Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Light rail in Riverside. There, I said it.

Why exactly is a project of this magnitude off the table? I just read an article here that a bunch of Coachella Valley students designed a light rail line through their little slice of desert land, in an effort to reduce sprawl and improve their communities. Granted, the chances it'll get built are slim to none, but nobody in Riverside has even proposed such a thing. And the real catch is, I can't understand why.

The Magnolia Ave. corridor looks like the optimal place for a light rail. It's crowded by automobiles at all sorts of times of day (rush hour starts around 1500), has a very, very successful local bus line running along it, and all the city's development clustered around it, not to mention two colleges and a long stretch of high-density housing, two malls, and Downtown. Throw in University Ave., with more housing and the development surrounding UCR at the top, and it looks like a no-brainer. Not to mention that, for a large stretch of the way, there are wastefully large medians and on-street parking that could easily be moved to make way for a train. Plus, it's dead straight all the way down the city. All that's even been proposed is the Magnolia Avenue BRT, which isn't coming this way for a long while, and has no dedicated bus-access lanes planned. Omni's sbX project, on the other hand, looks remarkably like a true bus rapid transit project, similar to Metro's Orange Line.

RTA's proposal, for the record, has made plenty mention of limited stops and signal priority, but none of a dedicated bus lane or boarding platforms, which leads me to believe it is a BRT-light project along the lines of Metro Rapid, which runs entirely in mixed traffic and provides only mild relief from traffic congestion. It's better than nothing, to be sure, but we can do better.

Anyway... why no light rail? Is it density? I can't see how, considering the density along the Magnolia Ave. corridor is greater than along the NCTD Sprinter right-of-way, and approaches that of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system's corridors, which are doing quite well. Is it money? FTA grants provide substantially more funding for rail projects than for bus projects, and rightfully so. I am therefore left to conclude that it's the NIMBY crowd... which makes me unhappy.

For your consideration, here's my proposal for a service to be constructed and operated along the lines of this article. Total cost? Around $250m. Expensive, to be sure, but the benefits of a fixed, dedicated right-of-way transportation system are myriad and will easily repay the costs. Transit-oriented development, plus the rise in property values along the line, will bring tax and environmental benefits into the city, plus the added mobility and opportunity to Riverside residents will be large indeed. Oh, and an sbX/Orange Line-style dedicated busway would provide many of these benefits for a fraction of the capital cost (though higher operating costs), and could later be converted to light rail. So, RTA, think about it.

(Edit: Due to a misreading of the article, which said that the Portland Streetcar cost $15m/km, not mile, I underestimated the cost of a similar system along Magnolia by around $100m. Estimates have been revised. Oh, and to the anti-LRT crowd, I'm not picky about technologies, but I am picky about having a dedicated right-of-way system down Magnolia. It's sorely needed.)


Tom Rubin said...

If you want to study light rail, go ahead -- but, please, do it as a TRUE study, that is, not one that is done to justify a decision that has already been made -- and, study all the feasible options and don't bend over backwards to make sure the better alternatives are not made to look less desirable.
You may want to get a bit more realistic on the costs. For a true light rail line, $150 million might get you three miles -- but, then again, perhaps not that many. And, yes, your statement, "FTA grants substantially more funding for rail projects than for bus projects" has an element of truth, but that is because rail projects COST more than bus projects, all else equal -- and if the locals are 50% -- or more -- of the total cost of construction, even if you can get more for a rail project than you can for a bus project, that's still a lot more local money that's required.

JN said...

Wow, post about light rail and people get angry. Woot.

I really don't care one way or the other WHAT system gets implemented on Magnolia. Would I prefer rail? Yeah. Just because rail is nicer to ride, looks prettier and (this is demonstrably true) attracts more ridership and TOD than even the nicest bus. My cost estimates were based on reports of the Portland Streetcar, which were estimated at $15m/km, and there I made a mistake... The cost should have stated ~$240m for the system I proposed, and I have corrected that error above.
However, my real hope is that we get SOME kind of dedicated right-of-way system up and down Magnolia. Be that light rail or BRT, or some other system like AGT or monorail or something not-yet-thought-of, it's a solution to the problem of rush-hour service on Magnolia, which is miserable right now. I'm not completely tied to any one technology (though I'll admit I'm a railfan), but we've got to do SOMETHING, and to do something we've first got to start talking about it.

JN said...

Oh, and I mentioned I'm not a planner, right? I'm not equipped here to do a real, honest study of LRT vs. BRT on Magnolia. I'm here to kick out ideas and start a discussion, and the guys who figure out this stuff for a living can figure out this stuff when it lands on their desks. We have an EIR process for a reason.

Alan Fishel said...

This is an ideal route for a LRT line that serves a great deal of high populations of business, Universities, retile and residential. If fact this route on Magnolia was the last Pacific Electric Red car Line in Riverside County with their Riverside Arlington Line abandoned in 1942. The street is wide and the need and ridership are there for a LRT line.

A new basic LRT line can be built for between 30 and 50 million dollars per mile including the cars and maintenance finicality. Salt Lake City, Dallas, St Louis Phoenix and even Tucson have and are building LRT lines well bellow 50 million a mile. The cost to build a LRT line is higher than a bus line but it is an investment. The cost to run a bus is well above $0.50 a passenger mile, a LRT cost closer to $0.30 to operate a passenger mile so it really cost less to have a LRT line than a bus line. If the line carries more than 15,000 riders a day a LRT line is the best choice.

The LACMTA Orange bus line in Los Angeles has been a failure from the start. It reached capacity within weeks and capacity can not be expanded do to blocking cross traffic. It takes more than twice as long to make the trip than if it were an LRT line. The inside of the busses are cramped with a very ruff uncomfortable ride with limited and slow ADA loading. It also cost more than twice as much to operate than if were an LRT line. The capacity is less than 25 percent of what a 3 car LRT train can carry comfortably. Due to theses and additional problems many riders went back to driving. There would be many more riders if this was an LRT line and they would be riding in much greater comfort than they now have on the bus. Also the busses use expensive CNG and they require grater and costlier maintenance than a diesel bus. There lifespan is half of an LRT. Also a LRT line uses pollution free electricity with a smoother and quieter ride.

There is no contest between LRT and a fancy bus line. Just compare the numbers of increase in ridership between any of the new LRT lines and new (BRT) bus lines across the country. Rail lines draw many more riders and TOD than any kind of a bus line.

Let’s look forward to a new LRT line down Magnolia sooner than later. It is time to put this on the table as part of any RTA plans for improved transit within Riverside County.

JN said...

I haven't ridden the Orange Line yet, but good to hear from somebody who has. I don't think the capacity issue would rear it's ugly head out here on the RTA within "weeks", to be honest. However, a light rail is unequivocably the best investment for the future, if we could convince the local government to invest in one.

By the way, weekday ridership on route 1 reaches somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 passengers, based on the data I have at hand.

Oh, and "pollution free electricity" is misleading. Sure, there is no pollution from the vehicle itself... which is nice for our urban air quality... but the pollution from the generation of that electricity cannot be forgotten. Riverside, fortunately, happens to be a regional leader in local solar power.

Anonymous said...

The light rail system in Calgary Canada gets it's electricity from wind turbines.

JN said...

Even in Alberta, Canadians show us their enlightened ways.

cph said...

I think a Magnolia LRT would make more sense than the proposed San Bernardino-Redlands light rail (which is too far from the VA/Loma Linda campuses to be particularly handy)