Special Features

Image Libraries

Blog
Elevated supertrain for 1/3 the cost of light rail? Yeah right

A startup maglev manufacturer that’s never built a functioning transit system is stirring up controversy in Virginia Beach, claiming they can build a levitating, elevated high speed maglev from Norfolk to Virginia Beach for 1/3 the cost of surface light rail.

Yeah right. And if you believe that, they can probably sell Hampton Roads a couple of bridges, too.


Unfinished maglev at Old Dominion University. Photo by withvengeance86 on flickr.

Elevated rail is more expensive than surface rail. New technologies are more expensive than proven ones, and maglev in particular (on which trains levitate above a magnetic field rather than glide on tracks) has been super expensive wherever built. And since Norfolk already has light rail, you’d be forcing a transfer unnecessarily.

Oh, and this same company tried to build a maglev at Old Dominion University in Norfolk years ago, and never finished.

This is all reminiscent of the California hyperloop proposal. They’re both completely unrealistic, almost certainly built on either faulty assumptions or outright lies, and serve no purpose but to strip support away from actually practical transit options.

I hate to be a closed minded curmudgeon. Maglev trains are cool and can work. Absent the claim that this could be done for 1/3 the cost of light rail, it might be worth exploring. But we have enough experience with other maglev proposals to know this one smells fishy.

March 4th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: lightrail, transportation



Europe’s real streetcar lesson: Context matters

In the ongoing debate about where and when to build streetcars, the topic of whether they should run in mixed-traffic or dedicated lanes is a major point of contention. But outside the ivory tower of the blogosphere, it’s not an ideological question so much as a contextual one.


Like many cities, Portland builds both.

Virtually all transit advocates agree that both rail and buses run better when you give them a dedicated right of way. But since real life isn’t SimCity, cities only dedicate space to transit where the geographic and political context allows.

For most cities, that means dedicated transitways sometimes, and mixed-traffic others.

But Stephen Smith, who blogs at Next City and Market Urbanism, has made it a point to categorically attack mixed-traffic streetcars:

Smith admits that Europe does build mixed-traffic streetcars, but argues theirs usually have fewer and shorter mixed-traffic segments.

While the lines Malouff mentioned do at times travel in lanes with cars, these segments are, with one exception, very short.

That’s true. It’s because European cities are starting from a stronger transit context than most US cities. Many of them still run their original mixed-traffic trolley networks, so they don’t need to build those now. Meanwhile, with such convenient transit networks already in place, taking lanes from cars is more politically palatable.

Yet still, Stephen admits that European cities use mixed-traffic when the context is appropriate.

Of course that’s what they do. That’s what US cities do too. That’s what everyone does.

That’s why DC’s east-west streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on H Street but will have a dedicated transitway downtown, why Arlington’s streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Columbia Pike but in a transitway in Potomac Yard, and why Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar runs in mixed-traffic on Westlake Avenue but in a transitway on Valley Street.

Context is why Tacoma and Houston have transitway streetcars, while Tucson and Atlanta will have the exact same vehicle models running in mixed-traffic. It’s why Salt Lake City’s “light rail” sometimes runs in the street, while its “streetcar” runs in an old freight corridor. And it’s why Portland runs a mixed-traffic streetcar line and a dedicated-lane light rail one on perpendicular streets through the same intersection.

And it’s why half the cities in Europe run a combination of mixed and dedicated trams.

That isn’t an argument for or against mixed-traffic streetcars, nor for or against BRT, nor for or against anything. It’s an admission that everyone builds the best thing they can based on the circumstances of where they are, who they are, and what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s an admission that context matters, and we all make decisions based on real world constraints and opportunities rather than black and white dogma.

Don’t use hypothetical perfects to ruin real life goods

Smith is right that every streetcar line in America that’s planned to run in mixed-traffic would be better if it had a transitway. Every one. In the places where dedicated lanes aren’t proposed, it’s totally appropriate to ask why not, and advocate for their inclusion. Transit advocates should absolutely be doing that.

But if we don’t get everything we want, we need not take our ball and go home. There are plenty of benefits to streetcars besides where they run, plenty of room for meaningful transit improvements even without a lane.

Sometimes there’s a good reason for running in mixed-traffic. Probably not as often as it actually happens, but sometimes. For example on Columbia Pike, where Arlington is prohibited from taking lanes.

