clear up a few things as well with regards to the commuter rail project.

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 new light rail lines and/or extensions, 4 new commuter rail lines, and the massive Union Station project.  Denver’s first FasTracks projects was the [W] line from Union Station to Jefferson County and Lakewood.  It was completed back in 2014 and has fairly decent ridership, especially from stations in Lakewood.  The free Metroride service is a FasTracks initiative which consist of a rush-hour bus service running along 18th and 19th Streets from Union Station to Civic Center as a complement and alternative to the 24-hour-a-day 16th Street Mallride service.  Then, there is Union Station and its revitalization into a regional transit hub and center for transit-oriented development (TOD).

Union Station is a masterpiece long in the making, 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 in the coming months.  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 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.  Currently, Amtrak is using the terminal for its long-distance rail operations (i.e. The California Zephyr), but starting later this year, the Denver commuter rail system will start to take shape.

There will be 4 commuter rail lines.  The East Rail Line, now called the University of Colorado [A] Line thanks to a public-private partnership, will open in April with service to Denver International Airport, replacing the AF Skyride bus.  The [B] Line will open in the summer, serving Westminster at first, with service to Boulder and Longmont by 2018.  This line will either complement or replace the BOLT (Boulder-Longmont connector) regional bus line and possibly reduce service on U.S. 36 bus routes.  The [G] Line will open in the fall, with service to Arvada and Wheat Ridge, possibly replacing several regional buses including the 55L (formerly 55X), and 80L (formerly 80X).  The [N] line will open in 2018 serving Thornton and Northglenn, replacing the 120X and 122X lines along Interstate 25.  All commuter rail lines will be using the Hyundai-Rotem electric multiple-unit (EMU) cars similar to SEPTA’s Silverliner V fleet but without the low-entry stairs.  All lines will have high-level platforms similar to Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road in New York.  Originally, it was thought that the [A] Line would be electric while the other lines would be diesel multiple-unit (DMU) cars, but it turns out that RTD purchased 66 EMUs for 4-car trains on the [A] Line and 2-car or 4-car trains for the other 3 lines.

Another FasTracks initiative is the creation of the [R] Line, a new light rail line using some existing tracks along with some new ones.  The lower half of the [R] line will comprise of the [E] and [F] Lines between Lincoln and Belleville and the [H] Line between south of Southmoor and Nine Mile.  This route was originally used by the old [G] light rail line operating from Lincoln to Nine Mile but was discontinued due to low ridership and budget cuts.  The upper half of the [R] Line will be a new line running along most of Interstate 225 and going right through Aurora Town Center.  This line will connect with the University of Colorado [A] Line at Peoria Station.  The [R] Line will open for service by the end of the year.  Because the Nine Mile Station will no longer be the last stop on the line, [H] Line trains cannot return to the city from this station due to track constraints and therefore will be extended to at least Florida Station, where there will be possibly a pocket track for [H] trains to terminate.

Rouding out the Top 5…

1.  King County Metro RapidRide and RapidRide+

Seattle is an interesting transit city, one of the most underrated transit cities in the United States.  There is so much going on here that it’s almost a crime to ignore any of it.

Seattle has 6 bus rapid transit corridors in their RapidRide system.  RapidRide is Seattle’s street-level BRT created in 2010 to improve service along major corridors in the King County Metro service area.  This is not to be confused with the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), originally called the Seattle Bus Tunnel, which has a dozen or so bus routes that operate out to north, east, and south County towns such as  Renton, Kirkland, Bellevue, and Northgate.  The Bus Tunnel is Seattle’s first BRT, which opened in the 1990s with dual-powered buses to allow for pollution-free bus service in the tunnel while operating on diesel fuel outside of the tunnel.  The RapidRide system is meant to improve service in certain high-ridership corridors that may not necessarily run downtown.  This system operates by allowing riders with ORCA smart cards (One Regional Card for All) to tap their cards at station readers located at busy stations instead of paying on the bus like current cash users.  This allows the amount of time spend at bus stops to be reduced and keeps buses moving.  Most major RapidRide bus stops are converted into stations with large bus shelters and tap card readers, while minor stops simply have RapidRide poles.  At minor stops, everyone pays at the front of the bus.  On most corridors, the RapidRide replaces local bus service and consolidates lightly used minor stops into RapidRide stops.  All RapidRide buses are red 60-foot hybrid-electric buses with three doors for entry and exit, unlike the typical green, teal, and purple two-door 60-foot buses on standard bus lines.

The (A) line runs along International Blvd between Tukwila International Blvd Link Light Rail Station and Federal Way Transit Center.  It replaced the lower half of the #174 bus.  It is the only service on this section of International Blvd.  The (B) Line runs between Bellevue and Kirkland, replacing the #230 and #253 buses.  The (C) Line runs between West Seattle and Downtown Seattle, replacing the #54 bus, while the (D) Line runs between Uptown, Ballard, and Downtown Seattle, replacing the #15 and #18 buses.  The (E) Line runs between Shoreline and Seattle, replacing the #358 bus, and the (F) Line runs between Renton and Burien, replacing the #110 and #140 buses.

All 6 lines have enhanced stations at major intersections and other locations, but they lack bus lanes and transit signal priority (though the (E) Line has Business Access and Transit Lines, or BATs, along Aurora Avenue).  They lack full proof-of-payment amenities that systems like New York’s Select Bus Service or Los Angeles’ Orange Line use such as ticket machines at every stop.  The Seattle Department of Transportation and King County Metro are looking at ways to operate bus rapid transit with the extra bells and whistles within the BRT toolbox, yet they aren’t looking at upgrading the current RapidRide network.  Rather, they are looking at creating new corridors with more BRT features than RapidRide, and they intend to call it RapidRide+, with five-door 60-foot hybrid-electric buses or even trolleybuses for access to left-side and right-side bus stops, dedicated bus lanes, longer stop spacing, and even better frequencies than the RapidRide corridors.  RapidRide+ is a system by itself that complements RapidRide (rather than replaces RapidRide) and will transform Seattle even more than it has been since the introduction of its streetcar network and its Link Light Rail system.  The city is looking at creating up to 7 of these RapidRide+ corridors, one of which will operate from Downtown Seattle to the Central District along Madison Street, and another from Downtown Seattle to Roosevelt (and eventually Northgate) via Eastlake, Lakeview, and Fairview Avenues.  The Madison corridor will serve the Central District, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in Seattle, and the Roosevelt corridor will serve University of Washington students.  These two important corridors and their implementation will set the precedent for the other 5 corridors and will allow 3/4 of Seattle residents to have a 10-minute walk to service with a frequency of 10 minutes or better, between streetcar, Link Light Rail, and RapidRide/RapidRide+ service.

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