A Big Year Ahead for Light Rail in North America

08 January 2019

The North American renaissance in light rail took full effect in the late 1970s led by Edmonton in 1978 and Calgary and San Diego three years later. Over 40 years on, light rail remains the most appealing mode of new public transportation for many North American cities.

Billions of dollars of local, state and federal funding has been spent, and development continues today with 129 miles of lines under construction in cities across North America representing an investment of more than $28 billion. A further 126.5 route-miles is anticipated to enter construction over the next year at a cost of over $15 billion, according to data from IRJ Pro.

Growth has partly been driven by a nostalgic desire to revive the streetcar of the 1950s, a relatively affordable way to bring rail transit to many cities. Light rail can be seen to fill the niche between buses and subway systems which are highly expensive and complex to implement. Light rail has received significant federal funding and has successfully driven investment in transit-oriented development in many cities.

Many projects in Canada have struggled to attract federal funding, meaning cities have been forced to recover a much higher share of their capital costs through revenue. The capital-intensive nature of light rail in Canada may go some way in explaining why there are only three systems currently in operation, while in the US there are currently 51 operational light rail systems as of November 2018, with a much broader spectrum of systems across mid to large-sized cities.

The North American light rail market can be seen to be expanding, as displayed in Figure 1. While other markets such as Europe and Asia have seen a contraction in the number of projects planned in 2019, the number of projects in North America has more than doubled.

The past year has seen the completion of four projects in the US. Charlotte Lynx Blue Line’s Northeast Corridor opened in March last year, a 9.3-mile 11-station extension which cost $1.16 billion to implement, it is expected to double the systems ridership. In May 2018 the East Contra Costa BART Extension Project (eBART), a 10-mile line between Pittsburg and Antioch was commissioned.

El Paso’s 27-stop 5-mile heritage streetcar line, serving the city center, entered service in March. Services on the line are operated by a fleet of six vintage PCC trams, which were fully restored for the project. Milwaukee Streetcar, also known as ‘The Hop,’ opened to passengers in November.

Currently, 18 projects are under construction across the US and Canada. Toronto’s $C 5.3 billion Eglinton Crosstown LRT is one of the most prominent projects, the 11.8-mile line will run along Eglinton Avenue, and have a 6.2-mile underground section, serving 25 stations. Toronto and Hamilton transport authority Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario have signed a $C 9.1 billion 30-year alternative financing and procurement (AFP) contract with Crosslinx Transit Solutions a consortium of ACS Dragados, AECON, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin to finance, build, and maintain the line. Financing for the project is being provided by National Bank Financial and Scotia Capital as underwriters together with Alberta Treasury Branches.

Seattle’s Eastlink LRT is another substantial project due for completion within the next four years. The 14.5-mile, 10 station line will branch off the existing north to south line. The $US 3.68bn project has been granted a $1.3 billion loan from the Department of Transportation. Once completed in 2023 the line is forecast to carry up to 50,000 passengers per day.

Washington DC’s Silver Line Stage 2 is due for completion in 2020. The 11.4-mile six-station extension is due to cost $2.7 billion. The 16-mile Washington DC Maryland Purple line is expected to be operational by 2022 serving 21 stations. Meridiam is a 70% equity partner in the project, CAF will be supplying rolling stock.

2019 looks to be a big year for light rail construction in the US and Canada with projects scheduled to begin works across 9 cities (Figure 2). The $C 3bn second phase of Ottawa’s LRT project will add a total of 22.4-miles of new lines and 22 stations to the capital’s urban rail network by 2023. Stage 2 includes an 8-mile western extension of the Confederation Line adding 10 new stations, while also extending eastward 6.2 miles, which will add a further four stations to the network.

The third project included in Ottawa LRT stage 2 is a 5-mile southern extension of the diesel-operated Trillium Line, which includes a 2-mile branch to Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. The extension will include a total of seven new stations, as well as 3500 park-and-ride facilities. The government of Ontario has devoted $C 1 billion towards the second stage, which will more than double the length of stage 1 the 7.8-mile east-west Confederation Line.

