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Train Blogging: Funding Urban Light Rail

by asdf Wed May 21st, 2008 at 02:28:06 PM EST

What does it take to fund the construction of a new light rail system? I ask this because Las Vegas, Nevada, seems to be the perfect place to build a streetcar system--and yet they can't even keep a little "horizontal elevator" system running. Do such systems have to be built by the city administration? Or can private enterprise get the funding, permits, and traffic needed to make a new streetcar system work?


This question is triggered by my recent experience in Las Vegas, where I'm attending a computer industry conference. The conference is at the Mandalay Bay hotel, but I'm staying at the Excalibur hotel. They're separated by something less than a kilometer of distance on "the strip," which is certainly a walkable distance if you stay inside, but it's not so much fun if you take the sidewalk and it's 109 degrees outside like it's been for the past few days.

So there's an overhead tram that connects the hotels, and I went to check it out just to see how it works. It's a cable system with what appears to be roller coaster track/wheel technology. Sort of wierd, I thought, but for this system obviously somebody thought it was the right way to go.

Well, they were wrong, because in the past three days, it's been out of service about half of the time! I can't imagine what is so hard about keeping something like this going, but in any case, the real question is why there's no streetcar in Las Vegas.

As you may know, most of the hotels are on "the strip," which is a six lane street with heavy traffic and lots of pedestrians on the sidewalk. It is sort of like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which has a heavily used street car/subway/interurban track (standard gauge, overhead trolley system) that runs down the median. This sort of a system would appear to be perfectly applicable to Las Vegas, but for some reason they prefer that the tourists use limosines and rented cars, and then walk (long distances) in the desert heat to see the sights.

Without commenting on the surrealistic uselessness of Las Vegas in general, I was wondering how one might approach the installation of a mass transit system in an existing urban area. Can the funding come from private sources, and then get permission to tear up the streets? Or must something like this be done by the government? Are there examples of private mass transit systems in Europe?

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I don't have any expertise on your question, but the last two times I was in LV I would have loved to have a decent rail system.  I was there in the summer and it was 110f, came back in the winter to a cold snap and it was 20f.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson
by NearlyNormal on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 02:50:55 PM EST
Perhaps the Hotel/Casinos have a business model that concentrates on getting visitors into their hotels and keeping them there until they are out of money.  All of the newer constructions include entertainment and dining. Perhaps all would make more money if visitors could freely or inexpensively transit between attractions; perhaps not.  Their existing monorail system should give them some idea.  The really responsible approach would be to extend light rail to the suburbs so as to facilitate the commutes of staff.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 04:13:53 PM EST
The really responsible solution is not building cities in places where walking a kilometre is to tough to do ; and then, moving working hours out of the way of the hottest hours of the day...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 07:14:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The really responsible solution is not building cities in places where walking a kilometre is to tough to do ; and then, moving working hours out of the way of the hottest hours of the day...

That sort of rules out the majority of the US - at a minimum New York and everything south of it on the East Coast, Chicago and everything south of it in the Midwest, the entire Southwest... Add in wintertime and we've eliminated everything except the Pacific Coast. Outside the US this rules out Latin America, Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. Most places aren't lucky enough to have the northwestern European climate of mild summers and mild winters.

by MarekNYC on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 07:37:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was a bit cheeky. But there are ways to do city building, even in hot areas, that contrast to LV : the Strip seems to be a heat accumulator ; such a large avenue will raise temperature, compared to narrower streets with lots of shade. Large water expanses will also lower temperature, and building in valleys will welcome wind too. Also, a long strait line is good for cars, but absurd for walking around (it increases travel length).

Also, the American custom of having air conditioning on all the time, everywhere prevents people from seasoning to the heat : when there was hot temperatures in France, people died in the North where such temperatures were unusual, not in the South were people were accustomed to it. Also not helping adaptation to heat is the modern insistence on not adapting the way of life, from architecture to dress code to, as I said, work hours, to the climate.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 08:25:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I absolutely agree that the US cities built in the automobile era are generally laid out horribly. As far as AC goes, I partly agree. Humidity is a major factor in much of the US which makes things feel much worse. And in the Southwest, it may be dry heat, but it is really, really high - that French summer would be considered cool down there.  But one can believe that some AC is a good idea while also thinking that the US goes way overboard. Someday perhaps all those American businesses will decide that keeping the temperature lower in the summer than in the winter doesn't make sense (I routinely pack a sweatshirt when I'm out in summertime heatwaves). And that excess of AC does make many of us less resistant (though again that deadly heatwave isn't unusual for us).  I've also occasionally wondered if window design has something to do with the prevalence of US residential AC - it's much easier and cheaper to install AC in an old (1860's) building like mine than in the equivalent one in Europe. In remember that during that summer my parents were saying that if they had US style windows they would have happily shelled out the couple hundred bucks for a window unit. I suspect they weren't the only ones.
by MarekNYC on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 02:07:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The really responsible solution is not building cities in places where walking a kilometre is to tough to do...

That sort of rules out the majority of the US...

