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What it's like to ride a DMU

Westside Express Service, Portland, OR. Flickr image by DarkStarPDX.

One of the details in Mike Sanders’ rapid_rail_presentation is the proposal to use diesel multiple units (DMUs) — a passenger rail vehicle propelled by an onboard diesel engine. This is unique because most commuter rail operators run conventional locomotives pulling (or pushing) conventional passenger rail coaches. Regional examples of conventional commuter rail are Chicago’s Metra, Dallas’ TRE, Minneapolis’ Northstar, and Nashville’s Music City Star).

DMUs are easily confused with electrically-powered light rail vehicles and modern streetcars, and the difference is slight: other than the powertrain and the lack of overhead wires, DMUs that run on freight rail tracks must conform to strict crash regulations. This, unfortunately, makes them heavy. At the same time a DMU can be (arguably) cheaper to operate on routes with light demand.

To make matters even more confusing, one of the few places in America where DMUs operate — New Jersey Transit’s River Line — is actually called a light rail line. We can’t even tell you that the terms “commuter rail” and “light rail” are even 100% distinct, since systems bearing either label can perform similar goals — transporting commuters to and from the urban core — over similar distances. A good rule of thumb, however, is that light rail better serves urban environments with closer stops; commuter rail better serves suburbs with stops spaced further apart… regardless of the vehicle type or fuel source.

We had a chance to ride a DMU transit route on a recent trip to Portland. The TriMet‘s Westside Express Service has been in operation since 2009 and serves four suburbs. We’d like to be the one to tell you that this route was trouble-free to construct and operate, but that would be a lie.

Regardless, the day we rode WES it was glitch-free, on-time, full of passengers, and included in our $4.75 all-day transit pass (unusual for US commuter rail). The sensation was a mash-up of riding any other train with the subtle reminder that a large diesel engine was underfoot (and releasing particulate pollution, although not nearly as much as if all riders had chosen to drive congested I-5 instead). Bikes were onboard — you can’t really avoid them in Portland, even if you tried — and the easy transfer from light rail, plush seats, and a friendly conductor made our brief trip a pleasant experience.

As for the Sanders proposal, the reliance on DMUs for all-day service on multiple lines would indeed make it unique in all of North America, perhaps the world. The company that built the WES vehicles has reincorporated in Ohio — with a Missouri-based partner, no less — and plans to resume production soon. Hopefully they will engineer improvements that make the vehicles more reliable for daily service.

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Why Portland actually means something for KC

After years of struggling with a stubborn Bush administration that refused to consider streetcars a valid form of urban transit, Portland and the Federal Transportation Administration announced a reversal last week.

The flood gates are now open, and that flood includes Kansas City’s streetcar proposal. Finally, Portland actually means something for Kansas City.

Cities across the country have been actively planning modern streetcar lines, mostly with the intent of reviving their urban cores. Moving more transit riders is still critical, but secondary to the economic development motive. While the previous administration dithered, cities moved ahead and proved them wrong; Portland, the darling of new urbanism, was at the forefront.

The money for Portland comes from the FTA’s Small Starts program, which also is funding our Troost MAX BRT line. Federal funding requests must be less than $75 million; Kansas City’s downtown streetcar proposal clocks in at $60 million.

While the federal transportation funding situation is in flux — and will continue to be throughout next year — the viability of a federal match, and potential for an early kick-start via the regional TIGER application, enhance our prospects significantly.

In short, it’s Kansas City’s best shot for initiating light rail service. We discourage readers from signing Clay Chastain’s latest petition, or voting for it should he successfully garner enough signatures. Forcing the city to deal with yet another legal quagmire would distract from the effort to move a real plan forward. If anyone thinks the city would every actually try to implement one of Chastain’s plan, we have a gondola to sell you.

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Commuter rail before (or after) light rail?

Our last post about the regional commuter rail proposal unleashed questions about how the plan relates to the downtown streetcar proposal, and whether (or if) one is needed before the other. We decided to simply lay out some data so you can formulate your own conclusion.

The table below represents America’s “new rail cities” — metropolitan areas that built new rail infrastructure after the expansion of highway capacity and the rise of the private auto. This excludes cities that never dismantled their urban or commuter rail infrastructure in the 1950s (Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco). This provides a more balanced comparison to what KC is up against when implementing services from scratch.

Urban Rail refers to any rail line that is designed to serve an urban core with frequent, all-day service (subways, elevateds, streetcars, light rail). Commuter Rail refers to any rail line that connects outlying suburbs with the central business district with less frequent service focused primarily on rush hours.

The year corresponds to the initial year of operation. Fully-funded rail lines under construction are listed; BRT lines are not.

Metro Area Urban Rail Commuter Rail
Atlanta, Georgia 1979 N/A
Albuquerque, New Mexico N/A 2006
Buffalo, New York 1984 N/A
Charlotte, North Carolina 2007 N/A
Dallas, Texas 1996 1996
Denver, Colorado 1994 2015
Houston, Texas 2004 N/A
Los Angeles, California 1990 1992
Miami, Florida 1984 1987
Minneapolis, Minnesota 2004 2009
Nashville, Tennessee N/A 2006
New Haven, Connecticut N/A 1990
Norfolk, Virginia 2010 N/A
Portland, Oregon 1986 2009
Sacramento, California 1987 N/A
Salt Lake City, Utah 1999 2008
San Diego, California 1981 1995
Seattle, Washington 2009 2003
St. Louis, Missouri 1993 N/A
Washington, DC 1976 1984
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Round-up: Peer cities & modern streetcars

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Other cities applying for TIGER streetcar funds

