Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Federal funding fun and games

In a comment on the prior post about Milwaukie BRT, RA Fontes noted in the comments that...

Don't know if things will change, but Mr. McFarlane has so far been awfully positive in his comments about Milwaukie LRT---all the jobs and economic development, etc.

An open BRT seems to be a no-brainer for this corridor. Single-seat service from OC and all over Clackamas County with door-to-door trip times that LRT can't hope to match except in a very few showcase examples.

But who cares?
 My response was this:

If I were cynical, I might suspect that getting $750 million of Federal money into the local economy is actually part of the goal.  :)

Actually, I am a bit cynical.  I'm not suggesting that TriMet (or any other particular agency) is engaging in any unique skullduggery... but I'm becoming more and more convinced that the current funding system in the US--where the bulk of tax dollars go to the Great Sausage Factory in the Sky, only to be doled back to the states and local governments by a bureaucracy with more layers than a bushel of onions--is broken.

Other bloggers I know disagree with me on this point, for various reasons.  Uniform standards are a good thing, and on many issues the US Government is more enlightened than quite a few states.  (Even the Bush Administration was more enlightened on transit issues than a few states I can think of...).

But the current method of funding disconnects the source of the funding from the target--encouraging waste and games.   Local governments generally view Federal grants as "free" money--even though it is funded by taxes, receipt of such funds has nothing to do with an area's federal tax liability.  Projects aren't always funded based on technical merit--much ink has been spilled about Peter DeFazio's ability to send transportation earmarks are way.  And yes--it is possible that in extreme cases, projects are pursued not because of the value of the system that gets built, but because of the opportunity to pump outside dollars into the local economy.  While the stimulus affect of locally-funded projects is overrated (such things merely move money around, not add to the wealth of a region); the stimulus affect of $750 million being sent into town courtesy of Uncle Sam is definite and real.  And if the money doesn't come to Portland, it will go to some other region.

Were I really cynical (I know, it's a cheap rhetorical device), I might even expect that project costs were frequently being inflated to boost the tab, and the overall Federal match.  If most of the expenditures are local (local contractors, design firms, property owners), much of the cost may be recovered as additional taxes--and the additional contributions to the overall economy might cancel out the additional cost to public coffers.  As noted previously, the costs for rail construction in the US have risen dramatically in the past decade--far outpacing inflation, wages, or other quantifiable cost factors. 

What would I prefer?  Lower federal taxes for this sort of thing, with local revenues raised to offset the Federal tax break; and local money used primarily to fund local projects.  The Feds could still get involved for projects of national significance (say, the CRC); when recession or other financial crises require use of US government credit, or in other unusual circumstances such as natural disasters--but as a general principle, regions would be expected to self-fund.  Likewise, state and local involvement ought to be segregated somewhat.  Of course, that might result in a few idiocratic states deciding to strike a blow for freedom by paving everywhere--but when gas costs $10, they'll have to live with that decision.

Of course, I don't expect this sort of fundamental restructuring of US governance to happen anytime soon.  Many on all sides of the political spectrum prefer a strong federal government with lots of cash, for numerous reasons.  A massive culture in DC has grown up around a large federal government, a culture that is neither liberal or conservative--and this sort of structural change would be resisted strenuously.  But that doesn't stop me from griping...

In the meantime, I should just remind myself:  When the folks in DC are picking up the tab, I shouldn't complain too much when surface rail projects cost $200 million a mile.

But I'm not that cynical.

Milwaukie BRT?

Today, it goes without saying, was not a good day for the Milwaukie MAX project.  Only a few days after the projected budget for the project went up by $100 million, the FTA made official what may have been unofficially known to TriMet for about a year; they are only planning to match local funds evenly ("50% match"), rather than contributing $1.50 for every local dollar ("60% match").  The stated reason?  The FTA doesn't want to "set a precedent" for matching big-ticket projects at such high levels.  There's probably lots of other politicking going on in DC, as the transportation bill is stalled in the Senate (like everything!), but given FTA chairman Peter Rogoff's recent remarks about allegedly-overpriced rail projects, I'm not surprised.

$300 million hole

This decision leaves TriMet about $300 million in the hole--around $470 million of local funding has been located, and 50% of $1.5 billion is $750 million.  According to GM Neil McFarlane, TriMet plans to tighten belts accordingly.   "Over the next few weeks, we'll be working with our project partners to recalibrate the project to fit within these new funding parameters" said McFarlane.  What "recalibate" means exactly is unclear, but according to spokesperson Mary Fetsch, who was interviewed by portlandafoot.com, part of the strategies being considered include eliminating parking garages, shrinking the maintenance facility and not ordering spare cars for trains on the line.

[Graphic courtesy of portlandafoot.com]

While those steps would save some money, it's hard to see the savings from those moves amounting to anywhere near $300 million.  And its hard to see where additional local funding might come from, given that government agencies of all sorts are dealing with budget problems--and if push comes to shove, MAX is not likely to be the highest funding priority.  If a funding package is not completed by the fall, the project may need postponement--which would put current funding in jeopardy.   Many other projects and constituencies in Oregon have uses lined up for $250 million in lottery dollars--and there's not guarantee that the figure would be made up in a future funding cycle.  (Especially if the GOP manages to retake control in Salem).  TriMet has discussed borrowing more itself--likely bonding more payroll tax revenue, in addition to the $39 million it already plans to contribute via this controversial form of financing--a maneuver which would no doubt make many of its rider base scream.

Not all of this mess is the agency's fault, of course--rail costs have gone through the roof in the past decade; and the current recession seems to have governments all around the country scrambling.  However, the agency has committed a few unforced errors of its own--and has opened itself to criticism that it is over-extending itself.

Unlike a few other projects on the drawing board, rapid transit in the Portland-OC corridor is important for the region's future.  My concerns about Milwaukie MAX chiefly lie around cost, not about the usefulness of the project.  But if the money isn't there, the money isn't there. 

Depending on what happens...maybe it's time to revisit BRT.

Milwaukie BRT

Consideration of BRT in the corridor is nothing new.  After the Milwaukie/Vancouver MAX funding initiative failed back in the 1990s, Metro gave serious consideration to various flavors of BRT in the early phases of the South Corridor study--a study which initially excluded light rail.  At the request of leaders in Clackamas County, LRT was added to the study, and eventually became the locally preferred alternative for both Phase I and Phase II of the project.  Phase I is now the MAX Green Line; Phase II is Milwaukie MAX.  The South Corridor Supplemental DEIS considered several options for the Portland/Milwaukie/Oregon City corridor, at the following price tags:

  • BRT from Portland to Oregon City (here, "BRT" means bus service enhanced with low-cost capital improvements such as signal priority, but not a full busway):  $119-$131 million.
  • Busway from Portland to Milwaukie, BRT from Milwaukie to Oregon City:  $267 million - $299 million.  ("Busway" means a fully dedicated ROW for the exclusive use of transit vehicles).
  • LRT from Portland to Milwaukie, BRT from Milwaukie to Oregon City:  $467-$518 million.
Careful readers will note that the current LRT price tag is 3 times the SDEIS estimate, and that doesn't include any bus enhancements south of Milwaukie.   Pretending the BRT part doesn't exist, that would be about $70 million per mile, about the same cost as the Yellow Line, which was under construction at the time.  The SDEIS glossed over the question of how MAX would cross the river (the maps included had trains going across the Hawthorne Bridge--a dubious notion), but the fact that the project has tripled in price since early planning illustrates the problem.

A few other proposals for a Portland-Milwaukie BRT have been floated, such as this one by John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute (a libertarian think tank that has a reputation for not being terribly fond of public transit).  BRT was also discussed at portlandtransport.com when the decision to go with light rail was made.  Critics of BRT have noted that light rail "won" the technical analysis to become the LPA--the SDEIS predicted 33% more trips with the LRT solution than the busway, and 60% more than with BRT.   However, given the new project constraints, the prior analysis may no longer be sound.

[Image courtesy of South Corridor SDEIS]

A good potential BRT corridor

The Portland/Milwuakie corridor has good BRT potential for numerous reasons:
  • The Willamette River acts as a "funnel" for commuters; other than the Sellwood Bridge (presently closed to busses due to weight limits), there is no public crossing of the river between the Ross Island Bridge and Oregon City.  Numerous busses converge on the corridor from points east and turn north into the city.  
  • With the existing bus services along 99E, there is already frequent service along the corridor for the entire length (the #33), along with numerous other routes which provide augmented service during peak hours.  Even without introducing any additional routes, an "open busway" between Portland and Milwaukie would be an attractive transit corridor.
  • The SDEIS predicted 30,000 rides/day with the "busway" alternative, vs 40,000 for light rail (a figure which has been slashed as the issue has been studied further; a common phenomenon in planning).  Not bad for a second option.
The support of BRT I envision would be the "busway" alternative, with a fully dedicated bus lane.  In addition, even though it is one of the most expensive components of the Milwaukie MAX project as currently constituted, I would look to keep the Caruthers bridge, as the busway would have the greatest impact if there were a continuous exclusive-transit route between Milwaukie and the mall. (I would also love to see the Milwaukie-OC section added back into the project, even if only consisting of signal priority and queue jump lanes on McLoughlin).

