As Coronavirus Quiets Streets, Some Cities Speed Road and Transit Fixes

Eerie drone footage, dispersed block parties, unobstructed wildlife wanderings: The empty streets of the coronavirus era have given rise to all manner of creative applications. They’re also being put to practical use, with several U.S. cities seizing the opportunity to accelerate improvements to their transportation systems.

Los Angeles, where traffic levels have dropped 60% under shelter-in-place orders, may be the most prominent example. On March 31, the Beverly Hills City Council voted to approve a full temporary closure of a segment of Wilshire Boulevard, allowing the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to expedite pile installation and the construction of a new concrete street deck on phase two of the extension of the L.A. Metro’s Purple Line into the heart of Beverly Hills.

For years, the $2.4 billion subway plan, which is slated for completion in 2025, has faced fierce opposition from residents in the tony community. While multiple lawsuits against L.A. Metro are still ongoing, Beverly Hills leaders appear to have for the moment set aside their differences out of interest in the local economy. The decision “will help us minimize future construction impacts to local businesses as they struggle to overcome the impacts of the Covid-19 health crisis,” Dave Sotero, the communications manager for L.A. Metro, said in a statement.

Reno is also taking advantage of the zeroed-out traffic to hasten work on the Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension Project, an $87 million plan to improve pedestrian access in the city’s core and extend an express bus line to the local University of Nevada campus. That involves shutting down and completely overhauling a half-mile stretch of of Virginia Street, which doubles as U.S. Highway 395, through the heart of the city. The closure extends through Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s shelter-in-place order, which currently lasts through the end of April.

Shutting down the street all at once, rather than in segments over time, should mean construction on the midtown segment will wrap up about six weeks earlier than planned, says Jeff Wilbrecht, a project manager at the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County. His back-of-the-envelope estimate is that the time savings could reduce 25% to 30% of the cost of this phase of the project. Right now, sidewalks and rerouted bus lines are still accessible, but Virginia Street “feels like the Wild West, with how barren and vacant and torn to dirt it is,” Wilbrecht said.

Road, highway, and bridge construction is likewise pressing forward in Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, and across the Washington, D.C., region.

Idled transit lines around the U.S. are getting a boost, too. In San Francisco, a labor shortage and massive ridership drop has forced the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to suspend transit service to all but just 17 “core” bus lines. The upside: Track maintenance on Muni rail lines can now happen virtually unimpeded. Bay Area Rapid Transit, which moved closing time from midnight to 9 p.m. after losing 92% of its passengers, is spending the extra time and staff replacing rails and cables, shoring up leaky tunnels, and sprucing up stations. “That’s all work that had been on a certain timeline, and now we can put labor into it quicker,” said Alicia Trost, the chief communications officer for BART, on a recent podcast.  

What about the risks to all the workers performing this construction and repair work? Communications staff for all agencies said that these jobs are considered “essential” under their respective shelter-in-place orders, and workers are maintaining social distancing protocols to the greatest extent possible. Still, as a recent SFMTA video shows, track maintenance can be cozy work. In Oregon, where Governor Kate Brown’s shelter-in-place orders allow for all construction to continue, workers have expressed concern for their health as their duties continue apace. One New York-based contractor recently took to the industry publication Construction Dive to call for all non-essential construction to halt.  “Forget the schedule, forget liquidated damages, forget profits,” wrote James Lang, a superintendent for a central New York State contracting firm. “These are people’s lives.”

The question also remains as to whether the infrastructure that is being built will draw as many travelers as previously expected. For example, some transportation experts speculate that lingering fears of crowding and infection will discourage the use of public transit after the pandemic ends, accelerating the pre-coronavirus downward trend in ridership. Some agencies investing in their systems now say they hope that providing better service will help entice riders back to trains and buses after the lockdowns lift and the economy reawakens.

“Hopefully we’ll see a return in ridership,” said Michael Moreno, the public affairs manager at RTC of Washoe County. “Even more importantly, we’re hoping for an increase, because we’ll be serving a new segment of the population, with university faculty and staff.”

But funding for public infrastructure projects may soon dry up, especially for transit agencies reeling from the loss of farebox and sales tax revenue. In March, Congress allocated $25 billion to public transit agencies as part of its coronavirus aid package. Without further federal support, and with a possible long-term diminishment in transit’s appeal, agencies may not be able to continue to chase riders with the financial means to choose other modes, said Kari Watkins, a professor of civil & environmental engineering who specializes in public transit at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I’m not sure what the stomach will be for this type of stuff going forward.”

