A common theme that seems to play out, and which has been getting a lot of scrutiny lately, is how expensive it is to construct rail transportation systems in America. If you are curious, there are plenty of studies out there that compare Spain's efforts to expand its light, and high speed, rail lines. In doing so, they have cut labor to save the capital costs associated with this.
In America, labor unions usually dictate public works projects. As such, they also charge heavily inflated costs when compared to other forms of labor. If we accept that this is not going to change anytime soon, then we must look at other ways of trimming costs.
I have been doing a somewhat in depth study of the differences between what is widley considered a "streetcar" and what is widley considered a "light rail vehicle".
A "streetcar" is what you find operating in downtown Portland, Seattle, and more commonly in nearly every major city in Europe and called a Tram. They are typically operated urban areas of high density and operate at slow rates of speed due to their mixed use with traffic or pedestrian areas. What this has done, has propped up a reputation that streetcars are slow and that they are used for urban circulator types of duty. This would also be an incorrect reputation in that the ones operating in Portland at least, are based off of a design created by Skoda, in the Czech Republic. Their designed top speed is nearly 45mph. What this says, is that a streetcar effectively can compete with automobiles and buses in a non-freeway environment. Say, a busy city street.
A "light rail vehicle" is what you would find operating in a mulitude of major American cities. Portland has the MAX. Dallas has DART. I could go on but most of them operate a type of train car that is much heavier than a "streetcar" as explained above. It also has a marginally higher passenger capacity. With the additional weight, comes a much larger footprint that it must carry in the form of more sub-base. Gravel. Dirt. Ballast. Concrete. etc... Exactly why this is, I am trying to track down. When looking at the total unloaded weights spread out among the available axles, the streetcar and LRV are very similar. A Skoda car weighing 61,600lbs divided among 4 axles computes to 15,400 per axle. Conversely, a Siemens S70 weighs in at 96,800 unloaded but is spread among 6 axles returning 16,133 per axle. The carrying capacity of the S70 is higher but does this neccesitate such a different sub-base? I question whether the vast depth disparity between the two (see images below) really tells us the story. I have an email lodged with some people more involved in this line of work daily to get a better answer.
I have blogged about these infrastructure related differences before, when I advocated for a streetcar along College Ave from downtown Indianapolis to the Midtown neighborhood of Broad Ripple. This differentiation is exactly where a cost savings could be gleaned in the form of labor, if we are to believe the information on sub-base grading described above. The selling point of streetcars has been in their comparitavely cheap labor. They don't typically require as much utility relocation which is one of the major expenses of the light rail footprint; getting pipes and electrical stuff out of the way.
Given all of the above, would it be reasonable to say that if we could somehow employ streetcars in place of light rail and manage to carry the capacity that the light rail vehicle can, due to it's ability to link multiple units together, why wouldn't we choose this technology? I have been pondering just such a question and began to examine the technical differences between the two technologies. I first looked into the capability of linking a streetcar with another. It is possible. Physically at least. (see image below). Whether or not this provides any electronic control between cars remains to be discovered.
I even went so far as to contact United Streetcar / Oregon Iron Works and ask them what the capability of linking their 10 T3 vehicle together in such a manner. I spoke with their president Chandra Brown and she was not open to talking about the notion. So I cannot say whether or not this is possible. She stated that no one has approached them about such a project here in America, and that if they did, the request would likely be met with a stiff cost increase to accomodate. However, the 10 T3 IS based off of the Skoda technology employed in Europe, and they make a 14T model that appears to have just such a capability; albeit a bit longer.
So where does this leave me? I maintain that the technology is there, and that the capability exists to employ streetcars in a coupled manner in place of a light rail vehicle, where the capacities are such that the system would not become bogged down. If this is the case, then cities looking to break into the rail infrastructure game should be looking at how they can greatly reduce their costs via technologies that can make this happen. It is statistically proven that ridership is at its lowest when a system opens. A streetcar with it's lower capacities and deployed in a manner that is expandable via coupling with a second or even third vehicle, could provide a large cost savings over light rail. The majority of the general public would never know the difference either. Not to be purposely deceptive, but it could still be branded as light rail and most people would never know that the technology is what is commonly called a tram or streetcar.
