Thursday, June 07, 2007

Does below ground = heavy rail?

Reprinted from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space
Light Rail in Barcelona
Trail plus light rail in Barcelona. Photo by John Norquist.

There are a couple reasons why current transit proposals in the region are for the most part not heavy rail, and above-ground. (1) Heavy rail costs 10 times more to construct than light rail. (2) Tunneling is exorbitant -- $400 million per mile. (3) The Federal Government is promoting bus rapid transit over heavy rail because of (1) and (2)--and because Republican administrations tend to hate heavy rail transit and public transit generally.

(Note that while people talk about how places like Curitiba, Bogota, and Santiago have great ridership numbers with bus rapid transit systems--ridership numbers that compete with heavy rail numbers, the reality is that the riders tolerate much higher bus utilization densities that are tolerated in the U.S. Twice as many riders ride a 60 foot long articulated bus in Santiago or Bogota, as many as 160 people, compared to a similar bus in the U.S. Plus, people who are poorer need the transit. In the U.S., people with mobility choices are less likely to tolerate such conditions. Note that I don't know why bus fares can be so much cheaper in South America.)
X2 bus on H Street NE
60 foot long articulated bus on H Street NE. Photo by Elise Bernard. Actually this route is the #4 bus line in the city in terms of ridership, with a ridership 40% greater than any Metrobus in Maryland or Virginia.

Plus the local jurisdictions, other than the Dulles Corridor project, don't necessarily have the money to move heavy rail forward.

That's why DC totally chickened out over the proposed separated blue line proposal, even though the reality is that DC's continued economic competitiveness and competitive advantage is based upon strengthening mobility in the core of the city.
Proposed changes for the WMATA system, 2001
Proposed separated blue line subway in DC, 2001. Washington Post graphic.

Washcycle calls our attention to an article from WTOP on this issue, "Will Purple Line be Above or Below Ground?" Two good quotes, from Royce Hanson of the Montgomery County Planning Board, and Governor O'Malley. From the article:

As studies ramp up on the proposed Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda to New Carrollton, transportation officials seem to be looking much more toward the below ground option.

Royce Hanson, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, talked to the Maryland Transportation Authority about it.

"Right now they are doing an alignment study, looking at where the line should go exactly and determining how much of it should be a tunnel or on the surface. And, they are placing a lot more emphasis on tunneling than they had in the past," he says.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley would seem to agree with that assessment. He recently gave a speech to transportation officials asking, "Could you imagine if people 30 or 40 years ago had said, 'We want to build a Metro system, but it all has to be above ground and it can only be fast bus.' What kind of region would we have?"
Crowds on the subway, Washington, DC
Metro Center subway station. AFP photo by Karen Bleier.

Washcycle's blog entry on ill-considered writing-thinking against the Purple Line is pretty good too. See "Purple Line: Too Close for Comfort?"

It's a tough issue. I don't know the area that the proposed Purple Line would travel well enough to figure out light rail vs. heavy rail. I don't think the potential ridership is there for the expense of heavy rail. OTOH, heavy rail, because it's much faster would have higher ridership. However, the long term value comes from intensification of land use along the rail corridor. And it makes sense to have one heavy rail system rather than a plethora of heavy and light rail systems.

For a Maryland example, compare the use of land and heavy intensification around the Prince George's Plaza Metro station versus the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard. Note that the PG Plaza area was intensely developed in comparison decades before the Metro was on the scene, which was written up in the current special supplement "On Site" to the Washington Business Journal.
Trans-Milenio photo from Flickr photographer adimcm. This is also a 60' bus. The photo page has an interesting write-up including a link to a conference about BRT.



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