Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Main St. Station

GRTC is in the design phase of converting the Main St. Station train shed into a bus transfer station. The Shockoe Bottom association is against the idea of course, claiming "circulating large diesel buses... doesn't respect the historic heritage of the building." (The real reason is because it will interfere with parking for the Shockoe Center corporate welfare project they shill for.)

I came across these neat old photos of the station before the shed was walled in. As we can see, the heritage of the building is as a passenger transfer station, including the constant arrival and departure of large diesel trains.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Richmond's population and streetcars

I have a theory that good transit systems encourage dense population growth, and without a good transit system, dense populations cannot be sustained. We're in a particularly good position to examine this theory here in Richmond. Our city gave birth to electric streetcar transit in 1888. That in itself is an amazing fact, the first city IN THE WORLD to operate electric streetcars, an invention of Frank J. Sprague (not a native son, but neither am I.) More on this to come later.

Here is a brief time line of streetcars and population in Richmond:

1888 Streetcars begin operation, Richmond population is about 81,000
1900 pop. 85,050
1910 Richmond's "streetcar suburbs" growing- pop. 127,628
1920 pop. 171,667 34.5% growth in a decade
1940 pop. 193,042
1949 streetcar operation in Richmond ends, tracks are paved over
1950 pop. 230,310
1960 pop. 219,958, -4.5% growth in the first decade of "white flight"
1970 south Richmond annexed from Chesterfield Co. population jumps to 249,621
1980 pop. 219,214, -12.2% growth
1990 pop. 203,056, -7.4% growth
2000 pop. 197,790
2007 estimated pop. 200,123 +1.2%

We can see that installation of the electric streetcar occurred just prior to a six decade sustained growth in city population. Its removal in 1950 coincided with a peak in population at 230,00. From here we see a constant decline in city population until the end of the 20th century, excepting for annexation in 1970 which added 47,000 residents. Even after annexation we see a precipitous drop in population as the streetcar suburbs in Manchester and along Hull Street were depopulated.

Examining the reasons for losing 20% of our population is beyond the scope of this blog, but I believe a contributing factor was the loss of rail transit. Moving forward, it seems the population decline leveled off at the start of the 21st century and is even projected to make modest gains. What we should consider is, if residents are prepared to re-occupy the city can Richmond grow back to mid-century population density without rail transit? How can a city of greater than 200,000 residents function and grow without an efficient means of moving people from place to place quickly, and in the age of climate change, cleanly?

Why rail transit?

the following is from an exchange on River District News re: transit funding vs. baseball parks:

Paul: "Transit is important, but also a notorious money losers, even in big metro markets like DC and SF, riders pay about 1/3 of the cost of their trip. There are ancillary benefits like less traffic, less parking and less pollution. I would even argue quality of life, but Americans are addicted to their automobiles and a century’s worth of infrastructure, lifestyle and poor planning are going to make transit a tough see to most people. They are the one’s paying the bill."

"I was hoping someone would comment on the paradox of mass transit funding, the more you build, the more you have to subsidize."

Me: "That’s actually not a paradox, just a fact common to all infrastructure- it costs money. Drivers on Richmond’s streets currently pay $0 of the cost of a particular street each time they drive on it. We don’t think of a particular street as being a money-loser, but it’s not like you can say of any Richmond street that it was a revenue generator in FY08.

The economic effects of rail transit in other cities is not revenue generated from the system itself but the value it adds to the areas in which it operates. In Portland they measure a return on a $60 million transit investment in the billions. That’s money that comes from taxes on the increasingly valuable land adjacent to the system, and it means more economic activity in general. It’s the same principle Highwoods is betting will work for their baseball park."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Transit options- the electric trolley bus

Many people are throwing around the idea of bringing rail transit to Richmond- the idea is presented in the Downtown Richmond Master Plan. Of course, an equal number of people are against the idea, so it will be a long and difficult process to get our first streetcar on a revenue run.