Either the first settlers were very irresponsible, or global warming (at least in the cities) crept quite a distance...

Are we really to suppose that summer temperatures in the biggest cities (like LA, Tokyo, etc.) were just as unbearable 100 years ago, without any air conditioning? Could it be that everyone is just afraid to announce comparative statistics?

by das monde on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 12:57:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ummh, no. What's happened is two things - first of all the massive growth of Sunbelt cities relative to the old urban centers of the northeast and midwest, something which wouldn't have happened without the invention of AC.  There's also the ability of people to avoid extreme discomfort courtesy of technology and affluence. AC use is skyrocketing in China not because of global warming but because of rising urban incomes.  Americans take it way overboard but that's nothing to do with climate change. (My basic criteria for using heat and AC at home are can I be comfortable dressed in an undershirt, shirt, sweater, long pants and warm slippers; can I be comfortable dressed in shorts, sandals and shirtless or in a t-shirt depending on whether I've got company - if not, on it goes)
by MarekNYC on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 02:14:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Either the first settlers were very irresponsible, or global warming (at least in the cities) crept quite a distance... Are we really to suppose that summer temperatures in the biggest cities (like LA, Tokyo, etc.) were just as unbearable 100 years ago, without any air conditioning?"

Most of the southwestern U.S. was settled after A/C was invented. LA only passed the 1 million mark in the 1920s, and places like Tucson and Denver were quite small until the 1950s.

by asdf on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 02:16:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Having lived in Tucson, Arizona for several years, both while at University and while working I can tell you that there is a great advantage to working during the hottest part of the day: your employer pays for the air conditioning.  

By the way, while Tucson does have impressively hot summers, it is, in fact, dry.  Sitting outside, in the shade with a light breeze is comfortable at air temperatures that are below body temperature.  Midnight on the desert was delicious.  From October to April the climate is hard to beat.  And snow on the face of the desert...sometimes alights and lingers.  The natural beauty of the place can be stunning. There is natural beauty around Las Vegas, but one has to travel a ways to find it.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed May 21st, 2008 at 08:05:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
moving working hours out of the way of the hottest hours of the day

In the meantime, the Spanish government wants to get rid of the siesta/long lunch break and the August screeching halt...

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 07:23:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For some cost figures, read my Local Rail (4/5): Light Rail, Tram-Bus diary over at dKos.

Generally, I'd favour public ownership just to keep the whole project (and operation) in one hand, so that the right persons have both an overview and know the goals, and so that the very long-term nature of the investment doesn't become a financing/business planning obstacle. A private enterprise could however build and/or run a line if (a) it is on a busy relation with certain high traffic, or (b) there is an agreement with the municipal authority ensuring both long-term subsidies for the company and strict control of business practices for the municipality.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 07:53:55 AM EST
It's a cable system with what appears to be roller coaster track/wheel technology.

Interesting! What you rode was apparently the Mandalay Bay-Excalibur Tram, which is apparently of the exotic CABLE Line Shuttle system made by Austrian ropeway-maker giant Doppelmayr. Sounds like MGM Mirage was going for the exotic show-off rather than something that works. I think that mindset might be a problem with both potential private investors and city councillors.

Are there examples of private mass transit systems in Europe?

I can't think of an entire city mass transit system that is private. Single lines, a sub-system (Ferrovie Nord Milano) or a PPP scheme (management of the London Underground's infrastructure), but not all of it. These companies have long-term agreements with the respective city, get subsidies, and are integrated with the rest of the system. Also, there is the European issue of private and "private", where an incorporated public transport company is often majority- or 100%-owned by public hand, say a local authority.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 08:45:20 AM EST
Do you know how other regional Italian companies work? I'm thinking for example of Ferrovia sud est in Apulia, which is hardly integrated with the rest of the system (separate platform in Bari, separate tickets only purchaseable there, not included in the national electronic information systems, seem not to wait for delayed Trenitalia trains - and don't run on Sundays(!) ). But I find it hard to believe that it is really private.
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 09:08:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not familiar with that one, but if I got it right with some help from Babelfish, the company story says that it is under state management since 1986 (or, if there is no coordination, some state mismanagement).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 02:15:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Without commenting on the surrealistic uselessness of Las Vegas in general

Ahhh, but you should!

That would also make an excellent diary, like this one.

Getting mass transit of any type done correctly in the US is hard due to the weakness of the State and the multiple layers of government which, apparently by design, make coordination of financing, technical planning and execution really hard to do.

It took over 20 years to approve, finance, plan for and build a single light rail line, the only one there is here, in Minneapolis/St Paul, urban area of 2.4 million residents. And, despite that line's immense popularity (ridership well over double initial forecasts, and rising) it will likely be another five to ten before the next line is completed. And as for connecting the two cities of St Paul and Minneapolis (sorta like Buda and Pest)? Maybe in my children's lifetime.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill

by r------ on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 10:54:22 AM EST
One major opponent to light rail construction in the US is often, seriously, the local merchants along the route.

They fear that the construction will drive away business but more importantly will raise commercial rents along the path when the trains start running.

