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Portland says KC should use Light Rail instead of Street Cars


“Light rail is where I’d start; I think light rail is the best way for you guys to start, I really do.” –Vicky Diede, Street Car Project Manager in Portland, Oregon, recommends Light Rail over Street Cars for Kansas City

In what’s sure to cause some editorial room heckling, Hearne Christopher at The Star relates his conversation with Vicky Diede, Street Car Project Manager in Portland, OR.

Diede, who’s spent more then 15 years working on Portland’s transportation system, describes how streets cars function:

“Streetcars are inner city connectors, and they’re designed for stopping every two to three blocks,” she says. “The purpose is not to take you from the airport to downtown. Can they do it? Yes, but that’s not their purpose. … I don’t know what the ideal speed is, but (generally) they go very slow — 8 to 12 miles per hour.”

This opinion runs counter to what The Star suggested last week. It also contrasts the differing functions of faster and higher-passenger Light Rail with slower and lower-passenger street cars. Light Rail moves more people farther and faster, while street cars are “an inner city connector.”

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Second Public Meeting recap

First off, there are some details about the light rail route that are almost guaranteed:

  • Street-running for the entire route; no plan to acquire property for the tracks.
  • The northern terminus will be either the Kansas City Water Works [map] or Vivion Road, heading south through North Kansas City on Burlington Street.
  • An option for a new bridge crossing the Missouri River (it’s included in the $600 million price tag).
  • Main, Walnut, or Grand between River Market and Crossroads (straight shot, no loops mentioned).
  • Main Street south to the Plaza (47th).
  • MAX components could be redeployed on another route with federal approval (replacing #71 Prospect, for example).
  • This is the only plan that’s official.

After that is where it gets tricky. The consulting team presented three southern branches and termini for public comment:

  1. 51st & Main/Oak (UMKC).
  2. East on 47th/Volker to Troost Avenue, then south on Troost to 63rd (The Landing).
  3. East on Volker/Swope to Prospect/Bruce Watkins (Park-and-Ride).

Which would you choose? Alignment 1 saves money, especially if you elect to build true light rail (more on that below), but doesn’t address any of the transit-dependent population on the east side of the city (important for a follow-up election). Alignment 2 falls into the city’s most used transit corridor, but only half of it. Also complicating Alignment 2 is the already-approved Troost BRT project due in 2009. Alignment 3 would be well served by future extension possibilities along the Rock Island corridor (to Raytown and the Sports Complex) and reserved transit right-of-way along Bruce Watkins (only from 47th to the Grandview Triangle). Some, however, questioned Alignment 3′s ability to properly serve the east side when most transit options run north/south.

The consultant team also sought input on the technology: traditional streetcar, modern streetcar, or full light rail. The answer basically boils down to speed and price. Full light rail (like Denver and Houston) costs more for two reasons: track depth/complexity and station/vehicle cost. Since the light rail vehicles weigh more and a dedicated lane would be used, utilities would be relocated away from the route. The track bed must also be deeper to support the extra weight. A new or rebuilt river crossing would be required. Benefits of full light rail are improved travel time, safety, and flexibility for future upgrades. Modern streetcars might have a dedicated lane, but the vehicles carry fewer passengers and track bed would have to be upgraded to support full light rail if needed in the future. Modern streetcars (like Portland) are less expensive, carry fewer passengers, and wouldn’t require full stations. Traditional streetcars (like Little Rock and Kenosha) in mixed traffic carry even fewer passengers and are slow; they also didn’t generate much interest last night. We should note that the Portland Streetcar system that is frequently referenced is essentially an 8-mile downtown circulator, not a spine. Portland’s spine is full light rail, called MAX.

There was also some discussion about funding, but we were far more interested in route and technology. If you attended and took notes about the funding issues, please feel free to share them in comments. We’ll also be linking to the meeting materials once they’ve been posted on the KCATA website.

UPDATE: The Star’s Prime Buzz has video from one of yesterday’s sessions.

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Portland's Modern Streetcar

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Google Transit

Google Transit is simply amazing. Note to KCATA and The JO: please call Google to sign up for the transit feed.

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Toronto's streetcar resurgence

A wonderfully written and timely article in yesterday’s Toronto Star talks about the modernization of that city’s streetcar system. Unlike streetcar systems across Canada and the U.S., Torontonians lobbied to save their system from certain death in the ’70s and the 11 remaining routes now carry over 52 million passengers (that’s not counting the passengers carried by Toronto’s light rail, subway, and commuter rail systems).

We post this story not to fan the flames of streetcar nostalgia or to distract from the Chastain meetings, but to offer a potential low-cost option for obtaining used streetcar equipment in the wake of Toronto’s modernization (the city is looking to replace it’s entire fleet of 204 units). We’d also like to remind the city and the KCATA that what will make any system successful here is the speed of operation. This quote sums it up perfectly:

Giambrone knows a way to stop that from happening: giving all streetcars their own right of way, like on Spadina, but also giving operators the power to change the traffic lights in their favour.

In other words, in Giambrone’s world, if you drive, you can wait. “That’s what being a ‘Transit City’ is all about,” he says. “This is why we have to advance the debate.”

To that end, an experiment: Giambrone green-lighted a temporary right-of-way on King St. later this year between Yonge St. and University Ave., wiping away taxi lanes and street parking – for a few weeks, at least. “People will see that the world doesn’t end,” he says. “And then we’ll talk about expanding it.”

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A Cautionary Tale from St. Louis

You get what you pay for, they say. Now St. Louis’ MetroLink light rail is facing increased maintenance costs due to cost-saving shortcuts taken during construction of the original 18-mile starter line from 1993. Cheaper ballast and ties, and second-hand bridges and rail are all forcing Metro to consider major infrastructure improvements before the line reaches  the 20 year mark. Those around in ’93 will tell you that the cost-savings were necessary to overcome opposition to getting the line built at all (total cost: ~$464 million), but were the shortcuts worth it? It’s important to note that MetroLink utilized existing railroad right-of-way and does not run in city streets, a very different proposition than what is proposed in Kansas City.

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The Transit Future

Taking a break from the local scene today, check out this photo gallery from Business Week that highlights some visionary transit systems and vehicles spurred by environmental enlightenment and the peak of oil.

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Smartcards Revolutionize Fare Payment

USA Today recaps some of the rapid advancements in the use of smartcard technology in mass transit. “Tap and go” is the new “exact fare required”. By the time KC launches our light rail system, this could be the default choice for your ticket to ride.

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