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City’s streetcar desire prompts utility projects

Sean Ryan

If the proposed Milwaukee Connector streetcar system begins operating in the coming years, only some of the changes will be visible above the ground.

Before rails are put in place for the system, the city must map and relocate all of the underground sewers, water pipes, power cords and communication lines in the streetcars’ path, said Jeff Mantes, Milwaukee Department of Public Works commissioner.

Moving the utility lines is necessary to allow for easier maintenance and repair, Mantes said.

“If, say you have a big water main break or something that takes a longer time to fix, you don’t want to have your (streetcar) system shut down when that’s being fixed,” he said.

The city plans to finalize a route for the streetcars and start preliminary engineering in early 2010. The first phase, which will cost roughly $70 million, is to start in 2011. An $87.5 million second phase will begin in 2012 if the city receives the $70 million in stimulus money it applied for last week. Phases three and four are estimated to cost $227.5 million each. Start dates for those phases have not been set.

The proposed route for the line — from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, east through the downtown and north to the city’s lower-east side neighborhood — has some of the oldest sewers in the city, said Richard Wanta, executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association.

Regardless of cost, he said, it’s a good idea to replace the old utilities. It would be unfortunate for a state-of-the-art streetcar to be shut down by a 100-year-old broken sewer, Wanta said.

Rerouting pipes for the streetcar system, which would run 17.5 miles when all four phases are complete, could create enough work for underground contractors to satisfy the city’s new hiring rules, Wanta said. The city this year increased the number of hours that city residents hired by contractors must work on city projects. Contractors need a long-term source of projects to generate enough fieldwork to give residents meaningful training, instead of temporary jobs, he said.

“That’s an opportunity to put people to work, you know?” Wanta said. “It’s not just for the people that are building the rail lines.”

There are tram systems that don’t require the city move all of the underground lines, Mantes said, because the trams can disconnect from the track. But that option, which the city considered before settling on the streetcars, would have cost $300 million just for the first phase, he said. The $35 million per-mile cost of building the streetcar is cheap by comparison.

“There’s always advantages and disadvantages to different systems,” he said.


  1. Kenosha’s streetcar system, installed in 2000, is an important part of the Kenosha area’s tourism base, which has risen from about $92 million a year before the line was completed to nearly $240,000,000 a year in 2007. In addition, a quarter-billion dollars in development sprang up along the streetcar line during that time. Thirty-four percent of all visitors use the Kenosha streetcar system.

  2. Hmmm……… Its taken about 50 years for the City of Milwaukee to consider that its the buried rail lines in the streets that are transferring vibration to the historic buildings and just now finally considering their removal to preserve WI oldest Historic District structures, many pre-Civil War era. Maybe in another 50 years, in the same infinite wisdom, they will consider extending the Choo Choo line to the area again to encourage additional economic development here.

    Think that by rebuilding the sewers they will get it right THIS time? Every project, including the recently completed Marquette Interchange, is STILL rebuilt using a combined system. So much for progress.

    Typically muni logic and timing strikes again…..

  3. Do you trust every consultant who looks for a consultancy contract? No. me neither, especially if they think along the lines of:

    “While the streets are open for rail track, let’s replace all the utilities and bill it to the project.”

    “Let’s just replace the whole street curb to curb and bill it to the project.”

    “Let’s also upgrade the lighting, sidewalks, benches, trees, etcetera and include that in the rail cost. The public won’t figure it out. Let’s bill the whole package to the project.”

    Demand that consultants strip costs only specific to rail installation.

    Houston built its double-track 7-1/2 mile line (that’s fifteen miles of track) with eighteen Siemens P-70 car sets, a maintenance shop, full paving, wiring and substations and two bridges for under $400 Million in local 2001 dollars, and the cost was set in stone before a spadeful of soil was dug. Rabidly anti-rail ex-Texas congressman Tom Delay (remember HIM?) managed to stop federal funding, so the city built it anyway, and today ridership is over twice the original projections per year.

