Light Rail Around the United States

MTA LRV in BaltimoreWith all the recent discussion about the Purple Line, it seems pertinent to explore the reasons that light rail transit (LRT) is being considered for the UM Campus and the larger Washington region.

Before 1972, the term light rail did not exist. It was coined by the Urban Mass Transit Administration (now the Federal Transit Administration) to describe the upgrades of streetcar systems that were starting to become popular in the United States as a cheaper alternative to constructing heavy rail (metro) systems. The wave of new LRT systems started in Canada, when Edmonton opened North America’s first LRT system in 1978. San Francisco followed in 1980, starting the US trend. One could also argue that Boston’s Green Line, which has been operating as a streetcar tunnel since 1897, became a light rail line in 1975 when it began upgrades to modern LRT technology.

LRT in Dresden Portland Streetcar at PSU

Light rail’s popularity stems from its cheapness. Light rail was originally implemented in cities of small to medium size, where a full-scale metro system was impractical. However as federal funding became more competitive and inflation drove construction costs up, many larger cities began to turn to light rail as well. It is perhaps the most versatile form of rail transit. While heavy rail systems like Metro are fully grade separated, LRT can operate in almost any context. Buffalo, New York’s light rail system is almost completely grade separated. Except for the southernmost 1.2 miles, the line is entirely in subway. The light rail systems in Dallas and Portland each have only one subway station; the rest are at grade. The T in Pittsburgh operates in a subway downtown, on its own right of way through most of the South Hills, and, in a few places–like Beechview, in-street with cars. Ridership is greatly varied. In some cities, Like Tacoma and Trenton, only a few thousand people board every day; in other places, light rail serves tens of thousands. The Green Line in Boston carries over 235,000 passengers on an average weekday.

MAX in Downtown Portland Muni Metro Subway

The features which distinguish light rail from heavy rail and streetcars are in various categories. Because LRVs often travel in mixed rights of way, they use caternary (overhead) wires to power the vehicle. To overcome objections to these wires, several systems use diesel powered vehicles. Of note, Ottawa’s O-Train and NJ Transit’s River Line operate as “diesel multiple unit” LRVs. Still, caternary wires do provide benefits, such as fewer localized pollution sources. They can also be screened easily through different methods, such as planting street trees (see the Portland example above on the left). Capacity is another major distinguishing feature. LRV’s typically have much higher capacities than do streetcars, including the ability to be coupled into trains of several units. However, they are considered ‘light’ in the sense of their comparison to heavy rail, with which they cannot compete on high ridership lines. The two largest factors surrounding the selection of light rail as a mode are context and cost. Low density streetcar suburbs and suburban employment centers tend to be better suited to light rail because they lack the concentration of trip generators and destinations that heavy rail necessitates. Light rail is also chosen in situations where enough capital cannot be raised to construct a full-scale metro system.

Light rail is a safe, efficient, clean, and attractive mode of transportation. It will replace the crowded and often gridlocked Campus Drive that we know with one which is safer for pedestrians (after all, there’s nothing more dangerous than a car for a pedestrian), more accessible to the larger region, and which is more environmentally friendly.

Light rail systems have been springing up across the country, and will likely continue to do so. Here is a list of cities with light rail.

For photos, click on the links.

*Boston’s Green Line: upgraded to LRT in 1975, opened 1897
*San Francisco’s Muni Metro: upgraded to LRT in 1980
*San Diego Trolley: opened 1981
*Cleveland‘s Blue and Green Lines: upgraded to LRT in 1981
*Buffalo Metro Rail: opened in 1984
*Portland’s MAX Light Rail: 1986
*Sacramento‘s RTD Light Rail: 1987
*San Jose‘s VTA Light Rail: 1987
*Pittsburgh‘s T: 1987
*Los Angeles’ Light Rail Lines (Blue, Green, Gold): 1990
*Baltimore’s Light Rail: 1992
*Saint Louis Metrolink: 1993
*Denver RTD’s The Ride: 1994
*Dallas‘ DART: 1996
*Salt Lake City‘s TRAX: 1999
*New Jersey’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail: 2000
*Tacoma LINK: 2003
*Houston METRORail: 2004
*Minneapolis‘ Hiawatha Line: 2004
*Trenton-Camden River Line: 2004
*Newark Light Rail: 2006
*Charlotte’s LYNX will open on November 24th, 2007
*Phoenix’s METRORail is under construction, opening 2008
*Seattle’s Central LINK is under construction, opening 2009
*Norfolk just started construction on the Tide, opening 2010

19 thoughts on “Light Rail Around the United States”

  1. I don’t mean to be the devil’s advocate, but somebody has to play that role. This website seems to contain a very one sided dialog on this matter bordering on outright Purple Line advocacy with no dissent.

    At of all of the many pictures, I did not see any running close to homes or through any wooded areas. They seemed to all be located in barren cement filled areas. Can someone please produce pictures of Light Rail running next to green, clean residential or campus spaces. I really am trying to stay open minded about this project, but I cannot visualize the Light Rail enhancing the scenery in any of the beautiful spots along the route.

    I am not quite a NIMBY although my family and I do use the Capital Crescent Trail on a daily basis. I am afraid this shoe-horned system will destroy the trail as one of those beautiful places. The UMD campus does have a nice look entering from Rt. 1. Each of you should be working to protect that. I am all about function but if the system makes the place look like a dump then it is not worth it to me.