Switching to BRT, or at least publicly considering it, could have significant political impacts as well.  It would demonstrate to TriMet's critics a greater regard for financial responsibility, and help to demolish the meme that "TriMet no longer cares about the bus system"--especially given Neil McFarlane's prior role with the agency.  Such political calculations ought not drive the decision, but it would be ignorant to ignore their potential impact.  And even if TriMet were to go ahead with light rail, it would improve the optics of the situation tremendously.


David Axelrod, President Obama's chief campaign strategist, is famous for saying "never let a good crisis go to waste".  With the financial straits facing the organization, and the greater ability to change direction afforded by a new general manager, TriMet has an opportunity here to greatly change the nature of transit politics in town.  It may be that reconsidering BRT remains a bad idea; and that the correct decision may be to proceed as planned, delay the project until costs come down or money becomes available, or no-build.  But one paradox of management is that constraints can be liberating, as they allow consideration of alternatives that were previously unthinkable.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A few quick links

to two articles at The Urbanophile:
  • One, published this weekend, in support of busses--in part because rail costs have been skyrocketing (a phenomenon which is not unique to Portland or Oregon, but does appear unique to the United States). 
  • Another, from a year ago, discussing what is causing the skyrocketing rail costs, and what might be done them.
More grist for the mill.

Time for Plan C?

The Lake Oswego transit project has been a hot topic there this weekend.  The latest cost estimate for the project is nearly double previous estimates.  Some of that cost is the result of changing estimates for the value of the Jefferson Branch real estate, a cost which is already paid for (it's both a debit and a credit on the books), and will be matched at 1.5x--the "out of pocket" costs for the region are more in the range of $50-$75 million.  However, the size and scope of the cost increase is a bit disturbing, and isn't entirely accounted for by the ROW value.  (Not even close).  The politics are lousy, to be frank.

The problems

There are two bigger problems, however.  The projected "out-of-pocket" costs (excluding the ROW) to the region are expected to be a small fraction of the overall cost of the thing--$50-$75 million or so.  That actually looks good--if the region can get a 6x-9x multiplier on its cash investment, it might be a good deal.  The flies in the ointment are these:
  •  Until an appraisal is done, the actual value of the ROW will not be known.  Appraisal probably won't be done for a while; and may be an avenue for opponents of the project to tie it up in court.  (Those trying to sabotage the project may argue for a lesser value; those trying to cash in if their adjacent property is condemned may try to escalate the value).  A proper project budget depends on this, obviously.
  • The technical parameters of the project are... underwhelming.  The proposed route is no faster than the existing parallel bus line (it is expected to offer improvement when projected traffic increases tie the bus up in traffic); the capacity of the project is very low by mass transit standards (less than 1000 pphpd, assuming single-car Streetcars at no better than 10 minute headways); and the land-use potential seems limited.  Other than the SOWA area, and perhaps the Foothills area in Lake Oswego; most of the land along the line is either already developed, or geographically unsuitable for development.  (And those portions outside the Portland city limits are outside the scope of Portland Streetcar's organizational mission).  Given that--why would the FTA consider spending $240 million on this project, over other worthwhile projects in the country (and even possibly in the Portland area)?  Peter DeFazio might be in a position to steer an earmark Portland's way if the Democrats retain control of the House; beyond that, prospects strike me as dubious.  Given that the region will need to spend another $25 million or so to get to the point of submitting an application for the funds--money that will NOT be matched or reimbursed should the feds say no--is there a better way?
Plan B

The Streetcar alignment (including the trail option) is Plan A, of course.  There is a Plan B--the "enhanced bus" option.  In this option, no Streetcar is built; the ROW is used for a trail, and limited-stop bus service, augmenting or replacing the 35, runs along the OR43 corridor, with limited stops north of Lake Oswego.  Unfortunately, the "enhanced bus" option runs along 10th/11th through downtown, rather than the transit mall, a flaw which the proposed Streetcar alignment shares.  I suspect this routing was done to make the "enhanced bus" option a substitute for the Streetcar option--but if you're a cynic who thinks the bus option is only there because the law says it has to be, and isn't being seriously considered--this routing sure looks like a poison pill.

There is also "Plan Zero"--no-build.  Here, no capital improvements are made to either rails, trail, or bus infrastructure, and the 35 runs as before.  It is on TriMet's list of Lines To Promote To Frequent Service, but the agency is having trouble maintaining current levels of service.

Plan C?

Let's assume, for a moment, that we decide Lake Oswego Streetcar isn't a great idea--but that transit in the OR43 corridor is going to be a pressing concern in the next few decades.  Assume that population and traffic projections a few years hence are accurate, and OR43 will no longer be a convenient route for busses to use, due to congestion.  For riders from Oregon City, switching to the 33/MAX will be an option, but for riders from West Linn, that won't be.

Ignore the trail, for a bit.

And assume that the funds that the region were planning to use on the Streetcar could be invested on some other piece of infrastructure in the region.  What would be a good option?

Transit bridge across the Willamette, perhaps?  

In Metro's high capacity transit plan, one of the longer-range transit corridors connects Clackamas Town Center with Washington Square.  While the endpoints are strange--there is a substantial amount of workers living in places like Happy Valley, and working in Washington County.  Right now, commuters south of town who need to cross the Willamette must either head south to Oregon City, or north to downtown.   Imagine the potential of a transit bridge between Lake Oswego and Oak Grove.

  • Should either traffic congestion or operational efficiencies require it, the 35, 36, and 37 could use the New Bridge and connect with Milwaukie MAX at Park Ave. or Milwaukie TC.  (Some service should probably continue along OR43; but MAX could become the primary conduit).  A MAX line should be able to whisk commuters downtown faster than the proposed Streetcar line would.
  • Many of the east/west lines terminating or passing through either the LO and Milwaukie TCs (such as the 36, 78, 29, and 31) could be "linked up" as through east/west lines.
  • While this proposal doesn't assume that rail goes across the bridge at its opening, it does assume that this is an eventual possibility.   One possibility would be to build the bridge as an extension or branch of Milwaukie MAX, and put rails and catenary on the bridge at the beginning.  But it isn't necessary for the purposes discussed here.
  • The bridge would naturally include facilities for pedestrians and bicycles.  Not for automobiles, however.
There are several potential locations for such a bridge.  The most likely option would probably be adjacent to the existing railroad bridge, or possibly even replacing it.  (One evil thought:  build a new rail bridge upstream connecting the Willamette Shoreline tracks with the Samtrack rails; run P&W freights on THAT, and convert the existing line between Lake Oswego and Milwaukie to exclusive transit use.   I'm sure folks in Riverdale would love that...)   Another option would be somewhere in the Courtney/Terwilliger corridor; or possibly the Oak Grove corridor.  (Both of these latter crossings would be south of the planned terminus of Milwaukie MAX; though both are likely to attract more NIMBY opposition).

A recent estimate of how much such a bridge would cost was in the order of $200 million (courtesy of frequent commenter RA Fontes, who has been advocating such a bridge for a while now).   Given a 1.5x match, that would mean $80 million out of local coffers to build it.   But given the escalating pricetag of the Lake Oswego streetcar, this seems like a much better deal for taxpayers, who would be getting a more regionally-important facility than the proposed Lake Oswego streetcar line.

What about the trail?

So far, I haven't discussed the trail portion of the project.  If either no-build is done, or the "enhanced bus" option is selected, it is generally assumed that the Jefferson Branch ROW will be used for a trail instead.  For portions of the line, there are issues with the existing easement, which might require use of eminent domain to fashion a new easement.  On the other hand, a new bridge across the Willamette would provide trail users a new option:  connecting to the Trolley Trail and the Springwater trails on the east side of the river. 
What about Johns Landing?

One remaining question:  What about Johns Landing and the rest of the Macadam area?  The current Streetcar planning has identified a minimum operationally-usable segment (MOUS) from SoWA down to Nevada Street; with the possibility of extension to and across the replacement Sellwood Bridge when built.   I'm in agreement with blogger Erik Halstead--a frequent TriMet critic--who opines that building the MOUS makes sense.  Having Streetcar run extended down towards Johns Landing would provide opportunities to speed up the 35, 36, and 43 through the area.  However, were this to be done, I expect that this would be a typical Streetcar project, not a rapid transit project, and should be designed and funded as such.  Things like more frequent stop spacing would be appropriate, as the line would no longer be charged with getting Clackamas County commuters to the office.

Impedance matching and transit

This morning, the DHT takes a minor break from discussion of the Lake Oswego transit project, to emphasize a fundamental principle of transit design (one that certainly has relevance to Lake Oswego, and beyond).  Yours truly hold an MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Oregon State University, which implies that I know something about electricity and electronics.  (That said, I've spent the past fifteen since graduation doing software, which implies that I've probably forgotten most of it).  However, one important principle of electrical engineering, that of impedance matching, has significant relevance by analogy to transit.

