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Top 13 transit stories of 2013

First Streetcar Track Installed

1. First streetcar weld, first track installed. Even jaded advocates beamed with pride during the November 14 press event showcasing Kansas City’s first new streetcar rails since 1947 (service ended in 1957). Prior to the event, the first weld and installation of track was completed ahead of schedule thanks to excess materials from a Dallas streetcar project.

2. Dismissed, dismissed, and denied. Two downtown property owners — whose combined annual assessments will be about $1,500 — sued the transportation development district set up to fund downtown streetcar construction and operations. A Circuit Court judge dismissed the suit in March, then the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in August, then the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case on Christmas Eve.  A long-delayed bond sale can now proceed.

3. Phase 2 streetcar advances. Expansion was always in the cards for the initial 2-mile streetcar segment, and the City Council kept its promise by advancing three south-of-the-river corridors for additional study — Main Street Plus (south to Waldo and beyond), 31st/Linwood, and Independence Avenue. Wisely, all three are solid transit corridors today and streetcar corridors of the past. Expansion north of the river is still in planning stages.

4. Transit Emphasis Corridors. It hasn’t been widely reported, but refocusing all bus routes that terminate downtown on just two streets — 12th Street and Grand Boulevard — would result in the highest level of transit service in the entire region (1-2 minute peak headways). Changes could come on Grand as early next year (along with federally-funded bike lanes), while 12th Street will be implemented in tandem with Prospect MAX.

5. Wyandotte County’s 2014 Budget. In addition to seeing completion of TIGER-funded transit centers and improved State Avenue bus stops, Wyandotte County’s Board of Commissioners approved a 2014 budget that contained two hard-fought rewards: larger buses to relieve overcrowding and a brand new route serving Rosedale and Argentine. Props to the Rosedale Development Association and Transit Action Network for their advocacy work.

6. Prospect MAX advances. The next corridor to get MAX treatment is #71-Prospect, currently the second-highest ridership route in the metro. Genius trumped organizational boundaries as the project was grouped with the Phase 2 streetcar expansions to make the first attempted at package funding in FTA history. The project was originally studied as part of the Jackson County Commuter Corridors.

7. CNG buses. KCATA stepped up their transition from dirty diesel to cleaner Compressed Natural Gas buses. The new vehicles entered service in July.

8. Transit Coordinating Council. This newly-formed replacement for MARC’s Transit Committee hasn’t made a big splash with the public, but wonks are all abuzz about much-needed policy shifts that will finally put our region’s resources where our mouths have collectively pretended to be. On tap in 2014: regional fare structure, regional branding, and more focused regional projects.

9. Commuter rail hopes fade. Indifferent railroad executives, a competing ballot initiative from the state (see #13), and a distracting loss on the translational medicine sales tax added up to a sour year for Mike Sanders’ regional rail proposal. The words are still there, but Jackson County leadership is losing patience for action.

10. Missouri’s multimodal transportation plan. In the last legislative session a bill to put a 1-cent transportation tax in front of voters suffered a last-minute defeat at the hands of a few Tea Party extremists. It would have been the first plan to include “multimodal”, and it reflected new priorities of MoDOT’s “listening tour” that proved Missouri residents aren’t just focused on highways (Missouri is at the bottom of the state transit funding list). The proposal has resurfaced as a petition initiative. If it succeeds, it might compete directly with Jackson County and Kansas City transit plans on the same ballot.

11. Streetcar wins $20 million TIGER grant. After being initially rebuffed due to lack of a local funding source, the Department of Transportation finally came through with additional funding for the downtown streetcar. This grant is in addition to the two other federal grants the project won in 2012.

12. Dedication of streetcar maintenance facility. The new streetcar maintenance facility in Columbus Park was dedicated to longtime transit advocate Kite Singleton on November 7. In an appropriate follow-up, a Columbus Park development project Kite worked on for years found financing specifically due to its proximity to the streetcar line.

13. Daily airport service. People aren’t using it much, but the psychological barrier has been broken: You can now get to KCI seven days a week by a single-seat bus ride from downtown. Service runs from 10th & Main between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.

For reference, here’s 2012′s top 12 transit stories.

