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Archive for the ‘transit’ Category

How BART does belt-tightening

Pity poor Cubic. The defense contractor spends years lobbying for a $200 million faregate contract, only to have the pandemic upend the budget at BART. With billion dollar deficits, it would be crazy for BART to do a new faregate project…or not:

BART expects ridership won’t be close to rebounding to pre-pandemic levels for years and is grappling with “a crisis without precedent in our history,” the transit agency’s staff told its board Thursday. The pandemic is expected to cost the train system more than $1 billion in revenue losses through fiscal year 2022.

Board directors said Thursday that they want to see possible scenarios about which service could be brought back when depending on returning ridership…Director Liz Ames said she would like more investment in capital projects. She stressed moving forward on new, more secure fare gates which aren’t yet fully funded. General Manager Bob Powers said fare gates are a high priority. Director Debora Allen said “safe, clean, affordable transit” will get people back the fastest. She pushed for new fare gates and more police enforcement.

Service has been reduced almost by half, and they’re worried about whether Cubic gets their cut.

New faregates will not prevent anyone from going through the emergency exit

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COVID-19 has slammed the Portland WES commuter rail service, with ridership down 75%. But even before the pandemic, the service was struggling due to poor service and sky-high operating costs:

Since its inception, WES has seen operating costs per passenger dip slightly then rise dramatically. In fiscal year 2019, WES cost Trimet $19.75 per passenger. The operating cost per rider jumped to $27.39 in fiscal year 2020 before skyrocketing to $91.15 during the first six months of fiscal year 2021.

When comparing the cost of operating WES versus TriMet’s other services like light rail and bus, it’s not even close. In December 2020, the operation costs per rider for WES was $108, compared to $9.32 for MAX light rail and $9.82 for bus service.

TriMet said the commuter rail is always more expensive because it requires two people to operate – an engineer and a conductor – compared to other types of transit, like bus and light rail, which require only one operator.

Conductors are an anachronism, as demonstrated by the gazillions of DMU services doing one-man operation. Given their dire financial condition, it is incredible that WES has not eliminated the position.

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There is way too much parking at Denver RTD “transit” oriented developments. That is the conclusion of a new report:

In late 2019 and early 2020, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) of Metro Denver, Colorado, surveyed property managers, counted parking supply and demand, and analyzed findings from 86 station-area developments. Per RTD’s analysis of peak parking demand, market-rate properties provide 40 percent more parking than residents use, and income-restricted properties provide 50 percent more parking than residents use.

Providing an excessive amount of parking at station-area properties across Metro Denver affects residents’ welfare and the economic vitality of the region, which the State of Colorado enabled RTD to promote. As parking increases development costs, developers pass on costs to residents – particularly low-income residents – in the forms of higher rent, fewer units, and reduced services. In aggregate, increased costs for unnecessary parking contribute to a higher cost of living across Metro Denver, which recently experienced the second greatest rate of gentrification in the country. From the perspective of the transit agency, which particularly benefits from the patronage of low-income passengers, fewer income-restricted units near existing service threatens the agency’s fiscal solvency and satisfaction of its mandate.

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The timing would have been fortuitous. Had the VTA simply stuck with its original cut-cover tunnel plans for BART phase-2, then some of the most disruptive construction might have occurred during the COVID shutdown.

As most know, the BART phase-2 tunnel was originally planned as conventional cut-cover, and considerable engineering work had been done on that design. But the cut-cover plan was derailed when San Jose demanded a more complicated deep-bore design. This led to years of delays (not to mention billions in cost overruns).

The reason for the unusual demand was to reduce disruption of local business. Those businesses have now been destroyed anyway by COVID — so all the extra tunnel expense was for nothing. Downtown San Jose will now get a double whammy: COVID followed by BART construction. This was probably not the outcome they were expecting.

One can imagine in some alternate universe that the VTA took advantage of the COVID shutdown to expedite construction. While the pandemic was not predictable, any major delay in the planning pipeline reduces flexibility in construction scheduling. Compare to the controversy over the LACMTA Purple line extension through Beverly Hills. Rather than give in to irrational demands, the LACMTA stuck with original plans, and then expedited that plan when COVID hit.

Project schedule as of July 2016

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Nobody wants to be a bag-holder:

Fortress Investment Group delayed the pricing of $3.2 billion of municipal bonds to build a passenger railroad between southern California and Las Vegas, a sign that investors were hesitant to finance such a speculative project at a time of deep economic uncertainty.

Lead underwriter Morgan Stanley had planned to price the deal Wednesday, according to a pricing wire viewed by Bloomberg. The offering has now been postponed with no new date set.

Brightline has until Dec. 1 to sell the bonds to meet a deadline from California officials, who had granted the company the ability to sell tax-exempt debt. In September, Brightline sold $1 billion in short-term securities to preserve its federal allocation of so-called private activity bonds that it will refinance next year, according to offering documents.

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What can be more absurd than spending $150 million on a faregate scam when the BART budget is in free fall? And yet the EB Times still calls Allen a “fiscal conservative”.

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Denver’s RTD A-line operates between downtown Denver and the Denver International Airport. The line was built as an FRA-compliant service, which was predictably a huge mistake. In this case, the problem wasn’t so much with unreliable tank-like trains but rather FRA shenanigans over the grade-crossings.

