Archive for the ‘Denver’ Category

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Project Connect gets it wrong — Urban rail starter lines are much cheaper than extensions

14 August 2014
LEFT: Denver's starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

LEFT: Denver’s starter LRT line, a 5.3-mile line opened in 1994, was routed and designed as a simple, surface-routed project to minimize construction time and cost. All-surface alignment avoided heavy, expensive civil works and kept design as simple as possible. Photo: Peter Ehrlich. RIGHT: Subsequent extensions, such as this West line opened in 2013, have required bridges, grade separations, and other major civil works, resulting in a unit cost 61% higher than that of the starter line. Photo: WUNC.org.

Since Project Connect released the cost estimates for their proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line last spring, agency representatives have tried to argue that the line’s projected cost of $144.8 per mile (2020 dollars) is comparable to that of other recent light rail transit (LRT) projects, citing new extensions in Houston, Portland, and Minneapolis.

Project Connect's chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside "Austin Urban Rail" starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems.

Project Connect’s chart comparing their proposed Highland-Riverside “Austin Urban Rail” starter line cost to costs of extensions of several other mature light rail transit systems. (Click to enlarge.)

Austin Rail Now challenged this comparison In our recent analysis, Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history. We argued that comparing the high cost of extensions of other, mature systems, was invalid, because urban rail starter lines tend to be much lower in cost than subsequent extension projects.

That’s because, in designing a starter line — the first line of a brand-new system for a city — the usual practice is to maximize ridership while minimizing costs through avoiding more difficult design and construction challenges, often deferring these other corridors for later extensions. In this way, the new system can demonstrate sufficient ridership and other measures of performance sufficient to convince both local officials and the public that it’s a success from the standpoint of being a worthwhile investment.

In contrast with starter lines, where officials and planners usually strive to keep design minimal and hold costs down in order to get an initial system up and running with the least demand on resources (and public tolerance), extension projects more often are deferred to later opportunities, mainly because they frequently contend with “the much more difficult urban and terrain conditions that are typically avoided and deferred in the process of selecting routes for original starter systems.” Deferring more difficult and expensive alignments till later also allows time for public acceptance, and even enthusiasm, for the new rail transit system to take root and grow.

Austin’s case provides an illustration. As our article, Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route, describes, Capital Metro’s original 2000 LRT plan envisioned a “Phase 1” 20-mile system consisting of a 14.6-mile line from McNeil to downtown, plus a short branch to East Austin and a longer extension down South Congress to Ben White Blvd. In Year of Expenditure (YOE) 2010 dollars, that full system was projected to cost $1,085.8 million (about $1,198 million in today’s dollars). But a billion-dollar project was deemed too hefty a bite for the city’s first foray into rail, so decisionmakers and planners designated the shorter 14.6-mile northern section as a Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), with a more affordable (and, hopefully, more politically palatable)pricetag of $739.0 million in 2007 YOE dollars (roughly $878 million in current dollars).

After an initial starter line is established, for most subsequent extension projects the unit cost — per mile — tends to increase because, as previously indicated, officials and designers are willing to tackle more daunting corridors and alignments. Denver is a useful example.

In 1994 Denver established basic LRT service with a comparatively simple 5.3-mile starter line, running entirely on the surface in both dedicated street lanes and an available, abandoned center-city railway alignment, with an installation cost of $37.3 million per mile (2014 dollars). From that beginning, the system has been gradually expanded with increasingly more ambitious and more costly extensions. In 2013, Denver opened its West Line (the W line) to Golden; constructed over much more daunting terrain and obstacles, with multiple grade separations, bridges, and long elevated sections, plus more complex signal and communications systems and more elaborate station facilities. The West line was finished at a cost in 2014 dollars of about $59.9 million per mile — a unit cost about 61% higher than that of the original starter line.

Despite such evidence, at an Aug. 5th urban rail forum sponsored by the Highland Neighborhood Association, Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead, Kyle Keahey, dismissed the assertion that starter lines were lower in cost per mile than extensions. Instead, he insisted, “the reverse is true.”

Really? But this claim is refuted even by the same cases that Project Connect has presented as peer projects for comparing the estimated $144.8-million-per-mile cost (2020) of its Highland-Riverside proposal.

In the following comparative analysis, we use Project Connect’s own year-2020 cost-per-mile figures for their selected “peer” projects. For each of those we use the starter line cost-per-mile data from our earlier May 8th article (cited above), plus data for Portland’s original starter line (a 15.1-mile line opened in 1986 from central Portland to the suburb of Gresham). These unit costs, in 2014 dollars, were then escalated to year-2020 values via the 3% annual factor specified by Project connect for their own table data.

The resulting comparison is shown below:

Using Project Connect's selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN.

Using Project Connect’s selected LRT systems, this comparison shows that the cost per mile of new starter lines tends to be significantly less than the cost of later extensions. Graph: ARN. (Click to enlarge.)

Clearly, this analysis corroborates our original assertion — based on these cases, the unit costs of LRT starter lines tend to be considerably lower than the unit cost of later extensions when these have developed into more mature systems. And, at $144.8 million per mile, the unit cost of Project Connect’s proposed 9.5-mile Highland-Riverside urban rail starter line is certainly far higher than the cost of any of the original starter lines of these selected systems — all using Project Connect’s own cases and criteria.

Q.E.D., perhaps? ■

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Austin Business Journal guru slams Highland-Riverside urban rail proposal as “a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people”

6 June 2014
Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

Because design and implementation dollars have been invested wisely, Denver’s light rail system increasingly resembles a network that’s expanding to serve more crucial corridors in the region. High ridership has also attracted transit oriented development (TOD) near stations, helping influence urban growth patterns. Map: RTD.

