Houston’s commitment to light rail expansion has proven to be an influence on the city’s development code, a phrase once considered nearly oxymoronic for the largest city in Texas. Houston’s City Council Wednesday unanimously voted to change the development code to aid “walkable development” in the vicinity of light rail stations.
New rules dictate sidewalks of five feet in width, up from four feet, for new development in most of the city. Incentives for developers of property along the six light rail routes existing or planned include a 15-foot “pedestrian realm” with broad, unobstructed sidewalks and other features intended to create walkable environments.
In exchange for agreeing to create a pedestrian zone, developers will be exempt from other rules, such as building setbacks at a specified distance from the street.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Harris County currently operates the city's 7.5-mile light rail line which opened in 2004, but is committed to adding five additional lines totaling 29 additional route miles.
Denver-area mayors Tuesday stated that if the Regional Transportation District seeks voter approval to double the FasTracks sales tax to complete rail projects by 2017, all rail lines must be constructed as promised.
Thornton, Colo. Mayor Erik Hansen said voters should get a pledge from RTD that if the tax increase passes and a given line is not built as promised, "we will give you your money back. I guarantee that's what my voters are saying."
Denver metropolitan area voters approved a 0.4% sales tax in 2004 to build six new rail lines and advance other transit measures, but RTD’s finance plan currently leaves the agency short by about $2.3 billion in completing the projects by the target date. Declining sales tax revenue, coupled with higher construction costs, have contributed to the current shortfall.
On Tuesday, Denver Regional Council of Governments consultant Ray Murphy said, "We consider (RTD's) sales-tax growth forecast to be the greatest challenge in the financing plan." The plan assumes voters will agree to raise the FasTracks tax to 0.8%, beginning in January 2011, to keep to the 2017 construction schedule.
RTD's plan is to ensure that all FasTracks lines are "shovel ready" — with environmental studies and preliminary engineering complete — for construction to start shortly after voters presumably approve the sales-tax increase in November 2010, said interim General Manager Phil Washington.
Virginia Railway Express has awarded Wabtec Corp.'s MotivePower subsidiary an order for 12 MPXpress® passenger locomotives valued at $44 million. Delivery will begin in the summer of 2010. VRE has an option to acquire an additional eight locomotives, which would bring the total value of the order to more than $73 million.
VRE used earmarked federal funds along with Federal Transit Administration, formula funds, and a recent award of stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to increase its initial order from five locomotives to the current 12.
"With our MPXpress® locomotives serving commuters throughout North America, we are pleased to be the proven industry standard with a safe, environmentally friendly, and highly reliable product that provides economic value to our customers," said Albert J. Neupaver, Wabtec's president and chief executive officer.
Since introducing the first MPXpress® model in 2003, MotivePower has continued to improve upon its technology and design. The MPXpress® meets the latest crashworthiness and safety standards recommended by the American Public Transportation Association.
Dale Zehner, VRE's chief executive officer, said: "The acquisition of these state-of-the-art MotivePower MP-36 locomotives is the lynchpin in VRE taking that next step in modernizing our fleet while expanding the potential opportunities for service expansion. Once these units are in service, VRE will be poised to make our operation even more reliable. I am confident that these MotivePower locomotives (with their higher horsepower and increased Head End Power capacity) will be paramount in providing improved commuter rail service to the people of Virginia in the coming years."
MTA Long Island Rail Road will discontinue staffed ticket agent service at 20 stations Wednesday, continuing a steady decrease in such agents systemwide. Only 30 stations will remain staffed with agents following the latest cut. Riders at 94 stations can buy tickets from electonic vending machines in lieu of personal service.
LIRR says the move will save $2.2 million during the next year, and said the 20 stations to be affected sell the fewest tickets in the system. "The LIRR remains committed to providing a high level of customer service and is confident that riders will make ample use of its easy-to-use ticket machines, which are available 24 hours a day at these stations," the railroad said in a statement.
But a spokesman for the Transportation Communications International Union, which represents the LIRR's ticket agents and clerks, said the move is unwise. “We're the eyes and ears, the front line," the representative said, noting the presence of ticket agents aids in providing security, as well as the ability to offer directions, and assist elderly, disabled, and disoriented riders.
Detroit has adjusted its effort to join the ranks of U.S. cities with light rail, as construction of the privately funded $120 million LRT line along Woodward Avenue has been pushed back until sometime next year. Construction was to begin by year’s end.
The delay is attributed to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s desire to use the private money as the local match for its own project to extend light rail from New Center to the state fairgrounds at Eight Mile Road, according to Kim Zitny, vice president of Troy, Mich.-based Eisbrenner Public Relations, M1 Rail’s public relations agency.
DDOT’s project, the Detroit Transit Options for Growth study, needs the local match to qualify for federal transit project funding to cover that project’s $371 million cost. Both projects are considered “separate but joint cooperative efforts,” theoretically allowing the $120 million in private funding to be used as a match for either component. Zitny clarified that the projects are not merging and will remain separate efforts.