  4. Mr. Jakubiak:
    I believe that you may have a few facts incorrect in the above.
    As to the Houston light rail ridership, the last ridership projection presented to the Federal Transit Administration was 33,100 average weekday boardings, for 2020, in the FTA’s 2002 Annual Report on New Starts:
    The most recent ridership report from Houston Metro shows average working weekday ridership for January-September 2011 as 35,421, or 7% above the projection for 2020.
    http://www.ridemetro.org/News/Documents/pdfs/Ridership%20Reports/0911_Ridership_Report.pdf (page 5)
    While we have many years to go prior to reaching 2020, it appears somewhat premature to assume that being 7% above that projection for 2011, seven years after service began in 2004, will equate to 100% above 16 years later — particularly since annual light rail ridership has been remarkably consistent since 2005, varying only between 13.4 million (2006) and 14.1 million (2007), before falling back to 13.7 million in 2010.
    What may not be known by people who do not follow Houston transit in great detail is that the vast majority of these light rail riders were former bus riders, most of them forced to transfer to light rail by cancellation of their bus service.
    For example, many workers at the Houston Medical Center formerly parked at a long, narrow parking lot and took “free” employer-subsidized shuttle buses (operated by Metro) to their employment locations in the Medical Center. After light rail opened, the shuttle buses were cancelled, forcing these employees to walk to the extreme end of the parking lot, where they could pay to ride light rail to a small number of stations near, but often blocks away fom, their job sites where the shuttle bus used to drop them.
    However, the more significant significant contribution to light rail ridership came several months after the line opened, when Metro took all the long-haul bus lines that used to take people from their homes to their destinations in downtown Houston and stopped them all at light rail stations, forcing all the people who formerly had a one-bus trip from home to work to have to get off the bus,walk to the light rail station platform, wait for the train, and then, often, have a longer walk at the end of the rail line.
    On the day that Metro changed the bus lines from all-the-way-downtown to a light rail station, light rail ridership more than doubled.
    Given that the light rail line had been up and running for months prior to that, and these former bus-only riders could have started using the light rail line any time before — but didn’t — one can fairly conclude that most of the people would have rather stayed on the bus.
    The ones that stopped taking transit altogether after this forced transfer certainly felt that way.
    There is another most interesting factoid about light rail ridership. Using data from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database for Houston Metro’s 2010 reporting year, the average fare per light rail trip was $.555, but the average fare per bus trip was $.835 — 50% higher. Yes, Houston Metro does have some long-haul bus routes that have higher fares, but the light rail line – which, due to its very low operating speed, is more like a streetcar system that any other modern light rail line in the U.S. — was expected to have a large number of occasional casual users, who would travel downtown infrequently, or travel fom the business/government district to the Medical Center or the Arts district — and pay the full cash fare of $1.25.
    A good part of the explanation appears to be that it is very difficult to do fare enforcement on this light rail line for a number of reasons (many unique to Houston) — and that Metro may have pretty much stopped trying.
    Well, lowering fares is a good way to increase ridership, and no fares at all is an even better way.
    The light rail lne was put forward by its supporters as a fantastic real estate development tool; unfortunately, by some counts, business activity in the corridor has actually decreased since it went it.
    Houston was also in a great hurry to get the light rail line completed and into service — because it was hosting a SuperBowl and the local decision-makers wanted it up and running so that everyone could see what a wonderful modern city Houston was. Unfortunately, the light rail had to be shut down shortly after the game ended — it seems that there were so many people walking and standing in the streets, many of whom had very obviously gotten well into their “celebration,” that it was thought best to take the line out of service before something very unfortunate occurred.
    This was probably a very good idea, as the Houston light rail line was involved in so many collisions that a local wag actually started the “Wam-Bam-Ram-Tran” counter so that people could see how the line’s safety record was progressing. In its first year of operation, 2004, it had 67 collisions, which set a new American record — remarkable for a 7.5-mile system in its first year of operation, doing more damage than far larger systems in places like Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, which had decades to do their best to establish a record before Houston started.
    Houston Metro, of course, blamed the pedestrians and drivers for not following proper procedures — which is undoubtedly true, at least to some extent — but, when your train-vs-car, train-vs-truck, train-vs-bus, and train-vs-pedestrian crash rate is so very much higher than anyone else’s, that should have someone asking — did we really design this right? Even if we are legally OK in everything we did, when we have this huge number of incidents, that says something about us.
    Metro has tried a number of things to reduce the number of incidents. One way was a 15-second “all red” at several intersections — when a train is approaching, the traffic signals are red in all four direction for 15 seconds before the train is allowed to go through the intersection.
    Another likely impact of that rush to construction is that many of the switches and other special track work were not properly insulated and isolated prior to the line going into service, which resulted in an on-going stray electric current problem for many years. As I have previously discussed, this is the problem where, instead of properly grounding along the rails all the way back to the propulation power station, the current takes the path of least resistance — and begins eating away at underground utility pipes, building foundations, and the like.
    It was somewhat interesting to find that a major office tower on Main Street, where the light rail line runs, went to considerable expense to replace the existing metal natural gas pipe into the building with a PVC one — which, being plastic, is not damaged by stray electric current.
    That office tower, by the way, was occupied by the local natural gas utility company.
    Oh, by the way — would that natural gas pipe replacent be a cost “only specific to rail installation?” Speaking as someone what was worked in this field for decades, has been the partner responsible for transit for one of the largest CPA firm in the nation, and has served dozens of transit agencies with such issues, there is pretty basic test of a cost that is “specific to rail construciton” — if the cost will only be occurred if a light rail line is constructed, yep, it qualifies. There are some costs that are not clearly black-and-white, one way or the other, but, there are many deades of experience in how you do such allocations, much of it from utility rate cases.
    Always glad to hear from you, Brad, but, in the future, you may want to do some fact-checking before you post on such matters.
    Tom Rubin