Grade-crossings are a simple technology. The gate must come down with sufficient warning to give motorists time to stop. By law, this lead time has to be at least 20 seconds:

A highway-rail grade crossing warning system shall be maintained to activate in accordance with the design of the warning system, but in no event shall it provide less than 20 seconds warning time for the normal operation of through trains before the grade crossing is occupied by rail traffic.

49 CFR Part 234.225

Even though the RTD A-line complied with FRA Section 225 requirement, RTD was cited for noncompliance because, according to the FRA, the gates occasionally had excessively long warning times. The FRA would permit at most 15 seconds additional warning time. How or where the FRA came up with this “excessively long” metric is unclear.

In the view of the FRA, gates with excessive downtime will tempt impatient motorists to drive around the gates. It should be noted that these were four-quadrant gates with center medians, so it would take a very determined motorist to do that.

The FRA did give a temporary waiver to RTD to open the line, but only if flaggers were stationed at each and every grade crossing until the “problem” was fixed. In the meantime, Denver RTD and its contractor fiddled with the software to try reducing variation in gate downtime.

Denver RTD contractor spent over two years adjusting the software but could not meet the FRA demands. The reason for this “failure” had nothing to do with the software — the variation in gate downtime was due entirely to conditions outside the control of the system. Once an approaching train activated the warning signal, there is no going back. If the train operator slows the train for safety reasons (i.e. poor visibility or possible hazard ahead), there is no way to recall the signal. No amount of software hacking can fix this basic issue.

Communication between the FRA and RTD contractors became increasingly acrimonious (the letters can be reviewed under docket FRA-2016-0028). The FRA was accused of enforcing unrealistic and nonexistent regulations, and the FRA replied that it would shut down the line if the problem wasn’t fixed. Meanwhile, Denver RTD was paying a lot of money to have flaggers standing around, and the future of the RTD “G” line was in doubt, as it used the same systems.

Things finally came to a head when Aaron Marx, a train signal expert working on the project, was sent around the country to measure gate downtimes on other commuter railroads (including Caltrain and Amtrak/ACE in the Bay Area) as well as UP freight lines. His extensive data showed that the RTD A-line actually had far better gate downtime variation than every other rail line he looked at.

Gate crossing raw data

The FRA had now backed itself into a corner. If it was going to shut down RTD A-line then logically every other rail system with crossing gates would have to be closed too. The FRA relented, and the matter dropped. The issue now is who pays the bill for those flaggers:

Denver Transit Partners, the contractor that built, maintains and operates most of the Regional Transportation District’s commuter rail lines, has upped the amount of money it’s seeking in a legal battle that will go to trial next month. The new figure is $111 million, $31 million higher than the company’s previous estimate from late 2018.

RTD, which has countersued the company, is seeking $27 million in damages, according to a court document filed this week. The dispute between the two entities centers over crossing gate issues that plagued the otherwise mostly successful A Line to Denver International Airport for years, and kept the G Line to Arvada from opening until 2019.

The FRA is not a defendant in the lawsuit, even though they were the ones who caused the problem in the first place.

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MBTA looks at EMU offerings

Here is an RFI update from MBTA, for a proposed EMU upgrade of their commuter rail:

2020-06-15-fmcb-K-EMU-RFI-update

There is “no consensus” on whether to use lightweight trains vs. FRA-compliant tank-trains.

 

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Anaheim has its $200 million ‘ARTIC’ station. San Francisco has its $2+ billion Transbay Terminal. But the award for most expensive and useless intermodal station project will surely go to San Jose, for its $10 billion (yes with a “b”) Dirion makeover.

There is a lot that can be said about problems with the project, but this one picture from a recent presentation sums it up:

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 7.07.16 PM

The Caltrain/HSR platforms are on the elevated structure, and the VTA LRT stop is proposed to be re-located underground. Note that the layout we have today has both the LRT and Caltrain platforms at-grade alongside each other. So after spending $10 billion, they’ve made the transfer worse — even though convenient “intermodal” transfers was a design goal. With the Caltrain tracks elevated above grade, it would be simple to continue the LRT line at-grade through the station area, with a stop directly at a station entrance (preferably the north concourse side on Santa Clara St).

What’s bizarre is that a group of stakeholders were sent on a junket to study European train stations, including this one in Rotterdam –which as you can see has the trams located at-grade directly outside the station:

Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 7.18.38 PM

 

 

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Blood on their hands

It was 1 decade ago that Berkeley City Council canceled the AC Transit BRT project, a decision which generated nationwide ridicule. Councilmember Robinson is trying to revive the project, and asked council to reverse the decision. This may be just virtue signaling (Berkeley routinely passes meaningless proclamations), but we’ll see:

Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.09.56 PM

The 2010 AC Transit BRT project was much more than bus lanes — it was a Complete Street makeover with left-turn pockets, bike lanes, and crosswalk fixes to make Telegraph safer for all road users.

From 2010 until 2018 (the last year data is available) the CHP SWITRS database records a whopping 216 injuries on Berkeley’s portion of Telegraph Ave. How many of those injuries could have been prevented had the BRT project been built? Well, we can look to Oakland where a road-diet along its portion of Telegraph reduced total injuries by 40%. Oakland DOT also reports that their Telegraph improvements accomplished a Vision-Zero milestone: no pedestrian collisions in crosswalks. By contrast, Berkeley’s section of Telegraph had 54 pedestrian injuries in the years 2010-2018.

Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.28.14 PM

Injury collisions (all types)

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