Powered by WPeMatico

Britain’s Bold New Plan for High-Speed Rail

While the speed and frequency of Britain’s railways might be the envy of many North Americans, the U.K. still has some way to go before it catches up with the seamless high-speed train services of its continental European neighbors. Following an announcement Tuesday, however, that’s set to change. A controversial high-speed rail project was green-lighted by the U.K. government this week that would connect Britain’s four largest metros.

With the line’s first stage to Birmingham approved in 2017—then put on hold by the government last summer—the high-speed initiative already has a long history of controversy behind it, and has faced accusations of excessive cost and prioritizing Londoners’ needs over those of northerners. But if the project is executed right, it could nudge people away from not just the highways, but also some popular domestic flight routes.

The 330 miles of new high-speed railway, referred to as HS2 and championed yesterday by Prime Minister Johnson, would connect London with Birmingham and then go onwards in two branches to the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, on trains capable of speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. While the use of the fastest tracks all the way has not yet been fully confirmed, high-speed rail could revolutionize north-south travel in England, shaving an hour off the journey time between London and Manchester and tripling the current capacity of trains along the route.

(Marie Patino)

HS2 would only be Britain’s second high-speed link, after the Eurostar service from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Criticism of the project stretches back more than a decade.

There are several grounds for protesting the line. In a country where the capital tends to get the lion’s share of resources, many northerners have wondered why a super-fast link to London was approved before a project to improve east-west rail service between cities in Northern England, a region they believe is in more urgent need of rail improvement. Environmental protesters have also fought plans to carve the high-speed track through protected woodlands and vulnerable habitats (while nonetheless rerouting slightly to avoid a golf course). On top of this, many people have seen the ballooning budget and started to worry that the new link is little more than a state-subsidized gravy train.

There are strong arguments, nonetheless, that HS2 will deliver benefits, both to the environment and to travelers who don’t have London as their final destination. By moving long-distance north-south traffic onto the new high-speed link, the project will free up space to increase train frequency on other parts of the network, which are currently working (and just about managing) at close to capacity. And while tree-planting exercises cannot fully make up for the loss of ancient trees, the link could help to deliver massive carbon savings for the U.K.

That’s because increasing train speeds and capacity could slash road traffic and trim some air traffic, too. Train travel will become a more attractive option when the London-to-Manchester journey time almost halves, from 2 hours 8 minutes to 1 hour 8 minutes. With onward journeys on existing non-high-speed tracks to Northeast England and Scotland also shortening, train journeys from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow would also drop markedly (to three hours, 38 minutes each) if the track is built to its fullest proposed extent, encouraging more travelers onto the rails and away from what are currently popular flight routes. Some estimates suggest that HS2 could help the U.K. cut back as much as 600,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 60 years.

That savings, however, could be offset by other policy decisions. Already, there are suggestions that Prime Minister Johnson may be pushing HS2 as a means to expand Birmingham Airport as a terminal for London, a plan that would allow him to avoid an expansion of Heathrow Airport unpopular with the Conservative Party’s base in the London exurbs. That expansion might well cut into any carbon savings, but for now, the U.K.’s transit network looks set to become notably faster, slicker and cleaner.

It won’t do so in a hurry, however, and financial obstacles remain. High-speed services will, at the last estimate, start to run between London and Birmingham any time between 2028 and 2031, while services to Manchester and Leeds may not begin until as late as 2040. The cost of completion, meanwhile, could be astronomical. Government documents leaked recently suggest the budget could rise as high as 106 billion pounds ($137 billion), a huge jump from the initial 2011 estimate of 32.7 billion pounds, even if you take inflation into account. Aware of the difficulties of securing support for this kind of sum, the government is already suggesting that trains might in fact run a little slower after Birmingham, a choice that could cut costs but inflame fears that the north is still getting a raw deal.

Powered by WPeMatico

The Case for Portland-to-Vancouver High-Speed Rail

Only 175 miles separate Portland from Seattle. Then it’s another 140 miles north to Vancouver, British Columbia. The three Pacific Northwest cities, which together form the Cascadia megaregion, are currently served by Amtrak service that tops out at 79 mph, shares track with BNSF freight trains, and runs infrequently—just twice daily round-trip between Seattle and Vancouver. If you want to make the full 315-mile run from Portland to Vancouver on rails, it’s going to take you at least 8-and-a-half hours. By bus or car, expect the journey to eat up 5 or 6 hours, with metro-area traffic an unpredictable wild card that regularly balloons travel times.