Streetcar / European Tram technology is proven, and is in service today and represents a divergent thinking when compared to light rail and its realtively inflated costs.
As always, I welcome reader input and suggestions.
EDIT: Engineer Scotty of the Dead Horse Times penned an article right after mine on this topic as well that is well worth the time spent reading it.
In my weekly search of the google underworld for new Indianapolis news regarding the regional transportation plan, I dug up a 40 minute radio show hosted by Amos Brown on his spot, "Afternoons with Amos" A variety of local transportation officials were on the show fielding calls from listeners. The podcast is online and is nearly 40 minutes long but if you work a desk and find the input important, it is worth listening. I would classify the listenership as general skeptic of the people making the plans, but it gives a really good cross section that people in Indy may not hear as often, first hand account from those who are truly living carless in Indy, not by choice, but by neccesity.
Click here for the podcast
In a literally last hour bid to help prop up Marion County's only public transportation system, the Mayor's office stepped in to help manage the financially strapped agency. (see press release)
For the short term, and by this the mayor's office says until November of 2011, IndyGO will not have to make the previously announced cuts that they were going to have to make which would have included cutting 3 of the current routes, allowing the commuter express routes to expire as well as the airport green line. What this newest action means for the express and airport lines, is not specified at this moment since they operate on federal grant money. But for residents inside the loop, this will mean that headways do not increase to an HOUR and that service will be preserved until November of 2011.
At that time, it is percieved, that a voter referendum will determine the future of the region's transportation system. If a tax increase of some kind is approved, a final version of the Indyconnect vision will likely go forward which includes preserving some existing IndyGO bus lines in addition to an expansion of the bus service along with regional rail services of some sort.
As an advocate of public transportation improvements, and living in the very auto centric city of Indianapolis, it is easy to look at what other cities have done to impliment a strategy of improving their own transportation system. Readers of this blog know that I often look at what other towns have done. You only have to look at my blog roll to see the envy of Portland. While that is the case, one thing that I have discovered about Portland is that while from the outside it looks like the transportation mecca, they still have their issues. The automobile movement is still quite strong there. The current Columbia River Crossing bridge project has sucked up a LOT of money and nothing has even happened. A new governor running for office is decrying the latest light rail plan that they have which is in the final design stages. There are plenty of efforts to derail "rail" as it were, even where it seems successful.
In my efforts to find a city to compare to Indianapolis economically as well as population and total sprawl, I turned up Charlotte, NC. So how does a city like Charlotte which, much like Indianapolis, has a car culture, un-hinge auto centric thinking, and in many cases bullishness? You can start at the CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) website. They have a lot of information about their current LYNX light rail line including schedules, fares, etc. The LYNX (or Blue Line) is a 9.8 mile long, double-tracked, fully electrified light rail system offering low headways. It is NOT a commuter line rail which operate at peak commuter times only. The light rail is the jewel of the system though. When you look at their expanded network, they are responsible for over 26,000,000 total boardings every year which are divided among the light rail, 70 buses and a trolley that operates on the weekends on the light rail tracks. That is nearly 3 times what Indianapolis and our wimpy system move.
In addition to that, they have developed a robust land use strategy intandem with their long term transportation plan. Reading through some of the notes reminds one of the modern urban advocate's best advice. Modern zoning codes. Lower parking accomodations. Promotion of pedestrian principals. The thing's that urban thinkers laud and talk about daily on sites like streetsblog. In fact, they have many light rail, commuter rail and modern streetcar improvements planned over the next 30 years. The current recession has put a damper on the progress, but the plan is in place. To help fund the construction of this network, Mecklenburg County voters approved a 1/2 cent sales tax increase in 1998. These funds were used to help construct the first line and through a hypothesized increase in financial activity, would be able to attract more as the years go by.
My initial research uncovered a number of projects that have located next to the light rail line. For instance, 3030 South is located about halfway down the line from downtown (or Uptown as the locals call it) near the New Bern Station and is a "mixed use development". They have even included a section on their website depicting where on the line they are located. The project seems to be moving along with about 75% of their plan complete as of their website.