Even if the only reason is political, as it seems to be in Cincinnati, some places face such a monumental uphill battle to get anything transit-related done, even a single mixed-traffic streetcar can raise regional transit ridership by almost 10%. That’s a huge victory in a place where holding out for something perfect would likely kill the project completely.

What transit advocates shouldn’t be doing is falsely claiming that nobody except misguided Americans builds streetcars. It’s not true and it’s not helpful. Broad brush attacks lead others to pen bogus anti-rail screeds with misleading information.

So by all means, let’s do more to fight for transitways. But in our attempts to do so, let’s not tear down the places that for whatever reason are merely capable of making good investments instead of perfect ones.

For the record, the same argument is true for BRT. Sometimes it’s the right answer, even though BRT creep, where costly transit features are stripped away to save money, is often a problem.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

January 29th, 2014 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: lightrail, streetcar, transportation



All northeast US passenger rail on one awesome map

This map shows every Amtrak, commuter rail, metro, light rail, and tourist rail line from Maine to North Carolina, to scale.

It comes from NortheastRailMap.com, and you can even download it in a fully-editable Adobe Illustrator format.


Image from NortheastRailMap.com.

Update: The map’s author has requested that you “like” their page on Facebook. Please help them out and do that!

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

November 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, intercity, lightrail, maps, metrorail, streetcar, transportation



Notes from Seattle: The subway

I’m in Seattle this week for the Railvolution conference, along with about half of GGW’s editorial team. Since I’ll be too busy geeking out at transit nerd nirvana to blog, each day this week there will be a brief post about some cool transportation-related thing here in Seattle. Today: Their unique bus/rail subway.

The Seattle Transit Tunnel is a 5-station subway that forms the core of Seattle’s transit network. It started off as a bus-only subway, but became a joint bus/rail tunnel when Seattle’s Central Link light rail line opened in 2009.

Each station is different, but one, Pioneer Square, would look particularly at home in DC:


Pioneer Square subway station.

Tomorrow: The famous Monorail.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

October 21st, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, lightrail, transportation



Montgomery rethinks Bethesda Purple Line station

The Bethesda Purple Line station is currently planned to squeeze into an existing tunnel below Bethesda’s Apex Building. But planners are now considering an alternate plan to tear down the Apex Building and redevelop the entire site.


Existing plan (top) and alternate proposal (bottom). Images by Maryland MTA.

Between Silver Spring and Bethesda the Purple Line will run on land from a former railroad line. Years ago the railroad sold the development rights above the tracks in downtown Bethesda. Now there are two buildings atop the rail corridor, the Apex Building and the Air Rights Building.

The Purple Line will pass easily under the Air Rights Building, but the Apex Building needs to accommodate a station. And while the tunnel there was designed to carry tracks, it wasn’t originally built to hold a station. The structural columns supporting the building come down into the rail tunnel, severely constraining the space.

Planners can squeeze a station in the existing space, but the result is a narrow platform crowded with building columns.


Apex Building column layout. Image by Maryland MTA.

Meanwhile, there are other problems with the existing arrangement. There’s not enough room in the tunnel for both a light rail station and a bike trail, so the trail is planned to be moved to the surface.

Also, building a subway station under the Apex Building would complicate any potential future redevelopment prospects. Since the Apex Building is only 5 stories tall, it’s already shorter than most other buildings nearby, and it will become a prime redevelopment candidate after Bethesda becomes a key Purple Line / Red Line transfer point.

Redeveloping now could solve the problem

The new proposal suggests tearing down the Apex Building, building the Purple Line station in a new custom-built trench, adding a 2nd tunnel for the trail, and then allowing the owners of the Apex Building to replace it with a bigger building.

Montgomery County is currently in talks with the owner of the building, and is working through a minor master plan amendment to determine the density and height.

If the new plan is approved, all the pieces will work together better. The Purple Line station will be simpler and more spacious, bike riders will have an uninterrupted dedicated trail, and one of the most transit-accessible properties in Montgomery County can be redeveloped at a more appropriate density.

It would be win/win/win.

As long as this doesn’t delay the rest of the Purple Line, I say let’s do it.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

September 10th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: development, lightrail, master planning, transportation, urbandesign



Denver proves Purple Line private funding can work

click to enlarge
Denver is expanding its light rail system using private partners.