In light of yesterday’s ordinance supporting a regional TIGER application that includes $6 million for funding of a downtown streetcar, we’ve been keeping tabs on the following cities that are making similar applications for TIGER stimulus funds:

  • Salt Lake City is applying for $35 million in TIGER funds (which augment a local match, unlike KC) to fund a two-mile streetcar line connecting a light rail station and the Sugar House business district.
  • Atlanta has funded a $600,000 study and is teaming up with the local transit agency to apply for as much as $300 million in TIGER funds (the state-wide cap) to kick-start a two-line streetcar system in the “Peachtree Corridor” connecting downtown and midtown. See peachtreecorridor.org.
  • Boise is applying for $40 million in TIGER funds to pay for a 16-block downtown streetcar route that could cost up to $65 million. Operations would be paid for through special fees assessed on adjacent property owners. See boisestreetcar.org.
  • Dallas is applying for $48 million in TIGER funds for a three-mile streetcar line connecting Dallas Union Station and the Oak Cliff Arts District. See oakcliffta.org. Dallas already has a privately-run vintage streetcar line that serves the Uptown neighborhood (and several light rail lines, of course).
  • Fort Worth is also reportedly applying for a similar amount in TIGER funds to jump-start a multi-line streetcar system.

Kansas City’s $6 million request won’t cover the entire project cost, of course, but will likely pay for any upfront design and engineering studies that will be required. KCATA estimate the cost of two-mile route connecting the River Market and Crown Center to be about $100-150 million. A new revenue stream would be needed for operating costs of about $2 million annually, which could be covered by a TDD assessed on adjacent property owners (who stand to gain the most from the system).

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Round-up: Buy American edition

To celebrate our country’s birth, we present a handful of patriotic transit developments:

Enjoy the holiday and stay safe!

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New Chastain petition drive starts Monday

After a failed attempt at working directly with the Parks Board, Clay Chastain is starting another light rail petition initiative. He will be gathering signatures from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at Union Station. Laugh if you must, but Chastain is the only person who’s actually doing something about light rail right now. What better way to keep the city’s feet to the fire than sign the petition again?

No gondolas this time — which we feel was a pretty good idea… ever walked from Union Station to Liberty Memorial? Yeah, didn’t think so — but the electric buses are back, fueled this time by wind turbines on the riverfront. And if you think that’s koo-koo, check out Oklahoma City’s plan again.

And even though the Missouri Court of Appeals struck down Chastain’s legal challenge from the last initiative, he’s still threatening to take that one to the Missouri Supreme Court.

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Senate takes first step on transpo bill rewrite

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (WV) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (NJ) have created a marker for the next federal transportation bill being drafted by Rep. Jim Oberstar (OR). The marker dictates that the next bill:

  • Reduce national per-capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis;
  • Cut national motor vehicle-related fatalities in half by 2030;
  • Cut national surface transportation-generated carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030;
  • Reduce surface transportation delays per capita on an annual basis;
  • Get 20 percent more critical surface-transportation assets into a state of good repair by 2030;
  • Increase the total usage of public transit, intercity passenger rail and non-motorized transport on an annual basis.

What affect does this have on Kansas City’s chances for light rail? Any renewed emphasis on public transit usage, reducing VMT, or cutting carbon emissions would support an increase in funding for urban rail transit, which would in turn help KC’s chances. Most vehicle trips are within cities, so that’s where you get the most bang for the buck (second place would probably be high speed rail in popular 100-500 mile corridors). Current funding formulas would need to change dramatically since they are now focused more on commuting trips and the cost/benefit of serving them with a particular mode.

There have been rumblings, of course, that this is not a top legislative priority this session. We remain hopeful that will not be the case.

As a reminder, KC has a completed Alternatives Analysis for the “north-south” corridor along Main Street. All it takes now is the political will to go back to voters for a new, dedicated funding mechanism or the creation of a public-private partnership (see Portland Streetcar and Detroit M1-Rail).

Oh, and did we forget to mention that Oklahoma City is putting a light rail before voters in December? Yes, Oklahoma City.

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KCATA pleads case for emergency funding

The KCATA and St. Louis Metro transit systems asked a Missouri House committee yesterday for emergency funding to prevent impending service cuts.

KCATA is asking for $14 million to cover shortfalls from reduced sales tax revenues and diversion of transit funds to other uses — all in the face of increased ridership and a recently-enacted fare increase.

The article references a “Ken Kohler”, but we’re pretty sure that it was KCATA’s Mark Huffer doing the legwork at the Capitol, according to information we received from Jeff City.

UPDATE: The article has been corrected and a commenter has confirmed that Bob Kohler was representing KCATA this week in Jefferson City. Also, the request is double the amount of this year’s shortfall, so we’re assuming the $14 million will cover two years of operating assistance, which is in line with most stimulus timelines.

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Could the state save us from the cuts?

St. Louis beats us to the punch again. Short on operating funds? Ask the state government who sits at the bottom of the list for state support of local transit. While Missouri has a shortfall like everyone else, it’s possible that money allocated from the stimulus package could free up some operating support (it would save jobs and continue getting people to jobs, after all).

City Manager Wayne Cauthen — the source of the recommendation for most of KCATA’s funding cut — should contact KC’s state delegation immediately to determine the feasibility of such a request.

Meanwhile, here’s a confirmation from our new US DOT secretary that agencies should not expect operating support directly from the feds.

UPDATE: Response from State Senator Jolie Justus… “The KCATA just made a direct request for stimulus dollars from the state. The KCATA general manager was down here today lobbying for support. I’m hoping both cities will have their requests granted.”

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