Also on the line is Southborough, another development linked to a LYNX station, this one near the Atherton Mill Station. This development is not quite on top of a station, but is located within walking distance.
The Circle South is also a new urban development backed up directly to the light rail line. The photos from their website are pretty awesome.
One of the larger ones that I have been able to locate is named the Ashton South End, a 310 unit multi floor building.
The one downside that I have been finding about these new developments is the price. Here are some of the starting rates. Ashton: Starting @ $1199. Circle South End: $915 (and that is for a STUDIO! Click for a price list). While not out of people's price range, I can tell you from my single days, that I wasn't paying that for rent, nor was my wife in her Broad Ripple Village apartment.
The flip side is that even existing, older apartments have used the light rail as a magnet for selling. Take this link for example. Sharon Lakes Condos is located further out from the city center, and lists apartments starting in the $620 range, and go out of their way to mention that they are within walking distance of the light rail. I suppose not a bad compromise if you work downtown, and need cheaper rent. One thing that this DOES illustrate is another metro that has trouble pricing it's real estate cheap enough for younger single people who want to live in the city. I could be off base with this assumption but it seems to be the norm everywhere.
One bright spot off the light rail development beaten path, is the Charlotte Tailgate Farmer's Market which has now been renamed the Atherton Market due to their recent move. Their former location was within easy walking distance of the Bland Station. The new location is near the East/West stop. In fact their new space, is the old location of the Charlotte Trolley Barn conveniently located adjacent to the Blue Line. I spoke with manager Lynn Caldwell about their decision to locate so close to the rail. One thing she noted was that even in Charlotte, they still struggle with the auto centric thinking in building support for the rail. (market photos from flickr user energysmartclt)
Q: Why choose to locate next to the light rail?
A: It was actually a coincidence. We were originally located in Plaza-Midwood, and when the market needed to move the person who owned the lot in South End contacted me to talk about leasing his property. But I saw the light rail as a definite asset. We were, and are, the only market in Charlotte on public transportation of any sort, and the light rail gives us particular visibility.
Q: Why did you choose anothe location close to the light rail?
A: The new location isn't quite as close to an actual stop, though when the trolley runs on the weekend it stops close by.
Q: Is the space that you locate in expensive due to it's location next to the blue line?
A: I don't think that the light rail has done a great deal to increase property values, but I could be wrong. The City of Charlotte would have more data on that. I've certainly seen more development and transition along the light rail corridor in the last couple of years!
Q: Does the growing popularity of local markets with urban living drive you to locate close to the line?
A: I am certainly hoping that Charlotteans who live, work, and play along the light rail corridor will visit us more often. However in Charlotte the light rail really doesn't go many places at this point. They are talking about extending to the University area soon, and I expect that we will see more benefits then.
Q: What kind of demographics would you say use the market? Younger financially successful? Lower class inner city? Mixed?
A: It is mixed, but the demographic that I saw at our opening on Saturday was primarily the 28 - 40 age group families with kids, or gay/lesbian couples in that same age bracket. I would definitely say mid to upper class. Local food has the perception that it is more expensive, though I would argue that it represents the true value of the food, vs the cheap, fast, "convenient" packaged food that our culture has come to expect because of what I call the "Walmart effect."
Concerning bicycling in Charlotte, they have an aggressive plan of adding bike lanes and greenways. I tracked down their long range plan by region on the CATS website and they have existing bikeways that parallel and intersect the current Blue Line as well as plans to grow it. It has been a little more difficult to gauge the bicycling demographic in Charlotte so I cannot speak on how well the plan has been accepted. However, it is notable that CATS has a plan in place for the long term and that it ties in with their rail and bus services. If I can tie this in locally with groups such as The Indy Cog, I would say that the Charlotte Area Bicycle Alliance has been called on often to weigh on cycling related planning.