So they organize into business groups and the 20 mattress store owners who own the local city council guy are able to stop a mass transit project to benefit an entire city.

This glorious scenario only occurs in those bright moments when you've managed to find the bajillion dollars of funding needed to build a system.  US construction for transit projects is very expensive and involves a lot of extra pork subsidies for the numerous hands who will show up to participate.

Hopeful US transit stories can be found in Denver, Portland, Seattle (to an extent, the devastatingly awful way the Monorail was crushed is classic Seattle) and probably best of all, DC, where a subway system of genuine usefulness was built in the 1980's, which is amazing.

All the major below-ground transit systems in the US are rather old

Boston dates back to the 1890's, New York around 1905, Chicago just as old.  The SF system was built in the 1960's and DC in the 1980's.

Other systems with below-ground components that consist of basically one line can be found in Atlanta, San Diego, Los Angeles and now Seattle.

Portland's system is likely your last real success story even though that is still only a halfway-built system that does not cover the city and only has a tunnel through a mountain below-ground.

by paving on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 08:33:32 PM EST
I consider Minnesota's Hiawatha Light Rail your latest success, even if, as redstar writes, the plans for expanding the single line into a network won't be realised for years.

On passenger numbers alone, Houston is a semi-success. Though given the size of that city, the tram network to be developed should be a dozen lines at least, and when that's done and draws passengers away from cars, a subway network should take up volume.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 12:37:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]

US construction for transit projects is very expensive and involves a lot of extra pork subsidies for the numerous hands who will show up to participate.

That pork can metastasize.  In Los Angeles Richard Riordan was mayor when construction started on the Red Line Subway project.  Bechtel was, I believe, the prime contractor.  Soon the horde of alphabet soup construction supervision companies arrived.  Their function appeared to be to sell $100.00/hour expertise to MetroRail for $200.00 per hour, or more.

When, after almost two decades of neglect and the transition of Los Angeles voter demographics to "majority minority" status, Los Angeles Unified School District finally managed to get a $2.3billion bond issue passed, Riordan, who later unsuccessfully ran for governor as a Republican, exacted a price from the District for his support of the bond issue: the District had to hire out the construction supervision.

Riordan knew just where they could find such help--these same companies, ex Bechtel, arrived. Then they metastasized again, with additional layers for Design Management. Now they are consuming tens of millions of dollars of bond money every year, about 40% of the total budget.

One of the chief excuses for the existence of a District so large as LAUSD was that they had in house expertise in the design and construction of schools. They had an Architecture and Engineering Branch that would supervise the preparation of drawings for new or reconstruction projects. They had departments with project managers and inspectors. Many projects were done entirely in house.  The preparation of drawings for the renovation of over 250 school, the first two years of contracts, was supervised by one engineer and a handful of assistants.  Four years later each of Regions A-K had offices with more consulting technical personnel than had been available to that engineer, they were doing a worse job and costing vastly more.

Riordan liked to talk of "Public-Private Partnerships." That is what led me to observe that "a public-private partnership was primarily a means of putting public money into private pockets."

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 01:18:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this in-depth look into one of these hyper-expensive US projects that mystified me!

Can you perhaps tell me what made New Jersey's River LINE so incredibly expensive? (In that case, it's not 40% but at least 80% of the budget which is totally unjustified and looks for an explanation.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 02:51:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Glad to be of assistance.  It is a subject that has long vexed me and which I take very personally. As a contractor and consultant I have worked on over half of the 650+ major instructional facilities in LAUSD. Alas, I only briefly worked for one of the alphabet soup agencies, although I earned enough in four months to see me through a four month convalescence from major surgery.  I continue to work for individual engineering offices about four months a year, some of it from my home in Arkansas, but at (to them) more reasonable hourly rates.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 11:35:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Someone else will have to elucidate the problems in New Jersey.  Tony Soprano?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun May 25th, 2008 at 11:38:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The biggest problem with light rail is automobiles.  The US has gone ga-ga-icky-poo over the damn things and  maintaining the road system sucks all of the money out of the local transportation budget.  The Federal Government chipping in to support highways & etc adds to the problem as there is virtually no Federal support for light rail or any other mass transit system.

The second problem is our glorious elected officials at the city/county level.  A bigger pile of doofi t'would be hard to amalgamate.  Example, Seattle citizens keep voting to extend the monorail and the Seattle city government keeps telling them, "We ain't gonna do it and you can't make us  neener, neener."

The third problem are the merchants and shop owners, as paving has already observed.  

The fourth problem are the businesses who make their money in direct or indirect automobile sales and service.  Approximately 1/6th of the US economy lies in that area.  

Fifth, is the land use patterns, enforced by zoning laws, that makes it illegal to have shops anywhere close to where anyone lives.  So you have to have a car.  And if you have a car you can drive and obtain a wonderful Shopping Mall© experience.  Land use patterns and zoning also enforces low-density housing making these systems uneconomic in most areas.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu May 22nd, 2008 at 10:32:00 PM EST


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