Maryland Governor O’Malley is expected to announce today that the federal government has approved the Purple Line’s planning, and that Maryland will seek a private company to help pay for construction.

The idea is that a private company would pool its money together with state and federal funding to construct the Purple Line. The same company would then operate the line. In exchange, they would keep the fares, and Maryland would pay an annual contract fee.

With limited federal funds available, this type of public-private partnership is becoming common nationwide. DC is considering it for streetcars, but Denver offers a more instructive example.

In 2004, voters in Colorado passed a referendum for 122 miles of new rail transit in the Denver area. But the funding approved as part of that vote wasn’t adequate to build everything, so the transit agency had to find an alternate strategy. They’ve since approved two public-private partnerships, and are in the process of contracting a third.

Denver’s first partnership was for the Eagle P3 project, which is building 40 miles of electric commuter rail to the Denver suburbs and airport, at a cost of about $2 billion. The partnership is proceeding smoothly, with construction well underway and completion expected in 2016.

The second partnership is for a 10-mile-long suburban light rail extension. It began construction last year and is also expected to open in 2016.

The third will be for the 18-mile North commuter line. The transit agency put out a Request For Proposals in June, and is expected to select a partner company this fall.

All in all, Denver has or will soon have private partnerships to build almost 70 miles of new rail.

These deals do come with a cost. Typically the annual fee the state has to pay the partner is higher than the typical operating subsidy would be. So in essence, the operating cost is higher. But in exchange, the partner builds the line more quickly and sometimes more cheaply than the government could on its own.

Update: As expected, O’Malley announced the plan to use a partnership this afternoon. He also announced $680 million in state funds for the Purple Line, plus millions more for the Corridor Cities Transitway, Montgomery County Ride-On, and road projects.

August 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: commuterrail, funding, government, lightrail, transportation



Northern Virginia picks transportation projects to fund

click to enlarge
Almost $20 million will go to new VRE railcars.

For years, leaders in Northern Virginia have been asking Richmond to let Northern Virginia raise its own money to spend on its own transportation priorities. They are finally getting the chance.

When the Virginia General Assembly passed a broad new transportation funding bill earlier this year, it included a section for Northern Virginia to raise and allocate hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Those new taxes began rolling in on July 1, with the beginning of Virginia fiscal year 2014.

On Wednesday night, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) officially approved its first set of projects. The authority allocated about $210 million, split roughly evenly between transit and roads.

The largest projects include the Silver Line’s Innovation Center Metro station, new VRE railcars, and widenings along Route 28.

NVTA also approved a bond validation lawsuit that will preemptively ask Virginia courts to rule on NVTA’s legality. That process should take 6-9 months, and NVTA will have to wait until it’s over to actually start spending money. Taking the suit to court now means NVTA won’t have to spend years fending off other legal challenges.

The project list is shown below. For more details, see the project description sheets on NVTA’s website.

Project Funding
in millions
Location
Transit and multimodal projects
Innovation Center Metro station $41  Fairfax Co.
VRE railcars $19.8 Regional
VRE Lorton station 2nd platform  $7.9 Fairfax Co.
WMATA buses  $7  Regional
WMATA Orange Line traction power upgrades for 8-car trains  $5  Regional
DASH buses  $3.3 Alexandria
Potomac Yard Metro station environmental study  $2  Alexandria
Crystal City multimodal center bus bays  $1.5 Arlington
VRE Gainesville extension planning  $1.5 Regional
VRE Alexandria station pedestrian tunnel & platform improvements  $1.3 Alexandria
Herndon Metro station access improvements (road, bus, bike/ped)  $1.1 Fairfax Co.
ART buses  $1  Arlington
Leesburg park and ride  $1  Loudoun
Loudoun County Transit buses  $0.9 Loudoun
Route 7 Tysons-to-Alexandria transit alternatives analysis (phase 2)  $0.8 Regional
Falls Church pedestrian access to transit  $0.7 Falls Church
Duke Street transit signal priority  $0.7 Alexandria
PRTC bus  $0.6 Prince William
Alexandria bus shelters & real-time information  $0.5 Alexandria
Van Buren pedestrian bridge  $0.3 Falls Church
Falls Church bus shelters  $0.2 Falls Church
Road projects
Rt 28 – Linton Hall to Fitzwater Dr $28  Prince William
Rt 28 – Dulles to Rt 50 $20  Fairfax Co.
Belmont Ridge Road north of Dulles Greenway $20  Loudoun
Columbia Pike multimodal improvements (roadway, sidewalk, utilities) $12  Arlington
Rt 28 – McLearen to Dulles $11.1 Fairfax Co.
Rt 28 – Loudoun “hot spots”  $6.4 Loudoun
Chain Bridge Road widening  $5  Fairfax City
Boundary Channel Dr interchange  $4.3 Arlington
Rt 1 – Featherstone Rd to Mary’s Way  $3  Prince William
Edwards Ferry Rd interchange  $1  Loudoun
Herndon Parkway intersection with Van Buren St  $0.5 Fairfax Co.
Herndon Parkway intersection with Sterling Rd  $0.5 Fairfax Co.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