Actually, when I think about it, Charlotte's Bicycling community turned up more advocacy than the light rail. I posted about this recently when I started researching that it was difficult to track down any kind of Charlotte Urban Advocacy blogs. Perhaps I missed them, but I have been unable to track down anything near to my own blog, or that of my fellow Indianapolis bloggers UrbanIndy, UrbanOut, A Place of Sense, Dig-B, The Heidelberger Papers and American Dirt.
As you can see, the light rail in Charlotte has produced many economic investment opportunities already. It's impact on the region cannot be denied, even by local detractors. It is still considered one of the youngest light rail routes in the country and yet it has already positioned this community to move ahead in regards to transportation driven land use. Recently however, the Charlotte Observer reported that the revenue being collected from this sales tax, has remained flat over the past 5 years with the transit agency collecting roughly $60 million in tax revenue. As a result, the planned expansion of the blue line, all the way to the northeast end of their 485 beltway, has been cast in doubt. There is talk of extending it only 4 miles initially (instead of the planned 11 miles), with the rest coming in phases as the tax revenue rolls in. This puts the entire rail and streetcar network in jeopardy of being completed period, while being completed on time is at this point, likely not possible.
Conclusion: I would CERTAINLEY be remiss if I didn't mentioned that I have never been to Charlotte nor have I ridden their light rail line. I am armed with my web browser, a keen sleuthing nose on google, and the will to pick up the telephone and talk to a few people. So in that regard, I suppose this entire write up could be called an opinion editorial. But it is all that I have and no one is employing me to go study other city's transportatoin systems yet. I will note that one employee of CATS did not return my phone call or an email soliciting questions. In that regard, I was a bit put off but did not let it throw me off the trail. However, in looking at what Charlotte has implimented, and the fact that they are nearing 20,000 daily boardings, I would say that this should be a red light to local transportation planners on implimenting our first rail line. Our NE Corridor is being billed as a "commuter line" with frequent daily service inside the loop to what appears to be 38th street area. Im not sure what that final spot will be, but the last I knew it was being based upon the latest findings from the IndyGO rider survey. Exactly how they all tie in, I do not know. Again, Im not in the business. Some of the big differences though are that a line from downtown Indy to Fishers, is going to be about 17 miles. That would be along my previously advocated proposal (which was submitted to Indyconnect BTW) which took city streets from South St @ Union Station to 116th street. Charlotte's nearly 10 mile line cost around $425 million which illustrates the cost of a full out double track system from downtown to the north side suburb. Perhaps a compromise of of single track all the way to 116th street with double track inside the loop can be made.
The last conclusion I will make is in regards to sales tax collection. If we examine what is currently happening in Charlotte, as well as in some other cities across America, we can conclude that we may not be able to collect enough capital to operate the proposed Indyconnect system. The initial intent of the Indyconnect proposal stated that Indianapolis has enough in its long range plan to cover capital expenses with a little bit more added in from sales tax collection. In looking at how much other cities have spent on rail, I highly contest that our total rail system could be built for $1.2 billion. Thus, if we can only hope to collect an extra $60-$100 million for operations (rough estimation), coupled with the roughly $50 million from property tax collected that IndyGO currently gets, that positions us for only $100-$150 million in annual operating expenses. Without going into a system wide examination of all the buses Indyconnect's vision includes, and all the rail vehicles required, I cannot give a firm recomendation whether this will be enough money. But given the vastness of the region to be served, and a general understanding of other cities from observations, I have a feeling we will need to approach $200 million give or take some to operate what Indyconnect is advocating.
As always, I appeal to my readers to give any input on this. Maybe someone from Charlotte is reading, and can offer some further insight (or refute some of mine) on this topic.
Yesterday was a busy day in Indianapolis in regards to public transportation. As I reported a couple posts down, IndyGO announced the closing of 3 routes along with several other service cuts to curb their budget shortfalls. There were two public hearings yesterday to allow public input on the matter directly to Mike Terry, IndyGO's CEO. Unfortunately, my day job did not allow me to attend either the day meeting, or the evening meeting.