In the meantime, GRTC is developing its own plan to upgrade our woeful bus service. One thing that IS happening now is centralizing bus transfers, thus creating a hub and spoke transit model. This deserves its own blog entry- more on that later. The other component of modernizing bus transit is introducing "Bus Rapid Transit." Broad Street is currently the spine of the GRTC routing scheme, and as such, it gets something like 48 local buses per hour in each direction. This causes tremendous amounts of delays and overlap on Broad. BRT will introduce high-capacity, limited stop service between Rockett's and Willow Lawn, turning Broad into a bus trunk line.

I think this is a step in the right direction, although not the leap I would like to see, but good nonetheless because it will allow GRTC in the meantime to apply for federal money to fund rail transit. So BRT will be the transitional system linking us to better future transit. The question I'm asking is, what type of vehicle is appropriate? If even GRTC says BRT is only a transitional system, then it should incorporate technology that can ALSO be used in rail service.

Perhaps what would be appropriate is electric trolley buses. They are powered by overhead wire, and they conveniently link the flexibility of buses with all the benefits of streetcars. These vehicles emit no poisonous fumes, are infinitely more quiet than our fleet of whiny turbo diesels, and use infrastructure that would easily convert to support streetcars. As an added benefit, they can climb and descend the extreme grades surrounding Shockoe Bottom where railed vehicles would not work. So, the fleet would still have use after a transition to rail service.

Pictured is an example Gillig trolley bus, very similar in proportion to GRTC's diesel Gillig buses currently in operation, minus all the toxic fumes and terrifying noise. Also included are a San Fransisco Muni trolley climbing a steep hill, and a ultramodern low floor trolley in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I also ripped a picture from GRTC's site showing a rendering of their BRT vehicle, which appears to be a North American Bus Industries 60 foot articulated 200 passenger model. Not sure if it is powered by CNG or diesel, it's NOT electric. It is the same model used in LA's Orange Line and Metro Rapid BRT fleet, presumably GRTC's inspiration for BRT.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Streetcar construction cost: Portland, OR

"Traffic patterns and housing density favoured a line running between the city centre and Northwest Portland as the city’s introduction to the 21st-century streetcar. Factors included population densities running as high as 20 000 residents/square mile and historic heavy transit patronage. And south of the city centre lies Portland State University, with its potential to generate heavy student traffic throughout the day and throughout the week. The north-south routeing through the west end of the city centre was selected as being on 10th and 11th Avenues, and this gives a clue to another feature. Portland Streetcar, as the project was officially renamed in 2000, runs for 3.8 km in each direction, but is often referred to as being a 7.6-km loop, since it follows separate, parallel streets (one or two blocks apart) for virtually its entire length. The reason for this is that the non-segregated street track can mostly be located in the right traffic lane, allowing retention of kerb parking.

"Construction of the line started in 1999. As the previous sentence indicates, Portland Streetcar is not a light rail line like MAX (which is mostly on private right-of-way or reservation, and has its own segregated lanes when it runs through the city centre streets), but a tramway, sharing lanes with other traffic over nearly its entire length. For the most part trams will have to obey the same traffic signals as other traffic, and there is no pre-emption. Traffic calming may not have entered the American vocabulary, but the new trams effectively do just that as they run and stop in the street. Track construction costs were kept down by specifying a much shallower track slab than would be required for 49-tonne LRVs: 310-mm deep instead of the conventional 465 mm, using specially-ordered girder rail only 130-mm high in place of the standard 180-mm rail used on US light rail systems. This reduced significantly the amount of relocation of previously-existing underground utility lines needed.

Siemens SD660 LRV 220 laying over at 11th Ave/Yamhill St on one of two MAX short-turn trips using this facility prior to the opening of the Airport line. In the background Portland Streetcar 003 is passing southbound.
"The entire project cost USD 56.9 million, including the purchase of seven low-floor trams for USD 14.8 million. Funding came from various local sources, but primarily 20-year municipal bonds backed by a rate increase at city-owned multi-storey car parks in the central area (and also at parking meters), and a ‘Local Improvement District’ (LID) tax on properties located along or near the line. Of the 1781 property owners covered by the line’s first phase, only eight objected at a public inquiry on the subject of the proposed LID, and their property represented only 2.7% of the land area of the LID. Operating costs are met directly from city funds, and the available budget has had an effect on the initial frequency that is being offered (15 minutes) compared with that planned (12 minutes). The annual operating cost is predicted to be USD 2.4 million, and for the first five years Tri-Met has agreed to pay two thirds of this (capped at USD 1.6 million/year), in exchange for the city spending USD 6.5 million over the same period on traffic-signal modifications at several locations to give transit pre-emption. There is no federal funding involved.