Impedance is defined by Wikipedia as a quantity which "describes a measure of opposition to alternating current (AC)."  While I have some quibbles with that particular phrasing, they're off topic here on the DHT--the definition given is good enough for the purposes of this post.  Impedance can be broken down into two fundamental components: resistance (opposition to non-changing, or direct, current--always a positive number), and reactance (opposition to changes in current, which can be positive, negative, or zero).  Electrical circuits can be modified by a source (typically a voltage source, such as a battery or power supply), and a load (the device that does whatever work or performs whatever function is desired).  Both the source and the load have an impedance associated with them, and the behavior of the circuit depends on the impedance of both components.

Why impedance matters

In many applications, it is important that the impedance of the source and load be matched--a condition which occurs when the resistance of source and load are the same, and the reactance of source and load sums to zero.  Impedance matching is required for maximum transfer of power from source to load, and for minimizing "reflections" of the signal (which can disrupt communications).   The latter phenomenon is too complicated to do justice to in a post for laypersons; but the former can be be explained easily enough:  The power consumed in a circuit element is the product of the voltage drop across it, and the current which flows through it:  P = VI (I is used for current in the field of electronics--C is used for capacitance).   The current through a circuit element can be computed by dividing voltage over impedance: I = V/Z (Z = impedance; don't ask me why).   The total voltage of the source is distributed across the source and load impedances, V = VS + VL; where VS = VZS/(ZS + ZL) and VL = VZL/(ZS + ZL).  Thus, doing a bit of math produces the result that the power dissipated by the load is ZL (V/(ZS+ZL))²  Given that the source impedance ZS is often fixed, a bit of calculus shows that the load power is maximized when the load impedance ZL is set to match it. 

One problem with impedance matching is that while load power is maximized; so is source power, such circuits are only 50% efficient.  Efficiency can be computed by dividing load power over total power, under the assumption that only load power is used for doing useful work. To maximize efficiency, one deigns so that the load impedance as high as possible.  This limits the amount of power which can be delivered to the load, but in many cases that doesn't matter--if you have a 60W light bulb, it doesn't matter that the household circuit may be capable of delivering 2kW--you only need 60W to make the thing work.  Maximum efficiency is achieved by making the load impedance as high as possible relative to the source impedance.   This technique, impedance bridging, is generally only used in situations where reflections aren't an issue. 

On the other hand, if the load impedance is lower than the source impedance, to much power is wasted in the source or the interconnecting wires.  This is generally not a useful case, and in extreme cases is known as a "short circuit".

What of the source impedance itself? The source impedance of a power supply is in many ways, a figure of merit--lower is better.  A power supply with a lower source impedance will be able to deliver a higher maximum power for a given voltage level than a supply with a higher impedance; and will waste less power no matter what the load.  Unsurprisingly, designing power supplies with very low impedances is difficult and expensive. 

(EEs may note that I'm glossing over power supplies modeled as current sources--and they would be correct.  I'm glossing over lots of things...) 

What does all of this have to do with transit?

Good question. 

When designing a transit line, there are several important factors to consider:
  • The nature of the route (including the vehicles): 
  • The nature of the stops (distance between, amenities, platform height, etc)
A transit vehicle or system does two important things:  It stops to pick up or drop off passengers, and it moves to the next stop.   For both functions, minimization of time is required.  It's relative easy to come up with first-order figures of merit for both operations:

First, consider a transit vehicle which is deadheading on its route.  Here, the vehicle traverses the route, running under normal conditions and at normal speed--stopping at traffic lights, stop signs, and for obstacles in the road (other traffic, pedestrians, debris) as necessary--but does not stop to pick up passengers.   We could measure its velocity over the route, under various conditions, to come up with a number we'll call the deadheading velocity, VD.  Higher is better, obviously--and various things can contribute to a higher deadheading velocity:  higher-performance vehicles, a dedicated guideway (no interacting with other traffic), priority at intersections, etc.

Now consider the hypothetical case of a vehicle which traverses its route, stopping at stations and stops in the ordinary manner--but travelling instantaneously from one stop to the next:  when the doors close at one stop, the vehicle and its passengers are teleported instantly to the next needed stop.  We add in a per-stop penalty for to account for acceleration and decelation as well. Assume that each stop is serviced normally--if little old ladies need to fumble through their purse to find exact change, that time is counted.  Were we to sum up all the stop times (averaged over numerous runs), and divide them into the length of the route, we would come up with a number I'll call the service velocity, VS

Now, let's invert the two parameters, VD and VS.  Science doesn't presently have a good term for the inverse of velocity, so I'll coin one:  lethargy, or L (LS, LD).  The lethargy of something is the amount of time it takes to cover a distance, divided by the distance.  Why do we use lethargy?  Because, lethargy is additive.  The total lethargy is simply the service lethargy plus the deadheading lethargy.  (One can invert the total lethargy to get the total velocity, or an approximation thereof--keep in mind, this is a crude model).  If it isn't obvious already; lower is better.

How lethargic is good?

What values of lethargy are good?  Bad?  Typical?  First, lets consider some typical LD values for various modes of transportation:
  • Jet air travel:  < 0.12 (>500MPH)
  • Turbofan air travel, true high speed rail: 0.2 - 0.3 (200-300 MPH)
  • Second-tier high-speed rail : 0.3 - 0.5 (120-200 MPH)
  • Amtrak, rural freeway: 0.7 - 0.9 (65-85 MPH)
  • Urban freeway (no congestion), grade-separated metro: 0.8 - 1.2 (50-75 MPH)
  • Rural highway: 1.1 - 1.3 (45 - 55 MPH)
  • Urban expressway with stoplights, i.e OR224: 1.5-1.7 (35-40 MPH)
  • Median-running light rail:  1.7 - 2.1 (28-33 MPH)
  • Urban boulevard: 1.8 - 2.2 (27-32 MPH)
  • Urban arterial: 2.4 - 3.0 (20-25 MPH)
  • Light rail, traffic in downtown grid: 2.4 - 3.0 (20-25MPH)
  • Residential streets: >3.0 (<20MPH)
Now, LS.
  • Point-to-point auto travel: < 0.1 
  • Point-to-point commuter bus/rail, >10 mile trip:  < 0.5 (assuming 2.5 mins for loading and unloading)
  • Point-to-point air travel: <300 mile trip (40 mins to load, 20 mins to unload plane): >0.2
  • Point-to-point air travel: <300-600 mile trip: 0.1 - 0.2
  • Point-to-point air travel, >600 miles: < 0.1
  • Corridor commuter rail/express bus (such as WES):  0.1 - 0.3
  • True-metro rapid transit, 1-2 mile stop spacing, 30-40 second dwell:  0.33 - 0.5
  • Transit, 0.6-1 mile spacing, 30 second dwell: 0.5 - 0.8
  • Transit, 0.4 - 0.6 mile spacing, 20 second dwell: 0.8 - 1.3
  • Transit, 0.2 - 0.4 mile spacing (1000-2000 feet), 15 second dwell: 0.6 - 1.2
  • Transit, 750 - 1000 feet, 15 second dwell (i.e. Streetcar):    1.2 - 1.6
  • Transit: 500-750 feet, 10 second dwell: 1.1 - 1.5
For a given service type, by adding the corresponding lethargies for the route type and the stop spacing, you get a good estimate of the overall lethargy--and the overall speed.

What lethargies do riders generally expect or encounter?  Values less than 1.5 are generally rare, but here are some "typical" values:
  • Point-to-point commuter rail: 1.5
  • Corridor commuter rail, i.e. Sounder or WES:  1.8-2.2 (WES is 2.4; due to shorter-than-typical stop spacing and tracks not rated for higher-speed operation).
  • Point-to-point highway-running express bus: 1.8-2.0 (i.e. C-Tran 199)
  • Corridor express bus: 2.2 - 2.6 (C-Tran 105)
  • "True" metro: 1.7 - 2.2
  • Dedicated-guideway light rail:  2.0 - 2.8:
  • Dedicated guideway BRT, limited stop, no signal priority:  2.5 - 3.0 (LA Orange Line)
  • Median-running light rail (i.e. yellow line): 2.8 - 3.2
  • Suburban highway bus: 3.0 - 3.5 (the 33 and 35 are both in this range)
  • Rapid streetcar:  2.8 - 3.5
    • Proposed Lake Oswego streetcar, LO-PSU:  ~3.5 
  • Downtown light rail: 3.5 - 4.0
  • Urban boulevard local bus (ie TriMet 9): 3.5-4.0
  • Local bus: 5.0 - 10.0
  • Portland Streetcar downtown:  ~8.0
Excluding express and commuter services, a common cutoff for rapid transit is a lethargy of about 3.0 (an average speed of 20MPH).  High-quality rapid transit can do 2.0 or better; medium-quality, about 2.5.   Frequent stop (non-express) bus service running in mixed traffic on ordinary streets has a hard-time doing better than 3.0, and mixed-traffic streetcar is unsurprisingly, very slow.

What does this all mean?