I did however, get to attend the Transit Fair and screening of Beyond the Motor City at the Earth House. The film started at 7, with a "transit fair" from 6-7 prior. I was there with PUP. IndyCOG was set up next to us. Indyconnect sent Sean White to lobby (who by the way had a lot of good things to say that you won't see covered in generality in the major local media). CICS was there as was AARP, Health by Design and ICAT (Indiana Citizen's Alliance for Transit).
For a grassroots effort, it was a pretty good showing! I did not see anything in major local media announcing that this was going to happen and when the film started at 7, we counted over 60 people in attendence. All the seats they had set out for the film were full.
Perhaps it is simply my opinion, but I feel like we are hitting a point where we can expect people to act. I attended my neighborhood meeting on Wednesday night and the majority of complaints to the city council woman in attendance, was about public transportation and infrastructure improvements. Coupled with the recent IndyGO announcement and resulting uproar, along with Indyconnect being pushed in our faces, I REALLY REALLY hope that we can raise some funding in the next year to address this.
As it was pointed out in the film last night: "Transit doesn't solve all of an urban areas problems. But it is a key piece of the puzzle."
In what shouldnt come as a surprise, yesterday IndyGO announced that they will be eliminating three lines, and cutting service on a number of other ones. I say shouldn't come as a suprise because they also recently announced a $4.3 million short fall in tax collections to fund operations. Most of the routes will be changed from 30 minute headways, to 60 minute headways (this is peak hour headway we are talking about). Some of the routes include the heaviest travelled lines in the city including east side's 10th street line and College Ave's Route 17 (60 minute peak headways... seriously??)
This severely underscores the need for a dedicated funding source for public transportation in Indianapolis. We have all been inundated with talk of the Indyconnect proposal. It is a step in the right direction, but the final plan is not in the works until late this year, and a voter referendum to incresae sales tax (or other funding) won't come until 2011. That means we have to serve out the entire 2010 year with these cuts and likely a majority of 2011. Can Indianapolis' transit dependent citizens really stand to go that long without a reasonable source of transportation?
The only silver lining I can take from this, is looking at what has happened similarly in other cities. St Louis recently passed a referendum adding a new funding source for it's own local public transportation. After they had cut service there, people began to stand up and take notice. Now, they are restoring bus service and also going forward with new light rail planning. I hope that we can expect something similar here. I suppose it is up to Indianapolis metro residents to decide what means more. Spending $88 million on a freeway interchange that will serve one side of town, or allocating some more money for our regional transportatoin growth.
Dont forget, that "Beyond the Motor City" will be showing @ the Earth House on May 20th at 7pm. I will be there representing People for Urban Progress along with the co-founders Michael and Maryanne for the Transit Fair that starts at 6pm and preceeds the film. It is open to anyone who wants to attend. At this moment, I do not know who else will be there. Im pretty sure The Indy Cog will be there though I am not 100% certain of that. Come meet some of the people in your community working to improve transportation options that don't include automobiles.
A disclaimer: I will ATTEMPT in this post to present as much FACT based data as possible. Im sure that some opinion will flow with it. Onto the post...
I want to take this opportunity to point out the manner in which highway construction in Indiana is being undertaken. While Indianapolis has recently received a lot of press regarding Indyconnect (and after reading this post, you will see why it's a ray of bright white light) we will show you that there is a looooooooong long way to go in curbing our dependance on the autmobile.
Aaron Renn, The urbanophile, recently reposted his article covering the highway project attempting to be brought to bare on the riverfront of Louisville. A multi billion dollar project that will not only further divide it's urban core from the river, but will expend billions of dollars from Indiana and Kentucky's budgets to construct. In that post, he laid out a pretty convincing counter argument to the entire project that would save this money, save the Louisville riverfront, and show the country that Louisville can put a good foot forward in digging itself out of the hole that was recently created for it in Brooking's latest data.
I just took a look at the official website for the Ohio River Bridges Project of Kentucky & Indiana and it appears that it is full steam ahead with $100 million in bonds issued for land purchase. If that is the case, what can be done to stop them? What can be done to stop any of the madness currently unfolding? Below, I am laying out what all the recent, and planned, highway projects going on in Indiana cost.