But Roger Millar, Washington State’s secretary of transportation, sees a better way: a trans-national, ultra-high-speed rail line that can hit 250 mph and put the three booming cities within super-commuting range. Such a system—common in Europe and Asia but still alien to North America—might cost $50 billion or so. That sounds like a lot, but it could be a bargain compared to adding a lane to I-5, the current north-south corridor linking the megaregion.

“[For] $108 billion we’ve got another lane of pavement in each direction, and it still takes you all day to get from Portland to Vancouver,” Millar said earlier this month of a hypothetical lane-widening project. “Half of that invested in ultra-high speed rail and it’s two hours. That’s game-changing stuff.”

(Cascadia Rail)

Millar was a speaker at the Cascadia Rail Summit, which was held at Microsoft Headquarters outside Seattle in November. The event offered an opportunity to talk up a dream that has long beguiled and frustrated American train buffs—true high-speed rail. In February, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he was scaling back that state’s high-speed rail ambitions, which have faced an array of political and technical challenges since the plan to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco was conceived in the 1990s. In addition to California’s star-crossed effort, the Texas Central Railway, a privately funded scheme to connect Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style bullet train, continues to gather momentum, despite ongoing political resistance. Now attention is shifting north to a trio of cities that seem to have the right ingredients for high-speed train service: strong economies, short distances, committed political leaders, and private-sector encouragement.

“The biggest thing that it takes to get these moving is good leadership, and they have that like I haven’t seen anywhere else in the country,” U.S. High Speed Rail Association president and CEO Andy Kunz told CityLab.

Poor connectivity between Cascadia’s metropolitan regions has long been a major bugaboo for Microsoft president Brad Smith. The company is headquartered in a Seattle suburb that’s soon to be stitched together with the regional light rail system. Microsoft donated $300,000 to the successful 2016 ballot initiative to expand the transit network, known as Sound Transit. The company runs a fleet of shuttle buses for employees, but has acknowledged that the buses are only a stop-gap solution.

Three years ago, Smith pulled together business and political leaders from Washington and British Columbia and conjured the so-called Cascadia Innovation Corridor out of thin air with a debut conference in Vancouver, where Microsoft has recently increased its footprint. At that inaugural event, Smith called for seaplane service between Seattle’s Lake Union and Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, indicating that Microsoft would happily book its employees on the downtown-to-downtown flights. Less than two years later, the “nerd bird” has become quite possibly the world’s most scenic way to reach a business meeting.

Smith also broached the idea of high-speed rail, with the support of Washington Governor Jay Inslee and then-British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. (Clark’s successor, John Hogan, has signed subsequent MOUs with Inslee.) While a bullet train represents a far more ambitious transportation undertaking than a seaplane service, the seemingly pie-in-the-sky proposal has covered a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time.

In 2017, the Washington legislature allocated $300,000 to fund a feasibility study that evaluated steel-on-steel, maglev, and hyperloop options; it estimated an upfront construction cost of $24 to $42 billion. In 2018, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia collectively chipped in over $1 million for a business case study, which predicted that a bullet train could deliver $355 billion in regional economic growth. With up to 3 million annual trips by 2040, the study said the line could be one of the highest-performing intercity trains in North America. In 2019, the Washington legislature approved another nearly $900,000 to study the creation of a Cascadia High-Speed Rail Authority.

Kunz compared the short three-year gestation of Cascadia High-Speed Rail to the far longer saga of California High-Speed Rail, where an authority was first established in 1996, and the business plan first prepared in 2000 has been revised five times. “The whole thing is very accelerated,” he said.

Parts of any proposed route will run into Oregon and British Columbia, facing major geographic and jurisdictional hurdles between the Columbia River and the U.S.-Canada border, respectively. The bulk of the line would be located in Washington, and the proposal’s biggest boosters are in the Evergreen State, too. Besides Inslee, who briefly ran for president on a climate action platform and is likely to win a third term as Washington governor, and Microsoft, which has prodded the process along by funding studies and hosting splashy events like the rail summit, there is a third winning pillar in the state’s DOT head. Millar is a transit-first guy who previously worked on Portland’s streetcar network, lauded as the most successful in the country, and made waves when he told a national association of highway officials that building highway capacity to reduce traffic is a fool’s errand.