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Top 12 transit stories of 2012

streetcarneighbors

Yours truly and Streetcar Neighbors co-founder Matt Staub were interviewed by KSHB at the final streetcar election party. Photo by Matt Kleinmann. Full video coverage by Transit Action Network.

 

2012 was absolutely a banner year for transit news in Kansas City. Here are the stories that captured the most attention:

1. Downtown streetcar fully funded. Two elections — one to form the special streetcar district, then a follow-up to actually fund the project — passed with strong majorities. Federal funding, initially expected in the form of a $25 million TIGER IV grant, instead came from two locally-programmed federal sources. Toss in a few cost-cutting measures and you have Kansas City’s first fully-funded rail transit project. Construction starts in 2013, with Phase 2 extensions already being discussed.

2. Bike share launch. Twelve stations, 90 bikes… modest, yes, but beating New York, LA, Chicago, and even Portland to the punch. One might question launching in the middle of a heat wave with little infrastructure to encourage cycling, but new non-profit Kansas City B-Cycle could not be deterred. One of the quickest and highest visibility projects to hit downtown in years, just in time for an Bronze designation as a Bike Friendly Community. Phase 2 expansion to Midtown and the Plaza starts in 2013.

3. Jackson County draft transit plans released. Self-propelled diesel vehicles running along I-70 to Oak Grove using existing tracks, with a second phase running along the Rock Island right-of-way to Lee’s Summit — the dream of County Executive Mike Sanders finally realized after years of talking to anyone who’d listen. Both corridors wrapped up most of their Alternatives Analysis work in 2012. A countywide sales tax vote on a comprehensive transit plan — that includes the two rail lines, more bus service, and a Katy Trail extension into the city — is expected in 2013.

4. KCATA service changes. Major changes to 54 bus routes, the first significant makeover of KCATA’s network in decades, were introduced in phases starting in 2012. Noteworthy changes include improved Main and Troost MAX frequency, service to Zona Rosa, and elimination/consolidation of underperforming routes. Improved service to KCI and a reconfiguring of bus travel through downtown are on tap for 2013.

5. Making the streetcar free to ride. The freshly-formed Kansas City Streetcar Authority voted in September to eliminate fares, at least initially, on the downtown streetcar. Initial ridership estimates assumed most riders would pay, so this change all but assures the line’s success. Turns out it costs money to collect money…

6. Transit education campaign. Commercials and billboards began educating Jackson County residents about the benefits of public transit over the summer. Funded collectively by the cities within Jackson County and administered by the Regional Transit Alliance, the goal is to help residents see how “transit works for us,” even if they don’t plan on using it.

7. Keeping Clay Chastain off the ballot. Chastain has again garnered enough signatures to get on the ballot with an even larger transit plan and the city has rightfully stood up and refused to put it on the ballot… so, of course, he sued, lost, and has appealed. That appellate court ruling is due in the coming weeks.

8. Transit ridership up across the metro. Boosted by a new student pass program (first UMKC, now Rockhurst) and an improving economy, ridership increased over 2011 on KCATA (5.50%) and The JO (8%) even as budgets were tightened and fewer services were offered.

9. The JO service cuts. Expiring/reduced federal funding, reduced state funding, and lack of political will all contributed to another year of service reductions and route eliminations for Johnson County Transit. While pro-transit County Commissioner Steve Klika did win in November, prospects aren’t good for The JO sticking around in its current form beyond 2014. Cuts takes effect in January.

10. October bus driver attacks. Two separate incidents, one of which went viral, were a reminder that bus drivers should be respected and not physically assaulted. Suspects in both crimes have been apprehended thanks to a quick public response.

11. TIGER I grant improvements. $10 million each for North Oak, Metcalf, and State Avenue, awarded in 2010. Service was improved on North Oak as part of KCATA’s recent changes, but challenges are ahead for Unified Government (State) and Johnson County (Metcalf) to uncover enough funding (and place-making) to make their services attractive to more than just the transit dependent. Ever stood around at 110th & Metcalf?

12. Independence breaks off from KCATA. While getting a lower price from vendor First Transit (who also operates The JO, which also split from KCATA in the 90s), the City of Independence has had a few startup issues with their local services. Hopefully 2013 will see improved interoperability with KCATA’s remaining Independence routes.

