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A monorail is a better choice than a streetcar. The construction costs for a light monorail are similar to streetcars, but operational costs would be roughly 70% less. It is true that both conventional bus transit and Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) have the least expensive upfront costs with operating expenses roughly 30% less than that of streetcars. [Comparison] Streetcars as with other rail modes (light-rail or commuter rail) will bring new jobs and new real estate development, which conventional buses will not.
RIPTA and the City of Providence will be holding public hearings, during the week of September 19, to get community input on the Providence Core Connector Study. The circulator project is intended to improve traffic movement throughout Downtown to better integrate the Jewelry District, the 195 surplus land, and Downcity. It would also facilitate the implementation of the “starter streetcar” system that will connect College Hill, the train station, and the South Providence Hospital District.
Due to the ongoing physical expansion of Downtown and the continued development of the medical biotech industry in the city, a new internal Downtown transit system is becoming increasingly necessary. When commuter rail service is re-established from points south, parts of Downtown will be too distant from the train station. It’s unreasonable to expect commuters to walk to jobs in the Hospital or Jewelry Districts from the train station. Along with a connection to College Hill, the proposed starter streetcar system will begin to address Downtown’s current transit deficiencies.
One of Mayor Cicilline’s original reasons for proposing streetcars is that they would demonstrate a serious commitment to transit and the city’s development. His assertion can be backed up by decades of data that confirms when U.S. cities have installed rail transit it acts as a catalyst to increase jobs, real estate development and values, and tax income, as well as, attracting new businesses and increasing population near stations. [Transit 2020 Economic Development (.pdf)] Conventional bus systems don’t have that impact. Capital Center where the majority of Downtown development has occurred over the last 10 years was due in large part because of its adjacency to Providence Station with commuter and intercity trains, is a local example of this positive rail-economic effect.
Is RIPTA’s and the city’s choice of streetcars simply following a national trend? Just about every city in the country right now is enamored with and attempting to build streetcars or light-rail systems. Many of these cities are the same ones that so enthusiastically dismantled their preceding streetcar systems in the 1940s and 50s, another trend. What other transit methods might be available to provide affordable high-quality service beyond traditional buses that will have a positive economic effect? Over the last several years this website and writer have advocated for the re-introduction of streetcars in the City of Providence. With the upcoming hearings it might be worth examining the proposed streetcar choice by comparing it with other transit modes along with potential costs.
Developing a series of new bus routes or loops could almost immediately be put in place to cover for Downtown’s transit limitations before allocating resources for an alternate system. Buses might be a good transition to another transit mode. There are several difficulties with buses including a psychological barrier from segments of the public. Buses are often stigmatized as being the transportation mode of the poor, young, and elderly. The lack of obvious infrastructure does little to reassure people or the development community that the system will always be there. Bus capacity is significantly less than with other modes and must compete using the same travel lanes with cars and trucks. The boarding and fare collection process is clumsy and slow, though much of that could be alleviated with low floor vehicles and prepaid or free fares.
Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) is similar to conventional buses in that it’s a relatively inexpensive option. The basis of a BRT system is to provide dedicated or exclusive travel lanes for BRT vehicles, have dedicated stations along routes, and provide elevated platforms with wide multiple door openings on buses to ease entering and exiting similar to subways. Fares are paid prior to boarding. A disadvantage for Providence is that BRT requires wide streets or right-of-ways, which are few within the city. RIPTA is planning a BRT or “Rapid Bus” along the 11/99 bus routes, which will operate along North Main and Broad Streets. Not knowing the specifics of RIPTA’s plan the line could be more of a hybrid between conventional buses and BRT. Other than the 11/99 or perhaps one or two other potential routes, because of limited street widths, a better application for BRT might be to connect other parts of the metro area to the city. BRT was first developed in Curituba, Brazil and the largest most sophisticated system in the world is in Bogota, Columbia, which is known as the “Surface Subway.”
