Light at the end of the tunnel for commuter rail funding?

Fri, 2015-08-21 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Some cities have used commuter rail for nearly four decades to help get people to their destinations. In some places, it’s working quite well. But are people willing to pay for more? Phoenix, Arizona, is one of the cities about to find out as it asks voters to approve a massive tax package to expand its young system, one of the smallest for cities of its size.

And Phoenix isn’t alone. A number of other cities and regional agencies are trying to build upon their successes to come up with expansion and replacement projects that people will not only want, but will want to pay for.

Small line makes big difference
Commuter rail in Phoenix started running only in 2008 and is proof that size doesn’t matter. Of cities with similar populations and housing and business densities, it has the smallest line. But it has also been wildly successful; it has already reached the ridership milestone it had forecast for 2020.

Phoenix’s Valley Metro Rail carried more than 14 million passengers in 2012, nearly half as many as San Diego’s system did. And San Diego’s system is more than twice as large and has been running since 1981. Phoenix also carried about half as many commuters as the system in Dallas did, but that system is four times larger.

The city has learned that it’s not necessarily about how far the line goes, it’s about where it goes. College campuses are well-serviced; one out of three students use it. More sports fans are also using it to get to games.

Will people pay for success?
Based on that success, Phoenix wants voters to nearly double the portion of the sales tax they are already paying for transportation projects. It’s a three-tenths of a percent hike that’s expected to bring in more than $30 billion over the next 35 years.

Even with the success of its light rail system so far, the plan to triple the length of its system actually seems to be the most contentious part of the package. Some business leaders are among those pushing for it, saying the existing line has already generated $8 billion of economic development, and it follows that an expansion would generate more and improve the city’s vitality. One political group, however, says the investment simply isn’t worth it.

No more trips on the “hell train”
In Maryland, the problem has been one of reliability. Some of its electric locomotives are already nearing the end of their 30-year life span, but even some that are half that old are already out of service more than they are in. One, later dubbed the “hell train,” broke down five years ago stranding commuters in 100-degree heat for more than two hours.

The Maryland Transit Administration wants to replace all the old electric locomotives with new diesel locomotives from Council Associate Partner Siemens, but money is always a concern. While commuters are likely willing to pay more to ensure they’ll never have another trip on the “hell train,” the agency has been working to find a way to bring the cost down.

The MTA wants to piggyback on a contract from Illinois, which is also buying Siemens locomotives. The partnership would allow both to qualify for a volume discount, bringing the MTA’s investment down to $58 million.

Improving passenger comfort
Passenger comfort is one of the priorities for several other light rail agencies. To get the public on board for its light rail replacement project, San Francisco went so far as to install one of the proposed new cars downtown so citizens could see it for themselves and provide feedback.

Its new light rail car, also designed by Siemens, is primarily intended to reduce energy consumption and reduce maintenance costs. New technology reclaims energy from the car’s brakes; the interior is lit with energy-efficient LEDs. But passenger comfort was also an important consideration. Based on the feedback it got from the public demo, the agency will change the seating configuration, among other things.

In Switzerland, new light rail cars from Council Associate Partner ABB will soon give passengers more room. The new cars have a low floor, even though the electric propulsion system is under the floor, improving passenger comfort. They will start running in 2017 between Frankfurt, Zurich and Milan.


Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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