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County’s transit plan becomes clearer

Last week saw a third set of open houses to narrow alternatives for two transit corridors being studied in Jackson County — East (I-70) and Southeast (Rock Island/MO-350). There isn’t a lot of good news for fans of the original Sanders plan, but there are still some very real opportunities.

First, the bad news: A 1% countywide sales tax only generates $80 million annually. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t much when you’ve got two $500 million rail lines you want to build and operate. Selecting alternatives close to the original Sanders plan leaves nothing for connecting buses (polling indicates this is necessary) or any significant operating budget (absolutely necessary). The tough decision ahead is to pick one corridor to build rail, or just go “all in” with buses.

Pick one corridor that scores best with the Feds and voters. That corridor is probably Rock Island.

Four alternatives remain for Rock Island (see corresponding line colors on above photo):

  • Bus Rapid Transit (similar to MAX) from Lee’s Summit, continuing along Linwood Boulevard and US-71 (purple line)
  • DMUs on existing tracks terminating in the River Market via land adjacent to Union Pacific Railroad’s Neff Yard (orange line)
  • Enhanced Streetcar on new tracks from downtown Raytown, running along Linwood to Main, then sharing tracks with downtown streetcar (blue line)
  • Express Buses running on MO-350 to I-435, then I-70 to 10th & Main (green line)

Of the four, the Enhanced Streetcar — defined as a modern streetcar vehicle that makes fewer stops once it leaves denser urban areas — would be a boon for the city and the county. Most Jackson County voters live in Kansas City; any plan that skips most of Kansas City might be at risk with urban voters. Linwood is denser than most suburban areas these lines would serve, which improves our chances for Federal funding. This alternative also has the strongest economic development potential and would help extend the streetcar line south to the Plaza/UMKC.

Voters also want rail and have been prepped for a plan that includes it, as well as service to Truman Sports Complex and Union Station (the revised DMU option for Rock Island would bypass Union Station). Focusing on Rock Island also preserves that corridor for an extension of the Katy Trail into downtown KC, an absolute necessity for any sales tax plan. While some well-heeled Lee’s Summit residents are opposed to anything resembling a train, none of them are opposed to a bike trail.

As for the I-70 corridor, choosing any rail option on the Southeast line pretty much excludes rail for I-70. Since the remaining I-70 rail option (DMU) now skips Truman Sports Complex, Union Station, and the Central Business District, it would likely not score well with the Feds or voters… leaving us with express buses to build ridership and serve more communities directly.

If you missed the open houses, please leave a comment online.

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Jackson County transit plan still fluid

We thought Jackson County might have made a recommendation for mode and alignment this week, but we were wrong. A third round of public meetings was on the calendar for March, but have moved to April. Don’t expect a final answer until May or June.

The I-70 and Rock Island (MO-350) “Commuter Corridors” have been under analysis as long as the downtown streetcar, but with longer distances and a “common segment” dilemma there is still no indication which direction the final plan will take. One thing’s for sure: it will not be the exact plan that County Executive Mike Sanders proposed… and that’s okay.

At Wednesday’s stakeholder meeting, consultants eliminated the option of running diesel multiple units (DMUs) on Truman Road between Union Station and the Truman Sports Complex (the “common segment” of the original plan). The cost and impacts are too high for that route/mode combination (see above photo). The Terminal Railway trench that runs behind Union Station is also out. DMUs are still in play, but would terminate in the River Market via Kansas City Southern‘s existing tracks. The original Sanders plan [PDF] had DMUs running on Truman Road to connect to the tracks behind Union Station.

Other mode options are enhanced streetcar, bus rapid transit, express bus, or some combination of the four. Enhanced streetcar is defined as a modern streetcar that makes fewer stops and perhaps runs in dedicated right-of-way. An example in this case would be running streetcars down Main Street to Linwood Boulevard, then all the way east to the Sports Complex, where they could run (up to 55 mph) in the Rock Island corridor without mixing with traffic.