Ohio River Bridges Project of Kentucky & Indiana: $4.1 Billion ($1.15 billion from Indiana)
Accelerate 465 (Westside of Indy): $550 million
I-69 from Evansville to Indy: $1.8 Billion but recent media reports $3 billion+
465/69 NE Reconstruction: $587 million
Super 70: $175 million
US31 Major Moves: Unknown but turning a surface highway into a freeway
While it is possible to make the case that these projects all help unclog freeways that are currently clogged up, they illustrate the HUGE amounts of capital going towards unrestricted highway construction. Some people make the case that rail mass transit in Indianapolis is a bad idea due to the spread out nature of the region. Some of those people may be right. But if we don't take a stand on this, it is never going to get better.
So the next time someone complains about how the proposed indyconnect rail lines, "wont pay for themselves", point them to the direction of this post and you will see why. All the money is being funnelled into the exploding highway problem in Indiana.
As always, I welcome reader input on what is likely to be a volatile topic.
I received an email last week informing me of an event on May 20th @ The Earth House located at 237 East Street in downtown Indianapolis. They will be showing "Beyond the Motor City" a documentary that explores our transportation situation and how it might be improved through "alternative" modes (meaning not car). They use Detroit as the setting for the film. Prior to the screening, there will be a "Transit Fair" from 6-7pm. I plan to be in attendance with 3 other people representing P.U.P. (People for Urban Progress), so stop by and say hi. I am personally very excited to be attending an event like this for the potential networking connections that can be made. I encourage any of my readers to attend the event. I have copy and pasted the email that I received below. Hope to see ya there!
Health by Design is thrilled to be working with Earth House Film on an exciting opportunity to further engage community members and to build upon the momentum we’ve seen here in Central Indiana around the topics of transit and other multimodal transportation options!
Indianapolis has been selected as a stop on the Blueprint America Screening Tour, an initiative intended to raise questions and seek answers about the future of transportation in America. The PBS documentary, Beyond the Motor City, will be featured, with the hope of generating discussion and action around: new hopes for accessible, clean and modern mass transit in America; the role of cities and consumers in shaping the next generation of transit systems; and a roadmap for revitalizing the way we move through our cities and neighborhoods.
Aaron Woolf, the films’ producer/director/writer will join us for the screening, which will be held Thursday, May 20th, at 7 PM. We will also be holding a “transit fair” from 6-7 PM for organizational partners and advocates (YOU!) working on transportation and the related issues discussed in the film. Our hope is that people who attend the film screening will learn more about our respective efforts, understand why our outreach, education, and advocacy is so important, and leave the evening aware of ways to provide support and get involved!
We hope that you will join us for this unique and fun event! We also appreciate your assistance in spreading the word and inviting everyone you know to attend (feel free to use the attached event flyer)!
Please reply to Jamison Hutchins (Jhutchins@acsm.org) to confirm you participation in the transit fair. Jamison will coordinate additional logistics with Earth House staff and with you as more details develop. Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions or would like additional information. Thank you for all that you’re doing to promote transportation options for all citizens!
PS – Mr. Woolf will be sticking around to participate in Friday morning’s Bike to Work Day festivities. Hopefully we’ll see many of you there, too!
Kim Irwin, MPH, CHES
Health by Design
Executive Director, Alliance for Health Promotion
401 West Michigan Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Direct line: 317.352.3844
A recent meeting with some important local transportation planners posed an interesting question: How would you connect Broad Ripple to downtown? While the question may not be as point blank as that, it still shed some light on a pretty big concept and that is connecting places that people want to be. People want to be in Broad Ripple for the entertainment and shopping that it provides. All one needs to do is take a day (or night) trip to Broad Ripple to see how awesome it is. The sidewalks are wide, the storefronts are in your face. The shops are open and friendly as are the bars. The Monon Trail engages a few places through a number of residential and commercial areas of the neighborhood making it a key component of why the area works. Broad Ripple has many of the concepts that people enjoy and modern urban planners laud, which makes it ripe as a destination to be connected with.