"Portland Streetcar (PS) is a project of the city council, not the transit agency Tri-Met. The city managed its construction, provided most of the funding, and will manage its operation. PS is a division within the city’s Office of Transportation. However city officials wisely decided not to try to create a whole new workforce to run the line, and instead have contracted with Tri-Met to provide the operators and maintenance personnel, taking advantage of the training those people had already received for MAX. 13 operators, three superintendents and two mechanics have been assigned to Tri-Met’s PS unit. City employees are the part-time General Manager (Vicky Diede, who was the CCS/PS project manager throughout the planning and construction), and the full-time Manager of Operations and Safety (originally Mike Carroll, but now Lenore DeLuisa) and Manager of Maintenance (Gary Cooper). PSI provides certain management functions on a part-time basis, including Manager of Community Relations (Kay Dannen) and Chief Operating Officer (Rick Gustafson). Their employer is local consultant Shiels-Obletz-Johnsen, the largest component of PSI, which has managed much of the planning and construction of the system.

Portland Streetcar mapThe line connects NW 23rd Ave in Northwest Portland, a thriving retail district and home to one of the city’s largest hospitals (Good Samaritan), with Portland State University (terminus SW 4th Ave). On the way it runs north-and-south through the west end of the city centre, on 10th and 11th Avenues, where city planners expect the tramway to generate substantial new development. Such development is already evident in the Pearl District and newly-created River District, immediately north of the city centre, where old industrial development and abandoned rail freight yards are giving way to new apartment buildings and condominiums. One of the latter, a seven-storey, 139-unit development due to open this year, is even named Streetcar Lofts. The tramway’s potential to influence development in areas around the fringes of the city centre was the strongest reason for its promotion. Before the 1997 agreement between the city and Hoyt Street Properties the area was zoned for 15 units per acre, but with the tramway confirmed the deal pushed the density up to 131 units/acre."


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Richmond's street cars: what was

Ok so this blog wasn't supposed to be about looking into Richmond's past. However, when I wanted to write about how I support a return of rail transit to Richmond, I found all these fascinating photos and maps of street car service here in the first half of the 20th century.

Richmond had the world's first electric street car system. Frank Sprague invented the system of electric powered street traction fed by trolley wheel on overhead catenary (probably not the best technical summary but fairly close for a laymen). The original trolleys were open to the air and had a single truck to make extremely tight radius turns. The cars operated in mixed traffic, as you can see from these photos.

I'll try to explain these in captions (sorry they aren't numbered.)

-A partial system map dated 1930

-The original "Richmond Union Passenger Railway" map

- Passing under the Seaboard viaduct next to Main St. station

-Grove Avenue!

-Turning from Laurel St. onto Broad. The closest building in the photo is presently Alladin's

-In front of The Naitonal Theater, Broad & 7th streets

-Main & Laurel streets at Monroe Park

-Broad & 1st streets

-Laurel Street in front of Cathedral of Sacred Heart

-Broad & 8th streets, with the Central National Bank tower in the background

Stay tuned for another post on street cars, and why these old pics are still relevant

In th' Beginnin...

Better Downtown Richmond is a blog for observing the city I live in and exploring ideas to make it better.

I passed this van parked outside JoJo's today. No idea who it belongs to or what it's purpose is, but it seemed like a good omen for the launch of this blog.

The blog title photo is of the corner of 2nd and Broad streets. I live two blocks from here and pass this intersection several times a day. The street scene never fails to impress upon me the magnitude of economic devastation in the core of the city. Whole blocks of Marshall, Broad, and Grace appear completely abandoned, just like this block of Broad. Every building in the photo is empty, including the large high rise in the background.

How did this happen? Why do these conditions persist? Why do the city leaders accept this situation? Are we going to do anything about it?

Let's begin.