  2. I stand corrected. I just read Mr. Farhoodi’s article. Alright!! Here is to democracy and compromise solutions.

  3. Just as a counterpoint, a cost feasibility study has to be done. The Baltimore Light Rail operates at a loss. It is subsidized by taxpayers. It has to offer lower prices to entice people to ride, but even then it is not often used except during peak commuter hours. It is imperative to have an accurate estimate of how much the system can sustain itself and not rely on taxpayers. If there is no real demand, it should not be constructed.

  4. Tom, you raise an excellent point. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration has stringent standards for ridership where they only fund the most cost effective systems. However it should be noted every form of transit – except toll highways – are subsidized by taxpayers. On December 5th, experts from the Maryland Transit Administration will present their ridership and service estimates. I hope to see you there, and we will post the data they present after the meeting.

  5. Maybe I am missing something, but how can they accurately predict ridership numbers if they don’t yet know the route?

  6. Good point Thomas, but since most roadways don’t collect fares (tolls) how do we know which are being subsidized by taxpayers and which are not? It’s easier to think about it in terms of what pays regionwide economic dividends and what doesn’t. Ridership happens to be the proxy the federal gov uses to determine which projects get a piece of the small pot of funding, but MD has to determine if its contribution makes sense on several other fronts:

    —> Economic development, walkable communities, reduced pollution, and reduced burden on existing roadways.

    Putting a number on all those things is not always easy especially when projecting out in the future what populations and the real estate market will do and where all that will occur and how a particular project might change those things. You have to calculate the present value of estimated future benefits. Try to plug that one into your TI-83!

    Another way to think about it…. DC’s metro system is one of the most successful in the country and it doesn’t pay for itself. What would DC look like today if the highwaymen of the 60’s had their way and carved up downtown neighborhoods?

  7. Great post:

    For SV:

    light rail next to expensive homes of Shaker Heights:

    Ridership models are complex systems that are calibrated by being tested on existing transit lines. The Purple Line ridership estimates were delayed so that the model could be adjusted to the satisfaction of the Federal Transit Administration.

    So what is UMd’s position today?

  8. To Joe,

    Expensive homes? Ha! You’d be surprised. I have family in Cleveland. I’m sure you could buy that home in your photo for under 300,000. Cleveland’s cost of living is way behind DC’s That house in DC would run you 800,000 – 1,000,000 easy. But I digress. 🙂

  9. I had the good fortune of attending a wedding reception last night. A couple from Portland Oregon was sitting at our table. We had a conversation that goes as follows.

    Q. So, you have a Light System in Portland, how do you like it?

    A. Oh, it is nice we like it, but it is just a trolley. It is not at all like your system (Metrorail).

    Why do we think a trolley will provide a robust, scalable, transportaion system for the region? Dump the Purple Line Light rail until we can make it fast and and truly a part of the Metrorail system.

  10. You’ve made the same point about 10 times. Most have gotten beyond the heavy rail issue and realized they prefer light rail over no rail. If you want heavy rail go lobby congress for more transit dollars. You aren’t getting anywhere commenting on a blog.

  11. David,

    You are right I have wasted more than enough time on this Purple Line “Light Rail” Advocacy page. I will let you continue to be the pivot man in this Light Rail circle jerk. If you, as one of the owners of this page think you are presenting a “fair and balanced” report on the Purple Line you are way off. I care deeply about the future of our state. I have seen much of the world but cannot think of a better place to live than Maryland.

    How about you, are you from Maryland, or are you just some out of state carpetbagger, sent here to screw up our fine state.


    Lets make our the first. I WILL start writing Congress.

  12. Sin V

    While I often disagree with you and frankly dont care for the inherent misanthropic malcontent attitude in many of your posts(last post speaks to that) – I agree that there needs to be a back and forth / pro-and-con dialogue and analysis of the issues with regard to the purple line ……you can ask David and Rob about how that is almost my mantra with them. But to foster that type of environment we (meaning you and me) should focus on bringing facts and counterpoints to the discussion. As a “carpet bagger” from a state no where nearly as fine as Maryland, keep in mind that there are thousands and thousands of Univ constituents who have moved out of state but due to their affinity with their alma mater stay engaged in campus life. I highly doubt anyone wants to screw anything up, but they do want to see the Univ continue its ascent to greatness and donate their “time, talent, and treasure” to help it improve. The money they donate to help the campus helps keep your taxes low, so easy there tiger.

    Rob – the last picture above is the best (with the trees shielding most of the poles/wires – thats a great one and you can bet Ill be using it to “convert” people

    This post makes me think of Jane Doe. Jane, where are you? We miss you. I hope you are ok.

  13. Dear David, Sin, and the other readers:

    When I read this comment thread, I was saddened. Our differing views about light rail aside, the conversation has taken on an angry and confrontational tone. Not only does this result in unnecessarily inflamed emotions, it also discourages others from participating and replicates the real-world pettiness and bitterness I would hope to transcend.

    The mission of this website to construct a space for constructive public dialogue is more important than any one issue.

    If you don’t shape up, I will be forced to implement strategies used on other public forums with these problems: requiring everyone use their real names and limiting comments to one per day per user.

  14. My apologies to all. I actually grew up in a rather rough part of PG County (not far from campus). Arguments were generally settled with fists rather than words. Where I grew up, if you called someone an idiot you had better be ready to back it up.

    Although I now live with the more genteel W. Montgomery County folks, I sometimes still have that chip on my shoulder that I picked up as a child.

    Thanks for reminding me that this should be a forum for high-minded concepts, not petty name-calling.

    Does anyone have information on how the newly passed Maryland tax legislation will affect transportation funding?

  15. The Maryland revenue package passed by the special session augments the Transportation Trust Fund and is expected to ensure a commitment of funds for Preliminary Engineering of the Purple Line. Hopefully Governor O’Malley will have more to say about this soon.

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