M1 light rail would stretch 3.4 miles, with 12 stops, connecting the city’s Hart Plaza and New Center area. Private backers of M1 include: Penske Corp. founder Roger Penske, chairman of the M1 project; Peter Karmanos Jr., founder of Detroit-based software maker Compuware Corp.; Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings and co-founder of Little Caesar Enterprises Inc.; and Quicken Loans/Rock Financial founder Dan Gilbert, the project's co-chairman.
Approximately $180 million, including the $125 million being raised by M1 Rail and $55 million contributed by DDOT, has been earmarked toward the estimated $220 million needed to match a federal grant, city officials say.
British Columbia’s C$2 billion (US$1.8 billion) Canada Line, the third Skytrain route serving metropolitan Vancouver, began revenue operations Monday. The new route, operating along 11.8 miles linking Vancouver with Richmond, includes a 2.5-mile spur linking downtown Vancouver with its international airport in approximately 26 minutes, reportedly making Vancouver the first Canadian city with a rail rapid transit link to an airport.
The new line “is going to have the capacity to move a very large number of people in a reliable travel time," TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said. "When it has its own right of way, it's not subject to traffic congestion."
Some 6,000 people an hour are expected to ride the Canada Line on its opening day Monday. TransLink forecasts ridership will grow to 100,000 riders per day by 2013, served by 16 stations (three more remain in the planning stages). Originally scheduled to open this November, the line has opened early in part to prepare for anticipated heavy use by visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin Inc. oversaw the Canada Line’s implementation under a design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) contract; the company will operate the line for 35 years. Funding for the C$1.35 billion project was provided by the federal government (C$450 million), as well as the British Columbian provincial government, Vancouver International Airport Authority, and TransLink, which each contributed C$300 million.
The Surface Transportation Board posted statistics on its website Monday showing that Class I railroads earned a return on net investment of 8.94% in the 12-month period that ended June 30, compared with 9.20% in the corresponding period a year ago.
Total operating revenues in the latest 12-month period were $53.6 billion vs. $55.7 billion in the prior year.
Individual carriers posted these ROIs in the 12 months ended June 30, 2009 (compared with their ROIs a year earlier):
Burlington Northern Santa Fe: -- 9.69% (9.90%)
CSX Corp. -- 7.61% (7.87%)
CN/Grand Trunk -- 8.59% (9.68%)
Kansas City Southern -- 8.59% (9.68%)
Norfolk Southern -- 10.23% (13.57%)
Soo Line -- 12.09% (15.20%)
Union Pacific -- 8.43% (9.16%)
Return on investment is based on net railway operating income, which is the difference between net railway operating revenues and the total of railway operating expenses, railway tax accruals, and net equipment and joint facility rents.
Tim Heilig, vice president-mechanical for Norfolk Southern, and Federal Railroad Administrator Joe Szabo will highlight the agenda of the Railway Supply Institute’s Global Railway Tech 2009, occurring Sept. 16-18 in the Northwest Hall of the Chicago Hilton and Towers Hotel.
Heilig will discuss “Managing the Future during Challenging Times,” while Szabo will update attendees on FRA’s oversight of safety and high speed rail matters.
Following the opening session Wednesday, Sept. 16, RSI is hosting an opening reception in the exhibit hall beginning at 4:30 p.m. Registration is required through RSI or one of the mechanical associations to attend these events. Registration and hotel information are available on the RSI website www.rsiweb.org/.
RSI Executive Director Tom Simpson notes the Coordinated Mechanical Associations (the Air Brake Association, International Association of Railway Operating Officers, Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association, and Mechanical Association of Railcar Technical Services) technical sessions have been finalized. In addition, the RSI trade show in the Hilton’s Southeast Hall is virtually sold out (with 75-to-80 booths anticipated). All social events will be held in a food court located in the exhibition hall, Simpson says.
BART has reached a tentative contract agreement with its operating employees in time to avoid a strike scheduled for Monday morning. Terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.
Jesse Hunt, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, said the agreement must still be ratified by the 900 rank-and-file members of his union; those members had rejected an earlier contract proposal, making a strike seem more likely.
Hunt expressed cautious optimism, however, for this proposal. "There are no guarantees in life, but we think this is a solid, fair agreement given the economic times," he said. "And I'm confident our members will do what's right for everyone involved."
"It's the greatest thing for the Bay Area. It's what everybody wanted," said James Fang, vice president of BART's Board of Directors.
Pressing its efforts (and possible political advantage) to secure high speed rail for the Chicago Hub, the Midwest High Speed Rail Association says it has redesigned and upgraded its website at www.midwesthsr.org.
Executive Director Rick Harnish notes, “We have added a new ‘Roll Call’ page where you can see if your Congressman voted for high-speed rail. We have also added a ‘Fact vs. Fiction’ page to help you counter high-speed rail opponents.”
The website also includes sections addressing the economic and environmental benefits of high speed rail, and details on the association’s vision for a future Midwest rail network, something the group has pushed for since its founding in 1993. The group is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.
The Midwest Hub is one of 10 potential candidates designated by the Obama Administration for development of U.S. high speed rail, and is considered by many rail observers as one of the more likely candidates to receive such funding.