With the availability of hybrid streetcars like the demo at Union Station last summer, there is no longer a need to run catenary and poles along an entire route. The hybrids simply charge at station stops and can go as far as five miles before recharging. We always prefer electric over diesel. If both the Jackson County and downtown plans chose the same vehicle type, riders would have a single-seat ride into the region’s top employment and entertainment destination.

While the consultants and politicians figure out the final plan — which will include more than just two rail lines — an education campaign is due to begin. Jackson County cities have ponied up cash to fund that effort through the Regional Transit Alliance using talent who’ve actually done successful transit campaigns before (versus just hiring the same tired locals). Expect ads to look and sound something like this or this. Early polling indicates strong support for a comprehensive transit plan and a 1-cent sales tax.

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The State of KC Transit

We haven’t posted in awhile, so we thought we’d take this lovely Saturday morning and dust off the old WordPress to provide an overview of current transit initiatives in the Kansas City metro.

Streetcar

Downtown Streetcar

After open houses in June, August, and September, the major questions about the streetcar route were answered: it will run on Main Street and will be a modern streetcar. The Regional Transit Alliance was even bold enough to drop a sample vehicle in front of Union Station (in the street, appropriately) and host an all-day “party” around it. That’s how much of a sure thing this project has been thus far.

As of today, the City is trying to convince downtown power players to go along with funding the line locally. The main proposal is to use a Transportation Development District, a state-enabled benefit district used in Missouri primarily to fund road improvements for strip malls. KCATA was successful in getting language added that specifically allows public transportation projects. Once property owners decide they can live with taxing themselves, all they need to do is convince a county judge and get a majority of registered voters within the district boundaries to approve and — BAM! — now you have enough funding for a downtown streetcar with no citywide vote required. A group of neighborhood leaders has also begun lobbying for the TDD.

Separately, the design and engineering phase will be paid for by citywide 2012 PIAC funds. Initial planning was paid for by a federal Alternatives Analysis grant. During design, federal grants may be available (as they have for other modern streetcar projects) for up to $25 million.

The price tag for the project is now $101 million for capital, and $2.8 million annually for operations between Crown Center and River Market.

Jackson County Commuter Rail

While some advocates bristle at Mike Sanders’ commuter rail proposal for Jackson County, we’re a fan. Why? A) Because it acknowledges what KC really is (one big suburb) and B) is the only transit proposal that addresses congestion. While I-70, MO-350, and US-71 congestion isn’t bad compared to other cities, the I-70 route is a curvy dinosaur that isn’t aging well and serious improvements are decades away. The other two corridors have rail assets that are underutilized and would add appeal to an I-70 line (and they are also served by limited commuter bus service today).

Some of the initial alternatives presented were actually express bus and light rail/streetcar options, proving that the project team is exhausting all options before going “all in” on commuter rail.

Word has it that Sanders has backed off an April 2012 election, and that’s a good thing since the study won’t be done until May. Since he isn’t running for statewide office, prospects look good for Sanders sticking around to spearhead a countywide sales tax election in 2013. A trusted political leader is critical for such a campaign.

So are there issues with the original plan? Of course. It was developed by a railroad engineer, not a transit planner. Now that the transit wonks are involved the project is forced with making practical decisions about rail vs. bus and what it might take to win an election in unproven territory (Jackson County has never fielded a countywide transit sales tax initiative).

The first open house was held in September, with a second one tentatively planned for early November.

Bus Rapid Transit (Rapid Ride)

A consultant from Portland recently (and accurately) pointed out that our MAX lines are not Bus Rapid Transit. That’s okay, because we still like the token BRT elements (real-time arrival, limited stops) that MAX added to two high-frequency transit corridors (Main Street in 2005, and Troost Avenue this January). What we do NOT like is the silly routing, lack of off-board ticketing, and limited service in South KC. Plans are afoot to address the Main Street MAX routing now that the streetcar will definitely run on Main instead of Grand.

State Avenue Connex

Meanwhile, three other future MAX corridors are getting love care of the Recovery Act. A TIGER grant is funding improvements to the Metcalf/Shawnee Mission Parkway, State Avenue, and North Oak corridors (transit centers, sidewalks, and signal priority). Since existing service isn’t even close to BRT, the State corridor will be branded “Connex”.