  5. My fact-checking backs up what I’d said: Houston’s rail ridership is indeed far above projections. Sure, many of these riders were once displaced bus riders. And many earlier bus riders were formerly displaced streetcar riders, whose predecessors might have ridden a horse. So?

    As to Tom Rubin’s lengthy remarks as to people standing, cavorting or driving on the Houston rail rights-of-way: is that to somehow be a veiled indictment of rail? Do some people also walk or drive in front of buses, trains, trucks, other cars, bikes, or each other? And why aren’t Houston’s traffic problems mirrored in every other American rail line?

    Again, municipalities, as to the numbers of seemingly-limitless transit consultancies out there: verify their backgrounds before signing contracts.

  6. Mr. Jakubiak:

    If ridership 7% above projections, and stable for several years, with the majority of riders being former bus riders who were forced to rail when the bus service that they had been using for years — and continued to use for months after rail operations began — was terminated, means \far above projections\ to you, then, fine, we have your definition of terms, which we can keep in mind to evaluate your quantifications of other factors.

    As to the safety problems in Houston I noted, I’ll try to spell out it out more clearly for you: Houston implemented a street-running light rail system through a heavily traveled corridor and produced the higher number, and rate, BY FAR, of collisions in U.S. light rail history. In my professional opinion, and those of others who have studied the situation, a very large part of this extraordinary high rate of safety incidents is due to the design of the system to be street running in the manner in which it was implemented.

    Yes, in a majority of the incidents, the \legal\ responsibility for the incident rests with the driver, pedestrian, or cyclist — however, when you reach a certain rate of incidents occuring, ever if the design is proper to legal standards and the agency running the train does not have legal responsibility, at some point, there has to be acceptance that the design has problems.

    It is too late for Houston to make major changes in the design of their Main Street Trolley line, except for some patchwork fixes like the 15-second all-red traffic signal cycle before a train enters the intersection. However, other people who are interested in similar systems should attempt to learn from the errors of others, and be extremely careful in how they design street-running rail to avoid similar safety incident issues and rates.

    As to why Houston’s traffic problems are not mirrored in every other American rail line, the short answer is, most other American rail lines are not street-running and those that are were generally better designed for safety.

    One interesting factor at play here is that, while the Main Street Trolley is the slowest light rail system in the U.S. (13 mph average operating speed), it is still faster than all U.S. streetcar lines, many of which do not exceed six mph. I suspect that the relatively slower speed of streetcars could be a factor — but I believe that the key issue is where the light rail lines are placed in the street is the biggest problem.

    To translate, what this could mean is, if you want a safe streetcar, you will have a slow streetcar — which means that it is not feasible for trips of any length (no U.S. streetcar system has an average trip length over 1.6 miles).

    Also, please understand that problems with intersection geometry cannot be solved by posting a lot of safety signs; in fact, they may actually contribute to the problem. What we have here is a situation where drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians are encountering a type of intersection they have never seen before and they have only a few seconds to figure out what to do. Most of them will avoid major problems, but there will always be some who screw up. Having a mass of signs to look at, and then have to comprehend and act on in the few seconds as they are approaching and entering the intersection, will not always be a positive safety factor. Rather than signs telling people how they have to react in a manner different from what they are used to, a system design that does not require unique action is far preferable. (Also keep in mind that, more and more in the U.S., English-language signs are not helpful to all who see them.)

    I see you repeating, \Again, municipalities, as to the numbers of seemingly-limitless transit consultancies out there: verify their backgrounds before signing contracts.\

    The preferred practice is to seak out, and engage, consultants who have expertise in the field and a track record that can be verified, as well as having the technical, managerial, and financial capacity to successfully complete the project with well-qualified staff.

    However, going beyond this, you should be looking for professional and personal integrity, starting with doing the work in a professional manner, driven by the data and the analysis, looking at all feasible alternatives and evaluating them properly and fairly in the process of determining the best option, and specifically refusing to accept a pre-determined outcome. Also, of course, the consultant should perform its work in the best interests of the taxpayers, residents, and users of the facility and of the area and NOT based on possible future revenue to the consultant if it recommends a more expensive alternative.

    This IS what you were talking about, isn’t it?

    Thank you.

    Tom Rubin

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