July 26th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: BRT, bus, commuterrail, funding, government, lightrail, metrorail, roads/cars, transportation



Baltimore’s suburban downtowns emerge as more urban

click to enlarge
Towson Row. Image from Baltimore County.

Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Arlington are some of the best suburban downtowns in America. Baltimore’s suburbs, by comparison, have lagged behind. But with large infill projects coming to Towson and Columbia, Baltimore’s most walkable suburbs may soon catch up with DC’s.

In Towson, 1500 new residential units have opened in the past 4 years, with the largest redevelopment, Towson Row, announced just last week. The change has been enough that the Maryland Transportation Administration is now considering a Towson circulator bus network.

Columbia has further to go. Towson at least has a traditional grid of streets around which to build. Columbia, by comparison, was planned in the mid-20th Century around a mall. All Towson really needs is more buildings; Columbia must be reworked from the ground up.


click to enlargeDowntown Columbia master plan. Image from Howard County.

But they are getting there, slowly. In 2010 Howard County adopted a master plan to make downtown Columbia more urban. And now, actual projects are in the works.

Developers are moving forward with a 9-story infill project after plans for a 22-story one on the same property fell through. The shorter project is actually denser. It will have 160 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail, and 130,000 square feet of office space, compared to 160 apartments, 11,000 square feet of retail, and no office space in the 22-story version. The 22-story tower was proposed nearly 10 years ago, and was a more suburban design.

Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future both Towson and Columbia will continue to lack an important piece of the urban puzzle: regional transit. DC’s suburban downtowns have the advantage of Metro, but Baltimore’s Metro is smaller, and serves neither Towson nor Columbia. Long range plans call for an eventual light rail connection to both places, but that’s decades away.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

June 25th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, development, lightrail, master planning, transportation



Langley Park transit center finally moving forward

Maryland has awarded a construction contract for the Langley Park transit center.

Langley Park is currently the busiest bus transfer location in the region that isn’t connected to a Metro station. But it’s a mess. Bus stops are spread all around the busy crossroads of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard. Transit users hoping to transfer have to cross up to 14 lanes of traffic, and have to memorize which curbside bus stops their route uses. It’s a complicated and dangerous situation.

Solution: bus station.


Langley Park transit center, including future Purple Line connection.
All images from Maryland MTA.

To solve this problem, Maryland has been planning for years to build a Langley Park bus station. The station would centralize all bus routes in the area under a single building, with vastly improved customer amenities.

Funding for the station was lined up in 2010 when MTA received a TIGER grant for it, but a land ownership issue delayed construction until now. Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with completion in fall of 2015.


Location map.

Transit center plan.

May 31st, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, development, lightrail, transportation



Baltimore 15-minute transit map

Frequent transit maps highlight bus and rail lines that come at least every 15 minutes. They’re great tools that help riders easily identify the most convenient routes.

Such maps exist for more than 20 cities around the US, including DC. Stuart Sirota of TND Planning Group made this one, for Baltimore.


Baltimore frequent transit map, posted with permission from Stuart Sirota.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

May 29th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: bus, lightrail, maps, metrorail, transportation



Media

   
   



Site
About BeyondDC
Archive 2003-06
Contact

Search:

GoogleBeyondDC
Category Tags:

Partners
 
  Greater Greater Washington
 
  Washington Post All Opinions Are Local Blog
 
  Denver Urbanism
 
  Streetsblog Network



BeyondDC v. 2013d | Email | Archive of posts from 2003-2006