March 2012

New Rail Projects Accelerate Their Pace Again

by Cliff Henke

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Exposition Line Phase I (pictured) from downtown L.A. to Culver City will open this spring.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Exposition Line Phase I (pictured) from downtown L.A. to Culver City will open this spring.
For several years now and accelerating through the Great Recession, transit rail projects have been forced to scale back or make longer their delivery timelines due to unforeseen funding pressures. This has been true even as the federal government effectively doubled its annual funding in the 2009 stimulus legislation. In many cases, however, the additional funds were used to "back-fill" reduced local matches as sales tax and other local revenues declined in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.

Moreover, because local revenues were hit hard, many projects had no operating funds to count on even if enough capital dollars were scraped together to build the projects.

Now, however, even as the additional federal funding has been tapering off, the slide in local revenues appears finally to be hitting the bottom. The easing of the fiscal crisis has produced a situation where many deferred or stretched-out projects are now scheduled for service openings in the next two years.

States, cities begin recovery
According to the Pew Center for the States' most recent report issued this past fall, only four states — California, Missouri, New York and Washington — report budget gaps since the fiscal year began in July 2011; the year before, 15 states faced the situation. Put another way, the cumulative state budget gap for the current fiscal year is $4.4 billion, compared with $26.7 billion for the year before.

Although the state budgets fared badly in this period, local and regional budgets and their earmarked receipts for public transportation investments (where voters have approved such measures) fared even more poorly, according to analysis of American Public Transit Association and FTA data.

Those revenues also appear to be coming back, though more slowly than state budgets, primarily because these tax sources are more susceptible to the swings of the economic cycle than income or fuel taxes.

Canadian governments have also boosted spending on rail transit projects, also as a means to stimulate the economy during the downturn, though not as severe as it was in the U.S. The programs include the $33 billion Building Canada Plan, with public transportation identified as one of five national priorities under the $8.8 billion Building Canada Fund. Like some of the new programs introduced in the U.S., transit projects are also being funded through a new $4 billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, as part of Canada's national Economic Action Plan. In another act of following the lead of its neighbor to the south, in 2008, for the first time ever, Canada made its Gas Tax Fund (its motor fuels trust fund) permanent, which provides further stability to an already significant support for local public infrastructure throughout the country, including transit.

Below is a list of the new rail project revenue openings scheduled for 2012 in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the new rail projects that will break ground this year.

Openings this spring include:

  • Boston Fitchburg Line extension to Wachusett (4.5 miles of commuter rail).
  • Los Angeles Exposition Line Phase I (6.5 miles of light rail), from downtown L.A. to Culver City.
  • Miami Airport Link (2.4 miles of heavy rail), from Earlington Heights to Miami Intermodal Center Station at Miami International Airport.
  • Sacramento Green Line (1 mile of light rail), from downtown into the River District.
  • Seattle Sounder Lakewood Extension (8 miles of commuter rail), from the Tacoma Dome to Lakewood.
  • New Orleans UPT/Loyola Avenue Corridor (1 mile of streetcar), from Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street.
  • Pittsburgh North Shore Connector (1.2 miles of light rail), from Gateway Center downtown to Allegheny Station.

In July, the Dallas' Orange Line's first phase, comprising 5.4 miles of light rail, will open from Bachmann Station to the Irving Convention Center in Dallas' sprawling suburbs.

The debut schedule pace accelerates throughout the rest of the year as six more are expected to start up, two in Dallas alone:

  • Calgary Northeast Line Extension (1.8 miles of light rail), from McKnight-Westwinds to Saddletowne Circle.
  • Dallas Blue Line Extension (4.5 miles of light rail), from Downtown Garland to Downtown Rowlett.
  • Dallas Orange Line Phase II (3.9 miles of light rail), from Irving Convention Center to Belt Line.
  • Portland, Ore.'s Eastside Streetcar Loop extends the city's famous streetcar 3.3 miles more, from the Pearl District to the Riverfront District.
  • Montreal Train de l'Est (32-mile commuter rail line), from Downtown Montreal to Mascouche in the city's eastern suburbs.
  • Providence Rail to Wickford Junction (commuter rail), from Warwick to Wickford Junction.

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