Stage 1 of the Ottawa LRT was due to open in Q4 2018, but due to a six-month contract extension has been pushed back to mid-2019. The extension was due to the construction consortium Rideau Transit Group (of ACS Infrastructure, SNC-Lavalin and EllisDon) missing two deadlines for the handover of the line. Numerous issues emerged after a private investigation, including a bare Rideau Station and trains with missing components. Stage 1 will serve 13 stations and involves the excavation of a 1.6-mile tunnel, which will run underneath Queen Street in the downtown area. Construction began in 2013 and is expected to cost $C 2.1 billion. Alstom was awarded a $1.5 billion contract to supply 34 Citidis Spirit LRVs for the line in early 2015.

Seattle’s 8.5-mile Lynwood Link extension is expected to enter construction this year. The project is intended to alleviate congestion in some of the most heavily-used highway corridors in Washington state. The line will serve four stations and provide 2650 parking spaces. The
project is estimated to cost $2.9 billion, including rolling stock. The project secured local funding through the voter-approved Sound Transit 2 plan, and the Federal Transit Administration is expected to contribute $1.2 billion in funding through its New Start program.

The line is forecast to carry up to 74,000 passengers per day by 2035 and offer a 28-minute ride from Lynnwood to Downtown Seattle. Sound Transit is relying on a $ 1.2 billion Federal Transit Administration grant and a $650 million low-interest federal loan. The line is scheduled to open in 2024.

In Ontario, Hamilton’s Line B is expected to enter construction this year. The 8.7-mile line will serve 17 stations, including interchanges with the city’s bus network. Stations have been designed to accommodate two car trains as ridership grows. The project will be completed by 2024.

Los Angeles’ Crenshaw/LAX Line is nearing completion and due for commissioning later this year. The 8.5-mile line from LAX to Crenshaw will serve the districts of Leimert, Hyde Park and Inglewood. The eight-station line was granted FTA approval in early 2012 and construction began on the $1.7 billion project in 2014. The line has come under scrutiny for not directly serving LAX, with the two closest stations around 2 miles from the airport.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) last year began the construction of a 2.2-mile people mover to link the airport with the light rail line and will be completed by 2023.

Stage 1 of the LRT network in Waterloo, Ontario is expected to open in the spring, the 11.8-mile will run from Conestoga Mall to Fairview Park Mall. The line will have 16 stations, with park-and-ride facilities at two of them. The first stage also includes a 10.6-mile BRT system, which will later be replaced by an LRT system. Denver is to complete its south eastern extension this year, the project will extend line E and F 2.3-miles, the project is estimated to cost $233 million.

The $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill hyped on the Trump campaign trail two years ago appears to have faded into the background. The FTA has been sitting on $1.4 billion in funds which has been assigned for new projects and the agency has been reluctant to distribute funding, with only a fraction being allocated for transit projects in 2018. Although in November the FTA announced it has allocated $281 million in Capital Investment Grants to five projects in Arizona, California, Minnesota, and Texas.

At present six light rail projects are awaiting the grants promised in the federal appropriations bill signed in March 2018. Among them is Seattle’s Lynnwood Extension, which had to be scaled back due to rising construction costs last year.

The FTA may be entering legally shady territory if the funds are not distributed by the end of the fiscal year. Under congressional mandate, 85% of the transit capital transit grant budget ($2.25 billion) must be allocated by the end of 2019. The remaining funds ($350 million) will go back to the treasury if unspent after four years.

If the transit grants are uncommitted by the end of 2019, it is possible that local transit agencies could sue, or even go as far as filing a lawsuit under the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. The slowdown in FTA spending can be seen to exhibit the Trump administration’s enmity towards left-leaning urban centres and mass transit.

All the data used in this article is available on the IRJ Pro data platform. To gain access to comprehensive data for over 2200 global projects and over 1400 fleet orders, visit www.IRJpro.com