The reason I use lethargy, in addition to the fact that it's easy to compute with--is that it's analogous to the electrical property of impedance discussed in the first section.  Furthermore, deadheading lethargy is analogous to source impedance, and service lethargy is analogous to load impedance, in the following ways:
  • Power consumed in the load, and time spent picking up and dropping off passengers, is useful.  Whether a high or a low value is good or bad depends on the application--commuter rail (and point-to-point transport) have very low service lethargies, as the bulk of the time is spent in transit--but don't serve very many people.  Local bus service, on the other hand, has a very high service lethargy--it stops in lots of places--but this limits its effective speed.
  • Deadheading lethargy, like source impedance, is a figure of merit--the lower, the better.  And like source impedance, making it lower costs money.  Time spent in transit is generally time wasted, just as power consumed in the source is wasted energy.  
  • Most importantly, it is useful to match lethargies, just as it is useful in electonics to match impedance.  Building expensive transit infrastructure, but running services with frequent stop spacing on top of it, does not lead to better service, at least as far as this analysis is concerned.  (There may be other reasons--reliability, capacity, sex appeal, whatever, to do so; all of these things are outside the scope of this post).  
  • On the other side of the coin, running limited stop service in mixed traffic is useful--express bus and commuter rail being two examples--but these services generally have low impact.
  • Finally, like impedance, lethargy is logarithmic in its impact.  There's a  bigger difference between lethargies of 2 and 3, then between lethargies of 5 and 7, for instance.  This logarithmic nature makes higher-performance lines difficult and expensive to build; it's far too easy to build too many stops on a line to garner greater political support, sabotaging its technical merit in the process.  (MAX downtown suffers from this problem to some extent--that said, MAX was designed to provide local service through downtown; not to be an efficient means for crosstown trips).

    Thursday, July 15, 2010

    Sticker shock

    In the past weeks, I've a handful of posts about the Lake Oswego Streetcar project, either directly or indirectly.  The tone of the articles has been less than enthusiastic, generally--as I've been searching for the right balance between expanding high(er) capacity transit and serving existing needs.  One thing in favor of the LO project, though, has always been its relatively low cost, particularly including sunk costs.  Back in the 80s, the Jefferson Street Branch line was purchased from Southern Pacific for $2 million, and is now apparently worth around $80 million (though the recent downturn in the real estate market may lower that figure; an earlier article here quoted a figure of $50 million).  Given that the value of the right-of-way could be used for Federal matching purposes (up to a 1.5x match), the project seemed to be a good way to get a decent rapid transit line on the cheap. 

    However, word now comes today from the Portland Tribune (hat tip to bojack via Al) that the price tag for the project is now in the range of $380 million to $458 million.


    Time to break out the Dr Evil photo.

    "Four... Hundred... and Fifty.... MEEELYUN dollars!"

    Only I don't hear the delegates to the United Nations--or anyone else for that matter--laughing.

    The good news, I guess, is that the "local match" is only $47-55 million, excluding the value of the Willamette Shoreline ROW. 

    The bad news is that if the estimated value of the ROW goes down, potentially 1.5x that shortfall must be made up elsewhere.  Also, the match depends on re-authorization of a federal transit funding bill that expired last year; and while Congressman DeFazio has lots of clout in the House; this is the sort of thing that might find a hostile reception in the Senate, where one party seems determined not to spend any money on anything that might stimulate the economy. 

    Of the $50 million or so in cash that local governments must find under the cushions, half of it needs to be spent up-front and would be lost were the project to get canceled (or not approved).  And only if the project is built do any Federal matching funds get provided.

    Of bigger concern seems to be the ever-increasing budget for the thing.  In 2007,  according to the Daily Journal of Commerce, the projected cost of the line was $149 million for the transit portion (and another $83 million for the trail portion).  Now the cost is almost double. 

    To quote Lando:  "This deal keeps getting worse all the time!"

    The good news

    The good news, of course, is that the increasing costs are being made public before construction begins.  This is a sign that the project is at least being run in good faith.  (Compare that to the Portland Aerial Tram, which didn't see its budget triple until construction had already begun; an audit revealed that OHSU managers had kept overruns to themselves until sufficient costs had been sunk, and canceling the project was no longer an option).  Some dollars have been spent on early planning; and more money is to be spent to complete the DEIS; but this is a small fraction of the total cost.  Sometimes, spending money to discover that something is a Bad Idea is necessary.  That said, even with the steadily increasing budget, the out-of-pocket price for a seven mile rail line still is not bad.  Were the existing ROW not available (or not available for a federal match), this project would probably be DOA; but at this point, it's still got legs.


    An important question to ask is "why".  Not just why this project has seen its budget grow faster than dandelions, but transit projects in general.  The US economy, after all, is in a recession.  Lots of people are looking for work.  The spectre of deflation (an outcome which would make rich people very happy, and most of the rest of us suffer) is rearing its ugly head--and as noted above, the Senate (or a particular faction therein) seems to desire this outcome.   Yet the costs to build public works projects seem to be skyrocketing.   It's interesting to compare recent transit rail transit projects in the area:

    • Original MAX (1982-1986):  $214 million, 15 miles (approx $400 million in 2010 dollars, $27 million/mile)
    • Westside MAX (1993-1998):  $963 million, 18 miles (approx $1.4 billion in 2010 dollars, $78 million/mile, including a tunnel)
    • Airport MAX  (2001):  $125 million, 5.5 miles (approx $155 million today, $28 million/mile)
    • Interstate MAX (2000-2004): $350 million, 5.8 miles (approx $400 million in 2010 dollars, $69 million/mile)
    • Green Line/Transit Mall (2007-2009): $575 million, 8.3 miles ($590 million today, $71 million/mile).
    • Milwaukie MAX (estimated):  $1.4 billion, ~7 miles ($200 million/mile, including a bridge)
    A definite trend can be observed... but again, the important question is "why"?  Heck if I know.  I can think of numerous possibilities (most of them no good), but as I have no particular evidence at hand to suggest what may in fact be the cause of the rapid cost escalation experienced in the past decade, I'll just leave it there.


    The express vs rapid transit paradox

    Whenever it seems that a new rapid transit line opens, especially on which runs on rails; there's a bit of a backlash (and sometimes a big one) from riders whose prior service was curtailed as a result of the new transit line, and who view the new line as inferior in some respect.  A particularly common case of this occurs when an express bus (whether a service explicitly signed as express, or one which acts substantially like one) gets replaced with rapid transit--in many cases, the rapid transit line is less "rapid" end-to-end than the express bus it replaced.  While rapid transit service is generally considered more desirable--for those who utilized the express, having it replaced with rapid transit can be a cheese-moving experience.  Thus, there is often much public agitation to not upgrade--hence the paradox.

    In Portland, we saw it when the original MAX line opened in 1986, and numerous Banfield express routes were discontinued (legend has it that one well-known TriMet critic got his start due to this reason).  We saw it again in 1998 when Westside MAX opened--no less august a personality than Tom Hughes, the former mayor of Hillsboro and current candidate for Metro president, has complained that his wife was forced to switch from transit to driving when the MAX line opened and the former Washington County express bus service was canceled.  We didn't see it as much with the Yellow Line (the bus that replaced, the 5/Interstate, isn't an express bus; though Hayden Island commuters were inconvenienced); but we'll be sure to see it if and when the CRC gets built (in whatever form) and MAX gets extended into the Couv.  We didn't see it much with the Green Line; but we're hearing it already with the LO Streetcar and riders of the 35, and I'm sure we'll hear it lots with Milwaukie MAX and riders of the 32 and 33.

    Conflict of interests

    As mentioned in the lead, most transit planners consider a rapid transit line in a given corridor more valuable than an express service.  (Assuming, of course, that demand is there--white elephant projects that don't attract riders are an exception to this principle).  Rapid transit can potentially serve more people, as it has stops all along the line.  (And given the the service is faster than local, the stops are more valuable and attract more riders than a signpost on the corner).   True rapid transit (running predominantly or completely in its own right of way) is generally more reliable than mixed traffic busses or streetcars.  (Of course, when service on a rapid transit line is disrupted, often the disruption is more severe than what happens to busses caught in traffic; busses can often route around problem).  However, none of this stops express bus riders from voicing discontent--for many riders, the only stops which matter are where they get on and where they get off.

    The paradox is a common phenomenon.  As transit needs of a community grow, adding express services to complement local service is a common first step.  Express services serve a specific need well--quickly connecting suburban commuters to job centers during peak hours over distances where local service would take too long.  They generally are found in important transit corridors--the sort of corridors which eventually get converted to rapid transit.  And while a limited-stop rapid transit line provides overall superior service to the community--making transit a more viable choice for many along the corridor in question--for end-to-end commuters it often results in a longer trip.

    Rapid transit has other disadvantages over express service for these customers, as well.  True express lines, such as C-Tran's express busses to Portland, often use vehicles in coach configurations, where seats are maximized and standing room minimized or eliminated.  Express services often have a demographic mix that suburban commuters find preferable (i.e., other suburban commuters); many users of express lines find the wider demographic mix present on more comprehensive services to be disconcerting.  (Whether for good reason or for bad).  The lack of stopping and starting and opening and closing of doors can make for a more comfortable ride.