Regular Bus Service

KCATA is in the midst of a massive overhaul of their system, the first phase of which is planned for 2012. Public comments are still being accepted. The JO is moving forward with bus-on-shoulder operations for their commuter routes to downtown KCMO.

Intercity Passenger Rail

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon surprised everyone in March with a $1 billion application for high speed rail across the state, terminating in KC. Having subsidized Amtrak service since 1979, the state has had skin in the game for longer than most, but the proposal wasn’t the slam dunk the Obama administration was looking for. Instead, we netted $31 million to improve reliability (already at 90%) for two existing round-trips. The improvements could make way for a third round-trip and a much-needed reduction in the 5:40 travel time to St. Louis.

In addition to track improvements, Missouri also was part of a grant for new trains to be pooled with other Midwestern states (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan). The current equipment is operable, obviously, but older than many of its passengers.

A state rail plan is being developed this year using input gathered from public meetings.

Meanwhile, an effort to bridge a service gap between Kansas City and Oklahoma is stalled due to a hostile governor, but a service plan that was funded before Brownback took office is due this month.

Intercity Bus Service

Not much news in this segment, but express carrier MegaBus continues to impress with a new-ish stop in Columbia and low advance fares. KC’s top carrier, Jefferson Lines, now offers express service from KC to Des Moines with WiFi and nicer coaches. Old man Greyhound has new vehicles, but has yet to extend its Bolt Bus service beyond the East Coast.

A proposal to move all bus services to Union Station is promising, but held up at City Hall.

Bike Sharing

Bike sharing systems are spreading like mad across the US and KC is not immune. A local off-shoot of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Foundation (BikeWalkKC) is spear-heading a privately funded bike sharing system. A fully-functional demo in June proved that there is interest, even without major bike lanes or trails in the urban core.

Separately, bike trails and bike sharing rated very highly on the City’s crowd-sourcing budgeting site, KCMOmentum. This could lead to serious levels of funding, now that morale has been boosted by a Bronze Level rating as a Bicycle Friendly City.

Car Sharing

UMKC caught everyone off guard this year when it snuck an ordinance through City Council that made car-sharing cheaper by allowing the “arena tax” to be calculated on an hourly basis. As soon as it passed, our urban university made their plans public. Expect a Zipcar or WeCar franchise at two campuses by years end, with a downtown location sure to follow.

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MARC submits rail study application

Talk radio stalwart KMBZ reports that Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders the Mid-America Regional Council has submitted an application to the Federal Transit Administration to fund a formal study of his the rapid rail presentation. We’ll try to get a copy of the application and post it here.

UPDATE: MARC actually submitted the application. Download the Jackson County Regional Alternatives Analysis Application. Kansas City, KCATA, and Jackson County participated in developing the application.

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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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Mike Sanders to appear on KCUR at 11 a.m.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders will be on KCUR’s Up To Date this morning to discuss his commuter rail proposal and other county issues (charter review, elections, taxes, etc.). The show begins at 11 a.m. on 89.3 FM and is also available as a live stream. Here’s a Rapid Rail Presentation of Sanders’ PowerPoint slides, in case you want to bone up before calling in.

We’ll bet you a KCATA monthly pass that Clay Chastain will call in, given that Sanders has refused to face-off in a duel debate over the merits of each plan.

Hat tip to the new KC transit blog, Transit Action Network!

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Clay Chastain at Union Station

Clay Chastain
Photographer Eric Bowers captured Clay Chastain during his petition drive at Union Station on Saturday, which was also National Train Day. Chastain gathered about 1,000 signatures, but announced today he’d be scaling back the proposal.

Earlier in the week, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders made a competing pitch to the Kansas City City Council; the Council tentatively agreed to support the Sanders plan [PDF] and is considering a change in the petition process that would require a financial statement from the city auditor for each petition initiative submitted to voters.

Photo used with permission.

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Live-tweeting the Sanders presentation

We’ll be live-tweeting Mike Sanders’ Regional Rail presentation at the Central Exchange today. Follow along at http://twitter.com/kclightrail, starting at 11:45 a.m. CST.

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