Similarly, downtown provides a LOT of things that people desire. Shopping, nightlife, the region's primary business district and nearly as important, convention goers. It is the last component of that which makes for a compelling case for raising the sales tax proposed in the Indyconnect plan. With such a strong convention base one could assume that by collecting sales tax from convention goers, a large chunk of money could be gleaned from people who do not even live in the metro Indianapolis area. I dont think there is an economist anywhere that will tell you that is a bad situation. With the growth of the convention center underway, this is only poised to grow over the years. If you keep an eye on the local media outlets, it seems fairly often lately that we see a contract being signed for the long term convention because of the expansion going on. Those same convention goers could use a streetcar (or tram as they are called in Europe) to travel to our other good walkable neighborhoods, such as Broad Ripple. They like to be entertained as well, and while downtown does a fairly decent job of this, there is a lot of Indianapolis Culture not captured in the many downtown chain restaraunts.
Using these locations and working from the concept that connecting places can stimulate economic and infrastructural investement, I decided to make a case for streetcar transit from downtown to Broad Ripple. By choosing to install a streetcar from somewhere downtown, and heading up College Ave, a plan could be hatched to move downtown convention goers and workers back and forth to Broad Ripple; also collecting weekday commuters from the dense neighborhoods who work downtown. Government workers. Medical workers. The list is high Im sure with the higher income neighborhoods west of College and the much more middle class neighborhoods east of College, the mix is eclectic to be sure. And as you travel further south, you collect the neighborhoods on the rebound such as Fall Creek Place and the couple of blocks either way. Sure, one could argue that bus service would accomplish the same thing, but we have that, and even when the service up and down College was twice as frequent as it currently is, people werent flocking in droves to get on the bus to go to Broad Ripple. Similarly, a visit on a sunny day, or summer evening will demonstrate how they get there: BY CAR. It is ridiculous to even attempt to get a parking spot on one of these days. I can attest as I lived on the canal for a year and if you weren't home by 8:30pm, we were parking blocks away from our apartment.
One thing that some people may tell you is that streetcars will not provide a reliable speed-up over automobiles; and they would be right. The modern streetcar operates in traffic much like a bus does albeit on a rail embedded in the street. Another thing that transportation experts will tell you is that streetcars are usually tabbed more for downtown circulator types of duties. Portland, Or for instance, started a small loop in their downtown with short spans between stops (roughly 2-4 blocks) that has been heralded as a success but is used for simply as I pointed out, a downtown circulator. They supliment it's usage with a robust network of crosstown light rail trains. Minor compromises could be made by giving priority to streetcars at traffic lights, but it's not going to provide a large measurable increase in time when used in this frequent stop fashion. Don't be fooled.
The largest benefits of a streetcar on College Ave are likely to lie in it's static location over time, driving economic development along a highly travelled corridor, connecting places, and due to it's nature, being utilized as a commuter OPTION. I think a stronger case can be made for the latter as a commuter option because it looks cool, can be reliable and is seen as progressive. Many of the things that economic metrics struggle to simply capture. Also, a key to this argument, being less frequent than a downtown circulator. We are talking 10-15 blocks between stops perhaps. (Just guesstimating)
Light Rail vs Street Car
To contrast light rail with streetcars is walking a fine line these days. For the past 20 years or so, Light Rail Transit (LRT) have been referred to as a compromise to heavier rail type vehicles. LRT can accelerate faster, create less noise, traditionally operate in their own right of way, yet still safely operate closely with traffic on city streets. As modern urban rail systems have evolved, light rail cars have become more intertwined with street environments. That is to say that systems have been designed with large distances between stops in commuter like setups further from their urban cores only to increase frequency like a streetcar when they got to the downtown areas. This usually facilitates the easy drop off of workers to the places they need to be. This is pretty useful when put into the context that we want to collect commuters with a fast service that is less disruptive of their neighborhoods. Modern LRT vehicles are designed to operate at higher speeds to cover these long distances between stops and they do it well when grade seperated. Ive seen video of the MAX light rail in Portland competing for speed with freeway traffic when operating between stops. It's pretty entertaining! They accelerate rapidly and are capable of very high speed in straight runs.