He’s signaled his eagerness to advance a non-highway megaproject for his state. “We have $200 billion worth of stuff that we own in Washington State, and we’ve spent all of our energy adding to the lane capacity of one mode—and it hasn’t worked,” Millar told CityLab.

While such talk has long been accepted by planners, hearing it from public officials is still a striking deviation from highway orthodoxy. “It’s a rare progressive DOT secretary talking about how building more roads to solve congestion doesn’t really work,” Kunz said. “You have the trifecta of governor, transportation, and corporate leadership.”

The Cascadia Rail Summit took place in Microsoft’s Building 92, home to the software giant’s flashy visitor center. Immersive Xbox gaming, artificial intelligence exhibits, and a company store to rival any pro sports team lent an appropriately techno-futurist sheen to the proceedings. The attendees—a mix of local elected officials, engineering consultants, city planners, real estate developers, transit agency representatives, and urbanist advocacy groups—watched videos of French TGVs breaking speed records, Japanese shinkansen bullet trains operating with military precision, and cheeky British train-vs.-plane ads, all designed to emphasize how this mode can compete with short-hop air travel. Representatives from rail companies like Alstom, Siemens, and SNCF were also on hand to share how many trains they have built and are operating across the world, if only the U.S. could finally get in the game.

Spanish train maker Talgo knows the local score better than anyone. In 1994, the Washington Department of Transportation awarded Talgo a contract to provide rolling stock for the Amtrak Cascades service, the current not-so-high-speed train that runs from Eugene, Oregon, north to Vancouver. Talgo has had a Seattle office and maintenance facility ever since, where it assembled the art-deco-inspired railcars and fixes up trains from around the country. Talgo CEO Antonio Perez seemed to toss a bit of cold water on Kunz’s optimism. “These studies are very general and preliminary, with no funding attached,” he said of the Cascadia high-speed rail proposal.

Things are very different in his native Spain, where the 2,000-plus-mile AVE system—the largest high-speed rail network in Europe—has has been built from scratch since the 1990s. “In Spain, the train is never questioned. Success breeds success, and politicians want to be associated with success. They compete over who can deliver more kilometers,” Perez said. “It’s very difficult in the U.S. to execute, because decision-making is very slow and inefficient and there is so much polarization.”

As Perez points out, the Cascadia bullet train is still at a very early stage. And the region’s rail fans were just dealt a stinging blow in November, thanks to a ballot measure to reduce car registration fees that slashed statewide transportation funding. There was some consensus that a public-private partnership is the most viable path forward to finance the multibillion-dollar project, though Washington State has some funding-related quirks to overcome, like its severely limited authority to use tax increment financing.

Neil Peterson, who ran the Seattle region’s transit agency in the 1970s and now works as a private consultant, argued for an expansive notion of value capture to build the rail line. “Historically when we think about land value capture, we think about land development only,” he told CityLab. “The reality is, there are so many people and organizations that would benefit from this kind of an investment.” For example, he argued that the Seattle Mariners baseball team should be included in a value capture scheme, because high-speed rail service could expand the team’s fan base to a much larger area, even if the public and not the franchise own the ballpark.

Other critical details, like station locations and alignments, also remain to be worked out. The Cascadia participants were skeptical of Texas Central’s scheme to place stations on the outskirts of downtowns, rather than delivering passengers into the heart of the two cities. But the Cascadia Rail proposal is faced with similar dilemmas, as the business case study outlines some scenarios that would see the train pass through the Seattle region via the east side cities of Redmond and Bellevue rather than entering the Emerald City proper.

In Canada, meanwhile, the train’s route could terminate in Surrey, a suburb connected to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland region by SkyTrain elevated rail service. But Metro Vancouver leaders greeted the study coolly in July, arguing that they have plenty of regional mass transit priorities ahead of a high-speed intercity line. There are models out there of successful border-spanning supertrains—see the London-to-Paris Eurostar service—but the international governance and funding issues definitely add an extra set of complications. Indeed, innumerable barriers remain, says Dave Warner, Pacific Northwest manager for consultancy WSP, which drafted the business case study. “We’re faced with more questions than answers.”

Millar maintained his optimism, however. “High-speed rail works in Europe, it works in Asia, and it could work here,” he said. “There have been awful attempts at it around the country. We in the Northwest have the capacity to do it right, if the vision is there and we go about it the right away.”

Powered by WPeMatico