    Two halves don't always make a whole

    Even replacing a local line with a rapid transit line can raise hackles; particular if the rapid line is shorter than the local it replaces.  Such is the case for the two primary bus routes connecting Portland with Oregon City, a third-ring Portland suburb located 13 miles (22km) south, upstream on the Willamette River.  The 33/McLoughlin plies the eastern shore of the river mostly along OR99E, serving the communities of Milwaukie, Oak Grove, and Gladstone before reaching Oregon City.  The 35/Macadam travles on the opposite shore along OR43, through Lake Oswego, Marylhurst.  (Two other bus routes, the 32/Oatfield and the 34/River Road, also serve the area; neither does the volume of the 33 and 35).  The 35 continues past downtown Portland into North Portland; that segment of the route is not considered in this article.
    Of course, none of these Oregon City-bound busses is an express bus.   Both have local service stop patterns, but move quickly, and are able to cover the 13 mile distance in 45-50 minutes, depending on traffic.  And as indicated above, both have rail lines planned for the corridors they serve--but only halfway.  Milwaukie MAX will open in 2015, connecting Portland with Milwaukie; and the LO Transit project is investigating opening a rapid streetcar line between Portland and Milwaukie, possibly opening as early as 2017.  When these lines are opened, the 33 and 35 will be converted to feeders terminating at the Milwaukie and Lake Oswego transit centers, requiring Portland-bound passengers to transfer.  (A few other weekday bus lines, such as the 34 and the 36/South Shore, presently end at the transit centers and require transfers to the 33 and 35 respectively). 

    In the case of Milwaukie MAX, the new transit service will undoubtedly be faster than the bus.  The planned line has wide stop spacing (.7 miles, or 1.1km between stops on average).  On the LO side of the river, the Streetcar actually will be slower than the bus presently is, although by not much (Metro estimates that increased traffic on OR43 will vastly slow down any bus service on the highway).  Planners are predicting significant increases in usage on both sides of the river, due to the new lines better attracting riders from neighborhoods along the way--predicting up to 6000 riders/day on the Streetcar, and up to 27,000 riders per day on Milwaukie MAX.  Some of those will be users of existing bus services, but the existing busses do not account for those estimates; they include significant numbers of new riders as well.

    So is it worth it?

    So is this a good idea?  Experience has shown, over and over, that replacing express service with well-designed rapid transit does produce overall increases in ridership.  Some of this is simply the value of rapid transit; some of this may be due to conversion to rail, especially for communities where it is viewed as a more prestigious service.  (I don't care much about the bus/rail debate, but there is evidence, albeit disputed, that a rail preference exists--I will not attempt to justify it).  Of course, a key word is well-designed; replacing local bus service with poorly designed rapid transit is not likely to have the same benefit.

    Turning again to the #33 and #35, a stronger case can be made IMHO for the Milwaukie MAX project.  Cost is a major issue, but the line appears to be designed to supply a high quality of service--and many of the infrastructure enhancements (particularly the Caruthers bridge downtown) are valuable for many other reasons.   In addition, prospects for extending the line to Oregon City are good.  The Lake Oswego line is harder to defend for several reasons--it essentially turns into local-stop service closer to downtown, and the predicted number of additional ridership is fairly low; and the geography on the west side of the river makes further extension of the line south very unlikely.  OTOH, the cost for this project is far lower, given that the right-of-way is already owned by the government, and the design standards of the project are far lower.  Some things could be done to mitigate this, but would require significant operational and possibly cultural changes within TriMet. 

    What about bus rapid transit?

    One proposal which is often made, when rail-based rapid transit projects are considered:  What about building bus rapid transit instead?   The term "BRT" is often a weasel-word, and can refer to anything from minor infrastructure improvements and a new coat of paint, to fully-segregated busways with special-purpose rolling stock with performance that rivals (and in some ways, exceeds) rail.  Assume for the purposes of this discussion that similar amounts of money are available for BRT as for rail.

    In many cases, BRT may be an excellent alternative.  If existing routes simply shift to a busway rather than terminating at a transit center, the need to transfer can be eliminated; and the cumulative effect of numerous bus lines converging on a busway trunk can lead to excellent levels of service on the trunk line.  Busways also have the advantage that it's far easier to implement express service than it is on rail; busways simply need pullouts at stops whereas combined express/local service on a rail line often requires additional tracks.  On the other hand, "open" busway systems, where local busses use the busway for part of their route, may not be as efficient as dedicated (closed) systems with special equipment optimized for rapid transit.  (Hybrid systems are of course possible.)  And if environmental issues are a concern, electric-powered rail is "cleaner" than combustion-powered busses.  (Trolleybusses and other electric busses are an option, but these often require their own infrastructure--infrastructure which Portland lacks.  Power systems used to drive rail are not compatible with trolleybusses, which need more complicated and less-reliable dual-wire catenary systems).

    BRT would have been an excellent choice for the Milwaukie MAX line, as the Willamette River "funnels" many bus lines into the McLoughlin corridor.  It also would probably be an excellent choice for Barbur Boulevard, for similar reasons (geography funnels numerous lines into the Barbur corridor from Burlingame to downtown).  On the other hand, BRT was probably not a viable option for Lake Oswego, given the existence of an available rail right-of-way, and limitations on the ability to widen OR43 to accomodate dedicated bus infrastructure.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    Rapid streetcar, Portland, and the rail divide

    There's an article on the light-rail advocacy site lightrailnow.org, which introduces a concept known as Rapid Streetcar.  Rapid Streetcar, as they define it, is a rail transit system which is a hybrid between "traditional" mixed traffic streetcars, and light rail systems.  With a rapid streetcar design, streetcar-class rail vehicles (which weigh considerably less than light rail vehicles) are operated in exclusive rights-of-way in urban areas, often in lanes which were previously dedicated to automobile service, and often in multi-car trains.  The page goes into detail on the advantages (lower construction cost, ability to run in mixed traffic if necessary, the possibility of tram-train like operation) and limitations (speed and capacity) of such systems, and discusses Portland's rail systems in great detail.

    Of course, there's one catch:  Portland doesn't HAVE any Rapid Streetcar.  The article primarily uses Portland's streetcar system as an example of how such a system might be designed (focusing on details such as construction costs and techniques, station design, etc), while glossing over the fact that Portland Streetcar is, at present, a mainly mixed-traffic circulator system, not something marketed as rapid transit (or rapid anything).  Portland does have rail lines with service parameters that satisfy the conditions for Rapid Streetcar--but those lines (such as the Yellow Line) are running light-rail rolling stock, not streetcars.  There has been some discussion of Rapid Streetcar in Portland, but currently none exists.

    As the article notes, "Rapid Streetcar" is not really a novel idea; many European tram systems have been operating in this fashion for decades.  It is more novel in the American context--the legacy streetcar systems which operated in the early 20th century before being replaced with busses and the automobile, were almost always mixed-traffic types; and many of the "revival" streetcars, such as the Portland Streetcar, are this way as well.

    The Portland rail divide

    The Portland metropolitan area has three transit rail systems in operation; this post compares the three systems (along with two "full metro" systems in other West Coast cities).  The remainder of the present article will ignore everything but MAX and Portland Streetcar.
    In many ways, the two systems are dramatically different.  MAX is a traditional light-rail system, operated by TriMet--a mobility-focused transit agency which also provides bus service to the bulk of the metro area.  MAX uses light-rail class vehicles (such as the Siemens S70), usually running in two-car trains.  It runs almost exclusively in its own right-of-way, and in many places it is built to "light metro" standards, with grade separation or guarded crossings.  Other than the downtown area, average stop spacing on MAX is generally 3000-3500 feet (1km); and average speed on the system is about 20MPH (32km/h).  MAX operates on the proof-of-payment system, with tickets vended at platforms.  The fare structure for MAX is the same as for TriMet's bus system (with the added benefit of the Free Rail Zone downtown); service is branded similarly to the busses (both use the same colorschemes); and MAX is not marketed in any way as a premium or upscale service.  (Many of the MAX lines pass through parts of town regarded as blighted, and the "MAX causes crime" meme is unfortunately popular ).   

    Portland Streetcar, on the other hand, is a different beast.  While TriMet drivers drive the trains around, the Streetcar is owned and operated by Portland Streetcar Inc (PSI), a subsidiary of the City of  Portland.   Unlike TriMet, PSI is focused on urbanist and community-development outcomes; on "placemaking".   The Streetcar uses streetcar-class vehicles (the Skoda 10T) operating in single-car units, and provides local circulator service through downtown Portland.  It operates in mixed traffic, mostly on streets of secondary importance.  Average stop spacing is about 750' (230m), or about once every three blocks.  Average speed is less than 7MPH (11.1 km/h); slower than many busses.  The Streetcar also uses the same fare system as MAX and the busses (and passes and transfers are interchangeable between the systems)--however, the Streetcar is marketed differently, with a brightly-colored colorscheme and styling aimed at more upscale riders.  Onboard amenities are similar.  The Streetcar also operates on a proof-of-payment basis, albeit with ticket machines onboard rather than at platforms.

