From the ‘Other’ Vancouver – The Vancouver Columbian “All aboard!’ in Dallas, Seattle, Portland”

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p51815-Portland-Portland_Tri-Met_Light_Rail

It seems light-rail is very well spoken of in the other ‘Vancouver‘ (Vancouver Washington State) and one wishes that our local media types would write a few positive things about the worlds most built public transit mode. One would also hope that the mainstream media would entertain a few investigative reports on our light-metro system instead of taking TransLink’s spin-doctors news releases as real news. The dichotomy between Vancouver BC and Portland, Seattle, Dallas is clear; in the USA, Light Rail implementation goes through a rigorous public debate, while here in ‘Lotus Land’ it is “you will get SkyTrain (or RAV) whether you like it or not and please don’t try to confuse us with facts“.

The Columbian – Vancouver, WA
Sunday, September 20 [2009]

John Laird, Sept. 20: ‘All aboard!’ in Dallas, Seattle, Portland

Light-rail critics might have difficulty answering this question: If light rail is such a wasteful boondoggle, shouldn’t the systems around the nation be contracting and even closing?

Instead, the reverse has been happening for more than 25 years, and the pace of growth is even accelerating. Last week in Dallas, a 28-mile light-rail line opened and — as Texans are wont to brag — they’re calling it the longest light rail project on the continent.

Up in Seattle, light rail has taken many years to develop, but its recent launch and imminent growth are remarkable. A 14-mile line from Seattle to Tukwila opened in July. In December the line will extend 2 miles to the SeaTac Airport, offering a 36-minute ride from downtown to the airport. In the next seven years, a north extension to the University of Washington is planned, and voters have already approved new lines to Lynnwood, Federal Way and Redmond.

Last Saturday in Portland, TriMet opened the 8.3-mile MAX Green Line to Clackamas Town Center. About 40,000 people showed up for free rides on Saturday. Paid ridership on Monday was light, as is typical on new lines, but weekday Green Line ridership is projected to reach 25,000 in a year. Just since 2000, MAX has added 20 miles of service with 34 stations, expanding one of the nation’s top light-rail systems to 52 miles and 84 stations. A seven-mile light-rail line into Milwaukie is next on the drawing board.

So the question persists: How could governments and transportation planners nationwide have been so incredibly stupid — or worse, so duplicitous and corrupt — for the past quarter of a century? If light rail is the expensive flimflam that critics claim, then Americans have been victimized by the most egregious and expensive public works rip-off in U.S. history. Sounds like it’s time for some orange jump suits and perp walks, right?
The distant vision

The truth, of course, is that light rail is a viable transportation alternative for the long-range future. And “long-range” is where a lot of people get divided on this issue.

Light-rail detractors are rooted in the past and entrenched in the status quo. Their ancestors back in 1916 probably grumbled that a bridge across the Columbia River would cost too much and would only bring crime and rampant growth into Clark County. That bridge was built anyway, because it was the right thing to do. And some horse owners probably went ballistic back when America started paving roads, but it was necessary for the future.

Light-rail supporters, on the other hand, are enthralled by the future and committed to planning for the next century. These folks are not trying to “take away our cars.” They’re not trying to “force light rail down our throats.” They’re simply trying to keep our grandchildren from charging us with inadequate planning and myopia. Light rail is meant to supplement — not supplant — automobiles.

This debate will rage into perpetuity, fueled by experts on both sides who insist that light rail is too expensive (or a good deal), superfluous (or visionary), and forced-down-our-throats (or sanctioned-by-conventional-wisdom).

In Vancouver, the debate takes on the added component of the Columbia River Crossing project. Some people here see light rail as a sinister snake coiled to inject its poison into our community. Others see it as the next logical step in building a transportation system that will last 50 to 100 years.

To that debate, lets add these facts from a Sept. 12 Oregonian story by Dylan Rivera and Steve Mayes: “Crime on the MAX light rail system dropped 18 percent in 2008, a stunning contrast from the public perception of a crime-riddled conveyance” a couple of years ago. At the Beaverton and Hillsboro light-rail stations, incidents of crime have been reduced by about half in the past two years.

Of course, that trend won’t keep the “Crime Train” bellyachers from spreading their message. But for people who see beyond tomorrow and don’t have an umbilical connection to their cars, that trend bolsters the belief that light-rail systems — just like those dastardly paved roads a century ago — belong in our transportation future.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday

http://www.columbian.com/article/20090920/OPINION03/709209983/-1/OPINION

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4 Responses to “From the ‘Other’ Vancouver – The Vancouver Columbian “All aboard!’ in Dallas, Seattle, Portland””

  1. mezzanine Says:

    I do think that LRT has a role in Metro vancouver. I also think that skytrain has a role in metro vancouver. You have to pick the right mode for the right corridor.