For the most part, Austin’s business and civic elite seem to have closed ranks around Mayor Lee Leffiingwell (“The Lee Team”) and his administration’s efforts to promote a very pricey 9.5-mile, $1.4-billion urban rail project widely suspected to be concocted more as a giveaway to the development ambitions of the University of Texas and a faction of private developers, and less as a remedy for alleviating Austin’s most serious mobility deficits. Included in this “business and civic elite” is virtually the entirety of the local media establishment.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

Jan Buchholz. Photo: Austin Business Journal.

But occasionally there are fractures in this ostensibly solid consensus, and one of these is represented by Jan Buchholz, an Austin Business Journal staff writer who seems to have the professional role of a de facto guru specializing in real estate market happenings. In a May 7th column, comparing urban development and transportation in Denver and Austin, she seems very favorably impressed with Denver, a model from which Austin, in her estimation, falls far short.

“Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit” she writes. But unfortunately, “This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.”

The reason? Mainly that Project Connect’s urban rail plan is pretty crummy:

The latest rail plan rolled out … is a $1.4 billion project that will run from Highland Mall to East Riverside Drive. Already, folks are decrying its high cost, but I don’t think it’s the cost that’s the real issue. It’s the fact that it’s a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people. That makes this price tag hard to swallow.

One of Buchholz’s gripes is that the proposal, which runs a short way southeast, ends way short of the region’s ABIA airport. And while local politicians are talking about “sweetening” the urban rail ballot measure with some dollops of highway projects, Buchholz doesn’t feel the highway capacity element is enough. (For the record, Austin Rail Now believes the Austin area’s emphasis on highway expansion is excessive, and should be ended.)

In regard to Denver’s urban rail development, Buchholz admires how the Mile-High City has prudently and energetically installed and expanded its system:

During the past 20 years, the Denver Regional Council of Governments — with support from a wide spectrum of stakeholders from government officials to businesses and residents — has embraced a huge vision for transportation improvements across the five-county metro area. It was never an easy sell, but for the most part taxpayers have supported the expensive, time-consuming and often inconvenient plan.

… The light rail is fully built out to the south, southeast and western suburbs. Construction is in progress for the light-rail line from downtown Denver to Denver International Airport, and another line will be built to the northwest suburbs.

Rejuvenated neighborhoods are cropping up across Denver and development is being defined in many instances by the evolution of public transit.

This dynamic does not exist in Austin to any great degree, and there’s little evidence that transit will play a significant role here any time soon.

What’s critical to understand is that, from the start, Denver planners and political honchos realized that resources were scarce and that the region’s first light rail transit (LRT) — i.e., urban rail — starter line had to be located where it would get the proverbial “best bang for the buck”. And they also realized that, to influence developers’ decisions and encourage transit-oriented development (TOD), rail lines would need to be routed to maximize ridership.

Yes, most rail stations often do attract some adjacent development. But it’s the potential volume of ridership — i.e. the traffic on the line — that carries the most influence on private developers’ decisions. The more people, the more residents and customers at your development, which in turn becomes more attractive in the real estate market.

Opening day of Denver's West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Opening day of Denver’s West Line light rail extension to Golden, Colorado, April 2013. Photo: David Warner.

Key to urban rail expansion is conserving financial resources and deploying them wisely. Relatively lower outlays in the initial installation and operation of a new system means more funding available for expansion. So Denver started with a minimalist, 5.3-mile route from a northeastern neighborhood, proceeding down a busy corridor, via both street-running and a railway alignment, through a major commercial district, into the CBD, including a multi-institution university complex.

In 1994, they did that for $115 million. In 2014 dollars, about $37 million a mile. Compare that with Project Connect’s extravagant plan, including a tunnel and below-ground station, plus a “signature” bridge, at $119 million a mile. And Project Connect’s plan doesn’t even serve a major travel corridor!

Partly because they’d conserved financial resources, and partly because of the “big bang for the buck” effect that galvanized popular support, Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) was able to embark on the vigorous urban rail expansion and TOD development program that so impresses Jan Buchholz. As a result, Denver’s light rail ridership mushroomed from 15,000 in 1994 to 86,900 a day by the end of 2013 — a nearly five-fold increase.

But Denver’s approach to urban rail has been virtually the polar opposite of Austin’s. Project Connect’s extravagantly wasteful billion-dollar starter line, with its peculiar, head-scratching route structure and high-dollar infrastructure, has divided potential urban rail supporters, pitting pro-rail community members and neighborhoods against one another in a way the pro-highway, anti-transit Road Warriors never could.

And the results are apparent in potential ridership. An alternative route for urban rail, long proposed for the heavily traveled, busy, dense Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, serving the high-density West Campus of the University of Texas, has been forecast to attract six times as much ridership as Project Connect’s meandering, peripheral line — at about 20% lower capital cost.

The prospects for voter approval of municipal bonds to finance Project Connect’s project are not sanguine. As Buchholz points out,

No one wants to be nickel and dimed to death for a mediocre and limited public transit system. Add to that the public perception that the MetroRail from Leander to downtown has been only marginally effective and has been fraught with issues from the get-go. Combine those two factors and this latest plan doesn’t have a chance for ever leaving the station.

If Austin has any hope of matching urban development and public transport successes like Denver’s it needs to start with an affordable urban rail starter line that makes sense. This notion seems to have “Lamar-Guadalupe-West Campus” written all over it.