    Divide is perhaps too strong a word--as the two systems coexist fairly well.  The two agencies are on friendly terms, despite differing missions, and the systems are presented to the public as parts of a unified transit system.  Presently, they cross each other in two places (at Portland State University, and where the Yamhill/Morrison and 10th/11th couplets intersect), with a third crossing near the Portland Convention Center coming in 2011 when the Streetcar Loop project opens.  However, at the present time, the two systems are completely separate--separate routes, seperate rolling stock, separate yards and maintenance facilities, separate organizations, and separate missions.

    Change coming

    The opening of the Streetcar Loop project in 2011 won't change any of this.  However, when the Milwaukie MAX line opens in 2015, a shock to the system will come.   The new Caruthers bridge, which will ferry MAX across the river south of downtown, will also carry Streetcars as the Streetcar Loop project is completed to become a real (bidirectional) loop winding through both sides of the Willamette River.  For the first time, MAX trains and Streetcars will share the same tracks while in revenue service.  They won't share any stops--Streetcars will pass through the MAX stop on the west side of the bridge without stopping (and the lines diverge immediately after that), but they will share rails and catenary.

    The next planned Streetcar project after the Loop is the Lake Oswego transit project, which everyone expects will select Streetcar as the LPA (locally preferred alternative).   This project, planned as a southward extension of the current Streetcar service down the Jefferson Branch line, is being billed by some  (including local planners) as Rapid Streetcar.  However, the predicted speed of the line--approximately 19MPH (30km/h), is on the low edge for a rapid transit line.  South of South Waterfront, the line is projected to be fairly fast; however the present Streetcar route takes ten minutes between OHSU and PSU.  (Planned enhancements to the line should shave a few minutes off that; however the numerous stops along this stretch of the route limit the impact of track improvements).   Further, the proposed project may suffer from capacity issues--as much of the route is single-tracked, effective headways are limited to 12 minute (5 trains per hour), or 700 pphpd.  Finally, one other significant issue is that whereas the #35 bus (which the line intends to replace) travels the transit mall, the Streetcar extension would instead stay on the existing alignment along the 10th/11th couplet--a five block difference.  Many of the commuters from West Linn who use the #35 either work downtown or plan to transfer to another line on the Mall; and are not well-served by a line which instead takes them to the Pearl District).

    Streetcars on the Mall?

    Given all that--what if the Lake Oswego Streetcar, instead of being an extension to the existing line, were instead routed on the Transit Mall?  Doing so would provide the following advantages (albeit with the indicated conditions).

    • Better replace the #35 service than a 10th/11th alignment.  Operation on the Mall would deliver riders to the core of downtown Portland's commercial district, and to all the transfer opportunities found there.
    • Would make running trains--i.e. more than one car--a possibility.  As the current Streetcar alignment north of PSU runs through existing, mature urban fabric, and in mixed traffic, the service is limited to single-car "trains" in order to minimize impacts.  The transit mall, OTOH, already serves 2-car MAX trains (equivalent in length to three Streetcars) with no difficulty.  Much of the line south of PSU could more easily be expanded to accommodate larger vehicles; permitting the LO line to have capacities closer to what MAX can deliver.
    • To further improve performance, the proposed Harbor Drive transitway (connecting the new Caruthers bridge to Lincoln Street) could be modified to accomodate Lake Oswego bound streetcars, thereby skipping many of the intermediate stops
    In short, running the LO Streetcar on the Transit Mall would separate the local service (the existing Streetcar line and the loop) from the rapid transit service (the Lake Oswego line).

    Now how much would you pay?

    [Map courtesy of City of Portland/thetransportpolitic.com ]

     But wait...there's more!

    Last year, the  City of Portland and Portland Streetcar published a draft Streetcar System Plan, which was passed by the city council last September.  The plan is a document outlining where Streetcar service might go in the city of Portland in the future.  The document isn't intended to articulate future corridors for high capacity transit (see here for that); and limits its coverage to the city of Portland, not to the suburbs.  Most of the routes proposed are local circulators such as the current Streetcar; however the document does address Rapid Streetcar, further dividing it up into "enhanced local service" and "priority service", proclaiming the LO Streetcar extension to be the latter.  The Plan has this to say on the subject:

    The rapid streetcar concept aims to combine the best features of streetcars and light rail transit (LRT) to achieve faster commute/travel times than streetcars and lower system costs than light rail. Streetcars are typically designed to go shorter distances in central cities, densely populated mixed-use centers and neighborhoods. Streetcars are also typically designed to operate in mixed traffic, preserving street traffic patterns.

    LRT typically functions as regional high-capacity transit (HCT), generally traveling in a separated right-of-way with relatively fast-moving, larger-capacity vehicles designed to rapidly transport large numbers of people between suburban and urban centers.

    The rapid streetcar concept would apply some of the LRT features to streetcars to improve travel times while keeping capital costs lower. It would combine features of a semi-exclusive transitway and transit priority features within the street right-of-way to achieve faster travel times and maintain lower system
    capital costs. This could introduce two new levels of service to Portland’s system.

    Several corridors under consideration for the Streetcar System Concept Plan are prime candidates to introduce Enhanced Local Service. These corridors are major arterials with 4 to 5 lanes and on-street parking such as NE Sandy Boulevard and SE Foster Road.  In Portland there are potential corridors for introducing priority service. Currently, the region is undertaking a study to extend the existing streetcar system along a former railroad right-of-way from the South Waterfront District, through Johns Landing and south to Lake Oswego. SE Foster Road and 122nd Avenue are also candidates where there may be sufficient right-of-way width to introduce streetcar priority lanes.
    I encourage all readers to download and read the draft plan--even if (or especially if) you think local service streetcars are a boondoggle or a weapon of gentrification.  (The document probably won't change your mind, but it may make you angry).

    In the plan, numerous potential Streetcar corridors are considered.  Several screening functions are applied to exclude those which are technically unfeasible, unlikely to draw sufficient ridership, or unlikely to promote transformative land use outcomes; with the remaining corridors grouped into tiers.  More filtering was performed, with the following routes surviving all the cuts:
    • MLK from Alberta to the Loop.
    • Thurman/18th/Burnside/Sandy.  NW 18th/19th couplet, south to Burnside, east to Sandy to the Hollywood District.
    • The loop
    • The current route, with extension to Lake Oswego.
    • Sellwood Bridge, between LO route and Tacoma Street MAX.
    • Gateway Loop
    • Goose Hollow to 3rd/4th to Morrison Bridge to Belmont to 39th to Hawthorne to 50th. 
    • Broadway/Weidler from loop to Hollywood.
    The plan assumes that the Powell Boulevard and Barbur Boulevard corridors will be constructed as light rail, and assumes that no sharing of track between MAX and Streetcars will occur, other than on the Caruthers Bridge.  If, however, Streetcars could use lower-speed MAX routes to get around, it may be possible to eliminate some redundant routes downtown, or use the existing Ruby Junction yards to service the Gateway Loop.  For example, if connectivity to St. Johns were desired, but extending the MLK line were thought to be difficult, it might be possible to lay tracks from Interstate only, and then have trains run down the Yellow Line--or even augment (or replace!) the Yellow Line itself with streetcar service, as a way of dealing with the Steel Bridge bottleneck.

    Technical difficulties

    How technically (and politically) feasible is any of this?  Both systems use the same rail gauge (standard) and power system (overhead catenary supplying 750VDC), so two key requirements for mixing the systems are satisfied.   The following technical issues and restrictions do exist:
    • The signalling systems are presently different; unfortunately, I'm not aware of the technical details, or how much it would cost to retrofit them to be the same (I imagine the Streetcar, with far fewer miles of track than MAX, would be converted). 
    • The Skoda streetcars are about 8" narrower than MAX trains--introducing a 4" or so platform gap were a Streetcar to use a platform designed for MAX.  That gap, too wide to simply instruct users to mind, could be bridged with platform extenders.  (For obvious reasons, MAX trains cannot use Streetcar platforms--but there are many other reasons MAX can't run on streetcar routes).
    • MAX trains are too heavy to run on the current Streetcar route, which has a smaller railbed.  (The use of the lighter-grade construction is one thing that produces the cost savings attributed to Rapid Streetcar).  Nor could MAX take many of  the corners successfully.  
    • The Skoda 10T streetcars have a top speed of 40-45MPH (64-70km/h); making their use on the high-speed parts of the MAX network (anything west of Goose Hollow, the I-84, I-205, and Airport segments, and the Milwaukie Line south of Holgate) inappropriate.  Were a faster vehicle available, this would not be an issue.
    • According to Curt Ailes at Huston Street Racing, who interviewed Oregon Iron Works president Chandra Brown on the subject, the 10T streetcars cannot be coupled for in-service operation.  They have couplers, but Ms. Brown suggested that they aren't suitable for operational use.  (Perhaps they are only for towing the streetcars; but the model in question lacks the electronics for tandem operation of multiple units, and/or the horsepower for one to pull another).  Skoda makes other streetcars (such as the 14T and its successors) which can be formed in trains; but current practice in the North American streetcar market seems to be to use streetcars are larger busses, and to stick with light rail or metro for high-volume applications. 
    In addition, there may be political objections as well.  As noted above, the two agencies have different missions:  TriMet has an operations focus (claims by its critics to the contrary nonwithstanding), and PSI is focused more on land use.   PSI board member (and Portland planning commissioner) Chris Smith indicated, in a conversation on portlandtransport.com, that the former agency isn't interested in the land use goals of the latter, noting that:

    I think it would be fair to characterize streetcar supporters (including the City of Portland) as believing that as soon as the streetcar system is handed over to TriMet it will stop expanding. So unless TriMet changes its culture and mission I don't see the organizations being merged for a long time. 