Streetcar technology is nothing to scoff at as well. With quick acceleration possible, they are able to operate pretty efficiently in traffic, at least, as well as a 65 foot long hulk can operate. See the short clip below (about 30 seconds) demonstrating how deftly a Portland Streetcar is able to accelerate and move right with traffic. It's not sports car speed, but its not bad either.
With that said, if we were to compare using one versus another, streetcars are MUCH cheaper in their execution. The construction costs alone make streetcar pretty attractive. To demonstrate this, see the two graphics below showing a cross section of light rail (from Denver's LR design guidelines) and a cross section of a street car bed (from Tucson's Streetcar EIS) 3 ft + versus 1 foot... seems pretty simple to me. One can make a case for avoiding utility relocation with streetcar thereby drastically decreasing cost, and abbreviating the timeline.
As far as I have been able to figure out, a modern electric light rail vehicle costs about $3.5 million while a streetcar vehicle comes in around $2-3 million. I wouldn't quote me on that, but it is the best that I can figure out. They don't sell them out of a catalog. haha Rail costs are similar based on a weight per foot basis. They are very similar.
If we explore a "rough" route from south Downtown to 62nd Street in Broad Ripple, not counting travel upon 62nd street but dropping off in the area, then google maps tells us that is 8.2 miles (43269 feet). Consider at the minimum that 4 rails will be ran (2 for northbound, 2 for southbound), that is roughly 173076 feet of actual track to be used (not counting what would be needed for a maintenence facility). Using $0.35/pound (generic steel commidity value in Feb 2010) and assuming 39.5 pounds per foot, that is approximately, $2,392,775.00 in raw material cost for the steel rails.
Using rough math to compute the amount of concrete that will be needed we use the same 43269 feet multiplied times 2 (1 bed north, 1 bed south), by the width of 8.2 feet, by a depth of 1 foot nets us 709,611 cubic feet (or 26255 cubic yards) of concrete. A generic figure of $70 per cubic yard (found on a contractor site via google) nets $1,837,892 in concrete costs.
So far, that is: $4,230,667 in raw material costs. We must assume rebar reinforement under the concrete as well, but as for how much, this is where my practical knowledge fails for I do not know how it is constructed or laid.
A similar cost estimate can be formed for the Light Rail but it is going to look similar to that plus, cost for concrete ties, aggregate, storm water drain as well as the pre-fab utility re-location. You can start to see that light rail construction costs are a measure of magnitude greater in comparion. What this comparison doesnt account for is labor costs (BIG), electrical systems, overhead wire supported by streetside poles or periodic electrical power centers along the route. Nor does it consider the amount of vehicles needed to support useable headways or operating costs (although I think $3-$4 million annually isn't too far from the mark for operating costs).
What can be considered though, is that streetcars operating on the street can reach attainable speeds to compete with buses, and if spaced further apart than 2-4 blocks ala "circulator fashion" can offer an almost light rail like frequency. Given the extreme cost savings when compared to light rail, a compelling case can be made for streetcars instead of heavier, Light Rail vehicles.
For all of my ranting and banter going on here, lightrailnow.org penned an article advocating this approach. (see article here)
In the end, the public must weigh in on such a concept. The current NE Corridor study doesn't even hedge on such a concept however, is in a similar realm. I believe personally, I would almost be okay with a single track rail line from the NE to downtown, if we could argue our way into an inner city streetcar to collect the benefits that we, as Indianapolis residents, would hope to glean from broaching the rail transportation barrier here in Indy. A robust campaign to alert citizens of Indianapolis of the benefits of fixed rail transit would be useful in gaining the needed support to impliment such a service. Equal amounts of advertising would need to be done by all downtown restaurants and hotels to let their visitors know that this wonderful service is there to be used.
As always, I welcome reader comments on this topic, one that I consider will be quite a volatile subject.
EDIT: Kevin over @ UrbanIndy posted about this last night and I thought that it was fitting I include a link to his article about it. Recently, the Harmoni neighborhood in midtown Indy put a plan on the table at the Indyconnect meeting advocating for a College Ave line. Here is a link to a .pdf they created exploring future infrastructure development plans.