Heavy metro rail, whether it is subways or elevated systems, due to the enormous expense and lengthy construction time are not reasonable possibilities. Even New York is having difficulty financing the Second Avenue subway and the #7 extension. The construction process alone is extremely disruptive to immediate neighborhoods for years. The mile long #7 extension with just one station will cost over $2 billion. [#7 Line Costs] With Providence’s experience with the sewer tunnel, costs would likely be lower than New York, but at least 50 times greater than any reasonable alternative.
Streetcars or light-rail as mentioned earlier would demonstrate a physical commitment to transit that would be obvious to everyone. The economic benefits would greatly surpass anything possible with conventional bus transit. Streetcar and light-rail typically increases rider-ship three to four times over conventional bus service. Limitations with streetcars are similar to buses, where generally the right-of-way is shared with private vehicles. The construction of Providence’s proposed four mile starter streetcar is anticipated to cost $66 to $86 million. [Transit 2020 Streetcar (.pdf)] The operating expenses are estimated to be roughly between $2 to $3.5 million a year, which would include power needs, maintenance, and train operators and maintenance staff salaries. An unknown cost is whether the existing trolley/bus tunnel ceiling height and shape can be used for modern streetcar components without any major modifications.
A conventional heavy monorail though cheaper alternative than a subway would be more expensive than streetcars. Seattle and Las Vegas have this type of monorail, which is a 1950s design. Massive concrete beams are used to support and track the vehicles and supply power. The beams require extremely wide radii for turning, since the vehicle wraps the beam on three sides, making it less applicable for Providence with its organic pattern of narrow streets.
An alternative might be a light monorail system that’s designed by Urbanaut a firm near Seattle. This system differs in that the rubber wheels only sit on top of a lighter smaller beam combined with a single high center steel rail on top of the beam that’s used to track the vehicle and supply power and control. Much tighter turns are possible with this monorail and track switching is simplified. According to Urbanaut estimated installation costs including stations and maintenance building are about $15 million per mile. [Urbanaut-costs] An at-grade installation would be in the $6 million per mile range, which could be used to retrofit the abandoned East Side rail tunnel. The Urbanaut monorail would be less expensive to construct than the proposed starter streetcar as estimated. An added advantage is that the system is completely automated eliminating train operator’s salaries significantly reducing annual expenses. Automation more easily allows for 24 hour a day operation, because operations are not determined by worker’s daily shifts. Urbanaut has an intermediate monorail now operational in Incheon City, South Korea. [Wolmido monorail]
Aerial trams are a more unconventional transit mode that might be worth consideration. This mode is usually associated with ski areas. American mass transit examples include Portland, Oregon; Telluride, Colorado; and New York’s Roosevelt Island Tram. It cost Portland $57 million to construct a tram route that was less than a mile long. [Portland Tram] However, Medellin, Columbia recently has developed more economically constructed aerial trams and has found ways to make the technology more versatile. [Planetizen] London is planning an aerial tram over the Thames. [guardian.co.uk] Aerial trams similar to monorails can be mostly automated. It’s intriguing to imagine an aerial tram originating in Wayland Square floating over the East Side stopping at Thayer Street then silently gliding past the face of College Hill to the train station followed with a stop above the food court at Providence Place then extending beyond to ALCO, the VA and Roger Williams Hospitals and terminating at Olneyville Square. Another line might start at Miriam following North Main to Downtown to the Hospitals and waterfront terminating at the zoo. However, more analysis would be required before this mode could be seriously considered because of the discrepancies between Portland and South American costs, besides its unclear how far the technology can be pushed for more complex transit needs.
Which transit system should Providence choose? Any of the alternatives outlined would provide the city with significant additional economic benefits that are not possible with conventional bus transit. Construction and operational costs should be considered with any selection. Until the General Assembly devises a formula to adequately fund RIPTA and since the federal government does not fund transit operations, serious consideration should be given to a transit system that provides service with the least annual operating expenses. An automated light monorail is the best choice.