    While increased joint operation of the Streetcar and MAX certainly doesn't require a merger between the two organizations, Smith has a valid point:  Many in Portland's transit community take a dim view of Portland Streetcar, in particular it's land-use focus--and may extrapolate negative views towards mixed-traffic rail and transit-oriented development into opposition to streetcars (the technology), even in applications where they make sense from a transit-focused perspective.  And, there are probably many on the TriMet operations side who would look unfavorably to an additional vehicle type to deal with.

    Final thoughts

    Does running Streetcar technology and light-rail technology on the same tracks, beyond the planned Caruthers bridge concurrence, ultimately make sense?  It's hard to say--for specific lines, such as Lake Oswego, a good argument can be made.  Elsewhere in the system, arguments get sketchier.  Long range, it may be the case that a downtown subway is built to handle light rail, and that the surface routes become exclusively served by streetcar.  It may be the case that rapid streetcar is selected for future transit corridors such as Powell, which already runs parallel to light rail.

    It's also possible that the Lake Oswego project won't survive the DEIS process in its current form; and Streetcar technology is for the foreseeable future only used for local circulators--making the whole subject moot.

    But in planning for the future, it's good to keep an open mind, especially in an era where budgets are tight.  And just because a vehicle looks like a streetcar, doesn't mean it has to act like one.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    A closer look at southern downtown Portland

    Today,  the DHT takes a closer look at the southern region of downtown Portland, and surrounding neighborhoods.  It's an area which is being branded the "Innovation Quadrant" by city officials, and which is key to the region's mobility.  Roughly, the area is bounded by the Hawthorne/Madison couplet to the north; by I-450 and the West Hills to the West, by Holgate (and its westward extension) on the south, and by the UPRR tracks and SE 20th or so on the east.

    The Innovation Quadrant (a name I dislike, but we'll go with it) is presently well-served with transport infrastructure.  Highways in the area include I-5 and I-405, US26, and state routes 99W/10, 99E, and 43.  Three bridges presently cross the Willamette in the region--the Ross Island, Marquam, and Hawthorne.  The MAX Yellow and Green Lines terminate at PSU, and the Portland Sreetcar runs through the region.  Numerous frequent bus lines (4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 33, and 54/56) serve the area.  The Center Street bus depot is in the southeast corner.  The UPRR mainline, the Oregon Pacific ("Samtrak") branchline, and the Jefferson Branch line all pass through the area, as do numerous trails (the Vera Katz Esplanade, the Springwater Corridor).  Oh, and the Willamette River itself. 

    Major destinations in the area include OHSU (both the Marquam Hill and Waterfront campuses), the other hospitals in the Marquam Hill complex, Portland State University, OMSI, numerous other cultural institutions, Portland City Hall, and the Portland Building.

    Projects in the works

    Numerous transportation projects are presently planned for the area, or are in the works.  A rebuild of the OR99E viaduct east of OMSI is scheduled for completion next year, as is the Eastside Streetcar Loop project between the Pearl District and OMSI.  In 2012, three "Innovation Quadrant" projects, in support of the Streetcar, will be complete.  Longer term projects include Milwaukie MAX and the Lake Oswego Transit project; and Barbur Boulevard and Powell Boulevard have been identified for rapid transit corridors in the future.  Outside the area under consideration, but important, is the project to replace the Sellwood Bridge (the replacement bridge is planned to have Streetcar tracks, to accomodate Streetcar service to the Sellwood neighborhood).

    By far, the most important project planned for completion in the next decade in the area is Milwaukie MAX.  We have blogged about it before, focusing on the financing and the portion of the line running parallel to OR99E.  But the proposed "Caruthers crossing", a new "green bridge" between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges, linking the South Waterfront district to OMSI, is a key piece of infrastructure for reasons beyond light rail.

    The new bridge

    The new bridge will include facilities for transit--light rail, busses, and streetcar (which will operate in two shared lanes, one in each direction)--as well as for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Private autos will not be permitted to use the bridge.  On each end of the bridge (at SW Moody, and adjacent to OMSI) will be combined light-rail and bus stops (the Streetcar will have its own stops nearby on both sides).  On the west side of the river, MAX will continue north along a viaduct adjacent to SW Moody, cross Naito Parkway at grade and head west on SW Lincoln, until reaching the current end of the Yellow and Green lines at PSU.  On the other end of the bridge, MAX will continue east until it reaches the UPRR tracks, head parallel to the railroad, cross Powell on a new structure, and run down SE 17th.  When the new bridge is complete, the Eastside Streetcar Loop will really become a loop. 

    Several of the frequent service lines serving the area currently cross on the Ross Island or Hawthorne bridges, but will likely switch to the new Caruthers bridge for faster service to downtown.  (The 4, 9, and 33 are obvious candidates); many non-frequent routes will likely also benefit.  In addition, busses running between the Transit Mall and the City Center garage will be able to use the new bridge instead of the Ross Island bridge, potentially saving time if the latter is jammed. 

    Ponies, and future enhancements

    While the transit improvements in the area are laudable, a few other things come to mind:
    • It would be nice were a continuous bi-modal (bus/rail) transitway to exist from the current transit mall, to the Caruthers bridge (and across), all the way to Powell and SE 17th.  Light rail will operate in its own right-of-way, of course, but busses will need to use surface streets east of OMSI to reach Powell or 17th.  On the other end of the bridge, it appears that the "Harbor Drive structure" connecting the bridge to SW Lincoln will be rail only, meaning busses will have to use Moody to Harbor to Clay/Market to reach the Transit Mall.  This will especially become important if Bus Rapid Transit is selected for the Powell or Barbur corridors in the future.
    • Even more in the "I want a pony" category:  Given that two lanes of OR99E are now getting streetcar tracks (albeit mixed traffic); it Would Be Nice were these turned into a transitway as well (no private cars).  Unfortunately, there is a parking lane next to the streetcar tracks in many places, and ODOT has little interest in turning over any lanes on MLK or Grand into exclusive-transit lanes.  (And , businesses and such along neighboring streets aren't terribly interested in having them turn from local collectors into major thoroughfares, whether for cars, busses, or trains).
    • Burying the UPRR mainline would be nice--starting at the northern edge of the Brooklyn Yard.  (So would burying I-5; both of these are a long ways off, of course).  Likewise, a connection between the UPRR mainline across 99E to the industrial site presently served by the Oregon Pacific line would permit that right-of-way to be used for something better in the future.  (Other than Oaks Park and Sellwood, the line doesn't serve any important destinations.
    • A way for MAX trains to move between the westside line and the new Caruthers bridge (besides crossing the Steele and doubling back) would be beneficial, especially if the future Powell LRT line happens to be light rail.

    Sunday, July 4, 2010

    An unorthodox (and maybe crazy), but Really Simple idea for the CRC (and beyond)

    It's time to take a little time off from the Independence Day (in the US) festivities to make a suggestion--that will likely be dismissed as crazy.  It's a proposal for the Columbia River Crossing that will strike many as absurd on its face--especially those who believe that a key goal of the project is to keep the freeway moving at "freeway speeds" for as many hours of the day as humanly possible.  It's an idea that some might not only consider foolish--but unpatriotic.  (The fact that certain ideas for bettering the country are considered treacherous in some quarters is itself idiotic in the extreme, but that's another topic...)

    It's an idea that I can't take credit for... but I'll make the suggestion anyway.

    A few weeks back, I had an email conversation with Jarrett Walker of humantransit.org fame on the Columbia River Crossing, a conversation which led to this post on the controversial project.  Most of the content of the email exchange went into the posting (after much editing and expansion), but one exchange was left out.  That exchange is the subject of this post.

    Why is it so expensive, anyway?

    One reason the project cost is so high is not the cost of the new bridge itself, but the cost to essentially rebuild I-5 and all its interchanges from SR500 on the Washington side, down to the Interstate Avenue interchange on the Oregon side.  That's a distance of almost five miles.  Why are ODOT and WSDOT so eager to pour $4 billion worth of concrete?

    I-5, as currently designed, is functionally obsolete--there are numerous ramps with short distances between them, and ramps with very short merging lanes--particularly the two (from Hayden Island and SR14) immediately preceding the current bridge in both directions.  There's about seven onramps and offramps in each direction over the stretch, including an infamous 400 degree ramp (!!!) from OR99E northbound onto I-5 north.  (You cross over I5,  turn right, pass back under the freeway, and then do a 270 back onto I-5--at which point you have to merge quickly if you're not headed to Jantzen Beach).

