Eric Jaffe of The Atlantic Cities tackles the thorny issue of whether streetcars are legitimate parts of the transit landscape in cities. While 40% of transit boardings in New Orleans occur on its famous streetcars, the same cannot be said of other cities where streetcars exist. Ridership on streetcars barely registers a percent of travel compared to total transit boardings in most cities. Most streetcar proponents at higher levels of government see this particular travel mode as an economic development tool instead of as useful transportation. Ultimately, Jaffe concludes that a streetcar should reflect the civic goals of a community, especially given that streetcars are generally expensive to build and operate.
Three streetcar lines are projected to open this year. The Tucson SunLink will bring urban rail to the desert city for the first time, while Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar will connect hill-fairing residents to the lower parts of downtown and major sports venues. The Atlanta Streetcar will also make its debut this year. Curiously, the streetcar will feature longer vehicles that are more reminiscent of light rail systems. Meanwhile, at least 15 cities will continue construction on their streetcars. This includes Cincinnati, whose under-construction streetcar was briefly “paused” on the pretext of fiscal concerns until the City Council voted to restart work when the governing body learned that the city would only marginally save money by stopping the project.
Fascinating work is going on beneath our feet, as holes are being dug in big cities that may be near you! For one, 1.7 miles of twin tunnels are in the works in San Francisco. It lies underneath existing MUNI and BART lines, and is part of a $1.5 billion light-rail extension that will be the first new subway route for MUNI in 50 years! There’s also an $800 million, three-mile tunnel in progress in Las Vegas. This one’s not transit related, but is meant to enhance the municipal water supply, so the “straw” can retrieve water when lake levels are low. Other cities with intriguing holes being developed include Seattle, Cleveland, Miami, Washington DC, and two in New York City. Of course, Los Angeles has its own rich history of tunnels.
Four New York taxi companies that overcharged drivers to lease yellow cabs have agreed to a $1.25 million settlement. Medallions mandatory to operate taxis in New York cost an exorbitant amount of money, which is why most drivers lease them. New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission estimated that the average driver’s income in 2012, before social security and taxes, was about $125 per day. Because drivers are not considered employees, they are not subject to minimum wage, overtime, and other labor laws. The commission began regulating how much companies can charge drivers earlier this year, and the fines charged to the four companies are the first under the agreement. A total of $746,000 will be returned to drivers who were overcharged, and the companies will pay $500,000 in fines.
A fatal NYC Metro-North Railroad crash caused by excessive speed through a curve left 4 dead and scores injured in its wake. No anomalies have been found regarding the train’s controls. The train operator, who was suspended without pay, is cooperating with investigators. Pundits across the board now believe that positive train control technology could have prevented this tragedy. PTC allows trains to slow down automatically when arriving at certain portions of track. Metrolink in Los Angeles has been installing such a system for years and plans to launch the technology in the coming months.
A boom in oil production across the upper Midwest is seriously affecting rail travel through that part of the country. The Amtrak Empire Builder, which transports rural residents between Seattle/Portland and Chicago, is bearing the brunt of the disruptions caused by the uptick in freight traffic. BNSF, which operates the railway shared by Amtrak and freight trains, is adding as much capacity as possible, but its efforts are not coming fast enough. As a result, Amtrak was forced to cancel select Empire Builder runs while other trains faced delays of as much as 5 hours. To maintain some sort of service, Amtrak has run stub service from Seattle/Portland to Spokane and from Minneapolis to Chicago. Even so, many of these now-cancelled runs have previously sold out. With no parallel Amtrak service available and train equipment in short supply, the problems facing the Empire Builder is endemic to a passenger rail network that remains vulnerable due to a lack of alternatives despite high demand.
After tunneling over 1,000 feet since starting work in August, an obstruction is blocking the path of Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine currently digging a highway underneath downtown Seattle. No one is exactly sure what is in the way, but engineers are working to solve the mystery. Wells from above ground will pump out groundwater to make conditions in front of the TBM safe for workers to enter and find out what the problem is. In the meantime, residents are having fun with the matter and recently tried to guess what could be blocking Bertha’s way. One TV station made its own suggestion as to what the obstruction could be in an appeal to Seahawks fans.