    The CEO of Phoenix’s LRT system has actually suppported elevated metro over LRT in honolulu’s corridor.

    http://www.starbulletin.com/editorials/20091001_Oahu_will_benefit_from_rail_but_make_sure_its_elevated.html

    “I do not believe that a street-level rail system is the right choice for Honolulu. I say this as the CEO of a 20-mile rail system that runs completely at street level in Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.

    I urge Honolulu to keep moving forward with your elevated rail system. You only have one opportunity to get it right.”

    Zweisystem replies: The Editorial is absolute nonsense and clearly illustrates the gap between older transit types and younger. An elevated transit system, costing up to 10 times more than an at-grade system, provides no better service. It isn’t mode speed that attracts customers to transit, rather does the transit provide an affordable, convenient, and efficient alternative to the car. Elevated transit systems have higher commercial speeds because they have fewer stations and fewer stations means less convenient trips for customers. Forcing bus riders onto a light-metro for the sake of increasing ridership is a desperate false economy.
    One can grade separate LRT and provide a better service than SkyTrain and is the one reason why SkyTrain has failed to establish itself as a bona-fide rapid transit system. Further, this nonsense that a transit system needs to be elevated to handle 100,000 a day is based on a salesman selling snake oil. I hope local taxpayers are prepared to pay much higher taxes to support a light-metro built on a route that doesn’t have the ridership to sustain it.

    What the SkyTrain lobby is so afraid of is that when Vancouver finally says no SkyTrain, Bombardier will probably retire the metro.

  2. mezzanine Says:

    To be clear, I wouldn’t care if skytrain technology is used for vancouver’s grade-separated system. For me, it could even be LRT like sections of seattle’s system. Once whole sections are grade-separated, automation makes more sense.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/23/nyregion/next-stop-for-subway-fully-automated-future-testing-computer-controlled-train.html

    Interestingly, vancouver is mentioned in the first article:

    “The Phoenix surface rail line has averaged five collisions per month since opening last December, resulting in personal injuries, costly damage to trains and vehicles, and service delays to passengers.

    In contrast, the elevated, automated system in Vancouver, British Columbia, has operated for 23 years without a single accident.”

    Zweisystem replies: First of all, SkyTrain has suffered over 60 deaths, mostly suicides, all preventable if proper platform gates were to be used as demanded by law in Europe. In fact the annual death rate on SkyTrain is far higher than light rail systems. SkyTrain has had accidents, yet reporting of them have been sketchy; some years ago a driverless SkyTrain hit a crane near the line. Auto/LRT collision are in fact caused by car drivers deliberately ignoring the law and hitting a tram. LRT/auto intersections are about 10 times safer than auto/auto intersections.

    Automatic transit systems only become cheaper to operate when catering to ridership flows greater than 20,000 pphpd. The cost of maintaining an automated transit system is very high, as technician’s wages are far greater than drivers. An automated (driverless) transit system must be maintained at 100%, lest it stops. Light Rail, with a driver can operate in situations impossible for a automatic metro.

    Again I stress, if SkyTrain were so superior to light rail, why has it failed to find a market after over 30 years in production? The reason is simple, at-grade LRT is just superior to light metro, with very few exceptions.

  3. Richard Says:

    So somehow a $600 million (CAN) 13km LRT system whose “ridership is projected to reach 25,000 in a year” is a great project but the Canada Line which is getting at least 3 times the ridership is not.

    It is at least 3 times as the article would have stated the actual ridership if it was anything close to 25,000. The telling statement from the article is “Paid ridership on Monday was light, as is typical on new lines…” Typical for new LRT lines. The Canada Line was busy from day one with 77,000 average per day for the first week. That was while the competing bus routes were still running.

    Face it, “light metro” is better at attracting users than LRT at least in North America.

    Zweisystem replies: SkyTrain is force fed bus riders to artificially increase ridership on one line. According to a presentation by TransLink in Ottawa in June, they claimed that SkyTrain ridership was only 240,000 a day much less than the 300,000 claimed for today.

    77,000 rides per day, works out to about 38,500 actual people using the metro, which is about the same amount that used the 300 & 600 series of buses, the B-Line and Cambie St. buses. Many are students using deep discounted tickets such as the U-pass, which means UBC bound students o the B-Line bay a grand total of $8 a month in fares (apportioned) to RAV. Langara bound students pay $12 a month (apportioned) using RAV. There is no evidence today that SkyTrain has attracted ridership, in fact all the evidence points to the fact that its ridership has merely kept pace with population increase. Probably explains why no one wants to buy SkyTrain.

  4. David Says:

    Richard conveniently ignores the fact that American projects utilize long term bonds for financing. The size and interest on those bonds is known up front so everyone knows the true cost of the project over a span of 30 or more years.

    Here in BC we’re never told what projects actually cost to build nor are we told how much the cost of borrowing is let alone the total cost of borrowing over the life of the line.

    How can you say $600 million for LRT is a bad deal when you don’t know if Canada Line’s true cost under American rules is 4, 5 or maybe even 10 times as much?

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