    Through the magic of such things as collector/distributor lanes and braided ramps--and a vastly widened bridge, the two state DOTs (or should that be DsOT?) intend to make I-5 once again compliant with Modern Design Standards.  Of course, it goes without saying that this sort of freeway construction requires a big footprint, a lot of concrete--meaning it does a lot of damage to surrounding urban fabric and costs a lot of money.

    Whose design standards?

    On my recent trip overseas, I noticed that many freeways in Hong Kong and China--both places are building them crazy, aren't built to anything remotely resembling US design standards--yet appear to be reasonably safe and functional.  A six lane footprint (3 per direction) was common, ramps were frequently closer than the 2 miles (3.2km) that DOTs and traffic engineers here prefer for ramp spacing on arterial freeways.  So I asked Jarrett, who's been in far more places than I have, about this:

    Which gets me thinking:  Are US standards for freeway design to strict?  Is safety over-emphasized--a common issue with wealthy countries?  (It's interesting to compare China and India--for example, see this article).  Or is this an example of mobility values (in the highway sense of the term) trumping access?  For a highway which penetrates the downtown core of a major city, it seems to me that access concerns ought to predominate--which means more ramps and lower speeds, not designing the thing so that through traffic can blast through at 55MPH (90 km/h) during rush hour, but with a tremendous footprint that wholly disrupts neighboring communities.  Should highway engineers distinguish between "through" freeways" and "access" freeways--right now, pretty much all freeways are classified as throughput-focused arterials. 

    And Jarrett responded:

    Re road standards for merges, etc, I think you're on the right track.  Most standards for these things presume a "design speed," and you can reduce the amount of facility that the standards require by reducing the design speed.  For example, there is some speed (of the entire freeway) at which the southbound ramp from SR 14 would be workable.  What is it?  30 mi/hr?  It seems to me that one no-project solution -- as long as the thing isn't really in danger of collapse -- is just to lower the speed limit to whatever the road geometry can serve.  Throughout the CRC debate, any reference to highway design standards should be met with queries about design speed, and whether that speed is appropriate.
    While I'm not one that favors a "no-project" solution--no project means no transitway (whether bus or rail), no decent pedestrian or bike facility, and continued interference with the Columbia navigation channel.  I'm in the "do something" camp, just not the "build a 12-lane behemoth" camp.

    One foot on the brake, and one on the gas.... 

    So here's a thought experiment:  What if I-5 were signed for a lower speed for a couple of miles; and the DOTs could just do a bridge replacement without having to rebuild the entire freeway as currently proposed?  (Or could build less?) What affects would that have?  Would the existing freeway, sans the current bridge, function adequately at the lower speed?

    Some of the consequences would be:
    • Through trips on the freeway through the 35MPH section would take about 50% longer, assuming in either case, motorists routinely travelled 5MPH over the posted speed.
    • Highway throughput (per lane) might decrease slightly.  A good approximate value for the throughput of a highway is 1800 vehicles/lane-hour, which is easily derived when one considers the two-second rule.  If one vehicle passes by a point every two seconds, that's 3600/2, or 1800 per hour.  A slightly more accurate formula (accomodating for the fact that cars take up room) is 1800*x/(x+5), where x is the speed in MPH--if x is 60, that comes to 1661 vphpl, at x=40 we get 1600 vphpl.  More detailed analysis of this requires traffic engineering chops I don't possess (I'm not that kind of engineer).
    • Lower speeds may turn marginal ramps configurations into acceptable ones.  The length of ramps (and of merging lanes) is dictated by the need to provide room for vehicles to safely accelerate to (or decelerate from) freeway speed, and in the case of onramps, successfully merge with freeway traffic.  For loop ramps such as ramp from SR14 to I-5 south, and any ramp with with metering signals (essentially, all of them in the project area), the portions of the ramp which precede the signal and the straightaway don't count.
    • Lowering the speed limit wouldn't help the fuel economy of combustion-powered passenger cars much, and for some models may hurt slightly.  Two important factors for fuel economy of a combustion-powered vehicle are its aerodynamic properties, and its transmission.  Most passenger cars are sufficiently aerodynamic that drag doesn't dominate fuel economy until speeds exceed 60MPH (97km/h) or so--and given that, transmission gear ratios are chosen so that the car performs well in the highest gear at that speed.  A highway speed which prevents the use of high gear would negatively impact the fuel economy of combustion-powered vehicles.
    • On the other hand, diesel-electric and electric powered vehicles, as well as some types of hybrids, have different considerations  Internal combustion engines generate low torque at low RPMs (and stall outright if engine speed drops too low), and thus need mechanical transmissions or torque converters to keep the engine turning at adequate speed regardless of the vehicle's speed.  Electric motors can generate high torque at low RPMs (includng zero)--thus low-speed operation can occur at correspondingly low engine speeds, with the result that fuel economy doesn't suffer from the need to downshift or idle.
    • For large vehicles, regardless of the powertrain, drag will dominate fuel economy at far lower speeds.  Fuel economy for pickups and SUVs tends to peak at 40-45MPH (65-72 km/h); and larger vans, trucks, and busses peak at even slower speeds.  Any reduction in highway speeds will improve fuel economy for these vehicles.
    • Speaking of such vehicles, they often take a long time to accelerate to typical freeway speeds, causing potentially more disruption when merging in and out of traffic at higher posted speeds.
    • At lower speeds, the storage capacity of a highway increases (the number of vehicles which can be accommodated on a given chunk of concrete).  Storage capacity is maximized at low speeds, which is one reason traffic jams are so popular.

    Where else?

    Lowering the speed limit might help with some other stretches of substandard highway in the Portland area as well.  OR 217, linking US26 in Beaverton to I-5 in the Tigard/Lake Oswego area, is a notorious parking lot, owing to having about 10 interchanges along its 7-mile (11km) length. In Beaverton, there's a stretch of four consecutive interchanges (Denney, Allen, OR 8/10, and Walker) where one ramp's onramp and the following offramp are each about 1000' (300m) apart.   Last year, ODOT considered closing numerous ramps along the freeway during rush hour, to improve the highway's performance--an idea which was unsurprisingly unpopular with Beaverton and Tigard residents.

    The problem with ODOT's proposal is that it focuses too much on mobility, and not enough on local access. While 217 serves an important role connecting the high tech Beaverton/Wilsonville corridor with I-5, it also serves much local traffic as well.  The area doesn't have anything resembling a fully-connected street grid, and the parallel local transit service (WES, and the 76 bus which is well-used, but infrequent and slow) leaves much to be desired. 

    Plans to widen the freeway are in the works; although it is rather early in the process--and simply widening the highway will not fix the problems, as the study report indicates.  The report in question also calls for "interchange improvements"--braided ramps and such--if and when funding becomes available.

    If instead of doing this--could simply slowing down the highway, to make the existing ramp configurations safe(r)--improve traffic outcomes at a fraction of the cost?  End-to-end commute times between I-5 would increase by several minutes in the worst case; but in times of congestion, the effective speed limit on the highway drops dramatically due to the numerous merge/weave conflicts--and that's without an accident occurring.


    It is widely assumed, in the United States, that 55MPH (90km/h) or faster is the default minimum speed for freeways, without good reason otherwise.  Mitigating dangerous road conditions due to geography is often considered acceptable; Interstate 5 is signed at 50MPH (80km/h) through the Terwilliger Curves (a notorious set of S-curves on a fairly steep grade, where the freeway passes through the Tualatin Mountains just south of downtown).  However, the idea of mitigating dangerous road conditions due to excessive access seems to be out of scope--many take it as an article of faith that the proper response in these conditions is to redesign or eliminate the access in question--even if it costs billions of dollars and greatly increases the highway's cross-section.

    But there are plenty of examples of freeways with lower speed limits, many of them labeled as "parkways".  In Washington DC, for instance, one finds the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Clara Barton Parkway--both controlled access, divided highways which look and act like freeways; yet are signed with speed limits ranging from 25-50 MPH (40-80 km/h).  Even the Baltimore/Washington Parkway, a major freeway between DC and Baltimore, is signed at 45MPH for quite a bit of its length.  Yet all three roads are widely used (and widely accepted) by Washington-area commuters.

    Bottom line

    The bottom line for this post is the following:  Freeways perform fine at lower speeds.  The most important attribute of a freeway is not a high speed limit, but controlled access and grade separation--the free flow of traffic.  These attributes make safe travel at high speed possible--highways in urban areas which have high limits but at-grade intersections or unlimited property access tend to acquire reputations as deathtraps--or as ODOT likes to call them, "safety corridors".   However, high speeds are not necessary for a freeway to function as a freeway--and eliminating things like stoplights and driveways will go a lot longer to improving the speed of a highway than simply raising the limit.

    And in the urban context, where the regional mobility function of a highway frequently comes into conflict with the access functions, attempts to simultaneously improve mobility while keeping speeds high, generally are expensive--and interfere greatly with the surrounding community.

    Trading speed (or other performance measures) of for reliability is a common solution in many engineering domains, not just traffic engineering. Yet the tradeoff seems to be something which is regarded as unthinkable by many.

    Which is unfortunate. We could vastly slow down our need to engage in expensive and destructive highway re-designs... if we could simply slow down.

    [edited for typos]